Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Proverbs 16
A wise person cares what God thinks. And God has described the qualities that He desires for us. This week, we focus on being humble, righteous, honest, and faithful.
Better a little with righteousness than great income with injustice. Proverbs 16:8
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
You know that I like to include social commentary in my thoughts on any Bible study. I believe that the Bible speaks more clearly and more helpfully to our current culture than any pundit or expert. So it is with our passage this week. There are countless ways this passage applies to our culture, and I offer two as ways to get your juices flowing: "cancel culture" and the "wealth gap". If that's too controversial for you, then go with something else.
Here's my point with these ideas: Solomon paints a picture of the sort of person who pleases God -- someone who is humble, righteous, honest, and faithful. I believe that our culture, as godless as it has become, still resonates with those qualities because that's how God made us. I want us to realize just how wise and helpful Solomon is in these verses, and we will start by analyzing our culture.
Tie-in: Solomon Says that Arrogant Misuse of Power Will Haunt You
"Cancel Culture" is the disturbing modern phenomenon in which a person (often a celebrity) says or does something that offends somebody, and they respond by encouraging a personal boycott, but much more extreme. It's not a boycott like "don't go to Disneyworld or watch Disney movies"; it's "prevent Disney from making movies, and demand that they close Disneyworld forever". Except, against a person: "Don't let that person work ever again" - ("cancel" them from everything).
If you start going into individual examples of "cancel culture", you will get off track immediately. (Those sidetracks will force you to analyze what a person did or did not do, and that's not the point of this topic for this Bible study!) Rather, I just want to focus on the phenomenon itself. Why are people creating a "cancel culture"? Where is it coming from?
I think Vox explained the bigger picture well:
The debate around cancel culture is partly about how we treat each other, and partly about frustration with the lack of real consequences for powerful people.
We don't like powerful people who abuse their power, and that's exactly what Solomon warned 3000 years ago. If you have ever read about someone's "fall from grace" and thought to yourself "they just got what was coming to them", you are agreeing with Solomon!
And thus the way you wrap up this topic is to ask: what is the solution? Be humble. Not false humility -- true humility.
[Aside on the irony of cancel culture. The "twitter mob" has discovered that it has real power -- power to get people fired and ruined. What did they immediately start doing? Abusing that power. I'm curious to see when the cancel culture mob turns on itself, and how many lives it ruins along the way. And the most concerning development at all: forgiveness is no longer even offered.]
"The Dystopian Future"
Tie-in: Solomon Says that Ill-Gotten Wealth Will Haunt You
If you're afraid that previous topic will just distract you, try this: think about movies and shows you have watched about humanity's future. The have's and have-not's just get further and further apart, right? Three examples: Snowpiercer, Elysium, and Hunger Games. They're all about the continued stratification of society.
Basically, the idea is that wealthy people will live in luxury, and everyone else in squalor (or worse). Eventually, the poorest people revolt and destroy the rich.
And of course, those movies are popular because they are allegories of life today. I've mentioned this before: the top 10% of families in America control 70% of our wealth, up from 60% in 1989. Watch stories about how different socioeconomic groups have experienced the coronavirus, and you'll see this gap in action.
Now -- how does this apply to our passage? Wealth itself is not the concern for Solomon; how you get it and how you use it is. Think about public perception of Bill Gates vs. Jeff Bezos. Gates can't give away his money fast enough, and thus people don't attack him for his wealth nearly as harshly as they do Bezos. Or think about Rockefeller's change of heart at the end of his life, realizing that dying rich would be a failure and thus changed perception by giving his wealth away. People notice two things: the circumstances under which you made your fortune, and the things you spend your fortune on.
If either of those topics make you nod your head, then you realize just how right Solomon was. And you're ready for the most important step in this introduction: if you think that fallen humans notice those qualities, how much more does God? We're going to read "the Lord" over and over again in these verses. That's no mistake. These are character qualities that God takes very seriously.
Where We Are in Proverbs
Like last week, we are in the chapters that contain what people think of as "proverbs". Last week, I argued that there is no consensus as to the organization of these chapters (10-29), and so it is with this week's passage. You'll notice that Lifeway didn't take the verses in order, just like last week, but rather grouped them by content. And that's totally fine. They are independent of one another (as long as we remember to view them as a whole).
Part 1: Wisdom Demonstrated (Humility) (Proverbs 15:33, 16:8)
33 The fear of the Lord is what wisdom teaches, and humility comes before honor. 8 Better a little with righteousness than great income with injustice.
One of our church's core "be like Jesus" values is humility. As I've repeated each week of this Proverbs series, Jesus is our ultimate model for every good and desirable trait, and when we want to know what humility really is, we go to Jesus.
But for starters, what does the world think about humility? What are some sayings you know related to humility? Here are some examples:
Pride goeth before a fall.
Don't be a sore loser.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.
Better to give than to receive.
Less is more.
Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
Self-praise is no commendation.
Don't belittle; be little.
Everyone from Augustine to Confucius to Greek philosophers considered humility the foundation of all virtue. What does that tell us? Nobody has ever liked a big head. When I was in high school, I got the lead in our senior musical; my mom says that I immediately became intolerable. Doesn't every teen flick have at least one character who got popular and "too big for his britches"?
Think about your life and friends. Who are old friends who "got too big" for your relationship and you drifted apart? Or who did you get too big for? (Are there any phone calls you need to make this week with an apology for not staying a good friend?) There's nothing saying that you can't remain humble when you become wealthy or influential. A friend of our family became Somebody but stayed a good friend of our family -- "down to earth" as my mom says -- and we would never have known just how important she was in outside circles by the way she acted around us. It's because she was genuinely humble, and that had a big impact on me as a kid.
Now that we've established the universal value of humility, let's dive in to what these words actually mean. Let's start with "the fear of the Lord".
I've posted this video already, but it does a great job explaining what "the fear of the Lord" really is. Basically, it is living in the awareness that God's way is the right way.
It's the opposite of how Adam and Eve lived. They could have chosen God's way, but instead they wanted to know good and evil for themselves and be like God. Not humble. We do the same thing every time we could learn what the Bible says about a choice we must make but either don't or ignore it. Such a choice declares that our way is just as good or better than God's way. Not humble. (Nor wise.)
In this context, "fear" is not about being afraid but being submissive. "Fear" is about a healthy respect or humble reverence. We can illustrate this in any number of ways. Get out a heavy-duty chemical cleaner, or something with a warning label on it. Assuming you've been taught how to properly handle such an item(!), analyze how you did handle it. My expectation would be that you weren't afraid of the item, but you treated it very carefully, with extra respect. That points us in the direction of what "fear of the Lord" means. If you had a healthy "fear" of the chemical, that would mean that you carefully followed all instructions and only used it for what it was for. Why? Because you appreciate its destructive capacity if used improperly. If we recognize that with a bottle of cleaner, should we not take the God of the universe more seriously? David mentioned the Aslan character in last week's sermon: Aslan is very good, but he's not tame. That's the sort of healthy "fear" we're talking about.
And then we have the active verb, "teaches". This is such a rich word, and it means today what it meant then. Think about everything that goes into teaching -- the motive, the goal, the process, the evaluation. That's what God's wisdom (remember that Solomon personifies "wisdom" as a wise woman) can do for us. It's a process, and it requires us listening to and respecting our "teacher". And that requires humility -
And the second part of the verse explains how. "Humility before honor". That is the opposite of the way our world works. The person who thinks himself wise demands honor for himself. Read this fascinating quote by Carl Sagan:
Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?
Literally everything Sagan said in that question was wrong, from the open mind of the scientist to the involvement of the people who wrote the Bible to the personification of the universe itself. But Sagan was a "wise sage", so don't talk to him about humility.
What is humility and what is honor? Start with these proverbs on humility.
11:2 When arrogance comes, disgrace follows, but with humility comes wisdom.
16:19 Better to be lowly of spirit with the humble than to divide plunder with the proud.
25:6 Don’t boast about yourself before the king, and don’t stand in the place of the great;
25:7 for it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here!” than to demote you in plain view of a noble.
29:23 A person’s pride will humble him, but a humble spirit will gain honor.
Next, realize that "honor" in this context is the word often used for God's "glory" and has to do with social status. There are two kinds of honor: ascribed (which is based on your family) and acquired (based on your deeds and public service). Ascribed honor has nothing to do with you, and so you would be a fool to be arrogant about it. If you pursued acquired honor for the sake of acquiring honor, you would never get it, because people give that kind of honor to the humble servant. See how that works? That's what Solomon says in 29:23. Humility is the key to honor. And the honor we're talking about is the kind of honor that a humble person would not reject because it's the right kind of honor.
The second verse in this section gets at my other icebreaker idea. "Better" is a little than a lot. Better for who? Isn't that how we define "better off"? By having more wealth? This verse flies in the face of a dominant value system in our culture. How could it possibly be better to be poor with integrity than to be rich with a few corners cut?
Well, how could that be? That's an important question!
There are two layers to this. First, with respect to this life, it reminds us that people are more than consumers. We have a soul. And God created our soul to resonate with His values. When we abandon those values, we suffer. Second, with respect to the next life, do I need to tell you about heaven and hell? Solomon is only talking about this life. That's how highly he valued the human conscience. But I keep in mind the next life. A person who commits frequent injustice does not seem to be someone who has been transformed by the Holy Spirit, and that bodes very ill for their eternal future.
Summary: the first characteristic that pleases God is humility.
Part 2: Accountability Established (Proverbs 16:1, 4-5, 9)
1 The reflections of the heart belong to mankind, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. 4 The Lord has prepared everything for his purpose— even the wicked for the day of disaster. 5 Everyone with a proud heart is detestable to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished. 9 A person’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.
I think I can speed things up from here on. The point to this section is very simple: humans need to stay humble because God will hold them accountable. (Matthew 12:36, "But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.")
Verses 1 and 9 are a bit obscure. "Reflections of the heart" is an extremely rare phrase that seems to refer to your own ordering of your thoughts (it literally means "arrangements of the mind"). It mirrors the other phrase "heart plans". There are three (or four) ways people treat these verses:
Implied "right". "The [right] answer is from the Lord." "The Lord determines his [right] steps." A human makes a plan, but the only way it will be right is if it comes from God. Some translators have actually added this word. It's very possible, but "right" is not in the Hebrew.
Hard-core predestination. These verses are literal -- people can plan all they want, but only God's plans actually happen. And that would line up with how people interpret verse 4, but not so much verse 5 (or the rest of Scripture).
Emphasis on biology. These verse are literal, but in a figurative way. God has given humans a unique ability to make plans and judgments; He has given humans a unique way to communicate; He has given humans a unique place in the history of the world. That is all true, but I really don't know why Solomon would be saying that here.
Emphasis on sovereignty vs. accountability. Lifeway's title expresses this, and I think it's right. But it is going to take some explanation --
These two verses make a contrast between the internal and the external. God has given human beings the capacity to make decisions and plans and analysis and judgments -- right or wrong (think Adam and Eve). We can even attempt to put our plans into action (think about "shrewd" from the past few lessons). And God will hold us accountable for our plans and actions / words and deeds (v. 5). But nothing we do can actually interfere with God's larger plans. We've talked about this many, many times -- the balance between God's sovereignty and His gift of human free will. God is so great that He can accomplish His purposes even through the actions of people who disobey Him.
That's where verses 4 and 5 sit. Verse 4 is clear that God is One in charge of the course of history. But verse 5 is clear that humans will still be held responsible for the role they played in that history. Our brains cannot understand exactly how those two ideas fit together; I am quite happy to accept it on faith. God's purposes will be accomplished, but I cannot use that as an excuse for my behavior.
[Aside on suffering. The common complaint at this point is "If God has mapped out human history, then why is there so much suffering?" Certainly, we look at the year 2020 as one filled with things that we wish people did not have to experience. Do we blame God for that?
Well, let's be clear: God has allowed every bit of this suffering in our world. Nothing happens outside of God's plan. But did God cause this suffering? Did God cause those rioters to act? The cancel culture mob to act? No. They acted on their own, and they will be held accountable for their sins, and God will use their actions as part of His plan.
God has two overarching purposes in human history: to bring people to Jesus (of their own free will) and to act within His nature. People come to Jesus when they realize the power and penalty of sin and their need for a Savior. If God made the world perfect, they would ignore Jesus. That perfect world would also violate human responsibility, because it could only happen if God turned us all into robots. As long as humans can sin, there will be suffering in the world. And humans can sin until God brings heaven to earth.
In eternity, where only the saved can be in the presence of God, we will finally completely turn ourselves over to the power of the Spirit (be completely sanctified) -- will no longer sin, and thus there will no longer be suffering. But that will be by our choice. God will not be superseding our desires by preventing us from sinning.]
Part 3: Motives Matter (Honesty) (Proverbs 16:2, 10-11)
2 All a person’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs motives. 10 God’s verdict is on the lips of a king; his mouth should not give an unfair judgment. 11 Honest balances and scales are the Lord’s; all the weights in the bag are his concern.
Right on cue, here is Solomon reiterating that humans will be held accountable for their words and deeds. These verses are about being righteous, and I'm going to focus on the "honesty" part of righteousness.
In my opinion, verse 2 fits more logically in the previous section: people have the power to act on their own, but God will hold them accountable. There are two things to take away from this verse:
People create their own standards (cf. Adam and Eve). Very few people do what they think is wrong; they can justify themselves by their own standards. But sincerity is not a path to salvation. Only God's ways should be followed.
Motives are just as important as actions. You might remember what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount:
5: 21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment."
But here's the real key to this verse: humans don't even really understand their own motives. Our hearts are unknowable! What did Paul say in Romans 7? "I don't understand this war raging inside of me!" We cannot fully trust ourselves (unlike what the world tells us). That's why we're supposed to turn to God in all things and follow His Word. His Word is the only standard we have that we can trust (and even then, we have to be humble and cautious about our own biases we might bring to our interpretation of the Bible!) See how important and powerful this verse is?
Verse 10 highlights the power of the king (this is the focus of vv. 10-15). The king is God's representative on the earth - no government exists without His permission (see John 19:11 and Romans 13:1 - and what I said above about human accountability). In Deuteronomy 17:18-20, God gave a rule to the king to read from the Torah every day so as always to give right judgments. (The king's failures was a big part of Israel's downfall, something David has been describing in his series on Amos.)
Verse 11 focuses on honesty -- not just in making laws and passing judgments but also in economic matters. All of life falls under God's requirement for honesty. In those days, without a standardized currency, exchanges were made based on the weights of metals.
Here's how the system could be cheated. When I write this, one troy ounce of gold is worth $1,878 (sheesh). So, I take my gold to the gold buyer. Little do I know, but his scale is off by just a little, telling me that I have less gold than I actually have. That would be easy to do, right? What are ways we can be dishonest in business today?
Heavily marking up a sale price.
Overestimating hours worked.
Selling a good or service someone doesn't need.
Using poor quality materials.
Think about things unique to your workplace or marketplace. What would it take to be completely honest in your business dealings? That's what God wants us to do.
Summary: the next characteristic that pleases God is honesty.
Part 4: Blessing Assured (Faithfulness) (Proverbs 16:3, 6-7)
3 Commit your activities to the Lord, and your plans will be established. 6 Iniquity is atoned for by loyalty and faithfulness, and one turns from evil by the fear of the Lord. 7 When a person’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
Once again, the emphasis is on righteousness, but I'm going to focus on the faithfulness part of it -- faithful to God, faithful to our neighbors.
Verse 3 ties together everything I've said about this passage (good job out of Lifeway putting it at the end!). Your heart can plan to your heart's delight, but unless you have committed your plans to the Lord, your plans will not be established (remembered or maintained).
Let's clarify something. This does not mean that we create our plans and then at the very end right before we "go live", we pray "God please bless this plan". We've all done that. No, the praying and committing needs to be done on the front end. As we are making our plans, we are engaging the counsel of God's Word and praying for the guidance of God's Spirit. When I think about it, I think this verse more properly fits in part 2 -- it is the corollary to verses 1 and 9. God's plan will be the plan that prevails, but if we seek to be a part of God's plan, our efforts will endure.
Think of this like monuments. As we have learned (over and over again), human monuments can be torn down, and eventually they will be forgotten. But the Lord's monuments will endure for eternity. That's the sort of work we want to be involved with. (Because this is important, what are "God's monuments"? Church buildings? Governments? No - God's "monuments" are people. Us. The only part of this life that will endure eternally is our soul. That's what our efforts need to be focused on.
Verse 6 is amazing. Most scholars (including the people who wrote this lesson) think Solomon is talking about the sacrificial system, as if he randomly injected it here in the midst of all of these other proverbs talking about human relationships. No, that would be missing Solomon's point!
Solomon is using a big-picture view of the sacrificial system as an illustration of the attitude we are supposed to have toward one another. Humans sin against God. The only way those sins can be atoned for is through faithful and wholehearted commitment to the system God has put in place (note: a system that points toward Jesus). Think about it: "loyalty and faithfulness" don't atone for anything! But they are a picture of the kind of person for whom God created the system, someone who would care about sin against God and desire to repent and "make up for it".
But this is the way we atone for our sins against one another. And when we fear the Lord, we are turned away from evil -- the very evil that results in our sins against God and people.
In human terms, we can think of "atonement" as the next step beyond forgiveness: reconciliation. As Christians, we are commanded to forgive (even when the other is unrepentant). But our relationship with that person may never be healed. What does it take to move from forgiveness to reconciliation? It takes true contrition (being sorry), true repentance (asking for forgiveness), and the kind of life that proclaims being "worthy" of that reconciliation. Namely, loyalty and faithfulness. Demonstrating through word and deed that you care about that person, you are committed to that person's well-being, and you desire what is best for that person. Loyalty and faithfulness.
Then think about it some more: a person who is truly loyal and faithful, how much iniquity do you think they will build up over time? Very little compared to the person who is a backstabber and user!
I think this feeds into verse 7: a person who is loyal and faithful (in a godly way), even their enemies can respect that! If you want to please God, be loyal and faithful to one another.
Here are some other proverbs about faithfulness:
3:6 In all your ways know him, and he will make your paths straight.
25:13 To those who send him, a trustworthy envoy is like the coolness of snow on a harvest day; he refreshes the life of his masters.
28:20 A faithful person will have many blessings,
but one in a hurry to get rich will not go unpunished.
Think about your own life, your relationships. Is faithfulness important to you? Does it hurt when someone has betrayed you in some way?
Go through the verses again. I have highlighted humility, righteousness, honesty, and faithfulness. What other positive character traits are in here? Why do you think God approves of these traits? How did Jesus exemplify them? What do you need to change in your life to demonstrate more of them?