These last verses of Proverbs 30 (vv. 32,33) point out that the outcome of foolish behavior is strife. Christ-like behavior involves avoiding strife whenever possible.
The command (v. 32)
“If you have played the fool and exalted yourself, or if you have planned evil, clap your hand over your mouth!” (NIV).
The activities mentioned in this verse may “stir up anger” (i.e., in others) and thus “produce strife” (v. 33). Therefore they should be guarded against.
The believer “plays the fool” in (1) “exalting himself ”, and (2) “planning evil”.
“Play the fool” is a verb derived from the noun “nabal” — which describes some- one who is godless and immoral in a crude, overbearing way — as was the man named “Nabal” (1 Sam. 25:25; cf. Psa. 14:1). A “nabal” is a hardened, hateful, and deliberately hurtful “fool” — not just a simpleton!
“Exalt yourself ” is the Hebrew “nasse” — to lift up oneself, proudly and arrogantly. This is generally condemned (Prov. 8:13; 11:2; 16:18), and especially if it includes put-downs of others — which is the point in the following verse 33.
“Plan evil” is “zammoth” (one word): signifying “to plan, usually in an evil sense” (Strong). Compare similar thoughts in Proverbs 6:14 (the scoundrel… “who plots evil with deceit in his heart”… will be destroyed without remedy) and 16:27 (“a scoundrel plots evil”).
Finally, “Clap your hand over your mouth!” is — literally, and abruptly — “Hand to mouth!” It is sharp and strident, like a crisp military command. It is not unlike the command of Proverbs 23:2 (“Put a knife to your throat!”). Generally, this phrase may be compared to Job 40:4,5 (“I put my hand over my mouth”), as well as Job 21:5; 29:9; Judges 18:19; and Micah 7:16. This is a gesture of unworthiness, and repentance, as well as a resolution to speak no more, either in defense of oneself, or in continuance of evil words.
The reason (v. 33)
Verse 33 gives the reason for the admonition of verse 32: do not “play the fool” by “exalting yourself ” or “planning evil”. These actions will surely lead to and cause the “strife” mentioned in verse 33.
“For as churning the milk produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.”
“Strife” is the Hebrew “riyb”. The word occurs at least 12 times in the Book of Prov- erbs alone. The use of this word strongly implies that the setting is a courtroom, or
some other setting where formal inquiry and debate and deliberation take place. One commentator writes, “This is the kind of person who thrives on acrimony and who seeks a pretext to transform every difference or disagreement into a bitter legal contest” (William McKane, Expositor’s Bible Commentary).
On the stirring up or producing of strife, we might consider, generally:
• Proverbs 6:14: “[He] who plots evil with deceit in his heart — he always stirs up dissension.”
Repeatedly, the admonition of the Proverbs is to avoid “strife” (e.g., Prov. 17:1,14; 18:6,17; 26:17,21).
In the New Testament, “strife” (Greek “eris”: strife, quarreling, contentiousness) is one of the kinds of “wickedness” and “depravity” listed by Paul in Romans 1:29-31. Of it Paul warns, “Although [men] know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (v. 32).
Paul has a similar list in Galatians 5:19-21, where among the “works of the flesh” he groups “discords… jealousy… selfish ambition… dissensions and factions”. Are we surprised when it is pointed out that these works are listed right alongside “sexual immorality, debauchery… idolatry… and drunken orgies”? Possibly we feel like ask- ing: Shouldn’t such ‘trifles’ as discord and dissension and factions be listed in a separate section — marked, perhaps, “minor infractions” or “simple misdemeanors”?
But Paul firmly concludes with these words: “I warn you… that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 21).
Do we ever stop to think that “strife” keeps such deadly company? We know the rationale, though, don’t we? What is hurtful “strife” for the other fellow is, for me, “earnestly contending for the faith” (Jude 3), wielding “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17), and “fighting the good fight” (1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12). Of course it is.
But even if it is, sometimes… is it always? That’s not for me to say about you, or you about me — at least not nearly so much as it is for each of us to ask, and answer, the question about ourselves as individuals: ‘Is what I’m doing, or saying, or writing — right now, at this moment — a righteous, kind, loving labor for God’s Truth, absolutely and only? Or does it include some measure — maybe just the least little bit — of anger, hurt feelings, pride, natural combativeness, jealousy, or ambition?’
And the answer ought to be: “Let a man examine… himself ” (1 Cor. 11:28).
“The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be gentle to everyone… Those who oppose him he must meekly instruct” (2 Tim. 2:24,25, NIV).
“Slander no one… be peaceable and gentle… show true humility toward all men” (Tit. 3:2).
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
In 1 Timothy 6:4,5, Paul puts “strife” (“eris”) right alongside “conceit”, “controver- sies”, “quarrels about words”, “envy”, “malicious talk”, “evil suspicions”, and “constant frictions”. In verse 6 he contrasts it with “godliness with contentment”.
“Quarrels about words” (NIV) is the translation of the powerful Greek word “logomachia” — literally, “word-wars”! A variant of this same word, “logomacheo”, is also found in 2 Timothy 2:14. These are the only two places the word is found.
To the wise man, words are no more than tools that he uses to convey his thoughts. He conscientiously defines and uses his words so that they mean only one thing; thus he seeks to lower the risk of being misunderstood.
But to some men, words may be an end in themselves. Those whom Paul warns against “logomachia” are those who spend time in useless debate, trying to ‘win points’ — so much time, in fact, that they never have time for true reflective think- ing, much less self-examination. By ‘word-wars’ they strive against — and also encourage strife in — their opponents. Their word-wars create an atmosphere of fear, doubt, and anger, not only in themselves but in others as well.
Such activity leads to judging others unnecessarily for their exact words. “Watching for iniquity”, or “making a man an offender for [one] word”, or “laying a word-snare” for a man are all strongly disapproved of by the LORD (Isa. 29:20,21). Word-wars have caused some to be driven away by the intolerance of others — who contrive a ‘case’ against them, spread it abroad, and then will not listen to reasonable ex- planation.
Word-wars have led brothers to lie, deceive, and misrepresent matters — concern- ing their own brethren, for whom Christ died (cp. Rom. 14:15)! Those who fight word-wars set battle lines, choose sides, and form cliques. There are accusations and then too often counter-accusations, leading to grudges and mistrust. And all in the name of “earnestly contending for the Truth”!
Churning and twisting
Back to verse 33…
The NIV of verse 33 has “churning”, “twisting”, and “stirring up”. The same Hebrew word is used in all three cases: “miytz” — to press or squeeze. (These are the only occurrences of this particular word in all of the Old Testament.)
[An aside: a related word, “matzah”, describes flat, unleavened bread — perhaps be- cause of its pressed-out form unaltered by the rising caused by yeast or leaven.]
Also in verse 33, the word “produces” occurs three times. Again, as with “miytz”, the same Hebrew word is used in all three cases: it is “yotsir” — to go out, to result in, to produce.
“Churning the milk produces butter”: A form of butter is produced by squeezing and pummeling animal skins filled with milk. W.M. Thomson, who toured Palestine and studied its Bedouin peoples in the mid-19th century, comments on this practice: “What are these women kneading and shaking so zealously in that large black bag, suspended from this three-legged [tripod]? That is a ‘bottle’… not a bag, made by
stripping off [in one piece] the skin of a young buffalo. It is full of milk, and that is their way of churning. When the butter ‘has come’, they take it out, boil or melt it, and then put it in ‘bottles’ made of goats’ skins. In winter it resembles candied honey, in summer it is mere oil… There is no analogy between our mode of churn- ing, and pulling a man’s nose until the blood comes, but in this Arab operation the comparison is quite natural and emphatic” (The Land and the Book, p. 235).
“Twisting the nose produces blood”: The blood vessels in the nose are weak and near the surface. If the nose is squeezed, hit, or strenuously twisted, these vessels will break and blood will flow from the nose. If the nose is subjected to surgical procedure, this may result in a new weakness inside the nose. Nosebleeds are very common, and a simple “twisting” or “wringing” of the nose — or even a bit more “pressure” at the wrong place — is enough to cause this bleeding. As sure and certain as gravity, a twisting of the nose will rupture blood vessels and bring forth blood.
It is practically a natural law: just as “churning” or “pressing” milk produces but- ter, and just as “twisting” the nose produces blood — so with the same certainty “churning, twisting, or stirring up” another’s anger produces strife!
‘Stop picking on him!’
When I was growing up, it was called ‘picking on’ (someone). Small children knew exactly what this meant: poking and prodding, calling names, funny looks, or little punches, often in the back seat of the car on a long trip. These were all designed to provoke an angry response from the other child, and if possible to bring parental rebuke or punishment down upon him or her.
These days we sit in our living room and watch the young dog dancing around the older dog, sometimes pawing, sometimes sniffing, sometimes nipping the tail, sometimes grabbing an ear — until finally the older one whines or growls or snaps back. Then the younger one dances away, waits a few moments, and renews his meddling.
Those who watch sporting events — baseball or basketball or football — will no- tice, especially now that instant replay is available, how many fouls are called on the second person to do wrong — while the instigator gets off free. A little push, a clandestine punch, or an insulting whisper may provoke retaliation — and the second party in the altercation is penalized, or removed from the game. The one who incited it all smiles to himself and struts away.
In similar ways ordinary men and women do this too — perhaps subconsciously, or as a matter of habit, or simply for lack of something better to do. A man may repeat some small action that he knows will irritate a coworker, just because he can! A woman may retell someone else’s unkind comment, knowing this will cause anger in her friend — just for the pleasure of seeing her reaction.
The Book of Proverbs has it right: in verse 32 Solomon talks about:
(a) “playing the fool” — joking or jesting, but with the intent of hurting;
(b) “exalting oneself ” — deliberately pointing out one’s own ‘good points’, and making a listener feel inferior by the comparison; and worst perhaps,
(c) “planning evil” — planting lies or exaggerations that harm another’s reputa- tion.
All such actions — just like those of the children or the athletes — are ‘picking on’ someone else, and possibly provoking that other person into committing the sin of anger. As if there should be satisfaction in seeing the shortcomings of oth- ers! And afterward the provocateur may ‘innocently’ deny that he had any part in the final outcome. Or, best yet — that he was ‘only joking!’ ‘He didn’t take that seriously, did he?’ (cp. Prov. 26:19).
In ecclesias there may be some members who do the very same things:
- (1) They deliberately speak, or dress, or act in ways that offend others, or
- (2) They deliberately bring up issues in Bible classes they know will cause arguments (and perhaps even anger and bitter words), or
- (3) They deliberately recall something best forgotten — and then feign surprise when someone else is hurt by such a revelation.
While it is true that love “is not easily provoked” (1 Cor. 13:5), it is also true that there is no excuse for being the PROVOKER!
Paul may not say, in so many words, that love “does not easily provoke OTHERS!” But he does say that love “is kind… it is not rude, it keeps no record of wrongs… it does not delight in evil, and… it always protects” (1 Cor. 13:4-7). All these char- acteristics are diametrically opposed to the subtle and malicious stirring up of anger that produces strife in the brotherhood!
In the same chapter, Paul also says, quite to the point, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Cor. 13:11).
Children, and child-like adults, engage in childish behavior. Those who are mature in Christ put away such tactics. The truth of the gospel can be upheld without word-wars, bitterness, recriminations, character assassinations, vendet- tas, or political campaigns. The truth can be upheld in love, and gentleness, and patience, and mercy.
If a man cannot uphold Truth in the right way — with the right motives and at- titudes — then it is better for him to do… nothing at all. If he tries to uphold Truth in the wrong ways, then surely the ‘medicine’ he offers the patient is worse than the ‘disease’ it is intended to cure.
Footnote: The editor experienced quite an extraordinary irony. Almost to the day he finished writing this editorial, he had several very significant nosebleeds, at the site of an earlier nose surgery. These were finally treated by a cauterizing process — but not before he spent a few anxious and concerned days… time that allowed him to ponder the deeper meaning of this proverb. And to remind himself to think carefully before he chooses his next Scriptural illustration!