“Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool” (Proverbs 26:7).
In 1872 Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. There he told the nonsense story of the walrus and the carpenter who walked beside the sea in the middle of the night, when the sun was shining bright!
That was the reader’s first clue that many improbable things were about to happen. And, sure enough, they did. After a while, the walrus and the carpenter had walked a mile or so with quite a number of little oysters, whom they had coaxed out of the sea by the promise of a pleasant treat. Gathering the little oysters around them, they made them comfortable after their tiring walk — and so it had been, for of course the oysters had no feet.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
Then the walrus and the carpenter decide that they could use a loaf of bread, with butter, salt, and vinegar. Now the oysters realize, sadly, that they have indeed been invited to a meal, but they are the main course!
It is thought that this is the origin of the sarcastic, ‘not likely’ phrase, ‘When pigs fly!’ That may be so. For my part, I think there is a distinctively Jewish character to the saying. In fact, it is not difficult to thumb through the pages of Proverbs and come up with a number of such sarcastic, humorous ‘not likely’ sayings. Let’s give it a try, shall we?
- ‘When men put fire in their pockets’ (Prov 6:27)
- ‘When farmers sleep during harvest’ (10:5)
- ‘When pigs wear gold rings’ (11:22)
- ‘When women tear down their own houses’ (14:1)
- ‘When slaves rule over princes’ (19:10)
- ‘When a man is too lazy to eat’ (19:24)
- ‘When a man lives on the corner of his own roof ‘ (21:9)
- ‘When a fellow heaps burning coals on your head’ (25:22)
- ‘When it snows in summer’ (26:1)
- ‘When maidservants displace their mistresses’ (30:23 In the same spirit, Proverbs 26:7 might be entitled ‘When lame men dance.’
A lame man never shows his infirmity so much as when he tries to perform feats of agility or strength. Likewise, a fool never appears so ridiculous as when he takes a proverb or parable in hand and tries to teach wisdom. In this verse fool is the Hebrew “keciyl“: essentially a naïve or silly person, but not necessarily a morally corrupt person. Thus a parable when handled by such a person does not proceed smoothly, but falls of its own weight, and looks ridiculous in the process. As Proverbs 17:7 says, “Arrogant [or perhaps eloquent] lips are unsuited to a fool.”
The NIV speaks of “a lame man’s legs that hang limp“, while the KJV reads “The legs of the lame are not equal.” “Lame” is “piseah“, derived from “pasah“, to hop, skip, or even to dance (obviously, by moving in some irregular gait). This last possible meaning may have encouraged Martin Luther to render this verse, presumably with a tinge of humor: “Like dancing to a cripple, so is a proverb in the mouth of the fool.”
The Hebrew “dalal” (“hang limp” in NIV) means, literally, to be weak or feeble. The existence of a similar word (“dala“, to hang down), describing drawing water out of a well (as with a bucket or bag suspended on a rope) (cf Prov 20:5) has led to a number of conjectures. Are these two distinct Hebrew roots, or variations of the same root? The best authorities are divided: “Note that BDB,1 195, combines [the two words] under one entry. HAL,2 214, correctly distinguishes two roots, ‘dalal’, to be small, and ‘dala’, to dangle.”3 The “hang limp” of NIV and NET contains elements of meaning from both Hebrew words, and approximates most modern translations (e.g., RSV’s “hang useless“, ASV’s “hang loose“). The KJV’s “not equal” seemingly derives from “dala“: “drawn up” (as in water from a well) leading to the idea of “unequal” (in length).
In the Old Testament, lameness was often associated with paralysis. Mephibosheth became lame as a small child after being dropped by his nurse (2Sa 4:4). In the case of Jacob (Gen 32:25), the result of his wrestling was probably damage to a disk, resulting in a deformity and limp (v 32).
The proper use of tools
To understand something of the force of this proverb, we should pause to consider some Bible verses that describe a powerful and proficient use of God’s Word:
- Samuel’s Spirit-directed wisdom is likened to an arrow or spear that never falls to the ground, that is, it always reaches its target unerringly (1Sa 3:19).
- David, running forward toward Goliath, flung the smooth stone from his sling; it sped directly to the one unprotected part of the giant’s body, where it dealt him a fatal blow (1Sa 17:48,49).
- A soldier drew “his bow at random” [the Hebrew suggests it was a “complete, or perfect” shot], the arrow struck the one vulnerable spot in King Ahab’s armor (1Ki 22:34), and he died (v 37). Thus God fulfilled His promise, delivered through the prophet Elijah (1Ki 21:17-19).
- In Proverbs 25:11, “a word aptly spoken” may be rendered “a word spoken on its wheels“, suggesting the chariots of the cherubim (Ezek 1:15-21), moving swiftly and efficiently in any direction as called upon, all to carry out the purposes of God.
- Jeremiah describes God’s inspired Word as a “fire shut up in my bones” that he cannot hold in (Jer 20:9), and
- “a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jer 23:29).
- Finally, the apostle Paul describes God’s Word as “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17).
These illustrations, and others we might list, convey something of the power of the Word of God, in the right hands, effectively to convey His will and complete His purpose. But, returning to the proverb here, we may say that putting the same instruments — bow and arrow, spear, chariot and horses, and so forth — into the hands of a person untrained or unable to use them, or handing a message to a lame man and ordering him to deliver it quickly, would be like giving a Bible to an unprepared person and expecting him to preach its Divine message powerfully.
‘When unprepared brothers teach’
It is simply wrong to give Bible class forums or public platforms to those not ready to teach or expound the deeper things of Scripture. Proverbs, and their mostly New Testament counterpart parables, are among the “dark sayings” (KJV), or “riddles” (NIV), or “hidden things“, of the wise (Prov 1:5,6; Psa 78:2). God Himself has carefully crafted these tools for the purpose of conveying divine wisdom, but like other fine tools they are useless or even dangerous in the hands of those untrained to use them.
Some will think, and say, that we are all brethren, and we all should have equal opportunity to express our opinions. But in so arguing, they seem to forget the warnings against putting too much upon novices, who may well be naïve as well as inexperienced, which is near neighbor to a “fool” (Biblically understood) (1Ti 3:6; 1Co 3:1; Heb 5:12,13; 1Pe 2:2).
Some will think, and say, that anyone can, and should, lead a Bible class, or prepare and deliver an exhortation or lecture. Some even suppose they can do so with very little study and preparation. What is so difficult anyway? Grab a concordance and put together a few apparently connected passages, stir for a minute, bake for twenty more, and out comes a “talk“. (More likely, you simply… talk.) But there are those who have no aptitude for this work, or no inclination and desire to invest the time and effort to:
- (a) develop themes,
- (b) compare parallel passages,
- (c) trace meanings of Hebrew or Greek words or phrases through the Bible,
- (d) test the conclusions, and
- (e) put those conclusions into organized, easily-understood words and sentences and paragraphs.
Is Proverbs 26:7 true? Is a man who is unable to understand or explain a proverb comparable to a lame man trying to run, or dance? Until you have heard a foolish “novice” (who might even be 40 or 50 years old) confidently “expounding” the intricacies of Zechariah, or seriously trying to “explain” the Song of Songs, or developing the types and shadows of the Law, you simply cannot appreciate just how ridiculous a dancing cripple can be.
What does the Bible say? “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
A simple test Here is a simple test to see if you qualify as a “teacher“: Have someone else select at random a difficult chapter (from Isaiah, perhaps, or an obscure minor prophet), a complex parable of Jesus (the unjust steward, or the good Samaritan), or a section of Romans or Ephesians. Without preparation, simply read the passage, slowly and distinctly, giving the sense of each verse (Neh 8:8; Eccl 8:1).
- After every one or two verses, pause and explain the passage, taking (from marginal references or your own memory) other Scriptural allusions and echoes that bear upon it.
- Don’t forget to put the passage in its proper context, with what comes just before and just after, and in the broader context of the entire Bible book.
- Consider what the passage must have meant to its original hearers or readers.
- Clear up any difficulties in the translation you are reading by comparing with other translations and, when appropriate, the original text through the use of concordances and lexicons.
- Finally, keep in mind all along that you must be telling your prospective listeners what the passage should mean to them: ‘Tell them what to do about it.’ (And if the passage being examined cannot be used to teach, rebuke, or train in righteousness, or if the prospective lesson means nothing to them, then you must be wise and observant enough to realize this, leave it alone, and replace it with another passage that is pertinent, relevant, and helpful.)
This may seem like a tall order, and you might well complain, ‘But no one can do that, surely not the first time around.’ That may be so. But there is a simple solution to that problem. Make sure it isn’t the first time you have ever done such a thing. And how do you make sure of that? The Bible itself answers your question:
“Receive the message with great eagerness and examine the Scriptures every day” (Acts 17:11).
“Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift… be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them” (1Ti 4:13-15).
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter” (2Ti 2:15,16).
Persevere at this work, in the same way that engineers and physicians learn their disciplines, in the same way that athletes achieve championship skills, and in the same way that musicians develop concert-worthy repertoires. Prepare in this way, without fretting about when you will be able to “display” your “talents“. At the same time, pray often and diligently for understanding and knowledge and wisdom, that God — and not you — will be glorified in all you say and do. Pray that He will use every means at His disposal to rid you of pride, ambition, and selfishness.
Where did the Mutual Improvement Classes go?
It is to be lamented that the Mutual Improvement Classes have fallen out of fashion in our community. It’s true that sometimes they may have been conducted in a very firm manner that hurt some sensitive feelings. But when well taught, they performed a very useful service, equipping young and less experienced brothers with the tools, and giving them the practice, to develop their skills in the Word. Thus, at the very least, they were better prepared to serve as competent (and thus spiritually helpful) presiders and speakers.
Whether in a formal class, or by your own initiative and private study, prepare yourself in the way outlined above, making use of the writings of earlier Christadelphians and other expositions, but not following them slavishly. An excellent primer for this work is Harry Whittaker’s Exploring the Bible, along with its sequel Enjoying the Bible.4 Each contains advice and examples of productive Bible study methods.
To young brothers (and perhaps those not so young also), we say: Prepare in this way, and pray in this way, and then you may be reasonably sure that, when your opportunity comes, you will not embarrass yourself. More importantly, you will not bring shame upon the wonderful truths you seek to preach. Most importantly, you will not bring shame upon the God you profess to serve. Thus you may ensure that this proverb, about lame men trying to dance, will never be applied to you.
When a lame man did dance
There is a wonderful footnote to these thoughts. There actually was a cripple who did walk, and run, and leap joyfully and well! He was the lame beggar sitting at the Beautiful Gate in Solomon’s Porch, who pleaded for a handout from Peter and John (Acts 3). He didn’t receive silver or gold, but his feet and ankles were made strong, he was lifted upright, and he followed the apostles, praising God as he went. He became a living, running, dancing proverb of the healing power of God’s Word through Jesus Christ. In so doing, he “preached” in the Sanhedrin to the rulers, elders, and teachers of the Law, so that they could say nothing against him and his new Lord (Acts 4). (By the way, the lame man was “over forty years old” when he was healed: v 22. It wasn’t too late for him to learn how to dance.)
Thereby we learn that, even though we may limp like lame men at one time, there is no need for us to remain spiritual cripples all our lives. Through the name of Jesus Christ, and by faith accompanied by our own dedicated efforts, we can be healed and made strong (Acts 4:10), mentally and spiritually in the Word as well as physically in body.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
1. Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford, 1907.
2. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Hendrickson, 1996.
3. Willem van Gemeren, Editor, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Zondervan, 1997.
4. Both books are available (1) in the U.S. from Sis. Karen Guist, 6698 Bramblewood Lane, Mayfield Village, OH 44143-1575 email@example.com 440-227-0212, and (2) in the U.K. from Sis. Muriel Whittaker, 9 Stock Lane, Shavington, Crewe CW2 5ED firstname.lastname@example.org. Exploring the Bible only is available in Australia from Sis. Fran Caudery, 35 Jeffery Street, Blackburn, VIC 3130 email@example.com. Enjoying the Bible only is available (1) in the U.S. from Thousand Oaks Christadelphian Library www.bigbrand.com/library/home.html, and (2) in the U.K. from The Christadelphian Office www.thechristadelphian.com