“Scornful men inflame a city, but the wise turn away wrath.” Proverbs 29:8
In this second of a series of blogs on lessons from Proverbs related to our society’s problems, I hope to shed some light on the profound wisdom in this proverb. But, to do so, we need to go deeper into the meaning of certain key words. Be patient. Exploring the vocabulary is a short, but essential detour.
At the outset, we encounter the idea that scornful people inflame a city. Who are these “scornful men?” What are they like? What is meant by the word, “scornful?”
If we were to rely only on the dictionary definition, we might be satisfied thinking merely that these are people who are derisive, contemptuous, snide, or disparaging. Close to that, the Hebrew word, latson, means one who scoffs, mocks, or scorns.
Well – that’s good, but I think it’s thoroughly insufficient for us to garner a proper understanding of what the Bible is worried about here. Indeed, it may lead us in the wrong direction.
There is another prominent place in the Hebrew Bible where we find this word, latson. It’s in Isaiah 28:14-15. Let’s see if we can attain a surer sense of the meaning of “scornful” by looking at these verses.
The prophet here is criticizing those “who rule this people in Jerusalem” for creating “a covenant with death” by which they will be protected from the upcoming scourge by making “a lie their refuge” and “falsehood their hiding place.”
So, based on this account, especially as it’s fleshed out, we shouldn’t be surprised that commentators on Isaiah have come to see scornful people more particularly as those who:
- Are addicted to sophistry and deceit;
- Are sharp but turn dexterity to cunning and hypocrisy;
- Are puffed up with false belief in their own wisdom and rightness;
- Are destructive and excite others to scorn and wickedness;
- Dazzle others who are less clear sighted;
- Blind others and inspire them to despise God and ridicule Divine doctrine;
- Are ingenious in seeking to overturn religion;
- Hope through witty devices and wicked practices to escape God’s judgment;
- Have false confidence and vain hopes in their safety and wellbeing; and
- Imagine their political schemes have given them immunity from the oncoming disaster
Now, let’s return to the proverb with this understanding of scornful people in mind. We’re taught next that one destructive deed of such people is to “inflame a city.”
Well – what does that mean?
Interpreting from the root word, puach, “to blow,” we can ponder several possible ideas – it may be to stir up a city, or set it aflame, or turn it into a snare. Many translators have settled on “inflame a city.”
Okay, now we come to that space in the blog where I invite you to think about what all this means to us in our modern society.
I suspect that many of you on the left will rush to assert that these words are perfectly descriptive of the ways of Donald Trump and his “hateful,” “ignorant”, and “insensitive” supporters. I am equally confident that many of you on the right will insist that these verses couldn’t more aptly describe the “irreligious,” “constitution-threatening,” and “culture-diluting” ways of those on the left and their leaders.
In these comments, I do not mean to opine about the relative worthiness of either side’s views. We know that some views are more just; some are less; and many are in the in-between. Further, all of us have, and are entitled to, our own views; I have mine. But, before we rally too boldly to the views of our own group, swearing all would be well with the world if it weren’t for our opponents, let’s take a look at the proverb’s last words: “the wise turn away wrath.”
Those wise in the ways of God do many things, but the teaching here is exclusively about the good work they do to soothe public passions, turn aside anger, bring on calm, and, thus, pave the way for the possibility of consensus, solution, and harmony.
So, instead of standing on the side of our own group too sanctimoniously, perhaps we should seek instead, in our inflamed city, to help turn people away from strife and back to each other. For it will be there that we have the best chance at justice, righteousness, kindness, and mercy.