Puzzling proverbs

My daily Bible reading plan currently is taking me through the book of Proverbs. This may sound odd, but some of my favorite proverbs are those that, at least on first reading, I don’t understand. I believe God’s Spirit led Solomon to include such proverbs to make us stop and think. To ask ourselves, “What does this mean?” and “What wisdom am I to learn from this?” It is so easy for me, when reading Proverbs, to go from one proverb to another, and when the meaning is fairly straightforward, to simply acknowledge each truth and to assume I know how it applies to my life. But when a proverb makes no sense to me, it forces me to think, “This made sense to Solomon, and moreover, the Holy Spirit led him to include it for our edification. Don’t pass over this, try to get an idea of what it means.”

This morning I read this:

The poor man and the oppressor meet together; 
the LORD gives light to the eyes of both. (Proverbs 29:13)

I ask myself, “What is happening when the poor man and the oppressor meet? What kind of meeting is this?” With no further information given in the proverb, I think, “This is not just any old encounter. This most likely refers to an encounter in which the nature and/or situation of the poor man and those of the oppressor dictate what is happening in the meeting. A meeting in which the oppressor is wronging the poor man. The specifics are not given. Perhaps he is doing direct harm to the man by defrauding him, say, by changing his wages after the poor man has labored. Or perhaps he taking advantage of the poor man in some way, for example, by offering too low a price for the poor man’s property, knowing that he cannot afford to turn down the offer.” But in some fashion, the oppressor is either responsible for the poor man’s condition, or is exacerbating his poverty. I don’t know why the proverb states this so obliquely, except to cause me to pause and give thought to the situation.

The next part is more challenging, I think. I ask, “What does it mean to say that the LORD gives light to the eyes of both the poor man and the oppressor”? So I start with the concept of “light.” It might mean simply “light.” In which case it might refer to the common grace of the gift of eyesight. Perhaps a reference to their common humanity. A reminder to the oppressor that he is a mere mortal and has no right to oppress the poor man. There is a parallel passage that says something similar:

The rich and the poor meet together; 
the LORD is the Maker of them all. (Proverbs 22:2)

It’s not exactly the same: here “the rich” as opposed to “the oppressor.” And although Proverbs contains plenty of warnings against desiring riches and against obtaining riches illicitly, the rich per se are not criticized. But light also frequently serves as a metaphor for spiritual eyesight, that is, understanding of spiritual and moral knowledge. For example,

For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, 
and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, (Proverbs 6:23)


The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, 
and good news refreshes the bones. (Proverbs 15:30)

So, perhaps in this proverb, we see God giving spiritual or moral knowledge both to the poor man and his oppressor. Yet, I don’t know what kind of knowledge. Does God give the same knowledge to the poor man and to the oppressor? Or does God give knowledge that is appropriate to each? Sometimes the eye is used as a figure of speech for how a man views himself. For example,

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, 
but a wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)


All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, 
but the LORD weighs the spirit. (Proverbs 16:2)

So, as a working hypothesis, I might say that this proverb teaches that God will reveal to both the poor man and the oppressor, spiritual knowledge about their hearts. The oppressor knows that he an oppressor, the poor man knows that the Lord’s eyes are upon him.

At this point, I’m still not sure, and I want to compare my tentative conclusion against that of Old Testament scholars. One commentator, Allen Ross, offers this interpretation:

“Regardless of status or circumstances, all people receive their life from God. . . . The first [line] links the poor man and the oppressor, . . . and the second explains what they have in common: ‘The LORD give sight to the eyes of both.’ The imagery of giving sight means that God gives the light of life (see Job 33:30. Ps. 13:3). God creates and controls them all.”

Well, that’s not too different from my first possible interpretation that I thought possible, but found unsatisfying. Another commentator, Duane Garrett, understands this in context of its position sandwiched between verses 12 and 14 in which Solomon is giving instruction regarding to ruling in wisdom and justice:

If a ruler listens to falsehood, 
all his officials will be wicked. 
The poor man and the oppressor meet together; 
the LORD gives light to the eyes of both. 
If a king faithfully judges the poor, 
his throne will be established forever. (Proverbs 29:12-14)

Garrett writes, “In this context the verse should be read with an emphasis on the duty of the powerful to respect and protect the rights of the weak. . . . The poor are are no less created in the image of God than the rich, and they have God as their avenger should the rich fail in their duty.” In this interpretation, my first instinct to understand verse 13 as speaking of the common humanity of the poor and the oppressor makes good sense when understood in the context of a wise and just ruler, whose reign will be blessed by the LORD. So I may have misread both halves of the proverb. Perhaps the meeting between the poor man and the oppressor takes place in a hearing before the king. And the king is admonished to be impartial in his judgment.

I may have pushed too far in my tentative interpretation, but it was a good exercise to dig into the passage.

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