“He that is first in his own cause seemeth just;
but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him”
~ Proverbs 18:17
Though it should not be surprising, sometimes I am struck by how simple and profound Scripture is. Though Solomon refers to the “dark sayings” (Proverbs 1:6) of the wise, Scripture often speaks in very practical common man sort of terms. Consider many of the parables of Jesus; how He spoke of sowing seed, wheat in the field, trees, bread, etc. These plain words transcend culture and time. In modern day America, we have no problem understanding sowing seed even though it was spoken about in the first century by a Jew in Israel.
I am not saying that everyone understands all the spiritual import of such words, but the pictures used are very accessible because they speak to the common human experience. So, the Bible is not some dark, enigmatic ancient writing, though it is not without deep passages (2 Peter 3:16). It is ever fresh and relevant and sufficiently clear. Perhaps some other time it would be good to consider the perspicuity of Scripture, however let us now return to the text before us.
Our text is likewise plain and relevant. It obviously applies to proper forms of due process, e.g. governmental and legal proceedings, judicious proceedings within a church (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 6), etc. The verse refers to being careful to hear both sides of an argument. When a man first states his own case and that is all that is on the table, he seems to be right. This is generally true for a number of reasons. A couple of reasons for this are that one side of the story is not usually the whole story and additional information can throw new light on the situation, also a person will typically plead their own case with much pathos and paint themselves in a good light (this is not necessarily with a deliberate intention to deceive).
We must remember that this text is not just good advice from a smart and experienced fellow—this is the inspired Word of God. Scripture is to be applied neither arbitrarily nor unilaterally. Particularly for a Christian in some position of authority, we are to seek justice whether in a civil deliberation on a small or large scale, or within a church body, or within a corporation, or wherever else, and part of seeking such justice means taking all steps to ensure that as much as possible the whole matter is disclosed. To do otherwise is to be a shameful fool: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” (Proverbs 18:13). This was the folly and shame of Potiphar when Joseph was accused before him. “And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled” (Genesis 39:19). He acted on the words of his wife without any other input and did a terrible injustice to Joseph.
The second part of the verse takes the concept further—“but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.” The neighbor here could be one named in the suit, but that does not have to be the case. He may just be an objective participant or peer. The neighbor’s role is that he “searcheth” the first man’s claims. This word comes from the Hebrew chaquar, which primarily signifies to penetrate, to search, to search out, to examine. This word is used to speak of mining in the earth (Job 28:1-3), searching and exploring a land (Judges 18:2), tasting and trying drink (Proverbs 23:20). William Wilson said of this word, “The general import seems to be, to examine with pains, care, and accuracy, in order to make a full and clear discovery, or a complete, exact calculation” (Old Testament Word Studies, p. 373). The usage of the word here seems clear, when a man states his case, the matter is to be examined thoroughly and discovered, and the claimant is to be subject to cross-examination. If we go back to the example of Joseph, this is exactly what did not take place—the matter was not fully discovered and the accuser was not cross-examined.
A consistent application of this verse would likely curtail many frivolous charges that are put forth today. If a person knew their claim would be judiciously examined and they themselves would be subject to a serious cross-examination, they would be much less likely to make false charges or ones they cannot substantiate. In biblical language, such an accuser is called a false witness. The Lord gave this process for uncovering and dealing with a false witness (Deuteronomy 19:16-19).
Despite the problems of our country’s legal system, this principle is still effective when followed. Additionally, being faithful to this principle in the church would curb many of the problems that are so scandalous before the world and bring a reproach upon the gospel. Unfortunately, in this matter it is often true that “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
There are many applications of this passage but space and time will not now permit delving further into its riches. At least one application would be how we should respond when someone does not “take our word for it.” In other words, we should not be offended when someone wants to hear all sides and not just take action based on our report. In this circumstance, they are being more biblical than we if we are offended that the other side is inquired of.