Proverbs 18:4

[ 2 minutes to read ]

The words of a man’s mouth are as deep waters, and the wellspring of wisdom as a flowing brook.
– Proverbs 18:4

[I]nterpretations of this proverb vary. How you understand the parallel governs the interpretation. If the two phrases are antithetical, then “words of a man’s mouth” and “wellspring of wisdom” are opposites. Then, “deep waters,” has a negative meaning contrasted with the positive, “flowing brook.” If the parallel is complementary, then the second phrase continues and expands, or amplifies, the first. This makes “the words of a man’s mouth” and “the wellspring of wisdom” to be synonymous, and so on.

Many commentators take one of these two tracks with the proverb, and more seem to favor the complementary, positive interpretation. Alternatively, we can view this proverb as a conditional statement, an if/then statement. Then we take the first phrase as neutral, but stating a universal truth. The second phrase gives the result of a condition met. So let’s take this view and see the point of the proverb differently than the other two.

The figures used in this proverb are used elsewhere in Proverbs and usually with a positive meaning (Proverbs 10:11; 13:14; 16:22). The first phrase here has a couple of differences. The “words of a man’s mouth” is unqualified and unmodified. In Proverbs 10:11, it is the “mouth of a righteous man.” In Proverbs 13:14, it is the “law of the wise,” and in Proverbs 16:22, “understanding” is the “wellspring.” Also, the figure “deep waters” is not use in those other proverbs. It is used in one other place (Proverbs 20:5). If positive, it is assumed that “deep waters” refers to abundance and even an inexhaustible supply. However, the use in Proverbs 20:5 has a different gloss, where it means hidden and inaccessible.

Accounting for the lack of qualification and interpreting the figure consistently with Proverbs 20:5, the first phrase is not about the good or bad of the “words,” but rather is stating the truth that our words come from within. Our spoken words are connected to and come from the heart, or mind (Proverbs 12:23; 15:7, 28; 16:23; 18:2). The condition is met in the second phrase. If our hearts are a “wellspring of wisdom,” then our words will be refreshing and life-giving, as “a flowing brook.”

The point of the proverb is that our words will not rise above the level of our hearts. If foolishness or evil is in our hearts, then they will come out of our mouths (Proverbs 6:14, 18; 12:20, 23; 19:3; 26:25). When wisdom is in our hearts, our words will be wise and helpful (Proverbs 14:33; 15:7, 14, 28; 16:21, 23). The prescription is to get and keep wisdom in our hearts (Proverbs 2:2, 10; 3:3, 5; 4:4, 21; 6:21; 7:3; 10:8; et al).

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