Proverbs 21:18

[ 2 minutes to read ]

The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous, and the transgressor for the upright.
– Proverbs 21:18

[C]ommentators vary on the meaning of this proverb as it presents some difficulty. The word for ransom means covering and, in this context, refers to a price, or compensation. Theologically, we think of atonement with this word and I think that can put us off on the wrong foot. The same word is used in a couple different places in the law. The first is in a section of the law pertaining to ox goring, or more fundamentally, liability (Exodus 21:28-36). Exodus 21:28 refers to an accidental death by ox goring. The ox was to be stoned and not eaten. The owner’s liability was covered by the loss of the ox and there was no further criminal penalty.

However, if the owner knew the ox was disposed to goring and he did not keep it penned up, he would be criminally guilty when the ox killed someone. This would be like what we call involuntary manslaughter today where there is demonstrable criminal negligence leading to death. In this case, the owner shared in the guilt and was to be put to death along with the ox (Exodus 21:29). The law made a provision where the owner could pay a sum of money as a ransom for his life (Exodus 21:30). The phrase sum of money is translated from the same word as ransom in Proverbs 21:18. This was an amount set by the family of the victim, which would be approved by the judge or adjusted as he deemed necessary. The sum of money was a ransom price for the owner’s life, because otherwise he would be executed.

The next occurrence of the word is in Number 35:31-32 where such a satisfaction is not permissible in the case of murder. The ransom was a just restitution to the aggrieved. This proverb becomes clear when we consider the relation of the wicked to the righteous. The wicked are variously described as plotting and planning evil (Proverbs 6:14; 24:8-9). Not only do they plot evil generally, but they plot evil against the righteous specifically (Psalm 37:12, 32; Proverbs 1:11; 24:15). Wisdom also teaches that the evil plans of the wicked will ultimately ensnare them (Proverbs 5:22; 11:5-6; 12:13). This justice will also come specifically because of their plans and schemes against the innocent (Proverbs 1:11, 18). So the wicked transgress against the upright in their plans and actions, and the judgment that comes to them exacts the ransom price from them.

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