Bite-Sized Exegesis: Proverbs 10:8


חֲכַם־לֵב יִקַּח מִצְוֺת וֶאֱוִיל שְׂפָתַיִם יִלָּבֵט׃


ḥăkam-lēb yiqqaḥ miṣwôt weʾĕwîl śǝpātayim yillābēṭ.


One who has a wise heart receives commandments, but one who has foolish lips is thrown down.


* The verb at the end of the verse, yillābēṭ, only occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible. The RSV captures the sense of yillābēṭ by translating it “will come to ruin.” I have chosen to keep its apparently more literal meaning because of the directional contrast it creates with yiqqaḥ, “receive/take.”

* The parallelism is largely syntactic: [ADJECTIVE] of [anatomic NOUN] [active VERB] [object] // [ADJECTIVE] of [anatomic NOUN] [passive VERB].

* Any phonetic parallelism is very remote. There is a possible phonetic connection between “l” and “b” sounds of lēb in the first clause and yillābēṭ in the second clause. Both clauses also end with some kind of “t” sound (though these are different “t” sounds). But these are far more remote connections than what we have seen in other proverbs and may not have any unifying or aesthetic effect on the implied reader.

* As in English (perhaps under the influence of biblical idiom), the construction [ADJ] of [NOUN] means one who is [ADJ] with regard to his or her [NOUN].

* In Hebrew as in English, the “heart” (lēb) is a metonym. It is a concrete image standing in place of some more abstract concept thought to be associated with it. The Hebrew metonymic use of “heart” is not identical to the English one, though they are similar. In English, the “heart” is, above all, the seat of emotions or passions, but it is also the seat of knowledge associated or gained from those emotions (thus the contrast between heart knowledge and head knowledge). In Hebrew, the emphasis is not as strongly on emotions or passions, which are more especially associated with other body parts (the organs of the lower abdomen, in particular). This contrast, though, has been overstated in some scholarly literature, in my opinion. In Hebrew, the “heart” as a seat of the mind and wisdom is not contrasted with the emotional self. Therefore, to be “wise of heart” is to have a wise mind, but it includes emotional wisdom, as well. It would have sounded strange in Deuteronomy 6:5 to say “You shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all of your being, with all your strength, and with all of your bowels/guts/lower abdomen.” The lower abdomen, as the seat of passions, would possibly have lent the verse an inappropriately sexual overtone. Greek metonymic anatomy was more like English, so to have both “mind” and “heart” differentiated in the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 6:5 and in the quotations of the verse in the New Testament was necessary to cover the whole being. In Hebrew, however, “heart” covers both mind and emotions.

* The thematic and anatomic contrast between the association of wisdom with the heart and the association of foolishness with the lips is conventional and not fully reversible (meaning it is less typical to contrast the foolish of heart with the wise of lips). Wisdom is frequently characterized by the internal, foolishness by the external. A wise person thinks on things and does not necessarily say anything about those things. The foolish thinks internally on little but speaks out loud about much.

* The thematic relation between the second half of each clause is less obvious. The contrast is both one of direction—movement toward the interior versus movement downward—and one of voice: a wise person receives actively, the foolish person is thrown down passively. A wise person pro-actively respects the law. A foolish person is subjected to ruin.

* A wise person receives—i.e. honors, respects, and keeps–-commandments. Because of the Israelite/Jewish context, these commandments are probably most directly concerned with the commandments of the Torah, but we would not be unjustified in abstracting this a bit, since the non-revelational benefits of the Torah are, in fact, more widely recognized as benefits of law, in general. The wise person respects the law, rules, proper procedure, due process, recognizing that laws and rules are necessary for the ordering of society and for the mutual security and prosperity of that society. An existing law exists for some reason, even if that reason is not immediately apparent. Therefore, a wise person respects the law because it is law. It’s not that laws and rules are self-validating. A law is not just simply because it is a law. It is true that a corrupt society may create unjust laws, in which case righteousness to some extent would require resistance of these laws, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Where injustice occurs, it is often not the law that is the problem but those in power who disregard and bend the law. The wise person respects law, realizing that a rash disregard of existing laws, even in the name of justice, tends to lead to trouble. There may be better ways to overturn unjust laws or to right wrongs cause by lawless individuals in positions of power. So wisdom involves both an automatic respect for laws and the critical study and evaluation of laws.

* By contrast, the one who speaks foolishly, whose conversation and conduct are characterized by foolishness, is thrown down, i.e. comes to ruin. Is some connection intended between the being “thrown down” and a failure to “receive commandments?” Wisdom of heart is connected with the receiving of commandments. Could foolishness of lips be connected with ignorance or neglect of commandments? In other words, does foolish speech—meaning speech that is overly quick to reveal, non-discerning, or even crude or common—somehow entail lawlessness? On the other hand, does the idea of wise respect for law gain a sense of lasting security by its contrast with the foolish one’s coming to ruin? Each of these statements is meaningful in itself, but by the pairing of two statements that are not directly related in themselves, the proverb seems to be making a much larger and richer observation about the connection of wisdom, lawfulness, and security. We have seen this sort of use of non-direct contrasts in other proverbs.

Full Parsing

חֲכַם – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular, construct of חָכָם (ḥākām). Translated “One who is wise of …”
לֵב – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of לֵב ( lēb). Translated “heart”
יִקַּח – Verb, G-stem, prefix conjugation, 3rd, masculine, singular of לָקַח (lāqaḥ). Translated “receives, will receive”
מִצְוֺת – Noun, feminine, plural, absolute of מִצְוָה (miṣwâ). Translated “commandments”
וֶאֱוִיל – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular, construct of וֶאֱוִיל (ĕwîl). Translated “but the one who is foolish of …”
שְׂפָתַיִם – Noun, feminine, dual, absolute of שָׂפָה (śāpāh). Translated “lips”
יִלָּבֵט – Verb, N-stem, prefix conjugation, 3rd, masculine, singular from לבט. Translated “is thrown down, will be thrown down.”

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