Bite-Sized Exegesis – Proverbs 10:16
“The wages of a righteous person leads to life, the revenue of a wicked person leads to sin.”
פְּעֻלַּת צַדִּיק לְחַיִּים תְּבוּאַת רָשָׁע לְחַטָּאת׃
pǝʿullat ṣaddîq lǝḥayyîm tǝbûʾat rāšāʿ lǝḥaṭṭāʾt
The wages of a righteous man towards life, the revenue of a wicked man towards sin.
- Grammatically, this saying is one of the more symmetrical parallels in Proverbs 10: [feminine construct noun meaning “reward of”][substantive adjective][PREP l + abstract noun] // [feminine construct noun meaning “reward of”][substantive adjective][PREP l + abstract noun]. This grammatical parallelism contributes to a slightly less-marked phonetic parallelism: the first word of each clause ends in –at and the third word of each clause begins with lǝḥa-.
- The words pǝʿullâ (work > the reward of work) and tǝbûʾâ (revenue, income) are best understood as literal incomes rather than spiritual (meaning not-earthly) rewards. Under the influence of the generally better known (to Christians, at least) Romans 6:23 (which pretty clearly seems to be a play on the wording of Proverbs 10:16), it is tempting to see in these words some kind of soteriological or eschatological intent, but in the context of Proverbs, these words would only have that kind of meaning by extension. The plain sense (literal income) is the best sense.
- The NIV imposes Romans 6:23 on its translation of this proverb pretty strongly, even going so far as to add “and death” to sin at the end.
- The preposition l – what does it mean here? Is it simply an accusative marker here, or is there some sense of direction. Given the usually light and highly variable meaning of the preposition, it could be either. The preposition is in no way necessary, however, if the sentence is intending to say “reward of righteous person = life; reward of wicked person = sin”, as understood by NIV, NASB, NET, and JPS.
- This can be accomplished without the prefixed prepositions. There may be some kind of rhythmic reason for the prepositions (in first instance, the syllable on either side of the preposition is stressed. Taking the prefixed prepositions out would make the first clause a little more halting in its rhythm.
- On the other hand, the imagery of the two clauses may be richer than a simple A = B // A’ = B’. It may, rather be something more like A = that which leads to B // A’ = that which leads to B’. This understanding is pretty common in modern translations (NLT, HCSB, NRSV, LEB, CEB, and many others).
- The meaning of ḥaṭṭāʾt has been a matter of some discussion. A NET Bible note suggests that ḥaṭṭāʾt “functions as a metonymy of cause (= sin) for effect (= punishment).” In other words, the wage of the wicked is punishment.
- Thomas suggests, on the other hand, that ḥaṭṭāʾt should be understood more along the lines of the word’s Ethiopic cognate ḫaṭiʾat, which means “extreme poverty.” The parallel word in the first clause, lǝḥayyîm, is understood by Thomas as “leads to life”, implying “livelihood” or “maintenance”, i.e. the money that sustains life (“Meaning,” 295-96).
- Thomas expects a more or less direct contrast between the two words, which, as we have seen in the previous verses, is very often not the case, and the expectation of a direct or symmetrical contrast has often led to speculative text-critical emendations (on this very verse, see Toy (209) for just such an emendation).
- Even though Toy suggests an emendation because of the difficulty of ḥaṭṭāʾt (it’s not a typical opposite of ḥayyîm – or is it?), his explanation of what it would mean for the income of the wicked person to lead to sin is outstanding, and I can hardly improve on it. The money gotten by the unrighteous person (is there an implication that this income was dishonestly gained?) will be used by that person in such a way that it brings about sin, that is the unjust disruption of good relationships (an individual with another individual, an individual with society, an individual with God), meaning the breaking of laws, the abuse of individuals, and the incurring of the wrath of a just and diligent God. On the other hand, the income gained by a righteous person will be used in such a way that it brings about “life” in the fullest sense. “Life” in Proverbs (as elsewhere) is not merely survival. It represents all that is good, honest, righteous, healthy, and life-affirming. In this context, the disruption of right relationships that is ḥaṭṭāʾt is an appropriate if asymmetrical contrast with life. The NLT communicates this idea very well.
- It is important to keep in mind the phonetic parallelism between lǝḥayyîm and lǝḥaṭṭāʾt (mentioned in the notes above) when considering a textual emendation that has no basis even in the ancient translations. Not only is there no empirical basis for altering lǝḥaṭṭāʾt, but there is positive evidence affirming its appropriateness. The asymmetry of the contrast is simply a typical stylistic feature of Proverbs.
- One final note: if we were to understand the “wages/income/reward” words in this verse more in the sense of “The reward to a righteous person for his or her righteous acts is life, whereas the reward to a wicked person for his or her wicked acts is sin,” it is interesting that “sin” is here in the place of the result, or the punishment. I see no reason to go along with the NET Bible note, mentioned above, that ḥaṭṭāʾt “functions as a metonymy of cause (= sin) for effect (= punishment).” It is perfectly in keeping with a general biblical theology that sin is understood as its own self-perpetuating punishment (here again I am reminded of Romans, but this time chapter 1).
- פְּעֻלַּת – Noun, feminine, singular, construct of פְּעֻלָּה (pǝʿullâ) – means both work and the payment due for work. Translated here “the wage of …”
- צַדִּיק – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular, absolute of צַדִּיק (ṣaddîq). Translated “a righteous person”
- לְחַיִּים – Noun, masculine, plural (pluralia tantum), absolute of חַיִּים (ḥayyîm), with prefixed preposition l. Translated “toward life/lead to life”
- תְּבוּאַת – Noun, feminine, singular, construct of תְּבוּאָה (tǝbûʾat). Translated “the revenue of …”
- רָשָׁע – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular, absolute of רָשָׁע (rāšāʿ). Translated “a wicked person”
- לְחַטָּאת – Noun, feminine, singular, absolute of חַטָּאת (ḥaṭṭāʾt), with prefixed preposition l. Translated “toward sin/leads to sin”