Bite-Sized Exegesis – Proverbs 10:19
“When using lots of words one never fails to offend, but the one who restrains his lips is wise.”
בְּרֺב דְּבָרִים לֹא יֶחְדַּל־פָּשַׁע וְחֺשֵׂךְ שְׂפָתָיו מַשְׂכִּיל׃
bǝrōb dǝbārîm lōʾ yeḥdal-pāšaʿ wǝḥōśēk śǝpātāyw maśkîl
In an abundance of words, there never fails to be an offense, but the one who restrains his lips is wise.
- The NIV of the first half of this verse is poor: “When words are many, sin is not absent”. “Sin” over-translates pešaʿ, while “is not absent” is an outright mistranslation. The sense of this translation is that many words are a sign of some sin being covered up. This understanding has many problems.
- First of all, it turns the saying into a contrast between wise action and unrighteous action, and I would argue that such a contrast would be highly atypical. The sayings of Proverbs are mostly built on two sets of contrasts: wise // foolish and righteous // unrighteous. Wisdom is furthermore associated with righteousness as foolishness is with unrighteousness. These concepts form a box whose two axes form the directions of comparison or contrast in a saying. I have yet to find a true contrast across one of the diagonals, though I do find English translations that come across like a diagonal contrast.
- To translate lōʾ yeḥdal as “is not absent” seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand the verb חדל (ḥādal) and its uses. When used positively in the Hebrew Bible, ḥādal refers to the stopping of something already underway. By extension, it can mean something failing to happen that would otherwise be expected of the situation. In other words, it is the disruption of a pattern or sequence rather than existence or presence or the lack thereof. Therefore, the pešaʿ, or offense, that transpires in Proverbs 10:19, whatever it is or however severe, is depicted by this verb as occurring within the many words rather than behind the many words. It is not something whose existence is independent of the many words.
- Translating pešaʿ as English “sin” is technically acceptable, except that the English word “sin” has, in the course of many centuries of theological usage, lost its non-cosmic sense. In other words, in my opinion, except in a handful of places, especially in the Pauline epistles, to use the English word “sin” in translation risks bringing along a lot of theological baggage that any given passage may not justifiably be expected to bear. I think “sin” here is a dramatic over-translation. What is in view here is not murder or human trafficking or sexual immorality, but a social transgression, a faux pas of indefinite severity. The person who talks too much is bound to offend somebody.
- The ESV is better here than the NIV: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” However, I still wonder about translating the initial preposition b as a temporal “when”. The preposition does carry this sense, especially when it is prefixed to an infinitive, but here it seems better to understand it as locating the place where the transgression does not fail to happen rather than merely the circumstances. My paraphrase above does indeed use the word “when”, but that is because I have chosen to rephrase the entire first half of the verse. The ESV is a word-for-word translation, more akin to my literal translation above.
- בְּרֺב – Noun, masculine, singular, construct of רֺב (rōb), with prefixed preposition b. Translated “in an abundance of …”
- דְּבָרִים – Noun, masculine, plural, absolute of דָּבָר (dābār). Translated “words”
- לֹא יֶחְדַּל־ – Verb, G-stem, prefix conjugation, 3rd person, masculine, singular from חדל, with negative particle lōʾ. Translated “it does not cease/it never fails”
- פָּשַׁע – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of פֶּשַׁע (pešaʿ). Translated “transgression, offence”
- וְחֺשֵׂךְ – G-stem active participle, masculine, singular from חשׂך, with conjunction w. Translated “but the one who keeps in check …”
- שְׂפָתָיו – Noun, feminine, dual, status pronominalis of שָׂפָה (śāpāh), w/3rd person, masculine, singular, genitival suffix. Translated “his lips”
- מַשְׂכִּיל – H-stem participle, masculine, singular from שׂכל. Translated “[is] prudent”