Bite-Sized Exegesis – Proverbs 10:20
“The tongue of a righteous person is choice silver, the mind of the wicked is of little value.”
כֶּסֶף נִבְחָר לְשׁוֹן צַדִּיק לֵב רְשָׁעִים כִּמְעָֽט׃
kesep nibḥār lǝšôn ṣaddiq̂ lēb rǝšãʿim̂ kimǝʿāṭ
Select silver is the tongue of a righteous man, the mind of wicked people is like a littleness.
- The points of contrast are כֶּסֶף נִבְחָר (choice silver) // כִּמְעָֽט (of little value/impoverished), לְשׁוֹן (tongue) // לֵב (heart/mind), and צַדִּיק (a righteous person) // רְשָׁעִים (wicked people). Each of these contrasts is important.
- This proverb contrasts the richness of what comes forth from the wise person’s mind with the small-minded poverty of what remains within the heart of the wicked person.
- “Select silver” – kesep can be generically “money”, but its root meaning is silver, and here silver is the better understanding. This isn’t just silver, this is good quality silver – the best, in fact. The most valuable. This is the kind of silver that you purchase at great cost for your best projects. Connected with the tongue, this represents the incomparable value of shared wisdom.
- This is contrasted with מְעַט, which is a substantive adjective meaning “a little”, “a few”, or “smallness”. With the preposition k this word often comes to have an adverbial force like “almost” or “hardly” or “barely”. Brown-Driver-Briggs categorizes this usage in Proverbs 10:20 as its own thing: it is thought to mean “little worth”. Certainly, the idea of “little monetary value” must be at least the surface meaning here. But it is possible that there may be more concealed in this word. I’ll cover that when we talk about the LXX reading of this verse. In any case, mental poverty, a lack of wisdom, is what dwells in the heart of the wicked.
- The choice of the particular form of כִּמְעָֽט here, specifically its prefixing with preposition k, may have been motivated by alliteration: each half of the proverb divides into two parts. The outer parts are parallel, and both start with k. The inner parts are also parallel and both start with l. This means that we might can expect a somewhat unusual use of כִּמְעָֽט.
- The “tongue” of the righteous man stands in place of the righteous man’s words, what it is that flows from his heart. What is interesting here is that the righteous man’s tongue is contrasted not with the wicked man’s tongue or mouth or lips, but with his lēb, his heart/mind. Speech, which is external and public, is contrasted with thoughts, which are internal and private. But often, as in the preceding proverbs, it is the fool who is characterized by speech, while the wise person is depicted as keeping things to himself/herself (even the wicked person who conceals his hatred is implied to be wiser than the fool who goes about blabbing it everywhere – 10:18).
- Here, however, things have turned around, and this makes the contrast even more poignant. A wise person will speak only when necessary and only as much as is necessary. The righteous person is not exactly identical with the wise person, but they are closely, even inextricably, connected in Proverbs. Therefore he will, we come to expect, only speak when necessary. But when he speaks, that is, when he makes the thoughts of his heart publicly available, it is extremely valuable, it is a blessing to those who receive it.
- By contrast, it is not the words of the wicked that are of no value, but even their thoughts are impoverished. Even when a wicked person is using what wisdom they have and keeping things to themselves, what they tend to conceal is not, we see elsewhere in Proverbs, of public benefit. Rather, they conceal plots and violence. They choose not to speak in order to deceive, while the wise person (and by extension the righteous person) chooses not to speak in order to keep from inadvertently offending or running into error.
- There is, therefore, nothing of value to discover in the heart of the wicked person. Their heart is כִּמְעָֽט, it is of little value. One who is wicked is not to be looked up to or followed. A wicked person may be successful in a very basic sense of the word “success”. But the real and lasting prosperity that we ought to be seeking is much bigger than monetary gain in the short term, and it comes from a heart that is both wise and righteous, because, according to Proverbs, there is no thoroughgoing division between those two concepts.
- Perhaps it is nothing, but I also would note that there is a contrast in number between singular צַדִּיק and the plural רְשָׁעִים. If we were to pull meaning from this contrast, we might see that the words of a single righteous man are like the choicest of silver in their public value, but all the thoughts of the hearts of all wicked people are together of little value.
- LXX translates נִבְחָר (choice/chosen) as πεπυρωμένος, which means “purified with fire”, apparently reading נִבְחָן (this, at least, is the plausible suggestion of the BHS critical apparatus). This doesn’t significantly change the meaning of the proverb, though it does add in the idea of “tested” or “purified”. This addition of another nuance that appears to find no direct contrast in the second half of the verse is conceptually messy and argues against its originality. Moreover, כֶּסֶף נִבְחָר is also attested in Proverbs 8:19 as a standard phrase. These factors make my first instinct be to choose the MT reading over the LXX reading.
- However, as mentioned above, I am not entirely satisfied that the significance of כִּמְעָֽט is exhausted in the translation “little value.” Could there be more? And could the additional nuance suggested by the LXX reading here actually point the way to this something more?
- Let us consider the LXX reading in a little more detail. What comes forth from the heart of the wise person is not simply something that is of highest value, but it has been tested and purified – πεπυρωμένος. It is trustworthy because it is not spoken in the impulse of the moment. When wise people mull over their thoughts they gradually remove their impurities, their localized biases. Over time they produce thoughts that are more universal, as a result. These are big, generous thoughts, expansive thoughts, thoughts that tend to build up and unify, thoughts that clarify our view of ourselves and of the world.
- On the other hand, the thoughts of the wicked are not so tested. They are concealed precisely because they are self-serving, self-affirming, and limited in their value outside of themselves. These are little thoughts from little people. And this is where כִּמְעָֽט comes back in. Could the “littleness” be more than just “littleness of monetary value”. Could the “littleness” also communicate the untested selfishness of wicked thoughts? If righteous thoughts are “purified”, could this littleness of wicked thoughts be depicted as “impure”?
- כֶּסֶף – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of כֶּסֶף (kesep). Translated “silver”
- נִבְחָר – N-stem participle, masculine, singular from בחר. Translated “chosen/choice”
- לְשׁוֹן – Noun, masculine, singular, construct of לָשׁוׂן (lāšôn). Translated “the tongue of”
- צַדִּיק – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular of צַדִּיק (ṣaddiq̂). Translated “a righteous man/person”
- לֵב – Noun, masculine, singular, construct of לֵב (lēb). Translated “the heart of”
- רְשָׁעִים – Substantive adjective, masculine, plural of רָשָׁע (rāšāʿ). Translated “wicked men/people/the wicked”
- כִּמְעָֽט – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular of מְעָֽט (mǝʿāṭ), with prefixed preposition k. Translated “like a little/of little value/impoverished”