“It is what the wicked person fears that comes to him, but the desire of the righteous will be granted.”
מְגֹורַת רָשָׁע הִיא תְבֹואֶ֫נּוּ וְתַאֲוַת צַדִּקִים יִתֵּן׃
mǝgôrat rāšāʿ hîʾ tǝbôʾennû wǝtaʾăwat ṣaddiqîm yittēn
The fear of a wicked person, it will come upon him, and the desire of righteous people it gives.
- This verse continues string of verses using the rhythmic pattern 4 beats in the first clause, 3 beats in the second (this has been the pattern since v. 19, and it continues unbroken to v. 27). In some of these verses, the pattern is maintained using maqqefs, but here each beat has its own dedicated word.
- The first words of both clauses are feminine singular nouns in construct form, so they rhyme. The fact that they are feminine singular constructs is conspicuous, as it was in vv. 15 and 16 (in both verses, feminine singular constructs occupy parallel places in both clauses). Feminine singular construct forms do frequently occur in isolation as well, but I feel that the phenomenon of parallel feminine singular construct forms happens more often than it should if there were no aesthetic gravitation towards it (there are far more masculine nouns than feminine nouns in the Hebrew Bible).
- The verb tǝbôʾennû is a little unusual in its use of a pronominal suffix. The verb bôʾ is not really transitive in the G-stem (as it predictably is in the causative H-stem). For the kind of meaning it achieves in this verse, one typically sees bôʾ plus some kind of preposition (ʿal = “upon”; ʾel = “to”) then the indirect object. Assuming our understanding of this form is correct (and it is the most obvious way to make sense of the form), it was probably rhythmic/poetic concerns that motivated the use of this form. We see this use of the suffix with bôʾ elsewhere mainly in poetic texts (Job 15:21; 20:22; Ps 44:18; Pr 28:22; perhaps also Ez 32:11, being the introduction of a poetic prophetic oracle can be considered poetic).
- The last word in the verse, yittēn, lacks an explicit subject. Grammatically, this is an impersonal verb (“one will grant” or “it will be granted” – even though this is not grammatically passive, to translate it with a passive is acceptable to make good idiomatic English). However, as is so often the case in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is the presumed ultimate cause behind this “law of nature.” Perhaps he is not envisioned as directly manipulating the fate of the individual, but he is pulling the strings of all the things and people around us to shape an individual’s fate kind of from a distance. So even though God is not mentioned in this proverb, this proverb is not saying that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people automatically. These things are attributed, by implication, to God.
- The proposed correction of the vowel pointing to yuttān (which is a proper passive – an Hp or Hophal) based on how ancient versions translated the verb is wrongheaded. The Syriac form, which the BHS critical apparatus reproduces as mtjhb, appears to be a tG participle. Having neither a Syriac grammar nor this text at hand, I suspect this kind of form may be idiomatic in similar circumstances in Syriac (i.e., impersonal verb, for which reflexive verb forms are commonly used), so no variant reading of the Hebrew is in any way indicated by this Syriac form. Additionally, yuttān, being an actual passive, would take taʾăwat as its explicit subject, but then we would have a gender mismatch (feminine subject with masculine verb). The verb form as we have it (yittēn) makes the most sense in the context.
- Again we see complementary alternation in number between the two groups of people referred to in the verse. This time rāšāʿ (wicked) is singular while ṣaddiqîm (righteous) is plural.
- Can we draw some significance from this alternation, as we have in past verses? Perhaps the singularity of the wicked person is suggestive of his or her isolation, brought upon him or her by their own wickedness. A running theme in Proverbs is that foolishness and evil destroy community while wisdom and righteousness build it up. A fool’s foolishness isolates him, as does the wicked person’s wickedness. When what they fear comes upon them, no one will be around to save them. On the other hand, because righteousness builds up community, the desires of the righteous community are received and are of public (as well as private) benefit.
- What is the fear of the wicked person? What is the desire of the righteous person? We’re not really talking about idiosyncratic fears and desires. For example, if a wicked person is afraid of clowns, we’re not saying that inevitably at some point they will attacked by a monstrous army of clown zombies. Nor are we saying that if a righteous person happens to be craving a moon pie that there is some law built into the cosmos that makes it so that a moon pie will without fail appear on their kitchen counter. No, we are talking about bigger things than that.
- Frankenberg (Die Sprüche. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1898, p. 69) suggests that they are, in fact, the same thing – justice. The saying, then, is an affirmation of the belief that justice wins in the end.
- Justice doesn’t win simply because of something inherent in justice, or because of some impersonal principle governing the universe. The hidden actor in this proverb is God, and this is the meaning behind the subject-less verb in the second clause (yittēn).
- Another possibility: what is it that motivates the wicked person to do wicked things? Just malevolence? No, usually not. Wicked acts of all kinds are motivated by the urge for self-preservation, and this shows itself out in numerous ways: aggression, greed, hedonism or the pursuit of pleasure (which is really the willful perpetuation of an escapist stupor, an unwillingness to think about the hardness of life). And lurking behind this urge for self-preservation is the fear of death. Death itself is the thing that the wicked person is trying to avoid, the disaster that they fear. But death cannot ultimately be avoided.
- Does this not come also on the righteous person? How do we reconcile the fact that tragedy comes on both the wicked and righteous. When Job says “What I dreaded has come upon me” he is using wisdom verbiage to call into question an easy association of bad behavior with bad effects and good behavior with good effects.
- Indeed, tragedy does come on the righteous as well as the wicked, but that’s why it does not say, “What the wicked person fears comes on the wicked person but not on the righteous person.” The second clause is a non-identical complement to the first clause. It doesn’t say that what a righteous person fears will not come upon them, but that what a righteous person desires will.
- What is the hope and desire of the righteous person? Good things for them and for their family and friends. Happiness, prosperity, peace, and justice.
- Ultimately, all these things meet in the Hebrew/Christian hope of everlasting life and of God’s righteous judgment reclaiming his world and making everything right again. The Day of the Lord is a great and terrible day, but it is the day for which the righteous eagerly await, because it will mean the end of all strife, war, violence and heartbreak.
- So, perhaps more than a lot of the other verses we’ve seen so far, this verse is very much a faith-statement. It is difficult to argue its basic assertion or prove it objectively, and any sense that the second clause is not emptied of its significance by the common fate of humanity – death – must be based on the presupposition of posthumous vindication.
- In summary, fear of death is what drives the wickedness of the wicked, but there is no escape from it. Hope for God’s justice is what motivates the righteousness of the righteous, and it is inescapable.
- מְגֹורַת – Noun, feminine, singular, construct of מְגֹורָה (from root גור III). Translated “the dread of”
- רָשָׁע – Substantive adjective, masculine, singular, absolute of רָשָׁע. Translated “a wicked person”
- הִיא – Third, feminine, singular, personal pronoun (referring to מְגֹורַת). Translated “it”.
- תְבֹואֶ֫נּוּ – Verb, G-stem, prefix, third person, feminine, singular of בוא, with third, masculine, singular pronominal suffix. Translated “it will come [to] him”
- וְתַאֲוַת – Noun, feminine, singular, construct of תַּאֲוָה, with conjunction w. Translated “but the desire of”
- צַדִּקִים – Substantive adjective, masculine, plural, absolute of צָדִּיק. Translated “righteous people” or “the righteous”
- יִתֵּן – Verb, G-stem, prefix, third person, masculine of נַתָן, used impersonally. Translated “it will be granted”