“The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of judgment.” (Proverbs 10:21)
- The most obvious feature is the ideological contrast between the righteous and the fool, signified by the word “but.” The contrast is manifold:
- It is seen in the actions of each. The righteous “nourish many,” whereas fools apparently languish alone.
- We can also see a contrast of identification in this verse. There is something uniquely life-giving about the righteous, whereby they bring sustenance to others. By contrast, death is associated with the fool.
- The reason for the life-giving estate of the righteous (their lips — a poetic euphemism for their speech) is contrasted with the reason behind the fool’s death: lack of judgment.
- The word “die” in the second half of the verse is translated from the verb muwth, which seems to refer to actual mortal death (not a figurative or spiritual kind of death).
Interpretive questions and comments
It would be reasonable, based upon these observations, to conclude that righteous words are diametrically opposed to a lack of judgment — one spreads life, the other brings self-destruction. I note specifically the outward focus of the righteous: many are nourished by their words. If this modus operandi is the opposite of the fool’s, then the unscrupulousness of the fool may be the root or the result of a disordered self-orientation. If this is true, nota bene the correspondence between self-orientation and self-destruction. In any case, one cannot help but notice the difference between the life-replicating nature of the righteous and the life-choking nature of the fool. By extension, a lack of judgment (the KJV renders it “want of wisdom,” whereas Holladay’s Hebrew lexicon suggests “lack of scruples”) is the means by which the life is choked out of a fool.
It would seem that possessing judgment (or wisdom or scruples) is not only a hallmark of the righteous, but a prerequisite for speaking life-giving words. Thus, it is also a prerequisite for nourishing many.
Points of application
For my own part, I’ve occasionally wrestled with expending my time in ministerial endeavors when I’d rather do something else. If the lips of the righteous nourish many, then I ought to welcome the opportunity to spread life to those who need it (do I spread life as the righteous, or do I behave righteously by spreading life? Probably a combination thereof — my righteous estate in Christ ought to find expression in characteristically righteous behavior). Choosing not to do so might be unscrupulous insofar as it’s disobedient to God or unwise given the needs of others.
I think what I’m sensing from God is that the needy are there for me as much as I’m there for them. As I seek to serve them, a life-giving flow from Heaven courses through me to them. As I shun this task, the self-orientation and the seclusion of the fool become my life; and perhaps thereby the unscrupulousness that brings death.
He who loses his life for Christ’s sake shall find it…
aka The MonT-SteR