Proverbs 18:4 – The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters... - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)

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Biblical Wisdom
December 3, 2018

Proverbs 18:4 – The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the wellspring of wisdom is a flowing brook.

by Dr. Bill Edgar, former chair of the Geneva College Board of Trustees, former Geneva College President and longtime pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPNCA)

The point of this proverb is unclear, as comparing two other translations reveals. “A person’s words can be a source of wisdom, deep as the ocean, fresh as a flowing stream (Today’s English Version).” “The words of the mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream (New International Version).” The TEV interpretation teaches that people’s words are a source of wisdom; the NIV with its “but,” hints at a contrast between the deep and perhaps deceitful words of a person and the reliability of God’s ever-fresh words. Translations in the King James tradition, like the ESV, bring the Hebrew seeming lack of clarity into English, leaving the reader to try to grasp its meaning. I will follow the NIV’s interpretative rendering.

As deep waters hide what lurks beneath them, a person’s words may hide his thoughts as well as reveal them. Only the naïve take everyone’s words at face value, and the Book of Proverbs scorns the naïve. Early in His ministry, adoring crowds outside Jerusalem followed Jesus, but John notes, “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people, and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man (John 2:24-25).” Jesus uniquely knew what people were thinking deep within, and while we do not, Solomon warns us that there are depths beneath another’s words that we can’t see.

The Bible, in fact, teaches that people do not know even themselves well. The inscription at the Greek oracle at Delphi exhorted suppliants, “Know yourself,” but we can’t know ourselves because self-deceit clouds self-understanding. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9).” Even those who want to know themselves are puzzled, as the Apostle Paul confesses: the good he would do, he does not, and the evil that he does not want to do, he does (Romans 7:14-24). Here is where the social sciences differ from the natural sciences as twilight differs from sunlight. Social scientists must reckon with their own not fully understood prejudices and wishes, while at the same time they try to study people, whose thoughts and motives are like deep waters. The social “sciences,” therefore, cannot even begin to approach the objectivity of physics and chemistry.

The wellspring of wisdom in the proverb is God Himself, speaking through His prophets, and in these last days, through His Son Jesus Christ. God’s words are like a running brook, clear and transparent as they flow from their spring, enlightening all who hear. The Book of Proverbs itself is a part of that brook, giving better understanding of human and divine ways than psychologists, sociologists, or economists can manage. As God’s people continually discover, His Word is ever new, revealing fresh understanding with each reading, like a brook with new water that flows past us every second.

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