Proverbs 6:1-5 and 11:15
I have a useful book of essays on Proverbs written by William Arnot, reprinted twice by Kregel Publications, but originally published in 1884. Modern readers may find his style distracting but there is substance in his teaching. Of particular insight, Arnot commented at some length on the subject of what he called “suretiship” based on the teachings of Prov. 6:1-5 and 11:15. Before I relate his observations, here are the passages along with some of my comments:
1 My son, if you become surety for your friend,
If you have shaken hands in pledge for a stranger,
2 You are snared by the words of your mouth;
You are taken by the words of your mouth.
3 So do this, my son, and deliver yourself;
For you have come into the hand of your friend:
Go and humble yourself;
Plead with your friend.
4 Give no sleep to your eyes,
Nor slumber to your eyelids.
5 Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,
And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.
15 He who is surety for a stranger will suffer,
But one who hates being surety is secure.
Becoming “surety” is a personal practice we might call “co-signing.” This teaching does not forbid helping someone in this way, but it sends a warning against impulsive commitments. We must be careful what we agree to, what we promise.
Have you ever made a promise you were not able to keep? Have you ever made a commitment with good intentions to help someone, and the whole deal turned bad on you? Most of us have been at this place in life – where we quickly entered into a deal that turned bad … then we had the challenge of figuring out an appropriate way to extricate ourselves from the matter. That’s what this passage is about – the impulsive, quick decisions we may make with good intentions to help someone … the deal goes bad – and we must find a way to resolve the problem. We cannot just walk away from a promise.
We may be tempted to get ourselves out of the problem, the same way we got in – through an act of impulse. This passage does not recommend an act of impulse – followed by another! This passage teaches us to follow an open, honest, humble approach to the problem: “Go and humble yourself; Plead with your friend.” You must not just walk away from a promise – you must seek an honorable resolution in order to deliver yourself. The teaching here is not – just forget it and go to sleep. The teaching is – to humble yourself and plead with your friend. Impulse go you into this trouble – care, humility and skill must be exercised to deliver yourself.
Back to Arnot, whose work on Proverbs was published in 1884 (England), he refers to this teaching as a warning against “rash suretiship.” I’ve taken some liberty to paraphrase his comments below; I set this off in quotation marks since there is no change in the essence of his thoughts:
“Rash suretiship, and the ruin that follows it, seem to have been common in those days, as well as our own. The economy of ancient times was small, in comparison with the vast system of exchange which now compasses the whole world… but the same vices that we lament marred it, and the same righteousness that we desire would have healed its’ ailments…
“In those primitive times, it seems, as in our own, some men desired to get faster forward in the world than their circumstances legitimately permitted. They were determined to attain high financial status, although they had noting to stand on. Their ambition fretted at the slow and vulgar method of climbing up by patient industry; they would ascend by a bound. They must get a neighbor to provide security for them, that they may get the use of money which is not their own. They will throw for a fortune to themselves at another’s risk.
“There were also others, it appears, so simple as to become surety for the adventurers, perhaps because they could not command enough of courage to refuse a friend, although they thereby cast into a lottery the home and the food of their own families. The warning does not discourage considerate kindness in bearing a deserving man over a temporary pressure. When you have ascertained the character of the person, and measured the amount of his need; when you have balanced your own responsibilities and accounts, and discovered that they have buoyancy sufficient to bear both yourself and your brother over the strait, then do a brother’s turn, and enjoy a brother’s love and the approval of God. No precept of the Bible demands that we should harden our hearts against the claims of the needy. The Bible permits and requires more of kindness to our brother than we have ever shown him yet; but it does not allow us to do a certain substantial evil in risk, for the sake of a distant shadowy good.
“It condemns utterly the rash engagements which, under pretence of doing a kindness to one, inflicts injustice on a hundred. Righteousness, in all times, and all circumstances, reclaims against the blind effort which, for the sake of supporting a tottering fabric, incurs the risk of bringing your own house down about your ears, and crushing beneath its ruins many innocent victims.”
(Based on comments by William Arnot, STUDIES IN PROVERBS: Laws From Heaven For Life On Earth, Kregel Publications, 1978, pages 208-209).
By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 8.3; March 2001