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Legal Entanglements (6:1–5)

Proverbs 6:4-5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Give no sleep to your eyes
nor slumber to your eyelids;
Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,
and like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

Verse 4 is telling the Israelite that acted impulsively by offering assurances in a financial deal for a stranger or neighbor, who then realizes his stupidity on what seemed wise at first but upon further examination looks as if it is risky and foolish, not to sleep through one night without getting out of the commitment. This Israelite needs to run from the deal he had made, like a gazelle from a hunter a bird from the trapper!

Friday, September 15, 2017, we discussed Proverbs 6:1-3. So, below let’s address Proverbs 65:1-5 as a whole.

6:1–5 These verses sternly warn against standing surety or putting up security for your neighbor or another (i.e., a stranger, זָר, zār). The father offers a hypothetical situation (as he does on other occasions; e.g., 1:10–19; 7:6–27) to the son. As such, it acts as a preventative warning about becoming entangled in financial commitments.

Making a pledge on behalf of another refers to the practice of intervening in a business relationship to provide financial backing to a person indebted to another. The one who goes surety pledges to pay the debt if the debtor is unable to fulfill his or her financial responsibility. In this case, the transaction involves three parties, two of whom are explicitly mentioned in the text: the son and the neighbor. One man (the son) gives a pledge on behalf of a neighbor in order that the neighbor can borrow from a third party, a creditor. Obviously, the creditor loaning the money prefers a commitment from a person he knows will keep his word over that of one he does not know. The problem arises when the neighbor reneges on the payment. This leaves the one who pledged with the responsibility to pay back the loan to the creditor.

The motives for going surety are unclear. One reason might be that the one going surety for a neighbor may expect the neighbor to pay a fee for his risk, thinking that this is a quick way to make a little money. Another motive might be purely altruistic. Whatever the reason, the sage urges the son not to offer his possessions as collateral for another person’s debt. The sage does this by setting up a scenario describing the trap that awaits the patron.

The pledge involves an outward sign of someone who has struck hands with the neighbor or “stranger” (zār; v. 1), not unlike shaking hands after we have made an agreement with someone. Such a pledge to another should never be made. It puts the person at the mercy of the creditor and the neighbor (vv. 1 and 3). Other warnings against making pledges are given in the sentence literature: 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26–27; 27:13.

This passage does not express insensitivity to the poor or the oppressed. One was to give, not lend money to the poor. Many proverbs speak of one’s responsibility to the underprivileged (for further comment see 17:17–18). The advice serves as a strict “warning not to become involved in the complicated credit arrangements of commerce.…” It may be that it reflects the harsh economic conditions of the day. Making a pledge on behalf of someone else now puts two families in financial jeopardy, the one who made the pledge and the one who was in debt. If such a pledge is made, one should do everything in his or her power to get out from under it, even to the point of losing face (v. 3). Making such a pledge is an act of folly. It spreads the disaster rather than contains it. The sage mandates that one use money wisely.[1]

6:1–5 At first glance this passage would seem to say no more than that one should not cosign a note or, if one has already made that mistake, should get out of the arrangement as quickly as possible. While the text does say at least this much, it also implies that no one should get into legal entanglements and indebtedness in which circumstances are out of one’s control. This is certainly the case where giving security for another is concerned.

Note that the Bible does not absolutely forbid taking on legal responsibilities for another person (Phlm 18). It does, however, here state that risking home and liberty in an enterprise over which one does not have direct control is consummate folly. Although we have no information on Israelite laws of surety, seizure of assets and home and even the selling of the debtor into slavery were common penalties for failure to make payment, and the cosigner could well have met the same fate.[2]

[1] Dave Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 2002), 86–88.

[2] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 96.