Make Agreements Cautiously

| Proverbs 6:1-5; 22:7 (also 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27)

The Point:  Avoid financial obligations that could sink you.

Being a Surety:  Proverbs 6:1-5.

[1]  My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger,

[2]  if you are snared in the words of your mouth, caught in the words of your mouth, [3]  then do this, my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor: go, hasten, and plead urgently with your neighbor. [4]  Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; [5]  save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler.  [ESV]

[1]  This sixth chapter addresses four topics, blending two new topics – both of which will be developed more fully in the coming chapters (surety [1-5] and laziness [6-11] – with a general description of the wicked [12-19] and a fourth topic already covered in some detail (adultery [20-35]. The familiar call echoed so often in the first nine chapters is intoned again – My son [1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1]. A series of conditional clauses begins here and continues through the second verse, the resolution coming in verse 3. The issue concerns having become a surety. Surety involved becoming responsible for the debt of another person, should they become unable to pay [11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27; 27:13]. The person involved is described both as your neighbor and a stranger. The former is a general term that may mean something like ‘anybody,’ not referring necessarily to the person who lives next door. The latter word refers to someone unknown to you. Taken together, they seem to point to a rash financial decision made out of pity for one about whom you know very little. You do not know them, their financial standing or their ability to repay the loan they are asking you to guarantee. All the information you have is what they have told you. It is probable that, when working with such scanty information and under such time constraints, one would make a personally disastrous decision. Does this preclude co-signing an auto loan for a young family member? Not necessarily. Yet, before entering into such an arrangement, one should always carefully study the person’s character and survey their plan for repayment as well as one’s own ability to take on the financial burden, if necessary. The Old Testament encouraged generosity [Deut. 15:1-15] and lending without interest. It was against the Mosaic Law to charge interest to a fellow Israelite [Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-38], though it was permissible to charge reasonable interest to a non-Israelite. Even then, the charging of exorbitant interest was considered immoral [Neh. 5:7,10; Prov. 28:8]. The phrase have given your pledge is literally ‘struck your hands.’ It is equivalent to our modern-day handshake to seal a transaction, though probably more binding than a handshake might be considered in our culture, where one’s personal word has come to mean little. One should thus never give his word rashly, but only after careful understanding of the consequences. [2]  The series of conditional clauses continue from verse 1 and await their resolution in verse 3. The conditional particle is not found in the Hebrew text, but is understood from the context of verse 1. The metaphor is that of an animal caught in a trap. The second verb (caught) links this discussion with the previous discussion of adultery [5:22]. Both verbs prepare for the concluding verse of this section [5]. The metaphor is apt, given the overwhelming calamity, if suddenly faced with obligation for a debt one is not in a position to repay. Twice the phrase the words of your mouth is used. Far from being redundant, it underscores the power of a man’s verbal agreement. Too often today, people reason, ‘I didn’t sign anything. They have no legal recourse over me. All they have is my word.’ Sadly, they have forgotten that the man who wants to be near God swears to his own hurt and does not change [Ps. 15:4]. A wise person would not sign a legal document without reading the fine print. Likewise, the person of wisdom is careful not to rashly make a promise he might find difficult to keep at a later time. [3]  Now comes the resolution to the series of conditional statements made in verses 1-2. Making yourself responsible for the debt of another is of the utmost seriousness. You are trapped and need to save yourself. You have come into the hand of your neighbor. Your financial standing, security and future are no longer under your own control. You have become the slave of another and are at their mercy. No time should be lost in seeking your freedom. The word then implies that the action must be undertaken ‘here and now’. No personal pride should stand in the way of obtaining release from the obligation. To ‘humble yourself’ meant to crush, tread upon or demean yourself. No social reserve should limit you in your attempt to free yourself. The word translated plead urgently is strong, and meant ‘to storm at’ another person or to be boisterous, arrogant and even, perhaps, to bully the other until you get your way. Perhaps the idea of making yourself obnoxious until they release you best represents the meaning. The call to such action points neither to acceptable social graces or God-honoring business practices, but to the serious nature of the bondage you have allowed yourself to slip into. The neighbor twice mentioned here could be either the debtor you pledged to cover or the creditor they owe the money to. Either one could ruin you, one by defaulting on the loan and the other by pressing you for payment in such a case. It is likely that the reference is to the debtor you have pledged to cover. On a purely practical level, however, a final decision about which is intended here is probably not necessary, since either one might be able to release you from the hasty obligation you entered into. [4]  No delay is acceptable. Hesitancy may spell ruin. No personal need is more urgent than the requirement to free yourself from this unwise commitment. Time will not cure this problem nor make it disappear, but can only hasten the potential destruction. Not one night should pass before you exhaust every attempt to extricate yourself from this pledge. [5]  Solomon now employs two similes (like) to heighten the arguments made to this point. The imagery used here harkens back to the verbs of verse 2 and helps to bring closure to the matter. Would not a gazelle caught in the hunter’s hand exhaust every means to free itself? Would a bird grasped in the hand of the fowler sit quietly by as its life was weighed in the balance [Ps. 124:7]? Free yourself! Your life depends upon it.”  [Kitchen, pp. 135-137]. 

The Lender’s Slave:  Proverbs 22:7.

[7]  The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.  [ESV]

“This proverb states one of life’s hardest facts. Solomon has just said that The rich and the poor meet together, the Lord is the maker of them all [2]. Yet, while this is true, they have harsh realities to face in this life. Too often The poor use entreaties, but the rich answer roughly [18:23]. Those with material advantage too often come to that position on the backs of those less privileged. Once in the position of wealth, clout and leverage, the pressure is great to lord it over those they deem to be beneath them. The second line makes the matter more specific, taking it out of the general realm of rich and poor and applying it to the borrower and the lender. The former becomes the latter’s slave. This, often, became the literal fact in Hebrew society [Neh. 5:4-5; 2 Kings 4:1]. God had promised that His people would become the lender, not the borrower, if they would obediently follow Him [Deut. 28:12]. Solomon has made clear the folly of being security for another’s loan. Here he implores every person about to take on personal debt to stop and think carefully before doing so. The same warning of slavery is made a matter of foolishness and wisdom in Proverbs 11:29. For this reason, every person about to take on a loan must weigh the wisdom of doing so. If a loan is necessary for life’s necessities, it may be considered, but we should never take a loan to fund our luxury.”  [Kitchen, pp. 497-498]. 

Other verses that discuss being a surety: 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27.

11:15. “The issue of being a surety involves guaranteeing repayment of another person’s debt, should they become unable to pay. Proverbs repeatedly warns against such a decision. And, it is all the riskier here because it is for a stranger. The reference is to one that you do not know. They might have been, in the original context, from another nation or they may have simply been an Israelite with whom one was personally unfamiliar. In either case, the danger is entrusting your financial stability into the hands of one whose character is unknown. Solomon states the outcomes as a settled matter: you will surely suffer harm. On the other hand, one who refuses being a surety avoids such personally disastrous consequences. The phrase striking hands is something akin to our modern handshake, though no doubt more binding. This path of wisdom leaves you secure; that is to say, free from the anxiety and concern of potential financial ruin.”  [Kitchen, p. 248]. 

17:18.  “A person who becomes a surety for another person lacks sense, or literally ‘lacking in heart.’ A person who lacks sense does not count the cost of his impetuous actions [6:32]. His future holds only discipline and hardship [10:32]. He rashly says whatever is on his mind, thus ruining relationships [11:12]. He chases what is vain [12:11] and is lazy [24:30]. He may seek to gain through unjust and ruthless means [28:16]. His naiveté is revealed here by his willingness to make a pledge. The first line has presented the folly of giving your word rashly. Now, through synthetic parallelism, the second line advances the idea, making it more specifically address the problem of surety. The issue is becoming responsible for the debt of another person should he become unable to pay. The counsel here is to never do so. This does not contradict the wisdom of verse 17:17. On the contrary, a man who becomes a surety not only endangers the financial health of his own family, but also often encourages his friend to make a rash decision that could ruin his. Sometimes being a good friend means not doing what your friend asks of you. The expression in the presence of his neighbor could mean that he is becoming surety for his neighbor, or he is willing to become surety for someone else who is taking a loan from his neighbor. Either case is foolish.”  [Kitchen, pp. 382-383].

20:16.  “Three people are in view in this proverb: the one making a loan, the one taking the loan and a third party who is guaranteeing repayment, if the one taking the loan defaults on payment. The object of the imperative Take is the one making the loan. The person referred to by man’s in the first line and he in the second is the one guaranteeing repayment if the taker of the loan defaults. Proverbs has warned of the foolishness of becoming surety for another. The man giving his promise to repay, should there be a default on the loan, is the one who should heed these warnings. However, if he is foolish enough to make such a promise, the one making the loan should take something in collateral, lest he never get repayment from either the one taking the loan or the one promising to make good on it if there is a default. The law made provision for taking a man’s coat as collateral. But, there were strict rules as to when it must be returned [Ex. 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13], as this could be abused by the unscrupulous [Amos 2:8]. The one taking out the loan is called a stranger and foreigners. The first refers to someone whose reliability is unknown. The second probably speaks of those who were not resident Israelites.”  [Kitchen, p. 449].

22:26-27.  “This verse and the next raise a cry now familiar throughout Proverbs. The warning is against giving pledges. The expression is, literally, ‘strike hands’ and was a way of sealing a legal transaction. It is akin to, but certainly more binding than, our modern handshake. The commitment here pointed to is further explained by the expression put up security for debts. It means to become responsible for the debt of another, should they default on the loan. We should not bank our financial security (and that of those who depend upon us) on the faithfulness of another. The Old Testament encourages generosity in giving and even in making interest-free loans. It warns in the strictest terms, however, against guaranteeing the repayment of another’s loan. The next verse gives a vivid and compelling reason for this. Here, now in verse 27, is the answer to the warnings of verse 26. A hypothetical situation is set up: What if you have nothing with which to pay? You have made yourself responsible for someone else’s debt, assuming that it will be no great risk to you. “It’s just a signature! They’ll never come after me!” Foolish thinking! The second line raises the question: Why should your bed be taken from under you? The one taking the bed is the creditor who demands to be satisfied and is willing to follow the legal trail to obtain it [20:16; 27:13]. The ancients often used their outer cloak for their bed. As such, the law required that any cloak taken in pledge must be returned by sundown [Ex. 22:26-27; Deut. 24:10-13]. Apparently, the creditor in this situation does not feel the constraint of the law. Here the bed/cloak represents the very last, and most inviolable, of a man’s possessions. Nothing shall be untouchable, if you put yourself up for someone else’s debts [11:15].”  [Kitchen, p. 512]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Note the structure of 6:1-5. Verses 1-2 contain two “if” clauses. These are followed by a “then” clause in verse 3 which provides a recommended action.  Verses 4-5 continue the recommended action suggested in verse 3. And verse 5 uses two comparisons (like) which serves as a conclusion. So what is Solomon’s concern in verses 1-2? What action does he recommend in verses 3-5? Why does Solomon use such strong language in verses 3-5: save yourself … go, hasten, and plead urgently … give your eyes no sleep … save yourself? Note how save yourself begins and ends the recommended action. What does this tell us about the seriousness of Solomon’s warning?

2.         Have you ever been asked to co-sign a loan for another person? What did you do? Why? What insight and suggestions do these passages in Proverbs give you?

References:

Proverbs, John Kitchen, Mentor.

Proverbs, Tremper Longman III, Baker.

Exploring Proverbs, vol. 1, John Phillips, Loizeaux.

Exploring Proverbs, vol. 2, John Phillips, Loizeaux.