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My question is about the intended meaning of this proverb:

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.
--Prov. 25:2, NASB

I see three possibilities here:

  • Interpretation A: God conceals deep truths, making them mysteries, and that is good and glorious. The good and glorious role of the most noble of men, on the other hand, is to search out those mysteries.

Support: (I) Dt. 29:29, (II) maintains the parallelism in the sort of "matter" being discussed.

  • Interpretation B: God conceals deep truths, making them mysteries, and for that men revere Him. Kings, on the other hand, are revered by men when they discover the truth behind legal disputes.

Support: (I) Seems to be the most natural way of taking the line about kings, (II) ...and the line about God as well (cf. Dt. 29:29.)

  • Interpretation C: Kings get to the bottom of legal disputes and expose the guilty party. This is how they demonstrate their greatness. God, on the other hand, demonstrates His greatness by "covering" guilt.

Support: (I) Prov. 17:9, (II) seems to be the most natural way of taking the line about kings, (III) maintains the parallelism in the sort of "matter" being discussed.

I know that for each of these interpretations there are people out there who would support it. (So assertions with a couple of supporting arguments won't help me much.) My question is whether we can say anything definitive about how this was meant to be understood based on the Hebrew, etc. It would be most helpful if you could also explain why the other interpretations are not possible.

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The great medieval rabbi and scholar now known as Rashi wrote commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. He is acclaimed for his ability to present the basic meaning of the text in a concise and lucid fashion, and his works remain a centrepiece of contemporary Jewish study.

Rashi's commentary on Proverbs chapter 25 (including 25:2) is as follows:

The honor of God is to conceal a matter: For instance, the account of the Merkavah and the account of the Creation.

whereas the honor of kings is to search out a matter: When you expound on the honor of the Sages and on the safeguards that they enacted to the Torah, and on the decrees that they decreed upon them, you should search, seek, and ask the reason for the matter. When you expound on the account of the Merkavah or on the account of the Creation, or on the statutes written in the Torah-like the statutes and things that Satan denounces and refutes, such as eating pork, mingled species in a vineyard, and shaatnes-you should not search, but only conceal [the reason] and say, “It is the King’s decree.”

According to Rashi, it would appear that Interpretation A comes closest to the intended meaning of this passage.

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The Hebrew word rendered in Proverbs 25:2 as "conceal", is "sathar" (Strong's H5641). It occurs 80 times in the Old Testament (NASB), and of those 80 occurrences, 32 are directly related to "hiding one's face", especially God "hiding his face" from his people.

Reading through these occurrences, the sense I get of the word is something like, "to make one's self scarce" more than, "to hide one's self away". For example, Deuteronomy 32:20 says:

And he [God] said, I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be: for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith.

Which I would translate as:

And he said, "I will make myself scarce, to see what will become of them. For they are a very difficult generation, sons in whom there is no faith."

God's idea here is not to hide so Israel can't find Him, but to make Himself scarce like gold or pearls, so that in seeking him out, those who value Him can distinguish themselves from those who don't.

So, how does this idea play out in Proverbs?

Proverbs 22:3 (KJV)

A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and (hideth himself = H5641): but the simple pass on, and are punished.

My take:

A wary man foresees harm and makes himself scarce. But the unsuspecting person walks right into it and is fleeced.

The word given as "punished" could equally be rendered "mulcted", i.e. "defrauded"

Proverbs 27:5 (KJV)

Open rebuke is better than (secret = H5641) love.

My take:

Open rebuke is better than scarcity of love.

Proverbs 28:28 (KJV)

When the wicked rise, men (hide themselves = H5641) : but when they perish, the righteous increase.

My take:

When the wicked rise, men make themselves scarce. But when they perish, the righteous flourish.

And lastly, Proverbs 25:2,

It is the glory of God to conceal (H5641) a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.

And my take:

It is the glory of God to make a thing scarce, and the glory of kings to search the thing out.

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Prolegomena

  1. One interpretation; many applications.

  2. Solomon, the author of the proverb, was a king, as was Hezekiah, whose men transcribed the proverbs of Solomon which are contained in our English chapters 25-29.

  3. The very nature of a proverb is to express a general truth of wide applicability in a pithy and memorable format.

  4. The focus of the book of Proverbs is God, the creator of all things, particularly wisdom:

"The LORD possessed me at the

beginning of His way,

Before His works of old.

From everlasting I was

established,

From the beginning, from the

earliest times of the earth" (8:23-24, NASB Updated, NASB format; cf. 3:19-20).

  1. For the truly wise person, the beginning of wisdom/knowledge is the fear of the LORD (1:7a). By contrast, the foolish person despises words of wisdom and instruction (1:7b), preferring--by contrast--to suss things out on his own, autonomously.

    There is no fear of God before the eyes of the fool. To the fool, the very idea of searching out a matter with reverence for the God who concealed the matter in the first place, is foolishness. There are so many "apps" for this theme (e.g., Romans 1:18 ff., esp. v.21, and 1 Corinthians 1:18 ff.), but the psalmist kind of summarizes the fool's attitude in another stanza of Hebrew poetry:

"The fool hath said in his heart,

'There is no God.'

They are corrupt,

they have done abominable works,

there is none that doeth good" (14:1; cf. 53:1).

The psalmist is not talking about an atheist in this verse; rather, he is underscoring the proud autonomy of the fool. Biblically speaking, a fool is by definition a morally bankrupt--or amoral--person who says in his heart:

"There is no God for me!"

In other words, the fool exchanges the glory of the one true God for lesser gods, those of his own making.

  1. The Scripture is replete with references to God's glory, which can be defined as "the outshining of the presence of God." God's glory is, in a sense, his reputation and renown in the world. God's glory is enhanced by what theologians call general- and special revelation.

[General revelation:] "The heavens are telling of

the glory of God,

And their expanse is

declaring the work of His

hands" (Psalm 19:1)

And

[Special revelation:] "The law of the LORD is

perfect, restoring the

soul;

The testimony of the LORD is

sure, making wise the

simple" (ibid., v.7).

  1. There is also a glory of man, who is created in the image of God (see, for example, Psalm 8:3-8, esp. v.5). A king, who is to be both wise and an exemplar of godly virtues to his subjects, finds his glory in searching out the wisdom of God. Solomon was one such exemplar, even though he did not end well (see 1 Kings 11:4).

". . . the Preacher [i.e., Solomon] also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs" (Ecclesiastes 12:9 ff.; my emphasis).

Interpretation "A" Is Looking Better and Better

While the truth of "The heavens are telling the glory of God" would seem to contradict the truth of the proverb in question that the glory of God is to conceal a matter, there is in fact no contradiction. The glory of God may be "plain" to those who have eyes to see, but to the fool (as defined in Proverbs), God's glory is anything but plain!

Sinful man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), whereas a king, if he is truly wise, searches out the truth, which is his glory. In the person of King Solomon, wisdom became a thing of renown, another aspect of glory.

"So King Solomon became greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart" (1 Kings 10:23-24 NASB Undated).

Let Us Hear the Conclusion of the Matter

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,

But the glory of kings is to search out a matter (Prov. 25:2, NASB).

God wants to be found out. By the same token, however, God wants his critters to search for him with all their heart. When they do, he assures us he will be found.

"'You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart'" (Jeremiah 29:13 NAS, my emphasis).

  • Interesting. So the king searching a matter out wouldn't have anything to do with getting to the bottom of legal disputes then. – Jas 3.1 Feb 22 '15 at 21:10
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    @Jas.3.1: One interpretation; many applications. Solomon, for example, searched out the legal, moral, ethical, and spiritual implications of the case of the two harlots who gave birth to two babies, one of whom died (see 1 Kings 3:16 ff.). You'll recall that one harlot did the ol' switcheroo (her dead baby for the living baby) and then had the temerity to tell King Sol the living baby was hers! Sol offered to divide the child in two, and the rest is history. Notice that "all Israel heard of the king's judgment . . . [and] saw the wisdom of God was in him to administer judgment" (v.28). – rhetorician Feb 23 '15 at 1:26
  • I guess what I'm saying is that a proverb squeezes a great nugget of truth into very few words, but it doesn't squeeze everything! One "app" of searching things out is in matters of justice; another is in matters of everyday ethics; another is in not-so-common commonsense; another is acquiring a spiritual understanding which was heretofore a bit of a mystery; and so on. About God concealing sin; well, that's another app (see Prov 10:12; 17:9; and 1 Pet 4:8), although the second half of the proverb (i.e., 25:2) makes that app a little forced. (It's still true, however!). – rhetorician Feb 23 '15 at 1:35

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