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Proverbs 25: 20 (NASB, literal translation in bold) "Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on natron, Is he who sings songs to an evil heart."

I didn't understand this when using the conventional translations of SODA for natron and TROUBLED for evil. Today, while studying, I paid attention to the literal translation for the first time, and was MOSTLY struck by the meaning of evil vs that of troubled.

It's the CONTEXT here that's throwing me off. A confusing word can be rescued by a clear context (I think), but I understand NEITHER of the two examples given.

  1. 'One who takes off his garment on a cold day': that could be someone who is goofy, or showing off; it also could be someone who was about to do some strenuous physical exercise and didn't want to get sweaty. If I want to read a little more into it, something that is NOT obvious to me as an illiterate with respect to biblical languages, I could propose that he is taking off his garment to give it to someone else who needs it. But I'm really not comfortable trying to make the text fit a meaning, rather than having meaning fit the text.
  2. 'Like vinegar on natron.' I know what vinegar on baking soda does: it bubbles up. Wikipedia tells me that natron is 17% baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) so MAYBE the bubbling reaction is the same; natron isn't used routinely anymore, so I don't have access to it to see the reaction myself, and a year and a half of college chemistry taken 40+ years ago are no benefit.

Is Proverbs 25:20 about singing songs to an "evil" heart or to a "sad" one?

Who has wisdom?

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I think another possibility is that the NASB and other translations of the Masoretic Text do not accurately represent what was in the original Hebrew.


The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates the Masoretic Text here slightly differently:

Disrobing on a chilly day, Like vinegar on natron,
Is one who sings songs to a sorrowful soul.

The Judaica Press translation, by Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg, reads:

A worn-out garment on a cold day is like vinegar on chalk,
and so is one who sings songs to a broken heart.

An annotation in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible (based on the JPS Tanakh) indicates that the Masoretic Text here might be corrupt:

The text of this verse is in doubt, and the first line [Disrobing on a chilly day] might be a mistake.

The comment continues:

As it stands, the proverb offers two images: undressing in the cold and pouring acid on a base. To these are compared the effect that cheerful music has on a melancholy person. The first action causes a chill, the second causes fizzing and hissing, which may suggest irritation and incompatibility. Without the first analogy (which many scholars excise), "vinegar on nitron" might imply neutralization of the sorrow.

Rashi, a medieval Jewish commentator who synopsized Talmudic commentary on Scripture, offers the following regarding this verse (Judaica Press translation):

A worn-out garment on a cold day: Heb. מעדה בגד, synonymous with (Isa. 64:5): “בגד עדים, a discarded garment,” a worn-out garment that is fit to be taken off since it is worn out, as we translate into Aramaic “ויסר” (Ex. 7:24) as ויעדי, and He shall remove. Now this is its interpretation: A worn-out garment on a cold day is like vinegar on chalk.

chalk: Heb. נתר, a kind of soft earth, like our earth that is called creide, which they would hew and make vessels therefrom, and if vinegar falls on it, [the earth] is dissolved and ruined. So…

is one who sings songs to a broken heart: [lit. on a bad heart. This one] resembles them both. Now what is one who sings songs? This is one who teaches the Torah to a wicked student, who has no intention in his heart to fulfill it.


The Alexandrian Jews who translated this verse into Greek in the 2nd century or so (BC) saw something rather different than what appears in the Masoretic Text (c. 7-10th c. CE):

ὥσπερ ὄξος ἕλκει ἀσύμφορον, οὕτως προσπεσὸν πάθος ἐν σώματι καρδίαν λυπεῖ. ὥσπερ σὴς ἱματίῳ καὶ σκώληξ ξύλῳ, οὕτως λύπη ἀνδρὸς βλάπτει καρδίαν.

As vinegar is bad for a sore, so trouble befalling the body afflicts the heart. As a moth in a garment, and a worm in wood, so the grief of a man hurts the heart.*

The other two answers you received so far indicate that "sad" may be the more appropriate reading, but given the above it seems there is uncertainty about what the "original" text actually said in the first place. It seems to me that the Septuagint is somewhat more coherent than the Masoretic Text here:

Masoretic Text (NASB)

Like a club and a sword and a sharp arrow
Is a man who bears false witness against his neighbor.
Like a bad tooth and an unsteady foot
Is confidence in a faithless man in time of trouble.
Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda,
Is he who sings songs to a troubled heart.

LXX (Orthodox Study Bible)

As a club, a sword, and a pointed arrow
So also is the man who testifies as a false witness against his friend
The tooth of an evil man and the foot of a lawless man
Shall perish in an evil day
As vinegar is bad for a festering wound
So calamity befalling the body grieves the heart
As a moth in a garment and a worm in wood,
So the grief of a man damages the heart


I'm not insisting that it is the case that the Masoretic Text is corrupt - just offering a third alternative.


* Brenton translation

  • Wow, great research. I find the Proverbs very easy to misunderstand. +1 – Ruminator Oct 27 '18 at 13:27
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You can see the effect of vinegar on "natron" (Prov 25:20) by taking some simple baking powder (or baking soda depending where you buy it) from most kitchens which is a mixture of sodium carbonate and/or sodium hydrogen carbonate (= sodium bicarbonate). It bubbles and froth up as the sodium carbonate is converted to sodium acetate and volumes of carbon dioxide are given off.

The image above, I simply understood, are the acts of an unwise or stupid person, which is the subject of nearly all of Proverbs. That is, taking a coat off on a cold day is stupid; poring vinegar on natron is stupid as it wastes both; singing songs to a troubled/evil heart is stupid. Do not try this at home - when someone is very angry and someone says let us all hum "OM" or sing a happy song the reaction is likely to be violent indeed. (I have foolishly tried this trick and will never do it again.)

It is better to heed the advice of Prov 25:11, "A fitly words spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver". Sympathy is often more appropriate.

  • Romans 12:15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. +1 – Ruminator Oct 27 '18 at 12:20
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    Good verse for this case - thanks for the reminder. – Mac's Musings Oct 28 '18 at 8:08
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According to Metzudat David this verse simply say that one should not try to happy a person when something really bad happen to him, because it will just make things worse.

The verse equivalent it to two examples:

  1. decorated garments is not something when one should dress in a very cold day, because he won't get worm and the clothes will destroy.
  2. Vinegar (acid) with Neter (some sort of soft ground material like clay) will crack it, and will not make it stronger.

As for your question, רע לב (litterly "evil heart") is (also) an idiom that means grief, sorrow, sadness like טוב לב (literally "good heart") is happiness.

Other places in OT with this idiom: deutronomy chapter 15 verse 10, and 1st Samuel chapter 1 verse 8.

  • ... and other places with the opposite idiom (meaning evil, not sad): 1 Samuel 17:28, Nehemiah 2:2 – b a Oct 27 '18 at 17:15

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