Punishment or Mercy? (Month of Proverbs)

Good sense makes a man slow to anger,
and it is his glory to overlook an offense.
(Proverbs 19:11)

Mighty Key
Image by greeblemonkey via Flickr

Many of the proverbs tout the wisdom of choosing peace over arguments, even going so far as to say it’s better to be a poor person with peace than a wealthy one with quarrels.  The phrase “slow to anger” appears in dozens of places in the Bible and crept into the everyday vocabulary of many people – a civic virtue.  This proverb gives one method by which a person can move towards this virtue: through the act of overlooking an offense.   This is not easy: taking offense occurs when the words or actions of another person seem to demean, or take for granted, or even ridicule something that is close to one’s sense of self.  The choice to overlook the offense requires a deep belief that one’s true value is not affected by these words or deeds of the other person.  It is not wrong to defend oneself, but – says the proverb – it is larger still to be able to rise above it.

Does this mean that all bad behavior should simply be overlooked? No!

A man of great wrath will pay the penalty;
for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again.
(Proverbs 19:19)

When the problem moves from a person who gives offense to a person of unbounded rage – whether in physical abuse or violent words – the response also shifts.  The proverb refers to a person who is identified as an angry person, one for whom violence and argument are a constant in life.  The proverb says: let him suffer the penalty immediately.  In fact, we’re advised against overlooking the problem: with this kind of person, if you let him go (another translation says, “if you rescue him”) the violent actions will happen again, and  you’ll just have to deal with it all over again.

There is a solid balance here – humility in the face of things that offend one’s (perhaps inflated) sense of self-worth, robust justice when others threaten one’s safety and peace.

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