Like an infected tooth
or an unsteady foot
is dependence on a faithless man
in time of trouble.
Chapter 25 begins a new collection of Proverbs – something I instantly noted from the flood of vivid similes. None was more memorable than the infected tooth – and the unsteady foot. I winced, remembering how quickly I stopped chewing when a tooth broke, and tried to catch myself after a misstep. Both caught me by surprise. I was fine one moment, but in the next had fallen prey to a vulnerability I did not know I had.
What does the proverb try to teach us? Solomon is advocating a pragmatic wariness: keep an eye on someone’s track record before betting on their stability. Only rely on a person to the extent that their previous actions support. And – perhaps – be prepared to stop in your tracks if you’ve depended on someone who lets you down.
What a contrast to the stereotype of a religious person as someone who, in caring for the good of the other, never watches out for her own good. The proverb, though, is right on target. Christianity – and most religions of the world – call people to be generous, kind, forgiving – but to do so with knowledge, by choice, as an act of the will.
Steadiness is a learned character trait, although some seem to learn more easily than others. Keeping faith with a friendship, a project, a commitment requires the constant use of a variety of interpersonal skills. We don’t seem to do a good job of teaching anymore – employers report that many college graduates don’t make good employees because they have not learned how to be a steady and dependable worker. Many of the proverbs name and promote the skills that build that kind of character.
If can only be as reliable as the least steady link in my chain of relationships. This proverb, which at first glance seemed to tell us to look out for our own good, is also placing one relationship into the context of many.
Do we castigate or ridicule this unsteady foot, or call him an infected tooth? Probably nothing so direct! But perhaps our words, while not filled with anger, may still awaken and strengthen this unsteady one.
Like the clouds and wind when no rain follows
is the man who boastfully promises what he never gives.
By patience is a ruler persuaded,
and a soft tongue will break a bone.