Proverbs 6 is one of those passages that illustrates how wonderfully practical this book is. The first part of the chapter deals with what to do when you find yourself caught up in bad debt. Solomon begins with a hypothetical situation: “My son, if thou be surety for thy friend, if thou hast stricken thy hand with a stranger…” (v. 1).
This hypothetical acknowledges the fact that even people who are purposely trying to live according to wisdom still “mess up.” It is Solomon’s hope that his son never runs afoul of his financial obligations, but he says to him: “In case you do, here’s what steps you need to take.”
We’re human. We’re finite. We are prone to error. We sin. Our character is revealed in how we deal with our failures.
First, we need to acknowledge the consequences of our actions for what they are: “Thou art snared with the words of thy mouth, thou art taken with the words of thy mouth” (v. 2).
In Old Testament times, a loan was signed simply by a hand shake. The Bible calls it the “striking of hands.” It was also common practice back then that when you applied for a loan, you brought a friend along to vouch for you. He would also shake hands on the deal and by that action “co-sign” the loan. In Solomon’s hypothetical, his son has vouched for a friend and now the friend has either defaulted, or is in danger of doing so. Now his son must face the reality that he is duty bound to take care of this debt because he gave his word. In dealing with any failure, it is important to identify it for what it is.
What is interesting in Solomon’s counsel is what he never says. He never advocates defaulting on the loan, skipping town, or declaring bankruptcy. For a believer, obligations, financial or otherwise, are moral obligations. They are not just obligations to others, they are a matter of testimony before God as well. Because of this, Solomon words to his son have a strong sense of urgency:
(3) Do this now, my son, and deliver thyself, when thou art come into the hand of thy friend; go, humble thyself, and make sure thy friend.
(4) Give not sleep to thine eyes, nor slumber to thine eyelids.
(5) Deliver thyself as a roe from the hand of the hunter, and as a bird from the hand of the fowler.
Do everything legally in your power to settle the obligation and do it quickly. If you can convince your friend to release you from your bond, do so. To put this in more modern terms, it would be like seeking to have the debt forgiven, or requesting better terms for paying it off. Then use all your energies to pay off whatever is left of the debt.
(6) Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
(7) Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
(8) Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
To illustrate both the sense of urgency and the need for diligence, Solomon exhorts the sluggard (a kind of fool) to “go to the ant.” In other words, “even ants know enough to prepare and they don’t even have someone telling them what to do!” These verses are often lifted (somewhat out of context) from this Proverb to speak against laziness, and it’s true that they do speak against that, but their context is in the matter of paying off debt, and we can broaden financial obligations to obligations in general. The fool is casual about his commitments, to the point of not caring. A wise person sees the moral component of his obligation to both God and man and takes them very seriously.
(9) How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?
(10) Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
(11) So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.
The sluggard loves sleep. (v. 9) It makes him careless about his duties in life. It makes him late for work. It makes him late for appointments, and it can eventually make him unemployed. Yet he always seems to have an excuse for sleeping. “Oh, it’s just a power nap” (v. 10)! Sooner or later, though, his money will run out and he won’t be able to afford to sleep (v. 11).
Solomon is urging his readers to avoid suretyship (easy credit, ill-advised loans, over extending oneself) in the first place. But he also acknowledges that people make mistakes. It’s why his hypothetical situation starts off with the bad financial decision already in place. We all make mistakes. But why use money to illustrate that we all make mistakes? Because our money and how we deal with it says a lot about our character. What do our checkbooks (or financial software) reveal about our priorities? And what do financial troubles reveal about our character? We all face setbacks, some through no fault of our own, and many of our own doing. Our character is revealed in how we deal with them.
On a personal note:
This article took me a while to write because it hit home with me. My wife and I have faced financial struggles together as well. Some of it came as a result of my wife’s health issues, but most of it came as a result of my immaturity in the matter of finances. God had to bring me pretty low to get me to see that first of all, I needed Him in every aspect of my life, and that second, my money was not my money, but His money and that my use of His money was a reflection of my stewardship. If you find yourself in financial straits right now, don’t despair! God will see you through it, if you will seek Him.