2 Divine omniscience. The Lord alone can evaluate our behavior because he knows our motives. The proverb is arranged in antithetical parallelism to express the only true evaluation of moral behavior. People may seem “innocent” (zak) in their own estimation, but self-deception and rationalization make this estimation unreliable. The word zak (GK 2341) is used for pure oils, undiluted liquids; here it signifies unmixed actions. The proverb suggests that such a premature opinion of oneself is naive at best and smug at the worst.
The person may be far from pure when the Lord weighs the motives (tōkēn rûḥôt). The figure of “weighing” signifies evaluation (see Ex 5:8 [“require”]; 1 Sa 2:3; Pr 21:2; 24:12; cf. 1 Sa 16:7). There may be a faint allusion to the Egyptian belief of weighing the heart after death to determine righteousness. The word rûḥôt is a metonymy for the motives, as in Proverbs 21:2 and 24:12 (where it is parallel to “heart”). The conclusion of the matter is that we deceive ourselves so easily and therefore cannot fully evaluate ourselves. God, by his Spirit and through his Word, provides the penetrating evaluation.
2 Verse 2 continues the theme of the Lord’s rule over human initative. It is linked with verse 1 by the catchword “Lord” in their B versets and by the synonyms both the total person, “human being” and “person,” in their A versets and for their inner person, “heart” and “motives,” in their B versets. The Lord evaluates (2b) the “plans” of the human heart (1a). Since people justify “all their actions” and the Lord evaluates according to truth, conflicts of assessment will arise (cf. 14:12; 15:3, 11; 21:2; 24:12). When a person becomes aware of his impurity, however, he should confess it and so obtain mercy (28:18). All (see 15:15) the ways (darkê, see 1:15) of a person (ʾish, see 6:12; 8:4; 12:2) are pure (zak) in his own eyes (i.e., in his deluded opinion, see 3:7; cf. Job 11:4; 16:7; 33:9; cf. Jer. 17:9). Zak signifies “pure” in its four references to the cult: of olive oil (Exod. 27:20; Lev. 24:2) and of incense (Exod. 30:3; Lev. 24:7). In its seven uses in the wisdom literature it refers to ethical purity and is sometimes used in association with yāšār “upright” (cf. Prov. 20:11; 21:2, 8; cf. Job 8:6). But the Lord (see 16:1) is the one who evaluates (tōkēn). Tkn means “to measure,” “to determine the amount, weight, etc.,” “to gauge” (i.e., “to estimate a thing by comparing it with standard”). The metaphor is derived from an ancient Egyptian belief that a person’s heart is weighed against Truth after death.39 Motives (rûḥôt, lit. “spirits” see p. I:92; cf. “heart” in 21:2) may have been chosen to create the paradox, “he weights winds/spirits” (i.e., the “dynamic vitality” that moves a person, a synecdoche for a person’s disposition (Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Eccl. 7:8, 9), inner life (Job 7:4 Ps 78:8) including his opinions or desires (cf. Ezek. 13:3), mind (Ps. 77:6), will (cf. Prov. 16:32), and motives (cf. 2 Chr 36:22). The plural, paralleling “ways,” denotes that the complex patterns of behavior depend on complex motives. The disciple should evaluate his motives and conduct against God’s revealed standards and not absolutize his own estimation of them (cf. 12:15a; cf. 14:12 [= 16:25]). Nevertheless, since the final verdict as to their purity belongs to the Lord, not the doer, the disciple must not praise himself or decide his reward beforehand. The best he can do is to commit all he does to the Lord and depend upon God to make his motives and ways pleasing to God (16:3, 7; cf. Ps. 19:12; 139:23–24; 1 Cor. 4:5–6; Heb. 4:12–13). Moreover, if a person cannot judge his own motives, how much more should he not judge others (Matt 7:1)?
16:2. All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the Lord weighs the motives.
This antithetical proverb continues the theme of the sovereignty of God over the ways of men. Here the inward ‘plans’ (v. 1) of a man have become his outward actions (‘ways’). The point of the proverb is that God is far better positioned to make a true judgment as to our motives than we are. Even the wisest are capable of self-deception.
The natural human tendency is to justify one’s self. Thus, Proverbs often speaks of one’s ability to rationalize (Prov. 12:15; 14:12; 16:25). We tend to see our ways as ‘clean.’ The word is used elsewhere to describe undiluted oils or liquids. We look at ourselves and see unalloyed motives. The ultimate answer to our subjective self-examination is constant awareness of God’s objective test of our motives (Prov. 17:3; 21:2; 1 Sam. 16:7). ‘If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?’ (Prov. 24:12).
Are we left to wonder about God’s evaluation until we stand before Him? No, the word of God is His tool to examine and weigh us even now (Heb. 4:12–13). We would be wise to humble ourselves before God and ask for Him to expose to us, through His word, that which He sees about us that we may be missing (Ps. 139:23–24). Yet, any final evaluation must await the last day! Paul declared ‘I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord’ (1 Cor. 4:4). He said, ultimately, ‘I do not even examine myself’ (1 Cor. 4:3b). This, of course, does not mean he did as he pleased, without thinking about it, but that any personal evaluation he made of his own motives and actions was only preliminary. The ultimate judgment is not by self or others, but the Lord—‘Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God’ (1 Cor. 4:5).
16:2. Human beings have an almost unlimited capacity to justify and rationalize anything they do, but such evaluations are superficial. “Deeper within lies the spirit and the heart, and God sees into them (15:11), even when a man can not or will not do so himself (1Sm 16:7b)” (Fox, Proverbs 10–31, 608). So the Lord weighs people’s motives, or more literally, their “spirits,” which includes but is not limited to motives. The weighing imagery likely reflects “an ancient Egyptian belief that a person’s heart is weighed against truth after death” (Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31, NICOT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005], 10). God alone is true evaluator of human action, a reality that the wise recognize (cf. 1Co 4:4).
16:2 / Antithetic. Several sayings are similar: 3:7; 14:12; 21:2; see also Jer. 17:10. Human and divine judgment are contrasted. All (v. 2a) is either a deliberate exaggeration or should be understood as a concession: “even if all …” Self-deception is a possibility—but not with God.
Ver. 2. All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes.—False judgments:—
The best causuits have decided the point that a good intention cannot sanctify an immoral act; but it is certain that an indirect or evil intention will sully the best performances. Here is indicated the false judgment of man. All his ways are censured by intimation: the best of them are not truly right and genuine, if we should refer them to the judgment of God. One would think he were secure, if his heart stand but right; but alas! by degrees it will be corrupted and brought into the deception. It often deceives the owner himself in the estimate of his ways. To walk wisely, which means, to walk virtuously and religiously, we must have a truer measure than the partial complacence of our own hearts. Let us examine our ways—
- In respect to our sins. Sin hath been so great a familiar in our conversations, that in some degree it hath got our approbation, or at least our favourable connivance. We can, by habit, appease and quiet conscience. What we tremble at in our youth, by custom and usage we are more hardy in. Some sins committed long ago are forgotten by us, or have lessened in our sentiments of their guilt. Difference in quality, and the several ways of men’s living, varies their sentiments of some sins. We often bear a civility and preference to some sins above others, and think ourselves all the while very clean. Our tempers and constitutions sometimes are of that happy frame as to have a natural aversion to some sins; but that cleanliness is not thankworthy if we can more glibly swallow down those that are more palatable. Partiality towards our sins is a most notorious deceitfulness. To retain some as favourites is a certain corruption in the government of ourselves. A sin that lies brooding in the thoughts and cannot come out into act for want of opportunity, or dare not venture out for fear of shame or present punishment, is notwithstanding a great uncleanness. A habit or course of lesser evils, or neglects, amounts to greater guilt than one single lapse or fall, though into some great transgression. Yet we are apt to pass over the habitual nncleanness.
- A more refined degree of purity and cleanliness we assume to ourselves, from that little practice of religion we carry on, and much depend upon. Bare believing and professing goes a long way. In our devotions we may confide in our addresses to God in prayer. We had best be careful in this matter, lest our very prayers rise up in judgment against us. Searchingly estimate our charity. Take the duty of repentance. We deceive ourselves when we have only cast ourselves into the figure of a penitent, and appeared so in our face, our speech, our gesture. Or we may lay great stress on our frequent confessions. Or may put a greater weight of humiliation upon some sins that have galled us than upon others that, though more heinous, have sat more easy upon us. The dilatory ways we have of putting off this duty of repentance is a slighting negligence. (J. Cooke, M.A.)
What I think of myself and what God thinks of me:—
“All the ways of a man”—then is there no such thing as being conscious of having gone wrong? Of course there is, and equally of course a broad statement such as this of my text is not to be pressed into literal accuracy, but is a simple general assertion of what we all know to be true, that we have a strange power of blinding ourselves as to what is wrong in ourselves and in our actions. But what is it that God weighs? “The spirits.” We too often content ourselves with looking at our ways; God looks at ourselves. He takes the inner man into account, estimates actions by motives, and so very often differs from our judgment of ourselves, and of one another.
- Our strange power of blinding ourselves. “All the ways of a man are right in his own eyes.”
- For, to begin with, we all know that there is nothing that we so habitually neglect as the bringing of conscience to bear right through all our lives. Sometimes it is because there is a temptation that appeals very strongly to some strong inclination which has been strengthened by indulgence. And when the craving arises, that is no time to begin asking, “Is it right or is it wrong to yield?” That question stands small chance of being wisely considered at a moment when, under the goading of roused desire, a man is like a mad bull when it charges. It drops its head and shuts its eyes, and goes right forward, and no matter whether it smashes its horns against an iron gate, and damages them and itself, or not, on it will go But in regard to the smaller commonplace matters of daily life, too, we all know that there are whole regions of our lives which seem to us to be so small that it is hardly worth while summoning the august thought of “right or wrong?” to decide them. It is the trifles of life that shape life, and it is to them that we so frequently fail in applying, honestly and rigidly, the test, “Is this right or wrong?” Get the habit of bringing conscience to bear on little things, or you will never be able to bring it to bear when great temptations come and the crises emerge in your lives. Thus, by reason of that deficiency in the habitual application of conscience to our lives, we slide through, and take for granted that all our ways are right in our eyes.
- Then there is another thing: we not only neglect the rigid application of conscience to all our lives, but we have a double standard, and the notion of right and wrong which we apply to our neighbours is very different from that which we apply to ourselves. “All the ways of a man are right in his own eyes,” but the very same “ways” that you allow to pass muster and condone in yourselves, you visit with sharp and unfailing censure in others.
- Then there is another thing to be remembered, and that is—the enormous and the tragical influence of habit in dulling the mirror of our souls, on which our deeds are reflected in their true image. What we are accustomed to do we scarcely ever recognise to be wrong, and it is these things which pass because they are habitual that do more to wreck lives than occasional outbursts of far worse evils, according to the world’s estimate of them. Habit dulls the eye.
- Yes; and more than that, the conscience needs educating just as much as any other faculty. A man says, “My conscience acquits me”; then the question is, “And what sort of a conscience have you got, if it acquits you?” “I thought within myself that I verily ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” “They think that they do God service.” Many things that seem to us virtues are vices. And as for the individual so for the community. The perception of what is right and what is wrong needs long educating. When I was a boy the whole Christian Church of America, with one voice, declared that “slavery was a patriarchal institution appointed by God.”
- The Divine estimate. I have already pointed out the two emphatic thoughts that lie in that clause, “God weigheth,” and “weigheth the spirits.” God weighs the spirits.” He reads what we do by His knowledge of what we are. We reveal to one another what we are by what we do, and, as is a commonplace, none of us can penetrate, except very superficially and often inaccurately, to the motives that actuate.
III. The practical issues of these thoughts. “Commit thy works unto the Lord”—that is to say, do not be too sure that you are right because you do not think you are wrong. We should be very distrustful of our own judgment of ourselves, especially when that judgment permits us to do certain things. “Happy is he that condemneth not himself in the things which he alloweth.” You may have made the glove too easy by stretching. Then, again, let us seek the Divine strengthening and illumination. Seek it by prayer. There is nothing so powerful in stripping off from our besetting sins their disguises and masks as to go to God with the honest petition: “Search me … and try me,” &c. We ought to keep ourselves in very close union with Jesus Christ, because if we cling to Him in simple faith. He will come into our hearts, and we shall be saved from walking in darkness, and have the light of life shining down upon our deeds. Christ is the conscience of the Christian man’s conscience. We must punctiliously obey every dictate that speaks in our own consciences, especially when it urges us to unwelcome duties, or restrains us from too welcome sins. “To him that hath shall be given.” (A. Maclaren, D.D.)
Unsound spiritual trading:—
Unrecorded in the journals, and unmourned by unregenerate men, there are failures, and frauds, and bankruptcies of soul. Speculation is a spiritual vice as well as a commercial one—trading without capital is common in the religious world, and puffery and deception are every-day practices. The outer world is always the representative of the inner.
- The ways of the openly wicked. Can it be that these people are right in their own eyes? They who are best acquainted with mankind will tell you that self-righteousness is not the peculiar sin of the virtuous, but that it flourishes best where there appears to be the least soil for it. The worst of men conceive that they have some excellences and virtues which, if they do not quite atone for their faults, yet at any rate greatly diminish the measure of blame which should be awarded them.
- The ways of the Godless man. This man is often exceedingly upright and moral in his outward behaviour to his fellow-men. He has no religion, but he glories in a multitude of virtues of another kind. Many who have much that is amiable about them are nevertheless unamiable and unjust towards the one Being who ought to have the most of their love.
III. The ways of the outwardly religious.
- The ways of the covetous professor.
- The ways of the worldly professor.
- The ways of secure backsliders.
VII. The ways of the deceived man. There are many who will never find out that their ways, which they thought to be so clean, are all foul, until they enter upon another world. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
But the Lord weigheth the spirits.—God’s omniscience:—
Weighing and pondering denote the nicest exactness we can express. Argue the text—
- From the light of natural reason. We cannot have any rational idea of a God unless we attribute to Him the perfection of infinite knowledge. His power cannot be almighty if none be allowed Him to descend into our minds, and inspect our thoughts and imaginations. God’s immensity and omnipresence must admit Him into the hidden corners of our souls. The infinity of His justice and goodness will be brought into question, unless He be acknowledged to search the hearts of men. He must be able to judge the aggravations and extenuations of all that is evil.
- From the light of revelation. The tenor of all the laws of God through the Scriptures doth sufficiently confirm the truth of this doctrine, because no manner of obedience can be accepted with Him, but what must proceed from the integrity and sincerity of the heart, of which He alone can make the discovery. And there are likewise many express declarations of this high prerogative to rouse our consideration, and strike terror into our souls. The wisest heathen and philosophers have maintained that the prime and chiefest intimation and communication the Deity hath with men is with their hearts, and that the most acceptable service and devotion must therefore come from thence. (J. Cooke, M.A.)
Self-complacency and omniscience:—
- The self-complacency of sinners. “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes.” Saul of Tarsus is a striking example of this. He once rejoiced in virtues which he never had. Indeed all sinners think well of their own conduct. Why is this?
- He views himself in the light of society. He judges himself by the character of others.
- He is ignorant of the spirituality of God’s law.
- His conscience is in a state of dormancy. The eye of his conscience is not open to see the enormity of his sin.
- The searching omniscience of God. “The Lord weigheth the spirits.” This implies—
- The essence of the character is in the spirit. The sin of an action is not in the outward performance, but in the motive.
- This urges the duty of self-examination. “If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (D. Thomas, D.D.)
Misled by false principles of conscience:—
We never do evil so thoroughly and cordially as when we are led to it by a false principle of conscience. (J. Pascal.)
In the reign of King Charles I. the goldsmiths of London had a custom of weighing several sorts of their precious metals before the Privy Council. On this occasion they made use of scales poised with such exquisite nicety that the beam would turn, the master of the Company affirmed, at the two hundredth part of a grain. Nay, the famous Attorney-General replied, “I shall be loth, then, to have all my actions weighed in these scales.” “With whom I heartily concur,” says the pious Hervey, “in relation to myself; and since the balances of the sanctuary, the balances in God’s hand, are infinitely exact, oh! what need have we of the merit and righteousness of Christ, to make us acceptable in His sight, and passable in His esteem!”
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 Waltke, B. K. (2005). The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31 (pp. 10–11). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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 Finkbeiner, D. (2014). Proverbs. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 927). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Murphy, R. E., & Carm, O. (2012). Proverbs. In W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston (Eds.), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (p. 80). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Exell, J. S. (n.d.). Proverbs (pp. 409–411). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.