Proverbs 20:11

Legend: “PN:” = “Personal Note”

Proverbs 20:11 reads in the KJV,

Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.

But translations can differ widely in their rendering of this verse.

It seems like the NET and HCSB are safe in rendering נער (“child” in the KJV) if you look at how the word is used not just in Proverbs but in the rest of the Bible—though the word has an even broader range (from baby Moses to 13-year-old Ishmael to 17-year-old Joseph and beyond):

NET Even a young man is known by his actions, whether his activity is pure and whether it is right.

CSB Even a young man is known by his actions—by whether his behavior is pure and upright.

Waltke (NICOT) takes a view which lands him in the distinct minority, judging by the dozens of translations in various languages which agree instead with the KJV! The JPS Tanakh comes closest to his view: “A child may be dissembling in his behavior Even though his actions are blameless and proper.”

He argues that the traditional translation “fails”:

  • It does not account well for the גם (“even”). PN: But couldn’t I write “Even by his deeds a young man is known”?
  • It makes “deeds” neutral despite that word’s negative connotation everywhere else in Scripture. PN: But Waltke’s just not correct here. In a quick search I found two places in the psalms where the word refers to God’s deeds! And though the word is assumed to be negative in some of the verses I checked, more frequently it is collocated with רעה (“evil”), as in “the evil of their deeds.”
  • It makes yitnakker a reflexive of the Hiphil, not the Piel. PN: I think I have to buy this argument. It appears to match what Holladay and BibleWorks say about the parsing and meaning.
  • You would expect, “Whether it be pure or whether it be evil,” not “Whether it be pure or whether it be right.” PN: No, see Steveson’s cross reference to Josh 22:22.

WBC comments on the JPS Tanakh option but doesn’t argue for a particular rendering.

Garrett (NAC) is trenchant:

The translation of v. 11 is not altogether clear, but the thrust of the verse is conspicuous. Conduct is the best proof of character in a child. Certainly no child who says, “I am well behaved” will find his or her words taken at face value. People will evaluate the child by how he or she behaves. The implication is that appearances and words can be deceiving; behavior is a better criterion of judgment.

A footnote mentions that גם can mean “even” as an intensifier (like και) so “It is mainly his doings that distinguish a child” is best.

Keil & Delitzsch entertain the possibility that the TNK is right, but they dismiss that rendering as untrue to experience.

Steveson (BJUP) brings up a helpful point: Josh 22:22 uses the …אם…אם (if… if…) construction without implying contrast. He also says גם applies to the whole sentence, giving it all emphasis. I’m still just not following that, though. He gives no example.

Matthew Henry ends up taking it as the opposite from what the TNK does:

Children will discover themselves. One may soon see what their temper is, and which way their inclination leads them, according as their constitution is. Children have not learned the art of dissembling and concealing their bent as grown people have.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary sees the verse as saying that you can’t just listen to a child’s words; you have to watch how he acts.

So…

So… You dig through all your exegesis, looking at the text first, the lexical and grammatical helps next, your most Hebrew-intensive commentators next, and your other commentators last, just to see what their sense was.

And you come to… and you come to… some hard choices you don’t have the capacity to make. You understand the commentators’ reasoning (as far as it is possible to understand them when sometimes they are just a bit muddleheaded), but no one really seems to nail it. Garrett at least doesn’t pretend that the answer is easy. He aims for the gist. I like that.

The best I can do is “Even by his deeds an adolescent dissembles; so is his work pure or right?”

But if nothing really satisfies, you have to save your notes and table it till a later time. Lord willing you’ve already asked for illumination. Ask again and table it. Who knows what insight the Lord may later provide. And remember that Peter through inspiration admitted that some parts of the Scripture (he named Paul’s writings) are “hard to be understood.” Clarity is “hard-won” sometimes. May God let me win clarity on this verse in the future!

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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