Proverbs 18:16 says, “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.”
This verse is typically interpreted to mean that we should be faithful to use the gifts that God has given us and that as we use them our faith will be strengthened. However, a closer look at the context yields a very different lesson.
Addressing the Court
Much of the book of Proverbs is comprised of seemingly disparate sayings. There is usually not a common theme in each chapter; the wisdom seems to jump from one topic to another freely and without context. However, some sayings are grouped together and should be understood as a cohesive unit. So, in order to better understand Proverbs 18:16, we must view in the larger context of verse 15-19.
“The heart of the prudent getteth knowledge; and the ear of the wise seeketh knowledge. A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men. He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him. The lot causeth contentions to cease, and parteth between the mighty. A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.”
The imagery of a courtroom is strongly evoked here, and the author is concerned with presenting a picture of justice or the perversion thereof. A wise and intelligent person should seek the truth in a situation, but if you offer an illicit gift (or bribe), it can pervert that justice. It goes on to describe a cross-examination that effectively dismantles the argument made in the initial statement, and such confusion can even lead to a decision left to chance (casting the lot). This can cause deep dissension between even close friends (brothers), and can permanently damage relationships.
What Can Your Gift Do?
So we can see from a more thorough reading that this is not an encouragement to use our gifts for good, but a sad commentary on how people can use their gifts or possessions for evil. Verse 16 describes our gifts “making room for us,” clearly portraying a bribe in order to get what we want.
How often do we see injustice occur in the world because the rich and powerful pay someone to look the other way? Organized crime, terrorists, dictators, and many others have used money and power to force others into doing what they want. It is said that every man has a price: once that price is determined, the powerful will gladly pay it in order to protect their own interests.
This kind of victimization can also apply to the poor or the downtrodden as well. If a poor person falls prey to a much more powerful lender, the lender can request an additional payment on top of the original terms for “protection” against harm. Such criminals deliberately take advantage of those without means, but the victims have little choice but to pay in order to keep their own lives secure. It can seem that bribery is the only way to accomplish anything.
However, bribery is no more than a perversion of justice. Offering a bribe is tantamount to saying, “I know that I am in the wrong, but I want to avoid my just punishment. I will give you a gift of something you want if you are willing to help me get something that I want. This payment will benefit you, and I’ll also get what I want.”
How Do We Combat Injustice?
Fighting for truth can seem like a losing battle. Everywhere we turn, people want to abandon goodness and justice in order to save their own skins or to promote their own agendas. Their gifts make room for themselves by shoving others into the darkness.
The remedy is both personal and collective. Each of us individually must never give in to accepting bribes, no matter how lucrative. It may seem like a small thing at the time, but we are selling ourselves out and showing those with power that they can do it again in the future. By taking a stand, we forbid darkness to take any further hold on us, and we show that we choose to let justice win the day. We must band together in this effort, and only through our unity will the darkness be defeated.
However, this unified belief must not simply be placed in justice alone. It must always focus on God as the ultimate arbiter of justice and the source of right and wrong. When we yield to God’s design for the universe, true justice must always be a part of that. This means that we turn away from those who just want to line our pockets or offer us a temporary benefit that goes against God’s purpose for the victimized and oppressed.
How to Move Forward
This battle can be difficult, but we must draw on the strength of God to endure it. Remain faithful in prayer and seek strength and solace in His Word, and we will always be able to withstand attacks from the enemy.
Also, we must be willing to offer forgiveness even if we sustain the loss. Jesus modeled this by His death on the cross for our sins – taking a punishment He did not deserve, and could have escaped if He had accepted the easier path. We must follow His example and forgive others even if they do not deserve it.
We should also be quick to extend grace to those that turn from wickedness and choose to seek after the things of God. We are commanded to bear fruit in keeping in repentance; when someone does that, we should accept their testimony and welcome them as a brother or sister in Christ. This brings love into a broken relationship and can help them see the truest nature of the God of justice and forgiveness.
Expert Overview of Proverbs
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.