“A false witness will perish, but the word of a man who hears will endure.” – Proverbs 21:28
Wisdom and proverbial sayings, they have a way of turning a phrase. A proverb gives you something pithy, but also something a little enigmatic. The phrase of wisdom is a little bit arresting. It’s not quite what you expected. Oftentimes proverbs pair together ideas that are striking because of the way they don’t seem to fit.
“A false witness will perish.” We can understand that. It doesn’t pay to lie. If you misrepresent reality, you will pay the price. The truth has a way of coming out. All these things are familiar. Not unworthy of reflection, but a bit trite.
The contrast in the above proverb is what should catch our attention. We expect a saying to work like an equation, for the back side to balance the front side. If a false witness perishes, the man of truth will endure. That’s what we would expect. But we find a double replacement. It’s not the honest man who endures, it’s his word. Secondly, the false witness is not contrasted to an honest man, but rather a man who hears.
What is the point of these unexpected twists? What are we to learn? First of all, what endures, in an eternal way, is your word. The things you say, the words you speak will, in a sense, outlast you. Our words carry the essence of the eternal in a way that our bodies do not. What we say tends toward building up and creating life, or it tends toward the destruction of ourselves and others. If you want to endure, it really means, for the realist, that you want your words to endure. We want our words to carry meaning, and to continue to shape other people’s lives long after we are gone. When we remember someone who has passed away, we can remember them in stories. But those stories tend to only be as vivid as the words which hold the story together. Visual scenes and impressions of memory fade faster than words.
Second thing we are to learn is that the character of a false witness is contrasted not directly to a man of truth, but to a man who hears. It begs the question: “Hears what?” We can fill in the answer in a generic sense: hears reality, hears truth. In one sense, the idea of hearing means that you are humbly turned outward. You want to know and face reality. You hunger to genuinely hear and learn from others, not merely impose the meanings and truths which are most convenient for you. But of course, in Scripture, there is always the deeper spiritual meaning. To hear means to hear the words of Scripture itself. To hear the words of Christ.
A man who hears is one whose ears are open to God’s Word, who wishes to be shaped by what the Bible has to say about life and reality. The man who hears is Mary, who chooses the better portion. She sits at the feet of Jesus, because she knows that is where life is. She wants her life to be shaped by what God has to say, and she is listening for that. And when you hear from Scripture, you also become a man or woman whose own words endure, because you will be speaking from the one true source of life.