“As in water face reflects face, So a man’s heart reveals the man.” (Pr. 27:19)
The creation narrative sets something of a tone for two different uses of the word “man.” Peter Leithart has pointed this out, and I think he said he got it from Jim Jordan. (But I went back and checked, and it’s true.) In the Genesis story, the man is called Adam all the way up to when the woman is created. At the creation of woman (ishah) man is suddenly called ish (Gen. 2:23). And thereafter, the next couple of contexts for ish are usually in the context of marriage (2:24, 3:6, 3:16, 4:1). Thereafter, the distinction is not quite so obvious, but here in a highly poetic context in Proverbs, it’s interesting to note the different uses.
So far, in Proverbs 27, man has been referred to as ‘ish’ but here in 27:19, he is called ‘adam’ (also in 27:20). Thus far much of the emphasis has been on man and his neighbors, friends, and his wife (27:8, 17, 21). The switch to ‘adam’ suggests perhaps two things: first, that the concern here is with mankind in general and not man as male per se (cf. Gen. 1:27). Second, perhaps the emphasis is on our relationship to God or our standing in creation before God. Notice that here we have “water to water” and the in the following verse (also adam) we have ‘sheol’ (the grave) and ‘abaddon’ (lost/destruction). There’s something of a cosmic scope in view in these two verses.
We should recall that the idea of “reflecting” and “revealing” goes back to the creation narrative. Adam was created in the image and likeness of God, to reflect and reveal his Creator. Our actions are always a faithful and unfaithful reflection of the face of God. Creation too displays the glory of God (Ps. 19), and it displays His Godhead and attributes (Rom. 1). The second day of creation even sets up something of a structural reflection in the “waters above” and the “waters below,” inviting us to already wonder about earth reflecting/revealing the glory of heaven.
We should also note the parallel to Js. 1:23: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror, for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.”
In Pr. 27:19, we might ask, how do we see the heart of man? Is this just something reflexive? Do we meditate on our own hearts and evaluate? Or is this something more objective, something people and neighbors can see? Note that 27:21 suggests the latter.
“Hell and Destruction are never full; So the eyes of man are never satisfied.” (27:20)
Taking these two verses together, the general appraisal of adam is negative. He’s grasping, hungry, greedy, and full of lust for more. This also suggests that “man’s heart” is reflected in creation broadly. This fits with the curses on sin, that creation will be infected with sin and death. Romans 8 says that creation groans with eager expectation looking forward to the redemption of the sons of God.
The word for destruction avadon is usually used to describe things which are lost (Ex. 22:8, Lev. 5:22-23, Dt. 22:3). We might paraphrase this by saying that the “As cemeteries and the lost and found are never empty…” The root verb means to destroy.
The eyes are organs of judgment and evaluation. Think again of Adam and Eve who “saw” the fruit and evaluated it as good for food and for making one wise.
Literally, the comparison has to do with hunger. Graves, destruction, and eyes are never full; they’re always hungry.
On the flip side, if this does go back to the Fall and sin in general, then part of our salvation is satisfaction and contentment. And perhaps this is something of what Jesus is getting at when he says that he will water which will cause us to never thirst again (Jn. 4:14). Whoever comes to Jesus will not hunger or thirst (Jn. 6:35).
“The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, And a man is valued by what others say of him.” (27:21)
Here “man” is ‘ish’ again, and here we have a natural image of how people effect one another. Here’s an example of how creation teaches us about people.
We can take this proverb in several possible ways:
1. If the parallel is on “refining” then the emphasis may be on the man who is talked about. He is refined perhaps as he takes criticism and correction.
2. Literally, it says “A smelting pot for silver and a furnace for gold, and a man for a mouth of praising.” This may suggest that a man is refined by his own mouth, that is, who and what he praises.
3. If the emphasis is on value – these are processes of testing precious metals for purity – then the point taking either 1 or 2 above has more to do with revealing “man’s heart) (cf. 27:19) either through the praise he receives from others or the praise he himself gives.
“Though you grind a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, Yet his foolishness will not depart from him.” (27:22)
Here we have another natural sort of image. You can refine or process lots of things in nature, but there are some kinds of fools that will not change. If you crush grapes they can be used to produce wine; crush olives and you can produce oil; crush wheat and you can produce flour. But there are some kinds of fools that will not produce any good.
This can serve as a conclusion to the last few proverbs where evaluation, testing, and proving are themes. Here, the point is that you can only test and prove for so long. If there’s nothing good coming from the man then don’t think you can bring something out of nothing.
Of course we should remember that this is our condition apart from Christ. We are hopeless fools who cannot produce any good. Only the grace of God can transform fools into anything good.
This also comes as a concluding thought to this entire section. The emphasis has been on relationships, friends, family, and neighbors, and warnings concerning fools.