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Good Neighbors, Good Fences, and the Gospel

Wisdom and loving your neighbor

Proverbs 3:27-30

27  Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
When it is in the power of your hand to do so.

28  Do not say to your neighbor,
“Go, and come back,
And tomorrow I will give it,”
When you have it with you.

29 Do not devise evil against your neighbor,
For he dwells by you for safety’s sake. 

30  Do not strive with a man without cause,
If he has done you no harm.


Are you a good neighbor? Of course you are. You do not play your music late at night, clean up your garbage bins and generally mind your own business.  After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Love your neighbor: yet don’t pull down your hedge.”

This is a bit of droll, tongue-in-cheek observation from “Poor Richard’s Almanack” but it is a proverb of sorts, speaking of how well-defined boundaries help keep most people nice-mannered toward one another. 

Robert Frost, another New Englander, ponders such wisdom in his poem “Mending Wall.” Here, he describes the spring ritual where he and his neighbor meet at the old stone wall that borders their farms. Together, they walk on opposite sides, lifting fallen stones and making needed repairs. As they do so, he wonders why a wall is even needed: 

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’–Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

But is this really what makes good neighbors? Good fences? More importantly, what does this have to do with Proverbs 3? Here, Solomon is continuing in his instruction of wisdom to the sons and daughters of Israel and revealing what Tim Keller calls the “marks of wisdom.” This, the sixth mark of wisdom is doing justice, or more accurately, loving your neighbor. 

There is wisdom in respecting private property and boundary rights, but as a believer you know that Jesus means much more than keeping your dog and your kids in your yard when He commands in Matthew 22:

37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”–Matthew 22:37-40

How is loving your neighbor a mark of wisdom? It is because the you that relate to those nearest you–or those who are in need and within range of your assistance–can reveal most what is in your heart. 

If you are wise, you will use your wisdom as a blessing to your neighbors–not simply to avoid petty squabbles or mind your own affairs, but to be prepared to give of yourself and of your worldly goods when they are in need:

27  Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
When it is in the power of your hand to do so.–Proverbs 3:27

Solomon is packing this passage with two quatrains to teach not to withhold immediate good from a neighbor (vs 27-28) and not to actively seek to harm them in any way (vs 29-30). Commentator Bruce Waltke says that the definition of “good” here is more than well wishes it can be defined as “tangible good”: money, justice and aid.

Some interpretations of these passages suggest that this is a call for “social justice.” This is a politically charged term in the west, but the idea is that you are called to provide to your neighbor what is due to him. 

What is due to him may be much, much more than simply offering words of sympathy or encouragement. 

Think of your neighbor for a moment, and of your own worldly goods. Can you share with him without reservation? This can be difficult. Suppose a neighbor has suffered some tragedy–a death in the family or recent loss of employment. How often have you been checked from assisting in some physical or monetary way because their car or home may be nicer than yours?  

Despite His many teachings and discussions on wealth, there is no class warfare with Christ.  A “rich man” may find it difficult to enter heaven (Matthew 19:24) but it because of his heart, not his financial holdings. The widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4) reveals that it was the desire to give that was in her heart that showed where her true wealth lay.

So what must you give? You give what and when,  “…it is in the power of your hand to do so.” In other words, you cannot give what is not yours, or more than you have–but you must be willing to give of what you have been given. Tim Keller says:

If you have things your neighbor doesn’t have, share with them, because he or she has a right to the part of the world over which God has made you a temporary steward.–Tim Keller, “God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life”

Do you think of your own possessions, talents, and spiritual gifts as something over which God has granted you temporarily? It is easy to think of all you have worked for or developed in yourself over a lifetime as something wholly yours–and forget the author of “every good and perfect gift” you have (James 1:17). 

This is so important that even the great Irish missionary, St. Columba made it a rule of his order: 

17. Your manual labor should have a three-fold division. First, fill your own needs and those of the place where you live. Secondly, do your share of your brothers work (or the work of the community). Thirdly, help your neighbors by instruction, by writing, by making garments, or by providing for any other need of theirs that may arise.  As the Lord says, "No one should come before me empty-handed.”–Rule of Columbanus

How do you provide justice to your neighbor? There is an explicit instruction in verse 27 “not to withhold” what is due. This is further defined in verse 28:

 28  Do not say to your neighbor,
“Go, and come back,
And tomorrow I will give it,”
When you have it with you.–Proverbs 3:28

Now this is some kind of behavior here. Solomon is calling out the heart and its desire for power over others–and the petty things that are done to maintain it. There were specific rules in the Old Testament law referring to things like this:

13 ‘You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning.–Leviticus 19:13

This is not only instruction for you to pay what you owe or to pitch in and help when needed, it is a call not to be lazy, idle. Prompt giving is a double blessing, according to ancient wisdom:

He gives twice, who gives quickly.–Publius Syrus

 You also cannot withhold giving by simply assuming that someone else will do it. This is a point of several of Jesus’s parables, including the Good Samaritan:

29 But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” –Luke 10:29

Jesus shares a story of the waylaying of an innocent man and the “good” people who avoided responsibility of helping him. Finally, the Samaritan, who could have easily avoided doing so, gave of himself to give comfort and life:

35 On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 36 So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”–Luke 10:35-36

Chances are you are not the type of person who will actively seek to withhold help or to act maliciously–but certainly the temptation is there at times, is it not? One of the most common ways that goods or even justice is withheld is in the form of gossip. It takes two to gossip: one to tell it and one to hear it. If people are quick to share gossip with you, ask yourself why:

Don’t tell me what they said about me. Tell me why they were so comfortable to say it to you.–Denzel Washington

Gossip can rob reputations, destroy lives and divide the church. Can you provide justice in the form of living so much by the truth that gossip can have no power to hurt others through you? Not only are you not to withhold worldly goods from your neighbor, you are not to withhold the truth to them–or about them–when it is needed most.

To be wise then, is to recognize the potential of the power of your possessions as well as the power of the truth you know. When you give these of your heart to your neighbor, you avoid the further warnings Solomon gives in verses 29-30:

29 Do not devise evil against your neighbor,
For he dwells by you for safety’s sake. 

30  Do not strive with a man without cause,
If he has done you no harm.–Proverbs 29-30

People can easily, and thoughtlessly be mean to one another. Here, the instruction of wisdom shifts from passively hurting others to actively hurting a neighbor who trusts you–who “dwells by you for safety’s sake.” 

If you are wondering why Solomon would even feel the need to say something like this, bear in mind that when you take the steps to withhold justice, financial aid or even goodwill from your neighbor, it can be an easy transition to actively hurting them. 

When Jesus calls you to love your neighbor as yourself, He is sharing the Father’s wisdom here in Proverbs. In doing this you are doing more than “social justice” or lending a hand, you are being Christ to those in need. For as Paul encourages Timothy:

18 Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, 19 storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.–I Timothy 6:18-19

Can you do this? Can you be wise to see that what you own, have been given, or even who you are does not belong to you, but is to be given in service to God? In the words of C.S. Lewis: 

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.–C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”

With this mind which is the same as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself and became nothing (Philippians 2), you will learn to love even the most unlovable neighbor. In this is the wisdom of God.


The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.



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