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Horn-Tooting, Back-Patting, and Grandstanding

Wisdom in boasting in the Lord

Proverbs 27:1-2

1 Do not boast about tomorrow,
For you do not know what a day may bring forth.

Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth;
A stranger, and not your own lips.


In 1948, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was born in the small fishing community of Pin Point, Georgia. The African-American settlement was made up primarily of “Gullah” people who were descendants of African slaves. The people of this rural suburb of Savannah made their living fishing and harvesting oysters from the expansive and bountiful tidal creeks and rivers that flowed past their homes. 

Justice Thomas remembers an honest, but simple life among good people. [For a fascinating personal account, check out his biographical documentary “Created Equal”] When Thomas is two years old, personal hardship strikes his family when his father leaves. Soon his mother moves him and his younger brother to a one-room apartment in a very poor Savannah neighborhood. Unable to care for her two boys, they are then sent across town to be raised by their grandfather. Thomas is only seven years old. In a recent interview, Clarence Thomas describes his childhood: 

My grandfather’s name was Myers Anderson. And it was a different way of life that he had worked hard to make possible. He built his house, a cinderblock house. He made the cinderblocks. And he was proud of that. It had a refrigerator, a deep freezer, a hot water heater—I had never seen any of these things in my life. It was wonderful. And then he taught me the connection between having these things and work. Everything he had, he showed me how to get it the honest way. One of my grandfather’s favorite sayings was, “Old Man Can’t is dead, I helped bury him.” I must have heard that a hundred times.

Thomas’s grandfather was “not a mean man, but he was a hard man.” He owned two delivery trucks, and delivered fuel oil and ice around the city of Savannah. He had two employees: Thomas and his little brother—and he taught them the meaning of good, honest work. Thomas’s grandfather was not a rich man, but he was frugal and industrious, and he hoped this would rub off on his two little grandsons. Thomas would need to go on and learn the reality of these lessons on his own—and after hard mistakes:

I went into the seminary at 16, intending to be a priest. During my last two years there, I was the only black student. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I am Roman Catholic today. But I got angry back in the 1960s. I turned my back on what I had been taught and I fell away from my faith. When I left the seminary my grandfather kicked me out of the house. So I’ve been on my own since I was 19. 

Although Clarence Thomas went on to become a successful attorney during a time of Jim Crow, Civil Rights and the turbulent 1960’s, it would be years before he would be able realize the true meaning of his grandfather’s instructions, and remember his own place in God’s plan. 

Like Thomas’s grandfather, Solomon seeks to share God’s wisdom with the young people of Israel. Two proverbs capture the essence of a good work ethic—and the proper perspective on human achievements:

1 Do not boast about tomorrow,
For you do not know what a day may bring forth.–Proverbs 27:1-2

The first two verses of chapter 27 form a couplet of proverbs that, on the surface, seem primarily concerned with boasting. The word for “boast” here is the Hebrew hallel (הַלֵּל) which means “to praise.” This is simple enough to be mindful of, for self-praise is almost universally looked down upon. 

There are even interesting slang phrases and terms for boasting: “tooting one’s own horn,” “patting oneself on the back,” and “grandstanding” all conjure up images of a self-absorbed person who brags about his or her own accomplishments to others. (Either that, or a picture of an oddly-talented one man band.)

The use of hallel in scripture is most often reserved for praise to the Lord, and it is found throughout the Psalms:

2 My soul shall make its boast in the Lord;
The humble shall hear of it and be glad.–Psalm 34:2 

The “Hallel Psalms” (Psalm 113-118) were songs of praise to I AM that were specifically sung during Passover, and would have been by Jesus and His disciples after the Last Supper and before they departed to the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30). But the Psalms also contain frequent warnings against boasting in evil:

1 Why do you boast in evil, O mighty man?
The goodness of God endures continually.–Psalm 52:1

With these songs filling his mind and heart, with many of them composed by his own father David, Solomon seeks to guide you to a proper understanding of boasting and praise. 

Verse 1 is a reminder not to boast about the future, for it does not belong to you. Do you feel compelled to plan and prepare things down to the minuscule degree in order to ensure success? 

This can be a commendable characteristic, and indeed good planning is can be a characteristic of someone bound for earthly “success.” However, where a little forethought and preparation goes a long way, over-planning can lead to unhealthy levels of stress, and overconfidence can lead to failure. As Tim Keller writes:

The overconfidence in one’s ability to control life is always haunted by the nagging sin of worry, just as the desire for power is dogged by anger, the fear of man by cowardice, and the lover of pleasure by boredom.–Tim Keller

You can plan and prepare for tomorrow, and be reasonably confident in your success, but it is impossible to have 100% assurance that you will prevail. This is because the future belongs to the Lord. As Solomon states elsewhere in his book of wisdom:

1 The preparations of the heart belong to man,
But the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.–Proverbs 16:1

Of course, careful planning is frequently prescribed in Proverbs as godly wisdom, but it must be done in the fear of I AM:

14 Where there is no counsel, the people fall;
But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.–Proverbs 11:14

Verse 2 completes Solomon’s caution against boasting as he moves not toward trying to control the future, to seeking to control others:

Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth;
A stranger, and not your own lips.–Proverbs 27:2

This verse takes the overconfidence of verse 1 and turns it inward to warn against self-praise. In the same vein that people despise a control freak or a person fearful of the future, people also abhor a braggart. As commentator Bruce Waltke describes: 

Self-praise destroys a person’s relationship with God and with people. I AM detests the proud, and people dislike a boaster.–Bruce Waltke, “Proverbs”

Thus, in this passage, Solomon is reminding you of the importance of relationships. Why does one boast or brag? It can most often be from a fear of man. A braggart can seek to tear down others to build up himself, but frequently it is because he or she is afraid of rejection or failure. To continually praise oneself can seem tawdry and shallow—or seek to steal glory from other equally or more deserving compatriots. 

Instead of tearing down these relationships, Solomon says, you should seek to build them up. Just as a well-timed or strategic customer review can make or break a business, you know that the best praise truly comes from others. What’s more, by cultivating a humble attitude, you will be practicing godly wisdom.  

Jesus spends a fair amount to time on this during His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6, He zeroes in our tendency to be anxious about the future, or to hungrily seek the praise of men. Here are three principles Jesus gives:

1. Seek To See The Big Picture

Jesus is paradoxically a student of Proverbs as well as the author of the book. Like Solomon, He often uses pictures and stories taken from creation:

26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?–Matthew 6:26

“Look at the birds,” Jesus says, “look at the flowers.” Birds and flowers may not have a mortgage or a business presentation to fret over, and yet God cares for them. How much more will He care for you, His child? Your worry is a sign that your knowledge of Him is inadequate. It is God our Father who sets the boundaries of our lives. He provides so that we lack nothing and prepares good works for us to do in order to please Him. This thought leads you to:

2 Seek to see the Lord’s generosity

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.–Matthew 6:28-29

Part of Jesus’s heartbreak with the Pharisees is that they have bought the Old Lie: they are suspicious of God, and believe the echo of Satan’s lie in the Garden: “Did God really say…?” 

But you know that your Heavenly Father has promised to love and care for you. As Spurgeon says: it is your Father’s business to provide for you! Instead of letting this doubt drive you to rely on yourself, you must:

3 Seek first the Kingdom of God

There is no earthly glory or safety that you can wrest from the hands of your loving Heavenly Father, for He has already prepared and provided for you:

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.–Matthew 6:33

Knowing all of this, how can you seek any less? Welsh pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones writes that this is a fatal habit of us all:

The fatal temptation to which we are prone is that of trying to store up grace against the future. Leave it with Him.–Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas continues his story from the time when he found himself kicked out from under the care of his loving grandfather: 

And then I was really angry. I got caught up in the anti-war movement in New England. I was really an angry black kid. And then in April of 1970, I was caught up in a riot in Harvard Square. At one point it was four in the morning and we were rioting, and there were tear gas canisters going off. And we made our way back to Worcester, back to the Holy Cross campus where I was going to college, and I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking, “What did I just do?” I couldn’t figure it out. And then suddenly I realized that I was full of hate. I remember going in front of the chapel and saying, “Lord, if you take this anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again.” I hadn’t prayed in years, and that was the beginning of my process back. I went from anger and hatred to cynicism, and then to trying to figure things out. And over the years I came to see cynicism as a disease…But it was a long struggle. I was something like the prodigal son, slowly making my way back to what I had abandoned.

Are you seeking to “store up grace” by worrying or self-promotion? Are you filled with anger or jealousy that others may have what you want, or feel you deserve? Let it go—and see what God has in store for you.



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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