Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own
is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
is the man who deceives his neighbour
and says, “I am only joking!”
For lack of wood the fire goes out,
and where there is no whisperer, quarrelling ceases.
As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
they go down into the inner parts of the body.
The remainder of the chapter deals with mischief-makers and mischief-making. In 17, the warning is very plain: to interfere in a quarrel, unless one has been appealed to by one or other of the participants is to ask for trouble. Moses' experience in Exodus 2:13, 14, is a telling example of how true these words are. Even more solemn is the warning in 18 and 19: a misplaced sense of humour can be a terrible hazard, and the harm and hurt it can often cause is in no wise excused or healed by the words 'I was only joking'. A sense of humour is one thing, but when it is exercised at the expense of tears and hurt in other people, it is something just not permitted for those who would walk with God. Some people - and alas, some Christians too - have a perverse, even sadistic, sense of humour that delights in doing and saying things that cause embarrassment and distress. Sadly enough, they generally succeed in their aim. Do they see themselves mirrored in these verses? In 20 and 21, want of fuel is the thing greatly to be desired. So far as gossip is concerned, 'passing it on' (a) makes you a tale-bearer, even if you tell only one person, and do it only once; and (b) feeds the fire. You could have put it out, but did not! There is something in a contentious (quarrelsome RSV) man that is combustible. He simply needs to be there, in the company, and there is sure to be fire. 22 repeats 18:8, and RSV's 'delicious morsels' instead of 'wounds' is a more likely translation. The meaning is that passing on titbits of gossip, though enjoyable for those who do so and those who receive them, is harmful to the soul.
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