A man’s gift makes room for him, And brings him before great men. (Proverbs 18:16, N.K.J.V.)
This verse provides us with a case in point of how the Bible can sometimes be difficult to correctly interpret and apply. The Hebrew word translated as “gift” in the verse is mattan, and it simply means “a present” or “something offered.” For example, it’s used in Genesis 34:12 in reference to the dowry paid for a bride; it’s used in Numbers 18:11 in reference to the heave offering that went to the support of Israel’s priests; it’s used in Proverbs 21:14 in reference to a present given to a person to cool that person’s anger; and it’s used in Ezekiel 46:16-17 in reference to a gift given by a prince to a son or a servant.
Okay, fine. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But hold on a minute. In Ecclesiastes 7:7, Solomon uses the Hebrew word mattanah, which is nothing more than a variation of mattan, to refer to a straight-up bribe. He writes:
Surely oppression destroys a wise man’s reason, And a bribe debases the heart. (N.K.J.V.)
So now how should we interpret a mattan? Is such a gift worthy of praise or condemnation? Obviously, according to the Old Testament Hebrew, this kind of gift can go either way. When used legitimately, it becomes a present or a reward. When used illegitimately, it becomes a bribe paid to promote corruption and pervert justice.
At least now, though, we have a handle on how to interpret and apply mattan, right? We just need to avoid the sin of bribery and we’re all set to go. Well, unfortunately, there is yet another wrinkle that allows for mattan to get preached in a completely different way.
You see, mattanah, that same variation of mattan that Solomon uses in Ecclesiastes 7:7, is also used in Psalm 68:18, which says of God:
You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men, Even from the rebellious, That the Lord God might dwell there. (N.K.J.V.)
Now pay attention because here’s where things get interesting. The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 4:7-8, actually uses a Holy Spirit-inspired paraphrase of Psalm 68:18 in his description of how Jesus ascended up to heaven following His resurrection and at that time gave spiritual gifts — the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, and pastoring-teaching — to believers. This explains why Ephesians 4:7-8 is one of the New Testament’s classic passages on the topic of spiritual gifts. As Paul writes:
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (N.K.J.V.)
It is because of this tie-in with Paul’s word about spiritual gifts that many commentators promote the idea that the Hebrew word mattan (mattanah) can also refer to a gifting akin to a talent, a skill, or a special ability. So now let’s revisit our text verse, Proverbs 18:16, and apply this new definition to it:
A man’s gift (talent, skill, special ability) makes room for him, And brings him before great men. (N.K.J.V.)
By understanding the word “gift” this third way, we find that this verse can actually mean the polar opposite of the first definition I offered in this post. Instead of a man having to bring a gift as a means of showing the respect required to gain an audience with a great man such as a king, that man’s talent (skill, special ability) will be more than enough in and of itself to ensure that he “goes places” in life. As Harry Ironside says in his commentary thoughts on the verse:
A gifted man does not need to force himself forward. His gift will open doors for him…
What I’m trying to get you to see in all of this is that it takes very real time and effort to get at what the Bible teaches. When just one Hebrew word can carry with it no less than three different definitions, you’d better be on your game if you want to understand that word correctly and apply it to your life in a manner pleasing to God. And, sadly, there just aren’t that many people who are willing to devote the time and effort required to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). But here’s hoping that you will be one of those minority folks who are willing to do so. No, God won’t make you do it, but if you will do it voluntarily you’ll be amazed at how His written word will become something very special in your life. As a matter of fact, in keeping with the theme of this post, it will become nothing less than God’s “gift” to you.