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Sweet at First, Bitter in the End: Consequences of Deception in Proverbs 9:17-18 and Proverbs 20:17


Deception, a uniform and cunning aspect of human behavior, is addressed extensively in the Bible. Among the many sayings that shed light on the nature and consequences of deceit, Proverbs 9:17-18 and Proverbs 20:17 offer particularly vivid imagery and profound wisdom. These passages capture the allure and ultimate ruin that accompany deceptive actions.


Proverbs 9:17-18 (NKJV) states:

"Stolen water is sweet,

And bread eaten in secret is pleasant."

But he does not know that the dead are there,

That her guests are in the depths of hell."

Similarly, Proverbs 20:17 (NKJV) conveys:

"Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man,

But afterward, his mouth will be filled with gravel."


These verses emotionally illustrate the initial appeal of deception contrasted with its destructive aftermath. The sweetness of stolen water and deceitfully gained bread symbolizes the temporary pleasure derived from dishonest acts. However, this transient enjoyment is swiftly overshadowed by the harsh consequences, represented by death and the unpleasantness of a mouth filled with gravel.


This study aims to delve deeply into these passages to uncover their layers of meaning. We will explore the metaphorical language used, the broader biblical context, and the real-world implications of deception. By connecting these proverbs with other scriptural references, we seek to enhance our understanding of how deceptiveness can lead to personal and communal ruin.

Through a robust analysis, we will illuminate the timeless relevance of these ancient teachings and offer insights into the destructive nature of deception. This study will challenge readers to reflect on their lives and the societal norms that may condone or encourage deceit. Doing so will underscore the profound truth that, although deceit may seem sweet initially, it invariably leads to bitterness and destruction.



Biblical Exegesis of Proverbs 9:17-18 and Proverbs 20:17

Literary and Historical Context

Proverbs, mainly attributed to King Solomon, are collections of wisdom sayings intended to guide moral and ethical conduct. Proverbs 9:17-18 and 20:17 utilize metaphor and vivid imagery to impart lessons about the nature and consequences of deceit.


Analysis of Proverbs 9:17-18

Metaphorical Language:

·        "Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant." - This phrase captures the initial allure of engaging in deceitful acts. The sweetness and pleasantness suggest temporary gratification.


  • "But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of hell." - The shift to a stark warning reveals the hidden dangers and ultimate ruin awaiting those who pursue deceit.


Theological Implications:

·        The passage underscores a divine perspective on morality, where deceptive actions are not merely socially unacceptable but lead to spiritual and existential consequences.


Analysis of Proverbs 20:17

Metaphorical Language:

·        "Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man." - Similar to Proverbs 9:17, this highlights the short-term satisfaction of deceit.


·        "But afterward his mouth will be filled with gravel." - This metaphor starkly contrasts the initial sweetness with a painful and jarring outcome, symbolizing the inevitable discomfort and regret that follow deceit.


Theological Implications:

·        This proverb emphasizes the inevitable justice of God, where deceit leads to unavoidable negative repercussions, reinforcing the moral order established by divine law.


Broader Biblical Connections

Old Testament Insights


  • Psalm 34:13: "Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit."


  • This verse aligns with the proverbs by advocating for truthfulness and integrity, highlighting the biblical theme of the destructive power of deceit.


  • Jeremiah 9:6: "Your dwelling place is in the midst of deceit; through deceit, they refuse to know me, declares the Lord."

  • Here, deceit is shown as a barrier to knowing God, reinforcing its spiritually destructive nature.


New Testament Insights

  • Ephesians 4:25: "Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another."


  • The call to honesty among the early Christian community underscores the importance of truthfulness as a reflection of one's faith and integrity.


  • James 1:14-15: "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death."


  • This passage connects the initial temptation and allure of deceit to its ultimate destructive consequences, mirroring the themes in Proverbs.



The study of Proverbs 9:17-18 and Proverbs 20:17 reveals a profound truth about the nature of deception: while it may offer initial sweetness, it invariably leads to bitterness and destruction. This ancient wisdom, corroborated by other biblical texts, underscores the perils of deceit. Deception erodes trust, undermines relationships, and leads to broader moral and ethical decay. It creates a cycle of harm that affects individuals and communities, leading to social fragmentation and spiritual alienation.


Understanding and heeding these biblical warnings reminds us of the importance of integrity and truthfulness. Embracing these virtues fosters a healthier, more just society where trust and mutual respect can thrive. The teachings of Proverbs challenge us to reflect on our actions and their consequences, encouraging us to choose honesty over deceit, thereby promoting personal and communal well-being.

In Christ, love Jared W. Campbell

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