My son, if thou be surety for thy friend, if thou hast stricken thy hand with a stranger,
Friends pose a financial danger, if you are proud, sentimental, or impulsive. Strong and prudent men retain riches (Pr 11:16), but weak men lose money by foolish and unnecessary risks. Proverbs has precious financial advice from God to save you from poverty that may come by exposing your assets or income to risk.
As a loving father teaching his son, Solomon warned him against being a surety for friends, which he condemned often (Pr 6:1-5; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27; 27:13). There is a very real danger for men to over-commit resources for the benefit of friends.
What is suretiship? What is wrong with it? What wisdom can you learn for life? In an age of reckless personal, corporate, and national financial promises, this proverb’s wisdom is crucial. A wise man will not overextend himself or risk his assets by potential liabilities.
You are a surety when you guarantee the financial payments or personal performance of someone else. In this case, you promise a third party – a stranger – that your friend will make his payments or do what is expected, and you promise to pay the debt yourself or be held personally liable, if your friend cannot or does not do what is required of him.
Such financial deals, before computerized credit analysis and mass personal bankruptcies, when a man’s word was sufficient, were formalized by shaking hands (Pr 17:18; 22:26). Striking hands, or joining them, was a form of entering into contracts in various countries and times (Job 17:3; Ps 144:8,11). Some commitments or deals are made to this day by shaking hands. Without a written contract, personal integrity binds the parties.
Today suretiship often occurs by cosigning loans. You go with your friend to his banker, the stranger, and you sign your name and credit as the backup source of payment, if your friend cannot or will not pay the contractual terms of the loan. What a nice gesture of friendship, right? What else are friends for, right? You are the beloved hero of the hour!
God warned against guaranteeing others’ debts without careful review of their character (Pr 11:15; 20:16), the extent of the obligation (Pr 22:3; 14:15), and your ability to pay it off (Pr 22:27). He indirectly condemned off-balance-sheet accounting and excessive contingent liabilities, for He knew the crucial but oft-neglected rule of risk management.
Sober suretiship may not only be allowable, but prudent, charitable, and necessary (Philemon 1:18-19; Gen 43:8-10; Isaiah 1:17). If a godly friend or poor person is in need for an amount you can afford, then there is no sin in the act of charity and friendship to help them. The folly of suretiship is hasty promises and excessive commitments.
Haste and pride cause foolish promises. Haste utters words and shakes hands before knowing the extent of an obligation (Pr 14:15; 19:2; 22:3; 29:20). Pride wants to be seen as a man of means, which is briefly obtained by publicly guaranteeing debts or personal performance, even though the person may have few assets for paying off the obligation.
Sentiment and impulse cause foolish promises. Sentimental emotion causes friendship to weigh more heavily than sober consideration of the risk of potential liabilities, so a foolish man cosigns for his underemployed friend’s new car. Impulse hears of his friend’s need and knows he can resolve the matter easily, so he cosigns without evaluating it.
Consider the context here. If there was ever a son that could pay off any surety obligations, it would be the heir and prince of the richest king on earth. Yet it is this son that King Solomon warned. Financial success requires more than avoiding catastrophic loss – it also involves the financial discipline and rules to avoid foolish or risky decisions.
It is a sad calamity when poor men work hard but take financial losses that keep them in perpetual poverty (Pr 13:23). Diligence at a job or profession is a good thing, but it is a grievous shame when income or assets from hard labor is squandered in a momentary lapse of judgment. Neither God nor Solomon wanted this to happen, thus this proverb.
Jesus is Surety of His people (Heb 7:22). He gave His word and bound His soul to death for their infinite sin debt, which guarantee is sure forever (Rom 8:31-39). Though they could not and would not pay, He paid their account in full! The elect are as sure for heaven as the sun rising tomorrow morning and setting tonight (Jer 31:35-36; 33:17-26)!