What does Proverbs 20:26 mean?Solomon (Proverbs 10:1), the wise king and judge (1 Kings 3:10–12), comments on the importance of justice in leadership. Biblical wisdom starts with proper respect for God and His will (Proverbs 1:7; 3:1–6). One of the reasons God institutes human government is to restrain evil (Romans 13:1–5), which involves separating the guilty from the innocent. Then, those who are guilty should be punished, to deter others from committing the same crimes.
The figurative speech here uses imagery from agriculture. "Winnowing" usually involved tossing processed grain into the air, so the wind could blow away the inedible parts. This symbolism is often used to represent sorting or separating through wisdom or judgment. That technique was employed earlier in this same passage (Proverbs 20:8). The wise king should properly distinguish matters, including guilt and innocence.
Prior to winnowing, grain had to be "threshed." This could be done in several ways, but all involved physically striking or tearing the stalks to break grain and chaff apart. The resulting mixture could then be winnowed. One method employed in the ancient world was to drag a spiked sled, with heavy wheels, across the harvested grain. Threshing was also associated with judgment, but more often tied to punishment (Judges 6:11; 8:7, 16). It is important for government to separate the innocent from the guilty, but equally important that it properly punish lawbreakers.
Jesus will one day return to earth and establish His kingdom. As a wise king, He will rule with justice and righteousness. But Jesus will also judge the nations before inaugurating His kingdom. He will wisely separate the sheep from the goats—the righteous from the wicked—and send the wicked into eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31–46). John the Baptist alluded to the separation of wheat and chaff by the Messiah. He said: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12).
This reference to a just king using proper judgment ties to the next proverb, which refers to God's inescapable knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 20:27; Hebrews 4:13).