What does Proverbs 26:21 mean?
ESV: As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
NIV: As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
NASB: Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, So is a contentious person to kindle strife.
CSB: As charcoal for embers and wood for fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
NLT: A quarrelsome person starts fights as easily as hot embers light charcoal or fire lights wood.
KJV: As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife.
NKJV: As charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, So is a contentious man to kindle strife.
Verse Commentary:
The Hebrew root word translated here as "quarrelsome" is mādon. This refers to strife and division; when describing a person, it means someone prone to fighting or eager to argue. The book of Proverbs advises a careful, calming approach (Proverbs 15:1, 4) instead of looking for an excuse to start a fight. The prior teaching (Proverbs 26:20) noted that gossip and slander—speech associated with a "whisperer" (Proverbs 16:28)—add fuel to disagreements. This was compared to starving a fire of fuel. When improper conversation dies out, so too do many conflicts. In a parallel way, being argumentative can inflame a situation (Proverbs 15:18). Aggression worsens conflict the same way adding wood to a fire makes the blaze grow.

It's possible that Alexander the coppersmith, mentioned in the New Testament, was a "quarrelsome" man. In his closing remarks to Timothy the apostle Paul writes: "Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message" (2 Timothy 4:14–15). Jude wrote about those opposed to faith (Jude 1:18; cf. 2 Peter 3:3) by saying they "cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit" (Jude 1:19). Diotrephes, too, was known for words that stirred up trouble. The apostle John writes: "So if I come, I will bring up what [Diotrephes] is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us" (3 John 1:10).
Verse Context:
Proverbs 26:17–28 turns from a focus on laziness to discussion about conflict. Solomon (Proverbs 25:1) warns against prying into other people's arguments, gossip, and dishonest speech. He also cautions about the danger of casual lies. How and when a person chooses to speak greatly influences their involvement in conflict.
Chapter Summary:
This chapter includes three main sections. The first repeatedly refers to a "fool," meaning someone lacking godly wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). The second warns against being lazy. The third condemns careless conflict, lying, and warns about those who disguise their hate with words. Several statements in this passage repeat or echo others made in the book of Proverbs.
Chapter Context:
Chapter 25 introduced another section of Solomon's proverbs (Proverbs 25:1). These were collected by later scribes; the list runs through the end of chapter 29. This chapter covers topics such as foolishness, laziness, and conflict. This echoes principles given in other proverbs.
Book Summary:
Proverbs is best understood in context with the books of Ecclesiastes and Job. In Proverbs, “wisdom” is given in short, simple, general terms. Ecclesiastes represents wisdom based on observation and experience. This often shows how the general principles of the book of Proverbs don’t apply in absolutely every circumstance. Job represents wisdom based on the experience of suffering and injustice. All three come to the conclusion that God does indeed know best, and the most sensible course of action is to follow His will.
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