In his poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost tells a story about repairing stone fences with his taciturn Yankee neighbor. Frost thinks the fence is unnecessary. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he says on two occasions. But to Frost’s objection, the neighbor twice replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Both Frost and his neighbor are right, to a degree. On the one hand, building fences divides people, often unnecessarily. On the other hand, building fences makes each person responsible for his side of the relationship. The Book of Proverbs emphasizes this second truth, the one about the importance of proper boundaries in our relationships.
Proverbs 23:10-11 deals with actual physical boundaries.
Do not move an ancient boundary stone
or encroach on the fields of the fatherless,
for their Defender is strong;
he will take up their case against you.
This proverb reminds us to respect the private property of others, especially if they’re socially marginalized. If we don’t, God himself will prosecute us for taking advantage of them.
Several proverbs deal with social boundaries, that is to say, neighborly etiquette.
Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house —
too much of you, and he will hate you (25:17).
If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning,
it will be taken as a curse (27:14).
These are humorous proverbs, whose basic message is: Don’t wear out your welcome, and don’t make too much noise!
Other proverbs focus on moral boundaries, what is right and wrong, especially in the area of speech.
With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor,
but through knowledge the righteous escape (11:9).
A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor,
but a man of understanding holds his tongue (11:12).
Like a madman shooting
firebrands or deadly arrows
is a man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!” (26:18-19).
These boundaries on neighborly speech extend into the courtroom.
Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow
is the man who gives false testimony against his neighbor (25:18).
Do not testify against your neighbor without cause,
or use your lips to deceive.
Do not say, “I’ll do to him as he has done to me;
I’ll pay that man back for what he did” (24:28-29).
…do not bring hastily to court,
for what will you do in the end
if your neighbor puts you to shame? (25:8)
One wonders how much time and money would be spent if people followed this advice rather than taking their neighbors to court.
Another boundary neighbors should not cross is enticing others to do evil.
A violent man entices his neighbor
and leads him down a path that is not good (16:29).
Rather than doing harm to his neighbor, or enticing him to do evil, the good neighbor helps him whenever he can.
Do not withhold good from those who deserve it,
when it is in your power to act.
Do not say to your neighbor,
“Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow” —
when you now have it with you (Proverbs 3:27-28).
Frost’s Yankee neighbor was right: “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost was right too. There should always be a gate between your house and mine, just in case you need to get through.