Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
We saw in Proverbs 11:11 that the gospel is a verbal blessing. It tell us the good news about what the Father has done for sinners in Christ. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Therefore, the desire of the Christian is to bless others, not to curse them; to love our neighbors, not despise them; to speak the gospel to them, which will save them from perishing.
Proverbs 11:12, then, appropriately follows from the previous verse. For line one of verse 12 tells us how foolish and heartless it is to despise our neighbor and express this malice in speech. The Hebrew verb behind the English verb "belittles," is a word that means despise. But it also describes "an expressed and vocalized contempt." It is difficult to capture both these notions in one word. "Belittles" is the ESV's attempt, but I am not sure it captures the malice of the Hebrew word. When we insult and slander another person, it comes from a heart that despises the other person. The foolish person verbally abuses his neighbor, but the Christian who desires others to believe the gospel which blesses, refuses to speak maliciously about others. Thus, the Spirit commands us to bless, and not curse: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Romans 12:14).
Where does this contempt for others come from? And, how do we get rid of this contempt for others lodged in our hearts?
Contempt comes from pride. Pride is the primordial sin of the human race. Pride is lifting ourselves to the place that belongs to God alone, by determining for ourselves good and evil (Genesis 3:5). Pride is making ourselves equal with God. Pride is leaning on our own understanding and our own feelings to determine what is right and wrong, wise and foolish (cf. Proverbs 3:5). When we view ourselves as wiser than God and superior to him in determining right and wrong, naturally we will look down on others. How could we not look down on others, and even God himself, from the morally superior place we have given ourselves?! Thus, sadly, pride even leads us to look down on God and despise him.
Derek Kidner wrote this remarkable line in commenting on this verse: "The most misleading way to feel wise is to feel superior." But, of course, every member of the human race feels superior because of the pride that has brought about the self-enthronement of our understanding, emotions, and will --- in other words the enthronement of our hearts above the triune God's words and wisdom. Jesus said, "Man lives on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4), but we say, "No, I live by what my heart tells me is best."
How do we get rid of contempt for others? The fundamental step is to dethrone ourselves and acknowledge Jesus as our Lord. We have to get off his throne, and let God's anointed King command us by his words. Contempt for others comes from looking down at them. Therefore, we must repent of the pride that has arrogantly lifted our understanding above the omniscient and only wise God!
Pride blinds us to who God is, who we are, and who our neighbor is. The only antidote to such ignorance is the revealed Word of God. When we see who the Lord is, then we see who we are. When we see his holiness, then we see our sinfulness. When we see him high and lifted up in his glory, the great I AM who alone has life, power, and blessing, then we see ourselves as creatures who depend on him every millisecond of the day, dependent on his unmerited favor for life and blessing. When we see that he alone has wisdom, then we repent of our desire to be wise apart from him and for usurping his throne. And, when we see that he is indescribably good to the point of taking the judgment his fallen and rebellious image bearers deserve, then we confess our misplaced trust in ourselves and idols, and begin to trust him.
When we take this low place before our Creator and Redeemer, then we no longer look down with contempt on our fellow, fallen image bearers. Instead, filled with the understanding God's Word alone can give, our hearts go out in pity and prayer for our neighbors. For we too are cut from the same sinful quarry, and the same stained cloth as every person on the planet. And though we are different than others because we are Christians, we are Christians only because we have received the undeserved grace of God in Christ. And, surely, it is insanity to boast about something we have not earned, but rather have received and continue to receive every day of our lives! (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Pride leads to contempt of others, including God himself. Humility before God leads to love for others, including God himself. It also brings us delight:
'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'twill be in the valley of love and delight.