Question: "What does it mean that pride goes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)?"
Answer: Many proverbs warn that the sin of pride is a dangerous offense. Proverbs 16:18 declares, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Verse 18 links to verse 19: “Better to live humbly with the poor than to share plunder with the proud.” The meaning of the passage is clear-cut: pride leads to humiliation. It is better to be humble and poor than proud and rich.
A similar proverb expands the message: “Haughtiness goes before destruction; humility precedes honor” (Proverbs 18:12 NLT). While pride sets us on an ill-fated course, the opposite of pride—humility—leads to honor. To choose pride is to set oneself up for a fall; the pedestal we make for ourselves proves a precarious foundation.
Pride in the context of these verses refers to an arrogant attitude that manifests itself as independence from God and contrasts strikingly with humility. Such arrogance is hazardous to our well-being and success in life because it keeps us from fearing the Lord. By contrast, “Humility is the fear of the LORD; its wages are riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).
To fear the Lord and thus avoid the pride that goes before a fall is to respect, reverence, and submit to Him in every area of life. When we fear the Lord, we acknowledge our desperate need for God because He is infinitely wiser than we are: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:7).
Terms like destruction, fall, disaster, ruin, and downfall in these passages can be understood as a punishment or discipline meted out to the proud in order to humble them and correct their waywardness. The word fall translates from a verb meaning “stumble” or “stagger.” Pride, unchecked, leads to destruction; the purpose of Scripture’s warnings is to put the proud sinner back on a path that leads to honor and life. For this reason, the maxims repeatedly inform, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). And again, “Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor” (Proverbs 29:23, NLT).
The Edomites serve as a classic example of the adage “pride goes before a fall.” Because of arrogance of heart, Edom fell never to rise again: “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’ Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down declares the LORD” (Obadiah 1:3–4; see also verses 15–16). Many biblical prophets echo this theme: “The proud one shall stumble and fall, with none to raise him up” (Jeremiah 50:32, ESV; see also Isaiah 28:3; Ezekiel 31:10–12; Zephaniah 3:11; Zechariah 10:11).
Perhaps the most dramatic and consequential illustration of pride going before a fall is what happened in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s fall stands behind every proud fall of humankind since. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and proudly chose their own way. The fall that resulted was catastrophic.
The proud person pursues his or her own way, but the humble one obeys God’s Word. Delighting in the Lord and humbly following His commands makes us sure-footed so that we will not slip or stagger: “The LORD makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him” (Psalm 37:23; see also Psalm 18:36; 37:31). Humility and fear of the Lord establish us securely on God’s path, where our feet won’t stumble, nor will we fall (Proverbs 3:26; Psalm 17:5; 119:133).