What does it mean to say we’re made in God’s image? Scripture answers this question from innumerable angles and perspectives. In the gallery of images for God’s image-bearers in Scripture, people are depicted as birds (Matt. 23:37; Ps. 91:4; Deut. 32:11), pack animals (Isa. 30:28; 2 Kings 19:28), raw material (Job 23:10; Zech. 13:9), and plants (1 Chron. 17:9; John 15:5), to name a few. These many strands of biblical metaphors constitute a kind of conceptual web of how God, through the authors of Scripture, depicts and explains the human person.
One verse in Proverbs, since its imagery is not prominent in Scripture, offers a perspective especially worth dwelling on:
A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Prov. 25:28)
A careful look at this biblical metaphor will help us learn things both about ourselves and about our Creator.
You Are a City
To start out, we notice that the primary metaphor in Proverbs 25:28 is that people are cities. While in other places that image is implied (e.g., Exod. 29:45; Ezek. 37:27; Eph. 2:19-22), here it’s stated outright. You may recall from eighth-grade English that expressions with “like/as” are similes. But the “like” in this verse isn’t part of the original Hebrew. In fact, if we stripped off all the grammatical modifiers, the verse would quite simply say: “A man is a city.” What do we make of this statement?
The city is a big concept in Scripture. It’s cast in a somewhat negative light before the flood (Gen. 4:16–17; 11:4), but afterward is pictured as much more promising for human flourishing, culminating in the heavenly city in Revelation 21. The city of Jerusalem was most significant for God’s people because God himself dwelled there (cf. Deut. 12:11; 1 Kings 8). More than that, God personally built and protected Jerusalem (Ps. 46:4; 87:5; 127:1), until his people rejected him and were exiled, and the city was destroyed (2 Kings 25).
It’s likely Jerusalem would have been “the city” on the mind of an Israelite reading or hearing Proverbs 25:28, especially with its reference to destroyed walls. Even long before Jerusalem was built, Israel was warned that for covenant disobedience they’d be cursed “in the city,” and eventually defeated by their enemies (Deut. 28:16, 25). With that background—and the ever-present need for military defense in ancient urban life—talk of a city without defenses would have probably prompted Israelites to think of the most important city they knew. If this is right, then the implication of the metaphor is not just people are cities but more specifically God’s people are God’s city.
To put it differently, you are Jerusalem.
Your Spirit Is the City Wall
Moving to the second metaphor in Proverbs 25:28, the imagery envisions not just any person or city but specifically a man without self-control and a city invaded and left without walls. So we can say the metaphor expands to say self-control is a city wall. “Self-control” is a paraphrase of the Hebrew, which says something like “restraint of spirit” (ruach). Implicit even in this expression, then, is the idea that the spirit has a structure. And apparently that structure can be damaged, which is distinctly a bad thing.
The spirit is a huge theme in Scripture also. There are several important parallels to the concept of a “damaged” spirit. Notably, all are negative and confirm that a broken spirit, like a broken city wall, is dangerous. Beginning in Proverbs, for instance, a “crushed spirit” is starkly contrasted with the “glad and joyful heart” (Prov. 15:13; 17:22). A damaged spirit is also portrayed as unbearable and worse than physical illness in Proverbs 18:14. Elsewhere, Job’s broken spirit makes him ponder death itself (Job 17:1; cf. Ps. 88:3). And in Isaiah we learn that those with a broken spirit have been judged by God (Isa. 65:14; cf. Exod. 6:9).
Lacking much context it’s hard to say what kind of “restraint of spirit”—what self-control—is in view in Proverbs 25:28. But it’s clear that, just as cities cannot do without intact fortification, humans cannot do without an intact spirit. Put conversely, whoever lacks control over his spirit—whose spirit is damaged and left in disrepair—is as good as ruined. The one without an intact spirit is already “broken into” and left as exposed as he was found. So although we lack specificity, we can see how the metaphor of self-control as a city wall draws from the most pressing daily need of an Israelite: spiritual and physical well-being in God’s holy city.
God Is the Builder
Set in the context of the whole book, Proverbs 25:28 calls on the imagery of the first nine chapters in which Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly are personified as two alternatives. Among the admonitions against foolishness we learn folly leads to destruction (Prov. 1:32) and the worthless, wicked person will face certain calamity: “Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed without remedy” (Prov. 6:15). This is the choice the person without self-control in Proverbs 25:28 has made, to inevitable ruin. Israel learned this lesson the hard way when they lacked self-control by rebelling against God in disobedience, only to end up in exile with their capital city destroyed.
But there is an alternative. We are also invited to follow Lady Wisdom, who lives in a well-constructed house of her own (Prov. 9:1–6). Those who enter this house “will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster” (Prov. 1:32). In fact, we learn wisdom is a characteristic of God himself, the “master workman” who in his supreme power established the foundations of the earth (Prov. 3:19; 8:30). He is the architect of all creation, the one who built and sustains it (Prov. 8:22–29).
In turn, people are cities because God has built and sustains us, just as he does with all creation. Our spirit—the metaphorical wall of the self—has been damaged by sin such that we often lack control. Even as those dwelling in God’s city we’re exposed to constant ransacking because of our weak spiritual defenses. Left in that state of disrepair, destruction often seems inevitable.
But God is in the construction business. Those with broken spirits are precisely those who need him. As the psalmist proclaims, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). In his grace, our God rebuilds his ruined city into a household, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19–22).