The wink of an eye is a facial gesture that communicates different meanings in different cultures. With a wink, someone can show affection, encourage a laugh, or share an inside joke or secret. In the Bible, a “winking eye” can indicate deceitfulness or dishonesty, as in Proverbs 10:10: “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble” (ESV). The winking eye is also a sign of craftiness, scheming, and malevolent conniving with other wicked companions. Still today, a person who winks a lot or can’t look someone directly in the eye strikes a chord of mistrust and suspicion.
In Proverbs 10:10, the noun translated as “trouble” in the original language comes from a verb which means “to hurt” or “to cause pain” and typically denotes grief, sorrow, and other forms of mental pain and heart-suffering. The one who winks causes trouble—irritation, anguish, and aggravation—because of his or her cunning and secrecy. A simple, straightforward paraphrase might be “If you conceal the truth from others, you will cause them to suffer.”
In Proverbs 6:12–13, the “winking eye” describes a deceitful person who stirs up trouble and strife by sending out malicious signals: “What are worthless and wicked people like? They are constant liars, signaling their deceit with a wink of the eye, a nudge of the foot, or the wiggle of fingers” (NLT). The idea here, as in Proverbs 10:10, is that by winking the eye the wicked person signals his accomplices when to act or assist in implementing their secret, evil plan, which will be carried out through trickery and pretense. When put like this, it’s no wonder a winking eye means trouble.
“Whoever winks his eyes plans dishonest things,” says Proverbs 16:30 (ESV). The proverb warns the reader to be on the alert for anyone with a winking eye. Don’t trust such a person because he or she is likely plotting to dupe you. If you see this sinister, unspoken “eye language,” it means something terrible is about to happen, so prepare yourself for trouble.
Again, in Psalm 35:19, the term winking eye is used as a sign of insincerity and deceit: “Let not those rejoice over me who are wrongfully my foes, and let not those wink the eye who hate me without cause” (ESV). The New Living Translation conveys the meaning more clearly: “Don’t let my treacherous enemies rejoice over my defeat. Don’t let those who hate me without cause gloat over my sorrow.” Here the expression wink the eye means “to gloat gleefully.” Today’s English Version translates the phrase as “smirk with delight,” while the New English Bible renders it as “leer at me in triumph.”
Everywhere “a winking eye” appears in the Bible, the gesture carries a negative implication of cunning, conniving deception. The same concept lies behind the English word hoodwinked. A con artist—one who is undoubtedly up to trouble—is a fitting example of the biblical description of one who “winks the eye.”