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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 4

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-27

A Parental Exhortation

Proverbs 4:0

Still the paternal exhortation proceeds with more and more rhetorical dignity. Doctrine and law form the staple of this appeal. By "law" understand "direction," for life is an ever-bisecting course, and full of points that must bewilder inexperienced travellers. Do not venture upon great sea voyages without proper instruments and without being taught how to use them. So in life. Be enriched with doctrine or wisdom, and cultivate that tender filial spirit which gratefully yields itself to direction. It is at once wise and lovely for youth to consult the aged, and to avail themselves of accumulated experience. Any other spirit is vain, self-conceited, frivolous, and unworthy. Why should the father be anxious to instruct and direct the son? Because he has seen more of life, more of its mystery, its peril, its tragedy; therefore his heart yearns to preserve the young from danger. The father's position is one of moral dignity and supreme benevolence. Having suffered himself, he would save his children from pain.

"For I was my father's son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother. He taught me also, and said unto me, Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live" ( Pro 4:3-4 ).

Solomon knew youth because he had himself been young. He knew also the advantage of instruction, for he himself had enjoyed it. Thus one generation may benefit another, and increase its years by preventing a repetition of its errors. We save a man's time by saving him from mistakes, and thus we actually add to the length of his life. It is to-day that men may compress centuries within the span of the allotted term: if we were wise we, though so modern, would be the true patriarchs of history. What wisdom is stored for us! How easy now is the ascent to the temple of understanding! Every father can leave his son the fortune of a noble example. That is more than gold, more than acres, more than fame. Here it is that virtue has its splendid opportunity! Men may have been looking in the wrong direction for a heritage for their children. Let that heritage be a vivid recollection of a home sanctified by prayer, a life devoted to good doing, an example of industry and justice, a spirit of hopefulness and charity, and that memory will be an inheritance and a refuge in life's most painful hours. The man in the text was an only son, and therefore was in a trying position; yet his father and his mother were wise, so they enriched him with wisdom, and kept not from him the advantages of discipline. Fools are they who ruin their children under the hypocrisy of being kind to them. In after years the victims of such kindness will be the justest and bitterest of its critics.

"Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not: neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee. Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings; and the years of thy life shall be many. I have taught thee in the way of wisdom; I have led thee in right paths. When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened; and when thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble. Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go: keep her; for she is thy life" ( Pro 4:5-13 ).

The figure of merchandise is still maintained. Work, plan, seek, toil, are the watchwords of true zeal in this matter. It is as if the youth were face to face with many attractions say, beauty, wealth, ease, pleasure, and the like, and whilst he is estimating their claims the father exhorts him, saying, Get wisdom, get understanding; do not be deceived; insist upon having the brightest treasure, and on no account be victimised by men who would urge you to sacrifice future satisfaction to immediate gratification. How full of wisdom is the exhortation "Love her, and she shall keep thee:" that is a law of the widest application: it is true in every department of life; true of art, of learning, of friendship, of service; to love is to be loved. If any man love me, I will manifest myself to him. The tenacious memory is lodged in the heart, and not in the intellect Fall in love with wisdom; make a heart-idol of her; dream of her charms, invite her to yield her treasures, seek her daily companionship, long for her, hail her with delight, yea, in every way devote to her the undivided passion of the heart. "Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her." The wise man will come to honour amongst his fellow-men as soon as he has had time to show how truly wise he is. He can wait He will not contend with clamour and madness; he will not compete with selfishness as if the rivalry were honourable: he will teach, observe, pray, and wait, knowing that his time will come, and that his influence will be recognised. With no mean reward will he be burdened. Great and lustrous are his honours: "She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee." God withholds not heaven from those who make good use of earth. A crown of righteousness is laid up for the faithful. Crown and throne are familiar objects in the outlook of the godly. Nothing less will satisfy their holy ambition. Even on earth true wisdom always comes to the throne at last. "A drachm of this wisdom is worth a pound of wit." The Greeks expressed "learned" and "good" by one word ( ςπουδαȋος ), so true honour even amongst men is synonymous with true wisdom and true virtue.

"Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away" ( Pro 4:14-15 ).

The exhortation continues to reveal the depth and reality of the personal experience of the speaker: he will not have his son so much as enter into the path of the wicked; the young man is not to come even inside the gate; on no account is he to make an experimental visit merely for the sake of forming an opinion as to the danger and loathsomeness of sin. The only safety is by keeping strictly outside, and running away from it with the eagerest haste. In every variety of manner the wise man cautions his son. The young man has to avoid the evil way, to pass not by it; but to turn from it, and pass away. Both the active and the passive courses are thus enjoined; not only is the evil way to be avoided, but it has to be turned away from, the back and not the face has to be turned towards it, nor is there to be any loitering, but the feet are instantly to move in a precisely opposite direction, so that, when the tempter comes from his hidden place to seduce the wayfarer, he may find that the young traveller is no longer on the scene. We are not to halt between two opinions, nor to dally or compromise, or to adopt any middle course whatever, when the question is a moral one; but with definiteness, simplicity, and courage we are to elect the right and to persevere, even though the way lie up difficult mountains or across dreary sands. The moment we set a door ajar the enemy will enter. If the voice loses one tone of emphasis in repelling his approaches the enemy will note the change and immediately take advantage of it.

"For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence" ( Pro 4:16-17 ).

The counsellor knows the nature of those with whom he has to deal, for he has seen into their very motive, and understood their evil passion in all its sweep and fury. He says that bad men sleep not except they have done mischief. The expression is very forcible, meaning that evil-doing has become second nature to them, and until they have done some evil it is impossible for them to lie down with any sense of comfort. By "the bread of wickedness," referred to in the seventeenth verse, we are to understand the bread which has been acquired wickedly. There is no sweetness in all the house of the bad man; upon his head is written "wickedness," and upon his wine is written "violence." When wicked people cannot accomplish their evil purposes, it is as if they had deprived the body of bread and wine, so that a kind of illness takes place in the mind, and they go to bed, not to sleep, but to spend a weary night of self-accusation and poignant regret. We know what it is for a man of business to spend an industrious yet unprofitable day, and how unsettling it is to the mind to return from such fruitless occupation to seek rest It is precisely so with the wicked they are described as going about their business with great eagerness, they are determined to bring some people into mischief and misery; but at the end of the day, when they find that their purpose has failed of effect, sleep is driven from their eyelids, and disappointment begins to gnaw their hearts. From all this we may infer the quality of inspiration under which they labour. They are the servants of the devil. He is a cruel taskmaster. When his slaves return at night to tell him that their day's work has been a failure, he afflicts them with sleeplessness and torments them with self-contempt.

'But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day" ( Pro 4:18 ).

Observe that the word "path" occurs in both instances under which it is shown that life is comparable to a journey. The distinction of the path of the just is that more and more light shines upon it, revealing not only the path itself, but all surrounding objects of interest and loveliness. The idea of light is always associated with the way of Christian progress. According to Psalm xxvii., the Lord is the light of the righteous. Jehovah was the guiding sun of the Psalmists. In Isaiah lx. the Church is exhorted thus, "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee." She had been as in the darkness of Sheol, and now she is led forth into all the glory of morning. God himself is the sun of righteousness, and he comes upon thee as "the light of the morning, even a morning without clouds." We are to understand that the just man sees God more and more clearly as life unfolds the mystery of its purposes. Providence reveals God. History is one of the temples in which he resides. Personal experience is the medium which he selects for the continual expansion of his light and truth. Paul speaks of the "marvellous light" of the gospel. God himself is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Not only have we this revelation of the divine nature, but we have a standard by which to test our own spiritual progress. If we love light, then are we the children of the day, but if we tarry for the darkness, that under its concealment we may carry out our purposes, whatever may be our intellectual gifts or our social advantages, we are children of the night, unclaimed and unapproved by the God of glory. The more we love light the more light we shall have. "Light, more light," must not be the poet's cry alone, but the desire of every heart which believes that God's light is infinite, and that we should be entrusted with more of it if we were faithful to the degree in which we are already enlightened.

"The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble" ( Pro 4:19 ).

This is the direct contrast. Men cannot both leave the light and yet be in it. To leave the light is to go into the prison of darkness, and to live the dwindling life of deprivation and disablement. Our life was made for the light, and therefore without light we shall die. A cruel thing it is to deprive a plant of light; how infinitely more cruel to shut out the light of God's truth from the soul that was made to enjoy it. Other men cannot shut that light out from us, how bitterly soever they may be opposed to our Christian sympathy; only man can exclude the light from himself. Books, ordinances, and all manner of public opportunities may be taken away from us, and thereby great loss may be inflicted upon the spiritual life; but even under disadvantages so discouraging the soul can silently commune with God, and through intense and loving prayer can invoke his presence and support. Only suicide is possible in the spiritual life. No other hand can take that life from us; but, alas! we have power not only to grieve the Spirit, but to quench the Spirit, and thus to bring ourselves under the pitiless and boundless dominion of darkness. Light is the enemy of wickedness, and darkness, in a sense, may be said to be the friend of it. Bad men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. They dread the rising of the sun; they fear even the unexpected flash of an artificial light, knowing that: wherever light comes it will reveal them in an attitude of shame, or in quest of some forbidden object. They make a kind of heaven of their darkness. It is indeed their only security. Yet what can be taken away so quickly as darkness? Go into the darkest chamber, and by one stroke of the hand every corner of that chamber may be illuminated, for darkness seems to fly away as if in fear; it is a ghost which is more easily terrified than it can terrify others. The policy of the bad man is a policy of darkness that is to say, it is impossible to tell what his real object is, or to find out what he is doing in his concealment, or to work in him any degree of frankness and transparency; he is a man of dark counsels of deep designs, of unrevealed plots and treasons, in very deed a child of darkness and a servile worshipper at its altar. The darkness comes stumbling, and in the case of the wicked a stumbling that cannot be explained, for verily they know not at what they stumble. There is but one light of the world "As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world." "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God."

"My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings. Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart. For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh. Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Put away from thee a froward mouth, and perverse lips put far from thee. Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil" ( Pro 4:20-27 ).

The earnestness of the counsellor is indisputable. Why does he thus wrestle with his son? Why not utter to him a word or two, and pass on? Surely there must be something dependent on obedience and disobedience. It is this after-thing that gives its true point and value to the exhortation. When the husbandman is urged to sow his seed, it is not merely that he may do a day's work, but that he may provide a harvest. The act of sowing does not terminate in itself; it means bread for the eater, and seed for other sowers in other days. Obedience to wise directions means exactly what is said in the 22nd verse, "Life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh." We admire the counsel which exhorts to temperance, and to cleanliness, and to self-control in all its aspects, because we are assured that such a course of discipline ends in health and vigour. Precisely so with counsels of a higher range; they are not merely fine sentiments, admitting of poetical expression and illustration, they bear immediately upon spiritual health, manliness, and completeness of development Hence their importance, and hence the eagerness with which the young soul is plied by the man of manifold personal experience. He entreated that his words should ever be kept before the eyes, that they should be stored in the very midst of the young man's heart. About the young man's "heart" the wise counsellor was specially careful. "Keep thy heart with all diligence;" keep thy heart above all things that are to be prized. The heart would seem to be the true seat of character, "for out of it are the issues of life." "Take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life." So deeply impressed were the ancients with the part that was played by the heart in the development of life, that they seemed almost to fear lest God himself should besiege it with temptation. "Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity: let me not eat of their dainties." Observe how the whole life seems to be touched by this exhortation. The heart is to be kept; a froward mouth is to be put away; perverse lips are to be kept at an infinite distance; the eyes are to look right on, the eyelids are to look straight before; the path of the feet is to be pondered; the foot is to be removed from evil. Compare with this the exhortation given by the apostle in the Epistle to the Ephesians, where he exhorts Christians to take unto them the whole armour of God. The whole life is to be guarded and protected because no man is stronger than his weakest point, and we may actually be weakest where we suppose ourselves to be strongest. It is possible to be careful about the mouth, and yet to allow the eye wide and perilous liberty. Alas, we can practise wickedness in silence! The eye can be enjoying a very harvest of evil whilst the mouth is fast closed, and not one sign is given by speech that the soul is rioting at the table of the devil. Who can keep his eyes aright? Who cannot open them, even in prayer, that he may feast them on some forbidden object whilst his lips are uttering holy words? "Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way." It is of infinite consequence that we should direct our exertions to the right point, otherwise our lives may be spent in mere frivolity under the guise of great industry and faithfulness. We may be watching at the wrong gate, or we may suppose that only certain gates are to be closed and that others may be left open without danger. There is to be proportion in our discipline. Cobwebs will not keep burglars out. It is not the front door only that needs to be attended to, but the gate at the back, or the little window in some obscure part of the house. When the enemy comes as a house-breaker, he does not seek for the strongest part of the castle, but for its very weakest parts. "See that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise." "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." "Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good." It is not the red coat that saves the soldier from being wounded, but the armour that is underneath it. Not our nominal respectability but our real piety is the safeguard of the character. We are called upon to accept all these exhortations as words uttered by a father. That is to say, they are not judicial words harsh, arbitrary, disciplinary words; they are not lofty, military, haughty words; even when they are sternest they are gentle, even when they impose the severest exertions their meaning is to bring the character to blossoming and fruitfulness. Hence the counsellor is always called father, and the counselled one is always addressed as son; we have to picture a benignant, gracious, gentle patriarch giving some young and inexperienced stripling the benefit of his stores of memory, and of pleasant or painful experience. The picture is thus charged with pathos. Alas! it is hardly possible to be wise in youth, otherwise with what interest should we listen to those who, from under their grey hairs and wrinkled faces, tell us what they have seen of the malignity of the enemy, the bitterness of evil-doing, and the joy which never fails to attach to the doing of things that are right and wise. And old men ought to be one of the very safeguards of society. An old teacher should be the most honoured of men, for he speaks not only speculatively and theoretically, but experimentally and practically, and he can show a proof of every wise word which his experience entitles him to utter. Let us listen to this gracious speaker in the Proverbs, for again and again he says, "My son, my son, my son."

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Proverbs 4". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/proverbs-4.html. 1885-95.
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