Lectionary Calendar
Friday, June 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 14

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-35



"The heart knoweth its own bitterness and a stranger doth not intermeddle with its joy."- Proverbs 14:10

"Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful, and the end of mirth is heaviness."- Proverbs 14:13

"Yes! in the sea of life enisled,

With echoing straits between us thrown,

Dotting the shoreless watery wild,

We mortal millions live alone.

The islands feel the enclasping flow,

And then their endless bounds they know."

-Matthew Arnold

WE know each other’s appearance, it is true, but there, for the most part, our mutual knowledge ceases. Some of us unveil nothing of ourselves to anyone; some of us unveil a little to all; some a good deal to a few; but none of us can unveil all even to the most intimate friend. It is possible to live on terms of complete confidence and even close intimacy with a person for many years, to become thoroughly acquainted with his habits, his turns of expression, his modes of thought, to be able to say with a certain infallibility what course he will take in such and such circumstances-and yet to find by some chance uplifting of a curtain in his life that he cherished feelings which you never even suspected, suffered pains of which you had seen no trace, and enjoyed pleasures which never came to any outward expression.

How true this is we realize at once if we turn inwards and review all the thoughts which chase each other through our brain, and all the emotions which throb in our heart for a single day, and then deduct those which are known to any human being, known or even suspected; the sum total we find is hardly affected at all. We are quite startled to discover how absolutely alone we live, how impossible it is for a stranger, or even for an intimate friend, to meddle with more than a fragment of our inner life. This is not because we have any wish to conceal, but rather because we are not able to reveal, our silent unseen selves: it is not because others would not like to know, but because they have not the instruments to investigate, that within us which we on our part arc quite helpless to express.

"For instance, the desire accomplished is sweet to the soul," {Proverbs 13:19} yet no one can know how sweet but he who cherished the desire. When a man has labored for many years to secure an adequate maintenance for his family, and at length finds himself in easy circumstances, with his children growing up around him well and happy, no one besides himself can in the least gauge the sense of satisfaction, contentment, and gratitude which animates his heart, because no one can realize without actual experience the long and anxious days, the sickening fears, the blighted hopes, the rigorous sacrifices, through which he passed to attain his end. Or, when an artist has been toiling for many years to realize upon canvas a vision of beauty which floats before the inward eye, and at last succeeds, by some happy Combination of colors, or by some dexterous sweep of the brush, or by some half-inspired harmony of form and composition, in actually bodying forth to the senses that which has haunted his imagination, it is hopeless for anyone else to understand the thrilling joy, the lighthearted ecstasy, which are hidden rather than expressed by the quiet flush on the cheek and the sparkling glance of the eye.

The mystical joy of a love which has just won an answering love; the deep-toned joy of the mother in the dawning life of her child; the joy of the poet who feels all the beauty of the earth and the sky pulsing through his nerves and raising his heart to quick intuitions and melodious numbers; the joy of the student, when the luminous outlines of truth begin to shape themselves before his mind in connected form and startling beauty; the joy of one who has toiled for the restoration of lost souls, and sees the fallen and degraded awaking to a new life, cleansed, radiant, and strong; the joy of the martyr of humanity, whose dying moments are lit with visions, and who hears through the mysterious silences of death the voices of those who will one day call him blessed, -joys like these may be described in words, but they who experience them know that the words are, relatively speaking, meaningless, and they who do not experience them can form no conception of them. "When the desire cometh it is a tree of life," {Proverbs 13:14} which suddenly springs up in the garden of the heart, puts forth its jubilant leaves of healing, flashes with white wings of scented blossom, and droops with its full offering of golden fruit, as if by magic, and we are surprised ourselves that those around us do not see the wonder, do not smell the perfume, do not taste the fruit: we alone can sit under its branches, we alone can catch the murmur of the wind, the music of achievement, in its leaves.

But this thought becomes very pathetic when we think of the heart’s bitterness, which the heart alone can know, -the hope deferred which makes it sick, {Proverbs 13:12} the broken spirit which dries up the Proverbs 17:22, the spirit which for so long bore a man’s infirmity, and then at last broke because it could bear no more, and became itself intolerable. {Proverbs 18:14} The circumstances of a man’s life do not give us any clue to his sorrows; the rich have troubles which to the poor would seem incredible, and the poor have troubles which their poverty does not explain. There are little constitutional ailments, defects in the blood, slight deformities, unobserved disabilities, which fill the heart with a bitterness untold and unimaginable. There are crosses of the affections, disappointments of the ambitions; there are frets of the family, worries of business; there are the haunting Furies of past indiscretions, the pitiless reminders of half-forgotten pledges. There are weary doubts and misgivings, suspicions and fears, which poison all inward peace, and take light out of the eye and elasticity out of the step. These things the heart knows, but no one else knows.

What adds to the pathos is that these sorrows are often covered with laughter as with a veil, and no one suspects that the end of all this apparently spontaneous mirth is to be heaviness. {Proverbs 14:13} The bright talker, the merry jester, the singer of the gay song, goes home when the party separates, and on his threshold he meets the veiled sorrow of his life, and plunges into the chilly shadow in which his days are spent.

The bitterness which surges in our brother’s heart would probably be unintelligible to us if he revealed it; but he will not reveal it, he cannot. He will tell us some of his troubles, many of them, but the bitterness he must keep to himself.

How strange it seems! Here are men and women around us who are unfathomable; the heart is a kind of infinite; we skim the surface, we cannot sound the depths. Here is a merry heart which makes a cheerful countenance, but here is a countenance unclouded and smiling which covers a spirit quite broken. {Proverbs 15:13} Here is a cheerful heart which enjoys a continual feast, {Proverbs 15:15} and finds in its own merriment a medicine for its troubles; {Proverbs 17:22} but we cannot find the secret of the cheerfulness, or catch the tone of the merriment, any more than we can comprehend what it is which is making all the days of the afflicted evil. {Proverbs 15:15}

We are confined as it were to the superficial effects, the lights and shadows which cross the face, and the feelings which express themselves in the tones of the voice. We can guess a little of what lies underneath, but our guesses are as often wrong as right. The index is disconnected, perhaps purposely, from the reality. Sometimes we know that a heart is bitter, but do not even surmise the cause; more often it is bitter and we do not know it. We are veiled to one another; we know our own troubles, we feel our own joys, that is all we can say.

And yet the strangest thing of all is that we hunger for sympathy: we all want to see that light in the eyes of our friends which rejoices the heart, and to hear those good things which make the bones fat. {Proverbs 15:30} Our joy is eager to disclose itself, and often shrinks back appalled to find that our companions did not understand it, but mistook it for an affectation or an illusion. Our sorrow yearns for comprehension, and is constantly doubled in quantity and intensity by finding that it cannot explain itself or become intelligible to others. This rigid and necessary isolation of the human heart, along with such a deep-rooted desire for sympathy, is one of the most perplexing paradoxes of our nature; and though we know well that it is a fact, we are constantly rediscovering it with a fresh surprise. Forgetting it, we assume that everyone will know how we need sympathy, though we have never hung out the signals of distress, and have even presented a most repellent front to all advances; forgetting it, we give expression to our joy, singing songs to heavy hearts, and- disturbing others by unseasonable mirth, as if no icy channels separated us from our neighbors’ hearts, making our gladness seem frigid and our merriment discordant before it reaches their ears. Yet the paradox forces itself on our attention again; human hearts are isolated, alone, without adequate communication, and essentially uncommunicative, yet all of them eagerly desiring to be understood, to be searched, to be fused. Is it a paradox which admits of any explanation? Let us see.

It has been very truly said, "Man is only partially understood, or pitied, or loved by man; but for the fullness of these things he must go to some far-off country." In proportion as we are conscious of being misunderstood, and of being quite unable to satisfy our longing for sympathy and comprehension at human fountains, we are impelled by a spiritual instinct to ask for God; the thought arises in us that He, though He be very far off, must, as our Creator, understand us; and as this thought takes possession of the heart a tremulous hope awakes that perhaps He is not very far off. There lie before us now some beautiful sayings which are partly the expression of this human conviction, and seem partly to be inspired by the Divine response to it. "If thou sayest, Behold, we knew not this man; doth not He that weigheth the heart consider, and he that keepeth the soul, doth not He know?" {Proverbs 24:12, marginal reading} "The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath made even both of them." {Proverbs 20:12} How obvious is the inference that the Maker of the ear and the eye hears those silent things which escape the ear itself, and sees those recesses of the human heart which the human eye is never able to search! "The eyes of the: Lord are in every place, keeping watch upon the evil and the good." {Proverbs 15:3} Sheol and Abaddon are before the Lord: how much more then the hearts of the children of men. {Proverbs 15:11} He sees in the heart what the heart itself does not see. "All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes, but the Lord weigheth the spirits." (Proverbs 16:2, rep. Proverbs 21:2) In fact, the spirit of man itself, the consciousness which clears into self-consciousness, and becomes in moral matters conscience, this "spirit, is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts of the belly," {Proverbs 20:27} so that a "man’s goings are of the Lord"; and he is often moved by this indwelling spirit and guided by this mysterious lamp in a way which "he can hardly understand." {Proverbs 20:24}

This intimacy of knowledge is not without its most solemn, and even terrible, side. It means of course that the Lord knows "the thoughts of the righteous which are just, and the counsels of the wicked which are deceit." {Proverbs 12:5} It means that out of His minute and infallible knowledge He will render to every man according to his works, judging with faultless accuracy according to that "desire of a man which is the measure of his kindness," recognizing the "wish of the poor man," which, though he has not power to perform it, is more valuable than the boasted performances of those who never act up to their power of service. {Proverbs 19:22} It means that "the Lord trieth the hearts just as the tiffing pot tries the silver, and the furnace the gold." {Proverbs 17:3} It means that in thought of such a searching eye, such a comprehensive understanding on the part of the Holy One, none of us can ever say, "I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin." {Proverbs 20:9}

All this it means, and there must be some terror in the thought; but the terror, as we begin to understand, becomes our greatest comfort; for He who thus understands us is the Holy One. Terrible would it be to be searched and known in this minute way by one who was not holy, by one who was morally indifferent, by one who took a curious interest in studying the pathology of the conscience, or by one who had a malignant delight in cherishing vices and rewarding evil thoughts. Though we sometimes desire human sympathy in our corrupt passions and unhallowed desires, and are eager for our confederates in sin to understand our pleasures and our pains, -and out of this desire, it may be observed, comes much of our base literature, and all of our joining with a company to do evil, -yet after all we only desire this confederacy on the understanding that we can reveal as little, and conceal as much, as we like; We should no longer be eager to share our feelings if we understood that in the first contact our whole heart would be laid bare, and all the intricacies of our mind would be explored. We must desire that He who is to search us through and through should be holy, and even though He be strict to mark iniquity, should be one who tries the heart in order to purify it. And when we are awakened and understand, we learn to rejoice exceedingly that He who comes with His lamp to search the inmost recesses of our nature is He who can by no means tolerate iniquity, or pass over transgression, but must burn as a mighty fire wherever He finds the fuel of sin to burn.

Have we not found a solution of the paradox? The human heart is isolated; it longs for sympathy, but cannot obtain it; it seems to depend for its happiness on being comprehended, but no fellow-creature can comprehend it; it knows its own bitterness, which no one else can know; it broods over its own joys, but no one can share them. Then it makes discovery of the truth that God can give it what it requires, that He fully understands, that He can enter into all these silent thoughts and unobserved emotions, that He can offer an unfailing sympathy and a faultless comprehension. In its need the lonely heart takes refuge in Him, and makes no murmur that His coming requires the searching, the chastisement, and the purging of sin.

No human being needs to be misunderstood or to suffer under the sense of misunderstanding. Let him turn at once to God. It is childish to murmur against our fellows, who only treat us as we treat them; they do not comprehend us, neither do we comprehend them; they do not give us, as we think, our due, neither do we give them theirs; but God comprehends both them and us, and He gives to them and to us accurately what is due.

No human being is compelled to bear his bitterness alone, for though he cannot tell it or explain to his fellows, he can tell it, and he need not explain it, to God. Is the bitterness an outcome of sin, as most of our bitterness is? Is it the bitterness of a wounded egotism, or of a remorseful conscience, or of spiritual despondency? Or is it the bitterness which springs from the cravings of an unsatisfied heart, the thirst for self-completeness, the longing for a perfect love? In either case God is perfectly able and willing to meet the need. He delights to turn His knowledge of our nature to the purpose of cleansing and transforming the sinful heart: "By His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify many," He says. He is ready, too, to shed abroad His own rich love in our hearts, leaving no room for the hankering desire, and creating the peace of a complete fulfillment.

No human being need imagine that he is unappreciated; his fellow-men may not want him, but God does. "The Lord hath made everything for His own purpose, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil." He apprehends all that is good in your heart, and will not suffer a grain of pure gold to be lost; while He sees too every particle of evil, and will not suffer it to continue. He knows where the will is set upon righteousness, where the desire is turned towards Him, and will delicately encourage the will, and bountifully satisfy the desire. He sees, too, when the will is hardened against Him, and the desire is set upon iniquity, and He is mercifully resolved to visit the corrupt will and the evil desire with "eternal destruction from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of His might,"-mercifully, I say, for no torture could be more terrible and hopeless than for the evil man to live eternally in the presence of God.

Finally, no human being need be without a sharer of his joy: and that is a great consideration, for joy unshared quickly dies, and is from the beginning haunted by a vague sense of shadow that is falling upon it. In the heart of the Eternal dwells eternal joy. All loveliness, all sweetness, all goodness, all truth, are the objects of His happy contemplation; therefore every really joyful heart has an immediate sympathizer in God; and prayer is quite as much the means by which we share our gladness as the vehicle by which we convey our sorrows to the Divine heart. Is it not beautiful to think of all those timid and retiring human spirits, who cherish sweet ecstasies, and feel glowing exultations, and are frequently caught up in heavenly raptures, which the shy countenance and stammering tongue never could record? They feel their hearts melt with joy in the prospect of broad skies and sunlit fields, in the sound of morning birds and rushing streams; they hear great choirs of happy spirits chanting perpetually in heaven and in earth, and on every side of their obscure way open vistas of inspired vision. No stranger meddles with their joy, or even knows of it.

God is not a stranger; to Him they tell it all, with Him they share it, and their joy is part of the joy of the Eternal.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 14". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/proverbs-14.html.
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