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Friday, July 19th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 18

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-24



"He that separates himself follows after his own desire, but against all sound wisdom he shows his teeth."- Proverbs 18:1

FROM the value of friendship there is a natural and easy transition to the evil of isolation. We must try to fathom the profound meaning which is hidden under this simple but striking proverb. To begin with, what are we to understand by "one that separates himself"? This same word occurs in 2 Samuel 1:23 concerning Saul and Jonathan, that "in their death they were not separated." Theirs was a togetherness which accompanied them to the grave. On the other hand, there are people who shun all togetherness in their lives, -they are voluntarily, deliberately separated from their kind, and they seem for the first time to blend with their fellows when their undistinguished dust mixes with the dust of others in the common grave. We are to think of a person who has no ties with any of his fellow creatures, who has broken such ties as bound him to them, or is of that morbid and unnatural humor that makes all intercourse with others distasteful. We are to think more especially of one who chooses this life of solitariness in order to follow out his own desire rather than from any necessity of circumstance or disposition; one who finds his pleasure in ignoring mankind, and wishes for intercourse with them only that he may vent his spleen against them; in a word, we are to think of a misanthrope.

We must be careful in catching the precise idea because there are men who shut themselves off from their kind, rightly or wrongly, in order to seek the common welfare. A student or an inventor, sometimes even a teacher or a preacher, will find the solitude of the study or the laboratory the only condition on which he can accomplish the work to which he is called. The loss of domestic life or of social pleasures, the withdrawal from all the "kindly ways of men," may be a positive pain to him, a cross which he bears for the direct good of those whose company he forswears, or for the cause of truth, in whose service alone it is possible to permanently benefit his fellows. Such a "separation" as this-painful, difficult, unrewarded-we must exclude from the intention of our text, although possibly our text might convey a warning even to these benevolent hermits, that unless the heart is kept warm by human sympathies, unless the mind is kept in touch with the common cares and joys of our kind, the value of even intellectual work will be considerably diminished, while the worker himself must inevitably and perhaps needlessly suffer. But, on the whole, we must except these nobler instances of isolation, if we would feel the full force of the judgment which is pronounced in the text.

The misanthrope is one who has no faith in his fellows, and shrinks into himself to escape them; who pursues his own private ends, avoiding all unnecessary speech with those who are around him, living alone, dying unobserved, except for the mischief which, consciously or unconsciously, he does to those who survive him. Such a one is aptly described as showing his teeth in an angry snarl against all the approaches of a true wisdom.

Shakespeare might have had this proverb before him in that grim delineation of Richard the Third, who boasts that he has neither pity, love, nor fear. He was, he had been told, born with teeth in his mouth.

"And so I was," he exclaims "which plainly signified that I should snarl, and bite, and play the dog."

And then he explains his terrible character in these significant lines:-

"I have no brother, I am like no brother:

And this word Love, which greybeards call divine

Be resident in men like one another,

And not in me; I am myself alone."

Yes, Love can only exist among men who are like one another; and no more damning indictment can be brought against a human being than this, that he is himself alone.

The truth is that every man is not only a "self," a personality, but he is a very complex being made up of many relations with other men. He is a son, a brother, a friend, a father, a citizen. Suppose him to be stripped of all sonship, brotherhood, friendship, fatherhood, and citizenship; there is left, not a man, but a mere self, and that is his hideous condemnation. In the same way, a woman that is neither daughter, nor sister, nor wife, nor friend, nor ministrant, does not deserve the grand name of woman: she is a mere self, a point of exigent and querulous desires. The most appalling discovery in a great city is that multitudes have become mere selves- hungry, hollow, ravening, thirsty, shriveled selves. The father and mother are dead, or left far away, probably never known; no one is brother to them, they are brothers to no one. Friend has no significance to their understanding, or means only one who, from most interested motives, ministers to their craving appetites; they are not citizens of London, nor of any other city; they are not Englishmen, though they were born in England, nor have they any other nationality, -hideous, clamorous, esurient selves, nothing more. An old Greek saying declared that one who lives alone is either a god or a wild beast; while, as we have already seen, there are a few of the isolated ones who are isolated from noble and even Divine motives, the vast majority are in this condition because they have fallen from the level of humanity into the roving and predatory state of wild animals, that seek their meat by night and lurk in a lonely lair by day.

The "sound wisdom" against which the isolated rage is nothing less than the kindly law which makes us men, and ordains that we should not live to ourselves alone, but should fulfill our noble part as members one of another. The social instinct is one of two or three striking characteristics which mark us out as human: a man by himself is only an animal, and a very poor animal too; in size he is far beneath the greatest of the creatures that inhabit land and sea; he is not as swift as the winged denizens of the air; his strength in proportion to his bulk is debility compared with that of the tiniest insects. His distinction in the creation, and his excelling dignity, are derived from the social relations which make him in combination strong, in the intercourse of speech and thought, wise, and in the loving response of heart to heart, noble. If by some unhappy accident a human being wanders early from his place into the forest, is suckled by wild beasts, and grows up among them, the result is an animal inconceivably repulsive, fierce, cunning, and ugly; vulpine, but without the wolf’s agile grace; bearish, but without the bear’s slow-pacing dignity.

The "sound wisdom" is the wisdom of the Creator, who from the beginning determined that it is not good for men to live alone, and marked His conception of the unity which should bind them together by the gift of the woman to the man, to be bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

It becomes therefore a necessity to every wise human being to recognize, to maintain, and to cultivate all those wholesome relationships which make us truly human. "As a bird that wandereth from her nest, so is a man that wandereth from his place." {Proverbs 27:8} Sometimes when a great ship is far off in mid-ocean, a tired land-bird will fall panting and exhausted upon the deck: the wings can beat no longer; the eyes glaze; and the eager wanderer fails and dies. The true bird-life is the life of the woods, of the toilsomely-woven nest, of the mate and the brood and the fledglings. In the same way on those ocean steamers-ay, and in many a weary bye-path and lonely desert of the earth-may be found men who have broken away from the ties which formed their strength and their truer being, and now fall, faint and purposeless, to languish and to die. For true human life is the life of our fellows, of the diligent laborious house building, of the home, of the young, of the rising nestlings which are to form the next link in the long chain of the generations.

Neighborliness is the larger part of life; we are not to go to our distant "brother’s house in the day of our calamity, for better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off." {Proverbs 27:10} Our life is rich and true and helpful just in proportion as we are entwined with those who live around us in bonds of mutual respect and consideration of reciprocal helpfulness and service, of intimate and intelligent friendship.

It is hardly necessary to say that there is neighborliness and neighborliness. Our relation to our neighbors may be that of mere busybodies, tattlers, and whisperers; it may be devoid of tact and consideration: there is need therefore of a warning to "hold back thy foot from thy neighbor’s house; lest he be sated with thee, and hate thee." {Proverbs 25:17} But this possible abuse does not affect the broad and salutary principle: we are meant to live in one another; our nature can realize itself, and accomplish its mission, only in generous and noble relations with those who are about us. The home is at the foundation of all; a good son or daughter will generally make a good man or woman, good brothers will prove good citizens, good sisters good ministrants and teachers to the poor and the ignorant; good fathers will be the best rulers in church and state. The home will be the preparation for the larger life of the town, or the social circle, or the state. And thus from the cradle to the grave no man should live alone, but everyone should be a member of a larger body, holding a definite place in a system or organism, depending on others, with others depending on him. Nerves should run through the body politic, motor nerves and sensory nerves; the joys and pains of a community should be shared, the activities of a community should be united. No one should live to himself; all should live, and rejoice to live, in the great cooperative society of the world, in which personal interests are mutual interests and the gains of each are the gains of all.

But we can hardly probe to the depths of this Proverbial Philosophy without becoming aware that we are touching on an idea which is the mainspring of Christianity on its earthly and visible side. We seem to have detected in all the preceding discussion echoes, however faint, of the Apostolic teaching which gave practical shape and body to the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The relation of Christ, as the Son of God, to the human race as a whole, immediately opened up the possibility of a world-wide society in which all nations, all classes, all castes, all degrees, all individualities, should be not so much merged as distinctly articulated and recognized in a complete and complex whole. The kingdom of heaven, while borrowing its terminology from earthly kingdoms, was unlike any one of them because it was to include them all. Into that kingdom all the peoples, nations, and languages should pass.

The Catholic Church, was the first attempt to realize this grand idea, presented for a time a certain faint and wavering reflection of the image in the heavens. The fault of seeking the unity of the race in a priesthood instead of in the people was of course a fatal one to its own ultimate success, but at least one great service was rendered to humanity; the idea became familiar of a unity, in which the narrower unities of the family, the social circle, and the nation were to find their completion. And when the intelligence and the faith of men broke with the Catholic Church, it was not a breach with the Catholic idea, but merely a transition to a nobler and a more living realization of the idea. At present the idea is daily clearing and assuming vaster proportions; humanity is seen to be one; the Great-Father presides over a family which may be sundered, but cannot be really parted; over a race which is divided, but not actually separated.

Strange and rapturous have been the emotions of men as they have entered into the realization of this idea, and the thrill of their vast fellowship has passed through their hearts. Sometimes they have turned away in bitterness of revolt from the Christian Church, which with harsh dogmatisms and fierce anathemas, with cruel exclusiveness and sectarian narrowness, seems rather to check than to further the sublime thought of the One Father, of whom all the family is named in heaven and in earth. But whatever justification there may be for complaint against the Church, we cannot afford to turn our thoughts from the Son of Man, who has redeemed the race to which we belong, and who, as the Divine Power, is alone able to carry out in effect the great conception which He has given us in thought.

And now I am going to ask you for a moment to consider how the text reads in the light of the work and the presence and the person of Jesus Christ, who has come to gather together in one those that are scattered abroad.

The person of Christ is the link which binds all men together; the presence of Christ is the guarantee of the union; the work of Christ, which consists in the removal of sin, is the main condition of a heart-unity for all mankind. When therefore you put your trust in Christ and your sinful nature is subdued, you are incorporated into a body of which He is the head, and you must pass out of the narrow self-life into the broad Christ-life; you can no longer live for yourself alone, because as the member of a body you exist only in relation to all the other members. "But," it is said, "am I not to seek my own salvation, and then to work it out with fear and trembling? am I not to withdraw from the world, and to labor hard to make my calling and election sure?" In a certain sense, the answer to that question is, Yes. But then it is only in a certain sense; for you make sure of your own salvation precisely in proportion as you are really incorporated into Christ, and are made a genuine member of the body: as St. John says, "We know that we are passed from death unto life because we love the brethren," and "if we walk in the light we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin." We work out our salvation therefore only by losing the self in others; we withdraw from the world and make our calling sure, just as our thoughts become identified with God’s thoughts, and as our lives are passed in cheerful and victorious service.

If, then, on the ground of our humanity we are cautioned against separating ourselves, because by so doing we set our teeth against all sound wisdom, on the ground of our Christianity we must be warned not to separate ourselves, because that means to harden our hearts against the faith itself. When we say to ourselves, "We will live our Christian life alone," that is equivalent to saying, "We will not live the Christian life at all." We do not know what the life in heaven may be, -though from the casual glimpses we obtain of it, we should say that it is a great social gathering, at which we shall sit down with Abraham and all the saints of God, a kind of marriage festivity to celebrate the union of the Lord with His bride, -but it is plain that the Christian life, as it is revealed to us here, must be the life of a community, for it is likened to a vine, from which all dead branches are cut off, and plainly all cut-off branches are dead.

"But," say many people amongst us, "we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; we trust to Him; why should you impose any further conditions?" Do they put their faith in Him? Does not faith imply obedience? Did He not require His disciples to be united in a fellowship, and did He not give His body and His blood as a symbol of this fellowship, and command them to take the symbols in remembrance of Him until He comes? Are these isolated believers obeying Him, or are they not cutting at the root of His glorious purpose of human fellowship in the Divine Head? And if they are thus breaking His expressed commandment, has He not warned them that he will say, "I never knew you, depart from Me." although they have taught in his name, and even cast out devils and done many wonderful works?

And in thus reminding you of our Lord’s thought, I am not speaking only of what we call the fellowship of the Church; for there are many who are merely nominal members of the Church, and though their names are enrolled they "separate themselves" and live the life of unhallowed isolation, just as they did before they professedly entered into the Christian society. This is a larger question than that of Church membership; Church membership derives its vast importance from being a part of this larger question. Will you, therefore, let me close with a personal appeal addressed to each one of you?

You know that the Son of Man would make men one; you know that He calls His disciples into a holy family of mutual love and service, so that men may know that they are His, and may recognize Him because they love one another. Are you venturing to disregard His commandment and to frustrate His will by separating yourself for your own desire? Have you fallen out of all relations with His family, so that the sonship, the brotherhood, the friendship, the fatherhood, the citizenship, of the heavenly kingdom are as good as meaningless to you? If so, may I say in the words of the text, you are setting "your teeth against all sound wisdom?"

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 18". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/proverbs-18.html.
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