WISDOM AS THE GUIDE OF CONDUCT
"To deliver thee from the way of the evil man…To deliver thee from the strange woman."- Proverbs 2:12-16
WISDOM is concerned, as we have seen, with the whole universe of fact, with the whole range of thought; she surveys and orders all processes of nature. We might say of her,
"She doth preserve the stars from wrong, And the most ancient heavens by her are fresh and strong."
But while she is occupied in these high things, she is no less attentive to the affairs of human life, and her delight is to order human conduct, not despising even the smallest detail of that which is done by men under the sun. Side by side with physical laws, indeed often intertwined with them, appear the moral laws which issue from the lively oracles of Wisdom. There is not one authority for natural phenomena, and another for mental and moral phenomena. As we should say now, Truth is one: Science is one: Law is one. The laws of the physical order, the laws of the speculative reason, the laws of practical life, form a single system, come from the sole mind of God, and are the impartial interests of Wisdom.
As the great authority on Conduct, Wisdom is pictured standing in the places where men congregate, where the busy hum of human voices and the rush of hurried feet make it necessary for her to lift up her voice in order to gain attention. With words of winsome wooing-"for wisdom shall enter into thy heart, and knowledge shall be pleasant unto thy soul" [Proverbs 2:10]-or with loud threats and stern declarations of truth -"the backsliding of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them" [Proverbs 1:32] -she tries to win us, while we are yet young, to her paths of pleasantness and her ways of peace. Her object is to deliver youth,
(1) from the evil man, and
(2) from the evil woman, or in the most comprehensive way "to deliver us from evil."
First of all, we may spend a few moments in noting the particular temptations to which men were exposed in the days when these chapters were written. There was a temptation to join a troop of banditti, and to obtain a living by acts of highway robbery which would frequently result in murder; and there was the temptation to the sin which we call specifically Impurity, a temptation which arose not so much from the existence of a special class of fallen women, as from the shocking looseness and voluptuousness of married women in well-to-do circumstances.
Society under the kings never seems to have reached anything approaching to an ordered security. We cannot point to any period when the mountain roads, even in the neighborhood of the capital, were not haunted by thieves, who lurked in the rocks or the copses, and fell upon passing travelers, to strip and to rob, and if need be to kill them. When such things are done, when such things are even recounted in sensational literature, there are multitudes of young men who are stirred to a debased ambition; a spurious glory encircles the brow of the adventurer who sets the laws of society at defiance; and without any personal entreaty the foolish youth is disposed to leave the quiet ways of industry for the stimulating excitement and the false glamour of the bandit life. The reckless plottings of the robbers are described in Proverbs 1:11-14. The character of the men themselves is given in Proverbs 4:16-17 : "They sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fail. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence." The proverb in Proverbs 24:15 is addressed to such a one: "Lay not wait, O wicked man, against the habitation of the righteous; spoil not his resting-place."
The rebukes of the prophets-Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah-may have a wider application, but they seem at any rate to include this highwayman’s life. "Your hands are full of blood" is the charge of Isaiah; and [Isaiah 1:15] again, "Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity." [Isaiah 59:7] "They build up Zion with blood," says Micah indignantly. [Micah 3:10] Jeremiah cries with still more vehemence to his generation, "Also in thy skirts is found the blood of the souls of the innocent poor": [Jeremiah 2:34] and again, "But thine eyes and thine heart are not but for thy covetousness, and for to shed innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it." [Jeremiah 22:17]
We are to conceive, then, the young and active men of the day constantly tempted to take these unhallowed paths which seemed to promise wealth; the sinners were always ready to whisper in the ears of those whose life was tedious and unattractive, "Cast in thy lot among us; we will all have one purse." The moral sense of the community was not sufficiently developed to heartily condemn this life of iniquity; as in the eighteenth century among, ourselves, so in Israel when this book was written, there existed in the minds of the people at large a lurking admiration for the bold and dashing "gentlemen of the way."
The other special temptation of that day is described in our book with remarkable realism, and there is no false shame in exposing the paths of death into which it leads. In Proverbs 5:3-20 the subject is treated in the plainest way: "Her latter end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on Sheol." It is taken up again in Proverbs 6:24-35 : "Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? or can one walk upon hot coals and his feet not be scorched?" The guilty man who has been betrayed by the glitter and beauty, by the honeyed words and the soft entreaties, "shall get wounds and dishonor, and his reproach shall not be wiped away."
Proverbs 7:5-27 a most vivid picture is drawn of the foolish youth seduced into evil; there he is seen going as an ox to the slaughter, as one in fetters, "till an arrow strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life." And the Introduction closes with a delineation of Folly, which is obviously meant as a counterpart to the delineation of Wisdom in Proverbs 1:20, etc. [Proverbs 9:13-18] The miserable woman sits at the door of her house, on a seat in the high places of the city; with seductive words she wins the foolish passers-by to enter her doors: "The dead are there; her guests are in the depths of Sheol."
It is a temptation which in many varying forms has always beset human life. No small part of the danger is that this evil, above all others, grows in silence, and yet seems to be aggravated by publicity. The preacher cannot speak plainly about it, and even writers shrink from touching the subject. We can, however, be thankful that the book, which is God’s book rather than man’s, knows nothing of our false modesty and conventional delicacy: it speaks out not only boldly, but minutely; it is so explicit that no man who with a prayerful heart will meditate upon its teachings need fall into the pitfall-that pitfall which seems to grow even more subtle and more seductive as civilization advances, and as the great cities absorb a larger proportion of the population; or if he fail he can only admit with shame and remorse, "I have hated instruction, and my heart despised reproof. Neither have I obeyed the voice of my teachers, nor inclined mine ear to them that instructed me. I was well-nigh in all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly." [Proverbs 5:12-14]
In the second place, we must try to look at these temptations in the light of our own day, in order that we may listen to the voice of wisdom, not in the antiquarian, but rather in the practical spirit. The second temptation exists amongst us almost unchanged, except that the vast accumulation and concentration of vice in great cities has provided that mournful band of women whom a great moralist has designated the Vestal Virgins of Humanity, consecrated to shame and ruin in order to preserve unsullied the sacred flame of the domestic altar. The result of this terrible development in evil is that the deadly sin has become safer for the sinner, and in certain circles of society has become recognized as at any rate a venial fault, if not an innocent necessity. It is well to read these chapters again with our eye on the modern evil, and to let the voice of Wisdom instruct us that the life is not the less blighted because the body remains unpunished, and vice is not the less vicious because, instead of ruining others for its gratification, it feeds only on those who are already ruined. If the Wisdom of the Old Testament is obscure on this point, the Wisdom of the New Testament gives no uncertain sound. Interpreting the doctrine of our book, as Christians are bound to do, by the light of Christ, we can be left in no doubt, that to all forms of impurity applies the one principle which is here applied to a specific form: "He doeth it that would destroy his own soul." "His own iniquities shall take the wicked, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sin." [Proverbs 6:32 and Proverbs 5:22]
But with regard to the first of the two temptations, it may be urged that in our settled and ordered society it is no longer felt. "We are not tempted to become highwaymen, nor even to embark on the career of a professional thief." We are disposed to skim lightly over the warning, under the impression that it does not in any way apply to us. But stop a moment! Wisdom spoke in the first instance direct to the vice of her day, but she gave to her precepts a more general coloring, which makes it applicable to all time, when she said, "So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; it taketh away the life of the owners thereof." [Proverbs 1:19] The specific form of greediness described in this first chapter may have become obsolete among decent and respectable people; but that greed of gain which showed itself then in a particular form is alive today. Dressed in a different garb, it presents temptations of a slightly different order; but the spirit is the same, the issue, the fatal issue, is the same. It is a melancholy fact that in the most progressive and civilized communities the greed of gain, instead of dying out, becomes aggravated, acquires a dominant influence, and sways men as the master passion. The United States, a country so bountiful to her children that a settled peace might be supposed to pervade the life of men who can never be in fear of losing the necessaries, or even the comforts, of life, are inflamed with a fierce and fiery passion. Society is one perpetual turmoil; life is lived at the highest conceivable pressure, because each individual is seeking to gain more and ever more. In our own country, though society is less fluid, and ancient custom checks the action of disturbing forces, the passion for gain becomes every year a more exacting tyranny over the lives of the people. We are engaged in a pitiless warfare, which we dignify by the name of competition; the race is to the swift, and the battle to the strong. It becomes almost a recognized principle that man is at liberty to prey upon his fellow man. The Eternal Law of Wisdom declares that we should treat others as we treat ourselves, and count the interests of others dear as our own; it teaches us that we should show a tender consideration for the weak, and be always ready, at whatever cost, to succor the helpless. But competition says, "No; you must try rather to beat the weak out of the field; you must leave no device untried to reduce the strength of the strong, and to divert into your own hands the grist which was going to your neighbor’s mill." This conflict between man and man is untempered by pity, because it is supposed to be unavoidable as death itself. In a community so constituted, where business has fallen into such ways, while the strong may hold their own with a clean hand, the weaker are tempted to make up by cunning what they lack in strength, and the weakest are ground as the nether millstone. The pitilessness of the whole system is appalling, the more so because it is accepted as necessary.
The bandit life has here emerged in a new form. "Come, let us lay wait for blood," says the Sweater or the Fogger, "let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause; let us swallow them up alive as Sheol, and whole as those that go down into the pit." The Bandit is an outcast from society, and his hand is turned against the rich. The Sweater is an outcast from society, and his hand is turned against the poor. By "laying wait" he is able to demand, from weak men, women, and children, the long hours of the day for unceasing toil, and the bitter hours of the night for hunger and cold, until the gaunt creatures, worn with weariness and despair, find a solace in debauchery or an unhallowed rest in death.
Now, though the temptation to become a sweater may not affect many or any of us, I should like to ask, Are there not certain trades or occupations, into which some of us are tempted to enter, perfectly honeycombed with questionable practices? Under the pretext that it is all "business," are not things done which can only be described as preying upon the innocence or the stupidity of our neighbors? Sometimes the promise is, "We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil." [Proverbs 1:13] Sometimes the simple object is to escape starvation. But there is the miserable temptation to sacrifice probity and honor, to stifle compassion and thought, in order to bring into our own coffers the coveted wealth. And is there not, I ask, a similar temptation lurking in a thousand haunts more or less respectable-a temptation which may be described as the spirit of gambling? The essence of all gambling, whether it be called speculative business or gaming, in stock and share markets or in betting clubs and turf rings, is simply the attempt to trade on the supposed ignorance or misfortune of others, and to use superior knowledge or fortune for the purpose, not of helping, but of robbing them. It may be said that we do it in self-defense, and that others would do the same by us; yes, just as the bandit says to the young man, "We do not want to injure the traveler yonder; we want his purse. He will try to shoot you; you only shoot him in self-defense." It is the subtlety of all gambling that constitutes its great danger. It seems to turn on the principle that we may do what we like with our own; it forgets that its object is to get hold of what belongs to others, not by honest work or service rendered, but simply by cunning and deception.
It is, then, only too easy to recognize, in many varied shapes of so-called business and of so-called pleasure, "the ways of those who are greedy of gain." Wisdom has need to cry aloud in our streets, in the chief place of concourse, in the city, in exchanges and marts. Her warning to the young man must be explicit and solemn: "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not." The bandit life still has its attractions, though its methods are changed; it plays upon the idle imagination: it promises freedom from laborious and distasteful toil; but it says nothing of the ways of death into which it leads.
Now, in the third place, we come to the protest of Divine Wisdom against these evil ways in which men are tempted to walk. They are, she says, folly of the most egregious kind. There may be an apparent success or a momentary gratification: "precious substance may be amassed, and houses may be filled with spoil"; but the people who are betrayed into these wicked courses "shall be cut off from the land." [Proverbs 2:22] They "lay wait for their own blood"; greed "taketh away the life of the owner thereof"; [Proverbs 1:19] and as for the strange woman, that flattereth with her words, "none that go unto her return again." [Proverbs 2:19]
It needs but a clear vision or a little wise reflection to see the destructive tendency of Evil. It is the commonest fact of experience that where "vice goes before, vengeance follows after." Why do men not perceive it? There is a kind of fatuity which blinds the eyes. The empty-headed bird sees the net spread out before its eyes; [Proverbs 1:17] many of its fellows have already been caught; the warning seems obvious enough, but it is all "in vain": eager to get the bait-the dainty morsel lying there, easy obtainable - the foolish creature approaches, looks, argues that it is swifter and stronger than its predecessors, who were but weaklings! it will wheel down, take the food, and be gone long before the flaps of the net can spring together. In the same way the empty-headed youth, warned by the experience of elders and the tender entreaties of father and mother, assured that these ways of unjust gain are ways of ruin, is yet rash enough to enter the snare in order to secure the coveted morsel. And what is the issue? Setting at naught all the counsel of Wisdom, he would none of her reproof. [Proverbs 1:25] A momentary success led to wilder infatuation, and convinced him that he was right, and Wisdom was wrong; but his prosperity destroyed him. Soon in the shame of exposure and the misery of remorse he discovers his mistake. Or, worse still, no exposure comes; success continues to his dying day, and he leaves his substance to his heirs; "he eats of the fruits of his own way, and is filled with his own devices," [Proverbs 1:31-32] but none the less he walks in the ways of darkness-in paths that are crooked and perverse-and he is consumed with inward misery. The soul within is hard, and dry, and dead; it is insensible to all feelings except feelings of torture. It is a life so dark and wretched, that when a sudden light is thrown upon its hidden secrets men are filled with astonishment and dismay, that such things could exist underneath that quiet surface.
Finally, note these two characteristics of the Divine Wisdom:
(1) she is found in her fullness only by diligent seekers; and
(2) rejected, she turns into the most scornful and implacable foe.
She is to be sought as silver or hidden treasure is sought. The search must be inspired by that eagerness of desire and passion of resolve with which avarice seeks for money. No faculty must be left unemployed: the ear is to be inclined to catch the first low sounds of wisdom; the heart is to be applied to understand what is heard; the very voice is to be lifted up in earnest inquiry. It is a well-known fact that the fear of the Lord and the knowledge of God are not fruits which grow on every wayside bush, to be plucked by every idle passer-by, to be dropped carelessly and trodden under foot. Without seriousness and devotion, without protracted and unflagging toil, the things of God are not to be attained. You must be up betimes; you must be on your knees early; you must lay open the book of Wisdom, pore over its pages, and diligently turn its leaves, meditating on its sayings day and night. The kingdom of God and His righteousness must be sought, yes, and sought first, sought exclusively, as the one important object of desire. That easy indifference, that lazy optimism-"it will all come right in the end"-that habit of delay in deciding, that inclination to postpone the eternal realities to vanishing shadows, will be your ruin. The time may come when you will call, and there will be no answer, when you will seek diligently, but shall not find. Then in the day of your calamity, when your fear cometh, what a smile of scorn will seem to be on Wisdom’s placid brow, and around her eloquent lips! What derision will seem to ring in the well-remembered counsels which you rejected. [Proverbs 1:24-31] O tide in the affairs of men! O tide in the affairs of God! We are called to stand by death-beds, to look into anguished eyes which know that it is too late. The bandit of commercial life passes into that penal servitude which only death will end; what agony breaks out and hisses in his remorse! The wretched victim of lust passes from the house of his sin down the path which inclines unto death; how terrible is that visage which just retains smirched traces that purity once was there! The voice rings down the doleful road, "If I had only been wise, if I had given ear, wisdom might have entered even into my heart, knowledge might have been pleasant even to my soul!"
And wisdom still cries to us, "Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you."
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 2". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany