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Friday, May 24th, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Proverbs 29

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-27



"Where no vision is, a people casts off restraint, but he that keepeth the law is happy."- Proverbs 29:18

THE form of the proverb shows that we are not to treat the vision and the law as opposite, but rather as complementary terms. Visions are it is true, especially the mark of the prophets, and the law is often confined in a special sense to the Pentateuch; but there is a much wider usage of the words, according to which the two together express, with tolerable completeness, what we mean by Revelation. The vision means a perception of God and His ways, and is quite as applicable to Moses as to Isaiah; and, on the other hand, the law covers all the distinct and articulate instruction which God gives to His people in any of His ways of self-communication. "Come ye," says Isaiah, {Isaiah 2:3} "and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem"; where the whole context shows that, not the Mosaic Law, but rather a new and particular declaration of the Lord’s will, is referred to.

But while the vision and the law are not to be treated as opposites, it is possible to distinguish between them. The vision is the actual contact between God and the human spirit, which is the necessary condition of any direct revelation; the law is the recorded result of such a revelation, either passed from mouth to mouth by tradition, or written permanently in a book.

We may then a little amplify the proverb for the sake of exposition: "Where there is no living revelation, no perceived contact between man and God, there the bonds which hold society together are relaxed or broken; but he that holds by the revelation that has been given, obeying the law, so far as it has been presented to him, happy is he."

Man has need of a revelation; that is the assertion. Society, as an ordered and happy body of men in which each person is rightly subordinated to the whole, and in which law, as distinct from individual caprice, prevails, requires a revealed law. The light of nature is good, but it is not sufficient. The common sense of mankind is powerful, but not powerful enough. In the absence of a real and valid declaration of God’s will times must come when the elemental passions of human nature will break out with unrestrained violence, the teachings of morality will be disputed, their authority will be denied, and their yoke will be broken; the links which hold the state and the community together will snap, and the slow growths of ages may disappear in a moment. It is not difficult to show the truth of this assertion from experience. Every people that emerges from barbarism has a vision and a law; a certain revelation which forms the foundation, the sanction, the bond of its corporate existence. When you can point to a tribe or a group of tribes that know nothing of God, and therefore have no idea of revelation, you at once assure us that the people are sunk in a hopeless savagery. We are, it is true, inclined to deny the term revelation to those systems of religion which lie outside of the Bible, but it is difficult to justify such a contraction of view. God has not left Himself anywhere without a witness. The more closely we examine the multitudinous religions of the earth, the more clearly does it appear that each of them had at its origin a definite, however limited, revelation. The idea of One all-powerful, good, and wise, God is found at the beginning of each faith that can be traced back far enough, and the actual condition of heathen systems always suggests a decline from a higher and a purer religion. We may say, then, with much plausibility, that no lasting and beneficial form of human society has ever existed apart from a vision and a law.

But leaving the wide field of comparative religions, do we not see an illustration of the truth of the text in the European countries which are more subject to our observation? In proportion as a people loses its faith in revelation it falls into decay. This was made manifest in the experience of the French Revolution. When the Jacobins had emancipated themselves from the idea of God, and had come out into the clear light of reason, so terribly did they "cast off restraint" that their own leader, Robespierre, endeavored with a feverish haste to restore the recognition of God, assuming himself the position of high pontiff to the Supreme Being. The nearest approach that the world has probably ever seen to a government founded on Atheism was this government of the French Revolution, and a more striking commentary on this text could hardly be desired.

But the need of a revelation can be apprehended, apart from all appeals to history, by simply studying the nature of the spirit of man. Man must have an object of worship, and that object must be such as to command his worship. Auguste Comte thought to satisfy this need of the heart by suggesting Humanity as the Grand Etre, but humanity was and is nothing but an abstraction. Feeling this himself, he recommended the worship of woman, and he prostrated his heart before Clotilde de Vaux; but sacred and beautiful as a man’s love of a woman may be, it is no substitute for worship. We must have quite another than ourselves and our own kind, if our hearts are to find their rest. We must have an Almighty, an Infinite; we must have one who is Love. Until his spirit is worshipping, man cannot realize himself, or attain the height of his intended stature.

Again, man must have an assurance of his own immortality. While he believes himself to be mortal, a creature of a day, and that an uncertain day, it is impossible for him to rise much above the level of other ephemeral things. His pursuits must be limited, and his aims must be confined. His affections must be chilled by the shadow of death, and in proportion as he has nobly striven and tenderly loved, his later years must be plunged in hopeless gloom, because his efforts have been ineffectual and his beloved have gone from him. No juggling with terms; no half-poetic raptures about "the choir invisible," can meet the mighty craving of the human heart. Man must be immortal, or he is not man. "He thinks he was not made to die."

But to meet these demands of the spirit what, apart from revelation, can avail? That metaphysics is futile practically all men are agreed. Only the philosopher can follow the dialectics which are to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And even the philosopher seems to grow pale and wizened in the process of his demonstration, and wins at last a vantage-ground of cold conviction, to find that there is no comfort there. But can science offer the assurance which philosophy was unable to give? Let us listen to the conclusion of a scientific writer on this subject, one who has lost his hold on revelation and can realize a little of what he has lost.

"The highest and most consoling beliefs of the human mind," he says, "are to a great extent bound up with the Christian religion. If we ask ourselves frankly how much, apart from this religion, would remain of faith in a God, and in a future state of existence, the answer must be, very little. Science traces everything back to primeval atoms and germs, and there it leaves us. How came these atoms and energies there, from which this wonderful universe of worlds has been evolved by inevitable laws? What are they in their essence, and what do they mean? The only answer is, It is unknowable. It is ‘behind the veil,’ and may be anything. Spirit may be matter, matter may be spirit. We have no faculties by which we can even form a conception from any discoveries of the telescope or microscope, from any experiments in the laboratory, or from any facts susceptible of real human knowledge, of what may be the first cause underlying all these phenomena."

"In like manner we can already, to a great extent, and probably in a short time shall be able to the fullest extent to trace the whole development of life from the lowest to the highest; from protoplasm, through monera, infusoria, mollusca, vertebrata, fish, reptile and mammal, up to man; and the individual man from the microscopic egg, through the various stages of its evolution up to birth, childhood, maturity, decline, and death. We can trace also the development of the human race through enormous periods of time, from the modest beginnings up to its present level of civilization, and show how arts, languages, morals, and religions have been evolved gradually by human laws from primitive elements, many of which are common in their ultimate form to man and the animal creation."

"But here also science stops. Science can give no account of how these germs and nucleated cells, endowed with these marvelous capacities for evolution, came into existence, or got their intrinsic powers. Nor can science enable us to form the remotest conception of what will become of life, consciousness, and conscience, when the material conditions with which they are always associated, while within human experience, have been dissolved by death, and no longer exist. We know as little, in the way of accurate and demonstrable knowledge, of our condition after death as we do of our existence-if we had an existence-before birth."

Science frankly confesses that she can tell us nothing of the things which it most concerns us to know. On those things she is no farther advanced than she was in the days of Aristotle. Never do we feel how much men need a revelation so vividly as when we have grasped the first principles of such a great scientific thinker as Mr. Herbert Spencer, and realize how far he is able to take us and how soon he has to leave us. How does it meet the craving of the soul for God to show us the slow stages by which man became a living soul? As well might you try to satisfy the musician’s ear by. telling him how his art had grown from the primitive tom-tom of the savage. How can it help the life to be lived wisely, lovingly, and well, in the midst of the uncertainty of the world, and confronted by the certainty of death, to be told that our physical structure is united by a thousand immediate links with that of other mammals. Such a fact is insignificant; the supreme fact is that we are not like other mammals in the most important respects; we have hearts that long and yearn, minds which enquire and question- they have not; we want God, our heart and our flesh crieth out for the living God, and we demand an eternal life- they do not.

How can science pretend that what she does not know is not knowledge, while she has to confess that she does not know precisely the things which it most concerns us as men to know? How can the spirit of man be content with the husks which she gives him to eat, when his whole nature craves the kernel? What probability is there that a man will close his eyes to the sun because another person, very clever and industrious, has shut himself up in a dark cellar, and tries to persuade him that his candle is all the light he may legitimately use, and what cannot be seen by his candle is not real?

No, science may not prove revelation, but she proves our need of it. She does her utmost, she widens her borders, she is more earnest, more accurate, more informed, more efficacious than ever: but she shows that what man most wants she cannot give, -she bids him go elsewhere.

But now it may be said: It is one thing to prove that man needs a revelation, and another to show that a revelation has been given. That is perfectly true, and this is not the place to adduce all the evidence which might prove that revelation is a reality; but what an advance we have made on the cold, self-satisfied deism of the eighteenth century, which maintained that the light of nature was enough, and revelation was quite superfluous, when the truest and most candid voices of science are declaring with such growing clearness that for the knowledge which revelation professes to give, revelation, and revelation alone, will suffice!

We Christians believe that we have a revelation, and we find that it suffices. It gives us precisely those assurances about God and about the soul without which we falter, grow bewildered, and begin to despond. We have a vision and a law. Our Bible is the record of the ever-widening, ever-clearing vision of God. The power and authority of the vision seem to be the more convincing, just because we are permitted to see the process of its development. Here we are able to stand with the seer and see, not the long aeonian stages of creation which science has been painfully tracking out in these later days, but the supreme fact, which science professes herself unable to see, that God was the Author of it all. Here we are able to see the first imperfect conception of God which came in vision and in thought to the patriarch or sheikh in the earliest dawn of civilization. Here we can observe the conceptions clearing, through Moses, through the Psalmists, through the Prophets, until at last we have a vision of God in the person of His Son, who is the brightness of the Father’s glory, the express image of His countenance. We see that He, the unseen Creator, is Love.

Our Bible, too, is the record of a law, -a law of human conduct, the will of God as applied to earthly, life. At first the law is confined to a few primitive practices and outward observances; then it grows in complexity and multiplication of details; and only after a long course of discipline, of effort and apparent failure, of teaching and-deliberate disobedience, is the law laid bare to its very roots, and presented in the simplified and self-evidencing form of the Sermon on the Mount and the apostolic precepts.

It is not necessary to start with any particular theory about the Bible, any more than it is necessary to know the substance of the sun before we can warm ourselves in his beams. It is not necessary to look for scientific accuracy in the histories and treatises through which the vision and the law are communicated to us. We know that the vessels are earthen, and the presupposition all through is that the light was only growing from the glimmer of the dawn up to the perfect day. But we know, we are persuaded, that here, to seeing eyes and humble hearts, is the revelation of God and of His will.

Nor is it only in the Bible that God speaks to us. There have been times in the history of Christendom-such times as the middle of the eighteenth century-when though the Bible was in men’s hands, it seemed to be almost a dead letter. "There was no vision, and the people cast off restraint." It is by living men and women to whom He grants visions and reveals truths, that God maintains the purity and power of His revelation to us. He came in vision to Fox and the early Friends, to Zinzendorf and the early Moravians, to Wesley and the early Methodists. Seldom does a generation pass but some seers are sent to make the Word of God a living influence to their age. The vision is not always unmixed with human error, and when it ceases to be living it may become obstructive, a cause of paralysis rather than of progress. But Augustine and Jerome, Benedict and Leo, Francis and Dominic, Luther and Calvin, Ignatius Loyola, and Xavier, Fenelon and Madame Guyon, Jonathan Edwards and Channing, Robertson and Maurice, Erskine and MacLeod Campbell, are but examples of God’s method all down the Christian ages. The vision comes pure and fresh as if straight from the presence of God. Traditionalism crumbles away. Doubt retreats like a phantom of the night. Mighty moral revolutions and spiritual awakenings are accomplished by the means of His chosen ones. And it should be our desire and our joy to recognize and welcome these seers of God.

"He that keepeth the law, happy is he." It is a mournful thing to be without a revelation, and to grope in darkness at midday; to hold one’s mind in melancholy suspense, uncertain about God, about His will, about the life eternal. But it is better to have no revelation than to have it and disregard it. Honest doubt is full of necessary sorrow, but to believe and not to obey is the road to inevitable ruin. "He that keepeth"-yea, he that looks into revelation, not for curiosity, but for a law by which to live; who listens to the wise precepts, not in order to exclaim, "How wise they are!" but in order to act on them.

There are many professing Christians who are constantly plunged in gloom. Unbelievers may point the finger at them, and say, "They believe in God, in salvation, and in heaven, but see what an effect it has on them. Do they really believe?" Oh, yes, they really believe, but they do not obey; and no amount of faith brings any lasting happiness apart from obedience. The law requires us to love God, to love men; it requires us to abstain from all appearance of evil, to touch not the unclean thing; it bids us love not the world, it tells us how impossible the double service of God and Mammon is. Now, though we believe it all, it can give us nothing but pain unless we live up to it. If there is a vision and we shut our eyes to it, if there is a law and we turn away from it, woe unto us! But if we receive the vision, if we loyally and earnestly keep the law, the world cannot fathom the depth of our peace, nor rise to the height of our joy.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 29". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/proverbs-29.html.
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