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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
Proverbs 1

 

 

Verses 1-19

Proverbs

A YOUNG MAN’S BEST COUNSELLOR

Proverbs 1:1 - Proverbs 1:19.

This passage contains the general introduction to the book of Proverbs. It falls into three parts-a statement of the purpose of the book [Proverbs 1:1 - Proverbs 1:6]; a summary of its foundation principles, and of the teachings to which men ought to listen [Proverbs 1:7 - Proverbs 1:9]; and an antithetic statement of the voices to which they should be deaf [Proverbs 1:10 - Proverbs 1:19].

I. The aim of the book is stated to be twofold-to enable men, especially the young, to ‘know wisdom,’ and to help them to ‘discern the words of understanding’; that is, to familiarise, by the study of the book, with the characteristics of wise teachings, so that there may be no mistaking seducing words of folly for these. These two aims are expanded in the remaining verses, the latter of them being resumed in Proverbs 1:6, while the former occupies the other verses.

We note how emphatically the field in which this wisdom is to be exercised is declared to be the moral conduct of life. ‘Righteousness and judgment and equity’ are ‘wise dealing,’ and the end of true wisdom is to practise these. The wider horizon of modern science and speculation includes much in the notion of wisdom which has no bearing on conduct. But the intellectual progress {and conceit} of to-day will be none the worse for the reminder that a man may take in knowledge till he is ignorant, and that, however enriched with science and philosophy, if he does not practise righteousness, he is a fool.

We note also the special destination of the book-for the young. Youth, by reason of hot blood and inexperience, needs such portable medicines as are packed in these proverbs, many of them the condensation into a vivid sentence of world-wide truths. There are few better guides for a young man than this book of homely sagacity, which is wisdom about the world without being tainted by the bad sort of worldly wisdom. But unfortunately those who need it most relish it least, and we have for the most part to rediscover its truths for ourselves by our own, often bitter, experience.

We note, further, the clear statement of the way by which incipient ‘wisdom’ will grow, and of the certainty of its growth if it is real. It is the ‘wise man’ who will ‘increase in learning,’ the ‘man of understanding’ who ‘attains unto sound counsels.’ The treasures are thrown away on him who has no heart for them. You may lavish wisdom on the ‘fool,’ and it will run off him like water off a rock, fertilising nothing, and stopping outside him.

The Bible would not have met all our needs, nor gone with us into all regions of our experience, if it had not had this book of shrewd, practical common-sense. Christianity is the perfection of common sense. ‘Godliness hath promise of the life which now is.’ The wisdom of the serpent, which Jesus enjoins, has none of the serpent’s venom in it. It is no sign of spirituality of mind to be above such mundane considerations as this book urges. If we hold our heads too high to look to our road and our feet, we are sure to fall into a pit.

II., Proverbs 1:7 - Proverbs 1:9 may be regarded as a summary statement of the principle on which the whole book is based, and of the duty which it enjoins. The principle is that true wisdom is based on religion, and the duty is to listen to parental instruction. ‘My son,’ is the address of a teacher to his disciples, rather than of a father to his child. The characteristic Old Testament designation of religion as ‘the fear of Jehovah’ corresponds to the Old Testament revelation of Him as the Holy One,-that is, as Him who is infinitely separated from creatural being and limitations. Therefore is He ‘to be had in reverence of all’ who would be ‘about Him’; that fear of reverential awe in which no slavish dread mingles, and which is perfectly consistent with aspiration, trust, and love. The Old Testament reveals Him as separate from men; the New Testament reveals Him as united to men in the divine man, Christ Jesus. Therefore its keynote is the designation of religion as ‘the love of God’; but that name is no contradiction of the earlier, but the completion of it.

That fear is the beginning or basis of wisdom, because wisdom is conceived of as God’s gift, and the surest way to get it is to ‘ask of God’ [James 1:5]. Religion is, further, the foundation of wisdom, inasmuch as irreligion is the supreme folly of creatures so dependent on God, and so hungering after Him in the depths of their being, as we are. In whatever directions a godless man may be wise, in the most important matter of all, his relations to God, he is unwise, and the epitaph for all such is ‘Thou fool!’

Further, religion is the fountain of wisdom, in the sense of the word in which this book uses it, since it opens out into principles of action, motives, and communicated powers, which lead to right apprehension and willing discharge of the duties of life. Godless men may be scientists, philosophers, encyclopaedias of knowledge, but for want of religion, they blunder in the direction of their lives, and lack wisdom enough to keep them from wrecking the ship on the rocks.

The Israelitish parent was enjoined to teach his or her children the law of the Lord. Here the children are enjoined to listen to the instruction. Reverence for traditional wisdom was characteristic of that state of society, and since a divine revelation stood at the beginning of the nation’s history, it was not unreasonable to look back for light. Nowadays, a belief’s being our fathers’ is with many a reason for not making it ours. But perhaps that is no more rational than the blind adherence to the old with which this emancipated generation reproaches its predecessors. Possibly there are some ‘old lamps’ better than the new ones now hawked about the streets by so many loud-voiced vendors. The youth of this day have much need of the exhortation to listen to the ‘instruction’ {by which is meant, not only teaching by word, but discipline by act} of their fathers, and to the gentler voice of the mother telling of law in accents of love. These precepts obeyed will be fairer ornaments than jewelled necklaces and wreathed chaplets.

III. On one side of the young man are those who would point him to the fear of Jehovah; on the other are seducing whispers, tempting him to sin. That is the position in which we all stand. It is not enough to listen to the nobler voice. We have resolutely to stop our ears to the baser, which is often the louder. Facile yielding to the cunning inducements which strew every path, and especially that of the young, is fatal. If we cannot say ‘No’ to the base, we shall not say ‘Yes’ to the noble voice. To be weak is generally to be wicked; for in this world the tempters are more numerous, and to sense and flesh, more potent than those who invite to good.

The example selected of such enticers is not of the kind that most of us are in danger from. But the sort of inducements held out are in all cases substantially the same. ‘Precious substance’ of one sort or another is dangled before dazzled eyes; jovial companionship draws young hearts. The right or wrong of the thing is not mentioned, and even murder and robbery are presented as rather pleasant excitement, and worth doing for the sake of what is got thereby. Are the desirable consequences so sure? Is there no chance of being caught red-handed, and stoned then and there, as a murderer? The tempters are discreetly silent about that possibility, as all tempters are. Sin always deceives, and its baits artfully hide the hook; but the cruel barb is there, below the gay silk and coloured dressing, and it-not the false appearance of food which lured the fish-is what sticks in the bleeding mouth.

The teacher goes on, in Proverbs 1:15 - Proverbs 1:19, to supply the truth which the tempters tried to ignore. He does so in three weighty sentences, which strip the tinsel off the temptation, and show its real ugliness. The flowery way to which they coax is a way of ‘evil’; that should be enough to settle the question. The first thing to ask about any course is not whether it is agreeable or disagreeable, but Is it right or wrong? Proverbs 1:17 is ambiguous, but probably the ‘net’ means the tempters’ speech in Proverbs 1:11 - Proverbs 1:14, and the ‘bird’ is the young man supposed to be addressed. The sense will then be, ‘Surely you are not foolish enough to fly right into the meshes, and to go with your eyes open into so transparent sin!’

Proverbs 1:18 points to the grim possibility already referred to, that the would-be murderers will be caught and executed. But its lesson is wider than that one case, and declares the great solemn truth that all sin is suicide. Who ever breaks God’s law slays himself.

What is true about ‘covetousness,’ as Proverbs 1:19 tells, is true about all kinds of sin-that it takes away the life of those who yield to it, even though it may also fill their purses, or in other ways may gratify their desires. Surely it is folly to pursue a course which, however it may succeed in its immediate aims, brings real death, by separation from God, along with it. He is not a very wise man who ties his gold round him when the ship founders. He is not parted from his treasure certainly, but it helps to sink him. We may get what we want by sinning, but we get also what we did not want or reckon on-that is, eternal death. ‘This their way is their folly.’ Yet, strange to tell, their posterity ‘approve their sayings,’ and follow their doings.


Verses 20-33

Proverbs

WISDOM’S CALL

Proverbs 1:20 - Proverbs 1:33.

Our passage begins with a striking picture. A fair and queenly woman stands in the crowded resorts of men, and lifts up a voice of sweet entreaty-authoritative as well as sweet. Her name is Wisdom. The word is in the plural in the Hebrew, as if to teach that in this serene and lovely form all manifold wisdoms are gathered and made one. Who then is she? It is easy to say ‘a poetical personification,’ but that does not add much to our understanding. It is clear that this book means much more by Wisdom than a human quality merely; for august and divine attributes are given to her, and she is the co-eternal associate of God Himself. Dwelling in His bosom, she thence comes forth to inspire all human good deeds, to plead evermore with men, to enrich those who listen to her with choicest gifts. Intellectual clearness, moral goodness, religious devotion, are all combined in the idea of Wisdom as belonging to men.

The divine source of all, and the correspondence between the human and the divine nature, are taught in the residence of this personified Wisdom with God before she dwelt with men. The whole of the manifold revelations, by which God makes known any part of His will to men, are her voice. Especially the call contained in the Old Testament revelation is the summons of Wisdom. But whether the writer of this book had any inkling of deeper truth still, or not, we cannot but connect the incomplete personification of divine Wisdom here with its complete incarnation in a Person who is ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God,’ and who embodies the lineaments of the grand picture of a Wisdom crying in the streets, even while it is true of Him that ‘He does not strive nor cry, nor cause His voice to be heard in the streets’; for the crying, which is denied to be His, is ostentatious and noisy, and the crying which is asserted to be hers is the plain, clear, universal appeal of divine love as well as wisdom. The light of Christ ‘lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’

The call of Wisdom in this passage begins with remonstrance and plain speech, giving their right names to men who neglect her voice. The first step in delivering men from evil-that is, from foolish-courses is to put very clearly before them the true character of their acts, and still more of their inclinations. Gracious offers and rich promises come after; but the initial message of Wisdom to such men as we are must be the accusation of folly. ‘When she is come, she will convict the world of sin.’

The three designations of men in Proverbs 1:22 are probably arranged so as to make a climax. First come ‘the simple,’ or, as the word means, ‘open.’ There is a sancta simplicitas, a holy ignorance of evil, which is sister to the highest wisdom. It is well to be ignorant as well as ‘innocent of much transgression’; and there is no more mistaken and usually insincere excuse for going into foul places than the plea that it is best to know the evil and so choose the good. That knowledge comes surely and soon enough without our seeking it. But there is a fatal simplicity, open-eared, like Eve, to the Tempter’s whisper, which believes the false promises of sin, and as Bunyan has taught us, is companion of sloth and presumption.

Next come ‘scorners,’ who mock at good. A man must have gone a long way down hill before he begins to gibe at virtue and godliness. But the descent is steep, though the distance is long; and the ‘simple’ who begins to do what is wrong will come to sneer at what is right.

Then last comes the ‘fool,’ the name which, in Proverbs, is shorthand for mental stupidity, moral obstinacy, and dogged godlessness,-a foul compound, but one which is realised oftener than we think. A great many very superior intellects, cultivated ladies and gentlemen, university graduates, and the like, would be unceremoniously set down by divine wisdom as fools; and surely if account is taken of the whole compass and duration of our being, and of all our relations to things and persons seen and unseen, nothing can be more stupid than godlessness, however cultured. The word literally means coarse or thick, and may suggest the idea of stolid insensibility as the last stage in the downward progress.

But note that the charge is directed, not against deeds, but dispositions. Perverted love and perverted hatred underlie acts. The simple love simplicity, preferring to be unwarned against evil; the scorner finds delight in letting his rank tongue blossom into speech; and the false direction given to love gives a fatal twist to its corresponding hate, so that the fool detests ‘knowledge’ as a thief the policeman’s lantern. You cannot love what you should loathe, without loathing what you should love. Inner longings and revulsions settle character and acts.

Proverbs 1:23 passes into entreaty; for it is vain to rouse conscience by plain speech, unless something is offered to make better life possible. The divine Wisdom comes with a rod, but also with gifts; but if the rod is kissed, the rewards are possessed. The relation of clauses in Proverbs 1:23 is that the first is the condition of the fulfilment of the second and third. If we turn at her reproof, two great gifts will be bestowed. Her spirit within will make us quick to hear and receive her words sounding without. Whatever other good follows on yielding to the call of divine Wisdom {and the remaining early chapters of Proverbs magnificently detail the many rich gifts that do follow}, chief of all are spirits swift to hear and docile to obey her voice, and then actual communications to purged ears. Outward revelation without prepared hearts is water spilt upon rock. Prepared hearts without a message to them would be but multiplication of vain longings; and God never stultifies Himself, or gives mouths without sending meat to fill them. To the submissive spirit, there will not lack either disposition to hear or clear utterance of His will.

But now comes a pause. Wisdom has made her offers in the crowded streets, and amid all the noise and bustle her voice has rung out. What is the result? Nothing. Not a head has been turned, nor an eye lifted. The bustle goes on as before. ‘They bought, they sold,’ as if no voice had spoken. So, after the disappointed waiting of Wisdom, her voice peals out again, but this time with severity in its tones. Note how, in Proverbs 1:24 - Proverbs 1:25, the sin of sins against the pleading Wisdom of God is represented as being simple indifference. ‘Ye refused,’ ‘no man regarded,’ ‘set at nought,’ ‘would none of’-these are the things which bring down the heavy judgments. It does not need violent opposition or black crime to wreck a soul. Simply doing nothing when God speaks is enough to effect destruction. There is no need to lift up angry arms in hostility. If we keep them hanging listless by our sides, it is sufficient. The gift escapes us, if we simply keep our hands shut or held behind our backs. Alas, for ears which have not heard, for seeing eyes which have not seen because they loved evil simplicity and hated knowledge!

Then note the terrible retribution. That is an awful picture of the mocking laughter of Wisdom, accompanying the rush of the whirlwind and the groans of anguish and shrieks of terror. It is even more solemn and dreadful than the parallel representations in Psalms 2:1 - Psalms 2:12, for there the laughter indicates God’s knowledge that the schemes of opponents are vain, but here it figures pleasure in calamities. Of course it is to be remembered that the Wisdom thus represented is not to be identified with God; but still the imagery is startling, and needs to be taken along with declarations that God has ‘no pleasure in the death of the sinner,’ and to be interpreted as indicating, with daring anthropomorphism, the inevitable character of the ‘destruction,’ and the uselessness of appeals to the Wisdom once despised. But we joyfully remember that the Incarnate Wisdom, fairer than the ancient personification, wept over the city which He knew must perish.

Proverbs 1:28 - Proverbs 1:31 carry on the picture of too late repentance and inevitable retribution. They who let Wisdom cry, and paid no heed, shall cry to her in their turn, and be unnoticed. They whom she vainly sought shall vainly seek for her. Actions have their consequences, which are not annihilated because the doers do not like them. Thoughts have theirs; for the foolish not only eat of the fruit of their ways or doings, but are filled with their own devices or counsels. ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ That inexorable law works, deaf to all cries, in the field of earthly life, both as regards condition and character; and that field of its operation is all that the writer of this book has in view. He is not denying the possibility of forgiveness, nor the efficacy of repentance, nor is he asserting that a penitent soul ever seeks God in vain; but he is declaring that it is too late to cry out for deliverance from consequences of folly when the consequences have us in their grip, and that wishes for deliverance are vain, though sighs of repentance are not. We cannot reap where we have not sowed. We must reap what we have. If we are such sluggards that we will ‘not plough in winter by reason of the cold,’ we shall ‘beg in harvest and have nothing.’

But though the writer had probably only this life in view, Jesus Christ has extended the teaching to the next, when He has told of those who will seek to enter in and not be able. The experience of the fruits of their godlessness will make godless men wish to escape eating the fruits-and that wish shall be vain. It is not for us to enlarge on such words, but it is for us all to lay them to heart, and to take heed that we listen now to the beseeching call of the heavenly Wisdom in its tenderest and noblest form, as it appeared in Christ, the Incarnate Word.

Proverbs 1:32 - Proverbs 1:33 generalise the preceding promises and warnings in a great antithesis. ‘The backsliding [or, turning away] of the simple slays them.’ There is allusion to Wisdom’s call in Proverbs 1:23. The simple had turned, but in the wrong direction-away from and not towards her. To turn away from heavenly Wisdom is to set one’s face toward destruction. It cannot be too earnestly reiterated that we must make our choice of one of two directions for ourselves-either towards God, to seek whom is life, to find whom is heaven; or away from Him, to turn our backs on whom is to embrace unrest, and to be separate from whom is death. ‘The security of fools,’ by which is meant, not their safety, but their fancy that they are safe, ‘destroys them.’ No man is in such danger as the careless man of the world who thinks that he is all right. A traveller along the edge of a precipice in the night, who goes on as if he walked a broad road and takes no heed to his footing, will soon repent his rashness at the bottom, mangled and bruised. A man who in this changing world fancies that he sits as a king, and sees no sorrow, will have a rude wakening. A moment’s heed saves hours of pain.

The alternative to this suicidal folly is in listening to Wisdom’s call. Whoever does that will ‘dwell safely,’ not in fancied but real security; and in his quiet heart there need be no unrest from feared evils, for he will have hold of a charm which turns evils into good, and with such a guide he cannot go astray, nor with such a defender be wounded to death, nor with such a companion ever be solitary. If Christ be our Light, we shall not walk in darkness. If He be our Wisdom, we shall not err. If He be our Life, we shall never see death. If He is our Good, we shall fear no evil.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Proverbs 1:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/proverbs-1.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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