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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture
Proverbs 16

 

 

Verse 2

Proverbs

WHAT I THINK OF MYSELF AND WHAT GOD THINKS OF ME

Proverbs 16:2.

‘All the ways of a man’-then there is no such thing as being conscious of having gone wrong, and having got into miry and foul ways? Of course there is; and equally of course a broad statement such as this of my text is not to be pressed into literal accuracy, but is a simple, general assertion of what we all know to be true, that we have a strange power of blinding ourselves as to what is wrong in ourselves and in our actions. Part of the cure for that lies in the thought in the second clause of the text-’But the Lord weigheth the spirits.’ He weighs them in a balance, or as a man might take up something and poise it on his palm, moving his hand up and down till his muscles by their resistance gave him some inkling of its weight. But what is it that God weighs? ‘The spirits.’ We too often content ourselves with looking at our ways; God looks at ourselves. He takes the inner man into account, estimates actions by motives, and so very often differs from our judgment of ourselves and of one another.

Now so far the verse of my text carries me, and as a rule we have to keep ourselves within the limits of each verse in reading this Book of Proverbs, for two adjoining verses have very seldom anything to do with each other. But in the present case they have, for here is what follows: ‘Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts’ {about thyself and everything else} ‘shall be established.’ That is to say, since we make such terrible blunders about the moral character of our own works, and since side by side with these erroneous estimates there is God’s absolutely correct and all-penetrating one, common sense says: ‘Put yourself into His hands, and then it will be all right.’ So we consider now these very well-worn and familiar thoughts as to our strange blunders about ourselves, as to the contemporaneous divine estimate, which is absolutely correct, and as to the practical issues that come from two facts.

I. Our strange power of blinding ourselves.

It is difficult to make so threadbare a commonplace at all impressive. But yet if we would only take this thought, ‘All the ways of a man’-that is me-’are right in his own eyes’-that is, my eyes-and apply it directly to our own personal experience and thoughts of ourselves, we should find that, like every other commonplace of morality and religion, the apparently toothless generality has sharp enough teeth, and that the trite truth flashes up into strange beauty, and has power to purify and guide our lives. Some one says that ‘recognised truths lie bedridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with exploded errors.’ And I am afraid that that is true of this thought, that we cannot truly estimate ourselves.

‘All the ways of a man are right in his own eyes.’ For to begin with, we all know that there is nothing that we so habitually neglect as the bringing of conscience to bear right through all our lives. Sometimes it is because there is a temptation that appeals very strongly, perhaps to sense, perhaps to some strong inclination which has been strengthened by indulgence. And when the craving arises, that is no time to begin asking, ‘Is it right, or is it wrong to yield?’ That question stands small chance of being wisely considered at a moment when, under the goading of roused desire, a man is like a mad bull when it charges. It drops its head and shuts its eyes, and goes right forward, and no matter whether it smashes its horns against an iron gate, and damages them and itself, or not, on it will go. So when great temptations rise-and we all know such times in our lives-we are in no condition to discuss that question with ourselves. Sometimes the craving is so vehement that if we could not get this thing that we want without putting our hands through the sulphurous smoke of the bottomless pit, we should thrust them out to grasp it. But in regard to the smaller commonplace matters of daily life, too, we all know that there are whole regions of our lives which seem to us to be so small that it is hardly worth while summoning the august thought of ‘right or wrong?’ to decide them. Yes, and a thousand smugglers that go across a frontier, each with a little package of contraband goods that does not pay any duty, make a large aggregate at the year’s end. It is the trifles of life that shape life, and it is to them that we so frequently fail in applying, honestly and rigidly, the test, ‘Is this right or wrong?’ ‘He that is faithful in that which is least,’ and conscientious down to the smallest things, ‘is faithful also in much.’ The legal maxim has it, ‘The law does not care about the very smallest matters.’ What that precisely means, as a legal maxim, I do not profess to know, but it is rank heresy in regard to conduct and morality. Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. Get the habit of bringing conscience to bear on little things, or you will never be able to bring it to bear when great temptations come and the crises emerge in your lives. Thus, by reason of that deficiency in the habitual application of conscience to bur lives, we slide through, and take for granted that all our ways are right in our eyes.

Then there is another thing: we not only neglect the rigid application of conscience to all our lives, but we have a double standard, and the notion of right and wrong which we apply to our neighbours is very different from that which we apply to ourselves. No wonder that the criminal is acquitted, and goes away from the tribunal ‘without a stain on his character,’ when he is his own judge and jury. ‘All the ways of a man are right in his own eyes,’ but the very same ‘way’s that you allow to pass muster and condone in yourselves, you visit with sharp and unfailing censure in others. That strange self-complacency which we have, which is perfectly undisturbed by the most general confessions of sinfulness, and only shies when it is brought up to particular details of faults, we all know is very deep in ourselves.

Then there is another thing to be remembered, and that is-the enormous and the tragical influence of habit in dulling the mirror of our souls, on which our deeds are reflected in their true image. There are places in Europe where the peasantry have become so accustomed to minute and constantly repeated doses of arsenic that it is actually a minister of health to them, and what would poison you is food for them. We all know that we may sit in a hall like this, packed full and steaming, while the condensed breath is running down the windows, and never be aware of the foulness of the odours and the air. But when we go out and feel the sweet, pure breath of the unpolluted atmosphere, then we know how habit has dulled the lungs. And so habit dulls the conscience. According to the old saying, the man that began by carrying a calf can carry an ox at the end, and feel no burden. What we are accustomed to do we scarcely ever recognise to be wrong, and it is these things which pass because they are habitual that do more to wreck lives than occasional outbursts of far worse evils, according to the world’s estimate of them. Habit dulls the eye.

Yes; and more than that, the conscience needs educating just as much as any other faculty. A man says, ‘My conscience acquits me’; then the question is, ‘And what sort of a conscience have you got, if it acquits you?’ All that your conscience says is, ‘It is right to do what is right, it is wrong to do what is wrong.’ But for the explanation of what is wrong and what is right you have to go somewhere else than to your consciences. You have to go to your reason, and your judgment, and your common sense, and a hundred other sources. And then, when you have found out what is right and what is wrong, you will hear the voice saying, ‘Do that, and do not do this.’ Every one of us has faults that we know nothing about, and that we bring up to the tribunal of our consciences, and wipe our mouths and say, ‘We have done no harm.’ ‘I thought within myself that I verily ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.’ ‘They think that they do God service.’ Many things that seem to us virtues are vices.

And as for the individual so for the community. The perception of what is right and what is wrong needs long educating. When I was a boy the whole Christian Church of America, with one voice, declared that ‘slavery was a patriarchal institution appointed by God.’ The Christian Church of to-day has not awakened either to the sin of war or of drink. And I have not the smallest doubt that there are hosts of things which public opinion, and Christian public opinion, regards to-day as perfectly allowable and innocent, and, perhaps, even praiseworthy, and over which it will ask God’s blessing, at which, in a hundred years our descendants will hold up their hands in wonder, and say, ‘How did good people-and good people they no doubt were-tolerate such a condition of things for a moment?’ ‘All a man’s ways are right in his own eyes,’ and he needs a great deal of teaching before he comes to understand what, according to God’s will, really, is right and what is wrong.

Now let me turn for a moment to the contrasted picture, with which I can only deal in a sentence or two.

II. The divine estimate.

I have already pointed out the two emphatic thoughts that lie in that clause, ‘God weigheth,’ and ‘weigheth the spirits.’ I need not repeat what I said, in the introduction to these remarks, upon this subject. Just let us take with us these two thoughts, that the same actions which we sometimes test, in our very defective and loaded balances, have also to go into the infallible scales, and that the actions go with their interpretation in their motive. ‘God weighs the spirits.’ He reads what we do by His knowledge of what we are. We reveal to one another what we are by what we do, and, as is a commonplace, none of us can penetrate, except very superficially and often inaccurately, to the motives that actuate. But the motive is three-fourths of the action. God does not go from without, as it were, inwards; from our actions to estimate our characters; but He starts with the character and the motive-the habitual character and the occasional motive-and by these He reads the deed. He weighs, ponders, penetrates to the heart of the thing, and He weighs the spirits.

So on the one hand, ‘I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief,’ and many a deed which the world would condemn, and in which we onlookers would see evil, God does not wholly condemn, because He, being the Inlooker as well as the Onlooker, sees the albeit mistaken yet pure motives that underlay it. So it is conceivable that the inquisitor, and the heretic that he sent to the stake, may stand side by side in God’s estimate; the one if he were actuated by pure zeal for the truth, the other because he was actuated by self-sacrifice in loyalty to his Lord. And, on the other hand, many a deed that goes flaunting through the world in ‘purple and fine linen’ will be stripped of its gauds, and stand naked and ugly before the eyes of ‘Him with whom we have to do.’ He ‘weighs the spirits.’

Lastly, a word about-

III. The practical issues of these thoughts.

‘Commit thy works unto the Lord’-that is to say, do not be too sure that you are right because you do not think you are wrong. We should be very distrustful of our own judgments of ourselves, especially when that judgment permits us to do certain things. ‘I know nothing against myself,’ said the Apostle, ‘yet am I not hereby justified.’ And again, still more emphatically, he lays down the principle that I would have liked to have enlarged upon if I had had time. ‘Happy is he that condemneth not himself in the things which he alloweth.’ You may have made the glove too easy by stretching. It is possible that you may think that something is permissible and right which a wiser and more rigid and Christlike judgment of yourself would have taught you was wrong. Look under the stones for the reptiles, and remember the prayer, ‘Cleanse thou me from secret faults,’ and distrust a permitting and easy conscience.

Then, again, let us seek the divine strengthening and illumination. We have to seek that in some very plain ways. Seek it by prayer. There is nothing so powerful in stripping off from our besetting sins their disguises and masks as to go to God with the honest petition: ‘Search me . . . and try me . . . and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ Brethren! if we will do that, we shall get answers that will startle us, that will humble us, but that will be blessed beyond all other blessedness, and will bring to light the ‘hidden things of darkness.’ Then, after they are brought to light and cast out, ‘then shall every man have praise of God.’

We ought to keep ourselves in very close union with Jesus Christ, because if we cling to Him in simple faith, He will come into our hearts, and we shall be saved from walking in darkness, and have the light of life shining down upon our deeds. Christ is the conscience of the Christian man’s conscience, who, by His voice in the hearts that wait upon Him, says, ‘Do this,’ and they do it. It is when He is in our spirits that our estimate of ourselves is set right, and that we hear the voice saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it’; and not merely do we hear the voice, but we get help to our feet in running in the way of His commandments, with enlarged and confirmed hearts. Brethren! for the discovery of our faults, which we ought all to long for, and for the conquest of these discovered faults, which, if we are Christians, we do long for, our confidence is in Him. And if you trust Him, ‘the blood of Christ will cleanse’-because it comes into our life’s blood-’from all sin.’

And the last thing that I would say is this. We must punctiliously obey every dictate that speaks in our own consciences, especially when it urges us to unwelcome duties or restrains us from too welcome sins. ‘To him that hath shall be given’-and the sure way to condemn ourselves to utter blindness as to our true selves is to pay no attention to the glimmers of light that we have, whilst, on the other hand, the sure way to be led into fuller illumination is to follow faithfully whatsoever sparkles of light may shine upon our hearts. ‘Do the duty that lies nearest thee.’ Put thy trust in Jesus Christ. Distrust thine own approbation or condonation of thine actions, and ever turn to Him and say, ‘Show me what to do, and make me willing and fit to do it.’ Then there will be little contrariety between your estimate of your ways and God’s judgments of your spirits.


Verses 22-33

Proverbs

A BUNDLE OF PROVERBS

Proverbs 16:22 - Proverbs 16:33.

A slight thread of connection may be traced in some of the proverbs in this passage. Proverbs 16:22, with its praise of ‘Wisdom,’ introduces one instance of Wisdom’s excellence in Proverbs 16:23, and that again, with its reference to speech, leads on to Proverbs 16:24 and its commendation of ‘pleasant words.’ Similarly, Proverbs 16:27 - Proverbs 16:30 give four pictures of vice, three of them beginning with ‘a man.’ We may note, too, that, starting with Proverbs 16:26, every verse till Proverbs 16:30 refers to some work of ‘the mouth’ or ‘lips.’

The passage begins with one phase of the contrast between Wisdom and Folly, which this book is never weary of emphasising and underscoring. We shall miss the force of its most characteristic teaching unless we keep well in mind that the two opposites of Wisdom and Folly do not refer only or chiefly to intellectual distinctions. The very basis of ‘Wisdom,’ as this book conceives it, is the ‘fear of the Lord,’ without which the man of biggest, clearest brain, and most richly stored mind, is, in its judgment, ‘a fool.’ Such ‘understanding,’ which apprehends and rightly deals with the deepest fact of life, our relation to God and to His law, is a ‘well-spring of life.’ The figure speaks still more eloquently to Easterns than to us. In those hot lands the cool spring, bursting through the baked rocks or burning sand, makes the difference between barrenness and fertility, the death of all green things and life. So where true Wisdom is deep in a heart, it will come flashing up into sunshine, and will quicken the seeds of all good as it flows through the deeds. ‘Everything liveth whithersoever the river cometh.’ Productiveness, refreshment, the beauty of the sparkling wavelets, the music of their ripples against the stones, and all the other blessings and delights of a perpetual fountain, have better things corresponding to them in the life of the man who is wise with the true Wisdom which begins with the fear of God. Just as it is active in the life, so is Folly. But its activity is not blessing and gladdening, but punitive. For all sin automatically works its own chastisement, and the curse of Folly is that, while it corrects, it prevents the ‘fool’ from profiting by the correction. Since it punishes itself, one might expect that it would cure itself, but experience shows that, while it wields a rod, its subjects ‘receive no correction.’ That insensibility is the paradox and the Nemesis of ‘Folly.’

The Old Testament ethics are remarkable for their solemn sense of the importance of words, and Proverbs shares in that sense to the full. In some aspects, speech is a more perfect self-revelation than act. So the outflow of the fountain in words comes next. Wise heart makes wise speech. That may be looked at in two ways. It may point to the utterance by word as the most precious, and incumbent on its possessor, of all the ways of manifesting Wisdom; or it may point to the only source of real ‘learning,’-namely, a wise heart. In the former view, it teaches us our solemn obligation not to hide our light under a bushel, but to speak boldly and lovingly all the truth which God has taught us. A dumb Christian is a monstrosity. We are bound to give voice to our ‘Wisdom.’ In the other aspect, it reminds us that there is a better way of getting Wisdom than by many books,-namely, by filling our hearts, through communion with God, with His own will. Then, whether we have worldly ‘learning’ or no, we shall be able to instruct many, and lead them to the light which has shone on us.

There are many kinds of pleasant words, some of which are not like ‘honey,’ but like poison hid in jam. Insincere compliments, flatteries when rebukes would be fitting, and all the brood of civil conventionalities, are not the words meant here. Truly pleasant ones are those which come from true Wisdom, and may often have a surface of bitterness like the prophet’s roll, but have a core of sweetness. It is a great thing to be able to speak necessary and unwelcome truths with lips into which grace is poured. A spoonful of honey catches more flies than a hogshead of vinegar.

Proverbs 16:25 has no connection with its context. It teaches two solemn truths, according to the possible double meaning of ‘right.’ If that word means ethically right, then the saying sets forth the terrible possibility of conscience being wrongly instructed, and sanctioning gross sin. If it means only straight, or level-that is, successful and easy-the saying enforces the not less solemn truth that sin deceives as to its results, and that the path of wrong-doing, which is flowery and smooth at first, grows rapidly thorny, and goes fast downhill, and ends at last in a cul-de-sac, of which death is the only outlet. We are not to trust our own consciences, except as enlightened by God’s Word. We are not to listen to sin’s lies, but to fix it well in our minds that there is only one way which leads to life and peace, the narrow way of faith and obedience.

The Revised Version’s rendering of Proverbs 16:26 gives the right idea. ‘The appetite,’ or hunger, ‘of the labourer labours for him’ {that is, the need of food is the mainspring of work}, and it lightens the work to which it impels. So hunger is a blessing. That is true in regard to the body. The manifold material industries of men are, at bottom, prompted by the need to earn something to eat. The craving which drives to such results is a thing to be thankful for. It is better to live where toil is needful to sustain life than in lazy lands where an hour’s work will provide food for a week. But the saying reaches to spiritual desires, and anticipates the beatitude on those who ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ Happy they who feel that craving, and are driven by it to the labour for the bread which comes down from heaven! ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.’

The next three proverbs [Proverbs 16:27 - Proverbs 16:29] give three pictures of different types of bad men. First, we have ‘the worthless man’ {Rev. Ver.}, literally ‘a man of Belial,’ which last word probably means worthlessness. His work is ‘digging evil’; his words are like scorching fire. To dig evil seems to have a wider sense than has digging a pit for others [Psalms 7:15], which is usually taken as a parallel. The man is not merely malicious toward others, but his whole activity goes to further evil. It is the material in which he delights to work. What mistaken spade husbandry it is to spend labour on such a soil! What can it grow but thistles and poisonous plants? His words are as bad as his deeds. No honey drops from his lips, but scorching fire, which burns up not only reputations but tries to consume all that is good. As James says, such a tongue is ‘set on fire of hell.’ The picture is that of a man bad through and through. But there may be indefinitely close approximations to it, and no man can say, ‘Thus far will I go in evil ways, and no further.’

The second picture is of a more specific kind. The ‘froward man’ here seems to be the same as the slanderer in the next clause. He utters perverse things, and so soweth strife and parts friends. There are people whose mouths are as full of malicious whispers as a sower’s basket is of seed, and who have a base delight in flinging them broadcast. Sometimes they do not think of what the harvest will be, but often they chuckle to see it springing in the mistrust and alienation of former friends. A loose tongue often does as much harm as a bitter one, and delight in dwelling on people’s faults is not innocent because the tattler did not think of the mischief he was setting agoing.

In Proverbs 16:29 another type of evil-doer is outlined-the opposite, in some respects, of the preceding. The slanderer works secretly; this mischief-maker goes the plain way to work. He uses physical force or ‘violence.’ But how does that fit in with ‘enticeth’? It may be that the enticement of his victim into a place suitable for robbing or murder is meant, but more probably there is here the same combination of force and craft as in Proverbs 1:10 - Proverbs 1:14. Criminals have a wicked delight in tempting innocent people to join their gangs. A lawless desperado is a hotbed of infection.

Proverbs 16:30 draws a portrait of a bad man. It is a bit of homely physiognomical observation. A man with a trick of closing his eyes has something working in his head; and, if he is one of these types of men, one may be sure that he is brewing mischief. Compressed lips mean concentrated effort, or fixed resolve, or suppressed feeling, and in any of these cases are as a danger signal, warning that the man is at work on some evil deed.

Two sayings follow, which contrast goodness with the evils just described. The ‘if’ in Proverbs 16:31 weakens the strong assertion of the proverb. ‘The hoary head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness.’ That is but putting into picturesque form the Old Testament promise of long life to the righteous-a promise which is not repeated in the new dispensation, but which is still often realised. ‘Whom the gods love, die young,’ is a heathen proverb; but there is a natural tendency in the manner of life which Christianity produces to prolong a man’s days. A heart at peace, because stayed on God, passions held well in hand, an avoidance of excesses which eat away strength, do tend to length of life, and the opposites of these do tend to shorten it. How many young men go home from our great cities every year, with their ‘bones full of the iniquities of their youth,’ to die!

If we are to tread the way of righteousness, and so come to ‘reverence and the silver hair,’ we must govern ourselves. So the next proverb extols the ruler of his own spirit as ‘more than conquerors,’ whose triumphs are won in such vulgar fields as battles and sieges, Our sorest fights and our noblest victories are within.

‘Unless above himself he can

Erect himself, how poor a thing is man!’

Proverbs 16:31 takes the casting of the lot as one instance of the limitation of all human effort, in all which we can but use the appropriate means, while the whole issue must be left in God’s hands. The Jewish law did not enjoin the lot, but its use seems to have been frequent. The proverb presents in the sharpest relief a principle which is true of all our activity. The old proverb-maker knew nothing of chance. To him there were but two real moving forces in the world-man and God. To the one belonged sowing the seed, doing his part, whether casting the lot or toiling at his task. His force was real, but derived and limited. Efforts and attempts are ours; results are God’ s. We sow; He ‘gives it a body as it pleases Him.’ Nothing happens by accident. Man’s little province is bounded on all sides by God’ s, and the two touch. There is no neutral territory between, where godless chance rules.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Proverbs 16:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/proverbs-16.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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