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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Proverbs 7

 

 

Verses 1-27

CHAPTER 8

REALISM IN MORAL TEACHING

"I looked forth through my lattice; and I beheld." Proverbs 7:6

THE three chapters which close the introduction of our book (7-9) present a lively and picturesque contrast between Folly and Wisdom-Folly more especially in the form of vice; Wisdom more generally in her highest and most universal intention. Folly is throughout concrete, an actual woman portrayed with such correctness of detail that she is felt as a personal force. Wisdom, on the other band, is only personified: she is an abstract conception: she speaks with human lips in order to carry out the parallel, but she is not a human being, known to the writer. As we shall see in the next Lecture, this high Wisdom never took a human shape until the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ; Folly, unhappily, had become incarnate in myriads of instances: scarcely any city or place where men congregate was, or is without its melancholy example. It follows from this difference between the two that the picture of Folly is a piece of vigorous realism, while the account of Wisdom is a piece of delicate idealism. Folly is historical. Wisdom is prophetic. In this chapter we are concerned with facts which the author witnessed from the window of his house, looking forth through the lattice. [Proverbs 7:6] In the next chapter we shall touch on ideas which he had not seen, and could not have seen unless it were in lofty vision, looking out through the lattice of the soul. In the present chapter we have an opportunity of noticing the immense value and power of pictorial delineation and concrete images in moral teaching; in the next we shall experience the peculiar fascination and inspiration of beautiful abstract conceptions, of disembodied ideals which, so far as we know at the time, are not capable of actual realization.

It is important to remember this difference in order to understand why Wisdom, the shadowy contrast to that Mistress Folly who was only too concrete and familiar, shaped itself to the writer’s mind as a fair and stately woman, a queenly hostess inviting simple ones to her feast; though, as Christians, we have learnt, the historical embodiment of Wisdom was a man, the Word of God, who of God was made unto us wisdom.

Now before we take our stand at the window and look through the lattice into the street, we must notice the exhortations to the young man to make wisdom and understanding his intimate friends, with which the chapter begins. The law is to be kept as the apple of the eye, which is so sensitive, so tender, and at the same time so surpassingly important, that the lid has to shield it by a quick instinctive movement outrunning thought, and the hand has to be ready at all times to come to its succor. The commandments are to be written on the fingers, like engraved rings, which would serve as instant reminders in unwary moments: the very instruments through which the evil would be done are to be claimed and sealed and inscribed by the righteousness which can preserve it from evil, while in the secret tablets of the heart the holy truths are to be written: so that if, in the business of life, the writing on the fingers may get blurred or effaced, the principles of righteousness may yet be kept like priceless archives stored in the inviolable chambers of the inner man. Wisdom is to be treated as a sister, [Proverbs 7:4] not as if there were a natural kinship, but on the ground of the beautiful influence which a true sister, a pure woman soul, exercises over a young man’s life. It is given to a sister again and again, by unfailing sympathy and by sweet comprehending ways, not teasing nor lecturing, but always believing and hoping and loving, to weave a magical spell of goodness and truth around a brother who is exposed to dangerous temptations; she will "maintain for him a saving intercourse with his true self"; when the fires of more ardent affections are burning low, or extinguished in doubt or disgust she will be with him like a calm impersonal presence, unobtrusive, unforgotten, the more potent because she makes no show of power. Such a lovely fraternal relation is to be maintained with Wisdom, constant as a tie of blood, firm as a companionship from earliest infancy, yet exalted and enthusiastic in its way, and promising a lifelong attraction and authority.

This blessed kinship with Understanding should save the young man front such a fate as we are now to contemplate.

It is twilight, not yet absolutely dark, but the shuddering horror of the scene seems to quench the doubtful glimmer of evening and to plunge the observer suddenly into midnight. [Proverbs 7:9] There is a young man coming round the corner of the street. His is no manly walk, but an idle, effeminate saunter-a detail which is not brought out in the English Version. He is a dandy and sadly empty-headed. Now all young men, good and bad alike, pass through a period of dandyism, and it has its uses: but the better the stuff of which the man is made, the more quickly he gets over the crisis, and returns to his senses. This young man is "void of understanding"; his dandyism will be chronic. His is a feeble will and a prurient mind; but his special weakness consists in this, that he thinks he can always resist temptation, and therefore never hesitates to thrust himself in its way. It is as if one were to pride himself on being able to hang on with his fingers to the rim of a well: he is always hanging there, and a touch will send him in. One who is in his opinion weaker would give the dangerous place a wide berth, and nothing but sheer force would bring him to the edge.

This young dandy has nothing to say for himself. A tempter need not be at the trouble to bring any sound arguments, or to make the worse appear the better reason; to this poor weakling the worse the reason is the better it will appear. As you see him lolling down the path with his leering look and his infinite self-satisfaction-good-natured, but without any other goodness; not with bad intentions, but with everything else bad-you can foresee that he will be blown over as easily as a pleasure skiff on a stormy ocean; if you have a compassionate heart you mourn over him at once, for you see the inevitable.

The woman has come out to meet him like a bird-catcher who has been watching for the unwary bird. Now he should escape at once, for her very attire warns him of her intentions. But this is just his weakness; he delights to place himself in such a position; he would say that it is the proof of his manliness that he can resist. She approaches him with a smirk and a smile, with an open countenance but a closed heart. She utters a sound, moving and pathetic like the murmur of harp-strings; it comes from that inward tumult of passion in the woman’s nature which always flutters the heart of a weak youth. She is a wild, undisciplined creature; she always hankers after the forbidden; the quiet home ways are insufferable to her; out in the streets, with their excitement, their variety, their suggestions, their possibilities, she forgets, if she does not quiet, her restlessness. The poor woman-nature which, rightly taught and trained, might make the beauty and sweetness of a home, capable of sanctified affections and of self-sacrificing devotion, is here entirely perverted. The passion is poisoned and now poisonous. The energy is diseased. The charms are all spurious. She goes abroad in the blackness of night because in even a faint light her hideousness would appear; under the paint and the finery she is a hag; her eyes are lusterless but for the temporary fire of her corruptions; behind that voice which croons and ripples there is a subdued moan of despair-the jarring of harp-strings which snap and quiver and shudder and are silent forever. The wise man looks at her with compassionate loathing, God with pity which yearns to save; but this foolish youth is moved by her as only a fool could be moved. His weak understanding is immediately overcome by her flatteries; his polluted heart does not perceive the poison of her heartless endearments.

She throws her arms around him and kisses him, and he makes no question that it is a tribute to the personal attractions which he has himself often admired in his mirror. She would have him believe that it was he whom she had come out specially to seek, though it would have been just the same whoever had caught her eye; and he, deceived by his own vanity, at once believes her. She has a great deal to say; she does not rely on one inducement, for she does not know with whom she has to do; she pours out therefore all her allurements in succession without stopping to take breath.

First, she holds out the prospect of a good meal. She has abundant meat in the house, which comes from the sacrifice she has just been offering, and it must be eaten by the next day, according to the commandment of the Law. [Leviticus 7:16] Or if he is not one to be attracted merely by food, she has appeals to his aesthetic side; her furniture is rich and artistic, and her chamber is perfumed with sweet spices. She perceives perhaps by now what a weak, faint-hearted creature, enervated by vice, unmanly and nervous, she has to do with, and she hastens to assure him that his precious skin will be safe. Her good man is not at home, and his absence will be prolonged; he took money with him for a long journey, and she knows the date of his return. The foolish youth need not fear, therefore, "that jealousy which is the rage of a man"; he will not have to offer gifts and ransom to the implacable husband, because his deed will never be known. How hollow it all sounds, and how suspicious; surely one who had a grain of understanding would answer with manly scorn and with kindling indignation. But our poor young fool, who was so confident of himself, yields without a struggle; with her mere talk, playing upon his vanity, she bends him as if he were a water-weed in a stream-her appeals to his self-admiration drive him forth as easily as the goads urge an ox to the slaughter-house.

And now you may watch him going after her to destruction!

Is there not a pathos in the sight of an ox going to the slaughter? The poor dumb creature is lured by the offer of food or driven by the lash of the driver. It enters the slaughterhouse as if it were a stall for rest and refreshment; it has no idea that "it is for its life." The butcher knows; the bystanders understand the signs; but it is perfectly insensible, taking a transitory pleasure in the unwonted attentions which are really the portents of death. It is not endeared to us by any special interest or affection; the dull, stupid life has never come into any close connection with ours. It has never been to us like a favorite dog, or a pet bird that has cheered our solitary hours. It gave us no response when we spoke to it or stroked its sleek hide. It was merely an animal. But yet it moves our pity at this supreme moment of its life; we do not like to think of the heavy blow which will soon lay the great slow-pacing form prostrate and still in death.

Here is an ox going to the slaughter, -but it is a fellow-man, a young man, not meant for ignominious death, capable of a good and noble life. The poor degraded woman who lures him to his ruin has no such motive of serviceableness as the butcher has. By a malign influence she attracts him, an influence even more fatal to herself than to him. And he appears quite insensible, -occupied entirely with reflections on his glossy skin and goodly form; not suspecting that bystanders have any other sentiment than admiration of his attractions and approval of his manliness, he goes quietly, unresistingly, lured rather than driven, to the slaughter-house.

The effect of comparison with dumb animals is heightened by throwing in a more direct comparison with other human beings. Transposing the words, with Delitzsch, as is evidently necessary in order to preserve the parallelism of the similitude, we find this little touch: "He goeth after her straightway, as a fool to the correction of the fetters,"-as if the Teacher would remind us that the fate of the young man, tragic as it is, is yet quite devoid of the noble aspects of tragedy. This clause is a kind of afterthought, a modification. "Did we say that he is like the ox going to the slaughter?-nay, there is a certain dignity in that image, for the ox is innocent of its own doom, and by its death many will benefit; with our pity for it we cannot but mingle a certain gratitude, and we find no room for censure; but this entrapped weakling is after all only a fool, of no service or interest to any one, without any of the dignity of our good domestic cattle; in his corrupt and witless heart is no innocence which should make us mourn. And the punishment he goes to, though it is ruin, is so mean and degrading that it awakes the jeers and scorn of the beholders. As if he were in the village stocks, he will be exposed to eyes which laugh while they despise him. Those who are impure like himself will leer at him; those who are pure will avert their glance with an ill-disguised contempt." There, then, goes the ox to the slaughter; nay, the mere empty-headed fool to the punishment of the fetters, which will keep him out of further mischief, and chain him down to the dumb lifeless creation to which he seems to belong.

But the scorn changes rapidly to pity. Where a fellow-creature is concerned we may not feel contempt beyond that point at which it serves as a rebuke, and a stimulus to better things. When we are disposed to turn away with a scornful smile, we become aware of the suffering which the victim of his own sins will endure. It will be like an arrow striking through the liver. Only a moment, and he will be seized with the sharp pain which follows on indulgence. Oh the nausea and the loathing, when the morning breaks and he sees in all their naked repulsiveness the things which he allowed to fascinate him yester-eve! What a bitter taste is in his mouth; what a ghastly and livid hue is on the cheek which he imagined fair! He is pierced; to miserable physical sufferings is joined a sense of unspeakable degradation, a wretched depression of spirits, a wish to die which is balanced in horrid equilibrium by a fear of death.

And now he will arise and flee out of this loathly house, which seems to be strewn with dead men’s bones and haunted by the moaning spirits of the mighty host which have here gone down into Sheol. But what is this? He cannot flee. He is held like a bird in the snare, which beats its wings and tries to fly in vain; the soft yielding net will rise and fall with its efforts, but will not suffer it to escape. He cannot flee, for if he should escape those fatal doors, before to-morrow’s sun sets he will be seized with an overmastering passion, a craving which is like the gnawing of a vulture at the liver; by an impulse which he cannot resist he will be drawn back to that very corner; there will not be again any raptures, real or imagined, only racking and tormenting desires; there will be no fascination of sight or scent or taste; all will appear as it is-revolting; the perfumes will all be rank and sickly, the meat will all be blighted and fly-blown; but none the less he must back; there, poor, miserable, quivering bird, he must render himself, and must take his fill of loves? no, of maudlin rapture and burning disgust; solace himself? no, but excite a desire which grows with every satisfaction, which slowly and surely, like that loathsome monster of the seas, slides its clinging suckers around him, and holds him in an embrace more and more deadly until he finally succumbs.

Then he perceives that the fatal step that he took was "for his life," that is, his life was at stake. When he entered into the trap, the die was cast; hope was abandoned as he entered there. The house which appeared so attractive was a mere covered way to hell. The chambers which promised such imagined delights were on an incline which sloped down to death.

Look at him during that brief passage from his foolish heedlessness to his irretrievable ruin, a Rake’s Progress presented in simple and vivid pictures, which are so terrible because they are so absolutely true.

After gazing for a few minutes upon the story, do we not feel its power? Are there not many who are deaf to all exhortations, who will never attend to the words of Wisdom’s mouth, who have a consummate art in stopping their ears to all the nobler appeals of life, who yet will be arrested by this clear presentation of a fact, by the teacher’s determination not to blink or underrate any of the attractions and seductions, and by his equal determination not to disguise or diminish any of the frightful results?

We may cherish the sweetness and the purity which reticence will often preserve, but when the sweetness and the purity are lost, reticence will not bring them back, and duty seems to require that we should lay aside our fastidiousness and speak out boldly in order to save the soul of our brother.

But after dwelling on such a picture as this there is a thought which naturally occurs to us; in our hearts a yearning awakes which the book of Proverbs is not capable of meeting. Warnings so terrible, early instilled into the minds of our young men, may by God’s grace be effectual in saving them from the decline into those evil ways, and from going astray in the paths of sin. Such warnings ought to be given, although they are painful and difficult to give. But when we have gone wrong through lack of instruction, when a guilty silence has prevented our teachers from cautioning us, while the corrupt habits of society have drawn us insensibly into sin, and a thousand glozing excuses have veiled from our eyes the danger until it is too late, is there nothing left for us but to sink deeper and deeper into the slough, and to issue from it only to emerge in the chambers of death?

To this question Jesus gives the answer. He alone can give it. Even that personified Wisdom whose lofty and philosophical utterances we shall hear in the next chapter, is not enough. No advice, no counsel, no purity, no sanctity of example can avail. It is useless to upbraid a man with his sins when he is bound hand and foot with them and cannot escape. It is a mockery to point out, what is only too obvious, that without holiness no man can see God, at a moment when the miserable victim of sin can see nothing clearly except the fact that he is without holiness. "The pure in heart shall see God" is an announcement of exquisite beauty, it has a music which is like the music of the spheres, a music at which the doors of heaven seem to swing open; but it is merely a sentence of doom to those who are not pure in heart. Jesus meets the corrupt and ruined nature with the assurance that He has come "to seek and to save that which was lost." And lest a mere assertion should prove ineffectual to the materialized and fallen spirit. Jesus came and presented in the realism of the Cross a picture of Redemption which could strike hearts that are too gross to feel and too deaf to hear. It might be possible to work out ideally the redemption of man in the unseen and spiritual world. But actually, for men whose very sin makes them unspiritual, there seems to be no way of salvation which does not approach them in a tangible form. The horrible corruption and ruin of our physical nature, which are the work of sin, could be met only by the Incarnation, which should work out a redemption through the flesh.

Accordingly, here is a wonder which none can explain, but which none can gainsay. When the victim of fleshly sin, suffering from the arrow which has pierced his liver, handed over as it seems to despair, is led to gaze upon the Crucified Christ, and to understand the meaning of His bearing our sins, in His own body on the tree, he is touched, he is led to repentance, he is created anew, his flesh comes again to him as a little child, he can offer up to God the sacrifice of a contrite heart, and he is cleansed.

This is a fact which has been verified again and again by experience. And they who have marked the power of the Cross can never sufficiently admire the wisdom and the love of God, who works by ways so entirely unlike our ways, and has resources at His command which surpass our conception and baffle our explanation.

If there is a man literally broken down and diseased with sin, enfeebled in will and purpose, tormented by his evil appetite so that he seems like one possessed, the wisest counsels may be without any effect paint in the most vivid hues the horrible consequences of his sin, but he will remain unmoved: apply the coercion of a prison and all the punishments which are at the disposal of an earthly judge, and he will return to his vicious life with a gusto increased by his recuperated physical strength: present to him the most touching appeals of wife and children and friends, and while he sheds sentimental tears he will continue to run the downward way. But let him be arrested by the spectacle of Christ crucified for him, let the moving thought of that priceless love and untold suffering stir in his heart, let his eyes be lifted never so faintly to those eyes of Divine compassion, -and though he seemed to have entered the very precincts of the grave, though the heart within him seemed to have died and the conscience seemed to be seared with a hot iron, you will observe at once the signs of returning animation; a cry wilt go up from the lips, a sob will convulse the frame, a light of passionate hope will come into the eyes. Christ has touched him. Christ is merciful. Christ is powerful. Christ will save.

Ah, if I speak to one who is bound with the cords of his sin, helplessly fettered and manacled, dead as it were in trespasses, I know there is no other name to mention to you, no other hope to hold out to you. Though I knew all science, I could not effectually help you; though I could command all the springs of human feeling, I could not stir you from your apathy, or satisfy the first cries of your awaking conscience. But it is permitted to me to preach unto you-not abstract Wisdom,-but Jesus, who received that name because He should save His people from their sins.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 7:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/proverbs-7.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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