Chapter 1

Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
Ralph Wardlaw

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Proverbs 1:5

"A wise man will hear and increase learning,
and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel."

It is a mark of true wisdom to be ever ready to hear. It is ever conscious of its own deficiency, and desirous to gain new acquisitions to its stores of knowledge, and to lay up hints for the regulation of its future course. The more a man knows, the more sensible will he become of his ignorance. As the circle of information widens before him, he sees the more of its unexplored extent. He becomes more and more convinced of the truth of the poet's answer to the question, "What is knowledge?" -- "Tis but to know how little can be known."

And note, my friends, this hearing is the only way to "increase learning." A vast deal of information is many a time lost from the mere fear and shame of revealing our ignorance; but he who hears acquires new ideas by the intercourse of mind with mind. It is incomparably better, surely, to obtain the knowledge at the expense of the detection of our previous ignorance so as to become wiser today than we were yesterday, than to retain the ignorance and forfeit the knowledge for the sake of the false credit of having what we have not. There are few descriptions of vanity more pernicious than this.

The proverbial sayings of this book afford numberless instances of what are called parallelisms in Hebrew composition. The structure of this verse is an example of parallelism--the second clause corresponding very nearly in meaning with the first: "A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel." While he who hears increases knowledge, he who intelligently attends to direction and counsel grows in a profitable acquaintance with the principles of human conduct; and while he learns to regulate his own course of life aright, he acquires the capability of being himself a judicious and useful adviser of others. He "attains unto wise counsels." His understanding is enlarged and sharpened under divine teaching.

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Proverbs 1:7

"The fear Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction."

We have in this seventh verse an explicit declaration of what Solomon means by wisdom. "The fear of the LORD" is a phrase which may fairly be interpreted as meaning true religion--all the principles of godliness. The same sentiment is to be found in other parts of Scripture, as in Psalm 111:10, and in an inspired book of much greater antiquity, Job 28:12-28, a passage marked by a sublimity worthy of the lesson with which it closes--a lesson that should not only be engraved on a rock forever, but (which is of incomparably greater significance) on the heart of every youth in this assembly. If the fear of the LORD is not transcribed from the Scriptures to the heart, what does it profit?

This "fear of the LORD" is an invariable union with love--and in invariable proportion to it. You truly fear God just in proportion as you truly love him. It is founded in knowledge, in the knowledge of the divine character especially as it is revealed in his word; and more especially still in the gospel, where the lovely and blessed harmony of all the divine perfections is manifested in the work of man's salvation.

In Psalm 34:11 the Psalmist invites the young to him and promises to "teach them the fear of the LORD;" that is, to teach them the nature of true religion in its principles and in its practice. And this is properly the first lesson for the young to learn. It is pronounced "the beginning of wisdom." All else is folly without it. All the previous part of life is spent in folly until this one lesson is learned, until this fear takes possession of the heart. Each day's observation shows us that a vast amount of knowledge may be accumulated in minds that are utter strangers to its residence and power; that a man may be eminent for learning, science, and elegant literature without religion, without the indwelling principles of godliness.

Oh, that I could impress the following conviction on the mind of every youth who is engaged, and laudably engaged, in the pursuit of science and literature in all their branches: that as valuable as their acquisitions may be, there is one thing higher than all of them in dignity and better than all of them in real and permanent worth--and that is this primary lesson of the wisdom of Heaven. Comparatively speaking, without this all is folly; and the more ample the powers and the more abundant and varied the learning they enable their possessor to acquire, the greater the folly, because on such attainments the words "holiness to the LORD" have been left out. That man on whom God has bestowed much knowledge yet who has pursued his course with a lofty independence of his Maker (consecrating all he learns to the idolatry of self and perhaps even associating himself with the darkness and degradation of profligacy and vice) has a greater responsibility before God and a more fearful account to give.

He who pursues any avenue of knowledge, however good and honorable in itself, yet at the same time forgets God is, according to this book, emphatically "a fool." He may be admired by men as a very prodigy of science, philosophy, or literature; and he may be adorned with all the titles of human honor, and have his name sent down to future ages with a halo of the light of this world around it; but in the eye of God he stands the object of deep and merited condemnation. While eulogized and extolled on earth, he is pitied and deplored in heaven.

Far be it that I should be understood as undervaluing or disparaging human science. It is interesting and useful to man, and its discoveries are glorifying to God. But, in the language of a poet, what I say is that an "undevout astronomer is mad." In other words, a man who is ever busy studying the works of God and yet at the same time disregards and forgets God himself, is "beside himself." He lives in disobedience to God's will. And in contemptuous rejection of God's revealed mercy, he provides for himself an imaginary immortality on earth while leaving the real immortality of the world to come unprovided for.

Oh, let me recommend to you, first of all, the divine science taught here and throughout this book. There can be no infatuation more wretched than to despise this wisdom and instruction. Such contempt has been lamented in tears of bitter anguish by many a one whom it has brought ultimately to ruin. To this contempt and negligence there is, alas, a sad tendency in the heart by nature; and it is strong in youth. The foolish are very often found ridiculing religion, tempting each other to the scorn and mockery of religion as unmanly, as infantile prejudice and antiquated restraint to which no youth with spirit will submit; or that it is at best only befitting the graver sobriety and full decorum of a later stage of life.

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Proverbs 1:9

"Honor Yahweh with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase;
so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine."

The law of the first-fruits teaches us this important principle--that God should have the first place in his people's generous giving instead of the last. The arrangement of the petitions in the Lord's prayer teach us the same lesson: those which relate to God, his name, and his kingdom precede those which relate to ourselves. The injunction of the Saviour, justly interpreted, is in spirit and letter the same--"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God." Do we then honor the Lord with our substance when, after bestowing lavishly on self all that self can wish--not withholding our heart from any joy--we give a little driblet of our surplus for Him, for his poor, for his cause and kingdom? Does he honor the Lord who, without a grudge, expends ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred dollars on some article of ornamental elegance or mere convenience (or at any rate of very questionable necessity) while the smallest pittance can with difficulty be wrung from him for the great interests of the Redeemer's kingdom? Sums after sums, large and small, for worldly accommodations and enjoyments, and a pound a year for the salvation of the world!

Various are the motives held out to encourage the duty of liberality. In the verses before us, you may be tempted to regard the motive as a somewhat selfish and questionable one: "So your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine." But second thoughts may give you another view of it. It is a trial of faith. And it is a trial than which few are found more difficult. It is hard to persuade a man that giving away will make him rich. We look with more confidence to bank interest, or the still better interest of a vested loan, than to a return of profit from what is given wholly away. It is difficult to convince a man that scattering will increase his store.

While, therefore, the motive in itself looks worldly and selfish, he who comes to feel it so as to act liberally upon it exercises a faith in God that is rare and of the highest order. He walks by faith, not by sight. He who gives to the poor because God has said, "He who has pity on the poor lends to Yahweh" (Prov. 19:17), gives in faith. The promise is that the blessing of God shall be upon the substance and upon the industry of such liberality--upon those whose godliness overcomes their selfishness, and who show their faith and love by their liberality especially to God's own cause.

My brethren, there is too little of proving God in this matter. We can only discover God's faithfulness by putting it to the test; and without a doubt, if there were more of trial on our part there would be proportionally more of the manifestation of faithfulness on his.

And there is even a higher motive than earthly prosperity. Compliance with this injunction is not only a means of increasing our temporal good but of augmenting our blessedness for eternity. For while all the happiness of the world to come shall be bestowed and enjoyed on the ground of grace, yet there shall be degrees of blessedness and glory corresponding to the measure in which the principles of faith and love have been practically manifested; a correspondence between the one and the other, as the apostle expresses it, like that between the seed sown and the crop reaped--the reaping corresponding in amount to the sowing. The right use of worldly substance is one of the ways in which the Lord exhorts his disciples to "provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail" (Luke 12:33). But He whom we serve knows the motives by which we are influenced, so that if one is giving either in the spirit of self-righteousness, or of ostentation, or of any other unwarranted principle, [then] "Let not that man think that he shall obtain anything of the Lord" (James 1:7).

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Proverbs 1:10-16

"My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, 'Come with us, let us lie in wait to shed blood; let us lurk secretly for the innocent without cause' . . . My son, do not walk in the way with them, keep your foot from their path; for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood."

Even by minds that are little--if at all--under the influence of the fear of God, a strong objection might be stated against compliance with solicitation to evil, namely, the risk of discovery and of consequent disgrace and punishment from men. This very natural objection is here met and overruled: "There is no danger," say those tempters. "We do nothing openly. We lay wait, we lurk privily, we take good care not to expose ourselves. We have eluded detection up till now, and we shall elude it still." And they boast themselves in the very art and skill with which they have evaded discovery and cheated all their pursuers.

Is not the same objection many a time silenced in the same way in every department of wickedness, in every description of solicitation to evil? How often in coaxing the inexperienced and unwary youth to become one of their party do the profligate tell him how easily the thing may be done without detection, without father or mother or anyone knowing at all about it! "It may be kept perfectly secret, you know. You may depend upon our secrecy. Not one of us, be assured, will ever betray you; and unless you choose to be such a fool as to blab it out yourself, who is to know it? Come with us. If no one finds it out, where's the harm?"

Now, my young friends, there is only one thing which requires to be said in answer to such suggestive words. These persons do not choose to remember what I fondly trust you will never allow yourselves to forget: that there is an eye that never sleeps, is always present and always wakeful--"THOU, GOD, SEEST ME!" "There is no darkness nor shadow of death where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves" (Job 34:22). Oh, beware. "Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23).

You cannot dig deep enough to hide it from the eyes of the LORD [Yahweh]. And if He sees it, what does it matter if it eludes the detection of every human eye? Should your sins never find a place in any record on earth, forget not that they are recorded in heaven, marked indelibly for judgment in the book of God's remembrance.

There is a natural and fearful progress in sin. Success in it is a curse, for it is an encouragement to go on. In the course of advancement, the inclination onward gains strength while the power of receding declines. Beware then, I pray you, of first steps. Do not smile in self-confident scorn at the well meant warning. Many have scorned it before you, whose scorn has been turned into the bitterness of unavailing regret when miserable experience has forced upon them the lesson of their folly. If you have once given way to the violation of principle, deem nothing within the reach of human power to do in the form of evil impossible for you. You may not only go lengths that will ruin yourselves, you may contribute to the shame and ruin of the companions and victims of your vices. You may ruin families and fortunes. You may break honest and sensitive hearts. You may bring down gray hairs with sorrow to the tomb--the gray hairs of your own loving but disappointed and grief-stricken parents, or of the fathers and mothers of your associates in evil.

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Proverbs 1:24-31

"Because I have called and you refused, I have stretched out my hand and no one regarded, because you disdained all my counsel, and would have none of my rebuke, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your terror comes, when your terror comes like a storm, and your destruction comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but they will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, they would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies."

These are terms of awful import. If sinners feel the thought rising within them that such expressions present a harsh and repulsive view of God, a view of him very unlike a Being who says of himself that he "delights in mercy," then I ask them, "What would they have?"

God does delight in mercy. Is it no sufficient evidence of this that he spares them, and warns them, and invites them, and beseeches them, and stretches out his arms and opens his heart to them, and pleads with them to come to him, and assures them (adding his oath to his word) that he "will in nowise cast them out?" Is it not enough that in order to make way for them to his favor, and to form a ground on which he may receive them to the arms of his love, that he "has not spared his own Son" but given Him up to humiliation and expiatory tears and woes and death for them? Are these things not enough but that they must be allowed also, as a proof of his mercy, to break his laws, scorn his invitations, brave his judgments, and, insulting the agonies of a bleeding and dying Saviour, reject with disdain the grace and pardon that are offered them in his name?

If they will not be satisfied that God is merciful unless they are permitted to do all this and more with impunity, then woe unto them! To those in such a frame of mind we can give no countenance and no encouragement without compromising the glory of God and sacrificing the insulted majesty of Heaven to the misconceptions, the pride, the passion of a worm of the dust!

"Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies." Is not the sentence just? Their miserable end is not the fruit of God's way but of their own. Had they hearkened to Him, had they obeyed His voice, the outcome would have been very different. His plan for them was a plan of salvation. It is by their own devices that they are ruined.

Let me impress upon the mind and conscience of everyone the reason--and the only reason--of the outcome so fearfully described. There is not a word here of inability; it is all unwillingness. And point me out one passage of the Bible where it is otherwise, where sinners are represented as condemned for inability, for not doing what they could not do. The blessed God is no such tantalizer. It is never "ye could not" but "ye would not." And when at any time inability is spoken of, it is inability all of a moral nature, and resolves itself into unwillingness. And this alone leaves the blameworthiness where it ought to lie--not with God but with the sinner. It is of infinite importance thus to justify God.

Every sinner to whom the voice of heavenly Wisdom is addressed, if he perishes, it is the consequence of his own unwillingness to hear and obey that voice. Every such sinner who thus perishes, perishes as one who might have been saved, and whom nothing whatever kept from salvation but his own dislike of its nature and terms. He would not. Every term here is of this description: "would not," "refused," "set at nought," "hated," "did not choose," "despised." "They shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies."

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