Chapter 14

Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
Ralph Wardlaw

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Proverbs 14:12

"There is a way which seems right to a man,
but its end is the way of death."

There are some ways which can hardly "seem right" to any man, such as those of open and flagrant wickedness. But there are many which, under the biased influence of pride and corruption, seem right, and yet their end is death.

There is the way of the sober, well-behaved worldling. He flatters himself in proportion as he is flattered by others. And yet he lives without God, a stranger to the spiritual feelings and exercises of a renewed heart. He lives without regard to the divine authority as his rule, the divine glory as his end, the divine love as his motive, the divine blessing as his portion. And with all his earth-born virtues he goes down to the grave with a lie in his right hand. His way "seems right." But it is not the way of life, for God is not in it.

There is the way of the formalist. He strictly and punctually follows the routine of external religious observance. He reads his Bible. He goes pretty regularly to church and sacrament. He maintains (perhaps by tradition from his fathers) a form of family worship, and even possibly says a prayer when he rises and when he goes to bed. But his heart has not been given to God; the world still has it. His affection for the things of the world is compensated by giving to God the pitiful and worthless offering of outward reverence. But this will not do. Such service which has no life in it cannot terminate in eternal life. The way of mere form is the "way of death."

There is the way of the religious speculatist, or the speculative religionist. From education, or merely as a matter of curiosity, he has made himself adept in theological controversy--especially, it may be, in the particular debates of the day. He holds by the creed of orthodoxy and is ready-armed at all points in its defense; and he imagines that this kind of knowledge is religion. His way "seems right" to him. And yet there may not be in all his knowledge and in all his talk one atom of religion, one vital spark of its heavenly flame. The heart may not be touched nor the conscience rendered sensitive and tender in its submission to the dictates of the divine will. Speculative opinion is not saving knowledge. It is not the faith which "works by love" and "overcomes the world." It is not the way of spiritual life, and the "end thereof is the way of death."

There is the way of the self-righteous. It is, we shall suppose, a combination of all the other three. Such was the way of the Pharisees in Christ's time, on whom, notwithstanding their high pretensions, he denounces the heaviest and most terrifying woes. And such was the way of the unbelieving Jews of that age more generally, of whom Paul presents such a graphic and powerful description.

In the "way which seems right to a man" may be comprehended, in short, all that bears the semblance of religion and may be mistaken for it, but is not the reality. The "end" of everything of this kind is and must be "the way of death."

God's way must be the only right way. It is, we remind you anew, the way of faith and obedience; of faith producing obedience, of obedience springing from faith. The way to heaven--the way of life--is measured from Calvary. From the foot of the cross alone can any sinner set out in it. The course of holy obedience begins with the acceptance of mercy there. It is there at the cross, through faith in Christ's atoning blood and mediatorial righteousness, that the sinner is freed from the burden of conscious guilt and heart-sinking fear. And from there, under the spring and elasticity of a light and joyful heart, he starts in "the narrow way"--the one and only divinely provided way to heaven. "I am the way," says Jesus. "No man comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

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Proverbs 14:17

"A quick-tempered man acts foolishly,
and a man of wicked intentions is hated."

Foolish indeed is the conduct of the man of a quick, touchy, irritable temper. Oh, what an irascible man would often give to have his hasty words back! His anger, however, vents itself in the vehement bluster of the moment. He utters rash and annoying things, it may be; but people come to know him and recognize this weakness. His burst of passion is quickly over. The storm soon exhausts itself and calm returns, perhaps with an apology for his haste and violence.

However so troublesome and unpleasant such a temper may be, it is not to be compared with that of the "man of wicked devices." He is the man who studiously conceals and covers up his passion, broods over it, nourishes and cherishes it in the secret recesses of his heart, waits his most favorable time for vengeance, watches and contrives plans of retaliation--and all the while, perhaps, shows no external symptoms of the internal ferment but possibly assumes the very opposite, that is, he is all smiles and courtesy. Of such a character there is none more odious and dangerous. Such a character cannot but be "hated."

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Proverbs 14:24

"The crown of the wise is their riches,
but the foolishness of fools is folly."

The meaning of the first clause is obvious. When a wise man has riches, it is a part of his wisdom to know the proper use of them; and by putting them to that use--by doing with them all the good in his power--they become a crown to him. Thus he makes for himself a diadem of beauty, and one more truly glorious than any rich and costly crown as ever adorned a monarch's brow. What can the most gorgeous and dazzling earthly crown be compared with a diadem of which the component parts are the blessings of the destitute relieved, the ignorant instructed, the vicious reclaimed, the afflicted comforted, the dying cheered with the hope of life, the perishing rescued from perdition and brought to God? This is a royal crown indeed!

"The foolishness of fools is folly" is an expression which, taken by itself, might simply signify that a fool will reveal himself as such no matter the place or circumstance in which he is placed. His foolishness is never long concealed.

But it cannot fail to strike the reader that there is no direct antithesis between the first clause of the verse and the second; that is, there is no reference to "riches" in the latter as there is in the former. To remove this defect, it has been conceived by some that in the second clause of the verse there is what critics call a paranomasia, the same assortment of letters having two significations equally arising out of the primary meaning of the root; thus, the first being fullness or wealth, and the second grossness, stupidity, or folly. It will then read, "but the fullness (or wealth) of fools is folly." And what may be called a "play on words" is successfully given in English as follows: "but the abundance of fools is abundant folly." The sentiment will thus be, that while by the use of his riches the wise man converts them into a crown of glory, the possession of riches by the fool only augments his folly by giving him new and more varied means and opportunities of displaying it. His wealth puffs him up. His foolish and weak mind is inflated by it. And in the smallness of his vanity, and in the trifling, ostentatious or absurd uses to which he applies his ill-bestowed abundance, he only renders himself the more a fool.

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Proverbs 14:30

"A sound heart is life to the body,
but envy is rottenness to the bones."

The word sound signifies healthy--free from moral diseases, such as discontentment, malice, and envy. Strictly speaking, a heart entirely free from the evil passions that belong to man's fallen nature is not to be found; but in Scripture a sound heart and even a perfect heart are phrases used to signify the true sincerity to live by the rule of right principles and affections.

Of all the malignant influences to which the heart can be subject, envy is perhaps the most odious in itself, the most corroding, torturing, and wasting to the man of whom it takes possession. It is here called "the rottenness of the bones"--not a mere surface sore but a deep-seated disease. It burns and destroys inwardly. Its poor agonized victim cannot bear to hear of the success or prosperity of the man he hates, or even of the elevation and progress of others in general. And there is an intimate connection between the mind and body of one eaten up with envy. When such a passion preys upon the heart, the body will be afflicted, with the appetite failing and the flesh wasting away.

On the other hand, there is not a more effectual preservative to the health and vigor of the physical body than a contented and cheerful spirit--a spirit that shares the happiness of all around, and makes every stream of enjoyment that gladdens the heart of others a tributary to the river of its own pleasures.

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Proverbs 14:35

"The king's favor is toward a wise servant,
but his wrath is against him who causes shame."

Who is a wise servant? Not a servant who flatters royal vanity, accommodates himself to royal foibles, indulges royal prejudices, chimes in with royal caprices, tolerates and connives at royal vices (whether personal or official). No. A wise servant must be a servant of conscientious principle, of amiable and unflinching fidelity. He is one who gives prudent and faithful counsel, who "speaks truth as he thinks it in his heart." His counsel is dictated by a right understanding of the times together with a knowledge of what such times require, and by the principles of genuine patriotism as well as loyalty. He has no desire to ingratiate himself in order to promote his own personal advantage.

Such a servant is a blessing to the throne, and through the throne to the country. Such a servant, being under the influence of true religion, will do all that lies legitimately in his power to promote that interest, availing himself of the additional influence which his high station gives him. He will use it in every way that is in harmony with freedom of conscience and with the independence and spiritual character of the kingdom of Christ.

The expression "causes shame" corresponds perhaps to the word reproach in the preceding verse: "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people" (14:34). That servant causes shame who encourages his ruler to take such action as will result in reproach; that is, who encourages sin. Against a minister of this description the king's wrath ought to be directed. He should frown him from his presence.

That servant also causes shame who, from whatever motive, gives counsel to his prince which he has reason to believe must prove either prejudicial or abortive, and as such can hardly fail to render him unpopular with his people and expose him by its failure to the derision of foreign states. It is a derision in which the kingdom as well as the throne, the people as well as the monarch, are involved.

That servant also causes shame who entices and tempts his royal master to evil--to vicious and licentious indulgences from which he ultimately finds himself involved in personal infamy and official disgrace and embarrassment. Too late the master then awakes to a sense of his folly in allowing himself to be thus seduced and duped. Then his bitter reflections awaken his wrath against the unprincipled and faithless servant who has brought him to shame.

The example of the ruler and his court necessarily spreads through all the intermediate grades of society down to the very lowest. We find this strikingly exemplified in the recorded history of the kings of Israel and Judah. To a great extent, according to the character of the prince was the character of the people. And indeed, we might select many hardly less striking examples from our own history. Thus it is of eminent consequence that the throne should be based on righteousness, and that those around it should be men of righteous principle--wise, faithful, upright, fearing God.

Let Christians, then, comply with the apostolic admonition: "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:1-4).

If the character of the reigning monarch thus affects and molds the character of his people, let the subjects of the King of Zion consider the character of their Prince. Let them set that character, in all its perfect beauty and glorious excellence, ever before them. The more closely they imitate it, the more complete will be their own personal honor and happiness; and the more complete too will be the honor and happiness of the collective spiritual community. When that community is finally assembled in the heavenly city, all shall be fully conformed in character to their King and Head, and the glory and blessedness of the community shall thus be perfected.

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