Chapter 17

Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
Ralph Wardlaw

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Proverbs 17:12

"Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs,
rather than a fool in his folly."

This is a strong expression, but when the subject of it is rightly understood, it is not a whit too strong!

The reference is not to the mere teasing and vexatious talk of the loquacious, empty-headed, self-conceited know-it-all. That man is more annoying than dangerous. The comparison in this verse expresses, and is designed to express, real danger. And the danger intended does not seem to be the murderous rage of the infuriated fool or wicked man when stung by resentment, who under the impetuous power of his headstrong passions is ready to do mischief (although I would not say that this idea is to be excluded, for a "bear robbed of her cubs" is not an unfitting comparison for an unprincipled man in a passion).

But in harmony with the frequent warnings in these proverbs, the reference is most probably to the spiritual danger arising from the society of foolish and wicked men. The bear, in all the fury of its disappointment and privation, can do no more than kill and lacerate and tear in pieces the body. But the "fool," if he should succeed in his unprincipled attempts, especially on unsuspecting and simple-hearted youth, will murder the soul, seducing it from virtue and from God and consigning it to the death that never dies.

A "bear robbed of her cubs" seems anything but an appropriate emblem of the fool in regard to temper and kindly pretensions. But this only adds to the danger--the very smoothness and flattery of his manners is the peril.

Oh, my young hearers, beware of "the fool in his folly." Beware of the unprincipled libertine practices of the licentious, with all their fascinating temptations. Would you flee from the rage of an infuriated wild beast, from the paw and jaws of the lion and the bear? Then flee with still greater terror from the company of the wicked.

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Proverbs 17:17

"A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity."

These words contain the just commendation of faithful constancy in friendship and brotherly affection.

A false and faithless friend will profess great attachment and show extreme devotion when prosperity and honor are his objectives and when the friendship will be a credit and benefit to himself. He will gladly share all the good, bask in the light of his countenance, and make his favor a stepping-stone to his own advancement. But when that association ceases to be a credit and benefit, when the world ceases to smile upon him and the sounds of approval are hushed, then he is disowned. The friend is abandoned in the very hour when the worth of true friendship is most deeply felt and genial sympathy most keenly needed. This faithless friend shakes himself loose at the very moment when he should stick fast!

A genuine friend--the only friend worth having, and when found, of inestimable value--is the same in all changes of condition, is the same in every respect except for one--that his heart grows warmer to his friend as the world gets colder. He becomes all the more a friend to him as other friends fail. He stands the more firmly by him and avows his attachment the more openly and the more fervently in proportion as the false and faithless unworthily desert him. A genuine friend's attachment is to the man, not to his wealth or his honors; and if the man remains the same, no change of circumstances will lessen the ardor of his friendship.

"And a brother is born for adversity." Adversity is the time when affection is put to the proof. It is hardly tested at all among relatives when all is going well. But when through unforeseen circumstances privation and distress become the lot of any of them, then is sincerity and strength of natural affection put to the test. Brethren are born to help each other in need. This is the will and purpose of God in placing them in their near relationship. It is sad when this fails, and beautiful when it is displayed.

It is not when Naomi "goes out full" but when "Yahweh brings her home again empty" that the fond attachment of Ruth brings to the eye the tear of approving and delighted sympathy. It is in the reverses and fallen fortunes of his kinswoman--widowed, desolate, and dependent--that the fidelity and generosity of Boaz are brought out into conspicuous manifestation. We shudder at the unnatural conduct of Joseph's brethren, while in Joseph himself we see "a brother born for adversity."

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Proverbs 17:22

"A merry heart does good, like medicine,
but a broken spirit dries the bones."

In sickness, cheerfulness "is a medicine." In some illnesses especially, an easy and happy mind is the very best healing antidote, and it assists in the efficiency of every other. And what is the nature of the cheerfulness or "merry heart" which Solomon here commends? We are sure it is not the "laughter of the fool," for of that Solomon says "it is mad," and, "like the crackling of thorns under a pot," it is short-lived too. When the blaze is over, only a gloomier sadness is left.

What he here and elsewhere commends is the cheerfulness of a heart that has found peace with God and the joy of God's salvation. There may be, it is true, a natural buoyancy and lightness of spirit to which the words before us may truly enough be applied. But above all, and in the fullness of their meaning, are they true of the heart in which the "peace that passes all understanding"--the happy sense of God's love and the cheering hope of God's glory--has settled.

Here is sunshine, here is gladness. Matthew Henry observes, "It is a great mercy that God gives us leave [permission] to be cheerful, and cause to be cheerful; and especially if, by his grace, he gives us hearts to be cheerful." Yes, "Ten thousand thousand precious gifts our daily thanks employ, nor is the least a cheerful heart that tastes those gifts with joy."

A spirit that is cast down and "broken"--not so much by afflictions as by impatience, ingratitude, disappointment, discontentment, and envy--"dries the bones." Under the influence of this gnawing, distressing, dissatisfied spirit (the peevish spirit that never has a smile on the lips or a sparkle in the eyes and is oppressed by the very cheerfulness of others) the body pines and wastes.

However, I would not confine the expression solely to this dull and cheerless spirit. It is true also of the effect of the burden of affliction, and it is especially true of the load of conscious guilt and the heavy, soul-depressing apprehension of coming wrath. These are indeed a cancer that secretly consumes the very vitals; and if not effectually relieved, may lay the body, like a skeleton before it dies, in the grave.

Oh, let us be thankful above all for those springs of spirit and never-failing joy which God, in the fullness of his mercy, has opened for us, when, so far as our deserts were concerned, every fountain of sweetness might have been converted into a fountain of bitterness. Let us drink of the wells of salvation and go on our way rejoicing!

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Proverbs 17:24

"Wisdom is in the sight of him who has understanding,
but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth."

The meaning of the first clause seems to be simply this: The maxims and principles and directions of true wisdom are always kept in view by the man of understanding. They are familiar to him and constantly applied to for guidance in the right way, ready for immediate use in all circumstances. In whatever condition and whatever emergency, the word of God is before him and the fear of God is before him, the one being the rule of wisdom and the other the principle of wisdom. Both are in his memory, conscience, and heart. Wisdom leads, and he follows.

"But the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth." He has no fixed and steady principle or rule, nothing on which he fixes his eye for guidance. His thoughts are incessantly wandering after matters of no concern to him, anything and everything but that which he should at the time be minding. His thoughts are roving after every vanity, keeping steadily to no definite pursuit.

It is specially true of things pertaining to salvation. In this matter, "wisdom is in the sight of him who has understanding." He sees one thing to be needful, and he sees the wisdom of God providing it. There his attention is riveted. It is ever before him--one end and one means.

But the fool's eyes "are on the ends of the earth." He has examined nothing. He roams at random with no definite idea about the most infinitely important of all concerns. Ask him how he hopes to be saved, and you immediately discover his aimless wavering. "It is here, it is there, it is nowhere." He hesitates, he supposes, he guesses, he is at a standstill, he doesn't know.

There is another character that may here be meant, namely, the schemer, the visionary. He is forever seeking out-of-the-way plans, new and far-fetched means to his end; ever experimenting where experiment is useless, ever theorizing and ever failing; never convinced or corrected by any failure but captivated by the still elusive dream. Rather than patiently looking for regular success from his own proper occupation, he is contemplating something new, and generally wild and harebrained as well. He is looking for his income to come from something yet to be tried, expecting good to come from "the ends of the earth."

Thus in every view the fool resembles the man who, on a road that is full of traps and pits and snares and beset with dangers on the right and left, instead of having all his eyes about him, has them roving in idle vacancy on far distant objects.

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