Chapter 20

Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
Ralph Wardlaw

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Proverbs 20:3

"It is honorable for a man to stop striving,
since any fool can start a quarrel."

It is best to avoid strife altogether. But supposing it has already begun, is it an honor still to cease from it? Solomon says it is. This is not the world's view of the matter, not the view of human nature as it exists and operates. Quite the contrary. When we have started a controversy (however trivial the matter may be), how fond we naturally are to have the last word! To let our adversary have it is the keenest mortification. When he persists in his view, we persist in ours. We feel as if the victory depended on who should say it last! We get impatient, our voice rises, our face flushes, our eyes kindle, our utterance is choked with passion. Or, knowing the temper of our opponent, we keep ourselves provokingly calm, and by our very cool and scornful calmness we stir up with secret delight all his hasty passions, all the fuel of his fiery spirit.

If a man of the world's honor has sent a challenge, he is bound to stand to the very last upon every punctilio which the law of that honor has fixed, and to fight it out until the honor of the last shot is determined by the fall of his adversary or himself. The man of a litigious spirit, having once begun his suit, feels himself bound in honor (but not the honor of high principle towards another but a jealous and proud determination to maintain his own) to prosecute to the utmost, to go from the lowest court up to the highest, never resting short of the last appeal. No matter what the value of the litigated object may be--even that of a mere trifle!--he must risk all that he is worth rather than give in, be ruined rather than yield; because to yield is dishonor, so his pride and folly think.

How different, how opposite are the principles and maxims of the Bible: "It is honorable for a man to stop striving." This is simply stating what every man of calm thinking and sound judgment must own: that, (1) it is "an honor" for a man to have the command of his own passions; (2) that it is "an honor" for a man not to tamper selfishly and recklessly with the passions of others; (3) that it is "an honor" for a man to keep his ear candidly open to reason, and when convinced by reason to yield to truth; (4) that it is "an honor" for a man not only to shun quarrels, but when he has unhappily fallen into one, to look at the cause of it with fairness, admitting the equity of every equitable claim and the reasonableness of every reasonable explanation; and when an opponent reveals an indomitable spirit of stubbornness, passion, and pride with which there is obviously no dealing and no hope of bringing to anything like calm and fair settlement, to quietly leave him to himself rather than make matters worse by imitating his spirit; (5) that it is "an honor" for a man never to go unjustly or even needlessly to law with others; but when obliged to do so, never to persist further than is necessary to ascertain with clearness what the law of the case is; not to persist in reckless and resentful pride but instead to be the last to begin and the first to give up.

But "any fool can start a quarrel." These are pithy words. They afford another example of the identity of human nature in Solomon's day and in our own. How many such fools there are still! Such a fool either seeks to provoke a quarrel with himself or to excite and foment one between others. How many prying and officious fools there are who incessantly peer into matters not their own, forcing in their sage advice where it is not wanted, provoking people to say, "What business is it of yours." And these same fools will also step into quarrels between others, stimulating passions on both sides, inflaming pride and resentment, and thereby confirming their alienation. The whole matter might have been settled had it not been for his interference.

Oh, how much have such intermeddling fools to answer for! They may call themselves friends, but they are the enemies of both parties, the enemies of mankind, and their own enemies to boot.

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Proverbs 20:17

"Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man,
but afterward his mouth will be filled with gravel."

This is a very lively and pithy figure to express a very important sentiment. The sentiment is this: Property obtained by unjust means, however gratifying at the time of its acquisition, will ultimately yield anything but satisfaction. From where may this dissatisfaction arise?

First, from conscience. Success in fraudulent schemes may blind a man's eyes for a time from being sufficiently sensible of the evil he is doing. It may lay his conscience to sleep and keep it slumbering. Thus for a while he may rejoice in his newly acquired possessions. But the hurry and eagerness of the pursuit subsides, the novelty of acquisition wears off, and the man has leisure for reflection. Then conscience begins its work of reproof. It accuses and passes sentence on the means by which he has gotten the pleasurable objects, puts a sting into the recollection of them. Thus his present enjoyment is embittered by memory. Memory is forever summoning him anew before the tribunal of conscience and reading new articles of indictment against him.

Thus all the sweetness is extracted from his enjoyment. His bread is eaten with bitter herbs, or, as in our text, "his mouth is filled with gravel." Nothing could be more emphatically expressive of bitter disappointment than the idea of a hungry man eagerly putting into his mouth the bread that should relieve and satisfy his craving and finding it turn to sand and gravel stones!

Another cause for dissatisfaction is the absence of the blessing of God. God is righteous. He cannot regard with complacency possessions which have been thus obtained. He curses them, and the variety of ways in which He does so is endless.

First, God can, as we have just mentioned, make the conscience do its duty and become the unrighteous man's secret tormentor. Second, God can bring the man's frauds to light by means beyond his control and which no efforts of his can possibly counteract; thus he is covered with infamy and even deprived of his ill-gotten gains, bringing him to poverty by taking confidence and credit away from him. Third, God can make his successful frauds and ill-gotten gains the means of tempting him to further speculations by which all comes to be lost. And fourth, God can bring him to ruin by making him the miserable mortified dupe of cunning deeper than his own.

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