Chapter 21

Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
Ralph Wardlaw

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Proverbs 21:1

"The king's heart is in the hand of Yahweh,
like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes."

In this verse some suppose that there is an allusion to a gardener directing the rills of water through the different parts of his grounds, and that a comparison is intended between the ease with which the gardener does this and the ease and certainty with which God superintends human volitions and purposes so as to make all subservient to the attainment of His own ends. But the comparison appears, in both its parts, to relate directly to God. The king's heart is represented as "in the hand," that is, in the power and under the control, of Yahweh as completely as are the rivers of water. And so are all "hearts"--all the purposes and determinations of men.

This, I repeat, is one of those truths to which we are a priori constrained to assent. Whatever may be the difficulties with which the subject is enveloped, we perceive with a kind of intuition, and admit without an instant's hesitation, that it must be so. The certainty of the divine counsels requires it. The regular administration of the government of the world requires it. Every view we can take of the divine glory requires it. Never can it be that the will of man should frustrate the will of God, the thoughts of the creature cross and interfere with those of the Creator. Human counsels may thwart human counsels; but it is the divine prerogative, amid all the incessantly changing and conflicting volitions and actions of the millions of the world's population, to say, "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure."

And while we affirm this to be so, there is another thing of which we affirm with equal confidence, namely, that men in their volitions and actions must be free, and as free must be accountable, the freedom being necessary to the accountability. Every man is conscious of willing and acting freely. That they are invariably influenced by motives no more affects the reality of their freedom than God's having reasons for every step of His procedure affects His.

We may not be able clearly to explain the principle of harmony between both these truths, yet the principle, to a certain extent, is sufficiently intelligible. Take a man of exceptional insight. He knows the distinctive characteristics of a person, the circumstances in which that person is placed, and the manner in which these circumstances are calculated to affect his particular characteristics. A man of such insight would then be able to say, with a proportional degree of confidence, how that person would act and what course he would pursue under those conditions; yet his knowledge and insight would not in the remotest degree affect the freedom of him whose conduct he predicted.

We have only to imagine this acquaintance with circumstances, with people and their individual characteristics, and with the influence of the one upon the other (extended to infinitude and infallibility), and we have some notion of the way in which God can control volitions by the control of circumstances, and all without interfering with man's liberty and accountability. This, however, is still, and can never cease to be, one of "the deep things of God."

"Yahweh reigns," says the Psalmist, "let the earth rejoice" (97:1). We have cause for joy in the assurance here given us that those who, from their eminence and power, exert the greatest amount of influence over the conditions of the world, are as completely under the superintendence and control of the Supreme Ruler as are the lowest of mankind. Kings, whatever be the extent of their dominion and the absoluteness of their power, can never go beyond His permission.

Let the conviction of this great truth, in all its comprehensiveness, preserve our minds from the agitating fears and apprehensions affecting the interests of our country, of the church, and of the world. All will be overruled for ends in harmony with divine wisdom and mercy.

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Proverbs 21:4

"A haughty look, a proud heart,
and the plowing of the wicked are sin."

The first of these phrases is the natural expression or indication of the second; the "haughty look" is the effect and expression of the "proud heart." With regard to these there is no difficulty. That pride, and all the expressions and indications of pride, are hateful to God is a sentiment often repeated. But how does the plowing of the wicked fit in?

I would answer, that even retaining the translation, it is not incapable of an appropriate sense. The ordinary occupations of the wicked are performed and pursued with a haughty look and proud heart, not with the lowly spirit of dependence and prayer but with the spirit of independent self-sufficiency and prayerless haughtiness. However good and useful they may be in themselves, they may still be spoiled by the spirit in which they are done. And this view of the case might be connected with the previous verse: "The wicked" may bring his "sacrifice," but if he brings it with "a high look and a proud heart," nothing can be more unacceptable in the eyes of God to whom he offers it. Thus both his religious and his ordinary acts are marred by his state of mind.

You will notice, however, that the rendering in the margin of the Bible is "the light of the wicked." Now the marginal renderings have precisely the same authority with those in the text, and they are not infrequently much to be preferred. I am satisfied this is the case in the present instance. The word for a light or lamp and the word for a plow and plowing are in the original like each other. But I am not aware of any instance in which the word, when it signifies plowing, occurs in precisely the same form as here. Moreover, in the Septuagint Greek, the Latin Vulgate, and the Genevese French (also in the German of Luther), it is in this verse rendered as in our English margin; and the rendering has the sanction of most eminent critics and commentators.

A light or lamp is often put as the symbol of prosperity. The verse is remarkably concise: "Loftiness of eyes, pride of heart, the light of the wicked, sin." The meaning seems to be that in the prosperity of the wicked--his light, his joy--"there is sin." There is sin in it because there is self in it--no humble recognition of God. He has himself kindled his own "lamp," has himself supplied the oil for it, has himself trimmed it, has himself sheltered it, has himself kept it burning. All is self. He walks in its light and exults in it with "a haughty look and a proud heart." The higher he rises in prosperity, the more are "his eyelids lifted up." The clearer the light of his "lamp," the more self-sufficient is his vanity and the more entirely forgetful is he of God. Thus there is sin pervading and characterizing all, and rendering all unacceptable in the sight of Him who ponders the heart.

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Proverbs 21:12

"The righteous man wisely considers the house of the wicked,
but God overthrows the wicked for their wickedness."

The supplement in this verse [those words italicized in the KJV and other versions] is evidently a very violent one [that is, constituting a distortion of meaning or fact]. If the writer really intended them to be understood, then it is not easy to conceive of him failing to include them. I refer to the words "but God." I cannot imagine a more unlikely omission.

Some critics regard the verse as having undergone some little corruption in the original, and they venture to alter the text accordingly. But conjectural criticism is hazardous, and it must be a case of very hard necessity indeed that can justify having recourse to it. And at the same time the insertion of supplementary words requires hardly less caution and reserve.

Observe, then: First, the word rendered here "wisely considers" is the same verb which in the preceding verse is translated "is instructed"; and to instruct, to give instruction, is its most common acceptation. Farther, the verb translated "overthrows" means also "to turn aside," generally in the sense of perverting or turning from good, but not necessarily.

On such grounds the verse has been translated by Dr. Boothroyd (and, although not in every point satisfied, I acquiesce in the rendering as the best): "The righteous man teaches, or gives instruction to, the house of the wicked, to turn away the wicked from evil." A forced and unnatural supplement is thus avoided, and the difficulties in a simply critical view are at least greatly lessened. In the Vulgate Latin version the same turn is given to the second part of the verse: "The just man thinks maturely concerning the house of the wicked, that he may draw away the wicked from evil."

And the practical sentiment thus brought out is one of the greatest importance. In the phrase "the house, or family of the wicked," the word wicked is in the singular number--"the house of the wicked man." In the latter part of the verse, "that he may turn away the wicked from evil," wicked is plural and may be considered as referring to the members of his household along with himself. The righteous man is deeply sensible that the family of the wicked are in danger of "perishing for lack of knowledge." Who is to instruct them? He looks upon such families with melting compassion; and his compassion, like that of God, is practical. He seeks opportunities of communicating instruction, and the nature of the instruction appears from the nature of the design--"that he may turn away the wicked from evil."

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Proverbs 21:18

"The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous,
and the transgressor for the upright."

This is evidently intended to express the regard Yahweh has to his people, a sentiment that pervades His word and is to them full of consolation and delight, while it is a lesson of solemn alarm to the ungodly. The words may be interpreted in two senses that are closely connected.

First: When the wicked form purposes of evil against the righteous, God frequently makes these evil purposes return back upon them, thus involving them in the very mischief they meant for his people.

Second: When the wicked stand in the way of the best interests of the righteous and their general well being (what God sees to be truly best for them), He will sacrifice the one for the other. The words of God by the prophet Isaiah may throw light on the phraseology of the verse before us: "For I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I gave Egypt for your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in your place. Since you were precious in My sight, You have been honored, and I have loved you; therefore I will give men for you, and people for your life" (43:3,4).

How was Egypt "a ransom"? Not in the strict and proper sense of the word. But when Israel was to be delivered and Egypt the oppressor stood in the way, the deliverance was effected at the cost to Egypt, by plagues on her people and land and the destruction of her armies. Later the army of Sennacherib was sacrificed for the deliverance of good king Hezekiah and his people when, in the time of their perplexity and peril, they cried to Yahweh. Thus also did the plot of the wicked Haman for the destruction of Mordecai and the Jews come back upon himself.

In the end, all "the wicked" who have opposed "the righteous" and done what they could to frustrate their salvation, shall become the victims of the divine displeasure.

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Proverbs 21:23

"Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles."

Here we have still another characteristic and another advantage of wisdom. It enables its possessor to "guard the mouth and tongue," to know the "time to be silent, and the time to speak," and in the time to speak, what to say.

We have had repeated occasion to notice the incalculable amount and variety of mischief of which the tongue is the occasion. How its openly uttered or secretly whispered words may break hearts, may ruin characters, may sever friends, may bring individuals and families to beggary and disgrace, may spread alienation and discord through extensive circles of intimacy and affection, may "pierce through with many sorrows" spirits that were enjoying peace and love, and may even be as barbed daggers that take away life.

We have noticed how our words recoil in mischief to ourselves. A word of slander brought out in a moment of irritation or thoughtlessness may cost a man the humiliation of submissive apology or the annoyance and expense of litigation and the reparation of heavy damages. The recollection of a hasty expression, together with the effects which have arisen from it to those to whom no harm was meant at the time, may inflict severe and long-continued self-reproach, with all its accompanying mental anxiety and distress. We have seen how the foolish utterances of an unguarded hour may go far to shake the credit of years of discretion, with the recollection of that hour of folly ever returning upon the mind of previous admirers; and if such recollections do not absolutely obliterate their former estimate of a man's sound sense and dignity, they operate at least as a serious drawback to their respect for his character.

And how have foolish utterances lead to inward deep remorse arising from a consciousness of having spoken inconsistently with our Christian profession and principles, to have given an unfavorable impression of our religion and failed of an opportunity of honoring God! There is no thought so galling, spirit-sinking, and severe to a Christian heart as this.

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