Chapter 23

Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
Ralph Wardlaw

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Proverbs 23:5

"Will you set your eyes on that which is not?
For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven."

How emphatically strong is this language--"on that which is not!" So precarious are the riches when once obtained, that they are hardly allowed the attribute of existence!--that which is not! The air bubble glitters in rainbow hues as it floats on the stream or mounts into the atmosphere, but in a moment it bursts and is gone. Solomon here uses a different figure: "For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven." Such was the experience in the wise man's times; surely I need not say in what a degree it has been the experience of our own. The examples are numerous and quite moving.

Sometimes the wings grow gradually. The owner detects the growth with its dreaded result, while others know nothing of it and fancy all is secure. His eyes are sleepless with worry amid the envy of the ignorant around him.

At other times the loss is as unanticipated by him as well as by others. The wings grow in a moment, the flight unexpected and sudden. A single unlooked-for contingency in providence, and all is gone! The accumulation of half a lifetime has vanished in an hour! A hundred causes may occasion the sudden annihilation of property and prospects: a change in the commercial tariff of a foreign state, a sudden fall in the markets, a single unsuccessful speculation from which additional thousands was expected, the bankruptcy of some esteemed institution of established and unshaken credit. And the very laboring itself--the eagerness after riches, the hasting to its attainment--is not infrequently the very means of bringing all to nothing.

"Will you set your eyes on that which is not?" To set the eyes upon it is to set the heart upon it. The fixing of the gaze on any object is the expression of fond desire. The original word contains the idea of special avidity. Nothing can be more unwise; not only because we may lose the object of desire even while here, but because we must part with it very soon at the longest. Riches may leave us; we must leave riches.

How simple and conclusive are the words of the Apostle Paul: "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out" (1 Tim. 6:7).

And then how solemn but little thought of is the lesson which follows: "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (vv. 9, 10).

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Proverbs 23:6-8

"Do not eat the bread of a miser, nor desire his delicacies; for as he thinks in his heart, so is he. 'Eat and drink!' he says to you, but his heart is not with you. The morsel you have eaten, you will vomit up, and waste your pleasant words."

Here we have a man of a covetous, penurious, stingy, grudging disposition. He invites and entertains others for a variety of selfish motives. First, for the sake of reputation, as he must pay back the debt of having himself been entertained. Second, it is the way to move forward in business. Third, he likes to gratify his spirit of ostentation, yet all the while begrudging and fretting the means. This entertainment, therefore, is not given from any motive of regard for anyone but himself. While he professes great hospitality--"Eat and drink!"--every mouthful is eyed with a secret twinge of fretful regret for having asked you. He would have been better pleased if the invitation had been declined.

How does this miserly disposition reveal itself? It doesn't always. It may at times be successfully concealed. But in general it may be known from the general character of the man. A display of abundance and finery that is not in harmony with his ordinary habits and established reputation cannot fail to raise the suspicion that there is something behind it, something other than the appearance of friendly generosity. A stingy disposition can hardly hide itself. Also, unless his act of friendliness and generosity is singularly successful, the difference between such hypocritical pretense and that of open, frank, sterling cordiality of genuine heartfelt kindness, will be readily perceived. While "Eat and drink" is on his lips, he will betray the true state of his feelings by drawing attention to the high price of food and the great pains he has gone to for your entertainment.

It is evident from the expression "a miser," that the man is supposed to be in some degree known. His stinginess is a manifest characteristic. The warning to avoid him may be suggested for a variety of reasons. First, it is painful to be laid under obligation to a man of this sort--one who puts a high price on his favor all the while looking for so much in return.

Second, it is most irksome and distressing to partake of anything with which there is the remotest ground of suspicion that it is grudgingly given. A share of the most homely meal given with a truly hearty welcome is preferable to a place at the most sumptuously covered table where the dainties have been provided--and partaken--with a grudge. When this is the case, there is loathing at the very idea of having so much as tasted them. This appears to be the sentiment in the eighth verse: "The morsel you have eaten, you will vomit up." The very thought of the spirit in which the entertainment had been given will nauseate you.

And thus you will "waste your pleasant words." Your pleasant words were words of thanks and compliment, of flattery for the style, abundance, and variety of his entertainment. But they are lost on one who in truth, when all is known, so ill-deserved them--a mere impostor of hospitality and friendship. Your having partaken of his sumptuous dinner is recorded in his mind against you as a grave offense. All your pleasant words have gone for nothing.

Be cautious of bringing yourself under obligation to any selfish and hypocritical poser of kindness, for he may perhaps only wish to lay you under such obligation as will serve his own purpose. He will boast of his hospitality and make the most of it for his own benefit. It will become a mark against you, a debit for which he will expect good returns at your hand when he needs them. He will throw his kindness back at you, reminding you again and again of it, if you do not do all he asks. It is astounding what an amount of expectation a man of this sordid and selfish disposition can found upon a dinner! Beware of him. Keep yourself free, "for as he thinks in his heart, so is he."

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Proverbs 23:9

"Do not speak in the hearing of a fool,
for he will despise the wisdom of your words."

The lesson here taught is one of discretion. It refers to all cases in which we have reason to believe that the latter part of the verse will be the result. In such cases it is generally better to hold our peace, since by speaking we only give the fool occasion to sin.

There may be many cases in which it becomes essential for us to deliver our own souls by bearing our testimony to the truth, whether men will hear or whether they will refuse (Ezek. 3:11), so that our consciences may be at ease, being clear of their blood. But the lesson here taught is one of judicious discrimination as to the times and seasons when speaking is likely to be profitable or the contrary. Speaking in the presence of a fool while he engages in contradiction, blasphemy, or foolish jesting, not only renders what we say unavailing to others but even injurious.

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Proverbs 23:23

"Buy the truth, and do not sell it,
also wisdom and instruction and understanding."

The allusion is to the merchandise of the world, the buying and selling of its commodities wherein benefit is expected. A merchant buys for the very purpose of selling; and he will not buy unless he has a pretty good assurance that he can sell at a profit, that he can get more for his article than he has given.

In our verse, however, the case is quite a peculiar one. It is all buying. The article is one which is to be bought but never sold. And why? For the best possible reason: It can never be sold at a profit; there is nothing too valuable to be given for it; there is nothing valuable enough to be taken for it. Get for it whatever else we may, the bargain will be a losing one.

The latter clause of the verse may be considered as comprehended in the former; for to secure "the truth" is to secure "wisdom, instruction, and understanding."

In further illustration of the words of our text, observe the following.

1. The buyer tests his article. He uses means to ascertain its genuineness. Suppose it is an article consisting of gold, silver, precious stones, and pearls. Suppose it appears to the eye of the buyer as such. Suppose that he who sells it declares it to be so. Nevertheless, the buyer will assay the purity of the gold and silver, will assess the quality of the precious stones and pearls that they are not fake imitations.

All that is presented to us as truth must thus be tested. It must be proved to be what it professes to be. In the physical sciences men do not take what professes to be a new discovery merely on trust, especially if it happens to contradict previous theories. They will thoroughly examine the experiments. They will seek to determine whether there has been any slip or mistake in the processes and any consequent fallacy in the conclusion. Is it truth? Truth alone is valuable, alone worthy to be received and held.

Now it should be of even greater importance in the department of religion. The solicitude and care with which the testing process is conducted should be in proportion to the importance of the case and the authority on which its claims rest, to the magnitude of the benefits promised and of the risks incurred. Inquiry here should not be careless. The obligation to examine it is imperative and solemn. Incredible, then, is the unwillingness of men to enter upon this investigation. Men who will test every alleged truth of science with the utmost earnestness and perseverance cannot be persuaded to apply their powers to an inquiry of infinitely more importance! They either refuse to do so altogether or set about it with a levity and superficiality utterly at odds with what such a question demands.

2. It is not enough for the buyer to merely ascertain the genuineness of his article, but he must estimate its real worth--its worth intrinsically and its worth adventitiously; that is, its worth in itself and its worth o him. The two may be widely different. The diamond is of incomparably more intrinsic worth than the grain of barley, but the rooster in the fable spurned the former and picked up the latter.

In the case of Christianity, there can be no hesitation about either the intrinsic or the relative value of it when once its divine authority has been ascertained. Divine revelation presents views of God's moral government in its great essential principles and practical application. They have a weight of moral grandeur and a consequent depth of absorbing interest surpassing all that nature can disclose. And while it possesses intrinsic preciousness above all other truths, think of its value when estimated by the blessings revealed to the believer in both time and eternity. The purchaser values the article he is about to buy by the amount of benefit it will bring him. In like manner you must estimate the value of "the truth" you are counseled to buy. Its value is summed up by our Lord himself when he says, "This is life eternal."

3. When once the buyer has estimated the value of his article, he makes proportional sacrifices to obtain it. There may be foolish estimates and consequently foolish bargains, and these may be the grounds of regret and self-dissatisfaction. But supposing the certainty of the benefits promised and guaranteed in the Bible for time and eternity, then should not all that the world can confer be sacrificed without a moment's hesitation for this truth?

Comprehended in "the truth" are the blessings of the gospel--the "pearl of great price" and the "treasure hid in the field." We cannot make this purchase by giving any compensation to God. Nevertheless, there are some things standing in competition with it, and these must be parted with if it is to be ours. Our Lord tells us in his parables that many who embrace the principles of His kingdom--who believe and profess "the truth"--would be called upon to make sacrifices; but sacrifices of every kind and amount would result in gain for them.

4. In proportion to the buyer's estimate of the article's value, and the cost at which he obtained it, will be the jealousy with which he retains and guards it. "Sell it not." "Selling" the truth is not simply letting slip from the mind the knowledge or remembrance of mere abstractions, but it is to give up the profession and faith of it for the sake of the very things which were sacrificed for it. Oh, do not to sell it for the pleasures of sin or the riches and honors of the world. Do not part with "the pearl of great price" for the husks which the swine eat. Do not sell the most valuable of all knowledge for that which can never compensate for the loss of it, no matter how legitimate and attractive. Let no book usurp the place of your Bible. The more you have experimentally tasted its sweetness and felt its blessed and holy power upon your hearts, the more unwilling you will be to part with it, saying, "This is life eternal."

Get the truth, then, at any price. Part with it at no price. And be prompt in attaining it. Those whose hearts are much set upon an article will not delay their purchase lest it should pass from their hands. But, blessed be God, there is no danger here of others coming first to take it. The storehouse of divine truth and divine blessing is never reduced by the number of purchasers. Whether it be one or thousands buying, they will not leave less for you or interfere with your obtaining it whenever you make up your mind.

But if you are not prompt in doing so now, you may be thwarted in another way. There is one who may decide the matter for you, putting the acquisition forever out of your power. Death may lay his sudden hand upon you. And if the truth is not then yours, if its blessings and its hopes are not then yours, then woe unto you! You gain the world; you lose your soul. And in the bitterness of hopeless despair you will deplore your bargain throughout eternity.

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