Chapter 27

Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
Ralph Wardlaw

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Proverbs 27:8

"Like a bird that wanders from its nest is a man who wanders from his place."

On the first reading of the verse it appears a mere truism. Here are two wanderers. The bird is a wanderer, the man is a wanderer. But surely this cannot be all that is meant. Whatever be understood as meant by a man's "place," the comparison cannot consist in the mere fact of wandering. There is a manifestly intended reference to the pernicious results in the two cases respectively; of the straying of the bird "from its nest" and the absence of the man "from his place."

The "nest" might be regarded as the place of rest, repose, tranquility, comfort, and safety to the bird itself. But although in this view there might be points of comparison perfectly just and sufficiently appropriate, it is not to considerations of this description--considerations of personal ease and convenience and security to the man himself--that the comparison is intended to apply. The nest is no doubt a place of warmth and retirement, of comfort and safety to the bird; yet it should be borne in mind that these are not the ends for which the nest is built. No bird sets about constructing a nest as a mere dwelling for itself, to which it may retire when fatigued by flight, to lie upon its downy surface and enjoy itself in peaceful and luxurious ease.

The nest is built by the wonderful instinct of nature--instincts implanted by Him of whom the simple bird knows nothing. The nest is the place where the eggs are to be laid, where they are to be warmed and quickened into life, and where the young unfledged progeny are to be lodged, fed, protected, and trained to their maturity. Now in such a comparison as this we cannot but suppose there is a reference to the purposes for which the nest is constructed.

The allusion is doubtless to the period of incubation, to the hatching of the eggs and the rearing of the young. If the bird "wanders from her nest" during that period, what is the consequence? Why, the process is frustrated. The eggs lose their vital warmth; they become cold, addled, and unproductive. Absence even for a very short time will produce this effect, and produce it to such a degree that no subsequent sitting (however constant and prolonged) can ever vivify again the extinct principle of vitality.

And during the period of early training, when the young are dependent on the brooding breast and wing of the parent bird for their warmth and on the active quickness of the male for their sustenance, desertion is death. If the mother then "wanders from her nest," forsaking for any length of time her inexperienced brood, they perish, perhaps by starvation or as the prey of some devouring enemy.

Such appears to be the apt allusion. Let us now consider how it may with truth and profit be applied.

In the first place, I apply it to a man's home. Home may surely be regarded as most appropriately designated "his place." It is where he ought to be, not merely enjoying comfort but imparting it. It is not the place of selfish ease and indulgence but of dutiful and useful occupation. He has a responsibility there, committed to him not by the instincts of nature merely but by the law of God. His family demands his first interest and his first attention. His fond gestures of affection and endearing smiles are to teach them the responses of love; his counsels, instructions, admonitions, and encouragements are to form their minds for the usefulness of future life; his example is to confirm what his precepts teach; and his active industry is to provide for their needs and their comfort.

The man who is never at ease at home, who is never settled in the very place of which settlement is the characteristic distinction, who is ever restless and eager to roam, and who fancies he will be better off somewhere else, is a poor miserable creature himself. And nothing can go well at home when the heads of the family do not find it the place of mutual rest and comfort, of social delight and useful occupation, of fond attachment, common cares, and common joys. Their children are neglected not only in their external provisions and comfort, but especially in the most important of all points, the early culture of their minds and hearts.

I have said the heads of the family; for although the text speaks of the man who wanders from his place, the spirit of the proverb applies most truly and forcibly to both. Insofar as harm to the family goes, an idle, roaming, gadding, gossiping mother is indeed fitly compared to the mother bird that leaves her nest. The mother who is a stranger at home was never meant by nature to be a mother. She is an anomaly in the animal creation. And they who give her any encouragement and countenance in her restless wanderings give her encouragement and countenance in what the word of God censures and reprobates in the very severest terms.

Do not push my similitude too far and suppose that I am condemning under it all going from home. It would be foolish to say that a man must never choose a calling that requires his occasional absence from the domestic circle. But such absence on business may be aptly likened to the short but necessary absences of the parent bird from its nest, when the objective is the provision of food for the young. Leaving the nest becomes, after a certain period, as indispensable as keeping it. Were she to remain always in it, her brood would starve as effectually as if she remained always out of it. But in such absences, her flight is rapid and her return quick. The absence is not longer than absolutely necessary for effecting her purpose, that is, providing sustenance for the nurslings of her instinctive care. The nest is still her home. So should it be with every parent, and so will it be with every dutiful parent to the utmost extent attainable.

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Proverbs 27:10

"Do not forsake your own friend and your father's friend, nor go to your brother's house in the day of your calamity; for better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off."

Do not forsake a friend who has shown himself friendly both to your father and to yourself for your father's sake; a steadfast, unswerving friend who maintains his affection to the living as he did to the dead. Such a principled, steady, and self-denying friend is indeed a treasure not to be parted with on trifling grounds but to be kept with care, as we would guard a precious jewel. There is a double bond of attachment--"your friend, and your father's friend." There is the twofold appeal to gratitude and to filial affection. When that affection has been enshrined and hallowed by the death of the parent, all the sacredness that attaches to a parent's dust and a parent's memory comes to be associated with the friendship of which he was the object when living. To forsake such a friend becomes thus a kind of sacrilegious violation of the claims of filial devotion and duty.

"Do not forsake him." First, do not forsake him in his time of need. To forsake him then would justly stamp your character with an indelible stigma of ungrateful baseness. Second, do not forsake him by neglecting and undervaluing his counsel or by declining his kind services. There are not many things more deeply hurtful and tenderly wounding than this. Even if we should see good cause for refusing what we are satisfied would not be beneficial, even then the intended kindness should be declined with grateful acknowledgment and a gentle unwillingness to offend. To refuse the offered services of such a friend when he is desirous of serving us as he did our father, and to tell him in effect that we can get along without his help, is to inflict a wound that may go deep and rankle long. Third, do not forsake him as you rise to a higher level in society than that which he and your father occupied. To allow his kindness to slip from memory simply because he is now below your status in life (much less to fail recognizing him!) would be sadly wrong and unworthy of correct principle and right feeling.

"Nor go to your brother's house in the day of your calamity." This certainly has the appearance of very strange advice. Where in the day of calamity should we go if not to the house of a brother? Where are we to expect the kind reception and comfort we need if not there? But the proverb, like all others, must be understood generally and applied in the circumstances and the sense obviously and mainly designed.

There seem to be two possible meanings. (1) Do not choose "the day of your calamity" for making your visit if you have not shown the same inclination to court and cultivate intimacy before in the day of your success and prosperity. This cannot help but look like the impulse of felt necessity, convenience, and self-interest rather than that of affection. "Oh sure," your brother will be naturally apt to say, "you couldn't come see me before. But now when you're in need and think I can help, then you come."

(2) Do not allow sympathy to be forced and extorted. If your brother has the heart of a brother and truly has sympathy for you, then he will come to you in the day of your calamity. He will seek you out. But if he does not, then do not press yourself upon his notice as if you would constrain and oblige him to be kind. This may, and probably will, have the effect of disgusting and alienating him rather than gaining his love. Love and sympathy must be cheerful as well as free. When they are gotten either by a bribe or force of urgent pleading, they are alike heartless and worthless.

And the reason is, "for better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off." The antithetical phrases "near" and "far off" have evident reference not to locality but to disposition. A friendly and kindly disposed neighbor is greatly preferable to a brother or any near relation who is cold, distant, and alienated. Even natural affection needs to be exercised with discretion. When appealed to imprudently--at improper times, in improper circumstances, and with improper frequency--natural affection may be cooled, lost, and turned to dislike.

Proverbs 27:17

"As iron sharpens iron,
so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend."

It would be wrong to say that this verse, as it stands in our translation, conveys no distinct idea. "Sharpens the countenance" does convey an idea. We immediately think of a man's face being enlivened and emboldened; and we infer that the enlivening and emboldening of the face arises from the enlivening and emboldening of the spirit. And this is the effect of the man's standing by his friend, supporting and encouraging him.

However, the words appear much more natural and emphatic when rendered, "so does a man's countenance sharpen his friend." By a very common figure, we use the word countenance to mean encouraging approbation, support, incitement. When a man is left to think, plan, and work alone, especially when he has no firm confidence in the plan itself, the method for executing it, or his ability and resources for carrying it through, he often becomes wearied and spiritless. His wits are blunted, losing their keen edge and efficient energy.

In these circumstances, let a friend step forward and take him by the hand. Let him approve and smile on his undertaking and offer his cooperation in moving it along. What a change! He is like another man. His spirits revive, his wits are sharpened. He proceeds with eager assiduity and cheerfulness, putting forth all his powers and making corresponding progress toward a successful outcome.

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