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VI.

CERTAIN EXAMPLES OF THE BINDING CHARACTER OF OUR OWN ACTIONS.

"The surety ... the sluggard ... and the worthless person."—Prov. vi. 1, 6, 12.

From the solemn principle announced at the close of the last chapter the teacher passes, almost unconscious of the thought which determines his selection of subjects, to illustrate the truth by three examples,—that of the Surety, that of the Sluggard, that of the Worthless Man. And then, because the horrors of impurity are the most striking and terrible instance of all, this subject, coming up again at v. 20, like the dark ground tone of the picture, finally runs into the long and detailed description of chap. vii.

These three examples are full of interest, partly because of the light they throw on the habits and moral sentiments of the time in which this Introduction was written, but chiefly because of the permanent teaching which is luminous in them all, and especially in the third.

We may spend a few minutes upon the first. The young man finding his neighbour in monetary difficulties, consents in an easy-going way to become his surety; he enters into a solemn pledge with the creditor, probably a Phœnician money-lender, that he will himself80 be responsible if the debtor is not prepared to pay at the appointed time. He now stands committed; he is like a roe that is caught by the hunter, or a bird that is held by the fowler, in the hand of his neighbour. His peace of mind, and his welfare, depend no longer upon himself, but upon the character, the weakness, the caprice of another. This is a good illustration of the way in which a thoughtless action may weave cruel bands to bind the unwary. Looking at the matter from this point of view, our book strongly and frequently denounces the practice of suretiship. To become surety for another shows that you are void of understanding. So foolish is the action that it is compared to the surrender of one's own garments, and even to the loss of personal freedom. A proverb declares: "He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it, but he that hateth suretiship is sure."9595   See Prov. xvii. 18, xx. 16, repeated in xxvii. 13, and especially xi. 15.

If then the young man has immeshed himself in obligations of this kind, he is recommended to spare no pains, not to stand upon a false pride, but to go with all urgency, with frank abasement, to the man for whom he has pledged his credit, and at all costs to get released from the obligation. "Be thou not," says Wisdom, "one of them that strike hands, or of them that are sureties for debts: if thou hast not wherewith to pay, why should he take away thy bed from under thee?"9696   Prov. xxii. 26, 27.

We feel at once that there is another side to the question. There may be cases in which a true brotherliness will require us to be surety for our friend. "An honest man is surety for his neighbour, but he that is81 impudent will forsake him," says Ecclesiasticus. And from another point of view an injunction has to be given to one who has persuaded his friend to stand as his surety,—"Forget not the friendship of thy surety, for he hath given his life for thee. A sinner will overthrow the good estate of his surety, and he that is of an unthankful mind will leave him in danger that delivered him." But confining ourselves to the standpoint of the text, we may well raise a note of warning against the whole practice. As Ecclesiasticus himself says, "Suretiship hath undone many of good estate, and shaken them as a wave of the sea: mighty men hath it driven from their houses, so that they wandered among strange nations. A wicked man transgressing the commandments of the Lord shall fall into suretiship."9797   Eccles. xxix. 14, 16, 17, 18, 19.

We may say perhaps that the truly moral course in these relations with our fellows lies here: if we can afford to be a surety for our neighbour, we can clearly afford to lend him the money ourselves. If we cannot afford to lend it to him, then it is weak and foolish, and may easily become wicked and criminal, to make our peace of mind dependent on the action of a third person, while in all probability it is hurtful to our friend himself, because by consenting to divide the risks with the actual creditor we tend to lessen in the debtor's mind the full realization of his indebtedness, and thus encourage him in shifty courses and unnerve his manly sense of responsibility. The cases in which it is wise as well as kind to become bail for another are so rare that they may practically be ignored in this connection;82 and when these rare occasions occur they may safely be left to the arbitrament of other principles of conduct which in the present instance are out of view. Here it is enough to emphasise what a miserable chain thoughtlessness in the matter of suretiship may forge for the thoughtless.

We may now pass to our second illustration, the poverty and ruin which must eventually overtake the Sluggard. "I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and, lo, it was all grown over with thorns. The face thereof was covered with nettles, and the stone wall thereof was broken down. Then I beheld, and considered well: I saw, and received instruction."9898   Prov. xxiv. 30-34; see for a fuller treatment of the subject Lecture XX. And there is the lazy owner of this neglected farm murmuring, "Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep." There seem to be in every community a certain number of people who can only be described as constitutionally incapable: as children they are heavy and phlegmatic; at school they are always playing truant, and exerting themselves, if at all, to escape the irksome necessity of learning anything; when they enter into life for themselves they have no notion of honest effort and steady persistency, but directly their employment becomes distasteful they quit it; and at length, when they end their days in the workhouse, or in those shameful haunts of sin and vice to which sloth so easily leads, they have the melancholy reflection to take with them to the grave that they have proved themselves an encumbrance of the earth, and can be welcomed in no conceivable world. Now the question83 must force itself upon our attention, Might not these incapables be rescued if they were taken young enough, and taught by wholesome discipline and a wise education what will be the inevitable issue of their lethargic tendencies? Might not the farm of the sluggard be impressed on their very eyeballs as a perpetual and effective warning?

Leaving this important question to social reformers, we may note how beautifully this book employs the examples of insect life to teach and stimulate human beings. "The ants are a people not strong. Yet they provide their meat in summer.... The locusts have no king. Yet go they forth all of them by bands."9999   Prov. xxx. 25-27. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no chief, overseer,100100   It is the word used in Exod. v. 6 of those who directed the tasks of the Israelites in Egypt. or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest."101101   Prov. vi. 6-8. By this little touch the book of Proverbs has turned the magnificent fields of modern scientific observation, and all the astonishing revelations of the microscope, into a school of moral and spiritual discipline for human life. Thus the ants swarm in the woods and the fields as if to rebuke the laziness and thriftlessness of man. They work night and day; they store their galleries with food; they capture and nourish aphides, which they use as a kind of domestic cattle. The vast and symmetrical mounds, which they rear as habitations and barns, are, relatively to the size of the builders, three or four times larger than the pyramids. By what mysterious instinct those long lines of84 labourers march and work in unison; by what half-human impulses they form in serried hosts and engage in deadly battles prolonged through several days; by what ludicrous freaks they are led to imitate men, spending their lives in pampered luxury, dependent upon slaves, until at last in their helplessness they are mastered by their bondservants in revolt; by what heavenly motive they are stirred to feed and nourish and nurse one another in sickness and trouble,—we need not here enquire, for we are only told to go to the ant in order to learn her ways of ceaseless activity. But in this brief precept we seem to receive a hint of the boundless instruction and warning to be derived from the humbler inhabitants of this earth which man claims as his own.

Let us pass to the third illustration of the theme. The surety is the victim of easygoing thoughtlessness, the sluggard is the victim of laziness and incapacity; but now there appears on the scene the thoroughly worthless character, the man of Belial, and after his portrait is drawn in a few touches, his sudden and hopeless ruin is announced in a way which is all the more striking because the connection between the sin and its punishment is left to be guessed rather than explained.102102   Prov. vi. 12-15. The description of this person is wonderfully graphic and instructive, and we must dwell for a moment on the details. We see him, not in repose, but busy going from place to place, and talking a great deal. His lips are shaped continually to lie,—"he walketh with a froward mouth." There is no straightforwardness about him; he is full of hint, suggestion,85 innuendo; he gives you always the idea that he has an accomplice in the background; he turns to you and winks in a knowing way; he has a habit of shuffling with his feet, as if some evil spirit forbade him to stand still; you constantly catch him gesticulating; he points with his thumb over his shoulder, and nods significantly; he is never better pleased than when he can give the impression of knowing a great deal more than he cares to say. He delights to wrap himself in mystery—to smile blandly and then relapse into a look of inscrutability—to frown severely and then assume an air of gentle innocence. He is in the habit of beckoning one into a corner, and making a whispered communication as if he were your particular friend, as if he had taken a fancy to you directly he saw you, and was therefore eager to give you some information which nothing would induce him to divulge to anyone else; if you are foolish enough to share his confidences, he gives you very soon, when others are standing by, a cunning leer, as if to intimate that you and he are old acquaintances, and are in the secret, which the rest do not know.103103   Cf. the proverb xvi. 30—"He that shutteth his eyes, it is to devise froward things: he that compresseth his lips bringeth evil to pass."

The fact is that his heart is as deceitful as his lips; he cannot be true on any terms. If some simple and open course occurred to his mind he would shun it instinctively, because it is in devising evil that he lives and moves and has his being. His friendliest approaches fill an honest man with misgiving, his words of affection or admiration send a cold shudder through one's frame. His face is a mask; when it looks fair you suspect villainy; when it looks villainous, and then86 only, you recognize that it is true. Wherever he goes he makes mischief, he causes divisions; he is the Iago of every play in which he takes a part, the Judas of every society of which he is a member. He manages to sow suspicion in the mind of the least suspicious, and to cast a slur on the character of the most innocent. When he has created discord between friends he is delighted. If he sees them disposed to a reconciliation, he comes forward as a mediator and takes care to exasperate the differences, and to make the breach irreparable. Like Edmund in King Lear, he has a genius for setting men at variance, and for so arranging his plots that each party thinks he hears with his own ears and sees with his own eyes the proof of the other's perfidy. But, unlike Edmund, he does the mischief, not for any special good to himself, but for the mere delight of being an agent of evil.

It is this kind of man that is the pest of commerce. He introduces dishonest practices into every business that he touches. He makes it a principle that in selling you are to impose on the customer, avail yourself of his ignorance or prejudice or weakness, and hide everything which might incline him to draw back; while in buying you are to use any fraud or panic or misrepresentation which might induce the seller to lower the price.104104   Cf. Prov. xx. 14: "It is naught, it is naught, saith the buyer: but when he is gone his way, then he boasteth." When he has been in a business for a little while the whole concern becomes tainted, there is a slime over everything; the very atmosphere is fetid.

It is this kind of man that is the bane of every social circle. In his presence, all simplicity and innocence, all charity and forbearance and compassion,87 seem to wither away. If you are true and straightforward he manages to make you ridiculous; under his evil spell you seem a simpleton. All genial laughter he turns into sardonic smiles and sneers; all kindly expressions he transforms into empty compliments which are not devoid of a hidden venom. He is often very witty, but his wit clings like an eating acid to everything that is good and pure; his tongue will lodge a germ of putrescence in everything which it touches.

It is this kind of man that is the leaven of hypocrisy and malice in the Christian Church; he intrigues and cabals. He sets the people against the minister and stirs up the minister to suspect his people. He undertakes religious work, because it is in that capacity he can do most mischief. He is never better pleased than when he can pose as the champion of orthodoxy, because then he seems to be sheltered and approved by the banner which he is defending.

"Therefore shall his calamity come suddenly."105105   It is probably assumed that warnings and corrections have been given him in vain—cf. Prov. xxix. 1: "He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck shall suddenly be broken, and that without remedy." It is because the character is so incurably base, so saturated with lies and insincerities, that there can be no gradations or temperings in his punishment. One who is less evil may be proved and tested with slight troubles, if possibly he may be stirred to amendment. But this utterly worthless person is quite unaffected by the smaller trials, the tentative disciplines of life. He cannot be chastised as a son; he can only be broken as a vessel in which there is an intrinsic flaw; or as a building, which has got the plague in its very mortar and plaster.

We are told that in Sierra Leone the white ants88 will sometimes occupy a house, and eat their way into all the woodwork, until every article in the house is hollow, so that it will collapse into dust directly it is touched. It is so with this deceitful character, so honeycombed, and eaten through, that though for years it may maintain its plausible appearance in the world, few people even suspecting the extent of the inward decay, on a sudden the end will come; there will be one touch of the finger of God, and the whole ill-compacted, worm-devoured thing will crumble into matchwood: "He shall be broken, and that without remedy."

But while we are thus watching this worthless soul overtaken with an inevitable calamity, we are reminded that not only are our eyes upon him, but the Lord also sees him. And to that calm and holy watcher of the poor sinful creature there are six things which appear specially hateful—seven which are an abomination of His soul.106106   Prov. vi. 16-19. Is there not a kind of comfort in the thought that the Lord watches and knows the whole story of that miserable life, not leaving it to us to condemn, but taking upon Himself the whole responsibility? He knows whether there is a reason in nature for these bad hearts; He knows too what power outside of nature can change and redeem them. But at present we want only to mark and consider these seven things which are abominable to God—the seven prominent traits of the character which has just been depicted. We seem to need some spiritual quickening,89 that we may observe these hateful things not only with our own natural repugnance, but with something of the holy hatred and the inward loathing which they produce in the Divine mind.

1. Haughty eyes. "There is a generation, Oh how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up."107107   Prov. xxx. 13. See Lecture XIII. for the teaching of the Proverbs on Pride. And to that generation how many of us belong, and what secret admiration do we cherish for it, even when we can honestly disclaim any blood relationship! That haughty air of the great noble; that sense of intrinsic superiority; that graciousness of manner which comes from a feeling that no comparison can possibly be instituted between the great man and his inferiors; that way of surveying the whole earth as if it were one's private estate; or that supreme satisfaction with one's private estate as if it were the whole earth! This lofty pride, when its teeth are drawn so that it cannot materially hurt the rest of mankind, is a subject of mirth to us; but to the Lord it is not, it is hateful and abominable; it ranks with the gross vices and the worst sins; it is the chief crime of Satan.

2. A lying tongue, though it "is but for a moment."108108   Prov. xii. 19. It is the sure sign of God's intense hatred against lies that they recoil on the head of the liar, and are the harbingers of certain destruction. We dislike lies because of their social inconvenience, and where some social convenience is served by them we connive at them and approve. But God hates the lying tongue, whatever apparent advantage comes from it. If we lie for personal gain He hates it. If we lie from90 mere weakness, He hates it. If we lie in the name of religion, and in the fashion of the Jesuit, for the welfare of men and the salvation of souls, He hates it none the less. The abomination does not consist in the motive of the lie, but in the lie itself.

3. Hands that shed innocent blood. So hateful are they to Him that He could not let David His chosen servant build Him a house because this charge could be laid against the great king. The soldier in the battle-field hewing down the man who is innocent, and the man who in carelessness or greed is wearing the poor, who are dependent on him, down to death, and the man who in a passion rises up and murders his fellow,—these are very hateful to the Lord. There at the beginning of the world's history, in the blood of righteous Abel crying to the Lord, and in the mark set on the guilty brow of Cain, the heart of God was clearly and finally shown. He has not changed. He does not shed innocent blood Himself; He cannot away with them that shed it.

4. Hateful too to Him is the devising heart, even where courage or opportunity fails of realizing the device. There are so many more murderers in the world than we see, so many cruel and wicked deeds restrained by the police or by a dominant public sentiment, which yet lie deep in the wicked imaginations of our hearts, and are abominable to God, that we may be thankful if we do not see as He sees, and may wonder at the forbearance of His compassion.

5. Feet that be swift in running to mischief. Feet listless in the ways of brotherly service or holy worship, but swift, twinkling with eager haste, when any mischief is toward, are marked by God—and hated.

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6. And a false witness is abominable to Him, the poisoner of all social life, the destroyer of all justice between man and man. Again and again in this book is censure passed upon this unpardonable crime.109109   See Prov. xii. 17; xiv. 5, 25; xix. 5, 9. A crime, it may be remembered, which would be much more common and much more fatal in a primitive state of society, where on the one hand legal procedure was less cautious and less searching, and on the other hand the inward sanctions of truth which Christianity has brought home to the modern conscience were but feebly perceived.

7. Finally, as the blessing of Heaven descends on the peacemaker, so the hatred of God assails the man who sows discord among brethren.

Such is the character that God abominates, the character which binds itself with cords of penalty and falls into irretrievable ruin. And then, after this disquisition on some of the vices which destroy the individual life and disturb society, our author turns again to that snaring vice which is so much the more destructive because it comes under the guise, not of hate, but of love. Those other vices after all bear their evil on their faces, but this is veiled and enchanted with a thousand plausible sophistries; it pleads the instincts of nature, the fascinations of beauty, the faults of the present social state, and even advances the august precepts of science. Surely in a way where such a danger lurks we need a commandment which will shine as a lamp, a law which will be itself a light (ver. 23).


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