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THE MANY-SIDED CONTRAST OF WISDOM AND FOLLY

‘Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: but he that hateth reproof is brutish. 2. A good man obtaineth favour of the Lord: but a man of wicked devices will he condemn. 3. A man shall not be established by wickedness; but the root of the righteous shall not be moved. 4. A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband: but she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness in his bones. 5. The thoughts of the righteous are right: but the counsels of the wicked are deceit. 6. The words of the wicked are to lie in wait for blood: but the mouth of the upright shall deliver them. 7. The wicked are overthrown, and are not: but the house of the righteous shall stand. 8. A man shall be commended according to his wisdom: but he that is of a perverse heart shall be despised. 9. He that is despised, and hath a servant, is better than he that honoureth himself, and lacketh bread. 10. A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. 11. He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that followeth vain persons is void of understanding. 12. The wicked desireth the net of evil men: but the root of the righteous yieldeth fruit. 13. The wicked is snared by the transgression of his lips: but the just shall come out of trouble. 14. A man shall be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth; and the recompence of a man’s hands shall be rendered unto him. 15. The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise.’—PROVERBS xii. 1-15.

The verses of the present passage are a specimen of the main body of the Book of Proverbs. They are not a building, but a heap. The stones seldom have any mortar between them, and connection or progress is for the most part sought in vain. But one great antithesis runs through the whole—the contrast of wisdom or righteousness with folly or wickedness. The compiler or author is never weary of setting out that opposition in all possible lights. It is, in his view, the one difference worth noting between men, and it determines their whole character and fortunes. The book traverses with keen observation all the realm of life, and everywhere finds confirmation of its great principle that goodness is wisdom and sin folly.

There is something extremely impressive in this continual reiteration of that contrast. As we read, we feel as if, after all, there were nothing in the world but it and its results. That profound sense of the existence and far-reaching scope of the division of men into two classes is not the least of the benefits which a thoughtful study of Proverbs brings to us. In this lesson it is useless to attempt to classify the verses. Slight traces of grouping appear here and there; but, on the whole, we have a set of miscellaneous aphorisms turning on the great contrast, and setting in various lights the characters and fates of the righteous and the wicked.

The first mark of difference is the opposite feeling about discipline. If a man is wise, he will love ‘knowledge’; and if he loves knowledge, he will love the means to it, and therefore will not kick against correction. That is another view of trials from the one which inculcates devout submission to a Father. It regards only the benefits to ourselves. If we want to be taught anything, we shall not flinch from the rod. There must be pains undergone in order to win knowledge of any sort, and the man who rebels against these shows that he had rather be comfortable and ignorant than wise. A pupil who will not stand having his exercises corrected will not learn his faults. On the other hand, hating reproof is ‘brutish’ in the most literal sense; for it is the characteristic of animals that they do not understand the purpose of pain, and never advance because they do not. Men can grow because they can submit to discipline; beasts cannot improve because, except partially and in a few cases, they cannot accept correction.

The first proverb deals with wisdom or goodness in its inner source; namely, a docile disposition. The two next deal with its consequences. It secures God’s favour, while its opposite is condemned; and then, as a consequence of this, the good man is established and the wicked swept away. The manifestations of God’s favour and its opposite are not to be thrown forward to a future life. Continuously the sunshine of divine love falls on the one man, and already the other is condemned. It needs some strength of faith to look through the shows of prosperity often attending plain wickedness, and believe that it is always a blunder to do wrong.

But a moderate experience of life will supply many instances of prosperous villainy in trade and politics which melted away like mist. The shore is strewn with wrecks, dashed to pieces because righteousness did not steer. Every exchange gives examples in plenty. How many seemingly solid structures built on wrong every man has seen in his lifetime crumble like the cloud masses which the wind piles in the sky and then dissipates! The root of the righteous is in God, and therefore he is firm. The contrast is like that of Psalm i.—between the tree with strong roots and waving greenery, and the chaff, rootless, and therefore whirled out of the threshing-floor.

The universal contrast is next applied to women; and in accordance with the subordinate position they held in old days, the bearing of her goodness is principally regarded as affecting her husband. That does not cover the whole ground, of course. But wherever there is a true marriage, the wife will not think that woman’s rights are infringed because one chief issue of her beauty of virtue is the honour and joy it reflects upon him who has her heart. ‘A virtuous woman’ is not only one who possesses the one virtue to which the phrase has been so miserably confined, but who is ‘a woman of strength’—no doll or plaything, but

‘A perfect woman, nobly planned

To warn, to comfort, and command.’

The gnawing misery of being fastened like two dogs in a leash to one who ‘causes shame’ is vividly portrayed by that strong figure, that she is like ‘rottenness in his bones,’ eating away strength, and inflicting disfigurement and torture.

Then come a pair of verses describing the inward and outward work of the two kinds of men as these affect others. The former verses dealt with their effects on the actors; the present, with their bearing on others. Inwardly, the good man has thoughts which scrupulously keep the balance true and are just to his fellows, while the wicked plans to deceive for his own profit. When thoughts are translated into speech, deceit bears fruit in words which are like ambushes of murderers, laying traps to destroy, while the righteous man’s words are like angels of deliverance to the unsuspecting who are ready to fall into the snare. Selfishness, which is the root of wickedness, will be cruelty and injustice when necessary for its ends. The man who is wise because God is his centre and aim will be merciful and helpful. The basis of philanthropy is religion. The solemn importance attached to speech is observable. Words can slay as truly as swords. Now that the press has multiplied the power of speech, and the world is buzzing with the clatter of tongues, we all need to lay to heart the responsibilities and magic power of spoken and printed words, and ‘to set a watch on the door of our lips.’

Then follow a couple of verses dealing with the consequences to men themselves of their contrasted characters. The first of these (verse 7) recurs to the thought of verse 3, but with a difference. Not only the righteous himself, but his house, shall be established. The solidarity of the family and the entail of goodness are strongly insisted on in the Old Testament, though limitations are fully recognised. If a good man’s son continues his father’s character, he will prolong his father’s blessings; and in normal conditions, a parent’s wisdom passes on to his children. Something is wrong when, as is so often the case, it does not; and it is not always the children’s fault.

The overthrow of the wicked is set in striking contrast with their plots to overthrow others. Their mischief comes back, like an Australian boomerang, to the hand that flings it; and contrariwise, delivering others is a sure way of establishing one’s self. Exceptions there are, for the world-scheme is too complicated to be condensed into a formula; but all proverbs speak of the average usual results of virtue and vice, and those of this book do the same. Verse 8 asserts that, on the whole, honour attends goodness, and contempt wickedness. Of course, companions in dissipation extol each other’s vices, and launch the old threadbare sneers at goodness. But if wisdom were not set uppermost in men’s secret judgment, there would be no hypocrites, and their existence proves the truth of the proverb.

Verse 9 seems suggested by ‘despised’ in verse 8. There are two kinds of contempt—one which brands sin deservedly, one which vulgarly despises everybody who is not rich. A man need not mind, though his modest household is treated with contempt, if quiet righteousness reigns in it. It is better to be contented with little, and humble in a lowly place, than to be proud and hungry, as many were in the writer’s time and since. A foolish world set on wealth may despise, but its contempt breaks no bones. Self-conceit is poor diet.

This seems to be the first of a little cluster of proverbs bearing on domestic life. It prefers modest mediocrity of station, such as Agur desired. Its successor shows how the contrasted qualities come out in the two men’s relation to their domestic animals. Goodness sweeps a wide circle touching the throne of God and the stall of the cattle. It was not Coleridge who found out that ‘He prayeth best who loveth best’ but this old proverb-maker; and he could speak the thought without the poet’s exaggeration, which robs his expression of it of half its value. The original says ‘knoweth the soul’ which may indeed mean, ‘regardeth the life’ but rather seems to suggest sympathetic interest in leading to an understanding of the dumb creature, which must precede all wise care for its well-being. It is a part of religion to try to enter into the mysterious feelings of our humble dependants in farmyard and stable. On the other hand, for want of such sympathetic interest, even when the ‘wicked’ means to be kind, he does harm; or the word rendered ‘tender mercies’ may here mean the feelings (literally, ‘bowels’) which, in their intense selfishness, are cruel even to animals.

Verse 11 has no connection with the preceding, unless the link is common reference to home life and business. It contrasts the sure results of honest industry with the folly of speculation. The Revised Version margin ‘vain things’ is better than the text ‘vain persons,’ which would give no antithesis to the patient tilling of the first clause. That verse would make an admirable motto to be stretched across the Stock Exchange, and like places on both sides of the Atlantic. How many ruined homes and heart-broken wives witness in America and England to its truth! The vulgar English proverb, ‘What comes over the Devil’s back goes under his belly,’ says the same thing. The only way to get honest wealth is to work for it. Gambling in all its forms is rank folly.

So the next proverb (verse 12) continues the same thought, and puts it in a somewhat difficult phrase. It goes a little deeper than the former, showing that the covetousness which follows after vain things, is really wicked lusting for unrighteous gain. ‘The net of evildoer’s is better taken as in the margin (Rev. Ver.) ‘prey’ or ‘spoil,’ and the meaning seems to be as just stated. Such hankering for riches, no matter how obtained, or such envying of the booty which admittedly has been won by roguery, is a mark of the wicked. How many professing church members have known that feeling in thinking of the millions of some railway king! Would they like the proverb to be applied to them?

The contrast to this is ‘the root of the righteous yields fruit,’ or ‘shoots forth,’ We have heard (verse 3) that it shall never be moved, being fixed in God; now we are told that it will produce all that is needful. A life rooted in God will unfold into all necessary good, which will be better than the spoil of the wicked. There are two ways of getting on—to struggle and fight and trample down rivals; one, to keep near God and wait for him. ‘Ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not.’

The next two proverbs have in common a reference to the effect of speech upon the speaker. ‘In the transgression of the lips is an evil snare’; that is, sinful words ensnare their utterer, and whoever else he harms, he himself is harmed most. The reflex influence on character of our utterances is not present to us, as it should be. They leave stains on lips and heart. Thoughts expressed are more definite and permanent thereby. A vicious thought clothed in speech has new power over the speaker. If we would escape from that danger, we must be righteous, and speak righteousness; and then the same cause will deepen our convictions of ‘whatsoever things are lovely and of good report.’

Verse 14 insists on this opposite side of the truth. Good words will bring forth fruit, which will satisfy the speaker, because, whatever effects his words may have on others, they will leave strengthened goodness and love of it in himself. ‘If the house be worthy, your peace shall rest upon it; if not, it shall return to you again.’ That reaction of words on oneself is but one case of the universal law of consequences coming back on us. We are the architects of our own destinies. Every deed has an immortal life, and returns, either like a raven or a dove, to the man who sent it out on its flight. It comes back either croaking with blood on its beak, or cooing with an olive branch in its mouth. All life is at once sowing and reaping. A harvest comes in which retribution will be even more entire and accurate.

The last proverb of the passage gives a familiar antithesis, and partially returns to the thought of verse 1. The fool has no standard of conduct but his own notions, and is absurdly complacent as to all his doings. The wise seeks better guidance than his own, and is docile, because he is not so ridiculously sure of his infallibility. No type of weak wickedness is more abominable to the proverbialist than that of pert self-conceit, which knows so little that it thinks it knows everything, and is ‘as untameable as a fly.’ But in the wisest sense, it is true that a mark of folly is self-opinionativeness; that a man who has himself for teacher has a fool for scholar; that the test of wisdom is willingness to be taught; and, especially, that to bring a docile, humble spirit to the Source of all wisdom, and to ask counsel of God, is the beginning of true insight, and that the self-sufficiency which is the essence of sin, is never more fatal than when it is ignorant of guilt, and therefore spurns a Saviour.

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