The Answer of the Tongue, Etc.
Here is a doctrine of inspiration which descends to the most practical line of life. This doctrine deals with the individual Prayer of Manasseh, as well as collective humanity. Whenever the preparations of the heart are good—that Isaiah, wise, prudent, purged of selfishness, and generous with the love of God,—we find nothing less than a miracle of the Holy Ghost Naturally, the heart is deceitful above all things; it requires, therefore, great preparation, that Isaiah, cleansing, purifying, and ennobling; it is like an instrument out of tune, on which no good music can be played, and which indeed spoils every note which it professes to express; we see, therefore, how large is the work which God has to do in the human heart before that heart can represent the integrity of divine purpose and the unselfishness of divine love. When the heart is prepared the tongue is likewise qualified to play its part effectively and happily in the ministry of life. When the tongue is under the control of a purified heart its words will flow as from a fountain of Wisdom of Solomon, and men will know that the stream is worthy of the spring. It is in vain to attempt to tame the tongue until the heart has been subdued. After all, the tongue is but a servant, and it will respond to the discipline which is imposed upon it by the moral nature. First, then, make the tree good, then the fruit will be good; ask the Lord to cleanse the heart utterly from every evil purpose and mean desire, and the eloquence of the tongue will be limpid, honest, and beneficent. The practical duty suggested by this text is that we are to beseech the Lord that he would grant unto us the suitable preparation and the wise answer. If any man lack Wisdom of Solomon, let him ask of God A man undertaking to prepare his own heart is like a musical instrument undertaking to put itself in tune. The whole work is to be done from without and from above; in other words, it is a divine action, a very miracle of almightiness. Who can control the heart? Who can track all the devious way of the manifold purpose of life? Who is not conscious of an under-consciousness, a kind of sub-life, that never shows itself wholly even to the most careful observer or even to the man himself,—a subtle faraway life that has plans, outlooks, motives, contemplations of its own? Verily, great is the mystery of life, and only One can control it, and that is the Lord who created the marvel.
"Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established" ( Proverbs 16:3).
Here we find the practical outcome, as we have pointed out, of the doctrine of the first verse. Man is to have no way of his own which he is not willing to subordinate to the inspiration of the Almighty. "Commit thy works" means, Yield thyself and all thy purposes to the Lord: ask him about everything: consider nothing too minute or insignificant for the regard of heaven. The downsitting, the uprising, the outgoing, the incoming of life, all these are to be watched and guarded from on high. Our danger is in supposing that we can undertake little things for ourselves. In reality there is nothing little, because everything we think or do or attempt has a distinct relation to a moral nature and to a moral responsibility, and consequently to a moral issue. When we begin to divide the actions of life into great and small we subject the soul to a very insidious temptation. If things were divisible into the two definite classes of great and small, the danger would be less extreme; but actions are graded into one another, colours are subdued from their highest expressiveness and shaded into lower colours, and it is at the point of shading, or at the line of transition, that the great spiritual difficulties of life occur. Whilst the final distribution is to the right hand and to the left, there is during life a process continually going on between the two extreme points, and somewhere in that process the soul may forget the vividness and definiteness of moral distinctions. There is a reward promised even in this text; may we not say a kind of heaven is outlined in this Book of Proverbs? The heaven of the man who commits his works unto the Lord is in the fact that his thoughts are to be established, his purposes are to be consummated, he is to be blessed with a sense of solid satisfaction; he is to be no longer a child driven to and fro and tossed about as by a fickle wind; he is to be rather as a tree planted by the right hand of God and abounding in all pleasant fruitfulness; or he is to be as a pillar in the house of God, founded on the eternal rock and reaching to the eternal heavens. The blessed effect of religion is to express itself in personal character. The religious man should be known by the clearness and largeness of his thoughts, by the nobleness and permanence of his character, by the beneficence and all but boundlessness of his charities. We shall know whether we have fully committed our work unto the Lord when we are assured that our thought is strong and true and wise and generously good.
"Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished" ( Proverbs 16:5).
What is there to be proud of? What hast thou that thou hast not received? Are we proud of beauty?—beauty is but skin-deep, according to a well-approved proverb. Are we proud of wealth?—riches make to themselves wings and flee away, as has been proved in many a tragical event. Are we proud of health? our breath is in our nostrils, and every man is but a tenant-at-will in the house of his body. But the pride here spoken of is a pride of heart; it may be a subtle and unexpressed pride, so far as anything concrete and definite is concerned. It may not relate to beauty, or riches, or bodily strength, or social position; it may be rather in a consciousness of superiority to other people, resulting in the cultivation of vanity, self-conceit, haughtiness, or contempt of others: they are not good enough for our society, they are unworthy of our regard, they are hardly of sufficient importance to be religiously cared for; it is in all such thoughts as these, so unchristlike and so undivine, that we find the most vicious pride. Hand joining in hand is no protection against the operation of the penal law. Proud men may combine themselves into a strong confederacy, but they shall burn like tow and go up like a crackling flame. God is mightier than all the forces that can be consolidated against him. Punishment slowly but surely follows the bad man in all the deviousness of his way, and in the long run he is crushed and ground into powder as by a great rock. It is folly to set the soul against God; for who can stand when the divine wrath burns? or who can answer when the thunder interrogates? Here again we come upon the necessity of a miracle being wrought in the heart, so that all pride may be taken out of it, all contempt may be subdued, and the heart itself be filled with generous thoughts and Christly charities. When anything is an a omination to the Lord, the Lord, as a consequence, fights against it, opposes it, humbles it, crushes it. Who will enter into controversy with the living God, challenge Omnipotence to contest? It may be because we have mistaken the mercy of God that we provoke such controversies: could we think for one moment of his almightiness, we should decline to appear to lift our puny hand against him. No man can subdue the pride of his own heart. Again and again we are brought to the solemn truth that that heart is an instrument which God alone can attune, and on which he alone can discourse music acceptable to his own ear.
"When a man"s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him" ( Proverbs 16:7).
Who has not proved this in his own practical experience? Efforts have been made to overcome the enemy, to flatter him, to bribe him, and yet his enmity has remained in all its stubbornness, the daily vexation of life, the daily difficulty of progress; but when the man who has suffered such enmity has committed his ways unto the Lord, and has invoked divine assistance, praying that he himself may be saved from the passion incident to provocation, and when he has made it his one business not to please his enemies, but to please the Lord, by a very curious and puzzling process enemies have been converted into friends. If this were not provable by countless instances, it would be one of the most incredible of all miracles; but there is hardly a man who has lived a large and active life, and who has lived at the same time a life devout and unselfish, who has not proved that this miracle has verily taken place. Perhaps there may be a negative aspect of the action of this miracle involved in the final words, "at peace with him:" there may not be cordial reunion, there may be no interchange of fellowship or visitation or confidence, but the enemy will forget to sneer, he will forbear to fight, he will withhold the malignant criticism, he will be as a beast of prey whose teeth and claws have been extracted. On the other hand, it is more likely that enmity will be turned into friendship, and hostility into confidence, for the Lord seldom builds a pillar without placing upon it a capital. He seldom leaves a tower half-built; it is not enough for God merely to subdue enmity. His glory is in its transformation to actual trust and love. We do far too much for ourselves; we seek our life, and therefore we lose it; we suppose we are more than a match for the enemy, and therefore we play off our resources against his: better to pray than to plan; better to forgive than to circumvent; better to think of God than to think of man—or to think of God and thus think more truly and profoundly of man. Sometimes we do everything by doing nothing. Sometimes we win the battle by simply standing still and watching the wondrous ways of Providence.
"How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver!" ( Proverbs 16:16).
Solomon returns to a very familiar doctrine, the very doctrine on which his book is based, and the very doctrine which he himself had proved in all the earlier processes of his better life. Gold changes in value; gold sometimes flies away like a frightened bird from the nest which it has warmed; but wisdom abides in winter and in summer; it is at once the most silent and the most eloquent of companions: it takes up no room, yet it fills the whole horizon of life; it can sing as well as speak; it has a key for every lock, it has an answer to every enigma; it loves to bow down in loving homage before the eternal throne, and to increase its volume and its quality by cultivating vital communion with the only wise God. Gold can remain with us in this world only; even suppose we can keep it to the very last day, and enjoy the very last luxury it can buy, we know of a certainty that it is the last luxury, that it is the last day, that it is the final effort; but wisdom is not something which the soul possesses, it is something which is transformed into the very nature of the soul; it gives the soul its highest and divinest qualities. What is it to have much silver, and to have no understanding? What is money in the hands of a fool? "Understanding" means sagacity, farsightedness, power of balancing one event against another, and especially that patient power which can wait until seed has grown, and until the mystery of growth has consummated itself. All human experience corroborates this text. There is nothing in gold, there is nothing in silver, that is not terminable; there is nothing in wisdom that is not of the nature of seed, which requires only to be sown in the right soil, administered to by the right agencies of nature, to grow up, some bearing thirty, some sixty, and some an hundredfold. A verse like this may be considered to be the very pivot of the Proverbs. Everything turns upon this pivot that relates to real sagacity, true prudence, faithful industry, profitable study, and a right comprehension of life and application of its functions.
"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" ( Proverbs 16:18).
Sentences of this kind can only have come after great experience. As we have before said, these proverbs are not speculations, but conclusions drawn from actual processes. We understand a statement of this kind best when we figure the writer as a man who has been watching the ways of life, and who has seen in a thousand instances ten times told how pride eventuates, and how a haughty spirit comes to fruition. The wise man tells us that pride yields the fruit of destruction, and a haughty spirit bears the fruit of humiliation. Pride can only grow for a certain time, strutting forth in all emptiness and vanity, as if it were a figure that deserved attention, and, behold, all the time it is walking along the level road to the pit of destruction: and a haughty spirit—that Isaiah, a spirit full of self-conceit and contempt for others—becomes so inflated and exaggerated and intolerable that at last it falls over the brink, and no man utters a cry of distress because it has sunk into the abyss. Only modesty is safe. Modesty is the first condition of true moral prosperity. When we come to know that we are nothing and have nothing in ourselves, and that we depend for everything upon the living God, we shall be saved from pride and from haughtiness.
"The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness" ( Proverbs 16:31).
Here, again, we come upon the moral test. The test is not, if it be found upon a throne, or with the control of vast material resources, but "if it be found in the way of righteousness." An aged fool represents the very sum of folly; having, according to a well-known speech, seen the consequences of a thousand errors, he continues still to blunder; and in his case age has only meant a continuance and ripening of unwisdom. There is no more pitiable object upon the earth. All education has been thrown away or despised; every opportunity has been declined; every blessing of nature has been used for the succour and nutriment of error, mistake, and folly. On the other hand, how beautiful is the picture of the text! it is that of an aged philosopher who has seen the mystery of life unfolding little by little, and watched how wondrous is the purpose that is hidden in the little child, and has seen how all the way through life there has been the guidance of a hand invisible, the inspiration of a spirit far away and yet near at hand; the aged saint acknowledges that life is moral, that it is to be judged by the standard of righteousness, that it is not a game of chance, that the battle is not to the strong nor the race to the swift, but that through all there runs a purpose as beneficent as it is holy. The aged saint is found sitting at eventide telling all the wonders of the day, recounting the story of the fight, and going over all the particulars which have constituted the mystery of human experience. When such an aged saint is found in society all men gather around him who themselves wish to be wise; they consult him, they religiously admire him, and they praise him all the more that they first praise the God who made him what he is. We cannot prevent having the hoary head; the flying days, the hastening years, turn the raven locks into hoar-frost; but it does lie within our power to say whether that hoary head shall be a crown of glory or whether it shall be a token of humiliation and shame. We are not to put off the education of the soul until old age; old age is rather to be the proof that youth was devoted to the pursuit of wisdom and the love of understanding. A nation well stocked with hoary heads that are found in the way of righteousness is a nation rich with true riches.
"The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord" ( Proverbs 16:33).
Life without a sense of providence would be intolerable. With a sense of providence life becomes solemn, religious, in a sense appalling. When we cast the lot into the lap we seem to be taking the chances of life, to be merely speculating, and to be guiding ourselves by whatever may turn up in the whirling wheel of uncertainty. There is indeed such a wheel, but it is under the control of the living God. We think we are going to do something of our own wit and strength, yet we do but come to know that we have done nothing but realize what was written aforetime, yea, even in the counsels of eternity. The bad man says he will bring to ruin those whom he hates, and lo! when he has wrought out his evil purposes he finds that he has only established those whose power he intended to throw down. The crafty man elaborates counsels of wickedness and selfishness, and thinks he will bring them to fruition in the nighttime, and surprise society in the morning by his astuteness and his patience; and lo! no sooner does the dawn make the landscape evident than his counsel is seen to have been successful only in the outworking of his own confusion. Within limited circles we have great power, but within the great circle there is only One that reigneth, and that is the Lord of heaven and earth. We cannot overthrow men, we cannot do permanent injury to good men, we cannot finally hinder the progress of wise thought and beneficent ideas; for a while we may seem to be very successful herein, when we are all the time writing down the story of our own impotence, and we shall have to subscribe with our own hand the narrative of folly which we would gladly disown. Let any man recount the oppositions he has had to contend with in life, and then recount all his communion with God, and he will be the first to say that though the road has been very steep, and the wind often cold, and the whole air seemed to be filled with evil spirits, yet he has been led into an open place, and has been constrained by the mere impulse and inspiration of love to build a temple in honour of the God who has consummated his life in lovingkindness and tender mercy.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Proverbs 16". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34