A Practical Exposition of the Book of Proverbs
By George Lawson, 1821
"Do not envy wicked men, do not desire their company."
We must be careful of our hearts as well as our lives, for out of the heart are the issues of life. Our hearts are well known to God, and he warns us, in the precepts of his Word, against indulging an evil disposition, or corrupt passion, which might pollute our souls and conduct.
He warns us particularly in this passage, against all envious thoughts at the sight of wicked men's prosperity, which are so natural to us, that the best saints have not been altogether free of this root of bitterness. When we see the material blessings poured out to the wicked, and behold these gains and pleasures which are the present fruits of sin, we are too ready to say in our hearts, "O that God would relax in some degree his laws, that we might without incurring his displeasure, revel in those pleasures which the sons of Belial enjoy. Those men have a happier life at least than we have, whose consciences will not allow us to imitate their lawless conduct." Such wicked imaginations are strictly prohibited in this place of Scripture. We must not account the proud happy, although they enjoy the world at their will. We must not entertain a thought of imitating their cursed manners. Why? Their hearts and their lips are as black as Hell!
Proverbs 24:2."for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk about making trouble."
And which of the two is best for us, to have our hearts beautified with the luster of holiness, and purified into sincere love of our brethren — or turned into a den of every malicious fiend? To have our tongues sweetened with honey and milk — or set on fire of Hell? The punishments of sin are very dreadful — but sin itself is such a deformed ugly monster, that we are lost to understanding if we do not abhor it for its own sake.
But you will say, that the wicked enjoy great advantage from their way of life. They acquire fine houses and elegant furniture, and everything delightful in the service of sin. Is sin then attended with better fruits even in this world, than wisdom and holiness? By no means.
Proverbs 24:3."By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established."
Houses have been sometimes built through wickedness — but never established. By wisdom and knowledge they are built as it were on a rock, to stand firm against every blast. Convenient furniture is desirable, as well as a sure house; and this also is a fruit of that wisdom and industry which belongs to religion.
Proverbs 24:4."through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures."
Wicked men are represented by Solomon as entertaining their imaginations with high expectations of the precious substance, with which robbery and fraud will fill their houses. But what wicked men vainly expect — godly men find, if God sees it to be good for them. Should the wicked prosper in their pursuits, their joy is mingled with the racks of a tormenting consciousness of guilt, and the apprehensions of a speedy end to the pleasures of sin. If godly men are disappointed in their expectations and wishes as to this world — they have the consolation of knowing that they have mansions of blessedness prepared for them in Christ's father's house, and that their substance is the better and enduring substance, laid up for them in Heaven.
Although the Old Testament dispensation of grace abounded in promises of earthly blessings — yet many of the ancient saints met with innumerable crosses and afflictions. They were obliged to dwell in dens and caves of the earth. They were destitute, afflicted, tormented — and still they believed that God was faithful to his word, although outward events contradicted it. Or if at any time, doubts of God's faithfulness and goodness arose in their minds, they resisted the abominable thoughts so derogatory to the Most High, and called themselves brutes and idiots before God.
How inexcusable then must it be for us, who live in the sunshine of the Gospel, to give place to blasphemous doubts of the providence of God, and the truth of his word — when God does not think fit to give splendid palaces and fine furniture to his people! The promises respecting this life, belong to godliness under the new testament as well at the old — but they are to be understood in a consistency with the nobler promises that respect spiritual blessings, and the happy influence which crosses of different kinds have in the accomplishment of these promises.
When God appoints poverty and losses to the wise, and bereaves them of the native fruits of their honest labors and temperate course of life, he is not breaking, but fulfilling, his word. And the most afflicted saints will find reason to say in the end of their curse, "we know that all your judgments are righteous, and that you in faithfulness have afflicted us."
Proverbs 24:5."A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength"
Health and vigor of body are not inseparable from that temperance and labor which religion requires — but they ordinarily accompany these virtues. Religion is at any rate fitted to give us strength, and animate us with courage, because it directs us to depend on the arm of the Almighty, and to be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
Wisdom teaches us not only to trust in God — but to take advantage of that wisdom which God has granted to other men, not merely for their own benefit — but to render them useful to others who have the meekness and humility of wisdom to consult with them.
Proverbs 24:6."For waging war you need guidance, and in multitude of counselors there is safety."
Wars are too often necessary because of the pride, covetousness and ambition of men. Those who have most of the meekness of wisdom, are sometimes dragged into them — and then wisdom is found to be of far greater value than strength, or weapons of war. A multitude of wise counselors are far more useful to a nation engaged in war, than a great number of valiant soldiers.
The wisdom of statesmen and generals is of great use in its proper sphere — but the wisdom of saints is of incomparably greater use in fighting for the cause of liberty and religion. In the wars of Israel, piety was commonly attended with success, for those who knew their God were strong and did exploits. If the wisdom of one poor man could deliver a city besieged by a powerful king — then what may not be expected from the combined wisdom of many? But as useful as wisdom is, there are some men so egregiously foolish that they cannot attain this quality.
Proverbs 24:7."Wisdom is too high for a fool; in the assembly at the gate he has nothing to say."
A fool does not see the excellency of wisdom. Although he may value the reputation of it — yet he lacks eyes to behold the real glory of wisdom. Or if he has any sense of its value — yet he cannot bring his mind to that degree of care, and diligence, and self-denial, which is necessary to obtain the knowledge of it. Far less can he resist the imperious tyranny of his passions, to put his soul under the government of wisdom. Therefore he continues a fool under all the means of wisdom that are used with him. A desire to get wisdom is of no use but to render his folly more inexcusable. For he has no heart to it — but is deeply in love with his folly, and must bear the shame and misery to which it exposes him.
But if wisdom is too high for a fool — then how can he be blamed for not getting wisdom? Because the fault is not in wisdom, nor in the means of it, which God has given us — but in the fool himself. Wisdom speaks to men in plain language. But fools have corrupt minds, and perverse hearts, and refuse to hear the voice of wisdom, or to receive the instructions of wisdom into their hearts.
A fool, through his incapacity of getting wisdom, is unfit for speaking in the assembly — the place of concourse and of judgment. He is either made speechless by his consciousness of having nothing to say which deserves to be heard — or if his self-conceit opens his lips, he betrays his folly by speaking, more effectually than others do by their silence.
That the wisdom which is the gift of nature and learning is necessary to qualify men for public offices is universally allowed; and that wisdom which is the gift of the Spirit, is likewise highly requisite, if not absolutely necessary. Jethro would have none to be rulers in Israel who did not fear God and hate covetousness. For the fear of God is the most effectual preservative against all those temptations that attend power and high offices.
Proverbs 24:8."He who plots evil, will be known as a mischievous person."
That tree is rotten which is broken by a gentle gale of wind. Just so, that man has a rotten heart, who sins upon a slight temptation.
But words are insufficient to express the malignity of that man's heart, who needs no temptation from the devil at all — but contrives and plots sin in his own mind, spending his thoughts devising iniquity when he is lying on his bed, or sitting in his house, and searching out the most dextrous and effectual methods of gratifying his own depraved mind, and doing harm to others.
To be driven or drawn to sin is a bad thing — but to draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and to sin, as it were, with a cart rope, is hellish! The person who does so shall be loaded with infamy. He may think himself a man of genius and wisdom; he may acquire to himself an honorable name among fools — but the God from whose sentence, promotion or infamy comes, calls him a master of harm, and by this vile title he shall be known among all that are wise.
He may be really a man of genius and learning — but all his talents, natural and acquired, concur to sink him so much the deeper in the gulf of disgrace. All his honor shall consist in his being not a private soldier — but a leader in the bands of Hell. And in this dignity he shall share with Balaam, the son of Beer, who taught Balak to seduce the Israelites; with Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin; with Jezebel, the wife and tutor of the most infamous of the kings of Israel; and with Beelzebub, the prince of devils.
Proverbs 24:9."The thought of foolishness is sin, and the scorner is an abomination to men."
It is too general a notion that thoughts are of little consequence, and that words and actions only expose men to danger of punishment from God — but we are to remember, that there is an infinite distance between the judges of this world, and the Judge of all.
Earthly judges cannot penetrate into the hearts of men, and have no business with their secret thoughts — but it is the glory of the universal Judge, that He is the sovereign and searcher of minds. He requires from us, truth in our inward parts; and when he comes to judge the world, all shall know that he searches the hearts, and tries the thoughts of men.
If we study to show ourselves approved unto him, we must not only cleanse our hands — but likewise purify our hearts. For foolish and sinful thoughts are contrary to his law, and abominable in his sight. He beholds with detestation, all the impure workings of the mind — in wicked contrivances, in impious reasonings, in vain and foolish musings. When he bestows the grace of his Spirit upon any man, he makes him to hate vain thoughts, as well as wicked actions.
If the thoughts of foolishness are sinful — then how sinful are scornful words. There is much more sin in the thoughts of wicked men, than in their lips or lives — but when the lips are employed to express contempt of all good admonitions, it is an evidence that the heart is desperately corrupt, and that thoughts of foolishness abound and overflow.
The thoughts of foolishness are abominable only to him who sees the heart — but the scorner is an abomination to men also. And if he is abominable even to those who have so much impurity of their own — then how detestable must he be to him who sees more evil in the least sin, than we can discern in the greatest sin?
How long, you scorners, will you delight in your scorning? You are so miserably polluted with the defilements of sin, that your fellow sinners cannot bear with you — and how then will the Most Holy God allow you to escape unpunished? Sit no longer in the seat of the scorner — but humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, lest your bands be made strong.
Proverbs 24:10."If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength!"
If we sink into despondency, and think that our happiness is forever lost, because God has been pleased to afflict us with some grievous calamity — then it is plain that our strength and courage is but small. Where is the vigor of our faith, if we cannot believe that there is help for us in God?
A lively faith in the God of Jacob as our refuge and our strength, would make us to stand firm and unshaken, although the mountains were removed, and the earth shaken, and overwhelmed by the swelling waves of the sea. It would make us to rejoice in the Lord, when everything looks dreary around us.
If we faint in our Christian course, and use unlawful means of escape when dangers surround us — then it is a sign that our strength is almost nothing. The church of Philadelphia had a little strength, and she held fast the name of Christ, and did not deny his faith. Peter's strength was so far lost, when he denied his master's name, that he needed in some sense a new conversion.
As gold is tried in the fire, so our strength is tried in the furnace of affliction. And surely when men are tried, it is their interest and honor to see that they come forth as gold, and not as reprobate silver. Trials are necessary for us, and appointed to us — and the times of trial are critical seasons. Therefore we ought to be prepared for them, that the trial of our faith may be found unto praise, and honor, and glory.
But how shall we be furnished with strength to stand in the evil day? Paul gives us necessary directions for this purpose. Christ is the author of all grace. Faith, hope and patience, are fruits of his Spirit; and we must not only receive those militant graces — but depend on his power to maintain them in our souls. And then neither persecution, nor distress, nor anything else shall be able to overthrow our souls, or destroy our comfort.
Proverbs 24:11-12."Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, "But we knew nothing about this," does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?"
We are required by God to love not in word or profession — but in truth and in deed, taking every proper opportunity to show our love in its proper fruits. One of these is recommended in this text, which enjoins us to appear in the defense of those who are unjustly doomed to destruction. Christ laid down his life for us — and we ought also to lay down our lives for the brethren, and to risk everything dear to us, in the cause of righteousness. By the same law of love, we are required to interest ourselves in the cause of those who suffer any injurious treatment, and to do it without hesitation or delay. We must not be slack to afford relief to our enemy's oxen or donkeys, if they have fallen into a pit — far less may we defer the giving of needful relief to our distressed brethren.
The wise man represents this piece of charity as a duty which we owe to our neighbors without exception — and our Lord agrees with him, in the parable of the good Samaritan. We are not the disciples of Solomon or of Christ, if we show love only to those who are nearly related to us, or who are of the same religious profession with ourselves.
The wise man knew that this is a duty against which we are too ready to muster up exceptions, because the performance of it may expose us to trouble or danger — so he answers every exception that can be made to it in few words — and with strong and convincing arguments. We cannot pretend that it is not our duty to relieve the oppressed, as far as our power extends. As the priest who passed by the wounded man, kept at a distance, that he might not behold that object of compassion — so we are too ready to allege that we knew not the peril in which our neighbor was involved, or did not know that he was an innocent man, that did not deserve such treatment. If this is strictly true, and if our ignorance was not voluntary and affected, the excuse is good — but it is to be remembered, that no excuses for the neglect of duty ought to be sustained by our own minds, that will not be sustained by God our judge.
Excuses may serve to blind the eyes of men who are short-sighted, and who are obliged to judge on the charitable side in a doubtful case — but God is greater than men, and knows all things, and will not be imposed upon by any false pretense. God ponders our hearts, and knows with certainty how far we act from a careless and selfish spirit, when we neglect the offices of charity to the distressed. In weighing the hearts of men, the lack of charity alone serves to turn the balance; and the omissions of charity, which are known by God to spring from the lack of that necessary virtue, exclude men from the kingdom of Heaven.
God is the keeper of our souls, and therefore we need not be afraid to risk our lives in obedience to his will. We cannot exist one moment without his kind providence — so why should we scruple to risk everything dear to us in the service of him in whom we live, move, and have our being? We are always safe in the way of duty — and we are never safe in neglect of it. For safety comes from the Lord our judge and lawgiver; and if our lives are exposed in his service, be can easily preserve them, or compensate the loss, if he allows them to be taken from us. But if we preserve them by declining our duty, we expose them to more dreadful dangers than death.
God renders unto every man according to his works. He will not forget the works of faith and the labors of love, and he will never allow any man to be a loser by them. The greatest gains in the world — are the losses suffered for the sake of a good conscience. The greatest losses — are the gains of sin. If we neglect duty from the prospect of safety or advantage — the honor of God is engaged, to convince us by experience, that no profit is to be found in disobeying his will.
Queen Esther could not have reasonably expected to secure herself, even in the house of her imperial husband, from the vengeance of God — if she had neglected to exert all her influence at the peril of her life for the deliverance of the Jews, when Haman was pursuing them with deadly hatred.
These truths are so plain, and so decisive in the present case, that the wise man propounds them in the form of questions, and leaves it to the consciences of men to return answers to themselves.
A lively impression of our absolute dependence upon God, and our accountableness to him, would answer millions of objections against the hardest duties. If we must not forbear to support those whose lives are exposed to danger — then it must be the extreme of wickedness to allow immortal souls to perish, when our persuasions and instructions may be a means of preventing it. It is indeed still worse by bad example or corrupt doctrine — to destroy the souls that must be happy or miserable through endless ages!
Proverbs 24:13-14."Eat honey, my son, for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul; if you find it, there is a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off."
God, in his great goodness, has provided for our delight as well as our subsistence, and has given us leave to use honey, because it is sweet to the taste — as well as bread to strengthen our bodies. How great is his goodness — and how great is his bounty! But how great is our ingratitude — if we do not serve him with gladness, amidst the abundance of our enjoyments!
All men relish those things that are sweet to the palate — but there are many that have no spiritual taste to relish those things that are sweet to the purified soul. Had we senses spiritually exercised, we would readily confess that honey, and milk, and wine, are tasteless — when they are compared with that knowledge of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, which makes us wise unto salvation. Honey is sweet to the mouth — but knowledge and wisdom are sweet to the soul. The sweetness of honey lasts for a moment — but the sweetness of wisdom is everlasting. Honey soon satiates, and when it is taken in too large a quantity it is bitter in the belly, and hurtful to the constitution — but wisdom is the joy and happiness, the health and vigor of the soul.
There is pleasure in knowledge, and pleasure in the practice of wisdom. As soon as we become wise, we taste exquisite satisfactions, of which we could not formerly frame an idea to ourselves — any more than a man who wants the sense of taste, could form a conception of the sweetness of honey. The sweetness of it is experienced more fully in our religious progress, and most of all at the end of our course.
There shall be a gracious and abundant reward unto the wise man, for God has promised it; and the hopes that are founded upon the Word of God can never make us ashamed. The wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and shall enjoy celestial delights in the presence of him with whom is the fountain of life! Let Christians hope to the end, for the grace that shall be brought to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps they may be brought into very trying situations, and the tempter will persuade them to think that their hope is lost. But the devil is not to be believed at any time, especially when his suggestions are so manifestly contrary to the word of the living God, who says, there shall be a reward, and your expectation shall not be cut off. The living hope of the glory that is to be revealed to us, will sweeten every bitter thing that we meet with in the pursuit and practice of wisdom. For when the Christian soldier is sure of victory and white robes, and of admission to the new Jerusalem, and the tree of life — then the toils and dangers of the field of battle are turned into gladness!
Proverbs 24:15-16."Do not lie in wait like an outlaw against a righteous man's house, do not raid his dwelling place; for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity."
The people of God have many enemies. The principalities and powers of Hell lay wait for their souls; and there are men so desperately wicked, that they will not scruple to lay wait for their lives or properties. Christians may entertain assured hopes of the eternal rest — but if they expect an uninterrupted rest in this world, they will find themselves mistaken. They have, nevertheless, a ground for strong consolation under every attack, and every instance of success in their enemies. They must not expect exemption — but they may firmly hope for deliverance from the cross. They may fall — but they shall not be utterly cast down. For strong is the Lord God who helps them.
It is vain for the wicked to hope that they shall be able to do any real harm to the righteous. They may flatter themselves with the hopes of success in their unrighteous designs; they see the righteous fall before them, and persuade themselves that they shall not be able to arise — but the God who maintains their cause, allows them to fall into trouble to try and refine them, and when he has accomplished his work upon them, will raise them up with renewed vigor, and take a severe vengeance upon their enemies.
When the wicked fight against God's people, they fight against God himself. He is a wall of fire round about his people, and their enemies are like stubble, fully dry. Be not afraid, you righteous, of the strength or cunning of your adversaries. Do not believe those tempters, who tell you that there is no help for you in God. Be not dismayed at their success, nor let your falls into calamity dampen your hopes. You are taught by Solomon and Micah, to triumph even when you are defeated, because your losses will end in victory, and the victories of your enemies will end in ruin. "Rejoice not against me, O my enemy, though I fall, I shall arise, though I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me, etc."
Perhaps you will say, had I fallen only once, I would not be much afraid — but I have often fallen before the enemy, and one day I must perish. But hear what God says: the righteous man falls not once or twice — but many times, and still he rises. Your experience of former deliverances should encourage your hopes of new deliverances, for the salvations of the Lord are never exhausted. In six troubles he will deliver, and in seven there shall no evil touch you.
Woe to the wicked, and to the enemies of the righteous, they shall fall never to arise. They shall fall into misery. They shall fall into the grave. They shall fall into the lake of fire, from whence there is no returning. They have a load of sins and curses upon them heavier than mountains of lead; and when they begin to fall, they shall, like Haman, utterly perish.
Babylon intended to destroy Zion — but Zion was purified and redeemed, while the vengeance of Zion and of Zion's Redeemer, sunk Babylon into irrecoverable perdition, as a millstone is sunk in the mighty waters!
Proverbs 24:17-18."Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice — or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him."
He who is glad at the calamities of others, shall not be unpunished, says Solomon in another place. But may we not be glad at the calamities of our enemies? By no means. It would be unlawful and inhuman. We must not be glad at the calamity of our enemy's donkey — but help it out of a ditch if it has fallen into one. It is very opposite to the spirit of Christianity, to rejoice at the misfortunes of our enemies.
Our blessed Savior prayed for his enemies, and commands us to pray for our enemies. If we neglect prayer for them, we neglect a plain and positive duty, enforced by the noblest example. If we pray for them — and yet rejoice when they fall, or even when they stumble, or are in danger of falling — we are gross hypocrites. If we have the hearts of monsters, and not of men — why do we pretend to be Christians?
But does not Solomon say, elsewhere, when the wicked perish there is rejoicing? And are we not frequently told, that the righteous are glad at the vengeance executed upon the wicked? This is true — but they do not rejoice, on such occasions, from a vindictive or selfish spirit. They rejoice that God is glorified, that wickedness is suppressed, and the people of God delivered from oppression.
Such was the joy of Moses and the children of Israel, when Pharaoh was drowned in the Red Sea. Of this kind, shall be the joy of the church of Christ in the day of Antichrist's destruction. But to rejoice because harm has befallen our fellow men, or because we expect some advantage from the misery of our enemies — is to behave like heathens or devils — and not like Christ, or his saints. We must still remember that the eye of God is upon us, and he observes all the movements of our hearts, and the workings of our passions. He is well pleased when we look with a pitying and generous eye upon the sins and miseries of our worst enemies — but looks with displeasure on those selfish souls who rejoice at the calamities of those who hate them. An unforgiving and revengeful spirit, in those who need so much forgiveness from God — must be very provoking to him. Our joy at the fall of our enemies cannot procure their reconciliation to God — but it may kindle God's displeasure against us. He may suspend the present execution of judgment against them — and transfer it to ourselves. For if they wronged us, and exposed themselves to punishment — we have wronged both God and them, and have exposed ourselves, in no less a degree, to punishment. If we rejoice at the fall or danger of our enemies, we ourselves have fallen into a greater evil, for sin has more evil in it than affliction, and brings affliction along with it.
The whole book of Obadiah seems to be written to show the miseries which men bring upon themselves, by triumphing in the ruin of their enemies; and many chapters of the Bible insist on the same necessary subject. If this sin was so dangerous under the dispensation of Moses, then how is it possible that those should escape punishment who are guilty of it under the Christian dispensation, when the law of love to all men (enemies not excepted) is so wonderfully enforced, that it is called by Christ, his new commandment.
Proverbs 24:19."Do not fret because of evil men, or be envious of the wicked"
It seems that wicked men were often prosperous, and that there is a strong disposition in men to make a bad use of the wise and good Providence of God, in sometimes allotting prosperity to the wicked — otherwise Solomon would not have so frequently cautioned us against indulging this propensity. He had guarded us against this sin by telling us of the future happiness of the righteous, and of the cursed disposition of the wicked. He now gives us another motive to quietness and composure under this strange providence of the universal sovereignty.
Proverbs 24:20."for the evil man has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out!"
What benefit is a happiness (if it can be called by that name,) which continues only threescore and ten years — when the person who enjoyed it must continue for millions of ages in Hell? Will it be any comfort to the wicked in the eternal world, to reflect that they enjoyed their good things in this world?
Heaven is despised by the wicked at present, for they are stupefied by their earthly enjoyments — but it is not despised by the damned in Hell. They know, to their sorrow, the immense value of the heavenly inheritance, and weep, and gnash their teeth, and melt away with envy, at that celestial happiness, from which they find themselves forever excluded, and separated by a gulf that cannot be passed. There is no merciful reward — but there is a reward of justice and vengeance to evil men. They are shut out from the celestial city, and have their everlasting abode in those regions where rest and peace and hope never come.
A perpetuity of bliss is alone bliss — and those immortal souls who have no title to it, are the objects not of envy but of pity. When a prosperous transgressor is pining away under a loathsome and mortal distemper, we don't reckon him worthy of our envy, although he drags out his days in a magnificent palace, surrounded with pleasures which he cannot taste, and to which he must soon bid farewell. If we viewed things in the light of the Word of God, we would not envy his prosperity, when he enjoys the most perfect health, for even then his soul is pining away to death, and his prosperity is precarious and transient.
The joys of the godly are permanent and increasing, like the light of the sun, which shines more and more unto the perfect day; but the prosperity of the wicked, is like the light of a candle — if you leave it to itself it will soon consume away — but it may very probably be extinguished before it has time to burn to the socket. Shall those who rejoice in the light of day, envy the happiness of those who dwell in a dungeon, enjoying only the light of one candle which must soon expire, and leave them buried in perpetual night?
Proverbs 24:21-22."Fear the Lord and the king, my son, and do not join with those who are given to change — for those two will send sudden destruction upon them, and who knows what calamities they can bring?"
To fear God is a duty so necessary, that there can be no true religion without it.
The excellencies and works of God,
the favors we have received from him,
the relations we stand in to him,
the account we must give to him,
and our absolute dependence upon him
— loudly call upon us to fear him. He is so much to be feared, that the wise preacher tells us that to fear God and keep his commandments is the whole duty of man.
To the fear of God, must be joined reverence to the king, for God's sake. For by him kings reign, and they are his ministers for our protection from enemies and wicked men, and for promoting virtue and suppressing wickedness. God has conferred dignity and power upon them, and they are entitled to honor for the sake of their office and work.
Yet we must not carry this reverence of royal dignity to a degree of adoration. We must be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake — but to the Lord for his own sake, because absolute dominion belongs to him. Although kings are called gods — yet they shall die like men. When their commandments clash with the authority of God, they are worthy of no regard. Our safety lies in fearing him who has power to kill both soul and body, and to cast both into hell-fire. If the wrath of a king is like the roaring of a lion — then the wrath of God is infinitely more to be dreaded!
If we would preserve our religion and loyalty, we must not meddle with those who are fond of changes either in religion or government — for "evil companions corrupt good character." The people of Israel, when they mingled with the nations, learned their ways, and changed their glory for that which did not profit. They were so fond of being like their neighbors, that they rejected the Lord from being king over them, and desired rather to have a royal tyrant like the other nations.
When Absalom rebelled against his father, many followed him in the foolishness of their hearts. The Scripture does not require us to be subject to the wicked laws of tyrants — but single acts of bad administration do not justify men in casting off the yoke of government. In most cases, it is our duty and wisdom to be quiet and peaceable subjects, to those who have the possession of the throne granted them by divine providence, and to say with more sincerity than Hushai the Archite, "whom the Lord and this people choose — his will I be, and with him will I abide." Impiety and disloyalty are great and dangerous sins.
Kings are terrible enemies. But God is infinitely more dreadful, and he is the avenger, not only of insults against himself — but of indignities and injuries to those powers that are ordained by him.
How many were destroyed in the gainsaying of Korah, and in the rebellion of Absalom? Who knows what ruin awaits those who are guilty of rebellion, which is as the sin of witch craft; or how suddenly the tempest of vengeance may hurl those men into perdition, who fear not God, or do not reverence those who are authorized by him to administer justice among men.
The apostle Paul spends a large part of a chapter in considering the sin and danger of those who do not submit to the higher powers. How miserable shall they be, who refuse subjection to that great king whom God has placed on the throne of grace, and to whom he has given a rod of iron, to crush those rebels that attempt to break his bands, and cast away his cords! The princes and judges of the earth must serve him, as well as the lowest of their subjects, and his enemies shall lick the dust. Blessed are all those who put their trust in him, and obey him.
Proverbs 24:23."These also are sayings of the wise: To show partiality in judging is not good."
Princes usually have a sufficient sense of those duties which their subjects owe them; and they would generally find these duties better performed, if they had a proper sense of their own duties. The precepts of wisdom are binding on them, as well as on poor men — and the dominion of God extends alike to the prince and to the peasant. All the precepts already delivered are precepts of wisdom, and those which follow were likewise dictated by the father of lights to the wisest of men. The best proof we can give of our wisdom, is to observe the precepts of God. They are fools that will not hear the voice of wisdom, or look upon any of her precepts as superfluous.
We may more reasonably complain of too much money in our purses, or too many clothes in our closets — than of too many precepts of wisdom in the book of God.
We have no reason to complain that God is strict in requiring our obedience to rulers. He is no less strict in requiring rulers to govern justly, and to make their subjects happy. In this verse, he commands them to do justice and judgment to all their people. Whatever favors they may confer on particular people — they must be impartial in judgment. They must not show partiality to the rich and great, nor their own favorites, nor even a poor or a righteous man in his cause. To show partiality to any man is not good — but very wicked. Elihu dared not show partiality to Job, although he was the best man on the face of the earth, when he gave his judgment about the cause which he had debated with his friends.
Although absolute dominion belongs to God, and he dispenses his favors according to his sovereign pleasure — yet in judgment he shows no partiality to his own favorites.
When he determined by his providence the cause between his beloved servant David, and Saul whom he had rejected — he examined David, and found nothing, judging him according to his righteousness, and not according to the special favor he had to him. And when the same David had dealt injuriously with Uriah, he was punished before all Israel, and before the sun. In like manner, when the Gibeonites were treated with abuse and cruelty by the king of Israel — God gave full satisfaction to the Gibeonites. Kings and judges are honored with the name of gods on earth, and they ought to imitate the justice of God in all their administrations. But may not criminals be allowed to escape by a merciful perversion of the law, although the righteous must not be wronged? No!
Proverbs 24:24-25."Whoever says to the guilty, "You are innocent" — peoples will curse him and nations denounce him. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come upon them."
He who justifies the wicked is an abomination to the Lord; and his iniquity is attended with such mischievous consequences, that he is an abomination to men also, and provokes against himself the execrations of whole nations. If robbers and murderers escape unpunished — then how can any man think himself sure of his life or property, when public encouragement is so evidently given to the pests of human society? Mercy is to be showed to wicked men, as far as it consists with equity, and the public good — but when it is carried farther, it becomes cruelty to millions.
Those magistrates who faithfully execute their trust, shall have much pleasure from the testimony of their own hearts, and from the happy effects of their faithful and impartial administrations. They shall have the blessings of those who live under their government — and the blessings of men, when they are well earned, are ratified by God.
Job looked upon it as one part of his happiness, that he enjoyed the blessings of those who were ready to perish, and of every eye that saw him. We may safely risk the abhorrence of all mankind, and despise their favor — when our duty requires us. For if we seek to please men at the expense of sinful compliances, we are not the servants of Christ. But as far as we are allowed by the law of God, it is our duty to practice those things that are of good report, living unblamably and usefully in our respective stations — that we may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.
How important is the behavior of men in elevated stations. Thousands or millions of men are losers or gainers by it, and applaud or abhor those who rule over them. Kings and magistrates have much need of our prayers, that they may receive wisdom from God.
We who are in inferior stations, have likewise our contracted sphere of influence, and ought to consider how much others are affected by our behavior. Let us endeavor to deserve at least their blessings, and to avoid everything that may justly incur their displeasure, or hurt their interests.
If it is of so much consequence to the public, that magistrates should punish the wicked; and if they would incur universal hatred by the neglect of this part of their duty — shall we then deny to the sovereign Ruler of the world, that praise to which he is entitled for his acts of just vengeance? He is glorious in his administrations of justice as well as mercy. Who would not fear him and glorify his name, for he alone is holy, for his judgments are made manifest! If he did not punish the wicked, we would have reason to say that everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them — and where is the God of judgment? Those magistrates who give a right judgment in any cause that comes before them, procure universal respect and good will, as the wise man instructs us in the following verse:
Proverbs 24:26."An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips."
History of all ages proves the truth of this proverb. When we are asked an important question, or consulted on an affair of consequence, every man will esteem and love us, if we give an honest answer; and that our answer may be honest, it is necessary that it should be sincere, prudent, and meek. We must not give an answer calculated merely to please the person who questions us. For that would not be consistent with integrity. We must consider all the circumstances of the affair, that we may give a proper and pertinent answer; and we must speak with that meekness, which renders wisdom lovely. If our answers to those who question us have these qualifications, although they may be sometimes distasteful, because truth compels us to speak things disagreeable — yet they will tend, on the whole, to the advancement of our character. Our character is no contemptible object, because the goodness of it is necessary for us in accomplishing the great business of life, glorifying God, and doing good to men.
The instances of Joseph in his first conversation with Pharaoh, and of Daniel's plain dealing with Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, are illustrations of this truth.
Let us never give a wrong answer to any man, if kings should favor us for it. Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah, will tell us how little the royal favor which he obtained by his court flattery availed him, and how short its continuance was.
Proverbs 24:27."Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house."
Things absolutely necessary are to be sought after, in the first place; and, in the next place, those things that may minister delight and satisfaction. For this reason we are commanded by our Lord, in the first place, to seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, because the salvation of our souls is infinitely more vital than our welfare in this world.
But as there is a lawful care about the things of this world also, we are directed in this place, to mind the things most needful to our present subsistence and comfort — before we proceed to those things that have an inferior influence upon the comfort of our lives.
Solomon takes it for granted, that we have already a house in which we can live, and enjoy shelter from the inclemencies of the weather — but perhaps we wish to have a more elegant and commodious house. A wish of this kind is not unreasonable, only it must be kept in due subordination to our most important concerns. The work of the field, on which our subsistence depends, is of more importance than the building of a better house, and ought therefore to be first attended to. And then we are at liberty to build our house, if we can afford time and money for it.
This rule of the wise man is of great use for the wise management of our secular concerns, and by neglecting it, many have been reduced to poverty and contempt.
Nor is it so remote from religion — for religion requires us to act prudently in the common business of life, and to do nothing that may reduce ourselves, or our families to poverty, or deprive our creditors of their just claims upon us.
In our religious concerns, the same rule ought to be observed. There are first principles which ought in the first place to be well studied, and then we must go on to perfection. To think of going on to perfection without learning the first principles, is as foolish as to think of raising the superstructure of a house, without laying the foundation. And to rest in the first principles, is as foolish as to lay the foundation of a house, and then to think that all our work is over.
God is a God of order; and he requires us to do all things in their proper order, both in our civil and religious business.
Proverbs 24:28."Do not testify against your neighbor without cause, or use your lips to deceive."
It is in many cases a man's duty to bear witness against his neighbor — and then the glory of God and the welfare of society, call loudly upon him to perform this necessary but disagreeable service. But it is a great sin for a man to bear false witness against his neighbor, or to bear testimony against him from a principle of malice and revenge — when there is no call to declare even the truth against him. The real faults of other men must not be published by us, when there is no good to be done, nor any danger to be obviated by it.
We would not wish our own faults to be wantonly blazed abroad to the world — so why should we behave in one way to others, and expect another way of behavior to ourselves? This would be as unreasonable as keeping one kind of weights and measures for buying — and another for selling.
We must not deceive with our lips, either before a judge or in private conversation. The gift of speech was given to us for glorifying God, and doing good to men. It is a wicked perversion of it to make use of it for dishonoring God and deceiving men, by flattery or falsehood, or by speaking truth in such a manner as to deceive.
The history of the false testimony that was borne against our Lord, shows us that truth falsely and deceitfully represented, may become an instrument of deceit and harm.
That truth is generally to be spoken, you will allow — but perhaps you will allege that you have some wicked neighbor, who has no right to truth from you — because he has borne testimony against you without cause, or by some other injury deserved a harm at your hand. But,
Proverbs 24:29."Do not say: I'll do to him as he has done to me; I'll pay that man back for what he did!"
To speak in this manner would be the same thing as if you said, "Vengeance belongs unto me, I will repay it." I will step into the throne of God, and hurl the thunderbolts of vengeance upon my adversary.
What would become of us, if God should render to us according to our evil works. We need great mercy at the hand of God — and shall we render nothing but rigid justice to our fellow men, in direct opposition to the royal law of love? When our neighbors do us an injury, shall we borrow weapons from Hell to retaliate?
When we revenge injuries at our own discretion, we may do hurt to our enemies — but we do much greater hurt to ourselves. For the punishment of malice and revenge to which we expose ourselves, is far worse than any vengeance which our feeble arm can inflict. Let us therefore show ourselves to be the disciples of Christ, by loving our enemies and recompensing evil with good. Thus we shall heap coals of fire upon the head of our enemies, to melt them — but by following an opposite course, we heap them on our own, to our destruction.
Proverbs 24:30."I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man void of understanding."
The sluggard is wise in his own conceit — but in Solomon's judgment, sluggard is another name for a man void of understanding. For what understanding can that man have who buries himself alive, and neither performs the duties of life, nor takes the proper method of being able to enjoy and relish its comforts.
The slothful man hopes to escape poverty, because he is born an heir to fields and vineyards — but Solomon, that great observer of the manners and conditions of men, passed by these fields and vineyards, and saw what was sufficient to convince any man, of the folly of such hopes.
Proverbs 24:31."And behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down!"
How could it be otherwise? Thorns and thistles, since the fall of man, spring up everywhere, to remind us of our rebellion against God — and the greatest industry can scarcely keep them down. But where slothfulness leaves them to spring up at will, the field must be covered with them, and every useful plant choked. Or, if anything useful springs up among them, it becomes a prey to every spoiler, because the stone wall is broken down and left in ruins. Such is the situation of the sluggard's field and vineyard!
Just so, spiritual sloth is productive of the like effects in the soul of man. If we are careless about our spiritual interests, our souls will soon be overrun with noisome and pernicious vice, and left without guard against those destructive enemies, "who go about seeking whom they may devour."
A neglected garden is disagreeable to the eye — but a neglected soul is a spectacle of horror! The stinging nettles of envy, the thorns of anger, and ungovernable lusts — spring up abundantly in that scene of desolation. Every lust and every temptation have an uncontrolled influence — and the roaring lion out of the bottomless pit wastes it at his pleasure!
But what pleasure could Solomon have in looking at the sluggard's vineyard? He saw nothing that did not afford instruction to his enlightened mind. For wisdom teaches us to improve every object, however unpleasant, to useful purposes, and finds nourishment for itself even in the folly of other men:
Proverbs 24:32."I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw"
Solomon did not take a cursory and superficial view of this field — but spent many thoughts upon it. How useful is MEDITATION? It is the nurse of knowledge and prudence. It furnishes our minds with truths, and applies them to the heart, and teaches us to live in a manner suitable to them. Solomon was already wise — but he wished to be wiser, and learned wisdom every day.
Another man would have learned self-conceit or self-indulgence, from the field of the sluggard. Some people, when they see the faults of others — applaud themselves for their superiority in virtue. No man, they think, can say they are wicked men, because they know that some other men are worse. There are other people that think it safe for them to do like other people, and to let alone what other people omit.
Our wisdom lies in learning from the example of other men, compared with the law of God, what we are to do, and what we are to avoid. We see the sluggard, the drunkard, the lukewarm professor — but we see no good arising out of their vices — but much harm to themselves. They are condemned by the providence as well as the Word of God. Their souls are unprosperous, and the outward circumstances of some of those kinds of sinners, have the marks of divine displeasure mingled with them.
Is it not better to learn wisdom at the cost of other people, than at our own expense? Solomon learned instruction from this dismal spectacle, the field and vineyard of the sluggard; and the instruction which he received, he communicates to us in a proverb, which, for its importance, is repeated from a former chapter.
Proverbs 24:33-34."A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man."
The sluggard had no intention of allowing his field to be all covered with weeds, he only wished to indulge himself a little while in ease and sleep, and then he designed to rouse himself and root up all the weeds. His ruin was, that, when he had got a little sleep, he wished for a little more; and when he had taken the little more, he felt himself as little disposed to work as before. And so he loitered and wasted away the time, day after day, doing nothing at all, or nothing to purpose — until his field was all overrun with noisome weeds, and every good plant destroyed, and his vineyard lay in ruins. Thus poverty came upon him swiftly and unexpectedly, and with irresistible fury, and plunged him into the gulf of misery and remorse!
Would you avoid sloth? Beware of every temptation to it, and allow no place to any thought of delaying a necessary business. It was a maxim of a certain prince, who was celebrated for his success in every undertaking, never to defer that until tomorrow, that which should be done to day. Putting off things until tomorrow, is the thief of time. It is unsafe in any business. It is infinitely dangerous in our spiritual concerns. Boast not therefore of tomorrow. For you know not what a day may bring forth — but whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might!