John Angell James (1785—1859)
"These are the proverbs of Solomon, David's son, king of Israel. The purpose of these proverbs is to teach people wisdom and discipline, and to help them understand wise sayings. Through these proverbs, people will receive instruction in discipline, good conduct, and doing what is right, just, and fair. These proverbs will make the simple-minded clever. They will give knowledge and purpose to young people. Let those who are wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser. And let those who understand receive guidance by exploring the depth of meaning in these proverbs, parables, wise sayings, and riddles." Proverbs 1:1-6
In the subject we have to now consider, we have another proof and illustration of the opening sentiment of the last chapter; I mean the variety, beauty, and usefulness of the Holy Scriptures. In that chapter we saw and felt the fascination of sacred narrative; in this we shall see no less prominently, and feel, I hope, no less powerfully, the value of Scripture proverbs—and if that presented to us a chain of gold, in which each event was a distinct link, yet all were so conjoined as to form a complete ornament—this will present a string of the richest pearls of which each by itself is a separate and valuable jewel.
Proverbs are short sentences containing a maxim of wisdom—or expressing an instructive truth or fact ascertained by experience or observation. Shrewd rules for practical life, meaning more than the mere words express. They have ever been favorite vehicles of instruction, especially in countries of little civilization, where books were few or unknown, and men depended for their knowledge upon tradition. Among such people this method is more likely to produce effect than any other, for it assumes, as Bishop Lowth remarks, not to argue or persuade—but to dictate. In order to render their precepts more pleasing, as well as more powerful, the instructors of mankind have ever illuminated them with metaphors, comparisons, and other embellishments. Proverbs prevailed much among the Hebrews, and continued to the latest ages of their literature. But they have also been adopted by people far advanced in refinement; indeed, by all nations upon earth. The prevailing characteristics of a good proverb, are brevity, that it may be easily remembered; point, that it may stimulate; and elegance, that it may please. And how all these apply to the Proverbs of Solomon you know full well. Let us then enter on a consideration of this admirable portion of Holy Scripture.
I. We will consider its AUTHOR. It opens with ascribing this honor to Solomon. The tradition of the Jews represents him as having written the Canticles in youth, and the Book of Proverbs in middle life, and it considers the book of Ecclesiastes to be his confession as a penitent, mourning over his early dark and winding aberrations from the path of truth and holiness. Several of the sages, or wise men, of Greece, were rendered illustrious by a few well-known maxims; but though subsequent to Solomon, how limited in this respect was their wisdom, to that which blazed forth from his wonderful genius—"God gave Solomon great wisdom and understanding, and knowledge too vast to be measured. In fact, his wisdom exceeded that of all the wise men of the East and the wise men of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else. His fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. He composed some 3,000 proverbs and wrote 1,005 songs." 1 Kings 4:29-32
Considering the early age of the world in which he lived, he was probably the most extraordinary genius that ever appeared on earth. "Magnificence was his identifying attribute. And alas, alas, for the weakness of humanity, the dangers of knowledge, and the pride of intellect, wealth, and power, even when he sinned, as most awfully he did, it was with a high hand, on a large scale, and with a kind of royal gusto—he did not, like common sinners, sip at the cup of corruption, but drank of it, deep and large, emptying it to the dregs—and when he suffered, his groans seemed to be those of a demigod in torment. He stood like a pyramid, the shadow he cast in one direction was equal to the light he received in the other. An example which proves that any great disproportion between gifts and graces, renders the former as fatal as a knife is to the suicide, or the power of writing to the forger. We ardently hope that Solomon became a true penitent. But if he did not, his writings, so far from losing their value, would gain new force; the figure of their fallen author would form a striking frontispiece, and these solemn warnings would receive an amen, as from the caves of perdition. A slain Solomon! since fell Lucifer the son of the morning, what more impressive proof of the power of evil." (Gilfillan's "Bards of the Bible.")
It is clear, from information contained in the book itself, that Solomon did not publish the whole during his life. The latter part, from the twenty-fifth chapter, forming an appendix, was collected after his death, and added to what appears to have been more immediately arranged by himself. What a production of one mind! and when we add to this the book of Ecclesiastes, we stand amazed at the intellect which could have poured forth such a fund of practical wisdom.
Of the Divine authority of this book, as a part of the inspired canon, there can exist no doubt. It is frequently quoted in the New Testament, and was evidently considered by the apostles as a treasure of revealed morality. Such, indeed, it is—a mine of divine wisdom, which may be ever explored and worked without being ever exhausted. What Cicero said of Thucydides applies far more truly to this work of Solomon—it is so full of matter that it comprises as many sentences as words.
II. It will help you, my young friends, better to understand this book if you consider ITS SCOPE AND DESIGN. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." But this is a description of the Bible as a whole, and not of each separate part. One portion may be more full of doctrine, and therefore more important in reference to this, than some others. Another portion may relate more specifically to practice, and have more value as a rule of conduct, than those which speak only of doctrine. We go for information concerning the person, mission, and work of Christ, and the way of pardon and salvation, to the prophecies of Isaiah in the Old Testament, and to the Gospels and Epistles of the apostles in the New Testament; but the book of Proverbs, while it supplies us with no information, or but a dim light on these momentous topics, furnishes us with invaluable rules for our conduct in this life. The beauty, force, and value of these admirable maxims lie in their practical design and character. If we had no other book of Scripture than this, in vain would we seek here for a solution of that problem, "How shall man be just with God?" or for an answer to that question, "What shall I do to be saved?" But thanks be to God, we have other portions of Holy Writ, and having learned in them how as sinners we are to be justified, and our peace with God is to be obtained, we come back to Proverbs, as well as to others—to learn how the pardoned and regenerated man is to conduct himself in all his various relations, situations, and circumstances.
It is wholly a practical book, and teaches us to "deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in the present evil world." Nor is this to be thought a low grade in the Divine scheme of revelation. The truth as it is in Jesus is "a doctrine according to godliness." Holy living is the end of all truth. "Sanctify them," prayed our Lord for his apostles, "by your truth." The grand scope of the Proverbs is (and can God propose, or man conceive, a higher?) to explain the nature of true wisdom; to show its importance; to demonstrate its necessity; to urge its acquisition; and to enforce its practice.
How lofty a place among the objects of human pursuits has been assigned to WISDOM! What a stir in the world of mind has that word made through all ages, from the history of Egypt to that of Greece. All the most gifted intellects of antiquity have started in quest of this most precious acquisition. Every country has been visited, every oracle consulted, every source of information explored, to find out wisdom. Yet all men have searched in vain, as long as the inquiry was conducted by unaided reason. When Pythagoras was complimented by the tyrant of Syracuse as the wise man, he modestly refused the flattery, declaring that he was not the possessor of wisdom, but only its lover seeking after it—a philosopher.
You may see this subject finely illustrated in the Book of Job, where, in one of the most sublime chapters (the twenty-eighth,) of that wonderfully sublime portion of Scripture, we find the question proposed for the solution of the universe, "Where shall wisdom be found, and what is the place of understanding?" And when man, through ignorance, is silent, and the depth says, It is not in me; and death and destruction reply that they have only heard the fame thereof; then God comes forth from his pavilion of obscurity as the divine teacher of wisdom. And what is it that, after all the researches, and opinions, and conflicting systems of philosophers—God proclaims to be true wisdom? Not some profound secret of nature which had baffled the inquiries of philosophers. Not some great principle of political science which was to regulate the affairs and change the destinies of empires. Not some new theory of public economics, which was to direct the stream of commerce and open new sources of wealth to the nations. No—these were not the communications most suited to the exigencies of our nature—"Behold, the fear of the Lord—that is wisdom; and to depart from evil—that is understanding." It requires the revelation of God to settle this question, "What is wisdom?" and he has settled it once and forever. This wisdom is true religion. This is man's highest wisdom as a rational, moral, and immortal creature. It is his wisdom on earth, and will be his wisdom in heaven. It is his wisdom in time, and will be his wisdom through all eternity. Philosophers of every country—hear it! Shades of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato—hear it! Divines and moralists, hear it! And you young men, the objects of my solicitude and my address—hear it! "Behold, the fear of the Lord—that is wisdom; and to depart from evil—that is understanding."
This is the subject and design of the Book of Proverbs, it is ever recurring to the glorious theme, and again and again personifies wisdom and represents her disclosing her nature and teaching her lessons, in piety towards God, and all the moralities, charities, amiabilities, and courtesies of social and domestic life. Here the basis of all sound morality is laid in the fear of God. On this broad, deep foundation of true religion, is raised a superstructure of morals, which combines the duties and the excellences of the good monarch, the good subject, the good neighbor, the good master, the good husband, the good son, the good servant.
III. It may help you better to understand this extraordinary book if you are enabled to perceive the parts into which it is divided; and which, though not noticeable at a superficial glance, do yet really exist. These parts are three. The first includes the first nine chapters, in which wisdom, or the practical knowledge of God, is set forth with great copiousness and variety of expression, as the only source and foundation of true virtue and happiness. This portion seems to be principally addressed to, and intended for, youth. The sins, temptations, and dangers, incident to this period of life, are exhibited in the most striking descriptions and the most glowing colors. All the beauties of diction and of metaphor, all the charms of eloquence and the ornaments of poetry, all the persuasion of tenderness, all the expostulations of love, and all the commands of authority, are employed to induce the young man to turn away from sin—and to practice holiness. This part may be designated "A manual for youth." (Mr. Bridges' admirable exposition of the Proverbs supplies a few of the remarks of this chapter.)
The second part extends from the tenth to the end of the twenty-fourth chapter, and comprises precepts which seem intended for those who have advanced from youth to manhood, and relate to all the duties of social life. Here the transactions of secular business are alluded to, and whatever things are true, and just, and honest, and pure, and lovely, and of good report, are stated with a minuteness, and enforced with an earnestness, the most edifying and impressive. This may be called "A direction for the man of business."
The third part begins at the twenty-fifth chapter, and goes on to the end of the book, and contains an appendix of miscellaneous Proverbs, collected after Solomon's death. The two last chapters, written very probably by separate hands, but under Divine inspiration, and preserved by Divine care, were added to the sacred book. And they may not inappropriately be called "A mirror for females."
IV. But let us enter upon a general (and it can be but general,) examination of the contents of this book.
1.I would direct your attention, first of all, to the very appropriate and impressive terms which Solomon has selected under the direction of the Spirit of God, to set forth the principal subjects of the book; I mean Folly and Wisdom. These two words are of course to be understood in a practical sense, as referring to moral rather than intellectual subjects, as designating sin and holiness. By the FOOL we are to understand, not the man of weak understanding—but of bad heart and vicious conduct. And by the WISE MAN, not the individual of large knowledge—but of genuine religion. It is true in many places, the words wisdom and folly are employed by the sacred writers to denote the possession or the lack of some specific excellence, but for the most part they have the generic meanings of piety and wickedness. This is plain from that admirable definition, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," and from that other text of an opposite nature, "Fools make a mock of sin."
All sin is not only wicked, but it is foolish; and every sinner, whatever may be his intellectual attainments, is not only a transgressor, but a fool. Nothing is considered more reproachful than this appellation; hence many, more jealous for their intellect than for their heart, would rather be called knaves than fools. Sin then is folly—it is declared so by God, it is thought so by all holy angels and men, and is proved to be such by the experience of mankind, in the consequences of poverty, disease, shame, and misery, which it often brings after it in this world—and the certain destruction with which it is followed in the world to come.
Look at the prodigal, wasting his substance among harlots and in riotous living; the idle profligate; the extravagant spendthrift; the besotted drunkard; the diseased debauchee; the dishonest servant; the maddened gamester—how wicked is their conduct—yes, and how foolish also! Is it not folly to wage war against Heaven, to contend with the Almighty, to barter away the joys of immortality for the pleasures of sin, which are but for a season; and for the gratification of a moment, to incur the bitter pains of eternal death?
On the other hand, if there be holiness in true religion, there is also wisdom. To secure the favor of God, to be saved by Christ, to have a title to eternal glory, to have peace of conscience, to control the passions, to be comforted in sorrow, to secure the seed of every virtue, and the death of every corruption—in short, to be wise unto salvation hereafter, and to have that which will best promote all our interests here—is to be wise indeed. This is the truest, the noblest, the only, wisdom. What is the wisdom displayed in amassing wealth, acquiring fame, or gratifying appetite—compared with this? Surely that must be the deepest folly which ruins estate, body, and soul, and that the highest wisdom which saves them all.
2. I next select a few single proverbs for the sake of holding them up and showing their beauty and their value.But I can only pluck a few flowers at random from a garden enlivened by the colorful bloom, and perfumed with the fragrance of a thousand others, as beautiful and as aromatic as those I gather. How tender, how lovely, or how wise are such sayings as these—"The path of the just is as the shining light, which shines more and more unto the perfect day." "The memory of the just is blessed." "The mouth of the righteous is a well of life." "Hope deferred makes the heart sick." "The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not meddle with its joy." "A merry heart does good like a medicine." "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heaviness." "Better is a dinner of herbs, where love is, than a stalled ox, and hatred therewith." "Beginning a quarrel is like opening a floodgate, so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out." "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful." "As a bird that wanders from her nest, so is a man that wanders from his place." "As iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend." "A foolish son is the grief of his father, and bitterness to her that bore him." "Open rebuke is better than secret love."
Such are but specimens, taken almost indiscriminately from this vast and all but inexhaustible storehouse of wisdom. What mind of the least perception or taste must not, does not, admire the pointedness and the elegance of these beautiful aphorisms? I can only allude to the principal topics on which the wisdom of Solomon was employed in this collection of golden sentences. Here are innumerable sayings on all the duties of true religion towards God, on filial affection, on the right use of speech, and the government of the tongue; on ability, diligence, industry, honesty, and honor in business; on prudence in domestic affairs; on friendship and companionship; on forethought and anticipation of the future; on contracts and suretyship; on the obligations of kings and subjects, of husbands and wives, of masters and servants—yes, what subject is there connected with social existence, not only in its greater concerns, but in all its minute and delicate ramifications—in reference to which we may not find some sententious remark, some pithy saying, which, if remembered, would be of vast service to us! Rules for the house of God, for our homes, for the shop, the parlour, and even the kitchen, may all be found here. The character of every individual, whatever be his rank, station, or social relation—may find a mold here in which it may be cast—and from which it would come forth beautiful, useful, and admirable.
3.But leaving particular and isolated proverbs, I go on to select and exhibit a few of the beautiful allegories, or perhaps more properly, personifications, which are scattered over this wondrous book. Metaphors and similes abound, in seemingly grand and endless display, like the single stars of the skies; while allegories, which are but extended metaphors, are to be seen here and there standing out like magnificent constellations, amid the single stars. I can mention only two or three of these, for they are too numerous to be all of them considered, as Solomon seems to delight in the use of allegory.
And first of all, let me direct your attention tothe personification of true religion in the first chapter. "Wisdom shouts in the streets. She cries out in the public square. She calls out to the crowds along the main street, and to those in front of city hall. "You simpletons!" she cries. "How long will you go on being simpleminded? How long will you mockers relish your mocking? How long will you fools hate knowledge? Come here and listen to me! I'll pour out the spirit of wisdom upon you and make you wise." Proverbs 1:20-23.
How finely is this wrought, when true religion is thus seen, not retiring to the cloister or to the cell, not even confined to places of worship, but going through the streets, standing in the gates, entering into public assemblies, and delivering her instructions, breathing out her expostulations, urging her counsels, administering her rebukes, and denouncing her threatenings—to the congregated multitudes, the mass of the people.
Nothing can be conceived more apt, more beautiful or more sublime, than the personification of Wisdom, which he introduces in the eighth chapter, exhibiting her not only as the director of human life and morals, as the inventor of arts, as the dispenser of wealth, of honor, and of real felicity, but as the immortal offspring of the Omnipotent Creator, and as the eternal associate in the Divine counsels.
"The Lord formed me from the beginning, before he created anything else. I was appointed in ages past, at the very first, before the earth began. I was born before the oceans were created, before the springs bubbled forth their waters. Before the mountains and the hills were formed, I was born—before he had made the earth and fields and the first handfuls of soil. I was there when he established the heavens, when he drew the horizon on the oceans. I was there when he set the clouds above, when he established the deep fountains of the earth. I was there when he set the limits of the seas, so they would not spread beyond their boundaries. And when he marked off the earth's foundations, I was the architect at his side. I was his constant delight, rejoicing always in his presence. And how happy I was with what he created—his wide world and all the human family!" Proverbs 8:22-31 (I must express my conviction that this chapter is intended as a personification of wisdom, and not as a prophetic description of our Lord Jesus Christ.)
"It is a difficult thing to personify an attribute well; and to sustain it through a simile or an personification is not easy; but to supply a long monologue for the lips of Eternal Wisdom! This Solomon has done, and not degraded the mighty theme." (Gilfillan)
Turn now to another of these beautiful personifications, to one which will come more home to your own condition and circumstances. "Happy is the person who finds wisdom and gains understanding. For the profit of wisdom is better than silver, and her wages are better than gold. Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. She offers you life in her right hand, and riches and honor in her left. She will guide you down delightful paths; all her ways are satisfying. Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly." Proverbs 3:13-18
Such, young men, is true religion, for wisdom you know is true religion, as here set forth by a striking mixture of metaphor. She is represented as a queen coming forth from her palace and her treasury, with both hands full of blessings, which she is holding out, ready to drop them into the lap of those who will submit to her government, and become her subjects. To represent the influence of true religion, even on the interests of earth and time, she is seen holding in one hand health, and in the other riches and honor, which often are the fruits of that godliness which is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come.
But what are her ways? A lonely rugged path across sandy deserts, or through gloomy passes and frowning precipices, where no verdure springs, no sun-beams play, no birds carol, and where neither streams nor fruits are found? So the enemies of true religion, the men who dwell in the fools' paradise, would represent—but how different the description in God's Word of Truth! This tells of "ways of pleasantness and paths of peace." It is indeed a narrow and somewhat toilsome way, but every step is lighted by the bright shining of the Sun of Righteousness; is strewed with the promises of God; is a step of happiness; and a step to heaven. Yes, even what are called the austerities of true religion are more joyous than the pleasures of sin. The yoke of Christ is far lighter than that of Satan. And in the tree of life, that wonderful ornament and glory of the garden of Eden, in the branches of which sang the birds of Paradise, whose roots were watered with the rivers of God, in whose shade Adam basked, and of whose fruits he ate as the sacramental pledge of immortality—there, I say, is the emblem of heavenly wisdom. She is a tree of life growing up from a branch brought out of Eden, when sin had barred our access to the original stock, and caused it to decay; a tree whose branches bend down upon this world of sin and misery, and whose clusters hang within the reach of even the youngest child. Young men, what do you think of this beautiful description of wisdom's blessings? It is no fantasy picture, no mere creation of human genius, no mere poetic garniture of the page of revelation. How many have proved all this to be a divine reality! O, come, come, to this tree of life, and take of its twelve kinds of fruits—and live.
I pass by, with only a glance at it, the personification of wisdom in the ninth chapter, building her house, preparing her feast, and sending out her invitations to collect her guests—a beautiful representation of the blessings of true religion.
4. I now turn to a few of thosepicturesque sketches of character with which the book abounds. Scarcely has it opened, before we find the character of the TEMPTER described in the following language—"My son, if sinners entice you, turn your back on them! They may say, "Come and join us. Let's hide and kill someone! Let's ambush the innocent! Let's swallow them alive as the grave swallows its victims. Though they are in the prime of life, they will go down into the pit of death. And the loot we'll get! We'll fill our houses with all kinds of things! Come on, throw in your lot with us; we'll split our loot with you." Proverbs 1:10-14
How true this is to the life, as a description of the conduct of those who tempt others to evil! The earnest invitation, the secrecy of the plot, the prospect of advantage, the promise of a share in the booty, how accurate! It is true that in your situation and circumstances the temptation will not be to deeds of blood and rapine; but there will be much the same urgency of enticement, the same promise and prospects of gain, and the same ensnaring representation of companionship. Sinners are ruthless and zealous in the dreadful work of temptation; they want companions to assist them in accomplishing their evil deeds, and sometimes they equally need, and earnestly seek, associates to maintain their courage. Guilt, until its subject becomes hardened and desperate, is cowardly, and gets rid of its fears by multiplying its companions.
If sinners then entice you, do not yield, or even harken to their solicitations. Consent constitutes the sin. Turn a deaf ear to every entreaty. Let no prospect or promise of gain or pleasure induce you to listen for a moment to their solicitations. Flee from them as you would from a serpent or a lion. You need not yield. You cannot be forced to sin. Repulse the tempter at once, and with a frown. Do not parley with him for a moment. His look is the fascination of the basilisk's eye (a basilisk is a legendary reptile with fatal breath and glance), his words are snares, his breath is pestilence, his presence is destruction. The moment he asks you to sin—flee, instantly flee!
And while I warn you against being ensnared by the tempter's arts, let me, with still more emphatic importunity, entreat you never to employ them. No character is so like that of Satan, who is called by way of eminence, the Tempter, as he who entices another to sin. This is the most truly diabolical act ever perpetrated in our world. Turn with horror from the thought. If you must and will sin, sin alone, have no partner in your crime. If you will sink to the bottomless pit, drag no others down with you into that fiery gulf. Do not emulate the fate of Achan, of whom it is said, "He was not the only one who died because of that sin." What an eternity of torment is that man preparing for himself, as well as for others, who is ruining the souls of his fellow-creatures by soliciting them to sin! How will those victims of his wiles avenge themselves upon him by their execrations in the world of woe!
Next I direct you to a very striking description of the tempted. I can only allude, delicacy forbids more, to the vivid description of the unwary youth caught in the snares of the whorish woman, contained in the seventh chapter. This picture is to be looked at with half-averted eye, for warning only. It is painted with a master's hand, and with exquisite fidelity of color. Was ever the harlot's likeness more accurately taken? Her sallying forth in quest of her prey in the evening, her position at the corner of the street, her unmistakable dress, her tempting speech, her plausible suggestions, her impudent face, all show the harlot's false and mercenary heart. Young men! There is no vice against which you have more need to be warned than sensuality! It is that to which your age, your situation, and your temptations expose you. Imitate the conduct of that noble youth whose character we contemplated in the last chapter, and say, when tempted to sin, "How shall I do this great wickedness and sin against God!" How true is human nature at all times, even in its corruptions, to itself. The corners of the streets of our modern towns and cities exhibit the same night scenes now, just as those of Solomon's time. Three thousand years, with all their warnings and experience, have not banished the "adulterous woman" from society, nor driven the female tempter from our streets.
Everything in the description is impressive and instructive. Trace the sad end as set forth here, to its beginning. Was not idleness the parent of this mischief? The loitering evening walk, the unseasonable hour, the vacant mind, all bringing the youth into contact with evil company—was not all this courting sin, tempting the tempter? How awfully true the representation of the tempter's success, "He goes after her immediately as an ox goes to the slaughter," unconscious of his fate; perhaps dreaming of rich pasture; or "as a fool to the correction of the stocks," careless and unfeeling, "until the dart strikes through his liver," or "as a bird hastens to the snare, and knows not that it is for his life." Young men, set a guard upon your senses. Do not go in the way of sin. Enter deeply into our Lord's beautiful petition, "Lead us not into temptation." He who would not fall into sin, must not go into the way of temptation. Keep from the harlot's company, and speech, her private haunt, and public walk—as you would from contact with a person infected with the plague!
I now direct you to the description of the end of theIMMORAL MAN; who after running his course of dissipation, looks back with remorse and regret, amid poverty and disease, upon his polluted and ruinous career; "Afterward you will groan in anguish when disease consumes your body, and you will say—How I hated discipline! If only I had not demanded my own way! Oh, why didn't I listen to my teachers? Why didn't I pay attention to those who gave me instruction? I have come to the brink of utter ruin, and now I must face public disgrace." Proverbs 5:11-14. Here is the fruit of sensuality set forth in dreadful terms. Disease preying like worms upon the body—and remorse, like a vulture, gnawing at the heart.
Yes, there are sins which set their loathsome brand upon the outer man, while they fill with the poison of their guilt the inner one; sins which pollute the blood, disfigure the countenance, destroy the health, and turn the whole frame into a mass of corruption. How many martyrs of immorality and licentiousness prove by a bitter experience the truth of the apostle's words, "He who sows to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption;" and realize the description of Zophar, "His bones are full of the sins of his youth, which lie down with him in the dust." Oh, to sit down amid wasted fortunes with a body half destroyed by immorality, and the voice of conscience telling of slighted opportunities, abused privileges, stifled convictions! Young men, think of this "eternal mourning," when it will be too late to mourn, and when the mourning will be the more bitter the longer it has been delayed. Impenitence does not put away sorrow, but only postpones it to a future period, when mercy shall have fled forever, and nothing remain but a fearful recollection of past sins, and a still more fearful foreboding of wrath to come. How will neglected warnings, despised sermons, and slighted counsels, then rise like spectres from the grave of oblivion, each repeating that dreadful sarcasm, "Son, remember!"
I hold up now another portraiture, I mean that of theDRUNKARD. "Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks. Don't let the sparkle and smooth taste of wine deceive you. For in the end it bites like a poisonous serpent; it stings like a viper. You will see hallucinations, and you will say crazy things. You will stagger like a sailor tossed at sea, clinging to a swaying mast. And you will say—They hit me, but I didn't feel it. I didn't even know it when they beat me up. When will I wake up so I can have another drink?" Proverbs 23:29-35.
This is perhaps the most graphic and vivid description of drunkenness ever given to the world. The drawing is perfect, and not less so the coloring. It has been often called, and with great truth and justice, "the drunkard's mirror—in which he may see his own face." It is said that amid all the splendid furniture and ornaments of our taverns, no mirror is found; the vendors of poison not being very willing that the miserable victims should see their own suicidal act, in gulping the fatal venom. In default of a mirror, I wish they could be compelled to have the passage just quoted painted in large and flaming characters, and hung up in the most conspicuous places of those human slaughter-houses.
Observe the description of the drunkard. The quarrelsome disposition which liquor produces, the fights in which it involves the man who quaffs it, and the wounds he gets in his brawls; his babbling discourse on subjects which he does not understand, and is then unfitted to discuss, when blasphemy is wit, treason courage, and ribaldry eloquence; his going on, when inflamed by wine, to the gratification of other lusts, and the commission of other sins; his insensibility to injury and danger when his brain is stupefied; his returning to the indulgence of his vicious appetite when awakening up from his drunken slumber; his intense misery and woe produced by his remorse of mind and wretchedness of body—these are all set forth in this wonderful passage with a graphic power that nothing can exceed.
Begin life, Young Men, with an extreme dread of this vice. There is ground for alarm. Drunkenness was never more prevalent than it is now. Myriads and myriads sink every year into the drunkard's grave, and lower still—into the drunkard's hell. One-half of the lunacy, two-thirds of the pauperism, and three-fourths of the crime of society—are said to spring from this desolating habit. Beware, then of this dreadful appetite and propensity. Be afraid of it. Consider yourselves liable to it. Abandon all self-confidence. Avoid everything that leads to drinking. Abjure tobacco in every shape. Shun bad company. Never cross the threshold of the tavern for the purpose of conviviality. Practice total abstinence. All the drunkards that are, or ever have been, were moderate men once. I do most earnestly entreat you to abstain from all intoxicating drinks. You do not need them for health, and to take them for gratification is the seed of inebriety. Total abstinence will conduce to health, to economy, to prosperity. You will one day bless me if this chapter should lead you to adopt this practice. I do not say that this will ensure the practice of every virtue, and the enjoyment of all prosperity, but I know nothing in the order of preparatory means more likely to be followed with such results.
And now, I ask, what is it that leads to all other sins?IDLENESS, and I therefore now direct you to the last picture which I shall present in this chapter. "I walked by the field of a lazy person, the vineyard of one lacking sense. I saw that it was overgrown with thorns. It was covered with weeds, and its walls were broken down. Then, as I looked and thought about it, I learned this lesson: A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber." Proverbs 24:30-34. This, too, is fine painting—the late riser, the lover of sleep, the drowsy drone, lifting up his half-opened lids weighed down with sleep, grumbling at the person who has disturbed him, turning away from him on his bed; and settling himself down again to slumber. And then the broken fence left without repair, the thorns and nettles covering the field and choking the vineyard. How true to life. "Only fools idle away their time." Proverbs 12:11. "And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle." 1 Thes. 5:14
Idleness is a complicated vice. Yes, I say VICE!
First it is a most wasteful vice. It wastes time, which is more precious than rubies; it wastes a man's mental faculties; it wastes property.
Idleness is a disgraceful vice. How reproachful is it in a being made to be active, to spend life in doing nothing, and to throw away his mental powers in sloth.
Idleness is a criminal vice. God has commanded us to be active, and will call us to account for the sin of killing time.
Idleness is a dangerous vice. Doing nothing is next to doing evil, and is sure to lead to it. From its very inaction it ultimately becomes the active cause of all evil. "The Devil tempts all men; but the idle man tempts the Devil."
Idleness is a wretched vice. An idle man is the most miserable of all God's creatures. Woe be to the man who is doomed to bear the pain and penalties of a slothful disposition.
Let me now, in CONCLUSION, enumerate a few general points, which are suggested by a consideration of this interesting portion of holy Scripture.
We see the benevolence of God, in not only providing the means for our glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life in heaven, through the mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ—but in giving us, in this valuable book, the most minute directions for all the details of our earthly life. He not only wills our salvation hereafter, but our convenience and comfort here. He acts like a good and rich father, who, while he makes his son heir of all his estate, consults in the minutest particulars, his well-being and enjoyment, through the period of his boyhood and education. How exquisitely beautiful it is to see God thus managing our temporal affairs; intent even upon our success in trade; promoting our pleasant communion with our neighbors; providing rules for our conduct everywhere; and supplying us with the means to secure a thousand little enjoyments, and to protect ourselves from a thousand little annoyances on our road to our Father's house in heaven. The Book of Proverbs proves the condescension of God's goodness, while the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament exhibit the grandeur and sublimity of God's goodness.
Arising out of this, I would observe, what an precious volume, and priceless treasure, is the Bible, which thus proclaims to us the goodness of God, and carries out his gracious purpose towards us. I want, young men, to endear to your hearts this book of books, and therefore will embrace every opportunity presented by these chapters, to commend it to your attention and regard. I want to fortify you against the seductions of infidelity and false philosophy. I want to show you the injustice to yourselves, as well as the wickedness towards God, and the hypocrisy, as well as the cruelty, of those who, under the pretext of liberating your mind from thraldom, and exalting you to the dignity of men of reason—would deliver you from what they call the dominion of superstition and the restraints of the Bible. It is their delight to represent the Bible as teaching only a system of priestcraft; as prescribing only a round of religious ceremonies; and forming a character fit only to dwell in a monastery, or to worship in a church. Ask them if they have ever read the Book of Proverbs. If not, they are unfit to pronounce an opinion upon the Bible; and if they have, tell them that by such misrepresentations they lie against their own knowledge; for here is a part of the Bible which, they must know, follows us into the social haunts of men, to the family, to the shop, to the market and exchange—in order to dictate truth, kindness, and meekness, in our words—and justice, honesty, and honor, in our transactions; which regulates all sales and purchases upon the principles of equity; gives validity and efficacy to all contracts; prohibits all wrong, and sustains all right. A single perusal of this book would convince them that if it were universally possessed, believed, and practiced—human laws would be almost unnecessary, courts of justice would be forsaken, and jails untenanted.
Take up this volume with the simple question, "What kind of man shall I be, if I follow the rules herein contained?" Hold fast your Bibles then, until infidelity can find you a better rule of conduct for this life, a brighter revelation, and a surer hope for another. Ask it what it has to offer you in exchange for doctrines so sublime, morality so pure, precepts so wise, promises so precious, eternal prospects so grand. And what has it to offer? A dreary, blank, and hideous negative—no God, no Redeemer, no salvation, no heaven, no, nor anything even in this world to save you from the dominion of vice, or to guide you to the practice and enjoyment of virtue; this is all that infidelity has to give you as a substitute for the Bible. Say to it with surprise, indignation, and abhorrence, "Be gone, lying spirit! Curse not me with your 'discoveries of nothing'. Is this all you have to give me in exchange for that volume which is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come? You have nothing by which I may steer my course across the stormy ocean of this life; and nothing at the end of the voyage but the black rocks of annihilation on which I must dash—and be forever lost! Be gone, with your creed of wretched negations, to him who is fool enough to be cajoled out of his Bible by your miserable sophistries!"
Sometimes the mind is more impressed with the atrocity of an intended felony, by examining the particulars one by one, than by looking at the whole in a mass. So it is in judging of infidelity, take up book by book of Scripture, examine each separately, and say, "The felon infidel would rob me of this, and this, and this!" Yes, Young Men, he would cheat you, among the rest, out of this Book of Proverbs. He would tell you that this is imposition, and no revelation from God at all. Or if he consented to leave it in your hands, he would, by taking away its divine authority deprive it of all power to bind your conscience as law, and merely submit it for your adoption as advice, which you are still at liberty to reject if you do not like it.
This book shows us the direct connection between true religion, and general excellence of character. This was noticed in the last chapter, when we contemplated the character of Joseph—and is now repeated in this general analysis of the Book of Proverbs. It lays the foundation broad, deep, and strong, in that wisdom which is the fear of God. It anticipates the apostolic injunction "Add to your faith, virtue." True religion is the foundation of the temple of virtue; the golden ornament upon its dome is all that is gentle in spirit and graceful in demeanor. Hence is to be derived that completeness of character which this book is intended and calculated to form. It begins with the heart, and forms a holy mechanism there—which guides the hands in regular movements round the dial of life. It implants right principles of action. It communicates a hidden life, it sanctifies the inner man, and thus fashions the outer man, and does not merely paint a picture or carve a bust.
Here man in all his relations and all his interests is consulted, as a creature of God, as a citizen of the state, as a member of society, as an inhabitant of the dwelling, as a creditor or a debtor, as a buyer or a seller—in each and all these he is contemplated, directed, and encouraged. It has been beautifully observed, that "True religion to be to the character, what the soul is to the body—the animating principle. The soul operates in every member. It sees in the eye, hears in the ear, speaks in the tongue, animates the whole body, with ease and uniformity, without ostentation or effort." Thus let the good conduct of the citizen, the son, the husband, the father, the brother, the tradesman, be only so many operations of true piety, so many acts of this animating soul, so many developments of this hidden life.
Though there is much in this book which, properly understood and followed, would, in connection with other parts of Scripture, guide the reader to heaven, and prepare him for its enjoyment—it must be confessed and remembered, that it principally aims to form the social character for the present world. What I have already said on this subject I repeat, that for a clear and explicit knowledge of the way of pardon and eternal life, we must read the New Testament. There we learn how Christ is made of God unto us "wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." And there also we learn the great moral principles on which all the transactions of this world's business should be founded. But in this book of the wise king, principles of wisdom and virtue are given in detail for every relation of social life. It is the business man's manual. It may lie upon his desk by the side of his ledger—and in a thousand instances the ledger would have been in a better state, had the Proverbs been more constantly consulted.
It is my firm belief, that no man who reads the book of Proverbs through with close attention and earnest prayer, once a year—will fail, either in this world, or in reference to that which is to come. It is designed and adapted to form the industrious, prudent, honorable, and successful man of business—and is therefore eminently suited to this great commercial country. Napoleon Bonaparte, when in the zenith of his power and pride, called England, more in a spirit of envy than of contempt, a nation of shopkeepers. If in that term he comprehended our merchants and manufacturers, he did not inaptly describe us. We are not ashamed of our commercial character and greatness; and provided our merchandise be carried on upon the principles of this book, and we thus inscribe upon it, 'Holiness to the Lord', it is our glory and defense.
In the book of Proverbs is disclosed the secret of true happiness, which, if really put into practice, will make happy individuals, happy families, happy neighborhoods, happy nations, and a happy world. All the errors which men have fallen into on this subject—all the delusive shadows, the polluted springs, the injurious ingredients, which have misled and injured so many—are here detected and exposed! While the nature, the source, and the means of true felicity, are as clearly pointed out. Here in the favor of God; in the mortification of our corruptions; in the restraint of our passions; in the cultivation of our graces; in the performance of our duties; in promoting the good of our neighbors; and in the hope of immortality—are the materials of human blessedness. Here, happiness is set forth—not in the heathen forms of Bacchus, Venus, or Momus—not by such descriptions as those of Horace, Ovid, and Anacreon—not in such riot and revelry as the lovers of pleasure in every age would recommend. Quite the contrary. In this book, happiness is seen descending from heaven, her native place—and lighting upon our orb in the seraph form of true religion. She is clad in the robe of righteousness, arrayed in the garment of salvation, and adorned with the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. Like the king's daughter of old, she "is all glorious within, her clothing is of wrought gold." Joy sparkles in her eye, and peace reposes upon her brow. Her conscience is rendered easy by a sense of pardon—and her heart is light through purity. The song of the seraphim is upon her lips. Her hand is alternately lifted up in adoration to God, and stretched out in mercy to his necessitous creatures. Her feet ever carry her with willing steps, either to the house of prayer, or to the abodes of sorrow. Her excellences are described, and her praises are sung, not in the odes of licentious poets, at sensual orgies, in strains inspired by lust and wine; but in the hymns composed by prophets and apostles, resounding in the temples of devotion, or chanted by good and holy men in the circles of their friends, or the homes of their families.
Such is the happiness set forth in this book of Proverbs—the only thing which deserves, the only thing that can prove itself worthy of, the name. That seraph form alights, Young Men, in your path, and with her own angelic, divine, and heavenly smile, beckons you to follow her to the well-springs of delight, repeating, at every step, the beautiful language of this book, "Happy is the man who finds wisdom."