Beyond all others, David was the sweet Psalmist of Israel, though not a few worthy companions find a place in the divine collection of holy lyrics. Solomon stands in like pre-eminence for the utterance of the sententious wisdom of which the book of Proverbs is the chief expression, with Ecclesiastes when the sense of his own failure under unique circumstances of creature advantage gave a sad and penitent character to his experience in the power of the inspiring Spirit. It is the more striking when compared with the Song of Songs, which shows us the Jewish spouse restored to the love of the once-despised Messiah, and His adorable excellency and grace, after her long folly, manifold vicissitudes, and sore tribulation.
Every one of these compositions is stamped with the design of inspiration, and instinct with the power of the Holy Spirit in carrying out His design in each. But they are all in view of man on the earth, more especially the chosen people of God, passing through the vista of sin and shame and sorrow in the latter day to the kingdom which the true Son of David, the born Son of God (Ps. 2), will establish as Jehovah's King in His holy hill of Zion, though far larger and higher things also, as we know. Hence these writings have a common governmental character, only that, in the Psalms especially, the rejection and the sufferings of Christ give occasion to glimpses of light above and to hints of brighter associations. But the full and proper manifestation of heavenly things was left for the rejected Christ to announce in the gospels, and for the Holy Spirit sent down from on high to open out practically in the Acts, and doctrinally in the epistles, especially of the Apostle Paul. Any unfolding of a church character, or even of Christian relationship, it would be vain to look for in these constituent books or any others of the Old Testament.
The express aim of Proverbs, for example, is to furnish, from the one better fitted for the purpose than any man who ever lived, the light of wisdom in moral intelligence for the earthly path of man under Jehovah's eye. Being from "the king of Israel," it is also for the people he governed; and therefore with a slight exception (only six times it seems, easily accounted for) in known relationship with Jehovah, whose name pervades from first to last. See Pro_2:5; Pro_2:17; Pro_3:4; Pro_25:2; Pro_30:5; Pro_30:9. But being divinely inspired, it is a book for him that reads or hears to profit by at any time, for the Christian in particular as having by grace the mind of Christ. All Scripture is for our good and blessing, though most of it is not addressed to us, nor is it about us.
1Ki_4:29-34 historically testifies to the unrivalled capacity conferred of God on Solomon, and a wisdom He would not let die. "And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the seashore. And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about. And he spoke three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spoke also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom." "Three thousand proverbs" cover far more than the inspired collection, as the songs uttered far exceed those meant for permanency. Inspiration selected designedly.
We have remarked how "Jehovah" characterizes the book. In Ecclesiastes, on the contrary, the use of "God" or Elohim is constant, and flows solely and appropriately - one might even say, necessarily - from its subject matter. As the book of Proverbs is for the instruction of "men-brethren" (Israel), so there is the constant tenderness of "my son," or more rarely, "sons." But there is not nor could be, as in the New Testament, the basis of Christ's redemption, or the liberty of adoption in the Spirit; the groundwork there is in the cross, and the character is consistency with Christ glorified in heaven. Morally, too, God is revealed, and the Father's love made known in Christ to be enjoyed in the Spirit's power.
"Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: to know wisdom and instruction: to discern the words of understanding; to receive instruction in intelligence, righteousness, judgment and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. He that is wise will hear and increase learning, and the intelligent will attain to sound counsels: to understand a proverb and an allegory (or, interpretation), the words of the wise and their enigmas." vv. 1-6.
Pro_1:1-6 is the preface. It remains for its right appreciation to explain briefly terms which many readers fail to distinguish.
"Wisdom" here is derived from a word that means "practiced" or skilful, and applied very widely from arts of varied kinds to powers of mind and philosophy. The verb is used for being "wise" throughout the Hebrew scriptures; the adjective even more extensively and often; the substantive more frequently still. The "wise men" of Babylon are as a class correspondingly described in the Chaldee or Aramean. But the employment of the term is also general. It seems based on experience.
"Instruction," connected with "wisdom," is expressed by a word signifying also discipline, correction, or warning. The moral object is thus remarkably sustained, in contrast with mere exercise or displays of intellect.
Next comes in its place to "discern the words of understanding." For this is of great value for the soul, understanding founded on adequate consideration so as to distinguish things that differ. The verb and noun occur plentifully in the Bible.
Then we have "to receive instruction in intelligence, righteousness, judgment and equity." Here circumspection has a great place in the learning to behave with becoming propriety and tact, as David did when Saul was on the rack through jealousy.
"Prudence" in verse 4 may degenerate into cunning or wily ways, as in Exo_21:14 and Jos_9:4; but as in Pro_8:5; Pro_8:12, so here and in kindred forms, it has the fair meaning of practical good sense.
"Discretion" at the end of the verse is the opposite of heedlessness, but capable, like the last, of a bad application. Employed laudably, it means sagacity through reflection.
As the proverb is a compressed parable, or an expanded comparison, so it often borders on the riddle or enigma in order to fix attention. The same Hebrew word appears to mean both "proverb" and "parable," which may in part if not wholly account for the former only in John's Gospel, the latter in the Synoptists. There, too, the parable stands in contrast with speaking plainly (Joh_16:25; Joh_16:29; compare also Mat_13:34-35).
Solomon then introduces himself in his known relation and position as the channel of these divinely given apothegms, not to glorify man like the seven sages of Greece, still less to magnify himself who bears witness to his own humiliation, but to exalt Jehovah in guarding him that heeds these words from folly and snare. For the declared end is the moral profit of man by what God gave to His glory - to knew wisdom and instruction, to discern, and receive. However precious for all, the first aim is to give prudence to the simple; so open to deception in this world, and knowledge and discretion to the young man, apt to be heady and rashly opinionated. But there is another result surely anticipated; "he that is wise will hear, and the intelligent will attain to sound counsel: to understand a proverb and an allegory, the words of the wise and their enigmas [or, dark sayings]." Who more in place to teach these things than the man then inspired of God?
The book begins with the foundation principle of the fear of God, but this in the special relation established with His people Israel. It is therefore "the fear of Jehovah." For as He deigned thus to be made known to them, so were they called to prize that name as their special privilege. Jehovah was God in Israel. though alone the true God, and Lord of all the earth. As Jehovah was God, who spoke through the prophets, and wrought wonders according to His word, so the people at a great crisis with heathenism cried (1 Kings 18), Jehovah, He is God, He is God. The usage of the abstract term, and of the relational name, has nothing in the least to do with imaginary legends or various writers; it is most instructive for the twofold truth that is set out.
"The fear of Jehovah (is) the beginning of knowledge: fools despise wisdom and instruction. My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law [or teaching] of thy mother; for they (shall be) a garland of grace for thy head, and chains about thy neck." vv. 7-9.
In Psa_111:10 the fear of Jehovah is declared to be the beginning of wisdom, as here of knowledge. Both are equally true, and each important in its place, though wisdom be the higher of the two, as built on the experience of the divine word and ways, which "knowledge" does not necessarily presuppose.
He who wrote for the reader's instruction was pre-eminent in both, though in his case there was extraordinary divine favour in the communication, and the keenest ardour in improving opportunities without parallel. In this general part of the book we have "wisdom" introduced (Pro_9:10), "the fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of the holy [is] understanding." This gives the moral side its just prominence in both; and so it is in. Job_28:28, where that chapter, full of interest throughout, closes with "unto man He said, Behold, the fear of the Lord [Adonai, not Jehovah as such], that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding." He is feared as the Sovereign Master, who cannot look on evil with the least allowance.
But even where external knowledge is pursued, what a safeguard is in the fear of God! Assuredly, the Creator would be remembered, not only in the days of youth, but in those of age. Who that had the least real knowledge of God could confound the creature with Him who created it? To him the heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse shows the work of His hands. If he beheld the light when it shone, or the moon walking in brightness, it was but to own and adore the God who is above, unless a deceived heart had turned him aside, that he could not deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand? How, with Him before the mind, deny creation for an eternal matter under Fate or Chance? for a desolating Pantheism, where all men and things are god, and none is really God, where is neither sin nor its judgment, nor grace and truth with its blessedness in Christ for faith to life eternal? where all that appears to our senses is Maya (illusion) and the diabolical substitute, but real death of hope, is Nirvana (extinction)? How true it is that the foolish "despise wisdom and instruction"!
What again were his last words to his judges,* of whom Westerners boast? "It is now time to depart - for me to die, for you to live; but which of us is going to a better state is unknown to everyone but God." What a contrast with the Apostle! "To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Certainty on divine warrant, and the deepest enjoyment everywhere and always, the beginning of which is the fear of God in Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
* I put Socrates at his best, without dwelling on his last words to his friends, "Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius; pay it, therefore, and do not neglect it." And this was the end of the best wisest. and most just of all men known to Plato.
This fundamental deliverance is followed up by the usual appeal of affection, "my son." For here the relationships God has made and sanctions are of as great value where His fear reigns, as they perpetuate sin and misery where it is not so. Parents are to be honoured and heard, the instruction of the father and the teaching of the mother. This the son first knows to form and direct obedience, if self-will oppose not; and they are his graceful ornament. How early they act on the heart, and how influential on the conduct and even character, many a son can testify. Alas, that men have forgotten the word of the wisest, and proved their folly, parents and children! And to this sad side we are now introduced.
"My son, if sinners entice thee, consent not. If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause; let us swallow them up alive as Sheol, and whole as those that go down into the pit. We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil: cast in thy lot among us; we will have all one purse. My son, walk not in the way with them, keep back thy foot from their path. For their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood. For in vain is the net spread in the eyes of a bird; and they lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives. So (are) the paths of every one that is greedy of gain: it taketh away the life of its owners." vv. 10-19.
Here we have the soul warned against listening to the voice of enticement. For Satan has instruments, not a few, zealous to draw others into evil; and companionship is as natural as dangerous. "For also we were aforetime foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another." Tit_3:3. And in this the least scrupulous lead - their mouth full of cursing and bitterness - their feet swift to shed blood. The word is, Walk not in the way with them, keep back thy foot from their path. Covetousness, and robbery to gratify it, are vividly drawn; violence follows lust, and one's own life the forfeit. The day comes for judgment without mercy, the judgment of the flesh. Listen, for in vain is the net spread in the eyes of any bird. In reality they wait for their own blood, as surely as God knows how to deliver. How many a one that is plotted against escapes, while those greedy of gain lose their own lives, the end in this world of their wicked schemes!
It is a characteristic of this book, and exactly in keeping with its contents, that we have "wisdom" personified from the first chapter, rising up (as is well known) to the Person of Christ in Pro_8:22-31. Even in this first introduction, though the form is plural, as in Pro_9:1, and in later occurrences, the cry does not fail as it goes on to assume the solemnity of a divine warning of inevitable judgment, so that it is difficult to sever it from the voice of God Himself, as in verse 24 if not in 23, and in those that follow. Compare in the New Testament Mat_23:34 with Luk_11:49.
"Wisdom crieth without, she raiseth her voice in the broadways; she calleth at the head of the noisy (streets), at the entry of the gates; in the city she uttereth her words, How long, simple ones, will ye love simpleness, and scorners delight them in scorning, and fools hate wisdom? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour forth my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you." vv. 20-23.
Under the law there was nothing that properly, still less that fully, answered to the grace of the gospel in extending to every land and tongue, to be preached, as the Apostle says, "in all creation that is under heaven." Yet when not only Israel fell as a whole, but Judah, revolted to the uttermost and was swept away to Babylon, yea, when the rejection of Messiah added incalculably to their older guilt of idolatry, and brought on still worse and wider and longer dispersion, the Holy Spirit inspired the prophet to write of the richest mercy which should surely dawn on their ruined estate. After the triple call to "hearken," followed by the triple summons to "awake" (Isa. 51 and Isa. 52), we hear the cheering outburst, "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth glad tidings, that publisheth peace, that bringeth glad tidings of good, that publisheth salvation, saying to Zion, Thy God reigneth." So in due time will the kingdom be restored to Israel in God's mercy and sovereign grace. But as this is displayed in another and yet profounder way now in the gospel, the Apostle does not hesitate to apply these glowing words to those now sent to preach the gospel of God's indiscriminate goodness, alike to Jew and Greek. For now there is no difference, and the same Lord of all is rich unto all that call upon Him. But if Israel be yet deaf to the report of those that believe, the gospel goes out like the voice of those heavenly orbs whose sound cannot be confined to one people or country, but went out unto all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the habitable earth, as Psalm 19 suggests.
Still here where Jehovah's law ruled, wisdom was not confined to parental discipline. still less was it shut up in philosophic schools, but "cries without." She "raiseth her voice in the broadways" instead of seeking only the refined and exalted; she "calleth at the head of the noisy places of concourse, at the entry of the gates." The moral profit was sought assiduously of those that had most need, if culture despises the vulgar. Not in the calm and quiet of the country is she said to utter her words, but "in the city" where is far more to attract and distract the mass of mankind. "How long, simple ones," says she, "will ye love simpleness, and scorners delight them in scorning, and fools hate wisdom?" There is thus a climax in these classes of careless, ungodly souls. The simple are the many weak ones who, lacking all moral discernment and object, are exposed to evil on all sides and at each turn; and by this easy indifference they become a prey. The scorners manifest more positive pravity, and reject all appeals to conscience and reference to divine things by unseemly jest and insolent sneer. It is an ever growing moral disease, never so prevalent as in these last days. The fools that hate knowledge may be more godless still, and become openly atheist, as Scripture shows. For the apostasy must come, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition who will set himself and be received as God, and this in the temple of God, where the affront is deepest.
But Jehovah gives wisdom's remonstrances, and, if heeded, her gracious encouragement. "Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour forth my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you." It is an error, which goes beyond the purpose of the verse, to conceive that the gift of the Holy Spirit is here promised. There is undoubtedly an inward blessing promised which is ever by the Spirit, and an intelligence of wisdom's words. This is much, and Jehovah made it true from the time the book was written. But it is dangerous either to exaggerate what God always was to His people, or to undervalue those privileges which awaited redemption through our Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit was not poured out as at Pentecost till Christ was glorified. But whatever of blessing there ever was for man is by the Spirit, and this too is in knowing the words of divine wisdom; and here it is amply assured, where the reproof was heeded.
Here it is not the gospel which is thus shown, but the call of God in the government of man on the earth. Hence it does not pass beyond the judgment which will be executed in the day that is coming here below. This is the more important to heed, because Christendom is as unbelieving about the judgment of the quick that Christ will surely enforce on the habitable world, as the Jews were about the judgment of the dead in the resurrection state. Both were revealed in the written Word, and both are to be in the hands of Him who loved to call Himself "the Son of man." But if He came, the Son of man in grace to the lost, He will assuredly return, the Son of man in judgment of all who despise Him, whether alive or dead. Thus there is the judgment of the wicked living at the beginning of His kingdom and through it, no less than the judgment of the wicked dead at the end, before He delivers it up to Him who is God and Father. Now it is the former which is treated here, though commentators and preachers are apt to see in it only the judgment at the close.
"Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no one regarded; and ye have rejected all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity, I will mock when your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as sudden destruction, and your calamity cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish come upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but shall not find me." vv. 24-28.
It is sad when Jews do not rise above Gentile moralizing on the life that now is or the death that terminates it; but how much sadder still when Christians are content with similar platitudes! Christ is the only true Light which on coming into the world casts light on every man. He, and He alone, gives us the truth of every thing. The divine judgment of man thus acquires proper definiteness and its full solemnity; and the light of the New Testament is thus thrown back on the Old, besides revealing what belongs to itself pre-eminently if not exclusively.
Take the picture the Lord in Luke 17 draws of the kingdom of God, when it is no longer a hidden matter of faith or of mere profession as now; but the Son of man shall be in His day as the lightning which lightens out of the one part under the heaven and shines unto the other. It will be in truth as in the days of Noah or in those of Lot - unexpected, inevitable, and utter destruction of the ungodly, as they are in the midst of their busy pursuits. When the Son of man thus comes, shall He find faith on the earth? How far is it to be found now?
Take again the view He gives in Luke 21, not only of signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars, but of the moral state on the earth when the powers of heaven shall be shaken. It is not the end of the world, but of the age, when the Son of man is seen coming in a cloud, and the kingdom of God will be established manifestly and in power that will put down all opposition;
This "sudden destruction" is here before the inspiring Spirit, who maintains the edge of His sword unblunted by tradition and callous unbelief. The Word of God of old, all His Word, is good, wherein He calls man to hear; but He is refused. He stretched out His hand imploringly, but none regarded; His counsel was rejected, and His reproof no less. What remained possible under the law? Unsparing judgment. How terrible when Jehovah, patient and long-suffering, laughs at the calamity of those that despised Him, mocks the fears, distress, and anguish of those who mocked Him, and has no answer for their call, nor will He be found, though then sought diligently! To fear the judgment, especially when it falls, is not to fear Jehovah.
The warning of Jehovah was solemn, but not more solemn than sure. Impossible that He could lie. If faithful to His own in doing all He says to cheer them now, He is no less righteous in dealing with His enemies; He will recompense them.
"Because they hated knowledge and chose not the fear of Jehovah; they would none of my counsel, they despised all my reproof; therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their way, and be filled with their own devices. For the turning back of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them. But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely and be at rest from fear of evil." vv. 29-33.
Divine compassion is unfailing for the ignorant where it is not wilful. No less severe is the abhorrence of such as hate knowledge in the things of God, which of course is alone considered here. And what can be more sadly plain than to "choose not the fear of Jehovah"? It proves the enmity of the heart. Is He indifferent to man? It was only the vilest of the heathen who laid it down formally; but what was the general state of the Jews of old? What is that of professing Christendom in our own land and every other today?
Christ has shed better and perfect light, and the final revelation of God is fullness of grace and truth through Him. But what is the issue of slighting it and Him? It is more conspicuously true now than in Solomon's time that "they would none of my counsel, they despised all my reproof." When God came into the world in Christ's Person, they turned Him out of it. They hated Him without a cause. His grace only made Him more despicable in their eyes. His counsel irritated. His reproof was a laughingstock. What will the end be?
Jehovah is not mocked with impunity. "Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their way and be filled with their own devices." Sowing to the flesh must be reaping destruction. He does not execute judgment as yet; but it will come assuredly and soon - tribulation and anguish for man - indignation and wrath on His part who judges. It is easy to turn away from grace and truth, from righteousness at any time; but the backsliding of the simple will slay them, and the prosperity of the foolish shall lure them to perdition.
"Hear, and thy soul shall live." So said the prophet Isaiah, and it is blessedly true under the gospel. "He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me hath life eternal, and cometh not into judgment, but is passed from death unto life." So declared He who is the Truth, as He is the Way and the Life. Or, as it is written here, "Whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be at rest from fear of evil." Is it not a goodly shelter in a world of evil and danger? Christ is it now to every one that believes on Him, not only rest from evil but from the fear of it by grace.