The maxims brought together in verses 1-8 fitly follow up the fear of Jehovah as the discipline of wisdom, and the path of humility before honour. Heart and ways are alike affected thereby.
"The preparations (or plans) of the heart [are] of man, but the answer of the tongue [is] from Jehovah.
"All the ways of a man [are] clean in his own eyes; but Jehovah weigheth the spirits.
"Commit thy works to Jehovah, and thy thoughts shall be established.
"Jehovah hath wrought every thing for his (or, its) own end yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.
"Every proud heart [is] an abomination to Jehovah, hand in (or, for) hand (or, certainly) he shall not be held innocent (or, go unpunished).
"By mercy and truth iniquity is purged, and by the fear of Jehovah they depart from evil.
"When a man's ways please Jehovah, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.
"Better [is] a little with righteousness than great revenues without righteousness." vv. 1-8.
Too well we know how readily the heart devises this way or that, and how constantly this fails to meet the difficulty. Happy he that waits on Him who sees the end from the beginning, and deigns to guide aright when the need arises. Then one can speak the right words in peace, and humbly; but the answer of the tongue is from Jehovah.
The same reference to Him delivers from the bias that regards all the ways of a man as clean in his own eyes. Jehovah weighs the spirit; who but He? Dependence on Him and confidence in Him are indispensable to judge, as for all else.
What a comfort that it is He who bids one to commit his works to Himself (literally, roll them upon Him), "and thy thoughts (not merely thy works) shall be established"! His goodness answers to our trusting Him with what is outward, and graciously establishes our "thoughts," so apt to vacillate and pass away. How slow are even His own to learn the loving interest He takes in those that confide in Him!
Next is set before us the solemn truth, easily overlooked in the busy world of man, that Jehovah has wrought everything for His, or its, own end. Yet, is anything more certain? Is it not His reign? for evil abounds and the righteous suffer. Still His moral government is unfailing, whatever appearance may promise for awhile. The day will declare all. This is so true that He can add, "yea even the wicked for the day of evil." How manifest all this will be in the coming judgment!
But even now He would have His people feel how offensive "every proud heart" is to Him - "an abomination," and nothing less, to Jehovah. Yet how common pride is, and how little do men believe that God hates it, and will judge accordingly! The Highest despises not any. Hence, whatever the seeming support or the delay, beyond doubt one who so lives shall not be held innocent.
The next word is striking as only to be understood aright when a brighter light shone. Even before then no believer would have allowed that the mercy and truth were on man's part to atone for his sins. It is in Christ and especially in His cross that they meet for the purging of the guilty and defiled. Anywhere else they are irreconcilable. Men plead "mercy" to escape the condemnation of "truth"; but if truth pronounce the just judgment of the wicked, what can mercy do to arrest the execution? The Lord Jesus alone bore the curse in all its truth, that the iniquities might be blotted out in the richest mercy. The grace of God appeared in Christ that His merciful remission of our sins might be His righteousness new manifested in the gospel. Truly, by the fear of Him is departure from evil.
This is it which, by a new nature as well as redemption, teaches those who believe to walk so as to please God, worthily of His calling and kingdom. In spite of natural enmity, the fruit of righteousness tells on conscience, so that even adversaries are made to be at peace with them.
Plain it is then that even here "better is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right." Much more when the veil was lifted by Christ to let in the light of the eternal day on the present scene of flesh and world, alike enmity against God.
In verses 9-15 are given a fresh cluster of apothegms, in which we start with Jehovah as the sole power of directing the Israelite's steps, and of maintaining equity in daily life. But there is next withal a striking enforcement of the honour due to the king.
"The heart of man deviseth his way, but Jehovah directeth his steps.
"An oracle is on the lips of the king; his mouth will not err in judgment.
"The just balance and scales [are I of Jehovah; all the weights of the bag [are] his work.
"[It is] an abomination to kings to commit wickedness; for the throne is established by righteousness.
"Righteous lips [are] the delight of kings; and they love him that speaketh aright.
"The fury of a king [is as] messengers of death; but a wise man will pacify it.
"In the light of the king's countenance [is] life, and his favour [is] as a cloud of the latter rain."
The heart of man away from God is lawless; and, shaking off the restraint of Him to whom he belongs and must give account, is fruitful of devices. As he loves his own way, so he changes it according to the object before him, or, it may be, some passing fancy. Jehovah alone can direct his steps; but this supposes dependence on Him and obedience to His Word, when it is His way, and not the man's own. So Moses (Exo_23:13), when Israel forsook him and bowed down to the golden calf, prays, Show me Thy way.
Jehovah would have His people honour the king, especially in Israel, and to look for a wise and righteous decision. "An oracle is on the lips of a king." It was no less a remembrancer to the king, that it should be said of him, his mouth will not err in judgment. How often alas! both king and people failed utterly. But a morning comes without clouds, when One of that very house shall rule over men righteously and in the fear of God; for man He is, though infinitely more. But David's house was not so with God, either when he lived, or after his death when succeeded even by the favoured son who wrote these words. Judgment must act as well as sovereign grace, before Jehovah will make it grow. All honour to Him who once for all suffered for sins, and has given us life eternal, and will reign righteously.
Properly subjoined is that equity in the least things which Jehovah will have. "The just balance and scales are of Jehovah; all the weights of the bag are his work." If Jehovah showed His interest in instructing man aright, when it was even the details of the fitches and the cummin, of the barley and the wheat, and not in the sowing only but in their due treatment at the harvest, so did He feel for the constant administration of every day's exchange among men, to ensure right and guard against wrong. How much more does He feel their readiness to overlook sin and judgment for eternity!
Again would He set before all, that to commit wickedness is an abomination not to Himself only but to kings. What a standing rebuke if the throne were not established by righteousness! What an exposure if the king indulged in wickedness himself, instead of abhorring it in others! It is throughout here assumed that the king recognizes his place before Jehovah as His anointed.
Further we hear that kings take pleasure in those who in their speech vindicate what is right. "Righteous lips are the delight of kings; and they love him that speaketh right." Flattery is natural at court, but contemptible to him that rules in the fear of God. Righteous lips may not always speak agreeably; but righteous kings appreciate the man who cleaves to justice and sound principle.
Just as terrible is the wrath of a king. He holdeth not the sword in vain. That he is incensed "as messengers of death," especially to such as have reason to fear. "But a wise man will pacify it." So we see in both Jonathan and David, who appealed not in vain to the monarch, even though unjust in his anger.
On the other hand, no less powerful is the effect of the king's favour after alienation. "In the light of the king's countenance is life, and his favour is as the cloud of the latter rain." But what is any such privilege to compare with the place of stable nearness and grace which the believer even now enjoys through the Saviour, and looks on in assured hope of His glory! "Being therefore justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had the access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we boast in hope of the glory of God." Rom_5:1-2.
The precepts and warnings impressed on us in verses 17-24 are of a wider range and a more general moral character. The upright, the humble, the heedful, the wise, the pleasant of speech are pointed out and encouraged, with grave admonition to those who are otherwise.
"The highway of the upright [is] to depart from evil: he that taketh heed to his way keepeth his soul.
"Pride [goeth] before destruction; and a haughty spirit before a fall.
"Better [is it to be] a humble spirit with the poor [or, meek], than to divide the spoil with the strong (or, proud).
"He that giveth heed to the word shall find good; and whoso confideth in Jehovah, happy [is] he.
"The wise in heart is called intelligent (or, prudent), and the sweetness of the lips increaseth learning.
"Wisdom [is] a fountain of life for him that hath it; but the instruction of fools [is] folly.
"The heart of the wise instructeth his mouth, and addeth learning to his lips.
"Pleasant words [are as] a honey-comb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones."
In a world of evil, and the multitude following evil, it is no small thing to depart from evil. For the believer was once like the rest; and it is the grace of God which acts on conscience through Christ, in whom was no sin, and who died for us and our sins, that we might be forgiven and delivered. It is indeed the highway of the upright to depart from evil; but there is the positive side too: he that taketh heed to his way (and Christ is the way to the Christian) keepeth his soul.
Pride on the other hand is most offensive to Jehovah, and dangerous, yea, destructive, to man; and he is apt to be most lifted up when the blow falls; as we may see throughout Scripture, a haughty spirit before a fall. So Nebuchadnezzar, where mercy interceded; so Haman, where was only judgment.
Next we have the good portion of the humble spirit with the meek; just as the Lord pronounced such souls blessed whether for the kingdom of the heavens, or inheriting the earth when the Heir of all things takes it, even He then sharing with the great, and dividing spoil with the strong. For it is the inauguration of the King reigning in righteousness, in contrast with this evil age.
Then we have a fine climax. He that gives heed to the word without a doubt shall find good; but if he also confide in Jehovah, which is better, happy is he.
The wise in heart is called intelligent; and so he is, and inspires confidence. It differs much from what men call a long head, feared rather than trusted. And the sweetness of lips which accompanies that wisdom increases learning all round.
Wisdom is truly a fountain of life to him that has it, as he begrudges not its waters for those that have it not. The instruction of fools can be nothing but folly, and is fully exposed, because of the vain assumption to teach.
How different when the heart of the wise instructs his mouth, as it does, and adds learning to his lips. For there is not only profit but growth.
Such are indeed "pleasant words," and they are as a honeycomb, sweet inwardly, and strengthening outwardly.
Verses 25-33. The first of these apothegms we have had before, in Pro_14:12. The repetition indicates its importance, and our aptness to forget it. We may therefore consider it again.
"There is a way that seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof [is] the ways of death.
"The appetite (or, soul) of the labouring man laboureth for him, for his mouth urgeth him on.
"A man of Belial diggeth evil, and on his lips [is] as a scorching fire.
"A froward (or, false) man soweth contention; and a talebearer separateth chief friends.
"A violent man enticeth his neighbour, and leadeth him a way [that is] not good.
"He that shutteth his eyes, [it is] to devise froward things; he that biteth his lips bringeth evil to pass.
"The hoary head [is] a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness.
"The slow to anger [is] better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.
"The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision [is] of Jehovah."
Self-love and self-will lead into self-deception, whatever be the honesty that would oppose a conscious wrong. We need therefore to look to Him who is greater than our heart, that we be guided by a wisdom above ourselves. How terrible to have trusted what one should have judged, lest, to one following a way that seemed right, its end should he only a way of death! He that hears and knows and follows the voice of Jesus finds Him not only the way but the truth and the life. Nor can one be too simple in listening to His words open to all. This is the Christian highway, and therefore is peace and joy, whatever the suffering and danger.
Humanly speaking, as idleness is a peril and misery, labour is good for a man as he is. He that is truly a working man has a need that impels him on his course of daily toil. His soul (appetite, or life) has wants that call for supply, or, as it is here put, "his mouth urgeth him on." Others understand that "the soul of him that is troublesome shall suffer trouble; for his mouth turneth it on him."
Verse 27 vividly sketches the ungodly. Not content with what appears on the surface, a man of Belial diggeth up evil, and on his lips is as a scorching fire. As James says of the tongue, it sets on fire all the course of nature, and is itself inflamed by hell. What can one think of the comment by a learned Romanist expositor (Maldonat), which Bishop Patrick cites? - "This is apparent by the example of the Spanish Inquisition, whereby he who speaks anything rashly against the faith is deservedly delivered to the fire, which I wish were done everywhere." Romanism ignores and reverses Christianity.
The next form of mischief is a perverse or froward man sowing contention, and a talebearer separating chief friends. May we have grace not only to refuse such a spirit, but to reprove it, whenever it betrays its injurious and often insinuating way.
The violent man may not be so insidious; but the openness of his course, with apparent honesty, may entice his neighbour, and lead him into a way that is not good, possibly beyond his misleader.
The picture in verse 30 describes one of those that shut the eyes in their evil work; but it is to devise froward things, and one biting his lips, that he may bring evil to pass.
Nor must one be deceived by age, though it claims reverence. But how deplorable if it help on evil! "The hoary head is a crown of glory; it is (or, if it be) found in the way of righteousness."
What a testimony to the patient and the self-restrained in verse 32! If he walk in the light, as every Christian does, even more than this should flow freely. Yet slowness to anger and self-control are admirable in their place.
The Jew resorted to the lot (v. 33), till the Spirit was given the believer in the gospel. But he was reminded that Jehovah directed. Christianity in this, as in all things, shows God providing some "better thing," faithful though God was of old, and is still, now that in Christ He is far more intimately revealed and known.