Much depends on the way in which instruction is given. We see its perfection in the great Teacher as depicted opening His mission in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luk_4:16-22). There He had been brought up, and there He read a prophecy which beyond doubt applied to Him alone, as soon appeared; and all bore Him witness and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of His mouth. Alas! they clashed with the will of man, and roused implacable anger, which showed itself even then murderously. But wisdom is justified of her children, whatever self-will may do or say. Let us then pursue the scripture before us.
"Hear, ye sons, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding; for I give you good doctrine: forsake ye not my law. For I was a son to my father, tender and an only one in the sight of my mother. And he taught me and said to me, Let thy heart retain my words; keep my commandments and live. Get wisdom, get understanding; forget not neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall keep thee; love her, and she shall preserve thee. The beginning of wisdom [is], Get wisdom; and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee; she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thy head a garland of grace, a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee." vv. 1-9.
The form chosen is that of a father, not of a legislator. It is not therefore even a catechism of the "ten words," but parental instruction; and attention is called in order to intelligence or discernment. The same Spirit who took His part in creation, who gave skill for the glory of Jehovah, who wrought in all that was good and great and holy, would here engage the young heart to hear. For He assuredly has good doctrine to give, and would guard against forsaking His law or teaching. The instrument employed can speak of the loving care bestowed on his own early days, when he was "a son to his father, tender and only beloved in the sight of his mother." The affections are thus recalled to awaken the new duties. It was not only that the teacher had himself been taught, but that he did so appealed touchingly. "Let thy heart retain my words; keep my commandments and live."
It is not language or letters or science, but that education of which the fear of Jehovah is the foundation. It supposes neither a state of innocence, such as once was, nor a prohibitory test when fallen man thought himself quite able to do all that Jehovah spoke against the evil he was prone to. Mercy, divine mercy, deigned to supply what neither the individual nor the race possessed. It is true that man has a conscience; he knows good and evil, but only as a sinful creature, not doing the good that he would, but doing the evil that he would not - a truly miserable state, from which redemption alone furnishes an adequate deliverance in the power of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.
This deliverance, we all recognize, is not the subject handled here, but the instruction that is addressed to subject hearts, like the rest of the Old Testament, within the ancient people of God. But now it is for the Christian to profit by it to the uttermost, for "all things are ours." The Book does not give the exalted Head nor the heavenly glory we are to share with Him as members of His body, nor the duties which flow from that relationship; but it does reveal divine wisdom for a saint here below, first in general moral principles (Proverbs 1-9), then in the greatest affluence of details to Proverbs 29, with a fitting close in Proverbs 30 and 31.
Thus the exhortation is, "Get wisdom, get understanding; forget not, neither decline from the words of my mouth." Obedience, heart obedience, is sought. Could Jehovah be content with anything short of it? Could one of His people desire otherwise? Undoubtedly self-will is the great and constant hindrance; and the enemy would excite it, and shut out God by the objects without and the passions within. All the deeper is the need of instruction, and in the varied way just indicated, which divine goodness here supplies. Here we have a father's authority urged, and the responsibility of sons claimed. This was always true for man here below, as the law long after recognized; and it holds good now that we are no longer under guidance as children.
They were not to forsake wisdom, which has preservative power to "love her, and she shall keep thee." The beginning of wisdom, as we are forcibly told, is to "get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding." Those who are of God pass through a world of evil and need wisdom from above to keep them; for it is a wilderness where is no way, save that which grace provides for faith. Suffering there will be for Christ's sake as well as for righteousness: but "exalt her [not self], and she shall promote thee; she shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her, and she shall give to thy head a garland of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee." How sure will all this be in due time! David in his earlier days was a fine example. He went at his father's bidding in no pride or naughtiness of heart; and as he exalted wisdom in the fear of Jehovah, so was he promoted, and, embracing her, was brought to honour. He behaved himself wisely, so that his enemy was compelled to own him blessed - that he should both do great things and still prevail. Yet was he tried beyond most.
The way of wisdom is next contrasted with that of the wicked; and here the exhortation is individualized.
"Hear, my son, and receive my sayings, and the years of thy life shall be multiplied. I will teach thee in the way of wisdom; I will lead thee in the paths of uprightness. When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened; and when thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble. Take fast hold of instruction, let her not go; keep her, for she is thy life. Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not into the way of evil [men]; avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away. For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause [some] to fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence. But the path of the righteous is as the shining light going on and brightening to the perfect day. The way of the wicked [is I as darkness: they know not at what they stumble." vv. 10-19.
It is not by the sight of the eyes nor by the activity of the mind, nor even by the cultivation of the affections, that the wisdom here commended comes. "Hear, and thy soul shall live," said Isaiah; and so the Apostle, "Faith [cometh] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." No doubt the coming of the Son of God brought this truth and every other into an evidence before unknown. But the principle ever applied. Whoever obtained a good report, obtained it by faith; and faith rests on God's Word, as Christ is the main Object of it all, however much be corrective or disciplinary. Hence the word here is, "Hear, my son, and receive my sayings, and the years of thy life shall be multiplied." Nor is there uncertainty when Jehovah furnishes the means. "I will teach thee in the way of wisdom, I will lead thee in the paths of uprightness." The happy result is assured to such as believe that it is from Him, and doubt not His interest in His people and their blessing. "When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened; and when thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble." Nevertheless, earnestness of purpose is called for, and fidelity of heart. "Take fast hold of instruction, let her not go; keep her, for she is thy life."
Only we have to add that now the door of mercy is opened to those who have weighed money for that which is not bread. and earnings for that which satisfieth not - yea, have been children of folly, and have wallowed in sin. Grace can meet the deepest need, and Christ brings to God the most dark and distant. See wisdom in Luke 7, justified of all her children, eminently in one who might have been deemed hopelessly corrupt. But is anything too hard for the Lord? He assuredly and openly vindicated the persistent soul who hid herself behind His love that owned hers coming by faith. Indeed it was faith which produced that love, and saved her, as He bade her go in peace, which His blood would make unfailing and unbreakable, all in due time.
But we have the opposite way not less clearly for warning - the way where one turns off from God and wanders anywhere else. "Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not into the way of evil [men]; avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away." How urgent and importunate the voice of divine goodness and love! And it is none too loud, but most requisite; for the calls, and ties, and snares are many and manifold. But the word is unmistakably plain and pointed. And what a picture follows, of the zeal on the side of evil! "For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause [some] to fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence." It is their life, nourishment, and joy, if joy it can be called, to mislead, injure, and destroy. But on the other hand, "the path of the righteous is as the shining light going on and brightening to the perfect day." How we can bless God that Christ is this way; and there is but One in, but not of, this world; for He is the true light. "But the way of the wicked is as darkness," and this so profound, and they so blind, that "they know not at what they stumble." Grace alone calls and keeps by faith.
The 4th chapter concludes with a renewed call to heed a father's words clothed with the authority of Jehovah.
"My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear to my sayings. Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thy heart. For they are life to those that find them, and health to all their flesh. Keep thy heart more than all thou guardest; for out of it are the issues of life. Put away from thee perverseness of mouth, and corruption of lips put far from thee. Let thine eyes look right on, and thine eyelids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and be all thy ways well ordered. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left; remove thy foot from evil." vv. 20-27.
As parental affection in the fear of Him who deigns to teach young no less than old would bring lessons of wisdom before the child, the listening ear, the attentive mind, cannot be dispensed with. Personal respect, however due, is not enough; the ears, the eyes, and above all, the heart, have their part to do. Such training is to be kept "in the midst" of the heart. What else is to be compared with what has Christ for its source, character, object, and aim? "In him was life, and the life was the light of men." No wonder then that it can be added, "for they are life to those that find them and health to all their flesh"; or, as the Apostle says to his genuine son Timothy, "godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. Faithful is the saying and worthy of all acceptation." No doubt too Christianity has given immense accession to the truth by the coming of the Son of God. For "without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: he who was manifested in flesh, was justified in spirit, was seen of angels, was preached among Gentiles, was believed on in the world, was received up in glory." Yes, the secret of piety is in Him thus known as He is; and all else is but a fair show in the flesh, which flickers for a moment before it is extinguished forever.
Hence the call to "keep thy heart more than all thou guardest." The utmost vigilance is needed and due; "for out of it are the issues of life." Scripture ever and truly views the heart as the moral centre on which all outward conduct and walk depend. Hence the Lord in Luke 8 speaks of those who in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience; as in John 15 He said, "If ye abide in me. and my words abide in you. Ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done to you." This indeed is piety: to abide in Him who is life and salvation and peace, to have His words, yea not only obeyed but constantly cherished, with prayers going up and answers coming down accordingly. No wonder then that His Father is glorified, much fruit borne, and the Lord Jesus not ashamed to own such as His disciples.
But there is meanwhile evil still allowed to go on around; and what is so trying, it is in our nature, the old man. That it was crucified with Christ in order that the body of sin might be annulled, so that we might no longer be slaves to sin, is our blessed knowledge by faith. This is no real reason that we should deny the existence of that evil thing in us but the best and most powerful ground why sin should not "reign" in our mortal body. For we are not under law but under grace. Hence, though this knowledge could not then be possessed, yet then as now the word is, "Put away from thee perverseness of mouth, and corruption of lips put far from thee." The Epistle of James is the plain proof of the importance attached to this, and yet more pressed, if possible, than of old; but how deplorable the unbelief that stood in doubt of its inspired authority and exceeding value in its own sphere! Nor did the Lord Himself slight the same need and danger when He taught - nor the great Apostle of the uncircumcision any more than those of the circumcision.
There is another call quite as urgent. "Let thine eyes look right on, and thine eyelids look straight before thee." Christ ever was the object of faith, and He is now revealed as the way, no less than the truth and the life. But, morally speaking, the eye is of great moment, the state of our spiritual vision. As Christ gives us eyes who were born blind, so only He makes and keeps our vision clear. "The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when it is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness" (Luk_11:34-35). Let us not forget the searching word. Christ guides safely but by the single eye.
Nor are we left without direction in detail. "Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be well-ordered." Negligence is no more of faith than haste; and we slip in both ways through lack of dependence and attention to the Word of God.
The path of Christ is narrow, but direct through this world to Himself in glory. The saints were ever called to walk with God before their eyes; and His will is now declared thus to honour the Son. Hence, "Turn not to the right hand, nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil." For evil lies on both sides.