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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Proverbs 26

 

 

Verses 1-28

Observations About Fools, Etc.

Proverbs 26

Small birds, such as sparrows, are made for wandering, and the swallow is formed for flying, going where it pleases, and yet in both instances the flying amounting to little or nothing: so the curse causeless—that is to say, a curse spoken without reason—shall not come to any deadly effect; that is to say, it shall not reach the object towards which it was directed, it shall be but as a passing shadow and not as a crushing burden. Seed thrown upon stones does not come to fruition; so the curse that is misspent, or misdirected, or that is not deserved, shall come to nothing in the latter end, it shall simply wither away, or prove its own worthlessness and emptiness. Contempt often fails of reaching its mark. When contempt is directed against a holy man it does that man no harm, but it does harm to its own author. We thus see how strong a man may be in character, and how impregnable is the fortress of integrity. Men are really not injured from the outside by the bolts of vengeance, by the shafts of satire, by the sneers of contempt, or by the detractions of envy; men are only injured by themselves, by their own want of faithfulness, by their inconstancy, by their hypocrisy, by their disregard of spiritual culture. The curse causeless shall never reach its destination; it may seem to be well-directed and to fly with terrific energy, but it shall never smite the target of an upright and honourable heart Thus is God the confidence of his people: thus is truth its own castle of defence, its own inviolable sanctuary, placed upon the mountains which never can be climbed by evil men, and settled upon rocks which never can yield to the poor assaults of malignant enmity. Be strong in yourselves, and then you will be strong in society. If your own heart condemn you not, no external condemnation can ever really hinder you.

"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit" ( Proverbs 26:4-5).

Do not descend to the level of the fool by disputing or arguing with him as if upon equal terms. Both the directions are thoroughly consistent one with the other. We must discriminate even amongst fools. Some fools are to be answered sharply, cuttingly, in their own language, or in language they can understand, lest they grow in impertinence and become strong in self-assertion or self-applause. On the other hand, the answer is to be given from a high level, so that it shall fall upon the fool, and not be spoken to him as if the interlocutors were standing upon common ground. Fools must be made to feel their folly, either by significant silence on the part of the wise, or by such a use of contempt as shall humble where it cannot instruct. Here, however, we are dealing with edged instruments, and therefore should use them with the greatest care. Unquestionably, there is a strong temptation to wither the fool, to crush him with a retort, to overwhelm him with a humiliation, and to extract a kind of victory from an encounter with his weakness. Sometimes, however, it is better to be silent than to be eloquent; to be forbearing than to be resentful; every man must consider the particular circumstances and direct his policy accordingly. We are never to lose dignity in our intercourse with men. We may be humble without being servile; we may condescend without prostration; we may teach others the truth as if we were representing not ourselves but the very God of truth. It is impossible to limit the action of the fool. The worst fools are they who may be strong in intellect, but who are wanting in the finer sensitiveness, in the keener sympathy, in the cultured taste, which distinguishes with an exact discrimination the difference between one act and another, where indeed there may seem to be but little difference. We have seen that a word spoken in season is precious as a gospel, and now we are to learn that a word spoken out of season, or spoken under the wrong impulse, may be an insult to the very faculty and genius of speech, as well as a degradation of the spirit of morality.

"The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of fools" ( Proverbs 26:7).

The legs of the lame hang loosely, and so are useless. The legs themselves are there, but being poorly hung they cannot be turned to use. Read: The legs hang down from a lame man;—or, The legs of a lame man are loose, and therefore are of no service to him: so is a parable in the mouth of fools. It is a beautiful parable, well conceived, well expressed, wanting in nothing that can give literary dignity or moral pertinence, and yet as used by a fool it becomes worthless, it is without point, without effect, without real benefit or service. What is true of the private fool is true also of the public fool; that is to say, of the man who preaches a grand gospel but does so without himself having any vital relation to it, without having turned that gospel into experience and illustrated it by example. Such a man has no right to have the parable of the gospel entrusted to him, and certainly he has no right to entrust it to himself. There is always to be a distinct relation between the speaker and the speech, between the faculty and the use to which it is put. When things are out of place they may become not only worthless but mischievous. Seed is to be sown in the ground; it is not to be thrown into the air, or to be laid upon marble slabs, or to be cast into iron furnaces; in all these instances it would be thrown away. Right words, wise parables, eternal gospels, are not to be entrusted to loose lips, to misdirected faculties, to foolish expositors: great gospels are to be entrusted to great hearts, and it is evermore to be felt that the speaker of the gospel is a man who has himself realised the gospel; where there is this harmony between the speaker and the speech the words will be simple, clear, and mighty.

"As he that bindeth a stone in a sling, so is he that giveth honour to a fool" ( Proverbs 26:8).

The idea is that the stone is soon gone from the sling, is thrown away, and is seen no more, and is perhaps lost for ever: "so is he that giveth honour to a fool;" the fool cannot retain the honour, or he throws it away, or it becomes useless to him; it is as a jewel mislaid, or as gold misspent: give honour only to those who can use it and turn it to greater honour. Do not give even one talent to a man who will fold it in a napkin and lay it aside. Give to him that hath, and he will increase more and more, by reason of industry, and the wise application of his faculties. You cannot make a fool a wise man by any external gift The crown does not make the king. The hat of Aristotle would not make a fool into a philosopher. We are only made great and rich by that which is internal, that which is part of ourselves, part of the very substance of the soul. So true education is an interior work, and culture wrought by the Divine Spirit, an estate of mind and feeling brought about by continual communion with heaven. By "a fool" we are hot always to understand a man of poor intellect, a man of mean mind, or a man who has not had external advantages of an intellectual kind: we are often to understand the withered heart, the moral fool, the depraved nature, the man who mistakes moral distinctions and confounds right and wrong, up and down, true and false, always making mistakes as to which is which, and never acting with that moral certainty which comes of identification with the spirit of truth.

"As a thorn goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouth of fools. The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the fool, and rewardeth transgressors. As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly. Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him" ( Proverbs 26:9-12).

Thus the "fool" has no friend in the Book of Proverbs. Everywhere he is kicked from one position to another; being welcome nowhere, being despised everywhere. A master produces everything by his own care and oversight—that is to say, he himself sees that it is properly done; but the fool hires others to do his work, he hires passers-by—that is to say, he will accept the help of any person that comes casually in his way, without inquiring whether that person is skilled or not, and so the work is badly done. The fool is indolent; he does not form the right conception of work; he looks upon work as drudgery, and as involving the degradation of the worker; he does not see that work is a divine vocation, and that the very meanest form of work may become religious and sacramental when handled in the right spirit. Fools return to their folly, though they know it to be folly; yea, seven times will the fool go back again upon ways which he knows will lead to destruction. The fool thus contracts and establishes what may be termed a second nature, and as the leopard cannot change his spots, neither can the fool change his life; yea, even if for a while he seems to have become a better Prayer of Manasseh , yet as a dog returneth to his vomit a fool returneth to his folly. Yet there is a man who is even more contemptible than the fool, and that is the man who is wise in his own conceit: the Wise Man does not fear to say that there is more hope of a fool than of him. The Pharisees had conceit of themselves; they called themselves righteous, and prided themselves upon being the very elect of heaven; others prided themselves upon being the children of Abraham, or of having Abraham to their father; but the publicans and the harlots returned to God, whilst the self-righteous were excluded from the opening kingdom of heaven; Pharisees and lawyers and mighty men of learning, who imagined themselves to be the favourites of God, actually rejected the counsel of God against themselves, supposing that by reason of their intellectual strength and their historical fame they had no need of an enlarged revelation. We are only right so long as we are truly humble. Progress is impossible where docility of spirit has ceased. Except we be converted and become as little children—docile, simple, obedient, trustful—we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.

"The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets. As the door turneth upon his hinges, so doth the slothful upon his bed. The slothful hideth his hand in his bosom; it grieveth him to bring it again to his mouth. The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason" ( Proverbs 26:13-16).

As the fool has no friends in the Book of Proverbs , so the sluggard or the slothful man is everywhere encountered with contempt and disgust. Creation has no room for sluggards. The whole economy of life is constructed, as we know it, for the proper exercise of our faculties, for the development of industry, for the completion of beneficent service. Every man should be up early in the morning and take advantage of the dawn; every man should have a distinct plan in life, and should patiently and gratefully realise that plan, line by line; to be without a policy of life is to be without sufficient inspiration and impulse, is to be the sport of every chance, and is to be the prey of every temptation. Sluggishness increases in a man. The spirit of slothfulness is to be fought against as men would fight against a beast of prey: it lulls the senses: it takes away the very strength which it professedly conserves; it destroys the man whom it appears to bless. We are only safe in being faithful, active, devoted to some worthy cause. Every day should have its own plan, every morning should come as a bright opportunity, and every night should find us once more at the altar of praise, thanking God for a day"s work well done. It will be difficult for a slothful man to become energetic in middle life. Slothfulness should be early extinguished. We do not act kindly to a child by doing everything for him; on the contrary, we act foolishly and cruelly towards the child himself. Self-help should be one of the earliest lessons taught to children. Every child should be his own servant; every life should learn the great rule of obedience, that it may come gradually and sensibly into the great blessing of rulership. He who cannot serve cannot rule. "The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason;" the word "seven" is to be regarded here as expressive of a round number or a perfect number: the sluggard multiplies his own minority into an overwhelming majority: he says, Do I not know my own nature best? do I not understand my own constitution better than any other man can understand it? do I not know how much sleep I require? ought not I to be the best judge of when I should lie down and when I should rise again? who are they that oppose their judgment to my consciousness? Thus the proud fool talks to his own destruction, and apparently argues his way down into worthlessness and oblivion.

"He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears. As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death, so is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport? Where no wood Isaiah , there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer the strife ceaseth. As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife" ( Proverbs 26:17-21).

The fate of the fool and of the sluggard is carried still further, and is made to include all meddlers, all madmen, all deceivers, and all talebearers. Men are thus classified in order that their several infirmities and criminalities may be the more clearly discriminated. But in reality they all belong to one class: as before God, they are fools, mentally and morally; they will wither away under the operation of Divine law. We are not to be excited with strife: that is the true rendering of "meddling" with it; we are not to undertake quarrelling or to take revenge on our own account, nor are we to mix up ourselves in the disputes of other persons, especially where those disputes are beyond our comprehension as to their origin and purpose. By this exhortation we are not to understand that we are to let iniquity go without condemnation, or wrong to pass by as if it had our approval; on the contrary, every weak man belongs to every strong man; every child has a right to look to every older man as to a father in the time of persecution, unjust suffering, or any manner of neglect that can be avoided, or under any condition that may be ameliorated. We are not to see a strong man oppressing a weak Prayer of Manasseh , and to pass by, saying that the strife does not belong to us. The reference is not to those strifes which involve solemn moral issues, but to those excitements and contentions which are of a purely personal kind, and which cannot be settled by external interference. But when external interference is called for it must be impartial, it must be directed by a spirit of fair play to both parties: we must not take up casually with one cause as against another, but must always be identified with the cause which we have carefully and thoroughly proved to be true and righteous. Mad men cast about firebrands, arrows, and death; and often excuse themselves by the frivolous inquiry, "Am not I in sport?" We answer, No; there can be no sport in the use of such weapons or implements. We must fix definite limits to the exercise even of personal rights. No man has a right to throw his lighted torch upon his neighbour"s wood house; no man has a right to send a letter, "private and confidential," in which he confesses murder or reveals the possible perpetration of a desperate plot. There is always a higher law to be consulted in such matters. Our conventional regulations and customs are permissible within strictly defined limits; but we must not subordinate the higher law to the lower. Where one of the laws must give way it is the smaller that must yield, and not the greater. How easy it is to utter censorious criticism; how easy to excite a suspicion; how easy to rouse a spirit of jealousy! Then, when we see the evil results which our folly has wrought, we fall back upon the frivolous inquiry, "Am not I in sport?" Again and again we must answer: No; there is no sport in attacking character, in ruining reputation, in undermining social standing: there is a limit to sport, and the wise man will know it and observe it; as for the fool, he should not be believed even when he is speaking the truth; the truth may be believed, but the fool himself may be rejected and discredited.

This chapter ends with a very solemn warning, to which all men would do well to take heed—"Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein." We are fond of digging pits for other men; we lay snares for their feet: we say we will test their honesty, we will test their strength of character, we will see what their pledges are worth; so we put temptations in their way, and behold, we who set the snare fall into it, and we who dig the pit are engulfed in its depths. We are not called upon thus to test one another merely for the sake of testing. Where there is any just suspicion, or where there is any rational doubt of the integrity of a Prayer of Manasseh , it may be well to test our feeling without bringing the man himself under immediate accusation. But work of this kind should be done with infinite delicacy. God is watching us. We think we will surprise our foe, or even our suspected friend; and behold, we ourselves become the victims of our own cleverness. Be frank, be upright, be just, and then be fearless. If thou hast aught against thy brother, go and tell him between thee and him alone. Truly "honesty is the best policy," not in the mean sense of being the wisest calculation, but in the sense of being akin to the method of God, the Spirit of Christ, and the way in which the affairs of the universe are administered. Suspicious men often imagine themselves to be clever men; they fail to draw a proper distinction between prudence and suspicion: prudence in the case of such men becomes narrowness of mind, and not philosophy of conception; it is a little, nibbling, frivolous, pedantic prudence: it is a self-defeating calculation of events, because it is uninspired by the spirit of benevolence and hopefulness. God is against thee, thou poor withered heart, man of suspicions and jealousies, man in whom there is no holy, burning, purifying love. He that seeketh his life shall lose it: he that loseth his life for Christ"s sake shall find it. It is better to trust and to be deceived than to be suspicious and to be narrowly and temporarily successful. Let us proceed upon the conviction that "men would be better if we better deemed them," and if, alas! we are disappointed in this conviction, then let us betake ourselves to such remedies as may be available. Meanwhile Jesus Christ evermore stands before us as our example, our inspiration, and our authority. Blessed are they who accustom themselves to his yoke, and who carry his burden as a delight.

Note

"It thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: for thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee" ( Proverbs 25:21-22). "The precept here has the special interest of having been reproduced by St Paul ( Romans 12:20). But it has also a special difficulty. While the first clause rises to the level of the teaching which bids us love our enemies and do good to them that hate us," the second seems at first sight to suggest a motive incompatible with a true charity. We are told to feed our enemy when he is hungry, because in so doing we shall "heap coals of fire on his head,"—i.e. in order to inflict on him the sharpest pain, or even draw down on him the divine judgment (comp. "coals of fire" in Psalm 140:10). Benevolence in such a case seems only a far-sighted calculating malignity. The explanation given by many commentators, and in part adopted by Augustine ("De Doctr. Christ." Proverbs 3:16), that the sense of shame will make the recipient of undeserved and unexpected bounty glow with blushes till his face is like the red-hot charcoal, and his heart is hot as with the burning and passionate complaints of penitence, though it avoids the ethical difficulty, is hardly satisfactory. The use made of the words "coals of fire" in Leviticus 16:12, seems to the present writer to suggest a better interpretation. The high-priest on the day of atonement was to take his censer, to fill it with "coals of fire," and then to put the incense thereon for a sweet-smelling savour. So it is here. The first emotion caused by the good we do may be one of burning shame, but the shame will do its work and the heart also will burn, and prayer and confession and thanksgiving will rise as incense to the throne of God. Thus, as in the words which St Paul adds to the proverb, "we shall overcome evil with good.""—The Speaker"s Commentary.

Prayer

Almighty God, do thou grant unto us the hearing ear and the understanding heart, that not one word of all thy law may be lost upon us. Open thou our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of thy law; open our understanding that we may understand the Scriptures; may the Holy Spirit who inspired the writers inspire the: readers also, that they may know the meaning of God"s law and God"s love. May thy Book be no dead-letter to us, may it reveal the living spirit, and bring us into harmony with all thy purposes. To this end we pray thee for a double portion of the Holy Spirit. Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. May we lose nothing of the music of thy voice, may every tone find the heart; may every appeal draw forth our strength, and constrain our loving obedience; then shall our life be bright, the days shall come laden with blessings from on high, and the night shall breathe a benediction upon the toil of the day. We would live and move and have our being in God; we would test everything by the scales of the sanctuary: we would try the spirits whether they be of God, we would know whether we are honest by the spirit of the Cross. We would be crucified with Christ that we may be buried with him and raised with him in his resurrection; and we would show that we are risen with Christ by setting our affections on things above, by always seeking the higher life, the wider liberty, the deeper, purer love. May our whole life testify to our heart"s sincerity and to the desire of our spirit for the very perfectness of God. We put ourselves into thy hand: lead us, and we shall not stumble; direct us, and we shall not miss the end, but shall find ourselves at last in the city of God. Help us to carry our load bravely, in the very strength of Christ, and by the energy of the Holy Ghost; may we not quail or tremble or show that we have lost our eternal hope, but steadfastly, bravely, lovingly may we carry on the struggle and bear the burden, and may we accept our destiny, believing that God is working in all things, and that his whole purpose is love. Deliver us from evil, establish us in all goodness and in the love of truth; and do this in the power of Christ and for the sake of Christ He died for us; his Cross is our answer, our surety, our refuge. At that Cross we desire to leave every prayer. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Proverbs 26:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/proverbs-26.html. 1885-95.

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