Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE INAPTNESS OF HONOURS TO THE FOOLISH MAN. (Ver. 1.) According to Jerome, it is something unheard of or impossible to experience, rain in the harvest time (see 1 Samuel 12:17, sqq.). The advancement of the fool appears to all men unseasonable, even shocking. High place reveals the more clearly the smallness of small souls. Honour is the just reward of virtue and ability. Let men be virtuous and wise, that they may be honoured, and that external distinctions may not rather invite the contempt of observers.
II. THE HARMLESSNESS OF UNMERITED CURSES. (Ver. 2.) Aimless as the wayward flight of sparrow or swallow, they fail to strike their object (see that in 2 Samuel 16:5, sqq.; 1 Kings 2:8). "I would not hesitate to say," observes Trench, "that the great glory of proverbs in their highest aspect, and that which makes them so full of blessing to those who cordially accept them, is the conviction, of which they are full, that, despite all appearances to the contrary, this world is God's world, and not the world of the devil or of those wicked men who may be prospering for the hour. A lie has no legs." Truth may be temporarily depressed, but cannot fall to the ground (Psalm 94:15; 2 Corinthians 4:9). But as for the lie; its priests may set it on its feet again after it has once fallen before the presence of the truth, yet this will all be labour in vain; it will only be, like Dagon, again to fall.
III. FOLLY INVITES ITS OWN CHASTISEMENT. (Ver. 3.) The instincts of flesh and blood show like untamed and unbroken-in animals, especially in idleness, and demand the like severe treatment. "Our flesh and sense must be subdued," not flattered and fed. If we do not practise self-control, God will administer his chastisements. - J.
(1) put them in positions of rank and dignity, in which men bow (or fall) before them (Proverbs 25:26); or
(2) entrust to them offices of importance and responsibility (ver. 6); or
(3) allow them to undertake the work of public instruction (vers. 7, 9). It is only the wise and good that we should honour in these ways. Unfortunately, in the confusion and perversity which sin has wrought in the world, it often happens that it is not the wise man but the fool who is chosen for the post or the task. How foolish it is to honour the unworthy is seen if we consider -
I. ITS PAINFUL INCONGRUITY. "As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honour is not seemly for a fool." To hear a fool attempting lamely to discourse wisdom is suggestive of the motion of a man whose "legs are not equal." For the post of honour to be occupied by one who has disgraced himself by guilty foolishness, or who has neglected his opportunities, and is empty-minded and incapable, this is something which is manifestly unfitting; it offends our sense of the appropriate and the becoming. Shamelessness and honour, stupidity and responsibility, have no sort of agreement; they are miserably and painfully ill-mated.
II. ITS POSITIVE REVERSAL OF THE TRUE ORDER OF THINGS. The fool ought to be positively dishonoured. He need not be actually despised. There is too much of capacity, of indefinitely great possibility in every human spirit to make it right for us to despise our brethren. We are to "honour all men" because they are men, because they are, with us, the offspring of God, and may be his children in the highest and deepest sense (1 Peter 2:17). Yet is it our clear duty to see that folly is dishonored, that it is made to take the lowest place, that the man who does shameful things is put to shame before his fellows. Let those who dishonour God, disregard their fellows, and disgrace themselves, feel the edge of holy indignation; they should be smitten in faithfulness that they may be healed in mercy.
III. ITS INJURIOUSNESS. To honour the fool by giving him rank, or responsibility, or the opportunity of speech, is:
1. To injure him. For it is to make him "think himself to be something [or, 'somebody'] when he is nothing [or, 'nobody']." It is to fasten him in his present position of unworthiness, and thus to do him the most serious harm we can inflict upon him. The flatterer of the fool is his deadliest enemy.
2. To injure the community. It is "to drink damage," to bind a stone in a sling that is most likely to hit and hurt our neighbour, to smart with a wound from some sharp thorn. The foolish, the guilty, the wrong in heart and mind, do serious harm when they hold the reins of office or sit in the seat of honour. Their very elevation is itself an encouragement to folly and vice, and a discouragement to wisdom and virtue. They administer injustice instead of justice. They let all things down instead of raising them up. They advance those who are like-minded with themselves, and neglect those who deserve honour and promotion. Speaking from "the chair," they make falsity and foolishness to appear to be truth and wisdom, and so they mislead the minds and darken the lives and betray the souls of men. - C.
I. THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN, BUT NEED NOT HAVE BEEN, FEARED.
1. Men and . women have dreaded "the evil eye" of their fellow men. They have been alarmed by evil omens, by signs and portents that have boded misfortune or calamity, by presentiments of approaching death, etc. All these things have been purely imaginary, and they have added largely and lamentably to the burdens and sorrows of existence. It is painful to think how many thousands, how many millions of mankind have had their hearts troubled and their lives darkened, or even blighted, by fears that have been wholly needless - fears of some evil which has never been more or nearer to them in fact than the shadow of the bird's wing as it circles in the air or flies away into the forest.
2. Of these imaginary evils that which is conspicuous among others is the curse of the wicked - "the curse that is causeless." The bitter imprecation of the heart that is full of unholy hatred may make the spirit quiver at the moment, but its effect should be momentary. Let reason do its rightful work and the anxiety will disappear. What possible harm can come of the bad man's curse? He has no power to bring about its fulfilment. Not in his hand are the laws of nature, the issues of events, the future of the holy. Let the feeling of apprehension pass away with a reflection that all these things are in the hand of the Supreme. Let it be as the wing of the flitting bird, out of sight in a moment. Let it be "as the idle wind which we regard not."
II. THINGS THAT MUST SOMETIMES BE BRAVED. Although we may entirely disregard the malediction of the guilty and the godless, we are obliged to attach some importance to their active opposition. When implication passes into determined hostility, we have then to lay our account with it. We have then to consider what we must do to meet it. But if we are obviously and consciously in the right, we can afford to brave and breast it. We are not alone. God is with us. Almighty power, irresistible wisdom, Divine sympathy, are with us; we may go on our way, doing our duty and bearing our testimony, fearless of our foes and of all their machinations. There is, however -
III. ONE THING FROM WHICH IT IS NATURAL TO SHRINK; the enmity of a bureau begirt. We may make light of the weapons of our adversaries; we may be fearless of their designs and their doings; but from the feeling of hatred in their hearts we do welt to shrink. It is far from being nothing that human hearts are actually hating us, malevolently wishing us evil, prepared to rejoice in our sorrow, in our downfall. We should not surely be entirely unaffected by the thought. It is a consideration that should move us to pity and to prayer. We should have a sorrowful feeling that ends in prayer that God would turn their heart, that leads also to the first available opportunity of winning them to a bettor mind. And there are those who should cherish -
IV. ONE SALUTARY FEAR. (Ver. 3.) Those who are wrong in heart and life may dread the coming down upon them of that rod of correction which is found to be the only weapon that will avail. - C.
I. How we ANSWER THE FOOL. (Vers. 4, 5.)
1. Not according to his folly; i.e. so chiming in with his nonsense that yon become as he is. Do not descend into the arena with a fool. Preserve self-respect, and observe the conduct of the Saviour when to folly he "answered not again."
2. According to his folly; that is, with the sharp and cutting reply his folly invites and deserves. We have also examples of this in the conduct of our Lord; e.g. in reference to the inquiry of the Jews concerning the purging of the temple, which he answered by a reference to John's baptism (Matthew 21:25, etc.). The twofold treatment of the fool reminds that the spirit and motive must determine the act, and that opposite methods may be equally good at different times.
II. THE FOOL IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED. (Vers. 6, 7.)
1. With messages and commissions. (Ver. 6.) He who does so is like one who amputates his own limbs, deprives himself of the means of gaining his object, or who voluntarily drinks of an evil brewage.
2. His words are not to be trusted. (Ver. 7.) Sayings in the mouth of the fool are purposeless and pointless, when they even do no harm. Fools will not be prudent, says Luther, and yet would ever play the part of wise men. "A wise saying doth as ill become a fool as dancing does a cripple." The wise and weighty saying becomes in his mouth a jest. He who would instruct others in Divine wisdom must first have embraced it himself. Solemnity may be a cover for a sot; and the greatest folly is to impose on one's self.
III. THE FOOL IS NOT TO BE HONOURED. (Ver. 8.) To lift him out of his place by compliments or honours is as inapt as to lay a jewel upon a common heap of stones. The sling makes the stone bound in it an implement of death; and to flatter the undeserving brings disgrace upon one's self. It is like putting sword or pistol into a madman's hand. But the other interpretation is better. Ver. 9 shows how mischievous are even good things in the lips and hands of those who only abuse them. Luther quaintly says, "If a drunkard sports with a briar, he scratches more with it than he allows to smell the roses on it; so does a fool often work more mischief with the Scripture than good." (The meaning of ver. 10 is so obscure, it must be left to exegetes; it appears to coincide with the foregoing - the fool is not to be trusted.)
IV. THE FOOL IS INCORRIGIBLE. (Vers. 11, 12; see 2 Peter 2:22.) He returns to his exploded nonsense, his often-repeated fallacies; and to his exposed errors of conduct (Matthew 12:45; John 5:14; Hebrews 6:4-8). Relapses into sin, as into sickness, are dangerous and deadly. "A raw sin is like a blow to a broken leg, a burden to a crushed arm." The cause of these relapses and this incorrigibility is pointed out - deep-rooted self-conceit. This is the fruitful mother of follies. Let none deem himself perfect, but let every one cultivate humility as his dearest possession. God giveth grace to the lowly, but resisteth the proud and them that are wise in their own conceits. - J.
I. THE CAREFUL AVOIDANCE OF REPEATING IT. (Ver. 4.) Only too often men allow the foolish to draw them into a repetition of their folly, so that one fool makes another. Folly is contagious, and we are all in some danger of catching it. This is the case with us when:
1. We let the word of anger provoke us to a responsive bitterness; then we are "overcome of evil" instead of "overcoming evil with good" (Romans 12:21).
2. We allow one exaggeration to lead us into another. When two men are in conversation, one is often tempted to lead the other into statements that exceed the truth; and exaggeration is only another name for falsehood.
3. We accept a foolish challenge. The young, more particularly, are fond of exciting one another to deeds of folly, and it often requires courage, steadfastness, even nobility of spirit, to refuse to follow the leading of unwisdom.
4. We indulge in idle gossip; letting the first statement about our neighbour, which is unfounded and slanderous, conduct us to idle and mischievous talk in the same foolish strain.
5. We permit ourselves to follow the lead of the man whose thoughts and words are in the direction of a doubtful, or a dishonourable, or a defiling region. In all these cases it behoves us "not to answer a fool according to his folly," to be silent altogether; or else to break away into another and worthier strain; or even to "take up our parable" against that which has been said in our hearing. But here we reach the other method, viz. - If. THE WISE CONDEMNATION OF IT. Folly is sometimes to be rebuked (ver. 5). Silence on our part would be mistaken and abused; it would be regarded as acquiescence or as incapacity to meet what has been said, and folly would go on its way, its empty head held higher than before. We must use discretion here; must understand "when only silence suiteth best," and also when silence would be a mistake and even a sin. The times to answer a fool according to his folly, i.e. in the way which is demanded by his folly, are surely these:
1. When ignorance needs to be exposed.
2. When pretentiousness and presumptuousness want to be put down.
3. When irreverence or actual profanity requires to be rebuked and silenced.
4. When vice or cruelty deserves to be smitten and abashed. Then let the true and brave man speak; let the name and the honour of his holy Saviour, let the cause of truth and righteousness, let the interests of the young and the poor and the weak unloose his tongue, and let him pour forth his indignation. In so doing he will be following in the footsteps of the Lord of truth and love, and of the noblest and worthiest of his followers. - C.
I. IT IS FULL OF EXCUSES. (Ver. 13.) There is always some pretext for evading duty, however frivolous and absurd, with the idle man. Idleness is the parent of almost every sin; here of cowardice, he who excuses, accuses himself. Every manly act of exertion is imagined to be full of danger by the lazy mind. The sluggard does not see what danger of another and deadlier kind there is in stagnation. Danger is the brave man's opportunity, difficulty the lion in the way, by victory over which he may earn the laurel of victory and gain the joy of new conscious power.
II. IT LOVES REPOSE AND SELF-INDULGENCE. (Ver. 14.) As the door swings perpetually upon its hinges, without moving a step from its fixed position, so with the sluggard. He "turns round and round, with dull stupidity, like the dyer's horse in the ring" (Proverbs 19:24). How often the cannot of the slave of vice or evil habit only disguises the will not of the sloth-eaten heart! To make mere rest our life-object is to contend against the order of God.
III. IT HATES EXERTION. (Ver. 15.) Even the most necessary exertion may become by habit distasteful. To take his hand from his bosom, even merely to reach after the bread of life, is too much labour for him. And thus his life, instead of being a continual feast, sinks into spiritual indigence and starvation.
"The idle soul shall suffer hunger." IV. IT BREEDS CONCEIT AND FOLLY. (Ver. 16.) This is the strange irony of the vice, that the empty hand shall fancy itself full of wisdom. But such fancies are the very growth of the soil of indolence. It is impossible to make such a one understand his ignorance, for it requires knowledge to perceive it; and he who can perceive it has it not (Jeremy Taylor). The evil may creep into the Church. One may fall into an idle and passive piety, content with sitting still, hearing, praying, singing, from one end of the year to the other, without advancing one step in the practical Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:6). - J.
IV. IT BREEDS CONCEIT AND FOLLY. (Ver. 16.) This is the strange irony of the vice, that the empty hand shall fancy itself full of wisdom. But such fancies are the very growth of the soil of indolence. It is impossible to make such a one understand his ignorance, for it requires knowledge to perceive it; and he who can perceive it has it not (Jeremy Taylor). The evil may creep into the Church. One may fall into an idle and passive piety, content with sitting still, hearing, praying, singing, from one end of the year to the other, without advancing one step in the practical Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:6). - J.
I. MEDDLING IN OTHERS' QUARRELS. (Ver. 17.) By a very homely image the folly of this is marked. To interfere in disputes which do not concern one is to get hurt one's self. No doubt the proverb admits of a very selfish application. We may excuse indifference to right on such a plea. But a true instinct of Christian justice and love will find a middle course. We should be sure of our call to act before we meddle in others' affairs. It is rare that it can be our duty to volunteer the office of judge. Benevolent neutrality is generally our most helpful attitude.
II. MAKING SPORT OF MISCHIEF. (Vers. 18, 19.) There is an ape-like line of mischief in human nature that needs to be watched. Amusing in trifling matters, it may, if encouraged, fly at high game. He that purposely deceives his neighbour under colour of a jest is no less prejudicial to him than a lunatic that cloth wrong out of frenzy and distraction (Bishop Hall). The habit of teasing should be corrected in children. What seems comparatively harmless in itself at first may readily become a habit and harden into a vice. It is in the little delicacies of daily life, no less than in the greatest matters, that we are called to practise the golden rule. We must consider the effect, as well as the intention, of our actions; for, as in the old fable, what is sport to us may be grievous hurt to another. - J.
I. ITS UGLIEST FEATURE - DECEPTION. "The man that deceiveth his neighbour" is not here simply the man who overreaches his customer or who introduces a low cunning into his business; he is rather the man who deliberately misleads his acquaintance, his "friend," and induces him to do that which is unwise and unworthy. He is the man who knows better himself, but who indoctrinates the inexperienced and the unwary with the principles, or rather the vain imaginations, of folly. He stoops so low that he does not hesitate:
1. To recommend forbidden pleasure as an object worthy of pursuit, though he knows well (or ought to know, if he can learn from experience) that guilty gratification is the very costliest thing that any man can buy.
2. To persuade men that an unprincipled life is a profitable life, as if "a man's life consisted in the abundance of the things which he possessed;" as if a life without integrity were not the most utter add miserable failure.
3. To recommend selfishness and indulgence as a condition of liberty, when in fact it is the beginning and is sure to end in the most humiliating bondage.
4. To represent the service of God and of man as a drudgery and a dreariness, when in truth it is the height of human nobility and the very essence of enjoyment.
5. To prevail upon the young to snatch at honour arid success instead of honestly labouring and patiently waiting for it. There is no more painful and repulsive thing under heaven than the sight of experience and maturity breathing its fallacies, its sophisms, its delusions, into the ear of inexperience and innocency.
II. ITS BITTER FRUIT. What do these delusions bring forth? The deceiver is a man who "scatters firebrands, arrows, and death." The ultimate consequences of the "deceitfulness of sin" are sad indeed; they are:
1. Impoverishment in circumstance.
2. The loss of the love and the honour of the wise and good.
3. Remorse of soul and, frequently, if not usually, the departure of self-respect.
4. Hopelessness and death.
5. The extension of the evil which has been imbibed to those around; becoming a source of poisonous error, a fountain of evil and wrong and misery.
III. ITS PRACTICAL INSANITY. The fool who does wantonly scatter the seeds of deadly delusions in the minds of men is "as a madman." There is no small measure of insanity in sin. Sin is a spiritual disease; it is our spiritual nature in a state of complete derangement, our mind filled with false ideas, our heart affected with delusive hopes and fears. There is no soundness, no wholeness or health about us, so far as we are under the dominion of sin. We do things which we could not possibly have done if only reason and rectitude held sway within us.
IV. ITS POOR AND PITIFUL APOLOGY. "He saith, Am not I in sport?" When a man deludes and betrays, when he wrongs and ruins a human soul, and then makes a joke of it, he only adds meanness to his transgression. Who, outside the bottomless pit, can see any fun in a blighted life, in a wounded and bleeding spirit, in a soiled and stained soul, in the ruin of reputation, in the blasting of a noble hope, in the shadow of spiritual death? Human life and character and destiny are infinitely serious things; they are not to be the butt of fools. - C.
I. THE TALE BEARER AND MISCHIEF MAKER. (Vers. 20-22.)
1. His inflammatory character. (Vers. 20, 21.) He keeps alive quarrels which, but for his vice, would die down for want of fuel. It is easy to fire the imagination with tales of evil, not so easy to quench the flames thus kindled. If the character is odious, let us beware of countenancing it by opening our ears to scandal. Personal gossip has in our day become an offence in the public press. But were there no receivers, there would be no thieves. If we cannot stop the scandalmonger's month, we can stop our own ears; and "let him see in our face that he has no room in our heart."
2. The pain he causes. (Ver. 22.) Slander is deadly - it "outvenoms all the worms of Nile." "A whispered word may stab a gentle heart." "What weapon can be nearer to nothing than the sting of a wasp? yet what a painful wound may it give! The scarce-visible point how it envenoms and rankles and swells up the flesh! The tenderness of the part adds much to the grief." If God has given us a sting, or turn for satire, may we use it for its proper work - to cover evil with contempt, and folly with ridicule, and not at the devilish instigation of envy and spite. Let us dread and discourage the character of the amusing social slanderer.
II. THE BAD HEART. (Vers. 23-25.)
1. It may be varnished over, but is still the bad heart. It is like the common sherd covered with impure silver, the common wood with veneer. The burning lips seem here to mean glowing professions of friendship. like the kiss of Judas.
2. Duplicity is the sign of the bad heart. The dissembler smiles, and murders while he smiles. The fair face hides what the false heart doth know.
"Neither man nor angel can discern Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks Invisible, except to God alone. Oft, though wisdom wakes, suspicion sleeps At wisdom's gate, and to simplicity Resigns her charge, while goodness thinks no ill Where no ill seems." 3. The need of prudence and reserve. "Trust not him that seems to be a saint." Indeed, it is an error to place perfect trust in anything human or finite. But the special warning here is against suffering flattery to blind us to the real character of one who has once been revealed in his true colours. III. THE EXPOSURE OF WICKEDNESS. (Vers. 26, 27.) Vain is the attempt of men to conceal for any length of time their real character. What they say and what they do not say, do and do not do, reveals them sooner or later. And the revelation brings its retribution. The intriguer falls into his own pit, is crushed beneath the stone he set in motion. Curses come home to roost; the biter is bitten; and the villain suffers from the recoil of his own weapon. This appears also to be the sense of ver. 28. Though a lie has no legs, it has wings, and may fly far and wide, but it "hates its own master" (according to one rendering), and flies back to perch on his shoulder and betray him to his ruin. - J.
3. The need of prudence and reserve. "Trust not him that seems to be a saint." Indeed, it is an error to place perfect trust in anything human or finite. But the special warning here is against suffering flattery to blind us to the real character of one who has once been revealed in his true colours.
III. THE EXPOSURE OF WICKEDNESS. (Vers. 26, 27.) Vain is the attempt of men to conceal for any length of time their real character. What they say and what they do not say, do and do not do, reveals them sooner or later. And the revelation brings its retribution. The intriguer falls into his own pit, is crushed beneath the stone he set in motion. Curses come home to roost; the biter is bitten; and the villain suffers from the recoil of his own weapon. This appears also to be the sense of ver. 28. Though a lie has no legs, it has wings, and may fly far and wide, but it "hates its own master" (according to one rendering), and flies back to perch on his shoulder and betray him to his ruin. - J.
I. OUR FIRST DUTY AND ITS NATURAL REWARD. Our first duty, natural to the young and the unsophisticated, is to be frank, open-minded, sincere, trustful; to say all that is in our heart, and to expect others to do the same; to believe that men mean what they say and say what they mean. And the reward of this simplicity and truthfulness on our part is an ingenuous, an unsuspicious spirit, a spirit as far removed as possible from that of cunning, of artifice, of worldliness.
II. THE CORRECTION OF EXPERIENCE. All too soon we discover that we cannot act on this theory without being wounded and hurt. We find that what looks like pure silver may be nothing better than "earthenware of the coarsest kind lacquered over with silver dross." Behind the lips that burn and breathe affection for us and interest in us is a wicked heart in which are "seven abominations," in which dwells every evil imagination. We find that those who affect to be our friends when they stand in our presence are in fact our bitterest and most active enemies. We discover that our words, spoken in good faith and purity of heart, are misrepresented, and are made a sword to smite us. Experience compels caution, reticence, sometimes absolute silence.
III. THE TWO MAIN EVILS AGAINST WHICH TO GUARD. These are:
1. Fair speaking which is false. The false words that are ostensibly spoken in our interest, by one that means us harm; words which would lead to trust and expectation when we should be alive with solicitude and alert to avoid the danger which impends. By these our treasure, our position, our friendship, our reputation, our happiness, may he seriously endangered.
2. Flattery. The invention and utterance of that which is not felt at all, or the careless and perhaps well-meant exaggeration of a feeling which is entertained in, the heart. Few things are more potent for harm than flattery.
(1) It is readily received.
(2) It is carefully treasured; men's self-love prompts them to accept and to retain that which, if it were of an opposite character, they would reject.
(3) It is harmful in three different directions:
(a) It gives a wrong impression of our estate, and may lead to financial "ruin" (ver. 28).
(b) It encourages an over-estimate of our capacity, and may lead to our undertaking that for which we are incompetent, and thus to an humiliating and distressing failure.
(c) It engenders a false idea of our persona! worth, and may lead to spiritual infatuation, and thus to the ruin of ourselves.
IV. THE DUTY AND THE WISDOM OF WARINESS. As these things are so, as human society does hold a large number of dissemblers (ver. 24), as it is possible that the next acquaintance we make may be an illustration of this sad fact, it follows that absolute trustfulness is a serious mistake. We must be on our guard. We must not open our hearts too freely. We must know men before we trust them. We must cultivate the art of penetration, of reading character. To be able to distinguish between the true and the false in this great sphere is a very large part of wisdom. Next to knowing God, and to acquainting ourselves with our own hearts, is the duty of studying men and discerning between the lacquered potsherd and the pure silver.
V. THE DOOM OF DECEIT. To be rigorously exposed, to be unsparingly denounced, to be utterly ashamed (vers. 26, 27). - C.