Proverbs 4
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The writer, here and in Proverbs 5:7 and Proverbs 7:24, addresses his audience as children, thinking of himself as a son, who had been the object of fatherly counsels and warnings in his youth. He would hand on the torch of wisdom, the tradition of piety, to the next generation.

I. PIETY SHOULD BE A FAMILY TRADITION. (Vers. 1-3.) Handed down from father to son and grandson, or from mother to daughter and grandchild, from Lois to Eunice, till it dwells in Timothy also (2 Timothy 1:5). Tradition in every form is, perhaps, the strongest governing power over the minds of men in every department of life.

II. EARLY INSTRUCTION WILL BE RETAINED, RECALLED, AND REPRODUCED. As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined; or, as Horace says so beautifully, "The cask will long preserve the odour with which when fresh it was imbued" ('Ep.,' 1:2. 69). Every higher effort of the intellect rests on memory. Our later life is for the most part the reproduction in other forms of the deep impressions of childhood.

III. THE CONTENTS OF THIS TRADITION ARE SIMPLE, YET PROFOUND. (Vers. 4-9.) They are summed up in "the one thing needful." In opposition to the cynical maxim, "Get money, honestly if you can, but by all means get money," or the refrain of "Property, property" (Tennyson's 'Northern Farmer'), the teacher rings the exhortation out, like an old chime, "Get wisdom, get understanding."


1. It is iterative. It may even seem to modern ears monotonous. But this form is peculiarly part of the habit of the stationary East. Thought is not so much expansive, travelling from a centre to a wide periphery; it swings, like a pendulum, between two extremes. Generally, for all, the best life wisdom must be these iterations, "Line upon line, precept upon precept" or stare super antiquas vias - a recurrence to well worn paths.

2. It has variety of expression with unbroken unity of thought.

(1) In reference to the object of pursuit. "Wisdom" is the leading word; but this is exchanged for "training" and "insight" (ver. 1); "doctrine" and "law" (ver. 2); "words" and "commandments" (ver. 4); the same word often recurs.

(2) In reference to the active effort of the mind itself. This is presented as "hearing" and "attending" (ver. 1); "not forsaking" (ver. 2); "holding fast in the heart," and "guarding" (ver. 4); "getting" and "not turning from" (ver. 5); "not forsaking" and "loving" (ver. 6); "holding her high" and "embracing her" (ver. 8); "receiving words" and "adhering to instruction" (vers. 10, 13).

(3) In reference to the accompanying promise. "Thou shalt live" (ver. 4); "She shall guard thee;" "protect thee" (ver. 6); "exalt thee; bring thee to honour" (ver. 8); "give to thy head a chaplet of delight;" "hold out to thee a splendid crown" (ver. 9); "many years of life" (ver. 10); "Thy steps shall not be hindered" (ver. 12); "Thou shalt not stumble" (ver. 12); "She is thy life" (ver. 13).


1. It is simple, intelligible to all.

2. Of universal adaptation. Easily remembered by the young, impossible to forget in age.

3. It admits of infinite illustration from experience. It is a sketch or outline, given to the pupil; he fills it in and colours it as life progresses. - J.

In these verses we have a peep into the royal house at Jerusalem while David was on the throne. And we have such a glimpse as we should expect to gain. We see the devout man extremely solicitous that his son should walk in the ways of Divine and heavenly wisdom. David, like the rest of human parents, and more than most of them, was under -

I. A STRONG TEMPTATION TO MAKE A FALSE ESTIMATE. So near to us is this present passing world, so powerfully do its interests appeal to us, so strong is the hold which it gains over our senses and our imagination, that we are apt to overestimate altogether its claims and its worth. And this in proportion to the height of the dignity, the measure of the power, the extent of the fortune, to which we have attained. David, as a man subject to all human passions, would be particularly tempted to weigh the worldly advantages of his favourite son, and estimate them very carefully and very highly. He would be in danger of considering - not exclusively, but excessively - what would be the extent of his kingly rule, what the revenue he would be able to collect, what the influence he would wield over neighbouring powers, what the authority he would exercise over his own people, etc. And in the thick throng of these mundane considerations there would be no small risk of other and higher things being lost sight of. So with other if not with all parents. There is a constant danger of worldly anxieties about our children absorbing, or at any rate obscuring, the deeper and worthier solicitudes. But in the case of the devout; monarch of Israel there was, as there should be with us all -

II. A WISE DISCERNMENT. David was profoundly convinced that "wisdom is the principal thing" (ver. 7), that everything is of inferior value to that. He saw clearly and felt strongly that he must induce his son Solomon to walk in the fear of the Lord, or even his brilliant prospects would come to nothing. For he knew:

1. That the fear of God was the living principle most likely to lead to temporal prosperity: he had proved that in the elevation of his own "house" and the rejection of that of Saul.

2. That no possible successes of an earthly kind would compensate for the loss of character: his own hour of disastrous folly had shown him that (2 Samuel 11:27).

3. That no circumstantial misfortunes could fatally injure a man who was right at heart with God: his own experience had illustrated that truth (Psalm 41:12). We shall be wise if we come to the same conclusions. Like David, we shall see that the outward and the visible, though they may be far more attractive and voiceful, are yet of far inferior account to the inward and the spiritual. We shall care immeasurably more for our children that they shall be wise in soul than prosperous in estate, "all glorious within" than magnificent without; we shall be tar more solicitous to see them "getting wisdom" (ver. 5) than "making money," "retaining the words" of truth (ver. 4) than gaining or keeping possession of lands and houses.

III. THE WAY OF WISDOM TOWARD THE YOUNG. If we, as parents, would walk wisely, so that we may attain our heart's desire concerning the children of our love and of our charge, we shall act as David did - we shall commend the truth God has taught us

(1) with all affectionateness of manner (ver. 3);

(2) with all earnestness of spirit (vers. 4, 10, 11);

(3) with all fulness of exposition.

There is a strain of parental tenderness of tone and energy of manner, as well as great fulness of utterance here. The same thought is presented, is repeated, is pressed on the reason and the conscience. David evidently yearned, strove, persisted with patient and resolute zeal, that he might convince and inspire his son with the sacred truths he held so dear. He represented heavenly wisdom, the truth of God, as

(1) the thing of surpassing intrinsic excellency (ver. 7);

(2) a thing to be pursued in preference to other fascinations (vers. 5-7);

(3) a thing to be cherished and held to the heart (ver. 6);

(4) a thing to be highly honoured before men (ver. 8);

(5) a thing to be retained at all costs (ver. 13);

(6) a friend that would repay all attentions - that would guard and shield from evil (vers. 6, 12), that would lead to honour and esteem (vers. 8, 9), that would prolong life (ver. 10), that would lead in that way which is the path of life itself (ver. 13).

1. To parents, the lesson of the text is

(1) discern the one supremely precious thing to be commended to the heart of youth; and

(2) commend it graciously, earnestly, fully.

2. To sons and daughters, it is

(1) remember all the sacred solicitude that has been expended on you; and

(2) fulfil the desire of your parents' hearts. "My son, know the God of your father" (see ver. 1); this is "good doctrine" (ver. 2); it is "your life" (ver. 13). - C.

I. LIFE UNDER THE IMAGE OF A PATH. It is a leading biblical image. There is much suggestion in it.

1. Life, like a path, has a starting point, a direction, and an end.

2. We have a choice of paths before us. The high road may image holy tradition and custom, the bypaths the choice of caprice or personal aberration.

3. It is only safe to follow beaten tracks. What we call "striking out an original course" may be conceited folly. "Gangin' our ain gait" is a dubious expression.

4. The selection of the path must be determined by whither we desire to arrive.

5. We are ever drawing near to some end. It alone can disclose the prudence or the folly of our choice.

II. THE PATH OF THE WICKED. (Vers. 14-17, 19.)

1. Religion passionately warns against it. The language of iteration is the very language of urgency and passion. What a force there is in the mere repetition of the cry, "Fire! fire! fire!" or in the warning of the mother to the little one against some dangerous object, "Don't go near it; keep away; go further off!" Just so does Divine Wisdom deal with us children of a larger growth. Again and again she clamours, "Enter not; go not; shun it; pass not over; turn away; pass by!" (vers. 14, 15). This throbbing earnestness, this emotion of the Bible, gives it its hold on man; and should be shared by every teacher.

2. Religion describes it in powerful invective (vers. 16, 17).

(1) The sleepless malice of the wicked. A common figure for the intense activity of the mind. As David had a sleepless ambition to build a temple for Jehovah; as the trophies of Marathon suffered not the glory-loving Themistocles to sleep; as care, or glowing study, or eager planning, breaks our nightly rest; - so the evil have no repose from their dark cupidities and pernicious schemes.

(2) They are nourished by evil (ver. 17). To "eat bread and drink wine" is a Hebrew metaphor for living (Amos 2:8; Amos 7:12). In a similar way, the "bread of misery" and the "wine of punishment" are spoken of (Deuteronomy 16:3; Psalm 127:2; Amos 2:8). They live upon villainy, as we might say. It is the root of their being. It is horrible, but true, that a man may, as it were, draw life and energy out of a perverted consciousness, as the drunkard cannot live without the alcohol which is killing him.

III. THE PATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS. (Ver. 18.) There is a change of figure; for the image of the path, the image of the advancing light of morning is substituted.

1. Light as an image of moral goodness. It is universal, Suggests itself to and strikes the fancy of all It associates with it the images of beauty, of joy, of expansion, of futurity, of infinity.

2. The growth of light from dawn to noon as an image of moral progress. This is true of knowledge and of practice. The good man travels out of dimmer perceptions and out of doubts, into clear convictions of reason. At first he realizes little; his will is weak and untrained. But keeping his eyes upon the ideal of the good, true, and beautiful, he embodies more and more of it in conduct. As the sun rests not (to speak and think in the dialect of poetry) till it "stands" (see the Hebrew) in high noon, so the righteous is ever advancing towards the goal of a life in perfect unity with God.

3. The safety of the light is an image of the course of the righteous. Translated into distinctively Christian thought, this is following Christ (John 11:9, 10).

4. The image serves to throw into contrast the course of the wicked. "Thick darkness" represents their mind and way. It is ignorant, full of peril, yet they are unconscious of it. Instead of growth and progress, their doom is sudden extinction (comp. Proverbs 1:27, sqq.; Proverbs 2:18, 22; 3:35). - J.

We may say concerning piety or virtue - the wisdom which is from God includes both - that the essence of it is in right feeling, in loving him who is the Holy One and that which is the right and admirable thing, and in hating that which is evil and base; that the proof of it is in right acting - in going those things and those only which are good and honourable, which God's Word and our own conscience approve; and that the prudence of it is in these two things which are implied in our text.

I. CHERISHING A WHOLESOME HORROR OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF SIN. There is an insensibility and an ignorance which passes for courage, and gets a credit which is not its due. Those who do not take the trouble to know what the issues of any line of conduct are, and who go fearlessly forward, are not brave; they are only blind. We ought to know all we can learn of the consequences of our behaviour, of the end in which the path we are treading terminates. The prudent man wilt see and shrink from the consequences of evil; and if he open his eyes or consult those who can tell him, he will find that they are simply disastrous.

1. For sin is mischievous in its spirit; it gloats over the ruin which it works; it finds a horrible delight in doing harm to human souls (vers. 16, 17).

2. And it succeeds in its shameful design. It does "mischief;" it makes men "to fall." It causes spiritual decline, decay, corruption - the worst of all mischief; it leads purity, sobriety, honesty, truthfulness, reverence, love, to fall down into the ruinous depths of lasciviousness, intemperance, dishonesty, falsehood, profanity, hard-heartedness.

3. It leads down to a darkness and a death of which it did not dream (ver. 19). It sinks into that awful soul-blindness in which the "eye is evil," in which the very "light is darkness" (Matthew 6:23), in which the moral judgment, all perverted, leads astray. "The way of the wicked is as darkness: they know not at what they stumble." Their powers of moral distinction are gone; they are "altogether gone astray." Piety, virtue, may well in godly prudence shrink with wholesome horror from this.

II. CAREFUL AVOIDANCE OF THE WAY OF THE WICKED, and so of the path of temptation.

1. True it is that we must be often found in perilous places at the call of daily duty.

2. True that at the invitation of mercy we shall sometimes be found there.

3. But it is also true that the wise will not needlessly expose themselves to the assaults of sin. They will refrain from so doing both because

(1) we are not sure of the measure of our own strength; there may be some very weak places in our armour, ill-fortified parts in our character; most men are weaker than they know, somewhere. And also because

(2) we do not know the full strength of temptation. Full often sin proves to have an unimagined force, an unsuspected skill. The full strength of the allurements and enticements of evil perhaps no man knows. The number of the slain that lie on the spiritual battlefield tells with a mournful eloquence that thousands of the children of men have overestimated their own resisting power, or underestimated the insidiousness, or the fascination, or the force of the foe. Therefore, if duty does not demand it, nor mercy plead for it, shun the dangerous path, "enter not into the way of it... avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away" (vers. 14, 15) Let it be considered that this is a Divine injunction; therefore let there be no hesitation about obeying. There is nothing unmanly or ignoble in prudence. It is not a virtue to be anywise ashamed of. There is ample scope for the utmost heroism of spirit and of life without exposing our young hearts to evils the very nature of which we may not know, the force of which we cannot measure, and from the consequences of which we might never be able to escape. - C.

We have two perfect contrasts in these two verses - the path of the just and the way of the wicked; the one is very closely connected with light and the other with darkness.

I. SIN AND DARKNESS. (Ver. 19.) We may say that:

1. Sin is darkness. It is

(1) the ignorance of the mind; it is

(2) the error of the heart - it is the soul's supreme mistake, misreading, misunderstanding every one and everything from the highest to the lowest.

2. Sin spreads darkness

(1) over the soul of the sinner himself, blinding his eyes, distorting his vision, confusing his perceptions;

(2) over the souls of others, leading them into the darkness of folly, superstition, wrong doing.

3. Sin leads to the ruin which attends darkness; it ends in making the sinner blind to the true character of his own transgressions: "They know not at what they stumble;" blind, also, to the final issue of his guilt: they know not into what they stumble - into what a "blackness of darkness."

II. WISDOM AND LIGHT. (Ver. 18.) By "the just" in this verse we understand not particularly the man who is equitable in his dealings with his fellows, but the good and wise man - the man who, in the fear of God, seeks to act with rectitude in all his relations. This man is closely associated with the light.

1. Knowledge is light, and heavenly wisdom is the truest and best knowledge - that of God, and of the human soul, and of the path of eternal life.

2. That which reveals is light, and heavenly wisdom is the best and most beneficent revealing power. The wise, the "just" man is "making manifest" (see Ephesians 5:13) the highest, the most far-reaching, deep-descending truths. He does this

(1) by his direct endeavour to instruct;

(2) unconsciously, by the influence of his life. "The life is the light of men" in our case as in his who was "the Life made manifest."

3. The light of the just man grows ever stronger and more illuminating: it "shineth more and more unto the perfect day." With added opportunities of inquiry and acquisition, with multiplied privileges, with more of Divine discipline, with increase of power resulting from the exercise of spiritual faculty, there is

(1) growing light within, burning more steadily and lustrously; and

(2) advancing influence for good which flows forth in wider, deeper, and larger streams. - C.

The instinct of self-preservation is the very root of all our activity. "Every individual existence strives to remain what it is," and would defend its integrity from all attack.

I. THE INSTINCT IS RECOGNIZED. As it must be by all genuine teachers. It is a fact, and cannot be properly ignored; a Divine fact, and ought not to be obscured. It includes

(1) the desire to live, the sense of life's sweetness;

(2) the desire for health and happiness.

II. THE INSTINCT IS DIRECTED. It needs direction; for all instinct is in itself blind, and men, in seeking health and happiness, ignorantly and viciously purchase disease and death.

III. THERE IS NO SECRET OF SELF-PRESERVATION BUT (IN THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE SENSE) GODLINESS. This teaches the renunciation of the immediate for the further and lasting good. A paradox is here involved, a seeming contradiction containing a unity. To lose life is to gain it; to gain it, to lose it. For in true conduct there is ever a denial of the lower contained in the affirmation of the higher, and in evil conduct vice versa (compare on this section, Proverbs 3:2, 8, 13, 16; Proverbs 4:13). - J.

In these verses we may trace the course of wisdom from the beginning to its full development. We have -

I. ITS BEGINNING IS THE SOUL. (Ver. 20.) It commences in attention. When a man "inclines his ear unto the sayings of Wisdom," when he eagerly listens to what God says to him, when he is a disciple sitting at the feet of the great Teacher, he has taken an important step in the heavenward course. The "grace of God" is upon him (Acts 13:43).

II. ITS ESTABLISHMENT IN THE SOUL. (Ver. 21, latter clause.) When the counsels of the Wise One are once fairly and fully welcomed to the soul, so that they may be said to be "in the midst of thine heart," then it may be said that the decisive point is turned. When there is the "cherishing of a cordial attachment;" when we say, "How love I thy Law!" when our heart is given to the truth of God because given to him, the gracious Lord of truth; - then wisdom is established within our soul.

III. THE NEED FOR HOLY VIGILANCE CONCERNING ITS MAINTENANCE. (Ver. 23; see homily infra. Ver. 26, first clause.)

IV. ONE OF ITS MANIFESTATIONS. (Ver. 24.) It will show itself in clean lips; it will put far away the froward and perverse mouth. Its utterances will be pure, temperate, reverent. The child of folly is detected by his foolish, vain, culpable expressions. His "speech bewrayeth him." "By his words he is condemned." The son of wisdom is known by his blamelessness in this particular; by his words he is justified (Matthew 12:36, 37; Ephesians 4:29; James 1:26).

V. RESOLUTENESS IN THE RIGHT PATH. (Ver. 27.) There must be no "turning again to folly" (Psalm 85:8); no turning to the right or left into either main highways of vice and open sin, or any byways of error and ill-doing. Even the pleasant path that seems to skirt the King's highway so closely that at any time we may return thereto, is a danger to be avoided. The road that leads off from that highway of holiness by ever so small an angle is a road that finds its way at last to a "City of Destruction." The best preservative from the perilous wandering is here indicated; it is -

VI. STEADFAST GAZE UPON THE GOAL. (Ver. 25.) Look right on to the goal in front; be so intent on reaching that, and on attaining to the prize which awaits the winner, that there will be no temptation to depart from the straight course. We keep a straighter path by fixing our eye on the object toward which we walk than by watching the steps we take; how much more so than by looking about us on every hand! Our heavenly wisdom is to be looking "right on," "straight before us," unto Jesus, the Leader and Perfecter of the faith (Hebrews 12:2).

VII. ITS ISSUE. It issues in life and health (vers. 22, 23). Long life was promised to the wise and holy under the old dispensation; now we look confidently forward, as the issue of heavenly wisdom, to

(1) a blessed life below, of spiritual wholeness, and

(2) everlasting life beyond, where the inhabitants are never sick (Isaiah 33:24). - C.

I. LIFE CENTRED IN THE HEART. (Ver. 23.) Physically, we know this is so. It is a self-acting pump, a fountain of vital force. All the physical activities are derived from it. Spiritually, it is so. The connection of the heart with emotion is recognized in all languages. It is feeling in the widest sense that makes us what we are.

II. THE HEART MUST BE, THEREFORE, THE PECULIAR OBJECT OF OUR SOLICITUDE. (Ver. 23.) The sentiments, to put it in another form, are the important elements in character. These lie so close to opinion, that we commonly say either "I feel" or "I think" in expressing our opinions. To instil right sentiments about the important points of behaviour, the relation of the sexes, business, honour, truth, loyalty, is the great work of moral education, and here lies its immense value as distinguished from the gymnastic of the intellect.

III. THE EXTERNAL ORGANS MUST AT THE SAME TIME BE DISCIPLINED. (Vers. 24-27.) Education must not be one-sided. The heart supplies the organs and channels of activity; but these again react upon the heart. The impulses of feeling are in themselves formless; it is the definite organs which give to them peculiar shape and determination. Hence the organs themselves must be trained to receive true impressions and to give them back.

1. The mouth - the lips. They are to be corrected of every "crooked," false expression. What wonderful variety of expression is the mouth capable of - firmness, laxity, tenderness, scorn, love, irony, hate! In controlling the mouth we do something to control the heart. Its contents must be purified from falsehood, coarseness, foolish jesting, malicious gossip, all of which tell upon the central consciousness, and disturb and obscure it.

2. The eyes. (Ver. 25.) They are to be trained to a direct and straightforward expression. The leer of lust, the oblique glance of cunning expressed on the faces of others, or the clear honest light beaming from the eyes of the pure and open-hearted, not only mirror the heart, but remind how the heart may be reached by the self-discipline of the eye.

3. The feet. (Ver. 26.) In like manner, they are to be trained to a straightforward walk. Even in moments of relaxation 'tis well to have an object for a walk. The mind needs self-direction and discipline even in its pleasures; otherwise it becomes dissolute, and waywardly falls into evil through sheer laxity in the spring of wilt.

(1) Action and reaction, between the inward and the outward world, expression and impression, constitute a great law of our spiritual activity.

(2) Hence self-discipline and moral education should be founded on the recognition of it. We must work from the centre to the periphery, and back again from every point of the periphery to the centre of life. - J.

Keep thy heart above all keeping (marginal reading). Evidently there is a precious treasure which, as the disciples of Wisdom, we are charged to keep. We ask -


1. That which belongs to us, but which is entirely without us - our money, our houses, our lands, our shares, our ships, our precious documents, our "valuables."

2. That which is more closely related to us, but is still outside ourselves - our bodily frame, the tabernacle of our spirit, and, with this, our physical health and strength; the clear eye, the healthy brain, the strong nerve.

3. Our own very selves - that spiritual nature in virtue of which we are said to be "created in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). These are the treasures we may "keep."

II. WHICH IS THE ONE OF SUPREME VALUE, AND WHY? "Keep thy heart above all keeping." That which is nearest ourselves must be of more value to us than that which is further from us. To keep our temporal estate is to preserve that which is precious, but which is not ourselves. To maintain our health is most desirable, but our body is only our temporary home and organ; it is something we can lose and yet ourselves be. But our heart, that is our own very self. God made us, not to have, but to be, living souls: that in us, that of us which thinks, loves, hopes, worships, rejoices in the spiritual and the Divine, that is ourself, and to keep that must be the supreme duty; that is to be kept beyond all keeping. But the wise man says there is a special reason why we should keep our heart beyond all keeping; he says, "for out of it are the issues of life." In other words, a well guarded heart is the spring and source of all that is best in human life.

1. The holy thoughts and pure feelings and kind purposes which flow therefrom are, in themselves, a large part and the very best part of human life.

2. A well guarded heart will prove the source of a well regulated life - of a life of honesty, virtue, peaceableness, sobriety; and these will ensure prosperity, esteem, joy.

3. A well regulated heart will conduct to the life immortal in the heavenly land: this is the most blessed "issue" of all. With whatsoever anxiety, vigilance, diligence, we guard our temporal interests, or even our health and our mortal life, with far greater anxiety, far more eager vigilance, far more unremitting diligence, should we guard our heart - its purity, its tenderness, its devotion.

III. WHAT ARE OUR FORCES OF DEFENCE? Wherewith shall we keep these hearts of ours? What are the forces at our command? They are these.

1. The power of introspection. We can interrogate and examine our own souls, and see how we stand, what need there is for penitence and for renewal.

2. The power of self-regulation. We can acquire healthful habits, pass regulative resolutions which will

(1) keep us away from temptation, and

(2) take us where our souls will be nourished and strengthened in things Divine.

3. The power of the Divine Spirit. We can ask and gain the "might [which comes from] his Spirit in the inner man." - C.

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