The rich man's wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty.…
For the most part these sayings relate to earthly goods - their value, and the means for their acquisition. Godliness has the promise of both lives. Equally incredible would a religion which ignored the future be with one which ignored the present. Equally one-sided is the expectation only of earthly good from wisdom, and the expectation only of heavenly good. We must beware of a false materializing and of a false spiritualizing of religion.
I. THE POWER OF WEALTH AND THE WEAKNESS OF POVERTY. The former like a strong city or fortress; the latter like a ruinous dwelling, which threatens at any moment to tumble about the dweller's head. The teacher is thinking, as the following verse shows, on the one hand, of wealth wisely and honourably won, which becomes a means to other wise ends; on the other hand, of blameworthy poverty, which leads in time to further vice and misery. To desire competent means for the sake of worthy objects, and to fear poverty because of its temptations, is a right and true attitude of mind.
II. THE TENDENCY OF WEALTH DEPENDS ON THE MIND OF THE POSSESSOR. (Ver. 16.) The "tendency of riches" is in itself an incomplete thought. Silver and gold have no tendency, except by a figure of speech. In the heart of man the directing force is found. Used justly, riches are a good; they are simply, like bodily strength, knowledge, skill, a mass of available means. Used wickedly, so that they simply feed our senses and our pride, or become corrupters of others' integrity, they simply increase the possessor's power and range of mischief. When we poetically speak of accursed gold, or base dross, we should be aware that these are figures, and that the curse can never rest on anything in God's creation except the will which perverts what is a means to good into a means to evil.
III. THE CAUSES OF DIRECTION ADD MISDIRECTION IN LIFE. (Ver. 17.) Why do some men succeed, and others fail, in perpetual blundering and error? The particular cases may be complex; but as to the general rule there can be no question. In the one case there is admission of faults and attention to the correction of them. In the other, blindness to faults, inattention to warnings, obstinate persistence in error. Be not above taking a hint, especially from a foe. "Temper" is the bane of many. Any opportunity is sacrificed rather than the whim, the humour which seems to the man so thoroughly a part of himself that he cannot give it up. The habit of calm revision of one's progress and failures in the hour of prayer seems needful both to preserve from over self-confidence and from over-reliance on the advice of others.
IV. CONCEALED HATRED AND OPEN MALICE EQUALLY ODIOUS. (Ver. 18.) Resentment that one dares not, or thinks it polite not to, express makes the lips turn traitor; and the victim is both "contemned and flattered." God has placed a natural hatred of duplicity in our hearts. It was levelled as a reproach against Euripides that he had put into the mouth of one of his characters the sentiment, "My tongue did swear, my heart remain'd unsworn." Not so dangerous in many cases, but morally worse, is the deliberate slanderer, who goes about to despoil his neighbours of that which leaves them much poorer, makes him none the richer. He is a fool, because his arts recoil upon himself.
V. THE PERIL OF THE BABBLING TONGUE; THE PRUDENCE OF RESERVE. (Ver. 19.) The man may be confronted with his words. The "written letter remains," and "many witnesses" may serve equally well to convict of the authorship of a malicious speech. It is far more easy for men to forgive abusive things said to their faces than things reported to have been said behind their backs. And even injurious acts can be got over more readily than stinging words of sarcasm. Words have a more definite shape in thought than deeds; they reveal a certain view of you which has some truth in it. You cannot forget it, which means with most you cannot forgive it. A clean-cut sarcasm, a slander which has just that vraisemblance about it which gives currency to gossip, stamps a certain image of the victim in the public mind. The gentler motive to prudence is the hurt we may do others; the motive consistently here is the treatment we may experience ourselves. If a person, on grounds like these, were to take a pledge of total abstinence from "personal talk" of the critical kind, his prudence must be respected. An approach to this is found in well bred society. And how lamentable the condition of some so called religious circles, when there is so little culture that conversation gravitates as if by necessity to the discussion of the character and doings of popular preachers, etc.!
VI. THE TONGUE AND THE HEART ARE IN IMMEDIATE CONNECTION. (Ver. 20.) Just as Napoleon said his brain and hand were in immediate connection. The analogy will serve. The "silver tongue" (no accents are silvery but those of truth) bespeaks the fine disposition, the noble heart. And what can the produce of the "worthless" heart be but "rot" upon the tongue?
VII. GOOD BREEDS GOOD, WHILE EVIL CANNOT KEEP ITSELF ALIVE. (Ver. 21.) The lips of the just pasture many. Good words, good preachers, good books, - these are the food of the world, and there cannot be an oversupply. Bad books and teachers may be let alone. As Dr. Johnson said of a poem, it had not enough life in it to keep it sweet (or, "not enough vitality to preserve it from corruption"). - J.
Parallel VersesKJV: The rich man's wealth is his strong city: the destruction of the poor is their poverty.