Surely oppression makes a wise man mad; and a gift destroys the heart.…
In these words our author seems to commend the virtues of patience and contentment in trying circumstances, by pointing out that certain evils against which we may chafe bring their own punishment, and so in a measure work their own cure, that others spring from or are largely aggravated by faults in our own temperament, and that others exist to a very great extent in our own imagination rather than in actual fact. And accordingly the sequence of thought in the chapter is perfectly clear. We have here, too, some "compensations of misery," as in vers. 2-6. The enumeration of the various kinds of evil that provoke our dissatisfaction supplies us with a convenient division of the passage.
I. EVILS THAT BRING THEIR OWN PUNISHMENT AND WORK THEIR OWN CURE. "Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof" (vers. 7, 8a). It is the oppressor and not the oppressed who is driven mad. The unjust use of power demoralizes its possessor, deprives him of his wisdom, and drives him into actions of the grossest folly. The receiver of bribes, i.e. the judge who allows gifts to warp his judgments, loses the power of moral discernment, and becomes utterly disqualified for discharging his sacred functions. And this view of the meaning of the words makes them an echo of those passages in the Law of Moses which prescribe the duties of magistrates and rulers. "Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither shalt thou take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous" (Deuteronomy 16:19; cf. Exodus 23:8). The firm conviction which any extended experience of life is sure to confirm abundantly, that such moral perverseness as is implied in the exercise of tyranny, in extortion and bribery, brings with it its own punishment, is calculated to inspire patience under the endurance of even very gross wrongs. The tyrant may excite an indignation and detestation that will lead to his own destruction; the clamor against an unjust judge may become so great as to necessitate his removal from office, even if the government that employs him be ordinarily very indifferent to moral considerations. In any case, "the man who can quietly endure oppression is sure to come off best in the end" (cf. Matthew 5:38-41).
II. EVILS THAT SPRING LARGELY FROM OUR OWN TEMPERAMENT. "The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools" (vers. 8b, 9). That the disposition here reprobated is a very general and fruitful source of misery cannot be doubted. The proud spirit that refuses to submit to wrongs, either real or fancied, that is on the outlook for offence, that strives to redress on the instant the injury received, is rarely long without cause of irritation. If unprovoked by real and serious evils, it will find abundant material for disquietude in the minor crosses and irritations of daily life. While the patient spirit, that schools itself to submission, and yet waits in hope that in the providence of God the cause of pain and provocation will be removed, enjoys peace even in very trying circumstances. It is not that our author commends insensibility of feeling, and deprecates the sensitiveness of a generous nature, which is swift to resent cruelty and injustice. It is rather the ill-advised and morbid state of mind in which there is an unhealthy sensitiveness to affronts and a fruitless chafing against them that he reproves. That anger is in some circumstances a lawful passion no reasonable person can deny; but the Preacher points out two forms of it that are in themselves evil. The first is when anger is "hasty," not calm and deliberate, as the lawful expression of moral indignation, but the outcome of wounded self-love; and the second when it is detained too long, when it "rests" in the besom. As a momentary, instinctive feeling excited by the sight of wickedness, it is lawful; but when it has a home in the heart it changes its character, and becomes malignant hatred or settled scornfulness. "Be ye angry, and sin not," says St. Paul; "let not the sun go down upon your wrath" (Ephesians 4:26, 27). "Wherefore, my beloved brethren," says St. James, "let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (James 1:19, 20).
III. EVILS THAT ARE LARGELY IMAGINARY. "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this" (ver. 10). Discontentment with the present time and conditions is reproved in these words. It is often a weakness of age, as Horace has described it -
"Difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti
Se puero, censor castigatorque minorum."
(Ars Poet.,' 173, 174.) But it is not by any means confined to the old. There are many who cast longing glances back upon the past, and think with admiration of the age of heroes or of the age of faith, in comparison with which the present is ignoble and worthless. It would be a somewhat harmless folly if it did not lead, as it generally does, to apathetic discontent with the present and despondency concerning the future. "Every age has its peculiar difficulties, and a man inclined to take a dark view of things will always be able to compare unfavorably the present with the past. But a readiness to make comparisons of that kind is no sign of real wisdom. There is light as well as darkness in every age. The young men that shouted for joy at the rebuilding of the temple acted more wisely than the old men who wept with a loud voice" (Ezra 3:12, 13). And the question may still be asked - Were the old times really better than the present? Is it not a delusion to imagine they were? Are not we the heirs of the ages, to whom the experience of the past and all its attainments in knowledge and all its bright examples of virtue have descended as an endowment and an inspiration? The disposition, therefore, that makes the best of things as they are, instead of grumbling that they are not better, that bears patiently even with very great annoyances, and that is characterized by self-control, is sure to escape a great deal of the misery which falls to the lot of a passionate, irritable, and discontented man (cf. Psalm 37.). - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart.