Charles Bridges: Exposition of the Book of Proverbs


PROVERBIAL teaching is one of the most ancient forms of instruction. It is well adapted to the rudeness and simplicity of the first ages, when books were few, and philosophy little understood. The mind, unpracticed to the slow process of reasoning, would be much more easily arrested by terse sentences, expressing a striking sentiment in the fewest words. The wise man himself has given the best definition of these sententious maxims. Their elegance he describes under the figure of “apples of gold in pictures (network) of silver.”† Their force and permanent impression are “as goads and nails fastened by the Master of assemblies”† — driven closely home to the heart and conscience, and fastened in the memories by the appointed instructor of the people.
The antiquity of this teaching was recognized in the Church even before the age of Solomon. (1 Samuel 24:13.) Classic Annals have recorded Aphorisms similarly constructed from men of wisdom. All of these however were of a later date. Some possibly might be dim scintillations from this fountain light; so that the King of Israel was — as an old expositor has remarked — ‘the disciple of none, but the instructor of them all.’† Indeed his mind largely dealt in this intellectual exercise. “He spake three thousand proverbs.” (1 Kings 4:32.) And from this valuable mass of thought he was directed, under Divine inspiration, to “set in order” a collection for the instruction of the Church to the end of time.†
Possibly some would rather have desired the preservation of his discourses on Natural History (Ib. 4:33), than on Practical Wisdom. But this Sovereign discrimination shews the real intent of the Scriptures — not to teach philosophy, but religion; not to make men of science, but men of sound godliness.
All competent judges will admit this Book to be eminently fitted for this great end. What the Roman Orator pronounced of Thucydides, applies far more truly to this King of Jerusalem — ‘so full of matter, that he comprised as many sentences as words.’† This wonderful Book is indeed a mine of Divine wisdom. The views of God are holy and reverential. The observation of human nature is minute and accurate. The rule of life and conduct is closely applied, to make “the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17); so that, as Mr. Scott well remarks — ‘we shall perceive the meaning and utility of the Proverbs, in proportion to our experience in true religion, our acquaintance with our own hearts, and with human nature, and the extent and accuracy of our observation on the character and affairs of men.’† Eusebius mentions the whole consent of the ancients, considering the Book of Proverbs to be ‘Wisdom fraught with every kind of virtue.’† Bishop Hall drew out mainly from it a complete system of ‘Divine Arts.’† And though the Apostate Julian scornfully preferred to it the sayings of Heathen Philosophy;† yet the apostrophe of the son of Sirach was justly applied to its author — ‘How wise wast thou in thy youth, and as a flood filled with understanding! Thy soul covered the whole earth, and thou fillest it with dark parables.’†
As to its ‘canonical authority’ — Michaelis well observes, ‘that no Book of the Old Testament is so well ratified by the evidence of quotations.’† A few of the Jewish Talmudists appear to have expressed some doubt of its Divine stamp, but upon grounds so futile, that they were abandoned upon a more mature consideration.† Ecclesiastical History has recorded only one dissentient from the judgment of the universal Church; and that one condemned by her authoritative council.† Witsius has admirably refuted the neological cavils of his day.† Nothing has been said from any quarter to weaken the unhesitating decision of our judgment, that the pen is that of the King of Israel; but the words are the wisdom of God.
Some difference exists among expositors as to the exact divisions of the Book. We have been led to divide it into three parts. In giving a more succinct account of these several parts, we shall avail ourselves largely, though necessarily in an abridged form, of the observations of a Biblical scholar, not more remarkable for his profound learning, than for his elegant taste.†
The first Part — all agree — extends from the opening of the Work to the close of the ninth chapter. It is — as Dr. Good observes — ‘chiefly confined to the conduct of early life.’ All the most formidable dangers to which this season is exposed, and “the sins which most easily beset it,” are painted with the hand of a master. And while the progress and issues of vice are exhibited under a variety of the most striking delineations and metaphors, in their utmost deformity and horror; all the beauties of language, and all the force of eloquence are poured forth in the diversified form of earnest expostulation, insinuating tenderness, captivating argument, and sublime allegory, to win the ingenuous youth to virtue and piety, and to fix him in a steady pursuit of his duties towards God and man. Virtue is pronounced in the very outset to be essential wisdom, and vice or wickedness essential folly. The only wise man therefore is declared to be the truly good and virtuous, or he that fears God, and reverences his law; while the man of vice and wickedness is a fool, a stubborn or perverse wretch, and an abomination to Jehovah.
Wisdom is hence allegorized as a tree of life, yielding delicious shade, fruit, and protection to those that approach her branches; throwing a garland of honor around their shoulders, and decorating their heads with a graceful chaplet, more precious than rubies. She is a sage and eloquent monitor, lifting up her warning voice at the gates in the squares of the city; denouncing to the young the snares and dangers, to which they are exposed; and exhorting them to abandon “the way of the wicked, which is as darkness,” for the path of the just, which is
——— ‘As the brightening dawn,
Advancing and brightening to perfect day.’†
The Second Part commences at the opening of the tenth chapter, as is obvious from the introductory clause. The style and manner of the second part are as different as possible from those of the first. It is evidently designed for the use of persons advanced from the state of youth to that of manhood. While in the preceding, addressed to the young, the richest ornaments of the fancy are made choice of to captivate their attention, and allure them to a right practice; in the present all is business and activity, brevity, continuity, and terseness. Every thought, though as highly polished, is at the same time as compressed as possible; and the Writer, thoroughly aware of the value of every moment of time at this important period, lays down a complete series of short rules of life, and concentrates the most momentous precepts into the narrowest compass. The former appeals to the imagination; the latter to the judgment. The one exhibits all the genius of poetry; the latter all the art of composition; and hence the general matter is rendered as attractive in the one instance as in the other.
‘The great object in each of the Proverbs of the present part, is to enforce a moral principle in words so few, that they may be easily learnt, and so curiously selected and arranged, that they may strike and fix the attention instantaneously; while, to prevent the mind from becoming fatigued by a long series of detached sentences, they are perpetually diversified by the changes of style and figure. Sometimes the style is rendered striking by its peculiar simplicity, or the familiarity of its illustration;† sometimes by the grandeur or loftiness of the simile employed on the occasion;† sometimes by an enigmatical obscurity,† which rouses the curiosity; very frequently by a strong and catching antithesis;† occasionally by a playful iteration of the same word;† and in numerous instances by the elegant pleonasms or the expansion of a single or common idea by a luxuriance of agreeable words.’†
The Third Part we conceive to comprise the last seven chapters. The first five were written by Solomon, and edited some centuries after by the royal scribes in the reign of Hezekiah. The two last were written by separate hands, but preserved by Divine care, and altogether worthy of the place they hold in the inspired Cannon.
The time when this book was written is a matter of some uncertainty. We cannot doubt but its contents were a part of “the three thousand Proverbs,” which “he spake” before his most lamentable fall. (1 Kings 4:32.) They were therefore the exercise of his vast and comprehensive mind, under the full influence of his Divine wisdom. (Ib. verse 29.) They might, however, as many judicious critics have thought, have been “set in order” (Ecclesiastes 12:9) in their present form at a period subsequent to that afflictive event. Both parts of this hypothesis read a most solemn practical lesson. Do we see “outlandish women causing him to sin” (Nehemiah 13:26) — this “beloved of his God” falling himself into the snare, which he so minutely described, and against which he so earnestly and repeatedly warned?† Christian Ministers! does not Solomon, no less than St. Paul,† awfully teach us, that preaching to others will not save our own souls? The supposition of the posterior arrangement gives additional weight to his faithful admonitions. They come to us, like the exhortations of the restored apostle,† with all the force of painful experience, in the true spirit of his Master’s command — “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”†
The interpretation of this Book requires much care and sobriety. Believing the principles of the Old and New Testament to be essentially the same, it seems reasonable to expound the more obscure by the more clear. The primary duty is indeed to affix to each Proverb its own literal and precise meaning. This is undoubtedly its spiritual meaning — that is — the mind of the Spirit. In an extended application of this discovered meaning, or in deducing inferences from it, judgment, not imagination, must be the interpreter. When no other than a literal meaning is plainly intended, the object must be, not to search out a new and miscalled spiritual meaning, but to draw practical instruction from its obvious sense.
There is, however — we may remark — a line to be drawn between exposition and illustration. The figures used in this Book, after their literal meaning has been wrought out, may fairly be used as illustrative of other collateral truths, not specifically intended. The Sacred Writers appear to warrant this principle of accommodation,† though its use requires great delicacy and consideration; lest it should divest Scripture of its determinate meaning, and identify us with those artists, whom Dr. South memorializes, ‘who can draw anything out of anything.’†
But with all care to preserve a soundly-disciplined interpretation, we must not forget, that the Book of Proverbs is a part of the volume entitled — “The word of Christ.” (Colossians 3:16.) And so accurately does the title describe the Book, that the study of it brings the whole substance of the volume before us. It furnishes indeed the stimulating motive to search the Old Testament Scripture (John 5:39) — the true key that opens the Divine Treasure-house; so that, as Mr. Cecil observes — ‘If we do not see the golden thread through all the Bible, marking out Christ, we read the Scripture without the Key.’† This remark however does not undervalue its large mass of historical and practical instruction. But unquestionably Christ is the Sun of the whole Scripture system; “and in his light we see the light” (Psalm 36:9), that reflects upon every point of practical obligation, and quickens life and energy throughout the whole Christian path. There is therefore, as Professor Franke reminds us — ‘much joy, comfort, and delight to be found in the writings of the Old Testament (especially in reading those places, which before were wearisome and almost irksome) when we perceive Christ is so sweetly pictured there.’†
It has been recorded of Mary Jane Graham, ‘that she was delighted in the course of her study of the Book of Proverbs to have Christ so much and so frequently before her mind’† — a recollection — her biographer ventured to observe — of ‘great moment for the spiritual discernment of the divine wisdom treasured up in this storehouse of practical instruction.’† Indeed, considering that these “Proverbs set in order — these words of the wise” — were originally “given from one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:9-11), whom we cannot surely fail to identify, we might naturally expect them to record distinct testimony of himself.
We cannot but fear, however, that this portion of the sacred volume is not generally estimated at its just value. Doubtless its pervading character is not, either explicit statement of doctrinal truth, or lively exercises of Christian experience. Hence the superficial reader passes over to some (in his view) richer portion of the Scriptural field. Now we readily admit, that all parts of the Bible are not of equal importance. But to value one part to the disparagement of another, is a slight to the divine testimony, that will be visited with a severe rebuke. Such a reader will only be possessed of mutilated fragments of truth, severed from their vital influence. He will never rise beyond a sickly sentimentalism. Seeking for novelty and excitement, rather than for the food of solid instruction; like Pharaoh’s kine,† he devours much, but digests nothing. Never will he have light enough for the firm settlement of his faith; neither can he receive the true molding of the mind of the Spirit, or the impress of the divine image.
But the question has been often asked — and that — not in caviling, but in an anxiously inquiring, spirit — ‘How can I read this Book profitably?’ Not infrequently the confession has been added — ‘My mind and soul do not get food from it. I think I am less interested in this, than in any other, part of Scripture. I acknowledge the wisdom of its sayings. I am fully persuaded, that, being the Word of God, it was not written in vain. The fault therefore must be in myself. Still the question returns — How am I to read it with profit?’
Now it might almost appear, as if the rules given at the opening of the Book were intended to answer this question. (Chapter 2:1-4.) Certain it is, that they do furnish the most satisfactory reply. The first and chief direction — that which gives life to every other — that which applies to every page and every verse of the Bible is — Begin with prayer — “Cry — lift up thy voice.” Then combine a pondering mind with a praying heart. Actively apply thyself to “seek and search for the hid treasures.” The riches lie not on the surface. Only those therefore, that dig into the bowels of the earth — not the readers, but “the searchers of the Scriptures” — are enriched. (John 5:39.) If the surface be barren, the mine beneath is inexhaustible. Indeed it is a wise discipline, that has made an active spirit of meditation necessary to give solid and fruitful interest to this study, and to possess ourselves of a blessing, which carelessness or indolence will never realize. The promise here held out to diligent investigation fixed that intelligent Christian just mentioned ‘on one occasion in intense meditation for two hours. She appeared to be lost in astonishment and gratitude at the condescension and kindness of God in giving a promise, so free, so encouraging. She grasped it, as if determined not to let it go.’†
The habit of interested attention being fixed, how shall we best “apply the heart to the understanding” of the Book? Here the valuable exercise of Scripture reference will greatly expand our own thoughtful meditation. Gather contributions from all parts of the field. Many a doubtful or apparently uninteresting Proverb will thus be brightened in instructive application. We are persuaded, that an enlarged Scriptural study, with whatever collateral helps may be within our reach, will bring no regret in having rested awhile in this part of the field, instead of passing onwards to a more inviting surface. To advert once more to our Scriptural student — ‘She frequently employed herself in the profitable exercise of “comparing spiritual things with spiritual;” Scripture with itself; thus making God His own interpreter. Much light and heavenly unction she conceived herself to have gained by this means.’† The fruitfulness of this exercise will be, when we “find God’s words” as our treasure; “eat them” as our invigorating food; and “they” thus become “the joy and rejoicing of our hearts.” (Jeremiah 15:16.) ‘Set your affection’ — saith the apocryphal writer — ‘upon my words. Desire them, and ye shall be instructed. Wisdom is glorious, and never fadeth away; yea, she is easily seen of those that love her, and found of such as seek her. She preventeth those that desire her, in making herself first known unto them. Whoso seeketh her early shall have no great travail; for he shall find her sitting at his doors. Whoso watcheth for her† shall quickly be without care. For she goeth about seeking such as are worthy of her, sheweth herself favorably unto them in the ways, and meeteth them, however, in every thought.’†
An accurate apprehension of the main end and scope of this Book will greatly facilitate the understanding of it. Different portions of Scripture may be seen to have different ends, all however subordinate to the one end — primary and supreme. Without entering into detail foreign to our purpose, suffice it to remark, that the end of this Book appears to be, to set out a system of practical instruction, generally applicable. Nor let his be thought a low gradation in the Christian scheme. Unpalatable as it may be to the mere professor of godliness,† the true man of God will honour practical inculcation in its place, no less than doctrinal statement. “The truth as it is in Jesus” — that which flows from him, leads to him, and centers in him — that in which “we are to be learned, and to be taught by him” — is practical truth. (Ephesians 4:20-24.) While other parts of Scripture shew us the glory of our high calling; this may instruct in all minuteness of detail how to “walk worthy of it.” Elsewhere we learn our completeness in Christ (Colossians 2:10): and most justly we glory in our high exaltation as “joint-heirs with Christ, made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:17. Ephesians 2:6.) We look into this Book, and, as by the aid of the microscope, we see the minuteness of our Christian obligations; that there is not a temper, a look, a word, a movement, the most important action of the day, the smallest relative duty, in which we do not either deface or adorn the image of our Lord, and the profession of his name. Surely if the book conduced to no other end, it tends to humble even the most consistent servant of God, in the consciousness of countless failures. Not only therefore is the last chapter — as Matthew Henry would have it — ‘a looking-glass for ladies,’ but the whole Book is a mirror for us all.
Nor is it only a mirror to shew our defects. It is also a guide-book and directory for godly conduct. The details of the external life, in all the diversified spheres, are given or implied with perfect accuracy, and with a profound knowledge of the workings of the human heart. ‘Beside a code of laws directly religious, a variety of admirable rules stream forth from the deep recesses of wisdom, and spread over the whole field.’† All ranks and classes have their word in season. The sovereign on the throne is instructed as from God.† The principles of national prosperity or decay are laid open.† The rich are warned of their besetting temptations.† The poor are cheered in their worldly humiliation.† Wise rules are given for self-government.† ‘It bridles the injurious tongue,† corrects the wanton eye,† and ties the unjust hand in chains.† It prevents sloth,† chastises all absurd desires;† teaches prudence;† raises man’s courage;† and represents temperance and chastity after such a fashion, that we cannot but have them in veneration.’† To come to important matters so often mismanaged — the blessing or curse of the marriage ordinance is vividly portrayed.† Sound principles of family order and discipline are inculcated.† Domestic economy is displayed in its adorning consistency.† Nay — even the minute courtesies of daily life are regulated.† Self-denying consideration of others,† and liberal distribution† are enforced. All this diversified instruction is based upon the principles of true godliness.† Thus if the Psalms bring the glow upon the heart, the Proverbs “make the face to shine.” Indeed the Writer may mention as one motive that led him to this work; that, having in a former Exposition† shewn at large Christian experience to be built upon the doctrines of the gospel, he wished to exhibit Christian practice as resting upon the same foundation. That is not sound faith, that does not issue in practical godliness. Nor is there any true morality, apart from “the principles of Christ.” This Book, if it be not, as the New Testament, — the Rule of Faith, may surely be considered as a valuable Rule of conduct. And — as Mr. Scott observes — ‘it would be very useful for those, who can command their time, at some stated season every day, to read and deliberately consider a few of these maxims, with reference to their own conduct, in the various affairs in which they are concerned.’† Doubtless if the world were governed by the whole wisdom of this single Book, it would be “a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
One other weighty consideration the Writer would advert to, as having directed his attention to this Book — its distinctive character, as a Book for the Young. The wise man’s father propounded a most anxious question — “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?” His son in this Book has fully opened the answer — “By taking heed thereto according to thy word.” (Psalm 119:9.) Nay he expressly states the Book to be written for the heeding of youth.† It takes them as it were by the hand, sets up way-marks to warn against coming danger and imminent temptations,† and allures them into the bright ways of God by the most engaging motives.† And never surely was the object so momentous, as at the present day. Our young are growing up at a period, when “the foundations of the earth are out of course;” and when subtle and restless efforts are making to poison their hearts, and pervert their ways. Nothing therefore can be more important, than to fortify them with sound principles; that, when withdrawn from the parental wing into a world or a Church (alas! that we should be constrained to use the term!) of temptation, they may be manifestly under a Divine cover, as the children of a special Providence. What this invaluable Book impresses upon their minds is, the importance of deep-seated principles in the heart; the responsibility of conduct in every step of life; the danger of trifling deviations for expediency’s sake; the value of self-discipline; the habit of bringing everything to the Word of God; the duty of weighing in just balances a worldly and a heavenly portion, and thus deciding the momentous choice of an everlasting good before the toys of earth. These lessons, thoroughly inwrought, will prove the best security against all attempts to loosen the hold of principle , and to entice upon enchanted ground. This practical godliness — so far from wearing a forbidding look, or being associated with gloom or sadness — casts a smile over a world of sorrow, is a sunbeam of comfort in suffering, and ever a principle of peace and steadfastness. “Great peace have they which love thy law; and nothing shall offend them.” (Psalm 119:165.)
As to the matter of the exposition, the Writer cannot indeed say, with a Romish commentator,† ‘that he has gone through all the circle of Biblical exposition, versions of the Scripture, Patristic reading, and classic literature bearing upon the Scripture.’ He trusts, however, that it will be seen by the mass of references throughout the work, that he has taken due care to mature his own judgment, and to enlarge his scanty resources, by availing himself of the assistance of those expositors, who appear to have been most conversant with the original language, and to have given the most careful and sober interpretation. By a wider range, he would have probably rather perplexed than informed his readers.
He would not only add, in conclusion, in the words of one of the most valuable expositors† — that ‘if there should be anything here to please the reader, ascribe not the writing to the pen, but to the writer; not the light to the lamp, but to the fountain; not the picture to the pencil, but to the painter; not the gift to the unfaithful dispenser, but to God the bountiful Giver.’
Old Newton Vicarage
Oct. 7, 1846.