Miscellany


This, the 19th, is our penultimate sermon on Proverbs, the last but one. And it is unusual in that it does not have a single subject. I used to say about my pastor in Aberdeen, Scotland, William Still, that he could have been a preacher of much greater influence, more like his contemporary Martyn Lloyd-Jones, if he had only followed the rules. But he was a unique individual and preached in his own very distinctive way. And one feature of that way was that, when preaching through books of the Bible, as he almost invariably did, he would take a chapter or more at a time. (My first Sunday evening at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, he went through thirteen chapters of Jeremiah and the service lasted two and one-half hours. You people are wimps compared to me in my twenties.) But if there were two or three pericopes in, say, a particular chapter of the Gospel of Luke, three quite separate narratives having to do with different subjects, he would preach them all in a single Sunday morning sermon. In effect, we got three sermons, because he would carefully respect the burden of each paragraph. Sometimes he would end the first section of the text and of his sermon with a mighty peroration and we would be terrifically moved; but then immediately he would launch into the next part of the text and a completely new subject and before long the effect of the first had been lost. This approach was all the more significant because each part of the sermon was as long as most sermons you would be typically accustomed to hearing nowadays. I learned from him not to preach in the same way he did though I very much wish I had some of the wonderful gifts he had as a preacher and expositor of the Word of God.

But tonight I’m going to do something akin to what he did over and over again. I’m going to take a few subjects that have very little to do with one another and cobble together a sermon out of them all. I have chosen to do that simply because there were a few subjects that I didn’t want to fail to address in our examination of Proverbs, but these were not themes often enough addressed in Proverbs to warrant a full sermon. Indeed, as you will see, in some cases there is but one brief proverb devoted to the subject in the entire book. So, what we are doing tonight is cleaning up some loose ends. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that with these few subjects we have covered all the subjects treated in this wonderful book. Hardly. There are, for example, a number of verses devoted to the good and bad uses of wine, wine as a blessing and wine as a curse. I could have preached a sermon on those, or on those proverbs dealing with the king or government, or on those that teach business ethics, and so on. Literally, this series could have expanded far beyond its present size. But we’ll stop with tonight’s miscellany and next Sunday evening’s subject: “Jesus Christ in the Book of Proverbs.”
The first subject I want to consider with you this evening has a single proverb devoted to it in the book: 12:10.
“Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.”
One of the great virtues of the Bible is its size! It is a book so large that along the way it can cover virtually every dimension of human life and experience. Or, as Charles Bridges puts it in his much loved 19th century commentary on Proverbs:
“The minuteness of Scripture is one of its most valuable properties. It shows the mind of God on many points apparently trivial. Here it tests our profession by our treatment of the brutes. They were given to man, as the Lord of creation, for his use, comfort, and food…but not for his wantonness.” [136]
The kind treatment of animals is assuredly not a major subject of biblical ethics, but it is found in the Bible in several places. And, frankly, I love the fact, I hope you do as well, that the Bible gives us, however briefly, a theology of animals and an ethic of their proper treatment.
The gist of the proverb 12:10 is to describe the “opposite sensibilities of the righteous and the wicked.” [Longman, 273] Truly righteous people have the sort of sympathy, have the kind of sympathetic hearts that make them unable not to care for and have regard for their animals. On the other hand even the kinder acts of the wicked often turn out to be cruel in their effects. That is, even their best-intended actions often have harmful effects. We are surely aware of how this can be, of course, all the more in modern America, in which one social policy after another, intended to “help” people has instead benighted their lives. With our efforts to do good to poorer communities we managaed to destroy the inner city home and family which has had an effect on people so terrible that no amount of government provided financial assistance can make up for it.
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his insight honed by the Holocaust, says that the bad deeds of a good person are better than the good deeds of the wicked.” [cited in Waltke, i, 527]
To be sure, the argument of the proverb is probably a fortiori, and so is not only about the treatment of animals or perhaps not even chiefly about their treatment. If one is kind to animals, how much more will he be kind and have regard to his fellow human beings, even his servants or slaves. That may be the thought. But nevertheless it rests on the assumption that you can count on the righteous to be caring of their animals. And it is an assumption that is found throughout the Bible.
The Lord made these animals and made them with the wonderful characteristics that make them so useful to human beings in one sense and that endear them to us in another. In that beautiful passage in Job 39 we learn that the Lord takes delight in the unique abilities that he has given to the animals he created. Indeed, sometimes in passages of the Word of God men and animals are listed together as the objects of God’s care and provision.
“Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O Lord.” [Ps. 36:5-6]
In Psalm 104, which is a poetic reflex on the account of the creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we read:  an account of God as the creator of heaven and earth, we read:
“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock…” [Ps. 104:14]
“The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Levanon that he planted. In them the birds built their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.” [104:16-18]
You remember the very last words of the little book of Jonah. In rebuking his prophet, the Lord reminded him that he had every right to be merciful to the Ninevites because there were so many people in that great city. The Lord, after all, as we read repeatedly in the Bible, does not desire the death of the wicked and takes no pleasure in their judgment. But he went on to say of Nineveh that there was in the city as well, “much cattle.” Who has seen pictures of battlefields strewn with the carcasses of dead animals and not felt a pang for those innocent beasts who were caught up in the savagery of human life? The Lord doesn’t like to see animals killed either. The Lord spreads his loving wings over his whole creation and, made in his image as we are, we ought to as well.
In other words, as Charles Bridges described the mistreatment of animals common in his day:
“The brutal habits, therefore, the coarse words, inhuman blows…, and hard tyranny on the public roads, are disgraceful to our nature.” [136-137]
Remember our Savior’s remark, to be sure apropos a different point, that our Father oversees the death of every sparrow. Little and seemingly inconsequential as those birds may be, they are not beyond the loving care of our heavenly Father. That fact, he said, should assure us that we, all the more, are the objects of our heavenly Father’s care. [Matt. 10:29]
Or think, for example, of the fact that in the fourth commandment, in the midst of the Bible’s greatest summary of true human goodness, we find the assertion that the Sabbath is for working animals as it is for working human beings.
“On [the Sabbath] you shall not do any work, you or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.”
That is how it reads in Exodus 20. In Deuteronomy 5 it is more explicit: “On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock…”
And similarly consider the commandment we find in Deut. 25:4: “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain.” This is a more striking commandment than you might at first suppose. The Lord considers it not only the farmer’s obligation to feed his stock adequately, but that while the ox is trampling the grain and so threshing it or pulling a threshing sledge – that is, to separate the grain from the husk – it should be given some share of the produce he is creating by its work. This commandment is not so far removed from the Lord’s commandment that allowed the poor to consume what they needed from the crops of the landowners. The point is that “the animal should not be grudged sustenance when it was working on behalf of man.” [Craigie, Deuteronomy, 313] As one commentator has remarked on Deut. 25:4: “The wholeness of the covenant society extends even to its livestock.” A related provision in the law – requiring the land to lie fallow every seventh year – extends the obligation to wild animals. [McConville, Deuteronomy, 368-369]
“…you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” [Ex. 23:11]
Again and again and again in the law of God the Lord orders our lives to insure that animals will be treated well. There is a consistent witness borne in the law of God to the Lord’s interest in the welfare of animals and, therefore, to our obligation to be interested in their welfare as well. The rabbis actually deduced from this material the regulation that man must first feed his animals before feeding himself. [Waltke, i, 527n]
Take, for instance, the interesting case of animals in India. Marc Mailloux, in the wonderful memoir of his conversion, Discovery on the Katmandu Trail, observes that while animals are considered holy in India and so are not killed – even the rats who eat far too much precious food – “[the animals] are treated worse than any place that I’d ever seen. In my whole time in the country, I never saw a dog that wasn’t completely mangy, eaten alive by flies and worms.” He observes that it wasn’t that because they were holy the animals were elevated to the ranks of people as you might expect; but that the people, especially the lower castes, were lowered to the level of animals. [88]
But in the Bible we are treated to an account of an animal – a ewe lamb in this case – who was loved as a member of the family and often slept in the father’s arms. So much was this kind of relationship understood and appreciated in Israel that when Nathan finished his story about that pet sheep being taken and killed and eaten by a stranger, King David was ready to string the offender up! [2 Sam. 12:1-6]
I do not mean to suggest by all of this that the Bible teaches that animals have “rights” in the sense imagined in the animal rights movement. I’m not sure an intelligent case can be made for any “rights” that are not accompanied by duties; the one is invariably the mirror of the other. A man can only have a right to life if he has a duty to life, to the sustaining and nourishing of his own life and that of others. I think the animal rights movement is morally incoherent and perhaps that is why it has so quickly turned to violence against human beings in many cases. I do not see how animals can have rights if they have no consciousness of duties. But if animals do not have “rights,” human beings have duties toward animals. That the Bible makes very clear.
We are to respect animals as God’s creatures, we have a duty to care for them, to the extent that they are at all sentient, we are to be kind to them and treat them with the dignity they have as God’s creatures for whom he himself has a real concern. We are probably all outraged at cruelty to dogs and cats and horses. Thomas Jefferson had a reputation for being merciless with his horse, whipping it for the slightest failure to please its master. And, of course, we were rightly repelled by Michael Vick and his enjoyment of dog-fighting and dog-killing. But it is not a question without biblical weight behind it, in my opinion, to wonder about the ethics of veal production in which a calf is never allowed to gambol, or, for that matter, virtually to move, which its creator obviously made it to do. You think about it and then ask yourself whether you should have that breaded veal cutlet the next time you see it on the menu.
There are implications, many implications of the fact that whatever we do, whether in word or in deed, we are to do to the glory of God. And one of those implications is that we have an obligation to treat with some reverence the creatures that our heavenly Father made and for which he cares. And if we have such an obligation, all the more if it is treated in Proverbs, as it is at least once, we are likewise obliged to teach the same to our children. The burden of this proverb in 12:10 is precisely that the treatment of animals is preparation for the treatment of other people. Let me just say, young ladies, if you meet a young man who is in many ways attractive to you, but he is cruel to his dog, run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.
The second theme to which I want to direct your attention in this miscellany this evening is found in three proverbs: 15:13 and 15 and 17:22.
“A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.”
“All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.”
“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
Now sometimes these statements have been taken to mean that we should all cultivate a sense of humor. And there is certainly truth to the observation that a readiness to laugh is a tonic in life. But in Proverbs very clearly such a proverb is recommending that we live in a way that cultivates and nourishes joy! We were made to be happy; we were saved to be happy. It is a Christian’s duty to be as happy as he or she can be for the right reasons.
For example, the proverb immediately before 17:22 reads:
“He who sires a fool gets himself sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy.” [17:21]
There is no happiness in being an irresponsible parent. It sucks the joy out of life because of the consequences bad parenting produces in our children whom we love and for whom we have great hopes. A parent can’t be happy if his children are doing badly. But the language used in 15:15 is used elsewhere in the Bible of the joy that is produced by celebrations and feasts, food and wine, and company such as might be enjoyed at a wedding, a birthday celebration, the signing of a treaty or the end of a war, or the arrival of special guests, all of which celebrations are specifically mentioned in the Bible as occasions of good cheer. [Waltke, i, 626]
What is being said is simply that Christians ought to be and need to be happy people. Life has a great deal of pain in this world of sin and death. There are innumerable reasons for sorrow. You can’t escape sorrow. But there is much for God’s children to rejoice in as well and if we must sorrow, we must as well be happy. “Sorrowful,” yes, says Paul in describing the authentic Christian, “but always rejoicing.” If unmixed joy is not for this earth, unmixed sorrow isn’t either, at least not for a Christian! Indeed, as G.K. Chesterton observed:  “For the Christian joy is the central thing in life, sorrow is peripheral.” He meant that for the Christian the great questions of life have been answered and answered happily. For the Christian it is only a matter of time until there is nothing but joy and that fact must make a difference in the present.
Now there is no doubt that some find a cheerful heart easier to come by than others. But, as I heard Dr. Packer once say, that is “bone-structure” not godliness or wisdom. If you are inclined to the sad or morose or phlegmatic side of life, then hear the Word of God here and realize that you have an obligation to nourish cheerfulness. You need it, as you need medicine when you are sick, and your loved ones need your cheerfulness as well and so does the rest of the Body of Christ. What is more, gloomy Christians are no recommendation of the gospel! It was right of Charles Simeon, a superb pastor of the people of God, to introduce himself on pastoral visits by announcing as he walked in the home or apartment: “I am come to inquire after your welfare. Are you happy?” Christians ought to be happy.
Now this is the kind of fact of life that Christians should think about more deeply, all the more in our day dominated as it is by the theory of evolution. How much longer that theory will continue to maintain its grip on the academy and the elite culture no one can say – signs of its weariness and tottering old age are appearing more regularly nowadays – but so long as it does, Christians should be thinking and talking about things like the remarkable power that human beings have to be happy and to make others happy. Where did that come from? It has nothing to do with survival of the fittest. It concerns a realm of life wholly of the spirit. Pittsburg Steelers’ quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, could win Super Bowls though he was profoundly depressed virtually every day of his life in those days. People with little good cheer live long lives as regularly as do the cheerful.
The ability, capacity to laugh, the pleasure we get in humor, in good tidings, if you stop to think about it, is utterly remarkable and obviously a sign of our being creatures, people whom God has made! There is somethig about the image of God that fits us for laughter and for joy! There is nothing like this in the animal kingdom. It’s a huge leap from no happiness to happiness. From no laughter to laughter. The Lord Jesus had a sense of humor and capacity for great happiness. We we can tell that not only from some of his illustrations, but from the fact that he should say such a thing as:
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” [Luke 6:21]
If laughter is part of the perfect human life – and the Lord is describing the perfection of life in those beatitudes – and the Lord Jesus lived a perfect human life, then he was a man who laughed. The Man of Sorrows knew how to smile, and to laugh, and to rejoice in the good things of life. They accused him of being glutton and a drunk which at least means that he was a man who knew how to enjoy a good meal. Twice in the Gospels we read of the Lord rejoicing (Luke10:21; John 17:13), but no doubt there were many more occasions with his friends in which he was happy and gave expression to his happiness.
What is even more remarkable, in some ways, is that we have the power to cultivate joy. It’s not something you either have or you don’t have. You can get more of it if you go looking for it. Eric Metaxas, when he was here and in his speech recently at the National Prayer Breakfast, made people laugh. He lightened their hearts. I have personal knowledge of this power and capacity because years ago Florence didn’t think my jokes were funny – obviously she had no sense of humor – but she has grown so much through the years! Good humor is a thing we can learn.
And not simply good humor in the sense of laughing at a joke. We all know what pleasure we get from good company, from a good meal – what the proverbs here call a feast –, from beautiful things such as natural beauty, magnificent art and music, an uplifting film, and from good news. Our hearts are lifted and we feel so much more ready to face the world. Joy is a serious thing, an important aspect to human life, God has made it that way; it is a driver of human endeavor. It is not enough for us to have sufficient calories to sustain our bodily life. We need to be happy. God made us that way because he is happy. He is also sad, but there is in him a deep, constant, imperishable happiness and it has overspread his own life and flooded our world.
What these proverbs teach us, then, is that if we are to be wise, if we are to live skillfully, if we are to navigate our environment in a truly successful way, a godly way, a fruitful way, we need to be happy and to make those around us happy. If we find that more difficult than others as many of us do, then we still need to be happy, need to work at it, need to think about it and consider what ought to be done. We are not in heaven. We cannot succeed at this all the time, but we need to be happy as much as we can, our children need to grow up in happy homes, they need to laugh, they need to learn to enjoy life for all the wonderful things their Heavenly Father has placed in it for them: from good friends and warm fellowship, to fascinating and wonderful experiences, to the taste of good food and drink, to laughter around the family table and everywhere else their family is together. Fathers and mothers, your marching orders. If you children are not happy, if you have not filled their lives with fun and cheer, you have important work to do. They need to know that the Christian life is where true happiness is to be found because every human being craves happiness: the world’s kind of happiness and the explicitly Christian kind that makes the first kind better by far! We have so much more reason to be happy than anyone else. But if that is so, then we have a duty to be as happy as we can be. It is simple gratitude not to waste God’s good gifts.
And the promise of these proverbs is that your children will be blessed in every way to have learned the practice of joy; to have learned how it is to be cultivated and to be enjoyed. In a sick world, that good cheer will inoculate them from the harm that so much sorrow can otherwise cause in a human heart and a human life.
The third and last subject in this miscellany is furnished in Proverbs 19:11.
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
I’m particularly interested in the second phrase, as we devoted an entire sermon to Proverbs’ teaching about anger some weeks ago. “…and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” There is a summons for your life and mine!
I suppose almost all of us and all of us sooner or later from time to time learn something to the discredit of someone else. We observe them doing something or we are told that they have done something. We now have some dirt on another person. And the terrible temptation facing us at that moment is to spread that news, to gossip in other words. What do they say? “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” It is such a fact of life. So much harm is done because we find such delicious pleasure in telling what we know to the discredit of others. It is worth asking ourselves why we do this? Why we have such a compulsion to do this! You’ve heard something about somebody else. You can hardly wait to tell it to somebody else. It is our pride, of course. We seem to elevate ourselves by lowering others and dishing dirt is a time-honored way of lowering others. We look better in comparison. There is also the attention we attract from others to whom we divulge these secrets because, alas, people are always interested in dirt.
But here is the proverb telling us that it is the glory of a man or woman to overlook an offense, which is to say, to have something to say to the discredit of another and to keep it entirely to oneself, to do nothing with the information we have except perhaps to be kind toward him or her in our thoughts to and pray for the individual.
Here is something for all of us at least once or twice in our lives to stop and consider. Keeping someone else’s secrets, especially those secrets that would reflect poorly on them, is a triumph of human conduct and a mark of unusual godliness. Indeed, when you are given to know something significant to another’s discredit and you carry that knowledge with you to the grave, no one else ever hearing it from you, the Bible says you are covered in glory. Almost no one keeps juicy secrets, which is why newspaper reporters and bloggers have so much to write about every day. But it ought to be a truism that Christians do. You may remember Mark Twain’s wonderful simile, it’s my favorite Twain simile: “The man was as confident as a Presbyterian with four aces.” Well, let’s invent one of our own: “That person is as tight-lipped as a Christian with someone else’s secret!”
Next Saturday is St. Patrick’s Day. If you remember the story of his life, you will remember that when he had been bishop of Ireland for some time he ran afoul of the bishops of Britain who were the very men who commissioned him to his work in Ireland, a country that before Patrick was only a missionary field and a particularly hard and dangerous one at that. Indeed, if you remember, as a teenager Patrick had been captured by Irish raiders, sold into servitude, and spent some years doing hard labor as a slave in Ireland. The trouble began when an English warlord by the name of Coroticus, undoubtedly a Christian in name himself, raided Ireland and attacked a group of Patrick’s converts who were returning home after Easter celebrations in which they had been baptized with their wives and children. Many of them were still wearing the white robes in which they had been baptized. The men the raiders didn’t kill and their wives and children were taken back to Britain to be sold as slaves. Enraged, Patrick sent to Britain many copies of a letter to Coroticus and his subjects, excommunicating the general, threatening damnation to his soldiers, exhorting the the British church to have nothing to do with these men, and ordering the captives released and sent home with their property. This letter, however, angered the British bishops because they saw it as an interference in their affairs. If anyone was to discipline Coroticus, it should be they; though Patrick understood rightly that they would do nothing of the kind. For Patrick the gospel itself and the future of the fledgling Irish church was at stake and there was no time to lose.
The British church replied with formal accusations against Patrick and a summons for him to return to Britain, which summons he wisely refused. But, in the spirit of thinly disguised revenge, the charges the British bishops listed against him began with a sin he had committed many years before, when a teenager – we don’t know what the sin was – and which he had confessed to a friend before he was ordained to the Christian ministry. The confession of his sin at that time, when he was still a younger man, was no doubt to clear his conscience before he should take up the office of minister. Patrick’s friend had kept the secret for years, but now, for some reason – we don’t know what it was (he was known as Patrick’s friend, perhaps he had been pressured by the bishops; perhaps he was jealous of Patrick’s growing international reputation)  – he chose to disclose Patrick’s ancient sin to others. That sin became the pretext for a long list of accusations, all of which others were untrue. His reply to those accusations is today known as his Confession, one of two great works from St. Patrick’s hand that are in existence today.
Still, how sad that a man who had kept a secret for a long time couldn’t keep it when it mattered most. How sad and how typical. No, brothers and sisters, when God’s providence entrusts you with someoone else’s secret, as it will, give thanks to God that you have been given the opportunity to overlook a fault and to get glory for yourself and give glory to God, the keeper of your secrets, by never telling it to anyone, ever! More Christians should relish the opportunity to do this and it should be our reputation together that we are a community in which the worst secrets of other brothers and sisters are safe and sound.
A miscellany of interesting pieces of wisdom from the great book of Proverbs. What is true wisdom? What is the skillful living that Proverbs is training us in? Well, among many other things, and among many still greater things, it is kindness to animals, it is the cultivation of a happy heart, and it is a tight-lipped concern for the secrets of others.