PROVERBS 16:32.—“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”
THE book of Proverbs is the best of all manuals for the formation of a well-balanced mind. The object of Solomon in composing it seems to have been to furnish to the church a summary of rules and maxims by which the Christian character, having been originated by regeneration, should then be educated and made symmetrical. We do not, therefore, go to this portion of Scripture so much for full and definite statements of the distinguishing doctrines of revealed religion, as for those wise and prudential canons whereby we may reform extravagance, prune down luxuriance, and combine the whole variety of traits and qualities into a harmonious and beautiful unity.
We do not find in this part of the Bible careful and minute specifications of the doctrine of the trinity, of the apostasy of mankind, of the incarnation of the Son of God, of vicarious atonement, regeneration and justification. They are hinted at, it is true—as when the Eternal Wisdom is spoken of as being with the Lord “in the beginning of his way, before his works of old; as one brought up with him, daily his delight, and rejoicing always before him.” (Prov. 8:22, 30.) Here we have the same doctrine, germinally, with that of the Apostle John, when he affirms that the Eternal Word, or Reason, “in the beginning was with God, and was God.” And what are such assertions, as that “there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not” (Eccl. 7:20), and such questions as, “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin”? (Prov. 20:9), but an indirect statement of the doctrine of human depravity?
Still it is not the main purpose of Solomon, in those two books of the inspired canon which go under the name of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, to particularly enunciate the evangelical system; but rather to set forth those principles of ethics, and religious prudence, which must always follow in the train of evangelical religion. It is reserved for other portions of the Bible—for the Gospels and the Epistles—to make the fundamental statements, and lay the foundations of Christian character; while it remains for the wise Preacher to follow up with those teachings which serve to develop and beautify it.
The book of revelation is, in this way, like the book of nature. The scientific naturalist does not claim that everything in nature is upon a dead level in respect to intrinsic worth and importance—that a bit of charcoal is just as valuable as a bit of diamond; that a lily is just as high up the scale of creation as a man. But he does claim that one is as much the work of creative power as the other, and in its own sphere and place is as indispensable to the great sum total of creation as is the other.
And so, too, the scientific theologian does not claim that everything in the Bible is upon a dead level in respect to intrinsic value—that the book of Esther is as important for purposes of regeneration and conversion as is the Epistle to the Romans—but he does claim that both alike are the product of Divine inspiration; that both alike are a portion of that Word of God, that sum-total of revealed truth upon which, as a whole, the kingdom of God in the earth is to be founded and built up. Had the book of Esther been lost out of the canon, it would not have been so great a detriment to the church as the loss of the Gospel of John, or of the Epistle to the Romans. If the missionary were allowed to carry only a single fragment of Scripture into a heathen population, and were compelled to make his choice between the book of Proverbs or the Gospel of St. Matthew, he would undoubtedly select the latter. Not, however, because one is less trustworthy than the other; but because one contains more of the doctrinal material which the missionary employs in laying the foundation of the church; because it gives more information concerning the Lord Jesus Christ and the way of salvation than does the other.
The book of Proverbs, as we have remarked, was composed not so much for the purpose of originating a holy character, as of shaping and polishing it; and for this purpose it is indispensable, and for this purpose it was inspired. And hence in missionary fields, as well as in the church at large, the wise maxims and well-grounded ethics of Solomon will always follow up the evangelical truths and doctrines of the Apostle John, and the Apostle Paul.
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”
In this concise sententious “proverb,” the wise man describes and recommends a certain kind of temper which should be possessed and cherished by the people of God. We purpose, in the first place, briefly to describe this temper; in the second place, to mention some of the obstacles that oppose its formation; and in the third place, to point out the true source and root of it.
The temper that is recommended in the text, to say it in a word, is Christian moderation.
St. Paul urges the same thing with Solomon, when he writes to the Philippians: “Let your moderation be known unto all men;” when he writes to the Thessalonians: “Let us watch and be sober;” and when he writes to Titus, that “the grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.”
I. In defining, in the first place, the nature of this temper and disposition,
It is evident that a man who is “slow to anger,” and who “ruleth his spirit,” is characterized by sobriety and equanimity. He is never driven to extremes, in any direction. For anger is one of the most vehement of emotions, and he who can control it can control anything, can “take a city.” Hence this particular passion is selected as the specimen. He who reigns in his own impulsive wrath with such a strong and firm reign that it never gets the mastery over him, will find it no difficult task to rule and regulate the whole brood of passions which have their nest in corrupt human nature.
Such a man is even-tempered, in the deepest sense. Such a man stands in just and proper relations to both worlds. He lives with contentment here upon earth, and at the same time lays up treasure in heaven. He does not drown himself in worldly lusts, like a voluptuary, and neither does he kill out all human sympathies, like an ascetic. He uses this world as not abusing it in either direction. He does not abuse the good things of this life, by an immoderate indulgence in them, or an immoderate desire and toil after them; and he does not abuse the legitimate enjoyments of this existence, by a fanatical contempt and rejection of them altogether. He is not so absorbed in the things of time and sense, as to lose sight of eternal realities; neither is he so monkishly indifferent to the interests and objects of this life, as to be either a drone or a malcontent. He responds to all the reasonable and proper demands of domestic, social, and civil existence, while yet he never becomes so extreme in his attachment, and so enslaved to them, that it costs him murmurings and bitter pangs to be called away from these circles into the immediate presence of God.
This is indeed a wonderful temper to be attained by so ill-governed, so passionate, impulsive, and unbalanced a creature as man. It is no wonder that such a well-poised and symmetrical character as this floated as an unattainable ideal before the minds of the better pagan philosophers. This is the famous “temperance” which meets the scholar so continually in the writings of Plato and Aristotle—that golden mean between the extremes of passion and apathy which the philosopher strives to reach. “Quietly reflecting”—says Plato—“on the madness and ungovernable passions of the multitude, and attending to his own affairs, like a man sheltered under a wall in a storm of dust and foam borne along on the wind, by which he sees all about him overwhelmed in disorder, such an one is content to pass his life free from violence and passion, and to effect his exit hence with good hopes, cheerful and serene.”
1 This is his description of the moderation, the equanimity, the temperance of the philosophic mind.
But in other places this thoughtful pagan confesses that this golden mean is never reached here upon earth, either by the philosopher or the common man. He compares the soul to a pair of horses—one of them erect, finely formed, with high neck, aquiline nose, white-colored, black-eyed, a lover of honor and temperance and true glory, driven without the whip, by word of command and voice only; the other crooked, thick set, clumsily put together, with strong neck, short throat, flat face, black color, gray-eyed, addicted to insolence and swaggering, scarcely obedient to whip and spur together. These two opposing creatures, according to him, represent the present condition of the human soul. There are aspirations that would lead it upward, but there are appetites that drag it downward.
The white horse would pursue the path of honor and excellence; but the black horse draws away from the path, and plunges madly downward. And the black horse is the strongest. The appetite is too mighty for the resolution. There is an infinite aspiration, and an infinitesimal performance. Such is the mournful confession of the greatest thinker outside of the pale of revelation; and if a Plato could discover and teach to future generations the corruption and helplessness of human nature, what shall we say of those teachers under the full light of revelation, who would have us believe that there is no corruption in man but such as can be eradicated by man himself, and who would dispense with the evangelical means and methods of healing and salvation.
II. And this brings us to consider, in the second place, some of the obstacles that oppose the formation of such a Christian sobriety and moderation.
They spring from two general sources—the sense, and the mind. They are partly physical, and partly intellectual obstacles.
1. In the first place, this Christian sobriety and moderation is opposed by the appetites and passions of the body.
St. Paul, speaking of man before regeneration, says, “When we were in the flesh, the motions [passions] of sins which were by the law did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death.” It is one of the effects of apostasy, that human nature is corrupted upon the physical side of it, as well as upon the mental and moral side. “Original sin,” as the Westminster creed affirms, “is the corruption of the whole nature.” The bodily appetites are very different now from what they would have been, had man remained in his original and holy condition. When Adam came from the hand of the Creator, his physical nature was pure and perfect. All of his appetites and sensibilities were in just proportion, and were exactly balanced and harmonized. The original and holy Adam was no glutton, and no voluptuary. Every appetite of the body was even-tempered, never reaching beyond the just limits, and going as far, and only as far, as the healthy and happy condition of the organism required.
Probably the brute creation approaches nearer to the original Adam, in this particular of a sound physical organization, than do his degenerate posterity. How comparatively moderate all the physical appetites are, in the low sphere of the dumb animals. The ox and the horse, for example, having satisfied the healthy and natural cravings of hunger, demand nothing further. They never gorge themselves to a surfeit, and they seek no stimulants. The range of their appetite is narrow. A few grasses, with the pure flowing water to drink, meet all their wants. But man’s physical appetites are multitudinous, and, what is yet worse, they are exorbitant. They are continually reaching out beyond the proper limits, and beyond what the organism requires, and bring his higher intellectual and moral nature into subjection to themselves.
The history of human civilization is to a great extent the history of human luxury; and the history of human luxury is the history of bodily appetites growing more and more inordinate, and growing by what they feed upon. The very civilization of which we hear so much, and which is so often represented as the unmixed glory of the human race, the evidence and record of its advance toward perfection, is in one of its aspects the record of its shame, and the evidence of its apostasy. For it brings to view the corruption of human nature upon the physical side. It reveals acquired and unnatural appetites, fed and satiated by ingenious supplies. The whole industry and energy of entire classes of laborers and artisans is employed in ministering to extreme cravings, and unhealthy wants, that could have no existence if human nature were possessed of that physical sobriety and moderation which the Bible enjoins, or even of that temperance which the Greek philosopher praised and recommended.
That which is true of man generally, is true of the individual. There are great obstacles to that well-regulated temper which Solomon recommends in the text, arising from flesh and sense. There is no need of entering into any detail, for every man’s own consciousness will testify that every day, and every hour, “the body of this death,” this “vile body,” as St. Paul denominates it, stands in opposition to that calm and equable frame of soul which is “slow to anger.” The corruption of nature is constantly showing itself in a rush to an extreme. The natural appetites, which were implanted in order to preserve the body from weakness and decay, and which in their original and pure condition were aids to virtue and holy living—these very appetences, now extreme and disordered, are strong temptations to sin, and the very worst obstacles to holiness. “How is the gold become dim! How is the most fine gold changed!”
All that part of our being which connects us with this glorious outer world, and which was originally intended to subserve our spiritual interests, and to assist in preparing us for a final blessed destination, has by apostasy become subservient to our destruction. The physical appetites which in their pure state, as seen in holy Adam and in the sinless humanity of our Blessed Lord, contributed directly to a well-regulated and well-governed frame of the soul, now tend directly to throw it off its equilibrium, and to fill it with restlessness and dissatisfaction—to make it a troubled sea whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
2. But again, in the second place, this Christian sobriety and moderation meets with an obstacle in man’s disordered mental nature.
The prophet Isaiah, in describing human sinfulness, remarks that the “whole head is sick.” The apostasy of Adam has affected the nobler and higher part of man, as well as his lower and meaner part. The disorder that now prevails in his intellectual and moral nature opposes his most earnest endeavors to be “slow to anger,” and to “rule his spirit.” Consider, for instance, how lawless and ungoverned is the human imagination. This is a faculty of a high order, and by it man is capable of “thoughts that wander through eternity.” But as it now exists in fallen man, it is the source of the most wayward and perverse mental action. It fills the soul with extravagant conceits, greedy desires, unreal joys, and unreal sorrows.
The believer is commanded by the Apostle Paul, to “cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” But he finds it one of his most difficult tasks, because the disorder and the lawlessness are so very far within him. It is in some respects easier to control the physical appetites than to rule an inflamed and extravagant fancy. That youth, for example, who has stimulated his imagination by the immoderate and long-continued reading of fiction, has a harder task before him, in some particulars, than the drunkard or the debauchee. He has introduced extravagance and lawlessness into a faculty which in its best condition is liable to waywardness, and he discovers, when he attempts to undo his own work, that he has a life-long labor before him. How many there are, in this age of voracious and indiscriminate novel-reading, who will tell us that they have ruined their intellects by their folly; that they have lost the power of sober, concatenated thinking; that they are carried along passively by the currents of fanciful imaginings that surge and dash within them; that they have no rule of their own minds, and whenever the temptation presents they are swift to wrath, and every other impulsive passion.
Again, the human understanding itself—that comparatively cool and unimpassioned part of the human soul—opposes obstacles to Christian sobriety and moderation. A man’s purely intellectual conclusions and convictions may be so one-sided and extreme as to spoil his temper. Fanaticism in every age furnishes examples of this. The fanatic is generally an intellectual person. He is vehement and extreme, not for the sake of a vice or a pleasure, but for the sake of an opinion or a doctrine. His ungoverned temper does not commonly spring out of sensual appetites and indulgences. On the contrary, his blood is usually cold and thin, and his life abstemious and ascetical. But his passion runs to his brain. He holds an intellectual opinion or an intellectual conviction that is but a half-truth, with a spasmodic energy; and the consequence is, that he is swift to anger, and reckless of consequences in that direction. No large and comprehensive vision, and no moderate and well-balanced temper, is possible when passion has in this manner worked its way into the understanding. Every age of the world affords examples of this kind. How many individual Christians, and how many individual churches, have lost their Christian sobriety and their charitable moderation, because they have “leaned to their own understanding,” and as a consequence their understanding acquired a leaning and lost its equipoise.
From these sources, then, we find obstacles issuing that oppose the formation of that temper which the Apostle Paul has in view when he says: “Let your moderation be known to all men,” and which Solomon recommends when he says: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” Our corrupt physical nature, and our disordered mental constitution, are continually drawing us aside from that true golden mean between all extremes which should ever be before the eye of a Christian, and which he must attain in order to enter the world where everything is symmetrical and harmonious, like the character of God himself.
III. We are, therefore, led to inquire, in the third place, for the true source of this Christian temperance and moderation.
Such a spirit as we have been speaking of must have its root in love. The secret of such an even temper is charity; the “charity that suffereth long and is kind, that vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, thinketh no evil.” No man can have this large-minded, comprehensive, and unshaken equilibrium, who does not love God supremely and his neighbor as himself.
We have already noticed that the wise pagan thinkers had an idea of some such well-balanced temper and spirit. They were painfully conscious of the passionateness of the human soul, and its inclination to rush into extremes—extremes of physical license, and extremes of intellectual license. But they knew no method of curing the evil, and they never cured it. And there was a good reason. They could not generate holy love in their own hearts, or in the hearts of others. The human heart is carnal, and thereby at enmity with God; it is selfish, and thereby at enmity with man. So long as this is the character of man, it is impossible for him to be “slow to anger” and to “rule his spirit.” The physical appetite will be constantly breaking over its proper limits, the imagination will be lawless, and the understanding proud and opinionated. But the instant the enmity ceases and the charity begins, the selfish passionateness and license disappear.
You cannot rule your impulsive spirit, you cannot curb and control your lawless appetites, by a mere volition. You cannot bring all your mental and physical powers into equilibrium by a dead lift. The means is not adequate to the end. Nothing but the power of a new affection; nothing but the love of God shed abroad in your heart, and the love of Christ sweetly swaying and constraining you, can permanently and perfectly reduce all the restlessness and recklessness of your nature to order and harmony. And this can do it.
There is something strangely powerful and transforming in love. It is not limited in its influence to any one part of the soul, but it penetrates and pervades the whole of it, as quicksilver penetrates the pores of gold. A conception is confined to the understanding; a volition stops with the will; but an affection like heavenly charity diffuses itself through the entire man. Head and heart, reason, will, and imagination, are all modified by it. The revolutionizing effect of this feeling within the sphere of human relations is well understood. When the romantic passion is awakened, it expels for the time being all others, and this period of human life takes its entire tone and color from the affection. Even the clown becomes gentle and chivalrous under its influence.
But this is vastly more true of the spiritual and heavenly love. When this springs up in the soul, all the thoughts, all the purposes, all the passions, and all the faculties of the soul are changed by it. And particularly is its influence seen in rectifying the disorder and lawlessness of the soul. Heavenly charity cannot be resisted. Pride melts away under its warm breath; selfishness disappears under its glowing influence; anger cannot stand before its gentle force. Whatever be the form of sin that offers resistance, it inevitably yields before “love unfeigned; love out of a pure heart.” “Charity never faileth,” says the Apostle Paul. “Love conquers all things,” says the pagan Ovid.
Our subject, then, teaches the necessity of the new birth. It corroborates our Lord’s declaration: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” For, how is this heavenly affection, which is to subdue and quell all the passion and wrath of human nature, to be generated? It is “not born of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.” There may be outward self-control, without any inward self-government. It is not enough that we do not exhibit our anger and our passion. It must be eradicated. It is not enough that we rein in a restive spirit. The very spirit itself must become mild and gentle. It is a weary, and in the end a profitless, effort which that man puts forth, who attempts to obey such an injunction as that of Solomon in the text, without laying his foundation deep in a renovated nature.
In the opening of the discourse, we alluded to the fact that the ethics of Solomon must follow after the evangelical doctrines of the Gospels and the Epistles. In like manner, the cultivation of a symmetrical and beautiful moderation of both the bodily appetites and the mental passions, in order to be successful, must be preceded by a change of heart. Otherwise there is nothing but the austere and ungenial attempt of a moralist to perform a repulsive task. Love—holy and heavenly charity—must be generated, and then under its spontaneous and happy impulse it will be comparatively easy to rectify the remaining corruption, and repress the lingering excesses and extremes of appetite and passion.
When the Apostle John had become so far advanced in years, that he could no longer exhibit the fire and force of that earlier period when he was one of the sons of thunder, he caused himself to be carried into the assemblies of the Christians, and in weak and faltering accents said: “Children, love one another; children, love one another.” This tradition of the Early Church accords well with the tone and teachings of those three Epistles which were among the last utterances of the last of the apostles. Heavenly charity, after a life prolonged nearly one hundred years, had become the dominant affection of the soul. And how almost impossible it would have been to have ruffled that heavenly temper! How easy it was for him to rule his spirit! How slow to anger must he have become! In the days of his early discipleship, St. John was swift to wrath, and upon one occasion sought to persuade the serene and compassionate Redeemer to command the lightnings to come down from the sky, and consume the Samaritan village that would not receive him. But in the last days of his apostleship and his pilgrimage, he had breathed in the kind and compassionate spirit of his Master, and his utterance was a very different one.
That which St. John needed is needed by human nature always and everywhere. We are not better than he. There are in every man the same inordinate passions, and the same need of a radical transformation. He became a changed creature, the lion was converted into the lamb, through faith in Jesus Christ—by an act of trust and confidence in the Divine Redeemer. His own words are: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ—is born of God: and whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world, and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not. And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true; and we are in him that is true, even in his son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” Here is positive affirmation and asseveration. “We know.” It is the utterance of a personal experience, and an infallible inspiration.
Confide then in the Son of God. Put your eternal destiny into His hands. Do not look down into the dark deep well of your own helplessness and guilt for pardon and purification, but look up for these into the infinitude and grace of Him “in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” That look is faith; and faith is salvation.
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 19–33.