Great Texts of the Bible
Wronging the Soul
He that sinneth against me [misseth me—R.V. marg.] wrongeth his own soul:
All they that hate me love death.—Proverbs 8:36This is represented as the language of Wisdom. The attribute of wisdom is personified throughout the chapter, which closes its instructions with the declaration of the text: “He that sinneth against me (or misseth me) wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.” The theme, then, is obviously the wrong which the sinner does to himself, to his nature, to his own soul.
He does a wrong, indeed, to others. He does them, it may be, deep and heinous injury. The moral offender injures society, and injures it in the most vital part. Sin is, to all the dearest interests of society, a desolating power. It spreads misery through the world. It brings that misery into the daily lot of millions. The violence of anger, the exactions of selfishness, the corrodings of envy, the coldness of distrust, the contests of pride, the excesses of passion, the indulgences of sense, carry desolation into the very bosom of domestic life; and the crushed and bleeding hearts of friends and kindred, or of a larger circle of the suffering and oppressed, are everywhere witnesses to, and victims of, the sinner’s folly.
But all the injury, great and terrible as it is, which the sinner does or can inflict upon others is not equal to the injury that he inflicts upon himself. The evil that he does is, in almost all cases, the greater, the nearer it comes to himself; greater to his friends than to society at large; greater to his family than to his friends; and so it is greater to himself than to any other. Yes, it is in his own nature, whose glorious traits are dimmed and almost blotted out, whose pleading remonstrances are sternly disregarded, whose immortal hopes are rudely stricken down,—it is in his own nature that he does a work so dark and mournful, and so fearful, that he ought to shudder and weep to think of it.
The Sin against Wisdom
The Hebrew term rendered “he that sinneth against me,” means literally, “he who misses me,” who fails to “hit,” to find me and to hearken to me. The Greek word used in the Septuagint has reference to an archer who misses his object, and of the arrow that fails to hit the mark. In the text “missing” is a true antithesis to finding. The Arabic reads it much in this sense: “he who errs from me.”
1. There are various definitions of sin, each one of which is true according to our standpoint. If we regard sin as a violation of man’s true destiny, which we recognize not only in God’s loving command, but also in the very law of man’s own being, then sin is the transgressing of the law. If we regard sin as variation from the right, the good, the true, then sin is unrighteousness. If we regard sin as the negation of man’s true nature as a spiritual being, and the identifying of him with the things of sense, then sin is materialism. If we regard sin as the fixing of the affections—affections that were intended for glories beyond the stars—upon the perishing things of this world, then sin is worldliness. And finally, if we regard sin as the failure or refusal of the soul to apprehend and confide in the unseen, then sin is unbelief. In the sphere of law, then, sin is transgression; in the sphere of morals, it is unrighteousness; in the sphere of thought, it is materialism; in the sphere of conduct, it is worldliness; in the sphere of spiritual apprehension, it is unbelief. But it is always one and the self-same thing, the same grim and ghastly thing—in the godless man of the world and in the ruffian who outrages law, in the smooth libertine and in the vulgar thief, in the respectable atheist who says there is no God, and in the brave outlaw who lives his creed and acts upon his belief.
If all trees were clerks and all their branches pens, and all the his books, and all the waters ink, yet all would not sufficiently declare the evil that sin hath done. For sin has made this house of heavenly light to be a den of darkness; this house of joy to be a house of mourning, lamentation, and woe; this house of all refreshment to be full of hunger and thirst; this abode of love to be a prison of enmity and ill-will; this seat of meekness to be the haunt of pride and rage and malice. For laughter sin has brought horror; for munificence, beggary; and for heaven, hell. Oh, thou miserable man, turn convert. For the Father stretches out both His hands to thee. Do but turn to Him and He will receive and embrace thee in His love.1 [Note: Jacob Behmen.]
2. Sin is here represented as a missing of wisdom.
(1) Wisdom is frequently spoken of in the Book of Proverbs as mere prudential morality, the discretion which life teaches or should teach, the sagacity in dealing with affairs, the knowledge of men and things that comes from experience. As many of the Proverbs show, wisdom means what we call common sense, and is opposed to folly, the stupid disregard of facts, the dulness of mind that will not learn the lessons that are patent on the very face of life. Thus, the book has many practical exhortations as to what to do in the ordinary problems that emerge every day, exhortations whose tone grows solemn and impressive as it warns against gluttony and drunkenness and the undue regard of wealth and kindred mistakes, even condescending to give advice about becoming surety for another. It is a sort of prudential morality, which experience loudly teaches to all who are not deaf.
To this wisdom, necessary though it is to all in some degree, we could only partially apply the words of the text, “He that misseth me wrongeth his own soul.” We are all sufficiently alive, at least in theory, to the necessity for such wisdom. Men are trained in some fashion to acquire it; and most of us do gain some knowledge of men and affairs. We all undergo the education which informs us of things, and fills our heads with facts and distinctions in varying degrees of usefulness or uselessness. It is quite true that to miss this worldly wisdom which life should teach is to wrong one’s own self. To have the means of knowledge in our hands and before our eyes and yet not to know, to have gone through life with our minds sealed, is to do despite to our own nature. To be incorrigible, unteachable, is to be (as the proverbs again and again declare) brutish, like the fool with folly so ingrained that though he were brayed in a mortar with a pestle yet will not his folly depart from him. “He that misseth me,” says Wisdom as a guide of practical conduct, “wrongeth his own self.”
Prudence is a virtue of the practical reason, which not only enables a man to know in concrete circumstances what means are best to take to a good end, but also inclines a man to take those means with promptitude. Prudence resides in the intellect, not in the will, for its acts are intellectual acts. By prudence we inquire about, examine, and direct ourselves to the adoption of the proper means to a desired end. Modern philosophy has done much to bring the virtue of prudence into contempt by representing it as exclusively a selfish virtue—a virtue by which each man seeks to secure his own greatest happiness. But prudence no more exclusively concerns the individual’s happiness than do the other virtues. For there is a prudence that prescribes the right means to the family good or general good, as well as that which secures one’s own personal good. However, when used without qualification, the word “prudence” has always been understood as appertaining to the individual good only.1 [Note: M. Cronin, The Science of Ethics.]
(2) But wisdom as used in this book has a deeper meaning, which underlies all the practical counsels. Wisdom is looked on as identical with the law of God. It is the discernment that looks beneath the surface and sees cause and effect; looks into the heart of things and gets sane and true views of life, putting everything into correct perspective—a guide of the heart as well as of the feet, a guide for thought and feeling as well as for conduct. In this deeper sense it teaches morals and religion. Its very beginning is in the fear of God, reverence for the good and the high. It deals with the moral basis of life, and looks upon evil, not simply as mistake which a wise man would avoid, but as sin which perverts and depraves the very nature. This inner, deeper wisdom judges human nature and human conduct by the religious ideal set forth in the law of God. It probes down to the causes which produce such tragic failure in the lives of men. It sees that life is built on law; so that to break law is not merely folly that incurs punishment from the outside as by some machine that regulates all things, but is to break the law of our own life and sin against our own nature and wrong our own self.
This sense of the word as the law of God is that in which the Psalmist prayed, “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” that we may learn not worldly wisdom but wisdom, the true meaning and purport and duty and destiny of life. Wisdom like this delights in displaying the fitness of what is good in the scheme of history and nature, pointing to a moral design both in human society and in the world at large.
At first sight, on a cursory reading of the early chapters of this Book of Proverbs, it may seem as if all that was meant by Wisdom was a shrewd earthly common sense and worldly prudence. But look a little closer, and you will see that the Wisdom spoken of in all these chapters is closely connected not only with clearness of the well-furnished head, but with uprightness of the heart. It is not an intellectual excellence only (though it is that) which the author of the book commends; it is a moral excellence as well. The Wisdom that he speaks about is Wisdom that has rectitude for an essential part of it, the fibre of its very being is righteousness and holiness. Ay, there is no true wisdom which does not rest calmly upon a basis of truthfulness of heart, and is not guarded and nurtured by righteousness and purity of life. Man is one—one and indissoluble. The intellect and the conscience are but two names for diverse parts of the one human being, or rather they are but two names for diverse workings of the one immortal soul. And though it be possible that a man may be enriched with all earthly knowledge, whilst his heart is the dwelling-place of all corruption; and that, on the other hand, a man may be pure and upright in heart, whilst his head is very poorly furnished and his understanding very weak—yet these exceptional cases do not touch the great central truth, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Here, then, is the first outline of this fair form that rises before you—a Wisdom satisfying and entire for all the understanding, and not a dry, hard, abstract Wisdom either, but one which is all glowing with light and purity, and is guidance for the will, and cleansing for the conscience, and strength for the practical life: wisdom which is morality and righteousness; morality and righteousness which is the highest Wisdom 1 [Note: A. Maclaren, Sermons Preached in Manchester, i. 298.]
(3) Wisdom is raised at length in this book to the highest level when it is clothed with personal attributes and made almost identical with God. As being the quality which God displays in all His works, and being the root-principle of the world, it is spoken of (in words that glow and catch fire) as a glorious personality, the firstfruits of God’s creative work, the very firstborn of creation, not only presiding over the fortunes of men and disposing of human destiny, but aiding God in creation, the Divine Wisdom set up from everlasting, from the beginning or ever the earth was. It is in this sense, as Wisdom personified, that the word is used in this chapter, which one who speaks with authority calls one of the most remarkable and beautiful things in Hebrew literature. We can understand how the Fathers of the Christian Church used this passage to illustrate their thought about Christ, the Logos, the Word of God, the incarnate wisdom and love and righteousness of God, the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature, who is before all things and by whom all things consist; and we can see how they should apply to Christ the beautiful words of this passage, “I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me. Whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord.”1 [Note: T. C. Finlayson, The Divine Gentleness, 304.]
Nay, falter not; ’tis your assurèd good
To seek the noblest; ’tis your only good,
Now you have seen it; for that higher vision
Poisons all meaner choice for evermore.
The Reaction of Sin in the Soul
“He that misseth me wrongeth his own soul.” He that does not take Me into account, ignores Me, leaves Me out of his practical creed and obedience, has done an immense injustice to himself. He that misses Me has missed the mark, missed the prize of existence.
To miss the wisdom that cometh from above, to fail to recognize the true relationship between life and the universal law of God, is indeed to wrong ourselves. It is to belittle man and do dishonour to human nature. To believe it in any sense true of wisdom that
She doth preserve the stars from wrong,
And the most ancient heavens by her are fresh and strong,
and to deny that that same law has meaning and purpose in human life, is to make the whole universe a hideous dance of unreason.
And if without this faith there seems no foothold for intellect, still less is there for morals. To be men in all that hitherto has stood for manhood at its best, we must believe that our moral life is related to a moral law which is rooted in the very nature of things; we must believe that man is so related to God that the will of God, the law of God, is the law of our own life, and that to miss this, to sin against this, is to destroy ourselves. This is why, according to the Bible, sin is among other things foolishness, insensate folly, a mad choice of death. To break the commandments is not merely to break a system of rules arbitrarily imposed on us from without, but is to sin against ourselves, and to ruin our own true happiness, to dim the radiance of our own souls, and to desecrate our own life.
Ruskin was never weary of telling that, whatever faults an artist may have, they are always reproduced in his work. He declares that the fumes of wine and the stain of sensuality mentally leave dark shadows upon the artist’s masterpiece. He cannot indulge his lower nature without in some degree clouding and marring his genius. But if everybody can see that in a man’s physique and in a man’s genius, is it not just as certain that sin will spoil a man’s lordlier self, his moral and spiritual being? A man can never commit a transgression but it has blinded the eyes of his spiritual understanding. A man never violates a commandment of God but he has done an injustice to his conscience.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]
1. Sin introduces an element of disorder, of discord, and of disease into our life. It is a violation of our nature, a refusal to follow the light and to obey the highest. It destroys the inner harmony. It throws us out of accord with the central music of the universe. We pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Heaven is heaven because that highest will is done there. Heaven is begun below when the will of God is done. The religion of Jesus Christ holds as its chief power the secret of making duty a delight. Man finds his highest and noblest sphere of activity in doing the will of God; and love for that will transforms the man, gives all his powers their proper outlet, and makes for their perfection. To stand outside that central will is to wrong our souls and to mar our lives. Christ is seeking to gather all into Himself, and to stand outside that Divine unity is to stultify ourselves and thwart God. To dash into the rapids above the falls is to court inevitable destruction, and to throw ourselves athwart the known will of God is self-murder.
Even our narrow experience of the universe presented one obtrusive fact which seemed to contradict the theistic presupposition of Omnipotent Goodness. The contingently presented universe of experience, which philosophy tries to reduce to rational unity, consists of unconscious things and self-conscious persons. Things are believed to evolve in natural order, which is thus virtually divine language; and this divine language of things is (so far) scientifically interpretable by persons. But persons themselves—at least on this planet—seem to be naturally evolved in moral disorder, and to live in a chaos of suffering. Pain, the supposed consequence of moral disorder, seems to be unfairly distributed. The constant order of insentient things is in striking contrast to the moral disorder that appears among living persons. What ought not to be, is commonly found in them. Analogous irregularity is not seen among things; which are all found punctually obeying their natural, yet supernatural, laws—and they are not expected to involve us at last in intellectual disorder. The material world of things does not put us to final confusion, although most of its phenomena remain uninterpreted, or inadequately interpreted. But the world of persons seems to be continually putting us to moral confusion, by its strangely chaotic appearances.1 [Note: A. Campbell Fraser, Biographia Philosophica, 306.]
2. Sin impairs the moral sense, and relaxes the spiritual fibre, taking away with it the bloom of the soul. All observation and all experience prove that this is its immediate, unvarying, inevitable effect. He who once yields to do wrong will find it harder the next time to do right, until he speedily becomes powerless to choose good and resist evil. The moral sense, which at first is quick to discriminate, begins under the pressure of sin, to lose the keenness of perception. The high sense of honour and of truthfulness is dulled. The good seems to be less good, and the evil does not seem to be so very evil, until at last that soul calls evil good and good evil. Such a desperate degradation is not reached all at once,—not till years of sin, it may be, and of indulgence have passed by. But let the soul remember that the first sin is the first step, and that the next will be easier, and that with each succeeding sin the momentum increases at a fearful rate until its speed shall hurl it down to ruin.
It is related that in certain parts in South America it used to be the practice to drug with opium the coolies brought to work there, in order to make them oblivious to their wretched surroundings, and their arduous tasks. It is possible with the opiates of sin, of small sins as we call them if you will, gradually to dose our souls into a state of callous indifference to great moral and spiritual issues, so that it becomes possible to stand upon the very brink of ruin and not to realize it. What once would have appalled and shocked with a great horror is looked upon with indifference, or perhaps practised with complacency.1 [Note: R. Mackintosh.]
Meissonier, the great artist, had a very delicate hand, and he used to take great care of it, so much so that he had it shampooed every morning, and in driving always wore thick gloves. He was always watchful that he should not impair this marvellous suppleness and dexterity. Well, if a man thinks it necessary to take all that care of his hand that it may retain its sensitiveness and masterliness, how careful you ought to be of that diviner faculty inside by which you discriminate in the great questions of character and conduct. In short, no man commits a sin but the conscience that records it is injured, it has lost some of its discriminateness, some of its sensibility, some of its force. A man never sins but he has injured his will.2 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]
3. To turn our back on wisdom is to love death. Sin is not only foolishness: it is suicide, self-inflicted wrong, killing the man in us, pouring out the very blood of our life. To have lived and with all our getting to have missed wisdom, to have missed the blessedness of accord with God’s holy law, is failure. And in all the world’s sore tragedy there is no failure so tragic as this. As the years pass by us, and the shadows gather round us, we look back, and the keenest sting is the thought of what we have missed by the way, what we might have been and done and received, and failed to be or do or get. When we have given way to passion or evil desire, when we have sinned against conscience or heart, when we have slid down to lower levels of thought and life, how we have wronged ourselves! No enemy hath done this, but we ourselves. Fools! we have been our own worst enemy. “So foolish was I, I was as a beast before thee.” Folly! It is madness. “He that misseth me” (wisdom, the eternal law of all living) “wrongeth his own soul. All that hate me love death.”
Charlotte Brontë writes thus to her literary friend and adviser Mr. W. S. Williams, a few days after the death of her brother Branwell, who passed away at the gloomy Haworth Parsonage, in September, 1848, a dissolute wreck—the victim, at the age of 31, of opium, strong drink, and debauchery: “ ‘We have buried our dead out of our sight.’ A lull begins to succeed the gloomy tumult of last week. It is not permitted us to grieve for him who is gone as others grieve for those they lose. The removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement. Branwell was his father’s and his sisters’ pride and hope in boyhood, but since manhood the case has been otherwise. It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent; to hope, expect, wait his return to the right path; to know the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled; to experience despair at last and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career. I do not weep from a sense of bereavement—there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost—but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light. My brother was a year my junior. I had aspirations and ambitions for him once, long ago—they have perished mournfully. Nothing remains of him but a memory of errors and sufferings. There is such a bitterness of pity for his life and death, such a yearning for the emptiness of his whole existence as I cannot describe.”1 [Note: C. K. Shorter, The Brontës: Life and Letters, i. 453.]
Professor Turner tells us in his most interesting book on astronomy that the astronomer uses mechanism of unspeakable delicacy. One day they allowed a visitor to come into the room; and the visitor gently touched one of the instruments with his finger. That was enough. It took months of painstaking and expensive work to correct that machine and make it once more register the signs of the sky. And I tell you that as one touch would destroy that astronomical mechanism, so an act, a thought, a word, a fancy may destroy the delicacy of the human soul, and put us out of fellowship with the sky above our head. He that sinneth against Me does injustice to his own personality, maims his own splendid faculties. That is the thing to look at—suicide, self-destruction, suicide of the soul.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]
4. This would seem to be the worst degradation of all—that man should not only sin his intellect and will and conscience away, but that he should love his shame, that his soul should be enamoured of its degradation. And yet, who does not know that even this is the effect of sin? Through it men learn to love the base things of this world, and lose the power to love the nobler things. What is life to such a soul but shame? What shall death be but the beginning of an eternal bereavement? All its affections are fixed on things of sense. All its delights and all its joys are bound up with the pleasures of sense. And when death comes and strips off the pampered flesh, and the world, which alone it is able to love, fades away like the baseless fabric of a vision, what shall eternity be to that soul but an eternal bereavement of all that it is able to love, and therefore an eternal torture and an eternal death?
A Buddhist story tells of a man who had lived wickedly and became very ill and nigh unto death. In the fever he had a dream, and in this dream he was conducted through the underworld to the hall of justice in which the judges sat in curtained alcoves. He came opposite his judge, and was told to write his misdeeds upon a slate provided for that purpose. Sentence was then passed that he should be thrice struck by lightning for his sins. The curtain was then drawn back, and he faced his judge, to find there seated the very image of himself, and he realized that he had pronounced the verdict. He had unconsciously judged himself. There is a word that says, “Be sure your sin will find you out,” which some seem to think means “Be sure your sin will be found out.” This of course is quite beside the mark. It points to a man’s sin avenging itself, tracking down its victim and demanding its pound of flesh. So “Be sure your sin will find you out,” with emphasis upon the you. “He that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul.” There is no escape from it.2 [Note: R. Mackintosh.]
Though no mortal e’er accused you,
Though no witness e’er confused you,
Though the darkness came and fell
Over even deeds of hell;
Though no sign nor any token
Spake of one commandment broken,
Though the world should praise and bless
And love add the fond caress,
Still your secret sin would find you,
Pass before your eyes to blind you,
Burn your heart with hidden shame,
Scar your cheek with guilty flame.
Sin was never sinned in vain,
It could always count its slain;
You yourself must witness be
To your own soul’s treachery.
Black (H.), Edinburgh Sermons, 11.
Dewey (O.), Works, 15.
Finlayson (T. C.), The Divine Gentleness, 291.
Harris (S. S.), The Dignity of Man, 108.
Holden (J. S.), Redeeming Vision, 144.
Matheson (G.), Messages of Hope, 81.
Mitchell (J.), Shot and Shell, 70.
Newton (J.), The Problem of Personality, 59.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, viii. 193.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New Ser., xvi. (1878), No. 1060.
Christian World Pulpit, lxi. 401 (W. L. Watkinson); lxx. 379 (R. Mackintosh).
Homiletic Review, xx. 426 (H. A. Stevenson).