Proverbs chapter 17 opens with an admonition that we shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover:
Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife. (Proverbs 17:1)
In this analogy the writer of Proverbs is telling us that looks aren’t everything. We might look at a household that has plenty and is full of food and material possessions but miss the fact that the family is full of contempt and arguing. On the other hand we might look down upon a family that is poor thinking that they are very unhappy. When in reality they have much more peace due to the inward richness of a Godly life. In the words of the old folk song, “I’m richer by far with a satisfied mind.”
In verse 3, according to the famous Vilna Gaon, we get another example of the outward appearance at times being deceiving:
The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests hearts. (Proverbs 17:3)
The Vilna Gaon saw the silver as referring to commandments and the gold as referring to the Torah itself. Using this word picture he interpreted the verse as meaning that outwardly a person may appear righteous by doing all the commandments of the Torah, but God looks on the inside and sees the impurities. The impurities are more often than not related to a person relying on himself and not God.
The Master criticized those who appeared righteous on the outside but inside were full of wickedness and evil. He quite often would be with a crowd and be able to perceive that their hearts were not in the right place (see for example Mark 2:8, 3:5). He taught us as his followers to first purify the inside and then this would purify the outside (Matthew 23:26).
If we just took the second half of Proverbs 17:3 it seems like God merely observes what is going on inside of us but combined with the first half we see that he is also actively involved in removing the sin. He does this through trials.
The Refining Pot and the Furnace
Sometimes we need a little help with purifying the inside and that’s where trials come in. That’s not to say that every time we experience a trial it means that we have issues that need to be worked out but there is always an opportunity to learn something.
In verse 3, we saw that silver is purified in a refining pot while gold is purified in a furnace. The reason there is a difference is the impurities are much harder to get out of gold than out of silver; therefore, it requires the higher heat of the furnace. In both of these cases the refining process tests the metals and then removes the unwanted parts. It is the same with the testing of our Father.
In tests and trials he examines us and seeks to remove that which prohibits us from fully doing his will. At times we may be like the silver and require only a small trial to be refined, but other times where sin is much more ingrained we need something more severe like with the gold. God gives us tests to refine us in the areas we need improvement.
James, the brother of the Master, speaks in his letter of the purpose of trials:
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. (James 1:2‒3)
Just as in a race, where endurance is required in order to finish strong, so life requires this kind of fortitude. He goes on to speak about the reward of those who endure the testing:
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)
As we go through these various testings in life we need to keep our eyes on the Father and trust that it is all for our good. This is more easily said than done at times, while we are struggling in the heat of a trial, but if we can keep it in mind it makes the testing easier to endure.