First, be prudent and wise as a serpent. Do not imitate a serpent in any other respect but in this. Never let the devil enter into you as he did in to the serpent, nor become groveling and cunning. But still, the serpent is an exceedingly wise creature and it had need to be, for it lives in a world where it is hated by a deadly foe. It is natural for man to hate the whole serpent tribe. The very first thing you do if you see a viper is to look for a stick to kill it. Everybody is the enemy of serpents and if they are to exist, at all, they must be very wary—in this you are to copy them. What does a serpent do to preserve itself? What is it which proves its wisdom?
First, it gets out of the way of man as much as it can. Our Lord meant this, for immediately after our text He says, “But beware of men.” It is well to get out of the society of ungodly men and let them see that their habits and modes of conversation are not ours. Seek to benefit them, but do not seek their society. Their wolfish propensities are most seen in their leisure time, in their drinking and reveling, therefore keep far from these. You have no business in their gay parties, their frivolous assemblies, their drinking bouts, and places of lascivious song. Do not accept their invitations when you know that they will be under no restraint. Do not linger near them when they are talking lewdly or profanely. Your moving off will be your most telling protest. You must be with them in your business—indeed, you are sent to them, but while you are with them you must not be of them and you should discreetly avoid them when you know that you can do no good.
You younger ones should get out of the way of old blasphemers and scoffers as much as you ever can, for they delight to worry the lambs. Do not attempt to answer them, but keep out of their way. Do not court quarrelling and controversy, but avoid all disputing upon the gospel. Your workmates will chaff you and no doubt you will receive many opprobrious epithets (nicknames), but neither provoke this treatment nor resent it in any way. Do not cast pearls before swine and do not introduce religion at unseasonable times. Hold your principles very firmly, but when you know a man will only blaspheme if he hears you name the name of Jesus, do not give him the occasion. Stand up for Jesus when the time is fit, but do not exercise zeal without knowledge. When a man is half drunk or in a passion, leave him to himself and thus escape many a brawl. At another opportunity, when the occasion is more favorable, then endeavor to instruct and persuade, but not when failure is certain. Be very prudent and hold your peace when silence is better than speech.
How else does the serpent act? It glides along very quietly. It can hiss, but it does not very often do so. As it glides along, it neither sings, nor roars, nor barks. It does not court observation. It slips off quietly, gracefully, swiftly, and without noise. Now, do not seek after great publicity. There may be times when it may be well to ring the great bell. If you can get multitudes of people together to hear the gospel, by all means ring the bell as loudly as you can, but as far as you are personally concerned, do not make a fuss, do not blazon abroad what you are going to do, do not call upon everybody, saying, “Come, see my zeal for the Lord of hosts.” Glide along through a useful life as quietly as the serpent which does what he finds to do and says nothing, dreading rather than courting the eye of man. Unobtrusive earnestness, quiet, simple-minded resolution to achieve your purpose, whether men will bear or whether they will forbear, whether they will praise or whether they will laugh at you—this is your wisdom.
Then, again, the serpent is famous for finding his way where no other creature could enter—any little space, any tiny opening will be sufficient for his purpose. His form is adapted to progress among obstacles. You may block the way to other creatures, but he will wriggle in somehow. So should it be with us. If we cannot get at men’s hearts one way, we must try another. If you cannot induce them to read the gospel, get them to hear it. If you cannot induce them to hear a sermon, drop a verse into their ears. If a tract is refused, put a word in edgeways for your Lord and Master. There is a way into everyone’s heart if you know how to find it—be wise as serpents and discover it. Though it seems very difficult to reach some minds, yet with holy perseverance and serpentine adroitness (skill) continue the attempt and you will succeed. There is a weak point in the strongest man’s mind, where his opposition can be wounded. Even Leviathan that laughs at the spear has a tender place where the spear’s point may come at him—and so the most ungodly, wicked, blaspheming, profane infidel has some point where you may reach his better feelings if you do but search it out. Be wise as serpents in this respect.