“If the serpent bites before it is charmed, it is of no profit to the master of the tongue.”
According to online sources like Wikipedia, the art of charming snakes began in Egypt, though we usually associate the art with India. Presuming an Egyptian origin, snake charming would have been something with which the Israeli people would have been quite familiar. And thus, the word picture displayed here, quite relevant.
The most basic aspect of the proverb is the literal illustration. If one who sets out to charm a snake is bitten by that snake before the snake is charmed, well, he is in a predicament. While most snake handlers make use of precautions, that misses the point. The serpents involved tend to be highly venomous and if the handler is bitten, emergency care is needed quickly to preserve his life.
When I started my career as a carpet installer, my boss rented the first floor of a small house as a showroom to sell jobs and I took regular evening shifts as part of my regular responsibilities. For a while, the upstairs was rented by a gentleman who raised venomous snakes for the Baltimore Zoo. One evening he brought me up to see an albino hooded viper that he had been raising. At the time, the snake was likely no more than a foot long, but it’s warning hiss was loud enough that it sounded like a vacuum cleaner. According to this man, the snake’s venom was potent enough to kill an elephant. I asked him what he would do if he ever came home and found that a snake had gotten out of the vivarium. He said, “I’d run.” So much for his skill as a snake charmer.
The spiritual side of the argument is likely just as obvious. If you have godly wisdom, yet do not apply said wisdom in the presence of evil or the threat thereof, you are going to find that your wisdom has done you very little good. Even more so, it will do those around you little good. The snake has struck.
As you look to the catechisms that have been put forth in the Reformed Tradition (Heidelberg and Westminster are probably the most widely used), one of the things that you will discover is that they suggest the “good and necessary consequences” that can be drawn from Biblical statements, in particular, with respect to the Law. Thus, when it comes to a command like, “Thou shall not murder,” there are applications in both the positive and negative. Not only are we to avoid actually murdering people, but we are to avoid those things like hatred and jealousy that lead people to murder one another. Further, we are to promote the welfare of our neighbor and do whatever we can to protect our neighbor’s life. This is an application of wisdom, as it were, ahead of the snake-bite.
Interestingly enough, the idiom for a snake charmer is the בַעַל הַלָּשׁוֹן (ba’al hallashon — “Master of the Tongue.” This clearly has to do with the characteristic tongue of the serpent, flicked in and out of its mouth as it engages with the charmer. James is very clear, though, that every Christian has an obligation to strive toward being the master of his or her own tongue (James 3:1-12). And so, once again, we see another level of application to this proverb, for what good is it to a man if he engages the tongue before his mind can control it? How much harm befalls a man or woman when they use their tongue indiscriminately and without wisdom?