Introduction to Proverbs
1. The opening words of the book Proverbs 1:1 give us its current Hebrew title, of which the first word has been adopted by translators, and "Proverbs" has become the common heading of the book in the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the King James Version. At one time a title of honor, the Book of Wisdom, or the "all-excellent wisdom," was applied by both Jews and Christians to this book, indicating that the book took its place, as the representative of the Wisdom of which the Hebrews thought so much, at the head of the whole class of books, canonical or apocryphal, which were known as Sapiential.
The Hebrew word for "proverb" (משׁל mâshâl) has a much more definite significance than the Greek παροιμία paroimia, and the Latin "proverbium." Its root-meaning is that of comparison, the putting of this and that together, noting likeness in things unlike; it corresponds to the Greek παραβολή parabolē rather than παροιμία paroimia. That it was applied also to moral apophthegms of varying length, pointed and pithy in their form, even though there might be no similitude, is evident enough throughout the book.
Proverbs are characteristic of a comparatively early stage in the mental growth of most nations. A single startling or humorous fact serving as the type of all similar facts (e. g., 1 Samuel 10:12); the mere result of an induction to which other instances may be referred (e. g., 1 Samuel 24:13); a law, with or without a similitude, or explaining in this manner the course of events in the lives of men or in the history of their nation Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2 : these things furnish proverbs found in the history of all nations, generally in its earlier stages. There is little or no record of their birth. No one knows their author. They find acceptance with people from their inherent truth or semblance of truth. Afterward, commonly at a much later period, people make collections of them.
2. The Book of Proverbs, however, is not such a collection. So far as it includes what had previously been current in familiar sayings, there was a process of selection, guided by a distinct didactic aim - excluding all that were local, personal, or simply humorous, and receiving those which fell in with the ethical purpose of the teacher. As in the history of other nations, so among the Hebrews (compare 1 Kings 4:31), there rose up, at a certain stage of culture, those to whom the proverb was the most natural mode of utterance, who embodied in it all that they had observed or thought out as to the phenomena of nature or of human life. So pre-eminently was the sage to whose authorship the Book of Proverbs is assigned - Solomon, the son of David.
The definite precision of 1 Kings 4:32 leads to the inference that there was at the time when that book was written a known collection of sayings ascribed to Solomon far longer than the present book, and of songs which are almost, or altogether, lost to us. The scope of that collection may probably have included a far wider range of subjects (such as trees, creatures, etc.), than the present book, which is from first to last ethical in its scope, deals but sparingly, through the larger portion of its contents, with the world of animals and plants, and has nothing that takes the form of fable.
3. The structure of the book shows, however, that it is a compilation from different sources as well as a selection from the sayings of one man only; and a compilation which, in its present form, was made some three centuries after the time of Solomon. One considerable section of the book consists of proverbs that were first arranged and written out under Hezekiah Proverbs 25:1. Agur Proverbs 30:1 and Lemuel Proverbs 31:1 are named as the authors of the last two chapters. The book is, therefore, analogous in its composition to the Psalms; it is an anthology from the sayings of the sages of Israel, taking its name from him who was the chiefest of them, just as the Book of Psalms is an anthology from the hymns not only of David, but also of the sons of Korah and others.
The question as to how far the book gives us the teaching of Solomon himself, what portions of it may be assigned to him, and what may be attributed to some later writers, has been answered very differently. However, certain landmarks present themselves, dividing the book into sections, each of which is a complete whole.
(a) Proverbs 1:1-6 is the title and introduction to the book, describing its contents and aim. There seems good reason for believing that, though Proverbs 1:1 gave the original title of the book, the other verses were added by the last compiler, in whose hands it took its present shape.
(b) Proverbs 1:7 is something of a motto, laying down the principle which is the basis of the whole book. This may be assigned to the same compiler.
(c) Proverbs 1:8-9:18; one long exhortation, addressed by the teacher to his scholar, and each sub-section opening with the words, "my son" or "my children." In Proverbs 8 there is a change to a higher strain. Wisdom herself speaks, and not to the individual seeker, but to the sons of men at large Proverbs 8:4. This personification of Wisdom as a living power, and the stress laid upon her greatness and beauty, contrasted with the "strange woman," the "foreigner," i. e., the harlot or adulteress, whose fascination is most perilous to the soul entering on its time of trial, are the characteristic features of this portion.
The whole of this section has been ascribed by some commentators to a later author than Solomon, on the grounds which are, to say the least, very uncertain.
Arguments, in favor of the identity of authorship, are not lacking.
(d) Proverbs 10:1-22:16. The title indicates that the section had an independent origin. The continuous teaching is replaced by a series of isolated maxims, short, pithy, antithetic, the true type of the Hebrew proverbs, hardly ever carried beyond the limits of a single verse, dealing with the common facts of life, and viewing them from the point of prudence. This is the kernel of the whole book, representing the wisdom which made Solomon famous among men. Containing about 400 of these maxims, it may be thought of as probably a selection from the larger number referred to in 1 Kings 4:32, made possibly under the direction of the king himself, and prefaced by the more homiletic teachings of Proverbs 1-9. Though there is no systematic order, here and there two or more verses in succession deal with the same topic in a way which throws some light on the process by which the selection had been made, as though there had been something like a commonplace book, in which, though there was no systematic arrangement, there was a certain degree of grouping under different heads or catch-words.
Certain phrases too are characteristic of this section. As regards the substance of the teaching; stress is laid on the thought that Yahweh, the "Lord," is the supreme Giver of all good, the Judge and Ruler of mankind, all-knowing, and ordering all things; that the king, thought of in the ideal greatness which was natural in the time of Solomon, and hardly so at a later period, was as the counterpart and representative of Yahweh, an earthly Providence Proverbs 16:10-15; Proverbs 19:6, Proverbs 19:12; Proverbs 20:8, Proverbs 20:26, Proverbs 20:28; Proverbs 21:1.
(e) Proverbs 22:17-24:22: a section containing the more continuous teaching, the personal address, of the teacher to his "son" Proverbs 23:15, Proverbs 23:19, Proverbs 23:26; Proverbs 24:13, Proverbs 24:21, the same warnings against sins of impurity Proverbs 23:27-28, the same declaration of the end which the teacher has in view Proverbs 22:17-21, as are met with in Proverbs 1-9. It may seem a natural hypothesis that the same writer, having made the selection which forms the central portion of the book, wrote both prologue and epilogue to it, and that this, with the short section (f), was the form in which the book was current until it received its last additions in the reign of Hezekiah.
(f) Proverbs 24:23-34 : a section with a new title. "These things also belong to the wise," i. e., are spoken by them, fulfill the promise of the title Proverbs 1:6 that it would include the "words of the wise," wherever the compiler found them. Short as the section is, it presents in the parable of the field of the slothful Proverbs 24:30-34 some characteristic features not to be found in the other portions of the book. What had been spoken before barely and briefly Proverbs 6:9 is now reproduced with pictorial vividness. What was before a general maxim, becomes sharper and more pointed as a lesson of experience.
(g) Proverbs 25-29:27. The superscription of this section presupposes the existence of a previous collection, known as the Proverbs of Solomon, and recognized as at once authentic and authoritative. It shows that there were also current, orally, or in writing, other proverbs not included in that collection. It brings before us a marked instance of the activity of that period in collecting, arranging, and editing the writings of an earlier age. It is a distinct statement, that both the collection that precedes, and that which follows, were at that time, after careful inquiry, recognized to be by Solomon himself. The chapters to which it is prefixed present a general resemblance to the portion Proverbs 10-22:16 which all critics have regarded as the oldest portion of the book. There is the same stress laid on the ideal excellence of the kingly office (compare Proverbs 25:2-7 with Proverbs 16:10-15), the same half-grouping under special words and thoughts. , of the "righteous" in Proverbs 29:2, Proverbs 29:7,Proverbs 29:16. The average length of the proverbs is about the same, in most there is the same general parallelism of the clauses. There is a freer use of direct similitudes. In one passage Proverbs 27:23-27 there is, as an exceptional case, instruction which seems to be economic rather than ethical in its character, designed, it may be, to upheld the older agricultural life of the Israelites as contrasted with the growing tendency to seek wealth by commerce, and so fall into the luxury and profligacy of the Phoenicians.
(h) Proverbs 30-31: These two chapters present problems of greater difficulty, and open a wider field for conjecture. The word translated "prophecy" (Proverbs 30:1; Proverbs 31:1; משׂא maśśâ' ) is elsewhere, with scarcely an exception, rendered "burden," either in its literal sense, or, as denoting a solemn speech or oracle, uttered by a prophet (compare the titles of Isaiah 13-23.) If this meaning be received here, it indicates a marked difference between these chapters and the hortative addresses, or the collections of apophthegms of which, up to this time, the book had been composed.
The "prophecy" is addressed to two disciples, Ithiel (compare Nehemiah 11:7) and Ucal. Some take these names to be two ideal names, the first meaning "God is with me," and the second "I am strong," both names of the same ideal person, the representative of a divine wisdom, meeting Proverbs 30:4-5 the confession of ignorance and blindness. By others the words are treated as not being names at all, but part of the opening words of Agur himself, the introduction to the strange complaint, or confession, which opens so abruptly Proverbs 30:2.
The leading features of the section are less didactic, more enigmatic in character, as though it corresponded specifically to the "dark sayings" of Proverbs 1:6. The phenomena are grouped into quaternions, and show a strange intermingling of facts belonging to the brute and to the human world; in this, whensoever and by whomsoever written, showing the influence of the Book of Job as clearly as the earlier sections did. Probably, the section is a fragment of a work written by one belonging originally to the country to which many critics have been led to refer the Book of Job itself, a proselyte to the faith which the occurrence of the name Yahweh Proverbs 30:9 proves that the writer had received. The reign of Hezekiah was conspicuous for the re-opening of contact with these neighboring nations 2 Chronicles 32:23, for the admission of converts from them among the citizens of Zion Psalm 87:1-7, and for the zeal shown in collecting and adding to the canon whatever bore upon it the stamp of a lofty and heavenly wisdom.
(i) Proverbs 31:1-9. Most Jewish and some Patristic commentators have conjectured that Lemuel is a name for Solomon, and that the words of his mother's reproof were spoken when the first promise of his reign was beginning to pass into sensuality and excess. Others have suggested that Lemuel is simply an ideal name, he who is "for God," the true king who leads a life consecrated to the service of Yahweh. We must be content to confess our ignorance as to who Lemuel was, and what was the occasion of the "prophecy." It probably belongs to the same period as Proverbs 30 and was added to the book not earlier than the time of Hezekiah.
(j) Proverbs 31:10-31. The last portion of the book forms, more distinctly, perhaps, than any other, a complete whole in itself. From beginning to end, there is but one subject, the delineation of a perfect wife. The section is alphabetic in its structure. The form may have been adopted, as in the case of the alphabetic Psalms, partly as a help to memory, partly from the delight which, in certain stages, generally comparatively late in the history of literature, is felt in choosing a structure which presents difficulties and requires ingenuity to overcome them. The absence of any historical allusions makes it impossible to fix any precise date for it.
4. The ethical teaching of the Book of Proverbs rests upon principles which have their application to the varying circumstances of life.
The book belongs to a period when people had been taught to see more clearly than before the relative importance of the moral and the ceremonial precepts which seemed, in the Law of Moses, to stand on the same level as enjoined by divine authority. The language of Samuel 1 Samuel 15:22, of Asaph Psalm 50:13-14, of David Psalm 51:16-17, had impressed itself on the minds of the people at large, and on one who, like the writer of the Book of Proverbs, had grown up under the immediate influence of the teacher (Nathan) who, after the death of Samuel, stood at the head of the prophetic order. The tendency to discriminate between moral and positive obligations thus originated, would be fostered by contact with other Semitic nations, such as Edom and Sheba, standing on the same footing as regards the fundamental principles of ethics, but not led, as Israel had been, through the discipline of typical or symbolic ordinances. If the Book of Job was already known to the Israelite seekers after wisdom, the grandeur of its thoughts and the absence in it of any reference to the Law as such, would strengthen the conviction that instruction might be given, leading to a life of true wisdom and holiness and yet not including any direct reference to ceremonial or ritual precepts. These would be preserved in the traditions of household life, the example of parents, the teaching of priests and Levites; while a teacher such as the writer of the Book of Proverbs could aim at laying the foundation of a godly life independently of them, and exhibit that life in its completeness.
This accounts for the absence from the Proverbs of all mention of obligations on which devout Israelites at all times must have laid stress, and to which Pharisaism in its later developments gave an exaggerated prominence.
It was this negative characteristic which fitted the book to do a work which could not otherwise have been done so well, both for the education of Israel, and for that of mankind at large. The Jew was to be taught to recognize a common ground upon which he and they alike stood Mark 12:33. The Greek, when the sacred books of Israel were brought before him in his own language, could find in such a book as Proverbs, that which he could understand and sympathize with - teaching as to life and its duties, vices and their penalties, not unlike that which he found in his own literature. It was significant of the attractive power which this book exercised on the minds of men during the period between the Old and New Testaments, when there was no "open vision," and the gift of prophecy was for a time withdrawn, that the two most prominent books in the collection which we know as the Apocrypha, the only two, indeed, that have a marked didactic character, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, were based upon its model, and to a large extent reproduced its precepts.
The teaching of the Book of Proverbs was, however, in its essence, identical with that which formed the basis of the faith of Israel. Its morality was not merely the result of a wide observation of the consequences of good and evil conduct, but was essentially religious. The constant occurrence of the divine name in the form (יהוה Yahweh), which was the characteristic inheritance of Israel, and which is more frequently used than that of God (אלהים 'Elohiym), is in itself a sufficient proof that there was no surrender of the truth of which that name was the symbol. The reverence of Yahweh Proverbs 1:7 stood in the very front of its teaching as the beginning of wisdom. The temper thus indicated, that of awe and reverence, rooted in the consciousness of man's littleness and weakness in the presence of the Eternal and the Infinite, was at once the motive and the crown Proverbs 2:5 of the life of obedience to the laws of duty which the teaching of the book enjoins.
If outward prosperity, "length of days," and "riches and honor" Proverbs 3:16; Proverbs 10:27, attach to those who keep His commandments, men are taught also that He educates and trains them by "chastening" and "correction" Proverbs 3:11-12. All powers of intellect and speech, all efforts after holiness, are thought of as His gifts Proverbs 16:1, Proverbs 16:9, even as people are taught to recognize His bounty in all the outward blessings of their lives, and in the family relationships which make up the happiness of home Proverbs 19:14. When people are told to seek wisdom, they are led on to think of it as clothed with a personal life, in closest fellowship with the Eternal, inseparably one with Him Proverbs 8:22, Proverbs 8:30. And, since the wisdom which the book inculcates is thus raised far above the level of earthly prudence, so also the reward is more than outward prosperity. "Righteousness delivereth from death" Proverbs 11:4, turns, i. e., the inevitable end of life into a euthanasia. In contrast with the wicked, of whom it is true that "when he dieth his expectation shall perish" Proverbs 11:7, it is written of the righteous that he "hath hope in his death" Proverbs 14:32.
5. The application of these principles to practical and social life presupposes a state of society in which the simplicity of village life is giving way to the sudden development of the wealth and luxury which belong to cities. The dangers against which the young are warned with oft-repeated earnestness are those of extravagance, indebtedness, drunkenness, impurity leading to open lawlessness, and the life of the freebooter. Other faults incident to different temperaments are each, in their turn, held up to reprobation.
With the practical wisdom which is characteristic of the book, appealing, as it does, to those that are halting between two opinions, and inclining to the worse, stress is laid not chiefly on the sin but on the folly of the vice, not on its eternal, but its temporal consequences. People are urged to act first from secondary, prudential motives, to shun the poverty, wretchedness, ignominy, which are the consequences of self-indulgence, that so they may learn the habits of self-restraint which will make them capable of higher thoughts, and obedient to the divine law, as finding in that obedience itself their exceeding great reward. The remedies for these evils the writer or writers of the Book of Proverbs saw were to be found in education. Individuals and nations alike needed discipline and restraint. Individuals would find this in the training of home, in the counsels, warnings, and, if necessary, the chastisements also, by which the unruly will is checked and guided; nations, in the stern, inflexible, incorruptible administration of justice controlled by a wise and righteous king Proverbs 16:10, Proverbs 16:12-14; Proverbs 20:8, Proverbs 20:26, Proverbs 20:28. Hence, kings are counseled no less than subjects Proverbs 28:16; Proverbs 29:12; Proverbs 31:4 : the king is advised not to rely too much on his own unaided judgment, but to surround himself with wise and prudent counselors Proverbs 24:6, and to refer all to that wisdom, which is the gift of God Proverbs 8:15.
No ethical manual would be complete, unless it assigned to woman, as well as man, her right position in the social order. From her folly Proverbs 11:22 and degradation Proverbs 2:16-19; Proverbs 5:3-14; Proverbs 7:6-27 spring the worst evils; in her excellence is the crown and glory of a man's life Proverbs 11:16; Proverbs 12:4. No picture of ideal happiness is brighter than that of a home which is thus made perfect with the clear brightness of true union Proverbs 5:15-20. The "prudent wife" is thought of as one of God's best gifts Proverbs 19:14, "building her house" Proverbs 14:1 on the only true foundation. Her influence on her children is as great as that of their father, if not greater Proverbs 1:8; Proverbs 6:20. They owe what they have of goodness to her loving persuasion. Their sins and follies are a heaviness and reproach to her Proverbs 10:1; Proverbs 17:25. They are bound to render to her a true and loving obedience Proverbs 1:8; Proverbs 6:20. The teaching on this subject culminates in Proverbs 31, consisting as it does:
(1) of prophecy or oracular speech as to the office of a king and the special temptations incident to it, which comes from one who was herself the mother of a king, and
(2) of the picture of a perfect wife, wise, active, liberal, large-hearted, the ideal which the young man, seeking for the true blessedness of life, was to keep in view.
6. The Septuagint, or Greek Version of the Book of Proverbs, presents several points of interest. What was true of the Septuagint translation as a whole, that it seemed to bridge over the chasm that had divided the Jew from the Greek, holds good in a special degree of this part of it. In making that translation, the Jew would have to familiarize himself with the terminology of Greek ethical writers, and to note the precise equivalents for the attributes, moral and intellectual, of which the book treats so fully. In reading it, the Greek would find himself, far more than he would in reading law or psalm or prophet, on common ground on which he and the Jew could meet. The very words with which the Greek version of the book abounds, such as σοφία sophia, φρόνησις phronēsis, σύνεσις sunesis, δικαιοσύνη dikaiosunē, were those which were echoing in every lecture-room in Alexandria. Since the book itself, according to its traditional authorship, was the first-fruits of that largeness of heart which admitted contact with other nations and familiarity with their modes of thought and speech, so the translation tended to give prominence to that side of Judaism in which it presented itself to people, not as prophetic, typical, ceremonial, but wholly or chiefly as a monotheistic system of pure ethics.
Hence, this book, almost alone of the books of the Old Testament, served as a model for the Hellenistic writers of the two centuries b.c. The Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach or the son of Sirach (compare the prologue), probably also other lost books of the same kind, confessed in their very titles, yet more in their whole structure and tone, that the Proverbs of Solomon (especially Proverbs 8) had left their stamp upon them.
Philo's language, descriptive of the Logos, is a reflection of the Greek words in which Wisdom is personified. in the teaching of John, may be traced, in the highest aspects of Christian theology, the influence of the vivid portraiture of the personified Sophia of the Proverbs.
It lay in the nature of the case, both as to the thoughts of Philo, and yet more as to the higher teaching of John, that, so far as the Divine Wisdom was personified, the masculine, not the feminine, word should gain the ascendancy. A system in which σοφία sophia had been the dominant word might have led to an earlier development of that attractive power of the "ever-feminine," of which Mariolatry was a later growth; or might have become one in which, as in the rabbinic exegesis of Proverbs 8, Wisdom was identified with the Law given by Moses, and yet existing before the world was.
An instance, hardly less striking, of the influence exercised by the teaching of the Greek Version is seen in Luke 11:49. If our Lord was speaking of Himself as ἡ σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ hē sophia tou Theou that sent its prophets and Apostles into the world and sent them in vain, then we have a direct indication that He sought to lead His disciples to identify Him with the personal Wisdom of whom such great things are said in Proverbs 8, and who utters a like complaint Proverbs 1:20-33. If, however, the Wisdom of God be taken as the title of some lost book, the inference is that the teaching of the Book of Proverbs had impressed itself so deeply on the minds of the Jews of Palestine no less than on those of Alexandria as to give rise there also to a "Sapiential" literature in which Wisdom appeared as the sender of those Apostles and prophets, on whom, as its foundation, the Church was to be built. If, further, we take in the thought that our Lord's representations of His work, as they were determined, on one side, by the Messianic language of Isaiah, were influenced, on another, by the teaching of Proverbs 8; 9; the invitation in Proverbs 9:5 may be the source from whence flowed the deeper parable of John 6 and of the Last Supper; the "house" which Wisdom built, with its στῦλοι ἑπτὰ stuloi hepta Proverbs 9:1, the starting-point of the thought that the Church is the "house of God" 1 Timothy 3:15, "built" upon the rock Matthew 16:18 of the Apostles as the στύλοι stuloi of that house Galatians 2:9; 1 Timothy 3:15; and the feast which she prepared Proverbs 9:2-3 the origin of the parable of the Wedding Feast.
Thus, also, may be explained the stress which Paul lays on the fact that Christ Jesus ἐγενήθη ἡμῖν σοφία ἀπὸ θεοῦ egenēthē hēmin sophia apo Theou 1 Corinthians 1:30, that He is θεοῦ σοφία Theou sophia 1 Corinthians 1:24, that in Him are hid "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" Colossians 2:3. Its influence on Patristic theology is shown by the prominence given to Proverbs 8:22 (see the note) throughout the Arian controversy; and more remote after-growths of the Greek version of this book, may be noted in the Achamoth, or Σοφία Sophia, of the Gnostic systems of Basilides and Valentinus, in the church dedicated by Constantine to the Divine Wisdom, in the retention of that name by Justinian when he built the temple which, as the Mosque of Santa Sophia, still attracts the admiration of Christendom, and lastly, in the commonness of the personal name Sophia, the only one of its class that has become popular, while others, such as Irene, Agape, Pistis, Dikaiosyne, have fallen almost or altogether into oblivion.
The direct use of the Book of Proverbs in the New Testament presents some special features. Quotations from it are not very numerous, and are brought in, not with such words as γέγραπται, ἡ γραφὴ λέγει gegraptai, hē graphē legei, or as coupled with the name of Solomon, but as current and familiar sayings, as if the book had been used generally in education and its maxims impressed upon the memory. In almost all cases the quotations are from the Septuagint Version, in some instances even where it differs widely from the Hebrew. It will be worth while, as the circumstances just mentioned often hinder the quotations or allusive references from attracting the attention of the English reader, to refer to some, at least, of the more striking examples in parallel columns.
The familiarity of the New Testament writers with the Greek version of the book is, however, shown in other ways. Over and above their use of the same ethical terminology (σοφία sophia, σύνεσις sunesis, φρόνησις phronēsis, ἐπίγνωσις θεοῦ epignōsis Theou, αἴσθησις aisthēsis), its influence is to be traced in their choice of a word which occupies a prominent position in the vocabulary of Christendom. In Proverbs, prophetic stress is laid upon the φόβος θεοῦ phobos Theou as the ἀρχή σοφίας archē sophias, the groundwork of all virtues: the word occurs thirteen times, to say nothing of the parallel passages in Psalm 19:9; Psalm 34:11; Psalm 111:10. It might have been expected that it would be found not less prominent in the teaching of the New Testament. There, however, it is found but seldom Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 5:21. It is not difficult to see why the old phrase was felt to be no longer adequate.
In proportion as Κύριος Kurios came to be identified in men's minds with the Lord Jesus, and love in return for His love the one constraining motive, would there seem something harsh and jarring in a phrase which would come to them as equivalent to "the fear of Christ." Happily, the Septuagint version of the Book of Proverbs supplied also the synonym that was needed. In Proverbs 1:7 there is an alternative rendering, standing in juxtaposition to the other, namely, εὐσέβεια eusebeia; εὐσέβεια εἰς θεὸν ἀρχὴ αἰσθήσεως eusebeia eis Theon archē aisthēseōs. The word occurs also in Proverbs 13:11, and in Isaiah 11:2, where also it stands together with an alternative rendering πνεῦμα φόβου θεοῦ pneuma phobou Theou. The substantive, and yet more the adjective εὐσεβής eusebēs, occurs with greater frequency in the Apocryphal books, especially in Ecclesiasticus. The way was thus prepared for the prominence which the word gains, just as the necessity was beginning to be felt, in the latest Epistles of the New Testament. It occurs ten times in the Pastoral Epistles of Paul, and four times in Second Peter; Acts 3:12 (where the King James Version gives "holiness"), being the only other passage. The temper of devoutness, reverence, godliness, had thus taken the place in Christian terminology of the older "fear of the Lord."
For the most part, the choice of the Greek equivalents for the more prominent ethical or philosophical terms of the Proverbs is singularly felicitous. The history of the dominant word of the book (חכמה chokmâh), or more commonly in the plural, חכמות chokmôth, wisdom) is indeed almost an exact parallel to that of the σοφία sophia by which it was rendered. As used in the earlier books of the Old Testament Exodus 28:3; Exodus 35:10, Exodus 35:31, Exodus 35:35; Exodus 36:1 it, or its cognate adjective, is applied to the wisdom of those who had the skill or art which was required for the ornamentation of the tabernacle. We have traces of a higher application in Deuteronomy 4:6; Deuteronomy 34:9. As used of the wisdom of Solomon in 1 Kings, and throughout Job and the Psalms, as in the Proverbs, the higher prevails exclusively. So, in like manner, Aristotle describes the gradual elevation of the Greek σοφός sophos, how it was first applied to sculptors like Pheidias and Polycleitos, how σοφία sophia thus came to be known as ἀρετὴ τέχνης aretē technēs, then became equivalent to the highest accuracy in all things, and finally was thought of as οὐδεμίας γενέσεως oudemias geneseōs, separated altogether from the idea of art-production. So too, the use of φρόνησις phronēsis for a Hebrew word indicating the power which divides, discerns, distinguishes, is appropriate if the chief office of φρόνησις phronēsis be τὰ καθ ̓ ἕκαστα γνωρίζειν ta kath' hekasta gnōrizein. The general choice of αἴσθησις aisthēsis rather than ἐπιστήμη epistēmē for the rendering of the equivalent Hebrew word showed that they recognized the essentially practical character of the knowledge of which the Proverbs spoke, as perceiving the right thing to be done, and the right word to be said, in each detail of life.
Lastly, may be noted here some salient features of this Greek Version.
(a) In not a few places it adds to the existing Hebrew; the addition sometimes having the character of an alternative rendering, sometimes consisting of entirely new matter.
(b) Sometimes the insertions or variations have the character of an exegetical gloss, toning down or making more explicit what might seem doubtful or misleading in the original.
The arrangement of the closing chapters in the Greek Version also presents striking peculiarities, the whole of Proverbs 30 and Proverbs 31:1-9 being inserted after Proverbs 24:22, as part of the same chapter, and the acrostic description of the true wife ending the book as Proverbs 29. The most probable explanation of the transposition is that it originated in some accidental dislocation in the manuscript from which the translation was made.
The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel;The long exhortation Proverbs 1-9, characterized by the frequent recurrence of the words "my son," is of the nature of a preface to the collection of the "Proverbs of Solomon" Proverbs 10:1. On Proverbs 1:1-7, see the introduction to Proverbs.
To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding;The writer's purpose is to educate. He is writing what might be called an ethical handbook for the young, though not for the young only. Of all books in the Old Testament, this is the one which we may think of as most distinctively educational. A comparison of it with a similar manual, the "sayings of the fathers," in the Mishna, would help the student to measure the difference between Scriptural and rabbinical teaching.
Wisdom - The power by which human personality reaches its highest spiritual perfection, by which all lower elements are brought into harmony with the highest, is presently personified as life-giving and creative. Compare the notes of Job 28:23, etc.
Instruction - i. e., discipline or training, the practical complement of the more speculative wisdom.
Understanding - The power of distinguishing right from wrong, truth from its counterfeit. The three words σοφία sophia, παιδεία paideia, φρόνησις phronēsis (Septuagint), express very happily the relation of the words in the Hebrew.
To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity;Wisdom - Not the same word as in Proverbs 1:2; better, perhaps, thoughtfulness.
Justice - Rather, righteousness. The word in the Hebrew includes the ideas of truth and beneficence as well as "justice."
Judgment - The teaching of the Proverbs is to lead us to pass a right sentence upon human actions, whether our own or another's.
Equity - In the Hebrew (see the margin) the plural is used, and expresses the many varying forms and phases of the one pervading principle.
To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.This verse points out the two classes for which the book will be useful:
(1) the "simple," literally the "open," the open-hearted, the minds ready to receive impressions for good or evil Proverbs 1:22; and
(2) the "young," who need both knowledge and discipline.
To these the teacher offers the "subtilty," which may turn to evil Exodus 21:14 and become as the wisdom of the serpent Genesis 3:1, but which also takes its place, as that wisdom does, among the highest moral gifts Matthew 10:16; the "knowledge" of good and evil; and the "discretion," or discernment, which sets a man on his guard, and keeps him from being duped by false advisers. The Septuagint renderings, πανουργία panourgia for "subtilty," αἴσθησις aisthēsis for "knowledge," ἔννοια ennoia for "discretion," are interesting as showing the endeavor to find exact parallels for the Hebrew in the terminology of Greek ethics.
A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:But it is not for the young only that he writes. The "man of understanding" may gain "wise counsels," literally, the power to "steer" his course rightly on the dangerous seas of life. This "steersmanship," it may be noted, is a word almost unique to Proverbs (compare "counsel" in Proverbs 11:14; Proverbs 12:5; Proverbs 24:6).
To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.The book has yet a further scope; these proverbs are to form a habit of mind. To gain through them the power of entering into the deeper meaning of other proverbs, is the end kept in view. Compare Matthew 13.
The rendering "interpretation" spoils the parallelism of the two clauses, and fails to express the Hebrew. In Habakkuk 2:6, it is rendered "taunting proverb." Here "riddle" or "enigma" would better express the meaning.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.The beginning of wisdom is found in the temper of reverence and awe. The fear of the finite in the presence of the Infinite, of the sinful in the presence of the Holy (compare Job 42:5-6), this for the Israelite was the starting-point of all true wisdom. In the Book of Job 28:28 it appears as an oracle accompanied by the noblest poetry. In Psalm 111:10 it comes as the choral close of a temple hymn. Here it is the watchword of a true ethical education. This fear has no torment, and is compatible with child-like love. But this and not love is the "beginning of wisdom." Through successive stages and by the discipline of life, love blends with it and makes it perfect.
My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother:
For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.To the Israelite's mind no signs or badges of joy or glory were higher in worth than the garland around the head, the gold chain around the neck, worn by kings and the favorites of kings Genesis 41:42; Daniel 5:29.
My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.The first great danger which besets the simple and the young is that of evil companionship. The only safety is to be found in the power of saying "No," to all such invitations.
If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause:The temptation against which the teacher seeks to guard his disciple is that of joining a band of highway robbers. The "vain men" who gathered around Jephthah Judges 11:3, the lawless or discontented who came to David in Adullam 1 Samuel 22:2, the bands of robbers who infested every part of the country in the period of the New Testament, and against whom every Roman governor had to wage incessant war, show how deeply rooted the evil was in Palestine. Compare the Psalm 10:7, note; Psalm 10:10 note.
Without cause - Better, in vain; most modern commentators join the words with "innocent," and interpret them after Job 1:9. The evil-doers deride their victims as being righteous "in vain." They get nothing by it. It does them no good.
Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit:i. e., "We will be as all-devouring as Sheol. The destruction of those we attack shall be as sudden as that of those who go down quickly into the pit." Some render the latter clause, and upright men as those that go down to the pit. "Pit" here is a synonym for Sheol, the great cavernous depth, the shadow-world of the dead.
We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil:The second form of temptation (see Proverbs 1:10 note) appeals to the main attraction of the robber-life, its wild communism, the sense of equal hazards and equal hopes.
Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse:
My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path:
For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood.
Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.Strictly speaking, this is the first proverb (i. e., similitude) in the book; a proverb which has received a variety of interpretations. The true meaning seems to be as follows: "For in vain, to no purpose, is the net spread out openly. Clear as the warning is, it is in vain. The birds still fly in. The great net of God's judgments is spread out, open to the eyes of all, and yet the doers of evil, willfully blind, still rush into it." Others take the words as pointing to the failure of the plans of the evil-doers against the innocent (the "bird"): others, again, interpret the proverb of the young man who thinks that he at least shall not fall into the snares laid for him, and so goes blindly into them.
And they lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives.
So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof.Not robbery only, but all forms of covetousness are destructive of true life.
Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:Wisdom is personified. In the Hebrew the noun is a feminine plural, as though this Wisdom were the queen of all wisdoms, uniting in herself all their excellences. She lifts up her voice, not in solitude, but in the haunts of men "without," i. e., outside the walls, in the streets, at the highest point of all places of concourse, in the open space of the gates where the elders meet and the king sits in judgment, in the heart of the city itself Proverbs 1:21; through sages, lawgivers, teachers, and yet more through life and its experiences, she preaches to mankind. Socrates said that the fields and the trees taught him nothing, but that he found the wisdom he was seeking in his converse with the men whom he met as he walked in the streets and agora of Athens.
She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying,
How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?Compare the Psalm 1:1 note.
(1) The "simple," literally, "open," i. e. fatally open to evil;
(2) the "scorners," mocking at all good;
(3) lastly, the "fools" in the sense of being hardened, obstinate, perverse, hating the knowledge they have rejected.
Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.The teaching of Divine Wisdom is essentially the same as that of the Divine Word John 7:38-39. "Turning," repentance and conversion, this is what she calls the simple to. The promise of the Spirit is also like His John 14:26. And with the spirit there are to be also the "words" of Wisdom. Not the "spirit" alone, nor "words" alone, but both together, each doing its appointed work - this is the divine instrumentality for the education of such as will receive it.
Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded;The threats and warnings of Wisdom are also foreshadowings of the teaching of Jesus. There will come a time when "too late" shall be written on all efforts, on all remorse. Compare Matthew 25:10, Matthew 25:30.
But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof:
I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh;Compare the marginal reference. The scorn and derision with which men look on pride and malice, baffled and put to shame, has something that answers to it in the Divine Judgment. It is, however, significant that in the fuller revelation of the mind and will of the Father in the person of the Son no such language meets us. Sadness, sternness, severity, there may be, but, from first to last, no word of mere derision.
When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you.Desolation - Better, tempest. The rapid gathering of the clouds, the rushing of the mighty winds, are the fittest types of the suddenness with which in the end the judgment of God shall fall on those who look not for it. Compare Matthew 24:29 etc.; Luke 17:24.
Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me:
For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD:This is no arbitrary sentence. The fault was all along their own. The fruit of their own ways is death.
They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof.
Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.
For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.Turning - Wisdom had called the simple to "turn," and they had turned, but it was "away" from her. For "prosperity" read carelessness. Not outward prosperity, but the temper which it too often produces, the easy-going indifference to higher truths, is that which destroys.
But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.