Proverbs 30:24
There be four things which are little on the earth, but they are exceeding wise:
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Proverbs 30:24-28. There be four things little, &c., but exceeding wise — Comparatively to other brute creatures, they act very wisely and providently, through the direction of Divine Providence, which secretly influences them to do those things for their own preservation which are most agreeable to the rules of wisdom. The design of this observation Isaiah , 1 st, To commend wisdom to us, and to teach us to imitate the providence of these creatures, as we are excited, Proverbs 6:6, to imitate their diligence; 2d, To keep us from being proud of our own wisdom, because we are either equalled or exceeded therein by brute creatures, in the wise conduct of their affairs; and, 3d, To direct us to whom to apply for wisdom when we want and desire it, even to that God who inspires such wisdom even into irrational animals. The ants are a people — Which title is often given to insects, and other inferior creatures, both in the Scriptures, (see Joel 1:6; Joel 2:2,) and in Homer, and Virgil, and divers other authors; yet they prepare their meat in the summer — Of which see on Proverbs 6:6-8. The conies are but a feeble folk — Rather, the rock-rats, or mountain-mice: see on Leviticus 11:5. Yet make their houses in the rocks — In the holes of rocks, where they secure themselves against their too potent enemies. The locusts have no king — To rule and order them; yet they go forth all of them by bands — In great numbers, in several companies, and in exact order, as is observed in Scripture, and in other authors. The spider taketh hold — Of the threads which she spins out of her own bowels; with her hands — With her legs, which he calls hands, because they serve her for the same use to do her work, to weave her web, and to catch gnats or flies. And is in kings’ palaces — Is not only in poor cottages, but many times in palaces also.30:24-28. Four things that are little, are yet to be admired. There are those who are poor in the world, and of small account, yet wise for their souls and another world. 29-33. We may learn from animals to go well; also to keep our temper under all provocations. We must keep the evil thought in our minds from breaking out into evil speeches. We must not stir up the passions of others. Let nothing be said or done with violence, but every thing with softness and calmness. Alas, how often have we done foolishly in rising up against the Lord our King! Let us humble ourselves before him. And having found peace with Him, let us follow peace with all men.Exceeding wise - Some prefer the reading of the Septuagint and Vulgate: "wiser than the wise." The thought, in either case, turns upon the marvels of instinct, which, in their own province, transcend the more elaborate results of human wisdom. 24-31. These verses provide two classes of apt illustrations of various aspects of the moral world, which the reader is left to apply. By the first (Pr 30:25-28), diligence and providence are commended; the success of these insignificant animals being due to their instinctive sagacity and activity, rather than strength. The other class (Pr 30:30, 31) provides similes for whatever is majestic or comely, uniting efficiency with gracefulness. Comparatively to other brute creatures. They act very wisely and providently, not from any reason which they have, but by the direction of Divine Providence, which secretly guides them to do those things for their own preservation which are most agreeable to the rules of wisdom. The design of this observation is either,

1. To commend wisdom to us, and to teach us to imitate the providence of these creatures, as we are provoked to imitate their diligence, Proverbs 6:6. Or,

2. To keep us from being proudly conceited of our own wisdom, because we are either equalled or exceeded therein by the unreasonable creatures in the wise conduct of their affairs. Or,

3. To direct us to whom to resort for wisdom when we want and desire it, even to that God who is able to inspire wisdom even into the brute creatures. There be four things which are little upon the earth,.... Small in bulk, that have little bodies, are the lesser sort of animals;

but they are exceeding wise; show a great deal of art and wisdom in what they do; or "but they are wise, made wise" (e) by the instinct of nature, by the direction of Providence, by which they do things that are surprising. Some versions, that have no regard to the points, read the words, "but their are wiser than the wise" (f); than even wise men; wise men may learn much from the least of creatures; see Job 12:7.

(e) "sapientia, sapientia imbuta"; Heb. "sapientificata", Piscator, Gejerus. (f) "Sapientiora sapientibus", so Sept. V. L. Arabic and Syriac versions; "sapientia superant, vel prudentissimos", Tigurine version.

There are four things which are little upon the earth, but they are very {n} wise:

(n) They contain great doctrine and wisdom.

24–28. Four things which though little are wise.Verses 24-28. - Four things small and weak, and yet wise. Verse 24. - There be four things which are little upon the earth, in contrast with the intolerable pretensions of the last group. The Vulgate has minima; but the original is not superlative, which would not be true of some of the creatures named. But they are exceeding wise; "quick of wit, wise," the participle מְחֻכִּמִים meaning "rendered wise, cunning" (Delitzsch). The Septuagint and Vulgate translate in the comparatives. "These are wiser than the wise," the instincts of these animals being more marvellous than human wisdom. The following proverb, again a numerical proverb, begins with the eagle, mentioned in the last line of the foregoing:

18 Three things lie beyond me,

     And four I understand not:

19 The way of the eagle in the heavens,

     The way of a serpent over a rock,

     The way of a ship on the high sea,

     And the way of a man with a maid.

20 Thus is the way of the adulterous woman:

     She eateth and wipeth her mouth, and saith:

     I have done no iniquity.

נפלאוּ ממּנּי, as relative clause, like 15b (where Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion rightly: τρία δέ ἐστιν ἃ οὐ πλησθήσεται), is joined to שׁלשׁה המּה. On the other hand, ארבע (τέσσαρα, for with the Kerı̂, conforming to 18a, ארבּעה, τέσσαρας) has to be interpreted as object. accus. The introduction of four things that are not known is in expressions like Job 42:3; cf. Psalm 139:6. The turning-point lies in the fourth; to that point the other three expressions gravitate, which have not an object in themselves, but are only as folie to the fourth. The articles wanting after הנּשׁר: they would be only the marks of the gender, and are therefore unnecessary; cf. under Proverbs 29:2. And while בּשּׁמים, in the heavens, and בלב־ים, in the sea, are the expressions used, עלי צוּר is used for on the rock, because here "on" is not at the same time "in," "within," as the eagle cleaves the air and the ship the waves. For this same reason the expression, "the way of a man בּעלמה," is not to be understood of love unsought, suddenly taking possession of and captivating a man toward this or that maid, so that the principal thought of the proverb may be compared to the saying, "marriages are made in heaven;" but, as in Kidduschin 2b, with reference to this passage, is said coitus via appellatur. The ב refers to copula carnalis. But in what respect did his understanding not reach to this? "Wonderful," thus Hitzig explains as the best interpreter of this opinion elsewhere (cf. Psychol. p. 115) propounded, "appeared to him the flying, and that how a large and thus heavy bird could raise itself so high in the air (Job 39:27); then how, over the smooth rock, which offers no hold, the serpent pushes itself along; finally, how the ship in the trackless waves, which present nothing to the eye as a guide, nevertheless finds its way. These three things have at the same time this in common, that they leave no trace of their pathway behind them. But of the fourth way that cannot be said; for the trace is left on the substrat, which the man דּרך, and it becomes manifest, possibly as pregnancy, keeping out of view that the עלמה may yet be בתולה. That which is wonderful is consequently only the coition itself, its mystical act and its incomprehensible consequences." But does not this interpretation carry in itself its own refutation? To the three wonderful ways which leave no traces behind them, there cannot be compared a fourth, the consequences of which are not only not trackless, but, on the contrary, become manifest as proceeding from the act in an incomprehensible way. The point of comparison is either the wonderfulness of the event or the tracklessness of its consequences. But now "the way of a man בתולה" is altogether inappropriate to designate the wonderful event of the origin of a human being. How altogether differently the Chokma expresses itself on this matter is seen from Job 10:8-12; Ecclesiastes 11:5 (cf. Psychol. p. 210). That "way of a man with a maid" denotes only the act of coition, which physiologically differs in nothing from that of the lower animals, and which in itself, in the externality of its accomplishment, the poet cannot possibly call something transcendent. And why did he use the word בעלמה, and not rather בּנקבה [with a female] or בּאשּׁה [id.]? For this reason, because he meant the act of coition, not as a physiological event, but as a historical occurrence, as it takes place particularly in youth as the goal of love, not always reached in the divinely-appointed way. The point of comparison hence is not the secret of conception, but the tracelessness of the carnal intercourse. Now it is also clear why the way of the serpent עלי צור was in his eye: among grass, and still more in sand, the trace of the serpent's path would perhaps be visible, but not on a hard stone, over which it has glided. And it is clear why it is said of the ship בלב־ים [in the heart of the sea]: while the ship is still in sight from the land, one knows the track it follows; but who can in the heart of the sea, i.e., on the high sea, say that here or there a ship has ploughed the water, since the water-furrows have long ago disappeared? Looking to the heavens, one cannot say that an eagle has passed there; to the rock, that a serpent has wound its way over it; to the high sea, that a ship has been steered through it; to the maid, that a man has had carnal intercourse with her. That the fact might appear on nearer investigation, although this will not always guide to a certain conclusion, is not kept in view; only the outward appearance is spoken of, the intentional concealment (Rashi) being in this case added thereto. Sins against the sixth [ equals seventh] commandment remain concealed from human knowledge, and are distinguished from others by this, that they shun human cognition (as the proverb says: אין אפיטרופוס לעריות, there is for sins of the flesh no ἐπίτροπος) - unchastity can mask itself, the marks of chastity are deceitful, here only the All-seeing Eye (עין ראה כּל, Aboth ii. 1) perceives that which is done. Yet it is not maintained that "the way of a man with a maid" refers exclusively to external intercourse; but altogether on this side the proverb gains ethical significance. Regarding עלמה (from עלם, pubes esse et caeundi cupidus, not from עלם, to conceal, and not, as Schultens derives it, from עלם, signare, to seal) as distinguished from בּתוּלה, vid., under Isaiah 7:14. The mark of maidenhood belongs to עלמה not in the same way as to בתולה (cf. Genesis 24:43 with 16), but only the marks of puberty and youth; the wife אשּׁה (viz., אושׁת אישׁ) cannot as such be called עלמה. Ralbag's gloss עלמה שׁהיא בעולה is incorrect, and in Arama's explanation (Akeda, Abschn. 9): the time is not to be determined when the sexual love of the husband to his wife flames out, ought to have been ודרך אישׁ בּאשׁתּו ne. One has therefore to suppose that Proverbs 30:20 explains what is meant by "the way of a man with a maid" by a strong example (for "the adulterous woman" can mean only an old adulteress), there not inclusive, for the tracklessness of sins of the flesh in their consequences.

This 20th verse does not appear to have been an original part of the numerical proverb, but is an appendix thereto (Hitzig). If we assume that כּן points forwards: thus as follows is it with the... (Fleischer), then we should hold this verse as an independent cognate proverb; but where is there a proverb (except Proverbs 11:19) that begins with כּן? כן, which may mean eodem modo (for one does not say כּן גּם) as well as eo modo, here points backwards in the former sense. Instead of וּמחתה פּיה (not פּיה; for the attraction of that which follows, brought about by the retrogression of the tone of the first word, requires dageshing, Thorath Emeth, p. 30) the lxx has merely ἀπονιψαμένη, i.e., as Immanuel explains: מקנּחה עצמה, abstergens semet ipsam, with Grotius, who to tergens os suum adds the remark: σεμνολογία (honesta elocutio). But eating is just a figure, like the "secret bread," Proverbs 9:17, and the wiping of the mouth belongs to this figure. This appendix, with its כן, confirms it, that the intention of the four ways refers to the tracklessness of the consequences.

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