In the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer. xviii.18; Ezek. vii.26) three distinct classes of religious teachers were recognized by the people: the prophets, the priests, and the wise men or sages. From their lips and pens have come practically all the writings of the Old Testament. Of these three classes the wise men or sages are far less prominent or well known. They wrote no history of Israel, they preached no public sermons, nor do they appear to have been connected with any sanctuaries. Quietly, as private teachers, they appealed to the nation through the consciences and wills of individuals. Proverbs viii.1-5 reveals their methods:
Doth not wisdom cry,
At the open spaces beside the city gates, where legal cases were tried, at the intersections of the streets, wherever men congregated, the sages of ancient Israel could be found, ready and eager to instruct or advise the inexperienced and foolish.
[Sidenote: Their functions]
The wise man or sage is a characteristic Oriental figure. First Kings iv.30 speaks of the far-famed wisdom of the nomadic tribes of northern Arabia and of the wisdom of Egypt. The sage appears to have been the product of the early nomadic Semitic life, in which books were unknown and the practical wisdom gained by experience was treasured in the minds of certain men who were called the wise or sages. In our more complex western life such functions have been distributed among the members of the legal, medical, and clerical professions, but even now, in smaller towns, may be found an Uncle Toby who is the counterpart of the ancient Hebrew sage. To men of this type young and old resort with their private problems, and rarely return without receiving real help and light. In the East, sages are still to be found, usually gray-bearded elders, honored and influential in the tribe or town.
[Sidenote: Source of their knowledge and inspiration]
Of the three classes of Israel's teachers the sages stood in closest touch with the people. They were naturally the father-confessors of the community. Observation was their guide, enlightened common sense their interpreter, and experience their teacher. The great book of human life, which is one of the most important chapters of divine revelation, was thrown open wide before them. The truths that they read there, as their eyes were divinely opened to see it, are recorded in the wisdom books of the Old Testament, -- Proverbs, Job, The Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.
[Sidenote: The objects of their attention]
It is significant that neither Israel nor the nation is mentioned in all the wisdom literature, and that man is spoken of thirty-three times in the book of Proverbs alone. Man was the object of their study and teaching; the nation, only as it was made up of individuals. In this respect the sages stand in contrast with the prophets, whose message usually is to the nation. They also have little to say about the ritual or the forms of religion. To them the fear and knowledge of God is the beginning of wisdom, and its end a normal relation to God, to one's fellowmen, and to life. Their message is directed equally to all mankind. The subjects that command, their attention are of universal interest: the nature and tendencies of man, and his relations and duties to God, to society, to the family, and to himself. Everything that concerns man, whether it be the tilling of the soil, the choice of a wife, the conduct of a lawsuit, or the proper deportment in the presence of a ruler, commands their earnest consideration.
[Sidenote: Their aims not theoretical but practical]
The Hebrew sages, however, were not mere students of human nature or philosophers. Knowledge to them was not an end in itself, but only a means. Their contribution to Israel's life was counsel (Jer. xviii.18). Their aim was, by the aid of their tried maxims, to so advise the inexperienced, the foolish, indeed, all who needed advice, that they might live the fullest and best lives and successfully attain all worthy ends. While their teaching was distinctively ethical and religious, it was also very practical and utilitarian. As pastors and advisers of the people, they drew their principles and ideals from Israel's prophets, and applied them to the practical, every-day problems of life. It is obvious that without their patient, devoted instruction the preparation of the chosen people for their mission would have been imperfect, and that without a record of their teachings the Old Testament would have been incomplete.
[Sidenote: Their teachings preserved in proverbs]
The proverb was the most characteristic literary form in which the sages treasured and imparted their teachings. Poetical in structure, terse, often figurative or epigrammatic, the proverb was well calculated to arouse individual thought and make a deep impression on the mind. Transmitted from mouth to mouth for many generations, like the popular tradition or law, it lost by attrition all its unnecessary elements, so that, 'like an arrow,' it shot straight to the mark. Based on common human experience, it found a ready response in the heart of man. In this way crystallized experience was transmitted, gathering effectiveness and volume in each succeeding generation. Job viii.8-10 speaks of this accumulated wisdom handed down from the former age, that which the fathers have searched out. They shall teach man and inform him, and utter words out of their heart. Job xv.18 also refers to that which wise men have told from their fathers and have not hid it. A proverb thus orally transmitted not only gains in beauty of form but also in authority, for it is constantly being tested in the laboratory of real life and receives the silent attestation of thousands of men and of many different generations.
[Sidenote: Expansion of the proverb]
When the sages desired to treat a many-sided subject, as, for example, intemperance, they still used proverbs, but combined them into brief gnomic essays (e. g., xxiii.29-85, xxvi.1-17). Sometimes, to fix the attention of their hearers, they combined two proverbs, so as to produce a paradox, as in Proverbs xxvi.4, 5:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
Later they developed the simple gnomic essay into a philosophical drama, of which Job is the classic example, or into a homily, like Ecclesiastes.
[Sidenote: Use of fables and riddles]
Side by side with the proverb, the sages appear from the earliest times to have used the fable also; this is illustrated by the fable of Jotham in Judges ix.6-21. Of the riddle a famous examples is that of Samson in Judges xiv.14, 18, which combines rhythm of sound with rhythm of thought and well illustrates the form of the earliest popular Hebrew poetry:
Out of the eater came something to eat,
And its answer: If with my heifer you did not plow, You had not solved my riddle now.
Proverbs xxx.15-31 contains a collection of numerical riddles, combined with their answers.
[Sidenote: Traces of proverbs and the work of sages in the Hebrew history]
Proverbs are found in the oldest Hebrew literature. The Midianite kings, awaiting death at the hand of Gideon, cite a popular proverb, For as the man, so is his strength. David in his conversation with Saul says, As runs the proverb, "Out of the wicked cometh forth wickedness" (I Sam. xxiv.13). Frequent references are also found to wise men and women, and examples are given of their prudence and insight Thus Joab, David's iron-hearted commander, brings a wise woman from Tekoa, the later home of the prophet Amos, to aid him in securing the recall of the banished Absalom. By her feigned story she succeeds in working upon the sympathy of the king to such a degree that he commits himself finally to a principle which she at once asks him to apply to the case of his own son (II Sam. xiv.1-24).
[Sidenote: Basis of Solomon's reputation for wisdom]
The stories told in I Kings iii.16-28, to illustrate the wisdom of Solomon, suggest the historical basis of the reputation which he enjoyed in the thought of succeeding generations. Such stories also indicate, as do the other early examples of the work of the wise, the conception of wisdom held in that more primitive age. Such wisdom does not necessarily include ethical righteousness or even practical executive ability, for the true Solomon of history was lacking in both; but rather a certain. shrewdness, versatility, and keenness of insight which enable its possessor to discern what is not clearly apparent. First Kings iv.29-34 contains the later popular tradition of Solomon's wisdom:
(29) And God gave Solomon wisdom and insight in plentiful measure, and breadth of mind, even as the sand that is on the seashore, (30) so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the eastern Arabians and all the wisdom of Egypt. (31) For he was wiser than all men: than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. (32) And he uttered three thousand proverbs, and his songs were five thousand. (33) And he spoke of different varieties of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, of birds, of creeping things, and of fishes. (34) And there came some from among all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, deputed by all kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
[Sidenote: Reason why all ancient proverbs were attributed to him]
A popular proverb, like a primitive oral law, usually grows out of common human experience, and is gradually formulated and moulded into its final literary form by successive generations. No one man can claim it as his own, and even if he could, the ancient Semitic East, which cared so little about authors' titles, would have quickly forgotten his name. That Solomon did utter certain brilliant aphorisms, embellished by illustrations drawn from animal and plant life, cannot be doubted; and that some of them have been preserved in the book of Proverbs is probable. These facts and the popular tradition that tended to exalt his wisdom clearly explain why all Hebrew proverbs were attributed to him (Prov. i.1), in the days of the final editing of the book of Proverbs.
[Sidenote: Evidence that Proverbs comes from many different writers]
That our present book of Proverbs is the work of many unknown sages, and consists of a collection of smaller groups coming from different periods, is demonstrated by the superscriptions which recur throughout the book, such as, These are the proverbs of Solomon (x.1), These also are the sayings of the wise (xxiv.23), These are the proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out (xxv.5), The words of King Lemuel (xxxi.1), The same proverbs also recur In different groups, indicating that originally they were independent collections, gleaned from the same field. When the first collection was made, the title Proverb of Solomon evidently meant a popular maxim handed down from antiquity and therefore naturally attributed to the most famous wise man in Israel's early history. It is an instructive fact that later proverbs, the immediate superscriptions to which plainly state that they come from many different sages, are still called Proverbs of Solomon; it betrays an exact parallel to the similar tendency, apparent in the legal and prophetic literature, to attribute late anonymous writings to earlier authors. This is also further illustrated by such late Jewish books as The Wisdom of Solomon or the Psalms of Solomon.
[Sidenote: Testimony of the individual proverbs]
The individual proverbs confirm the general conclusion that they come from many different authors. Those which commend fidelity to one wife and kingly consideration for the rights of subjects, qualities in which Solomon was sadly lacking, do not fit in his mouth. Many are written from the point of view of a subject, and describe what a man should do in the presence of a ruler. Furthermore, the ethical standards upheld are those of prophets who lived and taught long after the days of the Grand Monarch who fascinated his own and succeeding generations by his brilliant wit rather than by his sterling virtues.
[Sidenote: Real nature of Proverbs]
The book of Proverbs is far more than an epitome of his versatile sayings: it represents at least ten centuries of experience divinely guided, but won often through mistakes and bitter disappointments. It contains the many index hands, set up before the eyes of men to point them from error to truth, from folly to right, and from failure to success. Like most of the Old Testament books, it embodies the contributions of many different teachers writing from many different ages and points of view. Their common aim is well expressed by the sage who appended to Proverbs the preface:
To acquire wisdom and training,
[Sidenote: The first edition of Proverbs]
The structure and contents of the book suggest its literary history. Like the New Testament, it appears to have passed through different stages, and to have been supplemented repeatedly by the addition of new collections. The original nucleus is probably found in x.1 to xxii.16; this is introduced by the simple superscription, The Proverbs of Solomon. The form of the proverb is simple; the atmosphere is joyous, prosperity prevails, virtue is rewarded; a king who loves justice and righteousness is on the throne (xiv.35, xvi.10, 12, 13, xx.8, xxii.11); the rich, and poor stand in the same relation to each other as in the days of the pre-exile prophets; and the teaching of their prophets -- righteousness is more acceptable than sacrifice -- is frequently reiterated (xv.8, xvi.6, xxi.3, 27). While this long collection doubtless contains many proverbs antedating even the beginnings of Israel's history and possibly some added later, the indications are that they represent the original edition of the book which the Jews carried with them into the Babylonian exile. This early collection was perhaps made under the inspiring influence of the reign of Josiah.
[Sidenote: Dates of the other collections]
Undoubtedly the remaining collections also contain many very ancient proverbs, but as a whole their literary form and thought is more complex. The descriptions of the kings suggest the Persian and Greek tyrants who ruled over the Jews during the long centuries after the exile (cf. xxv.1-7, xxviii.2, 12, 15, 28, xxix.2, 4, 16, xix.14), The age of the prophets has apparently been succeeded by that of the priest and the law (xxix.18). Already the Jews have tasted the bitterness of exile (xxvii.8). There are also certain points of close contact with proverbs of Ben Sira, written about 190 B.C. The sages as a class are very prominent, as in the later centuries before Christ. These and many other indications lead to the conclusion that the different collections were probably made after the exile, and that the noble introduction, i.-ix., and the two chapters in the appendix were not added until some time in the Greek period, -- not long before 200 B.C. The date, however, when these proverbs arose and were committed to writing is comparatively unimportant, save as a knowledge of their background aids in their interpretation, and as they, in turn, reveal the life and thought of the persecuted, tempted Jews, whose religious life centred in the second temple.
[Sidenote: Teaching of the Song of Songs]
Probably in the Greek period also a poet-sage collected and wove together certain love and wedding songs of his race. The result was called the Song of Songs, that is, the Peerless Song. According to one interpretation, it presents, in a series of scenes, the heart struggle of a simple country maiden with the promptings of a true, pure love for a shepherd lover and the bewildering attractions of a royal marriage; and true love in the end triumphs. Whatever be the interpretation, it is clear that this exquisite little book, so filled with pictures of nature and simple country life, was intended to emphasize the duty and beauty of fidelity to nature and the promptings of the human heart. This thought is expressed in the powerful passage which seems to voice the central teaching of the poem:
Love is strong as death;