Many specimens of the so-called Wisdom Literature are preserved for us in the book of Proverbs, for its contents are by no means confined to what we call proverbs. The first nine chapters constitute a continuous discourse, almost in the manner of a sermon; and of the last two chapters, ch. xxx. is largely made up of enigmas, and xxxi. is in part a description of the good housewife.

All, however, are rightly subsumed under the idea of wisdom, which to the Hebrew had always moral relations. The Hebrew wise man seldom or never gave himself to abstract speculation; he dealt with issues raised by practical life. Wise men are spoken of almost as an organized guild, and coordinated with priests and prophets as early as the time of Jeremiah (xviii.18), but the general impression made by the pre-exilic references to the wise men is that they exercised certain quasi-political functions and hardly correspond to the wise men of later times who discussed issues of the moral life and devoted themselves to the instruction of young men (Prov. i.4, 8).

Most of the important types of thought of the wise men are represented in the book of Proverbs. There are proverbs proper, a few of the popular kind, but most of them bearing the stamp of deliberate art, and dealing with the prudent conduct of life (x.-xxix.); there are speculations of a more general kind on the nature that wisdom which is the guide of life (i.-ix.); and there is scepticism (cf. Eccles.) represented by the words of Agur (xxx.1-4). The book, as a whole, might be described as a guide to the happy life, or, we might almost say, to the successful life -- for a certain not ignoble utilitarianism clings to many of its precepts. The world is recognized as a moral and orderly world, and wisdom is profitable unto all things. The wisdom which the wise man manifests in contact with life and its exigencies is but a counterpart of the divine wisdom which, in one noble passage, is the fellow of God and more ancient than creation (viii.).

There is not a little literary power in the book. Very beautiful is Wisdom's appeal to the sons of men, and her invitation to the banquet (viii., ix.). The isolated proverbs in x.-xxix. are usually more terse and powerful than they appear in the English translation. There are flashes of humour too:

As a ring of gold in a swine's snout,
So is a fair woman without discretion, xi.22.
Withhold not correction from thy son,
Though thou smite him with the rod, he will not die, xxiii.13.

They deal with life upon its average levels: there is nothing of the prophetic enthusiasm, but they are robust and kindly withal.

Not without reason has the book been called "a forest of proverbs," for at any rate in the body of it it is practically impossible to detect any principle of order. Usually the sayings in x.-xxix. are disconnected, but occasionally kindred sayings are gathered into groups of two or more verses; and sometimes it would seem as if the principle of arrangement was alphabetic, several consecutive verses occasionally beginning with the same letter, e.g., xx.7-9, xxii.2-4. There are eight divisions --

(a) i.-ix. (of which i.1-6 is no doubt designed as an introduction to the whole book, and vi.1-19 is probably an interpolation): an impressive appeal to secure wisdom and avoid folly, especially when she appears in the guise of the strange woman. Wisdom's own appeal and invitation.

(b) x.-xxii.16. A series of very loosely connected proverbs in couplets, x.-xv. being chiefly antithetic (cf. x.1, xv.1) and xvi.1-xxii.16 chiefly synthetic (cf. xvi.16).

(c) xxii.17-xxiv.22, designated as "the words of the wise," containing a few continuous pieces (cf. xxiii.29-35 on drunkenness) and addressed, like i.-ix., to "my son," cf. xxiii.15, 26.

(d) xxiv.23-34, probably little more than an appendix to (c), and also containing a continuous piece (cf. vv. 30-34 on sloth).

(e) xxv.-xxix. A series, in many respects resembling (6), of loosely connected sayings. This section, especially xxv.-xxvii., contains more proverbs in the strict sense, i.e. sayings without any specific moral bearing, e.g. xxv.25.

(f) xxx. The words of Agur, of a sceptical and enigmatical kind, worked over by an orthodox reader (cf. vv.5, 6, which reprove vv.2-4).

(g) xxxi.1-9. Words addressed to king Lemuel (whom we cannot identify) by his mother.

(h) xxxi.10-31. An alphabetic poem in praise of the good housewife.

Clearly the book makes no pretence to be, as a whole, from Solomon. If we except i.1-6, which is introductory to the whole book, only (b) and (e) are assigned to Solomon: the other
sections -- except the last, are deliberately assigned to others, (c) and (d) expressly to "the wise." The ascription of the whole book to Solomon, which seems to be implied by its opening verse, and which, if genuine, would render the fresh ascription in x.1 unnecessary, is no doubt to be explained as the similar ascription of the Psalms to David or the legislation to Moses. He was the "wise man" of Hebrew antiquity, and he is expressly said in 1 Kings iv.32 to have spoken 3,000 proverbs. The implication of that passage (cf. v.33) is that those proverbs consisted of comparisons between men and trees or animals: that supposition is met by some (cf. vi.6) but not by many in the book. There are not likely then to be many of his proverbs in our book; but not impossibly there may be some. Ch. xxv.1 is indeed very explicit, but that notice is, on the face of it, late. The fact that Hezekiah is called not simply king, but king of Judah, seems to point to a time -- at the earliest the exile -- when the kingdom of Judah was no more; so that this notice would be about a century and a half after Hezekiah's time, and Hezekiah is more than two centuries after Solomon. Obviously many of the proverbs in x.-xxix. could not have been Solomon's. The advice as to the proper demeanour in the presence of a king (xxv.6, 7) would not come very naturally from one who was himself a king (cf. xxiii.1ff.); nor, to say nothing of the praises of monogamy, would he be likely so to satirize his own government as he would do in xxix.4: "He whose exactions are excessive ruins the land."

The question may, however, be fairly raised whether the proverbs, though as a whole not Solomonic, may yet be pre-exilic; and here two questions must be kept apart -- the date of the individual proverbs and the date of the collections or of the book as a whole. Now it is very probable that some of the proverbs are pre-exilic. The references to the king, e.g. -- kindly in x-xxii., and more severe in xxv-xxix. -- might indeed apply to the Greek period (fourth and third centuries B.C.), but are equally applicable to the pre-exilic period; and many of the shrewd observations on life might come equally well from any period. But there can be little doubt that the groups in their present form are post-exilic. The sages do their work on the basis of the achievements of law and prophecy.[1] The great prophetic ideas about God are not discussed, they are presupposed; while the "law" of xxviii.4, 7, 9, as in Psalm cxix., appears to be practically equivalent to Scripture, and would point to the fifth century at the earliest. True, there are sayings quite in the old prophetic spirit, to the effect that character is more acceptable to God than ritual and sacrifice, xxi.3, 27, xv.8, xvi.6; but this would be an equally appropriate and almost more necessary warning in post-exilic times, especially upon the lips of men whose profession was in part that of moral education. [Footnote 1: The text of xxix.18a is too insecure (cf. Septuagint) to justify us in saying that prophecy still exists. ]

There is no challenge of idolatry, such as we should expect if the book were pre-exilic, and monogamy is everywhere presupposed. Indeed it is very remarkable that no mention is made of Israel, or of any institutions distinctly Israelitic. Its subject is not the nation, but the individual, and its wisdom is cosmopolitan. Now though this appeal to man rather than Israel, this emphasis on the universal conscience, can be traced as far back as the eighth century[1] (Amos iii.9), the thoroughgoing application of it in Proverbs suggests a larger experience of international relationships, which could hardly be placed before the exile, and was not truly developed till long after it, say, in the Persian or Greek period. This is peculiarly true of chs. i-ix., which was probably an independent piece, prefixed to x.-xxix., to gather up their sporadic elements of wisdom in a comprehensive whole, and to secure an adequate religious basis for their maxims which were, in the main, ethical. It is not necessary to suppose that the personification of wisdom in ch. viii. is directly influenced by Greek philosophy, but the whole speculative manner of the passage points to a late, even if independent, development of Jewish thought. The last two chapters are probably the latest in the book, which, while it must be earlier than Ben Sirach (180 B.C.), who distinctly adapts it, is probably not earlier than 300 B.C.
[Footnote 1: Micah vi.8, "He that showed thee, O man, what is good," is also a saying of far-reaching significance in this connection.]

The value of this much-neglected book is very great. It is easy of course to point to its limitations -- to show that it hardly, if ever (ix.18?) looks out upon another world, but confines its compensations and its penalties to this, xi.31, or to discover utilitarian elements in its morality, in.10, or mechanical features in its conception of life, xvi.31. But it would be easy to exaggerate. The sages know very well that a good name is better than wealth, xxii.1, and that the deepest success of life is its conformity to the divine wisdom (i.-ix.). While most of the maxims are purely ethical, it has to be remembered that to the Hebrew morality rests upon religion: the introductory section (i.-ix.) throws its influence across the whole book, the motto of which is that the fear of Jehovah is the basis of knowledge and its chief constituent, i.7. Besides, many of the maxims themselves are specifically religious, e.g., "He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker," xiv.31, "He that hath pity on the poor lendeth to Jehovah," xix.17. On the more purely moral side, besides giving a welcome glimpse into ancient Hebrew society, it is rich in applications to modern life. Slander and revenge are severely denounced; and earnest and repeated warnings are lifted up in different parts of the book against wine and women (v., xxiii., xxxi.). Care for animals is inculcated, xii.10, and love to enemies, xxv.21., in words borrowed by the New Testament -- a notable advance on Leviticus xix.18.

In one or two respects the book is of peculiar interest and value to the modern world. It is more interested, e.g., in practice than in creed. Its creed is very simple, little more than a general fear of Jehovah; but this receives endless application to practical life. Again, the appeal of the book is, on the whole, not to revelation, but to experience, and it meets the average man and woman upon their ordinary level. Its appeal is therefore one which cannot be evaded, as it commends itself, without the support of revelation, to the universal moral instincts of mankind. Again, its emphasis upon the moral, as opposed to the speculative, is striking. Immediately after a passage which approaches as near to metaphysical speculation as any Old Testament writer ever approaches, viii.22-31, comes a direct, tender and personal appeal. Lastly, there is an almost modern sense of the inexorableness of law in the solemn reminder that those who refuse and despise the call of wisdom will be left alone and helpless when their day of trouble comes, i.22ff. But the sternness is mitigated by a gentler thought. Like a gracious lady, wisdom, which is only one aspect of the divine Providence, pleads with men, yearning to win them from their folly to the peace and happiness which are alone with her; and even suffering is but one of the ways of God, a confirmation of sonship, and even a manifestation of His love.

Whom Jehovah loveth, He reproveth,
Even as a father the son in whom he delighteth, iii.12.

This is perhaps the profoundest note in the book of Proverbs. A book so rich in moral precept and religious thought may well claim to have fulfilled its programme: "to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion," i.4.

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