International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Proverbs, Book of
1. Title and Headings
2. Authorship or Literary Species?
1. The Introductory Section
2. The Classic Nucleus
4. Some Left-over Precepts
5. The Hezekian Collection
6. Words of Agur
7. Words of King Lemuel
8. An Acrostic Eulogy of Woman
1. Liberation of the Mashal
2. Emergence of Basal Principles
3. The Conception of Wisdom
1. Under the Kings
2. The Concentrative Point
3. Its Stage in Progressive Wisdom
The Scripture book which in both the Hebrew and the Greek arrangements of the Old Testament Canon immediately succeeds the Psalms. In the Hebrew Canon it stands second in the final or supplementary division called
I. The Book's Account of Itself.
1. Title and Headings:
At the beginning, intended apparently to cover the whole work, stands the title: "The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel." It seemed good to the compilers, however, to repeat, or perhaps retain an older heading, "The proverbs of Solomon" at Proverbs 10 , as if in some special sense the collection there beginning deserved it; and at Proverbs 25 still another heading occurs: "These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out." All these ascribe the proverbs to Solomon; but the heading ( Proverbs 30:1 ), "The words of Agur the son of Jakeh; the oracle," and the heading (Proverbs 31:1 ), "The words of king Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him," indicate that authorship other than that of Solomon is represented; while the mention of "the words of the wise" (Proverbs 1:6; Proverbs 22:17 ), as also the definite heading, "These also are sayings of the wise" (Proverbs 24:23 ), ascribe parts of the book to the sages in general. The book is confessedly a series of compilations made at different times; confessedly, also, to a considerable extent at least, the work of a number, perhaps a whole guild, of writers.
2. Authorship or Literary Species?:
It is hazardous to argue either for or against a specific authorship; nor is it my intention to do so. The question naturally arises, however, in what sense this book, with its composite structure so outspoken, can lay claim to being the work of Solomon. Does the title refer to actual personal authorship, or does it name a species and type of literature of which Solomon was the originator and inspirer - as if it meant to say "the Solomonic proverbs?" We may work toward the answer of this question by noting some literary facts.
Outside of the prophets only three of the Old Testament books are provided in the original text with titles; and these three are all associated with Solomon - two of them, Proverbs and the Song of Songs, directly; the third, Ecclesiastes, by an assumed name, which, however, personates Solomon. This would seem to indicate in the composition of these books an unusual degree of literary finish and self-consciousness, a sense on the part of writers or compilers that literature as an art has its claims upon them. The subject-matter of the books, too, bears this out; they are, relatively speaking, the secular books of the Bible and do not assume divine origin, as do law and prophecy. For the original impulse to such literary culture the history directs us to the reign of King Solomon; see 1 Kings 4:29-34 , where is portrayed, on the part of king and court, an intense intellectual activity for its own sake, the like of which occurs nowhere else in Scripture. The forms then especially impressed upon the literature were the
It is reasonable therefore to understand this title of the Book of Proverbs as designating rather a literary species than a personal authorship; it names this anthology of Wisdom in its classically determined phrasing, and for age and authorship leaves a field spacious enough to cover the centuries of its currency. Perhaps also the proverb of this type was by the term "of Solomon" differentiated from
II. The Successive Compilations.
1. The Introductory Section:
That the Book of Proverbs is composed of several collections made at different times is a fact that lies on the surface; as many as eight of these are clearly marked, and perhaps subdivisions might be made. The book was not originally conceived as the development of a theme, or even as a unity; whatever unity it has was an afterthought. That it did come to stand, however, for one homogeneous body of truth, and to receive a name and a degree of articulation as such, will be maintained in a later section (see III, below). Meanwhile, we will take the sections in order and note some of the salient characteristics of each. The introductory section, Proverbs 1 through 9, has the marks of having been added later than most of the rest; and is introductory in the sense of concentrating the thought to the concept of Wisdom, and of recommending the spiritual attitude in which it is to be received. Its style - and in this it is distinguished from the rest of the book - is hortatory; it is addressed to "my son" ( Proverbs 1:8 and often) or "my sons" ( Proverbs 4:1; Proverbs 5:7; Proverbs 7:24; Proverbs 8:32 ), in the tone of a father or a sage, bringing stores of wisdom and experience to the young. The first six verses are prefatory, giving the purpose and use of the whole book. Then Proverbs 1:7 lays down as the initial point, or spiritual bedrock of Wisdom, the fear of Yahweh, a principle repeated toward the end of this introductory section ( Proverbs 9:10 ), and evidently regarded as very vital to the whole Wisdom system; compare Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Sirach 1:14. The effect of this prefatory and theme-propounding matter is to launch the collection of proverbs much after the manner of modern literary works, and the rest of the section bears this out fairly well. The most striking feature of the section, besides its general homiletic tone, is its personification of Wisdom. She is represented as calling to the sons of men and commending to them her ways (Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-21, Proverbs 8:32-36 ); she condescends, for right and purity's sake, to enter into rivalry with the "strange woman," the temptress, not in secret, but in open and fearless dealing (Prov 7:6 through 8:9; Proverbs 9:1-6 , Proverbs 9:13-18 ); and, in a supremely poetic passage (Proverbs 8:22-31 ), she describes her relation from the beginning with God and with the sons of men. It represents the value that the Hebrew mind came to set upon the human endowment of Wisdom. The Hebrew philosopher thought not in terms of logic and dialectics, but in symbol and personality; and to this high rank, almost like that of a goddess, his imagination has exalted the intellectual and spiritual powers of man. See
2. The Classic Nucleus:
The section Proverbs 10:1 through 22:16, with the repeated heading "The proverbs of Solomon", seems to have been the original nucleus of the whole collection. All the proverbs in this, the longest section of the book, are molded strictly to the couplet form (the one triplet, Proverbs 19:7 , being only an apparent exception, due probably to the loss of a line), each proverb a parallelism in condensed phrasing, in which the second line gives either some contrast to or some amplification of the first. This was doubtless the classic art norm of the Solomonic
The section seems to contain the product of that period of proverb-culture during which the sense of the model was a little rigid and severe, not venturing yet to limber up the form. Signs of a greater freedom, however, begin to appear, and possibly two strata of compilation are represented. In Proverbs 10 through 15 the prevailing couplet is antithetic, which embodies the most self-closed circuit of the thought. Out of 184 proverbs only 19 do not contain some form of contrast, and 10 of these are in Proverbs 15 . In Proverbs 16 through 22:16, on the other hand, the prevailing form is the so-called synonymous or amplified couplet, which leaves the thought-circuit more open to illustrative additions. Out of 191 proverbs only 18 are antithetic, and these contain contrasts of a more subtle and hidden suggestion. As to subject-matter, the whole section is miscellaneous; in the first half, however, where the antithesis prevails, are the great elemental distinctions of life, wisdom and folly, righteousness and wickedness, industry and laziness, wise speech and reticence, and the like; while in the second half there is a decided tendency to go farther afield for subtler and less obvious distinctions. In this way they seem to reflect a growing and refining literary development, the gradual shaping and accumulation of materials for a philosophy of life; as yet, however, not articulated or reduced to unity of principle.
In the short section Proverbs 22:17 through 24:22, the proverb literature seems for the first time to have become as it were self-conscious - to regard itself as a strain of wise counsel to be reckoned with for its educative value. The section is introduced by a preface ( Proverbs 22:17-21 ), in which these "words of the wise" are recommended to some person or delegation, "that thou mayest carry back words of truth to them that send thee" (Proverbs 22:21 ). The counsels seem intended for persons in responsible position, perhaps attached to the court (compare Proverbs 23:1-3 ), who, as they are to deal officially with men and affairs, need the prudence, purity, and temperance which will fit them for their duties. As to form, the detached couplet appears only occasionally; the favorite form is the quatrain; but proverbs of a greater number of lines are freely used, and one, the counsel on wine drinking (Proverbs 23:29-35 ), runs to 17 lines. In tone and specific counsel the section has many resemblances to the introductory section (Proverbs 1 through 9), and provokes the conjecture that this latter section, as the introduction to a compiled body of Wisdom, was composed not long after it.
4. Some Left-Over Precepts:
The little appendix (Proverbs 24:23-34 ) is headed, "These also are sayings of the wise." They refer to wise intercourse and ordered industry. The little poem on the sluggard (Proverbs 24:30-34 ), with its refrain (Proverbs 24:33 , Proverbs 24:14 ), is noteworthy as being apparently one stanza of a poem which is completed with the same refrain in the introductory section (Proverbs 6:6-11 ). The stanzas are of the same length and structure; and it would seem the latter named was either discovered later or composed as a supplement to the one in this section.
5. The Hezekian Collection:
The long section (Proverbs 25 through 29) is headed, "These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out." The collection claims to be only a compilation; but if, as already suggested, we understand the term "proverbs of Solomon" as equivalent to "Solomonic proverbs," referring rather to species than personal authorship, the compilation may have been made not merely from antiquity, but from the archives of the Wisdom guilds. If so, we have a clue to the state of the Wisdom literature in Hezekiah's time. The collection as a whole, unlike secs. 3,4, returns predominantly to the classic form of the couplet, but with a less degree of compression and epigram. There is a tendency to group numbers of proverbs on like subjects; note for instance the group on the king ( Proverbs 25:2-7 ). The most striking-feature of the collection is the prevalence of simile and analogy, and in general the strong figurative coloring, especially in Proverbs 25 through 27; it reads like a new species of proverb when we note that in all the earlier Solomonic sections there are only two clearly defined similes (Proverbs 10:26; Proverbs 11:22 ). In Proverbs 25 through 27 are several proverbs of three, four, or five lines, and at the end (Proverbs 27:23-27 ) a charming little poem of ten lines on husbandry. Proverbs 28; 29 are entirely of couplets, and the antithetic proverb reappears in a considerable number. As to subject-matter, the thought of this section makes a rather greater demand on the reader's culture and thinking powers, the analogies being less obvious, more subtle. It is decidedly the reflection of a more literary age than that of section 2.
6. Words of Agur:
Proverbs 30 is taken up with "the words of Agur the son of Jakeh," a person otherwise unknown, who disclaims expert knowledge of Wisdom lore ( Proverbs 30:3 ), and avows an agnostic attitude toward theological speculations, yet shows a tender reverence before the name and unplumbed mystery of Yahweh (Proverbs 30:6 , Proverbs 30:9 , Proverbs 30:32 ). His words amount to a plea against a too adventurous, not to say presumptuous, spirit in the supposed findings of human Wisdom, and as such supply a useful makeweight to the mounting pride of the scholar. Yet over this peculiar plea is placed the word "Massa" (המּשּׂא ,
7. Words of King Lemuel:
Proverbs 31:1-9 (possibly the whole chapter should be included) is headed, "The words of king Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him." Here occurs again the mysterious Word "oracle," which would seem to be open to the same interpretation as the one given in the previous paragraph, though some would make this otherwise unknown monarch a king of Massa, and refer to the name of one of the descendants of Ishmael ( Genesis 25:14 ), presumably a tribal designation. The Hebrew sages from the beginning were in rivalry and fellowship with the sages of other nations (compare 1 Kings 4:30 , 1 Kings 4:31 ); and in the Book of Job, the supreme reach of Wisdom utterance, all of the sages, Job included, are from countries outside of Palestine. King Lemuel, if an actual personage, was not a Jew; and probably Agur was not. The words of Lemuel are a mother's plea to her royal son for chastity, temperance and justice, the kingly virtues. The form is the simple Hebrew parallelism, not detached couplets, but continuous.
8. An Acrostic Eulogy of Woman:
The Book of Proverbs ends in a manner eminently worthy of its high standard of sanity and wisdom. Without any heading (it may possibly belong to the "oracle" that the mother of Lemuel taught her son) the last 22 verses (31:10-31) constitute a single poem in praise of a worthy woman, extolling especially her household virtues. In form these verses begin in the original with the successive 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet; a favorite form of Hebrew verse, as may be seen (in the original) in several of the psalms, notably Psalm 119 , and in Lamentations 1 through 4.
III. Movement Toward a Philosophy.
It has been much the fashion with modern critics to deny to the Hebrews a truly philosophic mind; this they say was rather the distinctive gift of the Greeks; while for their solution of the problem of life the Hebrews depended on direct revelation from above, which precluded that quasi-abeyance of concepts, that weighing of cosmic and human elements, involved in the commonly received notion of philosophy. This criticism takes account of only one side of the Hebrew mind. It is true they believed their life to be in direct contact with the will and word of Yahweh, revealed to them in terms which could not be questioned; but in the findings and deliverance of their own intellectual powers, too, they had a reliance and confidence which merits the name of an authentic philosophy. But theirs was a philosophy not of speculative world-making, but of conduct and the practical management of life; and it was intuitive and analogical, not the result of dialectical reasoning. Hence, its name wisdom, the solution itself, rather than philosophy, the love of wisdom, the search for solution. This Book of Proverbs, beginning with detached maxims on the elements of conduct, reveals in many suggestive ways the gradual emergence of a philosophy, a comprehensive wisdom, as it were, in the making; it is thus the pioneer book of that Hebrew Wisdom which we see developed to maturer things in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Some of its salient stages may here be traced.
1. Liberation of the Mashal:
We may first note it, or the literary preparation for it, in the opening up of the
2. Emergence of Basal Principles:
One solid presupposition of the sages, like an axiom, was never called in question: namely, that righteousness and wisdom are identical, that wickedness of any sort is folly. This imparts at once a kind of prophetic coloring to the Wisdom precepts, well represented by the opening proverb in the original section (after the prefatory one about the wise son), "Treasures of wickedness profit nothing; but righteousness delivereth from death" (Proverbs 10:2 ). Thus from the outset is furnished an uncompromising background on which the fascinating allurements of vice, the crooked ways of injustice and dishonesty, the sober habits of goodness and right dealing, show for what they are and what they tend to. The sages thus put themselves, too, in entire harmony with what is taught by priests and prophets; there is no quarrel with the law or the word; they simply supply the third strand in the threefold cord of instruction (compare Jeremiah 18:18 ). From this basal presumption other principles, scarcely less axiomatic, come in view: that the fount and spring of wise living is reverence, the fear of Yahweh; that the ensuring frame of mind is teachableness, the precluding attitude perverseness; that it is the mark of wisdom, or righteousness, to be fearless and above board, of wickedness, which is folly, to be crooked and secretive. These principles recur constantly, not, as a system, but in numerous aspects and applications in the practical business of life. For their sanctions they refer naively to the Hebrew ideal of rewards on the one hand - wealth, honor, long life, family (compare Proverbs 11:31 ) - and of shame and loss and destruction on the other; but these are emphasized not as direct bestowments or inflictions from a personal Deity, rather as in the law of human nature. The law that evil works its own destruction, good brings its own reward, is forming itself in men's reason as one of the fundamental concepts out of which grew the Wisdom philosophy.
3. The Conception of Wisdom:
From times long before Solomon sagacity in counsel, and. skill to put such counsel into maxim or parable, gave their possessor, whether man or woman, a natural leadership and repute in the local communities (compare 2 Samuel 14:2; 2 Samuel 20:16 ); and Solomon's exceptional endowment showed itself not merely in his literary tastes, but in his ability, much esteemed among Orientals, to determine the merits of cases brought before him for judgment (1 Kings 3:16-28 ), and to answer puzzling questions (1 Kings 10:1 , 1 Kings 10:6 , 1 Kings 10:7 ). It was from such estimate of men's intellectual powers, from the recognition of mental alertness, sagacity, grasp, in their application to the practical issues of life (compare Proverbs 1:1-5 ), that the conception of Wisdom in its larger sense arose. As, however, the cultivation of such sagacity of utterance passed beyond the pastime of a royal court (compare 1 Kings 4:29-34 ) into the hands of city elders and sages it attained to greatly enhanced value; note how the influence of such sage is idealized (Job 29:7-25). The sages had definite calling and mission of their own, more potent perhaps than belonged to priests and prophets; the frequent reference to the young and the "simple" or immature in the Book of Prov would indicate that they were virtually the schoolmasters and educators of the nation. As such, working as they did in a fellowship and collaboration with each other, the subject-matter with which they dealt would not remain as casual and miscellaneous maxims, but work toward a center and system of doctrine which could claim the distinction of an articulated philosophy of life, and all the more since it was so identified with the great Hebrew ideal of righteousness and truth. We have already noted how this sense of the dignity and value of their calling manifested itself in the body of precepts sent in response to solicitation (3 above), with its appendix (4 above) (Prov 22:17 through 24:34). It was not long after this stage of Wisdom-culture, I think, that a very significant new word came into their vocabulary, the word (תּוּשיּה ,
IV. Considerations of Age and Literary Kinship.
To get at the history of the Book of Proverbs, several inquiries must be raised. When were the proverbs composed? The book, like the Book of Psalms, is confessedly an anthology, containing various accumulations, and both by style and maturing thought bearing the marks of different ages. When were the successive compilations made? And, finally, when did the strain of literature here represented reach that point of self-conscious unity and coordination which justified its being reckoned with as a strain by itself and choosing the comprehensive name Wisdom? What makes these inquiries hard to answer is the fact that these proverbs are precepts for the common people, relating to ordinary affairs of the village, the market, and the field, and move in lines remote from politics and dynastic vicissitudes and wars. They are, to an extent far more penetrative and pervasive than law or prophecy, the educative literature on which the sturdy rank and file of the nation was nourished. 'Where there is no vision, the people let loose,' says a Hezekian proverb (Proverbs 29:18 ); but so they are also when there is no abiding tonic of social convention and principle. Precisely this latter it is which this Book of Prey in a large degree reveals; and in course of time its value was so felt that, as we have seen, it could rank itself as an asset of life by the side of vision. It represents, in a word, the human movement toward self-directiveness and self-reliance, without supine dependence on ruler or public sentiment (compare Proverbs 29:25 , Proverbs 29:26 ). When and how was this sane and wholesome communal fiber developed?
1. Under the Kings:
When Solomon and his court made the
2. The Concentrative Point:
For the point in the Hebrew literary history when these scattered Solomonic proverbs were recognized as a homogeneous strain of thought and the compilations were made and recommended as Wisdom, we can do no better, I think, than to name the age of Israel's literary prime, the age of Hezekiah. The "men of Hezekiah" did more than append their supplementary section (Proverbs 25 through 29); the words "these also" ( גּאלּה ,
I apprehend the order and nature of their work somehow thus: Beginning with the classic nucleus (Proverbs 10 through 22:16) (see above, II., 2.), which may have come to them in two subsections ( Proverbs 10 through 15; 16 through 22:16), they put these together as the proverbs most closely associated with Solomon, without much attempt at systematizing, substantially as these had accumulated through the ages in the rough order of their developing form and thought; compiling thus, in their zeal for the literary treasures of the past, the body of educational literature which lay nearest at hand, a body adapted especially, though not exclusively, to the instruction of the young and immature. This done, there next came to their knowledge a remarkable body of "words of the wise" ( Proverbs 22:17 through 24:22), which had evidently been put together by request as a vade mecum for some persons in responsible position, and which were prefaced by a recommendation of them as "words of truth" designed to promote "trust in Yahweh" ( Proverbs 22:19-21 ) - which latter, as we know from Isaiah, was the great civic issue of Hezekiah's time. With this section naturally goes the little appendix of "sayings of the wise" (Proverbs 24:23-34 ), added probably at about the same time. These two sections, which seem to open the collection to matter beyond the distinctive Solomonic
I see no cogent reason for postponing the substantial completion of the Book of Proverbs beyond the time of Hezekiah. The words of Agur and of King Lemuel, with the final acrostic poem, may be later additions; but their difference in tone and workmanship is just as likely to be due to the fact that they are admitted, in the liberal spirit of the compilers, from foreign stores of wisdom. For spiritual clarity and intensity they do not rise to the height of the native Hebrew consciousness; and they incline to an artificial structure which suggests that the writer's interest is divided between sincere
3. Its Stage in Progressive Wisdom:
It is too early in the history of Wisdom to regard this Book of Proverbs as an articulated and coordinated system. It is merely what it purports to be, a collected body of literature having a common bearing and purpose; a literature of reverent and intelligent self-culture, moving among the ordinary relations of life, and not assuming to embody any mystic disclosures of truth beyond the reach of human reason. As such, it has a vocabulary and range of ideas of its own, which distinguishes it from other strains of literature. This is seen in those passages outside of the Book of Proverbs which deliberately assume, for some specific purpose, the Wisdom dialect. In Isaiah 28:23-29 , the prophet, whom the perverse rulers have taunted with baby-talk (Isaiah 28:9 , Isaiah 28:10 ), appeals to them with the characteristic Wisdom call to attention (Isaiah 28:23 ), and in illustrations drawn from husbandry proves to them that this also is from Yahweh of hosts, 'who is transcendent in counsel, preeminent in
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