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Bible Commentaries

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16
Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20
Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24
Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28
Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31

Book Overview - Proverbs

by Albert Barnes

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 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) 1 Kings 4:32, made possibly under the direction of the king himself, and prefaced by the more homiletic teachings of Proverbs 16:10-15; Proverbs 19:6, Proverbs 19:12; Proverbs 20:8, Proverbs 20:26, Proverbs 20:28; Proverbs 21:1.

(e) 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 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 25:2-7 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 30:1; 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 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 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; 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 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 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 9:5 may be the source from whence flowed the deeper parable of 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 1Kings, 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 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.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 24th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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