Book Overview - Proverbs
by John Dummelow
The Hebrew word Mashal covers a much larger area than our 'Proverb.' The latter signifies a pithy, pointed saying, which, by its obvious correspondence with the facts of human nature and experience, wins popular acceptance. Of such brief, clear and sensible utterances there are abundant examples in the book before us. But it also contains other forms of composition. There are passages in which the subject is continued for several verses, especially in the earlier and some of the later chapters; lengthy descriptions, such as that of the Bad Woman (Proverbs 7) and the Excellent Woman (Proverbs 31:10-31); homilies and addresses (Proverbs 1:20-33; Proverbs 8). In other books of the Bible the Mashal has a still wider range of meaning: it is an allegory (Ezekiel 17:2); a figurative discourse (Numbers 23:7, Numbers 23:18); a byword (Jeremiah 24:9); a taunt (Isaiah 14:4); a lament (Micah 2:4); an argument (Job 29:1). The idea at its root is that of a similitude or parallelism, a comparison with some well-known object, and it is, as a rule, distinguished from the other parallelism with which we are familiar in the Bible, that of the Psalms, in that it is spoken, not intended to be sung.
The proverbs contained in the book which bears this name are not of the kind which spring unbidden to the lips of the people, the
'Bits of ancient observation by his fathers garnered, each
As a pebble worn and polished in the current of his speech.'
They show on their face that they were composed by thinkers, by the class of men who were known as 'the wise '(Job 15:18; Jeremiah 18:18). In some cases this is distinctly stated (Proverbs 1:6; Proverbs 22:17; Proverbs 24:23). They arrange themselves in five main divisions. The Introduction Proverbs 1-9; Proverbs 10:1 to Proverbs 22:16; Proverbs 22:17-24; Proverbs 25-29 the Appendix, 31, 31. To the Introduction (Proverbs 1:1) and to two of the collections (Proverbs 10:1; Proverbs 25:1) the name of Solomon is prefixed. We are not, however, to understand that he was the author of all the sayings under these headings. He was traditionally regarded as the representative of all wisdom, and at 1 Kings 4:32 we read that he 'spoke three thousand proverbs.' The majority of the maxims and discourses preserved in our book belong to times and circumstances altogether unlike his, but we have no means of distinguishing with certainty any that may have originated with him. The collection probably contains many pre-exilic proverbs besides those of Solomon; but it also contains others of a later date and cannot have been cast into its present form till some time after the exile.
Proverbs occupies an important place in what is known as the Wisdom Literature of the Jews. This consists of the Canonical Books, Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon. Job handles the serious problem of the relation between the sufferings of the righteous and the justice and goodness of God. Ecclesiastes discusses the value of life from a pessimistic standpoint. The Wisdom of Solomon seeks to demonstrate, both to the Gentiles and to those Jews who were tempted to apostasy, that there is no true wisdom apart from the faith in the One God. Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus are guides for daily life, not concerning themselves with intellectual difficulties or the controversy between monotheism and idolatry, but devoted to the promotion of uprightness and purity. It was said of Socrates that he brought philosophy down from heaven to earth. He turned men from speculations on the origin of the universe to their duties as individuals and members of the commonwealth. A somewhat similar remark might be made about this branch of the Wisdom Literature. Its chief concern is with the sane and prudent ordering of daily life. It looks on wisdom as the art of living well. It enforces virtue as the way by which the goal of happiness may be reached. It guards against stumblingblocks, pitfalls, and bypaths. It makes great use of prudential considerations. Yet it is religious at heart. The fear of the Lord is its beginning. God's law, revealed in Scripture and experience, or imparted by meditative and observant men, is never forgotten. His government is over all human affairs; His rewards and punishments take effect in this present life, and are sincerely believed in. But wisdom is not regarded as confined to these strictly practical matters. Agur (Proverbs 30:3) uses the word almost in the sense of philosophy. And the wisdom which displays its excellence by guiding aright a young man's course is seen to be essentially one with that attribute of God which directed the creation of the world (Proverbs 8).
The ideal of life here enjoined is by ho means an unworthy one. Honesty, industry, chastity, considerateness for all, helpfulness towards the distressed; humanity, reverence, and trust towards God are urged unweariedly. There is no base or unworthy maxim, no sanction of the spirit of revenge, like the Italian, 'Wait time and place for thy revenge, for it is never well done in a hurry': no recommendation of fawning obsequiousness, like the Eastern, 'If the monkey reigns, dance before him.' In some respects it is even healthier in tone than its companion books. Compare, for instance, its view of woman (Proverbs 14:1; Proverbs 18:22; Proverbs 19:14; Proverbs 31:10-31) With Sirach 17:28. Sirach 25:16-26. On the other hand, there are defects. Two weaknesses are especially to be noticed. First, the absence of all belief in a real life beyond the grave. This is a serious drawback. When men came to realise that rewards and punishments are not distributed on earth in accordance with conduct, the foundation was destroyed on which the proverb-writers built their recommendations of virtue. The Wisdom of Solomon, which owes much to its contact with Greek thought, marks a great advance in this particular (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23; Wisdom 3, Wisdom of Solomon 4:20; Wisdom of Solomon 5:15; Wisdom of Solomon 6:19); and in the teaching of Christ the prospect of a future dispensation of judgment occupied an important place. Secondly, there is no warm and inspiring hope of the reclamation of the foolish and sinful. If a man is on the wrong side of the line it is taken for granted that he will remain there, contrary to the charity and hopefulness of Him who 'came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.' As to the notes which follow, it should be remembered that our limits of space preclude anything beyond a short explanation, illustration, or paraphrase of the more difficult ambiguous and interesting paragraphs. The reader is strongly recommended to have the Revised Version always before him. In concise sayings, where everything depends on the exact point being touched, the rendering of a single word makes all the difference. The RV or its margin often hit the mark which the AV has missed. For example, the latter uses the word 'wisdom' to represent several words of the original. It is always worth noting where the RV substitutes 'wise dealing,' 'prudence,' 'subtilty.' Again, the RV has sometimes availed itself of the help furnished by the LXX. This is of great importance. Passing from mouth to mouth, not deemed equally sacred with the utterances of the Law or even of the Prophets, these adages frequently failed to keep their original form. And the form presented by the Greek Version sometimes recommends itself as the correct one.
One other recommendation may be permitted. Ecclesiasticus is well worth reading along with Proverbs. Its tone is very similar, but it was written somewhat later (about 200 b.c.); it is an invaluable aid to the understanding of the Jewish mind.
the Third Week of Lent