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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Proverbs

by Charles John Ellicott




Late Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford.



The contents of this book cover a wider space of ground than its English title would lead anyone to expect; for the Hebrew word mâshâl, translated “Proverbs” in our version, while, indeed, it bears this sense, includes also several other meanings. Originally, it would seem, it signified a “figure” or “comparison,” and we find it used in Holy Scripture for (1) “a parable,” such as those in the Gospels, inculcating moral or religious truth, in which the figure and the thing signified by it are kept distinct from each other. Examples of this are to be found in the parables of the two eagles and vine, in Ezekiel 17:0, and of the boiling pot, in Ezekiel 24:0. It is also used (2) for “a short pointed saying,” in which, however, a comparison is still involved: for instance, Proverbs 25:25, “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” Hence it passed into the sense of (3) “a proverb,” in which a comparison may still be implied, though it is no longer expressed, such as Ezekiel 18:2, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Lastly, the sense of comparison or figure being lost, it became equivalent to (4) an “instructive saying,” such as Proverbs 11:4, “Riches profit not in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivereth from death.” The form of this might be lengthened till it became equivalent to (5) “a didactic poem,” such as Psalms 49:4, “I will incline mine ear to a parable,” &c. Of this kind were the prophecies of Balaam, in Numbers 23:24, in which he is said to have “taken up his parable.” In certain cases this form of parable might become equivalent to “satire,” as in the prophet’s song of triumph over fallen Babylon, in Isaiah 14:0. Of these various forms of the mâshâl, it would seem that (1) and (3) do not occur in the Proverbs, (5) is largely employed in Proverbs 1-9, while (2 and (4) are frequent in the later chapters of the book.

As to the poetical form which the mâshâl of Solomon assumes, the thought of the writer is most generally completed in the distich, or verse of two lines. But the relation of the two lines to each other may vary in different cases. Sometimes (1) the idea contained in the first is repeated in the second with slightly altered form, so as to be brought out more fully and distinctly, as in Proverbs 11:25, “The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.” Or (2) the second line may illustrate the first by presenting the contrast to it, as in Proverbs 10:1, “A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.” Or, again, (3) a distinct truth may be presented to the reader in each line, with little apparent connection between them, as in Proverbs 10:18, “A cloak of hatred are lying lips, and he that spreadeth slander is a fool.” Many distichs contain entire parables in themselves, a resemblance to the lesson inculcated being drawn from every-day life, as Proverbs 10:26, “As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him.” In all these cases it will be noticed that the distich is complete in itself, without any further explanation being required. But sometimes the subject extends to four (Proverbs 25:4-5), six (Proverbs 23:1-3), and eight (Proverbs 23:22-25) lines, or, it may be, to three (Proverbs 22:29), five (Proverbs 23:4-5), or seven (Proverbs 23:6-8). It may even be prolonged beyond these limits to an indefinite number of verses, as in the acrostic (Proverbs 31:10, sqq.) in praise of a virtuous wife.

As to the general contents of the Book of Proverbs, it will be noticed on examination that they do not form one harmonious whole, but that they naturally fall into several clearly marked divisions, each of them distinguished by peculiarities of style. They are as follows:

(1) Proverbs 1:1-6, an introduction, describing the purpose of the book.

(2) Proverbs 1:7 to Proverbs 9:18, comprising fifteen didactic poems—not single unconnected verses, like most of the book—exhorting to the fear of God and the avoidance of sin. Many of these are addressed to “my son”; in others Wisdom is introduced as pleading to be heard, and setting forth the blessings she brings with her.

(3) Proverbs 10:1 to Proverbs 22:16, the second great division of the book; these are headed by a new title, “The proverbs of Solomon.” They consist of 375 separate distichs, quite unconnected with each other, the sense being completed in each verse of the English Version; in the first six chapters of this collection the antithetic form of proverb chiefly prevails, but the other forms mentioned above as employed in this book are also represented.

(4) To this course of distichs follows an introduction (Proverbs 22:17-21), containing an exhortation to “hear the words of the wise”; the style of this is not unlike section (2). This serves as a heading to the (5) appendix of Proverbs 22:22 to Proverbs 24:22, in which every form of the mâshâl may be found, from the distich up to the lengthened didactic poem, such as was frequent earlier in the book.

(6) Next comes a second appendix (Proverbs 24:23-34), beginning, “These also belong to the wise” (i.e., as their authors), containing proverbs of various lengths which resemble Proverbs 1:7 to Proverbs 9:18, and the Book of Ecclesiastes.

(7) This is followed by the third great division of the book (Proverbs 25-29), with the title, “These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” It differs from the previous collection (Proverbs 10:1 to Proverbs 22:16) in this respect: that the verses are chiefly parabolic, not antithetic, in their character, and the sense, instead of being completed in a distich, extends to five lines, or even further.

(8) At this point the proverbs of Solomon are ended, for the rest of the book does not profess to have been composed by him. It consists of three appendices: (a) Proverbs 30:0 “The words of Agur the son of Jakeh,” an unknown author, supposed by Rabbinical writers against all probability, to be Solomon himself; (b) “The words of King Lemuel,” also unknown (Proverbs 31:1-9); and (c) the acrostic in praise of a good wife (Proverbs 31:10, sqq.).

There is another noticeable feature in the Book of Proverbs: that it contains many repetitions, the same thought being often expressed for a second time in similar or identical terms. Thus the Hezekiah collection (7) contains many repetitions of proverbs which have already appeared in part (3); and in some cases it even repeats itself, as does part (5) also; and this is very frequently the case in part (3) as well.
These various features which distinguish the book—viz., the difference in the style of the several parts, the separate headings which occur, and the frequent repetitions—would seem to render it certain that the whole book cannot have originally made its appearance in its present shape at any one time. It rather bears the mark of having been, like the Psalms, collected at various times, and by various persons. Thus, each editor of the five books which compose the Psalter appears to have brought together as many psalms of David or the sons of Korah or Asaph, or other writers, as he could find. Many which had escaped the notice of an earlier editor were afterwards incorporated by a successor into a later book. Thus the first book (Pss.

1-41) consists almost entirely of psalms of David, yet others also ascribed to him are found in the second (Psalms 42-72), fourth (Psalms 90-106), and fifth (Psalms 107-150) books; the second similarly contains many by the sons of Korah, but there is a further collection of theirs to be found in the third; one psalm by Asaph appears in the second book, and several more in the third, and so on. It seems probable that in the same way each of the three great collections of proverbs which are attributed to Solomon may be due to the care of different collectors, each of whom incorporated into his own book such materials as he met with. In so doing, he was not always careful to omit what had been set down before, and even occasionally admitted a proverb twice into his own collection. But we find parallels to this in the Psalter. Psalms 70:0, for instance, is a repetition of the latter end of Psalms 40:0, Psalms 53:0 of Psalms 14:0, Psalms 108:0 of Psalms 57, 60.

As to the authorship of the book, there seems on the whole to be no good reason for casting doubt on the tradition which ascribes Proverbs 1-29 to King Solomon. How eminently unsatisfactory the attempts are which have been made to settle the date and circumstances under which each portion of the book was composed, may be seen by the very opposite conclusions arrived at by critics who have attempted to solve the problem. When we find authors of eminence differing by, it may be, two centuries in their estimate of the age of a passage, and unable to agree as to which part of the book was written first, it is clear that little importance can be attached to the internal evidence upon which such theories are based.
It should also be noticed that, in spite of the reasons alleged above, which might have led us to ascribe the various sections of the book to different authors, yet there is still so strong a likeness between Proverbs 1-29, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles, as to render it highly probable that all three had only one author, and if so, that he was Solomon. For it would be difficult to find anyone else to whom they might with any show of probability be ascribed.
Although some objections have been at times taken to the book, on the score of the supposed contradictions contained in it, yet it has always held its place in the Hebrew Canon of Scripture. How great its influence upon the Jewish mind has been, may be seen from the imitations of it which are still extant, the Books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus. Among Christians it has always been held in the highest esteem. It is frequently quoted in the New Testament. By the Fathers it was named the “All-excellent Wisdom.” The description of wisdom which it contains was universally interpreted by them as declaratory of the work of Christ, as Creator of the world and Redeemer of mankind: an interpretation borne out by our Lord’s own words and the teaching of St. Paul.[21]

[21] See Note on chap. 1:20.

Lists of the principal commentaries which have been written upon Proverbs may be found in Keil’s Introduction to the Old Testament (translated in Clark’s For. Theol. Library, 1871), and in the article on Proverbs in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible. Of all those which have come in my way, I must chiefly express my obligations to the works of Rosenmüller and Delitzsch. The commentary of Bishop Wordsworth is noticeable as containing many references to the works of the Fathers bearing upon the interpretation of the book.

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