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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

- Proverbs

by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll



IN attempting to make the book of Proverbs a subject of Expository Lectures and practical sermons, it has been necessary to treat the book as a uniform composition, following, chapter by chapter, the order which the compiler has adopted, and bringing the scattered sentences together under subjects which are suggested by certain more striking points in the successive chapters. By this method the great bulk of the matter contained in the book is brought under review, either in the way of exposition or in the way of quotation and allusion, though even in this method many smaller sayings slip through the expositor’s meshes. But the grave defect of the method which is thus employed is that it completely obliterates those interesting marks, discernible on the very surface of the book, of the origin and the compilation of the separate parts. This defect the reader can best supply by turning to Professor Cheyne’s scholarly work "Job and Solomon; or, The Wisdom of the Old Testament" but for those who have not time or opportunity to refer to any book besides the one which is in their hands, a brief introduction to the following lectures may not be unwelcome.

The Jewish tradition ascribed the Proverbs, or Sayings of the Wise, to Solomon, just as it ascribed the Psalms, or inspired lyrics of the poets, to King David, and we may add, just as it ascribed all the gradual accretions and developments of the Law to Moses. But even a "very uncritical reader will observe that the book of Proverbs as we have it is not the work of a single hand; and a critical inquiry into the language and style of the several parts, and also into the social and political conditions which are implied by them, has led scholars to the conclusion that, at the most, a certain number of Solomon’s wise sayings are included in the collection, but that he did not in any sense compose the book. In fact, the statement in 1 Kings 4:32, "He spake three thousand proverbs," implies that his utterances were recorded by others, and not written down by himself, and the heading to chapter 25 of our book suggests that the "men of Hezekiah" collected the reputed sayings of Solomon from several sources, one of those sources being the collection contained in the previous chapters.

The opening words, then, of the book-"The Proverbs of Solomon the son of David, King of Israel"-are not to be taken as an assertion that all which follows flowed from Solomon’s pen, but rather as a general description and keynote of the subject of the treatise. It is as if the compiler wished to say, "This is a compendium of those wise sayings current among us, the model and type of which may be found in the proverbs attributed to the wisest of men, King Solomon." That this is the way in which we must understand the title becomes plain when we find contained in the book a passage described as "the sayings of the wise," {Proverbs 24:23-34} a chapter distinctly entitled "The Words of Agur," and another paragraph headed "The Words of King Lemuel."

Leaving aside the traditional view of the authorship, which the book itself shows to be misleading, the contents may be briefly delineated and characterized.

The main body of Proverbs is the collection which begins at chapter 10, "The Proverbs of Solomon," and ends at Proverbs 22:16. This collection has certain distinct features which mark it off from all that precedes and from all that follows. It is, strictly speaking, a collection of proverbs, that is of brief, pointed sayings, -sometimes containing a similitude, but more generally consisting of a single antithetical moral sentiment, -such as spring into existence and pass current in every society of men. All these proverbs are identical in form: each is expressed in a distich; the apparent exception in Proverbs 19:7 is to be explained by the obvious fact that the third clause is the mutilated fragment of another proverb, which in the LXX appears complete: As the form is the same in all, so the general drift of their teaching is quite uniform; the morality inculcated is of no very lofty type; the motives for right conduct are mainly prudential; there is no sense of mystery or wonder, no tendency to speculation or doubt; "Be good, and you will prosper; be wicked, and you will suffer," is the sum of the whole. A few scattered precepts occur which seem to touch a higher level and to breathe a more spiritual air; and it is possible, as has been suggested, that these were added by the author of chapters 1-9, when he revised and published the compilation. Such a sentiment as Proverbs 14:34 well accords with the utterance of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:15-16. And the series of proverbs which are grouped on the principle of their all containing the name of Jahveh, Proverbs 15:33; Proverbs 16:1-7 (cf. Proverbs 16:20, Proverbs 16:33) seems to be closely linked with the opening chapters of the book. Assuming the proverbs of this collection to spring from the same period, and to reflect the social conditions which then prevailed, we should say that it points to a time of comparative simplicity and purity, when the main industry was that of tilling the soil, when the sayings of wise people were valued by an unsophisticated community, when the family life was pure, the wife honored, {Proverbs 12:4, Proverbs 18:22, Proverbs 19:14} and parental authority maintained, and when the king was still worthy of respect, the immediate and obedient instrument of the Divine government. {Proverbs 21:1} The whole collection seems to date from the earlier and happier times of the monarchy.

To this collection is added an appendix, {Proverbs 22:17 - Proverbs 24:22} which opens with an exhortation addressed by the teacher to his pupil. The literary form of this appendix falls far behind the style of the main collection. The terse and compact distich occurs rarely; most of the sayings are more cumbrous and elaborate, and in one case there is a brief didactic poem carried through several verses. {Proverbs 23:29-35} As the style of composition shows a decline, so the general conditions which form the background of the sayings are less happy. They seem to indicate a time of growing luxury; gluttony and drunkenness are the subjects of strong invective. It appears that the poor are oppressed by the rich, {Proverbs 22:22} and justice is not rightly administered, so that the innocent are carried away into confinement. {Proverbs 24:11-12} There is political unrest, too, and the young have to be cautioned against the revolutionary or anarchical spirit. {Proverbs 24:21} We are evidently brought down to a later period in Israel’s melancholy history.

Another brief appendix follows, {Proverbs 24:23-34} in which the distich form almost entirely disappears; it is remarkable as containing a little picture (Proverbs 24:30-34), which, like the much longer passage in Proverbs 7:6-27, is presented as the personal observation of the writer.

We now pass on to an entirely new collection, chapters 25-29, which was made, we are told, in the literary circle at the court of Hezekiah, two hundred and fifty years or thereabouts after the time of Solomon. In this collection there is no uniformity of structure such as distinguished the proverbs of the first collection. Some distiches occur, but as often as not the proverb is drawn out into three, four, and in one case {Proverbs 25:6-7} five clauses; Proverbs 27:23-27 forms a brief connected exhortation, which is a considerable departure from the simple structure of the mashal, or proverb. The social condition reflected in these chapters is not very attractive; it is clear that the people have had experience of a bad; {Proverbs 29:2} we seem to have hints of the many troubled experiences through which the monarchy of Israel passed-the divided rule, the injustice, the incapacity, the oppression. {Proverbs 28:2-3; Proverbs 28:12; Proverbs 28:15-16; Proverbs 28:28} There is one proverb which particularly recalls the age of Hezekiah, when the doom of the exile was already being proclaimed by the prophets: "As a bird that wandereth from her nest, so is a man that wandereth from his place". {Proverbs 27:8} And it is perhaps characteristic of that troubled time, when the spiritual life was to be deepened by the experience of material suffering and national disaster, that this collection contains a proverb which might be almost the key-note of the New Testament morality. {Proverbs 25:21-22}

The book closes with three quite distinct passages, which can only be regarded as appendices. According to one interpretation of the very difficult words which stand at the head of chapters 30 and 31, these paragraphs would come from a foreign source; it has been thought that the word translated "oracle" might be the name of the country mentioned in Genesis 25:14, Massa. But whether Jakeh and King Lemuel were natives of this shadowy land or not, it is certain that the whole tone and drift of these two sections are alien to the general spirit of the book. There is something enigmatical in their style and artificial in their form, which would suggest a very late period in Israel’s literary history. And the closing passage, which describes the virtuous woman, is distinguished by being an alphabetical acrostic, the verses beginning with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a kind of composition which points to the dawn of Rabbinical methods in literature. It is impossible to say when or how these curious and interesting additions were made to our book, but scholars have generally recognized them as the product of the exile, if not the post-exile, period.

Now, the two collections which have been described, with their several appendices, were at some favorable point in religious history, possibly in those happy days of Josiah when the Deuteronomic Law was newly promulgated to the joyful nation, brought together, and, as we should say now, edited, with an original introduction by an author who, unknown to us by name, is among the greatest and noblest of Biblical writers. The first nine chapters of the book, which form the introduction to the whole, strike a far higher note, appeal to nobler conceptions, and are couched in a much loftier style than the book itself. The writer bases his moral teaching on Divine authority rather than on the utilitarian basis which prevails in most of the proverbs. Writing in a time when the temptations to a lawless and sensual life were strong, appealing to the wealthier and more cultured youth of the nation, he proceeds in sweet and earnest discourse to woo his readers from the paths of vice into the Temple of Wisdom and Virtue. His method of contrasting the "two ways," and exhorting men to shun the one and choose the other, constantly reminds us of the similar appeals in the Book of Deuteronomy; but the touch is more graphic and more vivid; the gifts of the poet are employed in depicting the seven-pillared House of Wisdom and the deadly ways of Folly; and in the wonderful passage which introduces Wisdom appealing to the sons of men, on the ground of the part which she plays in the Creation and by the throne of God, we recognize the voice of a prophet-a prophet, too, who holds one of the highest places in the line of those who foretold the coming of our Lord.

Impossible as it has been in the Lectures to bring out the history and structure of the book, it will greatly help the reader to bear in mind what has just been said; he will thus be prepared for the striking contrast between the glowing beauty of the introduction and the somewhat frigid precepts which occur so frequently among the Proverbs themselves; he will be able to appreciate more fully the point which is from time to time brought into relief, that much of the teaching contained in the books is crude and imperfect, of value for us only when it has been brought to the standard of our Lord’s spirit, corrected by His love and wisdom, or infused with His Divine life. And especially as the reader approaches those strange chapters "The Sayings of Agur" and "The Sayings of King Lemuel" he will be glad to remind himself of the somewhat loose relation in which they stand to the main body of the work.

In few parts of the Scripture is there more need than in this of the ever-present Spirit to interpret and apply the written word, to discriminate and assort, to arrange and to combine, the varied utterances of the ages. Nowhere is it more necessary to distinguish between the inspired speech, which comes to the mind of prophet or poet as a direct oracle of God, and the speech which is the product of human wisdom, human observation, and human common sense, and is only in that secondary sense inspired. In the book of Proverbs there is much which is recorded for us by the wisdom of God, not because it is the expression of God’s wisdom, but distinctly because it is the expression of man’s wisdom; and among the lessons of the book is the sense of limitation and incompleteness which human wisdom leaves upon the mind.

But under the direction of the Holy Spirit, the reader may not only learn from the Proverbs much practical counsel for the common duties of life; he may have, from time to time, rare and wonderful glimpses into the heights and depths of God.

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