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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible


- Proverbs

by Daniel Whedon



THE PROVERBS OF SOLOMON are a portion of that rich legacy of sacred literature bequeathed by the Mother Church of the Old to the Church of the New Covenant. Excepting the “Book of Psalms,” no other portion of the ancient volume is of more intrinsic value, or has exercised a more marked influence on the religious literature of succeeding centuries. The number of books of the same general character which followed it, among the people of the Hebrew race, some of them evidently designed imitations, is very remarkable. Several of these, as “The Wisdom of Solomon,” and “The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach,” (“Ecclesiaticus,”) are still extant. It is true, that the people of the East are very fond of this species of composition. Proverbs, parables, gnomes, enigmas, or riddles, are intellectual exercises in which they find great pleasure. Whether, therefore, this book simply fell in with the genius and tastes of the people, or whether it contributed to form and establish the taste of so large and influential a portion of the human race, or whether both of these suppositions may not in some degree be correct, are questions which we need not concern ourselves to settle. Certain it is, that something similar to this collection of proverbs exists among nearly all Oriental peoples; nor are such works confined to them alone, but are found, also, among many of the nations of the West.

This is pre-eminently an educational book. The author assumes the character of a preceptor. As from the chair of a professor he addresses his pupil or pupils. He is a professor of moral and religious philosophy. Religion and morality, thoroughly united as they were in the intelligent Hebrew mind, were not the less theoretically wedded to the higher intellectual culture. A fool, a dunce, a stupid boor, an uncultivated dolt, and a wicked, ungodly man, were, if not exactly synonymous terms, yet so intimately related as to be used convertibly; and a wise man and one fearing God were, according to Hebrew conceptions, so nearly identical as to stand the one for the other. This is unquestionably a great truth which men in all ages need to learn. No one can be truly wise who is so utterly unwise as to disobey God, the all-wise and beneficent Ruler of the universe. It exhibits folly of the rankest kind to act contrary to the dictates of right, and, consequently, to our own highest and best interests. See this point treated more at large in the notes, especially on the first chapter.

There is no reason to question either the authorship or the divine inspiration of this book. Placed in the Canon in the days of seers and prophets, it has always been a recognised portion of the Old Testament Scriptures. See chap. Proverbs 25:1. “The men of Hezekiah,” there referred to, were presumably such as Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Shebna, etc., all of whom lived during his reign. Besides, the divine character of the book has been fully recognised by the inspired writers of the New Testament. It is quoted from, or alluded to, in sundry places of the New Testament as a part of the holy record. The following is a list of citations from the Proverbs made by New Testament writers:

Proverbs 1:16 Romans 3:15.

Proverbs 3:7 Romans 12:16.

Proverbs 3:11-12 Hebrews 12:5-6.

Proverbs 3:31 James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5.

Proverbs 10:12 1 Peter 4:8.

Proverbs 11:31 Peter 418.

Proverbs 20:9 1 John 1:8.

Proverbs 20:22 Romans 12:17.

Proverbs 24:29 Romans 12:19, sq.

Proverbs 25:21 Romans 12:20. Proverbs 26:0; Proverbs 11:0 2 Peter 2:22.

Part of the citations given in some authors do not seem to be made directly from the Proverbs, but from other portions of the Old Testament where the same sentiment is expressed in nearly the same language. Compare Proverbs 20:20 with Matthew 15:4 and Mark 7:10, where, although the sentiment is the same, the quotation seems rather to be made from Exodus 21:17. But these quotations, together with, in some instances, the manner of their introduction, shows clearly enough that the writers of the New Testament recognised this book as a part of the “Holy Writings.” Examine particularly the quotation of Proverbs 3:11-12 in Hebrews 12:5-6, where it is introduced with these words: “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not,” etc. See also the quotation of Proverbs 26:11 in 2 Peter 2:22, where the passage quoted is called a “true proverb.”

The Book of Proverbs is usually divided by modern commentators into six parts. Some, especially of the older ones, make only five parts, and others only four, filling out the complement, however, by subdivisions and supplements.

PART I comprehends chapters one to nine. It is unanimously considered the proem, or introduction. It differs greatly in style from the other parts; so much so, that some critics have contended for a different authorship, though without valid reasons. It is, however, commonly supposed to have been written subsequent to, at least, Part II. The first six verses are to be considered a preface, in which not merely the object of the book is stated, but the contents also, in a general way. Many suppose that it was written after, or when, the supplements were added by the “men of Hezekiah” and others. See chapters twenty-five, thirty, and thirty-one.

PART II runs from chapter ten to chapter twenty-two, verse sixteen, inclusive. This second part is subdivided into two portions, according to the form of verses or proverbs. The first subdivision includes chapters ten to fifteen; and the second subdivision, chapters sixteen to twenty-two, verse sixteen.

Although Part II is all of one tenor as to the completion of sentences or proverbs in one verse, having rarely even a similarity of subject in two or more successive verses so as to connect them together, yet the kinds of poetic parallelism in the two subdivisions are diverse. In the first subdivision the antithetic form of parallelism prevails, there being eighty-six of the antithetic to twenty-three of the synthetic; in the other the synthetic form is predominant, there being one hundred and fifty-nine of the synthetic to twenty-three of the antithetic. This, as Prof. Stuart suggests, does not argue a diversity of authorship; but rather, that the author in composing or selecting his proverbs arranged them in two separate rolls or volumes, in accordance with the character of their parallelisms.

PART III embraces chapter twenty-two, from verse seventeen to the end of chapter twenty-four. The general superscription (Proverbs 1:1-6) refers, among other things, to “THE WORDS OF THE WISE,” as one of the things which the book contains. The critics generally understand those words as having a specific reference to this part of the work. Here, in Proverbs 22:17, we find the words recurring as if they were the title of a book. Again, in Proverbs 24:23, an addition, or supplement, is made to “THE WORDS OF THE WISE:” “These (sayings) also belong (pertain) to the wise.”

In form and style Part III differs noticeably from Part II. The address, My son, found often in Part I, but not at all in Part II, is several times-repeated here. The construction of the verse or metre is not so regular, and the parallelisms are all synthetic except one, (Proverbs 24:16,) which is antithetic. Often three verses are combined in a sentence. In the latter part of chapter twenty-four we have five verses, making virtually a compound sentence. In Proverbs 23:29-35, we find even seven verses so connected. Stuart’s conjecture is, that this part was added as a supplement to Part III, probably by Solomon himself, selected either from some other of his works or from a different source. He infers that it was added before the days of Hezekiah, otherwise it would probably have followed the selection then made by the prophetic scribes from the literary remains of Solomon. See Proverbs 25:1.

PART IV comprehends chapters twenty-five to twenty-nine. Some critics include the whole of the remainder of the book; but the greater number limit it as above stated. The inscription here shows that this part is also Solomonic. The sacred scribes referred to Proverbs 25:1, copied out, transcribed, or transferred from other works of Solomon then extant what we have in these chapters. It will be remembered that Solomon is recorded as having spoken three thousand proverbs; 1 Kings 4:32. This book contains only between five hundred and a thousand, even with the present addition. In respect to form, metre, etc., the proverbs here much resemble those of Part II, containing both synthetic and antithetic, but no synonymous, parallelisms. In chapters twenty-five to twenty-seven, most of the verses are comparisons. In some instances the proverbs extend through several verses. In Proverbs 26:13-16, there are four verses united; and in Proverbs 27:23-27, there are five. In this part there are a number of repetitions of the proverbs in Part II, an indication that the compilers of the two parts were different. But it is equally evident that the materials of both came from the same sources.

PART V, as reckoned by some, embraces only chapter thirty. This is emphatically the place of the חדות , hhidhoth, the enigmas or mysteries “dark sayings” of Proverbs 1:6. In respect to the parallelisms, all but three are of the synthetic order. These three are partially antithetic. The length of the verses or lines is often very different from that of Part II. Sometimes twelve or more words are found in one line, whereas in Part II there are seldom more than four to six. Strict correspondence of parallelism does not exist here. Several things in the style of this chapter are altogether peculiar. There is nothing like it elsewhere in the whole Bible.

PART VI also contains only one chapter, the thirty-first. This consists of two distinct portions. Verses 1-9 are “the words of Lemuel, the prophecy which his mother taught him.” It is the opinion of some of the learned that the remainder of the chapter (verses 10-31) likewise proceeded from the same wise mind; though there are observed some differences of style, which suggest a doubt. It is a eulogy upon an energetic housewife, and is one of the most remarkable compositions in the Bible. Some critics reckon it as Part VII. Prof. Stuart, to whose admirable and exhaustive introduction we are much indebted, says concerning it: “As to the eulogy itself, it is in the highest style of parallelistic writing. In perfection of metre, scarcely any even of the psalms exceed it. Nearly every verse is a synonymous parallelism; and the whole composition has an air of such simplicity, vivacity, and naivete, that it is truly admirable. From whatever quarter the composition came, there is no discerning reader who would not regret its omission. The tenor of it is, indeed, not the same as that of the Proverbs in general; but as it inculcates, in a most attractive manner, both industry and frugality, it falls in entirely with the general spirit and design of the Proverbs.”

THE ETHICAL VALUE of the Proverbs, says Muenscher, “has been uniformly held in the highest estimation by the best and the wisest of men, both in the Jewish and the Christian Church. By the early Fathers the book was called the ‘wisdom embracing all virtues.’ Basil speaks of it as a universal instruction for the government of life. Jerome’s direction to one of his friends, for the education of his daughter, was: ‘Let her have, first of all, the Book of Psalms for holiness of heart, and be instructed in Solomon’s Proverbs for her godly life.’ Luther pronounced the book the best on economics in the world. No doubt, says Patterson, in his commentary on the Hebrews, ‘Many of the Proverbs are, so to speak, the very commonplaces of morality. But on these commonplaces depend the safety, health, and happiness of the moral world. Even in these commonplaces the wise and inspired mind of Solomon rose superior to the discoveries and apprehensions of distinguished heathen sages. Interspersed are many germs and evolutions of profound and majestic moral principles. The whole sphere of duty and obligation is traversed and overtaken by the Book of Proverbs.’ ‘Solomon’s Proverbs,’ remarks Dr. Gray, in his ‘Introduction to the Old Testament,’ ‘are so justly founded on the principles of human nature, and so adapted to the permanent interests of man, that they agree with the manners of every age, and may be assumed as the rules for the direction of our conduct in every condition and rank of life.’ Coleridge says:

‘The Book of Proverbs is the best statesman’s manual which was ever written. An adherence to the political economy and spirit of that collection of apothegms and essays would do more to eradicate from a people the causes of extravagance, debasement, and ruin, than all the contributions to political economy of Say, Smith, Malthus, and Chalmers together.’ The cautions against suretyship, says Jasper Adams, (‘Moral Philosophy,’ p. 41,) will be most commended by those who have had most experience in human affairs. Nowhere do we find stronger commendations of industry, frugality, chastity, temperance, and integrity; or more serious warnings against idleness, strife, envy, drunkenness, and rioting. Nowhere are pride, covetousness, selfishness, the indulgence of rash anger, and the abuse of the tongue in the manifold ways of falsehood, slander, secret calumny, false witness, and blasphemy, more forcibly reproved. Nowhere are the wiles, the cunning, and the hardened front of the woman who ‘forsakes the guide of her youth, and forgets the covenant of her God,’ and ‘whose house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death,’ more vividly described. All authors, ancient and modern, cannot furnish such a picture of the virtuous woman as is given in chap. Proverbs 31:10-31. ‘Every duty in life is enjoined and skillfully commended to our notice; and not only every vice, but every species of folly, and even indiscretion, is guarded against. But it is in his concern for the young, and in his commendation of wisdom, that the wisest of men has put forth all the strength of his persuasive power and eloquence.’ ‘Some of these proverbs,’ says Mountford, ‘are of no use in our circumstances. But all of them are interesting as spiritual remains. Vestiges they are of an era in the human mind long, long back; words of caution, spiritual armour, fashioned for the use of the young in the anxious minds of experienced sages; proved advice for behaviour in the house, the city, and the field; and immortal truths which wise men coined out of their mortal sufferings.’ The book has an historical value aside from the practical instruction conveyed in it. It presents us with a view of the Jewish religion and morals, as pervading the common life and daily walk of the people, which is not so fully developed in the historical books, and which is more favourable than we might gather from the accounts of the numerous ceremonies and external ritual forms elsewhere enjoined.” MUENSCHER’S Introduction to Proverbs.

“It is impossible for any description of persons to read this Book of Proverbs without profit. Kings and courtiers, as well as those engaged in trade, commerce, agriculture, and the humblest walks of life, may here read lessons of instruction for the regulation of their conduct in their respective circumstances. Fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, masters, and servants, may here also learn their respective duties; and the most excellent rules are laid down, not only in reference to morality, but to civil policy and economy. Many motives are employed by the wise man to accomplish the end at which he aims; motives derived from honour, interest, love, fear, natural affection, and piety towards God. The principal object he has in view is to inspire a deep reverence for God, fear of his judgments, and an ardent love for wisdom and virtue. He exhibits injustice, impiety, profligacy, idleness, imprudence, drunkenness, and almost every vice, in such lively colours as to render every man ashamed of them who has any true respect for interest, honour, character, or health. And as there is nothing so directly calculated to ruin young men as bad company, debauch, and irregular connexions, he labours to fortify his disciple with the most convincing reasons against all these vices, and especially against indolence, dissipation, and the company of lewd women.” DR. A. CLARKE.

We add this further testimony to the ethical value of the book, from Prof. Moses Stuart: “In looking through the whole book, there will be seen a collection of moral and prudential maxims which attain a high elevation in the dominion of morality, industry, social kindness, and, indeed, of all the civil and social virtues. A people who originated these and brought them into popular use, must needs have made great advances in civil and social life. A Caffre or a Tartar could hardly understand them, even if proposed in his own language; and if he should, he would have little relish for them. To have received and retained them, then, and to have set so much value on them as the Hebrews did, shows a state of moral cultivation in the time of Solomon and Hezekiah by no means of an inferior grade. It cannot be denied that there is a high tone of religion, morals, social obligation, and even comity, pervading the whole book. Humility before God, reverence for him, the love of our neighbour, justice, kindness, temperance, gentleness of spirit and demeanour, prudence, economy, active diligence, chastity, purity of heart, modesty, and, in a word, all which make men happy in themselves, and create a happy state of society, are exhibited and urged in the most pointed manner in the book before us. And we, after all the light which Christianity has shed upon us, could not part with the book without a severe loss. Better by far lose all that Socrates, and Plato, and Plutarch, and Epictetus, and Cicero, and Seneca have written on subjects of this nature. Pity that the book is not more studied and better understood by Christians!”

It has been supposed by some that Solomon must have borrowed more or less from other writers who lived before his day. It is probable, indeed, that some of the proverbs were not original with him; but those which he collected from other sources, and which, in the order of divine providence, have been preserved to us by his inspired authority, are as much the teaching of the Spirit as if they had been first dictated to Solomon himself. It has been well said by Dr. Adam Clarke, that whatever of truth is found among men came from God, and belongs to him; and if he employed an inspired man to collect those rays of light which emanated from himself, and to embody them for the use of his Church, he had a right to claim his own wherever found, and to give it a new authentication to render it more useful. But that Solomon borrowed little from his predecessors is probable from the fact that all the ethical writers who are famous in profane history lived after his time. Solomon, according to the common computation, began to reign about A.M. 2,989, which was 239 years before the first Olympiad; 479 before Cyrus, in whose time flourished the seven wise men of Greece; 679 before Alexander the Great, under whose reign flourished Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Therefore, to the heathens he could be but little, if at all, indebted. It is more probable that the indebtedness is on the other side.

It becomes the writer here to acknowledge his obligations to former labourers in the same field. Credit has been given in the body of the work where direct quotations have been made. But the writer desires here, in a more emphatic manner, to express his appreciation of the valuable efforts of others. Besides the older English commentaries. such as the “Paraphrase of Bishop Patrick,” from which has been extracted occasional precious gems which will arrest attention by their antique quaintness, the well-known standard commentaries of Dr. Adam Clarke and of Joseph Benson have also, to a limited extent, been laid under contribution. The former is distinguished for its independence and originality; the latter for giving, in a condensed form, the body of traditional exegesis. Of the more recent European commentaries, Zockler, in Lange’s “Bibel-Werk,” is noted for its fullness of illustration and homiletical exposition; and the so-called “Speaker’s Commentary,” published in this country under the name of “The Bible Commentary,” for its compactness and reliableness both of exegesis and verbal criticism. The new Scottish commentary of Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, is also to be mentioned in the same connexion as a valuable auxiliary to Bible study.

As to commentaries on the Proverbs, our own country has not been deficient in works of great excellence. Prof. George R. Noyes, D.D., of Harvard University, so far as has come to our knowledge, led the way in this department of work. The copy before us is dated 1846. It is anew and generally excellent translation, with brief notes appended, judicious and scholarly. Next comes Prof. Moses Stuart, of Andover, (1864;) also a new translation, accompanied with notes, critical and exegetical a very meritorious work. Joseph Muenscher, D.D., in 1866 published an amended version of the Proverbs, with a lengthy and valuable introduction and explanatory notes, Gambier, Ohio. Dr. Muenscher’s work is deserving of high praise. In 1872 followed the elaborate and scholarly production of Dr. Thomas J. Conant, “for the American Bible Union.” The magnificent volume before us contains, in parallel columns, King James’ version, the Hebrew text, and a revised version, with an introduction, and critical and philological notes; also, the revised version by itself, with an introduction and explanatory notes. This volume is a credit to American scholarship. Lastly, we have from the pen of Dr. John Miller, of Princeton, (1872,) a work wholly unique in character. “A Commentary on the Proverbs, with a New Translation, and with some of the original Expositions Re-examined in a Classified List.” This is the title-page, but it scarcely gives the reader a full idea of the work, a great part of the peculiarity of which consists in the accompanying notes. Dr. Miller’s theory is that the Proverbs are to be spiritually interpreted. Their object is wholly spiritual. Consequently he finds the whole Gospel in the Proverbs, we may say the whole body of Christian theology and this of the hyper Calvinistic type! Yet the book is very entertaining reading. His style bristles with point and pungency, and many of his verbal criticisms are worthy of high respect. As a translator he is independent and self-sustained, and his notes are thoroughly original.

It is remarkable that every American scholar, so far as the writer is informed, who up to this time has turned his attention to the Proverbs, has given us a new translation of the book. We have not deemed it expedient to do this, but in the notes have given frequent suggestions for emendation.

Supposing that many readers would be gratified with references to other and older versions, the author has consulted and quoted, more or less, the Septuagint, Vulgate, and some of the earlier English translations, as the Geneva, Douay, etc. The Douay, first published in 1609-10, is the Anglo-Catholic version, and is a faithful copy of the Latin Vulgate, which is the only authorized Roman Catholic version. The Geneva Bible is one of the earlier of the English translations. The copy now in our possession, by the favour of a friend, has these words on the title-page of the New Testament, “At Geneva, Printed by Iohn Crespin.” no date. The Psalter, bound up in the volume, which, however, seems to be on different and fresher looking paper, has this: “At Geneva, Printed by Iohn Crespin. M.D.LXIX.” The first edition of the New Testament was printed at Geneva in 1557. W. H.


As Dr. Hunter deceased after the writing the notes on Proverbs, but before its publication, it seems appropriate to record here a brief notice of his life and work. He was born in the north of Ireland, May 30, 1811, and died in Cleveland, Ohio, Oct. 11, 1877. His father immigrated to this country during his boyhood. His remarkable ability attracting the notice of the late Dr. Charles Elliott, he was induced by that eminent scholar to enter Madison College, where he distinguished himself by his scholarship and ability. He there consecrated himself to the service of Christ, and upon graduation he entered the Pittsburg Annual Conference. With regard to his career and character we can do no better than quote the testimony of his Conference: At the close of his third Conference year he succeeded Dr. Elliott in the editorship of the “Pittsburg Conference Journal” a responsibility seldom thrust on so young a minister. He showed a marked ability for the work, and through it became widely known to the Church. He was thrice afterward elected to the same position by the General Conference, the name of the paper being changed to the “Pittsburg Christian Advocate.” He spent in all about sixteen years in editorial work, sixteen as Kramer Professor of Hebrew and Biblical Literature in Alleghany College, and thirteen years on circuits, stations, and districts; and in all these years and places did his work well, with singleness of purpose, and for the glory of God. At the last session of his Conference he was appointed to Cleveland District, and entered the forty-fifth year of his effective service in fine health and high hope of continued usefulness. But in less than three weeks the summons came, and, after a few hours of suffering, he closed his useful life of labour and gained the promised rest.

Dr. Hunter was no ordinary man. As a preacher he was able rather than brilliant. A patient, diligent student, he was profound in his researches. In the pulpit and in the professor’s chair he impressed all as a sound, thorough, evangelical expositor of the Word, with great breadth of knowledge and deep thoughtfulness, using his ample stores skilfully, not for display, but to make the truth more plain. Though a great man in our Zion, he was profoundly humble, evidently much less conscious of the great influence he was exerting than others who felt and rejoiced in it. He seemed never to use the arts of the mere orator, but his sterling thoughts were well expressed, in a manner at once clear, chaste, and beautiful, without any need of ornament to embellish them. He connected with his regular work, whether as pastor, presiding elder, journalist, or professor in college, no small amount of other literary labour; was appointed by the Board of Bishops on the Committee of Fifteen to revise the Hymn Book, and during the last two years did much valuable service under that appointment. In his own hymns, and in his “Commentary on the Book of Proverbs,” he has left a permanent and most valuable legacy to the Church.