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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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1. Meaning . In the Bible there is no essential difference between the proverb and the parable (wh. see). The Heb. mâshâl and the Gr. parabolç , meaning ‘resemblance,’ were applied indiscriminately to both. The value arising from this likeness was twofold. In the first place, as the moral truth seemed to emerge from the observed habits of animals, objects in nature, familiar utensils, or occurrences in daily life, such juxtaposition gave to the ethical precept or fact of conduct the surprise and challenge of a discovery. Thus the whole influence of example and environment is compressed into the proverb, ‘As is the mother, so is her daughter’ ( Ezekiel 16:44 ). The surprise was intensified when the parable product contradicted ordinary experience, as in the statement, ‘One soweth and another reapeth’ ( John 4:37 ). Definite labour deserves a definite reward, yet the unexpected happens, and, while man proposes, there remains an area in which God disposes. Out of such corroboration grew the second value of the proverb, namely, authority. The truth became a rule entitled to general acceptance. The proverb usually has the advantage of putting the concrete for the abstract. Among the modern inhabitants of Palestine, when a letter of recommendation is asked, it is customary to quote the proverb, ‘You cannot clap with one hand.’ Of a dull workman without interest or resource in his work it is said, ‘He is like a sleve, he can do only one thing.’

2. Literary form . (1) Next to the fact of resemblance was the essential feature of brevily . Such a combination at once secured currency to the unpremeditated exclamation, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ ( 1 Samuel 10:11-12 ). When the proverb consisted of two parts, rhetorical emphasis was secured either by repeating the same thought in different words ( Proverbs 3:17 ) or by the introduction of contrasting particulars ( Proverbs 3:33 ). (2) Rhythmic measure was also studied, and there was often an untranslatable felicity of balance and repeated sound. The final mark of literary publicity was conferred by a rhetorical touch of picturesque hyperbole, as in the reference to a camel passing through the eye of a needle ( Matthew 19:24 ). (3) The fact that a wise saying was meant for the wise encouraged the use of elliptical form . This carried the complimentary suggestion that the hearer was able to understand a reference that was confessedly obscure. On this account proverbs were called ‘the words of the wise’ ( Proverbs 22:17 ). Hence the note of surprise and unexpectedness in Christ’s words, when He said that the mysteries of the Kingdom had been hidden from the wise and understanding and revealed unto babes ( Matthew 11:25 , Luke 10:21 ). (4) The obscurity referred to was sometimes made the leading feature and motive of the proverb, and it was then called an ‘enigma’ or ‘ dark saying ’ ( Psalms 49:4 , Proverbs 1:6; Proverbs 30:15-31 ). Its solution then became a challenge to the ingenuity of the interpreter. Both the prophets and Christ Himself were charged with speaking in this problematical manner ( Ezekiel 20:49 , John 16:29 ). Riddles were introduced at festive gatherings as contributing an element of competitive acuteness and facetious exhilaration. Instances resembling Proverbs 30:15-31 are common among the modern Arabs and Jews in Syria, as when it is said: ‘There are three chief voices in the world, that of running water, of the Torah, and of money.’ An enigma for the study of books is: ‘Black seeds on white ground, and he who eats of the fruit becomes wise.’

3. Subject-matter . This is summarized in Proverbs 1:1-8 . The reference is generally to types of character, the emotions and the desires of the heart, and the joys and sorrows, the losses and gains, the duties and the relationships of human life. Amid these the proverb casts a searching light upon different classes of men, and points out the path of wisdom. Henos the name ‘words of truth’ ( Proverbs 22:21 ).

4. Authority . Proverbial literature is more highly esteemed in the East than in the West. While the popularity of proverbs is partly due to literary charm and intellectual force, and the distinction conferred by the power of quoting and understanding them, the principal cause of their acceptance lies in their harmony with Oriental life. The proverb is patriarchal government in the region of ethics. It is an order from the governing class that admits of no discussion. The proverb is not the pleading of the lawyer in favour of a certain view and claim, but the decision of a judge who has heard both sides and adjudicates on behalf of general citizenship. Such authority is at its maximum when it not only is generally current but has been handed down from previous generations. It is then ‘a parable of the ancients’ ( 1 Samuel 24:13 ). The quotation of an appropriate proverb in a controversy always carries weight, unless the opponent can quote another in support of his claims. Thus, to the careless and inattentive man in business who says ‘Prosperity is from God,’ it may be retorted ‘He that seeketh findeth.’ Beneath some commendable social qualities belonging to this attitude there is a mental passivity that seeks to attain to results without the trouble of personal inquiry, and prefers the benefits conferred by truth to any sacrifice or service that might be rendered to it.

G. M. Mackie.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Proverb'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​p/proverb.html. 1909.