International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
PROVERBS, THE BOOK OF
I. THE BOOK'S ACCOUNT OF ITSELF
1. Title and Headings
2. Authorship or Literary Species?
II. THE SUCCESSIVE COMPILATIONS
1. The Introductory Section
2. The Classic Nucleus
3. A Body of Solicited Counsel
4. Some Left-over Precepts
5. The Hezekian Collection
6. Words of Agur
7. Words of King Lemuel
8. An Acrostic Eulogy of Woman
III. MOVEMENT TOWARD A PHILOSOPHY
1. Liberation of the Mashal
2. Emergence of Basal Principles
3. The Conception of Wisdom
IV. CONSIDERATIONS OF AGE AND LITERARY KINSHIP
1. Under the Kings
2. The Concentrative Point
3. Its Stage in Progressive Wisdom
The Scripture book which in both the Hebrew and the Greek arrangements of the Old Testament Canon immediately succeeds the Psalms. In the Hebrew Canon it stands second in the final or supplementary division called kethubhim Septuagint Paroimiai), "writings"; placed there probably because it would be most natural to begin this section with standard collections nearest at hand, which of course would be psalms and proverbs. This book is an anthology of sayings or lessons of the sages on life, character, conduct; and as such embodies the distinctively educative strain of Hebrew literature.
I. The Book's Account of Itself.
1. Title and Headings:
At the beginning, intended apparently to cover the whole work, stands the title: "The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel." It seemed good to the compilers, however, to repeat, or perhaps retain an older heading, "The proverbs of Solomon" at Proverbs 10, as if in some special sense the collection there beginning deserved it; and at Proverbs 25 still another heading occurs: "These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out." All these ascribe the proverbs to Solomon; but the heading (30:1), "The words of Agur the son of Jakeh; the oracle," and the heading (31:1), "The words of king Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him," indicate that authorship other than that of Solomon is represented; while the mention of "the words of the wise" (1:6; 22:17), as also the definite heading, "These also are sayings of the wise" (24:23), ascribe parts of the book to the sages in general. The book is confessedly a series of compilations made at different times; confessedly, also, to a considerable extent at least, the work of a number, perhaps a whole guild, of writers.
2. Authorship or Literary Species?:
It is hazardous to argue either for or against a specific authorship; nor is it my intention to do so. The question naturally arises, however, in what sense this book, with its composite structure so outspoken, can lay claim to being the work of Solomon. Does the title refer to actual personal authorship, or does it name a species and type of literature of which Solomon was the originator and inspirer-as if it meant to say "the Solomonic proverbs"? We may work toward the answer of this question by noting some literary facts.
Outside of the prophets only three of the Old Testament books are provided in the original text with titles; and these three are all associated with Solomon-two of them, Proverbs and the So of Songs, directly; the third, Ecclesiastes, by an assumed name, which, however, personates Solomon. This would seem to indicate in the composition of these books an unusual degree of literary finish and self-consciousness, a sense on the part of writers or compilers that literature as an art has its claims upon them. The subject-matter of the books, too, bears this out; they are, relatively speaking, the secular books of the Bible and do not assume divine origin, as do law and prophecy. For the original impulse to such literary culture the history directs us to the reign of King Solomon; see 1 Kings 4:29-34, where is portrayed, on the part of king and court, an intense intellectual activity for its own sake, the like of which occurs nowhere else in Scripture. The forms then especially impressed upon the literature were the mashal (proverb) and the song, in both of which the versatile young king was proficient; compare 1 Kings 4:32. For the cultivation of the mashal these men of letters availed themselves of a favorite native form, the popular proverb; but they gave to it a literary mold and finish which would thenceforth distinguish it as the Solomonic mashal (see PROVERB). This then was the literary form in which from the time of Solomon onward the sages of the nation put their counsels of life, character, conduct; it became as distinctively the mold for this didactic strain of literature as was the heroic couplet for a similar strain in the age of Dryden and Pope.
It is reasonable therefore to understand this title of the Book of Proverbs as designating rather a literary species than a personal authorship; it names this anthology of Wisdom in its classically determined phrasing, and for age and authorship leaves a field spacious enough to cover the centuries of its currency. Perhaps also the proverb of this type was by the term "of Solomon" differentiated from mashal of other types, as for instance those of Balaam and Job and Koheleth.
II. The Successive Compilations.
1. The Introductory Section:
That the Book of Proverbs is composed of several collections made at different times is a fact that lies on the surface; as many as eight of these are clearly marked, and perhaps subdivisions might be made. The book was not originally conceived as the development of a theme, or even as a unity; whatever unity it has was an afterthought. That it did come to stand, however, for one homogeneous body of truth, and to receive a name and a degree of articulation as such, will be maintained in a later section (see III, below). Meanwhile, we will take the sections in order and note some of the salient characteristics of each. The introductory section, Proverbs 1-9, has the marks of having been added later than most of the rest; and is introductory in the sense of concentrating the thought to the concept of Wisdom, and of recommending the spiritual attitude in which it is to be received. Its style-and in this it is distinguished from the rest of the book-is hortatory; it is addressed to "my son" (1:8 and often) or "my sons" (4:1; 5:07; 7:24; 8:32), in the tone of a father or a sage, bringing stores of wisdom and experience to the young. The first six verses are prefatory, giving the purpose and use of the whole book. Then Proverbs 1:7 lays down as the initial point, or spiritual bedrock of Wisdom, the fear of Yahweh, a principle repeated toward the end of this introductory section (9:10), and evidently regarded as very vital to the whole Wisdom system; compare Job 28:28 Psalm 111:10; Sirach 1:14. The effect of this prefatory and theme-propounding matter is to launch the collection of proverbs much after the manner of modern literary works, and the rest of the section bears this out fairly well. The most striking feature of the section, besides its general homiletic tone, is its personification of Wisdom. She is represented as calling to the sons of men and commending to them her ways (Proverbs 1:20-33; Proverbs 8:1-21, 32-36); she condescends, for right and purity's sake, to enter into rivalry with the "strange woman," the temptress, not in secret, but in open and fearless dealing (Proverbs 7:6-8:9; Proverbs 9:1-6, 13-18); and, in a supremely poetic passage (Proverbs 8:22-31), she describes her relation from the beginning with God and with the sons of men. It represents the value that the Hebrew mind came to set upon the human endowment of Wisdom. The Hebrew philosopher thought not in terms of logic and dialectics, but in symbol and personality; and to this high rank, almost like that of a goddess, his imagination has exalted the intellectual and spiritual powers of man.
2. The Classic Nucleus:
The section Proverbs 10:1-22:16, with the repeated heading "The proverbs of Solomon", seems to have been the original nucleus of the whole collection. All the proverbs in this, the longest section of the book, are molded strictly to the couplet form (the one triplet, 19:7, being only an apparent exception, due probably to the loss of a line), each proverb a parallelism in condensed phrasing, in which the second line gives either some contrast to or some amplification of the first. This was doubtless the classic art norm of the Solomonic mashal.
The section seems to contain the product of that period of proverb-culture during which the sense of the model was a little rigid and severe, not venturing yet to limber up the form. Signs of a greater freedom, however, begin to appear, and possibly two strata of compilation are represented. In Proverbs 10-15 the prevailing couplet is antithetic, which embodies the most self-closed circuit of the thought. Out of 184 proverbs only 19 do not contain some form of contrast, and 10 of these are in Proverbs 15. In Proverbs 16-22:16, on the other hand, the prevailing form is the so-called synonymous or amplified couplet, which leaves the thought-circuit more open to illustrative additions. Out of 191 proverbs only 18 are antithetic, and these contain contrasts of a more subtle and hidden suggestion. As to subject-matter, the whole section is miscellaneous; in the first half, however, where the antithesis prevails, are the great elemental distinctions of life, wisdom and folly, righteousness and wickedness, industry and laziness, wise speech and reticence, and the like; while in the second half there is a decided tendency to go farther afield for subtler and less obvious distinctions. In this way they seem to reflect a growing and refining literary development, the gradual shaping and accumulation of materials for a philosophy of life; as yet, however, not articulated or reduced to unity of principle.
3. A Body of Solicited Counsel:
In the short section Proverbs 22:17-24:22, the proverb literature seems for the first time to have become as it were self-conscious-to regard itself as a strain of wise counsel to be reckoned with for its educative value. The section is introduced by a preface (22:17-21), in which these "words of the wise" are recommended to some person or delegation, "that thou mayest carry back words of truth to them that send thee" (22:21). The counsels seem intended for persons in responsible position, perhaps attached to the court (compare 23:1-3), who, as they are to deal officially with men and affairs, need the prudence, purity, and temperance which will fit them for their duties. As to form, the detached couplet appears only occasionally; the favorite form is the quatrain; but proverbs of a greater number of lines are freely used, and one, the counsel on wine drinking (23:29-35), runs to 17 lines. In tone and specific counsel the section has many resemblances to the introductory section (Proverbs 1-9), and provokes the conjecture that this latter section, as the introduction to a compiled body of Wisdom, was composed not long after it.
4. Some Left-over Precepts:
The little appendix (Proverbs 24:23-34) is headed, "These also are sayings of the wise." They refer to wise intercourse and ordered industry. The little poem on the sluggard (Proverbs 24:30-34), with its refrain (Proverbs 24:33, 14), is noteworthy as being apparently one stanza of a poem which is completed with the same refrain in the introductory section (Proverbs 6:6-11). The stanzas are of the same length and structure; and it would seem the latter named was either discovered later or composed as a supplement to the one in this section.
5. The Hezekian Collection:
The long section (Proverbs 25-29) is headed, "These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out." The collection claims to be only a compilation; but if, as already suggested, we understand the term "proverbs of Solomon" as equivalent to "Solomonic proverbs," referring rather to species than personal authorship, the compilation may have been made not merely from antiquity, but from the archives of the Wisdom guilds. If so, we have a clue to the state of the Wisdom literature in Hezekiah's time. The collection as a whole, unlike secs. 3 and 4, returns predominantly to the classic form of the couplet, but with a less degree of compression and epigram. There is a tendency to group numbers of proverbs on like subjects; note for instance the group on the king (Proverbs 25:2-7). The most striking-feature of the collection is the prevalence of simile and analogy, and in general the strong figurative coloring, especially in Proverbs 25-27; it reads like a new species of proverb when we note that in all the earlier Solomonic sections there are only two clearly defined similes (10:26; 11:22). In Proverbs 25-27 are several proverbs of three, four, or five lines, and at the end (27:23-27) a charming little poem of ten lines on husbandry. Proverbs 28; 29 are entirely of couplets, and the antithetic proverb reappears in a considerable number. As to subject-matter, the thought of this section makes a rather greater demand on the reader's culture and thinking powers, the analogies being less obvious, more subtle. It is decidedly the reflection of a more literary age than that of section 2.
6. Words of Agur:
Proverbs 30 is taken up with "the words of Agur the son of Jakeh," a person otherwise unknown, who disclaims expert knowledge of Wisdom lore (30:3), and avows an agnostic attitude toward theological speculations, yet shows a tender reverence before the name and unplumbed mystery of Yahweh (30:6, 9, 32). His words amount to a plea against a too adventurous, not to say presumptuous, spirit in the supposed findings of human Wisdom, and as such supply a useful makeweight to the mounting pride of the scholar. Yet over this peculiar plea is placed the word "Massa" (ha-massa'); "burden" or "oracle," the term used for prophetic disclosures; and the word for "said" ("the man said," ne'-um ha-genjer) is the word elsewhere used for mystic or divine utterance. This seems to mark a stage in the self-consciousness of Wisdom when it was felt that its utterances could be ranked by the side of prophecy as a revelation of truth (compare what Wisdom says of herself, 8:14), and could claim the authoritative term "oracle." For the rest, apart from the humble reverence with which they are imbued, these words of Agur do not rise to a high level of spiritual thinking; they tend rather to the riddling element, or "dark sayings" (compare 1:6). The form of his proverbs is peculiar, verging indeed on the artificial; he deals mostly in the so-called numerical proverb ("three things.... yea, four"), a style of utterance paralleled elsewhere only in 6:16-19, but something of a favorite in the later cryptic sayings of the scribes, as may be seen in Pirqe 'Abhoth.
7. Words of King Lemuel:
Proverbs 31:1-9 (possibly the whole chapter should be included) is headed, "The words of king Lemuel; the oracle which his mother taught him." Here occurs again the mysterious Word "oracle," which would seem to be open to the same interpretation as the one given in the previous paragraph, though some would make this otherwise unknown monarch a king of Massa, and refer to the name of one of the descendants of Ishmael (Genesis 25:14), presumably a tribal designation. The Hebrew sages from the beginning were in rivalry and fellowship with the sages of other nations (compare 1 Kings 4:30, 31); and in the Book of Job, the supreme reach of Wisdom utterance, all of the sages, Job included, are from countries outside of Palestine. King Lemuel, if an actual personage, was not a Jew; and probably Agur was not. The words of Lemuel are a mother's plea to her royal son for chastity, temperance and justice, the kingly virtues. The form is the simple Hebrew parallelism, not detached couplets, but continuous.
8. An Acrostic Eulogy of Woman:
The Book of Proverbs ends in a manner eminently worthy of its high standard of sanity and wisdom. Without any heading (it may possibly belong to the "oracle" that the mother of Lemuel taught her son) the last 22 verses (31:10-31) constitute a single poem in praise of a worthy woman, extolling especially her household virtues. In form these verses begin in the original with the successive 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet; a favorite form of Hebrew verse, as may be seen (in the original) in several of the psalms, notably Psalm 119, and in Lamentations 1-4.
III. Movement toward a Philosophy.
It has been much the fashion with modern critics to deny to the Hebrews a truly philosophic mind; this they say was rather the distinctive gift of the Greeks; while for their solution of the problem of life the Hebrews depended on direct revelation from above, which precluded that quasi-abeyance of concepts, that weighing of cosmic and human elements, involved in the commonly received notion of philosophy. This criticism takes account of only one side of the Hebrew mind. It is true they believed their life to be in direct contact with the will and word of Yahweh, revealed to them in terms which could not be questioned; but in the findings and deliverance of their own intellectual powers, too, they had a reliance and confidence which merits the name of an authentic philosophy. But theirs was a philosophy not of speculative world-making, but of conduct and the practical management of life; and it was intuitive and analogical, not the result of dialectical reasoning. Hence, its name wisdom, the solution itself, rather than philosophy, the love of wisdom, the search for solution. This Book of Proverbs, beginning with detached maxims on the elements of conduct, reveals in many suggestive ways the gradual emergence of a philosophy, a comprehensive wisdom, as it were, in the making; it is thus the pioneer book of that Hebrew Wisdom which we see developed to maturer things in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Some of its salient stages may here be traced.
1. Liberation of the Mashal:
We may first note it, or the literary preparation for it, in the opening up of the mashal, or proverb unit, toward added elements of illustration, explanation, amplitude, a development that begins to appear, in the oldest section (the classic nucleus, section 2) at about Proverbs 16. The primitive antithetic mashal contrasted two aspects of truth in such a way as to leave the case closed; there was nothing for it but to go on to a new subject. This had the good effect of setting over against each other the great elemental antagonisms of life: righteousness and wickedness, obedience and lawlessness, teachableness and perversity, industry and laziness, prudence and presumption, reticence and prating, etc., and so far forth it was a masterly analysis of the essentials of individual and social conduct. As soon, however, as the synonymous and illustrative mashal prevails, we are conscious of a limbering up and greater penetrativeness of the range of thought; it is open to subtler distinctions and remoter discoveries, and the analogies tend to employ the less direct relationships of cause and effect. This is increased as we go on, especially by the greater call upon the imagination in the figurative tissue of the Hezekian section, and by the decidedly greater tendency to the riddling and paradox element. The mashal increases in length and amplitude, both by the grouping of similar subjects and by the enlargement from the couplet to the quatrain and the developed poem. All this, while not yet a self-conscious philosophy, is a step on the way thereto.
2. Emergence of Basal Principles:
One solid presupposition of the sages, like an axiom, was never called in question: namely, that righteousness and wisdom are identical, that wickedness of any sort is folly. This imparts at once a kind of prophetic coloring to the Wisdom precepts, well represented by the opening proverb in the original section (after the prefatory one about the wise son), "Treasures of wickedness profit nothing; but righteousness delivereth from death" (Proverbs 10:2). Thus from the outset is furnished an uncompromising background on which the fascinating allurements of vice, the crooked ways of injustice and dishonesty, the sober habits of goodness and right dealing, show for what they are and what they tend to. The sages thus put themselves, too, in entire harmony with what is taught by priests and prophets; there is no quarrel with the law or the word; they simply supply the third strand in the threefold cord of instruction (compare Jeremiah 18:18). From this basal presumption other principles, scarcely less axiomatic, come in view: that the fount and spring of wise living is reverence, the fear of Yahweh; that the ensuring frame of mind is teachableness, the precluding attitude perverseness; that it is the mark of wisdom, or righteousness, to be fearless and above board, of wickedness, which is folly, to be crooked and secretive. These principles recur constantly, not, as a system, but in numerous aspects and applications in the practical business of life. For their sanctions they refer naively to the Hebrew ideal of rewards on the one hand-wealth, honor, long life, family (compare Proverbs 11:31)-and of shame and loss and destruction on the other; but these are emphasized not as direct bestowments or inflictions from a personal Deity, rather as in the law of human nature. The law that evil works its own destruction, good brings its own reward, is forming itself in men's reason as one of the fundamental concepts out of which grew the Wisdom philosophy.
3. The Conception of Wisdom:
From times long before Solomon sagacity in counsel, and. skill to put such counsel into maxim or parable, gave their possessor, whether man or woman, a natural leadership and repute in the local communities (compare 2 Samuel 14:2; 2 Samuel 20:16); and Solomon's exceptional endowment showed itself not merely in his literary tastes, but in his ability, much esteemed among Orientals, to determine the merits of cases brought before him for judgment (1 Kings 3:16-28), and to answer puzzling questions (1 Kings 10:1, 6, 7). It was from such estimate of men's intellectual powers, from the recognition of mental alertness, sagacity, grasp, in their application to the practical issues of life (compare Proverbs 1:1-5), that the conception of Wisdom in its larger sense arose. As, however, the cultivation of such sagacity of utterance passed beyond the pastime of a royal court (compare 1 Kings 4:29-34) into the hands of city elders and sages it attained to greatly enhanced value; note how the influence of such sage is idealized (Job 29:7-25). The sages had definite calling and mission of their own, more potent perhaps than belonged to priests and prophets; the frequent reference to the young and the "simple" or immature in the Book of Pr would indicate that they were virtually the schoolmasters and educators of the nation. As such, working as they did in a fellowship and collaboration with each other, the subject-matter with which they dealt would not remain as casual and miscellaneous maxims, but work toward a center and system of doctrine which could claim the distinction of an articulated philosophy of life, and all the more since it was so identified with the great Hebrew ideal of righteousness and truth. We have already noted how this sense of the dignity and value of their calling manifested itself in the body of precepts sent in response to solicitation (3 above), with its appendix (4 above) (Proverbs 22:17-24:34). It was not long after this stage of Wisdom-culture, I think, that a very significant new word came into their vocabulary, the word (tushiyah, a puzzle to the translators, variously rendered "sound wisdom," "effectual working," and called by the lexicographers "a technical term of the Wisdom literature," BDB, under the word). Its earliest appearance, and the only one except in the introductory section (Proverbs 18:1), is where the man who separates himself from others' opinions and seeks his own desire is said to quarrel with all tushiyah. The word seems to designate Wisdom in its subjective aspect, as an authentic insight or intuition of truth, the human power to rise into the region of true revelation from below, as distinguished from the prophetic or legal word spoken directly from above. Outside of Proverbs and Job the word occurs only twice: once in Micah 6:9, and once in Isaiah 28:29, in which latter case the prophet has deliberately composed a passage (28:23-29) in the characteristic mashal idiom, and attributed that strain of insight to Yahweh. Evidently there came a time in the culture of Wisdom when its utterances attained in men's estimate to a parity with utterances direct from the unseen; perhaps this explains why Agur's and Lemuel's words could be boldly ranked as oracles (see above, 6 and 7). At any rate, such a high distinction, an authority derived from intimacy with the creative work of Yahweh (Proverbs 8:30, 31), is ascribed to Wisdom (chokhmah, in the introductory section; "counsel is mine," Wisdom is made to say, "and tushiyah" (Proverbs 8:14). Thus the Book of Proverbs reveals to us a philosophy, as it were, in the making and from scattered counsels attaining gradually to the summit where the human intellect could place its findings by the side of divine oracles.
IV. Considerations of Age and Literary Kinship.
To get at the history of the Book of Proverbs, several inquiries must be raised. When were the proverbs composed? The book, like the Book of Psalms, is confessedly an anthology, containing various accumulations, and both by style and maturing thought bearing the marks of different ages. When were the successive compilations made? And, finally, when did the strain of literature here represented reach that point of self-conscious unity and coordination which justified its being reckoned with as a strain by itself and choosing the comprehensive name Wisdom? What makes these inquiries hard to answer is the fact that these proverbs are precepts for the common people, relating to ordinary affairs of the village, the market, and the field, and move in lines remote from politics and dynastic vicissitudes and wars. They are, to an extent far more penetrative and pervasive than law or prophecy, the educative literature on which the sturdy rank and file of the nation was nourished. `Where there is no vision, the people let loose,' says a Hezekian proverb (Proverbs 29:18); but so they are also when there is no abiding tonic of social convention and principle. Precisely this latter it is which this Book of Prey in a large degree reveals; and in course of time its value was so felt that, as we have seen, it could rank itself as an asset of life by the side of vision. It represents, in a word, the human movement toward self-directiveness and self-reliance, without supine dependence on ruler or public sentiment (compare Proverbs 29:25, 26). When and how was this sane and wholesome communal fiber developed?
1. Under the Kings:
When Solomon and his court made the mashal an elegant fad, they builded better than they knew. They gave to the old native form of the proverb and parable, as reduced to epigrammatic mold and polish, the eclat of a popular literature. This was done orally at first (Solomon spoke his proverbs, 1 Kings 4:32, 33); but the recording of such carefully expressed utterances could not be long delayed; perhaps this brief style coupe was the most natural early exercise in the new transition from the unwieldly cuneiform to the use of papyrus and a more flexible alphabet, which probably came in with the monarchy. At any rate, here was the medium for a practical didactic literature, applied to the matters of daily life and intercourse to which in Solomon's time the nation was enthusiastically awake. There is no valid reason for denying to Solomon, or at least to his time, the initiation of the Solomonic mashal; and if, as has been suggested, the name "proverbs of Solomon" designates rather literary species than personal authorship, the title of the whole book (Proverbs 1:1), as well as the headings of sections (Proverbs 10:1; Proverbs 25:1), may be given in entire good faith, whatever the specific time or personal authorship of the utterances. Nor is there anything either in recorded history or the likelihood of the case to make improbable that the activity of the "men of Hezekiah" means just what is said; these men of letters were adding this supplementary collection (Proverbs 25-29) to a body of proverbs that already existed and were recognized as Solomon's. This would put the composition of the main body of the Proverbs (chapters 10-29) prior to the reign of Hezekiah. They represent therefore the chief literary instruction available to the people in the long period of the Kings from Solomon onward, a period which otherwise was very meagerly supplied. The Mosaic Law, as we gather from the finding of the Law in the time of Josiah (2 Kings 22), was at best a sequestered thing in the keeping-or neglect-of priests and judges; the prophetic word was a specific message for great national emergencies; the accumulations of sacred song were the property of the temple and the cult; what then was there for the education of the people? There were indeed the folk-tales and catechetical legends of their heroic history; but there were also, most influential of all, these wise sayings of the sages, growing bodies of precept and parable, preserved in village centers, published in the open places by the gate (compare Job 29:7), embodying the elements of a common-sense religion and citizenship, and representing views of life which were not only Hebrew, but to a great extent international among the neighbor kingdoms.
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