« Protopresbyter Proverbs, Book of Providence »

Proverbs, Book of


1. Place in the Canon: Name.

The Book of the Proverbs of Solomon, which is known to have consisted of 915 verses in the Masoretic text as early as the time of Jerome, belongs in the Hebrew canon to the three poetic books (Psalms, Job, and Proverbs) which were distinguished by a special system of punctuation from the rest of the writings. It was reckoned to the Hagiographa (see Canon of Scripture, I., 1, § 3, c. 4, §§ 1–2), though its position there is not uniform; sometimes the poetical books are preceded by Chronicles (because the latter books begin with Adam); indeed the order of the three poetical books as a separate collection is subject to variations in the manuscripts. The inclusion of the book in the canon was not entirely a matter of course, and was debated at Jamnia, a ground of opposition being found in the contradiction discovered in xxvi. 4–5, and in the character of the passage vii. 7–20. The Hebrew title of the book is the first word, Mishle, from mashal, a word often used in the Old Testament with various significations, such as proverb, parable, riddle, satirical poem, and the like (I Sam. x. 12; Ezek. xvii. 25, xviii. 2–3; Isa. xiv. 4). The common element in all these meanings is evidently that of comparison, a conclusion which is borne out by the signification of the Assyrian mashalu. P. Haupt (SBOT, Proverbs, p. 32) goes to the Assyrian mishlu, "half," and derives the term from the fact that the proverb is in two balanced propositions. This is opposed by the other fact that in the Hebrew the singular form is used for a proverb, while the theory requires the plural (or dual). Further, the distich formation is not the only one employed in this form of composition; there are proverbs with only one member, and those with three or more (cf. I Sam. x. 12).

2. The Poetic Form.

This introduces the subject of the form of the book. The fact that Proverbs is among the poetical books shows that the ancients regarded it as poetical in form. Some Hebrew manuscripts as well as important codices of the Septuagint preserve it in lines as poetry, though this is not the usual form of the Masoretic text; the characteristics of Hebrew poetry (see Hebrew Language and Literature, III.) are abundantly evident. Thus there are present the parallelism of members and the easily recognizable rhythm. The measure is prevailingly trimeter, combined in distiches, tristiches, or even in longer combinations, while other variations are not uncommon. The collection x. 1–xxii. 16 is composed entirely of distiches in trimeter, of which x. 2 is an excellent example, presenting two propositions or epigrams usually in antithetical relation. Sometimes the distich is composed of 3 + 4 feet, an example of which is found in xiv. 28; or of 4 + 3 feet, as in xii. 1. There are also distiches in tetrameter, cf. xxv. 2–3 or xxvi. 1. But these longer arrangements are lacking in the section x. 1–xxii. 16, also in xxviii.–xxix. It is to be noticed, moreover, that while there are collections of proverbs which are related in subject-matter (x. 2–5, xiii. 2–3, xviii. 6–8), each proverb is in itself a complete whole. It is also, true that the longer measures preserve the distich character, the members being sometimes in the form of antithesis, sometimes in that of identity or of synonymous parallelism. Examples of the first have been given above; an example of synonymous parallelism is xvi. 6, while a third variety, called synthetical parallelism, is partly illustrated in xv. 20. But parallelism is not an absolutely invariable form; in thought there is sometimes a progress, as is illustrated by xvi. 3. This last form is not confined to the distich, but appears also in the tristich, though there is always the possibility that the latter is not the original form, cf. the original Hebrew of xix. 7.

3. The Introduction, i. 1–ix. 18.

The book opens with a long introduction beginning with the words: "The Proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel," and continuing with a statement of the purpose of the collection: "To know wisdom and instruction," etc., i. 1–6. The basis of this tradition of Solomonic authorship is easily discovered in I Kings iv. 32, in which the statement is made that Solomon "spake three thousand proverbs." On the other hand, it is perfectly clear that the statement of the introduction can not apply to the whole book, since in the later parts other authors are named. Still it must be maintained that the writer of the introduction meant to attribute the principal part of the present book to Solomon. The next section of the book is i. 7–ix. 18, which is a connected composition in longer or shorter collections of verses, in which the reader is addressed as "my son," and the speaker is characterized as teacher or instructor, who admonishes in the name of wisdom (i. 20). In this the form of parallelism is often preserved, some times in a long series of verses (chaps. ii.–iii.), and sometimes Wisdom herself is represented as the speaker (i. 20, viii.). The contents reach their climax in the exhortation to receive and cherish wisdom, though exactly what this wisdom is is not expressly stated. What is clear, however, is that the wise is to look for salvation or success, the fool for the contrary; that wisdom is of God and that the. fear of him leads to wisdom. Indeed, not only is wisdom of God, it was before the worlds and was present with him in creation (viii.), and is his throne companion. The reader is warned against grave sins and given rules for guidance in practical affairs; by following these is the blessing of God attained, and an ethical content is injected. The morality is 304therefore not on a high level. Both prophetic preaching and priestly exposition of the law are missing; what is present is everyday morality, wisdom for common life, but upon a religious basis, without deep probing of religious and ethical problems, and containing an element of speculation. The author thinks of wisdom as an emanation from a personified divine wisdom which was preexistent along with God. He paints like a poet-philosopher. The absence of direct data makes it difficult to assign the date of this part of the book. One must suspect a reliance upon Greek philosophy, and this points to the middle or end of the period of the Babylonian exile, without indicating a more exact date. Through Asia Minor a connection can be made with Greece and Greek ideas at that time, though the period of Alexander seems more likely. One must notice the universalistic rather than Israelitic turn in such passages as viii. 4, in confirmation of this dependence upon Greek thought. But it has been shown that even in preexilic times it is possible that Greek culture penetrated into Palestine, especially through the medium of the Greek merchant.

4. The Central Portion, x.1–xxii. 16.

The second chief part of the book, x. 1–xxii. 16, is the most comprehensive and characteristic, the center about which the rest has gathered. Wisdom as a personification, while not entirely abstract, is much less prominent here than in the first part. The connection of the proverbs one with another is external in the main—each proverb has an inherent right to exist apart from its context. No extended discussions are found, though such short treatments are to be seen as xvi. 10–15, or that in xvi. 1 sqq., developing the theme: Man proposes but God disposes. The contents are again that of lay morality, practical wisdom in daily life; righteousness receives its sure reward and lays hold on life, godlessness leads to destruction. Amid occasional touches of quiet humor (cf. xi. 22, xv. 17) is found a serious emphasis upon morality; such virtues are emphasized as contentment, friendliness, patience, sympathy, and especially of humility as opposed to pride. Stress is laid upon a benevolent attitude (x. 12, xiv. 31), and upon trust in God (xx. 22) who sees all (xv. 3, 11, xvi. 33). Beneath all this there is a philosophy of life based on genuine religious feeling (xiv. 34). Indeed, this part as compared with the first part of the book involves in the background a personality or a period of richer ethical and religious experience. Here speculation is at a minimum, and the section seems to have come out of the time of Israelitic prophecy. To be sure the collection is not one which originates in the prophetic circle; the contents are gnomic, they come from the laity, out of the bosom of the common people, they smack of the citizen's and tradesman's life; they do not bear the hall mark of the clergy whether of prophetic or priestly type. They show that the laity had, so to speak, its own morality and its preacher, expressed and speaking in short sentences the wisdom of life. Nevertheless, what is here found shows the direct influence both of prophetic ideals and prophetic preaching. Without reaching the depth and earnestness of prophetic discourse, the impression made here is that the prophets had been heard where this part originated. Once more, the treatment of the kingdom shows that the speaker drew his remarks not from some thing heard but from immediate experience; he and his contemporaries knew well what court life was (xvi. 15, xviii. 16, xix. 12). And the kingdom can have been no other than that of preexilic Israel, as the treatment does not suit conditions during the Persian or Seleucidean period. To be sure, there is the possibility of considering the residence at the Ptolemean court; but internal grounds negative this possibility. The pictures are those of Palestinian life, and the entire atmosphere and attitude toward the kingdom bespeak a native, not a foreign, court.

5. The Date of this Part.

The one item which seems to speak for a late date—in that case, not earlier than the Ptolemies—is the conception of the king as judge and not as warrior. This feature would indeed suit the Ptolemaic times, when Jewish national wars were not waged, and the function of the king toward the Jews was almost solely that of a judge. Then it would have to be assumed that the author made frequent journeys to the court, as was possible through the close connection of the two lands in that period. But this consideration is not decisive, for in earlier times the king had the functions of judge (cf. Solomon's practise and II Kings iv. 13); and in the daily life of the citizen, concerned with the traffic and business in which the proverbs deal, the matters of war would easily drop out of sight (cf. the practical maxims of xi. 15, xx. 16). The credit of the merchant's business appears here, already a matter of habit firmly established. Against the earlier dating proposed above there seems no conclusive objection. The absence of proverbs dealing with idolatry or polygamy does not prejudice the case. In all probability, monogamy was the rule before the exile; and so far as idolatry is concerned, worship of Yahweh was certainly the rule. In a collection of proverbs which has in mind essentially the life of the citizen and which is formulating rules for guidance of that life, thus dealing with civil and personal well-being, warnings against polytheism would hardly be expected. The author left that province to the prophet and the priest. The matter of religious individualism can not weigh in the argument to prove the book postexilic. To be sure, individualism received a great impetus through Jeremiah and developed largely after the exile. But before that time certain relations could not be treated otherwise than as personal and individual. The Covenant and the Decalogue are natural laws for the people, but they depend upon the personal relations of individuals. The varied relations of life—danger, sickness, lying, adultery, fidelity—are in the last analysis individual affairs. Cornill has alleged the presence of ideas which are certainly postexilic, such as emphasis upon love (x. 12), charity (xiv. 21), creation of the wicked for the day of evil (xvi. 4). But when the possibility is suggested that this and that proverb of later times goes back to a basis in earlier conditions, the certainty of a postexilic origin vanishes. Exilic and postexilic emphasis upon these ideas involves their existence in the life of the citizen in 305earlier times—indeed they appear in prophetic discourse. The linguistic argument has also been used to press for a late date, the basis being the presence of "late Hebrew" and "Aramaic" words. Without reckoning words which are doubtfully deemed "late Hebrew " as occurring in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the priestly writings, there remain forms which are erroneously counted Aramaisms, and a few words or forms which are only possibly late or Aramaic. Similarly some constructions counted as Aramaisms can be otherwise accounted for. When these cases are removed the number of undoubted Aramaisms which remain do not amount to a proof that the section is of postexilic origin.

6. The Third Section, xxii. 17–xxix.

A third part follows in xxii. 17–xxiv. 22, usually regarded as an appendix to the part just considered; but it differs both in form and in content. In form it is a letter or exhortation to a young man whose parents still live (xxiii. 22); it is designated as "words of the wise" (xxii. 17), and the substance is set forth in a series of lines of poetry. Among exhortations to rectitude and kindness appear warnings against indulgence in wine, unchastity, and unbecoming behavior in business and society. The king is mentioned, but in the general sense of "ruler" (xxiv. 21) and not involving a Palestinian kingdom. The general situation and style make this part seem nearer in date to the first section than to the second. Another little appendix (xxiv. 23–34) begins with the words: "These also are of the wise," and the last two verses repeat vi. 10–11. A larger collection is found in xxv.–xxix., with a heading of its own (xxv. 1), and in character it closely resembles the second part of the book. The derivation of the Hebr. mashal from the verb meaning "to compare" is strengthened by the fact that in this section many individual sayings consist of comparisons drawn from the regions of nature and of human life. Practical wisdom is here also emphasized—right speech, right conduct in crises, scorn of folly, form the principal themes. Occasional sayings denote a sharp observation of passing events (xxv. 26, xxvi. 11). A curious fact appears in this part, viz., that against the rule of the book prophecy is definitely recognized (xxix. 18), though at first glance as something lacking or past, but in reality demanding the present existence of prophetical direction. It is noticeable that the king is prominent in the foreground (xxv. 2–7) as a contemporary institution (xxix. 26, xxx. 27–28, 31). While the form of the title "king of Judah" presents a certain difficulty, there is no inherent and stringent improbability in the attribution of the collection to Hezekiah, though the title may be later than that king's time. The question of how much of the material in this section, which is probably made up of matter from various periods between Solomon and Hezekiah, is traceable to Solomon and his times can only be answered by saying that while the correctness of the attribution of proverbs to Solomon is doubtless correct, to assert that this or that proverb is his is beyond possibility. The passage xxv. 2 can hardly have had a king as its author.

7. The Closing Section, xxx.–xxxi.

The close of the book is composed of three small sections which follow in the way of addenda to the rest of the work. The first embraces chap. xxx., headed by the title which should read, "The words of Agur ben Yakeh of Massa" (cf. I Chron. i. 30). The following context is probably corrupt and to be corrected: "I am greatly troubled, O God, troubled and wasted away," this touching confession proceeding in verses 2 sqq. After this, come sayings in somewhat novel form, some in the shape of riddles; verses 11–14, dealing with the godless, are also in strange construction, lacking a predicate; in v. 15 is mentioned the vampire [R. V. margin], a weird, perhaps demonic, being, with her daughters; while verse 31 contains a word which seems more Arabic than Hebrew. Marked individualities appear in this little piece the four "who's" in verse 4, the four "way's" in 19, and others. A similar style is to be found only in vi. 16–19 in this book, though the exact method of naming first a certain number and then increasing that number by one is peculiar to this chapter in the canonical writings (cf. Ecclus. xxiii. 16, xxv. 7, xxvi. 5, 28). It would be interesting to discover who this Agur ben Yakeh is. The name has not an Israelitic sound, and individual words and phrases suggest an Arabic or Arabic-Aramaic or Edomitic origin for the piece. This does not answer the questions raised, for then one asks how out of such origins comes a piece which fits in so well with what a worshiper of Yahweh might have said. Somewhat similar is the little piece xxxi. 1–9, the title of which is to be read: "The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught him." So it seems that Massa is the name of a country, and, from the Aramaisms in the piece, Massa may have lain east or northeast of Palestine. The piece contains exhortation to rectitude and warnings against the contrary. The close of the book is an acrostic in praise of a virtuous woman. There is no datum, internal or external, suggesting the date of these last pieces. The first two must have been appended at a time when the book was otherwise practically complete; and xxx. 6 seems to look to a time when the "word of God" had received canonical assent. But then—what does the expression "word of God" mean, especially in a non-Israelitic writing?

8. Conclusion.

Thus the book in its present form is made up of several parts. The earlier dates given in the preceding discussion are the limits before which the collection could not have been begun -those limits are not determined by the date of the latest parts, though these, of course, mark the earliest date for the redaction of the entire work and bring that down to postexilic times, but just when in that period is the question. Much depends upon the degree of Greek influence exhibited. Ecclesiasticus is a book so like Proverbs, and also one the date of which is closely fixed, that comparison of the two is invited; it is, moreover, a branch from the same stem as that from which Proverbs sprang. Gasser has shown with great assurance the dependence of Ben Sirach upon the book of Proverbs, in which it appears that Ben Sirach regarded Proverbs as one of the old possessions of his people, from which he 306drew and which molded his thought. If this be true, the redaction even must be put considerably back in postexilic times, since to Sirach it appeared, like Psalms and like Job, to be one of the patriarchal books of which he was so diligent a student. This would carry it back at least to the third or fourth pre-Christian century. It is noticeable that while Sirach makes mention of the king only four times, in Proverbs the king appears more than thirty times. Not only that, but the relation of nearness and intimacy with the court which appears in Proverbs is wholly lacking in the representations of Sirach.

(R. Kittel.)

Bibliography: Questions of introduction are dealt with in the commentaries (see below), and also in the special works on Biblical introduction. An excellent little work is W. T. Davison, Wisdom Literature of the O. T., London, 1894. Consult further: R. Stier, Der Weise ein König, Barmen, 1849; idem, Die Politik der Weisheit in den Worten Agurs und Lemuels, ib. 1850; P. de Lagarde, Anmerkungen zur griechischen Uebersetzungen der Proverbien, Göttingen, 1863; J. Dyserinck, Kritische Scholien bij de Vertaling van het Boek der Spreuken, Leyden, 1883; H. Bois, La Poésie gnomique chez les Hébreux et les Grecs, Toulouse, 1886; T. K. Cheyne, Job and Solomon, London, 1887; idem, Founders of Old Testament Criticism, pp. 337 sqq., ib. 1893; idem, Jewish Religious Life after the Exile, New York, 1898; A. J. Baumgartner, Étude critique sur l’état du texte du livre des Proverbes, Leipsic, 1890; C. F. Kent, The Wise Men of Ancient Israel and their Proverbs, Boston, 1895; R. Pfeiffer, Die religiös-sittliche Weltanschauung des Buches der Sprüche, Munich, 1897; H. P. Chajes, Proverbia-Studien zu der sogenannten salomonischen Sammlung, Berlin, 1899; M. D. Conway, Solomon and Solomonic Literature, London, 1899; O. Meusel, Die Stellung der Sprüche Salomos in der israelitischen Litteratur und Religions-Geschichte, Leipsic, 1900; M. Friedländer, Griechische Philosophie im A. T., Berlin, 1904; J. C. Gasser, Die Bedeutung der Sprüche Jesu Ben Sira für die Datierung des althebräischen Spruchbuches, Gütersloh, 1904; E. Sellin, Die Spuren griechischer Philosophie im A. T., Leipsic, 1905; DB, iv. 137–143; EB, iii. 3906–3919; JE, x. 226–232.

A fine list of the early commentators is given in Vigouroux, Dictionnaire, fasc. xxxiii., cols. 801–802. The best commentary for English readers is by C. H. Toy, New York, 1899. Others are by: G. Holden, London, 1819; C. Umbreit, Heidelberg, 1826; E. Bertheau, Leipsic, 1847, new ed., 1883; C. Bridges, New York, 1847; J. C. Vaihinger, Stuttgart, 1857; E. Elster, Zurich, 1858; F. Hitzig, ib., 1858; O. Zöckler, Leipsic, 1866; W. Arnot, Laws from Heaven for Life on Earth, London, 1869; H. F. Muhlau, Leipsic, 1869; M. Stuart, new ed., Andover, 1870; J. W. Harris, New York, 1872; J. Miller, ib., 1872; F. Delitzsch, Edinburgh, 1877; A. Rohling, Mainz, 1879; J. Dyserink, Haarlem, 1884; H. Deutsch, Berlin, 1885–86; S. C. Malan, London, 1890; W. J. Deane, S. T. Taylor-Taswell, and W. F. Adeney, in Pulpit Commentary, New York, 1891; R. F. Horton, in Expositor's Bible, ib., 1891; G. Wildeboer, Tübingen, 1897; W. Frankenberg, Göttingen, 1898; H. L. Strack, 2d ed., Munich, 1899.

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