PROVERBS, BOOK OF. The best representative of the so-called Wisdom Literature of ancient Israel, the Book of Proverbs comprises thirty-one chapters of pithy statements on moral matters. Its text is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov.1.7).
The headings in Prov.1.1 and Prov.10.1 claim a Solomonic authorship for the bulk of the book; and this claim, though often denied in recent days, has no objective evidence against it. Prov.25.1-Prov.25.28-Prov.29.1-Prov.29.27 are said to be by Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah. This obscure reference may refer to later collecting or editing of other Solomonic material. Of the authors Agur (Prov.30.1-Prov.30.33) and King Lemuel (Prov.31.1-Prov.31.31) we know nothing. They may be poetic references to Solomon himself. Proverbs is mentioned in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (47:17), written about 180 b.c. Although the canonicity of Proverbs, Ezekiel, and a few other books was questioned by individual rabbis as late as in the Council of Jamnia, a.d. 90, still it had long been accepted as authoritative Scripture, as the quotation in the Zadokite Document shows (col. 11, 1.19ff.). It is quoted and alluded to several times in the NT.
An outline of the book should accord with the material and style of the composition. Damage has been done by some who find in the book merely a collection of ancient maxims for success—a kind of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Actually the book is a compendium of moral instruction. It deals with sin and holiness. And the vehicle of instruction is a favorite Semitic device—teaching by contrast. The style of Proverbs with its trenchant contrasts or more extended climactic poems can be paralleled in ancient literature in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Hebrew author, however, has given instruction on life and holiness in proverbial form. The case is similar in Christian hymnody. There are countless examples of secular poetry and melody combined in ordinary song. But Christian hymns use the vehicles of poetry and song to express distinctively Christian thought and experience.
I. Introduction (1:1-9)
II. Sin and Righteousness Personified and Contrasted (1:10-9:18)
III. Single-Verse Contrasts of Sin and Righteousness (10:1-22:16)
IV. Miscellaneous and Longer Contrasts (22:17-29:27)
V. Righteousness in Poems of Climax (30:1-33:31)
The first section of the book begins (Prov.1.7) and ends (Prov.9.10) with the statement that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “wisdom.” Thus the wisdom extolled in Proverbs is not just a high degree of intelligence but a moral virtue. This is made plain in the first section by the contrasts involved. Wisdom is personified as a righteous woman (Prov.8.1). This is natural because wisdom is a feminine noun in Hebrew. The foolish woman is depicted as using words similar to those of wisdom, to invite men into her house (Prov.9.4, Prov.9.16), but she invites them to sin. The harlot, who is given prominence in this section, represents all sin. Murder and theft are the opposite of wisdom in Prov.1.1-Prov.1.33, but usually the harlot, also called the strange woman, the simple woman, or the foolish woman, is held up as the opposite of personified righteousness. Some find Christ personified in the wisdom cited in Prov.8.22, but this is not certain. This word is not so used in the NT.
In the major section, Prov.10.1-Prov.22.16, the same contrast appears in single-verse aphorisms. Here the personification of sin and righteousness does not appear, but the same synonyms for virtue and vice are repeatedly used and should be understood as such. Perhaps the greatest error in interpreting the book comes from the tendency to quote these Proverbs as mere secular maxims instead of godly instruction. “Folly” here does not mean stupidity, just as “the woman of folly” (Prov.9.13) does not refer to an ignoramus. Both terms refer to sin. Through this whole section the terms wisdom, understanding, integrity, and knowledge are synonymous terms referring to holiness. Their opposites, fool, folly, simple, mocker, quarrelsome, etc., refer to wickedness. In short, a “foolish son” is not a dullard, but a scoundrel. A “mocker” is not just supercilious, but is a rebel against wisdom. The lack of context sometimes clouds the interpretation. But occasionally a verse is partially repeated elsewhere, where the variant form clarifies the meaning (cf. Prov.27.15 with Prov.21.19).
Section IV, Prov.22.19-Prov.29.27, is more general but uses the same vocabulary of morality. In this part are some special parallels with an Egyptian work entitled The Wisdom of Amen-em-Opet. The correspondence, however, does not invalidate the above claim that the author of Proverbs gives distinctive treatment to his theme.
The last section, Prov.30.1-Prov.31.31, includes several climactic proverbs that apparently emphasize the fourth point (cf. Prov.6.16-Prov.6.19, where among seven things the seventh is the climax). Here also is the famous final poem—an alphabetical poem—extolling the wife of noble character.
Bibliography: Derek Kidner, The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC), 1964; J. C. Rylaarsdam, The Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon (LBC), 1964.——RLH
Whether or not Solomonic authorship is accepted, one can agree that the background of Proverbs seems to be the royal court at Jerusalem. Although wisdom lit. in the ancient Near E antedates Proverbs by more than a thousand years, the particular form of instructions addressed to “my son” seems more like the Egyp. works The Instructions of Ptahhotep, The Instructions of Meri-ka-Re, The Instructions of Amen-en-het, and The Instructions of Ani. The marriage of Solomon to Pharaoh’s daughter may have led to his interest in such instruction.
Individual literary features such as the מָשָׁל, H5442, the X, X + 1 pattern, and the long, connected discourses, have parallels in earlier Sem. lit. The work appealed to readers already familiar with that literary form.
Since the book itself indicates that it is a collection, its unity is not bound up with its authorship. Rather, its unity is found in the general nature of its contents. The work belongs to the general category of wisdom lit.; it extols the virtues of wisdom and condemns the vices of folly.
Traditionally, the bulk of Proverbs has been attributed to Solomon (cf. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). The book itself mentions two other authors: Agur (30:1) and Lemuel (31:1). There are two extreme positions: (1) Solomon wrote the entire work, or (2) he had no connection with it (except as the traditional “patron saint” of wisdom lit.). A third viewpoint, more in keeping with the Biblical testimony, is that Solomon wrote most of the book, and the work of others was added to his. Paterson’s statement, “Proverbs have no father” (Wisdom of Israel, p. 62) is only a partial truth. Whereas wisdom sayings often originate among ordinary folk, some one person must have been the first one to utter the epigrammatic statement.
One objection to Solomonic authorship has been that Solomon did not practice the virtues Proverbs inculcated (cf. Prov 7:6-23). The same objection, however, could be used against Franklin’s authorship of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Writing wisdom and living wisely are two different things.
The question of the authorship of 22:17-24:34 is bound up with the problem of the section’s relationship to The Wisdom of Amenemope, which is discussed below. In the 1st cent. a.d. Jewish controversy over the canon, Proverbs was classed with Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon as “Solomonic,” according to Shabbat 30b. The book as it now exists must come after the time of Hezekiah (25:1). Fritsch (IB, IV, p. 775) thinks the final form may be later than 400 b.c. Others assert that the final collection was assembled sometime between the days of Hezekiah and the early postexilic period.
Two distinct questions are involved in the dating of Proverbs. The first concerns the date of the writing of each section. The second deals with the date of the collection or “editing” of the various sections into one book (scroll). Conservative scholars have followed the traditional view of Solomonic authorship of all except chs. 30, 31. Therefore they date the bulk of the book in the 10th cent. b.c., prob. from Solomon’s later years. The collection of the various sections usually is dated by conservatives between 700 b.c. and 400 b.c. (e.g., Hubbard, NBD, p. 1050, dates the collection in the 5th cent.).
Critical scholars reject the Solomonic authorship and therefore date each section separately, usually much later than the traditional date. This, in turn, leads to a dating of the entire collection in the late Pers. or Gr. period. Recent archeological and linguistic discoveries have caused some to retreat from the extreme late dates in vogue in the first half of this cent. One of the major factors leading to earlier dating has been the discovery of other Canaanite wisdom sayings and Canaanite linguistic patterns in the Ugaritic Lit.
This section has been dated quite late, since it was supposed to have been written as an introduction to the entire collection. Murphy (p. 11) thinks it is postexilic, whereas Paterson (p. 59) thinks the personification of Wisdom (ch. 8) makes a 3rd cent. date likely. Others, however, have shown that such personification, or more accurately, hypostatization, is a feature of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religion. The numerical formula of X, X + 1, found in 6:16-19, occurs in the Ugaritic texts (cf. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual, pp. 34, 201) from the second millennium b.c. Albright (Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East) thinks this section antedates The Proverbs of Ahiqar, i.e. the 7th cent. b.c. Fritsch follows the trend toward early dating when he says there are strong Ugaritic and Phoenician influences in this section, and chs. 8 and 9 comprise “one of the oldest parts of the book.” One example of Ugaritic (hence early) linguistic usage is the term lahima, “to eat,” found only six times in the OT, four of them in Proverbs. When combined with Scott’s opinion (Anchor Bible, “Proverbs,” p. 9f.) that chs. 1-9 were written as the introduction to a preexisting unit (chs. 10-31), the probable early (at least preexilic) date for Section I makes a Solomonic date for the other sections attributed to him quite plausible. Scott, however, considers Section I the latest element in the book. The long discourse of this section (in contrast to the aphoristic style elsewhere) is paralleled in early Egyp. and Akkad. wisdom lit. The Aramaisms argue for an early date, rather than a late date as was formerly supposed.
This segment is regarded as Solomonic by conservatives, is viewed by critical scholars as a gradual collection, perhaps with a Solomonic nucleus, that reached its present state in the 5th or 4th cent. b.c. (Scott, p. 18). Paterson (p. 60) considers it the oldest part of the book.
Sections III and IV.
These sections are involved with the question of literary indebtedness to The Wisdom of Amenemope, a question that will be discussed below. The view that the section borrows from the Egyp. work makes possible a date between 1,000 b.c. and 600 b.c., depending on the dating of the Egyp. work. Paterson (p. 61) thinks this part is preexilic, but later than 700.
According to its superscription, it comes from the times of Hezekiah. The actual authorship, however, would have been in the 10th cent. b.c.
Sections VI, VII, and VIII.
These sections have different positions in the LXX than in the MT. Hence Paterson (p. 61f.) states that originally they were separate collections. On the basis of alleged artificiality he would date them late. The acrostic form, regarded by some moderns as artificial, was a favorite device of the ancient Hebrews. Scott (p. 20) says the acrostic appeared long before the 6th cent. exile. Since wisdom lit. transcends national boundaries, international political history offers little help in fixing a date for these sections.
Place of origin and destination
The book prob. originated in palace circles in Jerusalem. The Solomonic portions (except that section “copied by the men of Hezekiah”) may have been recorded by his scribes. To these Heb. collections, royal scribes added sections VI-VIII. The content indicates that the book was intended for the instruction of the sons of upper class families. Although this instruction is addressed frequently to “my son,” a much broader audience was intended. The wisdom of the sages was for “everyman” (Paterson, p. 54).
The author of Proverbs 1:2-4 clearly states his aim, namely, to impart wisdom and discretion to men, esp. the simple. This also may be the purpose of the entire collection. It is designed to guide men in practical everyday conduct. Such wisdom is needed for the formulation of sound character. The collection would be a useful sourcebook for public or private study. It inculcates personal morality and plain “horse sense.” Paterson aptly states its aim “to subtract from the number of fools and add to the number of the wise” (p. 54).
In Shabbat 30b, Proverbs is listed as a disputed book at the close of the 1st cent. a.d. along with Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. Its association with other reputedly Solomonic works in this statement would argue that the book was canonical. Also in M. Yadaim, iii. 5, where the different opinions are recorded regarding the canonicity (i.e. the books that render the hands unclean) of Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon there is no debate about Proverbs. The LXX and Eng. VSS agree in placing together all the books attributed to Solomon. According to the Talmud (Baba Bathra, 146), Proverbs is placed after Psalms and Job, or according to Berakoth 57b it should be placed between Psalms and Job. This order is followed by the Eng. tr. of the JPS. The modern Eng. order may be based on a rabbinical tradition that said that Moses wrote Job, David wrote Psalms, and Hezekiah compiled Proverbs (Baba Bathra, 14b-15a).
James 4:6 refers to Proverbs 3:34 in such a way as to show that it was considered as canonical in the 1st cent. a.d. In addition, the NT frequently refers to the section of the OT containing Proverbs (kethubim, “writings”) as “Scripture” (graphē). Its inclusion in the LXX favors an early acceptance of Proverbs as Holy Writ.
Proverbs, for the most part, is written in clear, classical Heb. There are a few difficult places in the text in most of the major sections. Fritsch lists as words that have caused problems for the trs. ’amon (8:30); yathen (12:20); hibbel (23:34); manon (29:21), ’aluqah (30:15), zarzir, and ’alqum (30:31). Most emendations proposed to solve textual problems are conjectural. Recent linguistic discoveries have shown the value of awaiting further information rather than resorting to conjectural emendations.
The LXX is a loose, almost paraphrastic tr., showing marks of the tr’s. viewpoint. In places it is clearly corrupt. It includes nearly one hundred doublets of words, phrases, lines, and verses that appear once only in the MT. It omits sections and adds sections. In the LXX, Prov. 30:1-14 comes after Heb. 24:22, then Heb. 24:23, 24 follows; then LXX has 30:15-31:9, then chs. 25-29 of Heb., and finally 31:10-31. These anomalies lead some to believe the text was still fluid at the time the LXX was tr.
Two items deserving special attention are (1) the figure of Wisdom in ch. 8, and (2) the relationship of Proverbs to the Egyp. Wisdom of Amenemope (Prov 22:17-24:34). Both items relate directly to critical approaches to the authorship and date of Proverbs.
The figure of wisdom.
Whereas wisdom is extolled as a virtue throughout the opening section and elsewhere in the book, ch. 8 stands out in its treatment of “wisdom” as a hypostatization. It would seem that a divine characteristic—wisdom—has been elevated to a being who interacts with men. In 1:20-33; 8:1-3b; 9:1-6, 13-18, “Wisdom” is opposed to a similar being, “Dame Folly.” Wisdom is likened to a prophet crying in the street (cf. Jer 11:6; 17:19f.).
There is no trace of polytheism in Proverbs. Hence any attempts to trace the background of Wisdom to Ma’at, Ishtar, or Siduri Sabatu are not convincing. The question remains whether “Wisdom” is a true hypostatization, i.e. an attribute or activity of deity that has been given a personal identity. Some have felt that Proverbs 8 simply presents a vivid personification.
Later Jewish and Christian writings speak of the role of “Wisdom” in creation—a role closely paralleled by hypostatized wisdom in Proverbs. Wisdom of Solomon identifies “Wisdom” as “the fashioner of all things” (7:22), “an associate in his works” (8:4), and “fashioner of all that exists” (8:6). Philo (De Sacerdota, 5) says “Wisdom” was the fabricator of the universe. Some have sought to trace the “Logos” of John 1 and the Gnostic “Sophia” back to the hypostatized “Wisdom” of Proverbs, but their conclusions have not won any general agreement.
If Scott (p. 71f.) is correct in his vocalization of אמן (8:30) as ’omen rather than ’amon (meaning “master workman” or “little child”). then “Wisdom” is viewed as the hypostatized force that binds all things together (cf. Ecclus 43:28; Wisd Sol 1:7; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3).
Although some critics have dated Proverbs in the Hel. period because of the hypostatization of wisdom (on the grounds that the tendency toward hypostatization was strong in the Gr. period), many parallels exist from the ancient Near Eastern world of the second millennium b.c. or earlier. Among them may be cited the following: (1) The Egyp. deity Ptah of Memphis, created by his word and thought. (2) In Thoth of Hermapolis, divine wisdom and the creator god were personified. (3) The Sumer. Ea-Enki was called “the very knowing one.” (4) The Babylonian god, Marduk, entitled “the wisest of the gods” conquered Tiamat and created earth and man. (5) The high god, El, of the Ugaritic pantheon is described as one whose “wisdom is eternal.” These and other pre-Hebraic examples (Pss 74:13, 14; 82:1; Isa 14:12-14; 27:1) clearly demonstrate that hypostatization occurred earlier than the time of Solomon.
To summarize the discussion of “Wisdom,” one can refer to Paterson’s statement (p. 70) that Proverbs 8:22f. is a bold restating of the doctrine of Genesis 1; 2. God’s creation is not a chaos (cf. Gen 1 and 2) but a cosmos. Wisdom is the essence of the being of God. The universe did not just happen, nor does it stand alone. The world has a teleology because there is a theology (Prov 3:19; 20:12).
Relationship of Proverbs and the Wisdom of Amenemope.
Ever since Adolph Erman pointed out the similarities between the Wisdom of Amenemope (or Amenemapet) and Proverbs 22:17-23:14 there has been a general tendency to view the Biblical passage as directly indebted to the Egyp. work. This has been the conclusion of S. Blank, R. J. Williams, D. C. Simpson, A. Erman, L. Keimar, W. O. E. Oesterly, and others. Defenders of the independence (or even priority) of the Biblical book, however, have not been lacking. Among them are E. Drioton, C. Fritsch, and R. O. Kevin. Although the preponderance of scholarship views Proverbs as in some way dependent upon Amenemope, enough solid arguments have been advanced against such dependency that serious students need to pause to examine all the evidence.
The Wisdom of Amenemope was first made known in 1922 by Sir E. Wallis Budge, in an article in Recuil d’Études Egyptologique...Champollion. In 1923, he published the full text with photos and tr. Other scholars, including Lange, Erman, Griffith, and Wilson (in ANET) followed with variant trs. It was Erman who first suggested that the KJV “excellent things” (Prov 22:20) might be tr. “thirty” on the basis of the division of Amenemope into thirty chapters. This tr. involves no textual change, only a corrected vocalization from shalishim to sheloshim. The inference is that the Biblical writer had before him the thirty chapters of Amenemope and selected from them thirty sayings to incorporate into his own book of wisdom. Whereas Oesterly and others see at least twenty-three of the thirty sayings in the Proverbs passage as being derived from Amenemope, Scott says only nine are from that source. The preamble of Proverbs 22:17-21 seems to be a recasting of the conclusion of Amenemope.
The Egyp. work is by Amen-em-apet, a native of Panopolis in Akhmim. He was a land superintendent, evidently an important position. He was also a sage and a scribe. Due to this occupational status, some date his work to the postexilic period (cf. Ezra and Ben Sirach). The scribe and the wisdom lit. genre, however, were both well-established ancient Near Eastern institutions much earlier than the time of Solomon.
Amenemope has been assigned various dates, ranging from 1300 b.c. (Plumley) or 1200 b.c. (Albright) to dates in the 7th cent. (Griffith, Oesterly) or the Pers.-Gr. period (Lange). The early date is based on an ostracon containing an extract of Amenemope. If accepted, this dating would make the borrowing of Proverbs from Amenemope almost a certainty. The possibility exists that the ostracon represents a common source used by both Amenemope and Proverbs. In any event, it does not affect the inspiration of Proverbs, for inspiration extends to the selection of materials as well as composition of original materials.
Various studies of the lexicography of Amenemope tend to indicate the Egypto-Semitic vocabulary belongs to the late stage of the Egyp. language. There are some indications that Amenemope is closer to the LXX than to the MT. Although debated by some, the use of Sem. idioms could also indicate the precedence of Proverbs. The section 22:17-23:14 has vv. that have close affinities to other vv. in other sections. If Proverbs seems to collect vv. scattered in Amenemope, some scattered passages in Proverbs seem to be collected in Amenemope. Thus the arguments pro and con seem about evenly balanced. A mediating position—that the Egyp. work and Proverbs both used a common ancient Near Eastern oral tradition or perhaps even a common Vorlage—is a possibility. Father Murphy’s view (p. 21) that the Heb. passage may simply be using the Egyp. “thirty chapters” as a model rather than a direct source also merits consideration. Scott (p. 20) expresses a similar view.
Content and outline
The content of Proverbs can be classified by literary genres, by subject matter, by authorship, and by theological motifs. Fortunately, divisions by the first three types overlap to a large extent.
The two most prevalent literary forms in Proverbs are: (1) the short, pithy sayings used to impart wisdom (the true “proverb”) and (2) the long didactic discourse, of which section I (chs. 1-9) and sections VII and VIII (chs. 30-31) are examples. Practically all of the rest of the book falls into the category of “proverbs.” A proverb has been defined as “a short, pithy saying in common use.” Typically a proverb is anonymous, traditional, and epigrammatic. A proverb is characterized by “shortness, sense, and salt.” In the words of Lord John Russell, a proverb contains “the wisdom of many and the wit of one.” In section II there are 375 such sayings. Of 139 vv. in chs. 25-29, 128 are proverbs. Frequently the proverb takes the form of a graphic simile (cf. chs. 25, 26).
Three broad categories of materials are present in Proverbs: (1) instruction to leave folly and pursue wisdom (chs. 1-9); (2) specific examples of wise or foolish conduct (the gnomic sayings of sections II-V, chs. 10-29); and (3) the vivid description of a virtuous woman (ch. 31; perhaps as counterbalance to the motif of a wise son of chs. 1-9).
Most outlines of Proverbs contain from four to ten major sections. The natural divisions of the book would seem to indicate an eight point outline on the basis of probable authorship and stages of collection of separate units that were later collected into one Heb. scroll.
I. A Father’s instruction: wisdom vs. folly (chs. 1-9)
II. The proverbs of Solomon: first collection (10:1-22:16)
III. Sayings of the wise: first collection (22:17-24:22)
IV. Sayings of the wise: second collection (24:23-24)
V. The proverbs of Solomon: second collection by Hezekiah’s men (chs. 25-29)
VI. The words of Agur (ch. 30)
VII. The words of Lemuel (31:1-9)
VIII. The virtuous wife (31:10-31)
Although the word “covenant” occurs only once (2:16f.), the concept definitely is present. Trust, the basis of all covenant relationships, is a sine qua non (3:5, 7, cf. 22:19; 29:25). Most frequently, God is mentioned by His covenant name of Yahweh. The father-son relationship typical of the covenant (cf. Hos 11:1) is evident in Proverbs 3:12.
C. H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Proverbs, ICC (1902); D. C. Simpson, “The Hebrew Book of Proverbs and the Teaching of Amenemophis,” JEA XII (1926), 232-239; D. Hubbard, “Proverbs,” NBD (1953), 1048-1050; C. T. Fritsch, “The Book of Proverbs, Introduction and Exegesis,” IB, IV (1955), 767-779; W. F. Albright, “Some Canaanite-Phoenician Sources of Hebrew Wisdom,” Wisdom in Israel and in the Ancient Near East, ed. M. Noth and D. Winton Thomas (1955); E. Drioton, Melanges Biblique (1957), 254-280; R. E. Murphy, Seven Books of Wisdom (1960), 8-27; R. B. Y. Scott, “Wisdom in Creation: the ’amon of Proverbs viii. 30,” Vet Test, X (1960), 213-223; J. Paterson, The Wisdom of Israel (1961), 53-96; R. J. Williams, JEA XLVII (1961), 100-106; S. H. Blank, “Proverbs, Book of,” IDB, III (1962), 936-940; D. Kidner, Proverbs (1964); R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs...Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible) (1965).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
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 Pr 10, as if in some special sense the collection there beginning deserved it; and at Pr 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 1Ki 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 1Ki 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:
2. The Classic Nucleus:
The section Pr 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 Pr 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 Pr 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 (Pr 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 (Pr 24:30-34), with its refrain (Pr 24:33,14), is noteworthy as being apparently one stanza of a poem which is completed with the same refrain in the introductory section (Pr 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 (Pr 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 (Ge 25:14), presumably a tribal designation. The Hebrew sages from the beginning were in rivalry and fellowship with the sages of other nations (compare 1Ki 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 Ps 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" (Pr 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 Jer 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 Pr 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:
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 (Pr 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 Pr 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, 1Ki 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 (Pr 1:1), as well as the headings of sections (Pr 10:1; 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 (Pr 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 (2Ki 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. Understood so, these Solomonic proverbs furnish incomparably the best reflection we have of the religious and social standards of the common people, during a period otherwise meagerly portrayed. And from it we can understand what a sterling fiber of character existed after all, and how well worth preserving for a unique mission in the world, in spite of the idolatrous corruptions that invaded the sanctuaries, the self-pleasing unconcern of the rulers and the pessimistic denunciations of the prophets.
2. The Concentrative Point:
For the point in the Hebrew literary history when these scattered Solomonic proverbs were recognized as a homogeneous strain of thought and the compilations were made and recommended as Wisdom, we can do no better, I think, than to name the age of Israel’s literary prime, the age of Hezekiah. The "men of Hezekiah" did more than append their supplementary section (Proverbs 25-29); the words "these also" (gam ’elleh) in their heading imply it.
See The Men of Hezekiah.
I apprehend the order and nature of their work somehow thus: Beginning with the classic nucleus (Pr 10-22:16) (see above, II, 2), which may have come to them in two subsections (Proverbs 10-15; 16-22:16), they put these together as the proverbs most closely associated with Solomon, without much attempt at systematizing, substantially as these had accumulated through the ages in the rough order of their developing form and thought; compiling thus, in their zeal for the literary treasures of the past, the body of educational literature which lay nearest at hand, a body adapted especially, though not exclusively, to the instruction of the young and immature. This done, there next came to their knowledge a remarkable body of "words of the wise" (Pr 22:17-24:22), which had evidently been put together by request as a vade mecum for some persons in responsible position, and which were prefaced by a recommendation of them as "words of truth" designed to promote "trust in Yahweh" (Pr 22:19-21)--which latter, as we know from Isaiah, was the great civic issue of Hezekiah’s time. With this section naturally goes the little appendix of "sayings of the wise" (Pr 24:23-34), added probably at about the same time. These two sections, which seem to open the collection to matter beyond the distinctive Solomonic mashal, are, beyond the rest of the book, in the tone of the introductory section (Proverbs 1-9), which latter, along with the Hezekian appendix (Proverbs 25-29), was added, partly as a new composition, partly as incorporating some additional findings (compare for instance the completion of the poem on the sluggard, Pr 6:6-11). Thus, by the addition of this introductory section, the Book of Proverbs was recognized as a unity, provided with a preface and initial proposition (1:1-6,7), and launched with such hortatory material as had already, on a smaller scale, introduced the third section. This part not only contains the praise of Wisdom as a human endowment, sharing in the mind and purpose of the divine (8:22-31), but it has become aware also of the revelatory value of tushiyah (2:7; 3:21; 8:14), or chastened intuition (see above, III, 3), and dares to aspire, in its righteous teachableness, to the intimacy or secret friendship of Yahweh (codho, 3:32). All this indicates the holy self-consciousness to which Wisdom has attained.
I see no cogent reason for postponing the substantial completion of the Book of Proverbs beyond the time of Hezekiah. The words of Agur and of King Lemuel, with the final acrostic poem, may be later additions; but their difference in tone and workmanship is just as likely to be due to the fact that they are admitted, in the liberal spirit of the compilers, from foreign stores of wisdom. For spiritual clarity and intensity they do not rise to the height of the native Hebrew consciousness; and they incline to an artificial structure which suggests that the writer’s interest is divided between sincere tushiyah and literary skill. For the sake of like-minded neighbors, however, something may be forgiven.
3. Its Stage in Progressive Wisdom:
It is too early in the history of Wisdom to regard this Book of Proverbs as an articulated and coordinated system. It is merely what it purports to be, a collected body of literature having a common bearing and purpose; a literature of reverent and intelligent self-culture, moving among the ordinary relations of life, and not assuming to embody any mystic disclosures of truth beyond the reach of human reason. As such, it has a vocabulary and range of ideas of its own, which distinguishes it from other strains of literature. This is seen in those passages outside of the Book of Proverbs which deliberately assume, for some specific purpose, the Wisdom dialect. In Isa 28:23-29, the prophet, whom the perverse rulers have taunted with baby-talk (28:9,10), appeals to them with the characteristic Wisdom call to attention (28:23), and in illustrations drawn from husbandry proves to them that this also is from Yahweh of hosts, `who is transcendent in counsel, preeminent in tushiyah’ (28:29)--teaching them thus in their own vaunted idiom. In Mic 6:9-15, similarly, calling in tushiyah to corroborate prophecy ("the voice of Yahweh," qol Yahweh, wethushiyah, 6:9), the prophet speaks of the natural disasters that men ought to deduce from their abuse of trade relations, evidently appealing to them in their own favorite strain of thinking. Both these passages seem to reflect a time when the Wisdom dialect was prevalent and popular, and both are concerned to call in sound human intuition as an ally of prophecy. At the same time, as prophets have the right to do, they labor to give revelation the casting vote; the authentic disclosure of truth from Yahweh is their objective, not the mere luxury of making clever observations on practical life. All this coincides, in the Wisdom sphere, with what in Isaiah’s and Micah’s time was the supreme issue of state, namely trust in Yahweh, rather than in crooked human devices (compare Isa 28:16; 29:15); and it is noteworthy that this is the venture of Wisdom urged by the editors of Proverbs in their introductory exhortations (compare 22:19; 3:5-8). In other words, these editors are concerned with inducing a spiritual attitude; and so in their literary strain they make their book an adjunct in the movement toward spirituality which Isaiah is laboring to promote. As yet, however, its findings are still in the peremptory stage, stated as absolute and unqualified truths; it has not reached the sober testing of fact and interrogation of motive which it must encounter in order to become a seasoned philosophy of life. Its main pervading thesis--that righteousness in the fear of God is wisdom and bound for success, that wickedness is fatuity and bound for destruction--is eternally sound; but it must make itself good in a world where so many of the enterprises of life seem to come out the other way, and where there is so little appreciation of spiritual values. Nor is the time of skepticism and rigid test long in coming. Two psalms of this period (as I apprehend) (Psalms 73 and 49) concern themselves with the anomaly of the success of the wicked and the trials of the righteous; the latter pointedly adopting the Wisdom or mashal style of utterance (Ps 49:3,4), both laboring to induce a more inward and spiritual attitude toward the problem. It remains, however, for the Book of Job to take the momentous forward step of setting wisdom on the unshakable foundation of spiritual integrity, which it does by subjecting its findings to the rigid test of fact and its motives to a drastic Satanic sifting. It is thus in the Book of Job, followed later by the Book of Ecclesiastes, that the Wisdom strain of literature, initiated by the Proverbs of Solomon, finds its Old Testament culmination.