Forgotten Years - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Forgotten Years - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Forgotten Years

The past of human life offers an unimaginably long vista for our contemplation. Vastly many more are the years that have been forgotten than those that are remembered. Mr. Stephen Graham is therefore quite right when, in his book The Way of Martha and the Way of Mary, he insists that Christianity after nineteen hundred years is still a young religion, its doctrines imperfectly understood, its possibilities not yet unfolded.

But for that matter history itself is young, since history knows at the most some six or seven thousand years of human history, and Man has been on earth hundreds of thousands of years. Glimpses of human life in those dim and distant ages are occasionally possible (as we are about to observe in the Jewish proverbs) and have a certain fascination; but their interest is apt to be overwhelmed by the disquieting ideas which the thought of so vast a stretch of time naturally raises in our mind.

In comparison, our personal hopes seemed dwarfed into utter insignificance, and it is no comfort when a Psalmist (more than twenty centuries ago) suggests that to the Deity time may be a very little thing: Thou turnest man to destruction, and sayest, Return, ye children of men. For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. God may expend so many myriad years as seemeth good to Him in the making of sun, moon, and stars, earth and sea—what matter? But when the living bodies of men are racked with pain, when tyranny endures and love and liberty are delayed, then what is the millenial patience of God but terrifying? We cannot wait for its slow maturing. Does He not know that we who would see the salvation of the Lord in the land of the living are ready to faint?

Perhaps, however, our distress arises from the adoption of a mistaken standpoint. For, first, let the question be considered not from the point of view of God’s patience but of His greatness, and the infinitely long development will seem less dreadful. The immensity of time may then be regarded, not as a token of God’s indifference to man, but as a measure of His eternal majesty, and as evidence of an intention sublime beyond our present power to apprehend, yet not antagonistic to the value of the individual being—as indeed the author of Isaiah 40 perceived: Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from my God and my glory is forgotten by my God? Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard? the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of His understanding.

And, secondly, there is something to be said regarding the brevity of our bodily existence, to which an analogy will furnish the best introduction. Suppose that men were able to perceive the world of Nature only in its immensities, seeing the oceans but not the tumbling waves, seeing the plains but not each green or golden field, would they not fail to perceive an incalculably great portion of earth’s beauty? How unutterably more wonderful are all natural objects when the microscope reveals the marvel of every particle.

The tree is loveliest to him who has an eye to see the perfection of each leaf or knows the miracle of its growth from a single seed or shoot. Is it not possible that something similar is true of the human spirit in its apprehension of reality? Suppose that our personality was unable to taste life except on the grand scale, so that for man a thousand years were only a passing moment, experienced only “as a watch in the night,” would not the half of life’s glory then be hidden from those who were ignorant of what one year can be? May not participation in reality on a small scale—time felt as a day, an hour, a minute—be indispensable if the human spirit is to grasp the amazing fulness of conscious life?

Apparently circumscribed by the limit of our three score years and ten, are we here to learn that consciousness, even when measured in days and minutes, is of eternal worth and pure delight? For we do learn that lesson. We do discover that an instant of perfect and unselfish tenderness may be of immeasurable value. Perchance Man can never love God till he has loved his brother, never know with the Divine knowledge, until in faith, hope, and charity he has desired to win the knowledge which is in part. The cup of cold water must first be given lovingly unto the least of His brethren, or we shall never comprehend to give it into the hand of Christ Himself. “He that is faithful over a few things,” said Jesus, “shall be set over many.” Perhaps only to those who have sought to find Heaven in life sub specie temporis can life sub specie eternitatis be imparted; for to know life fully must be to know not only its infinite extension and its Divine splendour, but also the exquisite perfection of its fleeting moments.


Proverbs are one of the most ancient inventions of Man, far older than history. Four centuries before the birth of Christ, Aristotle, gazing as far into the past as his glance could reach, saw proverbs still beckoning him back. He spoke of them as “fragments of an older wisdom which on account of their brevity or aptness had been preserved from the general wreck and ruin.” Even the Book of Proverbs, late as it is in date, has features which, if we follow out their significance, will lead us back to the life of men in long forgotten years. The signs, of course, are slight, but they are none the less real; and even a faint trace may be a sure thread of guidance.

Only some grooves upon the surface of the rock, but the lines were indubitably made by the movement of ice in the glacial age. Only a piece of jagged flint, but the edge we finger was chipped by human hands for an object conceived in a human brain. See how the conical marks where each stroke of the hammer fell are still as clear and purposeful as on the day when they were made. Flaking a flint is skilled work: the blows must be cunningly aimed and exactly struck, or the stone will be shattered instead of sharpened.

This one, being well wrought, is doubtless a Neolithic weapon. But here is a specimen more rude and primitive. It is probably a thousand years older than the one we have just examined. Nevertheless, we know that it also was worked by man, and that human eyes chose it and human hands held it, and fashioned it, in days when man shared Europe with the mammoth.

What faint but real traces of a far antiquity can be seen in the Jewish proverbs?

(1) The first trace is to be found in the Numerical Sayings, a curious type of aphorism, half proverb and half riddle. Four of these occur in Proverbs 30.

Four Things Unsatisfied.

Three things there be unsatisfied,

Yea! four that say not “Enough”—

The land of death; the barren womb;

Earth unsated with water;

And fire that says not “Enough” (Pr. 3015b, 16).

Four Small Wise Things.

There be four things upon the earth small but exceeding wise:

The ANTSa people little of strength, but in summer they store up food:

The CONIESthese be a feeble folk, but they make their homes in the rock:

The LOCUSTSare they that have no king, but they march in an ordered host:

The LIZARDSon which thou canst lay thine hand, though they dwell in his majesty’s court (Pr. 3024-28).

Four Things Unbearable.

Beneath three things the earth doth tremble,

Yea beneath four it cannot bear up—

Beneath a slave become a monarch;

Beneath a fool that is filled with meat;

Beneath an old-maid that hath found a husband;

Beneath a handmaid heir to her mistress (Pr. 3021-23).

Four Stately Things.

There be three things of stately step,

Yea, four of stately gait—

The LION, that is the strongest beast,

And flees before no foe;

The ...; the HE-GOAT too;

And the KING, when ...(Pr. 3029-31).

Simple as these riddles may be, they imply or make definite allusion to many things; a settled community, a king, an army trained and disciplined, economic foresight, dramatic changes in social rank, laws of natural inheritance, acute reflections on the fate of man and on human character—surely a picture too elaborate for pre-historic years? Certainly, and for these particular proverbs, no such claim is advanced: the lingering trace of a forgotten world is in their form, numerical proverbs. Those just quoted are, as it were, links in a long chain, which we may follow backwards or forwards. The former process will lead to the result we seek; but first, for convenience and in further illustration, let us notice some, still later, examples of these proverbs. Two more are included in the Book of Proverbs, one of which will be quoted below: here is the other.

Seven Hateful Things.

There be six things Jehovah hates,

Yea, seven which he abominates—

Haughty eyes, a lying tongue,

And hands that innocent blood have shed,

A mind devising wicked plans,

Feet that be swift to do a wrong,

A witness false declaring lies,

And he who stirs up friends to strife (Pr. 616-19).

Though cast in the same mould, this saying with its insistence on justice, truth, honesty of purpose and humility of spirit, certainly reflects a later and more complex stage of thought than the naïve conundrums quoted above from Pr. 30. Indeed, it may be no earlier than the third century, the golden age of proverb-making, to which period belongs also the following sentence from Ben Sirach’s book: There be nine things that I have thought of and in my heart counted happy, and the tenth I will utter with my tongueA man whose children give him joy: a man that liveth to see his enemies fall: happy is he whose wife hath understanding, and he that hath not slipped with his tongue, and he that hath not had to serve an inferior man: happy is he that hath found prudence: and he that discourseth in the ears of them that listen. How great is he that hath found wisdom! And above him that feareth the Lord is there none. The fear of the Lord surpasses all things; and he that holdeth it, to whom shall he be likened? (E. 257-11).

Turn next to the Sayings of the Fathers, a treatise of Jewish ethical reflections, compiled in the first and second centuries A.D., and in the fifth chapter will be found a series of “numerical” observations. It must suffice to quote but one: There are four types of moral character. He that saith “Mine is mine and thine is thine” is a character neither good nor bad, but some say ’tis a character wholly bad. He that saith “Mine is thine and thine is mine” is a commercially minded man. He that saith “Mine and thine are thine” is pious: “Mine and thine are mine,” the same is wicked. For a last and latest example a modern saying current among the Jews and Arabs of Syria, can be cited: There are three Voices in the World—that of running water, of the Jewish Law, and of money.

So much for the later links in the chain, but what of its beginning? Why give thoughts in stated number? Is it a writer’s trick to catch our fancy? That it may be in the later, but certainly not in the early instances. There is only unconscious art in such an unsophisticated, child-like verse as the Four Stately Things. “Child-like,” that is the word we require to describe these riddles. True; but when were the Jews and their Semitic ancestors children? Before Abraham was called, when almost the world itself was young.

For a moment permit your thoughts to be drawn back a very great way, and consider the rude and inefficient life of early man. Unaided by the numberless resources, mental and material, that enrich our civilised life, dwelling in forests, caverns and rude huts of stone or earth, well-nigh defenceless against the larger animals, haunted and harried by a thousand perils real and imaginary, so man once lived and worked and thought, and by his thinking accomplished marvels.

“From the moment,” writes A. R. Wallace, “when the first skin was used as a covering, when the first rude spear was formed to assist in the chase, when fire was first used to cook his food, when the first seed was sown or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected in Nature, a revolution which in all the previous ages of the earth’s history had had no parallel; for a being had arisen who was no longer necessarily subject to change with the changing universe—a being who was in some degree superior to Nature, inasmuch as he knew how to control and regulate her action, and could keep himself in harmony with her, not by a change in body, but by an advance in mind.” But it was not enough that the individual should think.

The secret of human success has lain in the ability to communicate ideas. Yet, to this day, with what effort we find words to body forth our thoughts and feelings! Try to conceive how difficult was the formulation and transmission of ideas in those forgotten centuries. Imagine the tribesmen gathered home for the day and seated around their fire. Here is one who has had a thought when out hunting, which would amuse or interest the rest, if only it could be made articulate.

But none can read, and none can write, and language is in its infancy. How then can he find a way to tell it, and they perceive his meaning, and all remember? By means of proverbs; not the neat epigram of later ages, but yet sayings which for all their simplicity were embryonic proverbs. Earliest and easiest type of all was the bare comparison—this is like that—a type which, it is interesting to note, may be illustrated by one of the oldest phrases in the Bible: Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord (Gen. 109). And the method of comparison never ceased to be a favourite mould for the formation of proverbs, as some polished examples from Proverbs will serve to show: As the swallow ever flitting and flying, so the curse that is groundless alighteth not (Pr. 262). The way of the wicked is like the darkness: they know not whereon they stumble (Pr. 419).

Another device for communicating thought and storing wisdom was the riddle, and this also, under slight disguise, has its lineal descendants in the Biblical proverbs. Thus Pr. 1614, Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body, was once most probably a reply to the question, What is sweet as honey? Another example is Pr. 221: someone would ask, What is worth more than gold? and when the listeners had guessed in vain give his answer, A good repute. But better than any one comparison, more memorable than the single question, was the numerical riddle; for instance this—What four things are beyond our power to calculate?

There be three things too wonderful for me,

Yea, four which I do not comprehend—

The way of an eagle in the air;

The way of a serpent upon a rock;

The way of a ship in the midst of the sea;

And the way of a man with a maid.—(Pr. 3018, 19).

By sayings such as these were thought and experience acquired and transmitted in forgotten years. When complex thinking was impossible, when minds were dull and expression feeble, these primitive proverbs by the barb of their wit or fancy, fixed themselves deep in the memories of men.

(2). The last quotation has in early Indian literature a close parallel beginning thus:

The paths of ships across the sea,

The soaring eagle’s flight, Varuna knows....

and another of the numerical sayings from the same chapter of Proverbs has an even closer parallel:

There be three things unsatisfied,

Yea, four that say not “Enough”:

Death, and the barren womb,

Earth, never sated with water,

And fire that says not “Enough.” (Pr. 3015, 16),

compared with:

Fire is never sated with fuel;

Nor Ocean with streams;

Nor the God of death with all creatures;

Nor the bright-eyed one (i.e., woman) with man. (Hitopadeça 2, 113).

These resemblances of thought and phrase between India and Palestine provide another hint of far-past days by raising the question of the wandering of proverbs. Variations of the same tales and sayings occur among so many different peoples throughout Europe and Asia, that the possible rise of similar ideas, finding somewhat similar expression, in the various races, seems insufficient to account for the phenomena; rather we must suppose that tales and phrases circulated from tribe to tribe over an amazing stretch of territory and in very early times.

What, for example, may be inferred from the correspondence between these Jewish and Indian sayings? Does it preserve a glimpse of some one man, interested in the reflections and questionings of his people, who once ages ago travelled out of India, following the immemorial trade-routes westwards across Arabia till he reached Palestine, and in the mind of some kindred soul left a memory of his wise words?

Either that, or perhaps many minds were needed to transmit the thought from East to West or West to East; so that almost one might think of the words as having had wings on which they flew from camp to camp along the routes, alighting wherever men gathered for trade and found time for friendly intercourse. The subject might be developed at some length; but, try as we may, the details of these migrations hide themselves in the mists of a too distant past, and we catch but a glimpse of scenes we can never more make clear. It is better to give more time to certain general characteristics of the Jewish proverbs.


The abnormal aptitude of the Jews for proverb-making and their love of concrete expression are ultimately due to the conditions of early centuries. Of these two features it will be convenient to consider the second first.

The land of Palestine, home of the Jews from about 1200 B.C., lies between an ocean of water and an ocean of sand: on the west its coasts are washed, but not threatened, by the Mediterranean Sea; on the east and on the south it has to wage incessant warfare against the indrifting sands. The country is an oasis snatched from the great deserts and kept from their insidious grasp only by the toil and ingenuity of man. Behind Palestine looms Arabia, and beneath the Jew is the Arab.

Throughout the last five thousand years the population of Palestine (excepting the Philistines on the coast) has been formed by layer after layer of Arabian immigrants, who have invaded the fertile lands, sometimes by the rush of sudden conquest, but also by steady, peaceful infiltration. Despite much intermarriage with the earlier Canaanites there was always a passionate strain of the desert in Jewish blood, and throughout its whole history in Palestine Israel had to live in uneasy proximity to its kinsfolk, the wild nomads who roamed the deserts to the east and south. Consequently the ultimate back-ground of the Old Testament writings is not Palestine but Arabia, a land which sets a deep and lasting impress on its children.

A life wild yet monotonous in the extreme, rigid in its limitations but unbridled in its licence within those limitations: such is the rule imposed by the vast wilderness on the men who have to wander its blazing solitudes. Arabia produces four paradoxes in the intellect and characters of its nomadic tribes. First, “the combination of strong sensual grossness with equally strong tempers of reverence and worship.” Second, “a marvellous capacity for endurance and resignation broken by fits of ferocity: the ragged patience bred by famine.

We see it survive in the long-suffering, mingled with outbursts of implacable wrath, which characterises so many Psalms. These are due to long periods of moral famine, the famine of justice.” Third, ingenuity of mind and swift perception, but without that power or inclination for abstruse or sustained argument which the Western world has inherited from the Greeks. Fourth, a subjective attitude to the phenomena of nature and history, combined with an admirable realism in describing these phenomena.

For thousands of years before Israel entered Canaan and became a nation its ancestors were nomads of Arabia. It would be strange indeed if the great desert which so subtly and irresistibly sets its spell upon the human spirit had left no trace on Jewish proverbs. Yet the trace is not evident in points of detail. Most of the sayings we shall study in this volume represent the thoughts of certain post-exilic Jews. Where then does the mark of the desert linger? First in the peculiar concreteness of the proverbs.

All proverbs tend to concrete expression, but in this respect the Jewish ones are only equalled by those of the Arabs themselves; and this quality is shown not only in the early but also in the later sayings. Let us illustrate the point before suggesting its ultimate cause. The Jew said, “Two dogs killed a lion,” where we say, “Union is strength.” We say, “Familiarity breeds contempt”; they said, “The pauper hungers without noticing it.” Our tendency is to consider riches and poverty, but they talked of the rich man and the poor. The most remarkable example of this tendency is the conception that gives unity to the Book of Proverbs, namely the idea of Wisdom.

Here, if anywhere, one would expect the abstract to be maintained. But the individualizing instinct has conquered, and in the loftiest passages of Proverbs we shall find Wisdom praised, not as an idea, but as a person, represented as a woman of transcendent beauty and nobility. Such abnormally concrete thinking may have its disadvantages, but at least it will have one satisfactory quality—humanism. Men who thought not in generalizations but in particular instances, who saw not classes but individuals, could not help being great humanists. If now we ask whence the Jewish mind received this tendency, our thoughts will have to travel back till we discern a group of black hair-cloth tents out in the Arabian Wilderness.

In the tents are men who have learnt to pass safely across the deserts and are at home in them as a seaman on the seas; wild men and strong and confident, yet never careless, knowing that they can relax vigilance only at the risk of life. For these wastes are not empty but treacherous; apparently harmless, in reality full of peril. Security in the desert depends on acute and untiring observation. No amount of abstruse reasoning, no ability in speculative thought, will save life and property there, if the first sign of a lurking foe is passed unnoticed in the trying and deceitful light. Every faculty must be trained to the swift perception of concrete facts, faint signs of movement, the behaviour of men and beasts. The great sun in heaven may be trusted to rise and set: why speculate on the mystery? While we are lost in thought the sons of


Ishmael may fall upon us. “The leisure of the desert is vast, but it is the leisure of the sentinel.... To the nomad on his bare, war-swept soil few things happen, but everything that happens is ominous.”

Keen observation, then, more than any other quality, is required by Arabia from its children. But observation is the quintessence of the art of proverb-making, provided it be combined with practice in the expression of one’s thoughts. As for practice in talk, one might readily suppose that the solitudes would have made their peoples tongue-tied. In point of fact the contrary is true, and the skill of the Jews in the devising of proverbs, no less than their love of concrete expression, goes back to habits engendered by this desert existence.

Arabian life provided not only long leisure for reflection but also opportunity for social intercourse in the small tribal groups; so that the nomads came to have a passion for story-telling and for all manner of sententious talk, witness the customs of the Bedouin to this day and the immense collections of Arabian proverbs. Hour after hour, with Eastern tirelessness, the tribesmen, gathered at the tent of their sheikh, would listen approvingly to the eloquence bred of large experience and shrewd judgment.

Here is the scene painted in the words of Doughty’s Arabia Deserta: “These Orientals study little else [than the art of conversation and narrative], as they sit all day idle in their male societies; they learn in this school of infinite human observation to speak to the heart of one another. His tales [referring to a Moorish rogue, Mohammed Aly], seasoned with saws which are the wisdom of the unlearned, we heard for more than two months; they were never-ending. He told them so lively to the eye that they could not be bettered, and part were of his own motley experience.” The Israelites carried this habit with them from Arabia into their settled homes in Canaan.

Here is a similar scene in the hall of a modern Palestinian village-sheikh: “We were seated on mats, spread with little squares of rich carpet round three sides of a hollow place in the floor, where a fire of charcoal burned, surrounded by parrot-beaked coffee pots. This was the hearth of hospitality, whose fire is never suffered to go out; near it stood the great stone mortar in which a black slave was crushing coffee-beans. The coffee, deliciously flavoured with some cunning herb or other, was passed round. But the conversation which followed was the memorable part of that entertainment. In the shadow at the back the young men who had been admitted sat in silence.

The old men, elders of the village community, sat in a row on stone benches right and left of the door. The sheikh made many apologies for not having called on us at the tents—he had thought we were merchantmen going to buy silk at Damascus. Then followed endless over-valuation of each other, and flattery concerning our respective parents and relations....

The elders sat silently leaning upon their staves, except now and then, when one of them would slowly rise and expatiate upon something the sheikh had said—perhaps about camels or the grain crop—beginning his interruption almost literally in the words of Job’s friends: “Hearken unto me, I also will show mine opinion. I will answer also for my part, I also will show mine opinion. For I am full of matter, the spirit within me constraineth me.” So has it been in Palestine time out of mind, and it is in settings of this description that we must imagine the art of proverb-making developing in Israel.

Such, then, is the significance of these features which we have been considering—the numerical proverbs, parallels with sayings of other nations, the love of the Jews for proverbs with their consequent skill in making them, and their remarkable penchant for concrete expression. Otherwise, antiquity has left few traces in the Jewish proverbs. That, however, is but natural, since proverb-making was a living art among the people.

New maxims kept coming into use, and they crowded out of memory the favourites of byegone generations. Doubtless a few of the sayings in the Book of Proverbs are ancient, though just how old we cannot tell. For example, P. 2720, Sheol and Abaddon are never filled, and the eyes of man are never sated may be co-æval with the fear of death and the passion of greed. Cheyne discovers a relic of “that old nomadic love of craft and subtlety” in the saying (Pr. 223), A shrewd man sees misfortune coming and conceals himself, whereas simpletons pass on and suffer for it; but his interpretation of the verse seems somewhat forced. The following, however, in matter and perhaps in form also may be nearly as ancient as the settled occupation of the land:

Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers set up. (Pr. 2228).

Nothing could well be easier than the removal of those landmarks—insignificant heaps of stone, set at the end of a wide furrow. But from earliest times the East has counted them adequate guardians of the fields, and from generation to generation, by consent of all decent-minded men, they have stood inviolate. Other nations, as well as Israel, called them sacred. Greece, and Rome too, gave them a god for their protection, Hermes of the Boundary, beside whose shrine of heaped-up stones travellers would stay to rest, and, rested, lay an offering of flowers or fruit before the kindly deity:

I, who inherit the tossing mountain-forests of steep Cyllene stand here guarding the pleasant playing-fields, Hermes, to whom boys often offer marjoram and hyacinths and fresh garlands of violet.

Even the thief and murderer, we are told, would hesitate before the wickedness of moving these simple, immemorial heaps of stone: such was their sanctity. What unutterable contempt for the laws of God and man is therefore revealed in the multiple witness of the Old Testament against the rich and powerful in Israel, that they scrupled not to remove the landmarks of their poorer brethren? Thieves and murderers would have kept their hands clean from such pollution:

Remove not the landmark of the widow,

Into the field of the orphan enter not;

For mighty is their Avenger,

He will plead their cause against thee (Pr. 2310, 11).

Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie