Harvest - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Harvest - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs


We have seen the Wise at work, breaking up the hard ground, ploughing the field and scattering the seed. Came ever their toil to harvest? And since the world is the field, to what place in the wide world, what point of time in the world’s long story, ought our search to be directed? “They that sow in tears,” said a brave man long ago, “shall reap in joy; though he goeth on his way weeping bearing forth the seed, he shall come again rejoicing bringing his sheaves with him,”—and his words encourage us to search for effects of the Wise-men’s teaching in the immediate history of their times. No matter how often the Psalmist’s expectation has gone unfulfilled, something in us cries assent to his daring, and we shall therefore follow his guidance; nor shall we look in vain. But one knows that the proverb Jesus quoted to His disciples, One soweth and another reapeth, is more often true to the facts of life; and therefore, following its warning, we must be prepared also to seek traces of the Wise-men’s influence in times and places unforeseen by them.

So wide a range of human history thus opens for consideration that the task we are attempting in this chapter is necessarily difficult. It is still further complicated by the problem of analysis. For example, to say bluntly that in the modern determination to remedy existing evils in our social organisation the Christian Church may see the harvest of its labours is ultimately true, but it is not the whole truth, and because there is so much more to be said on the matter the statement might be challenged as actually untrue by those whose thoughts leap at once to the chequered official record of the Church in the last few centuries. But the opposition with which such cut-and-dry assertions are received often requires only a more careful analysis for its removal.

Quite certainly, despite the antagonism of certain professed Christians, the penetrative influence of the regular preaching and teaching of Christianity, especially during the last generation or so, has done more towards rousing and enlightening the national conscience regarding social conditions than can easily be measured; but the social movement of to-day also owes much to the rise of ambitions that naturally accompany the increase of wealth, to scientific invention, to popular education, and to other factors that might be mentioned. The progress of mankind is the product of many influences that have worked together for good, and the ethical and intellectual condition of a people at any given period is like a garment woven from many threads but without seam.

Analysis of history is desirable; but to attempt an analysis so subtle that we can say, “Just so much is due to this influence from the past, so much to that,” is always difficult, if not impossible. In part of what follows we must be content to describe certain events and circumstances concerning which we make no greater (but also no less) a claim than that the Wise were a contributory cause, their words and their example having co-operated with the work of others in producing the result described.

Where then, may it be said, that the seed they sowed took root and ripened? One general answer may be given instantly—Wherever the Bible has been known and read: a result immeasurably exceeding the utmost expectations of the Wise. Who among them ever hoped that their proverbs would receive a place in a Book destined to exercise pre-eminent moral and spiritual force throughout the world, and that through all these centuries the best part of their wisdom, wit, and idealism would be known and esteemed in a myriad Gentile homes?

For closer consideration three themes may profitably be singled out; the first being that of immediate Jewish history in Palestine, by which is meant the critical centuries 350 to 150 B.C. This topic will first be discussed generally, and then attention will be concentrated on certain events during the years 200 to 150 B.C., when the struggle between Judaism and Hellenism came to a climax and was decided.


(a) Less than justice is done to the Wise in the picture of post-exilic Judaism usually presented to students. They are not wholly ignored, but their value as a formative influence in the community of Jerusalem and Judæa, we venture to think, has been insufficiently appreciated. For this misjudgment there are several plain reasons which will prove to be well worth examining.

In the first place, the absence of theological fervour in the proverbs, their matter-of-fact standpoint, and the doubtful propriety of certain sayings have been disappointing and even disconcerting to many readers of the Bible. Judged too hastily by the superficial features of their writings, the Wise have been dismissed either as altogether wanting or, at best, as of small moral and religious importance. But how serious an error that method of rough-and-ready judgment may induce, can readily be imagined. It is much as if some future historian, attempting to estimate the value of Christianity to this generation, had to derive his opinion from a survey of the volumes of sermons published, many of which he might be inclined to criticise on the ground that they were concerned with the inculcation of commonplace moral duties. There is far more behind such a book as Proverbs than can appear in it. The Wise have been considered too much from the literary point of view, too little from the human.

But, secondly, it is not surprising that the attractive, “human” aspect has been overlooked or underestimated. We miss the warmth of personal history in the proverbs. One’s interest is stirred so much more deeply by persons than by things or even ideas; and the proverbs are so coldly impersonal that only close scrutiny, such as we have here attempted, reveals the Wise as men. They may often have been pompous, self-satisfied folk, but it cannot be denied that in their writings they were anything but self-advertising, saying many things about Wisdom and next to nothing about themselves.

Even more serious for their repute than this praiseworthy self-reticence is, thirdly, the fact that the Wise soon vanish from the surface of Jewish affairs, apparently as completely as the prophets. But again appearance is misleading, and the explanation that can be found for this fact deserves to be set forth at some length, because it is likely to help us further in the understanding of our subject. Commencing perhaps as early as the latter part of the fifth century, B.C., there developed in the loyal Jewish community, alongside of the elaborate worship of the Temple, a custom of meeting together for purposes of religious exhortation and prayer, and, above all, for study of the great Law which was increasingly felt to be the strength and heart of Judaism.

At these meetings, or Synagogues, the delivery of a moral discourse would be appropriate, perhaps was formally arranged, and the speaker selected for this purpose must often have been one of those known as the Wise. But commendation and exposition of the Law was even more in place on these occasions, and this duty would naturally be entrusted to one of those who were making the exact interpretation of the Law a life-long interest and indeed a profession; that is, to one of those who are familiar to us by the title “Scribe.” Now it is easy to see that the functions of the Wise and of the Scribes were not far sundered, and these “synagogue” meetings must have done much to promote and hasten the approximation of the two classes.

Indeed the process of fusion can be watched in the pages of Ben Sirach’s book. From it we learn that Ben Sirach, prominent as a Wise-man, was himself professionally a Scribe, and he praises that occupation as the best of all careers, the one most suitable for a disciple of Wisdom (E. Prologue and 391-3). What more was needed than that the Sages should recognise in the Law of Moses the mysterious Wisdom which they served? And we find this very identification expressly made by Ben Sirach, who declares (in reference to certain wonders of Wisdom he has set forth in previous verses) that All these things are the book of the covenant of the most high God, even the Law which Moses commanded us (E. 2423; cp. 151, 1920, etc.).

What happened is clear. From about the beginning of the second century B.C. the functions of moral exhortation—the special sphere of the Wise, at least in public—were discharged by persons who were Scribes; henceforth, to put it briefly, the Wise were mostly Scribes, and the Scribes were mostly Wise. The disappearance of the Wise-men is thus explained; seated in Moses’ seat, they have passed out of our sight and so out of mind; or, if dimly recognised by us in their new character, they have been involved in the Scribes’ not wholly merited disfavour.

In the fourth place, the Wise have also suffered unduly from the overwhelming prestige customarily assigned to the Law in post-exilic times. Many scholars have so sat in its shadow that they seem to lose sight of all other elements in the situation, nay! even to have forgotten the sunny side of the Law itself. Jerusalem is sometimes pictured as a city of ecclesiastical lawyers, and the Jews as a congregation clustered round a book of rules; an exaggeration and misconception that might never have gained favour, had the mass of spiritual exposition and reflection embodied in early Rabbinical literature been more accessible to Christian students. It is a question of proportion.

Without denying that the Law had become the rallying-point of distinctive Judaism and was destined to obtain a paramount place in Jewish life and thought, we have to insist that it held no monopoly of influence in the period before 150 B.C., when the Wise were still distinctively the Wise. Jewish legalism may already have become an important fact in the national consciousness, but plenty of room remained for Jewish humanism. We would insist that whilst the Law had one great rival—the spirit of indifference to all its teaching which the growth of Hellenic fashions favoured—it had also coadjutors. There were other spiritual influences at work, moulding the standards and ideals of the Jews; one of these was the study and appreciation of the writings of the great Prophets of Israel, whence before long came the high aspirations of the Apocalyptic school of thinkers; and another was the example and teaching of the Wise.

Consider the point in view of the normal qualities of human nature. What impresses ordinary folk? How do they learn new knowledge? Men are impressed by worth and dignity in their teachers, the Easterns in particular paying even undue deference to age and prosperity. And most men learn by small degrees: as Isaiah put it, they need to be taught precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, and there a little. Is not that exactly what the Wise were best fitted to give them—precept upon precept? Here were some of the most honourable and prosperous citizens of the day, not keeping their Wisdom jealously to themselves, but counting it their serious duty to impart the secrets of success; now teaching chosen pupils; now mingling in the open with all sorts and types of men (Did not Wisdom cry aloud and utter her voice in the broad places, and cry her message in the chief place of concourse, even at the entering in of the gates, cp. Pr. 120, 81-3?); everywhere upholding reverence towards God and a standard of morality, if not perfect, at least far superior to average attainments.

Day in, day out, the social and personal idealism, and the wholesome vigorous commonsense of these proverbs were being instilled into the ears of the people by teachers whose prosperous respectability alone was enough to gain them popular attention. Must it not be that all this had effect, and great effect, on the Jewish community? The Law no doubt enlisted the prime devotion of the pious, the prophets appealed most to the enthusiast, but the Wise must have had the ear of the ordinary folk—that is, of the majority of men.

(b) Detailed proof of the conclusion thus drawn from general considerations is of course not available. There is, however, one direction in which immediate evidence of the Wise-men’s influence may be sought, namely in the issue of the struggle between Judaism and Hellenism. To this end let us briefly pass in review certain events of the years 200 to 150 B.C. It will already be clear to the reader how slight was the chance of the older Jewish habits persisting in face of the full tide of new life and thought, which was steadily smoothing them away as waves will melt sandcastles on the shore. By the end of the third century the infection of Hellenism was rife, not only in the upper classes, but in all grades of Jewish society; “even in the very strongholds of Judaism it modified the organisation of the State, the laws, public affairs, art, science and industry, affecting even the ordinary things of life and the common associations of the people.”

Black as was the outlook for Judaism at this date, it was soon to grow much worse. Early in the second century the leading families of Jerusalem had become thoroughly Hellenic in their point of view, and, worst of all, in 174 B.C. the office of the High Priesthood fell by intrigue into the grasp of an unscrupulous man, Joshua or (to use the Greek name which he adopted and preferred) Jason. This Jason, to curry favour with the Syrian king, set to work to complete the transformation of Jerusalem into a Grecian city. Accordingly a gymnasium was now built, and so popular was the High Priest’s policy, so forgotten the old-fashioned sentiment, that even the Priests were found willing to participate actively in the competitions of the public athletic games.

The unholy zeal of the more ardent Hellenists, however, crystallised into definite shape such opposition as still existed. A body of men, convinced upholders of strict Judaism, now drew together and became known as Hasidim, i.e., “The Conscientious” or “The Faithful”; but their ranks were recruited largely from the poorer classes, they lacked intellectual prestige, and no doubt their opposition to Hellenism in some respects had the weakness of mere unreasoning conservatism. The party did not seem fitted either to grow in numbers or to continue through many years, and with its passing the old Jewish piety bade fair to perish finally.

But at this stage occurred one of the most astonishing dénouements in history. In 175 B.C. Antiochus IV Epiphanes began to reign over the Syrian dominions: a remarkable but dangerous man, eccentric to the verge of insanity; inordinately vain, yet endowed with great ability, energy, and ambition. Soon after his accession certain tumults took place in Jerusalem. The rioting was directed against Syrian authority, but did not amount to anything which could fairly be construed as rebellion, being in fact mere faction-fighting. None the less Antiochus, whose exchequer happened to be in sore straits for money, made the occurrence a pretext, first, for plundering the Temple of its treasures and, two years later, for inflicting on the Jews a cruel punishment. Entering the city in 168 B.C. he razed its walls, and desecrated the Temple in an abominable fashion, sacrificing swine on the altar and converting it into a sanctuary for Hellenic worship.

Still more important, however, was his resolve once and for all to stamp out any obscurantists among the Jews who might presume any longer to follow their ancestral customs and oppose the Greek culture. Then began throughout the Jewish province a fierce persecution. In all towns and villages men and women were sought out and slain—whosoever was found guilty of practising Jewish observances, or possessed a copy of the Jewish Law, or refused to offer worship at a heathen shrine. The position of the loyal Jews soon became desperate. The threat of torture and death was stamping out relentlessly the last flicker of resistance.

Many of the Hasidim, refusing to make the great surrender, died for their faith, and the small companies who escaped to the deserts for refuge, though steadfast in determination to resist, were in despair, feeling that Jehovah had forsaken His people utterly. A famous passage in 1 Maccabees (229-38) relates how one thousand of them, men, women and children, pursued into the wilderness by the Syrian troops, were overtaken on a Sabbath day, and how (rather than violate the laws of the Sabbath by fighting) they sought neither to escape their enemies by flight nor yet to defend themselves, but stood and met death in heroic silence.

Such was the condition of affairs when suddenly a change came over the character of the Jewish resistance. A certain Mattathias, a priest of the village Modein, with his five sons (one of whom was the famous Judas, afterwards surnamed Maccabeus), indignant at what was taking place, and convinced of the futility of such passive martyrdom as had led to the massacre just mentioned, struck a blow for freedom, and began to organise active opposition. The Hasidim fell in with the new policy, and men rallied to the support of Mattathias and his sons.

It was as if the latent patriotism of the Jews had waited only for a spark to kindle it, had required only action on lines of sufficient common sense to offer a faint chance of success in combating Antiochus. The new army that sprang dramatically into being was fortunate in its commander. Under the brilliant leadership of Judas Maccabeus surprising victories were gained, and after vicissitudes of fortune which it is not in point here to record, there emerged a Jewish State, free from the tyranny of Syria, and eager to preserve the essence of that moral monotheistic faith which had been Israel’s one unique glory.

But whence this astonishing revival? The Hasidim were none too numerous, and if, as is entirely probable, a large proportion of their men were advanced in years, they can hardly have been the most efficient portion of the Maccabean armies from a military point of view. Victories in war are won by young, vigorous men, and the swift triumph of the Maccabees implies the adhesion to their cause of numbers of young Jews from within and without Jerusalem; and that again is explicable only by the presence in the nation of a strong undercurrent of respect for the older, distinctive Judaism. Things were not quite so


desperate as they had seemed. Hellenism had progressed far; but it had not eaten out the heart of the people. Obviously if all the young Jews had been convinced Hellenists, content to follow the lead of the high-priestly party to any lengths and wholly contemptuous of Israel’s former piety, they would have looked on with indifference, or even approval, while the last remnants of the puritanical Hasidim and the villagers of Modein were being blotted out. But from that attitude they had evidently been saved, and it is fair to acknowledge that the Wise must have done much to achieve that consummation. Their broadminded outlook, their sensible but genuine piety, their solid worth of character, their shrewd yet earnest and at times enthusiastic teaching, all had helped effectively to maintain regard for the old-fashioned interpretation of life that rested on “the fear of the Lord.”

With the example of the Wise-men before them, there must have been many who, though they felt that Hellenism was wonderful, yet knew in their soul that Judaism also was great and wise. So soon therefore as the vileness of a bloody and remorseless persecution clarified the moral issue and compelled a choice, men were found who could make the right resolve to fight for their liberty and their fathers’ God. The result of the Maccabean conflict was a real decision; the tide had turned, and the losing battle was not lost. Hellenic thought and method would in days to come mould and modify the Jewish people in many ways, but its strangle-hold on the vital point of Jewish religion was loosened, never to be renewed.

The spiritual genius of Judaism could breathe again. Henceforth, to quote a memorable saying of Wellhausen, “in a period when all nationalities and all bonds of religion and national customs were being broken up in the seeming cosmos and real chaos of the Græco-Roman Empire, the Jews stood out like a rock in the midst of the ocean. When the natural conditions of independent nationality all failed them, they nevertheless artificially maintained it with an energy truly marvellous, and thereby preserved for themselves, and for the whole world, an eternal good.”


The second field in which one may reasonably look for signs of the Wise-men’s labours is of course subsequent Jewish history, the question being, “Did the teaching of the Wise slip out of sight and memory when the crisis we have described was ended, and when the professors of Wisdom became the Scribes and were more and more absorbed in purely scribal interests, or did it escape oblivion and continue a living influence in the life of the Jews?” The ground that must furnish an answer to our question is chiefly the presence or absence of references to these proverbs, or of imitations and echoes of them, in the later Jewish literature. To begin with, however, there is one clear, independent proof of the esteem in which at any rate the Book of Proverbs came to be held, and that is its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible.

This fact alone is irrefutable and sufficient testimony that the thoughts of the Wise never ceased to influence the minds and characters of loyal Jews. So much for Proverbs, but what of Ecclesiasticus? It also was far from being forgotten. Though it failed to secure a place in the Hebrew Canon, it was included in the Septuagint, the Bible of the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt. The Talmud in one ultra-orthodox passage forbids quotations to be made from Ben Sirach’s book, but actually there are quotations from it in the Talmud itself! In fact, a vast number of references might be adduced from the whole range of Jewish literature testifying both to the popularity of these two great treasuries of the Sages’ sayings, and to the steady appreciation of proverbs old and new, which the Jews displayed.

To set forth proof of this assertion even in barest outline would involve technicalities that might be wearisome. We give therefore but two or three points in illustration. Perhaps the most interesting, and for Gentile readers the most accessible, source of evidence is a work of the first and second century A.D., a compendium of the ethical ideas and ideals of certain famous Jewish teachers, bearing the title Pirke Aboth, that is The Sayings of the Fathers. Throughout this treatise the influence of the Wisdom writings is clearly indicated by the sententious style that characterises the several Sayings, as well as by the numerous direct references to Proverbs. A few quotations will bring this out, and at the same time illustrate the high ideals, curiously but often very attractively expressed, of which the book is full:—

Ben Zoma said, “Who is mighty? He who subdues his nature, for it is written ‘He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty’ (Pr. 1632).

Antigonous of Soko used to say, “Be not like servants who work for their Lord with a view to receiving recompense, but be as slaves that minister without seeking for reward, and let the fear of heaven be upon you."

Rabbi Chananiah said—something that might have averted the European war, and made Germany a blessing instead of a curse, had her rulers and thinkers accepted his deep counsel!—“Whenever in any man his fear of sin comes before his wisdom his wisdom endures, but whensoever a man’s wisdom comes before his fear of sin his wisdom doth not endure.

Rabbi Judah ben Thema said, “Be bold as a leopard, and swift as an eagle, and fleet as a hart, and strong as a lion to do the will of thy Father which is in heaven.”

And there was Rabbi Samuel the Little, who chose for his life’s motto just one verse of Proverbs (2417), and added thereto no word in comment: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.”

So the topic might be pursued, and from Midrash and Talmud might be drawn examples in plenty, both references to the ancient proverbs and quotations of new ones—words of wit and humour, of prudence and fine idealism—applied to all manner of human intercourse, and witnessing abundantly that in Israel Wisdom was still known of her children. Space must be found for just these three observations on married life:

Whose wife dies in his lifetime, the world becomes dark for him (C. 55).

He who loves his wife as himself and honours her more than himself ... it is of him the Scripture saith “Thou shalt know that thy tent is in peace” (C. 55).

And, lastly, this gentle and subtle saying:—

If thy wife be short, bend down and whisper to her (C. 55).

If Wisdom is an influence at all, it is always an intimate influence working in homes and individual consciences as well as in street and market-place, so that besides noting the frequent mention of proverbs in the literature, consideration should also be paid to the vigour of Jewish morality in the Christian era. Perhaps the simplest and most human point at which to test the matter briefly will be the ethic of the Jewish home. Dispossessed of their native land and scattered to a thousand different cities, the Jews were compelled to work out their own salvation under great and increasing difficulties.

God, says a significant Talmudic comment, dwells in a pure and loving home; and no one, aware of the evils that were rampant in the decaying paganism of the Græco-Roman Empire and persisted, still powerful though not unrebuked, in the slowly developing society of nominally Christian Europe, would deny that the isolated and often harassed communities of the Jews did their utmost to make that noble saying a reality, maintaining with amazing courage and pertinacity a splendid ideal of family and communal existence. A discussion of the topic in the Jewish Encyclopædia concludes with the following affirmation: “Throughout these centuries of persecution and migration the moral atmosphere of the Jewish home was rarely contaminated, and it became a bulwark of moral and social strength, impregnable by reason of the religious spirit which permeated it.”

And in elucidation of what was involved in the persecution referred to let this one grim statement speak: From the sixteenth century, and earlier, regulations were enforced compelling the Jews of numerous large cities to reside in certain confined areas, “ghettos.” Nevertheless the dreadful overcrowding to which this led resulted in no serious moral evils: “The purity of the Jewish home-life was a constant antidote to the poisonous suggestions of life in slums, and it was even able to resist the terrible squalor and unhealthiness which prevailed in the miserable and infamous Roman ghetto, where at one time as many as 10,000 inhabitants were herded into a space less than a square kilometre. In the poorer streets of this ghetto several families occupied one and the same room. The sufferings of the Jews in that hell upon earth were not diminished by the yearly overflowing of the Tiber which made the Roman ghetto a dismal and a plague-stricken swamp.”

Of course many things worked together to sustain the morality of the Jewish people—the long-suffering of the Psalmists, the golden promises of the mighty Prophets, and the strength of the ancient Law. But surely also that store of homely, yet stirring and challenging, proverbs which the Wise-men had created, may claim a real share in the magnificent result? And if, quite rightly, it be insisted that the Law, with its fascination of hallowed customs and manifold spiritual suggestions, played the all-important part, then in reply we may still enter the plea that, as Ben Sirach had felt and said, for the Jew the Law was Wisdom and Wisdom had become the Law.


In the third place, the words of the Wise were given an honoured place in the mind of the Lord Jesus Christ. To some that may be an unexpected statement. It is well-known that Jesus was intimately familiar with the doctrine of the Prophets, and many have perceived how conscious He was of all that is admirable in the Law, the spiritual essence of which He fulfilled. But, though His interest in the Wise is seldom noted, it is no less true that He had considered deeply and sympathetically the idea of the Divine Wisdom, and was familiar with the famous proverbs that sought to apply its guidance alike to the greatest and the least of our affairs.

Just how often a memory of Wisdom is traceable in the recorded words of Jesus cannot be determined with certainty. Verbatim allusions are rare, perhaps because the ideas of the Wise and their more memorable sayings had become so familiar in our Lord’s time as to be common ground between hearer and teacher, so that often it was only the point made by the Wise that was hinted at, or caught up and given some new turn and emphasis. But echoes from the thoughts and images of the proverbs are so frequent in the Gospels that together they furnish ample evidence of His having known and valued the ancient treasury of Wisdom. The evidence is, of course, cumulative, and its strength must not be judged by the following few illustrations.

No fewer than seven of the eight Beatitudes (Matt. 53ff) recall proverbs of the Wise; what had been, as it were, a seed of thought in the proverb finding ripe expression in the Beatitude. For instance, Blessed are the poor (i.e., humble) in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, said Jesus—Better, said the Wise, is it to be of a lowly spirit with the poor, than to divide the spoil with the proud (Pr. 1619). With Jesus’ condemnation of mischievous talk, Every idle word that men shall speak they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement; for by thy words shalt thou be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned (Matt. 1236, 37), compare Pr. 1820, 21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof (also Pr. 132, 154, 2123, etc.).

With the teaching, Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth ... but in heaven, compare Pr. 114, 28, 1516, 168, etc. Give us this day our daily bread seems to echo Pr. 308: Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the bread that is needful for me. In the command for generous dealing, Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away (Matt. 542), there is perhaps a precise reminiscence of Pr. 328: Say not unto thy neighbour, “Go and come again” when thou hast it with thee (cp. also Pr. 1917 with Matt. 2540); and again when Jesus encouraged His disciples saying Be not anxious how or what ye shall speak.... For it is not ye that speak but the spirit of your Father which speaketh in you (Matt. 1019, 20), perhaps the very words of Pr. 161 were in His memory: The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord?

Some of the immortal images in our Lord’s parables may have been painted from the thought suggested by a proverb. In the parable of Luke 147-11, the command not to seek the highest seats at the banquet may originate in the saying of Pr. 256 as much as in the concrete examples of the failing which contemporary life no doubt afforded. So also the famous parable of the two houses, one built on rock, the other on sand, perhaps goes back to the seed-thought in Pr. 127: The wicked are overthrown and are not, but the house of the righteous shall stand; and the proverb Boast not thyself of to-morrow, for thou knowest not what a day will bring forth, Pr. 271, might be text for Christ’s parable of the rich man and his barns (Luke 1216-21). Again when Jesus, speaking of the kingdom of heaven, likens it to a marriage feast (Matt. 221-14; etc.) and elsewhere compares it in its infinite value to a hidden precious pearl, there are details in the language used which suggest that the picture of Wisdom’s banquet (Pr. 91-5), and the proverbs on the incomparable worth of Wisdom were not far distant from His mind.

More important than even the certain or possible verbal reminiscences of the proverbs is the resemblance between the manner of Jesus’ teaching and the manner of the Wise. Like them, He also taught in the streets, seeking the people where they were most easily to be found; and though His words were infinite in depth of insight and spiritual grandeur, He was wont to clothe them in simple language—now quoting a telling proverb, Physician, heal thyself, now kindling imagination by a familiar but graphic metaphor or comparison that went home to the heart, and challenged the conscience, and was comprehensible to learned and unlearned equally.

Like the Wise, He spoke constantly on those simple but supreme issues which concern every man that cometh into the world; and His highest doctrine was often cast, like the lessons of ancient Wisdom, in brief sentences that refused to be forgotten: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God—He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for My sake shall find it. Many readers will realise that the deepest thing concerning the relation between Jesus Christ and Wisdom has not yet been referred to, but that we deliberately reserve. Enough has been said for the present purpose.

Who in face of all these facts would dare to maintain that the Wise-men toiled to no purpose. Their love’s labour was not lost. In the issue of the struggle with Hellenism and the revival of the Jewish national consciousness with its unique moral and religious features, some of them witnessed a result such as their teaching, whether they were fully conscious of the fact or not, had tended to achieve.

But also there came gradually in later generations, and in lands of which they had not so much as heard, a rich reward of which the end is not yet in sight. Could they but have foreseen even a small corner of this ultimate harvest field, how completely depression would have vanished, and all mistrust of God’s dealings with faithful men been lifted from their minds! Their proverbs were laid on the foundation of a religious and ethical idealism, and if some have proved to be only wood, hay and stubble, others were gold, silver and costly stones, and these have obtained a place in the temple of eternal Truth. Doubtless the imperfections of the Wise were great and their failures and disappointments many, but all the time they were building far better than they knew. Is it not always so with every courageous effort after righteousness, every honest search for the kingdom of the living God?

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