Men And Manners - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Men And Manners - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

Men And Manners

Students of the Old Testament do not require to be told that the universalism of the Book of Proverbs is a remarkable fact. But even those whose knowledge of Jewish history is not exact, and who have not made a comparative study of the post-exilic writings, need have no difficulty in perceiving how strange it is, if they will give the briefest consideration to the following points. Just how free are these sayings from indications of the national aspirations or religious peculiarities of the Jews? Never once in the whole Book of Proverbs is mention made of Israel or of any synonym for Israel!

Not a word is said of the nation’s past history or present fears and hopes; the word “prophet” never once occurs, although the influence of prophetic teaching is frequently manifest; Priests, Levites, Temple and even Jerusalem are absolutely ignored; “sacrifice” is mentioned four times in disparagement; To do justice and judgement is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (Pr. 213; cp. 158; 17{1{(mg)}}; 2127): and “offerings” once incidentally: I have peaceofferings with me (Pr. 714). Even the divinely appointed Law is passed silently by; it is neither commended nor condemned. True, the word “law” is often found in Proverbs, but the law which men are there bidden to observe is not the precepts, ritual or moral, of the great Pentateuch, not the Law of Moses, but the doctrine laid down by the Sage and his confrêres!

Ben Sirach differs from the Sages represented in Proverbs to this extent that once or twice he identifies the Law of Moses with the Divine Wisdom, and asserts that Wisdom has chosen Zion for her resting-place. Otherwise his book has precisely the same broadly humanistic and super-national character.

Clearly one need not be an expert in Jewish history to see that all this is startling; but it seems little less than astounding as soon as it is brought into comparison with the passionate patriotism and religious exclusiveness that characterise other books of the Old Testament, not only those that set forth the Law, but also such prophecies as Isaiah 40-66, or again the Psalms. For example, contrast the ecclesiastical version of Israel’s history given in the Books of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, which in its present form is the work of a Levite of Jerusalem writing about 350-250 B.C., i.e., at the very period of this Wisdom preaching. A glance will show that the narrative of the Chronicler is consistently intended to set forth the praises and virtues of the holy city, Jerusalem, and its inhabitants, the true “Israel.” From first to last his work burns with national devotion, and the events of history are by him so related as to make prominent the honours due to the divine Law of Moses, wherein he sees the nation’s eternal hope and sure defence. Greater contrast there could scarcely be.

The seeming indifference of Proverbs and Ben Sirach would be explained if the Sages had been irreligious or mere worldly-wise men, contemptuous of altruistic, national sentiment. But their doctrine is in no way anti-national: there is absolutely no whisper of polemic against Judaism or even depreciation of its special tenets. Neither were they irreligious; that is quite certain. Although on the surface there is no warm glow of religious zeal, again and again “the fear of Jehovah,” said they, “is the foundation of Wisdom.” The Sages, at least the majority of them, were respectable, earnest, and God-fearing Jews. It seems to the present writer psychologically incredible to suppose that such persons in Jerusalem of 300-200 B.C. were, in their heart of hearts, unmoved by the extraordinary distinctive sentiments of their race. Why then the apparent apathy shown in their proverbs?

It is true that a taste for aphoristic ethical teaching was manifesting itself at this period in various countries besides Judæa, and that such moralistic teaching always tends to be cosmopolitan, but we find therein no adequate explanation of the astonishing facts just mentioned. It is more to the point to follow up a hint suggested by the conversation of the two Wise-men depicted in the preceding chapter. Hellenism seemed to be in the ascendant, as no observant person in Jerusalem of the third century could fail to perceive; equally, no sober-minded pietist of the old school could be blind to its demoralising tendencies, and no patriot fail to dread its disintegrating effect on Judaism. How to encounter the insidious and attractive force that threatened the overthrow not only of Jewish nationality but of Jewish virtue: that was the problem for every loyal Jew.

The Priests and Levites of the Law of Moses were fighting the foe in one way. The Wise had chanced on another weapon for the fray. In the old, common-sense maxims of their fathers, which being rooted in Israel’s religious faith and enriched by the ethical idealism of the great prophets presented a general moral standard, or at least a moral ardour, clearly superior to the normal tone of the neighbouring Hellenic cities, the Wise perceived they had an instrument for countering the peril on its more mundane side. Their duty was to teach men that in order to get on in life it was not necessary, even in the clamorous confident Hellenic atmosphere, to fling morality overboard and laugh at the fear of Jehovah.

To suppose that all, or even the majority, of the Wise-men consciously formulated this point of view is of course not essential: many of them may have been actuated by an instinctive rather than a reasoned antagonism to the spirit of the age. The point is that, viewing the teaching of wisdom on the one part and the circumstances of the period on the other, this is the rôle the Wise in actual fact fulfilled. Now it is evident that the nature of the work presented to them was such as to make the advocacy of nationalism or even of the duty of conformity to the Law somewhat irrelevant for them. It was for others to enjoin these things. The Wise kept to their own path. Broad-minded yet loyal Jews, they were engaged on a task that happened to be naturally independent of the ritual injunctions of the Law and of any immediate political concerns. It was their business to urge morality, and to be very practical in so doing; to tell men how to get on and not be blackguards; to persuade men that the wages of sin is not victory but death—a noble task, however matter-of-fact the means they used for its achievement.

We believe, then, that the universalism of these proverbs is to be explained chiefly as the mark of the Wise-men’s ability to keep to the point, not as evidence either of lack of patriotism or of indifference to the national faith. They were speaking to the heart on the common things of daily life that men of all races necessarily share with one another. Consequently—perhaps without their knowing or intending it—what they said transcended time and country. It was none the less work for their people. As we hope to show later, there is good reason to believe that the plain, common-sense morality of the Wise preserved for Judaism the respect and affection of many ordinary men, whom the Levites, with all their enthusiasm for the specific forms of the national worship, would have lost. Religion has no right to despise or overlook even the least of its advocates. There was One who said, “He that is not against us is on our part.”

Reviewing the argument of these pages and the suggestions of the last chapter, we conclude that, whilst the ranks of the Wise were wide enough to include men of diverse character and outlook, they must be credited with having had a definite standpoint and a method of their own well suited to the circumstances of their times.

Let us now turn our attention from the Wise themselves to the men they observed. Let us walk with Judah and Joseph through the busy streets, and take our stand with them in the open spaces by the city-gates, and overhear their comments on the scenes of human intercourse which met their eyes. Let us, as it were, join some group that has gathered round to enjoy their talk, to applaud their maxims and their morals, to laugh as the characteristics of this man or of that are hit off in some shrewd epigram, and perhaps—if need be—to take to heart the lesson.

In the popular talk there were doubtless many sayings concerning the habits of the various craftsmen and traders—the potter, the sandal-maker, and so forth—but (perhaps because the purpose of the Wise was so broadly humanistic in its outlook) such specialistic sayings are rare in the literature the Sages have left us. A few, however, do occur in which men are pictured from the standpoint of their external relationships, and with these we may conveniently begin.

First, then, an observation so faithful to human nature that it has never lost its spice and is appropriate in all countries, although it must always have had peculiar pungency in the deceitful, haggling, Eastern marts. Behold the bargain-hunter drawn to the life:

“It is nought, it is nought,” saith the buyer;

But when he is gone on his way then he boasteth

(Pr. 2014).

Not a man in old Jerusalem but must have felt the dry humour and the accusing truth. But here is the other side of the transaction:

A merchant shall hardly keep himself from doing wrong,

And a huckster shall not be acquitted of sin.

Many have transgressed for the sake of gain,

And the fortune-hunter requires a blind eye.

As a nail will stick fast between the joinings of stones,

So will sin thrust in between buying and selling

(E. 2629-272).

Six of one and half a dozen of the other, but perhaps neither buyer nor seller were such rogues as they are painted! Let us allow a discount for the epigram.

Of the man in debt, a problem for society in all periods, the Sages said plainly but sufficiently:

The rich man lords it over the poor,

And the borrower is the lender’s slave

(Pr. 227).

Ben Sirach, however, was much more graphic; says he,

Many have treated a loan as a windfall,

And have been a plague to those that helped them.

Till the loan is lent, he will kiss a man’s hand,

And for his neighbour’s money will speak right humbly;

But when payment falls due, he prolongs the days,

And girds and grumbles and says, “Hard times”

(E. 294, 5).

Support for Ben Sirach’s description might still be obtained.

The rendering of assistance to unfortunate members of the community has always been a prominent and admirable feature of Jewish society, and quotations to be given later on will bear witness to the esteem in which the Sages held the practice of charity. But the alms-giving was not wide enough, or else not deep enough or (it may be) not wise enough—as our own is not yet—to succour the lowest stratum of society. Remember Lazarus at the rich man’s gate: apparently there were such as he in Ben Sirach’s time, whether brought low by misfortune or by fault:

My son, lead not a beggar’s life;

It is better to die than to beg.

A man that looketh unto the table of another,

His life is not to be counted life

(E. 4028-29).

In E. 38, Ben Sirach discusses an ancient and unsettled controversy—subject, the doctor. As he devotes half a chapter to the matter, we may reasonably assign it a paragraph.

It would seem that in those days the medical profession was under a slight cloud. Some people (and for these we have no mercy: they were doubtless prescribing for others, not for themselves) were of opinion that all sorts of healing were an invention of iniquity and an attempt to thwart God’s will. Ben Sirach enters a healthy-minded protest against these fanatical obscurantists, insisting on the healing properties of plants: Was not water made sweet with wood to acquaint every man of God’s power? (E. 385); an allusion to Exod. 1525. More damaging is the unspoken but obvious implication of the sober-minded Chronicler when he records concerning King Asa that in the thirty and ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet; his disease was exceeding great; yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord, but to the physicians. And Asa ... died in the one and fortieth year of his reign (2 Chron. 1612).

But to this the physician may make a weighty answer. Until later times than Asa’s it seems possible that orthodox medical practice was in the hands of the priestly classes, and therefore it may be suspected that Asa is censured for having committed the unpardonable wickedness of daring to call in one of the non-priestly practitioners, dealers in herbs and incantations, outsiders, quacks, charlatans, impostors all of them. But unfortunately, whatever the rights and wrongs of Asa’s case, it must be admitted that the profession did not wholly succeed in quelling the doubts about its merits. Physician, heal thyself—so ran the proverb in our Lord’s time (Luke 423), and is it not written of a certain poor woman that she had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing better, but rather worse (Mark 526)? Moreover, reluctantly, we have to notice that the Mishna, still later, gives utterance to the disconcerting opinion that the best of physicians is deserving of Gehenna (Kidd, 414).

Well, well, it is a vexed question. With relief let us turn, in conclusion, to Ben Sirach’s altogether cheerier view. The Lord, says he, created medicines out of the earth, and a prudent man will not despise them. Wherefore, honour a physician as thou needest him with the honours due; for verily the Lord hath created him. For from the Most High cometh his healing, and from the king he shall receive a gift.... My son, in thy sickness be not negligent, but pray unto the Lord, and He shall heal thee. Put away wrong-doing, and order thine hands aright, and cleanse thine heart from all manner of sin. Offer a sweet offering and a memorial, set in order a fat offering as best thou art able. Then give place to the physician, and let him not go from thee, for thou hast need of him. There is a time when in their hands is the issue for good: they also shall beseech the Lord that He may prosper them to find out what is wrong and to save the life (E. 381-15)—then, as the conclusion of the passage, in the Greek text come these words which read like a very doubtful compliment,

He that sinneth before his Maker—

Let him fall into the hands of the physician

But Ben Sirach must be acquitted of malice, for the Greek text turns out to be a mistranslation of the original Hebrew which fortunately has here been recovered; and all ends happily thus:

He that sinneth before his Maker

Will behave himself proudly before a physician

Good doctrine! Sound therapeutics and sound theology are allies, not enemies.

Reference to the special trades may be few, but some of those few are memorable. Thus the only allusion in Proverbs to the unskilled labourer is one of the poignant sayings of the Book:

The labourer’s appetite laboureth for him,

For his mouth constrains him to toil

(Pr. 1626):

Hunger! that unwearying goad of men, so beneficial to the race, so pitilessly cruel to the individual.

Ben Sirach gives us a glimpse of many men in some graphic verses—the ploughman, the cattle-driver, the engraver, the smith, the potter:

The wisdom of the scribe cometh by opportunity of leisure,

And he that hath little business shall become wise.

How shall he become wise that holdeth the plough,

That glorieth in the shaft of the goad,

That driveth oxen, and is busied in their labours,

And whose discourse is of the stock of bulls?

He will set his heart upon the turning of furrows,

And his wakefulness is to give his heifers their fodder.

So is every artificer and workmaster

That passeth his time by night as by day,

Cutting gravings of signets,

And his diligence is to make great variety:

He will set his heart to preserve likeness in his portraiture,

And will be wakeful to finish his work.

So is the smith sitting by the anvil

And considering the unwrought iron;

The vapour of the fire will waste his flesh,

And with the heat of the furnace will he contend;

The noise of the hammer will be ever in his ear

And his eyes upon the pattern of the vessel:

He will set his heart upon perfecting his works,

And he will be wakeful to adorn them perfectly.

So is the potter sitting at his work,

And turning the wheel about with his feet;

Who is alway anxiously set at his work,

And all his handicraft is by number;

He will fashion the clay with his arm,

And bend its strength in front of his feet;

He will apply his heart to finish the glazing,

And he will be wakeful to make clean the furnace.

All these put their trust in their hands,

And each becometh wise in his own work.

Without these shall not a city be inhabited

And wherever they sojourn they will not hunger.

They shall not be sought for in the council of the people,

And in the assembly they shall not mount up on high;

They shall not sit on the seat of the judge,

Nor understand the covenant of judgement,

Neither shall they declare instruction and judgement,

And among them that speak proverbs they shall not be found.

But they will maintain the fabric of the world,

And in the handiwork of their craft is their prayer

(E. 3824-34).

The passage is so interesting an illustration of the attitude of the educated Jews towards manual labour that a digression is irresistible. Among the Greeks all humbler forms of labour were heartily despised. In ancient society so much of the rough work was performed by slaves that the fortunate classes could and, as a rule, did find occupation in military, political, commercial, and literary or artistic affairs. Even the farmer was reckoned of small account, because, despite the honest worth of his occupation, his busy life and practical interests denied him the intellectual leisure of the town population. The Romans had certain incidents in their historical traditions that gave to agriculture a measure of honour, at least in theory. Otherwise their standpoint was much the same as that of the Greeks. But the Jews maintained a more generous and a very sensible attitude, as is exemplified by this quotation from Ben Sirach. They recognised the limitations imposed by hard toil, but at the same time they saw that it had an essential part to play in the economy of the whole, and therefore they freely acknowledged its merits:

Hate not laborious work,

For toil hath been appointed of God

(E. 715).

Nevertheless Ben Sirach is well pleased that God had not made him a farmer or a smith. It is evident that he did not deem the art of the craftsman compatible with learning; and, since he loved his scribe’s life, his satisfaction at having full leisure to prosecute the search for Wisdom is very human and pardonable. All the same, some may feel there is a touch of intellectual snobbery in his tone. If so, his successors, the Rabbis of later Judaism, did not follow him in the fault. They took the view that the degrading tendencies of certain occupations must be frankly recognised, but that there were many trades requiring manual toil which ought to be highly esteemed.

In that most interesting work of the first and second century A.D., The Sayings of the [Jewish] Fathers, we read that Shemaiah said, Love work. Rabbi Meir, however, said cautiously, Have little business, and be busy in the Law. It is said in the Talmud (Kidd, 99a) that Whosoever doth not teach his son work, teacheth him to rob. These remarks scarcely carry the question beyond Ben Sirach’s view. But many of the Rabbis went much further and urged that religious and intellectual studies were not profitably undertaken unless accompanied by some acquaintance with manual labour. Thus, said Rabbi Gamaliel (about 90 A.D.), An excellent thing is study of the Law combined with some worldly trade ... but all study of the Law apart from manual toil must fail at last and be the cause of sin. Another, and a powerful, saying is this: Flay a carcase in the street and earn a living, and say not, “I am a famous man, and the work is beneath my dignity.” St. Paul will doubtless occur to many as an instance of a great scholar who was proud to know and to exercise the trade of tent-making.

Recall how earnestly he protested to the Christians of Corinth his independence of their monetary help (cp. Acts 181-3; 1 Cor. 412, 2 Cor. 119). This admirable association of labour and learning persisted among the Jews, and their history contains many examples of splendid men who combined the virtues of great scholarship with the pursuit of some humble means of livelihood. Some of the best-known Rabbis of the Middle Ages supported themselves by labouring as carpenters, shoemakers, builders, bakers, and so forth.

Of the numerous sayings concerning wealth and poverty we may mention some that bring before us the concrete picture of men rich and poor. Here is one that is eloquent of the bitterness of the contrast:

The rich man’s wealth is his strong city;

The poor man’s poverty is his undoing

(Pr. 1015).

Even to-day, in a land where Justice is designed to be even-handed, but must needs be approached through the lawyer, who imagines that the rich and the poor stand on level terms? Even among the well-to-do the majority of men would think twice before engaging in legal warfare with a millionaire or a railway company.

Of the friendlessness of the poor there are these pathetic proverbs:

Wealth addeth many friends,

But the poor is separated even from the friend he hath

(Pr. 194).

The poor is hated even of his own neighbour,

But the rich hath many friends

(Pr. 1420).[51]

And this from Ben Sirach:

My son, deprive not the poor of his living,

And make not the needy eyes to wait long

(E. 41).

Do not those eyes stare hungrily from the proverb, and seem to gaze after us as we hurry on?

A sterner note is heard in this almost ironical observation:

A rich man toileth in gathering money, and when he resteth he is filled with his good things:

A poor man toileth in lack of substance, and when he resteth he cometh to want

(E. 313).

Two beautiful passages in the Book of Proverbs recognise that the problem of success goes deeper than riches:

Better a dinner of herbs where love is,

Than a fatted ox and hatred therewith

(Pr. 1517).

Remove far from me vanity and lies:

Give me neither poverty nor riches;

Feed me with the food that is needful for me:

Lest I be full, and deny Thee, and say, “Who is the Lord?”

Or lest I be poor, and steal,

And use profanely the name of my God

(Pr. 308, 9).

Both grand sayings. The last is a really noble prayer for the Golden Mean, and at the same time an effective accusation which we know to be only too true of many self-confident rich men on the one hand, and many embittered poor men on the other.

Finally, let us ruminate on the fact that wealth and dyspepsia are old acquaintances: Better is a poor man, being sound and of good constitution, than a rich man that is plagued in his body, says Ben Sirach (E. 3014); and doubtless he had plenty of shocking examples to confirm his opinion, if there be any truth in Poseidonius’ description of the Hellenic cities whose citizens “practically lived in the banqueting halls,” and were wont to pocket what they could not there devour.

In the next place we may turn to proverbs dealing with character. Fastening upon one outstanding quality, for the moment they identify the personality with it. And if that is never entirely fair to any human being—because even the best of us is, for instance, never perfectly brave, nor the worst of us wholly mean—nevertheless it is good to be told bluntly whither the bias of our nature tends. To isolate the Virtues and the Vices and to hold them up for praise or blame has ever been a favourite and a successful method of moral education.

The quotations that follow are, as it were, swift portraits, some of them only lightning sketches, seizing in outline some obvious feature; but others (for all their brevity) are so full of life and colour, and often so tellingly correct, that no comment is needed to enforce the justice or importance of what is said. They have been compared to “Meissonier pictures: minute, graphic, realistic, unromantic; pictures drawn not by Fancy but by Observation”:—

The Mean Man

Riches are not comely for a niggard,

And what shall a covetous man do with money?

He that gathereth by miserliness gathereth for others,

And others shall revel in his goods

(E. 143, 4).

The miser hasteth after riches

And knoweth not that want shall come upon him

(Pr. 2822).

And the Generous

There is that scattereth, and increaseth yet more;

And there is that withholdeth, and it tendeth only to want.

The liberal man shall prosper the more,

And he that nourisheth others shall himself be nourished

(Pr. 1124, 25)—

But appearances are sometimes deceptive:

There is that feigneth himself rich, yet hath nothing;

And there is that feigneth poverty, yet hath great wealth

(Pr. 137).

There are numerous sayings dealing with the tale-bearer and the mischief-maker, for slander was a prominent evil of the crowded Oriental cities:

The Slanderer

The liar disseminates strife:

The whisperer parteth friends

(Pr. 1628).

For lack of wood the fire goes out,

And where there is no whisperer, contention ceaseth

(Pr. 2620).

The Mischief-Maker

An evil man digs a pit of mischief

And on his lips is a fire that burns

(Pr. 1627).

An evil man, a sinful man, deals always in crooked speech.

He winks his eyes and shuffles his feet,

And his fingers make secret signs:

His thoughts are all plots,

He plans ceaselessly mischief;

A spreader of discord.

Wherefore, his ruin shall come in an instant.

Like a flash he’ll be broken, and that beyond mending

(Pr. 612-15).

The Boaster

As clouds and wind that yield no rain,

So is he who brags of gifts ungiven

(Pr. 2514).

The Self-Confident Man.

The fool is quite certain his way is right,

But the wise man listens to counsel

(Pr. 1215).

Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit?

There is more hope of a fool than of him

(Pr. 2612).

—the last, a saying that increases in force when a little later we come to note just what the Wise-men thought of a fool! With these proverbs on the Proud we may conveniently group some sayings on the man whose tongue runs away with his discretion:

The Garrulous Man

The tongue of the Wise distils knowledge,

But the mouth of fools poureth out folly

(Pr. 152).

A fool’s mouth is his destruction,

His lips are the snare of his soul

(Pr. 187).

A fool’s vexation is instantly known,

But a prudent man ignores an affront

(Pr. 1216).

How true! Most normal persons have acquired the power to delay or suppress the answer that rises to the lips in anger, but which of us would not confess that it was hard to learn this wisdom and that it is never easy to observe its teaching? The temptation to blurt out all our thought in time of trouble or vexation is always with us. In the hot-tempered East restraint was even more necessary than it is amongst ourselves, and one is therefore not surprised to find the absence of this virtue receiving the same fearsome condemnation as self-confidence:

Seest thou a man that is hasty of speech?

There is more hope of a fool than of him

(Pr. 2920).

Next, a group of proverbs concerning certain persons who to their own great surprise have missed success in society. The list may begin with a character one scarcely expects to meet in Scripture:

The Practical Joker

As a madman that casteth firebrands, arrows and death,

So is he who deceives his neighbour and cries, “I was only in jest”

(Pr. 2618, 19).

Then some advice to

The Boor in Society

When thou sittest to eat with a ruler

Bear in mind his lordship’s presence;

And if thou be a hearty eater,

Put a knife to thy throat

(Pr. 231-3).

And, thirdly, in two proverbs,

The Inopportune Man

As one that taketh off a garment in cold weather,

And as vinegar upon a wound;

So is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart

(Pr. 2520).

He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning;

It shall be counted a curse unto him

(Pr. 2714).

The last saying prompts the thought that Mr. E. V. Lucas is also among the Sages, for has he not given it as his opinion that “early rising leads to self-conceit, intolerance, and dulness after dinner”? “The old poet,” says he, “was right—

‘When the morning riseth red

Rise not thou but keep thy Bed;

When the Dawn is dull and gray

Sleep is still the better way:

Beasts are up betimes, but then

They are beasts and we are men.’”

The last of the social failures is the Flatterer, oily and ingratiating, but treacherous and in the end exposed:

The Flatterer

The words of a flatterer are like dainty morsels

Going down to the innermost parts of the body

(Pr. 188).

A man that flattereth his neighbour

Spreadeth a net for his feet

(Pr. 295; cp. 2628).

He that rebuketh a man shall afterward find more favour

Than he that flattereth with the tongue

(Pr. 2823).

Theophrastus, a Greek writer, has left us certain character-sketches of Athenian society about 300 B.C., many of which might profitably be studied in relation to these Hebrew epigrams. His essay on The Flatterer is a case in point. Here is the Greek conception:—

“Flattery may be considered as a mode of companionship, base but profitable to him who flatters. The flatterer is a person who will say as he walks with another, ‘Do you see how people are looking at you? This happens to no man in Athens but you.’... With these and the like words he will remove a morsel of wool from his patron’s coat; or, if a speck of chaff has been laid on the other’s hair by the wind, he will pick it off, adding with a laugh, ‘Do you see? Because I have not met you for two days, you have had your beard full of white hairs—although no one has darker hair for his years than you?’ Then he will request the company to be silent while the great man is speaking, and will praise him too in his hearing, and mark his approbation at a pause with ‘True’; or he will laugh at a frigid joke and stuff his cloak in his mouth as if he could not repress his amusement. He will request those who pass by to ‘stand still until His Honour has passed.’...

When he assists at the purchase of slippers, he will declare that the foot is more shapely than the shoes. If his patron is approaching a friend, he will run forward and say ‘He is coming to you’; and then, turning back, ‘I have announced you.’... He is the first of the guests to praise the wine, and to say as he reclines next the host, “How delicate is your fare,’ and (taking up something from the table) ‘Now this—how excellent it is.’... He will take the cushions from the slave in the theatre and spread them on the seat with his own hands. He will say that his patron’s house is well built, his land well planted, and that his portrait is excellent.” Even when full allowance is made for the unity of authorship and the conscious and careful artistry of the Greek writing, it must be felt that comparison between the Hebrew portrait and the Greek is scarcely possible, the advantage is so entirely with the latter.

The Wise were perhaps unusually dull in their dicta concerning the Flatterer, but at their best they never come within sight of the brilliant detail that makes the Greek portrait live before our eyes. It is all the more significant therefore that the Hebrew has hit the one point that the Greek ignores or overlooks: the moral issues of flattery. Theophrastus, the artist, observes that flattery is a base employment; with its evil and disastrous consequences he does not trouble himself. The Wise miss almost everything except that: A man that flattereth his neighbour, said they, spreadeth a net for his feet. They offer an unadorned assertion; but, taken to heart, it would prove more useful to society than all the subtlety of the Athenian delineation. Note then in passing how the contrast is an epitome of the struggle between the two world-ideas, Hellenic and Jewish; on the one hand the overwhelming charm and skill of the Greek, and on the other the unfailing instinct of the Hebrew for the one thing the Greek world lacked.

The Lazy Man

In the lazy man the Wise found a subject that stirred not only their wit but also their eloquence. In two instances proverb has expanded to become a parable and a picture, both of which arrive at the same conclusion. The parable is very famous—

Go to the ant, thou sluggard,

Consider her ways and be wise,

Which, having no chief, overseer or ruler,

Provideth her meat in the summer

And gathereth her food in the harvest.

How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard?

When wilt thou arise from thy slumber?

Yet a little sleep, a little slumber,

A little folding of the hands to sleep—

So shall thy poverty come as a robber,

And thy want as an armed man

(Pr. 66-11).

But the picture deserves to be no less familiar:

I passed by the field of the slothful,

By the vineyard of the witless man:

And lo! it was all grown over with thorns,

Its surface was covered with nettles,

Its stonewall was broken down.

Yet a little sleep, a little slumber,

A little folding of the hands to sleep—

So shall thy poverty come as a robber,

And thy want as an armed man

(Pr. 2430-34).

Besides these longer sketches there are several brief and pithy words about the lazy man. First, a delightful “hit” at him to whom any excuse for idleness is better than none:

The sluggard saith, “There is a lion outside. I shall be slain in the streets!” (Pr. 2213).

And here are two beautiful verses which breathe the very air of indolence:

As the door turneth upon its hinges,

So doth the sluggard upon his bed.

The sluggard burieth his hand in the dish;

It wearyeth him to bring it to his mouth again

(Pr. 2614, 15).

The verse immediately following (Pr. 2616) will serve to conclude this topic, for it shows the sluggard to be own cousin to the type of man whom next we shall consider:

The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit

Than seven men that can render a reason.

As the Wise went through the streets of Jerusalem and stood to teach in its open spaces, they observed certain men of various occupations, differing one from another both in social rank and in mental ability, whom nevertheless they classed under one category—THE SONS OF FOLLY. There were, of course, distinctions in the nature of their folly. The Authorised and Revised Versions are content to differentiate only three types, namely—Simpletons (whether from lack of brain or lack of instruction, “Dullards”), Scorners, and Fools. The Hebrew text goes further and classifies the last named, the Fools, into (1) Ivvillim, those whose folly is due chiefly to the unrealised weakness of their nature—ignorant, vain, confident, headstrong, infatuate persons: in a word, “stupid fools”; and (2) Kesilim, whose is the folly of a gross and sensual nature, men who are morally, rather than mentally, unresponsive to the finer aspects of life—insensate, brutish persons, “coarse fools”; and (3) the Nabal, the man who is deliberate in his wrong-doing, the “Fool of Fools,” but whose folly is only folly, provided the moral instinct of Humanity is sound and the law of the Universe is ultimately against evil and Man was meant for God and goodness.

He it is of whom a Psalmist, getting to the very root of the problem, says The fool hath said in his heart: “There is no God.” Having made the fundamental error, his whole judgment of life has become perverted. Probably he is an astute person; but the greater his ability, the greater and more pernicious will be his folly. Naturally, this fool and the scorner were often one and the same person. The Wise speak little of him, except in his capacity as a scorner; but they recognise that he is terrible. One of the four things that cause the earth to tremble, say they, is when a man of this sort is filled with meat (Pr. 3022). Elsewhere (Pr. 177) they remark sarcastically that Honest words do not become a fool—decency would be out of keeping with his character. So much for “the Fool par excellence.”

The rest of the sayings about “fools” are concerned with those of the first and second types. If it were our intention to go into the teaching fully, the nice distinctions of the Hebrew would have to be observed with care. But now that the Nabal has been considered, it will be sufficient to follow the classification of the English Bible—scorners, simpletons, and fools—allowing the precise distinction between the weak and the coarse fool to lapse.

The Simpleton is one type; his folly may, and should be, cured by instruction. But he is disappointingly dull of hearing and “slow at the uptake”: How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? cries Wisdom to them (Pr. 122). Nevertheless, although the teacher may fail to give them efficient brains, he can perhaps save them from evil and, in a quiet, humble way they may learn that fear of the Lord which is a sufficiency of true Wisdom. Wherefore on the whole the Wise spoke to these men sympathetically and hopefully: so in the exordium which states the purpose of the Book of Proverbs we are told that it is meant to give prudence to the simple (Pr. 14).

To the average fool the Wise were severe. Were they fair in being so? Surely many of these fools were either weak-willed or coarse, as the case might be, because they were just uninstructed “simpletons?” No! These are they who have opportunity but refuse or neglect it. Therefore their condition is culpable, and the Wise do well not to mince matters concerning the folly of their conduct.

Such persons require to be kicked into sense, and the Wise were of opinion that in some instances the kicking might with advantage begin by being physical. Hold! Of whom are we speaking? Of the inhabitants of Jerusalem? Yes, but, suppose we were analysing the population of our own times, would there not be more than a few found guilty of just such folly—men and women undisciplined in mind and soul? Possessing plenty of wits and much capacity for moral feeling, they fling their chances aside. It is a perilous attitude towards the realities of life, for refusal to learn grows ever easier as life goes on. What chance do thousands give themselves of acquiring Christian faith, or even of maintaining or improving their intellectual and moral qualities? Do they seek for the good in the Christian Churches, or for the faults, and so miss the good? How much study have they given to the knowledge of God in Christ?

Many have consulted their Bradshaw more often than their Bible. What efforts do they make to apprehend the meaning and value of Christianity in face of modern knowledge and in view of modern conditions? “Last Sunday you managed to evade the message which God sent you: that makes it much easier to evade the message He sends you to-day. Next Sunday you will be almost totally indifferent. Soon you will get out of reach of His word altogether, saying it does you no good. Then you will deny that it is His word or His message.” This reference to Church-going is of course but one point out of many: the principle at issue is one which vitally concerns the whole of a man’s attitude to life. The fool is almost unteachable, and that of course is his supreme peril. He is so self-confident, so unreasonable, so certain he is right and others wrong. He does not dream of becoming wiser, because already he knows himself to be as wise as Solomon. Therefore the Sages are justified in their unsparing rebukes.

What is wrong with the fool, is primarily his moral condition; and accordingly for the moment we need not trouble to distinguish between the weak fool and the coarse. What is censured in them both is neither their present silliness nor their grossness, but their unwillingness to learn. They have what amounts to an error of moral vision, and they desperately need to realise the fact. Mr. Chesterton has somewhere said, “The fool is one who has an impediment in his thought. It is not, as the modern fellows say, put there by his grandmother.

I have wandered over the world (so to speak) trying to find some faithful, simple soul who really believed in his own grandmother. He does not exist. The first act of the fool, when he is articulate, is to teach his grandmother how to suck eggs. Fools have no reverence. Fools have no humility.” Doubtless a man must not be blamed for the initial quality of his mind, and possibly the Wise were too caustic to the congenitally stupid. But then the Wisdom they were teaching was not intellectually difficult to acquire; it was not book-learning but that Wisdom which is from on high and can be revealed to babes and sucklings.

As for the third class, the Scorner or Chief Fool; he too suffers from corruption of moral vision. But with him the distortion is desperate: he calls white black and black white. For this alert, deliberate Fool, the Wise had little hope or none at all; he has chosen the path of Folly with his eyes open. All they can do is to meet his scorn with a greater scorn, and make their appeal in his hearing. One does not wonder that the Wise were baffled by this type of man. There is hope of such a person, but the hope is in the fact of Christ. This Fool has wit enough to rethink the situation, if he chose. He may some day have imperative cause to reconsider his view of life, and so may discover first that Christ is truth, and then learn that Christ can pardon.

We turn now to the sayings themselves, or rather to a selection from them, for the sons of Folly provoked very many proverbs.

A number are humorous and spicy—the sort of phrases that might catch the ear of a crowd, raise a laugh at the fool’s expense, and remain fixed in the hearer’s memory by the barb of wit. Think, for instance, of the feeble, vacillating eyes that so often accompany and reflect a weak intellect or character:

Wisdom stands ever before the mind of a prudent man,

But the eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth

(Pr. 1724).

and for comment on the mind behind the eyes, this will do:

The mind of a fool is like a cartwheel,

And his thoughts like a rolling axle-tree

(E. 335).

The Wise laid their finger with much accuracy on the salient features of the foolish character. Thus in the dullard they point to his credulity, The simpleton believeth every word, but the prudent looketh well to his going (Pr. 1415). The fool is apt to be greedy of reward, The fool will say “I have no friend and I have no thanks for my good deeds (E. 2016); and grudging in his charity, To-day he will lend but to-morrow he will ask it again (E. 2015), although himself a spendthrift, Precious treasure abides in the Wise man’s house, but a foolish man swallows it up (Pr. 2120, cp. Pr. 141). He is a blusterer, A Wise man is cautious and avoids misfortune, but the fool rageth and is confident (Pr. 1416); shallow and frivolous, As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of a fool (Ecclesiastes 76); garrulous, saying what he thinks before he thinks what he says, The heart of fools is in their mouth, but the mouth of wise men is in their heart. (E. 2126); changeable and unreliable, The foolish man changeth as the moon (E. 2711); Take not counsel with a fool, for he will not be able to conceal the matter (E. 817).

He is a bully often, but his courage is unstable, Pales set on a high place will not stand against the wind; so the cowardice in a foolish heart will not bear up against any fear (E. 2218). He aspires to be witty, but seldom has wit enough, The legs of the lame hang loose: so does a parable in the mouth of fools (Pr. 267).

Nevertheless the fool’s pride and self-confidence is complete, The way of the foolish is right in his own eyes (Pr. 1215; cp. 143, 2826); so that he loses sense of the awfulness of evil and even enjoys it, It is as sport to a fool to do wickedness (Pr. 1023, cp. 1319); sneering at those who fain would give him guidance, A fool despiseth his father’s correction ... a fool scorns his mother (Pr. 155, 20); and hating information, A fool hath no delight in understanding (Pr. 182).

Thus it is almost useless to attempt to instruct a fool—here is a counsel of despair, Speak not in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of thy words (Pr. 239)—and here is the sigh of the weary teacher, Wherefore is there a price in the hands of the fool to buy wisdom, seeing that he hath no wits? (Pr. 1716). The inward parts of a fool are like a broken vessel, and he will hold no knowledge (E. 2114). He that teacheth a fool is as one that glueth a potsherd together (E. 227). The fool, in fact, is in uttermost peril of being incorrigible, He that discourseth to a fool is as one discoursing to a man that slumbereth; at the end thereof he will say “What is it?” (E. 228). Altogether it is hard to suffer fools gladly:

A stone is heavy and the sand weighty,

But a fool’s vexation is heavier than both

(Pr. 273).

Wherefore the Wise dealt them some shrewd blows, being well aware that the skin of the dullard and the scornful was tough:

A whip for a horse, a bridle for an ass,

And a rod for the back of fools

(Pr. 263).

As a dog returneth to his vomit,

So a fool repeateth his folly

(Pr. 2611).

A rebuke entereth deeper into a sensible man

Than a hundred stripes into a fool

(Pr. 1710).

Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar,

Yet will his folly not depart from him

(Pr. 2722).

It may be thought that some of these words are over-bitter and even savage. If so, the plea can be advanced that there was probably much provocation. The Scorner seems to have been a familiar figure, and he was doubtless clever enough to upset with his mockery many an audience to which the Wise-man was holding forth. He that correcteth a scorner getteth to himself insult, and he that reproveth a wicked man getteth himself reviling (Pr. 97)—that sounds like the fruit of experience, and there is much that is suggestive in this saying also—The proud and haughty man, scorner is his name, he worketh in the arrogance of pride (Pr. 2124). But if the Wise suffered at times, one gathers that they found no small consolation for their hurt dignity in such reflections as these:

Answer not a fool according to his folly

Lest thou be like unto him

(Pr. 264).

Judgements are prepared for scorners,

And stripes for the back of fools

(Pr. 1929).

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