Nature In The Proverbs
In comparison with the Greeks and those peoples who have inherited something of the Grecian genius for form and colour in the world, it may fairly be said that the Hebrews were inartistic. When, however, they are charged with being “unresponsive to Nature,” or “lacking the artistic sense,” it is time to protest. For the Hebrews were not unobservant of Nature or unsympathetic, and the writers of the Old Testament make many allusions to the scenes and processes of the visible world, and they recognise its beauties and its marvels. The artist’s proper quarrel with the Hebrews is that very seldom did they see Nature in and for itself, but almost always through the medium of its relationship to the mental or physical interests of Man—how far does Nature threaten or encourage his faith and aspirations?
What does it teach him? The Psalmist does not tell you “what a glorious night it is” or that “the sunset is magnificent”; he says that the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth His handiwork. We are bidden to lift our eyes to the hills, not to perceive the lights and shadows on their slopes, but because thence we may look to see the advent of our hope. Let us set two famous passages in contrast, the first from Greek literature, the second from the New Testament.
In one of Pindar’s jewelled Odes, the poet—singing the praises of Iamos, a mortal born of the god Poseidon and a human mother—first paints in rich and glowing words a picture of the infant hero laid in a cradle among the rushes, “his soft body bedewed with light from the yellow and purple colours of the pansies,” and then goes on to show him, now grown to manhood and tasting the first fresh glory of his youth, “going down to the midst of the Alphæus stream, there to invoke the regard of his divine progenitor and to beseech of him the favour of a hero’s task—νυκτὸς, ὑπαίθρις, by night under the open sky.” No one who has ever felt the magic of a star-filled night can miss the art that makes the passage culminate in those two words.
Now compare this from the New Testament, of course in reference to the literary question only:— ... “So when he had dipped the sop, he taketh and giveth it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. And after the sop, then entered Satan into him. Jesus therefore saith to him, That thou doest, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus said unto him, Buy what things we have need of for the feast, or that he should give something to the poor. He then having received the sop went out straightway: and it was night.” Here also is art, the highest art—it needed the darkness to cover Judas and make possible his sin—but the art is unconscious. The words are given only as a detail of fact, an indication of time, added without a thought of their effect on our emotions. The writer of the Gospel is altogether absorbed in the agonising human interest of the scene.
No expectation therefore should be entertained that Nature in the Jewish proverbs will be presented with unusual beauty or close observation. Nothing very wonderful is remarked of the world outside the little world of man, and the allusions almost always are made in relation to human hopes and fears and habits. But Nature has not been expelled from the proverbs; she crops out now and then, and, if we bear in mind this warning against undue hopes, the subject seems worth a brief examination. Well then, the following proverbs are assembled solely on account of their references to natural phenomena. That is the one and only pretext for their collocation. Some perchance may say that the excuse is insufficient—but they forget that “a touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.”
Since tradition saith of Solomon that “he spake of trees from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; he spake also of beasts and of fowl and of creeping things and of fishes,” we can see where we ought to make a start.
We begin with the trees. The trees however will disappoint us. Wisdom, we are baldly told, is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her (Pr. 318), and it is said (Pr. 2718) Whoso keepeth the fig tree shall eat the fruit thereof. Even if we get so far as to spy a little fruit upon a tree, and imagine that we have it safely gathered, lo! and behold! it rolls out of our fingers. For the famous proverb,
Like apples of gold in baskets of silver,
So is a word spoken in season (Pr. 2511),
is pretty but elusive, the truth being that the vague phrasing of the English Version is due to nobody knowing what the Hebrew really means! The best passage is this from Ben Sirach, As the flower of roses in the time of new fruits, as lilies at the waterspring, as the shoot of Lebanon in time of summer, ... as an olive tree budding forth fruit, and as an oleaster with branches full of sap (E. 508-10).
Here are the birds in proverbs:
In vain is the net spread in the eyes of any bird (Pr. 117).
As a bird that wandereth from its nest
So is a man that wandereth from his home (Pr. 278).
Birds resort unto their like,
And truth will return to them that practise it (E. 279).
The eye that mocketh at a father,
And despiseth an aged mother,
The ravens of the brook shall pick it out,
And the young eagles shall eat it (Pr. 3017).
The beasts may be divided into the wild creatures untamed by man, and the domestic animals. Some of the latter are to be seen wandering most naturally through this picture of the wise farmer:
Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks,
And look well to thy herds;
For riches endure not for ever,
Nor wealth to all generations.
When the hay is carried and the tender grass springeth,
When the grass of the mountains is gathered,
Then the lambs will supply thee with clothing
And the goats yield the price of a field,
And give milk enough for thy household,
Enough for the maintenance of thy maidens (Pr. 2723-27).
For the horse see Pr. 263, E. 308 and 336; of the dog, whom we shall meet again in the next chapter, there is a famous saying in Eccles. 94, Better a living dog than a dead lion.
Among the wild animals, the lion (Pr. 3030) and the bear enjoy the most fearsome reputation according to the proverbs—The king’s wrath is as the roaring of the lion (Pr. 1912)—As a roaring lion and a ranging bear, so is a wicked ruler over a poor people (Pr. 2815). But there are worse things than either—Let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man rather than a fool in his folly (Pr. 1712)—I will rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than keep house with a wicked woman (E. 2516).
The references to conies, locusts, and lizards in Pr. 3026f may be remembered (see p. 47). Wine, said the Wise, goeth down smoothly, but (was there gout, or worse, in those days?) at the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder (Pr. 2332), and the serpent’s elusive track across the rock is mentioned in Pr. 3019. Perhaps these references to snakes should have been placed at the head of a paragraph on creeping things. However that may be, one of the creeping things, being “exceeding wise” (Pr. 3024), received an immortality in Proverbs:
Go to the ant, thou sluggard,
Consider her ways and be wise ... (Pr. 66).
Cannot one see a Sage in some leisure hour, bending down to watch the busy energetic little creature hurrying about its toil? And then—“Aha!” said he, “behold a proper scourge for lazy bones”!
The one reference to fishes makes one wonder whether the days of yore, like our own times, had their sea-serpent season. Says Ben Sirach,
They that sail on the sea tell of the danger thereof,
And when we hear it with our ears we marvel.
Therein be also those strange and wondrous works,
Variety of all that hath life, the race of sea-monsters (E. 4324, 25).
The proverbs may lack something as a text-book for young scientists; yet here is the very essence of the fact of gravitation observed and duly noted: He that casteth a stone on high casteth it on his own head (E. 2725).
Two or three features in what one may call civilised Nature, are worth recording here, although Man played the chief part in their appearing:—
A glimpse of a battlemented town:
A wise man scaleth the citadel of the mighty,
And bringeth down its strong confidence (Pr. 2122).
Of great ships on the sea:
She is like the merchant ships,
She bringeth her food from afar (Pr. 3114).
Of a prosperous dwelling-place:
Through Wisdom is an house builded
And by understanding it is established,
And by knowledge are the chambers furnished,
With all precious and pleasant riches (Pr. 243, 4).
Curiously enough, no reference to sun, moon or stars occurs in Proverbs, but there are several allusions in Ecclesiasticus, especially in one remarkable chapter of really poetic appreciation, which tells first of the wonder and the blazing intolerable heat of the sun (E. 431-5), and then celebrates the glories of moon and stars and rainbow—the moon increasing wonderfully in her changing, a beacon for the hosts on high, shineth forth in the firmament of heaven. The beauty of heaven is the glory of the stars, an array giving light in the highest heights of the Lord: at the word of the Holy One they stand in due order and sleep not in their watches.
Look upon the rainbow and praise him that made it; exceeding beautiful in the brightness thereof. It compasseth the heaven round about with a circle of glory; the hands of the Most High have constructed it (E. 438-12). Again in a panegyric on the virtues of Simon, the son of Onias, the high-priest “great among his brethren, and the glory of his people,” Ben Sirach says that, when the people gathered round him as he came forth out of the sanctuary, he was glorious
As the morning star from between the clouds;
As the moon at the full;
As the sun shining forth upon the Temple of the Most High;
And as the rainbow giving light in clouds of glory (E. 506, 7).
The elements and seasons, in one way or another, are referred to not infrequently. For instance, Pr. 2513, As the coolness of snow in time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: a proverb we might appreciate more fully if either we had to go harvesting under an eastern sun or if His Majesty’s postal system were suddenly abolished.
As clouds and wind without rain,
So is he that boasts of gifts ungiven (Pr. 2514).
—how tantalising to see the precious moisture far overhead and drifting hopelessly out of reach, in a land where rain was desperately needed!
One passage from the poetical chapter of Ecclesiasticus mentioned above has something of the Grecian charm, combining as it does grace of expression with precise observation of Nature. Save in the spring-song of Canticles, in one or two Psalms and in some exquisite chapters (e.g., chapters 28 and 38) of Job, it has few, if any, rivals in ancient Jewish literature. Mark the skilful transition from the raging of the tempest to the stillness of the snows:—
By His mighty power Jehovah maketh strong the clouds,
And the hailstones are broken small:
At His appearing the mountains shake,
And at His will the south wind rages,
And the northern storm and the whirlwind;
The voice of His thunder maketh the earth to travail.
Like birds flying down He sprinkleth the snow,
And as the lighting of the locust is the falling down thereof:
The eye will marvel at its white loveliness,
The heart be astonished at the raining of it.
So also the hoar-frost He spreads on the earth as salt,
And maketh the shrubs to gleam like sapphires (E. 4315-19).
Some of the simplest allusions to natural phenomena are among the most memorable of these “Nature” proverbs perhaps because it happens that the clear and simple image from the world without is linked to some equally clear and simple, yet poignant, experience of human life:—
As cold waters to a thirsty soul,
So is good news from a far country (Pr. 2525).
As in water face answereth to face,
So answereth the heart of man to man (Pr. 2719).
As the sparrow in her wandering, as the swallow in her flying,
So the curse that is causeless alighteth not (Pr. 262).
Dreams give wings to fools (E. 341).
The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
Shining more and more unto the perfect day (Pr. 418).