Popular as the custom of making and of hearing “wise words” may have been in ancient Israel, it is not surprising that only five or six proverbial sayings are recorded in the early writings of the Old Testament. For proverbs are not likely to receive mention in literature. They are too plain for the poet, too vague for the historian, too complaisant for the law-maker. And even these five or six, it appears, have been preserved not for any merit they possess as proverbs: one is of local interest only, two are picturesque, but obscure, two are the merest truisms. The right question, therefore, is not “Why are there so few?”, but “Why have these sayings been rescued from oblivion?”; and, being preserved, “Why should they receive our attention?”
Suppose that in Britain fifty or a hundred years hence men should quote “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary,” when they seek an expression for the pathos and heroism that mark the acceptance of a difficult and perilous task—if those words live, why will they live? Obviously for no intrinsic merit, but for the undying memory of men who counted not their lives dear unto themselves. So with these early proverbs in the Bible. Each of them came into quickening contact with a great personality, or played a part in one of those fateful moments when the fortunes of a people or the trend of human thinking has been determined this way or that. They have lived because each has been touched by the passion of humanity. Therefore we have to study them not in isolation from the context, but in close connection with the scene or circumstance that gave them unexpected immortality.
(1) In days when Jerusalem was not yet Jerusalem, City of David, but only Jebus, a stronghold of the Canaanites, there had been built in the limestone uplands of Judæa an Israelitish village, Gibeah, situated (as the name implies), on a hill-top, doubtless for such security as the rising ground afforded.
At the time we are concerned with, Israel stood in sore need of every protection her settlements could find. Baffled by the great Canaanite fortresses, the invading Hebrews had never become absolute masters of the land, and of recent years their fortunes had altogether failed under the counter-pressure of new invaders, the Philistines, who had seized the coast of Canaan and whose restless armies came sweeping up the valleys that lead to the highlands from the plain along the sea. The raiders harried the Judæan villages, slaying the men and carrying the women, children and cattle captive to the lowlands. The villages were an easy prey, and the spirit of the Israelites was broken by the miseries of these repeated ravages. Wandering bands of religious devotees, preaching remembrance of the power of Jehovah, kept the embers of corporate feeling from flickering out; but, at the best, their wordy warfare must have seemed a feeble answer to the mail-clad giants of the Philistine hosts.
Imagine that we are standing on the hill of Gibeah, looking down the steep pathway which leads up to the village. A few days ago a young man, accompanied by a servant, went out to search the countryside for some strayed animals. All in Gibeah know him well, Saul, the son of Kish, a proper man, tall and powerful, one who in happier days might have been a leader in Israel. Saul and his servant are returning and have almost reached the foot of the ascent to the village.
Last night they were with Samuel at Ramah, and at day-break secretly the seer had anointed the youth to be king over Israel; but of these events we are ignorant as yet; we do not know that the Saul who went out will return no more. Idly watching from the hill-top, we observe a company of devotees, who have spent the night in Gibeah, descending the slope towards Saul. As they approach, Saul stops and, to our faint surprise, is seen to be in speech with them. Question and answer pass. Suddenly our listless attention changes to astonishment. Below, excitement is rising, and on none has it fallen more than on Saul! He begins to talk and gesticulate like a man inspired. We raise a shout and the folk come running, and, as they see beneath them Saul now in an ecstasy, the incredulous cry breaks forth Is Saul also among the prophets?
What is the interest of this famous scene? That a proverb was born that day in Israel? That it marked the commencement of a new stage in the national life of Israel? More than that. The real interest is in the transformation effected by the recognition of a personal duty. Young men like the Saul who went out to seek the lost animals are useful members of a State, but, had Saul remained unaltered, what waste of his latent, unsuspected power! Saul had met devotees many times before, but their words had roused no energies in him.
One touch of the faith of Samuel, one illuminating moment of consciousness that to him God had spoken, and—Saul was a king, and Israel again a people; despair became hope, and hope achievement. It has always been so, whenever men have listened to the summons of personal religion. We go upon our ordinary path a hundred times and return as we went, uncomprehending; but if once God meets us on the way, whether He speak by the mouth of a prophet, or, as now, by the shock of war, the miracle is effected: we are changed into another man.
(2) The scene of the second of these early proverbs is the steep and rugged country that mounts from the floor of the Dead Sea valley near Engedi. But the setting of the incident matters little; its point is all in the play of character between two great personalities—Saul, now nearing the dark finish of his reign and haunted by the thought that at his death the throne will pass from his house; and David, with youth and a good conscience to support him but fleeing for his life from the jealous king and hard pressed by the royal soldiery. Saul has entered a cave, unaware that David is hiding in its recesses. David suffers him to go out unharmed and still ignorant of his peril; but quietly he follows Saul to the sunlight at the cave’s mouth, and standing there, as the King moves off, he calls, “O my lord the King!”
At the clear, musical, voice of the man he half-loves, half-hates, and cannot kill, Saul in astonishment turns to hear these words: “Wherefore hearkenest thou to men’s words saying ‘Behold David seeketh thy hurt’? Behold this day the Lord had delivered thee into mine hand in the cave: and some bade me kill thee; but mine eye spared thee and I said ‘I will not put forth mine hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ Moreover, my father, see, yea, see the skirt of thy robe in my hand: for in that I cut the skirt of thy robe and killed thee not, know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in my hand, and I have not sinned against thee, though thou huntest after my soul to take it. The Lord judge between me and thee, and avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee. As saith the proverb of the ancients, Out of the wicked cometh forth wickedness: but mine hand shall not be upon thee.” We can see how David meant it, that proverb of the ancients. It leapt to his lips in eager protestation.
How could Saul deem him capable of a deed of foulest treachery? Why could he not see that only out of the basest of men could such dire wickedness proceed? But into the mind of Saul the saying sank with double edge. What had he done towards the making of this scene—that red mist of passion when he flung the javelin; those cold and cunning plots to lure David into adventure that would be his death; the unrelaxing hunt to catch and kill? Saul for an instant saw his soul laid bare by the ancient proverb: he at least was a man from whom great wickedness had come, and “A good tree cannot bring forth corrupt fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. And he said to David, “Thou art more righteous than I, for thou hast rendered unto me good, whereas I have rendered unto thee evil.”
A few years later the King lay dead and vanquished on Mount Gilboa. From that day to this men have not ceased to find in him a text for moralising, with some justice but with strangely little sympathy, seeing that he sinned in one thing and paid a heavy penalty. Which was the real Saul? The King crazy with murderous hatred, or the man who answered David’s generosity in those noble words, who once “was among the prophets,” who had made Israel again a people and so long time had held the Philistines at bay? It does not greatly matter if men reply “the mad Saul, who died believing himself forsaken of God”; and so push their moralisings home. But on which Saul does the Divine judgment pass? One man, more than all others, had reason to condemn, and he did more than pardon.
He sang of Saul slain on Gilboa, How are the mighty fallen?... Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided.
(3) In the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel two popular sayings are mentioned, which may be considered together, for their burden is one.
(a) Behold, everyone that useth proverbs shall use this proverb against thee saying, As is the mother, so is the daughter (Ezekiel 1644).
(b) But it shall come to pass that like as I have watched over them to pluck up and to break down and to overthrow and to destroy and to afflict; so will I watch over them to build and to plant, saith the Lord. In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grapes his teeth shall be set on edge (Jeremiah 3128-30); and to the same effect, this from Ezekiel, The word of the Lord came unto me saying, What mean ye that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have cause any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are Mine: as the soul of the father so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right ... hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment ... he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord God (Ezekiel 181ff).
Heredity, the question at issue in these passages, presents a more complex and stringent problem to the modern mind than to the ancient. But it would be a great error to suppose that the Jewish thinkers were less concerned about it, or that its consequences seemed to them less bitter. Indeed for the Hebrews the problem had a sinister back-ground which for us has sunk far out of sight. The solidarity of the tribe or family was a fearsome reality in days when for the sin of one member vengeance would fall upon the whole community or household.
Recollect the story of Achan, who stole from the sacred spoil a Babylonish mantle, silver, and a wedge of gold: Wherefore Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan AND his sons and his daughters and his oxen and his asses and his sheep and his tent and all that he had, and burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. There was a grim wisdom in the ancient procedure. Man has had a stern fight for existence. How far can he tolerate “handicaps” in the contest? What can be expected from children of corrupt and vicious parents? Good citizens? “Men do not gather grapes of thorns.” Yet who could fail to see that the children were so far innocent; and therefore, whilst Achan died unpitied and forgotten, perhaps their young voices and terror-stricken looks remained an uneasy memory in the minds of those who stood consenting unto their death? Was it necessary that the child should be irretrievably ruined through his father’s guilt?
By the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as the quotations show, the problem had deepened and become general. In the perils, hardships, and disasters which marked the decline and fall of the Judæan kingdom men felt that the whole nation was suffering the consequences of their fathers’ iniquities, and bitterly they quoted the saying The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. That way lay despair: Let us too eat of the grapes and drink of their wine and be merry, since to-morrow we die!
Even the prophets experienced the temptation to hopelessness; as when Ezekiel, wrestling with Judah sunk in the old sins, thinks that in future days men will still have to cast at her the charge of idolatries handed down from the ancient Canaanites: as is the mother so is the daughter. But Jeremiah and Ezekiel both fought their way through to a new conception of life, and this it is which is proclaimed in the two chief passages quoted above. Deliverance from the entail of evil is, they declare, possible; man is not immovably fastened in chains which his ancestors have forged.
So stands religion to-day, claiming power in the building of human character. Fuller recognition and much deeper comprehension of the works of heredity (as also of environment) are desirable and are not inimical to a religious interpretation of human nature. Religion lays stress on these two points. First, the fact that if there is an entail of evil there is also an entail of good, together with the judgement that the inheritance of good is the greater and ought to be made supreme: that as St. Paul insisted Where sin did abound, grace doth much more abound. And, secondly, religion insists on the reality of that power of self-determination which would seem to be characteristic of every living being and in Man to be of primary importance.
All that we may become does not follow inexorably from what we now are. What we have become was not wholly involved in what we were. Crude determinism is either an Eastern idleness or a pedant’s nightmare, and freedom, though it slips through the meshes of our clumsy analysis is a reality. To each in measure it is given, though one may misuse it into the atrophy of evil habit, whilst another may use it unto the liberty of the children of God. We inherit, but, inheriting, we also originate. We are created, but are also creators. We are pressed by our environment, but our environment may become Christ, whose service is perfect freedom.
(4) One other embedded proverb occurs in a passage of Ezekiel (1221, 22): And the word of the Lord came unto me saying, “Son of man, what is this proverb that ye have in the land of Israel saying, The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth?” Other lands besides Israel have echoed those despairing words. It is hard not to feel in a city-settlement that “the days are prolonged”; hard in a half-filled church not to wonder if “every vision faileth.” But a true man will still hold to the instinct that somehow his hopes are certainties, and will make answer with Israel’s prophet thus: Tell them therefore, “Thus saith the Lord God: I will make this proverb to cease, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel; but say unto them, ‘The days are at hand, and the fulfilment of every vision.’”
A man who finds himself without confidence in God or man might save himself from pessimism by a study of the intellectual, moral and spiritual achievements of the Hebrew prophets. Looking back on Jewish history it is manifest that the spiritual longings of these great personalities were realised to a wonderful extent and in ways impossible for themselves or their contemporaries to perceive or anticipate. Things did work together for good to those Jews who sought to discover the will of God and, despite perplexity and hardship, refused to abandon their imperfect but advancing faith.
Thus even the Exile, apparently the dissolution of Israel’s life, proved to be the very means of its preservation and subsequent extension to a position of world-wide influence. No one who has realised on the one hand the overwhelming difficulties against which the prophets had to contend, the frankness with which they faced the naked facts, their own agonising struggle of soul against doubt and despair, and on the other side the ultimate vindication of their faith; no one with that knowledge clear before him will find it easy wholly to despair of men, or to cast from him for ever the hope of God.
Besides these few incidental proverbs, the pre-exilic literature of the Old Testament fortunately has preserved occasional glimpses of the makers of proverbs in Israel, and to these we now turn. We shall then be prepared to study the special development of Jewish proverbs which furnishes the chief interest of our subject. It will be convenient first to set down the evidential passages consecutively, and afterwards to consider their significance.
(a) The narrative in 2 Samuel 141ff relating the stratagem by which Joab succeeded in reconciling King David to his son Absalom begins thus: Now Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s heart was towards Absalom. And Joab sent to Tekoa and fetched thence a wise woman.
(b) The second passage is in 2 Samuel 2016-22—Joab, as David’s general, having pursued the rebel Sheba into the North of Israel, has compelled him to take refuge in the town of Abel, and is on the point of breaching the wall and capturing the city, when there cried unto him a wise woman out of the city ... and she said unto him “There is a saying, To finish your business ask counsel at Abel.” Thou seekest to destroy a city and a mother in Israel. And Joab answered and said, “Far be it from me that I should swallow and destroy. But ... Sheba the son of Bichri ... deliver him only, and I will depart from the city.” And the woman said unto Joab, “Behold, his head shall be thrown to thee over the wall.” Then the woman went unto all the people in her wisdom. ...
(c) The famous passage in which the wisdom of King Solomon is extolled, 1 Kings 429-34: And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the East (i.e. Arabia) and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men: than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all the nations round about. And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spake of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall; he spake also of beasts and of fowl and of creeping things and of fishes.
(d) Isaiah 2913, 14: And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me and their fear of me is a commandment of men which hath been taught them; therefore behold I will again do a marvellous work among this people ... and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.
(e) Jeremiah 1818 (cp. 88 and 923): Then said they, Come and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet.
Of these passages the first two show that there was a “Wisdom” in Israel before Solomon, that it was concerned with prudential counsel as to the conduct of life, and was associated with the use of maxims, some of which had passed into well-known proverbs; and further that certain persons (often, perhaps generally, women) were recognised as of pre-eminent skill in this giving of advice; and that townships (doubtless with a shrewd eye to the increase of their commerce) vied one with another in vaunting their respective sages. Slight as this evidence may be, it is sufficient, because it is in accord with the facts of later periods and with that liking for sententious talk which we have noted as characteristic of the Semites from very early ages.
Observe also how in the third passage the wisdom of Solomon is not regarded as a quality peculiar to himself. True, he possessed wisdom in a rare or superlative degree, but it was comparable with the “Wisdom of the East” (Arabia) and the “Wisdom of Egypt.” Nor was Solomon alone in his wisdom. To him the first place; but he had great rivals whose names posterity thought worth preserving. One suspects that the King’s reputation for sagacity may have been enhanced by his royal estate, and that in the passage quoted from the Book of Kings we see him through the haze of grandeur with which later generations encircled his reign.
Even so, the tradition of his wisdom stands, and like all firm traditions has a basis in fact. What inferences should we draw? Not that the three thousand proverbs with which tradition credited Solomon are those preserved in the Book of Proverbs, despite the fact that the main sections of the Book are prefaced by titles ascribing them to him. A few of the proverbs may have been spoken by Solomon himself or at his court by persons renowned for sagacity, but nothing more than that is probable. Two positive conclusions seem tenable.
First, that King Solomon made a profound impression on his contemporaries by reason of his subtle judgment, and his ability to express his thoughts in just such moralistic maxims, comparisons, parables, and fables, as the Wise were wont to use. In fact, the King was a Wise-man and a Wise-man was King. No wonder that his renown grew until he became, so to speak, the patron saint of Wisdom in Israel, with whose authority any “Wise” words might fittingly be associated. But further in view of the aptitude shown by the King for the art of the Wise, it is reasonable to believe that their prestige at this period must have been greatly enhanced in the estimation of all classes. The man of Wisdom was persona grata at Court. And what more is needed to secure a reputation?
Hence it is not unexpected, though very interesting, to find two or three centuries later that when Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of the Wise they refer to them as an influence in the land ranking with the prophets and the ceremonial religion. To the true prophets it appeared to be an influence not always for good, or even inimical to their moral idealism. Thus Isaiah declares that in the glorious day when Jehovah reveals His truth the Wisdom of the wise men shall perish (Isaiah 2914); and Jeremiah gives as the reason why his enemies consider that his death or imprisonment would be small loss to the nation their belief that “the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet” (Jer. 1818).
This evidence might be augmented by passages in the Book of Job, where, for instance, the wisdom of Israel is described as an ancient, though living, tradition: it is that which wise men have told from their fathers (Job 1518.) But enough has been said. To sum up, it appears that the Hebrews, like their near kinsmen the Arabs, loved to listen to the conversation of those, who, having ripe experience, shrewd wits, and a sharp tongue, were able to cast their reflections on life into parables and maxims which the hearer could readily remember. Persons with an aptitude for such discourse were acknowledged among their fellows as “wise.” Anyone with the necessary intelligence and dignity might acquire this reputation.
The Wise were never sharply differentiated from the rest of the community; they did not become a strict order or a caste like the priests, but remained a type or class; a class, however, of such importance that it could be spoken of in the same breath with the prophets and the priests. Egyptian analogies suggest that the Wise may have taken on themselves duties in the instruction of the young: but just what these early sages said and thought we cannot ascertain. Nor is it likely we have lost much in consequence. Some of their favourite sayings may eventually have been incorporated in the Book of Proverbs, but the antagonism of the great prophets shows that they were not enthusiasts for reform, and doubtless the bulk of their maxims were prudential counsels suitable to the standards of the age.
In short, their teaching must have been desultory, lacking the inspiration of a definite purpose and a clearly conceived ideal. Thus far we find nothing that matters to the modern world, nothing to awaken more than a flicker of our interest. No reason has yet appeared to prompt the hope that Israel would make more of her Wisdom than Edom or Egypt of theirs, and that was little enough. In all this we find only “the Day of Small Things,” and need dwell no longer on its trifles. But equally we ought to avoid the folly of despising it. The Hebrews, after all, were not precisely as their neighbours of Philistia, Edom, or Egypt.
Behind them they had, as a people, an astonishing history, and in their midst a succession of amazing men, the prophets who had prophesied to them words which it was not possible should die, seeds of the ultimate Wisdom. In Judah there was growing up a capacity for faith, a spiritual interpretation of life and an enlightenment of moral conscience unique in the ancient world. Hence Israel’s Wise-men were not as other Wise-men; they had great potentialities. At length, after the exile, circumstances came to pass which favoured the development of latent genius in these men. All that had been needed was an immediate stimulus, a liberating idea, a flash to kindle the flame.