The Exaltation Of Wisdom - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Exaltation Of Wisdom - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Exaltation Of Wisdom

Continuing the criticism of the ideal or ideals of the last chapter, it may be said that the morality commended is not unusual nor markedly superior to that of other peoples. Do not many of these proverbs state the merest a b c of ethical sentiment, for which any civilised nation could produce a parallel in its proverbs? The charge is not only true in a general way, it has special force in view of the circumstances of the fourth to the second centuries B.C. For there is evidence of a widespread tendency to sententious moralising in that period, and, had we so desired, this Jewish movement might have been considered only as part of a larger whole.

Among the Greeks, especially in Asia Minor, this was the age when several gnomic poets, such as Menander and Phocylides, won fame and popularity by their moral aphorisms, and indeed the Jewish proverbs have many opinions in common with contemporary Hellenic sayings. In Egypt also there was current a collection of ethical observations, the Precepts of Ptah-hotep and the Maxims of Aniy, so closely resembling the form and sentiment of the average Jewish proverb that it has been suggested that the Sages of Palestine were directly influenced by these Egyptian teachings. Certainly the resemblances are striking.

These Egyptian books “inculcate the study of Wisdom, duty to parents and superiors, respect for property, the advantages of charitableness, peaceableness and content, of liberality, chastity, and sobriety, of truthfulness and justice; and they show the wickedness and folly of disobedience, strife, arrogance and pride, of slothfulness, interference, unchastity, and other vices. “What then? Is the idealism of the Jews decreased in value because other nations also had moral ambitions? Judging from the facts of history, the elements of morality, and of commonsense, too, need constant iteration in all languages and all periods, not excluding the present.

To discover that most of the Jewish proverbs are far from unique is no real loss, indeed the danger lies rather in the other direction. If it could be shown that these maxims were unlike those current elsewhere among men, the accusation would be serious, for then this volume must needs be written, not on the humanism, but on the unhumanism of a part of the Bible. The charge that the Jewish maxims are not unusual is to be admitted and—dismissed.

More disquieting would be the contention, which the number of self-regarding maxims readily suggests, that the general moral tone of these proverbs is not merely normal but actually low. There is no denying the unblushing utilitarianism that at times crops out. It is said: I (Wisdom) walk in the paths of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgement, that I may cause those that love me to inherit substance and that I may fill their treasuries (Pr. 821)—The reward of humility and the fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life (Pr. 224). This sounds even more reprehensible than the famous definition of Christianity as “doing good for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” It seems suspiciously like doing good for the sake of the kingdoms of this earth! But, hear the defence.

First it has already been urged that general judgments on the proverbs as a whole require most careful handling, if they are to be even moderately fair: let the utilitarian sage bear his own sin; his brother who said, “Love covereth all transgressions,” ought not to be implicated in his fall. Secondly, there is the sensible, though not lofty, argument that since the Wise were dealing with men tempted to throw off even ordinary moral restraint in the burning desire to get all possible prosperity and enjoyment out of life, if they had pitched their key much higher it is very probable they would have received no hearing at all.

Modern students of ethics are well aware that pleasure, however often it may accompany good conduct, cannot be made the motive for virtue. But the Wise were less sophisticated than ourselves, and it was therefore easy for them to make the mistake of expressing in too commercial a fashion their conviction that “honesty is the best policy”; and even if they did sometimes over-emphasise the thought of external reward, we should remember that perhaps it was the only way to catch the ear of certain men and draw them back from the hot pursuit of Folly. The third point will be surprising to those who are not aware how late in Jewish history was the development of a worthy conception of immortality and the just judgment of the soul after death.

Compared with the Christian, who starts from the belief that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living”, and that the consequences of good or evil conduct reach onwards beyond the grave, the Wise-men of Israel were cruelly handicapped in their consideration of the moral problem. Oesterley with justice pleads in extenuation of Ben Sirach’s stress on the worldly advantages of Wisdom, “This is natural in a writer whose whole attention is concentrated on the present life, and who has nothing but the vaguest ideas about a life hereafter.” Fourthly, the Wise were not conscious of their utilitarianism. Of course it is bad to be utilitarian at all, but it is better to be so unintentionally than deliberately. The ancients did not, could not, speak or write with that precise realisation of the implications of words, which often does, and certainly should, characterise a modern thinker. While therefore the Wise cannot be exonerated from blame in this respect, there is not a little to be said in mitigation of their offence.

But the last plea we have to advance on their behalf is the best; and indeed it is the main apology we wish to make for all their shortcomings—

A man’s utterances are often an inadequate expression of his soul. Our final estimate ought to be based, not on the proverbs themselves, singly or collectively, but on what is behind them, the character of the speakers. The question is, Were these sayings just verbal piety and respectable commonplace, or were they, so to speak, waves borne on the swell of an advancing tide, having beneath and behind them the deep impulse of a live enthusiasm? What manner of men were the Sages at heart—mere talkers, seeking the mental satisfaction of turning a neat phrase and sunning themselves in popular esteem, or men genuinely concerned for the moral welfare of their fellows? One we have already considered and not found him altogether wanting. Much can be forgiven if only the majority of the Wise were like Ben Sirach, in earnest about their task. We ventured to describe him as a typical Wise-man, but what ground is there for that assertion?

Now this vital question is not an easy one to investigate and answer, since concerning the individual Sages, except Ben Sirach, no personal information has been transmitted, and we have therefore only their sayings from which to draw a conclusion. Even so the material is perhaps sufficient. Surely there is a valuable hint to be found in the “strict attention to business” of Proverbs as well as Ecclesiasticus; both of these books preach at us incessantly from their text “Wisdom.” Why is it that every word they contain is directed to the end of moral improvement?

Must there not have been a remarkable concentration on moral interests to account for the comparative absence of what one might describe as the neutral, non-moral observations on life, which are common in the proverbs of every other nation? Fortunately however, there is one much stronger piece of evidence available. It has been explained that the abstract conception “Wisdom” represented the teaching of the Wise in epitome, and was the unification in thought of their manifold opinions. It follows that what they said, or left unsaid, about “Wisdom” furnishes an admirable test of their sincerity, revealing the presence or absence of enthusiasm for their work.

Wisdom was the Cause they championed against Folly: it will be easy to tell whether they truly loved it. If they had been only clever people, content to parade their shrewdness, or comfortable upholders of law and order, proclaiming the maxims of respectability with a business eye to the security of their own possessions, then inevitably they would have betrayed themselves by giving an exposition of Wisdom coldly intellectual. But the opposite is what has happened, and the warmth and passion as well as the reverence, of their words in honour of Wisdom bear eloquent, unconscious testimony to the admiration and affection in which the Sages held their calling. Hear then the Praises of Wisdom—

Happy is the man that findeth Wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding; for the merchandise of it is better than silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies, and none of the things that thou canst desire are comparable unto her.... (Pr. 313-15): surely a disconcerting verse for upholders of the supposed utilitarianism of the proverbs? Again, How much better is it to get Wisdom than gold! Yea to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver (Pr. 1616, cp. 810)—so much for the Sages’ notion of comparative values.

In chapter 9 of Proverbs, by a touch of fine imagination, Wisdom is daringly pictured as a noble Lady, bidding guests to her banquet. She is the counterpart of Madam Folly, who also gives a banquet and who thus invites a passer-by: Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant, (to which the Wise add in caustic comment as they see the foolish one enter: But he knoweth not that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depth of Sheol, Pr. 917, 18). But, in contrast, Wisdom—Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: she hath killed her beasts, she hath made ready her wine, and furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens; on the highest parts of the city she crieth aloud, “Whoso is ignorant, let him turn in hither”; and to him that is void of understanding she speaketh, “Come, eat ye of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have made ready” (Pr. 91-5).

Ben Sirach knew that Wisdom was high, and he does not disguise that only by long, unwearying efforts can her favour be attained. But the reward, says he, outweighs the toil, and he bids men seek her: At the first she will bring fear and dread upon a man and torment him with her discipline, until she can trust his soul and has tested him by her judgements (E. 417; cp. E. 619-25). Nevertheless, he says, Come unto her with all thy soul, and keep her ways with thy whole power. Search and seek, and she shall be made known unto thee, and when thou hast hold of her, let her not go. For in the end thou shalt find her to be rest, and she shall be changed for thee into gladness. Her fetters shall be to thee a covering of strength, and her chains a robe of glory (E. 626-29).

Wisdom is the source of all right and noble conduct, the principle that in all things ought to regulate men’s lives. Casting behind him the grim facts of Hellenistic courts, and perhaps of high society in Jerusalem also, one wise man, seeing in vision the world as it should be, put these glowing, optimistic words into the mouth of Wisdom: By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth (Pr. 815, 16).

But all these praises are slight compared with the thoughts inspired by the supreme conviction that Wisdom itself is derived from God and dwells in His Presence: “The Wisdom that illumines the lives of the good is a reflection of the full-orbed wisdom of God.” It is the ineffable counsel of the Almighty, the power by which He created heaven and earth (Pr. 319f), the principle through which the universe is still sustained. In face of this belief praise rose into exultation, and Wisdom was reverently but enthusiastically conceived as that which had been ordained of God from eternity to be His counsellor in the work of Creation and His daily delight:

Jehovah formed me first of His creation,

Before all his works of old.

In the earliest ages was I fashioned,

Even from the beginning, before the earth.

When there were no depths was I brought forth,

When there were no fountains brimming with water.

Before the mountains were sunk in their bases,

Before the hills was I brought forth;

Or ever He had made the earth and the fields,

Or the first clods of the world.

When He established the heavens I was there,

When he drew the circle over the abyss;

When He made firm the skies above,

And set fast the fountains of the deep;

When He gave the sea its bounds,

And fixed the foundations of the earth,

Then was I with Him as a foster-child,

And daily was I His delight,

As I played continually before His eyes,

Played o’er all the habitable world.

So now, my children, hearken unto me,

Receive my instruction and be wise;

For happy is the man that heareth me,

Happy are those that keep my ways,

Watching daily at my gates,

And waiting at my gate-posts.

For he that findeth me findeth life,

And winneth favour from Jehovah;

But he that misseth me wrongeth himself:

All that hate me love death.

(Pr. 822-36).

In similar language Ben Sirach imagines Wisdom proclaiming her glory in the very presence of God Himself:

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,

And like a cloud I covered the earth;

I had my dwelling in the high places,

And my throne was in the pillar of cloud;

I alone compassed the circuit of heaven

And walked in the depth of the abysses,

In the waves of the sea and through all the earth;

And in every people I got me a possession.

With all these I sought for a resting-place—

“In whose lot shall I find a lodging?”

Then the Creator of all commanded me,

Even he that formed me, pitched my tent

And said, “In Jacob be thy dwelling,

And in Israel thine inheritance.”

In the beginning, before the world, He fashioned me,

And to all eternity shall I fail not.

In the holy tabernacle I ministered before Him,

And thus was I established in Zion;

Yea, in the beloved city He gave me resting-place,

And in Jerusalem was my dominion

(E. 243-11).

Such words would have set the Greeks, as they set us, asking questions: “Is it implied that Wisdom is an entity distinct from God?”; “How far is it fair to see Greek influence in this apparent ascription of personality to Wisdom?” Both questions may be considered together. Too much stress cannot be laid on the firm hold which Monotheism had obtained in post-exilic Judaism; to the Jews of the Hellenic age the unity of God was a fundamental tenet. But the Jewish mind was as yet unphilosophical, not from lack of intelligence but from lack of inclination or initial suggestion. Hebrew thought started from the existence of God as an axiom, and was content to use the fact of conscience as the key to the interpretation of life, whereas Greek thought had naturally inclined towards making intellectual speculation the basis of its endeavour to attain through truth, morality, and beauty to the secret of life and the knowledge of God.

Consequently many utterances that inevitably raise metaphysical questions in our minds, and would have philosophical meaning if spoken by a Greek, were put forward by the Jews most simply, without consideration of inherent intellectual problems. Of this character are the praises of Wisdom: although language is used that would fittingly be applied to a personal being, there was no intention to personify Wisdom as some kind of sub-divine Being other than God. The Wise intended only to declare their fervent belief that the Wisdom they studied, loved, and trusted, was transcendently great, was God’s Wisdom, was “from above.”

Wisdom in these proverbs was not consciously deemed to be more than an attribute of God, and phrases that seem to us to overstep the bounds and confer personality are to be regarded as an enthusiasm of the heart not implying metaphysical conclusions as to the ultimate nature of Deity. This is the language not of philosophy but of affection and reverent esteem. From an early age there was a strong tendency in Hebrew thought towards clothing abstract and collective terms in the warm language of personal life, and the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus may fairly be considered a natural development of pure Hebrew tradition. And yet there are “signs of the times” about them.

The description of Wisdom we are discussing would read strangely in pre-exilic Hebrew books; and so the question of Greek influence may still be pressed. In the opinion of the present writer the influence, if any, is confined to a slight unintentional colouring. Seeing that the Wise stood out against the pressure and menace of unscrupulous, secular Hellenism, and that they lived at a period when Greek intellectual prowess had not yet brought its full weight to bear on Palestinian, or at least on Judæan, thought, it is a reasonable conjecture that any trace of new philosophy in the proverbs has been introduced unwittingly and unwillingly. The general soundness of this opinion becomes vividly apparent, if the two passages quoted above are compared with the eulogy given in a Jewish work of considerably later date, the Wisdom of Solomon. There Wisdom, Artificer of all things, is described as

A spirit, quick of understanding, holy,

Only-begotten, manifold, subtle, mobile,

Pure, undefiled, clean,

Inviolable, loving the good....

For Wisdom is more mobile than any motion,

Yea, she pervadeth and penetrateth all things

By reason of her pureness;

For she is a breath of the power of God,

And a pure effulgence of the Almighty.

(Wisdom of Solomon, 722ff).

and in one verse (W.S. 94) Wisdom is actually called She that sitteth beside Thee on Thy throne, astonishing words from a Jew. The atmosphere of Hellenic philosophy being here unmistakable, the contrast between the language of this passage and the restrained phraseology of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus is accordingly significant.

As the Book of Job is treated in another volume of this series, the reference to it must here be brief, but a chapter on the Exaltation of Wisdom must not close without some mention of the wonderful poem in that Book, where also confession is made of the sublimity of Wisdom, but it is insisted that Wisdom dwells far beyond the reach of mortals, unknown and unknowable, save to the inscrutable Deity who wills not to reveal its secrets unto suffering man. Each section of this great passage begins with the haunting question, But Wisdom—whence cometh it, and where is the place of understanding? We quote the last stanza only.

But Wisdom—whence cometh it,

And where is the place of understanding?

It is hid from the eyes of all creatures,

And concealed from the fowls of the air.

Abaddon and Death acknowledge:

“But a rumour thereof have we heard.”

God alone hath perceived the way to it,

He knoweth the place thereof—

Even He that made weights for the wind

And meted the waters by measure,

When He made a law for the rain,

And a way for the flash of the thunders.

Then did He see it and mark it:

He established and searched it out (Job 2820-27).

“The Humanism of the Bible”—who would ask finer acknowledgment of one aspect of life, its profound mystery; who could fail to hear in those grand but desolate words the pathos of our mortal ignorance voicing its immortal longing? Happier than this poet, and more in accord with ordinary human experience, were the Wise-men of Proverbs; for theirs was the faith that, though Wisdom might dwell in the innermost light of God’s presence, the boon of its guidance was not wholly denied to men. They praised its exceeding great glory, acknowledging its transcendence, yet quietly rejoicing in the measure of knowledge they were conscious of receiving:

Wisdom is the principal thing,

Therefore get Wisdom:

Yea! with all that thou hast gotten

Get understanding (Pr. 47).

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