The Hill Difficulty - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Hill Difficulty - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Hill “Difficulty”

The Wise had not found the last secrets of Wisdom. There were ranges of human nature beyond their imagining, there were paths to salvation not visible from the highroad of respectability. Perhaps they suspected as much in moments when the sublimity of Wisdom towered over them. But usually no doubt they felt convinced that, given an unquestioning acceptance of their precepts, this world would be made perfect. Better it would have been, but that is all. Perfection is higher than climbing humanity believes, and short cuts to the summit prove delusive. Mechanical obedience to rules and regulations for our conduct will certainly not suffice, for character fails to ripen in that dry soil.

So to reverence the past as to accept its thoughts as finished standards, requiring from us only the repetition of the lips and not the re-affirmation or re-statement of heart and intellect, is to exclude the possibility of progress; and that, racially, is the unpardonable sin. Tradition, an invaluable servant, is a fatal master. God means us to own no ultimate authority save His eternal and ever-present Spirit. There was room in the world for many a Ben Sirach, but there was even more room for men like St. Peter and St. Paul, who could break free from conventional standards of morality, and penetrate further into the exceeding great and precious promises of God.

Moreover it would have been disastrous for the Wise themselves, had the world accepted their way of life as indisputable truth. Think what would have happened to their characters, already inclined to superiority, if with one accord men had bowed down to their every word and received their maxims as beyond the breath of criticism. The point of course, is not one that the Sages would have appreciated. Few men can resist the impression (and those few must be cold-blooded, unenthusiastic souls) that all would be well, provided their lightest word was law. What a truly delightful world, where one’s judgments met only with reverent and grateful admiration! Yet were God to give us the desire of our hearts, we might construct a universe excellent according to our standard, and be left ourselves the only insufferable persons in it. “Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

There was, however, little danger of the Wise being spoilt by approbation. They may have had a sufficiently good conceit of themselves, but they cannot possibly have been ignorant that many of their neighbours held them in very different esteem; and whenever a Wise-man in old Jerusalem put his heart into the effort to guide his brethren into the path of understanding he can have been under few, if any, delusions regarding the obstacles in the way. In the last two chapters we have been picturing life as the Wise desired it to be, not as they actually found it. Our next duty is to descend from these heights to the plain where opposition waited to test what stuff the Wise-men’s dreams were made of. Not without courage, not without patience, were they able to keep these ideals in their hearts.

The discouragements they suffered are written large across the face of the literature. Consider first the reception accorded to their teaching. All the Jews were not lovers of Understanding, nor was Jerusalem a State wherein the dictates of celestial Wisdom ruled with unquestioned sway. No doubt the note of confidence which pervades Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus implies that many people respected the Wise-men’s dignity and paid deference to their speeches. But the presence of outspoken hostility is not a whit less clear. They did not preach unchallenged at the entry of the Gates. On the contrary the number and severity of the proverbs denouncing “scorners” show that the irreverent were a vigorous section of the population.

We have to bear in mind that the Gateway was open to all-comers, and Psalm 11 (Blessed is the man that sitteth not in the assembly of the scornful) supplies a hint that the scoffer (and his friends) may have had an inconvenient habit of claiming his own corner of the ground, and that not infrequently it pleased him to be merry at the Wise-man’s expense, now pretending he could not, or would not, hear the sermon (A scorner heareth not rebuke, Pr. 131), now deriding the doctrine (I have called and ye have refused, I have stretched out my hand and no man regarded:

Ye have set at nought all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, Pr. 124f); now encouraging others to make vexatious interruptions (Cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out, Pr. 2210). Sage-baiting seems to have been a joke that waxed not stale with repetition: “How long,” asks one Wise man pathetically, “how long will scorners delight in their scorning” (Pr. 122)? He that reproveth a scorner getteth himself insult (Pr. 97)—behold a sage by the street-corner, wise in words but by no means so sharp in repartee, shaking a puzzled head and wondering what the laughter had been about and why his audience had so speedily melted away.

Besides these cynical persons—the scorners or intentional fools—there were fools-by-birth, whether dull-witted or coarse-natured or both, “Simpletons”, to whom the Wise were perhaps less charitable than is meet. But then “suffering fools gladly” belongs to the apostolic ethic; and it vexed the Wise to think how much breath they had wasted in seeking to teach these folk. Glorious Wisdom stirred no enthusiasm in their obtuse souls, and the shafts of morality seldom discovered a joint in the armour of their self-content. Wherefore, concerning these also went up the cry, “How long, ye simpletons, will ye love simplicity” (Pr. 122)?

And when we read that the sluggard is wiser in his own conceit then seven men that can render a reason (Pr. 2616), who can fail to see a baffled Sage turning wearily and disgustedly away? Towards the dull-witted is due mercy and patience; but oh! those self-satisfied, petty persons, ignorant of their ignorance, into whose mental darkness no new illuminating thought can penetrate. These were the prime objects of the Wise-men’s indignation—and legitimately; for in all ages they have been the curse of society, the mainstay of old abuses, rocks which have to be blasted from the path of progress. Of your charity, then, bear in mind that the Wise did not lecture picked pupils only, but faced the contradictions and stupidities of the highway, and endured the disappointment of seeing men hostile or indifferent to their teaching.

But the point will bear further consideration. Two types of opponents may be distinguished. First, the actively hostile, whose manner of life was in violent contradiction to the Wise-men’s principles, men who must often have hated them for their moralising efforts. In the mirror of the sayings we observe the immoral, the cruel, the violent, plotters of mischief against their neighbours, whose deeds were evil, whose words scorched like a fire (Pr. 1627); dishonest dealers and pitiless usurers, who robbed the poor and crushed the defenceless (Pr. 2222); men who lured others into wickedness; bloodthirsty men, thieves, cut-throats, and reckless outlaws (Pr. 111ff). Against these Wisdom, for all its exaltation, must often have seemed powerless. Secondly, there was the mass of the indifferent, who, being neither very good nor very bad, did not think Wisdom mattered very much or that it was any special concern of theirs: a type with abundant representatives to-day.

Why will they not comprehend that it is to them, almost more than to any others, that Wisdom is crying aloud; and that their co-operation is desperately needed for the advancement of mankind? Why do they saunter so carelessly down the streets of life, sometimes to fall into sore disaster from which a little Wisdom, had they sought it, would have saved them? Why do they always pass “the preacher for next Sunday” without a second thought? Ah! these are they that require a full church and good music and a first-rate sermon. But if they attended, the churches would be full and the choirs strong; and sermons have a way of winning home when men are out not for oratory, but to seek the truth of God.

Certainly the Wise were not ignorant of the problem of the inattentive. Something of disappointment and perplexity lies behind the reiterated appeals of the Book of Proverbs: Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings. ... My son, let them not depart from thine eyes. ... Hear, my son, the instruction of a father, and attend to know, for I give you good doctrine. Granted that the exhortation tended to become a set phrase, and that “my son” was often spoken to an eager pupil or an attentive class in the Wise-man’s house, it was also used in the market place, and for one man that stopped and responded how many passed by unheeding? Doth not Wisdom cry and Understanding put forth her voice? In the streets she takes her stand; beside the gates, at the portal of the city, at the entrance of the gates she cries aloud (Pr. 81-3)—frequently, we may suspect, with small result.

See, yonder is Alexander ben Simeon, young, confident and well-to-do, proud to think that his parents have called him by the name of the great Greek conqueror. He comes strolling through the bazaar to the gate of the city. There two voices accost him. One, that of his friend Aristobulus: “Greeting, Alexander! Hast heard news of the boxing? ’Tis said that Aristonicus is beaten in the Olympic pankcration. ‘By whom?’ By Cleitomachus of Thebes. But I swear it cannot have been by fair means. How sayest thou?” The other voice was that of Judah the Wise, who, perceiving the two young men in talk, approached them hopefully and earnestly, though of course with all necessary dignity. “A wise son,” said he, “maketh a glad father, but a foolish son is a heaviness to his mother. Now, therefore, my sons, hearken unto me, for blessed are they that keep my ways. Treasures of wickedness profit nothing, but righteousness....” Unfortunately the last words were not heard by Alexander and Aristobulus. They were already some distance off, hunting for the man who had spread the rumour of the downfall of Egyptian athletics.

But others besides the young could be deaf to good counsel. Jerusalem had many confident citizens of middle life, into whose soul the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the lusts of other things had entered, choking the Word: the rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as an high wall in his imagination (Pr. 1811), said the Wise with a sigh. There is one proverb that suggests where the most grievous personal disappointment of the Wise lay: namely, in those, whether boy or man, who said “I go, Sir; but went not”: Cease, my son, to hear instruction, only to err from the words of knowledge (Pr. 1927). Surely there was sorrow in the heart of him who uttered those words of warning?

In the next place consider the hindrances that the general conditions of the age placed in the path of morality. These also are not difficult to perceive. The moral corruption of the luxurious Hellenic cities may have been perfectly obvious and the danger unmistakably clear, but dazzling opportunities, political, social, and commercial, also lay waiting there for the young and ambitious Jew. Is it to be wondered if many a lad was ready to make a bid for fortune, and let his morality take its chance? Important families of Jerusalem, with a handsome son who might perhaps win favour at the foreign courts or shekels in their markets, will have had little love for old-fashioned, moralistic Wiseacres, who forsooth were stupid enough to oppose “the onward march of progress.”

One passage (Pr. 110-19), addressed to “my son,” urges him not to take up highway robbery as a career: If they say, “Let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause” ... consent not thou, but there cannot have been much outlet for promising youths in that direction; it is perhaps a formal rather than a serious warning. Much more prominent were the sensual temptations to which prosperous persons were exposed, temptation to indulgence in gluttonous feasting and drunken revelry. Such vices were alluring to an extent unknown to us who live in an age when society is no longer slave-ridden, when the wealthy can have as many duties to occupy their energies as the poor, and when it is no longer gentlemanly to be drunk.

You cannot make a drunken man wise until you have sobered him. But the evils of intoxication, though real enough, were less serious in old Jerusalem than in modern cities, and in wine the Wise saw an enemy only where pronounced abuse was present. Complete abstinence is unmooted, and even temperance is demanded in very temperate terms. Ben Sirach bestows an encomium on wine taken in moderation. Wine, says he, is as good as life to men, if thou drink it in its measure. What life is there to a man that is without wine? And it hath been created to make men glad. Wine drunk in season and to satisfy is joy of heart and gladness of soul (E. 3127f). He observes its quarrelsome tendencies, but thinks it necessary only to counsel tact! Rebuke not thy neighbour at a banquet of wine, neither set him at nought in his mirth. Speak not unto him a word of reproach, and press him not then for repayment of a debt (E. 3131).

In like manner Proverbs 316, 7 is not suitable as a text for a Temperance address, even if (which is doubtful) it be partly metaphorical: Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul: let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his misery no more. Here’s a stick to beat the teetotallers withal! How one can imagine some foolish persons discovering that even a text is worth picking up (if it will serve to throw at an opponent), and pouncing gleefully upon these sayings. “Foolish persons”? Yes, “foolish”; for the effects of alcohol in the development of modern society have been, and are, calamitous to the material as well as the spiritual progress of the race. Moreover, even the Wise were insistent in denunciation of excessive drinking.

Said Ben Sirach, Wine drunk largely is bitterness of soul with provocation and wrath. Drunkenness increaseth the rage of a fool unto his hurt; it diminisheth strength and addeth wounds (E. 3129, 30; cp. Pr. 201, 2329ff, quoted pp. 138, 232). There is no possible doubt what their attitude would have been towards the facts of the modern Drink Question. Had they seen one thousandth part of the moral and material losses consequent upon drunkenness and heavy drinking in the great European or American cities, the book of their proverbs would have been replete with commands and entreaties for reform.

In respect of the relations of the sexes, the morale of the post-exilic Jewish state was high. Monogamy was the custom, and the virtuous wife received a degree of honour unequalled in the old Oriental world. There are, however, in the proverbs frequent warnings against adultery; but, as the Hebrews were more outspoken than ourselves on such matters, it may be that the prominence of the subject points not so much to the prevalence of the offence as to the indignation with which it was regarded.

Yet it must be borne in mind that the crowded city life of the period increased temptations to that sin. More serious socially was the evil of venal women. Schechter is of opinion that the repeated denunciations of “strange women” exaggerate the low state of morality in Jerusalem, but, with all reasonable allowance for rhetoric, it is certain that the peril was never absent from the streets of Jerusalem, and in the brilliant cities of Egypt and Syria, so close at hand, licence walked unrestrained and unrebuked. The Wise knew only too well how powerful and deadly a foe this evil could prove to their hopes for men.

The arch-enemy, not only of Idealism, but of the mildest proposals for reform has ever been the selfish individual. Turn to the proverbs, many of which have already been quoted, about rich men, about money-lenders, false-witnesses, slanderers, oppressive rulers and unjust judges; and it becomes easy to realise how strong was the opposition confronting the preachers of Wisdom.

Finally, recollect the gulf between a reform in words and its translation into fact. With all our political machinery designed to yield better legislation, how difficult it is to give effect to the will of the wiser and nobler members of the community. Ancient society found it incalculably harder to redress its wrongs. Grievances were not always stifled; they might be aired in moderation and provided the charge was vague. But, short of revolution, how was it possible to bring adequate pressure to bear on the guilty, strongly entrenched in their high offices by birth and wealth and autocratic might? These and similar considerations will suggest the external difficulties of the life in which the Wise were placed.

To the “fightings without,” however, must next be added a tale of “fears within.” The Old Testament writers were not unconscious of the intellectual problems of religion. It is true that they do not debate, or often doubt, the existence of God. But the question of the Being of God is, in a sense, academic; the question of His character and relation to men is vital; and this problem the Jews felt as acutely and faced as honestly as any modern men can do. Many of them had encountered realities of experience sterner than most modernists have known—at least until 1914. Some of the Sages, no doubt, were unspeculative persons, content with traditional beliefs. But others there were not blind to any of the poignant elements of life.

All may have assumed God as a fact, but some realised that only if God be just and holy and merciful, was the ground of morality solid beneath their feet. Men who maintained that in the fear of the Lord and honourable conduct is found the key to a successful career, could not ignore the fact that in reality the wicked were frequently prosperous and the good subject to misfortune, injustice, pain, and bitter hardships. How could such things be in the world of a righteous God? Not until the post-exilic period was it vividly realised by a number of Jewish thinkers how obdurate these facts are to an optimistic interpretation of life, and how they menace not only belief in a gracious God, but also the whole structure of morality. In many of the later Psalms, and in portions of the Wisdom literature, to which the Book of Proverbs belongs, the stringency of the problem is clearly recognised, and the struggle for faith grows correspondingly severe. Men cried to God to sustain their trust despite the awful enigmas of suffering and wrong. They wrestled agonisingly with the facts, turning now to one, now to another, explanation, if in any wise hope in God might be preserved.

Our consideration of the great subject must here be confined to considering the proverbs of the period. From these it appears that the rank and file of the Wise-men either did not feel the problem in its acutest form or failed to reach those heights of spiritual insight that some of the Jews attained. In the proverbs a variety of sensible but unsatisfactory arguments are put forward. One method of defence was to challenge or deny the reality of the facts alleged: There shall no mischief happen to the righteous, but the wicked shall be filled with evil (Pr. 1221)—Say not thou, “I will recompense evil.” Wait on the Lord, and he shall save thee (Pr. 2022)—The Lord is far from the wicked but he heareth the prayer of the righteous (Pr. 1529)—The Lord will not suffer the soul of the righteous to famish, and he thrusteth away the desire of the wicked (Pr. 103).

No one capable of sympathy with human perplexity will dismiss such assertions as merely stupid. Pathetically insufficient they may be, but these are the words of men convinced that somehow their instinct for God and the moral life is sound; and there is grandeur in the unyielding defiance. Another favourite reply was to insist on the solid rewards of virtue or to maintain that in the end it is honesty that pays best: The wicked earneth deceitful wages, but he that soweth righteousness hath a sure reward (Pr. 1118)—He that soweth iniquity shall reap calamity (Pr. 228). The Wise liked also to dwell on the fear of retribution which is likely to haunt the evil-doer: His own iniquities shall take the wicked, and he shall be holden in the cords of his sin (Pr. 522), a retort to the power of which many a villain, dogged by the thought of exposure, could bear witness.

After all, there generally is human justice to be considered, although the divine seem far away. Sometimes The Wise had recourse to the suggestion that the fear of the Lord prolongeth life, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened (Pr. 1027). Some, more daringly, declared that the agony of a single day or hour might redress the balance; thus Ben Sirach: It is an easy thing in the sight of the Lord to reward a man in the day of his death according to his ways. The affliction of an hour causeth forgetfulness of delight, and in the last end of a man is the revelation of his deeds. Call no man blessed before his death; and (yet another suggestion) a man shall be known in his children (E. 1126-28). This further possibility that Justice, if nowhere manifest in a man’s own life, will certainly appear in the fortunes of his descendants, is emphasised also in several Psalms and in passages of the Book of Job (e.g., Job 54), and apparently was more satisfying to the Jews than it would be to ourselves. A new argument, too vague to be consoling, is hinted in Pr. 164, where it is declared that God hath made everything for its own end, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

These answers, of course, do not cut deep enough, and their inadequacy reflects adversely on the value of the Wise-men’s judgments of life. But three important points must be noted in extenuation. First, the best that Israel’s Wisdom had to say on the sore problem was not said in the proverbs to which we are here limiting attention. If anyone desires to know how unflinchingly certain Wise-men and other Jews could face the facts and uphold their faith, he must turn to the Book of Job, to the Psalms, to Daniel and the daring aspirations of Apocalyptic writers. Secondly, there was as yet among the Jews no active belief in the continuance of personal consciousness after physical death, and thus the moral problem raised by the suffering of good men was immensely harder for them than it is for ourselves.

The Hebrews from earliest times had believed vaguely that a phantom-like continuation of individuality awaited good and bad alike in the underworld of Sheol; but that existence was not reckoned to be “life” in any real sense; certainly it was not thought that a man could receive the reward of his merits in Sheol, the land of shades. Sheol offered no solution, or even alleviation, of the moral enigma confronting the Wise. If there was to be a Divine vindication of morality, in their opinion it must needs be shown on earth, either in the life-time of the sufferer himself or in that of his children. In the period we are considering, reason and intuition were already pointing the Jewish thinkers to a higher doctrine of human immortality; but no traces of the great liberating conception have made their appearance in the proverbs.

The attitude of the Wise towards death may be grasped from Ben Sirach’s words: When a man is dead he shall inherit creeping things and beasts and worms (E. 1011)—Thanksgiving perisheth from the dead, as from one that is not; he that is in life shall praise the Lord (E. 1728). Death to Ben Sirach is a great silencing fact, not a mystery provoking thought. Sometimes he speaks of it very quietly: All things that are of the earth turn to the earth again, and all things that are of the waters return to the sea (E. 4011), and he bids men fear it not, seeing that death comes to us all: Fear not the sentence of death. Remember them that have been before thee and that come after. This is the sentence from the Lord over all flesh, and why doest thou refuse when it is the good pleasure of the Most High? Whether thou livest ten or a hundred or a thousand years, there is no inquisition of life in the grave (E. 413, 4).

The same unquestioning acquiescence appears in the helpless commonplace of the following: O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man that is at peace in his possessions, unto the man that is at ease and hath prosperity in all things, and that still hath strength to enjoy luxury. O death, acceptable is thy sentence to a man that is needy and that faileth in strength, that is in extreme old age and is distracted about all things, and is perverse and hath lost patience (E. 411, 2); and still more grimly in his unconsciously brutal counsel to beware of long sorrow for the dead: My son, let thy tears fall over the dead, and as one that suffereth grievously begin lamentation, and wind up his body according to his due, and neglect not his burial. Make bitter weeping and passionate wailing, and let thy mourning be according to his desert, for one day or two, lest thou be evil spoken of; and so be comforted for thy sorrow. For of sorrow cometh death, and sorrow of heart will bow down the strength. Set not thy heart upon him, forget him, remembering thine own last end. Remember him not, for there is no returning again: him thou shalt not profit, and thou wilt hurt thyself (E. 3816ff).

This great difference of outlook would of itself incline one to a lenient judgment on the imperfections of the proverbs. But thirdly, and chiefly, remember that the Wise-men lived in a world that knew not Jesus, a world in which the supreme moral fact had not yet appeared. Therefore they lacked what we possess—the assurance that nothing, tribulation or anguish or persecution, or famine, nakedness, peril or sword, can sunder the spirit of Man from the love of Him whom to know is life eternal. To them it was not possible, as it is for us, to confront the reality of evil with the greater reality of good, to answer the mystery of present suffering with the deeper mystery of the peace of Christ.

Lastly, the noblest of the proverbs has been kept in reserve till now. Said one of the Sages, perceiving that suffering (be it justly or unjustly incurred) is at least an efficient teacher: My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, neither be weary at his reproof. For whom the Lord loveth he reproveth, and paineth the son in whom he delighteth (Pr. 311, 12). The author of Hebrews 12, writing to men enduring great distress but with the fact of Christ before them, thought fit to quote those words; and we also will do well to ponder them. It is reasonable to believe that hardships (which judged from certain aspects often are unjust), even such terrible hardships as men sometimes endure, are inevitable in a world where moral personality is in the making: not otherwise could God Himself make man “in His own image”; not otherwise could even He create beings who should learn to seek the Truth, and to will the Good, in freedom.

It is easy to see that courage, to take one instance, cannot be disciplined in sham fight, but only in the hazard of real risks. So also, it may be, all other fruits of the Spirit will grow for men nowhere save on the rugged slopes of the hill called “Difficulty.” The Wise, therefore, despite their perplexities, were not pessimistic. But, though they resolutely drove out despair, they knew depression: Even in laughter the heart may be sorrowful, and the end of mirth be heaviness (Pr. 1413), and A faithful man who can find? (Pr. 206)? To at least one of the Sages God seemed far distant, silent and inscrutable. Thus Pr. 301-4The Words of Agur, ... I have wearied myself, O God, I have wearied myself, and am consumed, I surely am more foolish than other men, and no wisdom have I acquired to give me knowledge of the Holy One.

Who hath ascended up into heaven and descended?... What is his name and his son’s name, if thou knowest? The sturdy rebuke that immediately follows, (Pr. 305-6)—Every word of God is tried. He is a shield to them that trust in Him. Add not thou unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar, is the sentiment of another and a happier man than Agur. Such was the world in which the Wise had to labour and to think. How like our own! How sobering in the discipline it imposes on the idealist! To one who reads without consideration of the back-ground the sententiousness of these Jewish proverbs may soon prove irksome. But the fault becomes bearable, and the Wise grow very human, when we recognise that for all their bold words, they were not always confident of their creed, and that to many an earnest man among them the preaching of morality must at times have seemed a weary and a fruitless task.

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