The Ideal - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Ideal - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Ideal

The Wise were not cynical persons intent on the faults and failings of humanity. The sayings recorded in the preceding chapter give their comments on the abnormal elements of society, and do not represent their general outlook on life. The real centre of their interest was the ordinary man. They were well aware that for one incorrigible fool or one notorious flatterer there are a hundred, or a thousand, average persons who, if they do not grow better, will assuredly grow worse; and to these the bulk of their instruction was directed. The Wise therefore ought not to suffer in our estimation, because we have arbitrarily chosen to set their critical opinions in the foreground. And if it be insisted that, in point of fact, criticism of others is a prominent feature of the proverbs, the reply is first, that we are not endeavouring or expecting to prove the Wise innocent of all censoriousness or occasional snobbery; and secondly, that criticism is an almost indispensable weapon for practical moralists.

Human beings hate to be lectured directly on their weaknesses; yet when the faults of others are being exhibited they will listen merrily and attentively, notwithstanding the possibility that some shrewd blow may come knocking at the gates of conscience. Every teacher knows that the average man will be left only offended and unbelieving if he is told bluntly how much his small failings leave to be desired; but show him by a shocking example whither the way of pride or folly tends and he will often take to heart the lesson. It might therefore be claimed that in a sense all the proverbs were addressed to the normal, teachable man, even those which rebuke an extreme fault in an extreme manner being meant for the ears of others besides the hardened sinner against whom they were ostensibly directed.

Certainly the great majority of the proverbs are applicable to the affairs of the rank and file of men. So keen were the Wise on the task of admonishing and encouraging very ordinary men that they uttered many a commonplace in a fashion too simple to be memorable or even momentarily interesting to any person of alert intelligence. Nevertheless such material cannot be neglected here, and ought not to be despised.

It must not be neglected, just because it is actually a large section of our subject matter; it ought not to be despised, for it all helps to show the humanism of the Wise, testifying that they were honest and practical teachers rather than clever writers anxious only to compile a book of skilful proverbs. That teacher is to be condemned who cannot, or will not, relate his thinking to the capacities of his hearers. The Wise deserve praise because they said a great deal that even the simpleton could not plead was beyond him.

We have begun, it seems, by tasting some of the spices with which the Wise seasoned their counsel. We come now to the solid matter of their doctrine. By noting the qualities they praised or blamed, the deeds which won their approval or their censure, we shall gain a general conception of their aspirations. What were their ideals for men as individuals, as members of a family, as citizens of a State?

I.—The Individual

The threefold division just suggested—man in his individual, domestic and political relationships—seems simple and natural, but proves difficult to maintain, because the first category in reality trespasses on the other two. Strictly speaking, none of the virtues and the vices concern the individual alone. If a man ruin his health by intemperate indulgence of fleshly desires, doubtless he is himself the prime sufferer, but obviously the State loses something thereby, and woe betide his family! Still, such a quality as Temperance may reasonably enough be classed as a personal virtue, being primarily an aspect of Man’s duty to himself.

But what shall be said of duties such as Generosity, Forbearance, Deceitfulness, the exercise of which might be reckoned almost as much Man’s duty to his neighbours in family or State as to himself? In which division shall we reckon these? For convenience, let these also be considered under the first heading as personal, rather than social, qualities. Enough material will still remain for use in the second and third sections of our topic.

(a) Virtues of Restraint. A convenient starting-point for our review of the characteristics the Wise desired to see in the individual is provided by certain negative virtues of restraint, which the proverbs frequently enjoin.




The duty of Moderation in eating and drinking is sufficiently, though not urgently, commended: He that loveth pleasure shall come to want, and he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich (Pr. 2117)—A companion of gluttonous men shameth his father (Pr. 287). Again, Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoso erreth therein no wise man is he (Pr. 201; cp. 2329-35). Not that the Wise were advocates of an ascetic abstinence: they did no more than commend moderation. Thus Ben Sirach, who certainly enjoyed banqueting on good food and good wine, contents himself with advising the inexperienced “not to eat greedily lest he be hated”; How sufficient, says he, to a well-mannered man is a very little, and he doth not breathe hard upon his bed. Healthy sleep cometh of moderate eating; he riseth early and his wits are with him. The pain of wakefulness and colic and griping, these go to the insatiable man (E. 3119-20).



The duty of curbing anger is emphasised in several telling proverbs. Doubtless the evil consequences of unbridled passion are more evident among the quick-tempered peoples of southern and eastern lands; but the northerner is apt to be sullen, and perhaps what he gains by initial restraint he loses through the permanence of his indignation. Who dare affirm that a warning against wrath is not sorely needed in all lands and all centuries? What havoc has been wrought in human affairs by passion, be it sullen or sudden! Not even poverty is chargeable with causing more pain and misery.

In delivering their admonitions the Wise took up no specially exalted standpoint: they were content to note the plain consequences of anger—its disastrous effect on society, An angry man stirreth up strife and a wrathful man abounds in transgression (Pr. 2922, cp. 1518); and how that the angry man (too weak to conceal his emotions, A fool uttereth all his anger but a wise man keepeth it back and stilleth it [Pr. 2911]), must himself suffer in the end, He that is soon angry will deal foolishly and a man of wicked desires is hated (Pr. 1417).

And again to much the same effect they said in a phrase that has become immortal, He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that controlleth his temper than he that taketh a city (Pr. 1632). How excellent that last proverb is! “So hot, little man, so hot?” The British Government has discovered the uses of advertisement for thrusting facts before the unobservant: one may disapprove the practice but not on the ground that it is ineffective. What if this proverb (and a few other valuable sayings that the Jewish Sages could supply) were to appear one fine day on a million placards throughout the Kingdom? Would the money go wasted, or would there be the swiftest and most economical reform on record?


Closely associated with restraint of passion is restraint of speech, a duty which is considered in several forceful proverbs: Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof (Pr. 1821)—He that guardeth his mouth keepeth his life, but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction (Pr. 133). Of the specious dignity that silence for a time confers, they said with truth and humour: Even a fool when he holdeth his peace is counted wise; when he shutteth his lips he is esteemed as prudent (Pr. 1728). On the other hand, speaking the right word at the right time won their keen approval. Was it not the very art in which they themselves sought to excel? A man hath joy in the answer of his lips, and a word in due season how good it is (Pr. 1523).

(b) Things to Avoid. Much can be learnt regarding the ideals of the Wise by observing what they counselled men to shun. Thus the sayings on the Sluggard might be used to show how they hated Indolence: As vinegar to the teeth and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him (Pr. 1026). They censured Disdain and Pride: He that despiseth his neighbour is void of wisdom (Pr. 1112)—Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall (Pr. 1618).

Ingratitude is dealt with in a restrained but memorable saying, Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart out of his house (Pr. 1713); and there are these two splendid proverbs against Revenge, Say not, “I will recompense evil”: wait on the Lord, and he will save thee (Pr. 2022)—and Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown, lest the Lord seeing it be displeased, and transfer his anger from him to thee (Pr. 2417-18). Recall, by way of contrast, the terrible Italian proverbs quoted in Chapter I. ; remember the innate ferocity, derived from the ancient custom of the Desert vendettas, that has always characterised the quarrels of the near East; and the wonder of such generous and noble exhortations as these in the Jewish proverbs cannot fail to be perceived.

Here is a vice which the Wise counted worse even than anger: Wrath is cruel and anger is overwhelming but who can stand against Jealousy (Pr. 274)? They repeatedly point out the evil of contentiousness: As coals to the hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man to inflame strife (Pr. 2621)—It is an honour for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool sheweth his teeth (Pr. 203). One proverb makes use of two curious similes to enforce the lesson, Lay thine hand upon thy mouth; for, as the churning of milk bringeth forth butter, and as wringing of the nose bringeth forth blood, so the forcing of wrath bringeth forth strife (Pr. 3033) and another with a touch of dry humour remarks, He seizes a dog by the ears who meddles with a quarrel not his own (Pr. 2617), i.e., having once taken hold he cannot let go!

What the Wise thought of Slander and of Flattery has been indicated sufficiently in the preceding chapter.

Dissimulation and Treachery stirred them to a fine contempt: Fervent lips and a wicked heart are an earthen vessel plated with silver. He that hateth dissembleth with his lips, but layeth up deceit within him: when he speaketh fair, believe him not; for in his heart are seven abominations. Though his hatred cloak itself with guile, his wickedness shall be shown openly before the congregation (Pr. 2623-26)—brave words and vigorous! One feels very sure that the Empire which betrayed its mind in the Hymn of Hate would need to show more than the penitence of fair words on fervent lips before it could hope for clemency from this Sage.

(c) The Virtues. So much for the Vices. It is time to consider the positive qualities that the Sages praised, and the foregoing picture of guile raises thoughts of its opposite. Let us begin therefore with the praises of True Friendship. Ben Sirach expands the subject into a little essay: If thou wouldest get thee a friend, get him by dint of trial, and be not in haste to trust him. For there is a friend that is such for his own occasion, and he will not continue in the day of thine affliction. And there is a friend that turneth to an enemy, and he will be openly at strife with thee to thy confusion.

And there is a friend that is a companion at the table (i.e., a “cupboard-lover”), and he will not remain in the hour of thy distress.... A faithful friend is a strong defence, and he that hath found him hath found a treasure. There is nothing can be exchanged for a faithful friend, and his excellency is beyond all price. A faithful friend is a medicine of life, and they that fear the Lord shall find him (E. 67ff). To match any single proverb against such words is a hard test, yet there is one that not only can bear the ordeal but is perhaps the finest of all epitomes of friendship: A friend is always friendly, born to be a brother in adversity (Pr. 1717, mg. R.V.).

Seeing that the Wise saw in the fool’s pride and self-sufficiency his worst and fatal error, it is only to be expected that they should lay constant stress on the duties of preserving an open mind and continuing amenable to instruction and reproof: Take fast hold of instruction; let her not go, for she is thy life (Pr. 413)—Whoso loveth correction loveth knowledge, but he that hateth reproof is a boor (Pr. 121)—He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck shall suddenly be broken, and that beyond mending (Pr. 291).

No less prominent and much more remarkable (seeing how profoundly and persistently falsehood in speech has beset the Oriental character) is the demand for Truthfulness: A righteous man hates deception (Pr. 135). We are told that only truth endures: The lip of truth shall be established for ever, whereas a lying tongue is but for a moment (Pr. 1219). Sincerity of character is often extolled in plain speech and in metaphor: The righteousness of the perfect shall make straight his way (Pr. 115)—The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life (Pr. 1011)—The tongue of the righteous is like choice silver (Pr. 1020)—The lips of the righteous feed many (Pr. 1021)—The thoughts of the righteous are just (Pr. 125)—The heart of the righteous studieth what to answer, but the mouth of the wicked poureth out evil things (Pr. 1528). The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life (Pr. 1130). Integrity of purpose is even more beautifully commended in this memorable proverb: He that loveth pureness of heart, and on whose lips is grace, the king shall be his friend (Pr. 2211).

Perhaps not a few of the Wise wore an air of superiority to their neighbours; some may have given God thanks that they were not as other men; but assuredly not all fell victims to what was for them a natural temptation, and justice demands that full weight be assigned to the numerous sayings in which they castigate Vanity or praise Humility. For instance, When pride cometh, said they, then cometh shame, but with the lowly is Wisdom (Pr. 112).

To be temperate in body and mind, energetic, peaceable, honest and truthful, teachable, sincere, loyal and honourable—evidently the Wise made no small demand on human nature. But above and beyond these qualities, and very wonderful in the old Oriental world, are these virtues, which the Wise expected good men to possess and show—consideration for others, helpfulness, mercy, kindness of word and deed, and even forgiving love.

They declare that, Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker, and he that is glad at calamity shall not go unpunished (Pr. 175). The righteous ought to be a guide to his neighbour (Pr. 1226); and (as an arresting passage insists) the obligation must not be shuffled off or wilfully ignored: Deliver them that are carried away unto death and them that are tottering to the slaughter see that thou hold back. If thou sayest, “Behold we knew not this,” doth not He that weigheth the hearts consider it? And he that keepeth thy soul doth He not know it? And shall he not render to every man according to his work (Pr. 2411, 12)?

As regards the broad social applications of this proverb, the deep guilt of all nations leaves little to choose between them. But taking the command on its more intimate and individual aspect, does it not utter a warning that the average Briton has peculiar need to hear? For our national character is such that we hate interfering with another man’s way of life; we are even shy of rebuking the young. There is, of course, a virtue in our natural tolerance, for men cannot be school-mastered into mending their ways. But conscience will admit that much of our non-interference is mere shirking of duty, a passing-by on the other side.

If we were less frightened to warn or to help others, less anxious how our words would be received and whether we might be snubbed and made uncomfortable or called a Pharisee, it may be that, whenever we did so warn or help, we should do it with a better grace and therefore more effectually. Since nine out of ten are wont to err on the side of silence, we reiterate the injunction ... them that are tottering to the slaughter see that thou hold back. There are times when diffidence may be a sin, and the fear of contention cowardice.

Concerning Mercy in deed or thought and Honesty in speech the Wise said, Let not mercy and truth forsake thee. Bind them upon thy neck, write them on the tablet of thine heart; so shalt thou find favour and good repute in the sight of God and man (Pr. 33, 4). There are phrases concerning Kindness which live in the memory and touch the heart: The healing tongue is a tree of life (Pr. 154)—There is that speaketh rashly like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the Wise is health (Pr. 1218), and a saying that for all its gentleness holds the conscience in a vice-like grip: A soft answer turneth away wrath (Pr. 151)—so hard to believe when occasion presses, but proved true a thousand thousand times. And here, in conclusion, are three, wonderful, winged proverbs, which haunt one with the magic of their moral challenge: Say not, “I will do so to him as he hath done to me, I will render to the man according to his work” (Pr. 2429)—If thine enemy be hungry give him bread to eat, if he thirst give him water to drink; for thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord shall reward thee (Pr. 2521).

Hatred stirreth up strife,

But love covereth all transgressions

(Pr. 1012).

So much for Man, the individual. To finish the outline of the Wise-men’s ideal we have still to consider the proverbs concerning family life and the wider relationships of the State.

II.—Family Life

A slight acquaintance with Oriental life will suggest the probability that in the family, as the Wise conceived it, fathers and sons were the only important figures; and Jewish proverbs at first sight confirm the conjecture: “Daughters,” says Kent, “are passed by with a silence that is significant.” But, significant of what? Not that they were ill-used or neglected or unloved in Hebrew homes, but that the Wise not unnaturally acquiesced in the normal conditions of Oriental existence which inevitably made a daughter of much less importance than a son. A girl was debarred from the manifold interests of commercial, social, and political affairs; she could not, like a son, perpetuate the family name; nor could the parents hope to see in her the support and strength of their old age.

The Wise never attempted to ignore facts, and they never aimed at nor imagined revolutions in the fundamental circumstances of society as they found it. But we have to confess that Ben Sirach does more than acquiesce in the recognised limitations of daughters. He was reprehensibly querulous upon the subject, and we fear lest some who read may find it difficult to forgive him for such a ridiculous exhibition of masculine stupidity. Says Ben Sirach (and from the slow shake of his head we infer this to be no hasty dictum, but the result of his mature and cautious consideration), A daughter is a secret cause of wakefulness to a father, and anxiety for her putteth away sleep.... Keep a strict watch over a headstrong daughter, lest she make thee a laughing-stock to thine enemies, a byword in the city, and notorious among the people (E. 429-11).

Closer scrutiny of the Wise-men’s thoughts about family life reveals something surprising and gratifying. It might have been expected that in any Eastern society Woman would continue all her days to be held in small esteem, carrying a heavy yoke for scant reward. But the Hebrew proverbs testify on the contrary that when a Jewish woman grew up and became wife or mother she stepped at once into a noble and influential position, enjoying a real share in the honour or prosperity of her husband, and entitled equally with him to the obedience and devotion of her children. No less than the father she was reckoned by the Wise to be the children’s guide and counsellor. She had reasonable opportunity for social intercourse with other persons than the members of her own household, and within her own house was trusted with responsibilities that gave her a large share in the making or marring of its happiness and fortunes. The Wise-men’s ideal of married life is presented in a famous panegyric, which deserves to be given at length, for some writers have declared—not unreasonably in view of the immemorial inferiority to which the women of the East have been condemned—that it is the most remarkable feature of the Book of Proverbs.

The Wise and Loyal Wife

A virtuous woman who can find?

For her worth is far above rubies.

The heart of her husband trusteth in her,

And he shall have no lack of gain.

She doeth him good and not evil

All the days of her life.

She seeketh wool and flax,

And worketh it up as she pleaseth.

She is like the merchant-ships,

Bringing her food from afar.

She riseth also while it is yet night,

And giveth food to her household.

She examines a field and buyeth it;

With her earnings she planteth a vineyard.

She girdeth herself with strength,

And maketh strong her arms.

She perceives that her profit is good;

Her lamp goes not out by night.

She puts out her hand to the distaff,

And layeth hold on the spindle.

She extendeth her hand to the poor;

Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

She feareth not snow for her household,

For all her household are clothed with scarlet.

She maketh her cushions of tapestry;

Her clothing is fine linen and purple.

Her husband is distinguished in the gates,

When he sitteth among the elders of the land.

She maketh linen cloth and sells it,

And delivereth girdles to the merchants.

Strength and dignity are her clothing,

And she laughs at the time to come.

Her speech is full of wisdom,

And kindly instruction is on her tongue.

She looketh well to the ways of her household

And eateth not the bread of idleness.

Industrious, skilful, wise, provident and kind, she is rewarded by the praise and affection of husband and children—

Her husband also, and he praiseth her saying:

“Many daughters have done excellently

But thou excellest them all.”

Wherefore despite the despondent query, A virtuous woman who can find? which somewhat quaintly introduces this eulogy, we may believe that the ideal thus pictured was a reality in many Jewish homes. To be critical, the poem has a touch of the Hausfrau conception which is none too pleasing, but it does not set out to say everything about Woman, and one might fairly read some romance between the lines; certainly the enthusiasm of the last verse has a note of something deeper than “thanks for value received.” To give further assurance, if that be required, we may also quote this happy saying, Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour from the Lord (Pr. 1822).

The treatment of children advocated by the Wise is accurately, although too succinctly, summarised in the notorious “Spare the rod and spoil the child” doctrine (cp. Pr. 1324). Thus we are told, The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself causeth shame to his mother (Pr. 2915)—Withhold not correction from a child, for if thou beat him with the rod he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from Sheol (Pr. 2313, 14). All this sounds merely harsh. But the splendid records of Jewish family life make one suspect that the Wise were sterner in their words than in their deeds, that at least their justice was often tempered with mercy and their discipline with genuine affection. Ben Sirach, the most severe, is also the most encouraging.

Here is a truly forbidding passage: Pamper thy child, and he shall make thee afraid; play with him and he will grieve thee. Laugh not with him, lest thou have sorrow with him and thou shalt gnash thy teeth in the end. Give him no liberty in his youth, and wink not at his follies. Bow down his neck in his youth, and beat him on the sides while he is a child, lest he wax stubborn and be disobedient unto thee, and there shall be sorrow unto thy soul (E. 309-12). But against its ferocious energy set the kindly, peaceable atmosphere of this exhortation in which Ben Sirach expands the fifth commandment on the relations of children to parents:

He that giveth glory to his father shall have length of days, and he that hearkeneth to the Lord shall bring rest to his mother. In word and deed honour thy father that a blessing may come upon thee from him: for the blessing of the father stablisheth the children’s houses, but the curse of the mother rooteth out the foundations.... My son, help thy father in his old age, and grieve him not as long as he liveth. If he fail in understanding, have patience with him, and dishonour him not all the days of his life. For the relieving of thy father shall not be forgotten, and over against thy sins it shall be set to thy credit. In the day of thine affliction it shall be remembered to thine advantage, to put away thine iniquities as the heat melteth hoar-frost (E. 36-9, 12-15).

Further, the severity of the Wise regarding children might seem less repellent if we appreciated more keenly the circumstances of their age. Probably their stern discipline has to be set against a background of disastrous slackness. How were children brought up in the Græco-Syrian cities? Were they sent forth untutored to join the mad dances of unbridled inclination? Was there in but too many Jewish, as well as Hellenic, homes appalling blindness to the need of control and moral training? Great allowance must be made for the Wise, if they were under the necessity of pointing a contrast.

And who can deny the essential wisdom of their attitude? Who dare say that kindness does not lie in an excess of discipline rather than in an excess of indulgence? Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it (Pr. 226). As to the value which the Wise attached to the virtue of filial duty, if further evidence than the quotation just given from Ben Sirach is needed, it lies to hand in proverbs that condemn the deeds of unnatural children, who used violence to their parents (Pr. 1926), or mocked and robbed them (Pr. 3017; 2824). Listen to the indignation in this utterance: Whoso curseth his father and mother, his lamp shall be put out in blackest darkness (Pr. 2020).

The servants of the household are less noticed in the proverbs than one would expect. Usually they were slaves, and the status to our mind suggests hardships and injustice. But the remarkable provisions laid down in the Hebrew Law regarding Hebrew slaves greatly alleviated their lot, preventing or mitigating cruelties which frequently befell the slaves of the Gentile nations. Few topics, in fact, more arrestingly demonstrate the superiority of the moral feeling of the Jews as compared with the Greeks or Romans than the treatment accorded to their respective slaves. In ordinary circumstances the life of the Jewish slave was not unhappy, and to gain freedom might be disaster rather than benefit.

The trustworthy slave found satisfactory and sometimes honourable position in many Jewish households: he was in reality, though not in theory, a member of the home. On the other hand, among the Greeks and Romans the slave was regarded strictly as property, not necessarily to be treated as a human being. If a man chose to misuse or destroy his “property,” so be it! It was solely his affair. If he chose to wreak his anger at a certain cost to himself, no more need be said on the subject. Doubtless theory and practice did not always agree, and some Roman slaves were happy and well cared for, and some Jewish were miserable.

But, generally speaking, it is true that the Jews were more humane to their servants than the Gentiles, although the evidence of the proverbs would not lead one to think so. Here, for instance, is a sufficiently sinister saying: A servant will not be corrected by words, for though he understand he will not answer (Pr. 2919). Similarly when Ben Sirach counsels a measure of restraint in dealing with a slave he does so on the Græco-Roman ground that he is part of one’s possessions, and therefore not to be spent foolishly (E. 3330, 31); and he says bluntly and indeed brutally, Fodder, a stick, and burdens for an ass; bread and discipline, and work for a servant.

Set thy servant to work, and thou shalt have rest: leave his hands idle, and he will seek liberty. Yoke and thong will bow the neck, and for an evil servant there are racks and tortures. Set him to work, as is fit for him; and if he obey not, make his fetters heavy (E. 33{24-28}). On the other side, however, may be set this proverb: A servant that acteth wisely shall have rule over a son that doeth shamefully, and shall inherit among the brethren (Pr. 172), and Ben Sirach does something to redeem himself in these gentler sentiments, Entreat not evil a servant that worketh truly nor a hireling that giveth thee his life. Let thy soul love a wise servant; defraud him not of liberty (E. 720, 21).

III.—Ideals of Society

The duties of men in general social relationships afforded a wide field for the application of wisdom. In expressing their views on these topics, the Sages said little that was original, much that was truly wise.

The perfect State will be one in which justice between man and man never faileth, and its operation must range from the highest to the lowest in the land. As for the great ones of the earth, the fateful consequences of their conduct is emphasised as follows: As a roaring lion and a ranging bear, so is a wicked ruler over a poor people (Pr. 2815)—By justice the king establisheth the land, but he that exacteth gifts overthroweth it (Pr. 294); and that the latter type of monarch or official was, alas! more than an evil dream is naïvely vouched for by the existence of a most unideal, if frank, intimation that A gift in secret pacifieth anger, and a present in the purse strong wrath (Pr. 2114).

Princes are exhorted to temperance, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes to say ‘Where is strong drink?’ lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the judgement of the afflicted” (Pr. 314, 5); to justice, and consideration of the lowly, The king that faithfully judgeth the poor, his throne shall be established for ever (Pr. 2914); to kindness and truth, Mercy and truth preserve the king, and he upholdeth his throne by mercy (Pr. 2028). Two other sayings are worthy of mention; one a subtle proverb, It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the glory of kings to search out a matter (Pr. 252); the other ominous, The heaven for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of kings is unsearchable (Pr. 253).

But this demand for right-dealing is extended throughout the body politic: honesty was required in the courts of law from the witness (Pr. 2428) and from the judge (Pr. 1723); from dealers in shop and market (Pr. 2023); and generally from all men, in a saying which is a significant and ringing echo of the Prophets’ work in Israel: To do justice and judgement is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (Pr. 213).

Turning next to the disorders of society we find that the Wise set their face against the following offences. Land-grabbing, they declare, is a sin God will assuredly punish (Pr. 2310, 11), and so also oppression of the poor, Rob not the poor because he is poor, nor crush the afflicted in the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause and despoil of life those that despoil them (Pr. 2222, 23). Warnings are given against lawlessness: Envy not thou the man of violence, and choose none of his ways; for the perverse are an abomination unto the Lord, but His friendship is with the upright (Pr. 331, 32); and in Pr. 111ff, there is an amusing description of outlaws enticing a novice to join them: “Come with us, let us lay wait for blood.... We shall fill our houses with spoil. Thou shalt cast thy lot amongst us; we will all have one purse.

Against drunkenness there is this effective saying: Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath quarrels? who hath complainings? who hath wounds without cause? who hath dimness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine, that go to seek out mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goeth down smoothly. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder (Pr. 2329-31). Still greater stress was laid on the peril of unchastity, and there are many earnest entreaties to shun the seductions of wicked women (cp. Pr. 51-14; 620-727): My son, attend to my wisdom, incline thine ear to my understanding, that thou mayest preserve discretion and thy lips keep knowledge. For the lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but her latter end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword: her feet go down to death, and her steps take hold on Sheol.

The spread of Hellenic civilisation in Palestine had increased luxury and sensuality, and in these matters the Wise doubtless were combating the most prominent vices of the age. Another common fault of town life which merited and received their vehement rebuke was malice against neighbours: to the portrait of the Slanderer already given (see p. 122) two proverbs may here be added: Devise not evil against thy neighbour seeing he dwelleth securely beside thee (Pr. 329)—and this grand one, Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein, and he that rolleth a stone, it shall return upon him (Pr. 2627).

Several interesting maxims of the Wise concerning Wealth and Poverty are kept for consideration in a subsequent chapter, and some have already been recorded, but the topic is one so intimately affecting the common weal that here also it must receive mention. These Wisdom proverbs are sometimes charged with exhibiting too mundane an attitude towards riches, so frankly and unreservedly do certain of them recognise the material advantages wealth confers. For the moment, however, we are not concerned with a general judgment but with noting ideals. Isolating therefore the nobler sayings, we find emphasis rightly laid on the broad distinction between just and unjust gains.

For the former riches, which were the reward of diligence and shrewd but upright conduct, there is cordial approbation. Our deeper modern perplexities as to the proper distribution of wealth was of course beyond the Wise-men’s ken; it is enough that we find them clear on the issue presented to their day and generation: The treasures of wickedness, said they, profit nothing (Pr. 102)—Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity than he that is perverse in his ways, though he be rich (Pr. 286)—Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice (Pr. 168), and lastly the noble passage (Pr. 307-9, see p. 121) in praise of the Golden Mean will perhaps be remembered.

Further the Sages were stern in denunciation of greed and of indifference to the needs of the poor and defenceless: for instance, He that augmenteth his substance by usury and interest gathereth for him that hath pity on the poor (Pr. 288)—The Lord will root up the house of the proud, but he will establish the property of the widow (Pr. 1525); and correspondingly, they exalted the virtues of generosity and kindly help He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack, but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse (Pr. 2827)—Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in thy power to do it. Say not unto thy neighbour, “Go, and come again, and to-morrow I will give,” when thou hast it by thee (Pr. 327, 28).

The ideals of the Sages, so far as they are immediately visible in the proverbs, have now been given, at least in broad outline. It remains to sum up and to consider the result. Of the vices condemned, deeds of violence and sins of the flesh are prominent enough, but (and the fact is remarkable) almost equal stress is laid on the iniquity of many of the sins of the spirit. Thus, pride, jealousy, malice, revenge, contentiousness, and all forms of dishonesty, guile, and treachery are the way of the wicked; whereas humility, charity, peaceableness, purity of heart, and honest purpose mark the upright man. To be indolent, obstinate, and passionate in speech or action is characteristic of the fool intellectual and the fool ethical; whereas the sensible man is diligent, faithful to his friends, helpful to his neighbours, tactful and teachable. On the last point the Wise were urgent, and they deserve praise for their insight: that men have need to be apt to learn, not merely when they are young and ignorant, but after they have attained maturity and learnt much, is doctrine as important as it is unpopular. The frigid discipline advised by the

Sages for the upbringing of children must be admitted to be harsh, but perhaps the conditions of the age almost dictated it, and at least it reflects the value that the Wise most rightly placed on learning young. Moreover, stern as their rule may seem, they did not deem it incompatible with the growth of affection and trust between fathers and sons. Of womanly virtue they held a high ideal, and the esteem felt for the good wife and wise mother was, for the ancient world, extraordinarily great. Ideal relations between master and servant were conceived in terms of fidelity, care for the interests of both parties, and possibly of friendship.

In the perfect State there would be an upright government, riches acquired by just means only, and generous care to preserve the poor from suffering. There would be commercial honesty, thrift and industry; no slander, no impurity, no impiety, but only honourable and prudent conduct: in short, a peaceful, prosperous, kindly and contented society, devoted primarily to the pursuit neither of comfort nor of pleasure nor of riches, but of high Wisdom. Finally, as the climax, we must remember those exalted proverbs demanding the exercise of mercy, forgiveness, mutual help and love.

The standard of character the Wise thus set before men is open to adverse comment. It savours of salvation by merit. That therefore it falls below the Christian ideal, and below the majestic and penetrating conception of human possibilities that the great Hebrew Prophets urged, is undeniable. But such radical criticism may for the moment be put aside; later on we shall discuss what may be the relative values of the Wise-men’s words and works. For the present all that is desirable is to consider certain surprising features which the reader may have noted in this outline of Good and Evil.

First, then, there are curious deficiencies in the list of the Virtues. Several qualities we admire are ignored or touched rarely and with hesitation, as for example Courage. But, with one exception, these gaps in the Ideal are not so serious as might appear. The proverbs do not show all that was in their authors’ minds and hearts. Altogether fallacious, as we shall see later, would be the notion that the prudence of the Wise was really pusillanimous, that they had in reality no place for courage in their conception of life, as they have little or no room for its mention in their proverbs. The valid inference from these absences is only that, as Toy says, “the Wise attached more importance to other qualities as effective forces in the struggle of life.” But what can possibly be said concerning the apparent absence of Religion, the exception alluded to above? That which one looked to find in the foreground of the picture—where is it? Yet even in this point the plea just made might be repeated.

The immediate object of the Wise was to commend certain ethical conduct as being, despite appearances, the right line to follow in order to command true success in the contingencies of daily life; and in pursuance of that task they could say a great many things without requiring to express their views on ritual worship or theological belief. Still, when the point at issue is a man’s love for religion, to plead simply that he more or less ignored it in his teaching because other qualities seemed more effective in the struggle of life, would verily be a thin apology. The real reply to this serious charge is vastly stronger. It is the admission that our exposition of the Wise-men’s thoughts has not been fair to them. One emphatic and reiterated proverb of theirs, which is evidently a key-proverb and interpretative of the general tenor of all their teaching, has not yet been given, and it is essentially religious:



(Pr. 910; 17).

Consider the implication. The word “foundation” (usually rendered “beginning”) in Hebrew unites the notions both of “beginning” and “best”; and “fear,” of course, is to be interpreted religiously as “reverence” not as “terror.” Such awe of God (say the Wise) is to be reckoned the commencement of Wisdom and also Wisdom’s quintessence: it is both the root and the fruit of perfect living. Now Wisdom was the sublime source to which the Sages traced back even the simplest of their counsels, and the most practical of their observations on men and affairs; it was the creative sun, the derivative proverbs being, as it were, the rays by which its light is distributed over the whole of life.

But now it appears that this sun and centre of all things itself was conceived as rising out of religious faith, for when the Sages considered this high Wisdom and asked what was its sum and substance, they answered, “The fear of the Lord,” and, when they wondered what might be its origin, again they answered, “God.” The fundamental importance of this one saying would therefore be obvious even if it stood alone as a solitary expression of faith. But other religious proverbs occur as we shall note in due course; for example, Ben Sirach’s opening words, All wisdom cometh from the Lord, and is ever with him (E. 11), or this—Trust in the Lord with all thy heart, and lean not on thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall make plain thy path (Pr. 35, 6). Such sayings may not be numerous in comparison with the secular sayings, but there are enough of them to show that the great proverb quoted above is not an isolated sentiment of formal piety thrust into a mass of worldly-wisdom for appearance’s sake.

The soul of the Wise-men cannot accurately be gauged by deducting the few religious from the many non-religious proverbs, and drawing the inference that these men must have cared very little for God and overwhelmingly much for worldly prosperity. Human nature guards its secrets from such cynical or mechanical treatment. Rather will it be true that when, as here, even one earnest plea is made for the love of God as the ultimate inspiration of conduct, that will give us the heart of the whole matter to which all else is subsidiary and only to be interpreted in and through the underlying religious faith. Matter-of-fact, prudential, moralisms might be far more numerous than they are in these Jewish proverbs, and still it would not follow that the Wise-men were devoid of religious feeling or fervour. Some doubtless were, but others assuredly were not, and all (save an occasional sceptic) would have stoutly maintained the view that their counsel was derived from the ultimate, fundamental doctrine of “the fear of the Lord.”

The second obvious point of criticism is the indefiniteness apparent in this so-called Ideal of the Wise. Their ethic may justly be called redundant, or defective, or both; and in truth their Utopia, even in its broad outline, does seem too confused and too fragmentary to provide any coherent scheme. Contrast the relatively clear-cut work of the Hellenic thinkers who, starting also from similar vague popular notions of ethics, correlated, combined, and sifted the material until, as in the Stoic and other philosophies, precisely formulated systems were elaborated. Was not the Jewish lack of method fatal to effective teaching? No.

The Wise did not, indeed could not, construct a strict unity out of their free-and-easy, uncorrelated aims. But they were not candidates for a degree in Moral Sciences, nor are their doctrines here exhibited as a satisfactory substitute for modern social philosophy. Their thinking, as a matter of fact, was definite enough to serve their day and generation. The position was not quite so serious as it may appear from a theoretical point of view. In reality, the Sages knew very well what they were aiming at, and had a reasonably clear idea of the type of character they wished to see developed in themselves and other men. Now it is fortunate that in the pages of Ecclesiasticus we possess not a little information about the thoughts, habits, and fortunes of its author, Jesus ben Sirach; for this man, though doubtless not a perfect embodiment of Wisdom, provides just what we most require at this point of our study—a historical figure, and an admirable and typical representative of his class. To envisage him will humanise our notion of the Wise-men and may give to their ideals a coherence which in the abstract they may seem to lack.

Jesus ben Sirach was a Jew of Jerusalem who lived about 250 to 180 B.C.; that is, well on in the period of Hellenic influence. By profession a scribe, he seems all his days to have been a man of earnest mind, naturally inclined to intellectual and literary pursuits. He was of good family, and presumably possessed of considerable means, to judge by his life-long leisure for study, the tone of his remarks on wealth, his easy and regular participation in social entertainment, and his foreign travels, which provided the one stirring episode in a placid career. From some remarks in his book we gather that his travels were undertaken whilst he was still a young man.

Just when and where he journeyed is uncertain, but since he says that he came into touch with a foreign Court, in all probability he visited the great cities of Egypt and the Court of Alexandria. The important point is that his tour was not without excitement and real peril (E. 3412, 513ff). Through some lying and malicious gossip he had the misfortune to incur royal displeasure, suffered imprisonment, and, in his own firm opinion, was for a time in gravest danger of losing his life. Such an experience is inevitably a severe test of any man’s mettle, and is doubly sure to produce a deep impression on the mind of one so naturally unadventurous as Ben Sirach.

His comments on the matter are therefore a valuable clue to his character. He took the view that his travels, notwithstanding the danger, had been a great and lasting benefit, an experience in which anyone who aspired to be counted wise would do well to imitate him. It had proved worth all the hardship and anxiety—a fine broadening influence: He that hath no experience knoweth few things, but he that hath travelled shall increase his skill. Many things, he reflects, have I seen in my wanderings (E. 3410). The other impression left by his adventures was the paramount value of Israel’s Wisdom. In the hour of his danger he would have perished but for the principles of discreet and honest conduct in which Wisdom had instructed him. (E. 3412).

He returned from abroad to settle for the rest of his days in beloved Jerusalem, where he became an honoured citizen, a man of considerable weight socially as well as intellectually, and a notable exponent of Wisdom, whose advice in the manifold affairs of daily life was sought and respected. There are grounds for thinking that for some years he may have conducted a regular school for instruction in the science of Wisdom. He was a thorough townsman, loving the busy life of his city, keenly observant of its varied occupations and appreciative of all opportunities of human intercourse.

So far from thinking of him as a scholarly recluse, careless of all save his duties as a scribe or teacher, we have to picture a man who enjoyed dining out with his friends; no glutton, yet a frank connoisseur of food and wine. Feasting he considered a subject not to be trifled with, as is shown by the rules for polite behaviour, which he is careful in all seriousness to detail in his book. As for his faults, one suspects that in public he was inclined to be dictatorial and perhaps pompous, but he possessed a saving grace of humour. In his home, if we are to trust his own assertions, he must have been a strict disciplinarian.

Many of his sayings are too worldly-wise to be commendable. Now and then he is cynical, and for the out-and-out fool he allows no hope: to essay teaching such an one is as futile as glueing a broken potsherd together (E. 227); and again, Seven days are the days of mourning for the dead, but for a fool all the days of his life (E. 2212)! Still, Ben Sirach was no pessimist about humanity, and his judgments of men for the most part are kindly and hopeful.

The outstanding feature of his personality was his breadth of interest. “Whether it is upon the subject of behaviour at table, or concerning a man’s treatment of a headstrong daughter, or about the need of keeping a guard over one’s tongue, or concerning the folly of a fool, or the delights of a banquet, or whether he is dealing with self-control, borrowing, loose women, slander, diet, the miser, the spendthrift, the hypocrite, the parasite, keeping secrets, giving alms, standing surety, mourning for the dead, and a large variety of other topics—he has always something to say, which for sound and robust common-sense is of abiding value.”

Except that he puts the point in his own way, there is in matter or opinion little in Ben Sirach’s book that could not be paralleled from the Book of Proverbs. But in manner an interesting difference is observable. Ecclesiasticus is far and away superior in point of literary charm. It has the merit of constant variety, and in places real grace of expression, for to a much greater degree than in the Book of Proverbs Ben Sirach has developed the brief unit-proverb into epigrams and sonnets, short essays, eulogies and longer odes; and although the unit-proverb is still frequent, it is no longer the sum and substance of the book. Thus by the skilful use of the more elaborate forms, the almost unrelieved disjointedness that detracts so seriously from the pleasure of reading Proverbs is triumphantly overcome.

In criticism of Ben Sirach’s ethical attainments, one is inclined to call attention to the juxtaposition of great and little matters which he perpetrates in his book: a feature also to be observed in Proverbs. Questions of fundamental moral law and trivialities of etiquette are astonishingly conjoined, apparently without his feeling the least sense of the absurdity. Thus he bids his pupil be ashamed “of unjust dealing before a partner and a friend, of theft in the place where he sojourns, and of falsifying an oath and a covenant, and of leaning on the table with the elbow when at meat” (E. 4117-19)! Manners and morals, one is driven to suppose, had not been sufficiently differentiated in general opinion. Then also, just when our respect for Ben Sirach is quietly increasing, he is apt to dismay us by interjecting some most unideal observation, as when immediately after delivering a stinging censure on lying speech, he remarks (E. 2029) that gifts which blind the eyes of the Wise, and are a muzzle on the mouth, are an effective way of appeasing influential persons.

Nevertheless, as one reads his book, the conviction deepens that Ben Sirach was sincere and earnest in his profession of morality, and such falls from grace as the proverb just quoted are probably due to his anxiety to give an honest representation of the facts of life. It has been said in his favour that he was no platitudinarian, by which, of course, is not meant that his book contains no platitudes, but only that in face of the supreme problems of human existence he did not cravenly blink the facts, but faced them and sought to do justice to them; as for instance when, writing of death, he owns that to a healthy and prosperous man it is wholly a “bitter remembrance” (E. 411).

From youth to his dying day this man loved and served Wisdom, and his volume is a storehouse of many noble and valuable thoughts. It may be charged against the authors of Proverbs that they paid scant regard to the peculiar national aspirations of their race. If so, Ben Sirach can be acquitted on that score. He had a thoroughly patriotic outlook, for he makes it quite clear that to his mind Judaism was the real home of Wisdom and the truly wise man is a loyal Jew obedient to the Law. His sense of the marvel of the world as a revelation of divine power, which he expresses in two chapters of considerable ability, shows that he was not without poetic feeling. All his thinking rested on belief in a great and holy God, Source of all Wisdom, in whom he exhorts men to put their trust, from whom they must ever seek guidance.

A worthy citizen! Of whom does he remind us? Surely of such a man as was Horace, strolling on the Appian Way, pleased with himself and with his fortunes, much interested in the pageant of life, keenly observant both of the faults and the graces of his fellows, humorous, shrewd and kindly? Or of Chaucer, part courtier, part business man of London town, yet with a quick eye and swift sympathy for the deeper issues in the human drama? Or (to come nearer our own days) of Pepys, with his matter-of-fact ways, his sturdy, average morality, and his honest enjoyment of the good things of life? Or of Dr. Johnson, with his natural pomposity and his big, generous soul? Yes, of all these; but Ben Sirach had one great quality that perhaps none of these possessed to the same extent—a most earnest sense of duty in regard to his fellow men, a whole-hearted desire to give them the advantage of the lessons life had taught him.

Perhaps the reader is disappointed still. When the utmost has been said for these ideals, he may feel that there is no new insight into the mystery of things, and no irresistible appeal to conscience. But remember that even an imperfect Cause and an inadequate Ideal, provided the fundamental aim be generous and sound, may be the source of real and lasting benefits to men, for life is such that the goal we fain would reach instantaneously must, as a matter of fact, be approached by small advances, which therefore ought not be despised. The Wise, it is true, were neither perfect Saints nor complete Philosophers, but our subject is the Humanism of the Jewish proverbs, and if even this Ben Sirach, model pupil of Wisdom, is not a wholly inspiring figure—is he not very human? Moreover, the utmost has not yet been said on behalf of the Sages.

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