The Book of Proverbs is generally described as belonging to a branch of Hebrew literature which has for its subject Wisdom, or, as we should say, Philosophy. This view has some truth in it; but it does not express the whole truth, as will appear from an analysis of the book, and a careful examination of its constituent parts.
The book makes no claim to unity of authorship; it is avowedly a collection, and includes the work of others besides Solomon the king. Hence, though in some sections there may be wisdom of a general order, in others one may find cautions and counsels which were intended for a particular individual, and not for "all sorts and conditions of men"; and which therefore, are not abstract Wisdom in the sense implied by most expositors of the book.
The conviction that this is the case will grow upon those who discriminate the material of which the book is composed, noting the varying motives of the writers, and the outstanding characteristics of their proverbs, or sayings.
On the surface one distinguishes four divisions -- The Proverbs of Solomon, the Words of the Wise, the Words of Agur, and the Words of Lemuel. As these several writings may be easily distinguished, there is no reason why we should summarily conclude that all the sections are of the "Wisdom" order.
Taken as a whole, the material rightly answers to the description of "Proverbs" (ch. 1, v. 1), or sententious sayings, generally completed in the distich, or verse of two lines; but, as the authorship is complex, so also there may be diversity of motive and object in the writings.
The present contention is that, while the Proverbs of Solomon may consist of teaching for all and sundry -- dealing with prudence, discretion, and the conduct of life -- the sections which contain "the Words of the Wise" were intended as instruction for a prince, and therefore designed to teach elementary lessons in policy and statecraft, even to show a young ruler how he might "cleanse his way", as the representative of Jehovah upon the throne of Israel. These parts of the book have hitherto been treated as if designed to emphasize certain commands of the Decalogue : whereas, in reality, they demand closer attention, as dealing with the dangers and temptations such as would inevitably beset a king on the throne of Israel.
Hence, in a word, we find in the first twenty-nine chapters of the book several series of Proverbs which were FOR Solomon, and again several series which were BY Solomon. (*2) Between the two classes there is a wide difference. Of those that were FOR the king, being, in fact, "Words of the Wise" (men, or teachers), given for the instruction of the young man, it may be said that, having a relation to the principles with were fundamental in the Divinely ordained constitution of Israel, they stand apart from the class of Proverbs which enunciated by Solomon himself, were more of less generally concerned with the life and behavior of the individual Israelite of the time.
The following is an analysis of the book from the point of view thus propounded :--
A. GENERAL INTRODUCTION -- TITLE
(ch. 1. vv. 1-6).
Misapprehension on the part of the Massorites or their predecessors in the editing of the text, let to inclusion in the title of the line which, as heading, opens Section I. "The Words of the Wise and their dark sayings", or sententious utterances.
1. "Words of the Wise" (men, or teachers) -- addresses by a father to a son, or rather by a teacher to a pupil, the distinctive terms being the same (v. 6-). The addresses are fifteen in number, and all of them introduced by the formula "My son" (1:7-7:27). The general subject of this section is embodied in the words "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction" (v. 7). The "son" is addressed directly, "thou" and "thee", "thy" being also used; and again and again he is warned, in the most solemn terms, against "the strange woman," i.e. the foreign or alien woman -- such women having from time to time led astray any Israelites that consorted with them. Recall the allurements of the daughters of Moab; and the cases of Samson and Ahab. In other sections "my son" is warned against "sinners" and "the wicked", -- that is, the heathen who knew not the true God, but who were haters of righteousness, lovers of war, and given to oppression. He is, in particular, counseled not to "strike hands" with such -- i.e. not to enter into alliance or covenant with any such.
2. Two addresses, in the former of which (ch. 8, E5) Wisdom makes her claim upon the devotion of one who is urged to esteem her as better than gold or silver, and is reminded that by Wisdom alone can kings reign and princes decree justice; while in the latter (ch. 9), Wisdom and Folly are contrasted, the fear of Jehovah (or piety, as we know it to have been esteemed in Israel) is magnified, and a warning is uttered against the foolish woman, already introduced as "the strange woman", with whom no Israelite should have any association -- assuredly no king in Israel should seek her company. In this section the address is sometimes to "ye", "them", "they" (that is, in the plural); at other times to "thee", "thou" (i.e. in the singular number). So far, after the title of the book, we have met with no mention of Solomon; and none of his work. Hitherto, we have had proverbs which Solomon was taught.
3. A collection of Proverbs by Solomon, being so described in the opening verse (10:1 C). if the contents of sections 1 and 2 (A 1:-6-9:18, p. 864), already described, had been by Solomon, there would have been no need in this place for the introductory line "The Proverbs of Solomon." The mode of address is quite unlike that of section 1, with its second person of the pronoun; the proverbs are not spoken to "my son", but they mention "he" and "him", using generally the third person of the pronoun. Apparently, they continue to ch. 19:26, or thereabouts. They were for men in general to learn, and not for a prince or distinguished individual (as "my son").
4. Another section of addresses to "my son" begins with 19:20 (D, p. 864) or thereabouts; and continues to the end of ch. 24. Here we have further lessons upon the ways of a king -- like those of the earlier sections of the book, but quite unmatched by anything in "The Proverbs of Solomon" (see 19:27, "My son"; and "the king" 20:2, 8, 26, 28; 21:1; 22:11). These are "Words of the Wise" (men, or teachers) : this is twice affirmed (22:17; 24:23 R.V.); and the occurrences of the formula "my son" are six in number (19:27; 23:15, 19, 26; 24:13, 21). The counsels, like those of the sections 1 and 2, are such as would eminently befit a prince in Israel : "my son" is instructed to regard the fear of the LORD as more desirable than riches (22:1, 4). Apparently the words are addressed to one who is to sit among rulers (23:1); one whose duty it is, for the present, to fear the king as well as God (24:21); but one who is learning the duties of judicial administration (20:8, 26, 28; 21:3; 22:11). There is nothing commonplace in warnings against "having respect of persons" in judgment : such counsel is for a ruler (24:23, 24). In this section again the foreign woman is denounced (22:14; 23:27, 33); and riches are shown to be of no account in comparison with wisdom and righteousness (20:15; 21:6; 23:4). In the earlier portion of this division the pronouns are mostly in the third person, "he" and "him"; afterwards in the second person, "thou", "thy", and "thee". The counsels are manifestly such as King Solomon should have taken to heart.
5. A second collection of Proverbs by Solomon -- chapters 25 and 26 (see opening verse of chapter 25, C, p. 864). The book having been brought into its present shape in the reign of King Hezekiah, this section was "copied out" by the scribes of that time. They would find in the royal library at Jerusalem many writings for the good of the nation, and among them some of the best utterances of Solomon, as well as of his father David, who was likewise a great patron of literature. The things said about kings are what might as well be expected from one who was himself the occupant of a throne (25:2-7).
6. Without special introduction, ch. 27 (D) begins another series of "Words of the Wise". The indication is found in the substance of the proverbs, which are so obviously designed as instruction for a prince, and also in the occurrence of the formula "my son" (27:11). The general applicability of these words to the case of a ruler in Israel is obvious (see 28:2, 6-8, 16; 29:4, 12, 14, 26).
7. The words of Agur, the son of Jakeh (ch. 30, A, p. 864).
8. The words of King Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him (31:1-9), leading to the poem on
9. The virtuous woman (31:10-31).
In order to a proper understanding of "the Words of the Wise", it is
needful to bear in mind the following facts :--
(1) The word "father" is used for a teacher -- 2Kings 2:12; 6:21; 13:14 (cp. Judg. 17:10; 18:19); and thus came to be the common designation of the Jewish Rabbins.
(2) The word "son" is used for a pupil -- 1Sam. 3:6, 16; 1Kings 20:35; 2Kings 2:3, 5, 7, 15, and elsewhere; for the Israelitish prophets, in some cases, conducted schools for young men, and received from them the obedience which was due to parents, in whose place they stood for the time being. In this connection, note the words of remorse, suggested as used by "my son" in the event of disobedience : I "have not obeyed the voice of MY TEACHERS, nor inclined mine ear to THEM THAT INSTRUCTED ME" (ch. 5:13).
Again (3) : The expressions "sinners", "wicked", "fools", and "hypocrites" were applied in Israel to the heathen, and those who followed their ways (Isa. 13:11; 14:5 : cp. Ps. 9:5; 26:5; Prov. 3:33; 28:4, 28; 29:2). Though, as suggested, dealing with politics, the "Words of the Wise" are in the language of the school; and the prince to whom the wise men address themselves is led to view the surrounding nations and their ways from the standpoint of those who find the beginning and end of knowledge in "the fear of the LORD".
(4) The "strange woman", whether answering to the Hebrew word zarah or nokriah, was not an erring Israelite, but an ALIEN woman, to traffic with whom would inevitably lead to declension from the Lord. Both Hebrew words are found in ch. 5:20; and in ch. 6 (22 ff.) the subject is extended, and associated with adultery, in order that personal purity may be properly emphasized. As the Divine intention was that Israel should be separate from the nations of the earth (Deut. 7:6, and refs. : cp. Ezek. 20:32 ff.), it follows that the consorting with "strange women" implied contempt of the covenant purpose of God in regard to the elect family of Abraham. There were, moreover, other consequences. In the event of the transgressor being of the seed royal, such acts would bring confusion, and would imperil the dynasty of David, the king of Jehovah's choice; while all such offenders in Israel were thereby liable to be led into idolatry (Ex. 34:16).
Through misinterpretation of ch. 2:17, some have held that the "strange woman" was an adulteress of the house of Israel, and this has excluded from view the aspect which has thus far been presented. Careful examination of the passage, however, finds in the word "god", as here employed, no reference to Jehovah, but rather to the national "god", or gods, of the "alien woman". In this verse the teacher would emphasize the audacity of the flatterer : "she forsaketh the guide of her youth, and forgetteth the covenant of her god". That is, leaving her own people in Philistia, Edom, Moab, or Egypt, she has assumed the part of an adventuress, and come among a community of whose God she knows nothing.
It was quite in order, on the one hand, to speak of nations as the people of their god (Num. 21:29 : cp. 2Kings 11:17; Ps. 47:9); and likewise, on the other hand, to speak of gods as the gods of distinctive peoples. (Judg. 11:23; Jer. 43:12; 48:7 : cp. Josh. 7:13; Judg. 5:3, 5; Isa. 8:19; 40:1). The usage thus indicated was sanctified in relation to the faithful in many passages of Holy Scripture : see the divergent courses of Orpha and Ruth (Ruth 1:15, 16), and compare the gracious words of Jehovah : "I will be YOUR God, and ye shall be MY People" (Lev. 26:12 : cp. Ex. 6:7; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:27; Zech. 13:9).
Another ground for the contention that the "strange woman" merely means an Israelite of evil reputation has been found by some in ch. 7:19, 20 -- "the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey", &c. This, however, proves nothing against the position taken up in the analysis now presented. In fact, it may be assumed that, in the days of Solomon (as ever since) female corrupters of men, alien or otherwise, included some who had the protection of husbands, or men who sustained such a relation.
Thus we fine "the Words of the Wise" to have been addressed by teachers to Solomon the prince, teachers whose desire it was to instruct him in the ways of his father's God : in fact, both parents are mentioned (1:8; 6:20). Accordingly, these sections of the book deal with the domestic politics of Israel. After the opening verse there is no mention of the nation in specific terms; but the fear of the Lord, the pious service of Jehovah, is inculcated as fundamental. The "Words" or "Sayings", as the title of the book intimates, treat of "discretion" and "wise dealing", as these are shown to relate to "the fear of the LORD". Moreover, the "Words" range themselves in classes that were distinctly anticipated in the Pentateuch as proper subjects for the consideration of rulers in Israel. This fact has am important bearing upon the age of the book, and also upon the age of other portions of the Old Testament.
For instance : in Deut. 17:14-20 it is stipulated that, if, on settlement in the Land of Canaan, the People should desire a king, then in such matter they should have regard to the Divine choice, which would be, not to put responsibility upon a foreigner, but upon "one from among thy brethren". The stipulations are continued thus : (1) He shall not multiply horses, after the manner of the Egyptians; (2) he shall not multiply wives, who might "turn away his heart" from God; (3) he shall not greatly multiply to himself silver and gold; (4) he shall make a copy of the Law, and read therein daily, that he may learn to fear the Lord; (5) all this is to be to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, and never lack successors on the throne. Moreover, in Deut. 7:2-5 (cp. Ex. 34:12 ff., and Josh. 23:12, 13) it is laid down that the Israelites should destroy the Canaanites and their symbols of worship; should make no covenant with them, and should guard against intermarriage with them; the last-named prohibition being supported by the warning that it would lead to apostasy from Jehovah : "They will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods."
To the thoughtful reader of the Book of Proverbs it is clear that the sanctions and prohibitions of these passages of the Pentateuch form the warp and woof of the teaching of the wise men to whose care the son of David was committed. The Proverbs of Solomon, strictly so called, as found in sections 3 and 5 of the book, are quite distinct from "The Words of the Wise", as given in sections 1, 2, 4 and 6, and addressed to "my son". The prince was, in these latter, diligently fortified against practices that would bring about religious apostasy, and eventuate in dynastic disaster. Hence, in these divisions of the book, we find instruction which answers with precision to the stipulations given in the Pentateuch, thus :-- (1) Horses are treated as no account, for "victory is of the Lord" (21:31). (2) The taking of foreign wives is condemned with unceasing energy (2:16 ff.; 6:24 ff.; 7:5 ff.). (3) Gold and silver, riches, are declared to be inferior to the fear of the Lord; in fact, to be at the disposal of wisdom, and therefore not to be desired apart therefrom (3:16; 8:18, 19; 22:1-4; 23:4, 5; 27:24; 28:6-8). (4) The majesty of the Law is affirmed, and to keep it is a mark of wisdom; while the Law cannot offer acceptable worship to God (6:20-23; 28:4-9; 29:18). (5) Obedience is commended, and shown to bring prolongation of life (3:2, 16; 4:10; 9:11; cp. 10:27).
These several points agree with the stipulations of Deut. 17, as we have indicated them in the light of Deut. 7. Further, as the ruler was not to make covenant with the nations, so also we find denunciations of alliance with "sinners" and "strangers", as distinct from women (1:10-15), "come with us ... one purse" (6:1; cp. 20:26); also counsels against following the ways of the nations in regard to war (1:10-18; 3:30, 31; 4:14-17). The lessons were of the utmost gravity; but, as we know, they were not, in their entirety, taken to heart but the young prince.
When, at length, Solomon was called upon to make his life-choice, he rightly prayed for wisdom rather than wealth; and, as we know, was given "a wise and understanding heart", also, in addition, that which he did not request, "both riches and honor" (1Kings 3:9-13). Hence, in his own Proverbs, Solomon spoke in praise of wisdom (13:1; 14:1), and accorded a secondary place to riches (11:28; 13:7, 8; 14:24; 15:6, 16; 16:16; 18:11). That teaching, however, which was of the greatest moment, he did not receive and hold fast. Accordingly we peruse his Proverbs in vain for any warnings against the "strange woman". Clearly this lesson was not learnt. Hence, in the record of his life (1Kings 11) we read :--
King Solomon loved many strange women (the plural of the word nokriah), together with the daughters of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you : for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods : Solomon clave unto these in love (1, 2).
The words "concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel" take us back to Ex. 34:16, and Deut. 7:3, 4. The thing that was apprehended took place. We further read :--
It came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods : and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and went not fully after the LORD, as did David his father. Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods (4-8).
In further contempt of the will of the Lord for his kingdom, Solomon introduced horses from Egypt (1Kings 10:26-29; cp. ch. 9:19). The result was terrible. The kingdom was divided, in execution of the purpose set forth in 1Kings 11:11-13, and the ten tribes taken from under Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, of whom we read the significant (and repeated) words : "His mother's name was Naamah THE AMMONITESS" (1Kings 14:21, 31). And primarily this evil came from the folly of the king in consorting with foreign women, in defiance of the instructions of teachers whose words have come down to us in "the Words of the Wise". Such conduct was a breach of the Divine covenant. The serious view which was taken of all such proceedings by the pious Israelite may be gathered from the words and deeds of Ezra the Scribe, at the time of the Return (Ezra 9, 10 passim; cp. Neh. 13:23 ff. See also Josephus Antiq. VIII. vii. 5).
Having thus discriminated the Proverbs, and seen that, while some were written BY Solomon, others were written FOR him, we suggest that the instruction which was given to the young prince shows an intimate acquaintance with Israelitish policy, as Divinely ordained, and set out in the Book of Deuteronomy. That is to say, in the tenth century B.C., the cautions and warnings given in Duet. 7 and 17 were developed in detail by those who were charged with the education of him who was to succeed King David on the throne of Israel.
Yet the theory has been advanced, and is by many maintained, that the Book of Deuteronomy had no existence in the age of Solomon! Indeed, it has been boldly declared that Deuteronomy was written in the reign of Manasseh, some time near 650 B.C. And, naturally, scholars, who have not been able to distinguish allusions to the book in the early Prophets, have not been careful to look for any reflection of its teaching in the Book of Proverbs, which, so readily, has been placed in its entirety in the class of Wisdom Literature. Now, however, with due place and significance given to "the Words of the Wise", we see that the Fifth Book of the Pentateuch is demanded in the history of Israel over three hundred years before the time of its presumed "discovery" in the days of Manasseh, and still longer before its suggested fabrication in the days of Josiah.
If that is so, then the facts before us furnish another reason for profound distrust in regard to a system of criticism which exhibits tendency to hurry conclusions, while as yet the essential facts are not gathered, much less understood with thoroughness.
Thus we find that a study of the Book of Proverbs, with due attention
to the divisions (most of them expressly indicated in the text), not only
reflects light upon a great chapter of Israelitish history, but also has
an important bearing upon critical questions, with which, hitherto, it
has not been thought to have any intimate connection.