The Father William Most Collection
Commentary on Proverbs
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
Proverbs 1. 1 attributes the book to King Solomon. At the beginning of his reign, God offered him any gift he might want. Solomon asked for wisdom to rule the people well (1 Kings 3. 5-14). God was so pleased that He said that He gave Solomon greater wisdom than anyone before or after. Of course there is semitic exaggeration here in regard to all future times.
Attributing the whole book to Solomon is simply part of the common practice of those times, of using as a pen name, the name of a famous man. This was specially natural and even suitable since Solomon was, as we said, famed for his wisdom. Yet it is likely enough that some portions may date back to Solomon himself. There are within the book two special, large, Solomonic collections: 10. 1 to 22. 16 and 25. 1 to 29. 27. It is interesting to notice that the latter section has exactly 375 proverbs, which is the numerical value of the word Solomon. In 25. 1 we read that men of King Hezekiah (716-687 BC) transmitted that second group.
Some think that the opening and closing poetic sections (1. 1. to 9. 18 and 31. 10-31) are late additions to the book.
In going through the various chapters or sections, we cannot summarize all the thought for there is little sequence or development. Instead we will merely highlight some specially valuable ideas in each chapter or group of chapters.
Chapter 1: We notice that the verses are given in parallelism, an artistic Hebrew device in which something is said twice, in two lines, or in two half lines, but in different words each time. The Hebrews probably learned this from the literature of Ugarit - Ugarit was a ancient city, dug up early in the 20th century. It is next to modern Ras Shamra on the Lebanon coast. Many clay tablets were found there, containing not just official records, but literature. This literature used parallelism extensively. It also provided many beautiful images of God riding on the clouds etc. Cf. Michael D. Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan, (Westminster, Phila, 1917, esp. pp. 14-18. Also Peter C. Craigie, Uragit and the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1983, esp. pp. 53-55 on Ugaritic literature.
The Father exhorts his son to learn wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of course does not mean slavish fear, but the kind of fear one has for His Father, a reverential fear, which includes love and sense of the Father's greatness. There are really two poles in our relation to God:one is love, closeness, warmth, the other is a sense of infinite majesty and greatness. He is infinite in all respects, so one cannot be excessive. But if one cultivates one pole without the other, the picture is sick, and devotion suffers. That is happening to so many today. If one compares the current English of Eucharistic prayer I to that of the official Latin, he will see that systematically every expression that brings out the majesty of God is eliminated. This is tragic, has done untold harm.
The fear that is the beginning of wisdom is the same kind of fear of which St. Paul later spoke in Phil 2. 12-13: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works [produces] in you both the will and the doing." This passage is often misunderstood, as if one should live in fear of hell. But that is not the case if read in context. First,"fear and trembling" is a stereotyped expression, which from much use, lost much of its force (In 2 Cor 7. 15 St. Paul says the Corinthians received Titus "with fear and trembling". But relations between them and Paul were very poor. It really means only "with respect." Cf. also Psalm 2. 11). More importantly the reason for this respect is that both in doing good and even in doing evil, the doer is using God's infinite power. (For explanation, cf. Wm. Most The Thought of St. Paul, pp. 59-62.)
In verse 8 the text speaks of the Mother's teaching, as part of the parallelism. But it is not just parallelism: respect for the mother was also inculcated.
Already in verse 11 warnings begin against running with sinners. Such men lie in wait for others. But they also harm themselves, for wisdom really tells us what is beneficial for our happiness both here and hereafter. So to go against wisdom, is to go against self-interest.
The simple man (peti), that is the unintelligent, the credulous, who avoids wisdom and hates knowledge (da'ath - which also can mean obedience). They will eat the fruit of their way: that is, as we noted in the introduction, violations of wisdom bring automatic penalty, built into the nature of things. Then the foolish will call on God, but He will not answer: for the penalty is automatic. He will not break up that which follows from the very nature of things.
Chapter 2: So one should seek wisdom like a treasure. On the opposite side, this will keep him from the loose woman. Her house sinks down to death. those who go down do not come back. This loose woman has double meaning: it can mean literally a loose harlot or an adulteress. it can also mean personified folly. For just as wisdom comes to be personified, so also Folly.
Those who follow the loose woman of folly at the end of their lives will groan and wish they had not despised wisdom.
Chapter 3: The reward of following wisdom is length of life. This often comes true literally. In the fourth commandment God had promised that those who honor Father and Mother would live long on the land. But even if that does not happen in the literal way, there is better reward in the next life.
When did the Jews come to know of future retribution?
First, we must examine whether they knew of survival after death at all. In spite of many denials, it is entirely certain that the people of the Old Testament did know of survival after death. Our Lord Himself in replying to the imaginary case proposed by the Sadducees, of a woman who had seven husbands, not only said there would be no marriage in the next life, but added that God "is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but of the living." The erroneous belief of some about early Jewish beliefs on survival comes from the conviction that the ancient Hebrews had a merely unitary concept of a human being: we consist of a body with the breath of life:no mention of a soul. It is likely that the ancient Hebrews did have some such a concept. And that could readily lead to saying: the body decays, the breath goes into the air - nothing is left.
But yet we know that the Hebrews held tenaciously to a belief in necromancy, divination by the dead. This was prohibited several times in the Old Testament (Lv 19:31; 20:6; Dt. 18:10-11) yet they held on to it.
In holding on to a survival in spite of a unitary concept, they were following correct theological method. In divine matters, we are apt at times to meet two conclusions, which seem to clash head on. We recheck our work, but they are still at hand. Then we must refrain from forcing either conclusion. We must hold to both, hoping that someone one sometime will find out how to reconcile the seeming opposites. So they seem to have had a concept of a unitary nature of man, but they also held for necromancy, which implies the dead survive.
They did not know how to put these two things together until the time of Antiochus IV, Epiphanes (175-64), yet they held on. Then, God led them by means of two things to see the truth. On the one hand, the terrible deaths of some of the martyrs under Antiochus forced them to see that at least in such cases they could not say that God would make all right before the end of the life of a person. (They had bravely tried to hold on to such things, e.g., in Psalm 73, which said in effect: I was distressed at the prosperity of the wicked until I came into the sanctuary and saw what an end they came to). At about the same time they came into contact with Greek thought which helped them to see there are two parts in a human, body and soul. (The Greek notions were not entirely correct - Plato held that the body is not a part of a man, just a prison; Aristotle held that the body is only the first matter, the soul the substantial form: He seemed at least unclear about whether or how the form could survive by itself after the dissolution of the body). Even though the Greek ideas were not fully correct, yet they would start the Jews thinking in the right direction. As a result, starting at about this time many of the Jews came to clearly understand survival. Others denied it, yet most of the Jews did accept it. Already before the time of Christ, the Pharisees and their followers clearly held afterlife: St. Paul proclaimed Himself such, cf. Acts. 23:6.
(Antiochus named himself Epiphanes,"a god who appears" to men. The Jews among themselves called him instead Epimanes:insane).
Later, the Book of Wisdom 3:1-8 clearly speaks of survival. Daniel 12:2-3 taught a resurrection, probably for all.
And of course, the fullest and clearest revelation on immortality comes from Christ Himself. And it is also from Him that comes the clearest revelation of unending hell.
But when did they come to know also of retribution in the future life? Most exegetes think it was not until the time of that persecution of Antiochus IV that they came to know it. The terrible deaths of the martyrs forced a reappraisal, as we said, and the contact with Greek thought of two parts to a human being helped provide the opening.
We need to work with care and precision here. The commentators commonly forget that before the death of Christ, heaven was closed (cf. DS 780, 1000) even to those who were just and fully prepared. So what was existence like in Sheol? There was no praise of God. Psalm 6:6 asks: "Who in Sheol can give you praise?" Sirach 17:27-28 has the same thought. Again, Isaiah 38:18-19 says: "Death cannot praise you. Those who go down into the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness." M. Dahood (Anchor Bible, Psalms 16, p. 38) comments that the writer of Psalm 6 does not suffer from an inability to remember God in Sheol, but from not being able to share in the grand liturgical praise of God as in the public worship, which the people of Israel sincerely loved. (They loved the externals so much that God complained in Is 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me"). We could add that the very Hebrew words used in Isaiah 38:18-19 for praise or thanks of God also appear in 1 Chron 16:4 and 2 Chron 5:13 and 31:2 for the liturgical praise of God.
Is 38 says they cannot hope for God's faithfulness: it is because the covenant does not extend to Sheol - the word used is regular for God's faithfulness to the covenant. But this does not mean that God does not watch over Sheol: Job 26:6 says: "Sheol is naked before God." Cf. Prov. 15:11.
Qoheleth 9:10 says: "There is no work or reason, or knowledge, or wisdom in Sheol." Of course the dead in Sheol do not work. Nor have they any natural means of knowing what goes on on earth - they get this only if God chooses to reveal something to them. Cf. Job 14:21.
We do not see in Sirach any positive indication of retribution in Sheol. But that does not mean the dead were non-existent (these are two separate questions: survival, and retribution in the future life). Jesus Himself answered the Sadducees on this point (Mt. 22:29-33) by citing from the Pentateuch - perhaps the only part of the OT they accepted - from Ex 3:6, the words of God to Moses: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob" and Jesus added: "He is not the God of the dead but of the living." The Sadducees were silenced, they could not answer His reasoning. Further, it was necessary to give repeated commands in the OT against necromancy, consulting the dead, which indicates it was being done, and done persistently: e.g., Lv 19:31; 20:6, 27; Dt. 18:11 and many more texts. Saul himself had a medium bring up the spirit of Samuel in 1 Sam 28:8-19. Even if we say the mediums were fakes, it remains true that there was persistent belief that the dead did exist. (We will consider some added problem texts in Job and Qoheleth in treating each book).
There are some Psalm lines that seem to reflect a belief on the part of the writer that he will be with God even after death, for his union with Him has been so close in this life, that it cannot be interrupted.
Psalm 49:16: "But God will rescue my soul from the hand of Sheol; surely He will take me." Right after this the fate of the wicked rich is pictured: he cannot take his riches with him.
Psalm 73:23: "But I am always with You, You hold my right hand by Your hand; you guide me with counsel and afterwards you will take me to glory." The word "take" in Hebrew is laqah, which is the same word used when God took Enoch (Gen 5. 24) without dying, and when He took Elijah (2 Kings 2. 3 and 5). In the first part of the psalm, the author said he was tempted to think God was not just. But he understood the fate of the wicked when he went into the sanctuary. After that, he gained the confidence he expressed in verse 23. He continued: "Whom do I have in the heavens but you? Being with you, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever (le olam)."
Psalm 17. 15: "In righteousness I will be see your face, when I awake, I will be satisfied with your likeness."
Mitchell Dahood, in the introductions to his three volume commentary on the Psalms in Anchor Bible, proposes revised translations of about 30 Psalm lines, in the light of Ugaritic language discoveries. If one accepts them, there are more lines like those we have just cited. We will see more evidence on belief in after life and on future retribution in our consideration of individual wisdom books later.
There follows advice on not despising the Lord's discipline. The Lord loves the one whom He disciplines, for that is for the good of the man.
Chapter 4:Get wisdom at all costs, and wisdom will exalt you, and you will have a long life. The wicked will find difficulty in sleeping if they have not done some evil.
Chapter 5:There is great attention given to the dangers of being seduced by a loose woman. Her steps lead to death. ,
At the end of your life you will groan if you follow her. Instead one should rejoice in the graceful wife of his youth.
Chapter 6:It opens with a warning about getting into trouble by becoming surety for a neighbor or giving a pledge for a stranger. The pledge might bring a risk of being reduced to abject poverty or even to slavery especially if there is a bargain with a foreigner. So one should not lightly risk irreparable harm. If one has done that, he should waste no time in getting a release from the arrangement.
Verses 16-19 use the numerical form. In the first half ot the saying we see six things the Lord hates. To say the same thing in the next line, with different words, requires the use of the next higher number, seven.
Then the warning against an evil woman is repeated here. She has a smooth tongue and alluring eyelashes. There is a risk of one's life in this. For jealousy will make her husband furious if he finds out, and he will not spare in taking revenge, he will not take money or goods as compensation for that sin. He wants to kill the offender.
Chapter 7: More warnings against an evil woman. She is loud and wayward, she lies in wait at every street corner, grabs a man and kisses him, saying; Let us take our fill of love until morning, for my husband is away. It is sad to see the word "love" abused as it is here. To love is to will good to another for the other's sake. In adultery neither is doing that, each one just looks for sensory pleasure for self, and they are putting each other into a state which could lead to death and even eternal misery.
Then he follows her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a bird going into a snare. The house of the adulteress is the way to Sheol, to death if the husband happens to catch them.
Chapter 8: In contrast, wisdom raises her voice on the heights. She speaks noble things, nothing twisted or crooked. Wisdom is better than jewels, the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Kings rule well by wisdom.
Verses 22-31 are a beautiful personification of wisdom; "The Lord created me at the beginning, as the first of his acts of ancient times...." This passage is an optional reading in the common of Masses for the Blessed Virgin, the Seat of Wisdom. Originally this passage did not speak of her, nor even of Jesus, but yet Jesus is the wisdom of the Father (1 Cor 1. 24) and she is inseparable from Him. In Munificentissimus Deus in defining the Assumption Pius XII said she is "always sharing His lot." Vatican II in chapter 8 of Lumen gentium expended and filled in this thought, showing her eternal union with Him in the divine decree for the Incarnation, then going through the chief ancient prophecies that concern her, then taking up every one of the mysteries of His life and death, and showing her cooperation in each one of them "always sharing His lot". After that with the Assumption she is crowned eternal Queen with Him, the King of all, for eternity, after the end of time.
So this passage may in that way be considered as including both Him and her.
Chapter 9: Wisdom has built her house of seven pillars, has slaughtered her beasts and prepared a feast for those who will love her. Her house is the habitable world of which she is the uniting force, for as we saw above in our introduction, speaking of the relation of wisdom and number in the thought of St. Augustine.
Chapter 10: Here begins the collection marked Proverbs of Solomon, which includes 10. 1 to 22. 16. In the first 9 chapters there was a certain amount, not large, of sequence in the thought. In this series there is virtually none, just miscellaneous aphorisms. Accordingly all we can do is to pick out a few special interesting or important sayings.
In v. 3 we hear that the Lord does not let the righteous go hungry. --this line is in the background of trying to find that God rewards the just only in this life-- we do not know precisely when the Jews came to know future rewards. Before that, they strove mightily to say He always rewards in this life. V. 24 is similar in thought. Please recall comments on this topic given above. Again in this connection, verse 15 says wealth is a protection to a rich man - this is true - and the poverty of the poor is their ruin - meaning it leaves him without means of defense or help at times. Again, all this is true. But there is no awareness shown of the spiritual value of poverty, which depends in part, not totally, on future retribution.
In v. 19: Many words bring transgressions. Amen. Cf. Epistle of James on the tongue. He says (3. 2) if one does not sin by his tongue, he is perfect.
Chapter 11: V. 2 bring out that pride goes before a fall, .
v. 15 on surety reminds us of 6. 1 above.
v. 22 is quite a slam at a woman who has only skin-deep beauty. Beneath it: a swine's snout.
v. 24 says those who give freely will not want. Cf. Mt 6. 33: Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (cf. also Wisdom 7. 11).
Chapter 12: The first verse says he who hates correction is stupid. Yet it is so common to find people who not only do not accept correction, but become very angry if someone tries to correct them. Verse 15 on the contrary says a wise man listens to advice.
v. 4 praises a good wife. cf. also the beautiful praise of a good wife in 31. 10-31.
v. 12 is puzzling in the RSV, for it says that the mercy of the wicked is cruel. The Hebrew helps here. It means the man's inner feelings and inclinations are cruel even to his beasts.
v. 16 says that the prudent man will ignore an insult. It takes much wisdom to do that, but it is wisdom to do so.
v. 21 says no ill happens to the righteous-- cf. comments on 10. 3 above.
v. 25 says anxiety weighs a man down. It surely tends to do that. However now that we have the example of Jesus things are different. Since the Church teaches (cf. Wm. Most, The Consciousness of Christ) many times over that Jesus from the first instant of conception saw in His human soul or mind the vision of God, in which all knowledge is present, it follows that He saw from the start all He was to suffer, and it troubled Him as we see from Luke 12. 50 and John 12. 27. Confidence in God in general can help against worry, but does not eliminate it. And acceptance of it as a means of likeness to Christ is spiritually very valuable - but that idea of course is beyond the horizon of Proverbs.
Chapter 13: v. 8:The ransom of his life is his wealth for a rich man. But the poor man has no means-- according to the RSV. The Hebrew of the second part says the poor man does not hear rebuke. Other commentators think there is no threat to the poor man since he has no money.
v. 20: He who walks, that is, associates with, the wise will become wise. But those who go with fools are apt to become fools-- the influence of peer pressure.
v. 24: Spare the rod and spoil the child. corporal punishment was in vogue then. Cf. also 3. 11-12.
Chapter 14: v. 21 says that one who refuses help to a neighbor in need commits sin. Some here would read "a hungry man" instead of "neighbor". There are principles about almsgiving that are helpful to know. We summarize them here:
Almsgiving and Superfluous Goods
Vatican II (Church in the Modern World §69) added a footnote, quoting a message of John XXIII (AAS 54. 82):"The obligation of every man, the urgent obligation of the Christian man is to reckon what is superfluous by the measure of the needs of others...."
The Constitution itself in §69, to which the note is attached, had said that God destined the goods of the world for the benefit of all: "Wherefore man, in using those goods, should consider those exterior goods that he possesses not only as proper to himself also as common in the sense that they can be beneficial not only to him, but also to others. For the rest, the right of possessing that part of the goods that is sufficient for himself and his family belongs to all. So the Fathers and Doctors of the Church felt, in teaching that men are obliged to aid the poor, and indeed, not only out of merely superfluous goods."
We recall John XXIII said one should "reckon what is superfluous by the measure of the needs of others." This seems to allude to the scale in common use among moral theologians, as follows:
1. Goods necessary for life- -those without which one cannot live. Goods left over after this are superfluous to life.
2. Goods necessary for one's state in life --without which that state cannot be maintained. Goods superfluous to the state are all else.
3. Goods needed for the fitting maintenance of state in life -- needed to maintain fittingly. -- All else: goods superfluous in the fullest sense.
Obligations: 1) If another is in extreme necessity, lacks the necessities for life itself, we must help with goods of classes 2 & 3. Need not give what we need for life itself. 2) If another is in grave necessity - not lacking essentials of life - we must help with goods of class 3. 3) If another is in ordinary need-- we must help some at some times-- cannot determine precisely in individual cases, for there are many who can help, and need is only ordinary.
It seems Vatican II had this scale in mind, since in the next note on the above passage it says: "The ancient principle applies in this case: 'In extreme necessity all goods are common, all goods are to be shared. ' On the other hand, for the order, extension, and manner by which the principle is applied in the proposed text, besides the modern approved authors, cf. St. Thomas Summa Theol. II-II, q. 66, a. 7."
Chapter 15: The first verse is very wise: A soft answer turns anger away. -- There is no point in trying to argue with someone who is angry, his emotion blurs his reason. And if two angry people try to reason, the hope is below zero. If one remembers the old animated cartons of Donald Duck it helps -Donald would flap his wings wildly and scream - and get nothing done at all.
v. 8 says a sacrifice by the wicked does not please God. The sense is that there are two things in sacrifice, as we gather from Isaiah 29. 13: the outward sign (lips, in 29. 13) and the interior disposition( heart). It is so easy, and often happened in those times, that one was good at the outward ritual of sacrifices, but did not have in his heart the obedience to God which the sacrifice is supposed to express, and which gives it all its value. The lack of this interior is the reason the great prophets so often protested, in the name of God, against the sacrifices of that time.
Similarly in vv. 16-17 a small meal with love is much better than a feast with hatred or coldness.
v. 11 Tells us that even Sheol, the under world, and Abaddon, ruin, are open, visible, to the Lord. So all the more are the thoughts of men.
Chapter 16: v. 2 says that the Lord weighs the spirit or the heart. The thought is like that of Egyptian belief that after death one's heart is weighed in the scales to see if he observed ma'at (order, truth, justice).
In verse 4. The Lord has made all things for His purposes, even the wicked for the day of trouble. This is like the line of Amos 3. 6: "If evil comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?" We notice 1) Hebrew expressions commonly said God directly does things He only permits: cf. 1 Samuel 4. 3 which says in the literal Hebrew: "Why did the Lord strike us today before the face of the Philistines?" 2) From Philippians 2. 13 we gather that even when we do evil, it is God's power (ontological) that we use. This does not mean that He gives the evil orientation to the use of that power. No, we give it, yet it is His power. We compare an electric outlet:it provides power, which the user turns to whatever purpose he wills. 0-We will see a related thought, of great importance below in 21. 1.
Verse 18 says pride goes before a fall. God refuses His help to the one who is proud. In the Gospels, Jesus was wonderfully merciful to all kinds of sinners, except the Pharisees. The trouble was their pride. Pride implies that a man is God, since it implies that the good he does is own production by his own power. Actually, all the good one has and is and does is God's gift: 1 Cor 4. 7. The words of 1 Peter 5. 5 saying that God resists the proud, b ut gives grace to the humble.
In verse 33: when a lot is cast, the decision comes from the Lord. It is reported that Einstein once said: God does not play at dice. Very true. There is nothing in the universe that happens that is exempt from His causality. He does give us free will in matters pertaining to salvation; but in many other things He does guide the outcome to varied extents. Please see comments later on 21.1
Chapter 17: Verse 3 says that gold and silver are tested in the fire. But the Lord tests hearts. It does not mean that He does not know before testing what a man's heart is like. It means that He provides occasions for a man to come to know Himself, and to advance in virtue. Since there is only one free thing in us, our fee will, if we could make it entirely in line with the will of God, that would be perfection. It is especially when under difficulty that we must either adhere to Him strongly, or fail. Cf. the comments on "holding on in the dark" in Wm. Most Our Father's Plan, p. 129-31.
In verse 10 we hear that a rebuke is more effective in a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool. To accept rebukes well is great wisdom, and contributes greatly to growth in holiness, precisely because it hits our pride.
v. 17 says that a friend always loves. It means of course a true friend, not one loosely so called. Cf. 18. 24.
In v. 20 a fool who keeps silent is considered wise -- like the owl who says only Whooo -- was considered a symbol of wisdom in ancient Athens.
Chapter 18: Verse 2 says a fool does not really want to understand, just to express his own opinion. Sometimes when a person seems to be listening, he is really not paying attention, is rather thinking ahead what reply he can make to go against what is being said.
Verse 22 extols the value of a good wife-- in contrast to the strong words in the other direction in earlier parts of this book. The ideal wife is pictured in chapter 31. 10-31. 19. 14 repeats the idea: One can inherit material things from parents, but to find a prudent wife - that is a gift of the Lord.
In verse 24: a real friend sticks closer than a brother-but most people who seem to be friends and not that kind. In a normal lifetime, one does well to make one or two real friends. The others are not likely to stick it out in thick and thin.
Chapter 19: Verse 11 returns to the theme we saw in 15. 1; If one has good sense, he will be slow to anger. Rather, it is a great achievement to be able to overlook an offense. Similarly 20. 3 says it is an honor to keep away from strife.
In verse 17 we read that if one is good to the poor he lends to the Lord. The Lord will not only repay, but more than double it. Jesus in His picture of the Last judgment represents the Judge asking only about duties to neighbor even though there are other things. He identifies Himself with the poor and afflicted.
The way one takes reproofs shows what kind of man he is: a wise man will profit from correction, and be grateful. But many people resent any correction whatsoever.
Chapter 20: In verse 9:Who can claim he has kept himself from all sin? 1 John 1. 10 says that if we claim to be without sin, we make God a liar.
Verse 19 speaks of gossipers: they cannot keep a secret they want to show they are in the know. With some people, it is a good way to get something published to tell it as a secret. There are three kinds of wrongful speech: 1) Slander charges another with something untrue - normally mortal sin, and demands retractation. 2) Detraction reveals a fault of another without sufficient reason, a fault that otherwise would not be likely to become known. To do this is a common fault, and many underestimate the damage done. If damage is grave, the sin is grave. Also a habit of gossip can stop completely all spiritual growth, for it easily happens that the habitual gossiper does not really have a firm purpose of amendment on that score. Then it is as if he puts a clamp on his heart: he will let it expand only so far, no farther. 3) Merely uncharitable speech comes when two or more are rehashing faults of another which all present already know. Then we ask: Is there an adequate reason for doing so? Very often not.
The fourth commandment promises great reward even in this life for honor to Father and Mother. Verse 20 says one who curses Father or Mother will see his light put out completely.
A remarkable truth comes in verse 24: "A man's steps are ordered by the Lord." A large explanation is needed, which will be given at 21. 1.
Chapter 21: Isaiah 10. 5ff speaks of Assyria as the rod that God used to punish His people. In what way does God use even nations for His own ends? In Proverbs 21. 1 we read: "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will." How does God do this?: We must say it is by His transcendence, i.e., He is above and beyond all our categories. We explained something about it earlier, by a study of how He knows future free actions, though no one can fully understand it.
Similarly, in His transcendence, He can cause humans to do things, without completely taking away their freedom. We said, "not completely," since there is indeed a reduction in freedom.
In the ordinary pattern God sends me an actual grace, to lead me and to enable me to do a particular good thing here and now. if I simply make no decision at all, no decision against it, it will "work in me both the will and the doing" as Phil 2:13 says. But what it works in me is decided by that omission of resistance at the precise point at which a man could reject grace. That he can reject grace is evident from experience, and from St. Paul, 2 Cor 6:1: "We urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain." Similarly, all Scripture is full of exhortations to repent, to return to God to be converted. All these are meaningless, even mockery of the human, if we do not have the real power to reject grace.
So in the ordinary process, the first decision on the outcome is made by the human.
But there is an extraordinary process, in which the first decision is made by God, e.g., when He sends an extraordinary grace, that can either cut through resistance already present, or prevent it from developing. Then God makes the first decision, while the human seconds the motion. We call this extraordinary since it is a reduction in the freedom that God in general has pledged Himself to give us.
When does God do this, when does He use this extraordinary mode? We distinguish two orders, the external and the internal order. The internal order is that which includes all the things and steps that lead to eternal salvation, or the lack of it. In that internal category, God has bound Himself by accepting the infinite price of redemption, to offer grace without any limit, except what the resistance of humans imposes. Since He has pledged to give us freedom, then to routinely overrule that even in part would be self-contradiction.
The external order has to do with all else, including whether or not a king will wage war, how it will turn out, etc. In this external category God does not involve Himself in self-contradiction, since in this category He has not pledged to refrain from interference in freedom. Rather, as we read in Isaiah 10. 5 ff, He has announced He will do so as He pleases. And in the case of the King of Assyria, God, as Isaiah says, had turned the kings' heart to carry out God's will. The way in which the king did it was not good, it was sparked by pride. God will punish that pride. But that basic fact that Assyria does conquer when and where God wills is part of the external order.
Part of the way in which God exercises such control is by giving a person a desire to do something. He can do that without taking away freedom, e.g., He gives us a desire to eat, so we will refuel; He gives a desire for procreation, to keep our race going. Under these desires, people are free. Yet a large part of the time they will act in accordance with such desires.
In v. 2 we heard that everyone thinks he is right, but the Lord knows.
Verse 9 return to the theme of the difficult wife: Better to live in a corner on the roof than in the house with a contentious woman. V. 19 says the same: better a desert land.
Chapter 22: V 6 says that if one trains a child the right way, it will affect him for life. This is especially true of the first three years of life, so that John Paul II in his encyclical on Labor, Laborem Exercens would hope there might be subsidies so there would be no pressure on the mother to work at last in that period. If the purpose of her work is to raises standard of living- that is not worth nearly as much as the need of the child for a good start int he first years.
A new section begins at verse 17. The original title seems to have been "Words of Wise men". It runs to 24. 22. And within it we read: "Have I not written for your thirty sayings" which is heavily dependent on the Egyptian Wisdom of Amenemope. The Egyptian can be seen in ANET 421a - 424b.
Chapter 23: At the start we find advice on proper conduct at table when eating with a powerful man. Commentators vary in their understanding of verse 2, which in RSV advises putting a knife to your throat if you have a heavy appetite. -- Some think that means eating with a knife.
v. 9: Reminds us of Mt 7. 6: "Do not cast your pearls before swine." The foolish man will not only not appreciate wisdom, but will despise it, and probably, despise you too.
vv. 17-18 advises against envying sinners. There is a future, seeming to mean, when the Lord will make things right. Again, we must say the writer is probably not thinking of eternal life, but only of retribution in this life. Cf. remarks above on what the Jews knew of future retribution.
Chapter 24: v. 16 says the righteous man falls seven times and rises again; but the wicked are ruined by calamity. Does not mean the good man sins seven times a day-- it means rather that even if a man in the temporal order falls many times, if he is wise, he will get up again.
With v. 23 we have come to the end of the 30 sayings, and now get a few proverbs before coming to chapter 25, more proverbs of Solomon which the men, the scribes, of King Hezekiah copied down. Hezekiah, one of the few good kings, seems to have organized the assembling of wisdom material from both the northern and the southern kingdoms.
Chapter 25: Verses 2-3 says it is glory for God to hide things - yes, until the Last Judgment, when He will manifest to all how just have been His decisions during history. But even the mind of kings is unsearchable -hard to find out what they are thinking.
v. 7 advises one to take the lower place, and then be exalted when told to come up higher. The resemblance to Lk 14. 7-11 is evident.
In 16-17 there is advice to moderation: do not eat too much honey, you will find it becomes unpleasant. And do not wear out your welcome in the house of a neighbor. The Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece had a wise motto, like this: meden agan - nothing too much. Hence v. 27 says one should not compliment another too lavishly.
St. Paul in Romans 12. 20-21 quotes these lines urging kindness to any enemy: it will help overcome enmity.
Chapter 26: Verses 3-5 give good advice for dealing with fools: Do not lower yourself in answering him, or you might become foolish too. Verses 4 and 5 seem to contradict, but can be understood to mean: Do not lower yourself-- but speak in words the fool can understand. In v. 14 a fool that repeats his folly is like a dog that returns to its vomit. Cf. 2 Peter 2. 22.
Chapter 27: in v. 1 advises do not boast about tomorrow-- we do not know what the morrow will bring, or even if we will be alive then. The thought is like that of the Epistle of James 4. 13-15.
In v. 20, just as the netherworld, Sheol and Abaddon, are never satisfied, so a man's desires are never satisfied. Cf. St. Augustine (Confessions 1. 1): "You have made us for yourself, Lord, and restless are our hearts until they rest in you." As we look ahead to some satisfaction it seems to be wonderful, then we can be "happy ever after." But the thrill soon wears down.
Chapter 28: v. 5 says that evil men do not understand moral rightness. When a person goes farther and farther into sinning, his ability to understand spiritual truths gets less and less; but if he lives strenuously according to faith - which says the things of this world are slight in comparison to spiritual things -- then his spiritual eyesight grows more and more.
v. 8 seems to mean that God will see to it that ill-gotten gain does not really profit him who takes it, but instead it will wind up with the poor. As to interest here: Dt. 23. 21 says they may lend at interest to an outsider, but not to their own people. More broadly, interest is excessive when it is more than the state of the economy (considering also risk) warrants. In some economies, money is sterile.
One who does not admit his faults (v. 13) will not prosper. But confessing them brings mercy.
The thought of v. 17 is unclear. Some take it to mean one guilty of murder will come quickly to the grave and no one will help. But it may also refer to the practice of cities of refuge, provided for in Dt 4. 41-43 and 19. 1-13. Cf. also Joshua 20. 1-9. Only a man who unintentionally killed another could use this asylum, against the slain man's relatives who might pursue in blood feud. Dt 19. 6 recognizes that a man who has killed unintentionally does not deserve death, even though the relatives, in the usual blood feud might actually strike him. Yet even unintentional violations of God's law - sheggagah -- did call for reparation (not for death or for hell), as we see in Leviticus chapter 4, for the fault was a violation of the objective moral order.
The last verse, v. 28 says that when the wicked rise, men hide themselves. Seems to mean: When the wicked gain power....
Chapter 29: Verse 5 says the one who flatters spreads a net -- for flattery leads to no good, and is harmful to the one flattered.
A great truth comes in v. 10: The wicked hate the good. So 2 Timothy 3. 12 says that whoever wants to live rightly in following Christ will suffer persecution. The explanation is found in Wisdom 2. 12-6: The wicked say that even to see the just man is a reproach to them! Cf. Proverbs 29. 27. And t e pagan historian Tacitus, in Agricola 42 says it is characteristic of humans to hate those whom they have harmed. -- Naturally, for it they thought the man good, they would be charging themselves with sin for having harmed him. So they are driven to think him evil.
In v. 18 we hear that where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint. Prophecy could mean either the admonitions of the great prophets, or it could refer to the advice of wise men.
Chapter 30: The book of Proverbs concludes with proverbs taken from two prophets from outside the Jewish nation. The translation of verse 1 is much debated. RSV takes some words as proper names. Most likely they are not such. R. B. Y. Scott, in Anchor Bible renders: "The words of Agur ben Yakeh of Massa [an Ishmaelite people of northern Arabia: cf. Gen 25. 13-14]." Scott thinks the first four verses are a challenge from a skeptic, the man named here, who says there is no god. Then verses 5-6 are the reply of an orthodox Jew who prays in 7-9 to be kept from such folly.
vv. 7-8 asks to be preserved from lying, and also to have neither poverty or riches. Riches can lead even to denial of God. Poverty can lead to stealing, or envy, or excessive preoccupation with material things. (To see someone have something good, and to think: I wish I had it TOO is not envy. Envy would be: I see he has something good; it is bad for me that he has it; I wish he did not have it).
Numerical sayings appear in verses 18-19. The meaning is not entirely clear. The last of the series in such sets is likely to be the most important. He does not "understand the way of a man with a maiden." It could mean: Why he becomes enamored of this particular one - while she does not greatly attract others. Or if we look a the portraits of the many wives of King Henry VIII we may say: Why would he get so excited about them?--But it can also express the mysterious force of the attraction of a maiden for a man.
Another numerical set is vv. 21-23: It is hard for all when a slave becomes king - he does not know how to have power. It is similar when a poor man becomes suddenly rich, he may spend like a drunken sailor. The unloved woman may be the wife in a polygamous marriage who was not much liked by the husband - but then she suddenly gets power over him. Similarly for a slave girl who supplants her former mistress. We think of Hagar in Genesis 16. 1-6 who became arrogant when she had a child, while Sara could not bear one.
Chapter 31: The final set of proverbs is attributed to Lemeul, King of Massa. It is wisdom from the Queen Mother-- a Queen Mother often did have great influence: cf. 1 Kings 1. 11-13; 2 Kings 9. 22 and 11. 1.
Verse 3 says a king should not give his strength to women, who can destroy kings. Dt. 17. 17 urges that king not have many wives, so his heart may not be estranged by them. Solomon did precisely that in 1 Kings 11. 1-13. David had committed a grave sin of adultery by falling for Bethsabee, wife of Uriah, and then did what amounted to murder to try to cover it up: 2 Sam. 11. 1-27.
Verses 10 to 31 are a splendid, artistically written praise of the ideal wife.
Some think the words "who fears the Lord" in verse 30 may have been added by a copyist who noted there had been no mention of religion among her virtues.
The passage is an acrostic, that is, the first letters of the 22 couplets follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet.