Lesson 31: “Happy Is the Man that Findeth Wisdom”
This year’s lesson invites teachers to tailor-make a lesson on almost any imaginable subject, drawing on Old Testament wisdom literature. This lesson from 1944 offers limited commentary on some of the same verses suggested in the current manual, and also explores the structure of the Book of Proverbs which might be useful to some teachers who otherwise feel like they’re flailing from one subject to another.
The Wisdom Literature – The Book of Proverbs
The Authorship of Proverbs. – The authorship of this wisdom book is commonly ascribed to Solomon. The superscription of the book reads: “The Proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel.”
Again in 10:1 we have another title: “The Proverbs of Solomon.”
At the head of another collection beginning at 22:17 there is now no title in our Hebrew text, but the Septuagint has preserved it: “Sayings of the Wise”
The collection beginning at 24:33 has the title: “These also (belong) to the Wise men.”
Then the collection beginning with 25:1 has the interesting title: “These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, copied out.”
And no less interesting is the superscription of Chapter 30: “The words of Agur, the son of Jakeh; the burden.”
Finally at the head of chapter 31 there appears: “The words of king Lemuel; the burden wherewith his mother corrected him.”
Looking back over these titles it is evident that not all of the Book of Proverbs is claimed to have been written by Solomon. However, a goodly portion of it would appear to be so.
According to the Book of I Kings, Solomon was a very wise man who was the author of a large number of proverbs.
“And God gave to Solomon wisdom and discernment abundantly, and largeness of understanding, as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the sons of the East, and all the wisdom of Egypt. And he was wiser than all men … and his name was in all the nations around. And he spoke three thousand proverbs. …” (I Kings 4:29-32.)
But in spite of the apparently strong testimony of the above citations, most modern scholars have a tendency to doubt or deny Solomon’s authorship of the sections ascribed to him. But their strongest arguments seem to be based on rather slender threads of evidence. They do not actually prove anything. We can see no real reason to doubt that a good proportion of the proverbs ascribed to Solomon are really his, though at the same time admitting that they were collected, or “copied out,” edited and put into various collections at a later time.
Let us now proceed to a consideration of the form and teaching of the Book of Proverbs.
An analysis of Proverbs and Some of its Teachings. – It is usual to discuss Proverbs under eight divisions. We shall point these out and indicate the trend of teaching in each.
In a general way the book of Proverbs may be described as a guide to the happy life, or, if you please, to the successful life – there is a very practical side to many of its teachings.
From the literary angle there is no little power in the book, though it is unfortunate that the best writing is found in the sections which reflect actual human life without essaying to guide it or to idealize it in the prophetic sense. Expressing it in another way, where there is much religious warmth of intensity of feeling in the book there is seldom literary elegance. For long Proverbs has been known as “a forest of proverbs,” since in the body of the works there seems to be no principle of order.
The teaching of the eight divisions follows:
1. Chapters 1-9. These chapters have been called the “Praise of Wisdom.” The author, who speaks like a father to a son, admonishes that “The fear of the lord is the beginning of knowledge” and warns against temptations and dangers. A strong appeal is made to obtain wisdom and avoid folly, particularly when she appears in the guise of the strange woman.
Say unto wisdom: ‘Thou art my sister,’
And call understanding thy kinswoman;
That they may keep thee from the strange woman,
From the alien woman that maketh smooth her words. (7:4, 5.)
Chapter 1:1-6 was doubtless designed to be an introduction to the whole book. Part of this is important and interesting enough to quote in modern translation;
That men may acquire wisdom and training,
May understand rational discourse,
May receive training in wise conduct –
In just and probity and rectitude,
That discretion may be given to the inexperienced,
To the youth knowledge and insight.
Let the wise man hear and add to his learning,
And the man of intelligence gain education,
That he may understand proverb and parable,
The words of sages and their aphorisms.
(C.H. toy, translator.)
2. Chapters 10:1-22:16. This division contains proverbs in the strict sense of the term. Their form is regular and each verse, with the exception of one (19:7), contains a complete proverb consisting of two members only. The proverbs in this division are so miscellaneous in content as almost to prevent general characterization. They are usually bright in tone and the happy aspects of life are generally stressed. An occasional flash of humor adds interest:
As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout,
So is a fair woman without discretion (11:22)
There are some very fine religious proverbs in this division, but generalizations are usually drawn from secular life. Note the following religious proverbs:
Righteousness exalteth a nation;
But sin is a reproach to any people. (14:34.)
In the house of the righteous is much treasure;
But in the revenues of the wicked is trouble. (15:6.)
Better is a little with righteousness
Than great revenues with injustice. (16:8.)
He that is gracious unto the poor lendeth to the Lord.
And his good deed will he repay unto him. (19:17.)
Note the writer’s interest in righteousness as a means of increasing a nation’s power. Most of us would agree in the midst of the present world conflict that righteousness would be an excellent principle of power for all nations to experiment with. The interest of the writer in the poor is commendable. The power of God in the life of man is emphasized. (16:1, 9, 33; 19:21; 20:24; 21:1, 30, 31.) Wealth is acquired through diligence (10:4f; 12:11; 13:4; 14:23; 18:9), and tilling of the soil (12:11). The writer is interested in the family and allusions are frequently made to the wife.
A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband;
But she that doeth shamefully is as rottenness in his bones. (12:4.)
One of man’s greatest troubles is to have a nagging wife.
It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop,
Than in a house in common with a contentious woman. (21:9. See also 17:1; 21:19.)
True friendship is a boon to man, though sometimes a so-called friend is a trial to one.
There are friends that one hath to his own hurt;
But there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother. (18:24. See also 17:0, 17; 19:4; 20:6.)
One who becomes a companion of fools, contentious individuals, and gossipers is liable to smart for it. (13:20; 17:14, 19; 19:19; 20:19.)
We must not leave this division without calling attention to the following fine proverb:
A soft answer turneth away wrath;
but a grievous word stirreth up anger. (15:1.)
And how true this advice is! With it may be compared the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matt. 5:22.)
3. Chapters 22:17-24:22. This division is really a collection of maxims in which proverbs are interwoven. Instead of the two member proverbs as in the previous collection, we find them generally with four members and occasionally even more. Note:
Rob not the weak, because he is weak,
Neither crush the poor in the gate;
For the Lord will plead their cause,
And despoil of life those that despoil them. (12:22, 23. The poetic forms can usually only be seen in modern translations which we have generally adopted.)
Chapter 23:29-35 is really a short poem on wine drinking. The division warns against drunkenness, gluttony, undue pursuit of wealth and indulgence to excess.
Hear thou, my son, and be wise,
And guide thy heart in the way.
Be not among winebibbers;
Among gluttonous eaters of flesh;
For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty;
And drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags. (23:19-21.)
Such advice seems particularly appropriate in times like these when excesses of men seem to be on the up-grade.
4. Chapter 24:23-34. This collection is considered generally to be an appendix to the previous collection. there are a variety of forms as in the other. Verses 30-34 satirize the slothful man.
The following is one of the finest proverbs in this division:
Be not a witness against thy neighbor without cause;
And deceive not with thy lips.
Say not: ‘I will do so to him as he hath done to me;
I will render to the man according to his work.’ (24:28, 29.)
5. Chapters 25-29. This division is a series of loosely connected sayings resembling the second division above. It is an appendix to that division. Chapters 25-27 contain the most proverbs without any specific moral bearing. In this division religious proverbs are few. The “fool” is satirized (26:1, 3-12), the sluggard derided (26:13-16), and care in agricultural pursuits is urged (27:23-27).
6. Chapter 30. This division contains the skeptical and enigmatical words of Agur. The form of the proverbs in this division is peculiar and sometimes they are called “numerical” proverbs. Among other matters the author calls attention to the four insatiable things (30:15, 16), the four incomprehensible things (30:18-20), the four intolerable things (30:21-23), the four wise animals (30:24-280, and the four things comely in their going (30:29-31).
7. Chapter 31:1-9 contains the words of advice to King Lemuel by his mother. No one knows who Lemuel was. He is warned against women and wine, exhorted to judge righteously and to plead the cause of the poor.
8. Chapter 31:10-31. An acrostic alphabet poem – in fact the best in the Old Testament – describing and praising the good and substantial housewife. It is a superb poem. It must be remembered that according to oriental custom an ideal wife relieves her husband of any tedious work. Many of our own wives may claim this custom is not alone oriental. Even viewed from Western eyes the poem is one of the finest tributes to woman ever written.
Unfortunately, the book of Proverbs has been much neglected. It deserves a wider reading than it usually gets. to be sure, it has its limitations, but is in certain respects of special interest and value to our modern world. It has a simple creed throughout, the fear of Jehovah, and this point is driven home with many practical examples. The appeal of the book is to experience and in this sense it is “in the land of Us.” (Job 1:1.)
Professor J.E. McFadyen has said: “Its appeal is therefore one which cannot be evaded, as it commends itself, without the support of revelation, to the universal moral instincts of mankind.”