Proverbs 1 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Proverbs 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers




Late Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford.




The contents of this book cover a wider space of ground than its English title would lead anyone to expect; for the Hebrew word māshāl, translated “Proverbs” in our version, while, indeed, it bears this sense, includes also several other meanings. Originally, it would seem, it signified a “figure” or “comparison,” and we find it used in Holy Scripture for (1) “a parable,” such as those in the Gospels, inculcating moral or religious truth, in which the figure and the thing signified by it are kept distinct from each other. Examples of this are to be found in the parables of the two eagles and vine, in Ezekiel 17, and of the boiling pot, in Ezekiel 24. It is also used (2) for “a short pointed saying,” in which, however, a comparison is still involved: for instance, Proverbs 25:25, “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” Hence it passed into the sense of (3) “a proverb,” in which a comparison may still be implied, though it is no longer expressed, such as Ezekiel 18:2, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Lastly, the sense of comparison or figure being lost, it became equivalent to (4) an “instructive saying,” such as Proverbs 11:4, “Riches profit not in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivereth from death.” The form of this might be lengthened till it became equivalent to (5) “a didactic poem,” such as Psalm 49:4, “I will incline mine ear to a parable,” &c. Of this kind were the prophecies of Balaam, in Numbers 23, 24, in which he is said to have “taken up his parable.” In certain cases this form of parable might become equivalent to “satire,” as in the prophet’s song of triumph over fallen Babylon, in Isaiah 14. Of these various forms of the māshāl, it would seem that (1) and (3) do not occur in the Proverbs, (5) is largely employed in Proverbs 1-9, while (2 and (4) are frequent in the later chapters of the book.

As to the poetical form which the māshāl of Solomon assumes, the thought of the writer is most generally completed in the distich, or verse of two lines. But the relation of the two lines to each other may vary in different cases. Sometimes (1) the idea contained in the first is repeated in the second with slightly altered form, so as to be brought out more fully and distinctly, as in Proverbs 11:25, “The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.” Or (2) the second line may illustrate the first by presenting the contrast to it, as in Proverbs 10:1, “A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.” Or, again, (3) a distinct truth may be presented to the reader in each line, with little apparent connection between them, as in Proverbs 10:18, “A cloak of hatred are lying lips, and he that spreadeth slander is a fool.” Many distichs contain entire parables in themselves, a resemblance to the lesson inculcated being drawn from every-day life, as Proverbs 10:26, “As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him.” In all these cases it will be noticed that the distich is complete in itself, without any further explanation being required. But sometimes the subject extends to four (Proverbs 25:4-5), six (Proverbs 23:1-3), and eight (Proverbs 23:22-25) lines, or, it may be, to three (Proverbs 22:29), five (Proverbs 23:4-5), or seven (Proverbs 23:6-8). It may even be prolonged beyond these limits to an indefinite number of verses, as in the acrostic (Proverbs 31:10, sqq.) in praise of a virtuous wife.

As to the general contents of the Book of Proverbs, it will be noticed on examination that they do not form one harmonious whole, but that they naturally fall into several clearly marked divisions, each of them distinguished by peculiarities of style. They are as follows:

-1Proverbs 1:1-6, an introduction, describing the purpose of the book.

-2Proverbs 1:7 to Proverbs 9:18, comprising fifteen didactic poems—not single unconnected verses, like most of the book—exhorting to the fear of God and the avoidance of sin. Many of these are addressed to “my son”; in others Wisdom is introduced as pleading to be heard, and setting forth the blessings she brings with her.

-3Proverbs 10:1 to Proverbs 22:16, the second great division of the book; these are headed by a new title, “The proverbs of Solomon.” They consist of 375 separate distichs, quite unconnected with each other, the sense being completed in each verse of the English Version; in the first six chapters of this collection the antithetic form of proverb chiefly prevails, but the other forms mentioned above as employed in this book are also represented.

(4) To this course of distichs follows an introduction (Proverbs 22:17-21), containing an exhortation to “hear the words of the wise”; the style of this is not unlike section (2). This serves as a heading to the (5) appendix of Proverbs 22:22 to Proverbs 24:22, in which every form of the māshāl may be found, from the distich up to the lengthened didactic poem, such as was frequent earlier in the book.

(6) Next comes a second appendix (Proverbs 24:23-34), beginning, “These also belong to the wise” (i.e., as their authors), containing proverbs of various lengths which resemble Proverbs 1:7 to Proverbs 9:18, and the Book of Ecclesiastes.

(7) This is followed by the third great division of the book (Proverbs 25-29), with the title, “These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.” It differs from the previous collection (Proverbs 10:1 to Proverbs 22:16) in this respect: that the verses are chiefly parabolic, not antithetic, in their character, and the sense, instead of being completed in a distich, extends to five lines, or even further.

(8) At this point the proverbs of Solomon are ended, for the rest of the book does not profess to have been composed by him. It consists of three appendices: (a) Proverbs 30 “The words of Agur the son of Jakeh,” an unknown author, supposed by Rabbinical writers against all probability, to be Solomon himself; (b) “The words of King Lemuel,” also unknown (Proverbs 31:1-9); and (c) the acrostic in praise of a good wife (Proverbs 31:10, sqq.).

There is another noticeable feature in the Book of Proverbs: that it contains many repetitions, the same thought being often expressed for a second time in similar or identical terms. Thus the Hezekiah collection (7) contains many repetitions of proverbs which have already appeared in part (3); and in some cases it even repeats itself, as does part (5) also; and this is very frequently the case in part (3) as well.

These various features which distinguish the book—viz., the difference in the style of the several parts, the separate headings which occur, and the frequent repetitions—would seem to render it certain that the whole book cannot have originally made its appearance in its present shape at any one time. It rather bears the mark of having been, like the Psalms, collected at various times, and by various persons. Thus, each editor of the five books which compose the Psalter appears to have brought together as many psalms of David or the sons of Korah or Asaph, or other writers, as he could find. Many which had escaped the notice of an earlier editor were afterwards incorporated by a successor into a later book. Thus the first book (Pss. 1-41) consists almost entirely of psalms of David, yet others also ascribed to him are found in the second (Psalms 42-72), fourth (Psalms 90-106), and fifth (Psalms 107-150) books; the second similarly contains many by the sons of Korah, but there is a further collection of theirs to be found in the third; one psalm by Asaph appears in the second book, and several more in the third, and so on. It seems probable that in the same way each of the three great collections of proverbs which are attributed to Solomon may be due to the care of different collectors, each of whom incorporated into his own book such materials as he met with. In so doing, he was not always careful to omit what had been set down before, and even occasionally admitted a proverb twice into his own collection. But we find parallels to this in the Psalter. Psalms 70, for instance, is a repetition of the latter end of Psalms 40, Psalms 53 of Psalms 14, Psalms 108 of Psalms 57, 60.

As to the authorship of the book, there seems on the whole to be no good reason for casting doubt on the tradition which ascribes Proverbs 1-29 to King Solomon. How eminently unsatisfactory the attempts are which have been made to settle the date and circumstances under which each portion of the book was composed, may be seen by the very opposite conclusions arrived at by critics who have attempted to solve the problem. When we find authors of eminence differing by, it may be, two centuries in their estimate of the age of a passage, and unable to agree as to which part of the book was written first, it is clear that little importance can be attached to the internal evidence upon which such theories are based.

It should also be noticed that, in spite of the reasons alleged above, which might have led us to ascribe the various sections of the book to different authors, yet there is still so strong a likeness between Proverbs 1-29, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles, as to render it highly probable that all three had only one author, and if so, that he was Solomon. For it would be difficult to find anyone else to whom they might with any show of probability be ascribed.

Although some objections have been at times taken to the book, on the score of the supposed contradictions contained in it, yet it has always held its place in the Hebrew Canon of Scripture. How great its influence upon the Jewish mind has been, may be seen from the imitations of it which are still extant, the Books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus. Among Christians it has always been held in the highest esteem. It is frequently quoted in the New Testament. By the Fathers it was named the “All-excellent Wisdom.” The description of wisdom which it contains was universally interpreted by them as declaratory of the work of Christ, as Creator of the world and Redeemer of mankind: an interpretation borne out by our Lord’s own words and the teaching of St. Paul.[21]

[21] See Note on chap. 1:20.

Lists of the principal commentaries which have been written upon Proverbs may be found in Keil’s Introduction to the Old Testament (translated in Clark’s For. Theol. Library, 1871), and in the article on Proverbs in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible. Of all those which have come in my way, I must chiefly express my obligations to the works of Rosenmüller and Delitzsch. The commentary of Bishop Wordsworth is noticeable as containing many references to the works of the Fathers bearing upon the interpretation of the book.

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel;

(1) Proverbs.—For the various senses of the Hebrew māshāl thus translated, see Introduction.

Solomon.—The absolute quiet and prosperity of the reign of Solomon (the man of peace), as described in 1 Kings 4:20, sqq., would naturally be conducive to the growth of a sententious philosophy; whereas the constant wars and dangerous life of David had called forth the impassioned eloquence of the Psalms.

To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding;
(2) To know.—That is, they are written that one may know. The writer in this and the following verses heaps up synonyms with which to bring out the wide purpose of the instruction he offers.

Wisdom (chokhmah).—The original meaning of this word is “firmness,” “solidity,” having an opinion based upon sound reasons; the opposite state of mind to being “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

Instruction (mûsār).—Or rather, discipline, the knowledge how to keep oneself under control. (Comp. 2 Peter 1:6 : “Add to your knowledge temperance,” or self-control.)

To perceive the words of understanding.—Comp. Hebrews 5:14 : “To have the senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Comp. also Philippians 1:10.) The opposite condition to this is having the heart made “fat” (Isaiah 6:10) by continuance in evil, so that it can no longer understand.

To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity;
(3) To receive the instruction of wisdom.—To take in, or appropriate, the “discipline” which results in “prudence” (haskēl) or practical wisdom; so David “behaved himself wisely” (1 Samuel 18:5).

Equity.—Literally, what is straight, so true, honest.

To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
(4) Subtilty (‘Ormah).—Used in a bad sense (Exodus 21:14) for “guile.” For the meaning here, comp. Matthew 10:16 : “Be ye wise as serpents;” comp. also the reproof of Luke 16:8, that “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light;” and St. Paul’s advice to “redeem the time “(Ephesians 5:16), i.e., seize opportunities for good.

Simple.—Literally, those who are open to good impressions and influences, but who also can be easily led astray. (Comp. Proverbs 8:5; Proverbs 14:15.)

Young man.—The Hebrew term is used of any age from birth to about the twentieth year.

Discretion.—Or rather, thoughtfulness; a word also used in a bad sense in Proverbs 12:2, and there translated “wicked devices.”

A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:
(5) A wise man will hear.—That is, if he listen to these proverbs. (Comp. Proverbs 9:9.) It is not the young only who will derive profit from them.

A man of understanding.—Or rather, of discernment.

Wise counsels.—Literally, arts of seamanship: i.e., guiding himself and others aright through the “waves of this troublesome world.”

To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.
(6) Interpretation.—Or an obscure thing which needs interpretation, so corresponding to “dark sayings.”

Dark sayings.—Literally knots, intricate sayings, like Samson’s riddle (Judges 14:12).

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

(a) First Discourse:Against Companionship in Robbery (Proverbs 1:7-19).

(7) The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.—The first discourse is prefaced by a distich, which serves as a key-note to all the teaching of the book. This expression, “the fear of the Lord,” occurs thirteen times in the Proverbs, and plays a prominent part throughout the Old Testament.

“When God of old came down from heaven,

In power and wrath He came.”

That law which was given amid “blackness, and darkness, and tempest” was enforced by the threat, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Galatians 3:10). Men had to be taught how hateful sin was to God, and the lesson was for the most part instilled into them by the fear of immediate punishment. (Comp. Deuteronomy 28) But when the lesson had been learnt, and when mankind had found by experience that they were unable to keep the law of God by their own strength, then the new covenant of mercy was revealed from Calvary, even free justification “by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). And with this new message a new motive to obedience was preached. The “fear of the Lord” was now superseded by the higher duty of the “love of God,” and of man, for His sake. “The love of Christ constraineth us,” says St. Paul. “We love Him because He first loved us,” writes St. John. Now, it was seen that, although the “fear of the Lord” may be the “beginning of wisdom,” yet something better still may be aimed at: that “he that feareth is not made perfect in love;” and so the teaching of St. John, the last New Testament writer, is summed up in the words, “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

Fools (’evîlîm).—Self-willed, headstrong persons, who will listen to no advice.

My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother:
(8) My son.—The address as of a master to his pupil. This phrase only occurs twice again in Proverbs, excepting in sections (2) and (4).

Law.—Rather, teaching. (Comp. Proverbs 3:1.)

For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.
(9) Ornament of grace.—Given by Wisdom. (Comp. Proverbs 4:9.)

Chains about thy neck.—The reward of Joseph (Genesis 41:42) and of Daniel (Daniel 5:29).

My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.
(10) If sinners entice thee.—A warning against taking part in brigandage, a crime to which Palestine was at all times peculiarly exposed, from the wild character of its formation, and from its neighbourhood to predatory tribes, who would invade the country whenever the weakness of the government gave them an opening. The insecurity to life and property thus occasioned would provide a tempting opportunity for the wilder spirits of the community to seek a livelihood by plunder.

If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause:
(11) Without cause.—To be taken with “lurk.” Though he has done us no harm.

Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit:
(12) Alive.—Comp. the death of Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:30).

We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil:
Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse:
My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path:
For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood.
(16) For their feet . . .—The first reason against taking part with them: the horrible nature of the crime they are committing.

Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.
(17) Surely in vain . . .—The second reason: their folly in so doing, for God will bring punishment upon them; in the “same net which they hid privily will their foot be taken “(Psalm 9:15). Even birds are wiser than they. It is useless to spread a net in the sight of any bird.

And they lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives.
(18) And they lay wait.—Yet they cannot see that in truth they are laying wait, not for the innocent, but for themselves, as God will deliver him, and bring the mischief they designed for him upon their own head.

So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof.
(19) So are the ways . . .—The conclusion of the discourse. The same phrase occurs in Job 8:13.

Which taketh away . . .—That is, covetousness takes away the life of him who has this vice in his heart, who is, according to the Hebrew idiom, the “owner” of it. (Comp. similar expressions in Proverbs 22:24; Proverbs 23:2, where an “angry” man and a man “given to appetite” are literally an owner of anger and appetite.)

Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:
(b) Second Discourse:Wisdom Addresses her Despisers (Proverbs 1:20-33).

(20) Wisdom.—The form of the Hebrew term (chokhmôth) has been taken for an abstract singular noun, but probably it is the plural of chokhmah (Proverbs 1:2), signifying the multiform excellences of wisdom. It is possible that Solomon may have originally meant in this passage only to describe, in highly poetic language, the influence and work in their generation of those in whom “the fear of the Lord” dwells. So, too, many of the Psalms (Psalms 45, for example), in the first instance it would seem, are intended to describe the excellence of some earthly saint or king, yet they are completely fulfilled only in the Son of man, the ideal of all that is noblest and best in man. And thus the description of Wisdom in her manifold activity, as represented in Proverbs 1, 8, 9, so closely corresponds to the work of our Lord, as depicted in the New Testament, that from the earliest times of Christianity these passages have been held to be a prophecy of Him; and there is good reason for such a view. For a comparison of Luke 11:49 (“Therefore also said the wisdom of God, Behold, I send,” &c.) with Matthew 23:34 (where He says, “Behold, I send”) would seem to show that He applied the title to Himself. St. Paul in like manner speaks of Him as the “Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24); says He has been “made unto us wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:30); and that in Him “are hid all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). For passages from the Fathers embodying this view, see references in Bishop Wordsworth on this chapter.

She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying,
(21) Crieth.—She cannot bear to see sinners rushing madly on their doom. (Comp. Christ’s weeping over Jerusalem, Luke 19:41; and Romans 9:2, sqq; Philippians 3:18, sqq.)

How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?
(22) How long . . .—Three classes of persons are here addressed: (1) simple ones, open to good influences, but also to evil (Proverbs 1:4); (2) scorners (lētsîm), men who despised what was holy, priding themselves on their cleverness in so doing (Proverbs 14:6), who avoided the wise, and held themselves above their advice (Proverbs 15:12), proud, arrogant men (Proverbs 21:24). The name first appears at the time of Solomon, when the prosperity of the nation was favourable to the growth of religious indifference and scepticism. Isaiah had to deal with them in his day, too (Isaiah 28:14). (3) Fools (khesîlîm), dull, stupid persons, stolidly confident in their own wisdom.

Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.
(23) I will pour out my spirit unto you.—Comp. the prophecy of Joel 2:28, promised by our Lord (John 7:38-39), and fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:17).

I will make known my words unto you.—For a similar promise that God’s will shall be revealed to those who fear and follow Him, comp. Psalm 25:14 : “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him;” and Christ’s promise: “If any man will do God’s will, he shall know of the doctrine,” &c. (John 7:17).

Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded;
(24) Because I have called.—Wisdom’s call having been rejected, she now changes her tone from “mercy” to “judgment” (Psalm 101:1). (Comp. Romans 10:21 : “All day long I have stretched forth my hands,” &c.)

But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof:
I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh;
(26) I also will laugh . . . I will mock.—For expressions like this, comp. Psalm 2:4; Psalm 37:13; Psalm 59:8, where the same actions are attributed to God. They are not to be taken literally, of course, for the sight of human folly can give no pleasure to Him. They signify that He will act as if He mocked when He refuses to hear their cry. Similar expressions, imputing human actions to the Almighty, are Genesis 11:5; Genesis 11:7; 2 Chronicles 16:9; Psalm 18:9; human feelings, Genesis 6:6.

When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you.
Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me:
(28) Then shall they call upon me.—They did not call upon Him in an “acceptable time,” in “a day of salvation” (Isaiah 49:8), while He was “near” (Isaiah 55:6); so at last the master of the house has “risen up, and shut-to the door” (Luke 13:25), and will not listen to their cries.

They shall seek me early.—As God had done, “daily rising up early,” and sending the prophets unto them (Jeremiah 7:25).

For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD:
They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof.
Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.
For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.
(32) The turning away of the simple . . .—i.e., from God. (Comp. Jeremiah 2:19.)

Prosperity of foolsi.e., the security, apathy of dull, stupid people (khesîlîm), who cannot believe that God will fulfil His threatenings. (Comp. Psalms 73 throughout.)

But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.
(33) Shall dwell safely . . .—Comp. Psalms 37 throughout for similar promises.

Shall be quiet from fear of evil—Comp. Ps. cxii 7: “He shall not be afraid of any evil tidings,” &c

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