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Clarke's Commentary on the Bible
Introduction to the Proverbs of SolomonThe Son of David, King of Israel
There has scarcely been any dispute concerning either the author or Divine authority of this book, either in the Jewish or Christian Church: all allow that it was written by Solomon; and the general belief is, that he wrote the book by Divine inspiration.
It has, indeed, been supposed that Solomon collected the major part of these proverbs from those who had preceded him, whether Hebrews or heathens; but the latter opinion has been controverted, as derogating from the authority of the book. But this supposition has very little weight; for, whatever of truth is found in or among men, came originally from God; and if he employed an inspired man to collect those rays of light, and embody them for the use of his Church, he had a right so to do, and to claim his own wheresoever found, and, by giving it a new authentication, to render it more useful in reference to the end for which it was originally communicated. God is the Father of lights, and from him came all true wisdom, not only in its discursive teachings but in all its detached maxims for the government and regulation of life. I think it very likely that Solomon did not compose them all; but he collected every thing of this kind within his reach, and what was according to the Spirit of truth, by which he was inspired, he condensed in this book; and as the Divine Spirit gave it, so the providence of God has preserved it, for the use of his Church.
That true Light, which lightens every man that cometh into the world, first taught men to acknowledge himself as the Fountain and Giver of all good; and then by short maxims, conveyed in terse, energetic words, taught them to regulate their conduct in life, in respect to the dispensations of his providence, and in reference to each other in domestic, social, and civil life; and this was done by such proverbs as we find collected in this book. The different changes that take place in society; the new relations which in process of time men would bear to each other; the invention of arts and sciences; and the experience of those who had particularly considered the ways of the Lord, and marked the operations of his hands; would give rise to many maxims, differing from the original stock only in their application to those new relations and varying circumstances.
The heathen who had any connection with the first worshippers of the Almighty would observe the maxims by which they regulated the affairs of life, and would naturally borrow from them; and hence those original teachings became diffused throughout the world; and we find there is not an ancient nation on earth that is without its code of proverbs or proverbial maxims. The ancient Sanscrit is full of them; and they abound in the Persian and Arabic languages, and in all the dialects formed from these, in all the countries of the East. The Heetopadesa of Vishnoo Sarma, the Anvari Soheili, the Bahar Danush, Kalia we Durnna, and all the other forms of that original work; the fables of Lockman, Aesop, Phaedrus, Avienus, etc., are collections of proverbs, illustrated by their application to the most important purposes of domestic, social, and civil life.
Those nations with which we are best acquainted have their collections of proverbs; and perhaps those with which we are unacquainted have theirs also. Messrs. Visdelou and Galand formed a collection of Asiatic proverbs, and published it in their supplement to the Bibliotheque Orientate of D'Herbelot. This is a collection of very great worth, curiosity, and importance. Mr. J. Ray, F.R.S., formed a collection of this kind, particularly of such as are or have been in use in Great Britain: this is as curious as it is entertaining and useful.
The term Proverb, proverbium, compounded of pro, for, and verb, a word, speech, or saying, leads us to an original meaning of the thing itself. It was an allegorical saying, where "more was meant than met the eye" - a short saying that stood for a whole discourse, the words of which are metaphorical; e.g., this of the rabbins: "I have given thee my lamp: give me thy lamp. If thou keep my lamp, I will keep thy lamp; but if thou quench my lamp, I will quench thy lamp." Here the word lamp is a metaphor:
1. For Divine revelation
2. For the human soul
I have given thee my word and Spirit; give me thy soul and heart. If thou observe my word, and follow the dictates of my Spirit, I will regulate thy heart, and keep thy soul from every evil; but if thou disobey my word, and quench my Spirit, I will withdraw my Spirit, leave thee to the hardness and darkness of thy own heart, and send thee at last into outer darkness. Such as this is properly the proverb; the word which stands for a discourse.
But the Hebrew משלים meshalim, from משל mashal, to rule or govern, signifies a set or collection of weighty, wise, and therefore authoritative, sayings, whereby a man's whole conduct, civil and religious, is to be governed; sayings containing rules for the government of life. Or, as the Divine author himself expresses it in the beginning of the first chapter, the design is to lead men "to know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; to give subtilty to the simple, and to the young man knowledge and discretion," Proverbs 1:2, Proverbs 1:3. This was the design of proverbs; and perhaps it would be impossible to find out a better definition of the design and object of those of Solomon, than is contained in the two preceding verses. See my Dissertation on Parabolical Writing, at the end of the notes on Matthew 13 (note).
Of the three thousand proverbs which Solomon spoke, we have only those contained in this book and in Ecclesiastes; and of the one thousand and five songs which he made, only the Song of Solomon has been preserved: or, in other words, of all his numerous works in divinity, philosophy, morality, and natural history, only the three above mentioned, bearing his name, have been admitted into the sacred canon. His natural history of trees and plants, of beasts, fowls, and fishes, (for on all these he wrote), is totally lost. Curiosity, which never says, It is enough, would give up the three we have for those on the animal and vegetable kingdom, which are lost. What God judged of importance to the eternal interests of mankind, is preserved; and perhaps we know the vegetable and animal kingdoms now as well through Linnaeus and Buffon, and their followers, as we should have known them, had Solomon's books on natural history come down to our time. Others would investigate nature, and to them those researches were left. Solomon spoke by inspiration; and therefore to him Divine doctrines were communicated, that he might teach them to man. Every man in his order.
The book of Proverbs has been divided into five parts:
I. A master is represented as instructing his scholar, giving him admonitions, directions, cautions, and excitements to the study of wisdom, chapters 1-9.
II. This part is supposed to contain the Proverbs of Solomon, properly so called; delivered in distinct, independent, general sentences. From chapter 9-22:17.
III. In this part the tutor again addresses himself to his pupil, and gives him fresh admonitions to the study of wisdom; which is followed by a set of instructions, delivered imperatively to the pupil, who is supposed all the while to be standing before him. From Proverbs 22:17 to chapter 25.
IV. This part is distinguished by being a selection of Solomon's Proverbs, made by the men of Hezekiah, conjectured to be Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, who all flourished under that reign. This part, like the second, is composed of distinct, unconnected sentences, and extends from chapter 25-30.
V. The fifth part contains a set of wise expostulations and instructions, which Agur, the son of Jakeh, delivered to his pupils, Ithiel and Ucal, chapter 30. And the thirty-first chapter contains the instructions which a mother, who is not named, gave to Lemuel her son, being earnestly desirous to guard him against vice, to establish him in the principles of justice, and to have him married to a wife of the best qualities. These two last chapters may be considered a kind of Appendix to the book of Proverbs: see Dr. Taylor; but others suppose that the thirty-first chapter contains Bathsheba's words to Solomon, and his commendation of his mother.
There are many repetitions and some transpositions in the book of Proverbs, from which it is very probable that they were not all made at the same time; that they are the work of different authors, and have been collected by various hands: but still the sum total is delivered to us by Divine inspiration; and whoever might have been the original authors of distinct parts, the Divine Spirit has made them all its own by handing them to us in this form. Some attribute the collection, i.e., the formation of this collection, to Isaiah; others, to Hilkiah, and Shebna the scribe; and others, to Ezra.
That Solomon could have borrowed little from his predecessors is evident from this consideration, that all uninspired ethic writers, who are famous in history, lived after his times. Solomon began to reign A.M. 2989, which was 239 years before the first Olympiad; 479 before Cyrus, in whose time flourished the seven wise men of Greece; 679 before Alexander the Great, under whose reign flourished Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; and 1011 before the birth of Christ. Therefore to the Gentiles he could be but little, if at all, indebted.
It is impossible for any description of persons to read the book of Proverbs without profit. Kings and courtiers, as well as those engaged in trade, commerce, agriculture, and the humblest walks of life, may here read lessons of instruction for the regulation of their conduct in their respective circumstances. Fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, masters, and servants, may here also learn their respective duties; and the most excellent rules are laid down, not only in reference to morality, but to civil policy and economy. Many motives are employed by the wise man to accomplish the end at which he aims; motives derived from honor, interest, love, fear, natural affection, and piety towards God. The principal object he has in view is, to inspire a deep reverence for God, fear of his judgments and an ardent love for wisdom and virtue. He exhibits injustice, impiety, profligacy, idleness, imprudence, drunkenness, and almost every vice, in such lively colors as to render every man ashamed of them who has any true respect for his interest, honor, character, or health. And as there is nothing so directly calculated to ruin young men, as bad company, debauch, and irregular connections, he labors to fortify his disciples with the most convincing reasons against all these vices, and especially against indolence, dissipation, and the company of lewd women.
Maxims to regulate life in all the conditions already mentioned, and to prevent the evils already described, are laid down so copiously, clearly, impressively, and in such variety, that every man who wishes to be instructed may take what he chooses, and, among multitudes, those which he likes best.
Besides the original Hebrew, the book of Proverbs exists in the following ancient versions: the Chaldee, Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate, and Arabic. But the Septuagint takes greater liberty with the sacred text than any of the rest: it often transposes, changes, and adds; and all these to a very considerable extent. This is the version which is quoted in the New Testament. Several of these additions, as well as the most important changes, the reader will find noticed in the following notes; but to mark them all would require a translation of almost the whole Greek text. How our forefathers understood several passages will be seen by quotations from an ancient MS. in my possession, which begins with this book, and extends to the conclusion of the New Testament. It is well written upon strong vellum, in very large folio, and highly illuminated in the beginning of each book, and first letter of each chapter. The language is more antiquated than in the translation commonly attributed to Wiclif. It was once the property of Thomas a Woodstock, youngest son of Edward III., and brother of John of Gaunt and the Black Prince. I have often quoted this MS in my notes on the New Testament.
The design of the proverbs, Proverbs 1:1-6. An exhortation to fear God, and believe his word, because of the benefit to be derived from it, Proverbs 1:7-9; to avoid the company of wicked men, who involve themselves in wretchedness and ruin, Proverbs 1:10-19. Wisdom, personified, cries in the streets, and complains of the contempt with which she is treated, Proverbs 1:20-23. The dreadful punishment that awaits all those who refuse her counsels, Proverbs 1:24-33.
1The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel;
The proverbs of Solomon - For the meaning of the word proverb, see the introduction; and the dissertation upon parabolical writing at the end of the notes on Matthew 13:Solomon is the first of the sacred writers whose name stands at the head of his works.
2To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding;
To know wisdom - That is, this is the design of parabolical writing in general; and the particular aim of the present work.
This and the two following verses contain the interpretation of the term parable, and the author's design in the whole book. The first verse is the title, and the next three verses are an explanation of the nature and design of this very important tract.
Wisdom - חכמה chochmah may mean here, and in every other part of this book, not only that Divine science by which we are enabled to discover the best end, and pursue it by the most proper means; but also the whole of that heavenly teaching that shows us both ourselves and God, directs us into all truth, and forms the whole of true religion.
And instruction - מוסר musar, the teaching that discovers all its parts, to understand, to comprehend the words or doctrines which should be comprehended, in order that we may become wise to salvation.
3To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity;
To receive the instruction - השכל haskel, the deliberately weighing of the points contained in the teaching, so as to find out their importance.
Equity - משרים mesharim, rectitude. The pupil is to receive wisdom and instruction, the words of wisdom and understanding, justice and judgment, so perfectly as to excel in all. Wisdom itself, personified, is his teacher; and when God's wisdom teaches, there is no delay in learning.
4To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
To give subtilty to the simple - The word simple, from simplex, compounded of sine, without, and plica, a fold, properly signifies plain and honest, one that has no by-ends in view, who is what he appears to be; and is opposed to complex, from complico, to fold together, to make one rope or cord out of many strands; but because honesty and plaindealing are so rare in the world, and none but the truly religious man will practice them, farther than the fear of the law obliges him, hence simple has sunk into a state of progressive deterioration. At first, it signified, as above, without fold, unmixed, uncompounded: this was its radical meaning. Then, as applied to men, it signified innocent, harmless, without disguise; but, as such persons were rather an unfashionable sort of people, it sunk in its meaning to homely, homespun, mean, ordinary. And, as worldly men, who were seeking their portion in this life, and had little to do with religion, supposed that wisdom, wit, and understanding, were given to men that they might make the best of them in reference to the things of this life, the word sunk still lower in its meaning, and signified silly, foolish; and there, to the dishonor of our language and morals, it stands! I have taken those acceptations which I have marked in Italics out of the first dictionary that came to hand - Martin's; but if I had gone to Johnson, I might have added to Silly, not wise, not cunning. Simplicity, that meant at first, as Martin defines it, openness, plaindealing, downright honesty, is now degraded to weakness, silliness, foolishness. And these terms will continue thus degraded, till downright honesty and plaindealing get again into vogue. There are two Hebrew words generally supposed to come from the same root, which in our common version are rendered the simple, פתאים pethaim, and פתים or פתיים pethayim; the former comes from פתא patha, to be rash, hasty; the latter, from פתה pathah, to draw aside, seduce, entice. It is the first of these words which is used here, and may be applied to youth; the inconsiderate, the unwary, who, for want of knowledge and experience, act precipitately. Hence the Vulgate renders it parvulis, little ones, young children, or little children, as my old MS.; or very babes, as Coverdale. The Septuagint renders it ακακοις, those that are without evil; and the versions in general understand it of those who are young, giddy, and inexperienced.
To the young man - נער naar is frequently used to signify such as are in the state of adolescence, grown up boys, very well translated in my old MS. yunge fulwaxen; what we would now call the grown up lads. These, as being giddy and inexperienced, stand in especial need of lessons of wisdom and discretion. The Hebrew for discretion, מזמה mezimmah, is taken both in a good and bad sense, as זם zam, its root, signifies to devise or imagine; for the device may be either mischief, or the contrivance of some good purpose.
5A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:
A wise man wilt hear - I shall not only give such instructions as may be suitable to the youthful and inexperienced, but also to those who have much knowledge and understanding. So said St. Paul: We speak wisdom among them that are perfect. This and the following verse are connected in the old MS. and in Coverdale: "By hearyinge the wyse man shall come by more wysdome; and by experience he shall be more apte to understonde a parable and the interpretation thereof; the wordes of the wyse and the darke speaches of the same."
6To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.
Dark sayings - חידת chidoth, enigmas or riddles, in which the Asiatics abounded. I believe parables, such as those delivered by our Lord, nearly express the meaning of the original.
7The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
The fear of the Lord - In the preceding verses Solomon shows the advantage of acting according to the dictates of wisdom; in the following verses he shows the danger of acting contrary to them. The fear of the Lord signifies that religious reverence which every intelligent being owes to his Creator; and is often used to express the whole of religion, as we have frequently had occasion to remark in different places. But what is religion? The love of God, and the love of man; the former producing all obedience to the Divine will; the latter, every act of benevolence to one's fellows. The love of God shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit produces the deepest religious reverence, genuine piety, and cheerful obedience. To love one's neighbor as himself is the second great commandment; and as love worketh no ill to one's neighbor, therefore it is said to be the fulfilling of the law. Without love, there is no obedience; without reverence, there is neither caution, consistent conduct, nor perseverance in righteousness.
This fear or religious reverence is said to be the beginning of knowledge; ראשית reshith, the principle, the first moving influence, begotten in a tender conscience by the Spirit of God. No man can ever become truly wise, who does not begin with God, the fountain of knowledge; and he whose mind is influenced by the fear and love of God will learn more in a month than others will in a year.
Fools despise - אוילים evilim, evil men. Men of bad hearts, bad heads, and bad ways.
8My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother:
My son, hear - Father was the title of preceptor, and son, that of disciple or scholar, among the Jews. But here the reference appears to be to the children of a family; the father and the mother have the principal charge, in the first instance, of their children's instruction. It is supposed that these parents have, themselves, the fear of the Lord, and that they are capable of giving the best counsel to their children, and that they set before them a strict example of all godly living. In vain do parents give good advice if their own conduct be not consistent. The father occasionally gives instruction; but he is not always in the family, many of those occupations which are necessary for the family support being carried on abroad. The mother - she is constantly within doors, and to her the regulation of the family belongs; therefore she has and gives laws. The wise man says in effect to every child, "Be obedient to thy mother within, and carefully attend to the instructions of thy father, that thou mayest the better see the reasons of obedience; and learn from him how thou art to get thy bread honestly in the world."
9For they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.
An ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains - That is, filial respect and obedience will be as ornamental to thee as crowns, diadems, and golden chains and pearls are to others.
Political dignity has been distinguished in many nations by a chain of gold about the neck. Solomon seems here to intimate, if we follow the metaphor, that the surest way of coming to distinguished eminence, in civil matters, is to act according to the principles of true wislom, proceeding from the fear of God.
10My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.
If sinners entice thee, consent thou not - אל תבא al tobe, Will-not. They can do thee no harm unless thy will join in with them. God's eternal purpose with respect to man is that his will shall be free; or, rather, that the will, which is essentially Free, shall never be forced nor be forceable by any power. Not even the devil himself can lead a man into sin till he consents. Were it not so, how could God judge the world?
11If they say, Come with us, let us lay wait for blood, let us lurk privily for the innocent without cause:
If they say, Come with us - From all accounts, this is precisely the way in which the workers of iniquity form their partisans, and constitute their marauding societies to the present day.
Let us lay wait for blood - Let us rob and murder.
Let us lurk privily - Let us lie in ambush for our prey.
12Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit:
Let us swallow them up alive - Give them as hasty a death as if the earth were suddenly to swallow them up. This seems to refer to the destruction of a whole village. Let us destroy man, woman, and child; and then we may seize on and carry away the whole of their property, and the booty will be great.
13We shall find all precious substance, we shall fill our houses with spoil:
14Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse:
Cast in thy lot - Be a frater conjuratus, a sworn brother, and thou shalt have an equal share of all the spoil.
Common sense must teach us that the words here used are such as must be spoken when a gang of cutthroats, pickpockets, etc., are associated together.
15My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path:
16For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood.
For their feet run to evil - The whole of this verse is wanting in the Septuagint, and in the Arabic.
17Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.
Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird - This is a proverb of which the wise man here makes a particular use; and the meaning does not seem as difficult as some imagine. The wicked are represented as lurking privily for the innocent. It is in this way alone that they can hope to destroy them and take their substance; for if their designs were known, proper precautions would be taken against them; for it would be vain to spread the net in the sight of those birds which men wish to ensnare. Attend therefore to my counsels, and they shall never be able to ensnare thee.
18And they lay wait for their own blood; they lurk privily for their own lives.
They lay wait for their own blood - I believe it is the innocent who are spoken of here, for whose blood and lives these lay wait and lurk privily; certainly not their own, by any mode of construction.
19So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof.
Which taketh away the life - A covetous man is in effect, and in the sight of God, a murderer; he wishes to get all the gain that can accrue to any or all who are in the same business that he follows - no matter to him how many families starve in consequence. This is the very case with him who sets up shop after shop in different parts of the same town or neighborhood, in which he carries on the same business, and endeavors to undersell others in the same trade, that he may get all into his own hand.
20Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:
Wisdom crieth - Here wisdom is again personified, as it is frequently, throughout this book; where nothing is meant but the teachings given to man, either by Divine revelation or the voice of the Holy Spirit in the heart. And this voice of wisdom is opposed to the seducing language of the wicked mentioned above. This voice is everywhere heard, in public, in private, in the streets, and in the house. Common sense, universal experience, and the law of justice written on the heart, as well as the law of God, testify against rapine and wrong of every kind.
21She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying,
22How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?
Ye simple ones - פתים pethayim, ye who have been seduced and deceived. See on Proverbs 1:4 (note).
23Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you.
Turn you at my reproof - לתוכחתי lethochachti, at my convincing mode of arguing; attend to my demonstrations. This is properly the meaning of the original word.
I will pour out my spirit unto you - "I wil expresse my mynde unto you;" Coverdale. Loo I shall bryngen to you my Spirit; Old MS. Bible. If you will hear, ye shall have ample instruction.
24Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded;
Because I have called - These and the following words appear to be spoken of the persons who are described, Proverbs 1:11-19, who have refused to return from their evil ways till arrested by the hand of justice; and here the wise man points out their deplorable state.
They are now about to suffer according to the demands of the law, for their depredations. They now wish they had been guided by wisdom, and had chosen the fear of the Lord; but it is too late: die they must, for their crimes are proved against them, and justice knows nothing of mercy.
This, or something like this, must be the wise man's meaning; nor can any thing spoken here be considered as applying or applicable to the eternal state of the persons in question, much less to the case of any man convinced of sin, who is crying to God for mercy. Such persons as the above, condemned to die, may call upon justice for pardon, and they may do this early, earnestly; but they will call in vain. But no poor penitent sinner on this side of eternity can call upon God early, or seek him through Christ Jesus earnestly for the pardon of his sins, without being heard. Life is the time of probation, and while it lasts the vilest of the vile is within the reach of mercy. It is only in eternity that the state is irreversibly fixed, and where that which was guilty must be guilty still. But let none harden his heart because of this longsuffering of God, for if he die in his sin, where God is he shall never come. And when once shut up in the unquenchable fire, he will not pray for mercy, as he shall clearly see and feel that the hope of his redemption is entirely cut off.
25But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof:
26I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh;
27When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you.
Your destruction cometh as a whirlwind - כסופה kesuphah, as the all-prostrating blast. Sense and sound are here well expressed. Suphah here is the gust of wind.
28Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me:
29For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD:
They hated knowledge - This argues the deepest degree of intellectual and moral depravity.
30They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof.
31Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.
32For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.
For the turning away of the simple - This difficult place seems to refer to such a case as we term turning king's evidence; where an accomplice saves his own life by impeaching the rest of his gang. This is called his turning or repentance, משובה meshubah; and he was the most likely to turn, because he was of the פתים pethayim, seduced or deceived persons. And this evidence was given against them when they were in their prosperity, שלוה shalvah, their security, enjoying the fruits of their depredations; and being thus in a state of fancied security, they were the more easily taken and brought to justice.
33But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.
But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely - The man who hears the voice of wisdom in preference to the enticements of the wicked. He shall dwell in safety, ישכן בטח yishcan betach, he shall inhabit safety itself; he shall be completely safe and secure; and shall be quiet from the fear of evil, having a full consciousness of his own innocence and God's protection. Coverdale translates, "And have ynough without eney feare of evell." What the just man has he got honestly; and he has the blessing of God upon it. It is the reverse with the thief, the knave, the cheat, and the extortioner: Male parta pejus dilabuntur; "Ill gotten, worse spent."