Proverbs of King Solomon

Pictured above is one of the greatest churches we ever built, the great Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, now unfortunately desecrated multiple times and now (as I understand) functioning as a mosque again. Hagia Sophia is Greek for Sancta Sapientia in Latin and or Holy Wisdom in English. That church was built to honour the Wisdom of God (of which human wisdom is only a shadow) and it was built appropriately with the greatest skill available in the sixth century to an enormous size. Even today, this gigantic structure is extraordinary to behold and would not be easy to replicate. So much has the Church honoured divine Wisdom in every age. Other books in the Wisdom literature in the Bible would include the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiastes and large portions of Ecclesiasticus. But, Proverbs first. We know of the repute King Solomon had for wisdom, as given by the books of the Kings and the Chronicles; the introduction to this book introduces its content as the proverbs of Solomon himself, although there are shorter sections towards the end that are given to other authors, Agur son of Jacé (chapter thirty) and King Lamuel (chapter thirty-one). The book itself begins with nine chapters extolling divine Wisdom, which mankind is meant to possess and make his own, before the proverbs begin properly. And there is the value of tradition, so often despised in our present culture in the West:

“True wisdom is founded on the fear of the Lord; who but a fool would despise such wisdom, and the lessons she teaches? Heed well, my son, thy father’s warnings, nor make light of thy mother’s teaching; no richer heirloom, crown or necklace, can be thine. Turn a deaf ear, my son, to the blandishments of evil-doers that would make thee of their company.”

Proverbs, 1: 7-9

This continues for some few pages, always about sons taking lessons from their parents, accepting advice from their elders. Here’s a rather famous bid from chapter six:

Keep true, my son, to the charge thy father gives thee, nor make light of thy mother’s teaching; wear them ever close to thy heart, hang them like a locket upon thy breast; be these, when thou walkest abroad, thy company, when thou liest asleep, thy safeguard, in waking hours, thy counsellors. That charge is a lamp to guide thee, that teaching a light to beckon thee; the warnings correction gave thee are a road leading to life.”

Proverbs, 6: 20-23

Similar language is used elsewhere in the Bible with respect to the divine Law, so demonstrates the importance of tradition to the Hebrew and Jewish (and by extension, the Christian) communities. There follows these lines and across chapter seven a warning against the temptress that threatens always to seduce and draw the young and inexperienced away from the prudent counsel of their elders. Meanwhile, divine Wisdom is waiting to be had, precious above all else, bringing justice in her wake:

“And, all the while, the Wisdom that grants discernment is crying aloud, is never silent; there she stands, on some high vantage-point by the public way, where the roads meet, or at the city’s approach, close beside the gates, making proclamation. To every man, high and low, her voice calls: ‘Here is better counsel for the simpleton; O foolish hearts, take warning! Listen to me, I have matters of high moment to unfold, a plain message to deliver. A tongue that speaks truth, lips that scorn impiety; here all is sound doctrine, no shifts, no evasions here. No discerning heart, no well-stored mind, but will own it right and just. Here is counsel, here is instruction, better worth the winning than silver or the finest gold; wisdom is more to be coveted than any jewel; there is no beauty that can be matched with hers.

Proverbs, 8: 1-11

A little later comes the more well-known extract that is often used by the Church in reference to Christ, as the Divine Word that existed from all eternity with the Father, as given by the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John:

“The Lord made me his when first he went about his work, at the birth of time, before his creation began. Long, long ago, before earth was fashioned, I held my course. Already I lay in the womb, when the depths were not yet in being, when no springs of water had yet broken; when I was born, the mountains had not yet sunk on their firm foundations, and there were no hills; not yet had he made the earth, or the rivers, or the solid framework of the world. I was there when he built the heavens, when he fenced in the waters with a vault inviolable, when he fixed the sky overhead, and levelled the fountain-springs of the deep. I was there when he enclosed the sea within its confines, forbidding the waters to transgress their assigned limits, when he poised the foundations of the world, I was at his side, a master-workman, my delight increasing with each day, as I made play before him all the while; made play in this world of dust, with the sons of Adam for my play-fellows.”

Proverbs 8: 22-31

You could imagine this as being in the minds of the Church Fathers who established and defended the Christian creed containing the words, through Him all things were made… And now come the actual proverbs, which are many and not well-organised. There are general themes, such as honesty and the reward for dishonesty (silence is preferably to false talk):

Lying lips that hide malice, foolish lips that spread slander, what a world of sin there is in talking! Where least is said, most prudence is. Silver refined is the just man’s every word, and trash the sinner’s every thought. The just man’s talk plays the shepherd to many, while the fool dies of his own starved heart.”

Proverbs, 10: 18-21

Honesty shuns the false word; the sinner disappointment gives and gets. The upright heart is protected by its own innocence; guilt trips the heel of the wrong-doer.”

Proverbs, 13: 5-6

Better a penny honestly come by than great revenues ill gotten. Heart of man must plan his course, but his steps will fall as the Lord guides them. Speaks king, speaks oracle; never a word amiss. Scale and balance are emblems of the Lord’s own justice; no weight in the merchant’s wallet but is of divine fashioning.”

Proverbs, 16: 8-11 

“Out comes bribe from bosom, and the godless man turns justice aside from its course.”

Proverbs, 17: 23

And the value of a good and virtuous wife, the basis of a successful household:

Crowned is his brow, who wins a vigorous wife; sooner let thy bones rot than marry one who shames thee.”

Proverbs, 12: 4

It is by woman’s wisdom a home thrives; a foolish wife pulls it down about her ears.”

Proverbs, 14:1

“A good wife found is treasure found; the Lord is filling thy cup with happiness. (A good wife cast away is treasure cast away; leave to fools, and godless fools, the adulterous embrace.)”

Proverbs, 18: 22

“Protected by her own industry and good repute, she greets the morrow with a smile. Ripe wisdom governs her speech, but it is kindly instruction she gives. She keeps watch over all that goes on in her house, not content to go through life eating and sleeping. That is why her children are the first to call her blessed, her husband is loud in her praise: Unrivalled art thou among all the women that have enriched their homes.”

Proverbs, 31: 25-29

And that hard work helps avoid idleness, an evil to be mocked:

“A just man cares for the safety of the beasts he owns; the wicked are heartless through and through. Till field and fill belly; idle pursuits are but foolishness. (Sit long enjoying thy wine, and there is no strong fortress will win thee renown.)”

Proverbs, 12: 10-11

Idleness finds ever a hedge of thorns in its path; the man of duty walks on unhampered.”

Proverbs, 15:19

“Love not thy sleep, or poverty will overtake thee unawares; the open eye means a full belly.”

Proverbs, 20: 13

“‘What, go abroad?’ says Sloth; ‘there is a lion there; trust me, a lion’s dam loose in the street.’ Sloth turns about, but keeps his bed, true as the door to its hinge. With folded hands the sluggard sits by, too idle to put hand to mouth. Wiser than seven sages is the sluggard in his own thought.”

Proverbs, 26: 13-16

And that children must be disciplined through corporal punishment for their own good, if they be without wisdom:

“Chasten thy son still, nor despair of his amendment; still let the death of him be far from thy thoughts.”

Proverbs, 19: 18

“Boyhood’s mind is loaded with a pack of folly, that needs the rod of correction to shift it.”

Proverbs, 22: 15

Wisdom comes of reproof, comes of the rod; leave a child to go its own way, and a mother’s care is wasted. Thrive the godless, there will be wrongs a many; but the just will yet see them put down. A son well schooled is rest well earned; great joy thou shalt have of him.”

Proverbs, 29: 15-17

Good Christian behaviour finds its source in the Wisdom literature of the Hebrews. Hence, in this book will have been found prudential decisions on a variety of human behaviours, from the basics of Christian charity (19: 17) to the use of wine and strong drink (20: 1 and 23: 31), to the cultivation of a good reputation (22: 1). Compare Proverbs 13: 7 (some are rich that have nothing) to Christ’s parable of the rich man with a barn full of good things, who will the next day be called from this life; while Proverbs 14:7 presents the human reality that wealth never lacks friends. And compare Proverbs 24: 1 (not for thee to emulate wrong-doers) to Christ’s command that we turn the other cheek. And compare Proverbs 25: 21-22 (hungers thy enemy? here is thy chance; feed him) with Christ’s famous command that we love even our enemies. Wisdom literature was ready fodder for the rabbinic movement of the late Jewish period in the practical application of the Torah, a tradition in which Christ Himself stood as Teacher of the Law. And, of course, the Will of God and His favour trumps every attempt by human beings at obtaining prudent counsel:

“Wisdom is none, prudence is none, counsel is none that can be matched against the Lord’s Will; well armed thy horse may be on the eve of battle, but the Lord sends victory.”

Proverbs, 21: 30-31
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