The Complete Book of Proverbs
I know nothing about the Book of Proverbs, except that—Praise the Lord! Hallelujah! Glory Be! Hosanna in the Highest!—it is not the Book of Psalms. Based on the name "Proverbs," I suspect it's going to be a collection of great one-liners, and that it should come with a rimshot and a laugh track. Let's see if I'm right.
According to the book, Solomon wrote Proverbs in order to teach "wisdom" to his people. It's less a series of witty aphorisms than a self-help book. ( The Road Less Traveled, The 48 Laws of Power, Tuesdays with Morrie—they are all Solomon's fault!) Solly intends "to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young." His first two bits of advice are Bible staples: 1) "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," and 2) listen to Mom and Dad. The third piece of advice is also a staple, but of after-school specials rather than scripture: Solomon tells kids that if a gang of roughnecks asks for help in mugging passers-by, just say "No!" And don't worry, these thugs will get their due. In the most after-school-special moment of all, Solomon says that these gangsters have "set an ambush—for their own lives! Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain." (Can't you hear the portentous narrator, pausing pregnantly before saying, "for their own lives"?)
Chapter 2 and Chapter 3
The vibe of Proverbs is curious. Most of the Bible is imperious (God) or imploring (us). God gives us His laws, and we're expected to obey them, not debate with Him. He doesn't spend a lot of time discussing what He wants, and neither do His prophets. They command. But Proverbs is different. Proverbs is didactic. God commands, but Proverbs teaches. Solomon is trying to persuade his readers that this is what's best for them. It's for their own good! For a casual reader, this makes Proverbs easier to swallow. It's not so threatening.
Solomon advises us not to "despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves the one He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights." No wonder they said Solomon was the wisest man in the world: He makes the best argument for God's bad temper in the whole Bible. Cleverly admitting that God has a tendency to fly off the handle, Solomon then turns it into a good thing. His anger proves how much He loves us.
Proverbs contrasts the "adulteress," and the good lady "wisdom." The adulteress seduces with sweet words, but her "way leads down to death." Wisdom "is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her."
For a self-help book, Proverbs offers incredibly sensible advice: Practice prudence, never panic, don't quarrel "without cause," don't plot against your neighbor, "do not envy the violent." Why doesn't some sly publisher put this between covers, throw a catchy title on it (The Way of the King: The Timeless Wisdom of Solomon), and rake in the bucks?
The code of behavior outlined in Proverbs is monkish in its self-denial: Solomon tells us that wisdom comes from talking little and minding your own business. The word "discipline" appears in chapter after chapter. Solomon advises: "Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left."
It is odd, however, that this insistence on self-restraint is coming from Solomon. He was a king notorious for excess—too many wives, too much gold, too big a house, too much talking. And you could argue that those very excesses—his swerves off the straight and narrow, his flirtations with other gods and other women—were what gave him such an active mind and curious spirit. In other words, his own wisdom came from habits exactly the opposite of those he is teaching. He didn't look directly forward. He didn't avoid the adulteress. He denied himself nothing. And yet he grew in wisdom. Riddle me this, readers!
A gloriously vivid denunciation of the "loose" woman. (Question: How is it that slutty women came to be known as "loose"?) Her lips "drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword."
Here is as nice a passage about marriage as has ever been written: "Rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love." May you, indeed! Solomon's plea for uxorial satisfaction and his savage attack against adultery are very persuasive, but wouldn't they be more so coming from a man who didn't have 700 wives!
Benjamin Franklin must have cribbed from Proverbs. His insistence on hard work is strongly previewed here, including this wonderful exhortation to a sleeping person: "How long will you lie there, O lazybones?" If you stay asleep, "poverty will come upon you like a robber."
I must quote the following passage in full, because 1) it's great advice; and 2) if there is a God, He clearly wants you to know this:
There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.
Don't get too hung up on those dueling numbers—is it six or seven, Lord? Instead, let's talk about the first five abominations—eyes, tongue, hands, heart, feet. Isn't that a brilliant sequence? It reminds us that the physical is the moral. Again and again, Proverbs deploys images of the body to describe moral behavior. ("Let your eyes look directly forward"; "turn your foot away from evil"; etc.) Our age celebrates the supremacy of the mind—that morality and immorality are founded in thought. But I like the Proverbs model, which recognizes that it is the body that sins—the body does wrong and right, not some vague, uncorporeal mind.
Solomon watches a sexy young thing seduce a dumb guy walking down the street. Her husband's away, so she has tarted up like a hooker, decorated her house like a bordello, and proposes to the stupid buck: "Let us delight ourselves with love." He follows her home "like an ox to the slaughter." His sin will "cost him his life." (It's not clear if it will literally get him killed, because the cuckolded husband will murder him, or if he only dies a moral death, losing God's favor.)
Chapter 8 and Chapter 9
Wisdom builds her house on "seven pillars." That's the only reference to the seven pillars of wisdom, and the chapter doesn't elaborate on what they are. But, heck, that was enough for T.E. Lawrence, so it should be enough for us!
I read a depressing article in the Washington Post on Monday about why power makes people ignore criticism. Most of us prefer those who agree with us to those who disagree, but the powerful have the option of getting rid of all the critics and keeping only yes men. Proverbs has something to say about that: "A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you." Truer words were never spoken. Think about the most intelligent people you know: Aren't they the most open to criticism, the most welcoming of it?
Chapter 10 and Chapter 11
Proverbs changes gears and becomes a collection of one-liners, after all. "A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother's grief." (Not really sure what that one means, but it sounds good.) A few of my favorites in these chapters: "Love covers all offenses"; "Lying lips conceal hatred"; and "Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers." That last one was probably the corporate slogan of the Judean version of FedEx or GE.
That reminds me of a point I have neglected to mention, which is that the Bible, among its other achievements, is also a pretty good guidebook for ethical behavior in business. Throughout the book, but especially in Leviticus and here in Proverbs, it instructs on how to do business honestly. For example, the first proverb in Chapter 11 is: "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight." Think how important true weights and measures are to any society. We have electronic scales and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The Israelites didn't, so God makes that His business.
Proverbs understood the wisdom of crowds. "Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety."
Here's a doozy of a line: "Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman without good sense."
Again and again Proverbs returns to its chief themes: Silence, hard work, and prudence are the greatest virtues. The wicked are talkative, treacherous, lazy, avaricious, and wanton. Restraint is more valuable than passion. Passion "makes the bones rot."
Here, for example, is Proverbs on the virtues of work: "The righteous know the needs of their animals. …Those who till the land will have plenty of food. … Manual labor has its reward." (Is the last the source of "labor is its own reward"? My brief Googling did not turn up a clear answer.) A little bit later: "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty."
The idealized person of Proverbs is essentially the same as the idealized American: a hardworking, silent man of the land—a Marlboro man. Is this a coincidence, or were the creators of that American mythology, such as Ben Franklin and James Fennimore Cooper, inspired by the biblical virtues described in Proverbs?
Proverbs is ambivalent about wealth. It condemns greed and anyone who pursues riches too avidly. On the other hand, it emphasizes that "prosperity rewards the righteous." Its basic message seems to be: Ill-gotten wealth, unearned wealth, and wealth that came too easily are all wicked, but wealth acquired slowly, by dint of hard work and virtuous behavior, is a just reward. And really, who can argue with that?
"Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up." Very true, and soon to be appearing on Successories everywhere.
Watch out, kids: "Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them." This echoes the Chapter 3 verse about why the Lord punishes us. As a parent of young children, I'm leaning toward the Bible's position. Discipline is often a better tool for raising good kids than discussion. (This is not to say I practice corporal punishment. I don't!)
"A soft answer turns away wrath. … A gentle tongue is a tree of life." These are fine sentiments, but not much practiced in the Bible itself. When does God ever give a soft answer? When is His tongue gentle?
What is the Bible's feeling about vegetarianism? Unenthusiastic. "Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it."
One thing about God: He always loves the brainiacs. I can't think of a single incident where having smarts hinders a Hebrew hero, can you? And the Bible itself can be proudly nerdy, as in this proverb: "To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!" This is a verse for writers and Jeopardy contestants.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.