The Complete Book of Proverbs

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March 26 2007 12:24 PM

The Complete Book of Proverbs

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Chapter 16
"All one's ways may be pure in one's own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit." This introduces the No. 1 theme of the rest of Proverbs: We all justify our own behavior, but only God knows if we're actually righteous. Again and again, the book will rebuke us for praising ourselves. The Lord, meanwhile, sees how wicked we really are.

"Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall"—the source of "pride goeth before a fall."

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Chapter 17
God is not a big fan of schadenfreude: "Those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished."

The God of Proverbs is a very admirable fellow, an ascetic do-gooder. If he were a person, he'd be one of those saintly Catholic priests who lives on bread and water, feeds the needy 24/7, yet keeps a jolly smile on his face.

Great line: "Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly." 

"A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones." Modern medicine can only now prove what Proverbs recognized 2,500 years ago.

Proverbs hugely objects to strong emotions. Chapter 12 attacked passion, while this chapter says that "one who is cool in spirit has understanding." I'm puzzled: Why would emotion be the enemy of wisdom?

Chapter 18

The chapter chastises single people, especially hipster slackers. It begins by announcing that "one who lives alone is self-indulgent." I don't exactly know what the author means by "lives alone." Is he going after the singletons who rent Tribeca studio apartments? I doubt it. I assume "lives alone" is some kind of synonym for "cut yourself off from your family." Am I right? The proverb is attacking the selfishness of abandoning family ties, not the selfishness of wanting your own bathroom.

On the other hand, the rest of the chapter does seem to be wagging its finger at the cool twentysomething: "One who is slack in work is close kin to a vandal." Then at the end: "He who finds a wife finds a good thing."

Chapter 19

It revisits the theme of self-delusion from Chapter 16: "The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established." The idea that we fool ourselves into thinking we control our lives is a theme of all kinds of spiritual writing, not just the Bible. The entire self-help genre rests on the notion that we must learn to accept what we cannot control. Buddhists—at least the Americanized ones I know—also love to utter aphorisms about surrendering control.

Chapter 20

Proverbs is not so keen on alcohol. Here it says that, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler." And Chapter 23 hits even harder, vividly describing the symptoms of both hangover ("Who has redness of eyes?") and drunkenness ("Your mind utter[s] perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea.") Proverbs 23 rails particularly at "those who keep trying mixed wines." As any bartender will tell you, only a fool mixes his drinks. No wonder the author ends up with such a wicked hangover. If he had stuck to that Ashkelon wine and not kept doing shots of "Jerusalem fire," he would have been fine.

Chapter 21

Until now, Proverbs has been very keen on marriage, but suddenly it goes very Married With Children: "It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife … It is better to live in a desert land than with a contentious and fretful wife." Hmm. Is the author merely complaining in the time-honored "my wife, she's such a nag" way? As kvetching, that kind of complaint actually honors marriage (Marriage—ain't it a riot?) and is the entire foundation of the sitcom. But I suspect this is a more brutal kind of commentary. He's really annoyed and wants to get away from the aggravating wife. The lovely tributes to marriage earlier in Proverbs are simplistic in their joy and lust: All marriages, even great marriages, alternate the delight of Chapter 5 ("may you be intoxicated always by her love") with the frustration of chapter 21 ("better to live in a desert … ").

Chapter 22

If it seems like I'm racing through Proverbs, well, I am. Once I realized that Job was the next book in the Hebrew Bible, I started speed-reading. Gotta get to Job!

Chapter 23

Verse 6 advises not to consort with stingy people or to eat their food. "For like a hair in the throat, so are they." Isn't "like a hair in the throat" a wonderful analogy? It perfectly captures the sensation of annoyance and discomfort!

Here is the Bible's most enthusiastic endorsement of corporal punishment for kids: "Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die. If you beat them with the rod, you will save their lives from Sheol." That's pretty unequivocal.

Chapter 24

This may be my favorite line in Proverbs: "One who gives an honest answer gives a kiss on the lips." It sounds like something my Irish grandmother would say, if only I had an Irish grandmother.

Chapter 25

May I pause to pay tribute to the sheer common sense of Proverbs: It speaks up for modesty, humility, generosity, hard work, sympathy—all the virtues of moderation. Two gems in this chapter: "If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, or else, having too much, you will vomit it." And, "Visit your neighbor sparingly, lest he have his surfeit of you and loathe you." (So true!)

Chapter 27

Again with our main theme, the folly of self-confidence: "Do not boast of tomorrow, for you do not know what the day will bring."

The author of Proverbs has a Miss Manners eye for social niceties. Look at this piece of advice: "He who greets his fellow loudly early in the morning shall have it reckoned to him as a curse." There is a time and place for everything, and 5 a.m. is not the time to shout huzzahs at your neighbor.

Chapter 30

Solomon wraps up his proverbial duties after 29 chapters and hands the pen off to someone named Agur. Solomon writes in a straightforward, didactic style, but Agur is elusive, preferring riddles. For example: "Four are among the tiniest on earth, yet they are the wisest of the wise; Ants are a folk without power, yet they prepare food for themselves in summer; The badger is a folk without strength, yet it makes its home in the rock; The locusts have no king, yet they all march forth in formation; You can catch a lizard in your hand, yet it is found in royal palaces." (This is less a proverb than a Zen koan. Or perhaps, since this is the Hebrew Bible we are talking about, a Zen Cohen.) In addition to being very witty, this aphorism deftly reminds us of how little we matter, how small we are compared with God's varied and glorious creation.

Chapter 31

The final chapter has yet one more author, King Lemuel of Massa. (I've never heard of him either.) Teetotaling President Bush probably loves this one: It advises that kings and princes shouldn't drink wine because they need their wits about them. On the other hand, you should ply the poor and miserable with liquor because it will help them "put their troubles out of their mind." (In other words, when a panhandler begs for a buck, you should hope that he uses it to buy rotgut.)

The last half of the chapter consists of an extraordinary tribute to the "capable wife"—the one whose "worth is far beyond that of rubies." I'd go further: She's worth more than diamonds! This woman is truly extraordinary—she makes Oprah look like a bum: She gets up in the middle of the night to start her chores. She gathers huge amounts of wool and flax. She plants her own vineyard. She buys her own estate. She's a savvy businesswoman, running a successful textile concern. She's generous to the poor. And she's delightful company: "She looks to the future cheerfully. Her mouth is full of wisdom, her tongue with kindly teaching." She's not beautiful, but so what? "Beauty is illusory"! She loves God; she works hard; she does good. We should all want to marry her—or be her.

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