The Thought Behind the Proverb
A PROVERB is said to be “a large amount of wisdom wrapped in the fewest possible words.” The Hebrew word for proverbs, Meshalím, means a comparison. It includes more than is embraced by the English word, which we understand to mean a pithy sentence expressing in a few words a well-known or obvious truth.
A proverb may be likened to a kernel of corn, which, though a small thing in itself, has the potential to expand and increase until it can furnish food for millions. A proverb is also like a precious diamond, which, though tiny in size, may constitute a fortune. Even a child of little strength can conceal and carry a diamond around. But if the diamond’s value were in iron or some other baser metal, it would take the strength of many to transport it from place to place. So it is with proverbs that are precious with mental and moral wisdom; they are small enough to be carried about and retained by the weakest memory, yet priceless in their instructive value.
In ancient times when books were few it was natural that observations on life and manners should be compressed into the fewest words possible and committed to memory. People carried these sayings about and quoted them from time to time as safeguards. The very purpose of the Bible book of Proverbs is stated in these words: “For one to know wisdom and discipline, to discern the sayings of understanding, to receive the discipline that gives insight, righteousness and judgment and uprightness, to give to the inexperienced ones shrewdness, to a young man knowledge and thinking ability.”—Prov. 1:1-3.
Many proverbs were born of stored-up experiences and observations, not of just one wise man, but of many. Therefore, Lord Russell’s epigram describes a proverb as “the wisdom of many and the wit of one.” Some proverbs owe their origin to common situations in the everyday life of the times, knowledge of which is necessary to make clear how the proverb came into existence and how it is to be understood and applied. To make clear the fundamental, practical value of the wisdom embodied in the Proverbs, note a few of them and the lessons they teach.
“Anyone loving transgression is loving a struggle. Anyone making his entryway high is seeking a crash.”
In various parts of Palestine the Jews were obliged to have the doors of their courts and houses very low, not more than three feet high, to prevent men on horseback from riding into the courts and houses and spoiling their goods. One who made a high gate or entryway was inviting disaster. The proverb could also be speaking of the mouth as an entryway that is lifted high by boasting and arrogant speaking. Such talk has a tendency to kindle and maintain strife, which leads to a crash.
“‘It is bad, bad!’ says the buyer, and he is going his way. Then it is that he boasts about himself.”
This is a common proverb in Oriental countries. The buyer says the article for sale is “bad.” The price is lowered. He buys it and leaves, bragging about the clever deal he made. It takes no skill or experience to pronounce an article bad, but it does take some knowledge and judgment to put a fair price on an article. If the buyer robs the seller by saying the item is “bad,” he has little to boast of. He has wronged another and himself. He has cheated his neighbor out of some money and he has injured his own conscience and has probably lost the confidence of his fellow man. Therefore, he has little reason for boasting.
“A king’s heart is as streams of water in the hand of Jehovah. Everywhere that he delights to, he turns it.”
The proverb alludes to the Eastern method of watering the land. Many canals are dug from one stream, and by opening a particular sluice the cultivator can direct a stream to whatever part he pleases. So Jehovah can direct the thoughts of a king in harmony with his will and order. Here, too, is shown that Jehovah rules the spirit of man in that he has access to his innermost thoughts and feelings—a power that human monarchs cannot claim.
“Just like the coolness of snow in the day of harvest is the faithful envoy to those sending him, for he restores the very soul of his masters.”
Some select few in the East have snowhouses, that is, places dug under the ground where they lay up snow for summer use. The snow of Lebanon or Hermon was put into wine or other drink to make it more refreshing in the harvesttime. But the common people cooled their liquors by the simple mode of evaporation. They would dip a cloth in water, wrap it round the bottle, and then hang the bottle in the heat of the sun. The evaporation carried off the heat from the wine, and the process made the wine almost as cold as ice. Good news is as refreshing to the soul as a cool drink at harvesttime.