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The Words of the Wise: Introduction and Sayings About Wealth and Station (Proverbs 22:17–23:11)

Proverbs 22:17 marks a clear change in the book. Instead of the one-verse units of the major Solomonic collection, we now have multiple-verse units. With a new section, we would expect a new title or subheading. And verse 17 appears to give us just that in referring to what follows as "the words of the wise"—a general distinction for collected wisdom. This section appears to continue until 24:22, as 24:23 denotes yet another section, possibly an appendix to this section, with the words "These things also belong to the wise." Furthermore, this section of sayings from the wise (22:17–24:22)—mainly the first part (22:17–23:11)—bears some striking similarity to the Egyptian "Instruction of Amenemope." Amenemope, sometimes spelled Amen-em-opet, was a superintendent of agriculture and taxation writing to his youngest son on keys to success in life and in profession as a court official.

As noted in our introduction, it is not clear which writing came first, whether this section of Proverbs or the Egyptian work. In any case, one seems to have influenced the other. We will note some similarities along the way. In doing so, we should realize that the Egyptian wisdom text, mired in pagan references, is not inspired literature, as is the book of Proverbs. Nevertheless, the Egyptian text helps to demonstrate the ancient provenance of the biblical book as well as the relationship between Israelite wisdom and that of the wider region, just as the Bible describes of Solomon (see 1 Kings 4:29-34).

The introductory call to attention in Proverbs 22:17-21 "is laid out with the exhortation to learn and pass on the teaching (v. 17), followed by three motivations: (1) there will be a pleasing store of wisdom (v. 18); (2) there will be a deeper trust in the Lord—a distinctively Israelite aspect of wisdom literature (v. 19); and (3) it will build reliability—he will grasp the truth (v. 20) and see himself as a special envoy to keep wisdom in his heart and on his lips (v. 21)" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 17-21).

The latter point here is stated in verse 21 this way: "That I may make you know the certainty of the words of truth, that you may answer words of truth to those who send to you [or 'to him who sent you,' NIV]." Likewise the purpose of Amenemope is: "To know how to refute the accusation of [or 'to return an answer to'] the one who made it, and to send back a reply to the one who wrote [or 'to the one who sent you']; to set one straight on the paths of life" (intro., 1:5-7, William Simpson, editor, The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry, 1973, p. 242). Within brackets here are alternate translations as footnoted in the cited source. (The complete "Instruction of Amenemope," same translation but without footnotes, is online at

In verse 20, "excellent things" in the KJV and NKJV is apparently incorrect. The Hebrew word here, difficult because of the uniqueness of form, is shlshwm (consonants only), which some take to be a poetic or plural form of "three" (shlsh) or "third" (shlyshy). Most scholars, though, emend the text or consider the word another form of "thirty" (shlshym or shlwshym)—compare "thirty sayings" in the NIV. This is mainly because of the affinity of the text with Amenemope, which consists of an introduction followed by 30 short chapters, coupled with the fact that Proverbs 22:17–24:22 can reasonably be divided into an introduction followed by 30 sayings. It should be noted, though, that it is also possible to divide the text into three sections—the first, resembling Amenemope in content (22:17–23:11), and two other sections marked by the use of "My son." Some claim that "third" is meant to introduce the third section of the book—following the prologue (Proverbs 1–9) and Solomon's major collection (10:1–22:16). Still, 30 seems reasonable. Note the following apparent divisions, which should not be considered definitive (others group them slightly differently). Most of the 30 subject titles are from Expositor's:(View Table of "Thirty Sayings of the Wise").

We start, then, with ten sayings about wealth and station (22:22–23:11).

Saying 1: Treatment of the Poor (22:22-23). Personal prosperity must not come through the mistreatment of others. This first saying forms an inclusio with the 10th saying (23:10-11) in that both warn against plundering the poor with the threat that God will plead their cause, acting as their avenger. Amenemope makes numerous statements against dishonest gain and expresses special divine concern for treatment of the poor and downtrodden, saying, "Beware of stealing from a miserable [i.e., poor] man and of raging against the cripple [or the weak]" (chap. 2, 4:4-5) and "God loves him who cares for the poor, more than him who respects the wealthy" (chap. 28, 26:4-5).

Saying 2: Dangerous Associations (22:24-25). Friendship with a hothead is a bad idea. This concept is found throughout the Instruction of Amenemope. Indeed, "the contrast between the intemperate, hot-headed man and the tranquil, truly silent man is one of the main themes in the text" (Simpson, p. 241). Note, for example, "Do not fraternize with the hot-tempered man, nor approach him to converse" (chap. 9, 11:13-14).

Saying 3: Rash Vows (22:26-27). We mustn't be too quick to make deals—particularly when it comes to standing surety for others, as we've seen in other verses (compare 6:1-5; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16). We could lose everything—one's bed here meaning his last possession (such as today speaking of "the kitchen sink" or "the shirt off one's back"). There is no parallel to this in the Egyptian material.

Saying 4: Respect for Property (22:28). As Expositor's notes on this verse: " The sage warns against appropriating someone else's property (see also Amenemope, ch. 6, 7:12-13 ['Do not displace the surveyor's marker on the boundaries of arable land, nor alter the position of the measuring line. Do not be greedy for a plot of land'])....(...see Deut 19:14; 27:17...Hos 5:10). The boundaries were sacred because God owned the land and had given it to the fathers as their inheritance; to extend one's land at another's expense was a major violation of covenant and oath. Of course, property disputes and wars ancient and modern arise because both sides can point to times when their ancestors owned the land." A specification of this point is made in the 10th saying (Proverbs 23:10-11).

Saying 5: Benefits of Skill (22:29). A person skilled in his work will be recognized and rewarded with advancement. Those who are the best at what they do will rise to the top—working even for rulers. Of course, as with other proverbs, this is a general principle. Other factors will bear on actual experience. The Instruction of Amenemope says: "As to a scribe who is experienced [skilled through practice] in his position, he will find himself worthy of being a courtier [i.e., one in attendance at a royal court]" (chap. 30, 27:16-17).

Saying 6: Caution Before Rulers (23:1-3). The previous saying spoke of promotion to standing before kings. The current saying gives a caution about being in such a position. Here a courtier at a banquet is told to keep his eyes on what's in front of him. This may literally mean not staring about the table or at the ruler with a view to feasting—though it could be a metaphor for keeping in mind what's really going on. "Put a knife to your throat" in this context means "curb your appetite" or "control yourself." The instruction here was perhaps a point of proper etiquette at court in ancient times, but the reason given goes beyond that. Deceptive food here probably implies more than the fact that too much rich food can make you ill. A ruler often draws a person in because he has ulterior motives. " The ruler's food may be 'deceptive' is not what it seems. So the warning is not to indulge in his impressive feast—the ruler wants something from you or is observing you....The Mishnah (Aboth 2:3) quotes Gamaliel as warning that a ruler only draws you into court for his purpose, but in your day of trouble he will not be there" (Expositor's, note on verses 1-3). The New American Commentary notes: "The rich do not give away their favors for free. They want something in return, and it is generally much more than what they have invested. One can lose one's own soul in the exchange."

As noted in our introduction, there is correspondence here to both the Egyptian Instruction of Ptah-hotep and Amenemope. Quoting from Ptah-hotep in Wilson's translation: "If you are one of the guests at the table of one who is greater than you, accept what he gives when it is set before you. Look at what is before you and do not pierce him / with much staring, for to annoy him is an abomination of the spirit. Do not speak to him until he calls, for no one knows what may be displeasing" (maxim 7, 6:13–7:3, p. 162). And from Amenemope, as translated by Trevor Longman, How to Read Proverbs: "Do not eat in the presence of an official and then set your mouth before (him). If you are sated pretend to chew. Content yourself with your saliva. Look at the bowl that is before you, and let it serve your needs. An official is great in his office, as well as rich in drawings of water" (chap. 23, 23:13-20, p. 75).

The eighth saying (Proverbs 23:6-8) also speaks of avoiding delicacies in certain company.

Saying 7: Fleeting Wealth (23:4-5). This saying about not striving too hard after wealth, because of its fleeting nature, is the closest in correspondence between the book of Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope, and perhaps best illustrates the influence of one work on the other. Note especially the end of this saying in Amenemope: "Do not set your heart on seeking riches....Do not exert yourself to seek out excess and your wealth will prosper for you [or 'your own property is good enough for you']; if riches come to you by theft they will not spend the night with you; as soon as day breaks they will not be in your household; although their places can be seen, they are not there. When the earth opens up its mouth, it levels him [or them] and swallows him [or them] up, and it drowns him [or them] in the deep; they have made for themselves a great hole which suits them [i.e., is as large as they are]. And they have sunk themselves in the tomb; or they have made themselves wings like geese, and they fly up to the sky" (chap. 7, 9:10–10:5). So very true—and thus it's foolish to be slave to this pursuit (see also Luke 12:20; 1 Timothy 6:7-10).

Saying 8: Unpleasant Hospitality (23:6-8). These verses show the worthlessness of cultivating friendship with a stingy person. (The word for "miser" here literally means "one who has an evil eye"—in contrast to the generous person, literally "he who has a good eye," in 22:9). In 23:6 we see repeated the phrase from saying 6 (23:3) that we not desire such a person's delicacies. A stingy person offering you anything has nothing to do with kindness toward you. He clearly must be using you. Your attempts at friendship are therefore wasted effort. This specific lesson is not related in the Egyptian literature. Some attempt to use the first colon of verse 7 as an example of "you are what you think," in the context of the power of positive thinking. Yet, as scholars acknowledge, the Hebrew here is difficult and probably should not be translated the way it is written in the King James and New King James Versions. In any case, there is nothing at all positive about the context here, as it concerns the deceitful intentions of the miser.

Saying 9: Wisdom Wasted on a Fool (23:9). This verse is related to the former saying in the sense of telling a person something being wasted effort. The wording here does not mean we should never say anything in a fool's presence. It is a caution to be sparing. Why take time for a lengthy explanation when you know the person won't care what you say? As Jesus told us, we should not cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). In this "there is no specific connection to Egyptian literature, but the general concept was there that a fool rejected discipline and instruction, often scorning the teacher who tried to change him" (Expositor's, note on verse 9).

Saying 10: Respect the Poor's Property (23:10-11). This is the closing frame of the inclusio opened in the first saying (22:22-23), warning against stealing from the lowly with the threat of God acting as their advocate, redeemer and avenger. In this case the mistreatment of the poor (here the fatherless) is perpetrated through removing ancient boundary markers to take possession of their fields. Saying 4 (22:28) explicitly concerns not removing such boundary markers. And regarding it we noted corresponding verses in Amenemope, as we do here again: "Do not displace the surveyor's marker on the boundaries of arable land, nor alter the position of the measuring line. Do not be greedy for a plot of land..." (chap. 6, 7:12-13). Moreover, Amenemope continues in the next line, "...nor overturn the boundaries of a widow" (7:14), tying in more closely with this 10th saying in Proverbs.

Continuing in the Egyptian text, consequences for taking over the fields of others are warned of immediately following: "To one who has done this on earth, pay attention, for he is a weak enemy; he is an enemy overturned inside himself; life is taken from his eye; his household is hostile to the community, his storerooms are toppled over, his property taken from his children, and to someone else his possessions given. Take care not to topple over the boundary marks of the arable land, not fearing that you will be brought to court; man propitiates God by the might of the Lord when he sets straight the boundaries of the arable land. Desire, then, to make yourself prosper, and take care for the Lord of All; do not trample on the furrow of someone else, their good order will be profitable for you" (8:1-16).

With the 10th saying of the wise the close correspondence with the Egyptian text ceases.

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