In the heading to the canonical Book of Proverbs, the general term "proverbs" is made to include "a proverb mashal, and a figure (or, an interpretation, melitsah), the words (singular dabhar) of the wise, and their dark sayings (or, riddles)."
The "proverb" is either a saying current among the people (compare 1 Samuel 10:12; "the proverb of the ancients" 24:13 (14)), or a sentence of ethical wisdom composed by the order of wise men (chakhamim). Of the latter kind are the sententious maxims of the Wisdom literature (chiefly Proverbs, but also Job, Ecclesiastes, and among the uncanonical writings, Ecclesiasticus). They are characterized by a secular touch; wisdom, moreover, flourished among the neighbors of Israel as well; so in Edom and elsewhere.
Whatever the date of the collection known as the "Proverbs of Solomon," the wise men existed in Israel at a very early period; the prophets allude to them. But the Hebrew mashal is sometimes of a more elaborate character corresponding to our "parables"; frequently a vein of taunt runs through them, and they played an important part in compositions directed against other nations (compare Numbers 21:27). The prophets are fond of employing this genre of literary production; in their hands the mashal becomes a figurative or allegorical discourse (compare Ezekiel 21:5 (8)). The mashal in the sense of a didactic poem occurs also in the Psalms (Pss 49 and 78). Hence, it is that "proverb" and "figure," or "proverb" and "dark saying" are interchangeable terms. The "dark saying" is the popular "riddle" (compare Judges 14) raised to the dignity of elaborate production.
It is in short an allegorical sentence requiring interpretation. Both prophets and psalmists avail themselves thereof. The word of God comes to the prophet in the form of a vision (compare the visions of Amos or Jeremiah), i.e. the truth presents itself to them in the form of a simile. To the perfect prophet of the type of Moses the revelation comes direct in the shape of the naked truth without the mediation of figures of speech or obscure utterances requiring elucidation (compare Numbers 12). In the same way Paul (1 Corinthians 13) distinguishes between the childish manner of speaking of things spiritual and the manner of a man:
"For now we see in a mirror, darkly (Greek "in a riddle"); but then face to face." The rabbis say that, whereas all the other prophets saw God and things Divine in a dim mirror, Moses saw them in a polished, clear mirror. Both Paul and the rabbis feel the difference between mediate and immediate vision, the revelation which requires dark figurative language as a vehicle and the clear perception which is the direct truth.
Max L. Margolis
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