The biblical proverbialist can get away with naming things. His task is deeply cognitive. As Solomon catalogued the Levant’s flora and fauna and so made a name for his encyclopedic soul, so does the wisdom tradition that he in some measure sponsored sort and label the eddies and flow of human conduct. Deep human pathos lies behind the proverbialist’s signature truths. Yet he does not appear to struggle in the pithy articulation of them. Not even when he speaks of that peculiar demon of the body politic that we call insolence:
By insolence the heedless make strife,
but wisdom is with those who take advice.
The proverb pivots on the matter of taking advice or refusing to do so. It is precisely the heedless—they do not ask, they do not seek—who initiate the ripples of dissension that flow disturbingly across the community. Wisdom does not do this. In their interrogative-rich probing, the wise consider and learn before delivering themselves of word or deed. The wise do not consider it their prerogative to speak or to do. They know they will impact lives as they do. They are careful in the best sense of the word.
Not so the insolent, who shoot from the hip. Theirs is no mere individual foible. They pick and tear at the community’s fabric. They are, in their plausibly deniable way, dangerous folk.
The psalmist knows this about them and says so, though without the proverbialist’s luxury of settled distance from the fray:
God, the insolent rise up against me;
a band of ruffians seeks my life,
and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl.
Show me a sign of your favor,
so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.
This desperate, endangered pray-er is not about the concept of insolence. He is too busy to worry about such moral theorizing, though in a calmer moment he will know its treasure. His life is in danger’s way. Falling back upon YHWH’s self-disclosure, he quotes the divine self-definition back at God.
Where his heavenward shout brushes the proverbialist’s truth is in the heedlessness of those who seek his life. Just as they do not seek the counsel of people wiser than they, so do they refuse to set the Lord before them.
They are drunk with self-referential, asphyxiating certainty because they have never learned or have long since forgotten how to ask.
Faced down by such a mob—too often they are a well-spoken, nicely perfumed coterie of thugs who could not believe such a word should be used of them—the psalmist can find only those words that desperate people ought always to speak: Lord have mercy!