The Proverbs manage to blend pragmatic hope with pessimistic appraisal of a world that suffers a nagging defect at its core. If this mix approximates to the life experience of many readers, this may in part explain the enduring appeal of this wisdom anthology, to say nothing of its instructive value.
Though wisdom’s voice does not cross over into despair, it probes the case for pessimism with a certain valor.
The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry. There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’
As sentient human beings capable not only of suffering but of reflecting upon the fact that we do so, we find that life itself seems often to be under assault. Murphy’s Law—the stuff of modern-day folk wisdom—rings true because our wounds and bruises remind us that so many things can go wrong at any given moment, and that many of them do.
The biblical proverbialist, too, knows of a certain relentless campaign that seems to be waged at most times and at all opportunity against peace and productivity. The leech, for example, never ceases to suck a creature’s life-blood.
Grave, frustrated womb, thirsty land, consuming fire. These ubiquitous cancers keep up their incessant narrative that the world—to lapse yet again into folk wisdom—is not our home.
Yet this world, at the same time, is our home. The Proverbs know this if they know anything at all.
Here is where we sort wisdom’s long view from folly’s immediacy, declare our preference, make our choice. Here is where we know YHWH’s care or fall prey to accident in its apparent absence. Here is where we construct a family, build a home, learn to read, cradle our grandchildren, plant a tree whose fruit will delight another generation’s mouth, not our own. Here is where we invest that portion of our being that is capable of doing good.
Here is where we lean into insatiable entropy in a faintly quixotic—but YHWH-endorsed—effort to construct a world worth the trouble of it all.
Or chase the wind.