Proverbs 11 is part of the oldest collection of proverbs in the book (10:1–22:16). It opens with a statement about the righteousness of true and accurate measures: YHWH abhors a ‘false balance’ and delights in ‘an accurate weight’ (11:1). Balance, uprightness, constancy, steadfastness, and diligence are characteristic of the ordered worldview of the proverbs. When their equilibrium is upset—by wickedness, crookedness, cruelty, avarice, folly, and violence—the ensuing consequences are both just and inevitable.
As much as anything else, wisdom consists here in practical understanding about how to live a good life.
Many of the didactic contrasts between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ in Proverbs 11 (as elsewhere in the book) address the themes of wealth and poverty that confronted viewers of Hieronymus Bosch’s panel, Death and the Miser. The painting emphasizes Christ as the way to salvation. In Proverbs, it is a judicious, and ‘blameless’ life wisely led that leads to flourishing, and that is YHWH's ‘delight’ (11:20). In both visions, justice and accountability prevail. The miser on his deathbed will—so it is implied—‘wither’, having ‘trusted in his riches’ (11:28). He risks an afterlife, not of flourishing, but of depletion, material and spiritual.
Closer to our own time, but with distinctly Boschian echoes, Georg Scholz also takes us into the intimate sphere of domesticity to expose, ruthlessly, the inhabitants’ moral lives. The aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the war of 1914–18, the collapse of the German empire, and the precarious beginnings of a new Republic were marked by poverty, severe shortages, conflict, and deep resentments. Scholz’s Dadaist work, Industrialised Peasants, indicts those profiteering German farmers who ‘held back grain’ (11:26), causing inflated prices and devastating hunger to their fellow people. In the phrasing of Proverbs 11:26, the artist ‘curses’ them and their hoarding miserliness, represented by the cossetted piglet, the sack of grain in the corner of the room, and the expensive new farm machinery outside. He presents them as a family of sadistic and grotesque hypocrites, even their snot-nosed offspring ‘looking like a monster displaced from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch’ (Doherty 2006: 92). Their piety—with the prominent hymnbook and Christian newspaper functioning like the miser’s rosary in Bosch’s work—is revealed as a meaningless veneer for merciless avarice.
Verses 11:24–26 of Proverbs all deal with meanness and generosity, critical contrasts between two kinds of people and between two ways of living. Those who give freely are blessed, metaphorically ‘watered’, and they ‘grow richer’. Their gain is an abundance of blessing on their lives and bodies. On the other hand, those who ‘withhold what is due’ (11:24) will suffer. Their spiritual deprivation echoes the material deprivation they inflict on others. The culmination of this group of proverbs is verse 26, which presents the tangible example of miserliness: holding back grain.
So, what wisdom does Proverbs 11 offer for a good life, pleasing to God? Richard Long’s early work, A Line Made by Walking is most commonly read as a challenge to conventional understandings of sculpture or as a subtly provocative intervention in the British landscape tradition in art. Seen in juxtaposition with some of the words of guidance and admonition in Proverbs 11, Long’s work takes on new connotations. It suggests straight paths that are habitual, walked consistently, and an upright gait (11:3, 6, 11). Without reading the parallel too literally, Long’s modest and benign intervention in the landscape, his own way of moving and being within it, might sharpen our attention to how the didactic language of Proverbs consistently conjoins bodily and moral rectitude.
Living well means developing the wisdom that is ‘with the humble’ (11:2). It means steadfast ‘upright’ habits that become so ingrained as to be innate and natural. Together, these three works of art, from periods of both promise and strife in the history of Europe, open up some vivid dimensions of this universal guidance for the human paths to wisdom and righteousness.
Doherty, Brigid. 2006. ‘Berlin’, in Dada, ed. by Leah Dickerman (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art), pp. 87–153
11A false balance is an abomination to the Lord,
but a just weight is his delight.
2When pride comes, then comes disgrace;
but with the humble is wisdom.
3The integrity of the upright guides them,
but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.
4Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,
but righteousness delivers from death.
5The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight,
but the wicked falls by his own wickedness.
6The righteousness of the upright delivers them,
but the treacherous are taken captive by their lust.
7When the wicked dies, his hope perishes,
and the expectation of the godless comes to nought.
8The righteous is delivered from trouble,
and the wicked gets into it instead.
9With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor,
but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.
10When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices;
and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.
11By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked.
12He who belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
13He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing hidden.
14Where there is no guidance, a people falls;
but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.
15He who gives surety for a stranger will smart for it,
but he who hates suretyship is secure.
16A gracious woman gets honor,
and violent men get riches.
17A man who is kind benefits himself,
but a cruel man hurts himself.
18A wicked man earns deceptive wages,
but one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward.
19He who is steadfast in righteousness will live,
but he who pursues evil will die.
20Men of perverse mind are an abomination to the Lord,
but those of blameless ways are his delight.
21Be assured, an evil man will not go unpunished,
but those who are righteous will be delivered.
22Like a gold ring in a swine’s snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion.
23The desire of the righteous ends only in good;
the expectation of the wicked in wrath.
24One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.
25A liberal man will be enriched,
and one who waters will himself be watered.
26The people curse him who holds back grain,
but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it.
27He who diligently seeks good seeks favor,
but evil comes to him who searches for it.
28He who trusts in his riches will wither,
but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.
29He who troubles his household will inherit wind,
and the fool will be servant to the wise.
30The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
but lawlessness takes away lives.
31If the righteous is requited on earth,
how much more the wicked and the sinner!