The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians divided the day into 24 hours, but their hours were not all the same length.
The day was divided into ten hours of light, two hours of twilight, and twelve hours of darkness. The timing of the hours in a given day depended on the position of the sun, so the hours' lengths changed with the seasons. It was not until the invention of mechanical clocks in the late Middle Ages that the hours were set to identical lengths.
Most of the earliest clocks used a moving shadow to indicate the passage of time. As early as 3500 BC, there were tall, thin stone obelisks whose shadows crossed the surface of a flat plaza over the course of the day. Those, and later sundials, were marked with varying scales of hours for the different seasons. A related device called the Merkhet was developed in Egypt around 600 BC to tell time at night by measuring the movements of stars.
A clever proverb begins, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest--and poverty will come on you like a bandit (Proverbs 6:10)." Some might trivialize this as simplistic rather than admire it as any sort of truth. We all know that sleep itself is not the cause poverty. And yet, it troubles me to see the biblical proverb belittled so often simply because it does not contain the rigidity of a prescriptive moral command. Does the proverb mentioned above not say something important about life and laziness?
Condescending statements that tell us proverbs are "catchy little couplets" worded to be memorable instead of "theoretically accurate" trivialize the profundity of the form. A biblical proverb is much more complex than its surface simplicity might suggest. The experiential trustworthiness of proverbs is seen when we become sensitive observers of the human scene. Timeless proverbs are true to human experience and are confirmed in their significance and applicability.
However, it is also true that proverbs describe general principles to which there may be exceptions: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6). Even so, they trust that readers will use common sense and understand that a proverb need not cover every possible situation. Instead, they tightly pack experience to its essence by carefully omitting the extraneous. Despite their succinctness and particularity, proverbs still have a way of being universal and open ended in their application. It is through this very conciseness that they achieve such a striking effect. This verbal artistry is not confined to Old Testament wisdom literature. It is a literary form used throughout the Bible. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul wants the church to be able to vividly recall the effects of sin, and he uses proverbial language to encourage them from growing weary of doing good: "A man reaps what he sows" (Gal. 6:7). Similarly, Moses writes: "You may be sure that your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23). These words express God's truth as it explains and unifies similar experiences by bringing complex phenomena into focus. The modern story writer James Joyce describes such high points of insight as moments when the spiritual or intellectual eye adjusts its vision of truth or human experience to an exact focus.(1) Proverbs can easily lose their impact if read solely in collection. When we quickly read one after another, each one is often reduced to a cliché in the process. Instead, may our devotional reading be slow, reflective, and imaginative, supplying a context for each proverb from our own life experiences. In this way, we can impress God's truth into our consciousness, allowing it to emerge on our lips instinctively when challenges confront us. As Solomon reminds us: "Pay attention to my wisdom, listen well to my words of insight, that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge (Proverbs 5:1-2)."
Alison Thomas is an associate apologist with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) James Joyce, as quoted in Leland Ryken's How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 124.
---------------------------- Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) "A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, words of truth, and words of hope. If you know of others who would enjoy receiving "A Slice of Infinity" in their email box each day, tell them they can sign up on our website at http://www.rzim.org/publications/slice.php. If they do not have access to the World Wide Web, please call 1-877-88SLICE (1-877-887-5423).