Why we need Proverbs

‘The priests taught [God’s] law, the prophets declared his word, and the sages or wise men gave his counsel (Jeremiah 18:18). Both the commands of the Law and the thunderings of the prophets spread out before us the gigantic truths of God, the metanarrative that makes sense of everything. But we need more. We live day by day in a world where “there are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet decisive in personal dealings.” So God gave us more than the Law and the prophets. He also gave us wise counsel.’ (Ortland, citing Kidner)

What is a proverb?

‘Before you commit yourself to a certain course of action, carefully weigh up the risks and benefits and thoughtfully consider your options’

= ‘Look before you leap!’

‘A few simple corrective measures taken early on in a course of action may forestall major problems from arising.

= ‘A stitch in time saves nine!’

What do you make of the following?-

‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’
‘Many hands make light work.’

‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’
‘It’s never too late to learn.’

Proverbs is a book ‘which seldom takes you to church…It calls across to you in the street about some everyday matter, or points things out at home.  Its function in Scripture is to put godliness into working clothes; to name the workplace and the home as spheres in which we are to acquit ourselves with credit to our Lord, and in which we are to look for his training.’ (Derek Kidner)

Top tips for reading Proverbs

They are guidelines, not guarantees.  They are advisory, not promissory.  Need to be qualified with: ‘usually’, ‘sometimes’, or ‘often’.

Look at Proverbs 22:6 – ‘Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.’

What problems might arise if we treated this proverb as a copper-bottomed guarantee?  If it is not a promise, what is it?

The point of a proverb is not if it is true, but when it is true.  This is well illustrated by a pair of proverbs:

Prov 26:4 ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly…’
Prov 26:5 ‘Answer a fool according to his folly…’.

Pointing to Jesus

Jesus taught wisdom (so did James, in his Epistle).  For instance, the Sermon on the Mount contains much proverbial teaching.

Jesus models wisdom.  From boyhood onwards (Luke 2:52), his life was characterised by wise thinking and wise choices.

Jesus is wisdom.  He is wisdom’s living incarnation (see, for example, John 1:1-10).

Jesus commends wisdom.  When we live wisely, we are living like him.

Topic study – Mr Lazybones

For a flavour of the teaching of Proverbs, look at what is said about the ‘sluggard’:

  1. a) Who is his teacher, Prov 6:6-8?
  2. b) What are his excuses, Prov 26:13?
  3. c) What is his destiny, Prov 6:11?

Guidelines for interpretation

Fee and Stuart provide in summary form some rules for interpreting proverbs:-

1. Proverbs are often parabolic (i.e., figurative, pointing beyond themselves).
2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior—just the opposite!
5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning.
6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God but poetic guidelines for good behavior.
7. Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point.
8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
9. Wrongly used, proverbs may justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.

How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, 4th ed., p249.