Principles for Interpreting Proverbs Michael Bryant

June 5, 2017

Interpret Proverbs as General Principles Rather Than Promises

A proverb should be understood as general principle rather than a promise. In other words, Proverbs present biblical truths that in general are usually true. A proverb should not be viewed as a firm promise that automatically comes true in every instance. Rather, it is a general principle formulated from wise believers’ observations about life in light of God’s divine perspective.

E.g., Prov 14:23, “All hard work brings a profit . . . .”

Here the writer suggests that if one works hard he will gain money. As a proverb, this is not a promise that working hard will always result in obtaining money. The fact is, sometimes we work hard yet our hard work does not give us more money (work hard at a job yet the boss refuses to give a raise). As a proverb, this saying is merely a general truth that is true most of the time. As a general rule, then, hard work does lead to a profit (more money).

See also 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he old he will not depart from it.”). This verse also presents a general principle, but not a promise.

Do Not Interpret Every Proverb as a Hard and Fast Command

It is important to recognize that a few teachings found in Proverbs (and I stress a few, not most) should not necessarily be viewed as a command to be applied woodenly in each and every situation (Remember that the proverbs should be regarded as general principles, not universal laws).

Read carefully the proverbs found in Proverbs 26:4-5:

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” (Proverbs 26:4)

“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5)

One cannot help but notice that the writer has placed two proverbs near one another that give conflicting commands. Should one answer a fool? In truth, there are times when one should not answer a foolish person and other times when one should respond to a foolish person. One must use wisdom in each situation. Nevertheless, the fact some Proverbs may have exceptions in certain instances does not negate their truthfulness

Read each Proverb in the Broader Context of Scripture

When studying a Proverb, it is necessary to read it in the light of the broader context of Scripture, that is, the broader context of the Book of Proverbs (other proverbs) and other divinely-inspired writings in the canon. Doing this will provide a balanced perspective rather than a wooden interpretation and application of the proverbs found in the Book of Proverbs (or elsewhere in the Bible).

E.g., Prov 10:3, “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry . . .”

This is true, but there are times when God’s people do suffer from hunger (e.g., Jesus, Matt 4:2; Paul, 2 Cor 11:27).

Recognize the Purpose of a Proverb

The main purpose of a proverb is to state an important, simple truth about life—that’s it. A proverb does not intend to say everything that one might say about a truth. Furthermore, a proverb does not seek to address every possible situation/circumstance related to the truth expressed.

E.g., Prov 14:23 states, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” The principle expressed is valid and true. However, it is not the writer’s aim to provide a comprehensive “theology of work” or “theology of financial success.” He merely wishes to express a general principle. He does not aim to include every scenario or situation that might befall a believer (e.g. economic recessions, company bankruptcies).

Recognize the Form of a Proverb

Many proverbs are presented in an easy-to-remember form. By this I mean that in the original Hebrew a proverb often takes the form of a brief, catchy saying (e.g., repetition of sound, a rhythm). Modern examples:

— “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.” (meaning: moving quickly or working hard will result in saving human life) Attributed to George S. Patton

— “A stitch in time saves nine.” (meaning: correcting a minor problem early on will perhaps forestall a major problem later).

— “Look before you leap.” (meaning: before taking a certain course of action, think about what you are proposing to do).

The proverbs (in the original Hebrew) are thus presented in a form that is easy to remember/retain. They are not long, detailed, carefully articulated statements of biblical truth—but they do point to biblical truth.[1]

Proverbs Are Not Simply Secular, Shrewd Observations about Life

Many of the proverbs could be understood as common sense observations that even a non-believer could make (e.g., hard work leads to riches, losing your temper results in damaged relationships). However, the biblical proverbs are closely tied to an important foundational principle: a fear or respect for the Lord (Prov 1:7). Thus, one does not fully understand and apply the biblical proverbs unless he recognizes that true wisdom is linked to one’s relationship to the Lord.

Recognize the “Individualistic Nature” of the Proverbs

One needs to recognize the individualistic nature of the proverbs. Like other ancient wisdom, the proverbs focus a great deal on the success and well-being of the individual, unlike say, the prophetic writings which stress blessings for a nation or nations. I am not criticizing the proverbs and their focus on individual well-being and success. However, I do think that one must be careful that he does not view them as a personalized path to the “good life.” Proverbs is not the selfish man’s guide to wealth and fame, which is unfortunately how some people read Proverbs.

Understand the Blessings/Rewards Referenced in Proverbs as Ancient People Would Have Understood Them

Be careful that you understand the blessings and rewards referenced in Proverbs not by Western standards but by ancient standards. Ancient people would have understood blessings or rewards as having such things as a sufficient amount of food, an adequate home in which to live, children or a healthy family. However, a modern American Christian would perhaps define blessings/rewards as having a large house, an annual vacation in the Rockies, a pool in the back yard and the most up-to-date washing machine from Sears). Ancient people and modern Americans have differing views of the so-called “blessed life.” American Christians tend to think of blessings in fairly extravagant materialistic terms.

Recognize That Blessings/Rewards Included a Spiritual Element

Scripture, as we see elsewhere (e.g., Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:3), defines blessedness first and foremost in terms of being in God’s divine will and only secondarily in a materialistic sense.

NOTES

[1] Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 233.

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