Guidelines for Studying Proverbs (Part 1)

One of the keys to interpreting Scripture accurately is to recognize that the Bible contains a diversity of forms of writing commonly known as genres. Each of these genres requires that we make slight but essential adjustments in our approach to interpretation. As Roy Zuck writes:

When we read a historical novel, we do not expect all the details to be accurate historically. But when we read a physics textbook or a Latin grammar, we approach it differently from a novel. The way we read a board report differs from the way we read a cartoon. We do not read a recipe and a will the same way. Since the Bible contains various kinds of literature, the unique characteristics of each form of literature need to be taken into consideration…. The Bible includes narratives, poetry, prophecy, letters, proverbs, drama, law, wisdom literature, apocalyptic visions, parables, and discourses. If we are not aware of these literary forms we may misinterpret statements in those sections (Zuck 1991: 65-66).

According to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, “To interpret properly the ‘then and there’ of the biblical texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to all the words of the Bible, but one needs to learn the special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres)” (Fee and Stuart 1982: 20). 

With this in mind, in this three-part series, I would like to propose a list of five principles which should govern our interpretation of the book of Proverbs. As you read, think of these as additional guidelines which are designed to supplement the grammatical-historical method of interpreting Scripture.  

1. Interpret individual passages in light of the overall theme of Proverbs. 

The overall theme of the book of Proverbs is found in Proverbs 1:7a: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (also see 9:10). This motto serves as the compass that provides orientation to the entire book (Parsons 1995: 154), for Proverbs is designed to teach believers how to fear God in every area of life. For this reason, the individual verses and passages in Proverbs should be understood as an expression of this kind of devotion to Yahweh. 

2. Recognize the two basic literary forms in Proverbs. 

When interpreting Proverbs, it is helpful to be aware of the two basic literary forms found throughout the book—the admonition and the wisdom saying.

a. The Admonition: The admonition consists of either a positive command or a negative prohibition, both of which occur in the imperative mood: “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be wiser still” (9:9a). The imperative in the admonition is often followed by a motivation clause introduced by the conjunction “for” (or sometimes “and” as in 9:9a above). This second clause conveys the practical consequences of the action mandated in the first clause, and the proverb as a whole is designed to convince the hearer of obeying the command or prohibition. As Grant Osborne writes, “At times the motivation clause may not be stated (20:18) or may be implicit (24:17-18; 25:21-22), but at all times commands are meant to stimulate response and obedience” (Osborne 1991: 196-97). 

b. The Wisdom Saying: A wisdom saying is an observation based on experience which is expressed by a verb in the indicative mood. Wisdom sayings are usually short sentences which make a general third-person observation about life. The unstated exhortation of such sayings is that the reader is to follow the path of wisdom rather than the path of foolishness, both of which can be recognized by the stated results of taking a given course of action. For example, when Solomon writes, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1), he does not actually command his readers to do anything—the statements are in the indicative mood—but the implied exhortation is that his readers are to give a gentle answer instead of a harsh word. The careful interpreter will understand this to be the intent of the proverb.  

Look for part 2 on Monday.

13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Caleb on December 15, 2006 at 12:04 am

    Thanks kindly for this gem!


  2. Posted by Randy on December 15, 2006 at 12:05 am

    Thanks for the post, Matt. I’m right in the middle of teaching Proverbs in my Sunday School class, so I’m eager to hear more.

  3. When will you deal with Proverbs 16:4?

  4. […] Matt at Expository Thoughts posts part 1 of how to study the book of Proverbs. Here’s an excerpt: 1. Interpret individual passages in light of the overall theme of Proverbs. […]

  5. Great article! I’m looking forward to part 2!

  6. […] Matt Waymeyer over at Expository Thoughts posted an outstanding article entitled Guidelines for Studying Proverbs . It’s definitely worth a read. […]

  7. Matt,

    Thank you for doing this series. Your first point has struck home as I’ve seen this repeatedly overlooked in various studies of this topic.

    For example Hilderbrandt makes a fine contribution and raises many excellent points. However, when he notes seven “guidelines for interpretation” he never makes mention of the overall theme of Proverbs (Cracking Old Testament Codes, 249). So while many (most?) of the Proverbs have no historical context and “stand-alone” in certain ways, they are never divorced from the larger theme of 1:7a.

    For all the talk that many give about understanding the context, it is amazing how so many miss it (myself included). Thanks again for this needed reminder and tutorial.


  8. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on December 16, 2006 at 6:50 pm

    Paul, thanks for highlighting an important point. Unfortunately I have overlooked this at times in my own study, which can make parts of Proverbs seem very secular (if I can put it that way)–not at all the authors’ intent, human or divine.

    Randy, I’m actually gearing up to teach Proverbs at our Sunday evening service (although no promises to you CBC members who may be reading–nothing is in stone yet!). Are there some resources and commentaries that you could recommend to us? I just purchased Waltke’s 2-volume NICOT set and it looks good, but I haven’t looked at it very closely. What have you found to be most helpful?

    Jonathan, surprisingly enough, I will be touching on Proverbs 16:4 in part 2 of this series, but not in the way you’re hoping for! By the way, I just got Dr. Hannah’s notes for the winterim on Jonathan Edwards–should be a great class.

  9. Matt,

    To tell you the truth, I haven’t used too many sources. Before I started teaching the book, I perused some of the major commentaries and quickly became frustrated after reading again and again about how the book should be read in light of its relationship to the wisdom literature of the surrounding cultures. Unfortunately, contemplative interpretation of the text received less attention than I had hoped.

    Therefore, I set out to do most of the study on my own by reading the Hebrew text over and over again until I had a good grasp on the text. At the end of the week, if I still have questions that have not been answered completely I have tended to read through Longman’s new commentary in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. I have found that he does little with comparative studies and makes legitimate (and often profound) textual and theological observations.

    Perhaps it’s naive or simple-minded (to use a term from the book) to spend so little time with the commentaries, but for what I’m doing I have found that it has worked well. Although, it has forced me to think much deeper than I have in the past when I have been slave to the works of other men. Granted, I may treat it differently if I were preaching and not teaching in a more relaxed atmosphere.

    Other than Longman, I have at times referred to some of my word study resources, but even those are not going to help significantly most of the time.

    As an introduction to reading wisdom, I found Goldsworthy’s chapter on Proverbs (along with Job) in Gospel and Wisdom to be very helpful.


  10. […] While we wait for Waymeyer’s next installment in his “Guidelines for Studying Proverbs” series I thought I would drop a few lines regarding some items of interest, mostly about the “E” word (I have no chicken in this cock fight but I do care about how this conversation is shaping what preachers do when they are supposed to be preaching). For those of you who lack imagination, I’m talking about the emerging church. […]

  11. […] Expository Thoughts: Tools for studying Proverbs Part 1 and Part 2 […]

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