Guidelines for Studying Proverbs (Part 3)

4. Beware of assuming that proverbs are unconditional promises.

Proverbs are not to be understood as unconditional promises but rather as practical principles to follow as one seeks to fear God and live wisely. In other words, they are poetic guidelines for behavior, not legal guarantees from God, for proverbs state what generally takes place in certain circumstances, not what always takes place in those circumstances (Fee and Stuart 1982: 198-99).  

For example, consider Proverbs 10:4: “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” Is this true in every case? No, for some wealthy people are lazy and some poor people are diligent. Or Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Is this the way that an angry person will respond every single time? Of course not. As Parsons writes, “A gentle answer may turn away wrath, but at times such an answer may have no positive effect on stubborn individuals” (Parsons 1995: 159).  

So rather than unconditional promises from God, proverbs often consist of generalizations of what is likely to happen if a certain course of action is taken. In this way, they are intended to exhort people to walk the path of wisdom, not offer iron-clad assurances that A will always produce B. At the same time, some proverbs are unconditionally true, usually those connected to an attribute or action of God (e.g., 11:1; 12:22; 15:3; 15:8; 16:2, 4, 33; 17:3; 22:2) (Parsons 1995: 160). 

5. Beware of assuming that any one proverb is an exhaustive statement about the subject it discusses. 

As Ted Hildebrandt writes, “The truth of an individual proverb is limited to the specific slice of reality that it portrays” (Hildebrandt 1995: 249). In other words, no proverb is a complete statement of truth, and no proverb is exhaustive in its coverage of a particular subject (Fee and Stuart 1982: 201-03). For this reason, the interpreter of a given proverb will need to keep in mind that other proverbs and other portions of Scripture may fill in certain aspects of living wisely in the circumstances addressed by the proverb under consideration.

For example, Proverbs 16:9 (“The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps”) should give one confidence in the sovereignty of God, but in light of Proverbs 15:22 (“Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed”), it should not be understood as eliminating the need for careful planning. As Fee and Stuart write, “Each inspired proverb must be balanced with others and understood in comparison with the rest of Scripture” (Fee and Stuart 1982: 200).   So with these five principles in mind, enjoy and be blessed by your study of Proverbs. And always remember: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!  

Works Cited:

Of the following sources, I would most highly recommend the chapter by Greg Parsons, to whom I am indebted for much of this series.

  • Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.

  • Hildebrandt, Ted A. “Proverb.” In Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting the Literary Genres of the Old Testament, edited by D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., 233-54. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.

  • Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991.

  • Parsons, Greg W. “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs.” In Learning from the Sages: Selected Studies on the Book of Proverbs, edited by Roy B. Zuck, 151-68. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.

  • Ross, Allen P. “Proverbs.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, 5:883-1134. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.

  • Zuck, Roy B. Basic Bible Interpretation. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1991.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Very good series, Matt. I see that you got 16:4 in the last installment.

  2. Great stuff as always!

  3. Excellent little study–helpful for preaching, teaching, and discipleship. Thanks for sharing it.

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