We are currently going over steps to form a better understanding of the Bible, the central text of the Christian faith. Last week I wanted us to learn Thirteen Things To Remember When Reading Apocalyptic Writing and this week we’ll address the Proverbs in the Bible. This is article eleven of a thirteen part series. (Here are the past articles in the series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,)
One of my children will usually say this every week: “Mom, I’m bored!” to which my wife will usually reply, “Only boring people get bored.”
This is a Baker family proverb. We love it. Our children know that if they hear this saying, they better find something else to do quickly or Mom will find something for them. My wife is not calling the children boring, she is creatively telling them to find a way to entertain themselves.
All of us can probably remember some kind of family proverb from childhood. According to the professor of literature at Wheaton College, Leland Ryken, a proverb is a “concise, memorable statement of a general truth.” As a pastor, I hear the Book of Proverbs in the Bible being misused perhaps more than any other book in scripture. I believe it has to do with a misunderstanding of what a proverb is and is not.
In this article, I would like to give you seven basic things to remember when reading a Biblical proverb.
- Meditate: A proverb should be meditated on. When you encounter several different proverbs back-to-back, like you will find in the Book of Proverbs, avoid reading them through like a story or narrative. Instead, take the small saying and spend a week thinking about it and applying to your own personal life.
- The New Testament Has A Book of Proverbs: The Book of James in the New Testament is often called a New Testament Book of Proverbs. “For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7–8, KJV). James is loaded with its pithy, practical, and sharp counsel regarding keeping your words in step with how you live.
- Proverbs clarify: Proverbs were written to make a concise, clear point. “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23). Though oftentimes the cultural divide between the modern reader and the ancient writer removes some clarity, proverbs were intended to make something complex very cogent.
- General, Specific and Universal: A good proverb is general, specific and universal at the same time! “Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise!” (Proverbs 6:6). Everyone from every age and culture can understand that an ant is a very diligent creature and a great example of how proverbs use imagery to capture a timeless truth.
- Proverbs can be abused: “Train up a child in the way he should go: And when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Sometimes folks treat proverbs like 22:6 as if they are some kind of guarantee from God. They are not. Sometimes, folks read Proverbs in isolation from the big picture of Scripture. They draw a black and white outline that needs to be colored in with mercy and grace. A proverb can sometimes pass the heart test but defy the mind test by not lining up with reality. “She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; Her clothing is silk and purple” (Proverbs 31:22, KJV). My wife doesn’t do this. But through this exaggeration of diligence we can see and agree to the blessings of our wives’ diligence. Though I don’t really relate to this proverb literally, my heart understands and agrees with the beauty of a godly wife.
- Ultimately True vs Always True: Proverbs often depict and exaggerate what is ideal in order to prove a point that is not always true, but is ultimately true. “If a ruler pays attention to liars, all his advisers will be wicked” (Proverbs 29:12). Of course, this is not always true in an immediate sense but it is true in a big picture sense. The phrase “we might have lost the battle, but we won the war” is a good example of understanding the context of a fine point amidst the bigger picture.
- Jesus is Proverb (wisdom and truth) in the flesh: When reading a proverb of any kind. Ask yourself how do I understand the wisdom and truth of this proverb in light of the person and work of Christ (Luke 24:44)? “[Tweet “Never disembody a proverb from Jesus.”] Truth and wisdom as praxis can be clearly seen in ministry, testimony and life of Jesus.”
James L. Crenshaw, Professor of the Old Testament at Duke University Divinity School, said, “The goal of all wisdom was the formation of character. Instruction, which took place initially in a family setting, focused on individuals rather than society in general.”
I think what makes a wise saying or proverb so great is how it, such a small thing, can so massively help the reader in their spiritual formation by sticking to their heart and mind.
Don’t just read the wise sayings in the Bible. Chew on them.
“The payoff for meekness and Fear-of-God is plenty and honor and a satisfying life” (Proverbs 22:4).