Last week, a church member emailed me this question:
I was having a discussion about a couple of Proverbs that I was reading with a friend and it came about in the discussion that he believed that Proverbs are promises. I had asked what his basis for believing that was. He told me because of the defined word “will’ which means it “will” happen if you do this or do that. Are the Proverbs indeed promises?
One of the ways I answered was to direct him to one of my top-three favorite commentaries on Proverbs, the Mentor Commentary, by John Kitchen. Here is how he helps us understand six principles for interpreting the book of Proverbs.
6 Principles for Interpreting Proverbs
“Proverbs can appear overly mechanical in its description of the universe, God’s sovereignty over it, and His dealings with man in it. Its observations are often stated in absolute terms, apparently leaving little room for variance. For example, consider the sequence in Proverbs 3, which demands that if one fears the Lord he will experience great health (v. 8), material prosperity (v. 10), peaceful sleep (v. 24), and protection from calamity (v. 26). How should we view such sweeping statements? Are these guarantees? Is any lesser experience a sign of moral and spiritual failure? To arrive at God’s intention, several observations should be kept in mind as one interprets and applies Proverbs.
First, the proverbs are consistent observations, not categorical absolutes. The proverbs are not always intended as promises, but only as observations of repeated phenomena. Take Proverbs 22:6: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.’ Many a parent has been told that, in this verse, God guarantees their wayward child will return to the fold. But, like so many other proverbs, its author is making an observation of consistent behavior and outcomes (i.e. normally children raised in godly homes end up walking with God themselves), not issuing an inviolable law.
It will take discernment to carefully draw the line between divine guarantee and divinely inspired observation. A helpful path to such wisdom is the balancing of individual proverbs with the fuller witness of Scripture. This leads to a second principle of interpretation.
Second, the proverbs must be read in context. Many view the aphorisms as individual nuggets of gold scattered randomly along the path of wisdom. There is, they assert, little help to be found in the context. However, each proverbial saying does reside within the whole of Proverbs and its teaching. They must be read against the balancing treatment of wisdom in Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as the fuller span of the poetic books. Then, too, the inspired Scriptural circle must be drawn to include the whole of the Old Testament and, ultimately, the entire Bible.
Third, we must understand that, by their very nature, the proverbs are truth stripped to the essentials. They are seldom qualified, balanced by surrounding statements, or extensively defined. They are stripped down, stated, and left to stand – all with the goal of arresting our attention and engaging our minds.
A proverb is truth in its most concentrated form, and thus expects us to add Spirit-illuminated reflection to come to full understanding. A proverb is designed to be ‘unpacked’ through much meditation, comparison with life, and with other Scriptures. Murphy well says: ‘The proverb’s declaratory nature catches our attention, but it also conceals, for it achieves only a slice of realty…. The truth of a saying – call it a partial truth – usually needs another saying to counterbalance it.’
Fourth, though Proverbs can appear simplistic to the uninformed reader, we must realize that Proverbs does not intend to present life as void of ambiguities. Consider the juxtaposition of the seemingly contradictory words of Proverbs 26:4-5: ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.’ The one who comes to Proverbs for simple answers requiring little thought will leave disappointed. We want to know, ‘Which is it!? Do I answer him? Or do I not?’ Proverbs was written not merely to tell us what to do, but also to make us think. Pure pragmatists may find themselves frustrated, if unwilling to pursue reflective, Spirit-guided meditation.
Fifth, we do well to unearth the assumptions inherent to a proverb. Because a proverb is truth stripped to its irreducible minimum, all helpful qualifying and clarifying statements are implicit rather than explicit. Bullock helpfully observes: ‘The first hermeneutical principle is that the theological assumptions of the book are often more important than the textual context.’ For example, until we have carefully absorbed the instructions of Proverbs 1-9, we are not well positioned to rightly interpret the aphorisms of Proverbs 10ff. The theology of Proverbs 1-9 sets the stage for understanding the wisdom of the later sentence literature. We must ask ourselves not only what is stated, but what is assumed about God, His relationship to, and role in, the world around us, and His purposes.
Sixth, while Proverbs is not highly prophetic in nature (though see Prov. 30:4 and the commentary there), it ultimately finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (Isa. 11:2; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30). ‘Lady wisdom’ in Proverbs 8 is probably best understood as a personification of a divine attribute for didactic purposes, rather than a reference to the second Person of the Trinity specifically (see the commentary at 8:1, 22). Yet, it is only as we embrace Christ through faith that we are then able to enter into the wisdom that His Spirit sets forth here. When Christ becomes our very life (Col. 3:4), we find Him to be the One ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2:3). We should, therefore, look to the New Testament not only for clarification and balance, but for fulfillment of the wisdom so gloriously set forth in Proverbs.”