In our introduction to the categories of biblical literature we said that proverbs are “Concise observations and advice about life – truth capsules.” Today we’ll take a closer look at the nature of proverbs and how to understand them. As you’ve probably guessed, you’ll find most of the Bible’s proverbs in the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs Are Usually Brief
There are some notable exceptions to this. Solomon spends a lot of time talking about the strange woman and the godly wife. But many of the proverbs are one liners. Here are a couple of truth capsules:
“(20) Deceit is in the heart of them that imagine evil: but to the counsellors of peace is joy. (21) There shall no evil happen to the just: but the wicked shall be filled with mischief. (22) Lying lips are abomination to the LORD: but they that deal truly are his delight. (23) A prudent man concealeth knowledge: but the heart of fools proclaimeth foolishness. (24) The hand of the diligent shall bear rule: but the slothful shall be under tribute. (25) Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad.” (Pro 12:20-25)
As you can see, these proverbs address a topic in a sentence. They also illustrate another trait of proverbs…
Proverbs Are Self-contained
The proverbs, whether they’re one liners, or paragraphs long, are self contained. They have few or no transitions. The five verses above move from one topic to another without trying to make any connections between them. Here’s another example of how rapidly the proverbs change theme without trying to connect to their context.
“(10) Cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out; yea, strife and reproach shall cease. (11) He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend. (12) The eyes of the LORD preserve knowledge, and he overthroweth the words of the transgressor. (13) The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets.” (Pro 22:10-13)
Proverbs Shun Historical References
This is a difficult one to illustrate, but it’s true. The next time you read through the book of Proverbs, make a list of people and places mentioned by name. It won’t take long. The city of Jerusalem isn’t mentioned. The names of Israel’s greatest leaders, like Abraham and Moses, never appear. That’s not the point of proverbs. Proverbs present practical truth in a concise, timeless format.
Proverbs Present General Patterns, Not Absolute Rules
This is an idea that some serious Bible students have a hard time getting their minds around. They want the Bible to present a fix for every problem – a can’t miss strategy for dealing with difficult people. Life’s not like that and the Bible doesn’t present it that way. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
“(4) Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. (5) Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Pro 26:4-5
There isn’t some magic formula we can use to straighten out a scorner. That’s why Proverbs offers these two pieces of advice. Either way you try to handle a scorner, you’re likely to have a problem. There isn’t an answer, just advice.
In the same way, proverbs present general patterns of life, though their may be exceptions. Here’s an example:
“When a man’s ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” (Pro 16:7)
Surely no one’s ways ever pleased the Lord more than the ways of Jesus, yet His enemies hated Him throughout His ministry. Even after His death, they persecuted His followers.
I’m going to mention one more example and it will probably upset some people. Take a look at Proverbs 22:6:
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Pro 22:6)
Some Christians take that as a guarantee that if they raise their children right, they will never go astray. Boy, I’ve seen some disappointed parents over the years. They’re angry with God for not keeping this promise. The fact is that this is, like the rest of the proverbs, great advice. Before you get mad, hear me out.
Is there really a way to raise your children so that you are absolutely guaranteed that they will not stray from God? If there is, what do you think of the Heavenly Father, whose children, Adam and Eve, strayed from Him. Do you think they sinned because He was a bad parent? Do you think they would have stayed on track if He had only been a better Father to them? I don’t.
On a larger scale, what do you think of the behavior of Israel under the leadership of Moses? Do you think that Israel wouldn’t have gone off into idolatry if only God and Moses did a better job of training them and taking care of them? I don’t.
Trying to apply the proverb this way leads to guilty parents, excuse making children, and disappointment with God. The general rule is that the better job you do raising your children, the more likely it is that they will walk with God. The idea that your behavior can make someone else act in a certain way is called determinism. We influence others, but we don’t control them. It reminds me of the line from the hymn Make Me a Blessing that says, “Others will trust Him if only you prove true ever moment you live.” Some will, others won’t, as the life of Christ plainly illustrates. It’s a generalization, not a rule. If only Noah had know that – he could have had lots more folks on the ark with him.
Read More About It
Read Proverbs 17 today and look for the principles we’ve discussed today.