Some of my recent posts have probably given you a clue that I’ve been reading and studying the Old Testament, in particular the Wisdom Books at present. This post, I just wanted to share a couple brief points on Proverbs.
- The book of Proverbs contains proverbs. Well, duh, you might think! Can’t you enlighten us with something more brilliant than that? But the proverbs can be treated like promises or guarantees from God – yet, that is not what they are. Rather, proverbs are generalizations about how life typically works out. While proverbs are true or trustworthy principles, they are not always true. General principles naturally have exceptions. A well-known parenting proverb (22:6) says “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is generally true, and should encourage parents to be diligent in raising their children, yet it is not a promise or guarantee from God. We can likely think of someone who did not turn out well despite dedicated parents.
- On a similar note, proverbs depend on the right time and circumstance. You should not read a proverb as though it is always true in every situation. For example, look at these verses (Proverbs 26:4-5):
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Hmm…each verse is saying the opposite! Which is it? Should we answer a fool or not? It depends on the particular situation and a wise person will discern the difference. At times we need to speak up, and other times it is best to keep quiet. Some “fools” can heed advice, but others will never listen and you’ll just be wasting your time.
This is true of modern day proverbs as well. For example, when preparing a holiday meal the cook may say “too many cooks spoil the broth” and want everyone out of the kitchen. Yet, when the meal is finished the cook may now say “many hands make light work” and want everyone in the kitchen to help clean up. The cook isn’t contradicting his or herself, but each proverb was true in the right circumstance.
While these two points might seem obvious, sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious, or we can end up in various errors or false assumptions as we read the book of Proverbs. To summarize:
“Wisdom, then, is not a matter of memorizing proverbs and applying them mechanically and absolutely. Wisdom is knowing the right time and the right circumstance to apply the right principle to the right person….In a word, proverbs are principles that are generally true, not immutable laws. Bearing this in mind makes a world of difference when reading the proverbs.”
*The above quote is from How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III.