Wisdom literature comes in a variety of forms, but the best know is probably the “proverb.” Proverbs are easy to remember and often fun to say. For instance, men love to quote Proverbs 21:9: “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” (Ladies, unfortunately this is sad, but true!)
However, believers today often misunderstand or misuse this ancient form of wisdom writing. In today’s post, we will briefly define a proverb and then consider 3 interpretive tips that will help us understand this practical advice for living.
What is a proverb?
A proverb is an observation of life stated in a memorable way. It is a “persuasive saying proven true by experience” (“Encountering the Old Testament” by Arnold and Beyer, page 314). Proverbs are not unique to the Bible. Many ancient cultures made us of this literary device.
However, for the ancient Israelite, the purpose of a proverb was to “apply the principles of Israel’s covenant faith to everyday attitudes, activities, and relationships” (“Old Testament Survey” by Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush, page 460). Biblical proverbs are also an observation of life, but they also acknowledge that true wisdom comes from God (Proverbs 1:7).
How can we understand the Proverbs?
Like the rest of Scripture, the Proverbs must be understood in light of their purpose, literary genre, context, and original meaning. Proverbs are a unique literary style and cannot be interpreted in the same way we do a historical book or an epistle.
Although the tips below are just a tip of the hermeneutical iceberg, they will get us off to a great start in understanding the Proverbs and applying their wisdom to our lives.
3 Tips to understanding Proverbs
1. Principles, Not Promises
A biblical proverb seeks to apply God’s wisdom to the situations of life. They are guidelines for living, general principles, not promises from God. While generally accurate, they do not take into account every possible scenario or individual circumstance. Therefore, they are not guarantees of a certain outcome, but rather point hearers to the best chance for success. One well-know example is Proverbs 22:6:
“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
Many of us have known Christian parents who claimed this verse as a promise and then were disillusioned when a child turned away from God and never returned. This demonstrates how important it is to understand the nature of a proverb.
2. Pithy Poetry
A proverb is a saying that encapsulates a broad observation about life. Its primary goal is to state an important, simple truth about life in easy-to-remember terms. Consider Proverbs 27:6:
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”
Brief and memorable, this proverb is about something much deeper than flesh wounds and kisses. True friends tell us the truth for our good, even when it hurts. “Enemies” simply tell us what we want to hear or butter us up to get something they want.
Let’s look beyond the surface and past the simple, catchy words of a proverb to find the deeper truth. Then let’s apply that godly wisdom to our lives.
3. Proper Perspective
These ancient proverbs are based on ancient standards. They usually speak of simple desires and basic needs. Yet, often we subconsciously impose our modern, Western mindset and values.
“Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).
Just imagine how the influence of our affluent culture can affect our understanding of “prospers” and “blessed.” The typical ancient Israelite considered himself blessed if he had shelter and enough food.
We could talk a lot more about proverbs. However, if we remember these 3 tips, we will be well on our way to wise living!
Did any of these 3 surprise you? In light of these 3 tips, have been misunderstanding a particular proverb?