What is a Proverb?

To read responsibly, you first have to understand what it is you’re reading. This is true no less for biblical books than it is of an owner’s manual for your lawnmower, a newspaper article on the Middle East, or a Dr. Seuss book.

It’s relatively easy to acclimate to some biblical books. For example, when we read the first few verses of Philippians, we quickly understand that it’s a letter between Paul and the Philippian church. When Luke begins his gospel both by announcing his intention to give an “orderly account” of the “things that have been accomplished among us” and by locating it “in the days of Herod, king of Judea,” we have a pretty good idea he is offering some kind of historical narrative.

But what about the Book of Proverbs? Even beyond the biblical context, proverbial sayings seem to have a widespread appeal: according Dr. Phil Long, professor of Old Testament at Regent College,* they pop up in almost every time and culture that we know something about. Modern western civilization is no exception. We’re all familiar with a number of examples: Look before you leap. A penny saved is a penny earned. Too many cooks spoil the broth. And so on.

In the biblical context, the beginning of Proverbs gives us a firm idea of what the book is intended for:

1:2 for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
3 for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
4 for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
5 let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—

So on the whole, this collection of sayings is to help its readers to grow in wisdom and understanding in order that they might live well. But what is a proverb? How are they meant to work and what makes them effective? Consider an example:

16:7 When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD,
he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.

Are we meant to read this as a bedrock promise, something along the lines of, say, “whoever believes in [Jesus] will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)? Not likely. Surely we’ve all known instances in which people have obeyed God and incurred, not peace, but enmity from their enemies. Jesus himself is the example par excellence. No one can rightfully accuse Jesus of doing something that wasn’t completely in his Father’s will. And yet he was insulted, arrested, falsely convicted, beaten, scourged, and finally crucified. Either Proverbs 16:7 is demonstrable false (in which case we have bigger problems) or we’re meant to read it in some other way than a promise.

Interestingly enough, the book itself gives us some direction regarding how we’re to approach individual proverbs. Consider another example:

26:4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.

This seems straightforward enough. When a foolish person is spouting off, it’s best not to open your mouth. In fact, you’ll be meeting folly with folly. Again, we could probably all appeal to situations in which we found this to be absolutely true, sometimes through the painful lesson of experience. (For that matter, we’ve probably been that foolish person a time or two…or a hundred.)

But notice the very next verse:

26:5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

On the face of things, this meaning also seems plain. Don’t let a foolish person continue on unchecked. Doing so will give such a person the illusion of actually having wisdom and understanding when her or she really doesn’t, a state of affairs which can lead to any number of problems.

So which is it? Are we to answer a fool or not? We should rule out one possibility right off the bat: neither the author nor the men who complied these proverbs, Solomon and Hezekiah’s men respectively (see 25:1), are complete idiots. (“Shoot, can you believe we did that? We should’ve had one more person proofread this stuff!”) No, the placing of these proverbs together was intentionally done. Why? To help those of us who read them to understand that proverbs are what we might term “situationally true.” There are times when it’s completely appropriate to ignore the fool. There are times when to fail to do so is to abdicate responsibility. And in light of that, we’re meant to realize that it takes wisdom to know the difference. Not incidentally, a few verses later we find these:

26:7 Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

and

26:9 Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

To handle proverbs without discernment can be either useless or, even worse, harmful.

To expand on the point, one of the reasons why proverbs are so dynamic is their brevity. This quality gives them their unique force and usefulness. Rather than always expounding an essay showing that following God generally leads to peace, we can frame the principle in a pithy, memorable way: “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.”

In certain contexts it might be necessary to detail the relevant exceptions to this principle. But to add them to the proverb itself would make it into something else entirely. Perhaps that something would be useful, but it wouldn’t make the same kind of impression, i.e., it certainly wouldn’t be a proverb. This recalls an interesting exchange from Pride and Prejudice:

“I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of the day.”

“Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

Having a better grasp of the nature of proverbs, are there any principles that might guide how we read them? We could do worse than follow the direction of the ESV Study Bible in its introduction to the book:

Proverbs often seem to be mere observations about life, but their deeper meanings will reveal themselves if the following grid is applied: (1) What virtue does this proverb commend? (2) What vice does it hold up for disapproval? (3) What value does it affirm?

To the above I would add just one more thing. We saw earlier that some degree of wisdom is helpful in handling the proverbs—which are meant to impart still more wisdom. But where can we take the first step in developing the necessary maturity? On this also, Proverbs isn’t silent:

9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

*My thanks to Dr. Long for the class that he formerly taught at Covenant Seminary (available here free), on which some of the above is dependent.

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