The Sayings Scrutinized
All who read Proverbs must surely recognize that the book is “profitable . . . for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). One of the primary purposes of education is to mold the student’s mind into a way of thinking. If the thinking pattern of Proverbs became internalized, we would have “the mind of Christ,” Who embodies the “wisdom that is from above” (James 3:17). Here, overseers, parents, spouses, children’s workers, and all soul winners find cardinal principles to guide them in their God-given responsibilities.
Their Probable Intent
Several factors suggest that these proverbs initially addressed princes in their late teens and early twenties. First, rulers are the source of each section of Proverbs (see the previous article). Second, as a young man, Solomon learned his need of wisdom in order to rule God’s people (2Ch 1:10). Third, Wisdom says, “By me, kings reign” (Prov 8:15), and many of the proverbs deal with princes and kings and with justice and rule. Add to that at least fifteen times in the first nine chapters when the king passionately pleads with “my son” to heed wisdom and act wisely. Good kings recognized a ruler’s need for wisdom and wanted to prepare their sons for that responsibility. Although Solomon “pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs” in order to teach the people, he directs the lesson primarily to his son (Eccl 12:9-13 JND). In the first six verses of Proverbs, Solomon states their central purpose: “To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity” (v 3: instruction). This instruction will give wisdom to the uninstructed and the young (v 4: impartation) so they will recognize wisdom and discern what contributes to it (v 2: insight), and be able to interpret and apply these proverbs (v 6: interpretation). Considering the content of the early chapters of Proverbs, a father was addressing young men sufficiently mature to understand marital fidelity but still single and young enough to directly heed their father’s advice.
Proverbs may therefore have been the basis for education in the kings’ court. It is a primer for princes but instructs all of us who need wisdom and who desire, as was the responsibility of kings, to see God’s will effected in our lives and the lives of others.
Their Prudent Interpretation
These proverbs exemplify Hebrew thought processes and the communication style of an agrarian society. In contrast to exact communication, proverbs are indirect, picturesque, subtle, yet powerful. Proverbs do with words what parables do with stories. The word for proverb (mashal) may mean “be like, compared to, represents.” If we begin to analyze all the details of the comparison, we miss the message. Consider “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (25:25). Some thirsty souls prefer hot tea. The thirsty need to be careful the water is not too cold. Such details are irrelevant; this proverb paints a general picture but is not about water and thirst. To interpret it, we consider the parallel implications of the word picture. Thoughtfulness, expressed in a “cup of cold water” or in directing good news to waiting ears, changes longing, necessity, preoccupation, and increasing debility into refreshment, relief, and renewed strength. All that and more are in the word picture, but that explanation certainly lacks the power and beauty of the proverb itself.
The introduction to the book informs us that we need wisdom to understand and interpret a proverb (1:5, 6). Here is an illustration: “Answer not a fool according to his folly” and “Answer a fool according to his folly” (26:4, 5) are not absolute statements, otherwise, they are contradictory. The remainder of each verse helps to guide us. Wisdom knows when and how to apply these principles. The proverbs therefore are principles to guide us, not promises to guarantee results. For example, “He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread” is not a promise that every farmer who plows in the Spring will have an abundant harvest the next Fall. This proverb tells us that the desired result is dependent on diligent preparation.
Their Profound Interrelation
The three major divisions of the Old Testament, which are Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets (Luke 24:44), relate to Proverbs. First, like the Law, these proverbs inculcate righteousness, but from the viewpoint of experience and God’s character written into creation (8:30), an inductive approach. The Law speaks with authority based on God’s revealed character and holiness. This is rather a deductive approach. Second, the seven “blessed” passages of Proverbs (3:13; 8:32, 34; 14:21; 16:20; 28:14; 29:18) relate to that often repeated pronouncement in the Psalms, including the six “Asher” psalms, those that begin with “Blessed” (1, 32, 41, 112, 119, 128). The connection of wisdom and the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7; 9:10) is in both Job (28:28) and Psalms (111:10). Proverbs rightly belongs in this section of the Old Testament. Third, Proverbs is concerned with personal and national righteousness, a theme which the prophets echo.
In addition, at least six New Testament passages quote Proverbs (3:11, 12 with Hebrews 12:5, 6; 3:34 with James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5; 25:21, 22 with Romans 12:20; 26:11 with 2 Peter 2:22; 11:31 LXX with 1 Peter 4:18). James’ style is reminiscent of the Proverb’s pithy, direct, moralistic style. His content has at least 30 reminders of Proverbs. Without doubt, when James wrote about “the wisdom that is from above” (3:17), he was thinking of the Man Who grew up in the same home as he did. The Lord claimed to have wisdom exceeding Solomon’s (Matt 12:42) and to be the source of wisdom (23:34), which Paul also claims for Him (Col 2:3). The relationship between Wisdom (Prov 8:22-31) and the Lord Jesus is clear; it undergirds important New Testament Christological passages (John 1:1-4; Col 1:15, 20; Heb 1:1, 3).
Their Practical Insights
When you read a proverb, it springs to life as you relate a Bible character to its truth. Samson, Ruth, Peter, Jacob, Elizabeth, David, and many more Bible friends are hiding in the forest of Proverbs. When you read about the righteous, the poor, the diligent, sons, or the wise, you can compare and contrast the statements to the Lord Jesus. Although stripes are “for the back of fools” (19:29) and that may reflect the intent of those who scourged Him, yet He gave His back to the shame inflicted by the smiters (Isa 50:6).
How often have you read a proverb in the morning and found it applicable before evening? “He that walketh uprightly walketh securely” (Prov 10:9) is a powerful guideline for any day of the week. Consistent integrity yields long-term security; what a principle for a lifetime! Relationships with others, words with their power, character with its value, business decisions with their implications, wealth with its potential for good or ill, and so many other subjects bespeak the relevance of wisdom. The degree to which the wisdom of this book prevails in our lives is the degree to which we are like Christ. The articles that follow in this series will have much to say about practical Christianity.
Their Perfect Ideal
The theology of Proverbs is concise, but significant. On average, direct references to God occur more than three times per chapter. In those references, His character predominates: He is sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, faithful, holy, and just. The primary issue in Proverbs (1:7; 9:10) is knowing and revering God. When this is right, then relationships with others will become right as well. Our “knowledge of the Holy” (9:10; 30:3) defines how we live.
For believers, living in harmony with the universe is not naturalism; it is living by the principles that a wise God wove inextricably into His physical and moral universe. It is living in a vibrant relationship with “the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.” This is the ideal of Proverbs.