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How Should Proverbs Be Interpreted?

by Alex Wilson

Four Helpful Principles

Have you heard the puzzle in logic regarding sweeping general­izations? It goes something like this:

  1. Without exception, every sin­gle broad, general statement is false.
  2. But statement #1 is a broad, general statement; therefore IT is false.
  3. But if statement # 1 is false, then NOT every broad, general statement is false; some may be true.
  4. Therefore statement #1 may be true after all, in which case every single broad, general statement is false.

Repeat statements # 2-4 on and on, until you solve the puzzle!

I won’t tell you the solution (since I don’t know it). But the puzzle serves to introduce the topic of interpreting proverbs. For proverbs by their very nature set forth moral lessons in broad, general statements. And such statements are not always true. They have exceptions, per­haps many of them. This is our first principle for interpreting prov­erbs:

1. General statements usually have exceptions.

For example, Prov.16:7 says, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Compare that with Matt.27:22. “Pilate said, ‘What shall I do with Jesus?’ They all said, ‘Let him be crucified.'” How come Christ’s enemies didn’t make peace with Him? Did His ways not please the Lord? Those verses contradict each other. But not to worry, because proverbs are merely wise observations which are generally–but not always–true.

The same is true of non-biblical proverbs too, of course. Consider: “Look before you leap,” but “He who hesitates is lost.” Which one is true? Again: “Opposites attract,” yet “Birds of a feather flock to­gether.” Once more: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder;” how­ever, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Hmmm.

Therefore don’t be alarmed at “contradictions” in Proverbs, such as in chapter 13. “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous. A good man leaves an inheritance for his chil­dren’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous” (Proverbs 21-22). That sounds like moral people will always succeed and be well-to-do. In fact, passages like that are what the health-and-wealth televangelists always quote. And of course those verses are Scripture, they are true—sometimes! But the health-and-wealthers never quote the very next verse: “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.” That’s Scripture truth too.

­But how can both sides be true? Well, sometimes godly people be­come rich–like Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and Job (in Job 1:1-5 & Job 42:10-17 of the book of Job). But many other times godly folks suffer and be­come impoverished–like Jeremiah, Paul, and Job (in 1:6-42:9 of Job). Life is complex, and proverbs reflect that complexity.

Prov.26:4-5 is another example, and the “contradiction” there is even more blatant. “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” R. N. Whybray comments, “These two apparently contradictory sayings have been placed together to show that human problems are often complicated and cannot always be solved by an appeal to a simple universal rule.” And The New Bible Commentary explains the paradox in this way: “To argue with a fool on his own level is profitless (v.4). But sometimes you should meet his stupid question or comments with a wise remark or unanswerable question of your own, ‘lest he should think he cannot be answered’ (v.5).”

Here are some examples of this from the life of Otis Gatewood, when he was a missionary to the Mormons in Utah. Once a Mormon lawyer, during a debate with Gatewood, was very harsh, cutting and venomous in his remarks. The latter went to great lengths to be kind and gracious in his presentation, rather than stooping to answer the fool according to his folly, the insulter according to his insults. Many in the audience were favorably impressed with his Christlike attitude; and thus paid attention to his message as well. Gatewood followed verse 4 in this case.

But there are times to practice verse 5 instead. Once during a question-and-answer time at the end of a gospel meeting, someone in the audience handed in this note: “When did Job’s turkey die?” The preacher replied, “From the looks of this scratchy handwriting, he’s not dead yet” The questioner was merely trying to embarrass the evangelist, but the latter wouldn’t let him. Another time a written question asked, “Please explain the difference between you and a monkey.” Gatewood remarked, “If the questioner will come to the platform and stand beside me, the audience can see the difference.” On still another occasion this statement was handed in: “After hearing you, Mr. Gatewood, I’m a better Mormon than ever.”

The missionary responded, “It’s a real joy to know that we can do something for you that the teachings of the Mormon Church couldn’t do. For all these years you’ve been listening to Mormon teachings and haven’t been made as strong as you say you are now. It must be proof that we have teaching which helps more than the Mormon doctrine does.”

These incidents are recorded in Gatewood’s book, You Can Do Personal Work. He concludes this section by explaining, in these answers the fool was being answered according to his folly, and audience response showed we accomplished more than if we had reacted either with anger or by taking such questions seri­ously. Honest and sincere people should not be answered in these ways, but when we are dealing with the foolish or closed-minded or with troublemakers, the Lord has told us to answer them in these ways.

2. Distinguish Proverbs from Promises

God’s promises are His pledge to do something for whoever meets the conditions He sets. “You shall seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” “Come to me, and I will give you rest.” “He who trusts in me, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.” Etc.

God’s proverbs are general observations about life, and counsels for living wisely and morally. As we saw above, they are true but have exceptions. Great grief may result if this is overlooked.

For example, take the well known statement in Proverbs 22:6. “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” First of all, the first half of the statement probably means more than “train him to be good and godly.” More literally it is “train him according to his way” –-that is, according to his individual inclinations. If your first child is quiet, studious and artistic, and your second is outgoing and athletic, make allowances for the differences. Don’t try to force them into the same mold, but train each in the way he/she is inclined to go. Of course this doesn’t mean let them do whatever they want whenever they please. The book of Proverbs makes it clear that loving discipline is important But don’t try to force your child to be something she isn’t.

But back to our main point in this section. If you do train them to be good and godly, and do it with their personal disposition and abili­ties in mind–even then they won’t always turn out right.  They usually will, but sometimes they won’t. In such cases parents are tempted to get bitter at God. “You broke Your word! You promised they’d never leave the right path, but You failed to deliver!” No, He didn’t break His promise. It’s merely that your case was one of the exceptions to the general rule.

(Other parents get overwhelmed with feelings of guilt “We tried to train him right, and we thought we succeeded—but look at him now. We totally failed. We’re miserable flops! It’s all our fault!” No, it’s ­not all your fault, though you may be partly to blame. But human freedom and choice play a big part too. Even God, a perfect parent, had wayward children; see Isa. 1 :2. And even Jesus had a Judas.)

3. Observe or Approve?

Some readers conclude that Proverbs approves of shady deals, or of “little white lies,” or of bribery, just because they are described. No, while most proverbs give advice, some are merely observations about life. They do not necessarily approve of what they describe. “A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds” (Proverbs 17:8). That merely tells a fact of life, but not life as we ought to live it.

“ It’ s no good, it’s no good!’ says the buyer; then off he goes and boasts about his purchase” (Proverbs 20:14). Today we might reverse the thought: “‘It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful,’ says the salesman; then he laughs with his friends at the dope who believed him.” That’s true to life, but it’s still false witness. If  Proverbs 4:20 stood alone, it would fit into this category too: “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” But in this case the context makes very clear that such snobbishness is wrong. For the very next verse de­clares, “He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy.

4. Use your Imagination to Apply Truths from Far Away and Long Ago to Here and Now

We need to apply Scripture cross-culturally. (That’s good mis­sionary training.) There is a great chasm between life in ancient, agri­cultural Israel and modem, urban America. Even Solomon wouldn’t have had a clue if you asked his opinion of floppy disks or gangsta rap! So we need sanctified imagination to penetrate any outdated cul­tural wrappings and apply continuing Biblical principles to the very differing circumstances in which we live.

Here’s an illustration of what I mean. Ruth and I once stayed for a while with a fine Christian family. In their devotions together they were going through the early part of Proverbs. Chapters 2, 5, 6, and 7 all repeatedly warn young men against prostitutes and adultresses. The teen-age son said, “Why is that emphasized over and over? Most guys I know don’t find prostitutes a temptation. It just doesn’t seem relevant, or worthy of all the attention Solomon gives it.”

The answer is that in ancient times young men and women rarely if ever were allowed to mingle unattended by adults. Dating was to­tally unknown; after all, marriages were arranged by the parents–usu­ally in the early or middle teen years. You just never took your girl­friend out for a spin in your jalopy! Because young men could so rarely see a decent girl alone, sexual temptations usually came in the form of the indecent girls–the professionals. Thus the emphasis by Solomon. If he were writing now, no doubt Proverbs would warn against dating the wrong kind of guy or gal; and would urge purity when dating even the right kind of person; and would warn against considering any non-Christian as a spouse; etc. We need to apply the principles, though circumstances differ.

One fact really helps as we do this: human nature hasn’t changed. Solomon lived in an era of dictatorial kings (in fact, he was one him­self), while we live under democracy. But power was corrupting then, and still is. Again, we converse on cellular phones and communicate around the globe by e-mail; but if we can’t keep a secret our inven­tions just compound our problems. We discover Prov. 12:23 is not out of date: “A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly.” And Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” And Proverbs 16:28b, “A gos­sip separates close friends.” And Proverbs 26:20, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” Not so much has changed as we sometimes think. Yet cross-cultural application is necessary in Bi­ble study.

As we prayerfully trust in the Lord with all our hearts, not leaning on our own understanding–yet using it, He will help us understand, apply and obey His holy Word. (Prov.3:5-6; Psa.32:8-9.)




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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8