In this post I’m going to try to relay the interpretive principles for the book of Proverbs I was taught in Psalms & Wisdom class. I’m not going to go too deeply into them at this point, because I don’t really “own” them for myself yet. I’ll simply state the principles Dr. Collins taught us and relay what I think I do understand.
When Dr. Collins was going over the details for the book, such as what it says about money and about raising children, I thought, “how do people live without knowing this stuff?” You really need to study Proverbs.
I’ve read Proverbs quite a bit, but before taking this class, I approached Proverbs like an evangelical would the Bible- it’s true, it’s relevant, and it contains a lot of one liners. But I was always puzzled by verses like 10:3 – “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.” If you force that to be a sort of promise that always holds true, then that verse is a lie. Of course righteous people have starved, probably tens or hundreds of thousands have, in fact. What do we do with verses like this then? I’ll try to answer that in this post.
The ESV Study Bible says the goal of Proverbs is “to describe and instill ‘wisdom’ in God’s people, a wisdom that is founded in the ‘fear of the Lord’ and that works out covenant life in the practical details of everyday situations and relationships.” I like this definition because it shows how practical the Bible can be. Too often we want to spiritualize everything when God is simply trying to tell us how to get on better at work.
Outside of the Bible, English speakers have many proverbs, as do most cultures. For example, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool that to speak and remove all doubt.” Or how about, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Or a helpful one from Forrest Gump’s Mom – “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” Sometimes proverbs can appear contradictory. On the one hand, “many hands make light work,” on the other hand “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Understanding how proverbs in general work helps us when we come to the Bible’s proverbs. They function similarly.
The book of Proverbs roughly divides as follows:
1:1-1:7 is the title, introduction to the book and the books motto – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The whole book needs to be read in light of the motto.
1:8-9:18 which is a father’s invitation to wisdom. The father describes the paths of the wise and foolish, and seeks to instill the desire for his son to find and stay on the path of wisdom.
10:1-31:9 are the actual proverbs. To be understood based on the introduction and motto.
31:10-31 is a poem about womanly excellence (a woman who embodies wise living and is praised for it).
· Different words that refer to the same person, and therefore whose insights should be taken together.
· Coherence (w/ paragraph, w/ rest of book) – literary
· Covenant (esp. as established by ch 1-9) – theological orientation
· Culture – referential
2. Conversation implicature – the beliefs, attitudes, and behavior that a speaker wants you to infer from what he has said. If we are to draw the right inferences we have to know the values the author was seeking to instill, and the conventions he shared with his audience.
3. Consequence orientation – Proverbs gets us to compare the now of an act with its afterwards. “Common sense” in the spiritual realm.
4. Conditions of applicability – Proverbs presents us with situational applicability, and the task of wisdom is connecting the right action with a given situation.
5. Christology – Jesus embodies wisdom, but the purpose of Proverbs is that I might also.
6. Other things being equal
Context – The proverbs don’t exist in a vacuum. They were written for the covenant people of God in community under the law and under a Davidic (ideally) king. Therefore, the conclusions we draw must be in line with what the Bible says elsewhere. For example, if we read a proverb and conclude that we don’t need community, we know that we have the wrong interpretation and we need to look again. We must also consider the immediate context within the book. Chapters 1-9 have paragraphs so we must consider the material around the sentence we’re reading before we come to a conclusion. Even the proverbs proper sometimes have their own sections. The ESV Study Guide is helpful here as it divides the sections up in the notes. For example, 10:1-6, 6-11, 12-18, etc. These material in the sections influence our understanding of each individual proverb in that section.
Applicability – It is crucial to realize that not every proverb applies to every situation. The best example I can offer is Proverbs 26:4-5, which when taken too literally are in complete contradiction – “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Sometimes the best thing to do is to answer a fool and sometimes the best thing is to keep your mouth shut. A wise person is one who knows how to match proverb with situation.
Other Things Being Equal – This principle means that the statement and its opposite will hold true as long as other conditions don’t change. Proverbs, being brief, don’t spell out exactly how they work and when they don’t work. Therefore, we must keep in mind other proverbs and life’s vagaries.
Principles Not Promises – Proverbs tell us generally how the world works. If you work diligently you will be more likely to prosper than a person who does nothing. But the Bible knows life doesn’t always work out this way. There is injustice. Life is often unpredictable. Look at the book of Job. He was blameless and yet lost everything. His friends got in trouble with God precisely because they sought to force principles to be promises. They aren’t.
Hopefully this brief introduction is enough to help you make more sense out of the book of Proverbs. For more info on Proverbs, Derek Kidner and Bruce Waltke have both written excellent commentaries. The ESV Study Bible has a helpful introduction as well.
Proverbs 3:13-18 (ESV) “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, 14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.”