Proverbs is inspired counsel for day-to-day living. But if we don’t read the Proverbs correctly, we can actually hurt ourselves instead of being helped by them.
An Overview of the Book of Proverbs
“Wisdom” is one of the genres of literature that can be found in the Old Testament. Other genres include law (such as Leviticus), history (like Genesis or Ezra), prophecy (major and minor prophets), and poetry (like the Psalms). Wisdom literature deals with life at a practical level, and Proverbs is one of the books of wisdom in the Old Testament.
All cultures have proverbs, or wise sayings, that are general truths, or principles to live by. We use these everyday, even in our own culture. Some of our sayings, or proverbs, include, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” “Practice makes perfect,” “Better late than never,” “Well begun is half done,” or “Better safe than sorry,” just to name a few. It’s common for these cultural sayings to be centered around morality, such as honesty, charity, and a good work ethic. It’s also common for these types of sayings to be passed down verbally from father to son. For instance, I often tell my boys to “Make hay while the sun shines,” meaning, work hard while the opportunity is there, and then we can rest when the opportunity to work has passed.
And that’s what this book of Proverbs is in our Bible. It’s a collection of sayings about right living to be first of all lived out, and secondly passed down.
So what makes the Bible’s collection of sayings better than any other culture’s collection of sayings? Why is this collection of Proverbs worth more of our attention, worth our reading, or worth us memorizing (all of which we should be doing)? The answer is “The Author.” Not the human author, who did happen to be wise, but the divine author. These Proverbs are inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). So when we read these words telling us of wisdom versus folly, or good versus evil, we can trust that the source is accurately defining what right living is.
“The book of Proverbs is a collection of sayings about right living to be first of all lived out, and secondly passed down.”
Proverbs, Not Promises
The Proverbs reveal something of the heart of God and what His expectations are for His people in our practical, day-to-day dealings with one another—in business, in marriage, with our children, with our neighbors, and more, because Proverbs addresses all of these relationships.
But inspired words as they are, it is important when approaching and applying the book of Proverbs that we remember that they are general truths, not promises. As R.C. Sproul once said about Proverbs:
“We must be very careful in how we approach and implement these wise sayings. Simply because they are inspired does not mean that the biblical proverbs are like laws, imposing a universal obligation. Yet, some people treat them as if they were divine commandments. If we regard them in that way, we run into all kinds of trouble. Even divinely inspired proverbs do not necessarily apply to all life situations. Rather, they reflect insights that are generally true.”
One of these obvious “kinds of trouble” we run into when we fail to read the Proverbs appropriately is contradictions that force some proverbs to cancel out others. Even in our own American proverbs we have many contradictions. We sometimes say, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win,” but then we say “Quit while you’re ahead.” But if winners never quit, how can you quit while you’re essentially winning, or ahead?
We have to recognize that the book of Proverbs has less to do with framing theological constructs through which to filter the rest of Scripture, and more to do with shaping the believer’s general disposition and behavior in our day-to-day life. Otherwise, you’ll have someone literally moving onto the corner of his roof to avoid his nagging wife, Proverbs 21:9, rather than living with his wife in an understanding manner as someone who is weaker, showing her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that his prayers will not be hindered, 1 Peter 3:7.
Holy Spirit, help us to rightly divide the full counsel of God, including Proverbs.