Study 16: The Hermeneutics of Proverbs

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation.

The book of Proverbs is a great study as we begin practicing hermeneutics for a number of reasons:

  1. It comes in neat small sections (sometimes as concise as a single verse) taking some of the intimidation out of tackling an entire book
  2. The context is very clear and self-contained in the book (the wisdom literature, primarily of Solomon instructing his son)
  3. It is probably one of the best books to study with your family in raising children, or for young men facing the decisions of adulthood (after all, it is the art of skillful and wise living in God’s world)
  4. It allows us to consider the principles we’ve been studying, and avoiding the pitfalls of bad hermeneutics – particularly that we do not mis-interpret, sub-interpret or super-interpret, and avoid allegorizing

The Place of Proverbs in the Wisdom Literature

Now remember, the wisdom literature (namely Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) are to be taken together as they bring harmony and balance to the subject. We can sum up the themes of the three as confidenceconfusion, and (apparent) cynicism.

Derek Kidner puts it well: “Between them, the three books clearly cover three aspects of existence which no-one can afford to overlook:  the demands of practical good management; the enigma of calamities that are beyond control or explanation; and the tantalizing hollowness and brevity of human life.”

So the three key wisdom books of the Old Testament must be studied in concert, or the Christian’s understanding of life in God’s world will be dangerously imbalanced: Proverbs is life as it should be; Job, how it sometimes is instead; and Ecclesiastes, the frustration experienced when we are in the midst of the “instead”.

Kidner, again: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning’, or first principle, ‘of wisdom’.  In one form or another this truth meets us in all the wisdom books, and it is this that keeps the shrewdness of Proverbs from slipping into mere self-interest, the perplexity of Job from mutiny, and the disillusion of Ecclesiastes from final despair.”

As Joel James puts it, “the wisdom of Proverbs is accessible—strikingly everyday.  It is popular, not arcane.  Wisdom’s pulpit is the street corner (Prov 1:20), not a lectern at the philosophical society.  More than any other book of the Bible, Proverbs deals with life’s most common and ordinary problems—especially relationship problems.”

Proverbs in light of the Mosaic Law

Proverbs 29:18.  “Where there is no vision (revelation), the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.”  (see also Prov 28:7, 9)

There are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets, and yet are decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this realm, asking what a person is like to live with, or to employ; how he manages his affairs, his time and himself.  

To see the relationship of Proverbs with the Law, see how the key themes of Proverbs all find their origin in Deuteronomy:

  1. Wisdom “I have taught you statutes and judgments… So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” (Deut 4:5-6)
  2. God-centered stability and peace (shalom) “You shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you…” (Deut 4:40)
  3. The Fear of the LORD “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” (Deut 5:29)
  4. The home is the epicentre of spiritual instruction (see Deut 6:7-9; 11:19-20)
  5. The 10 Commandments as much of Proverbs is simply filling out the commands 5-10:
    • family honour and authority
    • respect and kindness toward one’s fellowman
    • marital purity
    • integrity and sharing, rather than grasping and stealing
    • truth-telling in all realms of life
    • the importance of curbing one’s desires (sexual or otherwise) 

Authorship

First Kings 4:32 says that Solomon wrote 3,000 proverbs; moreover, the headings of the book of Proverbs ascribe the majority of the book to him (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1).  Therefore, one can assert with confidence that Solomon was either the author or the compiler of the proverbs contained in this book.

  • Solomon as original author     1-22:16 and 25-29
  • Solomon as compiler               22:17-24 and 30-31

An Outline of Proverbs

1:1-7              Introduction and motto
1:8-9:18       Encouragement to “marry” Lady Wisdom
10-22:16      Various Solomonic proverbs
22:17-24      Thirty sayings of the wise
25-29            Solomonic proverbs complied by Hezekiah’s scribes
30                  The sayings of Agur
31:1-9            The sayings of Lemuel
31:10-31        The celebration of an excellent wife

What is a Proverb?

  • Short, vivid, easily remembered truisms
  • Wisdom in pill form—effective medicine easily swallowed
  • A sermon in one sentence
  • Proverbs are short sentences, drawn from long experience
  • Proverbs are sayings characterised by “shortness, sense, and salt.”

Note: Because of their conciseness, rarely does a single proverb express all that God—or even all that the book of Proverbs—has to say on a given topic.  Therefore, expect to find verifying examples and counter-examples in the book that expand or balance the teaching of individual proverbs.

Axiomatic vs Absolute Proverbs

Proverbs consists of both axiomatic principles and absolute promises.  For example, Proverbs 10:4 “The hand of the diligent makes rich.”  While hard work usually produces financial success, this proverb is not an absolute promise that if one works hard he or she will always become wealthy. One can embrace the truthfulness of Solomon’s observation about the value of diligence without attempting to transform it into an absolute principle. 

Equating a proverb with a promise is a frequent and elemental mistake when interpreting Proverbs.

On the other hand, some Proverbs are absolutely true:  “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (8:13).  That statement is always true, without exception.  Therefore, the interpreter must be able to distinguish Solomon’s purpose for each proverb:  Is it an absolute promise or an axiomatically true observation?

Kidner observes, “‘Many hands make light work’ is not the last word on the subject since ‘too many cooks spoil the broth'”. This is why Solomon can give apparently contradictory advice in successive verses (see Proverbs 26:4-5 “answer not a fool according to his folly… answer a fool according to his folly”!! Different fools and situations require different responses. Clearly it takes wisdom to understand and apply the wisdom of Proverbs!

You can see the axiomatic and absolute in a single verse – for example, speaking of keeping kindness and truth, Prov 3:4 says “…so you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man.” It is always true that kindness and truth find favor before God, but it is only generally true before men.

What is the Purpose of Proverbs?

  1. To teach the Fear of the LORD
    • What the alphabet is to reading, the fear of the LORD is to attaining wisdom in this book (Waltke, the Book of Proverbs)
    • This is what keeps the shrewdness of Proverbs from slipping into mere self-interest (Kidner, the Wisdom of Proverbs)
    • The fear of the LORD includes “…a knowledge of our sinfulness and God’s moral purity, and it includes a clear-eyed knowledge of God’s justice and his anger against sin.  But this worship-fear also knows God’s great forgiveness, mercy, and love.” (Welch, When People are Big and God is Small)
    • The fear of the LORD is a continuum with each component vital to understanding the whole: terror → dread → trembling → astonishment → awe → reverence → devotion → trust → worship3
  2. To teach Practical Daily Wisdom to Believers
    • Some evangelical expositors will feel especially reluctant to preach from Proverbs because they cannot find the announcement of the gospel in this book.  But that must raise another question: Is the sole reason for preaching to bring the good news of salvation in every message? (Kaiser)
  3. To teach Believers how to make Decisions
    • Proverbs is the decision-making book of the Bible, directing those who fear the Lord to make decisions based on principle not panic, driven by wisdom rather than merely by want.
  4. To teach Believers how to Avoid Temptation
    • Proverbs teaches believers to avoid temptation by controlling their thoughts (4:23; 6:25a; 23:7), by avoiding people who are acting sinfully (1:10-11, 15; 22:24), and by avoiding situations where the lure to do evil will be nearly overpowering (5:8; 10:19).
  5. To bring Order, Peace, and Stability to Life
    • Proverbs 1:33, “He who listens to me shall live securely and will be at ease from the dread of evil.”  (see also 6:21-23)

Things to look out for as your study

See key words used in the book, particularly:

  • Wisdom(meaning skillful)
  • Insight (to discern)
  • Naive (where we all start – also translated simple)
  • Fool (someone fixed in their own opinion)
  • Scoffer (the hardened fool, beyond help)

Note key themes:

  • The Law of Consequences (character → conduct → consequences)
  • Biblical change in the principle of “put off, put on” (see Prov 15:1, A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger)
  • Wisdom comes from God and His Word (2:6, 13:13, 21:30)

My hope is that this very practical and helpful book in discipleship (which will immediately be usefully applied) will also provide a fertile field where you can check yourself against the issues of bad interpretation vs right interpretation. Start by identifying a section (in this book, that may be a single proverb), ask questions about context, author and audience and then ask, “is this axiomatic or absolute”? 

As you go through the book, reading the text as “naturally” as possible, you will find that by asking key questions and simple observation, meaning becomes clear and you will gain confidence in interpreting God’s Word. 

The key to understanding the text is found in the text itself as you endeavor to discover the divinely intended meaning of the original author writing to his original audience in their original context!

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