December 14, 2017

Get it Straight! (Proverbs for Dummies)

Doug Wright

Proverbs is one of the most practical books in our Bible. It is a contrast between wise and foolish behavior – surely you want to understand that! However, Proverbs could also destroy your confidence in God. I suspect that there are many believers whose faith has been undermined because they improperly interpret Proverbs.

People naturally recognize the format of a phonebook. As a result, they do not “accidently” begin reading it as a novel. The individual who would make such a ridiculous mistake would come away thinking that the phone book is boring and worthless. Boring might be an apt description (if you were expecting a novel), but its value is immeasurable if you allow the phone book to function as intended.

Proverbs is a specific genre of Scripture. William E. Mouser, Jr., in his book Walking in Wisdom, explains that Proverbs are brief, concrete statements of general truth that have diverse applications. They are not laws or promises! “Proverbial wisdom isolates and names the underlying patterns and principles which abide more or less constant in the flux of human living” (13-14). A Proverb is not a guarantee – the exceptional and unusual may and does occur. In other words, a biblical Proverb is a guide that directs people in living successful and productive lives.

People err when they treat a Proverb as an inflexible law, or “claim” a Proverb (as a promise from God). I know parents that have “claimed” Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Apart from the fact that this verse can be interpreted in various ways, it is not a promise. It is a guide – a recognition of underlying patterns. When a parent “claims” this promise from God, their faith is strained if God does not “do His part.” You may loose confidence in God by holding Him to a promise He has never given.

“A soft [gentle] answer” (Prov. 15:1) is a wonderful guide for successful and productive resolutions of conflict, but it is not an inflexible law. You may respond with a “soft answer” and still experience wrath. “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov. 16:7) is a general truth, but you will also “suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). Concluding that your ways are not pleasing to the Lord because your enemies are not at peace with you is bad theology grounded on an improper categorization of Proverbs.

You should study Proverbs, but you must study them with the intent that they will guide you in making wise (God-honoring) decisions. You will gain a vast understanding of human nature, and the general patterns and principles of human behavior. This knowledge will equip you to make wise choices on an array of topics and in a variety of situations. Just remember that we are dealing with people – many who are unpredictable and not “wise.” You will still have to learn when to “answer a fool according to his folly,” and when not to “answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4-5).

Doug Wright is pastor of Keystone Baptist Church, Berryville, VA.

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