Director's Letter: Are Proverbs Promises?

In this post I will discuss whether the instruction in Proverbs is guaranteed to work every time. Are they promises? Dr. Tom Howe puts the issue this way,

One of the problems that Christians have faced in dealing with the book of Proverbs is in understanding how these bits of wisdom ought to be applied to the Christian life today. The major problem today is a tendency among Christians to make the individual proverbs absolute, universal principles of life. . . . Proverbs are not universal affirmative propositions that can be taken as absolute promises from God.

In short, the answer is no. According to Gleason Archer the instruction in Proverbs consists of “principals of wisdom.” A principal is not a guarantee. Even the word “proverb” has an imprecise root meaning: “parallel” or “similar” (Archer). The words “parallel” and “similar” are not ones we normally use when describing a guarantee. How do we understand the Proverbs then?

William LaSor says, “Hebrew wisdom is the art of success, and Proverbs is a guidebook for successful living. By citing both negative and positive rules of life, Proverbs clarifies right and wrong conduct in a host of situations.” The intention is to break down “wise living” verses “folly” (or foolish living) so that if we apply ourselves to wisdom, we will tend to experience success.

The student of Proverbs is left with the task of knowing when to apply the wisdom. Let us look at an example from Proverbs 26:4-­5:

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.

Which is it; “answer not a fool,” or “answer a fool”? If we pluck one or the other and stand on it as an unequivocal dictate with guaranteed results we not only must ignore the other verse, we risk the repercussions of it. The Holy Spirit determined that these two verses (as an example) should be in juxtaposition, and there is a message in the structure (in addition to the text): the individual must determine their application. We must decide when to ignore the fool and when to answer him. This begins to illustrate how taking the Proverbs as promises just does not exactly fit.

Parents of Director Jeff Risk.

But this fact does beg the question, “How does this all work then?” Let me illustrate my thoughts. During my college years, I unfortunately chose an ugly drift from a fruitful walk with the Lord. During this time, my parents stood on Proverbs 22:6 as a promise: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” They did their part in training me up to love the Lord, and watched me develop a relationship with God as a child; so when I strayed, they asked God to bring me back to His ways. Were they wrong to hold to this verse as salve for their present pain, to assume the verse to be a promise, to ask God to now do His part? Was this approach somehow not truly following the faith?

Interestingly, Howe breaks this verse down, demonstrating from his expertise in the Hebrew language, that it could be translated multiple different ways, changing the meaning from what our English translations may indicate. An example is, “If you train up a child according to his way of living, when he is old he won’t turn from it.” Both the current English translations, and Howe’s are possible. Does this mean that we have to be a scholar for the Proverbs to be any good to us? Absolutely not!

That is not to say that we should not strive to a higher understanding. Believers of all levels of understanding must “dive in” and learn, and apply it to our lives. But sometimes the Scriptures are hard to understand. Peter, speaking of Paul’s writings, said, “There are some things in [his letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). Notice that Peter calls Paul’s writings Scripture, and that some people “twist” them.

Our primary help with understanding Scripture should not be people. God certainly speaks and assists us through godly people, but we first should rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment and understanding. We have the Author living inside us as believers! God has given us His Word, and the Holy Spirit as our teacher. By seeking Him we are given what we need to understand His instructions through the Scriptures. The Word is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

The power is in the Word, not in someone’s opinion of the Word. On a regular basis we should pray for understanding and dive into His Word (including the Proverbs). After, and only after, we can and should access the centuries of input and opinions of godly Christian scholars being careful to avoid the “ignorant and unstable” ones, so as to round out our study and to strive for higher and higher levels of understanding. Has God poured out knowledge and gifted these people for no purpose?

The Proverbs are not unequivocal. The Hebrew people believed wisdom is to teach successful living; and successful living was defined as, “Living in a way that pleases God” (Howe). If we follow the wisdom in Proverbs relying on the Holy Spirit for discernment, we can generally expect positive results. Living as if God guarantees our expected outcomes of any given situation is wrong headed (cf. Job 3:25). This holds true for the Proverbs.

My precious Mom and Dad did not believe that verse in error. Their approach was not somehow in a vacuum devoid of the other tender instructions of our faith. They prayed for me, they loved me despite my rebellion and disrespect, they cried out to God. He answered their prayers, and so for them in accordance with their faith, Proverbs 22:6 pointed to a concrete blessing they sought from the Lord.