On the road to Emmaus, Jesus taught the disciples that the entire OT pointed to Himself. Some OT books are easier than others in discerning how they point to the person and work of Christ, but perhaps the most difficult is the book of Proverbs. The temptation is to see this book as a list of ethical rules from God as to how people should live wisely and as a result be blessed. But if this is how we teach Proverbs we fall into the sin of the disciples on the road, who were too foolish to see that Christ was the subject of the Old Testament. Jesus had to rebuke their lack of understanding (Luke 24:25-27). May it not be so with us!
Here are some guidelines in interpreting Proverbs using the analogy of Scripture (Scripture interprets Scripture).
1. The Book of Proverbs is for believers in a saving relationship with God.
The Proverbs are not first and foremost moral truths but spiritual truths. Solomon makes it clear from the beginning that wisdom only begins with a right relationship with the Lord (1:7). Though in a formal sense we might see common grace blessings on unbelievers who discipline their children, work hard, etc…, this is out of the realm of the thought of the book. All unbelievers are fools to Solomon, so there is no real application of the Proverbs apart from a saving relationship with God (the fear of the Lord). We choose wisdom for God’s glory, not selfish gain in this life. To do so would place us in the category of fools, as Ecclesiastes teaches us.
2. The Book of Proverbs is retrospective.
This is another way of saying that like all books in Scripture, Proverbs is an organic part of a whole. The book must be placed into the context of what has already been written previously, or else we may easily miss its purpose in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.
Before the fall, man, who was created in God’s image, was given the wisdom of God in naming the animals and subduing the earth. But because of the fall man was plunged into foolishness and darkness (Rom 1:21-23).
Yet God intervened and promised Adam and Eve a Savior, and a covenant people from whom the Savior would be born (Gen 3:15). Thus later God called out the family of Abraham as the family from whom these promises would be fulfilled. God showed his great hand of salvation in the Exodus by redeeming the children of Abraham from slavery and bringing them into the Promised Land. He then gave them his Law as a covenant with them, that upon their obedience they would stay in the land and remain in God’s presence, symbolized by the Tabernacle/Temple.
Now the fact that the Proverbs were even written elicits praise from God’s people. There is still a way to walk in a manner pleasing to God, even in this cursed world!
God still gives his wisdom to his people, even after Adam’s sin.
Notice how many of the Proverbs call us to be as Adam was, discerning truth from the created order (Prov 24:30-34). As Adam was to discern an animal’s characteristics and thus name it, God’s people even after the fall are still to discern the world around them and come to right conclusions; to discern the world from God’s perspective.
As Adam was to use wisdom to build God’s kingdom on earth, and Solomon used wisdom in building the temple, so God will build His kingdom with wisdom (Prov 9:1-3). Thus in Proverbs God’s redemptive plan is still operating in spite of the fools of the world, in spite even of our own sin. God will build a wise kingdom for Himself. God will still have a people for Himself who still can walk in God’s ways! The promise of redemption has not been lost!
3. The Book of Proverbs is prospective.
Clearly if we stopped with the retrospective view of Proverbs we would be in trouble. Some obvious questions beg to be asked by the readers of the book. How can foolish man be wise like a holy God? How can man who is by nature depraved see the world with God’s eyes and respond with God’s wisdom? How can man who is by nature selfish live in the fear of the Lord? How will God build a wise kingdom with foolish people? In other words, how can sinful men keep the Law, heed the Proverbs?
If we simply tell our listeners to “do” these Proverbs to receive blessings, we have just placed the burden of the Law on those who cannot keep it. How depressing it is that so many teachers of the gospel end up putting God’s people back under the Law!
But Proverbs (as the rest of the Law – Rom 7:24) cries out for the need for something better. We not only need the guidelines of wisdom, but a new heart to be made wise!
Run and work, the Law demands, But gives me neither feet nor hands. A sweeter sound the Gospel brings; It bids me fly, and gives me wings!
Thus Proverbs not only looks back, but also looks foreword. One way to see how the book points to something greater is to see the historical context of its writing. “The Proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, King of Israel. (1:1).” Solomon wrote most of the Proverbs in the time of the golden age of Israel. Is this not the time of the fulfillment of God’s promises? Israel’s enemies have been defeated and the Temple has been built. God now resides among his people! Is there not a wise son of David ruling over Israel? Were they not blessed with riches and honor from the whole world (II Chron. 9:22-24)?
But if this is that promised kingdom of God, why are there so many sinners to avoid in this kingdom (Prov 1:10)? Why so many sloths (13:4)? Why do the rich have so many “friends,” but the poor are lonely (14:20)? Why are righteous men still mocked (17:26)? How can we remain in God’s presence if we are such a sinful people? Why are we always being warned of punishment if we are already in God’s kingdom (16:5)?
Thus the book of Proverbs cries out for a better kingdom, a better king (for Solomon will turn from God), and a better covenant, one that will not only tell me how to be wise but make me wise! Thus Proverbs must never be taught apart from the promise of the gospel.
4. The Book of Proverbs is fulfilled in the person and work of Christ.
There was One who displayed the discretion of God amidst the cursed earth. He always walked with perfect wisdom. He was never slothful, never showed partiality, never gossiped or lied, and by his perfect and wise obedience merited all of God’s blessings. He lived out every Proverb perfectly, and yet as a result he was punished!
But he was punished not for his sins, but his peoples’sin, for only then could they be forgiven from the punishment promised in Prov 16:5. But also upon his resurrection from the dead God imputed to his people (legally declared them righteous) and imparted to them (gave them a new heart) Christ’s righteousness when they believed the gospel. Now we can obey the Proverbs because the wisdom of God is ours. Paul labored that the church may
be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:2b&3).
Our wisdom comes from our being in Christ, and we grow in wisdom through our relationship with Christ (abiding in Him). We live out the Proverbs in love for Christ, and daily dependence on Him for wisdom. The OT saints could be wise and live out the Proverbs, but only in anticipatory faith, not trusting in their own wisdom but in God’s coming Savior.
5. The Proverbs are both general principles and eternal truths.
Many have rightly pointed out that the Proverbs are not true every time in every instance, but only general truths. But in light of the purpose of the book we must not leave it at that, or again we leave out the fulfillment. Yes, in this cursed world it isn’t always true that “he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity (28:14),” or “an idle man will suffer hunger (19:15).” We see rich men with hard hearts living in luxury and ease. This was true in Israel also. Some idle men in this life never hunger, for they are rewarded for their idleness (consider our modern welfare system).
At the same time it isn’t always true in this life that “the reward of humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, honor and life (22:4).” Many believers live lives of dishonor and poverty, including the Apostle Paul (II Cor 6:8) In the biblical sense every believer is one who lives life in dishonor and poverty (Matt 5:1-10).
But Solomon’s kingdom was only typological of a greater, eternal kingdom! The Bible is a book dealing with eternity. Thus in this cursed world these proverbs are only general truths, but at the return of our Savior and the inauguration of the new heavens and earth, all the proverbs will become fulfilled promises.[*]
Every rich, idle man will eternally fall into calamity and suffer hunger, and everyone who feared the Lord will receive honor, riches and life; for we are joint heirs with Christ, sharing the blessings he merited as our covenant head. The new covenant believer must approach the Proverbs in light of the resurrection.
6. The Book of Proverbs reveals the need for the Spirit of God to transform us daily.
The Proverbs focus mostly on our relationship in the covenant with one another (commandments 5-10 ). Of course we only love one another as we love God, and the God-centeredness of all our obedience is interspersed throughout the book as reminders (1:7, 29, 3:5, 5:21, 8:13, 11:1, 14:2, 16:3, 19:17).
And yet we see from many Proverbs application of the commandments is not cut and dry. In this world it takes more than a wooden, robotic approach to apply the proverbs in our lives. Many situations call for different responses. When do we use the rod on our children vrs. admonish with our voice? When do we rebuke vrs. encourage with a timely word? Do we or don’t we answer a fool according to his folly (26:4&5)?
Well, there are times to do so and other times not to do so. How do we know? We know more and more by transforming our minds with the great “therefores” of Scripture (Rom 12:1&2). As we abide in Christ through His Word, the Holy Spirit transforms us more and more into the image of Christ, that we may know the will of God. This refers to his moral will revealed in Scripture, not his sovereign, secret will.
The more we know Christ the more we will display his wisdom in each and every situation. In this life we will constantly do and say foolish things, but he who began a good work in you will perfect it in Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).
7. The Book of Proverbs is poetry utilizing the use of imagery and metaphor
Finally I must add that to interpret Proverbs correctly you must be familiar with the general rules of poetry. If you are completely unfamiliar with poetry a good book from the local library or a class at a community college should suffice.
May God bless you as you plum the depths of the wisdom of Christ in this wonderful book, and may Jesus receive all the glory (explicitly) in your studies.
* The only proverb that doesn’t seem to fit in this category is 22:6. The Hebrew in this proverb is very difficult and I do not believe we really understand it as well as we think.