Thanks for the insightful and in-depth contributions everyone @SeanO, @Lakshmismehta, @jspare, @WarnerMiller, @KMac … what a truly unique, wise and heartfelt community we have here. I appreciate the time people have spent replying.
Seems like there is scope to go deeper into this as the points here are actually really useful as general principles for reading, interpreting and sharing the Word - not limited to just Proverbs.
Might be helpful to approach this from two perspectives: the Christian and the non-Christian.
For the Christian(s):
@KMac: In response to your question:
“I’d be curious to know which Proverbs spring to mind that make you ask the question?”
It actually arose from a recent parenting course run by our local Church where we had some discussions around an oft quoted Proverb:
Proverbs:22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."
We were reminded that this isn’t necessarily a promise, even though it may, on the face of it read like one (and many indeed have taken it to be one). I’m sure many Godly parents could testify to their training in the Lord seemingly resulting in apparent “departure” from these ways as their children grow older.
So in these instances, given His Word is inerrant, either:
a) We have misinterpreted the Proverb as a promise.
b) It isn’t a promise at all despite sounding like one and is, as some have suggested, a likely or usual outcome, or
c) It is indeed a promise but what we often understand and interpret by “he will not depart from” is not what the author (and thereby God) intended
d) Or some other option I have yet to see…
… I wanted to pick up on something @WarnerMiller mentions:
“Proverbs are usually, or ordinarily, true. They speak about what is likely, not about what is guaranteed. But proverbs are not promises. They are not absolutes.”
I have a few questions off the back of that:
- If Proverbs are usually true, what is it that prevents them from being absolutely true? Is this purely the fall and our sinful nature?
In the event that Proverbs do (to us) play out as true, is this is only by God’s grace or our doing or both/none? God’s Word is TRUE, all of the time, so does it come down to a gap in our understanding (context) when things don’t seem to come true?
- You also then mention:
“When a proverb sounds like a promise, it is making a promise! And you can always trust God’s promises. When a proverb issues a command, it is making a moral absolute!”
Isn’t this at odds with “proverbs are not promises”? To clarify, can you give me an example of Proverb which sounds like a promise and one which sounds like a command? For the new believer, I can envisage many taking Proverbs as literal promises, how then should we distinguish between real promises and the “lookalike” promises of Proverbs? By way of example, the “Train up a child” one (Proverbs:22:6) seems to have both a command and a likely outcome, one which many parents (perhaps wrongly) cling on to as a promise?
Another Proverb which springs to mind, and one that I have often pondered over and wrestled with is:
Proverbs 19:23 - The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm. (ESV)
On the face of it, it does seem to read like a promise rather than a command. Personally, I struggle to read “he will not be visited by harm” as anything but an absolute. I don’t feel I can read it any other way. If these are not absolute promises and purely suggestions for life (or likely outcomes), why isn’t it made more clear and explicit (e.g “he will rarely be visited by harm”)? Afterall, “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Cor 14:33). I appreciate I haven’t looked at the original translation (e.g what does “visited by harm” really mean?) but I hope I’m making some sense? I also want to bring in something of His sovereignty over these issues. Thinking more on this, and perhaps a contentious comment here, but if some of the proverbs that read like promises always happened, I believe this would be a real problem with free will as it stands. For free will to be truly free, God at times must have to stand back and let (ordain in His will) these usually true proverbs to not come true, right? We can do all we want to seek after and follow in the ways of these Proverbs, but we do live in a fallen world with external broken influences. The world would be very different and perhaps less God-glorifying if Proverbs always rung true.
In terms of how this applies to us for daily evangelism, and touching briefly on the non-christian/apologetic aspect, I take note that Jesus quoted Proverbs (to his disciples and the Pharisees - Luke 14:7–11). This should give us confidence to use Proverbs appropriately to shed light on “wisdom from above” (James 3:17) to both the body of believers and those yet to join the family
Thanks again for all your contributions, really helpful input.