Are Proverbs promises from God, if not, how should we read them?

(Ben Thompson) #1

Hopefully a quick question — the book of Proverbs is packed with real practical, detailed advice on how we should live and the consequences of this living. It seems to me that the Proverbs are more general principles for life, which if followed, aren’t necessarily guaranteed to happen, but are a means of God advising certain paths of life and showing typical/likely outcomes if followed. Firstly, is this a correct assessment?

I find it a little confusing if this is the case, I can’t find anywhere in God’s Word that advises that Proverbs shouldn’t be taken as promises at face value — if one were to read scripture alone, how would one arrive at this conclusion?. I do believe Proverbs contain the inspired inerrant Word of God, but, if the Proverbs aren’t guaranteed, how then should be approach them, how do we reconcile the Scriptures as a whole when we have a mix of hard promises (which are always guaranteed) and principles for living. And how does this relate to how we commend and quote portions of Scripture in apologetics?

(SeanO) #2

@ben That is a great question. I think that your general sense is correct - proverbs are not promises. However, I think it is a bit deeper than simply that one statement. Proverbs are a specific genre of what is called wisdom literature and they are not meant to provide easy answers. Rather, they are meant to teach us to learn how to navigate complex situations in life. For example, Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

So, which is it? Do I rebuke a fool according to his folly or not? The point of Proverbs is not to give you an easy answer - it’s to help you become a wise person who can make good decisions in complex situations. But, if that is the case, what makes Biblical proverbs different from proverbs in surrounding cultures?

Biblical wisdom is ultimately rooted in ‘the fear of the Lord’ (Proverbs 9:10), which is the beginning of wisdom. Scripture teaches us how to honor God in a broken world and the Proverbs have a unique role to play in that process. They help us know how to make good decisions in difficult situations - not because we already have the answer, but because we have wisdom that is rooted in the fear of the Lord.

The Bible is made up of different genres - poetry, narrative, wisdom literature and apocalyptic literature. Each type of literature is inspired by God, but because the genre is different, they function differently and we must approach them differently to learn what God is seeking to say to us. There is a message from God in each type of literature, but the road to understanding that message is different.

Was that explanation helpful? Please let me know if I need to clarify. Do you have any follow up questions? May the Lord grant you wisdom and peace as you study His Word.

Great Resources from Tim Keller on Understanding Proverbs

"Goethe once said of languages that “whoever know only one, knows none,” and that is likely true, but it is even more true of proverbs. If one proverb says, “The morally good always have a good life,” and later another says, “Sometimes the morally good suffer,” we modern readers think we’ve found a contradiction. That’s because we think of proverbs either as individual stand-alone promises or commands. But usually they are neither. Each is a description of some aspect of how life works.

Proverbs, then, give up their meaning only cumulatively. No one saying gives you the whole picture. [Proverbs 29:19] says that servants simply can’t understand the reason they should do things, so you just have to be strict with them. This seems to be a sweeping statement about their capabilities, but [Proverbs 17:2] tells us that a wise servant can end up being better than a family member. Only when the two are placed together can we see that [Proverbs 29:19] is not talking about all servants and employees but rather about those with an unresponsive, sullen attitude."

Bible Project Videos

(Lakshmi Mehta) #3

We have been using ‘Gods wisdom for navigating life’ book of Tim Keller for a bible study and it’s great to see how the the gospel is embedded even in proverbs. One of the questions that came up was - Do non-christians and people following other religions have wisdom because of the fear of the Lord too? We tried to answer it from the view point of common grace as the law is written in every human heart. ( Romans 2: 14-15). So everyone has some wisdom from God. We also said in 1 Cor 2: 6-15. the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus is said to be not understood by rulers of the age. The natural man does not accept the things that come from spirit of God. So clearly wisdom in Christ is different from wisdom in non-christian scriptures. Is this difference in wisdom mainly in the person of Christ, the wisdom that leads to eternal life? How should one explain the difference in wisdom from the Bible and that revealed elsewhere as they pertain to this life or eternal life?

(SeanO) #4

@Lakshmismehta That is a great question. Both Biblical wisdom and non-Biblical wisdom literature attempt to answer the question ‘what is the good life’ or ‘how do I make right choices’. They both seek to define what a ‘good life’ is, but the difference is that Biblical wisdom is rooted in a Biblical view of God.

Hebrews 11:6 says - “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

And John 8:42 - "Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me.”

Proverbs 9:10 - The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

So I would say Biblical wisdom begins with some basic principles from these verses:

1 - God exists (specifically God of the Bible)
2 - God is good to those who honor Him
3 - We should revere and honor God
4 - Jesus is God’s fullest revelation to mankind

So Biblical wisdom is rooted in the God of the Bible and those who have rejected Christ have also rejected God the Father. In addition, Biblical wisdom comes from and results in a pure and peace-loving heart. So much worldly wisdom is about getting what you want - being a successful businessman, becoming rich, finding someone or something to satisfy you. But Biblical wisdom puts God and neighbor first and begins in the heart. Consider this passage from James.

James 3:13-17 - "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere."

Are those thoughts helpful? Do you have any additional questions?

The Wisdom Rooted in the Gospel

When you are reading I Corinthians it is important to understand that Paul is emphasizing that the Gospel is the wisdom rejected by the world. He is not talking about general proverbial wisdom, but about the life, death and resurrection of Christ that the rulers of the world rejected by crucifying Him. The Gospel is the mystery hidden since the foundation of the world.

The wisdom Paul speaks of is the wisdom required to be truly humble - to lay down our lives for other people just like Jesus did because we know death has been defeated and our hope is in eternity; not on earth. The wisdom of the Gospel, like James said, leads to self-sacrifice, love and humility.

1 Corinthians 2:6-8 - “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

(Kathleen) #5

Hi, @ben! That’s a great question, and I’d be curious to know which Proverbs spring to mind that make you ask the question? I agree with @SeanO that Proverbs aren’t necessarily meant to be promises, but I also see that we can find statements in the book that sound awfully like promises.

For example, a quick scan of chapter 1 brings this verse to light: ‘…the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.’ (1:26) I don’t think that guarantees that a Christian will never wrestle with anxiety, depression, restlessness, or fear. I also don’t think it promises physical safety, but there is truth in that proverb. And, instead of claiming a promise like some magic charm (not that you would do that!), I think what God really wants (and what we really need to do) is wrestle with what that truth. More often than not, it’s in the time of wrestling (rather than blessing) that we grow closer to God.

So maybe the Proverbs are meant to make us meditate or turn things over in our mind, to challenge us to grow in knowledge and fear of the Lord…and to gain wisdom, as Sean mentioned. Would that be something you would agree with?

(Lakshmi Mehta) #6

@SeanO, thanks for your reply and it is quite helpful. I appreciate the principles you have shared behind biblical wisdom. What I am gathering is that Biblical wisdom is different from non-biblical wisdom in 1) its ability to transform our hearts toward true humility and toward a life of self-sacrificial love for God and others for a meaningful earthly life and 2) in its ability to give us a hope of eternal life made possible only through faith in Jesus.

Both of these differences are not so much in the ‘description of the attributes /aims of wisdom’ but more in the ‘scope and transformative ability of wisdom’ made possible only through the Spirit of the living God. I am not saying that definitions of biblical and non biblical wisdom are always the same but often are even among non-believers. What should be at issue when discussing differences between biblical and non-biblical wisdom seems not how one defines wisdom but how to get there.

Interestingly, other religious seekers of wisdom such as Hindus, also understand that the ability to harmonize with others and the universe comes only through learning how to love God and many non-religious folks have no problem absorbing some of the teachings of Jesus without having a relationship with Jesus. I have actually experienced a lot of sacrificial love among Hindu families in India but it is hard to know how those actions influenced their heart. On the surface, it appears everyone has the same kind of wisdom but in reality without a relationship in Jesus the problem seems to be that the pursuit of wisdom ends up being based on self-effort whether it is to improve earthly or spiritual life resulting in loss of humility and allowing self-righteousness.

Please feel free to point out any inconsistencies that you may see in my thoughts above. Just one follow up question: Do you think the similarities in the definition of wisdom in biblical and non-biblical settings can be attributed to common grace? Thanks!

(Joshua Spare) #7

Wow, this is a phenomenal discussion! Thanks so much for getting it started, @ben! And @Lakshmismehta, please keep up those excellent questions! I love the wealth of experience that you are sharing as you ask these questions. Phenomenal!

I wanted to pick up on the last piece of @ben’s original question:

As @SeanO alluded, as we approach scripture, we have to be careful to recognize the type and form of content that we are reading and quoting - whereas Proverbs is wisdom literature, Ruth and Exodus and Acts, for example, are read as historical narrative. There are many implications of this, but specifically in relation to your question, it means that we must be careful to use scripture as it was intended to be used, and not to use it simply to justify our own opinions and thoughts.

So, rather than misusing certain passages of Proverbs to claim some seemingly unattainable “promises,” as you pointed out, we must be careful to use Proverbs appropriately. In the apologetic context, I think that there is a variety of ways that we can see the utility of Proverbs. The one that comes to mind is entirely from the comments from @Lakshmismehta above. Apologetics is often described as building bridges and meeting people where they are (per the oft-cited passage of Paul to the Athenians in Acts 17). There seems to be an excellent opportunity to show the parallels between the wisdom that is taught in Proverbs and the quest for wisdom in many other cultures and religions (Hiduism in particular, in this case). After establishing the point of connection, it would seem like the conversation could naturally progress to a discussion of how biblical wisdom is grounded on a belief in the existence and goodness of God (note Sean’s comments above), and how this perhaps gives biblical wisdom a more firm foundation and rational basis than that found in other belief systems.

This may be a bit hasty, and poorly thought-out usage of Proverbs in the apologetic context, but that means that you all must have some better ideas! What other ways do you see the utility of Proverbs in apologetics?

(Patrick Teo) #8

If i am not mistaken, the book of Proverb, was written by King Solomon - the wisest man that ever lived on earth. i messed up my life without practising wisdom. As a result, i suffered great loss. Bible without knowledge, people can perish. Wisdom is more precious than knowledge, how much more we need to seek wisdom. i pray to the Lord last year, just give me the wisdom and nothing else. Since then, i handle everything exercising certain amount of wisdom. Apologetics is a wisdom study :slight_smile:

(Warner Joseph Miller) #9

Hey there, Ben! My name is Warner and I really appreciate your question. In fact, it’s a question I myself have asked…of myself. :wink: Some of the preachers and theologians I respect have weighed in an have essentially landed on the side of: proverbs are neither promises or moral absolutes. They all agree that proverbs are general, but not universal, statements; that proverbs are usually, or ordinarily, true. They speak about what is likely, not about what is guaranteed. They might all agree that proverbs are not necessarily promises and are not all absolutes. For example:

  • “The proverbs are meant to be general principles.” John Piper

  • “A common mistake in biblical interpretation and application is to give a proverbial saying the weight or force of a moral absolute.” R.C. Sproul

However, I now understand the Proverbs to be promises and commandments…that have a context. 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!

For example, in the oft quoted Jeremiah 29:11 a promise was made but within a context, ie (not modern-day graduates, but ancient Israelites in exile). So also Proverbs have a context, a specific situation at which they are aimed. And instead of seeing proverbs as “general” or “broad” statements, we need to see them for what they truly are: very specific and particular statements. They speak to the minute details of life, which is why they can even sound contradictory at times. For example, lets use the Proverb passage that @SeanO quoted: (Prov 26:4-5) One verse is saying that it’s always true in a certain context (where answering a fool will make you as foolish as he is), and the next statement is ALSO always true in a different context (where not answering a fool will leave him wise in his own eyes). Wise people will discern which context they find themselves in. But BOTH statements are ALWAYS true within their contexts. That make sense? In the words of Ravi Zacharias:

“There is no text without context.”

(Lakshmi Mehta) #10

Thanks for the feedback @jspare Thought I can share about our experience with the bible study on Proverbs to respond to your question. One of our motivations for picking the book of Proverbs for the study was the non-sectarian nature of wisdom and its appeal to people from any background. We are only half way through the study but it has already provided opportunity for some discussions on the gospel. Some themes that segwayed into gospel conversations were: knowing the wise creator who created the world in wisdom, verses describing the heart of man, verses dealing with resolving conflicts, marriage and its connection with being bride of Christ and verses on blessings of righteousness. I am sure there will be many more opportunities but these are just a few examples. Before doing this study, we didn’t realize how good a tool it is for conversations on grace of God. The main reason to do a Proverbs study was to avoid some controversial topics and one thing everyone in our group agreed on was that they all wanted to be wiser! :slight_smile: Now the group is seeing to a certain degree how true wisdom is connected with its ‘Giver’.

(Ben Thompson) #11

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. :grinning:

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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. :thinking:

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 :slight_smile:

Thanks again for all your contributions, really helpful input.


(SeanO) #12

@ben I felt this article was helpful as well in seeking to understand what the Book of Proverbs, or wisdom literature in general, is in terms of genre and how it should function in our lives. Below is a quote from the article and here are a few single quotes that stood out.

“The wise person knows the right time to apply the right proverb.”

“Individual proverbs don’t tell the whole story on a subject. They are snapshots whose truth is activated when applied appropriately.”

"First, as surprising as this might sound, proverbs are not always true. In other words, the proverb as a type of literature is not in the business of making a universal truth claim. Or, to put it more positively, a proverb is always true when applied to the right situation at the right time. For instance, in American proverbial wisdom, one occasion calls for the phrase “Haste makes waste,” while in another situation, “The early bird catches to worm” fits the bill.

In the same way, we might encounter a foolish person whose obstinacy leads us not to answer him according to his folly ([Prov. 26:]). But in another situation, we might answer a fool as his folly deserves to prevent him from being wise in his own eyes ([Prov. 26:5]). Though seemingly contradictory, both are true in their respective situations. The wise person knows the right time to apply the right proverb.

Individual proverbs don’t tell the whole story on a subject. They are snapshots whose truth is activated when applied appropriately. For a full understanding of the wisdom of Proverbs on any topic, it is necessary to read all the relevant verses, though they will be scattered throughout the entire book.

Second, to read proverbs correctly, we must realize that they do not make promises. Let’s once again consider verse 4 of chapter 10. Is it really true to say that lazy people are always poor and hard workers are always rich? Of course not. We’re reading the proverb incorrectly if it leads us to believe industry is always rewarded by wealth. As a matter of fact, another proverb points out that a person can work diligently and end up with nothing because of an “injustice” ([Prov. 13:23])."

(Warner Joseph Miller) #13

Hey there, @ben! Thanks, so much, for the request for clarity. I appreciate that mining for truth and understanding!

So, I’ll begin with confessing that perhaps I wasn’t clear when I mentioned what those pastors expressed versus what I hold to. What I was attempting to express was while I respect those pastors and the position they present, I also respectfully disagree…or more appropriately, hold a slightly differing angle (which, I guess, is sorta the same thing :wink: )

THEY would hold to the statement that proverbs are usually, or ordinarily, true – that proverbs aren’t promises or absolutes. I, however – per my humble understanding – hold that the Proverbs ARE promises and commandments that have a CONTEXT. Again, 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!

As an example, I quoted Jeremiah 29:11 where a promise IS made for “peace and well-being” (AMP). However, contextually, God was speaking to the ancient Israelites in exile. That promise, while true, may not be applicable for another group or individual at another time and place. Proverbs – just like the rest of Scripture – have a context, a specific situation at which they are aimed. While there may be times when certain scriptures do apply and are “true” for all regardless of time, place or people…a safe and theologically honest way in studying the Bible is to consider the context, first. Don’t let your default approach Proverbs or any book of the Bible be as “general” or “broad” statements. Again, we need to see them for what they truly are: very specific and particular statements. Does that clear it up, some?