Understanding Biblical Genres: Proverbs

Today, as we continue to work through this mini-series on genres of Wisdom literature in the bigger series on understanding biblical genres, I’m going to talk about proverbs, and specifically those found in the book of that name in the Bible: What they are, what they aren’t, and how we should approach them.

Proverbs are a universal cultural phenomenon. Every culture has them. Here are just a few common English proverbs most of us will be familiar with: “A stitch in time saves nine,” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” “Ignorance is bliss,” “Cross that bridge when you come to it.” They are short, often metaphorical, Wisdom sayings that convey a general truth about the world and human experience. The word ‘general’ in that definition is key. Proverbs are not promises. They don’t describe certainties, only probabilities and generalities. Moreover, many proverbs outright contradict other proverbs. Observe the following pairs:

  • “Look before you leap.” But also, “He who hesitates is lost.”
  • “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But also, “Don’t beat your head against a wall.”
  • “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But also, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
  • “Many hands make light work.” But also, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
  • “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But also, “Clothes make the man.”

This shouldn’t concern us. As Niels Bohr rightly pointed out (in what has become an important proverb for me over the years), “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Both sides of each of these pairs are true, because existence is complex and uncertain. It is true that most situations require careful deliberation before we act; it’s also true that some situations require immediate action (and related, that overthinking is often worse than no thinking at all). It’s true that persistence is a key to success in anything important in life; it’s also true that some things just aren’t workable and we need to know when to quit while we’re ahead. Wisdom comes not from knowing proverbs, but in discerning which of them apply in which circumstances, or for what people. (As someone who is risk-averse, my life is generally improved by proverbs urging action; but I have friends who are prone to rash behaviours that get them into trouble, who would do well to remember proverbs urging caution.)

Turning to the Bible, the book of Proverbs is a collection of ancient Hebrew proverbs — or better, it’s an anthology of eight collections of Hebrew proverbs. As such, all of the above discussion applies to its proverbs just as much as they do to non-biblical ones: They contain wisdom and truth, they express generalities not promises, and sometimes they contradict each other — and none of this is a problem. Let’s look at an example that demonstrates these ideas. Proverbs 26.4 reads, “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” There is a lot of truth in this. It’s true that trying to explain something to someone who is not interested or curious in understanding you is pointless, frustrating, and often serves to make you look just as foolish as they are acting. But it’s not true all of the time. Sometimes, it is possible — and fruitful — to find the right words for someone acting foolishly to understand and even learn. And this is demonstrated in the very next verse, which offers the exact opposite piece of advice: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” It can be dangerous to let folly go unchecked.

All this is a great example of why understanding biblical genres is important. The precepts in Proverbs need to be understood as proverbs. They are not commandments or Law, they are not “Thou shalt ….”s from God. Nor are they divine promises for our lives. I’m harping a bit on this because I’ve seen misunderstanding this go very wrong in people’s lives. When I was in seminary, I had a classmate who came from a Pentecostal background, and true to the basic beliefs of this tradition, they believed that every word of Scripture could without exception be applied to their own circumstances. She treated Proverbs like an instruction manual for life, filled with divine promises for those who obeyed them. One of her favorite verses was Proverbs 22.6, “Train children in the way they should go, and when old, they will not stray.” But, of course, her teenager got up to all sorts of trouble; but rather than ‘just’ being a difficult stage in development, for my classmate, this turned into a full on crisis of faith, because the Bible promised that her children would follow the right path she had taught them. Again, it’s not that Proverbs 22.6 is wrong; it is true that we pick up on much of what our parents teach us, and a child who learns discipline, hard work, compassion, and humility and whatnot is likely to grow into a productive and kind adult. But, this proverb is only one half of the equation. And in fact, there are at a very quick count over twenty verses in Proverbs urging children or students to obey instruction. It’s good for parents to instruct their children; but, if genuine instruction is going to take place, their children also need to accept and apply it. For my colleague, misunderstanding a proverb as a promise created an unnecessary crisis in her life of faith — which in turn even further strained her relationship with her children.

Proverbs, the biblical proverbs most especially, contain wonderful pieces of wisdom for us. But, like any part of the Bible, they need to be understood for what they are, they need interpretation and discernment about how they should be applied in our lives — and which proverb is most relevant to our circumstances. And it’s in this discernment process that true wisdom lies.

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