Are Proverbs Promises?

By | December 16, 2012

I was studying Proverbs this week and thought I might share a few paragraphs I wrote in my argument.

The nature of proverbs suggests that they are not intended to be “universal propositional truths” or taken as promises from God that will never fail. By design, proverbs are brief and typically express a single aspect of truth. Life situations are generally more complex, and mitigating factors may cause an unexpected result. The book of Proverbs itself recognizes this reality, for though it urges parents to train up a child in the way he should go (22:6), it also provides strong warnings for the son who might be tempted to enter the house of the adulteress.

Proverbs are observations on life that typically prove to be true. Sluggards generally do not get wealthy, and hard workers often experience material reward (28:19). But fortunes can be affected by dishonest scales (20:23), lying tongues (26:28), and wicked rulers (28:28). The “better-than” proverbs express the reality that all may not be just in the short-term. For instance, “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse” (28:6).

As Longman observes, “A proverb does not give guarantees; rather, it indicates the best route to a desired end. That end will be achieved, all other things being equal.” But situations are complex, and all other things may not be equal. Hildebrandt says it well: “In order to describe a multifaceted situation comprehensively, multiple proverbial vectors may be needed.” A proverb may be true in one situation, but different in another. The classic example is 26:4-5, where opposite responses to the fool are commanded, and wisdom is required in order to know which is most appropriate for the situation. Hildebrandt explains the writer’s intention: “The editors deliberately placed these contrary proverbs back to back. This dissonance leads one away from simplistic dualistic dogmatism to a situationally nuanced wisdom.” As Van Leeuwen remarks, “In a certain sense, it takes wisdom to use wisdom.”

Indeed, the correct way to read Proverbs is wholistically, not removing any individual proverb from its immediate context (where applicable) or from its larger context of the book. This includes recognizing short-term failures, such as is reflected in 24:16: “For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity.” Ultimately the wise man will receive his reward, if not in this life than certainly in the next. The demand of the book of Proverbs is that the righteous live by faith, trusting the Lord and not himself in all his ways. Waltke is exactly right: “Proverbs characterizes the wise as living by faith entirely (‘with all your heart, ‘ 3:5), exclusively (‘lean not on your own understanding ‘), and exhaustively (‘in all your ways acknowledge him, ‘ 3:5-6a).”

As is clear in all of the Wisdom Books, especially Job and Ecclesiastes, the world does not operate on a mechanistic system of impersonal retribution. Rather, God in his wisdom ordains matters in such a way that man is required to depend upon him rather than a principle. The individual who does right only to benefit personally does not love the Lord as he should, nor does he practice the virtues of faith, hope, and love. The Lord uses suffering to strengthen the character of his children, but ultimately he rewards the righteous with abundant life.

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