How are we to understand proverbs in the Bible?
Proverbs are essentially puzzles. This is important to get. A proverb is not intended to be simple to understand the minute you read it or hear it. It is supposed to be soluble, so it is not a puzzle that just makes you say, "I don't know; I have no idea what this says." A reasonable adult can always figure it out and explain it to a thoughtful child or adolescent. It is important to appreciate, however, in the way Proverbs are written--it is much more visible in the Hebrew, by the way, than it is in the English because the English often does kind of half explain it in the translation. English translators look for clarification, but in the original they are like puzzles. They are so terse and they have such unusual expressions and themes and metaphors that often they make no sense.
Some of you who have learned English as a second language or have come from other cultures know this. You have heard many things that people say and you say, "What does that mean?" For example, Americans say, "A stitch in time saves nine." It is an American and British proverb. We use it that way because it rhymes; it has a nice sense to it. What is the meaning? It has very little to do with sewing. It is not really a sewing proverb at all. You do not have to watch the Sewing Channel to understand this proverb. It is about the fact that, from a literal point of view, a literalistic point of view, when a garment starts to unravel if you can quickly stitch it then much more unraveling will be stopped and one stitch in time saves nine stitches. Does it also save fourteen? Sure. Does it save thirty-eight? Sure. Does it save two? Yes. So it is not just nine. But it sort of rhymes to say, "A stitch in times saves nine," so that is the way it is put together to make it memorable, but the real point of that proverb is that there are many kinds of situations that will get worse and worse and worse if you let them go but, if you act quickly, you can often prevent it from getting really bad. The sooner you act with many problems the easier they will be to solve. That is what a stitch in time really means. We say it in kind of a puzzle way. I'm sure that most kids, as they are growing up, even kids who have heard that all their life, the first time they heard it said, "What? I don't get it." So you have to explain it.
Proverbs are like that. We believe that when people taught proverbs to kids, again and again and again they would say, "Teacher, would you explain that one too please?" It had to be puzzled out. But you know what is wonderful, if you have something you have to puzzle out, we find this at the dinner table whenever we do it with our kids, it makes an impact because you are repeating it. You say, "Now listen to that first part again. What do you think that means?" You are going over it; you are repeating it; everybody is thinking about it; they are trying to solve the puzzle. This is what helps commit it to memory. Something that is easy to solve just sort of goes in one ear and out the other, which is also a kind of an English proverb; an expression for, it does not last in your memory. A thing that you have to work on, think about, analyze, "What is the point of that? I don't get it. Why is it stated that way?" is just great in terms of helping you to get the concept and likely remember it. In the Hebrew, the proverbs are very, very memorizable. They are like "a stitch in time saves nine" or "look before you leap." They are short; they are very epigrammatic; they are very condensed. They often have similar sounds and cadences and they are put in a word order that you can easily remember, like, "Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet and who are you." It is memorizable, because there are cadences and so on. There are a lot of those things that we do not have in English, but we still have the puzzle factor, the need to go over it, the concept and the tremendous value for believer and nonbeliever alike, which is a great thing.