Lecture 13: Proverbs | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 13: Proverbs

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Proverbs

We are going to start now to talk about the genres of Scripture. We have talked about our understanding of what our goal is. We want to know what the author meant, but the author uses literary forms and therefore we must understand what these literary forms are seeking to teach.


I used as a subheading to the book, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing By the Rules. When the book was first published, the person in charge of the final editing was one who also drew some of the pictures and illustrations. I wasn’t too excited by them. It happened to be the owner of the publisher’s companies’ son – vice president, so I liked it better after I found out who he was. But he changed the title to Playing by The Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible.

Later on they changed it back because they found out that they were being located in Sports sections in libraries, in bookstores. They thought it was a game book.  And Playing By the Rules – it was not a – and finally they realized that somehow the label of the title was misleading people away and so they switched it back to a basic guide.

But the fact is, you can’t interpret a game unless you know the rules of the game.  Now, I don’t want to sound irreverent like studying the Bible is a game, but the analogy is a good one.  If you have somebody for instance who has all his life has lived in Europe and they are familiar with football which is soccer in American understanding and he comes to watch American football, it is just incomprehensible – because these guys are holding the ball with the hand. You can’t do that in football and you find that only one person ever kicks the ball. Everybody kicks the ball in soccer that way and so you have people going out of bounds and throwing the ball back in out of bounds in soccer.

You can’t understand the game. You have to know the rules of the game. So any game has rules associated with it and in a similar way, any literary form has rules associated with them. Now we are going to look at one literary form and that has to do with Proverbs. Proverbs – proverbial literature. 

I’ll give us an illustration – a very familiar one. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  And I remember back in Minnesota, one of the pastors preaching a sermon on that and telling the congregation, he knows his children will grow up to be Christian, because they are being raised as they should in the fear and admonition of the Lord and when they are old, they will not depart from it.

And I thought “What a dumb thing to say!” from the pulpit. I mean that’s really foolish. For one thing of those devout people in your congregation who have sought through prayer and all their lives sought to raise their children to know and follow the Lord and one of them is a prodigal and it breaks their heart. They don’t need to hear that. They don’t need to all of a sudden be given a guilt trip in addition. God has been very good to my wife and I. We have three children. They all love the Lord. They married fellow Christians who love the Lord. They are raising their children to know and love the Lord.

But the last thing I would ever say would be that the reason they all are following the Lord is because their father raised them perfectly. I am just thankful that despite my foolishness and errors at times, God in His grace won my children to the Lord. So no one is going to be able to say, “I have raised my children perfectly.” And there will be people who are more devout and more godly than you and I who did their best and they have a child, daughter, son who isn’t following the Lord’s footstep.

There are godly people in the Bible, Eli who has two rotten sons. He knows it but no one has ever blamed Eli. He is a very devout man in the Old Testament. So it happens.

The second dumb thing about it was that think of the pressure you put on the kid. I mean if he comes out as a good Christian, it is all his dad’s doing. The only way he can be an individual is if he decides that - not do what his dad wants him to do. In other words to go the opposite direction.  But what really is silly as far as we are concerned is that it completely misunderstands what a proverb is.

Now proverbs are short pithy sayings often in poetic form that express a general truth. There can be exceptions. And if you go through the bible there are all sorts of verses that clearly indicate there are exceptions to this. Now let us look at a few of them. Proverbs 3:9 and 10,

9 Honour the Lord with your substance
   and with the first fruits of all your produce; 
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
   and your vats will be bursting with wine.

When I first graduated from seminary, I was a pastor in North Dakota, so all I would have to do is drive along the country roads and look who had good barns and I’d say, “These people ??? Lord.” And a barn disrepair, “Sinners here” and go on that way.

Now the fact is, you and I know that there are some godly people, things haven’t worked out for. And there are also ungodly people that everything seems to work perfectly. It is not always like that, but it is a general rule.  It allows for exceptions.  But in 10:3 and 4,

3 The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry,
   but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. 
4 A slack hand causes poverty,
   but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

There are some exceptions to that. There are some people who work very very hard, so have two jobs, full-time and they are trying to keep things together so that their family can survive. They are not slack in their work.

But isn’t it generally true that people who work hard do better than people who are lazy?

Wouldn’t you want to tell your son and daughter, “If you work out, it will work out, you will do alright?”  One of the great things about our country, if you work hard, its alright. You will do well. Now there can be exceptions, but that does not destroy the general rule.

Proverbs teach a general rule. 13:21, we will look at the other side in a minute.

21 Misfortune pursues sinners,
   but prosperity rewards the righteous.

Its generally true. Lifestyles do affect what happens to people, but there again are exceptions.

A soft answer turns away wrath,
   but a harsh word stirs up anger.

That – generally true as well.  Sometimes a soft answer doesn’t do any good. Generally good.

22:6, still up there. You can actually look at verse 4 as well.

4 The reward for humility and fear of the Lord
   is riches and honour and life.

Ah for some, it doesn’t quite turn out that way. Then you have,

6 Train children in the right way,
   and when old, they will not stray.

Generally true. You know it’s a tragic thing to see as a pastor and as a friend, people who are botching up raising their children and you just know … you are not keeping your word to them. You say you are going to discipline them, but the discipline is never forth coming.  Or you promised them to do something, you don’t do something. You know this is going to end up disastrously and it does.  You just worry about that. Train them in the right way and generally come out real well.


16 Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself,
   and giving to the rich, will lead on

There are some people that do very well oppressing the poor, but general truth.  Now you have in the teachings of our Lord also Proverbs. He uses proverbs in numerous occasions. Matthew 6:21,

21For where your treasure is, there will your heart will be also.

Now isn’t that a nice succinct way of saying it.  You can have sermons for 30 minutes on tithing or something like that. Doesn’t quite hit it like this proverb. Where your treasure is, that is where your heart is.  That’s the problem with a lot of love of money. Very succinct. Very well put.


52 … for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

Ahh… some people have done well as mercenaries or something like that. But if you read that in a church after World War II in Germany, how many people do you think in the congregation would have said “Nah. Its not true.” Wouldn’t they have said, “Yes. We took the sword and perished by it”? It happens. And that’s the general rule.

There can be exceptions occasionally, and that’s the general rule. There can be exceptions occasionally but that’s the general rule. Luke 16:10,

10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

Great. I have one I haven’t put up here. I want you to read. I want you to teach your young people in church – if you are working with young people. 1 Cor. 15:33,

33Do not be deceived:
‘Bad company ruins good morals.’

33Do not be deceived:
‘Bad company ruins good morals.’

One of my close friends and colleagues in Minnesota had a teen age son and he was hanging around with bad company and so his friends said, “I know where there is a warehouse. Let us steal some skis.” They broke into the warehouse and stole some ski equipment and they said to him, “Your father has a bigger garage than ours. Why don’t we store it in your garage?” He is not only not wise in choosing friends, he is not too bright in some ways.  Well it was discovered and the interesting thing was, the other two kids were minors and they were essentially dismissed. He had to appear before the judge and the judge said “This is the first time this has happened to you and so I am going to put you on a year probation and so many hours of community service.”

And then he looked at him and then he said, “But I want to tell you something. If you don’t get some new friends, you are going to get into serious trouble.” The judge knew that bad company ruins good morals. And he was hanging around with bad company.

So what is a proverb?

A proverb is a short pithy saying that expresses a general truth. A general truth. There can be exceptions but it is generally true.  The exceptions do not refute it. It is true despite the exceptions.  The exceptions – but exceptions that prove the rule.

Now these proverbs generally come from wise people who have observed carefully the world around them.  And that’s why a proverb is not limited to the Bible.  There were Egyptian proverbs, Greek proverbs. Every society has a group of proverbs.  They are handy ways of teaching basic wise rules for life that have been passed on down through the families.

Have any of you heard proverbs from your parents? Can you think of it?

Student: One bad apple spoils the bunch.

Dr. Stein: Yeah. One bad apple spoils the bunch. A penny saved is a penny earned – something like that.

Student: Nothing good happens after midnight.

Dr. Stein: Nothing good happens after midnight. Alright.

Student: One apple a day keeps the doctors away.

Dr. Stein: An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Ok. All sorts of proverbs like that.

My mother shared a proverb in German with me. ??? What one doesn’t have in the head, one must have in his legs. I remember that every time I come to a class like this and I realize I left something in the office.  I say, if you don’t have any brains, you have to make it up in your legs that way.

The unfortunate thing about the proverbs is that when your mind is clear and you don’t need your legs, you have good legs and when your mind is going, then your legs are usually going. So it doesn’t always help that way. So – short pithy saying. General truth.

Student: ???

Dr. Stein: Sure. Sure. They are general rules for life as to wise living. And many of them have a general aspect that anybody can find access to.  If I were a pastor today I would have in my bulletin, things every week I’d have a proverb from the book of Proverbs. Probably have a catechetical question and answer or something like that. I’d do a number of things. But I think I’d regularly have a proverb in there. They are great ways of teaching people.

Having said this, what is the difference between a proverb in our Bible and a proverb in the Egyptian book of wisdom or in the other wise observations made in the world? What I would suggest is that the difference between a biblical proverb and a proverb that is not inspired is that the biblical proverb has been formed by wise people who filter their observations of life around them through the filter of Scripture and the Word of God, so that they bring with them a God-given sense of reality in the world around them and as they observe they observe the world through that God-given filter. A so they have a better understanding and thus a better proverb results.

For example, years ago when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was finally released from Russian in the gulag in which he had been a prisoner for years, he came to America and was involved in a series of lectures. And after one lecture somebody in the group said to him, “Professor Solzhenitsyn, have you ever heard the proverb ‘Better Red than dead’?”  And Alexander Solzhenitsyn looked at him and said, “That’s a terrible thing to say. We also have a proverb in Russia, ‘Better dead than a scoundrel.’”

I would suggest that the second one is filtered more through the biblical understanding of reality than the first and the writers of the proverbs in Scripture bring with them that understanding of Scripture that helps them observe nature in light of that.

Now one of the books that I have had trouble in understanding for many years was the book of Job and the reason I have problems with this book was that I know Job’s comforters are not doing something right.  But every time I read them they seem to be saying good things.

What they are saying – yeah – I mean they are quoting proverbs, who can argue against these proverbs?

Job 4:7-9, this is Eliphaz.

“7 ‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
   Or where were the upright cut off? 
8 As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
   and sow trouble reap the same. 
9 By the breath of God they perish,
   and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.”

Right on Eliphaz. You are right on. 5:15,

15 But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth,
   from the hand of the mighty. 
16 So the poor have hope,
   and injustice shuts its mouth.

Yes. He is right on Job, listen to Eliphaz here. 8:3 and following…

3 Does God pervert justice?
   Or does the Almighty* pervert the right? 
4 If your children sinned against him,
   he delivered them into the power of their transgression. 
5 If you will seek God
   and make supplication to the Almighty,* 
6 if you are pure and upright,
   surely then he will rouse himself for you
   and restore to you your rightful place. 
7 Though your beginning was small,
   your latter days will be very great.

Yeah. Alright – Bildad, you are right on. Now what is the problem in all this?

What they are doing is quoting good proverbs . . . The problem however is that – and here is where for instance I disagree with G.B. Caird.  He has kind of a lower view of proverbs and says that the book of Job is an attempt to refute this. I don’t this is a refutation of Proverbs. I think it’s a refutation of interpreting proverbs as being universal and never allowing an exception.

What the problem is, they are applying a proverb to Job and Job is saying, “Yeah. But that doesn’t fit here.” What you are saying is true and I agree with it but it doesn’t apply to me.  I am not the one that the proverb is talking negatively about in this regard and so here you have an example of proverbs that have been universalized without exception.  And all Job is saying, but that’s not true in this instance.

He is the exception. He is the person for instance who has raised his child up in the fear and admonition of the Lord and yet that child has become a prodigal.  When somebody blames him and says “Well. That’s not right. I have tried to raise him in the fear and admonition of the Lord.”  It doesn’t fit here. It just doesn’t work.

The problem of Job’s comforters is that they universalize the general truth-like nature of a proverb and that’s where their failure comes in. And for the person for instance in the church who has raised their child as best as they have known how and they have drifted away someway. Instead of clubbing them with a proverb and bringing more guilt upon them, what you say is you know the one thing that you gave to your children that they can never lose. They know where to turn. They know where home is.

And like the prodigal of old, when their world collapses, they at least know how to how to come back to their father. They know the way to the Lord that you taught them and they will never lose that.  Lets pray – why don’t we pray together? I’ll pray with you each week that God in his mercy would bring them to turn around and that they will come back and remember what they have been taught.

Try to encourage them that way by the proverb rather than using it as a club or something like that and hurt them even more.

Simple rule for Proverbs. Proverbs teach general truths.  They allow for exceptions. Remember teaching a Sunday school class and some of the people said – you know its always bothered me and it makes perfect sense. Now I understand – yeah. That makes good sense. Sure. Sure. Its is a simple rule.

When you utter a proverb, you don’t list the exceptions.  You don’t say, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it, except in the following instances of course.” That’s not the way proverbs work. They are short, pithy, general statements that are very useful. Now you can of course make a proverb in a form that it will be universal but lots of time you must allow for an exception.

Student: ??? if we universalize ???

Dr. Stein: It would still be a proverb yeah but. For instance if you say, everything that goes up comes down. Now that’s a … very few exceptions to it.

Student: The reason I ask is ???

Dr. Stein: Yeah. There is no exception to that but there is an exception that all who take the sword shall perish by the sword. Yeah. So that … as long as you allow for the possibility. Now if the exceptions of the rule - its not a proverb anymore so it’s a miscommunication, so generally yeah. That’s what happens.

Proverbs are wise observations about life it shouldn’t be surprising to any of us that there would be proverbs in other religious groups in other parts of the world that are very close to what - what we have as well. But I would say that all the proverbs that we have, I would except as being wisdom from godly people who are led by the spirit to record it.  I wouldn’t say that about all the wisdom in the other groups.  Sometimes though – they can observe that. Sure.

There is a general understanding of life that Proverbs deals with. Wise people can look back and make wise observations.

Student: ???

Dr. Stein: Yeah. I think you could say that. What Job’s friend is saying is a very good proverb. It is a general truth.  The danger of course is that it may not have fit Job in this instance.