At graduation, I had a chance to personally meet many of the wonderful professors at Liberty University that have impacted my life greatly over the course of these past three years. One particular professor caught my attention. He is Dr. Kevin King. King is a fascinating individual. He is a former police officer, who still looks as if he could physically pick up a house. During one of his courses, he had a classic phrase that he often used. “Stinky thinking leads to a smelly life.” When I met him, I told him what a blessing he was and how I have used that phrase many times. He jokingly said, “I can’t remember who I stole that from, but it is so true.” I agreed.
Proverbs help us avoid “stinky thinking.” The Proverbs point us in the direction of right thinking and right living. But, let’s be honest. Sometimes the Book of Proverbs is difficult to understand. Perhaps the problem with the Proverbs is that the reader often misunderstands the writing genre. In this article I hope to provide you a working definition of a proverb, in addition to 5 tips that have personally helped me to better understand the Proverbs.
The Book of Proverbs is a “marvelous collection of wise sayings and instructions for living a useful and effective life.” Thus, the Book of Proverbs is a book of wisdom. It is meant to impart wisdom to its readers to better their lives. Before we can properly understand the book, we must understand the nature of a proverb. What is a proverb anyhow?
What is a Proverb?
Proverbs are defined and characterized by “short, pithy statements; but the speculative wisdom, such as Ecclesiastes or Job, uses lengthy monologues and dialogues to probe the meaning of life, the problem of good and evil, and the relationship between God and people.” Proverbs can provide an “object lesson based on or using some comparison or analogy.” Duane Garrett notes,
“The most common form of Old Testament wisdom is the proverb. It may be defined as an ethical axiom, that is, a short, artistically constructed ethical observation or teaching. An observational proverb is a saying that describes human behavior without an explicit moral evaluation. A didactic proverb describes human behavior with a clear ethical-didactic purpose, that is, it includes an explicit moral evaluation.”
Thus, a proverb is a means of communicating wisdom through life principles through short, effective means. Or, it is a “colloquial means of getting a point across.” This makes one wonder, “how do we understand the Proverbs?” I have listed 5 tips to help the reader better understand the Book of Proverbs.
5 Tips for Understanding Proverbs
- Try to focus on general themes. While many of the proverbs appear random, they are gathered under one general focus. The proverbs are, however, scattered into different sections. For this reason, I have decided to use Max Anders’ topical format in his commentary on Proverbs in the Holman Old Testament Commentary rather than the strict, and more confusing, chapter-by-chapter format found in many other studies.
- Don’t overcomplicate the saying. The pithy nature of the proverbs is intended to bring about one generalized truth. Try to focus on the general truth presented.
- Understand that the proverbs are general rules and guidelines and do not address the exceptions. The Book of Proverbs lists general principles and truths according to the way life generally operates 95% of the time. Job, Ecclesiastes, and even some of the psalms describe life in the other 5%. Both Job and Ecclesiastes perfectly complements the generalized wisdom found in Proverbs.
- As we must always do in Scripture, we must understand the proverbs according to the culture of the time. Max Anders denotes that “There are some proverbs that cannot be understood unless we understand the culturally obsolete thing they are talking about.”
- The proverbs are general statements of truth rather than divine promises. The Book of Proverbs notes, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, ESV). Yet, we probably all know of a set of parents who brought up their children in the ways of God only to see one or more of their children stray from the path. Is the proverb wrong? No, because the proverb is not a divine promise, but rather a general statement of fact. More times than not, children who are brought up right will remember their parents wisdom and will not depart from the ways of God.
Wisdom is critical for godly living. It is critical in order to make proper decisions and to live godly, moral lives. When the reader understands some basic hermeneutical information about the operation of a proverb, then the Book of Proverbs is unlocked for the reader. Godly wisdom which has spanned several millennia is then available to the reader. One must understand that God is the source of wisdom. Through God’s word and practical understanding, God offers wisdom to the one who seeks it. Such wisdom is especially found in the marvelous Book of Proverbs.
Copyright, May 30, 2016. Brian Chilton.
Note: Excerpts from this article were taken from the author’s Bible Study on Proverbs titled: “Proverbs: Pithy Life Lessons.”
 Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger, III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, abridged ed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 938.
 Ibid., 940.
 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 29-30.
 John H. Walton, et. al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000), 561.
 Max Anders, Proverbs, Holman Old Testament Commentary, vol. 13 (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 3.
 Scripture marked ESV comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).