Wisdom for Reading the Proverbs

The Wisdom literature is among the most neglected of all genres in Scripture. This is, no doubt, partly on account of the fact that there are an abundance of difficulties when we approach the reading and study of Proverbs--our historical distance from them, the apparent similarity with writings of other wisdom literature from the Ancient Near East, the apparent lack of Gospel focus and the fact that, at times, the Proverbs seem to over promise. Yet as we read them we find that we begin to discover life, wisdom and the fear of the Lord. Facing the difficulties of reading the Proverbs--while knowing that they are necessary for our spiritual growth in grace--here are seven tips on how to get the most out of reading Proverbs.

  1. Remember the authors and audience of Proverbs. Context always ought to be your starting point. Large portions of Proverbs were written by Solomon and addressed to his son(s). That puts Proverbs, first and foremost, in the sphere of the history and theology of the kings of Israel and, specifically, that of the Davidic covenant. When you are reading Proverbs (and many of the Psalms) you are reading the wisdom of the Kings’ Charter (read Deuteronomy 17:14ff). How should a king be good and righteous king? By knowing and living the Proverbs! Clearly these leadership and life principles apply to everyone in authority – Proverbs speak especially now to pastors, elders, deacons and heads of households, as well as those they instruct.
  2. Proverbs should be read and applied through three lenses: the immediate context, the Christological fulfillment and its application to us. If the Proverbs provide wisdom for the Davidic kings, that concept is fulfilled most fully in the life of Christ (see Luke 2:40; 51-52). Jesus, from his childhood into his earthly ministry, epitomizes the Proverbial life. He is redemptive wisdom to us as well (see Colossians 2:3; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31). Naturally, if the Christian is united to Christ by faith then Christological wisdom becomes a reality for the Christian too--both redemptively and practically in the way that we live. We ought to ask ourselves, how does Proverbs speak to the Kings of Israel, how does it speak to the Great King of Israel and how does it speak to the King’s people?
  3. Proverbs presents redemptive grace to us. Proverbs shows us the fear of the Lord (1:7), enduring wealth and righteousness (8:18), the fountain of life (16:22). That is to say, we ought to expect to find all elements of covenant life under a gracious God in the Proverbs. If God is wisdom (and He is!) then Proverbial wisdom comes straight from God, to His people, that they may have life and live well before him.
  4. Proverbs also presents common grace to us (that we ought not confuse with redemptive grace). It is possible to misread some Proverbs as if they provided us with cast-iron guarantees of success in one area of life or another. Common grace Proverbs include Prov. 26:17, “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own, is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears”. You do not need to have saving grace to know the common sense truth of “don’t get involved in fights that are not your own.” In like manner, we find other more difficult proverbs like Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This Proverb has been used by some to suggest that if you raise your children faithfully, they will be saved. The text surely points to that reality, but does it guarantee it? I would say no more than if an unbeliever raises his children to value money. Will the child himself grow up to value money? He probably will--though there is no absolute guarantee of it. Common grace Proverbs point us to general principles, not absolute guarantees.
  5. Pay careful attention to repeated themes. Proverbs presents, on the one hand, the way of wisdom, life, instruction and understanding as the way which seems right to man. In this respect, the Proverbs are fairly black and white. In like manner, the Proverbs portray different kinds of people who take these different ways. The simple and youthful (ignorant) and the wise and the foolish (Prov 1:1-7) are all portrayed in vivid imagery. As is the adulterer and the adulteress. Proverbs reserves special warning and condemnation for the adulterer. These recurrant themes are purposefully repeated: we are hard of hearing at times, and repetition is designed to make us hear.
  6. Proverbs is fundamentally patriarchal. The Proverbs are patriarchal in that they present us with a father teaching his children (1:8; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; 6:1; 7:1 for example). We ought not to shy away from this observation because of abuses in patriarchal movements. If more fathers taught more sons the ways of the Lord, the church would be a much more healthy and vibrant place for our children. The Proverbs present us all as being children receiving instruction from our heavenly Father and thus obligating us to do likewise with our children.
  7. Proverbs is also matriarchal. There is no room in the Proverbs to relegate the role of the mother/wife to the sphere of the kitchen and/or bedroom. Proverbs 1:8 tells us, “Hear my son your father’s instruction and forsake not your mother’s instruction.” Additionally, you have the mother of the king instructing him at the end of the book (Proverbs 3:1-9), followed by the praise of such a godly and strong woman. Proverbs presents the mother as co-teacher, co-instructor in the home--which, in itself is a practical application of the rationale behind the fifth commandment: “honor your father and your mother”.

Proverbs is, at one level, a simple book to understand, and, at another level, a book that equires a great deal of spiritual discernment and wisdom. To get wisdom, we must read wisdom and we must pray for wisdom. As James tell us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). 

Matthew Holst