The Problem of Proverbs

Some years ago, while in seminary, I seemed to be going through a “dry patch”, where devotional Bible reading was tough.  The Scriptures were real, and true, and I was learning truth, but somehow I was struggling.  I ended up talking to my pastor, and he asked, “What are you reading?”  My answer was that I was reading and studying in Proverbs, and he said, “Proverbs is tough.  I suggest you go to Psalms to get you out of the dry patch.”  I never went back to a thorough exegetical study of Proverbs.

Occasionally, I’ll preach a sermon on a particular topic, but most of my preaching is verse by verse exposition/explanation/application of the text.  I have never heard anyone preach through Proverbs verse by verse, and I’ve never tried.  Some parts of Proverbs may lend themselves well to that (for instance, the warning against drunkenness in 23:29-35, or some of the sections warning against adultery early in the book, or the personification of wisdom in chapter 8).  Much of the book doesn’t make sense to approach in that fashion — and I don’t think God wants us to treat it that way.

For years, I read Proverbs just as part of my regular Bible reading.  Twice a year, as I was reading through the Bible, I would come to Proverbs, and would read through it, a chapter a day, and then go on.  The passage that changed my outlook on Proverbs, interestingly enough, was John 13:34-35:  “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”  I became convinced that the way God wanted to convince a skeptical world around us of the genuine nature of our faith was not by my eloquence in the pulpit, or by the cleverness or attractiveness of our literature, or even by how hard we worked in the ministry, but by our love for one another.

So we started praying that the Lord would give us a love for one another.  And as I began to pray and think about that, I came around to Proverbs in my reading, and it struck me, “A lot of this is telling us what love looks like in a practical way.”  And a few years ago, as a result, I started reading Proverbs through almost every month, a chapter a day.   It doesn’t really take that long to read a chapter in Proverbs, after all.

But I still haven’t really preached Proverbs.  Bruce Waltke, in the preface of his excellent commentary on Proverbs, says, “The church has practically discarded the book of Proverbs….”  He goes on to say that of its 930 sayings, many Christians only know three: “to fear the Lord (1:7), to trust Him (3:5-6), and to ‘train their children in the way they should go’ (22:6) — and possibly something about the virtuous wife (31:10-31).”

The reason we don’t know Proverbs is primarily because it isn’t taught.  Everyone knows Isaiah 53:6, John 3:16, Romans 8:28, Romans 12:1, and I John 1:9, because everyone preaches on them (even me :)).  But preaching on Proverbs is awkward.  Waltke again:

For the logical mind the book seems to be a hodgepodge collection, having no rhyme or reason in its grouping of sayings.  They jump from one topic to another like scatterbrains in a living-room conversation.  How does one preach and teach such a mishmash?

How do you preach verse by verse when the verses are jumping all over the place?  Of course, you could do a study on diligence, for instance, and group all the verses in Proverbs on that topic together — but if that is the way God wanted us to read and learn the Proverbs, why didn’t HE group them together?  But the problems go beyond that.  Waltke again:

For the translator, Proverbs defies translation.  A proverb depends on sound and sense.  “A stitch in time saves nine” works because of its alliteration as will as its uncommonly obvious good sense.  But the sounds and puns of the Biblical proverbs cannot be caught in translation, and so, unlike an English proverb, they are not usually memorable.

So, because we don’t know Hebrew, we don’t get part of the original proverb, the clever wording that seizes the mind.  The Authorised Version translators helped with this by creating a literary masterpiece, while many modern translations are rather colourless in their literary style.  This is particularly important in Proverbs.  Why?  Let’s talk about Waltke’s “stitch in time” illustration.

Exegetically (its meaning), that English-language proverb is very clear.  If you stitch up a torn garment when the tear is small, it’s going to prevent a lot more stitches later.  But is that really what it means?  The meaning goes far beyond that.

If you repair the garment early, you save not just stitches, but the cost of the thread, time spent, and the appearance of the garment.  Not only that, this means that it is a good idea to check your garments every once in a while for small tears, right?  So this has much broader application than what it actually says.  And we haven’t even begun to talk about that fencepost which, if not repaired, puts extra stress on the entire fence, or that time you hurt your friend and it is going to tear your relationship apart if you don’t mend it.  Or the fact that we should check our relationships for small problems before they become big.  Or the fact that it’s a good idea to check the oil in your car and top it up even if it is just a little bit low.  Or the fact that small sins usually lead to bigger sins.

Now, how do we come up with all those applications?  We come up with them by thinking about the proverb, turning it over in our mind, meditating on it — and it isn’t even a Biblical proverb.  That’s what we need to do with Biblical proverbs, and the more memorable the wording, the easier it is for us to remember it and apply it at different times.  We’re supposed to keep thinking about those lions in the streets, and those oxen, and diligent ants, and that training of our children, and what it means to commit our works to the Lord (16:3), etc.

For this reason, a typical 30 minute sermon structure (45 if you are more long-winded :)) does not lend itself well to teaching/preaching much of Proverbs.  Most of the sayings in the book do not need a lot of exegesis (explanation of what the saying means).  It is obvious what they mean — but they are intended to also stimulate our thinking far beyond what they mean to all the things they really mean.  The teaching of Proverbs, unlike much of Scripture, needs to be much more heavily applicational (how do I apply this?) than exegetical (what do these words mean?).  They are intended to have applications that, while anchored in the meaning of the words, extend far, far beyond those words.

If we are going to teach the Biblical Proverbs, we need to move outside our rigid structures, with most of our teaching in a 30-45 minute slot where the pastor speaks and everyone else listens.  If you teach the Proverbs that way, you’ll end up wanting to cover five or more in a single sermon, because even I can’t ramble on for half an hour about most of them.  If I preached on five proverbs, however, people wouldn’t focus in and give any of them the kind of consideration and meditation which is needed.

Perhaps because I’m visually oriented, I like written teaching on Proverbs.  It gives me time to really give consideration to what to say and how to say it.  And it gives the reader time to stop and think about what this collection of 15-20 words means in his/her life.

So, when I started blogging, it seemed an obvious fit.  Blog the Proverbs!  They really are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16).  We shouldn’t just neglect teaching them because they don’t very well fit our idea of what preaching/teaching should be.  The Internet has a lot of drawbacks, but in many respects, this format seems ideal for conveying and applying the truths of Proverbs.

I hope you find my posts on the Proverbs helpful, challenging, encouraging, and thought-provoking.  I hope you won’t stop with the applications and thoughts I provide, but that you will turn your mind to these wonderful sayings God has given us, and let the Holy Spirit teach you through His Word.  And if the Lord lays on your heart applications of a proverb beyond what I’ve written, I hope that you will add that to the comments, so that others can profit by it as well.

Posts on Proverbs — links to all my Proverbs posts

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in A Proverb for Today and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Problem of Proverbs

  1. Diane says:

    I have enjoyed the Proverbs posts. I confess, I personally prefer to take Proverbs one or two verses at a time. My mind has a problem switching gears so often…I feel like I’m coming down with a bad case of ADD.

    On a little different note, a book on Christian parenting that I am reading encourages readers to look for Christ in the Proverbs. I have heard it said that He is the wisdom, personified; but this author goes on to say He is the wise son. Do you think this is accurate? We’ve had some discussion on it in my book discussion group on Facebook. Interested in any input…

  2. Jon Gleason says:

    Hi, Diane. I don’t know what this Facebook thing is you youngsters are always talking about. 🙂

    That’s a good enough question to devote an entire post to it, so Lord willing, I’ll do that tomorrow.

  3. Pingback: Preaching Proverbs 1: Epilogues and Exhaustion? | Biblical Preaching

  4. Pingback: Top Online Resources on Christ in Proverbs | HeadHeartHand Blog

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