Understanding and Applying Proverbs

This post is an adapted excerpt from Concordia Commentary: Proverbs by Andrew E. Steinmann

Those who read Proverbs today, like all modern readers of Scripture, are separated by a great distance in time and place from the original writers and audience. The challenge of applying the proverbs to contemporary life can be daunting when they refer to long past customs and situations that no longer exist (e.g., arbitration in the city gate). However, the timeless advice of the Book of Proverbs has spoken to every generation since the proverbs it contains were first written. In order to take advantage of the wisdom offered by this book, we need to explore a number of principles that apply to the unique challenges of interpreting this Wisdom book.

Not Restricted to Surface Meaning

As with all proverbs, the surface meaning is not necessarily an indication of the scope of its proper application. For instance, consider the adage “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” On the surface this maxim is about animal husbandry, but its meaning goes well beyond chickens and eggs. The advice it offers about the dangers of overconfidence applies to all areas of life. In the same way, the sayings in the Book of Proverbs are not necessarily to be restricted to their surface meaning. Take, for instance, this very similar pair of proverbs:

Do not move an ancient boundary marker
that your ancestors made. (22:28)

Do not move an ancient boundary marker,
and do not enter the fields of orphans,
because their redeemer is strong.
He will defend their cause against you. (23:10–11)

All that is needed to understand the surface meaning of the first proverb is the information that in ancient times boundary markers guarded property rights for subsequent generations; modern surveying techniques had not yet been invented. This proverb prohibits land fraud and is set in the midst of several proverbs dealing with economic fraud.

On the surface the second proverb seems to be the same. However, its setting is quite different. The proverbs in its immediate vicinity are not economic proverbs, and this proverb specifically mentions orphans, a generally poor and disenfranchised class of people in the ancient Near East. This proverb may go beyond the surface meaning to a metaphorical sense. Moving a boundary marker may represent changing laws and customs to the disadvantage of the defenseless, and entering a field of orphans may be a metaphor for using one’s might to intimidate them. Thus context and subtle differences in similar proverbs can be clues as to their application, not only in ancient times but also today.

Connected by a Catchword

The larger context can be difficult to use for interpreting many of the sayings in Proverbs because they seem to be a nearly random collection of isolated maxims, especially when read in translation. Yet context is not completely lacking in Proverbs, even in the collections of short sayings that begin in 10:1. Some proverbs are collected together by theme. Others are connected by a catchword—a word, verbal root, or phrase they share in common with the context, though often used in differing senses. Still others may be connected because of similar sounding words. Knowing the reason why two proverbs are next to one another can be a great aid in interpreting them. While one cannot in every case determine the reason behind the organization of the sayings in Proverbs, in many instances it can be determined with a high degree of certainty. 

Moral and Ethical Decision-Making

Many Christians have turned to Proverbs for answers to questions that their lives have posed to them. They want to know the correct way to live and the correct moral and ethical decisions to make. However, the sayings in this book seldom give direct answers to life’s questions. Instead, they require contemplation and growth in wisdom so that one can learn to apply them properly. God grants the power to acquire wisdom and to learn to apply these sayings properly. Therefore, one needs not only the proverbs themselves but also the insight that allows one to know the situation to which each proverb applies. For instance, 23:4–5 advises:

Do not wear yourself out getting rich.
Have the insight [to know when] to stop.
Will your eyes glimpse it before it is gone?
For it will quickly make a pair of wings for itself;
like an eagle it will fly into the sky.

The principle of this proverb is easy to understand: do not seek riches in excess of what you need and can use charitably, since worldly wealth is transitory. However, the application of this proverb is difficult. When does one reach the point where one should no longer pursue money? For the desperately poor, this point may never come in earthly life. For the fabulously wealthy, this point has long since passed. It is easy to determine how the rich and the poor should appropriate this proverb. Those persons somewhere between need the wisdom to assess their situation and know when to pursue other interests.

Seeking to Implement Advice

Another example of needing insight to evaluate one’s situation so that one can properly apply a proverb is the case of the twin proverbs in 26:4–5:

Do not answer a fool according to his stupidity.
Otherwise you too will be like him.
Answer a fool according to his stupidity.
Otherwise he will consider himself wise.

In any given situation, should you answer a fool or not? Will answering him benefit him or make you into a fool too? Only the God-given wisdom and insight that Proverbs commends can guide a person who seeks to implement this advice. The same is true of most of the proverbs. One cannot expect them to be a simple, follow-the-instructions textbook to life. Instead, they are designed to help the reader grow in wisdom and learn how to use them through a life that increases in the knowledge of the Gospel that alone brings fallen sinners to God and empowers them to live according to His will.

Post adapted from Andrew E. Steinmann, Proverbs, Concordia Commentary, copyright © 2009 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. 

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