How to Read Proverbs
The book of Proverbs has a different structure to most Biblical books. Other books have a flow about them that is obvious – a story with a beginning, middle or end; a letter that follows an idea through; poetry in chunks; prophecies that use a particular image to guide the theme. Proverbs is a collection of lots of short pithy sayings. There are some sections which follow a thread or group ideas into a theme, but often the ideas are presented like there’s a mike-drop at the end of every verse – truth-bombs a plenty! So we might need a different methodology to dig into the scripture than the way we enter into the stories, letters and prophecies.
Every culture has proverbs in their speech and tradition. In my Australian culture, we say: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; a stitch in time saves nine; too many cooks spoil the broth.
The book of Proverbs is different to law (Leviticus or Deuteronomy) which gives framework of what you can and can’t do.
The book of Proverbs is different to prophesy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea) which talks about the mystery of God.
The book of Proverbs is about the everyday down-to-earth instruction on how to live life. It doesn’t tell you the things you might do, it talks about what a wise person would do.
How the book of Proverbs is like other proverbs:
Being wise is the practical application of knowledge and information. It’s practical, hands-on instruction about the smart choices to make.
Egypt at the time of this book’s collating, had loads of proverb-type writings, and some of them are very similar to our Biblical ones. This book was used to instruct the boys of the noble class as they grow into positions of power. (Imagine in our day private boys schools and their year 9 life skills programs.) It was not just about knowledge, but also the skill or expertise – it was a manual for doing leadership and “adulting” like a manual for building a chair or fixing the plumbing.
How Proverbs is NOT like other proverbs:
Being wise is not just being smart or shrewd, but in the bible it must include being righteous, just and fair.
The key to wisdom is action that flows from character that is modelled on the character of God.
These elements of righteousness, justice and fairness shift the way we talk about wisdom from the morally neutral realm of skill into the realm of God’s character and actions.
Let’s look at Proverbs Chapter 3.
In Hebrew writing, often the structure of a poem will put the most important bit in the middle with ideas flowing toward it, and flowing out of it. At the core of chapter 3 is the idea that God’s wisdom created the world:
By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
by his knowledge the watery depths were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew. (Proverbs 3:19-20)
In Proverbs, the assumption is that all of creation has a grain, a direction of God’s wisdom. Wisdom for us is not to go against the grain of the way the world has been created. There are no guarantees in the book – it doesn’t say that this will happen every time! It says that, when we are going along with the grain of God’s wise, created order, then we have a much better chance of living well and peacefully.
Look for God
When you read the passages in Proverbs, read multiple times and look for different things each time. Let it prompt your prayer as you go. It helps to read with a pen (or three) – get your Bible messy! (Or print out the passage.) Let’s do the first reading, underlining the character of a person who is wise.
Which aspects of God’s character stand out? Praise God for that. Is there any that stand out as something you have lacked in the recent days? Confess it.
Compare and contrast
The next reading might be to see what is considered normal, and anything that you can contrast with the advice you would get. Get out another colour pen and highlight the counter-cultural things that contrast with this regular advice of the world:
Don't put all your eggs in one basket
Keep something for yourself before you give to others
Trust in what you can see, not some noble ideal
Don't let anyone take you for a ride
When someone hits you, hit back hard
Always have a second option up your sleeve
If you can get away with it, good luck to you!
Everything new is progress - the old are stupid
Every man for himself
The big invitation
All through, the passage invites us to TRUST.
Trust in God - not our own wisdom, not thinking we know what to do.
Trust in others - building that up through generosity, follow-through.
Trust means dependence. In those days people would hand a talisman around their neck – people still do this. It’s good luck that never leaves you. Instead of a charm, this passage says that we should be wearing steadfast loving-kindness (or loyalty) and faithfulness and depending on it like some people depend on it like a good luck charm. Our behaviours will be showing trust.
The most famous verse in this passage is Proverbs 3:5,6:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways experience God’s presence, and he will make your paths straight.
Some translations have “acknowledge him” or “submit to him”, but it’s more than a mental assent or obedience. It’s personal knowledge, intimate experience of God. It’s not just that you need to know what step to take, but you need to know that character of God in this.
When you know God well, you trust him. The more you have experienced God come through for you in the past, the easier it is to trust him for the future. It’s worth stopping and praying, asking God how you are being called to trust.
Look for consequences
Read through the passage AGAIN and underline the benefits of wisdom.
Verse 7 says “do not be wise in your own eyes – fear the lord and shun evil”. There are lots of things we think we can do to get what we want, but wisdom provides much deeper riches than that. Scholar, John Goldingay reflected:
“Money can put food on the table, but not the fellowship around it;
can buy a house, but not a home;
can give a woman jewellery, but not the love she really wants.
Wisdom bestows both material and spiritual benefits.”
Beware of being wise in your own eyes! The phrase refers to people who have acquired a little wisdom, and know it, and think they have arrived. There’s at least the possibility that a fool may “come to his senses,” as we say, and seek wisdom, but someone who thinks that they have already found it may have less chance to do so.
If you think you have knowledge, be prepared to dig for a bit more until you get the good stuff that wisdom brings.
Pray through these benefits, thanking God for every time that you have received them. Examine your life and ask God for the benefit that sticks out to you from this passage. Ask God for the wisdom to know how to live in such a way that brings these things.
Use this process of reading, highlighting and praying through Proverbs.
All of the wisdom is not trivia to store up, but practical, lived out knowledge and character that will affect you every day. May you live in the wisdom of God, with loving-kindness and loyalty around you neck, and the paths before you smooth and straight.