PROVERBS – What is a Proverb?

PROVERBS – What is a Proverb? September 14, 2006
In our introduction to the book of Proverbs at Jubilee the preacher mentioned the fact that proverbs are not promises, they are principles. I have been thinking a lot about that since. My new friend, Dan Phillips, has some great posts about proverbs that, among other things, help to unpack that. I am sure he won’t mind if I extract some quotes and interact with them here. The first post is where we find the reason why proverbs are not general cast-iron promises.

Dan reminds us of some definitions to begin with:

“A simile is the comparison of A to B, and a metaphor says that A is B. Virkler describes the former as an expressed comparison and the latter as an unexpressed comparison (p. 158)

Proverbs 15:19
gives one example of each:

The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns [simile], but the path of the upright is a level highway [metaphor].

That’s hardly original. But then Virkler observes that a simile, if extended, becomes a parable; and a metaphor, if extended, becomes an allegory. I’d never thought of it that way, and it’s worth a thought.

Then Virkler goes on to observe that if the parable or the allegory is compressed, it becomes — you guessed it — a proverb . . .

This compression factor highlights both the genius and the peril of the proverb.

Genius, in that it simply won’t do to read the book of Proverbs in a hurry. It isn’t fast-food. Proverbs are meant to be chewed over, savored, relished slowly and thoroughly. We have to see through its brief statement, and unpack the larger story — the parable or the allegory — that lies behind it in the writer’s thinking . . .

But this compression factor is perilous to the interpreter, too. If we try to force the compressed form to say everything, we miss its point. It isn’t always supposed to be a guarantee or an exhaustive statement on any given subject. Rather, it is a pithy pointer, usually designed to drive one truth into the mind. Ryken says it well: “The aim of a proverb is to make an insight permanent” (Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, Zondervan: 1984, p. 122).

An insight; not all insight

This is nothing less than brilliant. It expresses perfectly what I have instinctively known, but probably not known how to clearly express before — the fact that proverbs are not always true in my experience does not mean that they are somehow flawed.

This is why, for example, we are foolish to take a proverb like 18:21 which says — “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” — remove the second clause, and turn it into a magical statement that means we must be careful about what we say or we may curse ourselves to death.

I remember a man who, when I asked what the doctor at the hospital had said about his sick son said, “Well, I will not use my tongue to name what the doctor said was wrong with him.” This is not what this proverb means at all!!

It is well worth reading the rest of Dan’s series. In the second one he gives a fantastic illustration of how you can start with a story or two — even a true story — that seems to make a point and then condense it down into a pithy proverb that almost sounds like it belongs in the Bible (no cessationist cracks about the canon being reopened for Dan at this point, OK?!)

In his

final post of the series, Dan uses his own proverb to explain some principles we can use when interpreting proverbs. He has a number of steps we can use.


I knew I couldn’t talk about Dan for a whole post without mentioning the issue of modern impressions. Amazingly, right in the context of this post on proverbs, he argues my case for me. Thanks Dan, I couldn’t have said this better myself! After explaining that, of course, we cannot ask Solomon what he meant by a proverb, he goes on as follows:

However, behind Solomon is the Spirit of God, who does still live. It would insult the truth of the sufficiency of Scripture to ask for further direct revelation, but it honors that same sufficiency to ask God to open our understanding. It is as we think hard and analytically about Scripture that the Lord gives us understanding (

2 Timothy 2:7). We won’t ask for new law, but we will pray that God opens our eyes to behold wonders out of the revelation already given.

What Dan is telling us to ask for is essentially what I call a prophecy or a revelation with a small “r,” or perhaps more acceptably to Dan, an “illumination”. Anyway, back on track . . . His second step is as follows


I love the way Dan says the following here:

“A proverb communicates a truth. It does not characteristically communicate all truth. It is a sage insight; it isn’t a legal contract.”

We cannot interpret proverbs the same way we would a letter, or the books of the Law! Dan explains that proverbs often simply compare to things with the aim of making it clear that one of them is better than the other. This does not always mean that the better one is best or even at all times better! Some proverbs seem to contradict each other — if we understand the purpose of proverbs, this should not surprise us!


Allowing the rest of the book to effect our interpretation of individual proverbs protects us from obvious errors!


For those of us who believe the Bible to be God’s Word in its entirety, it is not wrong for us to interpret Proverbs against the backdrop of what the rest of the Bible says — a proverb cannot be intended to contradict the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere!


When we synthesise our efforts, we should find (since we believe in the clarity of Scripture) that the meanin
g pops out at us and hits us between the eyes the way only a proverb can!

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