You’ve heard people recite a proverb and know — deep inside — the proverb isn’t true for you. You may well have thought it wasn’t really true for that person either. The one that comes to mind for me most often, the one that I think has been misused more often than any other proverb, is this:
Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray (Prov 22:6).
So, if you teach kids what is right they will return to it when they are old. The comfort of many a parent with a wandering son or daughter. So many have questioned the utter truthfulness this one that some are attracted to a well-known reading — train up a child according to their bent in life or according to their age maturation — and it will turn out well. The problem is that many have done both and it’s not worked out.
Learning how to read Proverbs, paying attention to the genre of the proverb, is important, and so we turn again to Glenn Pemberton in his excellent new book, A Life That Is Good.
He discusses with modern examples of proverbs five major challenges in reading Proverbs, beginning with the tendency to absolutize the proverbs.
Challenge #1: Absolute versus Conditional Meaning
“The early bird gets the worm, but the second rat gets the cheese.”
As a rule, proverbs are not one-size-fits-all statements of absolute truth. They are observations about life from limited perspectives and specific circumstances. This is true for the genre of proverbs that are outside and inside the Bible.
“The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (10:3)
“A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (10:4)
OK, that’s clear to most readings, but the next one requires some nuance and some familiarity with the ancient world.
This is one of the most insightful statements about reading proverbs, all proverbs: they are a literary and rhetorical creation.
Challenge #2: Translation and Culture
[Proverbs in the Bible] come from a culture other than our own … they also come from a particular time in a culture’s development.
Challenge #3: Enigma
[So true…] Proverbs often convey their message in enigmatic ways to capture the hearer’s imagination. Humor or a striking image might stir reflection, or maybe a powerful truth expressed in such a memorable way that the proverb evokes internalization.
Proverbs are like jokes. Whenever we must stop to explain a joke, it is no longer funny. The moment we must explain a proverb, it loses much of its power or punch.
If the first challenge is big, this one complements it perfectly from a different angle.
Challenge #4: Descriptions or Prescriptions
The fourth challenge in reading Proverbs 10-31 is recognizing when a proverb describes an action or activity observed to be true and when a proverb prescribes an action to take. A descriptive proverb explains the way the world works, what people do and why, without passing judgment. A prescriptive proverb, however, names a situation and/or diagnoses a condition and directs a person toward a wise response.
One for each: a descriptive and a prescriptive. All are of course prescriptive when interpreted aright.
“The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends” (14:20)
“Those who are greedy for unjust gain make trouble for their households, but those who hate bribes will live” (15:27)
One is tempted to say: “But these proverbs in Proverbs are from the Bible. They are true!”
Challenge #5: The Bible Factor
Reading the Bible and identifying its different genres is far more complicated than a one-size-fits-all approach. And negotiating the genres of the Bible can be threatening to many believers who have never considered the Bible to be anything other than absolute truth. So the first brave soul to suggest that proverbs express general truths that depend on circumstances risks a church fight that will make Luther look like a conformist-a fight sure to be remembered accurately for years-unless we exercise due caution and much wisdom in helping others recognize the Bible factor. Only then, with respect and patience, do I believe it is possible to help believers not only come to a better understanding of Proverbs, but also a better understanding of the Bible as a whole. But this is only possible if we read with full recognition of the Bible factor.