This past Sunday I finished preaching a three-month series in the book of Proverbs. Solomon collects wise statements to share with his son so he will choose the path of wisdom that leads to life instead of the path of folly that leads to death. The book of Proverbs has been a great help to me and I read one chapter from it every day, but preaching from it can be perplexing. This can be especially true for the pastor who usually preaches expositions through books of the Bible. How to preach chapters 10-31, how to deal with texts that seem to teach the prosperity Gospel, and how to point to Jesus are all practical considerations that can trip up pastors.
From my preaching through Proverbs and reading to prepare for it, here are six practical tips I would offer to the pastor who seeks to preach through Proverbs.
Preach Chapters 1-9 with Normal Expositions
Solomon composed the first nine chapters of Proverbs differently than he did the last two-thirds of the book. Proverbs 1-9 is a series of teachings designed to call his son to the wise life. His son won’t listen to the wisdom contained in the rest of the book if he does not make this fundamental choice.
This section divides into paragraphs with an obvious main theme and connecting words to help you trace the argument. In many ways, you can preach through these nine chapters in the same way you would any other book of the Bible. The one caution I would offer is that if you take too long on the first nine chapters, you will end up sounding repetitive. Take four or five weeks and hit the high points of Solomon’s appeal. Then you can come back into passages like 5:15-23 and 6:6-11 as you tackle subjects from the rest of the book.
Preach Chapters 10-31 Topically
There is structure to many of the sections in Proverbs 10-31, but they don’t lend themselves towards what we would ordinarily associate with expositional preaching. Instead, the best practice in chapters 10-31 is to preach topics that run across these chapters. You can cover the wisdom Solomon prescribes for our marriages, parenting, money, work, integrity, conflict, anger, words, friendships, courage, and more.
There are resources like Practicing Proverbs and Derek Kidner’s commentary on Proverbs contain lists of Proverbs on various subjects. I personally recommend reading all the way through the book and categorizing individual verses as you read. This takes longer, but it helps you get a feel for how often a subject comes up and the contexts in which it is mentioned. Then, take all of the Proverbs on one subject and break them down into subtopics that can become the outline of a sermon. Use one main text in the sermon and bring in the other Proverbs to show the multifaceted way Solomon covers a topic.
Preach to the Heart
Proverbs 4:23 saves us from a great temptation we face when preaching through Proverbs. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” If we are not careful, we can preach Proverbs as if it is merely great advice for the people who will take the time to listen to it. This verse won’t let us go there. Our hearts drive our desires and our actions. We are not blank slates who look at two choices and carefully choose which direction to take after dispassionate study. Because our hearts love sin naturally but have been made new in through the work of the Holy Spirit, we will approach decisions with a variety of motives.
When you preach through Proverbs you must aim your preaching at the hearts of your hearers. Yes, they need to stop losing their temper, but probe deeper and talk about what causes them to react to situations with anger. Solomon shows that people must save money instead of wasting it and going into debt. Address the heart issues that cause them to treat money in the manner that they do so that you get into what and who they actually worship. When aimed at the heart, the Proverbs can be arrows that sink deeply and bring great change.
Show the Joy of Wise Living
In preaching to the heart and addressing our motives, we must show our hearers the goals of wise living. When we live wisely, we bring glory to God through our lives and experience great joy ourselves. Throughout Proverbs, Solomon tells his son that wisdom offers, “life.” We should read “life” in this context to have a similar meaning as Jesus’ saying that, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus came to bring us the new life of his Kingdom that changes who we are at the deepest level. Through this new life, we know the one true God and experience everlasting joy.
We get to experience this joy in part when we walk in wisdom because we save ourselves from the misery that comes from foolishness. In most cases, the Christian who knows how to control his temper and keep a cool head with escape the misery and guilt that comes from blowing his top. The person who keeps a secret to himself rather than revealing it does not have to deal with the consequences and broken relationships that come from a waggling tongue. Therefore, as you preach, show the misery that attends foolishness and the joy that comes from glorifying God through wise living.
Remember the Other Wisdom Books
“Train your child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” How often has this verse been a millstone around the neck of godly parents who have seen their children go astray? They often think, “I must not have trained my child in the way that he should go since he has departed from it.” The assumption is that if I meet my part in the conditional statement of the Proverb, then the attendant blessing should come automatically.
This would be true if we did not live in a broken world, but we do. The wicked often prosper and the godly often suffer. Children raised in godly homes go astray and people who are wise with their money come into financial ruin. The other wisdom books, especially the book of Job, help us make sure we preach Proverbs properly. If we read Proverbs while forgetting that we live in a world tainted by sin, we would think that Job is a man who should never suffer. He did suffer, though, and our preaching in Proverbs should remind people that they need to read the blessings attached to particular Proverbs in light of the rest of Scripture.
Preach Christ as Our Only Hope
Thankfully, thanks to books like Jonathan Akin’s Preaching Christ from Proverbs, there are resources available to help us understand how to preach the Gospel in our sermons on Proverbs. Doing this well often depends on connecting the themes in Proverbs to other themes running through the rest of Scripture or showing how Christ ultimately fulfilled what this Proverb points to.
For example, if you are preaching through the Proverbs on money, you can connect Solomon’s words with Jesus’ teaching that how we use money is a reflection of what is in our hearts. This reflects Solomon’s command to guard our hearts because the springs of life flow from them. Or, when preaching on a verse like Proverbs 19:11, “Good sense makes one slow to anger and it is his glory to overlook an offense,” you can show that we overlook offenses because Christ has borne all of our offenses. Because Jesus died in our place, God no longer holds our sin against us. This frees us to forgive others because we have experienced forgiveness ourselves.
Preaching through Proverbs often requires more thought and planning than preaching through New Testament letters. The work it takes to preach expository sermons from Proverbs is worth it, because through them God’s people look to Christ, look to their own hearts, and begin to experience the joy that comes from wise living.
“Should I Correct a Foolish Person or Stay Silent?“
For Further Reading:
Preaching Christ In All of Scripture by Edmund Clowney
Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy
Preaching Christ from the Old Testament by Sidney Greidanus