The Problem With Proverbs

For the longest time I didn’t like the Book of Proverbs. I wouldn’t read it, wouldn’t refer to it, didn’t even like to talk about it. I felt like the book had let me down somehow.

I now know it’s because I didn’t know how to read Proverbs.

There are three different types of literature that must be differentiated: Laws; Promises; Proverbs.

For example, Deuteronomy 6:5 says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” That’s a command. It’s something we are to do all the time, and there are no exceptions.

Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s a promise. There’s nothing in there that we’re supposed to do. It’s God’s promise to us, and — again — there are no exceptions.

But Proverbs 10:4 says, “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.” Not really a command. Not really a promise. There are exceptions to this rule. Lazy people sometimes win the lottery. Hardworking people sometimes mismanage their money.

Here’s another one that’s sometimes hard to grasp: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). That sounds like a promise, but it’s not. Even in the Old Testament there are examples of really good parents who have really lousy kids. If you read this verse like it’s a promise (which is how I used to read the Proverbs), you may be setting yourself up for frustration, confusion and anger if your children decide to depart from the path they were raised to walk.

Proverbs are generally just the way things work. But there are exceptions. I used to read the Proverbs as if they were iron-clad promises from God that this is how things will be. Work hard, and you’ll get rich. Pursue God’s wisdom, and people will love you. Put the quarter in, and the candy bar comes out.

I didn’t have to live very long before I realized that life doesn’t work that way. With my lack of wisdom at the time I assumed the problem must be with the book of Proverbs. I now realize that the problem was with the way I was reading it.

8 Responses to “The Problem With Proverbs”

  1. Baron Says:

    What is the difference between “idle hands make a person poor” being an observation versus an equation?

    Perhaps I didn’t read your post correctly, but they seem the same to me…

  2. john alan turner Says:

    Baron,
    I just saying that there are exceptions to that rule. Paris Hilton, for example, doesn’t appear to have a real strong work ethic. And yet it hasn’t made her poor.

    If we read that statement as an iron-clad, sure-fire, no-exceptions-to-the-rule guarantee, we’ll set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration.

    Proverbs aren’t meant to be read that way. They’re descriptions of the way things usually work.

  3. Baron Says:

    I see what you are saying, but relative to her situation, I think she could be much richer than she is with some hard work. Yeah, she has millions, but others have billions.

    Donald Trump once said he would rather be dead than be a millionaire. That is because he is conditioned as a billionaire. Millionaires are poor to him.

    Therefore, being relatively poor to where she could be with a bit of hard work, the Proverbs passage seems to hold true…

    Did that make sense? I have been known to only make sense to myself.

  4. Kerry Says:

    Good post. Proverbs is a book of probabilty, not promises. So true. Look at Jesus. He is the wisest, most righteous guy around, and he was abandoned, hated, and put to death.

  5. Marc Says:

    John,
    Are you sure proverbs 10:4 is talking about monetary wealth and not spiritual wealth. Use your Paris Hilton case study. She no doubt has idle hands and monetary wealth, but seems to be lacking in spiritual wealth.

    Also, the old testament has many examples of great men and women, but there seems to be little evidence that many of them would be classified as great parents. I don’t think that the Bible demonstrates that Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, David or Solomon were great fathers.

  6. john alan turner Says:

    Marc,
    There is no way that verse is talking about “spiritual wealth.” The original readers wouldn’t have even known what that is. I’m not sure I know what that means. Every mention of “wealth” in the Bible –at least as far as I can think of — it’s talking about money.

    As for examples of parenting in the OT — I think of a couple. I think of Samson’s parents who set him apart from birth and raised him to follow God. They even begged him not to marry a woman who did not follow God. But he persisted — in spite of his upbringing.

    I also think of David and Solomon. Granted, David was a disaster of a father, but by the time Solomon came along David was a very different man than the one who raised Absalom. According to Proverbs 4, David did his best to instill a love of wisdom in Solomon. And Solomon began so well, but he did depart from it when he was older.

  7. marc Says:

    John,
    I just re-read Judges 13 – 15 and was struck by how Samson’s parents obeyed the angel of the Lord and set him aside, but allowed Samson to have his way regarding marrying the Philistine woman, even though it was from God, almost like a spoiled child having their way with a parent.

    Also, out of all of the great heroes in the Bible, we find few, if any, examples of them being good parents. They either were children of bad parents who continued the line of bad parenting or were from ordinary people, like Samson’s or Samuel’s parents, whoe did not learn from the good examples set by their mothers and fathers.

  8. Matt Elliott Says:

    So let me make sure I understand what you’re saying:

    The candy bar *doesn’t* always come out??