Principles or Promises?
How do you read the book of Proverbs? Or do you read it at all? I hope you do; this book is overflowing with God's wisdom which we need in so many different areas of life. With the overarching theme of wisdom versus folly, there is truth to be found about: parenting, heeding parents' wisdom, pride, humility, the tongue (our speech), deceit, truth, temper, patience, quarrels, sex, lust, diligence, laziness, generosity to the poor, justice, prosperity of the righteous, doom of the wicked, and more. And it is neatly divided up into 31 chapters which mirrors the # of days in many of our months which makes for a nice Bible reading plan.
But as you read the Proverbs and encourage or challenge others with them, hear this caution. Proverbs should be read as principles to be wisely applied in various situations of life. They should not be read as promises that are always true, regardless of the circumstances. Gasp! Am I undermining the truth and authority of Scripture by saying that? Not at all. (And I'm certainly not the first person to say it. See below.) Notice several truths that lead us to this conclusion.
The Proverbs themselves warn against the danger of misusing them. 26:7,9 "Like a lame man's legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools...Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools." Proverbs can be misused and cause hurt!
Also, to interpret the Proverbs straightforwardly, we have to see that they are situation dependent. For example:
Prov. 26:4 "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself."
Prov. 26:5 "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."
So which is it? Some English translations try to soften this blatant "contradiction," but you can't get around it. Do we answer a fool according to his folly, or do we not? Well, it must depend on the situation because both of these cannot be universally true in every circumstance at the same time. We have to exercise wisdom in knowing when to apply each truth.
Or consider Prov. 17:15 "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD." If this is universally true in every situation, then God himself does that which is detestable in his own eyes. At the cross, he condemned the righteous Jesus and every sinner saved is a wicked person justified by God himself. Now in our courts, it is detestable when the wicked get off and the righteous are condemned. But in God's court it is a thing of beauty.
Why bring this up? Misused Proverbs can be dangerous and hurtful. You know what Job is? It is an example of misapplied proverbs run amok. "Hey Job, the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. (Prov. 12:21 "No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.") Since you're suffering you must be wicked." True principles, but horribly misapplied in the wrong circumstances. Treating Proverbs like absolute truth instead of principles can crush a person like Job or create undue guilt or despair. Don't misapply the Proverbs! They are not absolutely true in every circumstance. And that doesn't undermine God's Word, it helps us rightly apply it.
As Tremper Longman says, "In a word, proverbs are principles that are generally true, not immutable laws...Proverbs are situation-sensitive. We must not apply them mechanically or absolutely. Experience, observation, instruction, learning from mistakes and, most importantly, revelation--all these lay the groundwork for reading the text, reading people, and reading the situation." (How to Read Proverbs, p. 56-57.) He more fully explains this understanding of the Proverbs, including showing how Job's friends misapply truth to Job. I'm indebted to Longman for the thoughts in this post.
So read the Proverbs! Challenge and encourage others with them. But remember they are principles, not absolute promises for every situation.
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When I quote Scripture In this blog, unless otherwise indicated, the quotations are usually from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission.
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