Introduction to ProverbsBack to Table of Contents
What is the difference between being smart and being wise? Wisdom goes beyond knowledge. It is more than a catalog of facts. It is a masterful understanding of life, a practical art of living, and an expertise in good decision-making. Proverbs challenges us to gain knowledge, to apply that knowledge to our lives, and to share the wisdom we gain with others.
Where can we turn to gain wisdom? The book asserts that wisdom goes beyond knowledge yet must begin with knowledge of the proverbs.“The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:1-2, NIV). (The NRSV translation “learning about wisdom and instruction” misses the essentially experiential nature of the Hebrew da’at and its root, yada, which the NIV “gaining wisdom and instruction” rightly captures.) To produce wisdom, knowledge must be mixed with the fear of the Lord.“Fear” (Hebrew yare) of the Lord is often used in the Old Testament as a synonym for “living in response to God.”The book of Proverbs declares that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). Knowledge without commitment to the Lord is as useless as cement without water to make mortar. Paradoxically, accepting the proverbs by faith into the heart produces the fear of the Lord. “My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you . . . then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:1, 5).
True wisdom for the Christian involves the whole revelation of God, especially as known in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It starts with insight into who the Lord is, what he has done, and what he desires for us and for the world we live in. As we grow in our understanding of the Lord, we learn how to cooperate with him as he sustains and redeems the world. This often makes us more fruitful, in ways that benefit ourselves and in ways that help others. It causes us to revere the Lord in the midst of our daily life and work. “The fear of the Lord is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm” (Prov. 19:23).
It Takes Wisdom to See the Good (Click to watch)
Bob Sakata is one of America’s biggest vegetable growers. His farm in Brighton, Colorado produces corn, onions and sugarbeets. In 1999 he was inducted into the Agriculture Hall of Fame.
In Proverbs, gaining wisdom also makes us good and vice versa. We have not truly gained wisdom until we have applied it in our lives. “The wise are cautious and turn away from evil” (Prov. 14:16). “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom” (Prov. 10:31). Proverbs anticipates Jesus’ admonition, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Wisdom comes from the Lord. “I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness,” the Lord declares (Prov. 4:11). In Proverbs, the mental and the moral come together, and wisdom reflects the truth that a good God is still in charge.
The book of Proverbs also warns those who neglect to grow in wisdom. Wisdom, personified throughout the book as a woman,speaks. “Whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:35-36). Wisdom brings greater, fuller life. Lack of wisdom diminishes life and ultimately leads to death.
The book of Proverbs further tells us that the wisdom we gain is not just for ourselves, but also to share with others, “to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young” (Prov. 1:4). Proverbs 9:9 commends us to “give instruction to the wise” and to “teach the righteous.” Proverbs 26:4-5 advises the reader about sharing wisdom with a fool. We share wisdom not only by teaching, but also by wise living, imparting wisdom to those who see us and follow our example. The opposite is also true. If we live foolishly, others may be tempted into the same foolishness, and we harm not only ourselves but them. Often, progress in our life’s work makes us increasingly visible, and the effects of our wisdom or foolishness influence more and more people. Over time this may have the most profound consequences, for “the teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, so that one may avoid the snares of death” (Prov. 13:14).
About the Book of ProverbsBack to Table of Contents
Throughout the ancient near east, rulers often commissioned sages to gather the accepted wisdom of their nation for the instruction of young people entering professions or government service in the royal court. These wise sayings, distilled from the observation of life and the realities of human experience, became the text for future generations as they reached adulthood. The book of Proverbs, however, claims King Solomon himself as its principal author (Prov. 1:1) and claims its inspiration from the Lord. “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). The book demands faith in the Lord, not in human experience.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own insight” (Prov. 3:5). “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:7). Other ancient near eastern manuals imply or assume a divine origin of the wisdom they teach, but Proverbs is emphatic in attributing wisdom solely and directly to the Lord. The central message of the book is that true wisdom is based on our relationship to God: we cannot have true wisdom apart from a living relationship with the Lord.
Thus the proverbs in this book are more than mere common sense or good advice; they teach us not only the connection between our deeds and our destiny, but also how to create a peaceful and prosperous community under the Lord, the source of true wisdom.
At the same time, these short pithy sayings we call proverbs are generalizations about life, not atomized promises. God works through them to guide our thinking, but we must be careful not to dice the collection into a grab-bag of fortune cookie inserts. No isolated proverb can be taken as expressing the whole truth; it must be nuanced by the broader context of the whole book. Only a fool would read “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, NASB) and conclude that a child is a programmed robot. The proverb teaches that parental training has its effect, but it must be nuanced by other proverbs recognizing that each person bears responsibility for his or her own conduct, such as, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures” (Prov. 30:17). Mastering the proverbs requires weaving a garment of wisdom from the whole collection. Gaining wisdom from the Book of Proverbs takes life-long study.
This is no trivial task. Some of the proverbs are in tension with each other, though not in outright opposition. Others are stated with an ambiguity that forces the reader to reflect on a number of possible interpretations. Close attention must be paid to whom the proverb is addressed. The warning, “Do not love sleep” (Prov. 20:13) is a proverb addressed to all of God’s children (see Prov. 1:4-5) but the reassurance, “Your sleep will be sweet,” (Prov. 3:24) is addressed to those who do not let wisdom and understanding out of their sight (Prov. 3:21). The Book of Proverbs is timeless, but the application of proverbs must be timely, as the Book of Job illustrates (see Job and Work at www.theologyofwork.org). The proverbs are touchstones in the slow development of virtue and they take a long time to understand. “Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Prov. 1:5-6).
The book of Proverbs contains seven collections. Collection 1 (Prov. 1:1-9:18) contains extended lectures to prepare the disciple’s heart for the pithy sayings in the collections that follow. Collection 2 (Prov. 10:1-22:16) are “proverbs of Solomon.” Collection 3 (Prov. 22:17-24:22) covers “the words of the wise,” that are probably adopted and adapted by Solomon,and collection 4 (Prov. 24:23-34) extends that with additional “sayings of the wise.” Collection 5 (Prov. 25:1-29:27) covers “other proverbs that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied,” combing through ancient records from Solomon's time. (Hezekiah reigned about 300 years after Solomon.) Collection 6 (Prov. 30:1-33) and collection 7 (Prov. 31:1-31) are attributed to Agur and Lemuel, respectively, about whom little else is known. The final result is a single work of sayings, advice, instructions and warnings, structured as a manual for young people beginning their working lives and people of all ages, challenging them to seek the wisdom of the Lord (Prov. 1:2-7).
Click here to go to a table of verses included in this article, with links to the sections in which they are discussed.
The proverbs most often are paired in contrasts: diligence vs. laziness, honesty vs. dishonesty, planning vs. hastily taken decisions, dealing justly vs. taking advantage of the vulnerable, seeking good advice vs. arrogance, etc. More proverbs in the book talk about our wise speech than any other subject, with the second largest number covering work and its correlate, money. Though the book divides into the seven collections referenced above, the proverbs within these collections circle back over the same topics repeatedly. For that reason, this article will discuss work-related teachings by topic rather than by moving through each collection in the order in which it appears in the book. A table of verses, with links to the places they are discussed in the article, may be found at the end of the article. This is intended to aid readers in locating where in the article a particular verse or passage is discussed, not to encourage readers to read individual verses in isolation.
A practice that many workplace Christians find helpful is to read one chapter per day, corresponding to the day of the month. (Proverbs has 31 chapters.) Many topics in Proverbs are covered by multiple proverbs, spread across the book, meaning each will be encountered on several different days each month. Repeated encounters are an aid to learning. Moreover, our receptivity to topics changes according to what’s happening in our lives. As our circumstances change over the course of the month, a topic that didn’t catch our attention on one day may become meaningful on another. Over time, we are able to draw more wisdom than if we encountered each topic only once. For example, on the 14th of a given month, you would read chapter 14, but might not notice the topic of oppression of the poor in verse 31. (“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker.”) But perhaps later in the month you will notice a street person, or see a news story about poverty, or run short of money yourself. You might then be primed to pay attention to the topic when it is raised again on the 17th (“Those who mock the poor insult their Maker,” Prov. 17:5) or the 21st (“If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard,” Prov. 21:13) or the 22nd (“Do not rob the poor because they are poor,” Prov. 22:22) or the 28th (“One who augments wealth by exorbitant interest gathers it for another who is kind to the poor,” Prov. 28:8). Moreover, the topic is framed a bit differently each time, giving an opportunity to gain deeper perspectives with each repetition.
What Do the Proverbs Have to Do With Work?Back to Table of Contents
Awe of God Informs the Heart (Click to watch)
Ken Duncan lives in awe of God. You can see it on his face and in his work. Mr. Duncan is one of the world’s most important photographers and here he tells how God directed him to his passion.
The central concern of the book is the call to live life in awe of God. This call opens the book (Prov. 1:7), pervades it (Prov. 9:10), and brings it to a close (Prov. 31:30). The proverbs tell us that good work habits honor God, grow out of character formed by our awe of God, and generally lead to prosperity. Indeed the fear of the Lord and wisdom are directly equated. “You will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:5–6).
The proverbs, in other words, are intended to form God’s (or godly) character in those who read them. This is the reason many of the proverbs ground themselves explicitly in God’s character, shown both by what God hates and by what he delights in:
There are six things that the Lord hates… (Prov. 6:16)
A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight. (Prov. 11:1)
The eyes of the Lord are in every place. (Prov. 15:3)
Godly character—that is, wisdom—is essential in all of life, including work. A glance over the proverbs demonstrates that the book has much to contribute to work. Many of the proverbs speak directly about the workplace activities of the ancient near east, including agriculture, animal husbandry, textile and clothing manufacture, trade, transportation, military affairs, governance, courts of law, home making, raising children, education, construction and others. Money—which is closely related to work—is also a prominent topic. Many other proverbs cover topics that apply significantly to work, such as prudence, honesty, justice, insight and good relationships.
The Valiant Woman (Proverbs 31:10-31)Back to Table of Contents
A remarkable connection between the book of Proverbs and the world of work occurs at the end of the book. Lady Wisdom, who we meet at the beginning of the book (Prov. 1:20-33, 8:1-9:12), reappears in street clothes in the final 22 verses of the book (Prov.31:10-31) as a living, breathing woman, termed “the virtuous woman” (KJV). Some translators use “wife” instead of “woman,” probably because the woman’s husband and children are mentioned in the passage. (Both “wife” and “woman” are possible translations of the Hebrew ishshah.) Indeed, she finds fulfillment in her family and ensures that “her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (Prov. 31:23). But the text focuses on the woman’s work as an entrepreneur with a cottage industry and its servants/workers to manage (Prov. 31:15). Proverbs 31:10-31 does not merely apply to the workplace; it takes place in a workplace.
The book of Proverbs is summarized, then, in a poem praising a woman who is the wise manager of diverse enterprises ranging from weaving to wine making to trade in the market. Translators variously use the words “virtuous” (KJV), “capable” (NRSV), “excellent” (NASB), or “of noble character” (NIV) to describe this woman’s character in Prov. 31:10. But these terms fail to capture the element of strength or might present in the underlying Hebrew word (chayil). When applied to a man, this same term is translated “strength,” as in Prov. 31:3. In a great majority of its 246 appearances in the Old Testament, it applies to fighting men (e.g., David’s “mighty warriors,” 1 Chronicles 7:2). Translators tend to downplay the element of strength when the word is applied to a woman, as with Ruth, whom English translations describe as “noble” (NIV, TNIV), “virtuous” (NRSV, KJV) or “excellent” (NASB). But the word is the same, whether applied to men or women. In describing the woman of Proverbs 31:10-31, its meaning is best understood as strong or valiant, as further indicated by Prov. 31:17, “She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.” Al Wolters argues on account of such martial language that the most appropriate translation is “Valiant Woman.” Accordingly, we will refer to the woman of Proverbs 31:10-31 as the “Valiant Woman,” which captures both the strength and the virtue carried by the Hebrew chayil.
The concluding passage in the book of Proverbs characterizes this woman of strength as a wise worker in five sets of practices in her workplace. The high importance of this section is signaled in two ways. First, it is in the form of an acrostic poem, meaning that its lines begin with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, in order, making it memorable. Second, it is placed as the climax and summary of the entire book. Accordingly, the five sets of practices we observe in the Valiant Woman will serve as a framework for exploring the entire book.
To some people in the ancient near east, and even to some now, portraying a woman as a model of wise entrepreneurship would be surprising. Despite the fact that God gave the gift of work to men and women equally (Genesis 1 and 2), women’s work has often been denigrated and treated with less dignity than men’s. Following the example of the book, we will refer to this wise worker as she, understanding that God's wisdom is available equally to men and women. She functions in the book as an affirmation of the dignity of every person’s work.
As always in the book of Proverbs, the way of wisdom flows out of the fear of the Lord. After all the Valiant Woman’s abilities and virtues are described and honored, the source of her wisdom is revealed. “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30).
The Wise Worker is Trustworthy (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The first characteristic of the way of wisdom personified in the Valiant Woman is trustworthiness. “The heart of her husband trusts in her” (Prov. 31:11). Trustworthiness is the foundation of wisdom and virtue. God created people to work in concert with each other (Genesis 2:15), and without trust this is not possible. Trust requires adherence to ethical principles beginning with faithfulness in our relationships. What are the workplace implications of being trustworthy depicted in the book of Proverbs?
A Trustworthy Worker is Faithful to His or Her Fiduciary Responsibilities (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The first requirement of trustworthiness is that our work brings good to those who trust us. The Valiant Woman works not only for herself, but also for the benefit of those around her. Her work benefits her customers (Prov. 31:14), her community, (Prov. 31:20), her immediate family (Prov. 31:12, 28), and her co-workers (Prov. 31:15). In the economy of the Ancient Near East, these spheres of responsibility all come together in the economic entity called “the household.” As in much of the world today, most people then worked in the same place they lived. Some household members worked as cooks, cleaners, caregivers, or artisans of fabric, metal, wood and stone in rooms in the home itself. Others worked in the fields immediately outside as farmers, shepherds or laborers. The “household” refers to the whole complex of productive enterprises as well as to the extended family, employed workers and, perhaps, slaves who worked and lived there. As the manager of a household, the Valiant Woman is much like a modern-day entrepreneur or senior executive. When she “looks well to the ways of her household” (Prov. 31:27), she is fulfilling a fiduciary duty of trust to all those who depend on her enterprise.
This does not mean we cannot work for own benefit as well. The Valiant Woman’s duty to her household is reciprocated by its duty to her. It is proper for her to receive a share of the household’s profit for her own use. The passage instructs her children and her husband and the whole community to honor and praise her. “Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her…. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates” (Prov. 31:28, 31).
Our fiduciary duty requires that we must not do our employers harm in the pursuit of meeting our own needs. We may dispute with them or struggle against their treatment of us, but we may not work them harm. For example, we may not steal from (Prov. 29:24), vandalize (Prov. 18:9) or slander (Prov. 10:18) our employers in order to air our grievances. Some applications of this are obvious. We may not charge a client for hours we didn’t actually work. We may not destroy our employers’ property or falsely accuse them. Reflection on this principle may lead us to deeper implications and questions. Is it legitimate to cause damage to the organization’s productivity or harmony by failing to assist our internal rivals? Is access to personal benefits—trips, prizes, free merchandise and the like—leading us to steer business to certain suppliers at the expense of our employer’s best interests? The mutual duty that employees and employers owe each other is a serious matter.
The same duty applies to organizations when they have a fiduciary duty to other organizations. It is legitimate for a company to negotiate with its customers to obtain a higher price. But it is not legitimate to profit by taking secret advantage of a customer, as several investment banks were found to have done when they instructed their representatives to recommend collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs) to customers as solid investments, while at the same time selling CMOs short in the expectation their value would fall.
The fear of the Lord is the touchstone of fiduciary responsibility. “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:7). All people are tempted to serve themselves at the expense of others. That is the consequence of the Fall. However, this proverb tells us that fear of the Lord—remembering his goodness to us, his providence over all things, and his justice when we harm others—helps us fulfill our duty to others.
For an application of this passage, see "Have a Banker When You Don't Need One" in Texas Nameplate Study Guide by clicking here, and see "Grow with Retained Earnings" in Country Supply Study Guide by clicking here.
A Trustworthy Worker is Honest (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
Honesty is another essential aspect of trustworthiness. It is so important that one proverb equates truth with wisdom itself. “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (Prov. 23:23). Honesty consists both in telling the truth and in doing the truth.
Chapter 6 contains a well-known list of seven things God hates. Two of the seven are forms of dishonesty: “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who utters lies” (Prov. 6:16-19). Throughout the book of Proverbs the importance of telling the truth is a steady drumbeat.
I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. (Prov. 8:6–7)
A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer. (Prov. 14:25)
The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death. (Prov. 21:6)
A false witness will not go unpunished, and a liar will not escape. (Prov. 19:5)
Do not be a witness against your neighbor without cause, and do not deceive with your lips. (Prov. 24:28)
Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool. When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech. (Prov. 10:18-19)
Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully. Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment. Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy. (Prov. 12:17-20)
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. (Prov. 12:22)
Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow is one who bears false witness against a neighbor. (Prov. 25:18)
An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within; when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within. (Prov. 26:24-25)
Although the Bible does condone lying and deceit in exceptional circumstances (e.g., Rahab the prostitute in Joshua 2:1, the Hebrew midwives’ lies to Pharaoh in Exodus 1:15-20, David’s lie to the priest in 1 Samuel 21:1-3), Proverbs does not allow lying or deception to have a role in daily life and work. The point is not only that lying is wrong, but also that telling the truth is essential. We avoid lying, not so much because there is a rule against it, but because in our awe of God, we love the truth.
Lying is destructive and leads ultimately to punishment and death.We are warned not only to avoid deceit, but we are to beware of the deceivers around us. We are not to allow ourselves to be taken in by their lies. Even here we recognize that we ourselves may be prone to believe the lies we hear. Like gossip (which is often a lie wrapped in a tissue of truth), we find a lie drawing us into the circle of those who are in the know and we like that. Or we find that in our own perverseness, we want to believe the lie. But the proverbs warn us forcefully away from those who lie. A workplace where only the truth is spoken (in love, see Ephesians 4:15) is utopian, yet God calls us to be among those who avoid the lying tongue.
About half of these proverbs prohibit false witness in particular, echoing the Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:16). If misleading others in general is ungodly, then falsifying an account of someone else’s actions is a crime that “will not go unpunished” (Prov. 19:5). A false witness is a direct assault on an innocent person. Yet it may be the most common form of lying in the workplace, second only perhaps to false advertising. Whereas false advertising is at least directed against outsiders (customers) who know to be wary of sales pitches and generally have other sources of information, a false witness is usually an attack on a co-worker, and is likely to be accepted without skepticism within the organization. It occurs when we try to shift blame or credit by misreporting others’ roles and actions. It harms not only those whose actions we mis-report, but the entire organization, for an organization that cannot accurately understand the reasons for its present successes and failures will not be able to make the changes needed to improve and adapt. It is like shooting someone on a submarine. Not only does it maim the victim, it sinks the ship and drowns the whole crew.
For a fuller discussion of honesty in the Bible, see the article Truth & Deception at www.theologyofwork.org.
Not only words, but also deeds, can be either truthful or false. “The righteous hate falsehood, but the wicked act shamefully and disgracefully” (Prov. 13:5, emphasis added). The most prominent form of dishonest action in the proverbs is the use of false weights and measures. “Honest balances and scales are the Lord’s; all the weights in the bag are his work” (Prov. 16:11). Conversely, “a false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight” (Prov. 11:1). “Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord, and false scales are not good” (Prov. 20:23). False weights and measures refer to defrauding a customer about the product being sold. Mislabeling a product, short-cutting the promised quality, and misrepresenting the source or origin—in addition to blatantly falsifying the quantity—are examples of this kind of dishonesty. Such practices are an abomination to God.
God Loves Honest Scales in Finance
Brian Bauer, a financial manager at Boeing, points out that the scales we use today abstract.
“Modern finance is the set of scales relied upon by business leaders, owners, and customers. Accounting reports tell owners about the performance of their business. A cash flow analysis tells a buyer whether or not they are getting a good deal when acquiring a company or manager when launching a project. And here’s where things get interesting. Accounting is governed by a set of rules, but the rules must be interpreted and the methods for adhering to those rules spark vigorous debate…. Click here to continue reading.
There are practical reasons for acting honestly. In the short run, dishonest acts may produce a larger income, but in the long run, clients or customers will catch on and take their business elsewhere. Yet ultimately, it is the fear of God that corrals us, even when we think we could get away with dishonesty on human terms. “Diverse weights and diverse measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 20:10).
Apart from false weights and measures, there are other ways of being dishonest in the workplace. One example from the Old Testament concerns land ownership, which was certified with boundary markers. A dishonest person could stealthily shift those boundary markers to enlarge his own holdings at the expense of his neighbor. The proverbs condemn dishonest acts like that. “Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you” (Prov. 23:10-11). The proverbs do not enumerate every kind of dishonest act that could be done in ancient Israel, much less in our world today. But they establish the principle that dishonest acts are as abhorrent to the Lord as dishonest words.
What does honesty—both in word and deed—look like in today’s workplace? If we remember that honesty is an aspect of trustworthiness, the criterion of honesty becomes, “Can people trust what I say and do?” not “Is it technically true?” There are ways to break trust without committing outright fraud. Contracts can be altered or obfuscated to give unfair advantage to the party with the most sophisticated lawyers. Products can be described in misleading terms, as when “increases energy” in a food label means nothing except “contains calories.” In the end, according to the proverbs, God will plead the cause of those so deceived and will not tolerate these practices (Prov. 23:11). In the meantime, wise—that is, godly—workers will avoid such practices.
When Do You Fire Your Customer?
The senior management of Software Dynamics, Inc. had just completed its Business Roadmap, spelling out SDI’s Vision, Mission, Values and Guiding Principles.
One section described the company’s position toward its customers: “We realize we are dependent on close relationships with our clients, and will go the extra mile to assure we are meeting their requirements and serving their needs.”
To continue reading, click here. You can return to this page afterwards.
The proverbs return again and again to the theme of honesty. “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them” (Prov. 11:3). “Bread gained by deceit is sweet, but afterwards the mouth will be full of gravel” (Prov. 20:17). An amusing proverb fingers another form of deception: “‘Bad, Bad,’ says the buyer, then goes away and boasts” (Prov. 20:14). Deliberately denigrating a product we want in order to get the price reduced, then gloating over our “bargain,” is also a form of dishonesty. In the realm of haggling between knowledgeable buyers and sellers this practice may be more of an entertainment than an abuse. But in its modern guise of spin doctoring—as when a political candidate tries to convince English-speaking voters that he or she is tough on immigration, while also trying to convince Hispanic voters of the opposite—it betrays the fraudulence behind intentionally misrepresenting reality.
For an application of these passages, see "Price to Turn" at Country Supply Study Guide by clicking here.
A Diligent Worker is Hard-working (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The Valiant Woman “works with willing hands” (Prov. 31:13), meaning that she chooses, of her own volition, to work tirelessly in pursuit of the household’s goals. “She rises while it is still night” (Prov. 31:15). “She makes linen garments and sells them” (Prov. 31:24). “With the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (Prov. 31:16). It adds up to a lot of work.
In an agrarian economy, the connection between hard work and well-being is easy to see. As long as they have access to land to cultivate, hard-working farmers do much better than lazy ones. The proverbs are clear that a lazy worker will lose out in the end.
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. A child who gathers in summer is prudent, but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame. (Prov. 10:4-5)
I passed by the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person; and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. (Prov. 24:30-34)
In the ancient near east, hard work brought prosperity, but even one week of laxity during the harvest could spell a hungry winter.
Modern economies (at least in the developed world) may mask this effect in the short term. In good times, when virtually everyone can find work, the lazy worker may have a job and appear to do nearly as well as the diligent worker. Likewise, in economic downturns (and at all times in many emerging economies), a hard-working person may have no more success than a lazy one in finding a job. And at all times, rewards for hard work may be blunted by discrimination, seniority rules, union contracts, bosses’ favoritism, nepotism, golden parachutes, flawed performance metrics, ignorance by managers and many other factors.
Does this make the proverbs about hard-working diligence obsolete? No, it does not, for two reasons. First, even in modern economies, diligence is usually rewarded over the course of a working life. When jobs are scarce, it is the diligent workers who are most likely to keep their jobs or find new ones faster. Second, the chief motivation for diligence is not personal prosperity, but the fear of the Lord, as we have seen with the other virtues in the proverbs. We are diligent because the Lord calls us to our tasks, and our awe of him motivates us to diligence in our work.
Laziness or the lack of diligence in the workplace is destructive. All who have experienced lazy coworkers can appreciate this pungent proverb: “Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers” (Prov. 10:26). We hate to be stuck on the same team with people who don’t shoulder their share of the burden.
For an application of these passages, see "Do the Tedious Work to Target" at Country Supply Study Guide by clicking here.
A Diligent Worker Plans for the Long Term (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The Valiant Woman plans ahead. “She brings her food from far away” (Prov. 31:14), meaning that she doesn't depend on last-minute convenience purchases of questionable quality and cost. She “considers a field” (Prov. 31:16) before buying it, investigating its long-term potential. She is planning to plant this particular field as a vineyard (Prov. 31:16), and vineyards don’t yield their first crop until two to three years after planting.The point is that she makes decisions based on their long-term consequences. Proverbs 21:5 tells us that “the plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.”
Wise planning requires making decisions for the long-term, as seen for example in the cycle of agricultural asset management.
Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds; for riches do not last forever, nor a crown for all generations. When the grass is gone, and new growth appears, and the herbage of the mountains is gathered, the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field; there will be enough goats’ milk for your food, for the food of your household and nourishment for your servant-girls. (Prov. 27:23-27)
Like the Valiant Woman planting a vineyard, the wise herdsman thinks years ahead. So too, the wise king or governor takes a long-term view. “With an intelligent ruler there is lasting order” (Prov. 28:2). The proverbs also turn to the ant as an example of long-term diligence.
Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. (Prov. 6:6-11)
Planning ahead takes many forms in workplaces. Financial planning is mentioned in Proverbs 24:27: “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house.” In other words, don't start building your house until your fields are producing the necessary funds to finish your construction project. Jesus picked up on this in Luke 14:28-30: “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
There are many other forms of planning, and we can’t expect the proverbs to serve as a planning manual for a modern enterprise. But we can note again the link in proverbs between wisdom, in the form of planning, and God’s character.
The plans of the mind belong to mortals, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. (Prov. 16:1)
The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established. (Prov. 19:21)
God plans for the very long term, and we are wise to plan ahead also. But we must remain humble about our plans. Unlike God, we do not have the power to make all our plans come to pass. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring” (Prov. 27:1). We plan with wisdom, speak with humility, and live in expectation that God’s plans are our ultimate desire.
Attention to long-term consequences may be the most important skill we can cultivate for success. For example, psychological research has shown that the ability to delay gratification—that is, the ability to make decisions based on longer-term results—is a far better predictor of success in school than IQ is.Regrettably, Christians sometimes seem to take passages such as “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34) to mean, “Do not plan ahead for tomorrow.” The Proverbs—alongside Jesus’ own words—show that this is both incorrect and self-indulgent. In fact, the entire Christian life, with its expectation of Christ’s return to perfect the kingdom of God, is a life of planning for the long-term.
A Diligent Worker Contributes to the Profitability of the Enterprise (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The Valiant Woman makes sure that the work of her hands is marketable. She knows what the merchants are buying (Prov. 31:24), chooses her materials with care (Prov. 31:13), and works tirelessly to assure a quality product (Prov. 31:18b). Her reward is that “her merchandise is profitable” (Prov. 31:18a), providing the resources needed by the household and the community. The proverbs are clear that an individual worker's diligence contributes to the profitability of the entire undertaking. “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want” (Prov. 21:5). The converse example is shown in the proverb, “One who is slack in work is close kin to a vandal” (Prov. 18:9). A lazy worker is no better than someone who deliberately sets out to destroy the enterprise. All of these anticipate Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
When we keep in mind that these proverbs about profit are grounded in God’s character, we see God wants us to work profitably. It is not enough to complete our assigned tasks. We must care about whether our work actually adds value to the materials, capital and labor consumed. In open economies, competition dictates that making a profit can be very challenging. The un-diligent—lazy, complacent, or dissolute—can quickly decline into loss, bankruptcy and ruin. The diligent—hard working, creative, focused—perform a godly service when they make it possible for their businesses to operate profitably.
Christians have not always recognized the importance of profit in the biblical perspective. In fact, profit is often regarded with suspicion and discussed in a rhetoric of “people vs. profits.” There is a suspicion that profit comes not from taking inputs and creating something more valuable from them, but from swindling buyers, workers or suppliers. This arises from an inadequate understanding of business and economics. A truly biblical critique of businesses would ask questions such as “What kind of profits?” “What is the source of the profit?” “Is the profit extracted by monopoly or intimidation or deception?”, and “How is the profit shared among workers, managers, owners, lenders, suppliers, customers and taxation?” It would encourage and celebrate workers and businesses who bring a wholesome profitability to their work. CONTENT NOT YET AVAILABLE: See the article *Economics and Society at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this subject.
Not all workers are in a position to know whether their work is profitable. Employees in a large corporation may have little idea whether their particular work contributes positively to profitability of the enterprise. Profitability, in an accounting sense, does not play a role in education, government, not-for-profit corporations, and homes. But all workers can pay attention to how their work contributes to accomplishing the mission of the organization, to whether the value they add is greater than the pay and other resources they extract. To do so is a form of service to the Lord.
The Valiant Woman’s profitable management of her household draws a word of exalted praise. “She is far more precious than jewels” (Prov. 31:10). This is no sentimental metaphor. It is quite literally true. A well-run enterprise can certainly earn profits over the years far exceeding the value of jewels and other stores of wealth.
A Diligent Worker Can Smile at the Future (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The Valiant Woman’s diligence gives her an eagerness for the future. “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (Prov. 31:25). While the proverbs are not promises of personal prosperity, in general, our diligence does lead to a better future.
Those who till their land will have plenty of food, but those who follow worthless pursuits have no sense. (Prov. 12:11)
Anyone who tills the land will have plenty of bread, but one who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty. (Prov. 28:19)
The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labor. (Prov. 12:24)
Diligence is not a guarantee against future sorrow or even disaster (see Job and Work at www.theologyofwork.org). Yet the wise person trusts God for the future, and the diligent can rest in the confidence that they have done what God asks of them for themselves, their households and their communities.
For an application of these passages in Proverbs about diligence, see "Require Every Employee to be Accountable" in Texas Nameplate Study Guide by clicking here.
The Wise Worker is Shrewd (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The Valiant Woman sets an example of exceptional acumen in her work. The proverbs describe this virtue as “prudent” (Prov. 19:14) or “shrewd” (Prov. 1:4). We may tend to think of shrewd people as those who take advantage of others, but in Proverbs it carries the idea of making the most of resources and circumstances. If we understand shrewdness as “clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen”then we see the kind of shrewd wisdom God intends for workers.
A Shrewd Worker Employs Keen Awareness and Judgment
This Valiant Woman’s shrewdness is displayed in the keen awareness with which she sources her materials. “She seeks wool and flax… She is like the ships of the merchant” (Prov. 31:13-14). Today’s manufacturer or craftsperson can be shrewd in the selection of materials or can unwisely settle for materials that will not hold up well. Investments in research and development, market analysis, logistics, strategic partnerships and community involvement may yield large payoffs in the future. On an individual level, good judgment is invaluable. An investment adviser who can match a client’s future needs with the risks and rewards inherent in various investment vehicles is performing a godly service.
A Shrewd Worker Prepares for All Known Contingencies
The Valiant Woman “is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple” (Prov. 31:21-22). Her material preparations cover every eventuality of the coming winter weather. She prepares the variety of clothing and blankets (“coverings”) her household may need, whatever the season may bring. The descriptions indicate fine or rich material (“fine linen and purple”), and the Hebrew word translated “crimson” (sanim) may be a copyist’s mistake for “double” (shenayim), that is, layered and warm.
This woman is alert to possible problems and works toward solutions before the problems arise. Consider her preparations for her husband. In the middle of her preparations of clothing and coverings, she keeps in mind her husband’s role as a public figure: “Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (Prov. 31:23). What would happen if it snows while her husband is in the midst of a civic affair? Not to worry, for “all her household”—including her husband—are suitably attired for any occasion. A modern image may make this a little clearer. Imagine a prominent statesman exposed suddenly to a chance storm. He reaches immediately for a crisp fedora and matching overcoat and overboots, while those around him cover their heads with scrounged newspapers and their ruined shoes pour slush onto their freezing feet.
A Shrewd Worker Seeks Good Advice
Seek Out Advice (Click to watch)
Albert Black, founder of On Target Supply & Logistics, humbly asked for help and John Castle responded. Mr. Castle is one of Dallas' leading executives and he has become one of Albert Black's key mentors.
A persistent myth in some circles is that the shrewdest leaders scorn advice. Their very shrewdness consists of seeing opportunities that others are too low to glimpse. It is true that just because many people advise something, that doesn’t make it wise. “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, can avail against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). If an idea is bad or wrong (“against the Lord”), no chorus of yes-men can make it good or wise.
But the myth of the genius who succeeds against all advice is seldom true in reality. Creativity and excellence build on multiple points of view. Innovation takes account of the known in order to step into the unknown, and great leaders who reject the conventional wisdom have usually mastered it first, before moving beyond it. “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22). And in Proverbs 20:18 we read, “Plans are established by taking advice; wage war by following wise guidance.” The wise person uses the complementing strengths of others, even when striking into new territory.
A Shrewd Worker Improves His or Her Skills and Knowledge
The Valiant Woman “girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong” (Prov. 31:17). That is, she takes steps to improve her ability to do her work. She makes her arms strong; she girds herself with strength. A shrewd person acts to improve her skill set or knowledge.
As the industrial economy in the developed world has given way to a technological economy, continual training and education have become indispensable for employers and employees. In fact, this is becoming the case in many emerging economies as well. The work you are prepared for today is not likely to be the work you will be doing 10 years from now. A shrewd worker recognizes this and retrains for the next opportunity in the workplace. Likewise it is becoming harder for employers to find workers with the skills needed for many of today’s jobs. The highest-performing individuals, organizations and societies will be those who develop effective systems for lifelong learning.
The Wise Worker is Generous (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The Valiant Woman is generous. “She opens her hands to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Prov. 31:20). We are accustomed to hearing generosity praised in the Bible, and here the Valiant Woman is praised for it. But we must not reduce her generosity to a pleasant quirk in her personality. Her generosity is part and parcel of her work, as we can see in the relationship between verses 31:19 and 31:20:
She puts her hands [Heb. yade] to the distaff, and her hands [kappe] hold the spindle.
She opens her hand [kap] to the poor, and reaches out her hands [yade] to the needy.
Two different Hebrew words are translated “hand” (or plural “hands”) in these two verses. If we look at the original Hebrew, we see they occur in the order yade, kappe in the first verse, and in the reverse order kap, yade in the second verse. (Kappe is the plural of kap.) This “chiastic” structure of ABBA is common in the Bible and indicates that the entire structure forms a single unit of thought. In other words, her work is inseparable from her generosity. Because she is successful in spinning, she has something to give to the poor, and conversely, her generous spirit is an essential element of her capability as an entrepreneur/executive.
In other words, Proverbs claims that generosity and fiduciary duty do not conflict. Being generous to the needy out of the household’s resources does not reduce the owner’s wealth, but increases it. This counterintuitive argument appears throughout Proverbs. Most people curb their generosity out of fear that if they give away too much, they will not have enough left for themselves. But the proverbs teach the exact opposite:
Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it. (Prov. 11:24-26)
Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full. (Prov. 19:17)
Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse. (Prov. 28:27)
The Wise Worker is Just (Proverbs)Back to Table of Contents
The proverbs do not stop with commending generosity but go further to claim that caring for the poor is a matter of justice. First, the proverbs recognize that people are often poor because the rich and powerful defraud or oppress them. Or, if they were already poor, they have become easy targets for further fraud and oppression. This is abhorrent to God and he will bring judgment against those who do it.
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him. (Prov. 14:31)
Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss. (Prov. 22:16)
Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them. (Prov. 22:22-23)
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. (Prov. 22:8-9)
One who augments wealth by exorbitant interest gathers it for another who is kind to the poor. (Prov. 28:8)
Give People a Job for Life (Click to watch)
Joseph Semprevivo, founder of Joseph's Lite Cookies in Deming, New Mexico, believes that creating a job is creating a sacred trust. He promises security to every person he hires. Today, his company generates $100 million in annual sales.
The bottom line is found in Proverbs 16:8, “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.”
Second, even if you have not defrauded or oppressed the poor, God’s justice requires that you do what you can to set things right for them, beginning with meeting their immediate needs.
If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. (Prov. 21:13)
Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor. (Prov. 14:21)
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again; tomorrow I will give it.” (Prov. 3:27-28)
Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished. (Prov. 17:5)
To regard helping the needy as a matter of justice, not merely generosity, is no surprise if we remember that wisdom rests on the fear of the Lord. That is, wisdom consists of living in awe of our God so that we seek to do what he desires for the world. God is just. God desires that the poor be cared for and poverty be eliminated. If we truly love God, then we will care for those whom God loves. Therefore, to relieve the poor and to work to eliminate poverty are matters of justice.
Notice that many of these proverbs assume personal contact between the rich and the poor. Generosity is not only a matter of sending a donation, but of working and perhaps even living alongside poor people. It may mean working to break down the segregation of the poor away from the middle class and wealthy in housing, shopping, education, work and politics. Do you come into contact with people of higher and lower socio-economic status on a daily basis? If not, your world may be too narrow.
Corporate social responsibility?
We can see how generosity and justice are important for an individual worker, but do they have any application for corporations? Most of Proverbs deals with individuals, but the section on the Valiant Woman addresses her as the manager of a household business. And as we have seen, her generosity is not a hindrance to her work, but an essential element of it.
Regrettably, many businesses today seem to lack the imagination or skill needed to operate in ways that benefit shareholders while also benefiting the people around them. For example, a quick read of any newspaper’s financial section will find many stories about companies attempting to defraud or oppress the poor: pressuring poor and powerless people into selling property below its full value, taking advantage of ignorance or misinformation to sell questionable products, wringing excessive short-term profits from those who are vulnerable or who lack alternatives.
Why do such companies believe that grabbing wealth from others is the only—or best—way to make a profit? Is there any evidence that a zero-sum approach to business actually improves shareholder return? How many of these practices really lead to higher long-term profitability or power? Quite the opposite: the best businesses succeed because they find a sustainable way to produce goods and services that benefit customers and society, while providing an excellent return to employees, shareholders and lenders. Business and other organizations that meet social needs have an advantage when they need community support, worker commitment and social protection from economic, political, and competitive threats.
Proverbs also demands justice from institutions other than business. In particular, the realm of government receives attention in the many verses dealing with kings. The message to them is the same as that to businesses. Governments can survive long-term only if they care for the poor and vulnerable and bring them justice.
If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever. (Prov. 29:14)
By justice a king gives stability to the land, but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it. (Prov. 29:4)
Take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness. (Prov. 25:5)
Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves those who speak what is right. (Prov. 16:13)
It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness. (Prov. 16:12)
As with all wisdom, the foundation of wise governance is the fear of the Lord. “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (Prov. 8:15).
In speaking to kings, the proverbs would seem to apply primarily to political leaders and civil servants in modern society. But in democratic societies, all citizens have a role in government and public policy. Contacting our representatives and voting for candidates and ballot questions that bring justice to the poor and vulnerable are ways we enact the justice that comes from wisdom today.
The Proverbs even extend the demands of generosity and justice to competition and struggle. “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Prov. 25:21-22). The apostle Paul quotes this proverb word-for-word in Romans 12:20, and concludes with the challenge, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Moreover, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Prov. 24:17). What? Are we to be generous even toward an enemy? Paul and the authors of the proverbs are convinced that when we do so, the Lord will reward us.
Dr. Robert V. McCabe
Professor of Old Testament
Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
How often have we heard someone preach a series of expositional sermons or conduct a Bible study from the book of Proverbs? “Not often,” many would answer. As I think about this, I have to regretfully admit that I can only remember a select few who have delivered an expositional series of lessons in Proverbs. In contrast to this deficiency in expositional studies of Proverbs, I remember numerous occasions where someone has used a portion of Proverbs for devotional or motivational purposes. For example, I have heard many a sincere believer claim a supposed prayer promise from the book of Proverbs or a verse that sounds as if success in some aspect of life, such as a business venture or a domestic activity, is guaranteed for one who trusts in the Lord. Yet, when the expected results did not come to fruition, the believer was left in a state of bewilderment about his lack of faith, or whatever sort of deficiency he is able to conjecture. On some different occasions, I have heard someone question a well-intentioned believer about his application and/or interpretation of a passage in Proverbs, and have received a response something like: “this is what the passage means to me!” Though we do not want to minimize an individual believer’s responsibility in applying Scripture to his life, we are convinced that legitimate application can only be accomplished after a believer directs his primary focus away from the application to a foundational level that focuses on what did this passage mean to its original author. This basic interpretative task is especially important when we come to Proverbs.
This interpretative task in Proverbs is germane for two reasons. First, Christians need to know how to live wisely in a humanistic and hedonistic society. Proverbs tells the individual believer how to live wisely in the everyday circumstances of life. This purpose is clearly articulated in Proverbs 1:2–6. This section states that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to challenge its readers to obtain wisdom. The term translated as “wisdom” in Proverbs can be understood as biblical skill in living. This is to say wisdom enables one to live a successful and godly life. In 1:2–6 we can see that wisdom includes moral skill in holy living (vv. 2a, 3–5) and intellectual understanding (vv. 2b, 6). The theme of Proverbs is found in 1:7. This verse states that wisdom is an outgrowth of one’s relationship to fearing, “reverentially trusting,” God. Thus, Christians need wisdom found in Proverbs in facing the demands and temptations encountered in a secular society. Second, while Christians need the wisdom of Proverbs to regulate their lives, they must use Proverbs in a biblically informed manner to avoid misapplying the wisdom of Proverbs as necessarily direct guarantees from God. Because the applications drawn from the book of Proverbs have been so abused, we need that which is basic for all effective application of Proverbs: a development of hermeneutical guidelines to establish the meaning of Proverbs. Consequently, my objective in this workshop is to lay a foundation for effective application by developing six principles for interpreting Proverbs.
I. The first principle is to recognize the characteristics of a proverb.
The proverb, or aphorism, is found throughout the Bible. It is often assumed that the use of proverbs is confined to the book of Proverbs. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament such as Ecclesiastes and Job are characterized by their use of proverbs. Proverbs are commonly found in poetic literature (Ps 119:105). Jesus also uses proverbs (Mark 12:17). The Epistle of James also contains many proverbs. The proverb is a common literary form used in the Bible.
A proverb is a concise, memorable saying, usually in poetic form, expressing a generally accepted observation about life as filtered through biblical revelation. From this definition, we can observe that a proverb is characterized as being concise and memorable, simple yet profound, specific yet general, usually expressed in poetic form, and observations about life as filtered through biblical revelation. To clarify our understanding of the nature of proverbs, we will examine these five characteristics in individual proverbs.
A. A proverb is concise and memorable. The verbal conciseness aids in making it memorable. The sage who creates a concise and memorable saying must be skillful in his use of words and syntax. By reducing his observation about life into a proverbial form, the sage was aiming to make his observations permanent. As such, a proverb is a high point drawn from the sage’s observations about life. With the proverb, the sage “captures the clearest and most affective moment and the point of greatest light” (Ryken, Word of Delight, p. 315).
B. A proverb is simple yet profound. “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the hearts” (Prov 21:2). The basic point of this proverb is that people think they have an accurate self-evaluation for their actions, but the LORD has an evaluation of their heart that is truly accurate because of His divine perspective. Though this proverb is simple, it is quite profound. God knows exactly what is in the heart of every single person better than each individual knows himself, and God with His omniscient knowledge evaluates everyone according to His standard of holiness.
C. A proverb is specific yet general. This is illustrated in Proverbs 26:27, “He who digs a pit will fall into it, and he who rolls a stone, it will come back on him.” “He who digs a pit” specifically refers to someone laying a trap for another and “he who rolls a stone” refers to placing a weight upon one’s opponent from which he cannot escape. The result in either case is that the trap backfires. The general point of this proverb is that one reaps what he sows.
D. A proverb is consistently cast into poetic form. Hebrew poetry is characterized by brevity in line length, parallelism, and figurative language. If we compare the line length of Proverbs 1 with a narrative such as Judges 1, it is readily apparent that the length of each line in Proverbs 1 is shorter than the length of each line in Judges 1. Proverbs 4:1 is a familiar example of poetic parallelism. Solomon provides an exhortation, “Hear, O sons, the instruction of a father.” The second part of this verse parallels the first part with a specification of his purpose, “And give attention that you may gain understanding.” The parallelism clearly develops what the sage’s point is, viz., listen to a godly father in order to gain wisdom. Proverbs 4:17 demonstrates the use of figures when Solomon picturesquely compares the unbridled lust of the wicked to their eating habits, “For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.” Eating “the bread of wickedness” and drinking “the wine of violence” is a graphic way of illustrating that wicked people live for “wickedness” and “violence.”
As noted in the preceding paragraph, Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism. Parallelism is essentially a repetition of thought or grammar in a second line of poetry. The predominant form of parallelism is thought repetition. In the past, parallelism has been divided into three basic types: synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic. With a number of recent studies, we have been able to more precisely categorize parallellism. Following the lead of Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, we can divide poetic parallelism into eight categories (pp. 230–38). The following list is not exhaustive but is descriptive of the types of parallelism that we are confronted with in poetry.
In this case one line is grammatically subordinated to the other line. Proverbs 3:27
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due (command)
when it is in your power to do it. (temporal clause)
This has also been called antithetical parallelism. This occurs when the poet places a line in contrast to its corresponding line. Proverbs 10:4
Poor is he who works with a negligent hand,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
This has also been called emblematic parallelism. This is related to the subordination category of parallelism in that the comparative clause is subordinate to the other. A comparison is made between two lines in such a way that it forms a simile. Proverbs 10:26
Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes
so is the lazy one to those who send him.
With this type of parallel, each successive line presents a progression in thought. Isaiah 40:9
Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of good news.
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of good news.
Lift it up, do not fear;
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
With this example, we should notice that messenger initially ascends the mountain to bring an address to a large area, then he would lift up his voice to shout, then he announces his good news, “Here is your God!”
This is an extension of the preceding type of parallelism. With this type of parallelism, each line builds on the preceding line. A key thought would be repeated from the preceding line plus an additional item will be added to the new line. Psalm 29:1,
Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength,
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to his name;
Worship the LORD in holy array.
With this type of parallelism, each line adds more specific details to the first line. Sometimes this specification may be spatial (see Isa 45:12), explanatory (Isa 48:20b–21), dramatic (Ps 72:9) or purpose. Proverbs 4:1 provides an example of purposeful specification.
Hear, O sons, the instruction of a father,
and give attention that you may gain understanding.
This is closely related to the preceding category. The second line rephrases the first line in a more forceful or intense manner. It could also reflect a more pointed or extreme manner. This is analogous to an a fortiori argument, if this is so, how much more so the latter. This may be used with numbers for climactic effect as in Proverbs 30:18–19.
There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
four which I do not understand:
(1) the way of an eagle in the sky,
(2) the way of a serpent on a rock,
(3) the way of a ship in the middle of the sea,
(4) and the way of a man with a maid.
The pattern in this type of numerical intensification is commonly referred to as the X/X + 1 pattern. The emphasis in this type of parallelism is generally on the last enumerated item. In our example, this would be “the way of a man with a maid.”
This involves a reversal of elements in each line. It has also been called inverted parallelism. Psalm 2:10
O kings, show discernment
Take warning, O judges of the earth
The two dominant forms of parallelism in the book of Proverbs are that of contrast and comparison. The most dominant of the two forms is parallelism of contrast. In Proverbs 10–15 approximately 90% of the proverbs are contrastive. This sets before the reader the responsibility to choose wisdom over folly. The comparative parallelism essentially says that at a common point “A is like B” (Parsons, pp. 155–56).
E. A biblical proverb is an observation about life as filtered through biblical revelation. A biblical proverb is different than a non-biblical proverb. The non-biblical proverb is a concise, memorable saying expressing a generally accepted observation about life, but it is not integrated with Scriptural truth. In contrast to wise men who wrote non-biblical proverbs, the biblical sage would additionally integrate his observations with special revelation. He would subsequently express his biblically interpreted observations in written proverbial form. By following the canons of proverbial literature, a biblically-informed sage would express his life observations in a proverbial format that is inherently oriented to be stated as generalized truth, allowing for possible exceptions (Stein, Playing By the Rules, pp. 85–86).
II. The second principle is to place individual passages within the overall structure of Proverbs.
The overall structure of Proverbs reflects that it is a “collection of collections of wisdom material” (Hubbard, p. 153). There are seven sections in Proverbs that have their own unique introduction. These introductory headings are found at 1:1; 10:1; 22:17; 24:23; 25:1; 30:1; and 31:1. These various headings reflect that there were initially seven different collections of proverbial material. These were then collected into the book of Proverbs.
Collections in Proverbs
Proverbs of Solomon
Proverbs of Solomon
Words of the Wise
Words of the Wise
Proverbs of Solomon transcribed by Hezekiah’s scribes
Words of Agur
Words of Lemuel
In light of this structural arrangement, it would appear that each individual passage or proverb must be interpreted in light of the section in which it is found. After this, we would then want to consider how the passage fits into the book of Proverbs as a whole.
III. The third principle is to place proverbial literature into more precise literary forms.
I am using the term “form” as a descriptive category denoting the manner in which wisdom material is presented (Garrett, p. 28). There are two predominant literary forms, instruction and saying, and eight secondary forms. We will briefly examine each of these.
A. Instruction is the dominant form found in Proverbs 1–9 and 22:17–24:22. It is a longer form of the admonition (a command or prohibition), usually involving one or more paragraphs explaining a number of related admonitions. The instruction is directed to “my son” or “sons” (which may include the concept of “disciple”) and generally provides a reason for the instruction. It generally praises wisdom and its attributes or provides a warning about the traps of folly and its disciples. The primary point of the instruction is to give advice on wisdom or a related subject or to provide a warning against folly or a related subject (Hubbard, p. 18).
B. Admonition is an abbreviated form of the longer instruction form, usually comprised of one to three verses. It expresses either a positive command or a prohibition followed by a motive clause. The motive clause provides a reason why the command should be followed. When we interpret the admonition, we should note the connection between the command and the motive clause. This connection is helpful in understanding the point of the admonition (Hildebrandt, p. 241). A command followed by a motive clause is found in Proverbs 4:23, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” The importance of this command is seen by the motive clause, viz., what is manifest in one’s life is an overflow from the contents of his heart.
C. A wisdom speech is a subcategory of the instruction. In this type, wisdom as well as folly, wisdom’s antithetical form, is personified as a woman publicly proclaiming a message. For example, the lady wisdom cries out to deliver its recipients in Proverbs 1:20–33; 8:1–36; 9:1–6. The counterpart to the wisdom speech is folly. The lady folly calls aloud to mislead in 9:13–18 (Hubbard, p. 18).
D. Saying is the dominant form used in Proverbs 10:1–22:16 and 25:1–29:27. A saying is essentially a sentence involving two parallel lines. While the mood of the instruction form is imperatival, the mood of the saying is indicative. As filtered through special revelation, the force of a saying is found in the wisdom or folly displayed in human experience (ibid.).
E. A comparative saying is a subcategory of the saying. It generally uses a simile or metaphor to intensify the main point of the saying. An example of this is Proverbs 26:8, “Like one who binds a stone in a sling, so is he who gives honor to a fool.” In interpreting this type of saying, we must note the images being used, the main point of the proverb, and the connection between them. The image in the first clause is that of securely fastening a stone in the sling. The main point of the saying is in the last clause, “so is he who gives honor to a fool.” The point of this saying is that honoring a fool is as foolish as making it impossible for a stone to get out of the sling.
At other times, the lines may simply be in juxtaposition. “A whip is for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools” (Prov 26:3). The images in the first two clauses are the horse and donkey. The main point is in the last clause, “a rod for the back of fools.” The point of this saying is that the fool, being as difficult to control as the horse and the donkey, must be controlled by strong force.
F. Better-than sayings are a variation of comparative sayings. This saying is designed to set forth priorities and values. Some have concluded that this type of proverb is a form of relativism advocated by the sages of Israel. Against this, it is more precise to view this as eliminating one element and affirming another (Hildebrandt, p. 242). “Better is the poor who walks in his integrity, than he who is crooked though he be rich” (Prov 28:6). To be rich and crooked is not a lifestyle to be valued, but there is value in being poor with integrity.
G. Numerical sayings are another subcategory of the saying. It is the dominant form used in Proverbs 30. The numerical saying will begin with a number line in the X/X + 1 pattern, where the second number is one digit larger than the previous number. The number line will also state the element that binds the list together. The number line is then followed by a list of items. The number of items in the list will correspond to the highest number in the number line. An example of this is Proverbs 6:16–19,
There are six things which the LORD hates,
Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him:
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devices wicked plans,
feet that run rapidly to evil,
a false witness who utters lies,
and one who spreads strife among brothers.
As stated in the number line, Solomon lists seven things that God hates. In interpreting the numerical sayings, the final element listed is usually the author’s main point (Hildebrandt, pp. 241–42). In Proverbs 6:16–19, the zenith of abominable items to God is “one who spreads strife among brothers.”
H. Example story recounts an illustration or personal experience and how from experience he has learned a truth worth leaving to others. This form has three basic parts: an opening where the sage notes his experience, a story illustrating his point, and the moral conclusion. Proverbs 24:30–34 is an example of this (also see 7:6–23). The opening is in v. 30, the example story in vv. 31–32, and the moral conclusion in vv. 33–34 (Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, p. 317).
I. Beatitudes are pronouncements of blessing on someone by an authority figure. When this is used in wisdom literature, it provides a motivation to convince someone that blessing comes by following the advised course of action (see 3:13–14; 8:32, 34; 16:20; 20:7; 28:14; 29:18). Proverbs 20:7 reads like this: “A righteous man who walks in his integrity—How blessed are his sons after him.” Because a man has a life of integrity, his children will be the beneficiaries from his integrity.
J. An acrostic poem uses the Hebrew alphabet as a device for structuring. An acrostic poem is used in Proverbs 31:10–31 to describe the virtuous women. The acrostic poem connotes completeness by emphasizing that this woman’s qualities go from A through Z, from beginning to end, she is a most excellent woman. The point is that her virtuous character has been thoroughly presented.
IV. The fourth principle focuses on observing literary clues in the passage.
We will give a brief overview of the literary features that are found in paragraphs of proverbial material and in one-verse units.
A. When examining units containing more than one verse, there are many literary clues on which to focus. We will examine only three of these.
1. Repetition is a major device in biblical poetry for showing emphasis. In the Hebrew text of Proverbs 30:11–14, the Hebrew word translated as “kind” in NASB stands at the head of each verse.
11There is a kind of man who curses his father; and does not bless his mother. 12There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes; yet is not washed from his filthiness. 13There is a kind—oh how lofty are his eyes! And his eyelids are raised in arrogance. 14There is a kind of man whose teeth are like swords; and his jaw teeth like knives, to devour the afflicted from the earth, and the needy from among men (bold print reflects my emphasis).
This Hebrew term places an emphasis on those characterized by whatever is described in a given context. This term is best correlated with a group of society having similar characteristics. It is not just an occasional individual but a group within the society who are characterized in this context by showing disrespect for their parents, self-righteousness, arrogance, and oppression of the needy.
2. The use of synonyms will also show an emphasis in a passage. This is demonstrated in 6:20–35. After an exhortation to follow his commandments in vv. 20–23, Solomon provides his “son” with a proverbially packaged treatment of “You shall not commit adultery.” He uses a number of synonyms to describe a potential partner in adultery. She is called an “evil woman,” an “adulteress” (v. 24), a “harlot,” an “adulteress” (v. 26), and his “neighbor’s wife” (v. 27). She is also characterized in v. 25 as having “beauty” and knowing how to use her eyes (“eyelids” is a poetic device to refer to “eyes”). In v. 26 she is further characterized as one who reduces a man “to a loaf of bread” and as one who “hunts for the precious life.” The build up of synonyms shows that the adulteress is an evil and cunning foe of God’s moral will.
Through the use of synonyms for wisdom and folly, as well as examples of each, the overall unifying theme of Proverbs 1–9 is an extended conflict between wisdom and folly. The addressees of these chapters are encouraged to choose wisdom over folly (for a fuller development, see Ryken, Words of Delight, pp. 317–19).
3. Certain literary features show the emphasis of a passage. The numerical saying places an emphasis on the enumerated item that corresponds to the highest digit in the number line. In 30:18–19 the sage indicates that there are four items which are too wonderful for him to understand. The emphasis of the text is on the fourth enumerated item, “the way of a man with a maid” (see earlier discussion of poetic parallelism with the first principle of interpretation).
B. When we examine units of one verse, we must look at other literary clues to see the emphasis in the verse. The dominant feature of the sayings in 10:1–22:16 and 25:1–29:27 is this one-verse format. We will examine three types of emphases in these chapters (while we recognize that Alter is writing from a different theological perspective, his presentation of this subject is thorough, see pp. 163–84).
1. One-line sayings built on the model of contrastive parallelism may show a certain emphasis through the use of a “punch-word” (ibid., p. 168). An example of this is seen in Proverbs 11:1.
A-false balance is-an-abomination to-the-LORD,
But-a-just weight is-His-delight.
In Hebrew this proverb takes seven words, four in the first line and three in the second. I have hyphenated the terms to reflect which expressions were one word in the Hebrew text. The antithesis of “a-false balance” is “but-a-just weight.” The two Hebrew terms, “an-abominations to-the-LORD,” are compressed into a significant one-word counterpart with “His-delight.” Both of these latter expressions are strong theological descriptions of that which is an abhorrence and a pleasure in God’s sight. The counterpart of “an-abomination to-the-LORD” is the theological punch-word “His-pleasure” (ibid.). This compressed punch-word is a theologically satisfying emphasis of this one-verse unit. In contrast to that which is abominable in His sight, this verse affirms that God’s pleasure is found not only in worship but even in the marketplace.
2. Other one-line sayings built on the parallelism of specification or intensification may reflect a “consequentiality.” This type of proverb shows that certain types of activity generally lead to certain types of consequences. This is to say, it reflects that God has created and governs the world and man in such a way that certain consequences are generally the result of specific actions. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6). God has designed life in such a way that when parents seriously instruct their children according to a godly pattern, the consequence is that they generally share the same godly patterns as their parents. In a modified manner, we see another example in 21:31, “The horse is prepared for battle, but victory belongs to the LORD.” The first part of the verse focuses on preparing the horse for battle. The last half moves to the conclusion of the battle. The last half is unexpected in that we have a new figure introduced into a proverbial equation, “the LORD” (ibid., pp. 172–73). This is to say, we do not have a strict cause-and-effect relationship between the first half of the verse and the second. However, from the sage’s vantage point, God is the ultimate cause for everything in life.
3. One-line sayings may also reflect a type of riddle format. The riddle format not only includes a riddle, but it may also include a perplexing statement or an image. The pattern of this format will have a riddle, perplexing statement, or image introduced in the first half of a verse with the second half explaining it. A perplexing and shocking image is used in Proverbs 11:22, “As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion.” The image in the first half of the verse would have been repulsive and ludicrous to a Jew. How foolish it is to think that a gold ring could beautify a pig. The second half makes the point. An undiscerning and ungodly beautiful woman is comparable to the same attempt to beautify a repulsive pig. Another example is 17:12, “Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs, rather than a fool in his folly.” A fool in his folly is a greater danger than meeting a bear that has been robbed of her cubs (ibid., pp. 176–78). As Alden has said, “Consider meeting a fool with a knife, or gun, or even behind the wheel of a car; a mother bear could be less dangerous” (p. 134).
V. The fifth principle requires the various passages in Proverbs to be interpreted in light of the book’s own terms.
To understand Proverbs, we must understand its explicit theological framework. We can see its theological framework by examining its purpose and theme and its characteristic motifs.
A. The individual proverbs or passages should be viewed in light of the book’s purpose and theme. Unlike many books in the Bible, Proverbs explicitly announces its purpose and theme in the opening part of the book, 1:2–7.
1. The purpose of Proverbs is expressed in 1:2–6. There is a twofold emphasis in this statement of purpose.
a. One emphasis in Proverbs is to develop moral wisdom, vv. 2a, 3–4. Solomon’s purpose in proverbs includes helping one “to know wisdom and instruction.” The word translated as “wisdom” is a term that focuses on developing “skill.” In Proverbs this term emphasizes biblically-informed skill in living. In light of vv. 3–4, this skill relates to living a life that is morally pleasing to God. The term translated as “instruction” emphasizes “discipline” or “training.” Its emphasis in this context is on a training to develop one’s moral nature.
b. A second emphasis in Proverbs is to develop mental wisdom, vv. 2b, 6. The last clause in v. 2, “to discern the sayings of understanding,” emphasizes one learning how to compare ideas and make evaluations about subjects. This emphasis is clearly seen in v. 6, emphasizing an understanding of proverbs, parables, and riddles. This type of discernment emphasizes one’s mental acumen.
2. The theme of Proverbs is found in 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This reverential fear is the Old Testament counterpart of the New Testament concept of saving faith. The fear of the LORD expresses itself in reverential submission to God and whatever He commands. This type of fear is the “beginning of knowledge.” The Old Testament concept of “beginning” can refer to that which is “first” or to that which is “primary and controlling.” In Proverbs, the concept of “beginning” does not primarily mean that the fear of the Lord is the “starting point” of knowledge. Rather, the fear of the Lord is a “primary and controlling element” in developing wisdom. This same theme is restated in 9:10, toward the conclusion of the first section of material in Proverbs. As such, it sets the parameters for this unit.
B. The book of Proverbs has three emphases that inform us of its theological framework.
1. In conformity with other wisdom literature, Proverbs has a practical orientation (Osborne, Hermeneutical, p. 192). The wisdom of Proverbs is especially addressed to the youths of Israel. As such, they needed to be encouraged about subjects such as acceptable speech and etiquette (Prov 29:20), domestic relationships (10:1), self-control (25:28), material possessions (10:22, 11:4), and the certainty of divine retribution (11:21; 16:4; 20:22; 26:26–27). The practical nature of wisdom literature is reflected by Kidner’s arrangement of the content of Proverbs around these eight subjects: God and man, wisdom, fools, sluggards, friends, words, the family, and life and death (Proverbs, pp. 31-56; for other topical arrangements, see also Ross [pp. 897–903], Voorwinde, and Woodcock).
2. Proverbs, like other wisdom literature, emphasizes that one must have a complete dependence on God. Since God is a Sovereign who with His absolute control of everything (16:1, 4, 9) permits the godly, wise person to experience suffering and difficulty as a part of His discipline (3:11–12). This teaching in Proverbial theology should force the believer to recognize with a humble and believing spirit his limitations and God’s complete control of life (21:1). This is demonstrated from three theological observations.
a. Proverbs sets forth that wisdom is predicated on the Mosaic Covenant. This is demonstrated by the fact that the instruction in places such as Proverbs 3:1-12 and 4:4-5 are predicated upon a father’s teachings being consistent with the Torah (cf. Prov 3:3 with Deut 6:6-8). We should also notice how genuine obedience results in blessing (cf. Deut 6:24 with Prov 3:9-10) and disobedience disgrace and judgment (Prov 10:16, 21; 19:3, 9). Since God is the One bringing the results according to His time schedule (cf. Prov 3:1-10 with vv. 11-12), one must live his life in an environment of faithful obedience to the covenant.
b. The book of Proverbs has a tendency to personify wisdom as an attribute and extension of God. This is “seen in one sense as a ‘craftsman’ standing alongside of and aiding the God of creation (Prov 8:29-30), as a female teacher inviting students to learn from her at the gates of the city (Prov 1:20-21; 8:1-36) and as a hostess inviting people to her banquet (9:1-12). Wisdom is contrasted with the adulteress (2:16-19; 7:6-27) and with a foolish hostess (9:13-18)” (Osborne, Hermeneutical, p. 193). Since this type of wisdom comes from God, we must look to Him for this.
c. Proverbs has a strong emphasis on fearing God. Though the fear of God is not found exclusively in Proverbs, or even wisdom literature (Deut 6:24), it does receive an emphasis in Proverbs (1:7; 3:7; 8:13; 16:6; 31:30). The Hebrew term for fear may be used in contexts that are of a legal nature, religious, or moral (Smith, p. 6). The focus of wisdom is in the moral realm. The fear of God denotes a relationship with God resulting in a morally pleasing lifestyle. In Proverbs 2:4-5 fearing God is correlated with knowing God. A result of this is that one hates evil in 8:13. Other practical results include qualities such as confidence (14:24), humility (3:7), and contentment (15:16). We might define the fear of God as an unconditional, reverential submission to the Sovereign LORD (ibid.).
3. As wisdom literature, Proverbs has an emphasis on creation theology. This is seen in Proverbs 8 where God in His wisdom created the world (Prov 3:19-20; see also Job 38:4–7; Ps 104:24). The many references to God’s creative activities in Proverbs 8 set a dominant theme in the book, viz., God’s orderly design is the substance that holds life together. In Proverbs 30, the many comparisons between animals and man suggest that God control both. Proverbs’ creation theology also suggests that there is a connection between divine remuneration and retribution. Furthermore, God’s creative work as used in wisdom material is foundational for enjoying life. Man’s food, drink, work, youth, wife, and other privileges in this life are part of God’s creative design for man in this life (Prov 5:18; 10:1, 28; 12:4, 20; 29:2-3; in other wisdom literature, see Eccl 2:24-25; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-9; 12:1; Cant 1:4; 3:11). “The righteous, though part of the finite, creaturely world, can experience joy as part of God’s design in creation” (Zuck, p. 219).
VI. The sixth principle requires problematic passages in Proverbs to be balanced by the rest of Scripture.
This hermeneutical axiom is what the Reformers referred to as the analogia fidei, “the analogia of faith.” This is also referred to as analogia scriptura, “the analogy of Scripture.” This hermeneutical principle maintains that Scripture interprets Scripture. What this means is that the entirety of Scripture is the context and the guide in interpreting specific passages in Scripture.
How is a passage such as Proverbs 17:8 (“A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; wherever he turns, he prospers”) to be harmonized with 17:23 (“A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice”), or Exodus 23:8 and Deuteronomy 16:18–19? On a broader level, how do we respond to critics who maintain that the book of Proverbs is less authoritative than the special revelation contained in the Prophets? To establish their point that Proverbs is inferior in authority, critics point to supposed contradictions within Proverbs. For example, Proverbs 26:4 says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.” This is supposedly contradicted in the following verse, “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Do we answer the fool or avoid answering the fool? According to the critical scholar, if either of these proverbs is inspired and, therefore, presents absolute truth, only one of them can be absolute. How can this be special revelation from God if it is contradictory? How is the Bible-believing Christian to explain these problematic verses, as well as similar problem passages in Proverbs? Are we to say that the book of Proverbs is less inspired and, therefore, less authoritative than other parts of the Bible?
We would contend that every verse when originally written in our canonical book of Proverbs was as fully inspired as the Prophets or any other portion of Scripture (see 2 Tim 3:16). If the entirety of Proverbs is inspired, then it is inerrant. Consequently, Proverbs in its entirety is descriptive truth. This guarantees the accurate preservation of the entirety of Proverbs. However, not all of Proverbs is prescriptive truth. This is also true with the rest of Scripture. All Scripture is descriptive truth, but not all Scripture is prescriptive truth. For example, Satan’s desire to get Job to curse God in Job 2:4–5 and his lie in Genesis 3 are both examples of descriptive truth. Descriptive truth demands that whatever Scripture originally recorded was preserved with historical accuracy. Satan really did what Scripture says he did in Job 2 and Genesis 3. However, prescriptive truth pertains to those truths by which the people of God are to regulate their lives. Satan’s lies and deceitful tactics are not to be followed by God’s people.
How then do we determine if a proverb is prescriptive truth? Comparing Scripture with Scripture most easily does this. More specifically, by comparing a proverb with other biblical revelation, we can determine if we should view a proverb simply as descriptive truth or, more normatively, as prescriptive truth.
A. A descriptive proverb describes a situation of life without noting how it applies or what its exceptions are (Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, pp. 313–14). It is not seeking to influence behavior, rather it seeks to present life the way it actually occurs. It is the reader’s responsibility to discern what is prescriptive and to accept the rest as descriptive truth. An example of a descriptive proverb is 17:8, “A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; wherever he turns, he prospers.” Another example is found in Proverbs 14:20, “The poor is hated even by his neighbor, but those who love the rich are many.” A further example is Proverbs 31:6–7, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more.” Though some have taken this to be a medicinal use of alcohol, this seems, at least in part, to miss the point of using it to forget one’s poverty. However, the real point is that this is describing the way life is. This neither condemns nor condones the use of alcohol (for prescriptive proverbial material against the use of alcohol, see Proverbs 23:29–35). Proverbs 31:6–7 is a descriptive proverb.
B. A prescriptive proverb does more than simply tell about the way life is. It seeks to characterize an attitude or an action in order to influence behavior (ibid.). There are three types of prescriptive proverbs.
1. A prescriptive proverb that allows for exceptions is a generalization. There are two categories of generalizations.
a. Some proverbs allow for limitations in various circumstances. The example we looked at earlier in Proverbs 26:4–5 is certainly an example of this. Wise planning with proper advice is praised in 15:22. However, this is balanced by Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand” (Parsons, p. 160). The foolishness “bound in the heart of a child” in 22:15 may provide a hindrance to the generalization in 22:6 (Zuck, p. 234).
b. Other proverbs are generalizations because they are bound to the dispensation of law. For example, Proverbs 10:22 says, “It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it.” The blessings of wealth were promised to the obedient Israelite in Deuteronomy 28:8–14. This type of promise is not made to believers in the New Testament. At times, a generalization may even be limited in the dispensation of law. An example of this is Proverbs 10:30, “The righteous will never be shaken, but the wicked will not dwell in the land.” When this text says the righteous will not “be shaken,” the sage is referring to righteous Israelites not being uprooted from the land of Israel. However, there were exceptions to this, viz., Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. While we recognize this type of exception, our point is that the “land” emphasis in this proverb reflects that its was written under the dispensation of law and its direct application pertains to those living under the law.
2. A prescriptive proverb that has no exceptions is a moral absolute. This will often be true in proverbs dealing with an action or characteristic of God. Proverbs 11:1 says, “A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is His delight.” Another example is 14:31, “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.” The instructional material in Proverbs 5 against adultery by maintaining a proper marital relationship is a moral absolute. It upholds the moral absolute, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exod 20:14).
3. A prescriptive proverb may contain both a moral absolute and a generalization. Proverbs 3:1–2 is an exhortation to honor one’s father with a promise of long life and peace. The command to honor one’s parents is a moral absolute; however, the promise about life is only a generalization for Jesus Christ was the embodiment of honor to His earthly parents, yet He was crucified in His early thirties. “God in His sovereignty may make an exception as in the case of Jesus” (Parsons, p. 161, n. 72).
VII. Selected Bibliography
Alden, Robert L. Proverbs. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
Berry, Donald K. An Introduction to Wisdom and Poetry of the Old Testament. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1995.
Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. S.v. “Proverbs: Theology of,” by Bruce K. Waltke.
Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.
Garrett, Duane A. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Nashville: Broadman, 1993.
Hildebrandt, Ted A. “Proverb.” In Cracking Old Testament Codes. Edited by D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1995.
Hubbard, David A. Proverbs. Dallas: Word Books, 1989.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.
Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Dallas: Word, 1993.
Mouser, William E., Jr. Walking in Wisdom. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983.
New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. S.v. “Proverbs: Theology of,” by Bruce K. Waltke.
New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. S.v. “Proverbs; Sayings and Themes,” by K. T. Aitken.
Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991.
Parsons, Greg W. “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs.” Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (April-June 1993): 151–70.
Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.
Ross, Allen P. “Proverbs.” In vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and Richard P. Polcyn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.
Ryken, Leland. How to Read the Bible As Literature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
________. Word of Delight. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.
Smith, Gary V. “Is There a Place for Job’s Wisdom in Old Testament Theology?” Trinity Journal 13 (Spring 1992): 3–20.
Stein, Robert H. Playing by the Rules. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.
Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. “Proverbs.” In A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. Edited by Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman III. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
Voorwinde, Stephen. Wisdom for Today’s Issues: A Topical Arrangement of the Proverbs. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1981.
Woodcock, Eldon. Proverbs: A Topical Study. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.
Zuck, Roy B. “A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs.” In A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament. Edited by Roy B. Zuck, Eugene H. Merrill, and Darrell L. Bock. Chicago: Moody, 1991.