Reading Proverbs

“The one that speaks much, is much mistaken.”
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
“Do not ask. Do not say. Everything lies in silence.”

All three of these sayings speak to the same virtue: knowing when to speak and when to be silent. All three are proverbial statements yet only one actually comes from the book of Proverbs. Can you tell which one?

The first saying was penned by Benjamin Franklin.
The second saying is Proverbs 10:19.
The third saying is from a fortune cookie.

What is a Proverb?

So what is a proverb? What makes the second saying all that different from the first and third, which say essentially the same thing?

Proverbs are wisdom statements that teach us about life and the way in which we should live it. Proverbs are not universally true like other types of Biblical genres. For example, when God makes a promise, it is universally true. When God said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5) there are no exceptions.

Yet we can all think of exceptions to some Proverbs. Take Proverbs 15:22 for example, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” I know of a few people who have built businesses from the ground up, with little to no help. They make decisions alone, and always seem to make the right one. I also know of a few times when someone got too many opinions and it led them to make the wrong decision.

Even though there are some exceptions, the proverb is generally true. People generally make much better plans when they seek and heed wise advice than when they attempt to make those same decisions alone.

The question remains, what makes the proverb different from the Benjamin Franklin quote or a fortune cookie saying expressing the same sentiment?

Proverbs >

Proverbs are greater than Benjamin Franklin quotes and fortune cookies because they teach us more than simply what life is like. They teach us who God is, the source of all wisdom.

Every proverb should be interpreted through the lens of Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The same sentiment is expressed in 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

While they definitely speak to practical areas of life like appropriate expression of emotions, business ethics, family relationships, guidance/planning, openness to advice and even physical discipline, the reader should not miss the fact that all that practical advice is rooted in the main idea of Proverbs: true wisdom begins with knowing God. Proverbs scholar Tremper Longman III points out the deeply theological nature of the book, “Proverbs is not rightly understood if it is taken as a book of practical advice with an occasional nod of the head to Yahweh. The book is thoroughly and pervasively theological.”

Jesus in the Proverbs

You don’t have to be around our church for long to know that we’re all about Jesus. Everything we do, but especially how we read the Bible, is very Christo-centric. So how do the Proverbs point us to Jesus? Allow me to suggest two ways.

First, Proverbs is a book of sayings firmly in the Wisdom tradition of the Bible. (other books in the Wisdom tradition include Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and James). Since the linchpin to understanding the book of Proverbs lies in our understanding of the nature of God (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10) and our understanding of God hinges on our ability to know Jesus (John 5:23-24, John 17:3,22, Colossians 1:19, Hebrews 1:3) the Proverbs point us to Jesus because Jesus is the ultimate source of wisdom. He is wisdom.

The Proverbs also point us to Jesus because they actually fail in universally leading us to wisdom. Like we saw earlier, there are exceptions to the proverbs. They are not meant to be read as universally binding statements of wisdom. Jesus, however, is meant to be understood as the ultimate, universal, never-failing wisdom in a very futile, foolish world.

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