Can the promises in the Old Testament book of Proverbs be taken seriously? Someone suggested that, “many cannot take the book seriously because its promises seem removed from the harsh realities of their experiences.”
One proverb promises that, “He who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long life” (Proverbs 1:19). Others promise protection, prosperity, safety, life at ease, and health to those who choose a path of wisdom and obedience (Proverbs 1:32-33; 3:1-2, 7-8, 9-10).
Do all who follow the path of wisdom enjoy these benefits? “The righteous” we are told, “is delivered from trouble, but the wicked takes his place” (Proverbs 11:8). Should we expect this for all righteous people? How would it apply to what we call heroes of faith noted in Hebrews 11?
A well-known proverb says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Many parents have understood this as an absolute promise. But does it always turn out this way?
How should we understand Proverbs 16:3, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed”? This appears to be an iron-clad assurance of success for those who dedicate their plans to God.
“People who reason that way can be disappointed. They can dedicate some perfectly selfish or idiotic scheme to God, and then if it happens to succeed, even briefly, they can assume that God blessed it. A hasty marriage, a rash business decision, an ill-thought-out vocational decision — all can be dedicated to God but can eventually result in misery. Or, a person might commit a plan to God only to have it fail; then the person would wonder why God did not keep his promise, why he went back on his inspired Word” (Gordon Fee, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth).
Do the Biblical proverbs promise too much? How can this apparent tension be resolved? Four guidelines will help avoid wrong applications when interpreting and applying the proverbs.
First, it should be noted the proverbs are brief, poetic statements of truth– written for easy recall. They are not intended as completed statements on the subjects they cover. “By their very nature,” one has written, “they are partial utterances which cannot protect themselves by qualifications.”
“No proverb is so perfectly worded that it can stand up to the unreasonable demand that it apply in every situation at every time. The more briefly and parabolically a parable is stated, the more common sense and good judgment are needed to interpret it properly — but the more effective and memorable it is. They do not state everything about truth but they point toward it. They are, taken literally, often technically inexact. But as learnable guidelines for the shaping of selected behavior they are unsurpassed … the proverb is not a categorical, always applicable, ironclad promise, but a more general truth; it teaches that lives committed to God and lived according to his will succeed according to God’s definition of success.” (Fee)
Secondly, individual proverbs must be understood in the context of the whole book (and the rest of scripture). The larger context of Proverbs reveals that the instruction is primarily directed to children and youth. Proverbs is a father’s (and implicitly a mother’s) instruction to sons. It is presented to equip them for avoiding specific threats to wise and prosperous living.
The Proverbs warn young people about specific lifestyles. The ways of fools– whether the sexually immoral, sluggards, drunkards, hot-tempered individuals, scoffers, the contentious or violent— do not result in abundant life and peace. Individual proverbs must be considered in light of this primary audience, and the father’s concerns for shaping selected behaviors.
“It is neither selfish nor unrealistic for a parent to wish a child a reasonable level of success in life — including social acceptance, freedom from want, and moral uprightness. Proverbs provides a collection of pithy, advisory statements designed to do just that. There is no guarantee, of course, that a life will always go well for a young person. What Proverbs does say is that, all things being equal, there are basic attitudes and patterns of behavior that will help a person grow into responsible adulthood.” (Fee)
Thirdly, we must read the proverbs as a whole collection. For example, the proverbs promising material prosperity for those who chose wisdom and the fear of the Lord must be understood in the context of “better-than” proverbs (see Proverbs 15:16-17; 16:8, 19; 17:1; 19:22b; 25:24; 28:6). These proverbs place an important limit on material prosperity. In such proverbs, we learn that it is possible to be poor and blessed, or oppressed and wise. By reading the proverbs collectively we will find that they offer a balanced outlook on life.
Finally, Many proverbs are not always immediately validated. Because the proverbs are based on observation (24:32), they in essence say, “Experience validates that certain negative character traits/actions lead to negative consequences and these other good character traits/actions lead to good and prosperous consequences.” Yet as the “better than proverbs” reveal, life under the sun does not always vindicate the observations. The book acknowledges that there are exceptions. The exceptions, however, are only temporary because the end (in God’s final judgment) will bring a grand reversal to the wrongs of this life (see: Proverbs 11:7; 14:12).
When each individual proverb is considered in light of these guidelines, the reader can avoid the conclusion that the Proverbs promises too much.