Interpreting Proverbs

The types of sayings found in Proverbs reflect a way of thinking and teaching that has been largely abandoned in modern Western culture.  Proverbs are general statements of truth rather than invariable promises or laws.  An individual proverb normally captures a tiny cross-section of truth rather than making a comprehensive statement about a topic-a single principle that is one small piece of a much larger mosaic.  The task of the student of wisdom is not only to put together the broader mosaic piece by piece but also to learn to apply these principles skillfully to the complexities that one encounters in life.  The goal of the wisdom in Proverbs is to develop skill in living according to the order that is embedded in God’s creation.

Most proverbs state a single general truth with little attempt to note exceptions and qualifications.  Such an approach effectively emphasizes the principle taught by avoiding the distraction of qualifications.  The authors of proverbs also emphasize the points they wanted to make through the use of idealized examples and hyperbole.  While the sluggard, for example, is a real character, he is described in exaggerated terms that set his basic characteristics in clear relief.

While the book addresses a wide variety of issues, it gives considerable attention to matters such as the contrast between the wise person and the fool, the importance of virtues such as diligence and self-control, the importance of using words wisely, warnings about sexual immorality, the responsible use of money, priorities, and advice about proper behavior in a variety of social settings.  Most proverbs deal with the general and the typical, but their goal is to equip people with the skills to apply wisdom to the particular experiences of life.

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The proverbs of Solomon

son of David, king of Israel:

For gaining wisdom

and being instructed;

for understanding insightful sayings;

for receiving wise instruction

[in] righteousness, justice, and integrity;

for teaching shrewdness

to the inexperienced,

knowledge and discretion

to a young man-

a wise man will listen and increase

his learning,

and a discerning man

will obtain guidance-

for understanding a proverb

or a parable,

the words of the wise, and their riddles.

The fear of the Lord

is the beginning of knowledge;

fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:1-7

Understanding Proverbs commentary by Edward M. Curtis, Talbot School of Theology, in the HCSB Apologetics Study Bible (2007), pages 918, 919.

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