3 Tips for Reading Proverbs


City on a Hill is taking a thematic look at the book of Proverbs for the next 7 weeks. In addition, we’re encouraging our people to look at the book themselves, and read a chapter of Proverbs per day for the month of November.
Proverbs is a unique book, one that can seem random and discombobulated. It can sometimes feel a little like taking a lucky dip in a jar of fortune cookies, or scrolling through an ancient twitter feed. Yet it’s unique makeup effectively promotes a life of wisdom and warns against a life of folly, and only the latter would disregard the profit that is to be gained from unravelling its riches.

So here's 3 things to keep in mind when reading Proverbs.


1. Consider the genre

We don’t read a shopping list in the same way we read a love letter, and nor do we read a phone bill in the same way we read an essay. The literary genre of a piece determines the rules we use in gathering its meaning. It’s the same with the Bible.

The Bible is made up of historical narrative (think: Genesis or Matthew), historical record (think: the genealogies), letters (think: Romans or 1 John), prophecy (think: Ezekiel or Micah), songs (think: Psalms) and, and this is where Proverbs fits in, wisdom literature. Proverbs joins the style of Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs, and some of the Psalms as being wisdom literature. Therefore we read it differently than we read one of Paul’s epistles or the book of Revelation, for example.

We read Proverbs recognising its use of poetry, which includes parallelism (when one line intentionally corresponds with another to clarify, or intensify, the meaning), comparisons, rhetorical questions, allegory, imagery, metaphor, repetition, and personification. These rhetorical effects are designed to teach in a way that is memorable and repeatable, and persuade us to follow. As Dan Phillips writes:

A proverb typically is truth dressed to travel. It is wisdom compressed, compacted, stripped down to its essentials, and ready to go. Proverbs are tailored in such a way as to snag and stay in the mind. Think of that ad jingle you can’t get out of your head, that bumper-sticker so clever you can’t wait to tell a friend, that T-shirt so sharp and on-target that you want to wear it to parties. Proverbs do not try to say everything. But what they do say, they say artfully and memorably.

As we understand the poetic techniques in Proverbs we realise too that this book isn’t imparting universal laws, but general truths that teach wisdom, but also teach that wisdom is needed for their application. It takes wisdom to use wisdom, and Proverbs will give that wisdom to the wise who are listening.


2. Consider the characters

Proverbs doesn’t include specific characters like a historical narrative, there is no drama with a hero or villain. But Proverbs does include personifications of people. The most obvious are the wise, the fool, and the simple. The proverbs in the book highlight that we should pursue being wise, and avoid being the fool or the simple. Wisdom is personified as a noble lady, and folly as Lady Folly. Therefore we should read Proverbs with the question ‘who is this proverb calling me to be?’ in the forefront of our minds.


3. Consider the gospel

When Jesus walked the earth it was said of him ‘something greater than Solomon is here’ (Matthew 12:42). He is the ultimate personification of wisdom, and in the gospel, He invites us to be united with Him and have our whole life shaped by His. Proverbs is the practical outworking of what it looks like to become more like Jesus, in the very ordinary details of life. The gospel is all pervasive, affecting how we live in a godly way in the ordinary and the mundane details of everyday life, and so Proverbs has much to teach us about walking as gospel people.

Don’t take a proverb divorced from the truth of the gospel. Don’t despair when you’re exposed as a fool, because in Christ you are made wise (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Use your conviction that your pride should lead to destruction (Proverbs 16:18) to drive you toward the cross, where your destruction was borne by the God born in the flesh. The gospel tells us that God is utterly and eagerly committed to making you like Jesus (Romans 8:29), and the book of Proverbs does that in a profoundly practical way.

Author: Nick Coombs
Published: 04 Nov 2014

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