Jill's parents did everything right. They raised their daughter according to the truths of Scripture. Prayers before meals; prayers before bed. Church three times a week. During the summer, Jill attended church-sponsored camps where she memorized Bible verses. During the semester, she attended a top-tier private Christian school.
But in college, Jill renounced the faith and intentionally distanced herself from church. Expelled for drug and alcohol use, she moved in to live with her boyfriend. Jill's parents were shocked. "What have we done wrong?" they asked. "Why has Jill rejected the God we raised her to love?"
Church friends quietly whispered about Jill's parents' failure to raise a good child. After all, Proverbs 22:6 says, "Teach a youth about the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." If Jill departed, it must mean her parents failed. Good parenting in; good kids out, right?
Not so fast. Interpreting the proverbs as promises is a critical mistake that can fuel legalism, moralism, and disillusionment. Once again, we see the importance of knowing how to interpret the different genres of Scripture and the heartache that comes from a misguided interpretation.
The Purpose of the Proverbs
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings categorized under the umbrella of wisdom literature. Unlike the genre of historical narrative that purposes to tell a story, wisdom literature provides general truths about living in a way that honors God.
A proverb is a pithy and persuasive statement or series of statements that has been proven true by experience. However, proverbs are not proven true in every case. For instance, Proverbs 3:1-3 says that if you obey the commandments in Scripture, "they will bring you many days, a full life." This doesn't mean that all Christians who obey God's commandments will live into their late 70s and 80s. Instead, it means that if you live a life of discipline (1:2), avoid falling into sexual promiscuity (2:16-19), maintain character and integrity in your relationships (3:29-30), and guard your lips from lies (4:24), then it is generally true that the pitfalls that come from sinful actions will escape you.
Not always, though. Sometimes obeying God's commandments can directly lead to premature death. Take Stephen, for instance. After being faithful to Christ's instructions to preach the gospel to all nations (Mark 16:15), Stephen boldly proclaimed God's truth and was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-60). Proverbs are general truths. We need to interpret them in that way.
Likewise, we cannot pull one proverb out of context and apply it universally. The two proverbs in Proverbs 26:4-5 appear to contradict one another until you realize that the author is referring to different circumstances. Sometimes it's best to speak to the fool; other times it's best to stay silent.
The Purpose of Wisdom Literature
Like the Book of Proverbs, the other books of wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes) must be interpreted according to their individual purposes. Whereas Job sheds light on the proper relationship between God and people, Psalms has a variety of purposes: lament and petition, thanksgiving and praise, exaltation of the king, and expressions of trust. These purposes must be interpreted according to each individual category within the Psalms.
At first glance, some verses in the Song of Songs may be interpreted to promote promiscuity (Song of Songs 4:5); however, when they are interpreted in the context of marriage, they illustrate the beauty of intimacy shared between a husband and his bride, beauty that points forward to the relationship between Christ and his church.
What about Ecclesiastes? This book shows us by negative example how best to behave. For instance, when the author says, "Everything is futile" (Eccl. 1:2), we must interpret this statement in light of other Scripture verses that explain the true meaning and ultimate value of living a godly life (Rom. 12:2; 15:14; Eph. 5:8; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).
Misinterpreting wisdom literature can point us in the wrong direction, away from a life that honors and glorifies God. Jill never returned to the faith she was raised to observe . . . at least not yet. But who knows? Like the prodigal son who "came to his senses," Proverbs 22:6 might just prove to be true in Jill's case after all.
This is an excerpt from The Gospel Project for Adults Bible Study from LifeWay. The Gospel Project is an ongoing 13-week Bible study curriculum for all age groups that helps people see Scripture as one over-arching story that points to what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Find out more and download one month to review free at www.gospelproject.com.
Christian George is assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is the author of Sex, Sushi, & Salvation, Godology, and Sacred Travels. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.