The expository preacher aims to preach both single books of Scripture and the canon as a whole. He may turn to Proverbs for the summer because it’s practical, fills a unique slot in the canon, and suits months when people come and go, making self-contained messages beneficial.
But Proverbs presents unique challenges for three primary reasons. First, since consecutive proverbs seem to have slight connection to one another, how does one preach an expository message on one verse?
Second, some proverbs seem like promises that aren’t always true. Constraints of space require me to refer readers to commentaries like The Book of Proverbs by Bruce Waltke, which answer that question well.
Third, we wonder how proverbs lead organically to Christ. Pastors know it would be easy to preach moralistically, with the gospel tacked on at the end: “No one is wise like this, no one can do this, so turn to Jesus.”
I want to concentrate on the first and third challenges.
Some Structural Unity
The first problem is not so acute as it seems, since Proverbs has more structural unity than initially appears. Early chapters develop several themes at length: the fear of the Lord (1:1–19), the call to wisdom (1–2; 8–9), trust in the Lord (3:1–12), teaching fathers and listening sons (4), sexual abstinence and pleasure (5; 6:20–7:27). We can link many proverbs from chapters 10 to 30 to these leading themes:
- Descriptions of the wise and the fool (12:15–16; 17:10, 12, 16) fit Proverbs 8–9.
- Instructions for parents and children (10:1; 22:6; 22:15; 29:15; 13:1; 23:22) belong with Proverbs 4.
- If Proverbs 5 blesses the romantic aspect of marriage, Proverbs 31 names the practical element. Single proverbs about the blessings of marriage (12:4; 18:22; 19:14; contra 21:9) fill out the picture.
There are also clusters of Proverbs that develop a theme. We have messages for fools (26:1–12), especially sluggards (6:6–11; 26:13–16); advice for dining with rulers (23:1–3); and warnings about drunkenness (23:29–35). A burst on God’s plans and ours in 16:1–4 unifies scattered sayings (16:9; 12:15; 11:14; 15:22; 24:10).
Similarly, individual proverbs on getting and keeping wealth (10:22–25; 11:24–25; 15:27) develop the first and last cluster on wise use of wealth (10:1–5; 22:22–23:11).
Four Christ-Centered Themes
These clusters lead organically to Jesus if we take time to work through all his roles. Jesus is the wisest man, the Son perfectly attuned to the Father, the true husband, the perfect worker, the loyal friend, the man who followed God’s plans, who knew how to handle wealth. Consider these four themes.
1. Jesus the good worker.
Dozens of Proverbs praise diligence and mock laziness. It almost seems the Gospel writers had the wise, faithful worker of Proverbs in mind when they described Jesus. For example, a fool doesn’t know when it’s time to work (24:30–34), but Jesus was never “slack in his work” (18:9). He knew he had to work during the day, when he had opportunity (John 9:1–5). The sluggard loves to sleep and eat; these are his main activities (26:14–15; 20:13).
But Jesus worked hard (John 5:17), toiling through the night as he prayed (Luke 6:12), as he taught his disciples (John 13:30–17:26), and as he suffered for his people (Matt. 26:36–75). Above all, Jesus fulfills the promises that the wise, hard-working man will see results for his labor (10:4–5; 12:9, 11, 14, 27; 16:26). By his work on the cross, Jesus became the hard working man who accomplished his work (John 4:34). When Jesus finished the work the Father gave him, he saw the result of his labor and was satisfied (Isa. 53:11; John 5:36; 19:30).
2. Jesus the faithful son.
Jesus is the ideal son of Proverbs 4 who heeds his Father’s instruction. He does what his Father says (4:1), keeps his heart pure (4:23; cf. John 8:46), speaks as his Father directs (John 12:49), and follows his Father’s path (4:26–27; John 12:23–28; Luke 9:22, 46; Acts 2:23).
Jesus performs the work his Father gives, especially by giving his life for his people (10:1, 5; John 5:19, 36; 10:17–18). For John, Jesus is a truly noble Son. He is the Son who grants others the right to become sons of God (John 1:12–13). Indeed, he brings many sons to glory with him, by tasting death and defeating the one who held death’s power (Heb. 2:8b–15).
3. Jesus the true friend.
The principal sayings in Proverbs about friendship stress loyalty and faithfulness, especially in time of need. We have seven great proverbs on friendship (17:17; 18:24; 19:4, 6; 27:6–10), but they seem atomistic, with no link to great themes of Proverbs (although there is a “difficulty in relationships” section in 18:23–19:7). But according to Scripture, friendship originates in the character of God.
The Lord was a friend of Abraham and Moses, which he proved by helping them in time of need and by revealing himself to them (Gen. 18–19; James 2:23; Exod. 33:7–11; 34:6). In John 15:13–15, Jesus reveals himself as archetype of friendship when he lays down his life for his friends.
4. Jesus the wisdom of God incarnate.
As a child, Jesus was filled with wisdom (Luke 2:40, 52). Later, crowds marveled at his wisdom (Matt. 13:54). Solomon was Israel’s wisest king, yet of himself Jesus claimed, “One greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42; cf. 1 Kings 4:32; Matt. 11:19). Paul agrees: Jesus is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). In him all wisdom is hidden (Col. 2:3).
Additional themes abound. Jesus always delivers the truth well (25:11, 15; contra 26:7). He hates a bribe and unjust gain (15:27). He trusted God with all his heart, even though his path seems crooked, until the resurrection proved it straight (3:1–10).
Three Paths to Christ
A preaching plan, then, might look like this: A pastor notices a cluster of proverbs on a theme that illumines an aspect of living in the fear of the Lord (1:7). He closely studies one or more core proverbs, then fills out the picture by drawing on others, scattered through the book. If biblical history illustrates the teaching, all the better (see Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 303–313).
So the preacher will present Christ from Proverbs in three ways:
First, show how Jesus embodies and completes every element of wisdom.
Second, show how Jesus’s roles as wise worker, friend, son, spouse, and righteous man lead to his redemptive work. We don’t merely want to staple Jesus to the end of a moralistic sermon: “You need to do this. Actually, you can’t, so turn to Jesus.” Because Proverbs always describe the wise man and the fool, it is never mere moralism. Because it describes character, it describes Christ.
Third, show how that, since Proverbs describes Jesus, it includes those who belong to him—the men and women who abide in the true vine and bear much fruit through union with him. Proverbs describes Jesus who is our model, our Redeemer, our strength. And since Jesus enables by grace, even as he redeems by grace, wise living is within reach.