Once upon a time—I think it was the summer of 2004—I was a camp counselor, and one of the boys in my cabin handed me a CD with a single sermon on it. He said his mom loved the preacher, and I should check it out. So on my day off, I listened to the message that would later be expanded into the Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness booklet. The name of the preacher was Tim Keller. The series was Proverbs.

A couple years later I sat in a living room in East Asia where, over several months, my ministry team listened to the whole series. Numerous proverbs sprang to life in ways I’d never experienced. I also glimpsed something I didn’t expect to see: the shadow of Jesus Christ.

In their new devotional, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs, Keller and his wife, Kathy, guide us thematically through the Book of Proverbs over 365 days. (This is a follow-up to their daily devotional on Psalms.) With biblical reflections and sample prayers on every page, this is an illuminating and edifying resource.

(Psst—it’s not a bad Christmas gift, either.)

I asked Keller, vice president of TGC and former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, about preaching Christ from Proverbs, interpreting “contradictory” verses, becoming a Proverbs 31 man,  and more.

How do we interpret the Proverbs without falling into a soft prosperity gospel (“If I do this, then that good thing will happen”)?

Proverbs should be read “synoptically” along with the other wisdom books to give you a complete picture of life on earth. Proverbs tells us that there’s a created order put into the fabric of the world by its Creator. That is why, in general, hard work tends to lead to good outcomes and laziness to bad ones. But Ecclesiastes reminds us that, because of sin, this created order is confused (it doesn’t always “work”). You may work hard, but only “thorns and thistles” come up (Gen. 3:18). And the Book of Job also reminds us that even though God’s order is still operative—his justice is always working itself out—so often it’s hidden.

If you only read Proverbs, you might become like one of Job’s friends, who believed good people always have good lives. But if you only read Ecclesiastes, you might think it virtually impossible to enjoy wellbeing and satisfaction within the confines of this world, “under the sun.” But we are to read all of Scripture, lest we get a distorted view (just as we’d get a distorted view if we read just the Old Testament or even just the New Testament.)

For this reason, I inserted about three weeks of devotionals on Ecclesiastes and Job into the year-long study of Proverbs.

How do we make sense of proverbs that seem to contradict one another (e.g., Prov. 26:4–5)?

If you read each proverb strictly as either a command or a promise, then you do seem to have contradictory statements. But if you realize that proverbs are more “observations on how life works,” then different proverbs on the same topic modify one another, providing a rich, nuanced, multi-dimensional picture of every part of human life. The famous pair of proverbs you mention, when understood as observations rather than commands, are no contradiction. They instruct us that sometimes you should “answer a fool” and sometimes you should not. If read carefully, these proverbs also give you some guidance as to how to make that determination.

As wisdom literature, Proverbs offers a great bridge for talking with unbelievers about the Bible. How might a Christian use the Book of Proverbs in apologetics or evangelism?

The working “epistemology” of many people today is highly pragmatic. People aren’t so much concerned with truth as with “what works for me.” Proverbs can be a bridge to such people, although in the end it will also confront them. Secular people will need to learn that the only reason the Book of Proverbs is so richly practical is because it’s grounded in divine truth about God’s character. The Bible only “works” because it’s true—true to how God created and redeemed us.

It’s often hard to preach or teach Proverbs because of how detached it can feel from Christ. What are the quickest lines to draw between the proverbs and Jesus?

Jesus is the true wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 2:3). Jesus identifies with the Lady Wisdom of Proverbs (Matt. 11:18–19). What does this mean?

  1. It means he’s the ultimate teacher of wisdom who calls us to choose between “two paths” to walk in life (Prov. 2:1–5; Matt. 7:13–14).
  2. It means he’s the ultimate giver of wisdom. Solomon calls us to write his teaching on our hearts (Prov. 3:3), but Jesus himself writes God’s Word on our hearts with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:3).
  3. It means only through faith in Christ do we get the true “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7). “Fear” is not fright, but awe and wonder, “fear and trembling”—the combination of humility and joy that keeps us from the foolishness of either being wise in our own eyes or of being unrealistically self-loathing. The gospel is the greatest source of the “humble boldness” that creates wisdom.

What practical impact has Proverbs had on your preaching and pastoral counseling over the years?

Just as the Book of Psalms is the Lord’s Prayer applied practically to every possible situation and condition of our hearts, so the Book of Proverbs is the Ten Commandments applied to every possible situation in our daily lives. Without these two books, we would truly be at a loss. We would have a lot of principles but wouldn’t know how to apply them very well. While the Book of Proverbs is invaluable for preaching (especially application), it is, if possible, even more valuable in pastoral care and counseling.

How should men apply Proverbs 31 to their lives?

It’s helpful to remember Proverbs was probably originally a manual for the instruction of young men. The readers are always addressed as “sons.” In chapter 31 the original readers got a picture of the kind of wife they should be seeking. (Some women have complained that such an ideal spouse as depicted here doesn’t exist. Yes, but neither does a truly loving person exist—think 1 Corinthians 13—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to be one.)

For males, however, chapter 31 also gives insights into the kind of men and husbands they should be. They should trust and have confidence in their wives rather than trying to control them (v. 11). They should consider their wives to be true partners in enterprises rather than disempowered assistants (vv. 13–18). They should praise their wives and build them up publicly and privately (vv. 28–29). They shouldn’t be afraid of strong women, since the word “noble” used of this wife (v. 10) means to be bold and valiant, a term ordinarily used of warriors (think “Lucy the Valiant”).

Finally, men shouldn’t be nearly as influenced by physical and sexual beauty as they are. It is “deceptive . . . fleeting” (v.30). Men in both ancient times and still today have been far too affected by female appearance—and they tend to assess, accept, and reject women on the basis of their looks rather than on their character and especially their “fear of the Lord” (v. 30).