Solving the Puzzle of the Proverbs

Editors’ note: 

Read an interview with Tim Keller on seeing Christ in Proverbs, avoiding a soft prosperity gospel, interpreting “contradictory” proverbs, being a Proverbs 31 man, and more.

Proverbs is not a set of “simple steps to a happy life” for quick consumption. A proverb is a poetic art form that instills wisdom in you as you wrestle with it. As English readers we cannot receive the full force of the original, and yet we can still learn enough about the features of Hebrew poetry to discern layers of meaning that we would otherwise miss.

Perhaps the most fundamental mark of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Two phrases, clauses, or sentences are brought into close connection with each other so that they modify and expand on each other. The second may magnify and extend the thought of the first, or it may instead offer a counterpoint that limits and softens the first idea.

In each case the two thoughts mutually clarify each other, sharpening our understanding. So Proverbs 13:6 says, “Righteousness guards the person of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner.” The first clause helps us understand “wickedness” in the second clause more specifically as a lack of integrity. Because of parallelism, the words “wicked” and “righteous” and “wise” and “foolish,” which show up constantly and (seemingly) repetitiously, actually mean somewhat different things in each proverb. We miss much of the meaning of a proverb unless we compare the clauses closely and watch for the interplay between words.

Another prominent feature of Hebrew poetry, as in all poetry, is the importance of vivid images. A beautiful but foolish woman is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout (Prov. 11:22); a lazy employee is like vinegar to the teeth (Prov. 10:26). Images and metaphors are always invitations to think out the many ways that “this is like that.” A thoughtful reader can list five, then ten, then more ways that the image explains the principle.

Proverbs as Puzzle

Goethe once said of languages that “whoever know only one, knows none,” and that is likely true, but it is even more true of proverbs. If one proverb says, “The morally good always have a good life,” and later another says, “Sometimes the morally good suffer,” we modern readers think we’ve found a contradiction. That’s because we think of proverbs either as individual stand-alone promises or commands. But usually they are neither. Each is a description of some aspect of how life works.

One proverb on marriage, taken all by itself, seems to apply to every instance. A later proverb, however, reveals that there are some marriage situations in which a different practice is required. Only taken and fitted together, with each one modifying the others as the parallel clauses do, do the proverbs yield a full, multidimensional picture of a particular topic.

Proverbs, then, give up their meaning only cumulatively. No one saying gives you the whole picture. Proverbs 29:19 says that servants simply can’t understand the reason they should do things, so you just have to be strict with them. This seems to be a sweeping statement about their capabilities, but Proverbs 17:2 tells us that a wise servant can end up being better than a family member. Only when the two are placed together can we see that Proverbs 29:19 is not talking about all servants and employees but rather about those with an unresponsive, sullen attitude.

So if we read Proverbs’ various statements on a subject all together, we can see many larger points. In chapter 12 we are told that the path toward disaster can seem to be the right one to a fool, but in chapter 16, that the disastrous road can appear to be right to anyone. In other words, sometimes, even if you have done due diligence, your choices may still go wrong, because it is a broken world. The wise know that sometimes “all paths may run ill.” As we will see, there is an order God put into things when he created the world and by which we must abide. But on the other hand this is a fallen world, distorted by sin, and the wise know that the created order does not always work, nor is it always easy to discern.

Only all together do the proverbs bring us a wise, nuanced, theologically rich, many-faceted view of the world.

Proverbs as Part of the Whole Bible

While we call Proverbs a “book,” it really is one chapter in a much larger book—the Bible—which presents, through all its various parts and narratives, a single, coherent story. That story is that the human race has marred God’s good creation through sin and now needs salvation, and that this salvation has been accomplished and can be found only in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, like every other part of the Bible, Proverbs will give up its fullest and richest meaning only when it is read in the light of the person and work of Jesus. Jesus dazzled his listeners with his wisdom (Luke 2:40,47; Mark 6:2). He claimed to be the new Solomon with the ultimate wisdom (Luke 11:31). The personified Wisdom that created the world (Prov. 8:2 2–31) is finally revealed to be Jesus, the Word of God, with whom God created the world (John 1: 1–4.) Paul calls Jesus the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24, 30), the one in whom all God’s wisdom is hidden (Col. 2:3).

Remember, too, that “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7, 9:10) is the beginning of wisdom. A living, vital relationship with God is wisdom’s absolute prerequisite. This “fear,” as we will see, is not cringing terror but an attitude of awe and wonder before the faithful, covenant love of God. The New Testament shows us that the kind of relationship with the Lord that Proverbs calls for can be fully realized only through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Editors’ note: Excerpt from God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life by Timothy and Kathy Keller by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright© 2017 by Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller.

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