What is a proverb?

by Luke Wayne
6/16/17

The definition of "proverb" is "a short, pithy saying stating a general truth or piece of advice." Proverbs are meant to convey common wisdom or prudent counsel about how the world usually works. They are not promises or guarantees about how the world will always work in every specific situation but are reliable guidelines to live by based on how things normally happen under most circumstances. A common American proverb, for example, is "Actions speak louder than words." Such a saying is meant to remind the hearer that it is not enough to merely say something. What we do should back it up. Indeed, in many cases, our actions are enough and words become unnecessary. As such a general principle, this is a good and valuable piece of cultural wisdom. However, one cannot say that in every instance actions really do speak louder than words. We can all think of (or at least imagine) situations where someone was won over by the empty words of a deceiver over against the genuine loving actions of a person who really cared about them. That actions speak louder than words is not an ironclad law of logic to which reality will always bend. It is, instead, a general piece of wisdom about how life normally works. It is a clic we are urged to live by, not because there are no exceptions, but because it is a sound piece of advice based on common sense and typical occurrence in most situations.

Biblical proverbs communicate a higher wisdom than mere cultural proverbs, but they are still meant to be proverbs. They are not promises by God that if we do certain things we will always get corresponding results, nor are they commands declaring corresponding judgments against all who disobey. They are memorable pieces of divine wisdom containing general truths about how life tends to work. As John Macarthur explains:

"Proverbs are divine guidelines and wise observations, i.e. teaching underlying principles which are not always inflexible laws or absolute promises. These expressions of general truth generally do have 'exceptions,' due to the uncertainty of life and unpredictable behavior of fallen men. God does not guarantee uniform outcome or application for each proverb, but in studying them and applying them, one comes to contemplate the mind of God, His character, His attributes, His works, and His blessings."1

And as J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays put it:

"Proverbs presents the rational, ordered norms of life. The many proverbs in the book are not universals (i.e. things that are always true), but rather norms of life (i.e. things that are normally true). God has set in place an ordered, rational world, and it all makes sense. If you work hard, you will prosper, if you don't, you will be poor. Wise, righteous, hardworking people can expect a blessed, prosperous life while foolish, sinful, lazy people can expect a hard life."2

Life doesn't always work that way, and other books like Job and Ecclesiastes specifically wrestle with and draw out important lessons from the kind of situations where it doesn't follow this pattern and when we don't quite understand why. For example, Proverbs 12:11 says:

"He who tills his land will have plenty of bread, But he who pursues worthless things lacks sense."

This obviously means that the person who works hard at useful and productive labor will provide for his needs while the person who wastes their effort on useless, frivolous, or foolish endeavors will not. This is generally true, and a good principle to live by, but it is not meant to say that every poor man is a lazy fool or that every prosperous man is a diligent hard worker. The man who plows the field diligently in a time a drought and famine may still go hungry sometimes. Thieves may steal the honest man's possessions and get the upper hand in the short run. In this sin-sick world, things go wrong in ways that are beyond our control. But as far as those things that are in our control, this is the wisest course of action. As a general rule, honest and consistent labor in a productive and needed trade is the most reliable way a man can provide for himself and others, and we ought not to be distracted from it by frivolous desires or foolish "get rich quick" schemes. Likewise, Proverbs 12:21 reads:

"No harm befalls the righteous, But the wicked are filled with trouble."

Yet, we know of times where humble, godly men who are genuinely seeking to do right still find themselves afflicted with illness or disabled in some unexpected accident. Indeed, many biblical authors struggle with the reality that sometimes the righteous suffer more than the wicked and sometimes evil men seem to face no consequences for their vile actions in this life. Likewise, the New Testament promises that sinful men will always display hostility and often even violence toward those clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

"Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted," (2 Timothy 3:12).

Proverbs like the one quoted above are not meant to deny that such things happen. They are merely pointing out that a life of wickedness tends to attract a variety of calamities that a life of righteousness typically avoids. A sexually promiscuous lifestyle is far more likely to lead to disease, ill-health, emotional turmoil, and all sorts of other troubles that a faithful marriage usually avoids. Drug dealers, thieves, and gangsters are often surrounded by violence and distrust. Gossips and liars are plagued by drama, anger, broken relationships, and any number of other difficulties far beyond those typically faced by the honest, quiet, sincere person of virtuous speech. In general, lives of flagrant sin and debauchery attract all kinds of difficulty and harm that righteous and godly lives do not. As a basic pattern for how normal life works, this is a wise truth. But to take this proverb and turn it into a means of judging your struggling neighbor and saying that if they are suffering it must be a result of some secret sin or evil in their life is to miss the point completely and to fall into the error of Job's foolish friends.

So, the biblical Proverbs represent godly wisdom and sound advice by which we ought to live. We do well to study them, meditate on them, and put them into practice throughout our life. They are an insight into the heart of God and also into the nature of life. They are not, however, promises from which we can point the finger at God nor question the validity of His word every time we observe an exception. The Bible openly acknowledges such exceptions. Proverbs aren't meant to be ironclad rules for all circumstances. They are, instead, keys to godly wisdom, understanding, and prudent living as we walk through an often difficult to understand life this side of eternity.

 

  • 1. John Macarthur, The Macarthur Study Bible (Word Publishing, 1997) 876
  • 2. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God's Word (Zondervan, 2005) 390