How Do Biblical Proverbs Operate?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The Bible contains numerous proverbial sayings (not just in the Book of Proverbs), and these sayings have some characteristics that must be kept in mind when reading them.  These characteristics can also be found in non-biblical proverbial literature.

Biblical scholar Walter Kaiser lists a few of these characteristics in his book The Uses of the Old Testament in the New.  Here is Kaiser’s list:

1.  Universal moral statements in proverbial literature may be limited to:

a. only a certain tendency of some thing(s) to produce a certain effect (e.g., Prov. 15:1 – though there are times when it may have no effect on wicked men)

b. only telling what generally or often takes place without making it an irreversible rule for any and all situations (e.g., Prov. 22:6 – though some children occasionally will refuse the best of parental leadership and help)

c. only noting what is the normal course of action without listing some implied or understood exceptions (e.g., Matt. 5:34 – though this does not forbid us from taking legitimate oaths in court)

2.  Universal moral truths in proverbial literature may often be stated as direct opposites when they are meant to be understood in terms of priorities or to be taken comparatively in such expressions as:

a. “I desire mercy, not sacrifices” (Hos. 6:6; Matt. 9:13; Matt 12:7)

b. “To obey is better than to sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22; Ps. 51:17, 19; Jer. 7:22-23)

3.  Universal moral truths in proverbial literature often assume that the correspondingly proper circumstance is also understood, thus:

a. Prov. 26:4

b. Prov. 26:5

I hope these three points help you to better understand what’s going on when you read proverbs in the Bible.