How Do We Interpret the Proverbs?

Some readers of the Book of Proverbs have raised objections to its contents. First, some proverbs seem to command a certain behavior, but then others command a different, incompatible behavior. Second, some proverbs appear to make promises that other parts of the Bible seem to contradict. Third, some proverbs make what appear to be comprehensive statements that seem to be contradicted by the realities of life.

Edward Curtis, in the Apologetics Study Bible, offers the following guidance on how to read and interpret the Book of Proverbs in light of the objections above.

The types of sayings found in Proverbs reflect a way of thinking and teaching that has been largely abandoned in modern Western culture. Proverbs are general statements of truth rather than invariable promises or laws, and an individual proverb normally captures a tiny cross-section of truth rather than making a comprehensive statement about a topic.

For example, ‘A gentle answer turns away anger’ (15: 1) constitutes one component of the broader topics of using words wisely and dealing with angry people. This single principle is one small piece of a much larger mosaic, and the task of the student is not only to put together the broader mosaic piece by piece but also to learn to apply these principles skillfully to the complexities that one encounters in life.

The goal of the wisdom in Proverbs is to develop skill in living according to the order that is embedded in God’s creation. Most proverbs state a single general truth with little attempt to note exceptions and qualifications. Such an approach effectively emphasizes the principle taught by avoiding the distraction of qualifications.

The authors of proverbs also emphasized the points they wanted to make through the use of idealized examples and hyperbole. While the sluggard, for example, is a real character, he is described in exaggerated terms that set his basic characteristics in clear relief. One would probably never find someone who perfectly fits the descriptions of a sluggard, because the person whose picture emerges from putting together the various pieces of the sluggard mosaic in the book is a stereotypical character. The same is also true for the excellent woman in Proverbs 31 and for the wise man and for the fool described throughout the book.

When a pair of proverbs seems conflicting or even contradictory, the first proverb moves the reader in a certain direction, then the contrasting proverb provides a balancing principle to point the reader toward another dimension of the skill of living in a complex world.

For example, Proverbs 26: 4 says, ‘Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness or you’ll be like him yourself,’ while the next verse says, ‘Answer a fool according to his foolishness, or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.’ The student of wisdom recognizes that encounters with a fool require responses appropriate to that particular situation. The student also recognizes that a variety of other approaches between those extremes may be the wise response, and the student’s goal is to become the kind of wisdom craftsman who can frame the appropriate response no matter the situation he faces.

Likewise, the ambiguity that often characterizes proverbs reflects the same pedagogy and goals. The student of wisdom is challenged by the ambiguity to explore the possibilities for understanding the proverb along with the variety of situations in which the principle appropriately applies. The ambiguity also promotes ongoing reflection as to the legitimate limits for applying the principle.

While the book addresses a wide variety of issues, it gives considerable attention to matters such as the contrast between the wise person and the fool, the importance of virtues such as diligence and self-control, the importance of using words wisely, warnings about sexual immorality, the responsible use of money, priorities, and advice about proper behavior in a variety of social settings. Most proverbs deal with the general and the typical, but their goal is to equip people with the skills to apply wisdom to the particular experiences of life.

  • snooop1e

    Hey Bill interesting read. I have 2 questions if you don’t mind,

    1. Which books in the Bible are essential for salvation?

    2. Is a correct understanding of the Bible necessary for salvation?



  • A person can be saved without ever having read any of the books of the Bible. I think that answers both of your questions.

    Having said that, Christians believe that the Bible is the final authority on salvation, so somebody has to have a correct understanding of the Bible in order to teach the rest of us.

  • snooop1e

    Circular reasoning.

    By extension the person teaching must have a correct understanding of the scriptures otherwise the person being taught will not be taught correctly. For example according to scripture alone some churches teach that gay clergy and gay marriage are acceptable.

    So I will follow you down your rabbit hole. Must the person “teaching others” have a correct understanding of the scriptures?

    Lastly, if the scriptures alone are the final authority how do you account for all of the division and different “Bible based” churches (over 40,000 and growing) who have the Bible alone as their ONLY authority but disagree with each other about what is and is not “essential” for salvation?

    It doesn’t take a Scolar to realize that their personal interpretation of the Bible is their “final authority” the belief that the Bible alone is your final authority is an illusion. Your interpretation of it is your final authority and if/when you change your beliefs the Bible always agrees with you and cannot Protest your understanding of it.

    Do you believe that your understanding of the Bible is perfect and without error (infallible)? If not then how do you know what you have right and what you havev wrong and by what authority do you presume to teach others?

    God Bless

    “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments”


  • I didn’t realize you wanted to debate sola scriptura with me. I have done that before on the blog, so I would recommend you go to the blog post link below and then carefully read through the comments underneath, where I discussed the topic with two Eastern Orthodx friends of mine.

  • snooop1e

    No worries,

    I’ll take that as a no, a person cannot be saved by incorrect teaching and therefore (by proxy) a correct understanding of the Bible is necessary for salvation. Seems pretty obvious right?

    God Bless

    “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments”