Can we read Proverbs as promises?

Jul 2020    

Preaching through Proverbs is often a preacher’s worst nightmare. What appears to be a collection of pithy sayings, with no clear thematic progression of thought, presents a formidable challenge of linking how these observations of everyday life contribute to the bigger message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, it is precisely because these Instagram-worthy sayings have this-worldly concerns that they have the power to make concrete the life of abundance Christ came to give.

This leads us to the question: can the sayings in Proverbs be taken as promises from God? As is often frustratingly the case with theology, the answer is both a yes and a no, depending on what one means by the term “promise”.

At its most basic level, the question asks whether what Proverbs says will literally come to pass in our immediate circumstance. Will I experience abundant riches if I use what I have for God’s purposes?1 Will we never go hungry if we obey God?2 Will the wicked submit to us? Will accumulating riches bring us more friends?3

The Problem with Proverbs

Anybody with a reasonable exposure to the reality of human life would quickly realise that these sayings do not always hold true. The wicked do not always fall into their own schemes; the righteous do not always escape evil with their lives intact; and children do not always follow Christ, even when raised by godly parents.4

The book of Proverbs, like proverbs in general, are “intense observations of human experience”, and hold true only when we look at the human experience in a general sense.5 There is no guarantee that our immediate experience will match that of the overall human experience. As an expression of a general rule, one would expect certain exceptions to pop up in the course of our lives, their existence thereby proving the general rule (also a secular proverb!). 6

We can therefore conclude that Proverbs cannot be read as promises that will hold true in every situation. If we are looking for promises on that level, we had best continue our fool’s errand elsewhere. But if the prospect of discovering how Proverbs can be understood as promises in a much more realistic, bounteous sense appeals to you, read on.

Tremper Longman III helpfully warns of the dual pitfalls of absolutising and isolating these sayings.7 One simply cannot assume that each saying in Proverbs will always hold true in every situation, nor can we look at these sayings in isolation from the rest of Proverbs and Scripture. The same applies to all of Scripture, but it is especially so for Proverbs because it is in actuality poetry masquerading under the guise of a casual observation of the world. It is less a documentary on human life as it is a musical contemplating the human soul.

The Goal of Wisdom

Recognising the difference between poetry and prose is crucial to rightly interpreting Proverbs. Leland Ryken highlights a crucial distinction between poetry and prose. With poetry, the form is often key to rightly unpacking its content, serving to “set our thoughts and feelings to the right tune”.8 A literal reading is permissible, but we would find ourselves at best short-changed of the depth of meaning, and at worst turned into lessons in irony as we become fools applying the wrong meaning of what was intended.

A brief excursion into the wider genre of Biblical Wisdom Literature (which spans not only Proverbs but also Job, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs) is therefore necessary. Not unlike the other wisdom traditions of the Ancient Near East, Wisdom Literature is concerned with “the skill of living”: how we behave in various situations, how we respond to other people, and how we handle the challenges of life.9 Unlike the wisdom traditions of the ancient world, Wisdom Literature adds the crucial theological lens that life is lived before God. Life is not a spontaneous series of unfortunate events; nor are we the sole masters of our fates. Rather, the Creator of all in existence remains intimately involved in the workings of this world, and as its designer, this Creator holds the blueprints for living rightly according to his design.

Bernard Anderson identifies Proverbs 9:10 as the summary statement of Israel’s epistemology of ethics—“knowledge does not lead to faith, but faith is the prerequisite for understanding”.10 Wisdom literature teaches us both that there is a God who has instituted a kind of order in the world, as well as how we can live rightly within that order.11

As part of Wisdom literature, the sayings in Proverbs cannot be divorced from the theological conviction that God is sovereign, and that we are consequently obligated to live our lives according to a divinely ordained pattern. This pattern, characterised by what is beautiful, good and true, is contrasted with the antithesis of God—characterised by corruption, evil and falsehood. Proverbs transplants the reader to stand at the crossroads between these two dialectic choices, personified in the persons of Wisdom and Folly. Adding to the metaphor of the journey of life and the necessary choice between two diverging paths, the reader is urged to choose to walk the way of Wisdom over the way of Folly.12

The Promise Follows a Choice

Just as Wisdom serves as a literary device to represent the cause of God, Folly becomes another literary device representing the opposing team—the gods of Israel’s pagan neighbours. Proverbs thus serves as a polemic challenge against the claims of these pagan gods on the hearts of Israel. Proverbs 9:3, 14 describes Wisdom and Folly both as living at the city’s high places—locations reserved, in the customs of the Ancient Near East, for a city’s patron god.13 The choice presented before the reader, then, is less about the condition of the mind as it is about the heart. It is first and foremost a clarion call for the reader to worship God alone.

This summons gains even more force when we consider how closely the incarnate Christ is linked with the person of Wisdom at Creation. In his gospel, John uses wisdom language to describe the pre-existence and divinity of Christ, closely associating Him with wisdom, but stopping short of a complete equation (since that would bring us down the rabbit hole of Arianism, the heresy that Christ is a created being).14 As those who have encountered the most tangible manifestation of the transcendent God, Christians are all the more called to make the choice of walking the path of Wisdom over that of Folly, choosing Christ over the gods of this world.

The sayings in Proverbs therefore are a promise from God, but not in the sense of an immediate fulfilment in every situation. The primary promise of Proverbs lies in the guarantee that those who walk the path of Wisdom and choose Christ over the gods of this world will experience a life of beauty, goodness and truth. That beauty, goodness and truth will not always be experienced in every situation hardly negates this promise. If anything, it strengthens the promise, because it gives the assurance that the God who is still in control will fulfil these promises—if not in this life then in the one to come. Bruce Waltke, a man who has spent a large part of his life studying the Wisdom literature, thus asserts that while Proverbs has to do with observations of human life, its promises extend “beyond life”.15

Proverbs trains us to look beyond this life and re-order our lives not around ourselves and our circumstances, but around Christ who is Himself the true centre of all existence.16 Those who walk this path will thereby find wisdom along the way, and finally come face to face with the one whom Wisdom personifies. Making this choice frees us from the self-destructive path of folly, because it sets us free from the biggest idol of them all—ourselves. Only when our hearts are healed from our “disordered loves” will we experience the promised life, as the apostle James would note centuries later in his epistle.17

We should not disparage Proverbs because the promise it offers shapes us, in the grand tradition of Wisdom Literature, to respond rightly to new situations that occur even if they are not explicitly addressed within Scripture; this is done by “condensing” into broad generalisations “patterns that tend to repeat themselves”. We therefore should read Proverbs as promises—but first be clear about what those promises entail. May we all choose wisdom, and thereby find life.18

The views expressed in this article are personal and might not necessarily reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. The full article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters?layout=edit&id=253

1 Prov 3:9–10 (NRSV).
2 Prov 10:3.
3 Prov 19:4.
4 Prov 5:22; 10:16; 22:6.
5 Tremper Longman III and Raymond B Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 270–271.
6 Leland Ryken, Short Sentences Long Remembered: A Guided Study of Proverbs and Other Wisdom Literature (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 15.
7 Longman and Dillard, 276–277.
8 Leland Ryken, ed., The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 15.
9 Tremper Longman III, How to Read Proverbs (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 14–15.
10 Bernhard W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 263; Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1972), 67–68.
11 Anderson, 264.
12 Prov 2:20.
13 Longman and Dillard, 275.
14 Prov 8:22–31; John 1:1–5.
15 Longman, 90.
16 Ibid., 55; Colossians 1:15–20.
17 James 3:15–4:1; cf. St. Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, The Works of Saint Augustine (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008), 1.1.1.
18 Prov 10:16.

The Rev Benjamin Fong, a pastor in The Trinity Annual Conference of The Methodist Church in Singapore since 2015, is currently appointed to Barker Road Methodist Church.


Easing the Burden of COVID-19

Easing the Burden of COVID-19

Nov 2020     File photo of counselling in action The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone hard, especially the vulnerable in our community who are already facing challenging circumstances.   When Joey Loh, a social worker from Methodist Welfare Services (MWS), first visited her in Feb 2020, Mdm H was already in dire straits....
RESTing in the Lord!

RESTing in the Lord!

Nov 2020     Participants at the MMS Missionaries’ Retreat “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) Every two years, the Methodist Missions Society (MMS) invites all our missionaries and their families to our Missionaries’ Retreat, normally held in a hotel in West...