Thursday, July 11, 2013

How Can I better Interpret and Understand the Book of Proverbs?

Proverbs is a wonderful book! It is full of timeless statements of wisdom that are applicable even today. Proverbs is one of those books that no matter when you pick it up, you will always find a jewel or a nugget of wisdom that will help you through your day.

Because of the nature of wisdom literature (like the book of Proverbs or Psalms), you will find statements that seem contradictory, impossible, incorrect or even absurd. I will often be asked questions about the book of Proverbs that could have been eliminated by a better understanding of how this type of literature is designed to function. 

While I was a student at the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver, Dr. Denny Petrillo taught a class on the book of Proverbs (notes available through This post will  share some of the different rules and thoughts I have been taught that I feel will help one to better understand this wonderful book. 

Points to Understand when Studying the Book of Proverbs
  • Preliminary Matters:
    • The Proverbs are Inspired By God.
    • The main idea of the Proverbs is to give God’s children direction in life.
    • The Proverbs are general commands and statements of truth.
    • The Proverbs are part of what is called “Wisdom Literature” and should be interpreted differently than other genres.
  • Principles of Interpretation:
    • 1. There are many statements made that should not be taken literally.
      • “The way of the lazy is as a hedge of thorns, But the path of the upright is a highway” (15:19)
      • And put a knife to your throat If you are a man of great appetite” (23:2).
    • 2. There are statements made that might not always be true.
      • “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6).
    • 3. Some statements are merely suggesting some forethought before one acts and are not giving a hard and fast rule of action.
      • “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Or you will also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, That he not be wise in his own eyes” (26:4-5).
  • 9 Rules to Remember when Reading the Proverbs:
    • 1. Proverbs are often parabolic, i.e. figurative, pointing beyond themselves.
    • 2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
    • 3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
    • 4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior - just the opposite!
    • 5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible "translation" so as not to lose their meaning.
    • 6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God, but poetic guidelines for good behavior.
    • 7. Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point.
    • 8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
    • 9. Wrongly used, Proverbs might justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, Proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.
  • The Purpose of the Proverbs
    • 1. For the reader to know wisdom and instruction.
    • 2. To help the reader discern sayings with understanding.
    • 3. To give instruction in wise behavior, righteousness and justice. 

By: Cliff Sabroe (Citations from Class Materials provided to author while a student of Dr. Denny Petrillo. Also cited: Petrillo Class notes of Proverbs from World Video Bible School)