I love the Proverbs but my appreciation of them has grown when I’ve spent time reading them as a book of the Bible, not just selecting memorable ones to quote. You see, whilst we tend to treat them as a source book for lots of anatomised wise advice, I believe that we are meant to read Proverbs like we read other parts of the Scripture, working through section by section, treating everything in context.
The book has been assembled and crafted carefully. This means that whenever we read through a series of Proverbs, we can assume that they’ve been put in the same place, side by side for a reason. We are meant to find themes, common threads that hold them together. This of course isn’t an easy exercise, the threads are there but Hebraic thought patterns from a few thousand years ago, may work a little different to modern western minds. This doesn’t make the reasoning less true or valid, it just means we have to look carefully, just as we accept both linear and lateral thinking.
One thing that I’ve found helpful as I’ve read Proverbs is that it’s shone light on the rest of Scripture and it’s meant to do just that. We are meant to see different parts of Scripture building on other parts and giving us more insight into how to interpret and apply those parts.
For example, reading Proverbs pushes me backwards in Scripture to Deuteronomy. The book is itself a reflection or meditation on God’s Law, teaching us how to apply Torah wisely. That’s why you will often find yourself thinking “this sounds familiar.”
Take for example these words:
“Never let loyalty and faithfulness leave you.Proverbs 3:3-4
Tie them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Then you will find favor and high regard
in the sight of God and man.”
Where have we met that language before? The answer of course is in Deuteronomy 6:4-8 where God’s people are told to love him wholeheartedly and to keep his commands, his words by teaching them to their children, writing them out, pinning them up, binding them to themselves, keeping them in sight.
The connection here helps us to see that when Solomon gives his instruction as a Father, he isn’t just giving his own personal advice but he is obeying the call in Deuteronomy to teach the next generation. It’s God’s commands that we are seeking to follow through Solomon. Note too that this pushes us away from a literalistic, ritualistic binding of commandments to ourselves. It’s loyalty and faithfulness that we are to keep close to our heart. That’s true of Deuteronomy too, the Law is all about love, loyalty and faithfulness to the God who is love.
The connection with Deuteronomy has encouraged me to approach that book by asking “what if the wider, more detailed law functions in a similar way to Proverbs, what if there is a wisdom literature dynamic there. We can see the detailed expansion as offering wisdom and meditation on the Ten Commandments. Just as a Proverb asks us to think wisely and apply God’s Word to our context, so too the Law asked its hearers to seek to obey wisely in their context.
Proverbs points forwards as well. Just as Solomon built on the words of Moses and reflected on them, so too the later writers. Take for example the words in Malachi 3:8-12. There, the prophet says:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me!” You ask: “How do we rob You?” “By not making the payments of the tenth and the contributions. 9 You are suffering under a curse, yet you—the whole nation—are still robbing Me. 10 Bring the full tenth into the storehouse so that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this way,” says the Lord of Hosts. “See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing for you without measure. 11 I will rebuke the devourer[a] for you, so that it will not ruin the produce of your land and your vine in your field will not fail to produce fruit,” says the Lord of Hosts. 12 “Then all the nations will consider you fortunate, for you will be a delightful land,” says the Lord of Hosts.
This is drawing from Proverbs 3:9-10.
Honour the Lord with your possessions
and with the first produce of your entire harvest;
10 then your barns will be completely filled,
and your vats will overflow with new wine.
The prophet is picking up on the wisdom of Solomon and applying it to his situation. He is saying that because God’s people did not honour Him by keeping his commands, they have faced the consequences and need to respond in repentance. In fact, I wonder if this doesn’t help us to think more about the role of prophecy today noting that as well as words of knowledge, Scripture talks about words of wisdom. When someone prophecies, they are bringing a nowness to God’s revelation, they are helping us to discern, not just with our minds but with the Spirit’s guidance how to apply what God is saying to our situation. It’s in effect saying “that is this.” Prophecy may even be seen to turn wisdom principles into promises! Malachi says to the people in his time “Proverbs 3 isn’t just generally true, for us it is specifically true.”
Of course, if the prophet is doing that for his specific generation and context, then when we read Malachi 3, we have to reverse the process again. Those promises for Judah become principles again for us, unless there is something distinctively prophetic that comes through as we read/teach Malachi.
Now, when we read Proverbs 3:9-10, we are protected from treating the words as predictions or promises by v11-12:
Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son,
and do not loathe His discipline;
12 for the Lord disciplines the one He loves,
just as a father, the son he delights in.
Without these words, we might treat the description of blessing as a Prosperity Gospel guarantee of health and wealth. We might assume that anyone who suffers is struggling because of their lack of faith, their sin. Proverbs 3:11-12 says “no, you cannot think in those terms. Yes, God blesses those he loves but he also disciplines them. Suffering is just as much a sign of closeness to the Father as success.”
Proverbs helps us to avoid the risk of treating them as predictions/promises by setting strongly contrasting statements close to each other. Similarly, Solomon will tell us both to “answer a fool according to his folly” and “don’t answer a fool according to his folly.”
I suspect that as we see how Solomon’s mind works and how he communicates wisdom that we might also get a feel for the New Testament and what it I saying.
For example, some people focus in on 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul says that women are not to speak but to be silent in the church. They treat this as a legalistic command to rule out women speaking, praying etc. Yet, very close by, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 sets out how women are to pray and prophesy in church. The expectation is that they will.
This pushes us to look more closely at what is going on in these passages. Paul does want women to be actively involved, he does expect the Holy Spirit to use them. Yet, this does not mean that they are somehow free from any concern about order, structure etc. They are to submit to the authority of God’s Word and to those responsible for shepherding the local church even as they speak. They are to be aware of order and avoid chaos, disruption and disrespect when they gather.
So, in 1 Corinthians 14 note that Paul says:
34 the women[j] should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church meeting.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
Note, Paul’s concern here is not to do with what women say, he doesn’t forbid prophecy here. Rather, he is concerned with their learning, remember that Paul and the NT show a concern that women should learn, remember that they are in church to hear God, to be taught. Yet, here he says they are to wait if they want to learn. Is the emphasis then on “they should ask their husbands”? or is it (as I’m inclined to suspect) on “at home.”
The point then is that at that point in the meeting, they are meant to be receiving the prophecies given, they are not meant to be engaging in a discussion/study. The aim is that the prophecy will be heard.
Remember then that in the cultural context, women would have sat in a different part of the room to the men. Now, if the instruction is “ask your own husband at home”, then it helps us to see what is potentially happening in Corinth. The women in one part of the room are calling out and asking questions, interrupting the prophecy, perhaps asking the men on the other side of the room to explain things. Paul says “hold on, be patient, allow the speaking to happen and rather than throwing a general enquiry into the mass of the room, wait for a better time, at home ater when you can talk to your husband one to one.”
This does not then rule out anyone asking a question to the preacher if he sets aside time for it. Nor does it prevent them from contributing to an intended Bible study with their own insights and observations.
So being aware both of what Proverbs says and how it says it helps us to approach the rest of Scripture with greater insight and understanding.