Proverbs – prescriptions, promises or principles?

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We want to be clear that when we come to the book of Proverbs, we are not opening up a box of promises or predictions about how our lives will go.  Now are they to be treated as prescriptive commands to be followed in a ritualistic or legalistic manner.  So, we sometimes talk about the Proverbs as “principles.” 

There’s a risk with that word too.  It depends on how we are using the word.  If we mean “abstract principles” then this risks getting confused with the way liberals approach Scripture, generally wanting to abstract, deny the reality of the events and deny the power of God’s Word.  We need to be clear that we don’t mean that.  This also means that by principles, we don’t just mean “good advice.”  We need to remember that this is God speaking. 

So what we mean when we talk about Proverbs as principles is that we read them as  “generally true”.  This means:

  1. That the outcomes described from obeying God are generally true, that’s why we say they are not promises. God commands us about how to live for him in his creation and says that there are consequences for that but not everyone experiences the consequences generally. To give an example, I think Scripture gives us clear instruction on what our churches should be like. There should be the preaching of God’s Word, there should be the gifts of the Spirit, sacrificial giving, prayer, love for each other etc. Healthy growing churches would generally expect to be the ones that do those things.  However we know of churches that have still struggled and closed even when all of that is happening.  There are other factors at work in God’s sovereign plan (perhaps that’s more the point).  We may even see that God chooses to allow what looks like fruit in his grace with a church that fails to include those things.  This prevents a mechanistic attitude to obedience.
  2. That we need to apply things to contexts and situations.  That’s why two seemingly contradictory things can be true.  The most overt and obvious example is historical context in God’s salvation plan.  It was true that before the coming of the Holy Spirit that Peter was not to eat unclean meat, it was also true, after Pentecost that he could eat what previously was unclean.  Proverbs is taking the commands – really the Ten Commandments and then the development of them into more detail in Deuteronomy and applying them.  So, the instruction isn’t “new law.”  The commands remain but it helps us to think through commandments about loving God and loving neighbour.  Most obviously this seems to be around “Honour your parents” and “Do not commit adultery” -we might want to tease out why this is so. I think it is because these help us best to understand loyalty and faithfulness and I’ll probably come back to this in a further post.  The wisdom/principle is not about whether we obey God but how we obey God in our given context.  That’s why we might see differences between different churches and we might even choose to do things differently at different times.

So, when we talk about Proverbs and say that these are not prescriptions, predictions or promises, we are not saying that it doesn’t matter if we choose to ignore them, we are not saying that they are abstract, we certainly are not saying they are human opinions and just advice.  What we are saying is that to engage them today, we need to be ready to wrestle with them, to engage our brains and most of all to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. 

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