How to Read, Meditate on and Study the Book of Proverbs

“How to Read, Meditate on and Study the Book of Proverbs”

June Reading Tips
June 1, 2020
Keith Phillips

In our English Bibles, Proverbs is the third of five poetical books, the second of three books in the Bible designated as “Wisdom Literature,” the other two being Job and Ecclesiastes. As such, the wisdom theme of the Book of Proverbs is a message concerning the fear of God. And the basic truth constantly affirmed in Proverbs is expressed in the famous statement, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7, 9:10, 15:33). By this, the chief purpose of not only Proverbs, but all of Old Testament wisdom instruction, is desiring and choosing to learn and apply the fear of the Lord to daily living.

True, godly wisdom (used 115 times in Proverbs) thus refers to a skill in living, intelligent choices made. By this, wisdom is applied, activated knowledge—the right use of knowledge. To this point, Charles Haddon Spurgeon remarks, “Many men know a great deal and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool than a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is wisdom.” So, the wise man, according to Proverbs, is one who not only has knowledge of God, but learns to walk in the way of the Lord, which is the way of truth and righteousness. As a result, his life is consequently blessed by God, is a benediction to those within his family and circle of influence, and brings contentment to his own heart. So it is that Proverbs demonstrates how we can adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.
The Hebrew word for ‘proverb’ comes from a root meaning ‘to be like,’ or ‘to represent.’ By this, the word conveys a wide range of meanings including the idea of comparison, a code of behavior, and the discovery of hidden truth. This is appropriate since most of the proverbs use comparison and analogy as a means to convey truth. And at their very basic level, proverbs are terse maxims for life concerning conduct and character in the social, moral, and spiritual realms.

But one of the greatest challenges to the book of Proverbs is interpreting its many maxims. This is so, primarily because of the book’s style and arrangement. For example, Proverbs is filled with a variety of styles and forms to include poetry, brief parables, sharp questions, detailed stories, monologue, sonnet, and epigram. Additionally, the book incorporates such literary devices as antithesis, comparison, imagery, personification, analogy, symmetry, parallelism, and antagonism. And the list of subjects written about in Proverbs is endless: wisdom, sin, the tongue, pride, idleness, love, success, temperance, morals, marriage, servitude, parenting, foolishness, God and man, time and eternity, truth and falsehood, wealth and poverty, purity and impurity, justice and injustice, pleasure and misery, obedience and rebellion, industry and laziness, prudence and presumption, and so on.

Unfortunately, the book is not arranged topically, which means that although one verse may concern marriage, the verses that precede and follow may relate to other subject matters such as work ethics or anger. In other words, Proverbs is principally organized in units of one to four verse sayings called unit proverbs (cf. Proverbs 10-22) that may or may not have relation to the unit before or after it. There are a total of 375 unit proverbs in this book as well as proverb clusters (Prov. 26:3-12), larger groupings of proverbs with a single, unified thought. For this reason, it may be necessary to refer to more distant verses, sometimes in another chapter, because of the miscellaneous character and ordering of the many proverbs.

Thus, when reading Proverbs, it is helpful to follow these general principles for interpretation: (1) let the key verses (1:7; 15:33) guide your interpretation; (2) interpret ‘wisdom’ as meaning ‘righteousness’ or ‘holiness’, which is used by the biblical author Solomon to describe the heart of a person who truly knows and a faith that follows after God. In this same way, interpret ‘fool’ or ‘folly’ as synonymous with the wicked and a life defined by unbelief; (3) recognize that the proverbs are instructions from the Lord, not mere secular proverbial sayings; (4) remember that proverbs are often parabolic statements, figurative in their language and pointing beyond themselves; (5) consider that proverbs are intensely practical by nature, not weighted heavily in doctrine and history; and (6) contemplate the fact that proverbs are not guarantees from God but poetic guidelines for godly living.

Simply put, proverbs are worded to be short, memorable axioms for life; they are not necessarily technically precise. They give good and godly advice for wise approaches to numerous aspects of practical living, but they are not exhaustive in their coverage. And used wrongly, proverbs might justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle if these maxims are not lived in pursuit of the glory of God.
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