woman reading proverbs

Want to live wisely? Then read the book of Proverbs. These timeless sayings are chock-full of biblical wisdom and insight. Proverbs are easy to remember and often fun to say. For instance, men love to quote Proverbs 21:9: “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” (Ladies, unfortunately this is sad, but true!)

However, believers today often misunderstand or misuse this ancient form of wisdom writing because it’s a bit odd to our modern ears. So first, let’s take a quick look at what a proverb is. Then we’ll touch on 3 tips to help us better understand proverbs so we can practically apply their godly wisdom to our lives.

What is a proverb?

Proverbs are short, pithy sayings that impart instructional, practical wisdom. They are observations of life stated in memorable ways. Life experience proves these general principles to be “usually true.”

Proverbs are not unique to the Bible. Many ancient cultures made us of this literary device. However, biblical proverbs are unique in that they acknowledge that true wisdom comes from God (Proverbs 1:7) and apply His spiritual principles to everyday life.

The goal of a biblical proverb is to help us make wise, godly choices in life.

How can we better understand Proverbs?

Like the rest of Scripture, the Proverbs must be understood in light of their purpose, literary genre, context, and original meaning (For more help on understanding the Bible see 4 Tips to Help You Understand the Bible” and How Biblical Genre Impacts Our Understanding.”) Since proverbs are a unique literary style, we cannot interpret them in the same way we do a historical book or an epistle.

Although the tips below are just a tip of the interpretation iceberg, they will get us off to a great start in understanding the Proverbs and applying their wisdom to our lives.

3 Tips to understanding Proverbs:

  1. A Proverb is a Principle, Not a Promise

A biblical proverb seeks to apply God’s wisdom to the situations of life. They are guidelines for living, general principles, not promises from God. While generally accurate, they can’t be applied to every possible scenario or specific circumstance. Therefore, they are not guarantees of a certain outcome, but rather pointers for the best chance for success.

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Proverbs 22:6

Many of us have known Christian parents who claimed Proverbs 22:6 as a promise and then were disillusioned when a child turned away from God and never returned. This demonstrates how important it is to understand the nature of a proverb: If we follow their wisdom they are generally true, but they don’t guarantee specific outcomes.

  1. A Proverb is Pithy Poetry

A proverb is a saying that encapsulates a broad observation about life. Its primary goal is to state an important, simple truth about life in easy-to-remember terms.

“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Proverbs 27:6

Brief and memorable, this proverb is about something much deeper than flesh wounds and kisses. True friends tell us the truth for our good, even when it hurts. “Enemies” simply tell us what we want to hear or butter us up to get something they want.

Let’s look beyond the figurative language and past the simple, catchy words of a proverb to find the deeper truth.  The practical principle that fosters godly living. Then apply that godly wisdom to our lives. (Also see “3 Tips to Help You Understand the Psalms.“)

  1. A Proverb has a Proper Perspective

Ancient standards guide these ancient proverbs. They usually speak of simple desires and basic needs. Yet, often we subconsciously impose our modern, Western mindset and values.

“Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).

Just imagine how the influence of our affluent culture can affect our understanding of “prospers” and “blessed.” The typical ancient Israelite considered himself blessed if he had shelter and enough food. Plus, God longs to bless us for our spiritual good!

We could talk a lot more about proverbs. However, if we remember these 3 tips, we will be well on our way to wise living!

Want to learn more about how to study the Bible?

I love to equip Christians for better Bible study. Bible study is not hard, we just need to have the right information and tools. I teach a simple inductive Bible Study method I call the “4 R Bible Study Method.” I also share tips and helps on my You Tube channel. If you’d like to participate in a group that for encouragement and accountability, I lead a daily Bible reading group on Facebook for women called “Reading the Bible Together.” (If you’re interested in joining the Bible reading group, follow this link, request to join, and answer the three easy questions.) I also have developed workshops of various lengths – from one hour to four hours – and teach these regularly in churches, conferences, and retreats. I’d love to come to your event!

Did any of these 3 surprise you? In light of these 3 tips, have been misunderstanding a particular proverb?

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