How to Read Proverbs
Proverbs are sometimes tough for the Christian reader of the Bible. Not because they aren’t clear or don’t make sense, but because they sometimes appear empty of theological content. Many proverbs could equally have been printed by Hallmark as written by the Holy Spirit, like, “Timely advice is lovely, like golden apples in a silver basket” (Proverbs 25:11).
Other proverbs seem excessively moralistic and could just as well be found in a fortune cookie, like, “Love not sleep lest you come to poverty” (Proverbs 20:13). That’s the sort of finger-shaking admonition delivered by the parent of a college freshman, and seems too mundane to have come from the Holy Spirit.
Still other proverbs appear to be contradictory. “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are,” comes right before, “Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation” (Proverbs 26:4-5). Which is it?
And worst of all, some proverbs seem to be even downright untrue. We can all draw on personal experience that denies, “True humility and fear of the LORD lead to riches, honor, and long life” (Proverbs 22:4).
How should Christian readers of the Book of Proverbs handle them? Proverbs are actually intricate literary expressions which are less moralistic and far more theologically related to experience that is apparent at first glance.
The proverbs are usually composed of a single sentence in two parts. Sometimes these two parts create the effect of comparing and contrasting two scenes. And sometimes they create the effect of a two-act play—the second act showing the results and wisdom of the first act.
Proverbs accomplish their task by calling to mind a constellation of past stories in order to give hints about future stories. A proverb sends readers on a search through our memories for apt examples. If the proverb is true, then where have we seen it demonstrated before? Finally, a proverb provokes the imagination to wonder about other situations in which the wisdom of the proverb may apply. And it does all this in one short sentence.
For example, let’s consider Proverbs 15:17, “A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”
This proverb contrasts scenes in the reader’s mind. In the first scene is a simple table set with simple foods, yet surrounded by people feasting on a meal shared in love. In the second scene is a banquet table with silver, crystal, the finest meat, and waiters who instantly refill every sip out of a wine glass. But gloomy hatred fills the room; there is no warm laughter. The table conversation is cold. Amid the feast, there is famine. “A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”
The reader is asked to roam through his or her memories for moments which parallel these two scenes. What do you see? What do you remember?
Perhaps you remember being a guest in someone’s home—someone who had less food to lay before you than you had at your own house but with whom you had common interests and talked far into the night. Or maybe you have a story from childhood about a neighborhood grandma who always had cookies ready for anyone who knocked on the door. “A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”
On the other hand, maybe you remember a strained wedding rehearsal dinner opposed by the bride’s parents. Or a family meal away from which someone was forced in humiliation and tears. Maybe you know a woman who, in the middle of a lavish meal in a fancy restaurant, was told by her husband that there was someone else and he wouldn’t be going home with her that night. “A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”
The reader isn’t limited to personal experience, but should also roam the pages of Scripture looking for parallels to these two scenes. Maybe you’ll think of the meal Abraham prepared for three visitors he didn’t know were angels. At that meal God promised a son to Abraham (Genesis 18:10). Or you’ll think of the meal at which Esau sold his birthright to Jacob in exchange for some stew. What did they say to each other while Esau ate (Genesis 25:34)? Maybe you’ll think of the dinner Jesus ate at a Pharisee’s house at which the Pharisee showed minimal hospitality but a sinful woman poured perfume on Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:44). Maybe you’ll think of the meal where Judas slipped away from the dinner table and disappeared into the darkness (John 13:30). “A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”
Now the proverb can complete its task. It has sent us back in memory and now sends us forward into the future, to think of the next table where we will take our places. Our imagination is not fixed on fine linen and china, but on the people who are gathered there, sharing love and faith.
And now we can think of the time in which the proverb will no longer apply—when the people we love and the fine foods are at the same table. We can think of our meal at the Lord’s Table, where the finest food in the world is given us, the bread from heaven that shows our Savior’s love; and at which those we love are eating with us, around the world and throughout time. And we can think of the fulfillment of that meal in heaven, prophesied by Isaiah and St. John. “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6). “Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” (Revelation 19:9).