Robert Stein gives a great definition of “proverb” in his book A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible. He writes, “A proverb is a short pithy saying, frequently using metaphorical language, which expresses a general truth.” This definition is very accurate and if you can remember it, it will be a huge help in remembering how to interpret (and not interpret) proverbs.
Some folks may not know that proverbs are found throughout the Bible, not just in the one book that bears that name. Large portions of Job, Ecclesiastes, and James are made up of proverbs, and we also find Jesus using proverbs as teaching tools in the Gospels. So, it is important to know how to handle this genre of Scripture, even when you are studying something other than the book of Proverbs.
The most important word in Stein’s definition is general. Proverbs teach a general truth. That is, they make statements that will generally, but not always, be the case. For example, one widely known proverb is found in Proverbs 22:6, Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. This is generally true. In fact, in most cases we can expect that when a child is raised up in a God-honoring way, he will continue to live a God-honoring life even when he is old. However, this will not always be the case.
I’m sure most of us know of real life exceptions to this very proverb. My best friend growing up was raised in a wonderful Christian home. His parents are two of the most Godly people I have ever known, and I will always love them dearly. My friend is now a perfect example of the general truth of Proverbs 22:6. His parents raised him up in the way he should go, and now he is a Godly man raising his own young family in the fear of the Lord. However, his brother has proven to be the exception to this proverb. Although raised in the same home by the same parents and in the same way, his adult life has been characterized by consistent dishonesty and adultery.
Does this mean that the Bible isn’t true? Absolutely not. Proverbs are not universal laws. They are not to be taken as promises. They simply state general truths. In the case of Proverbs 22:6, a young couple can expect that if they train their children in the way they should go, they will most likely stay on that course throughout their lives. Still, parents should understand that this isn’t a formula and that they should faithfully pray for the grace of God to be displayed in the lives of their children.
If we were to read straight through the book of Proverbs, we would find many instances of general truths to which we could find exceptions in our own experiences. Consider Proverbs 3:9-10: Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. Certainly, this proverb is generally true, but I can name two families off the top of my head that have honored the Lord in this way all their lives and are still quite poor.
The book of Job shows the grave error in treating proverbs as laws or as promises. Job’s buddies are very familiar with the proverbial literature of their time, and over and over they make the mistake of taking these proverbs as universal truths. They believe that all the pain and heartache Job is enduring must be because of his own sin, and they repeatedly toss these proverbs out at him, such as this one: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). But in Job’s case such proverbs do not fit. He is the exception. His suffering is not a result of his sin.
There is one caveat to this principle of interpreting proverbs, though. Whenever a proverb expresses something about the nature or character of God, it is universally true – there are no exceptions (Prov 3:19-20, 15:3). The attributes of God cannot be generally true - He is always the same (Ps 102:25-27; Mal 3:6).
Proverbs express general truths. They aren’t to be claimed as promises or thought of as law. They are intended to be principles to live by. Remember that, and interpreting proverbs will be as easy as reading them.