If you want a book of the Bible that’s practical, memorable, and accessible, you can’t do much better than Proverbs. For example: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). Nothing hard to grasp about that!
But probe beneath the surface a bit, and you’re going to run into all sorts of interpretive trouble. Honest interpreters wonder, “If it’s true that pride leads to destruction, why do so many politicians, professional athletes, and CEOs seem to get away with blatant arrogance?” Theologically sensitive interpreters wonder, “Where is God and His glory in this book? Other than an occasional reference to the fear of the Lord, most of this stuff is just good common sense.” (Maybe that’s why you’ve never heard a John Piper sermon from Proverbs! …no disrespect toward Dr. Piper intended, of course.) And self-consciously Christian interpreters wonder, “Why exactly do we need Jesus if we’re going to be and do what this book requires? It almost seems like Proverbs would still ‘work’ even if Jesus hadn’t come.”
So, on the one hand, we have the common Christian who prefers this book over the rest of the Old Testament because of its personal focus and its relative disinterest in covenants, rituals, and other cultural weirdness. And, on the other hand, we have the careful interpreter who is concerned that Proverbs might not be quite reliable enough, God-centered enough, or redemptively oriented enough. It’s a delightful irony! …that is, until you plan a summer sermon series through this book. Then you’re in trouble!
That’s exactly what our pastoral team did: we planned a series through Proverbs, and we found ourselves wrestling with these questions. It wasn’t long before we discovered that these three questions represent the three most common errors that readers make in handling this book:
- Absolutism—treating the proverbs as promises.
- Practical Atheism—applying Proverbs without regard for God.
- Moralism—assuming that Proverbs is primarily about us and what we must do, rather than about Jesus and what He has done.
Thankfully, we can avoid all three errors if we will follow one basic rule of interpretation: read the whole context.
In the case of the book of Proverbs, its immediate context is the Old Testament wisdom literature, specifically, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. These books illustrate what happens when we make either of the first two interpretive mistakes.
Job demonstrates what happens when we try to apply Proverbs unilaterally and woodenly—the error I’ve called “absolutism.” This oversimplified way of reading Proverbs might lead one to believe that wisdom and virtue invariably produce a life of health, pleasure, and prosperity. A common example is the heartbroken mom struggling to understand why her well-trained child has left the faith: “After all,” she cries, “doesn’t God promise that if we ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old he won’t depart from it’?” But Job reminds us that proverbs are truisms, not promises. In our fallen world, things do not always work out as described in the perfect cause-effect scenarios of the book of Proverbs. Sometimes righteous people suffer, and wicked people prosper. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the book of Job, where Job’s three friends are utterly convinced that his suffering is a sure sign of his sinfulness. Unfortunately for them, their absolutistic interpretation earned them a stern rebuke from the Lord. Fortunately for us though, the lesson of the book of Job comes through loud and clear: absolutism will not do.
Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, demonstrates what happens when we make the mistake of assuming we don’t need God to understand His world or to apply Proverbs to it—the mistake I’ve called “practical atheism.” If we do not begin with the fear of the Lord, we will end our pursuit of wisdom with Ecclesiastes’ futile cry: “All is vanity.” There’s too much pain, too many mysteries. Ecclesiastes reminds us that we need an interpretive principle more satisfying than practical atheism.
But how shall we address this third error: the problem of moralism? It’s the “Work harder! Do better!” syndrome. It’s the mistake a preacher makes when his sermons sound more like law than grace. It’s based on the apparent assumption that the solution to our problems is better information, more motivation, and greater application—in short, the answer is in us.
What’s wrong with this approach? Well, to put it plainly, it’s not at all how Jesus read the book of Proverbs! Remember what He did for the travelers on the Emmaus Road? “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Apparently, the book of Proverbs, as Jesus read it, was all about Him, so presumably that’s how we ought to read it, too. Of course, we want to read for personal conviction and practical application. But we must vigorously resist the tendency to read Proverbs in a way that implies Jesus has not come. As stated earlier, we must read Proverbs in its whole context—in this case, the context of redemptive history, the whole canon, and the law-fulfilling work of Jesus Christ. If we were orthodox Jews, believing the OT but rejecting any notion of fulfillment in Jesus, it would be only natural to read Proverbs moralistically: “This is Yahweh’s Law. Just do it.” But for Christians, the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth changes everything, including how we interpret the book of Proverbs.
That said, the question still remains as to how exactly Jesus fulfills the book of Proverbs. In short, the approach I have found most fruitful for this purpose is what Sidney Greidanus calls “the path of longitudinal themes” (one of six paths to Christ from the OT which Greidanus describes in Preaching Christ from the Old Testament). Because of the progressive nature of God’s revelation, nearly all of the themes introduced in the Bible (e.g., kingdom, grace, wisdom, parenthood, marriage) undergo gradual development as redemptive history unfolds. The most significant development—indeed, the culmination of each theme—comes in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The task of the interpreter, then, is to keep Jesus in view even in Proverbs, because in Him each topic in Proverbs reaches its fullest development. To put it another way, we need to read the Bible not only “from front to back” but also “from back to front.”
Greidanus offers a very helpful illustration from his own experience. While traveling to a scenic reservoir in South Africa, his party passed through a lush, green valley; but on their return trip thirty minutes later, he noticed that the floor of the valley appeared white, not green as before. His host explained that the landscape was covered with small, white flowers that turned their face toward the sun. Traveling one way, the viewer saw only the green of stems, sepals, and leaves; but from the other direction, the scene was white with petals all facing the sun.
This is how we must read Proverbs. Reading the Bible from front to back, we find Proverbs filled with responsibilities and warnings and exhortations and applications—it’s basically all about us. But when we read from back to front, beginning with Jesus and working back to the categories furnished by Proverbs, the whole landscape looks different. The basic contours and categories are the same; they’re just more vivid, more colorful, more full. Jesus has, in this sense, fulfilled the book; or, as one writer put it, He has “filled full” the categories we didn’t even realize needed fulfilling. Where before we saw ourselves, our duties, and our failures, now we can see Jesus, His glory, and His sufficiency.
In future posts, I’ll try to illustrate how Christ fills full the categories and topics of Proverbs with a series of essays on various themes from the book. My earnest hope is that what once looked so obviously green to us might suddenly appear white in the light of Christ’s glory and grace. And just maybe, like the disciples on the Emmaus Road, we will find our hearts burning within us as we reread these old familiar passages, but this time through Him.