Proverbs: Principles, Not Promises

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

Like the book of Psalms, the book of Proverbs is a collection, but of short sayings rather than songs. I think of it as an ancient version of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. Rather than a list of promises that have only to be personally “claimed” to be granted to the individual believer, it is a compilation of observations about life that are usually accurate. For example, while it is generally true that “lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” this statement is a principle, not a rule and there are exceptions. There are some very hard working poor people and some very indolent rich people.

One of the main issues I have with using Proverbs as a book of promises rather than a book of common-sense advice is that it leads to blaming the victim, much as Job’s “comforters” did. For example, if I believe that following certain rules invariably leads to the result of living long and prospering (Proverbs 3:1-2), then it invariably follows that those who get cancer or lose their jobs must be somehow at fault.  Either they secretly violated some of the rules, or they didn’t demonstrate enough faith to successfully “claim the promise”. This is observably not always true, even within the Old Testament. Torah-observant King Josiah dies relatively young, while some of the most egregious royal lawbreakers live long lives. This kind of mistaken theology completely falls apart with even a cursory reading of the New Testament, where many of the most devout God-followers meet horrible, early deaths because of their faith.

Furthermore, some proverbs contradict other proverbs. The most glaring example is in Proverbs 26:4-5, where the reader is instructed as follows:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
 Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

So, which option is the wise person to choose? Do you bring yourself down to the lowest common denominator by arguing with a fool, or do you take him down a peg by proving him wrong? I think these contradictory nuggets of advice were placed side-by-side by the compiler of Proverbs deliberately in order to make a paradoxical point. Both sayings are true.  Depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best to speak up, and sometimes to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes your words will make a difference for the better, and sometimes they will make them worse. True wisdom isn’t one or the other, but knowing when.

God gives us principles to live by, not arbitrary rules that are illogical or impossible to follow. And that’s good news to me.