Pick up a book with Bible-reading advice, and you’ll barely get your nose in before it gets mashed with the ubiquitous yet astonishingly forceful declaration: Proverbs aren’t promises! This piece of conventional wisdom is everywhere. Though it has roots in careful thinking about the genre of wisdom literature, this advice often goes too far and misses the point of the proverbs.
In almost every case, the counsel comes with strong emotion and a reference to Proverbs 22:6. Too many people have seen too many people bludgeon the hurting parents of wayward children through immature and thoughtless reference to this crucial verse about parenting. (“If you had trained your child right, he would not have walked away from the Lord.”) And the pastoral reflex is just right. This is not how to use Scripture.
But the conclusion—that proverbs are not promises—is not right. In this case, the cure is worse than the disease.
Consider first, the many respectable authors and pastors who promote the conventional wisdom. They often offer sound counsel, and their sensitivity to abuse is spot on. But when discussing how to read wisdom literature, they move in synchrony:
“A common mistake in biblical interpretation and application is to give a proverbial saying the weight or force of a moral absolute.” (R.C. Sproul)
“The proverbs commend certain paths to family members because they reflect the ways God ordinarily distributes His blessings. But ordinarily does not mean necessarily…Proverbs are not promises.” (Richard Pratt)
“The particular blessings, rewards, and opportunities mentioned in Proverbs are likely to follow if one will choose the wise courses of action outlined in the poetic, figurative language of the book. But nowhere does Proverbs teach automatic success.” (Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart)
“The proverbs are meant to be general principles.” (John Piper)
“The proverbs appear to represent likelihoods rather than absolutes with God’s personal guarantee attached.” (James Dobson)
In other words, all agree: Proverbs are general, but not universal, statements. Proverbs are usually, or ordinarily, true. They speak about what is likely, not about what is guaranteed. But proverbs certainly are not promises. They are not absolutes. We cannot bank on them completely.
Where the Roots Run Aground
But consider some amazing statements from the proverbs. And consider where we end up if we read them as probabilities instead of promises. The conventional wisdom feels right with a verse like Proverbs 22:6, but it doesn’t hold up with much of the rest of the book.
According to Lady Wisdom: “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Prov 1:23). According to the conventional approach, this means that only most people who turn at wisdom’s reproof will know her words. It cannot be absolutely certain that wisdom is available to those who turn to her. Some who turn will be disappointed when she rejects them anyway.
Or consider chapter 2: “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding…if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Prov 2:1-5). This can’t really mean what it says. What Solomon wants to communicate is that those who receive and treasure, pay attention and incline their hearts, seek wisdom like silver and search for it as for hidden treasure—such people might understand the fear of the Lord. Some—but not all—who seek the wisdom of God, and who seek it in the way God requires, will know God in the end. Hopefully you can be one of the lucky ones.
But it gets better. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity (Prov 2:6-7). Today, of course, we know that only sometimes does the Lord give wisdom. This isn’t absolute, because of course you can find wisdom in other places besides him. He’s usually the source of wisdom, but if you try other places, other deities, other schools of thought, you might also get the life you need.
Or let’s hear personified Wisdom once more: “For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death” (Prov 8:35-36). Because this can’t be a promise, it must be only a likelihood. So those who find the fear of the Lord and walk in his wisdom might get his favor. Or they might end up still injuring themselves and dying the eternal death. Ya never know. In this broken world of ours, it’s a crap shoot. So go with the better odds; but don’t bank on any certainties.
Proverbs are Promises…With a Context
There has to be a better way to read this genre. And I contend that, when a proverb sounds like a promise, it is making a promise! And you can always trust God’s promises. When a proverb issues a command, it is making a moral absolute!
However, these promises and commands all have a context. Just as Jeremiah 29:11 was a promise with a context (not modern-day graduates, but ancient Israelites in exile), so also proverbs have a context, a specific situation at which they are aimed. And instead of seeing proverbs as “general” or “broad” statements, we need to see them for what they truly are: very specific and particular statements. They speak to the minute details of life, which is why they can even sound contradictory at times. For example, see Prov 26:4-5. One saying is always true in a certain context (where answering a fool will make you as foolish as he is), and the next statement is always true in a different context (where not answering a fool will leave him wise in his own eyes). Wise people will discern which context they find themselves in. But both statements are always true within their contexts, and absolutely so. Neither statement is a mere likelihood.
Objection #1: Why are You the Only One Saying This?
I’m not. Everyone agrees that Bruce Waltke has written “the standard commentary” on Proverbs. Yet few listen to him on this point:
“The popular evangelical solution that these are not promises but probabilities, though containing an element of truth, raises theological, practical, and psychological problems by stating the matter badly…A psychologically well person could scarcely trust God with all his heart (Prov 3:5) knowing that he usually, but not always, keeps his obligations.” (The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 107-8)
Brothers and sisters, let us no longer state this matter badly.
Objection #2: What About Proverbs 22:6?
So we must return to that which set us down the false trail. What will we do with those who mistakenly read Prov 22:6 as a promise, and thus trample on faithful, wounded people who cannot control the hearts of their children?
We must understand the context to which this proverb speaks. In his book, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs (pp.353-379), Dan Phillips argues convincingly that Prov 22:6 means almost the opposite of what we tend to think. The verse doesn’t promise superhero children to those who follow the correct parenting techniques. Instead, it threatens selfish, miscreant children to those who refuse to use God’s means (the rod and the word of patient, faithful exhortation) to drive the folly from their children’s hearts.
In other words, the verse does not promise good kids to all good parents. But it does threaten bad kids to all bad parents. Train up your child according to his way. Teach him to continue loving himself and putting himself at the center of the universe. Show him over time that there are no consequences to his foolish choices. And even when he is old, he will not depart from his natural inclinations toward himself and himself alone. This is a promise.
But even this covenant curse has a context within the covenant of grace. There is always hope. The grace of our Lord overflows with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. And the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost. And I must be the first one to accept this statement, regardless of how my kids turn out. How will they ever believe it, unless they first see how much I believe it?
Photo Credit: Clark Maxwell (2010), Creative Commons
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