The book of Proverbs is designed to communicate truth in a vivid, memorable manner so that its readers can understand how to live successfully before God in a fallen world (Prov 1:1–7). It differs from other books of “wisdom” in the Bible (Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs) in that while those books communicate abstract wisdom (wrestling through transcendent issues like the problem of suffering), the book of Proverbs communicates practical wisdom. It focuses on everyday issues, prescribing concrete attitudes and behaviors for concrete situations in life.
Yet as practical as the book is, arriving at an accurate understanding of its contents can still prove difficult for readers far removed from the book’s historical milieu. The following five principles help overcome this challenge.
1. Interpret each proverb dependent on God’s assistance.
To interpret the contents of Proverbs without whole-hearted reliance upon God to grant understanding is to ignore the very motto of the book—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7, NASB)—and its own explicit instructions for learning—“Trust the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” (3:5). The contents of Proverbs are as inspired and authoritative as any other part of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16–17). The interpreter must approach the book just as he approaches Deuteronomy or the Psalter or Romans—with persistent prayer and dependency on divine enablement. Even though the book describes many relatable situations, the interpreter must resist the temptation to read its instructions through the grid of intuition and experience.
As the saying goes, “attitude affects interpretation.”
The attitude that leans on the Lord for understanding, from the beginning to the end of the interpretive process, is the only attitude that can set the trajectory for a good outcome.
2. Study the proverb’s historical and cultural context.
Solomon spoke his wisdom into a time and culture that was very different from ours. He employed analogies and word pictures that were ordinary to his immediate audience but alien to our technological age. He speaks of mangers and oxen. The dogs of his day were wild scavengers, not household pets. He describes commerce in terms of scales and weights. For him, the roofs of houses were flat and the highest human authority in the land was a king.
The reader must be sensitive to these historical differences. He must always be careful to resist reading these terms and word pictures through the prism of his own experience. Whenever a proverb includes an element related to commerce, architecture, farming practices, neighborhood customs, civic administration, and the like, his first instinct must be to reach for resources that describe these ancient manners and customs and familiarize himself with that world. If not, grave mistakes in interpretation will be inevitable.
3. Examine the proverb’s literary context.
This literary analysis of each proverbial unit must focus on three dimensions of context.
- Immediate context. The opening section of the book (chapters 1–9) is made up of discourse proverbs—lengthy sections dedicated to particular themes and made up of exhortations, illustrations, if/then statements, and the like. The central section of the book (chapters 10–29) is comprised of what we more often think of when we think of proverbs—pithy statements crafted in various forms of parallelism to provoke contemplation and to be recalled in the moment of need. The closing section of the book (chapters 30–31) is comprised of a mixture of pithy statements, discourse proverbs, and even an acrostic poem arranged according to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (31:10–31).
Readers typically recognize that the discourse proverbs must be interpreted as whole units. Their individual statements cannot be wrenched out of context and treated as stand-alone aphorisms. Therefore, the boundaries of these instructional proverbs need to be carefully determined and everything therein treated as interdependent.
But what of the short, pithy statements found in chapters 10–29? It is important to note that on occasion a number of these statements are grouped together for a reason. An interpreter should never just pick a proverb off the page without first checking to see if the proverbs around it deal with the same topic. If they do, the reader can be confident that they need to be read together to be understood correctly.
An example of this Proverbs 26:4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him.” If the interpreter took only that statement, he would naturally conclude that it would be inappropriate to respond to claims made by opponents of the truth. But this would miss the point of the compiler. The very next statement reads, “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes” (26:5). The vocabulary and grammar of both statements are so similar that it is vividly apparent the two are to be understood together.
- Book context. It is not enough just to consider the immediate context for each proverb. Each unit—whether a lengthy discourse or a pithy statement—is still to be read within the context of the entire book.
It helps to consider the origin of the book’s contents. Most of Proverbs’ sayings come from King Solomon (1:1; 10:1; 25:1). In response to his prayer for understanding to rule Israel skillfully (1 Kings 3:5–9), God blessed him with great wisdom (1 Kings 4:29–35).
Originally this wisdom was spoken by Solomon (1 Kings 4:32, 33, 34). His proverbs were delivered orally at different times in response to different needs. They were subsequently memorized and perhaps recorded in writing and circulated to various audiences. But Solomon himself recognized the need to collect most of his sayings into one source (Prov 1–9; 10:1–22:16). The scribes of King Hezekiah adjoined other sayings of Solomon not included by him (25:1–29:27). Some sayings of other wise men were also added by divine superintendence (22:17–24:34; 30:1–33; 31:1–31).
It is important to note that it was not God’s plan to leave this treasury of wisdom in solitary units. He so moved men to collect them so that they would form an “instruction manual” that would be used for referencing, comparison, and systematization by future generations. In other words, the contents of the book of Proverbs were ultimately intended to be read as a collection. The whole of the book was to be used as an interpretive key for its parts.
How does this affect interpretation? It implies that when searching for practical wisdom on any given topic, or when reading through the book sequentially, the interpreter cannot cite just one proverb as the be-all, end-all of a matter. He must search the contents of the entire book to see the whole breadth of Proverbs’ teaching on the topic. While each proverb is true in itself, it is true as it deals with a particular aspect of the broader topic it addresses. As Bruce Waltke writes, “Individual proverbs express truth, but, restricted by the aphorism’s demand for terseness, they cannot express the whole truth.” Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart similarly state, “An appreciation of the full contexts of the individual proverbs will help to interpret and apply them well.”
This importance of reading each proverb in light of the entire book is especially apparent with a proverb like 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” No matter how the Hebrew language of this statement is to be exegeted (and it is a tough proverb to crack linguistically), its message must be interpreted in the context of the other proverbs on parenting found in Proverbs.
The same goes for any other topic addressed in the book. Peter Steveson summarizes this well: “The organized framework of a subject study reveals the full teaching of the book on a single subject. When we consider the individual proverbs, they give us single ideas, restricted in scope. But when we systematically order the proverbs, they give a fuller teaching on the broad range of the subject.”
- Revelatory context. “Revelatory context” here refers specifically to antecedent revelation in particular—the special revelation God gave prior to the time of Solomon. Since God revealed his knowledge progressively through history, this antecedent body of inspired literature provides the informing theology to Proverbs’ contents. Since it is assumed in the text, it must not be neglected by the reader.
The foundation to the book of Proverbs is the Pentateuch; it cannot be properly understood without it. Over eighty times in Proverbs God is referred to by his personal name Yahweh (“Lord”)—a name that has unmistakable connections to His covenants with Israel (cf. Exod 20:1–2). Or consider how the proverbs exposit the Ten Commandments (cf. Exod 20:3–17). Proverbs’ instructions on fearing God presuppose the first three commandments; its admonitions to heed parental instruction presuppose the fifth commandment; its call to resist anger presupposes the sixth commandment; its plea to maintain sexual purity presupposes the seventh commandment; its call to diligent and ethical labor presupposes the eighth commandment; its teaching on the use of the tongue presupposes the ninth commandment; and its sayings on justice presuppose the tenth commandment. The book as a whole contains unmistakable allusions to and echoes of texts in the Pentateuch. These must be properly recognized and explored in the quest for an accurate understanding of Proverbs.
As Thomas Long writes, “To listen to a proverb without at the same time hearing its covenantal background is to pry a gem from its setting.” Thus, any good interpreter will consider how the proverb he is interpreting is undergirded by antecedent revelation. Taking into account earlier, related texts will prove invaluable in the interpretation of the proverb itself.
4. Consider how the proverb incorporates general revelation.
The Apostle Paul stated that “since the creation of the world His [God’s] invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Rom 1:20). This knowledge is very much the focus of Proverbs as it presupposes not only the propositional revelation contained in the Pentateuch, but the non-propositional revelation contained in God’s handiwork as well.
The book of Proverbs shows that creation itself communicates wisdom. Foundational life principles can be drawn from ants, badgers, locusts, and lizards (Prov 6:6–11; 30:24–28). The seasons themselves teach that the time of sowing must precede the time of reaping—and thus, that enjoying the reward must come after the season of diligent labor. All the analogies and word-pictures drawn from the natural world prove that there is a moral order evident in creation that points to the only true God—the God of Israel—and displays his moral character, wisdom, and power.
Thus, the student of Proverbs must always be on the lookout to consider how the unwritten laws of creation are being directly referenced or subtly assumed in the book’s teachings. So when Solomon states, “Go to the ant, O sluggard, observer her ways and be wise” (6:6), the interpreter should follow suit.
5. Analyze the proverb’s internal structure.
The proverbs use different literary forms to teach truth. The variety of structures used helps make the truths they communicate both memorable and forceful.
Proverbs’ wisdom sayings are generally stated in four kinds of parallel statements:
- Synonymous parallelism, where the lines of the proverb communicate the same idea but with different terminology in each line (e.g., 16:18).
- Antithetic parallelism, where the lines of the proverb communicate a contrast that demonstrates the black-and-white world of biblical wisdom (e.g., 10:12).
- Emblematic parallelism, where both lines of the proverb communicate the same idea, but one line is figurative and the other is literal (e.g., 25:14).
- Synthetic parallelism, a less direct form of parallelism where the second line advances the idea of the first line (e.g., 20:4).
To supplement these five interpretive principles, three cautions must be reinforced.
1. Do not treat a proverb as an exhaustive summation of reality.
Although a biblical proverb is an inspired expression of truth (cf. 2 Tim 3:16), remember that it is expressing a part of that truth. It is one segment that points to the whole, not the whole itself. This is true because an important feature of a proverb is brevity. A proverb is what it is because it is short and sweet. This brevity does not allow the proverb to address all qualifications and exceptions. The “fine print” is often left to other Scriptures to reveal. As Ted Hildebrandt states, “It does not pretend to describe all of reality, just one segment of it.” Or as Dan Phillips writes, “A proverb is a saying, not a dissertation.”
2. Do not assume that a proverb is an absolute guarantee.
Because biblical proverbs are not intended to be exhaustive summations of truth, a single proverb cannot be taken instantaneously as an iron-clad, incontrovertible law. Certainly, the book of Proverbs does describe what typically occurs in God’s ordered, cause-and-effect universe so that the listener can expect to reap what he sows. Moreover, whenever individual proverbs testify to God’s character, they always speak with a guarantee (e.g., Prov 3:5–6; 11:1; 12:22; 15:3; 16:2, 33; 22:2). But when they observe the world—a world in which both curse and redemption operate—room must be allowed for exceptions.
For example, while the book of Proverbs generally attributes poverty to foolish decisions (e.g., 10:4; 20:13; 21:17), it also acknowledges that poverty itself is not necessarily the consequence of sin (e.g., 19:1). Moreover, while a man may have made many foolish decisions from childhood that propel him along the path of foolishness, God’s revelation and grace can always change the fool’s direction. As Greg Parsons states, “the proverbs tell us what generally takes place without making an irreversible rule that fits all circumstances.”
3. Recognize that some proverbs look at life as it is, not as it should be.
Connected to the book’s emphasis on practical living, the book will sometimes draw observations about the way things work in a sin-stained world outside the Garden of Eden, without stating how things should actually work in light of God’s revelation. A prime example of this is the book’s teaching on gifts to those in authority. While bribes are condemned when they pervert justice (Prov 17:23; 29:4), they are described as helpful when used by one who appeals to someone in authority with a request (17:4). The mere description of such realities should not be taken as a blanket endorsement.
 In addition to my duties at The Master’s Seminary, I have the privilege of teaching in “Men of the Word,” the Wednesday evening men’s ministry at Grace Community Church. This past May (2021) I finished a twenty-six-part topical study of the book of Proverbs entitled “Wisdom: Living Successfully in a Treacherous World” (Wisdom | Grace Community Church (gracechurch.org). These five hermeneutical principles were the rules I implemented in my own study of this marvelous portion of Scripture.
 See Mark F. Rooker, “The Book of Proverbs,” in The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti (B&H, 2011), 531.
 Bruce Waltke, “Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?” Andrews University Seminary Studies 34.2 (1996), 325.
 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th ed. (Zondervan, 2014), 246.
 Peter A. Steveson, A Commentary on Proverbs (BJU Press, 2001), xxiii–xxiv.
 Walter Kaiser refers to antecedent revelation as “informing theology”—that is, theology that informed the speaker/writer of the text and was to be assumed by the audience as well. See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Baker, 1981), 161.
 Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Fortress, 1989), 58–59.
 Ted A. Hildebrandt, “Proverb” Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament (Baker, 1995), 248.
 Dan Phillips, God’s Wisdom in Proverbs (Kress Christian Publications, 2011), 17.
 Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs,” Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (April–June, 1993), 159.