Interpreting the Book of Proverbs (Part 12)

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With parts 10 and 11 of this series, I examined the theological framework of Proverbs. In this post and the next, we will look at the sixth guideline for interpreting Proverbs: problematic passages in Proverbs should be interpreted by the rest of Scripture.

VI. Interpreting Problematic passages in Proverbs with the Rest of Scripture.

This hermeneutical axiom is what the Reformers referred to as the analogia fidei, “the analogia of faith.” This is also referred to as analogia scriptura, “the analogy of Scripture.” This hermeneutical principle maintains that Scripture interprets Scripture. What this means is that the entirety of Scripture is the context and the guide in interpreting specific passages in Scripture.

How is a passage such as Proverbs 17:8 (“A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; wherever he turns, he prospers”) to be harmonized with 17:23 (“A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice”), or Exodus 23:8 and Deuteronomy 16:18¬–19? On a broader level, how do we respond to some critics who maintain that the book of Proverbs is less authoritative than the special revelation contained in the Prophets? To establish their point that Proverbs is inferior in authority, critics point to supposed contradictions within Proverbs. For example, Proverbs 26:4 says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.” This is supposedly contradicted in the following verse, “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Do we answer the fool or avoid answering the fool? According to some, if either of these proverbs is “inspired” and, therefore, presents absolute truth, only one of them can be absolute. How can this be special revelation from God if it is contradictory? How is the Bible-believing Christian to explain these problematic verses, as well as similar problem passages in Proverbs? Are we to say that the book of Proverbs is less inspired and, therefore, less authoritative than other parts of the Bible?

We would contend that every verse when originally written in our canonical book of Proverbs was as fully inspired as the Prophets or any other portion of Scripture (see 2 Tim 3:16). If the entirety of Proverbs is inspired, then it is inerrant. Consequently, Proverbs in its entirety is descriptive truth. This guarantees the accurate preservation of the entirety of Proverbs. However, not all of Proverbs is prescriptive truth. This is also true with the rest of Scripture. All Scripture is descriptive truth, but not all Scripture is prescriptive truth. For example, Satan’s desire to get Job to curse God in Job 2:4–5 and his lie in Genesis 3 are both examples of descriptive truth. Descriptive truth demands that whatever Scripture originally recorded was preserved with historical accuracy. Satan really did what Scripture says he did in Job 2 and Genesis 3. However, prescriptive truth pertains to those truths by which the people of God are to regulate their lives. Satan’s lies and deceitful tactics are not to be followed by God’s people.

How then do we determine if a proverb is prescriptive truth? Comparing Scripture with Scripture most easily does this. More specifically, by comparing a proverb with other biblical revelation, we can determine if we should view a proverb simply as descriptive truth or, more normatively, as prescriptive truth.

A. Descriptive proverbs

A descriptive proverb describes a situation of life without noting how it applies or what its exceptions are (Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, pp. 313–14). It is not seeking to influence behavior, rather it seeks to present life the way it actually occurs. It is the reader’s responsibility to discern what is prescriptive and to accept the rest as descriptive truth. An example of a descriptive proverb is 17:8, “A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; wherever he turns, he prospers.” Another example is found in Proverbs 14:20, “The poor is hated even by his neighbor, but those who love the rich are many.” A further example is Proverbs 31:6–7, “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more.” The point of this proverb is that it is describing the way life is. This neither condemns nor condones the use of alcohol. To determine what use of alcohol is condemned or approved, we must look at the rest of Scripture. Proverbs 31:6-7 is a descriptive proverb.

With my next post, we will look at prescriptive proverbs

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