The Proverbs, are not simply a didactic piece of literature; rather, they are a model for life in the Kingdom of God, a life empowered by the Spirit of God through the gospel.
Proverbs may be one of the best known books of the Bible, or, at least, the Old Testament. Even Pocket New Testaments usually contain the Psalms and the Proverbs alongside the New Testament. Frequently, reading plans have readers going through the Proverbs more than once a year. In college, a popular reading plan was to read the chapter of Proverbs corresponding to the day (for example, on March 28, read Proverbs 28). Most Christians probably have at least one Proverb memorized, if not more. (I would be shocked to find a Christian who has NOT memorized “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”!)
So, why a blog post about the Proverbs if we are so familiar with them?
Simple: we run the danger of turning them into moral advice rather than gospel wisdom. What’s the difference? Moral advice is the advice we use to live better lives and be better people. This quickly turns to legalism, where we measure ourselves against the Proverbs as our standard of living, thinking God approves more of us the more Proverbs we successfully abide by per day.
But the Proverbs are not concerned with simply making us better people. They are concerned with Christlikeness, which only comes through the power of the Holy Spirit. They are concerned with making us kingdom-people, people living counter-culturally, witnessing to King Jesus by how we live and interact with our neighbors. This is a type of life guided by the fear of the Lord, which helps us to grow in wisdom. Wisdom, simply, is the matured reflection on God’s character and law and how those reflections affect the way we live.
By studying Proverbs, we will learn the fear of the Lord, which leads us to live wisely. Here are a few ways to reframe the Proverbs this side of the Cross:
- The Proverbs are Relational
The first nine chapters of Proverbs are framed as the teaching of a father to his son. This father, a son of David, sits his son down to give him the years of wisdom that he has acquired over the years. If most of the Proverbs came from Solomon, we might imagine him giving the law to Rehoboam years before the Civil War split the kingdom of Israel in two. Parents teach their children lessons out of love, not out of duty. When our parents share their wisdom with us, its because they want to see us avoid the mistakes that they have made and follow their footsteps when they made good decisions. Solomon, of all men in the Bible, would have plenty of good and bad life lessons he can share with his son.
This side of the Cross, we call God our Father. Through the Spirit, we have been adopted into God’s family as sons, as heirs. The Proverbs, as lessons from a Father to a son, can be seen as God the Father’s instructions to his church, his sons and daughters. This means that the Proverbs are not given by a detached law-giver, a distant judge. Rather, they are given to us by a loving Father, interested in watching us grow in Christlikeness. If Ezekiel teaches us anything, it is that God is concerned with the world knowing his character; by teaching us the Proverbs, our Father helps us reflect him in the world. We show the world what his rule looks like, and by participating in the kingdom, we grow in our joy because our aims and God’s aims are moving more closely in sync.
- The Proverbs Change the Way We Think
We might get discouraged if we view the Proverbs as simply rules to follow. Humans, tainted by sin and death, will never be able to follow all of the Proverbs faithfully and completely. We will fail: we may accidentally greet our neighbor with a loud voice in the morning, which will be taken as a curse rather than a blessing. But, in Christ, they are not simply rules. They are, instead, loving guidance from a loving Father invested in our lives. If we view the Proverbs as instructions from our Father, we will be more excited to see how they change our lives. One of Paul’s better known commands is that we do not be conformed to the image of the world, but have our minds transformed by the renewal of our minds. Through the Spirit, the Proverbs are one of the many means by which our minds can be renewed rather than conformed to the world. The more we read the Proverbs, the more our minds will be shaped by them. Memorizing a Proverb, even one!, is of great value to us in this extent. First, we will be forced to chew and meditate on that psalm as it comes to mind often, which is a blessing to us (Psalm 1). Second, it will change the way we live, as our meditation on that Proverb grows into contextual wisdom. The more Proverbs we memorize, the more our minds and lives will be renewed, making us a pleasing, living sacrifice.
- The Proverbs are not simply Rules
For those in Christ, we are judged by Christ’s faithfulness rather than our own. This is good news! But if we’re not judged by our fidelity to the Proverbs, what are their purpose? By helping us grow in Christlikeness in relationship with the Father and in our thinking, the Proverbs become a source of encouragement and joy! One of the things I have to watch out for in my life is how self-disparaging I can be. This is borne out of functional hopelessness about my ability to change, being stuck continually in patterns of sin. But the Proverbs, in showing us what kingdom life is like by renewing our minds, give us examples of how to live differently. They, essentially, hold our hands as we grow in Christlikeness.
For example, when I am tired (well, let’s be honest, not even when I am tired), I have a propensity to struggle with anger. Proverbs 19:11 says: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” This sentence offers so much for me as I struggle: the more I grow in good sense, the more slowly I will move toward anger. I am also reminded to overlook an offense, which is to my glory, as I will be less likely to sin in my anger. The Spirit, as the life behind the Scriptures, helps me grow in good sense as he illuminates the Proverbs to me. As I grow in good sense, I am more Christlike, as Christ was slow to anger and slow to speak, who would not extinguish a flickering wick. Good sense also becomes a fountain of life to me (16:22), stemming from the God of life (Romans 8:3).
Our lives are transformed when our view of the Proverbs are transformed. To see them as simply rules to make us morally better people, we lead ourselves down a path to destruction. But when we see them as instructions from a loving Father to encourage us, helping us change the way we think, they become a source of gospel-based joy for us.