How to Read Proverbs Rightly

In a complicated world, so many aspects of life can be confusing or challenging that we may grasp at anything that looks like a simple explanation or solution to a problem. The Bible does bring stunning clarity to many of the most perplexing questions of life. But this does not mean we can read the Bible—or the book of Proverbs—casually. Proverbs is not a collection of simplistic formulas for guaranteed success. Nor is it intended as a means to back-test and explain difficulties or moral failures. Rather, Proverbs offers us future-oriented wisdom and guidance so we can make wise decisions and live in ways that please and exalt God. It takes both knowledge and, yes, a measure of wisdom to read Proverbs rightly.

So before we get started, we need some insight into how the book of Proverbs communicates truth. That is, we need wisdom about this particular form of wisdom, so that we can apply it rightly. Perhaps the most common error when studying a proverb is to read into it more than it is actually saying. Here are four ways to avoid doing that.

Use Basic Logic

As a first step, a proverb should be read according to the plain meaning of the words, limiting our focus to the central point. Sometimes this is simply a matter of logic. For example, when Proverbs 13:11 says, “Dishonest money dwindles away,” this does not allow us to conclude that if money dwindles away it must have been gained dishonestly. That’s not what the verse says. Indeed, dishonest gain is far from the only possible cause of dwindling finances, a point that is made several times in Scripture.

Don’t Read Any Proverb in Isolation

This leads us to a second lesson in interpreting Proverbs. We must not look at individual proverbs as if they stand apart from the rest of the Bible. Staying with Proverbs 13:11 as our example, let’s recall the Bible’s teaching that all material riches are temporary and unreliable, not just those gained dishonestly (see Psalm 49:5–9, 16–17). Scripture interprets itself, and no single verse or passage is self-contained. Proverbs 13:11 must therefore mean that dishonest money is merely temporary and unreliable in a more pronounced way than money gained honestly, because God’s blessing and protection are to some degree withheld in the case of dishonesty. Also, the Bible speaks of evil people openly enjoying material prosperity as a result of ill-gotten gains, while experience confirms that there have been wealthy criminals throughout history. Therefore, Proverbs 13:11 cannot mean that every dollar earned dishonestly will inevitably slip through a criminal’s fingers in short order.

Don’t Put God on Your Timetable

Many proverbs speak of certain actions drawing certain responses from God: rewards for obedience and punishment or discipline for disobedience. When it comes to such matters, one specific way we can avoid reading Proverbs in isolation from the rest of Scripture is to recall this glimpse into the mind of God given us by the apostle Peter: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). While God’s timing is always perfect, it is never predictable, for he is outside of time, he created time, and he is not in the least bound by our conceptions of time. Thus, punishment or discipline does not always immediately follow sin, and reward does not always immediately follow obedience. All the promises in the Bible are reliable and true, and not one will be left unfulfilled. But some are fulfilled sooner, some later, and some will only be fulfilled in the age to come.

Make God the Goal of Your Obedience

At all times, we need to keep in mind the ultimate reason we read Scripture: To know and obey God. Following the way of the wise as set forth in the book of Proverbs will help you to avoid paths that lead to ruin. It will set you on paths that lead to long life and prosperity. Proverbs does offer an infallible guarantee that a Proverbs-driven life will result in spiritual and practical blessings. But it is vitally important to remember that the goal of Proverbs is not finding earthly prosperity or even wisdom itself. The goal of Proverbs is to grow ever closer to the God who is Wisdom. Knowing God is the proper definition of the good life, and the highest goal of the Proverbs-driven life.

Excerpted from A Proverbs Driven Life by Anthony Selvaggio

Shepherd Press