A glimpse at the precepts of an ancient book that casts divine light on many everyday problems

In this age of the transistor, there is a sense in which God may be said to have given us “transistorized wisdom.” The Book of Proverbs contains hundreds of verses that present truth in the smallest possible package.

Proverbs are apt, succinct, and clear—characteristics of all good teaching. They are handles on truth to make it portable. Like road signs, they fulfill a specific function quickly.

The Hebrew word for “proverb” comes from the root for “likeness” or “comparison.” And in the Septuagint, “proverb” and “parable” came to have much the same sense; there the heading of the Book of Proverbs uses both words. A proverb might be thought of as a condensed parable.

“Answer A Fool … Answer Not”

Compilers of proverbs sometimes place contradictory thoughts in juxtaposition. An example is Proverbs 26:4, 5: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” At first thought such contradictions seem very strange.

Yet is not life itself full of seeming contradictions? The proverb has the flexibility to be applied to the great problems of daily living. It carries truth into the realm of practical application. The intellect is persistently plagued with paradoxes and contradictions. Reality, however, is larger than the mind of man, and living requires more than jungle instinct on one hand and pure reason on the other. Thus the proverb is a view of life, designed for immediate practical action.

The proverb is intense. Brevity often means urgency. Stenciled emergency notations are on aircraft, not hidden in shelves of books. The shortest prayer in the Bible is Peter’s “Lord, save me.” Three words were sufficient to reach the Lord’s ear. God sometimes speaks an urgent command or strengthening promise when he speaks most briefly, directly, and intensely.

The proverb often takes the form of “a dark saying.” In Habakkuk 2:6 (“Shall not all these take up a parable against him …?”) the Hebrew word means “conundrum.” The concept of the “dark saying” suggests that the proverb was sometimes hard to understand. On the other hand, the word “proverb” also took on the meaning of “popular with the people”—hence, a byword, a commonplace. “To understand a proverb, and the interpretation [as figure or image]; the words of the wise and their dark sayings [conundrums]” (Prov. 1:6).

The New Testament uses both of these senses. For example, in Second Peter 2:22, paroimia, from Greek words meaning “by the way,” has the sense of a wayside saying or byword. However, the same term is used in John 10:6 and 16:25, 29 in the secondary sense of figure, parable, and allegory. These, as dark sayings, were hard to understand.

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Jesus’ Use Of Proverbs

The Lord Jesus used proverbs in his teaching. Twice in the Gospels we have the proverb, “A prophet has no honor in his own country” (John 4:44, Luke 4:24). Jesus’ enemies used proverbs against him, such as, “Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23). This reminds us of Psalm 69:11, “I became a proverb to them.” Jesus often taught through proverbs. Yet “the time cometh,” he said, “when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father” (John 16:25). In both the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1–12) and the discourse on John the Baptist (Matt. 11:2–19), Jesus said, “He who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” This proverb recurs in the last book of the Bible eight times (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9).

The New Testament quotes or alludes to the Book of Proverbs thirty-two times. One proverb, “Shall he not render to every man according to his works?” (Prov. 24:12), is alluded to six times.

Ephesians 6:17 is a striking example of the sufficiency of a transistor-sized word. The sword of the Spirit is said to be, not the Word, considered in its totality (for the customary logos is not used), but rather the phrase, or saying (rhema), of God. The Christian warrior is to take the appropriate expression to use as the Lord’s sword in spiritual warfare.

Proverbs is a highly practical book. The problems of youth, middle age, and old age are mentioned. Mild vexation and international strife are both dealt with in principle.

There are thirty-one chapters in the Book of Proverbs, one for each day of any month. For years, in addition to my other Scripture reading, I read one chapter of Proverbs daily. This was one of the most practical steps I ever took in my Christian life.

In fact, Proverbs is a good place for anyone to start reading the Bible. It is well fitted to create a “market” for the Gospel. In it the human heart can see its own lack of practical righteousness and thus discover its own need. By showing us how far short we fall of God’s standards, Proverbs shows us that we need a Saviour. And indeed, the Saviour is foreshadowed in Proverbs 8:22–31, 23:11, and 30:4.

When the words of God in Proverbs have been discerned, the Word of God in the Gospels can be more personally appreciated. Practical thinking as well as emotional turmoil introduces people to Christ. Christ is concerned with every aspect of life, and Proverbs may well be studied for the way God meets the diverse psychological needs of men.

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Plain Advice For Youth

The Book of Proverbs is, in a special sense, dedicated and directed to youth, as the prologue (1:1–6) shows. There are few pieces of writing that young people need more than this book. The children of God should be wiser than the children of this world. As they go to school or to ball games or on dates, Proverbs is a spiritual transistor that can be carried in the heart if not in the pocket. In the barracks, in town, in school and home, the Book of Proverbs speaks to plain, everyday situations. It is an inspired part of the literature of realism, helping us face life as it is—difficult and demanding. None of us will ever outgrow his need for this type of plain-spoken wisdom.

The housewife, the professional man or businessman, the workman or the shopkeeper—each may turn to this most practical portion of the Word of God. The ear may be opened to the Spirit of God as he calls us to Jesus Christ above the noise of the day. In Proverbs we may all learn of the wisdom of him who at the appointed time made his Son, “Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

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