Introduction to Proverbs
While the Book of Psalms deals with the vertical relationship between God and man, the Book of Proverbs addresses life on the horizontal. Written primarily by King Solomon—arguably the wisest man who ever lived—it addresses everything from handling money, business strategy, and dealing with sexual temptation to making good decisions, controlling our speech, and living with our neighbors.
“Without a doubt, Solomon’s sayings offer the most practical, down-to-earth instruction in all the Bible,” writes Charles Swindoll. “The entire book of thirty-one chapters is filled with capsules of truth . . . short, pithy maxims that help us face and, in fact, apply God’s wisdom in real-life situations. These sayings convey specific truth in such a pointed, easily understood manner; we have little difficulty grasping the message.”
It is biblically incorrect to view the Book of Proverbs as a list of commands that apply to everyone or a collection of promises that always come to pass. It is neither. Rather, it is a wonderful compilation of truisms and nuggets of wisdom—guidance that is generally true but that carries no guarantees. Take, for example, the oft-quoted saying about raising children: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). This bit of wisdom is generally true, but to hold fast to it as if it were guaranteed to produce godly children is flawed theology and will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment.
Written in poetic form, “the most commonly employed style of expression in Proverbs is the ‘couplet’—two ideas placed next to each other.” In contrastive couplets, the two ideas are usually linked by the word but: “The eyes of the LORD keep watch over knowledge, but he frustrates the words of the unfaithful” (Proverbs 22:12). In completive couplets, the second idea completes the first: “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering tongue works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). And in comparative couplets, one idea acts as a comparison for the other: “As water reflects a man’s face, so a man’s heart reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19). According to Swindoll, this final category of couplets, identified as such by phrases such as “better… than,” “as . . . so,” and “like . . . so,” are among the most graphic sayings in the book.
Many of the proverbs appear to contradict each other, but that is because they each have a point to make about a particular area of life. A couple of common non-biblical sayings illustrate this well. One says, “If you snooze, you lose,” while the other says, “Haste makes waste.” The former addresses initiative, which is generally thought of as a good thing, while the latter deals with the area of caution, which is also often necessary. Both apply to different scenarios; if we were to view them as absolute promises, we would never be able to reconcile the two. The same is true for the sayings in the Book of Proverbs. They are simply observations about life through the eyes of Solomon and the other wisdom writers.
The fact that there are thirty-one chapters in the Book of Proverbs makes it easy to use as a daily devotional guide each month. To keep it from becoming too familiar, switch translations every few months. You just might be surprised at the impact such a practice will have on your life. “I can’t promise you that a chapter a day will keep the devil away,” Swindoll quips, “but I can surely tell you it’ll help keep him at arm’s length!”
The Book of Proverbs holds tremendous application for the follower of Christ in the twenty-first century marketplace. Within its pages we find advice about listening, gossip, ethics, forgiveness, planning, mentoring, wealth, praise, dealing with adversaries, borrowing money, philanthropy, and success, just to name a few. Whatever we happen to be facing at work on any given day, we can probably find a proverb that will help us deal with it correctly. As Robert L. Alden writes, the sayings in the book have a wonderful way of adapting themselves to any situation. “How often we feel tension between overwork and industry, laziness and relaxation, discipline and encouragement, spending and saving, and even generosity versus waste. Yet these are the very tensions of life itself. The way of wisdom teaches us how to achieve perspective and balance in that tension.”