by Jeffrey Hagan
When it comes to hermeneutics it's extremely important too know what literary genre it is one is studying because each one has a set of rules to be followed. Today we are going to look at the book of Proverbs.
Nine Rules For Interpreting Proverbs:
1. Many of the proverbs are parabolic, for example, figurative, and point beyond themselves.
Proverbs have the same basic format as parables. We shouldn't concentrate so much on the specifics, but rather the spiritual truth being presented. Focus on the lesson to be learned as opposed to the particulars that are used.
2. Proverbs are purposefully practical, not theoretically theological.
Proverbs is not the place for developing one's theology. For instance, Proverbs 15:19a, "The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns,". Of course this isn't literally true. Just because some might be having a rough go of it doesn't mean their relationship with God is in jeapordy. I like how it's worded in course notes from a class I took on Job. Doing this would be "deriving...theology from a point made in the Proverbs, but this is not the point of the proverb."
3. "Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise."
In order to be memorized proverbs are worded in a particular way. One example of this is Proverbs 3:17, "Her wisdoms ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." This is worded so the point can be remembered, however, it's not stating a literal truth. Just think of our Lord, the only true way to wisdom, his life was full of tribulations that were far from peaceful.
4. Proverbs are not constructed to encourage selfish behavior - in fact, the opposite is true.
Many proverbs talk about obtaining money and wealth which could possibly incite an unlearned person to seek out a life of prosperity. Proverbs tells us to work hard and accumulate and uses the way ants operate as an example. But these proverbs are not encouraging some kind of prosperity or health and wealth gospel, they are actual teaching a proper balance of these things. We are not to be "covetous in our acquiring" nor are we to be lazy.
5. "Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible 'translation' so as to not lose their meaning."
An can be found in Proverbs 22:11, "He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend." This doesn't mean if someone is pure and speaks kindly and graciously the king will automatically befriend them, or the president for those of us in America. Interpreting it in that fashion is to completely miss the point of application. Not to mention one would need to understand kingly relationships from that time as opposed to "relationships" today with world leaders.
6. Proverbs are not to be viewed as "money back guarantees" from God; they are guidelines put in poetic language for right behavior.
These are basic principles for life that when followed generally produce the stated result, but they do not guarantee anything. The basic principle works most of the time, but exceptions to the rules often occur.
7. "Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point."
These are usually self evident. Examples from proverbs state 1) it's better to live on a corner of the roof than inside the house with a difficult wife and 2) cutting your throat if you are a glutton. Clearly these are exaggerations.
8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to particular aspects of life, but aren't exhaustive in the advice they give.
An example, Proverbs 16:3, "Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established." This is excellent sage advice, but it doesn't encompass everything. One can commit all they do to the Lord and still not have everything they do be a success ("established").
9. If used incorrectly, someone might try and justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle from proverbs. If used correctly, one will gain wise, practical advice for day to day life.
Let me close by directly quoting from the course notes mentioned above formulated for this point: "For example: Proverbs 14-24 - "The crown of the wise is their riches but the folly of fools is foolishness." Proverbs 21:20 - " There is a precious treasure and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but a foolish man swallows it up." While there are biblical examples of wise people who were poor, the Proverbs still encourage the benefits wisdom provides to one's daily needs.