A proverb is a short well-known pithy saying that expresses an obvious truth and often offers advice in a forceful way and is to the point, and frequently with an element of wit. Generally, the proverb will describe somebody or something with a word or phrase that is not meant to be taken literally. By means of a vivid comparison, proverbs express something about a person or thing. While we do have a whole book of proverbs, they are found all throughout the Bible.

Isaiah 5:21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and discerning in their own sight!

Proverbs have caused some difficulty in many churches because they are treated like absolutes or guarantees; if we do A we will get B. Proverbs are not to be applied in this sense in an imperfect world, with imperfect people. The best phrase that we can put before the proverb is “generally speaking.” Let us look at Proverbs 22:6 as our example, it says, “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (ESV) Let us look at an easy version of this, “direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.” (NLT) Is this an absolute guarantee that, if I raise my children in the best way, when they get older they will not leave it? No. Let us place our phrase in front of it. ‘Generally speaking,’ if you direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.’

Again, we ask, is a proverb to be interpreted as a universal law? Is it as the law of the Medes and the Persians, which could never be overruled (Esther 8:8)? Is it to be interpreted absolutely, as the laws of thermodynamics, which describe what must always take place? It is apparent when reading proverbs that many of them seem to be less than absolute in their applicability. Let us look at a few more examples,

Proverbs 1:33 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

33 “But he who listens to me shall dwell securely
and he will live, without the dread of disaster.”

Is it not true, even some of the most spiritual people we know, have suffered a lack of peace in war-torn countries (i.e., have not dwelled securely), or have had trouble in a bad neighborhood, as they fearfully walk to the store, or get in and out of their car, even walk out on their front porch? Was not Stephen of the first century a very spiritual Christian, and was he not martyred?

Proverbs 3:9-10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Honor Jehovah with your wealth
and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will be bursting with wine.

Have not many good Christians given much to the congregation out of their heart over the years, and suffered financial disaster during an economic downturn?

Proverbs 10:3-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Jehovah does not let the soul of the righteous go hungry,
but he thrusts away the craving of the wicked.
A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

Are there not poor Christians, who work hard at minimum wage jobs; while there are rich people, who have never worked a day in their life?

Proverbs 13:21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

21 Misfortune pursues sinners,
but the righteous are rewarded with good.[1]

 Do we measure the righteous by who is the most blessed? Are all righteous people rich?

Proverbs 17:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

A servant who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully
and will share in the inheritance among brothers.

 Are there not wicked rich people?

It is obvious that none of these are absolutes. However, if we follow the rule and place “generally speaking” before the proverb, we will arrive at what the author meant. Generally speaking, all who listen to the principles of God, will have peace, untroubled by harm. Keeping physically clean contributes to good health. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13) God’s servants must always speak the truth. (Ephesians 4:25) Sex before marriage, adultery, bestiality, incest, and homosexuality are all serious sins against God. – Leviticus 18:6; Romans 1:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

Christians must avoid lying. (Pro. 6:16-19; Col. 3:9-10) They do not take part in any kind of gambling. (Eph. 5:3-5) In addition, Christians do not steal. Additionally, they do not knowingly buy property that they know to be stolen, nor do they take things without the owner’s permission. (Ex. 20:15; Eph. 4:28) Christians have learned to control their anger, as uncontrolled anger can lead to acts of violence. (Gen. 4:5-8) God does not accept a person that is violent or even loves violence as his friend. (Psa. 11:5; Pro. 22:24-25) Christians do not take revenge or to return evil for the bad things that others might do to us. (Pro. 24:29; Rom. 12:17-21) There is nothing in the Bible that prohibits drinking alcoholic beverages. (Psa. 104:15; 1 Tim. 5:23) However, heavy drinking and drunkenness are condemned. (1 Cor. 5:11-13; 1 Tim. 3:8) A person, who consumes too much alcohol will more than likely ruin their health and upset their family. Moreover, it will decrease one’s spiritual thinking ability, causing them to give into temptations. – Proverbs 23:20-21, 29-35.

The Hebrew word for “proverb” is mashal, and is believed to be from a root word, meaning, “to liken” or “compare.” Psalm 49:12 says, “Man in his pomp [i.e., honor, fame, wealth] will not remain; he is like [or comparable to] the beasts that perish.” This is certainly true, as many of the proverbs within Scripture make use of likenesses or comparisons. Milton Terry ads,

The same verb means also to rule, or have dominion, and some have sought to trace a logical connection between the two significations; but, more probably, as Gesenius suggests, two distinct and independent radicals have coalesced under this one form. The proverb proper will generally be found, in its ultimate analysis, to be a comparison or similitude. Thus, the saying, which became a proverb (mashal) in Israel, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” arose from his prophesying after the manner of the prophets with whom he came in contact (1 Sam. 10:10-12). The proverb used by Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth, “Physician, heal thyself,” is a condensed parable, as, indeed, it is there called (Luke 4:23), and it would be no difficult task to enlarge it into a parabolic narrative. Herein, also we may see how proverbs and parables came to be designated by the same word. The word paroimia, adage, byword, expresses more nearly the later idea commonly associated with the Hebrew mashal, and stands as its representative in the Septuagint. In the New Testament it is used in the sense of adage, or common byword, in 2 Peter 2:22, but in John’s Gospel it denotes more especially an enigmatical discourse (John 10:6; John 16:15, 29). (Terry 1883, 329)

If the above were true, it would mean that, at times, we are talking about the sayings of a ruler, which means it would carry authority and power, or at least suggest superior wisdom. We do have a text that is consistent with this view, King Solomon “also uttered three thousand proverbs; and his songs were a thousand and five.” – 1 Kings 4:32.

Amid the Israelites, there were widely held or regularly used expressions, which were packed with meaning on account of the situations that surrounded them. Mostly, these proverbial sayings were succinctly stated. (1 Sam. 10:12) However, not all of the proverbial sayings communicated correct views, and God took issue with them.

Ezekiel 12:22-23 (ESV)

22 “Son of man, what is this proverb that you have about the land of Israel, saying, ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing’? 23 Tell them therefore, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel.’ But say to them, The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision.

Ezekiel 18:2-3 (ESV)

“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.


Some of the proverbs turned into common expressions of mockery or disdain for certain people

Habakkuk 2:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Will not all these take up a proverb against him,
Even mockery and insinuations against him, saying,
“Woe to him who increases what is not his’?
For how long?
And makes himself rich with loans?”

Here we have, more exactly the object of contempt, be it a person or something inanimate being referred to as “a proverbial.” Hence, the Israelites were warned that if they failed to pay attention God, obeying his commandments,

Deuteronomy 28:15

Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

15 But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to the voice of Jehovah your God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, that all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you.

Deuteronomy 28:37

Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

37 And you will become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all the peoples where Jehovah will lead you away.

1 Kings 9:7

Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples.

2 Chronicles 7:20

Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples.

Israel eventually did become a proverb and a byword [catch phrase] among the nations, as the following expressions show,

Psalm 44:13-15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

13 You make us a reproach to our neighbors,
A scoffing and a derision to those around us.
14 You have made us a proverb[2] among the nations,
a laughing stock among the peoples.
15 All day long my dishonor is before me,
and shame has covered my face

Jeremiah 24:9 Lexham English Bible (LEB)

And I will make them as a terror, an evil to all the kingdoms of the earth, as a disgrace and a proverb, as a taunt and a curse, in all the places where I will drive them.

There were individuals, who became an object of scorn or a joke among the people, the subject among the drunkards,

Psalm 69:11-12 Updated American Standard Version (USV)

11 When I made sackcloth my clothing,
I became a proverb[3] to them.
12 Those who sit in the gate talk about me,
And I am the song of the drunkards.

11 When I made sackcloth my clothing,
I became a byword to them.

12 Those who sit in the gate talk about me,

And I am the song of the drunkards.

Job 17:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

“But He has made me a proverb[4] of the people,
And I am one at whom men spit.

As we can see from the above texts, to be a made a proverb of the people or of the nations, was to become an object of scorn, taking on a very low state in life.

While most proverbs are short pithy sayings, this is not always the case, as Isaiah chapter 14 contains a lengthier one. It compares the catastrophic result of the arrogance of the king of Babylon. With cutting, bitter mockery and derision, it piles scorn on the one who thought of himself as the “Shining morning star.”

When the comparison or similitude contained in the proverb, was also rather unclear or puzzling, it could also be viewed as a riddle.

Psalm 78:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter riddles from of old,

An example of this can be found in the book of Ezekiel, where he made the following comparison,

Ezekiel 17:2-18

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

“Son of man, pose a riddle and speak a parable to the house of Israel. You are to say: This is what the Lord God says:

A great eagle with great wings, long pinions,
and full plumage of many colors
came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar.
He plucked off its topmost shoot,
brought it to the land of merchants,
and set it in a city of traders.
Then he took some of the land’s seed
and put it in a fertile field;
he set it like a willow,
a plant by abundant waters.
It sprouted and became a spreading vine,
low in height with its branches turned toward him,
yet its roots stayed under it.
So it became a vine,
produced branches, and sent out shoots.

But there was another great eagle
with great wings and thick plumage.
And this vine bent its roots toward him!
It stretched out its branches to him
from its planting bed,
so that he might water it.
It had been planted
in a good field by abundant waters
in order to produce branches,
bear fruit, and become a splendid vine.

You are to say: This is what the Lord God says:

Will it flourish?
Will he not tear out its roots
and strip off its fruit
so that it shrivels?
All its fresh leaves will wither!
Great strength and many people
will not be needed to pull it from its roots.
10 Even though it is planted, will it flourish?
Won’t it completely wither
when the east wind strikes it?
It will wither on the bed where it sprouted.”

11 The word of the Lord came to me:12 “Now say to that rebellious house: Don’t you know what these things mean? Tell them: The king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, took its king and officials, and brought them back with him to Babylon. 13 He took one of the royal family and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath. Then he took away the leading men of the land,14 so the kingdom might be humble and not exalt itself but might keep his covenant in order to endure. 15 However, this king revolted against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt so they might give him horses and a large army. Will he flourish? Will the one who does such things escape? Can he break a covenant and still escape?

16 “As I live”–this is the declaration of the Lord God–“he will die in Babylon, in the land of the king who put him on the throne, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke. 17 Pharaoh will not help him with his great army and vast horde in battle, when ramps are built and siege walls constructed to destroy many lives.18 He despised the oath by breaking the covenant. He did all these things even though he gave his hand in pledge. He will not escape!”

The Case of Job

What we have covered thus far will help us understand one of the most complex books of the Bible, the book of Job.

Job was a “blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” Job was living the happy life; he had seven sons and the daughters. He was a wealthy landowner. “He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.” (1:3) Even so, he is not a materialistic person; he was only following a proverb like the above, ‘if you work hard, your efforts will be blessed.’

Job 1:13-19; 2:7-8

 13Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 14and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 2:7So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

The Comforters

Job 4:7-8

 7“Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? 8As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.

Eliphaz in an attempt at dealing with Job’s atrocities assumes Job’s tragedies are a result of his own actions. Eliphaz has reasoned wrong by taking a proverb and making it an absolute. In essence, he asks Job, ‘do those that are innocent die? When have those that live a righteous life been destroyed?’ Eliphaz goes on by saying, ‘my experience suggests that it is those who are doing wrong and entertain bad that will get back what they gave out.’ In other words, Eliphaz is assuming that only the wicked reap bad times.

Job 5:15

15But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the mighty.

Eliphaz again assumes that Job is at fault. Eliphaz is assuming that it was Job’s great riches, which were ill gotten, and this is why he is suffering. Is Eliphaz’s statement wrong in and of itself? No, God does rescue the poor from the oppressive, by their following his counsel on the right way to live. However, this is no absolute; saying all who live by God’s will and purposes will never be mistreated. Moreover, the whole idea is misplaced, in that maybe Job is the rich oppressor and this is his punishment from God.

Job 8:3-6

3 Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? 4 If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression. 5 If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, 6if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation.

Bildad too is stating true statements, but in absolute terms that are misplaced when it comes to Job or anyone. Certainly, God does not pervert justice. Therefore, Bildad is right on that, but his application and understanding are what is twisted, as he assumes that children died because they had sinned, and justice was being meted out to them. Again, in verse 5-6, we have a true thought, in that if one is in an impure state, and turns to God with pleads, he will restore them. However, in verses 5-6, Bildad is assuming that Job is unrighteous because he sees that proverb as an absolute.

As can be seen from the above, one must be aware that proverbs are not absolutes, but are general truths. True enough, there are likely a couple of exceptions to this rule, but that would not negate this rule, and approach of correct interpretation of proverbs.

Rules for Interpreting Proverbs

A proverb can be a simile, a metaphor, a parable, even an allegory. Therefore, we must first ascertain which of these fits our proverb under consideration. For example, Proverbs 5:15-18 is an allegory, which “depicts a model of chastity for the godly husband and wife through the figure of cool, fresh flowing water, so precious in an arid country. What a beautiful way to portray the never-ending love relationship of a husband for his wife.” (Goldberg 2000, 20)

If we are to interpret correctly the proverbs found all through Scripture, we have to be critical and practical combined with intelligence and good judgment, i.e., wise and shrewd. Some proverbs are only just straightforward facts; “Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.” (Pro 20:15) Have our children’s “actions” shown them to be “pure and upright” or careless and irresponsible?

Then again, some proverbs are simple principles, teachings, rules, guidelines, instructions and truisms of a good and righteous life, or warnings against sin, which is understandable to anyone, such as Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” Another example would be Proverbs 4:14, “Do not go where evil people go. Do not follow the example of the wicked.” Then again, there are proverbs, which demand that we slow down and critically examine then, like Proverbs 25:27, “It is not good to eat much honey, Nor is it glory to search out one’s own glory.” Verse 27b literally reads, “The seeking of their glory is glory.” Most take 27b, as saying the proud can never get enough glory. In fact, they will even seek the glory that belongs to others, even the glory that rightfully belongs to God. However, Duane A. Garrett writes,

With minor emending, however, it can be translated, “But seeking out difficult things is glorious.”[5] While this creates a surprising response to line a, it looks back to v. 2 in the same way that line a looks back to v. 16. The chiastic structure of the whole is as follows: glory (v. 2)/ honey (v. 16)/honey (v. 27a)/glory (v. 27b).[6] While an excess of sweets does no one good, the wise never can get enough of unraveling the riddles of the sages. (Garrett 1993, 209)

Of the many proverbs found within Scripture, most need some contemplation, to come away with what the author meant by the words that he used; others, were designed to puzzle, but can be investigated and explained with the treasure house of Bible study tools available to us today. Along with these tools is the context that a proverb lies within; therefore, the immediate context is where one should begin.

In addition, we need to consider the poetic parallelisms. The identical and the complete or exact opposite parallelisms, especially, are modified; by way of the similarities and contrasts they provide, which put forward their own meaning from within. For example, Proverbs 11:25, which reads, “The generous man will be fat [prosperous], and he who waters will himself be watered.” If we look at the second half of the parallelism, we will see that it is a metaphorical illustration of the rather hard to understand feeling or opinion of the first half. Looking at another, we see Proverbs 12:24, which reads, “The hand of the diligent will rule, But the slack [hand] will be put to forced labor.” Again, we are dealing with a metaphor, in which the contrast makes transparent.

Milton brings us back to what was spoken of at the outset, but bears repeating yet again; we need “to guard us against construing all proverbs as universal propositions. Proverbs 16:7, expresses a great truth: ‘When Jehovah delights in the ways of a man he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.’ But there have been many exceptions to this statement, and many cases to which it could apply only with considerable modification. Such, to some extent, have been all cases of persecution for righteousness’ sake. So, too, with verse 13 of the same chapter: “Delight of kings are lips of righteousness, and him that speaks right things he will love.” The annals of human history show that this has not always been true, and yet the most impious kings understand the value of upright counselors.” (Terry 1883, 332-3) Here again, it is best to put the phrase, “generally speaking” before these proverbs that are not universal laws.

Review Questions

  • What is a proverb?
  • Why have proverbs in the Bible caused confusion?
  • Are proverbs universal laws, guaranteed absolutes, i.e., if we do A we will get B?
  • Give some examples that demonstrate that they are not absolute guarantees.
  • What word could we place in the proverbs, to clear up the misunderstandings?
  • How has our improved knowledge of proverbs, helped us to understand Job better?
  • What are some rules for interpreting proverbs?

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[1] Or prosperity

[2] Or object of scorn or a joke among the nations

[3] Or object of scorn

[4] Or object of scorn

[5] Reading וְחֵקֶר כְּבֵדִים כָּבוֹד. See G. E. Bryce, “Another Wisdom ‘Book’ in Proverbs,” JBL 91 (1972): 145–57. The word כְּבֵדִיםis here short for דְּבָרִים כְּבֵדִים (“difficult things”).

[6] Ibid., 153. More precisely the Hebrew chiasmus shows the following word pairs:
חקר ´´ כבד (v. 2) and כבד ´´ חקר (v. 27b)
אכל ´´ דבשׁ (v. 16a) and דבשׁ ´´ אכל (v. 27a).