Praying has 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 prayer is “generally speaking.”
Matthew 7:7-8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
7 “Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
Matthew 21:21-22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
21 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And all the things you ask in prayer, having faith, you will receive.”
Do Jesus’ words here absolutely guarantee that whatever we ask for in prayer, we will receive it? No, they do not. Notice the condition. Jesus said, ‘Keep on asking, seeking, and knocking.’ It is not just a onetime thing. So, if we keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking, will we receive whatever we ask? It is not necessarily the case. All Scripture is inspired and beneficial. The Bible is sixty-six books by forty authors, making up just one book. (2 Tim. 3:16-17) Thus, we have to consider what other verses say. Jesus elsewhere, said the only ones benefiting from the kingdom are those doing the will of the Father. (Matt 7:21-23) Here it is then, we must keep on praying, to the Father, it must be in harmony with his will and purposes, and he must decide if it is what he wants. Let us look at some proverbs in the Bible that also say we will receive things as well. If we understand how they work, it will help us better understand how prayer works. In other words, if we understand how proverbs work within Scripture, wherein it seems like they are absolutes, but they are not, we can better understand prayer in a Scriptural and balanced manner.
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)
9 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)
3 Jehovah does not let the soul of the righteous go hungry,
but he thrusts away the craving of the wicked.
4 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.
Do we measure the righteous by who is the most blessed? Are all righteous people rich?
Proverbs 17:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 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 Case of Job
This is 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 a happy life; he had seven sons and seven 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.
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.
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.
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.” 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). 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 says that 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.
Christians today have overplayed the Bible verses that say if you ask for this faithfully and do not doubt you will get this. “Ask, and it will be given to you seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7) “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matt. 21:22) “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24) “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14) This creates the problem of some praying that a problem goes away, such as being bullied in school, or some illness, or ongoing unemployment, and the problem does not go away. In fact, it gets worse, so they conclude, “Why pray anymore?” God is not going to answer my prayer!”
If we are to remain rational in our thinking, we need to grasp the fact that God does not always step in when we believe he should, nor is he obligated to do so. He has greater issues that need resolving, which have eternal effects for the whole of humankind. There are far more times when God does not step in, meaning that our relief may come in the hope of our heeding Bible principles, or the resurrection if our problem is life-threatening. Therefore, for his servants that apply his Word in a balanced manner, fully, God is acting in their best interest by way of his inspired, inerrant Word.
There is little doubt that God hears our prayers. (Ps. 65:2) Thereafter, after we pray about the problem, let us try to reflect on the bigger picture. We do not want to sit around waiting for God to miraculously step in and solve our problem. Why not investigate the Word of God and look for Bible principles that will help us deal with the problem, or at least comfort us, giving us the strength to endure the problem? One answer to our prayers is that we are given endurance and strength to bear it. Paul said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”–Philippians 4:13.
 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).
 Moore, David; Anders, Max; Akin, Daniel. Holman Old Testament Commentary Volume 14 – Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (pp. 40-41). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
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