In a speech at the conclusion of a French environmental summit recently, Al Gore quoted an African proverb. Proverbs can be found in every culture and time period, encapsulating some perceived wisdom in a form that can be easily remembered and communicated. The ancient Hebrews had many proverbs, and a significant collection of them can be found in the aptly-named biblical Book of Proverbs. As with everything in the accepted canon, these proverbs share the distinction of being held forth as inspired of God.
While I agree that these proverbs are truly of God and therefore Scripture, I do not believe they can be taken completely literally. They share general principles of wisdom, not detailed instructions. There are issues of translation at some points (compare versions sometimes) and also apparent contradictions. Some proverbs you’ll read and say to yourself, “Yes, but that’s not always true.” In my opinion, none of this diminishes the value of the Book of Proverbs as God’s word.
When I was in my early teens I went to a youth “lock-in” with a friend from school. It was a great night. At one point a preacher made the suggestion that we read the Bible daily, and that Proverbs specifically is an easy book to use. There are thirty-one chapters, one for each day of the average month. For a time I took this advice and did read daily. It was a start.
What purpose does the Book of Proverbs serve? The answer can be found in the very first chapter:
“The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young—let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:1-7 NRSV).