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Proverbs, read spiritually

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 26, 2018 | In Scripture Series

It is time, in this series on the books of the Bible, to take a quick look at Proverbs. I also did this back in early 2016, but the purpose then was simply to pluck some of the proverbs that had particularly struck me during my reading in January of that year (see A few pointed remarks (from God)). The attempt to say something helpful about the Book of Proverbs as a whole is far more difficult.

As the introductory note in the Ignatius Bible (RSV-CE) explains, the book we have today is an inspired collection of several previous sets of proverbs, which played an important role in Jewish culture, an oral culture heavily dependent on memory. All the proverbs were ascribed to Solomon, following standard practice at the time. It is very reasonable to suppose that some core of these sayings can actually be traced back to him.

But the introductory note also points out, “The general subject of the proverbs is the art of right living.” In other words, the Book of Proverbs deals with the full range of life, from the spiritual heights to the pragmatism of daily business. Yet it will earn me no intellectual laurels to pronounce that the Book of Proverbs is about…everything.

Last time I escaped by simply highlighting some individual proverbs while acknowledging that these would be unlikely to be the same proverbs that particularly struck other readers, or indeed that would strike me in the same way the next time around. In fact, only two of the proverbs that jumped off the page to me in early 2016 made the cut in 2018. This at least tells us something about how the Holy Spirit speaks to our present needs through God’s word.

This time I should try for something deeper and more valuable for the Book as a whole. I selected proverbs which seem to hint at meanings beyond the literal text. In other words, I want to offer an exercise in reading Proverbs spiritually—always an important approach when reading Scripture, and especially in the Old Testament. Perhaps my examples depend mostly on how alert I was at any given moment, but I found proverbs of the greatest spiritual interest to be concentrated between chapters 17 and 26 (there are 31 chapters in all).

For example, let us read 17:2 through a Christian spiritual lens: “A slave who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully.” In such a reading, a “son” might be a Christian, who has after all been adopted by God through baptism as a son or daughter, that is, as a brother or sister in Christ. Similarly, a “slave” might be a pagan, who has not received this grace of adoption. In this context, the proverb is chilling in its spiritual warning: A pagan who devotes himself to whatever he knows of the good will enjoy a fuller life in God than a Christian who squanders the greater good he has received.

Now consider 22:4 for another kind of spiritual twist: “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.” Taken to refer to our fortunes in earthly life, this proverb is demonstrably false. Moreover, it will not do to pretend the sacred author did not know this, for there are plenty of Scriptural texts (not least in the Psalms) that show the Jews knew it was false in its historical sense. Conclusion? We see that to profit, we must read the text spiritually—and when we read it spiritually, the text is unfailingly instructive.

Pragmatic Spirituality

The spirituality expressed in the book of Proverbs is often compelling in its intense practicality. We are not often scaling the heights here. For example, in chapter 23, we find two verses which emphasize the importance of raising children properly:

Do not withhold discipline from a child;
 if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.
If you beat him with the rod
 you will save his life from Sheol. [23:13-14]

And then there is our human tendency to “pretend we didn’t know” when some evil is discovered close to home, so to speak—evil about which others might assume we must have known:

If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
 does not he who weights the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
 and will he not repay man according to his work? [24:12]

An even earthier pragmatism supplies one reason why we should not rejoice over the downfall of our enemies: “[L]et not your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the LORD see it, and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him” (24:17-18). Therefore, as we learn some ten verses later: “Do not say [of a neighbor], ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done’” (24:29). Now that is motivation that reads our hearts!

On the Heights

Some proverbs contradict each other. That is true even today, for we say both that haste makes waste and that he who hesitates is lost. The Book of Proverbs has similar oppositions. For example, chapter 26 verse 4 advises, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself”; whereas the very next verse contradicts this advice: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” But an explanation for apparent contradictions is given in verse 7: “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” At the root of the Book of Proverbs is the understanding that it is wisdom (that is, spiritual insight) that enables us to discern the application of the right proverb in the right circumstances and at the right time.

In this light, consider the following four verses from chapter 24:

13My son, eat honey, for it is good,
 and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
14Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
 If you find it, there will be a future,
 and your hope will not be cut off….
19Fret not yourself because of evildoers,
 and be not envious of the wicked;
20for the evil man has no future;
 the lamp of the wicked will be put out.

There is much about wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, and the lasting result of wisdom is eternal life. This is a fitting conclusion, but let me leave the reader with a bit of a mystery:

Consider this proverb: “Prepare your work outside, get everything ready for you in the field; and after that build your house” (24:27). This comes to us from an agrarian society, clearly. But what could it mean? I am betting on a spiritual interpretation, and I challenge everyone to attempt to find a meaning that will apply to our life in Christ. If you let me know your best thoughts, not only will I be grateful, but I will append them here for the benefit of all our readers.

Scripture Series
Previous: Redemption and Salvation in the Psalms
Next: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity: Ecclesiastes

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rhahn9598209 - Jul. 21, 2018 4:50 PM ET USA

    For Proverbs 24:27, Luke 6:47-49 gives both an explanation for what it most likely means: to do the groundwork first, so we have a solid foundation on which to build the house; and how we can apply it to our lives: have faith in Christ, listen to Him, and do what He tells us. I chose Luke over Matthew because in Luke we are instructed to dig until we find the rock on which to build whereas in Matthew it sounds like you should build on an available rock.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Jun. 29, 2018 9:38 AM ET USA

    Possible resolution of one seeming contradiction?: 26:4–Don’t mindlessly agree/go along. 26:5–Show him where he’s in error.

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Jun. 27, 2018 6:30 PM ET USA

    Proverb 24:27 seems to spiritually suggest that we should strive to conform our daily lives to charity in community before we are prepared to fully develop our own internal spirituality. This seems counterintuitive, but maybe it is intended for someone who tends to withdraw from necessary social engagements.