How to Study Proverbs
1. Start your Bible study with prayer, asking that God would help you and illumine your mind during the time of “digging” into the Word. Come with a reverent attitude because it is God’s Word after all (Psa. 119:18). Remember, understanding the Bible is by God’s Spirit who teaches us and through faith. Ask God to grant you the grace of humility that you would be teachable and also give you wisdom.
2. Select a passage of Scripture for your study.
a. It is usually best to read over the entire book first to get the big picturebefore getting into the details of the selected passage.
b. Keep in mind that context is essential.
(1) To understand the Bible on its own terms and not ours is crucial to being faithful to it.
(2) Every book of the Bible is different and written differently from others. There are different genres (categories, types): history, law, song/psalm, prophetic, proverb, wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), laments, etc. There are even different genres in different books. Psalms has laments, praises, etc.
(3) The Jews divided the Old Testament Bible into Law, Prophets, Writings (history).
3. Do a background study of Proverbs. In other words, immerse yourself as much as possible in the time in which it was written. Do a little time travel.
a. Keep in mind that Proverbs was a collection of materials written over a period of time and not written all at once or within a few years.
b. Learn about the history, culture, and society of the day. Language is intimately tied to culture.
c. Learn about the customs and traditions.
d. Study about the archaeology, geography, etc.
e. Recognize that the Bible was written over a long period of time. God slowly revealed His plan for how He was going to redeem-save a people for Himself.
f. Remember too that the New Testament is built upon the Old Testament, but the Old is rightly interpreted by the New.
4. Read over the selected text several times. Use different translations if you have them. This will give you a multifaceted view of the passage. A good online app is Gateway.com. Get the sense of what is going on and how other translators interpreted the passage(s).
5. Study the syntax, grammar, and
a. Usually, unless you have adequate tools or a working knowledge of the original languages, this would be very difficult. Most tools are oriented toward understanding words (their definitions, etc.). The problem with this is that the context nearly always determines the meaning of a word. Words are connected. One or two words will not determine the exact meaning of the text.
For example, the old English adage, “Kicked the bucket” could literally mean one used her foot to strike the pail. Or it could mean a person died. Studying each word alone will not give you the sense of the phrase.
b. However, a significant word study is useful.
(1) Keep in mind that faithful study and good scholarship seeks to read and interpret the text(s) with God and the original author’s intent at the forefront. This is called exegesis. As best as you can determine, what did God originally intend to say through the author? What questions or problems was God speaking to? Why was the passage(s) written? What answers did God give?
(2) On the one hand, doing a word study can give you the color, tone, or a fuller sense of the passage. In this case it is very helpful. This, by the way is called hermeneutics.
(a) Study the meanings of the words by seeing what the Bible uses them to mean. For example, the word “sin” has many meanings and uses different terms in the original.
(b) Study the use of the word(s) in the sentence.
(c) Study the use of the verbs. This may have tremendous significance in some passages.
(3) On the other hand, doing a word study can focus on the meaning of the word with a disregard for the sentence, paragraph, chapter, and book. It can distort or misunderstand the meaning in its context and therefore distort the meaning altogether. Be careful to put too much stock into the meaning of a particular word, especially when it has many different meanings or nuances.
There are two words in Proverbs that illustrate this. The English word soncould be from the Hebrew word benor the word na’ar. In certain places of the Old Testament, ben could also be translated as child or progeny (without respect to age). The term na’arin other parts of the Old Testament could also mean young child, progeny, or slave.
(4) Remember: words are determined by their immediate context.
c. Try to get a handle on the ancient Hebrew language.
(1) This is crucial since language forms culture and culture determines language. For example, in Shakespeare’s day and for some time before that, “nice” was what you would call a person what was mentally delayed or challenged. These people were slow and often with a sweet disposition. Today, a good synonym would be stupid. However, in our time the word nice has come to be pleasant or agreeable. Same word, different contexts have different meanings. Today we often describe a kind person as nice. However, I submit that nice is passively agreeable whereas kind is actively friendly or generous. The Bible calls us to be kind, to be intentional about displaying positive acts to benefit others.
(2) The Hebrew language is a Semitic language. The Semitic language of Job’s or Moses’ day was somewhat different than the language of the Hebrew Prophets. The Hebrew is embedded with Eastern or Oriental cultural philosophy, whereas the Greek, Latin, Germanic andEnglish languages are steeped in Western or Occidental cultural philosophy. To read more on this, go here.
George Mendenhall points out,
Ancient thought is associational, not “scientific,” and therefore tends to create the maximum of relationships between experience, language, and art, not the minimum which is so characteristic of modern over-specialization.[i]
(3) Here are some key things to consider about the Hebrew language of Proverbs:
The ancient Hebrew language is a language of description, not of precision. It is pictorial, visual language that is heavy with symbols. It is filled with imagery.
It is a language of concrete thought compared with Western abstract thought. The Hebrew uses concrete terms associated with the five senses to express abstract ideas. So, for example the abstract wordanger in the Hebrew is “red nose” or “hot nose.”
Hebrew is a feeling and doing language.
Hebrew arranges events according to action and purpose. Events are more topical compared to the Western way of expressing events in chronological order.
Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas and thoughts not words.
It incorporates parallels, contrasts, and comparisons. It often compares according to function.
Time is a perspective of observation. We see the past and the future is in front. Biblical Hebrew sees the past because it has been experienced and observed, therefore it is considered to be in front of us. An example is the term for memorial. The altar stones or other things the ancient patriarchs made to remember and commemorate important events were memorials. Later on, the word “memorial” or “remembrance” literally meant to move ahead in life while looking back to a major event that had a significant impact on life then and now. This same idea is invested in Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper, “Do this in remembranceof me.”
·Verbs and nouns are dynamic because Hebrew culture sees all of life in constant motion. The Law, history, and prophecies were seen as a part of the perpetual movement of God’s master plan.
The Hebrew language also sees the big picture and everything connected to the big picture (the proverbial forest). Western language focuses on certain points in the big picture (the proverbial tree in the forest).
6. Understand what a proverb is.
a. Strong’s Bible Concordance says a proverb, the Hebrew term מָשָׁל mâšâl; is “apparently from 4910 in some original sense of superiority in mental action; properly, a pithy maxim, usually of metaphorical nature; hence, a simile (as an adage, poem, discourse): byword, like, parable, proverb…Sentences of ethical wisdom, ethical maxims” [ii]
b. Dr. Tremper Longman III tells us, “The title (Proverbs) thus associates the book with its most pervasive genre, the proverb – short, pithy observations, admonitions, warning, and prohibitions (particularly in chaps. 10-31)” .[iii]
c. Within the book of Proverbs are extended speeches (ex.: Proverb 2). In the speeches, there is an introduction that calls for the student to pay attention with a motivating reason to do so. Then there is the lesson followed by a conclusion. In the second part of Proverbs (chapters 10-31) there we find parables, teaching by metaphors, comparing illustrations, etc.
d. Scholars consistently point out what Longman says, that a proverbs, “…does not teach a universally valid truth. On the contrary, proverbs are true only if stated at the right time and in the right circumstance.”[iv]An example is found in Proverbs 15:23 and in 27:14. However, “The conditions for the truth of the proverb must be explored before or as it is being applied. While all this is true and very important in the proper understanding of proverbs, we must admit that certain proverbs are always true.”[v]
7. The next step is to compare other passages of Scripture with the text you are studying. Again, understand it in context. As the saying goes, “To understand a text without context is only pretext.”
a. Comparing scripture with scripture is called the analogy of faith. The true meaning of a passage will be in harmony with the meaning of the rest of the Bible. Scripture testifies to itself (Psa. 119; Lk 24:32; Jn. 5:39), therefore it interprets itself (Isa. 28). Unclear passages are interpreted in light of clearer ones.
b. As one Bible study reference has put it, “So although the believer is free to examine the Scripture for himself, HE IS NOT FREE TO EXPLAIN IT IN ANY WAY HE LIKES. He must only understand each part in the way in which it best agrees with all other parts. IT MUST BE A WRONG MEANING IF NO OTHER PARTS OF SCRIPTURE AGREE WITH IT” (author unknown).
c. An article on the website for Grace Fellowship Church (Toronto, Canada), D. A. Carson says
Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive and pastoral errors will inevitably ensue…So when a well-known parachurch organization keeps quoting "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" as if it were case law, what are we to think? This proverbial utterance must not be stripped of its force: it is a powerful incentive to responsible, God-fearing, child-rearing. Nevertheless, it is a proverb; it is not a covenantal promise. Nor does it specify at what point the children will be brought into line.[vi]
d. Remember, Jesus and the New Testament are the keys to comprehending the true meaning of the passage(s). As part of the Old Testament, Proverbs must be interpreted and understood as redemptive in nature, pointing us to Christ. With that in mind, McCartney and Clayton encourages us to faithful interpretation by asking:
1. How does this passage function in God’s plan of redemption for his people, and where does it fit into the unfolding of that plan in history?
2. How does the passage point to Jesus Christ; i.e., how does this (OT) passage participate in the entire OT’s movement toward, and focus on, Jesus Christ; or, how does this (NT) passage build on the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus Christ?
3. How does this passage, having been focuses on Christ, instruct those who are in Christ, the church; how does it help us to follow him, know him, or grow in him? [vii]
8. Then, write down your findings and observations.
a. What is this passage saying?
b. How is it significant for the whole of the Bible?
c. What are the original key ideas and principles that can be brought across time to our day
and then applied to our lives?
9. Compare what others have said by using solid commentaries, handbooks, concordances, and other resources such as what viable Christian traditions or church fathers offer.
[i]George E. Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, (1973) p. 39.
[ii] Olive Tree Bible Software, Version 6.5.2; 2019.
[iii]Tremper Longman III, Proverbs: Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, (2012) p. 36.
[iv]Longman III, p. 51.
[v]Longman III, p. 51.
[vi]See the excellent article here: https://www.gfcto.com/articles/theological-issues/learn-to-interpret-the-bible.
[vii]Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, (2002) p. 52..