Perhaps no part of the Holy Scripture has been more frequently abused, at least in my background, than the book of Proverbs. In reading the Bible Through in 90 Days I read Proverbs last week in two days. I was struck again at the obvious: proverbs are general statements that affirm godly values and virtues. The proverbs are not promises but rather sayings that are meant to inform the life of the wise. Wisdom is the foundation of a godly life and these sayings will help you gain wisdom in daily living and decision making.
The classic illustration of the way to understand Proverbs is found in Proverbs 26:4-5.
Do not answer fools according to the their folly, or you yourself will be just like them.
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
So which is it? Should we answer, or not answer, a fool?
It should be noted that Proverbs 26:1-13 describe the condition of a person who has little or no discernment. Such a person is spiritually bankrupt. But discernment is the crown of all of wisdom’s virtues in the Proverbs. The person who possesses wisdom is spiritually rich. In this example the wise person knows when to answer the fool and when to not answer. Thus there is real wisdom in these two proverbs but the person who applies them must also “have wisdom” to make a judgment that is wise about when to apply the first or the second. Bottom line: Wise words are used wisely by wise people!
I am reminded of Proverbs 26:7: “Like the useless legs of one who is lame is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.”
Quoting and using sayings from Proverbs has revealed almost as much foolishness as any portion of the entire Bible. Caveat emptor!
Let me illustrate. Proverbs 22:6 is one of the best know verses in all the Bible: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” I heard this text for decades. I heard it used in various ways too. Some treated it as a clear, simple promise that if you raised your child to follow Christ then even if they drifted away someday they would surely come back. Guaranteed!
Another view, one that became especially popular when my kids were growing up, argued that wisdom was to know each child has “a way” (one unique and distinct to them) and the parent should seek to discover this way and raise each one accordingly, If this was done then the results would be good. This still misses the point though it is an improvement on the first. This view relies more on valuable psychological insight, so it seems to me, than biblical wisdom.
What this text is saying is not a promise in any sense. It is a proverb. As such it is saying that children will generally adopt the ways they are taught. The proverb also advises wise parents to raise their children well. It offers, I think, a sense of confidence that the child will become a reasonable adult if well taught. But there are exceptions and Christians, of all people, must recognize these and NOT judge parents by children who turn out badly.
Combine this with 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:6 and you have a context in which even greater harm has been done in applying these types of texts to church leaders; e.g. bishops, pastors, elders, etc. More on this tomorrow.