Are the Proverbs Trustworthy?

The genre of the Proverbs is wisdom literature. Thus these shouldn’t be interpreted as universal moral laws, rather they are general wisdom principles. For instance, if your mother told you, “Don’t touch the stove… You’ll get burned,” this should be interpreted as a universal principle. However, if she told you, “The early bird gets the worm,” this should be interpreted as a general principle of wisdom: getting up early has its advantages. If you woke up early on Black Friday and you didn’t get your new flat-screen television, you would never turn around and call your mother a liar for her wisdom! Wisdom principles simply shouldn’t be interpreted so strictly.

Many passages in the Proverbs lead to confusion if we interpret them as laws, rather than wisdom principles. Two examples will suffice:

(Prov. 10:3) The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry.

Paul claims that the apostles (the most righteous believers at his time) were “both hungry and thirsty” (1 Cor. 4:11; cf. 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27; Rev. 7:16). However Paul says that he found the secret to finding joy—even in the absence of food (Phil. 4:12), which is the joy of the Lord (Phil. 4:4-13). In Proverbs, God was promising to provide for the temporal blessings of his people. In the new covenant, God promises to meet our needs (Phil. 4:19; Mt. 6:33), but we realize that this involves suffering as well (Jn. 16:33).

(Prov. 16:7) When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.

While this is often the case, it isn’t always. Paul’s life was pleasing to God, but he was stoned (Acts 14:19) and tortured by his enemies (2 Cor. 11:23-28). Jesus was pleasing to God (Mt. 3:17), but he was tortured and killed!

(Prov. 22:6) Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.

This also isn’t a promise. We often see loving Christian parents who lose their children from the faith. And yet, this is a general principle that should be observed. Surely not training our children will adversely affect them from pursuing Christ when they get older!


For these reasons, we should be sure to observe the genre of the Proverbs. Otherwise, we will run into major problems in our interpretation. In this case, it isn’t that the Proverbs are in error, but rather, our expectation of what they are saying is the issue. We are expecting universal moral commands, when in fact they are merely general wisdom principles, as the book itself claims in its introduction (Prov. 1:2).