Proverbs in the Right Place
A few months ago, a friend asked me for some feedback on a teaching outline for the children in our church. She understands the gospel and wanted to know how to incorporate the book of Proverbs in a way that displayed God’s grace. She told me, “I’ve always felt a bit condemned by Proverbs because I can never seem to measure up to its wisdom. I feel like we are told to use Proverbs to teach our kids, but I have struggled to do that in a grace-filled way.”
My guess is that you can relate to how she feels. I know that I can. It is a great question: How do you apply God’s grace to a book that often seems to say that God promises to bless you if you do everything right?
Not a Book about Magical Plants
The answer is to understand it in the light of the story of Scripture – the story that points to Jesus. Every book in the Bible fits into the story in a unique way. And it’s essential that we understand the individual parts of Scripture in light of the whole.
Imagine what would happen if you picked up the Harry Potter series and started reading halfway through. You come to the part about Professor Sprout’s Herbology class. You read a section in which there are instructions for repotting a new growth of Mandrake. You close the book and think to yourself, “Ah, this is a book about how to take care of magical plants.” You embark on a journey to procure mandrakes (a dangerous undertaking, to say the least). You could read it this way, but you would be wrong. It is only a small part of a big story, and it only makes sense if you know the whole thing.
The same principle applies to understanding the Bible. If you want to interpret one part of Scripture rightly, you first have to understand it in its original context. You ask questions such as, “What type of literary genre is this book? Who wrote it and to whom? Where does it fit on the timeline of redemptive history?”
After that, you move to understanding it in the light of Christ. At this point you ask questions like, “In what ways does the book point to Jesus? How do the authors of the New Testament interpret this book? How does the death and resurrection of Jesus impact our understanding as we apply it to ourselves today?” Once you’ve done this work, the pieces fall into place, and you can understand how your book fits into the bigger story.
A Taste From Proverbs
Here’s what it looks like to apply this interpretive framework to Proverbs. First, the genre of Proverbs is wisdom literature. And statements in wisdom literature, such as, “Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring you the delights you desire” (Prov. 29:17), are not promises (Battle-weary moms, can I get an “Amen”?). They are descriptions of how things work in a perfect world with perfect people; it’s life the way it’s meant to be. So we must never read Proverbs without keeping in mind another Old Testament book of wisdom literature – Job. Job was as righteous as a broken human can be, and look at what happened to him! He listened to the wisdom of Proverbs, and yet he suffered greatly. Such is life in a fallen world.
Second, the brokenness revealed in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament is meant to awaken your sensibility to the need of a Savior. Who could bridge the gap between the way things are meant to be and the reality of how they are? Who could actually follow the wisdom of Proverbs? No one – not even Job – can claim complete innocence. But Jesus was perfectly righteous, and yet he suffered more than anyone else. While suffering, Jesus listened to and obeyed the wisdom of his Father. He endured the brokenness of this world brought about by our sin. He did it to atone for our sin, to enable us to obey and to ultimately make all things new, so that things work the way God intended. When Jesus comes again, we will experience this with great joy.
But even now, because of what Christ has done, Proverbs has a whole new meaning for you. The book was written from a Father to his son. The relationship is one of loving intimacy and describes the relationship we all wish we had with our fathers. And here’s the incredible thing: If you have been born again, you have also been adopted as a child of God, and it is about your relationship with your Father. God himself is your perfect Father.
This realization was groundbreaking for me. When I read Proverbs now, instead of feeling condemned, I know that my failures to live up to its wisdom are forgiven by God’s grace. God is not condemning me; he is teaching me, the way a loving father teaches his son. As I read this beautiful book, I ask the Lord to mold my heart to be like his, so that I love the things that he loves. There are so many ways in which I still fall short, but he will be faithful to complete what he has started. I understand that in Christ I have a position of great honor – that of a firstborn son. It’s a place full of God’s grace to sinners redeemed and adopted as sons.
Now that’s something you can teach to your kids.
More to Come
Did you enjoy this taste from Proverbs? There’s more to come. At our conference this fall, I’ll be teaching a workshop called The One Story of the Bible. You’ll get an overview of the story of the Bible. Then we’ll talk about a framework that will help you fit other individual books into the big picture and in the light of God’s grace. As we do, you will see how Jesus is the hero of the story and the one worthy of our love and trust.
Join us at Verity Conference. Registration is open now.