I recently finished a ten month study of the book of Proverbs. I’m sorry to say I had never even read the Proverbs all the way through — much less studied them in depth — prior to last summer. But when our Wednesday morning men’s Bible class at church suggested we study them together, I began to read through this pearl of wisdom tucked away in the middle of our Bibles. Little did I know what I would find there.
But before I begin to share with you what I found, I also have to say what a blessing it was to be joined on this journey with some faithful and wise companions. The men’s class that I teach is made up of about 30-40 men, most of whom are a good 25-30 years older than me. Their life experiences are vast and rich: physicians, grandfathers, engineers, fathers, attorneys, teachers, Marines, ministers, deacons, recovering addicts, elders, husbands, accountants, brothers, sons. They’ve seen much in their time and the wisdom of the Proverbs opened up our conversation in some ways that truly blessed my life. I owe much to their godly character and spiritual insight.
One of the first things that you notice as you read through the Proverbs is the bold, assertive nature of the literature found there. One of the oft-quoted passages from Proverbs demonstrates this well:
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. — Proverbs 22.6
Taken from the pages of holy scripture, it’s easy to understand this passage as a command, even a promise from God Himself. Train a child properly and the result is guaranteed. This formulaic reading of this passage — and countless others — is quite common in modern evangelical Christianity.
There’s just one problem with this interpretation. It’s just not true.
Well, let me qualify that: it’s not true in every case. In my youth ministry days, I witnessed countless parents berate themselves for the choices their teenage children were making. I sat across the table from Moms and Dads who, with tears in their eyes, would quote this verse to me and say, “Did we do something wrong?”, as if they were somehow responsible for Junior’s decisions.
And that’s the problem with the Proverbs; they’re general wisdom, not universal truths. They’re principles for ordering and guiding our lives, not iron lock promises from the Almighty. Generally speaking, they prove to be true, even if they aren’t applicable in a few exceptional circumstances. Generally speaking, a child’s development — spiritual or otherwise — depends on their raising. Behaviorists and sociologists alike emphasize the importance of a child’s first six years. According to the experts, these years are formative for the development of a child’s values, worldview, and understanding of God, which merely confirms what the Proverbs have been declaring all along. But Scripture also affirms free will. From it’s first pages, the Bible makes it clear that God is eternally resigned to the existence of choice in His creation, even at the risk of a fallen humanity. So we hold these two truths in our hands as we read, trying to synthesize them into the everyday, flesh-and-blood realities of our lives. The Proverbs prove to be worthy companions for such a journey, for they are nothing if not lived in. Yes, the Proverbs have much to say about giving our children the foundation they need for faith, but alongside such teachings we also find ample warning against poor exercise of free will.
And so, the first thing that stands out as we study Proverbs is this: we must understand what kind of literature we’re reading. General truths, not eternal commands. Principles, not promises. But this is not to detract from our reading; no, not in the least. But we enter this country of Wisdom literature with our eyes wide open, attuned to the contours and features of this infrequently traveled but beautifully adorned land, the Proverbs.