Have you found the key to becoming wealthy? I heard it from a preacher not too long ago. He quoted Proverbs 11:24:
One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want (ESV).
If you genuinely desire to be rich, you have to give. Oversized houses, tricked-out cars, a pool filled with pudding. Those can all be yours for one easy donation of $19.99.
And a few swipes of your MasterCard.
Alright, so I’m being a little facetious here. Partly because I want to use the word facetious. In all seriousness though, this story is a great example of how the book of Proverbs is often twisted and stretched faster than one of my ankles in a cage fight. Followers of Jesus do it all of the time. Some make a living off of it, in the literal sense of the phrase. To be honest, in the past I’ve been guilty of pulling proverbs out of context as much as anyone.
Just like the rest of the Bible, it’s fairly easy to interpret Proverbs as if it were written last week. We burn thousands of years in a flash and jump straight into what we think the book means for us today. We have visions of pudding-filled pools dancing in our eyes.
The ironic part of this me-first scenario, is that we end up rarely understanding what biblical proverbs are genuinely trying to say. A few guidelines can help us bridge this gap once more. Here are three for those of us who might have misinterpreted verses from the book of Proverbs in the past and didn’t even realize we were doing it.
1. Proverbs Are Not Promises
Proverbs 22:6 says,
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it (ESV).
From a simple read through, this verses raise a few questions. Are parents solely to blame when young adults walk away from their childhood faith? Does personal, spiritual development rest squarely on the shoulders of mom and dad?
What about other, equally challenging proverbs?
A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother (Proverbs 18: 24; KJV).
I imagine a teacher explaining this passage to little Timmy, a student who’s being picked on in fourth-grade science class. If he comes back the next day with a black eye, it has to be because his friendly meter needs a tune up.
Here’s an important principle readers must understand about proverbs: they are not promises. They were never meant to be promises. Each proverb in Proverbs is the culmination of the writer’s personal experiences and wisdom. Proverbs are “probable truth, not absolute truth.”¹ Sometimes young adults will reject Christianity even though their parents did everything they could to help them know God. Sometimes Timmy will be as nice as can be, and still get bullied at school.
Most of the time, proverbs are pretty accurate, but there are exceptions to the rule.
2. Proverbs Shouldn’t Be Interrupted through the Grid of Western Culture
Our western definitions of “rich” and “successful” are far different from how the biblical writers viewed these ideas. Being successful in Ancient Near East culture involved having a warm (probably tiny) place to sleep at night and enough food to feed your family. Being rich didn’t look anything like MTV Cribs. Yet, we often get these competing ideas tangled together.
Proverbs 10:4 says:
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich (ESV).
If we interpret this passage through our American lenses, we might be tempted to believe that hard work will always land us on the Forbes 400 list. I have to hold back on making another pudding-pool reference again.
What the author is really trying to explain is that most of the time, diligent labor will provide you with the opportunity to care for your family and live a reasonably comfortable life. There is nothing wrong with boats and Bentleys, that’s just not what these proverbs have in mind.
3. Proverbs Exist in a Fallen World
The Christian worldview argues, I believe rightfully so, that our universe isn’t how it should be. Evil and sin abound. This bleeds through society and makes itself known through famine, war, oppression, and natural disasters. That being said, there will be instances when the fallenness of our world derails the probable truths of biblical proverbs.
Farmers who labor diligently will experience a crop crippling drought. Faithful, honest employees will be fired for unjustifiable reasons. Hardship and pain do not always denote a lack of integrity or work ethic. Does this mean biblical proverbs are a sham? No, it simply means that each author intended them to be specific pieces of advice, not a comprehensive encyclopedia on the entire range of human existence. A large majority of the time, biblical proverbs accurately reflect human experiences, but they don’t come with a 100% guarantee.
Understanding how to properly interpret biblical proverbs will not only enrich your life and keep you from being pulled away from the straight and narrow, they will also help you view the circumstances of others with more grace. Sure, laziness, greed, and pride usually produce poverty and failure, but that is not always the case. Before passing judgement on someone, we must understand that there are moments when hardworking, godly individuals experience difficult circumstances.
Sometimes, giving doesn’t make you physically wealthy. Sometimes, hard workers catch a bad break. Sometimes, an obedient son turns into a prodigal son. Sometimes, Timmy is as friendly as he can be and still gets his Oatmeal Creme Pie stolen.
 Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (This book has been a huge help as I studied through Proverbs and has subsequently influenced this piece).