03 November 2011

Reading Proverbs wisely vs. harmfully, plus an interview

by Dan Phillips

Proverbs appeals to most Christians, but in some cases for the wrong reasons.

We have to remember that the Bible is one book in that it tells one (very complex) story and reveals one God, who speaks through it all (Heb. 1:1-2). At the same time, we must remember that this one God has spoken "in many portions and in many ways" (Heb. 1:1 NAS). It is a book, and it is a library of books.

It is or should be evident that we'd do the book a great disservice if we read a parable the way we read the narrative of Samuel and Saul. We would go astray if we read the poetry of the Psalms the same way we read the codes of Leviticus. God is not honored if we flatten the book, and iron out all the bumps and curves He built into it.

And so with Proverbs, a superficial and uninstructed reading may lead to the impression that it is a book of formulas and methods for extracting from God the sort of life one wishes to live. Do A, and B is the result; ta-daaa. Many button-down minded Christians love it for that reason: they see it as a manual for achieving their desired results in life.

So, you work like A, and you're rich like B. Treat your wife like A, and prosper like B.  Work God like A, and He will give you B. Raise your children like A, and they will turn out like B.

To approach Proverbs this way is to do it violence and head for serious shipwreck.

Now, you knew I was going to say this, and in fairness how can I not? The subject is deep and complex enough that I have in fact written a whole book on it, which some of you have read or are reading (thank you!). The pastors and Bible teachers who read it said it would become their "go-to" book in teaching or preaching Proverbs, and for use in counseling — which, of course, didn't ruin my day much, and sent me to God in thanks and praise.

So I can't reproduce that whole book, and the entire chapters on reading it and understanding it and raising children, in this post. But I can say that we get a clue from the famous juxtaposition of Proverbs 26:4-5.
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Well, which is it? Folks have felt the tension for millennia. You see this in the NAS, which inserts words that blur the fact that the wording is identical.

Which is true? Both, of course. One in some circumstances, the other in other circumstances. Because Proverbs is not a book of legal formulae, but rather a book of (hel-lo?) proverbs.

Think about it. If Job's "friends" had possessed Proverbs, and had read it as a book of legal formulae, they might have Tweeted "Best. Book. EVAR!!!" Wasn't this exactly their position? If we live righteous life A, it will extract from God blessings B, C and D. Job was experiencing misery E, therefore he must have lived sinful life F. In fact, F-. Remembering what God said about their words, it is distressing to see Christians use this portion of Scripture to be the same sort of miserable comforters.

The key to understanding Proverbs' intent is to note the device of inclusio, a literary feature that frames and contextualizes a work by key repetition or framing. To be specific, for Proverbs there is a central thought which we find at key junctions: at the beginning of the book (1:7), at the end of the opening series of discourses (9:10), and at the end of the book (31:30). That framing truth is the fear of Yahweh. Proverbs, then, is not a book about how to get Yahweh to give us the life we want by the execution of certain methods. No; Proverbs is a book about skill for living in the fear of Yahweh.

To miss this is to do great harm. For instance, there is a whole lot I love about Douglas Wilson. But he has posted some material recently which I don't know how to read other than stating that if a child goes to Hell, it's the Christian parent's fault for not having enough faith. Roll that one over in your mind. Wilson was kind enough to respond to several questions with several posts, and in one of them he goes to Proverbs to show that method A yields result B, QED.

Now, I think that on his stupidest day Doug Wilson is a smarter, wittier and more eloquent man than I am on my brightest day. ("We did not need to be told that," the reader observes dryly. Nice!) But I think this is a grave mishandling of Proverbs, to say nothing of the rest of Scripture. Proverbs is not the sort of book you might check out from Hogwarts Library, filled with magical formulae guaranteed to extract certain behaviors from others. There is no formula by which I can manipulate the heart of another, whether that person is my friend, my spouse, or my child. (I visit that topic in more detail elsewhere.)

For further and detailed development, I hope you won't blame me for referring you to my book. There is a chapter on how to read Proverbs, a chapter on the fear of Yahweh and what it means, a chapter on child training, and a lengthy appendix on the common misreadings of Proverbs 22:6.

Plus, as soon as it is up, I'll link to my interview yesterday on Janet Mefferd, in which we discussed some of these things.

UPDATE as promised: you can listen to the interview as a popup, or download it. What a great host Janet is. Some early reading I did on being interviewed as an author warned authors not to expect interviewers to have read their books. Janet's questions could not have been more on-target, either this time or regarding The World-Tilting Gospel.

Dan Phillips's signature


Kitch said...

Amen. Good word, Dan, on how to approach Proverbs.

David A. Carlson said...

you just convinced me to buy your book

DJP said...

dac, that's very kind of you; thank you, I hope it's useful to you.

For the uninitiated, the word of Kitch is sweet to me because he is a pastor, I count him a friend, he was one of the Proverbs manuscript's readers, and he is the author himself of a good sound commentary on Proverbs.

Daren Redekopp said...

Dan, I heartily agree that Proverbs is primarily "about skill for living in the fear of Yahweh." Isn't it also about getting the "life we want by the execution of certain methods?" If it were not, how could it borrow so much of the wisdom literature of other cultures?

DJP said...

No, as I show in the post above these comments, it is not. The book itself indicates that circumstances are not necessarily reflection of character (i.e. 16:19; 19:1, etc.).

Stuart Brogden said...


Many thanks for this post - gives me much good anticipation about reading your book, and joyful contentment that I sent a copy to my adult son.

My wife and I are enjoying our empty nest times and both look forward to a growing understanding of God's Word, having been ruined for many years by "pastors" who use the entire Bible as a formula for living.

Blessings in Christ to you and yours.

Stefan Ewing said...

This is a good post to read this morning.

The Word of God promises us that in this life, we will suffer, precisely because and not in spite of our relationship to God.

(How would that go down as an altar call? And is this one way to test false teaching—whether the teacher is honest about Christian suffering?)

All of this is borne out in the forge of everyday experience, where it is plainly evident from the hills and valleys of the Christian life that we do indeed go through struggles...BUT the Lord God is always there to lead us through even the deepest valleys.

So when we as Christians turn to Proverbs and see what appear superficially to indeed be a bunch of formulae, there has to be an intelligent way to make sense of that and square it with what the rest of Scripture says, and how we see the Word of God tested in the forge of daily living.

So good post!

DJP said...

Excellent point, Stefan. It was a real eye-opener to me, years ago, to read in 1 Peter that one can suffer not in spite of doing what pleases God, but precisely because one is doing what pleases God.

Geldie said...

Amen brother!!! I don't know if it's me or I am very sensitive to it but there seems to be a BIG movement in the reform circles of do Plan A = Plan B and we'll all be happy & blessed Christians with perfect marriages & children! And when you dig into their teaching there is so much taking Scripture out of context. It's scary to me because I know so many people who are involved in it. Christ said , "take up
Your cross & follow me" not follow me & your life will be loads of EARTHLY blessings. It's "works righteous" & "legalism" screaming very loudly.
Thankful for your book! And your willingness to go against the tide and proclaim God's Wisdom not your version of it.

Stefan Ewing said...

Yeah, it's all over Scripture! Isaiah 43:2; Psalm 23; Matthew 7:25...the Lord God doesn't keep us from the fires and storms, but He does take us through these seasons of suffering to deepen our walk in faith and our witness to the world.

Not that this makes it any easier for a believer who's actually in the midst of suffering, but they can find hope and assurance and know that God has not cast them off, but is purifying them for His kingdom and glory. It's almost liberating in a strange way to know that suffering is actually a sign of God's favour.

Charlie Frederico said...

I am surprised that no one is looking at Ezekiel 18 in this discussion. Clearly, every man or child will bear the punishment for his/her own sins. I think there is also a shift from a national covenant, in which all participate, to the individual nature of the New Covenant. However, the "train up a child" part deserves more explanation than the "when he is old, he will not depart" part. Also, I have not read your book, but hope to soon. My conclusion on Proverbs 22:6 is "Train until marriageable age, according to his way, and when old, he will not turn aside (from that training)." Thus, Proverbs becomes the training manual (2 Tim.3:14f.) to teach dicernment and the fear of the Lord (Prov.1:1-7)which is able to give wisdom that leads to faith in Christ Jesus. The issue is the training clearly and profoundly in accordance with the way God trains (Ephesians 6:4). Thus, God builds the house (Ps.127). However, it is the Lord who calls (Acts 2:39). I also think that Doug Wilson's arguments are preempted by his bent on paedobaptism, which causes his eisogesis.

DJP said...

Thanks, Charlie, good thoughts. I do get into Ezekiel 18 in the post to which I link, above; and I give an overview of my translation/understanding of Proverbs 22:6 in the radio interview, also linked above. FWIW.

Rachael Starke said...

There are so many "money" points in this post, it's hard to know where to start.

Lemme 'splain. No, eet ees too much. Lemm summup.

This post is why I read and benefit from your writing ten times more than brother Doug.

David Regier said...

Argh. This one's a mind-bender for me, because in the larger context of Wilson's teaching (and preaching), he's not nearly so A=>B as it's being boiled down here, even considering the wiggle room he leaves himself. Add to that the fact that my brain has been sucked dry by cold medicine today, and I'm worthless to parse any of that kerfuffle.

But outside all that, this is an excellent post that I wish I'd read years ago.

After all, as the Bible says (according to WH spokesman Jay Carney yesterday), "God helps those who help themselves."

St. Lee said...

Daren, In your 6am comment you say "If it were not, how could it borrow so much of the wisdom literature of other cultures?"

I would take the opposite view. If other cultures have "wisdom literature" that mimics the book of Proverbs, it is because they borrowed it from God's word, not visa versa.

BTW Dan, I am just finishing up World Tilting Gospel, and have God's Wisdom in Proverbs on my shelf waiting its turn.

DJP said...

Thanks very much, Lee.

Unknown said...

I took both TWTG and ProvDJP to my monthly men's breakfast group, just to let everyone know that these books exist and to give them the highest recommendation. My Sunday school teacher took home my copy of TWTG to review, because I've already finished reading it once and I'm hoping he will want to have our class all read it together, but I wouldn't let go of ProvDJP, because I'm not done reading it yet. I just finished the chapter on marriage, and I'm gearing up for the chapter on child rearing. My plan is to finish the book myself, then re-read both books alongside my excellent wife.

I can't say enough good things about both books. Thank you so much for writing them. I believe the body of Christ will benefit greatly through their publication.

Robert said...


Just wanted to let you know that we'll be starting our small group study on this book as soon as I sit down and order the copies we need (and they are delivered). I'm looking forward to the discussions that will come up during the course of this study. We'll actually have a wide range of ages in the group and I am sure that we'll all benefit greatly from this.


As for Proverbs 22:6, I'd say that the appendix dedicated to this vers is well worth the cost of the book itself. I think all parents should take heed to the message from the original text that Dan explains welll in his book.

DJP said...

Thanks so much, S and Robert.

Pray that the word gets out. Thanks for what you're doing towards that end.


Donn R Arms said...


Jay Adams made much the same point yesterday on his blog. Many Proverbs should be understood to be observations, not promises. They are intended to be FYI.


P.S. He has been reading your Proverbs book lately.

DJP said...

That's terrific to hear, Donn. How is Jay doing?

Donn R Arms said...

Jay seems to have gained a bit of strength lately. He is teaching a SS class this fall and we are posting it on our blog. You will note his voice is weaker but he can still teach!

Thanks for asking and for praying as you think of him.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

My parents read Proverbs at the dinner table, and as a kid I learned that "when you don't know what to read in the Bible, read the 'Proverb of the Day.'" So it became a favorite go-to book in my early foundations and as a younger woman. To a fault, I developed tendency to lean towards the black and white/formula type of thinking as well. And being a rather compliant child, I can't say it did much general harm, except for the self-righteous pride that I developed. I think this is also why some people are shocked and confused when a child raised in a formulatic/legalistic home goes astray.

Now I am a parent of four (soon to be five), and we have been reading Proverbs nearly every day at breakfast for at least 5 years or so. It has been very useful to have the wisdom of Proverbs on our minds as we discipline our children and as our children observe the world around them. But without pointing them to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God, it can be directing them toward legalistic self-righteousness.

A few years back, I did a personal study on "the fear of the Lord," as I kept encountering that phrase throughout Scripture. Today's post only scratches the surface, and I appreciate how you focus on this in your book more in-depth. (There really should be another book on the fear of the Lord, if there isn't one already.)

DJP said...

Well, there y'go, Merrilee. If you follow the formula and things go well, you have God's stamp of approval on you, which heads us towards self-righteousness. If one works the formula and things don't go as guaranteed, there's the temptation to give up and leave the "faith."

What Wilson does is affirm the ironclad formula and say when it doesn't work out, since it can't mean God fails, it has to mean you failed. You failed to believe.

Now, as I observe here and there, when faith-healers do that about mere physical healings, we think that's pretty rank.

But when Wilson does it, about a child's eternal destiny?

Merrilee Stevenson said...

A little over a year ago I really started to be convicted by some of what I was reading in Proverbs, especially verses about the sluggard and about the woman described in Prov. 31. I started wondering about the "imperatives" that are plentiful in Proverbs. (Perhaps with some of the background I just wrote about myself, you can see why this interested me.)

So I'm gonna just throw out the question: are the imperatives in Proverbs to be obeyed like other imperatives of NT scripture, or is it more a matter of one's conscience, as in knowing the right thing to do and not doing it as James describes?

Merrilee Stevenson said...

For what it's worth, I don't drink from many different wells. (Wilson etc.) Blog-wise, it's you guys. I also listen a lot to a guy who's been preaching for over 40 years; Phil knows him. But Richard Taylor is my favorite. (He's our pastor.)

Aaron said...

If Proverbs were about "getting the life we want by the execution of certain methods," wouldn't we find Solomon contradicting himself in Ecclesiastes? Ecclesiastes pretty strongly indicates that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. If good people could get the life they wanted by simply following Proverbs, wouldn't that have been his observation?

Wilson must think Francis Schaeffer was a terrible father who neither taught his son the Gospel or prayed for his salvation.

Stefan Ewing said...

I was thinking about this recently...the whole point of Christianity (biblically defined) is that it stands all worldly belief systems on their heads.

It's not what we do; it's what God has done. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. God Himself humbled Himself to the point of dying on a Cross for our sins. (Someone wrote something once on how the Gospel is "world-tilting" or something.)

So...if biblical faith were as simple as "A gets you B," then how would it be any different from any other belief system or worldview? How would it be any different from the worldly form of religion that Jesus Christ condemned in His earthly ministry?

Why be a Christian at all in that case? If Christ is just a talisman for getting what you want, how is being treated any differently than an idol at that point? You might as well just eat, drink, be merry, and "follow your heart."

All that being said, there's no denying that a first reading of Deuteronomy, Proverbs, or Jeremiah certainly seems to suggest that A results in B, and not-A results in C. You can see how Jesus' hearers must have wondered at how He seemed to be standing everything on its head.

Charlie Frederico said...

Unfortunately, I did not read as thoroughly as I should have and missed your link to BibChr on Ezekiel 18. Also, I am looking forward to reading your book on Proverbs. I listened to your interview on Janet Mefferd's show and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I have a few more questions on the Hebrew text, but will wait until I get your book to ask them, lest I look more foolish than I already have. Thank you for your work.

DJP said...

Oh mercy, Charlie; you don't in the least look foolish. I'm just glad you're here, and it's kind of you to read and listen. Stick around!


Herding Grasshoppers said...

*Guilty look at shoes* Still "chewing" through TWTG and haven't begun your Proverbs book yet, though I have every expectation to profit from it.

But Dan, please keep beating this drum, for those of us still in the trenches of parenting. Because it seems like every week there's a new book being thrown at us, promising that some new method - or some old method - will guarantee wonderful results.

Oh that it were that simple! Sign me up, right?!

But we parents need and desire to be faithful, on what can seem a very long road, with no guarantee of success.

I turn it around, and look at my own parents - faithful, godly, wise, patient, and loving. And in no way responsible for my and my siblings sin.

Mathew said...

I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment. I think it's perilous to measure parents by the conversion of their children (something completely up to the Lord).

Maybe you cover it in the book but how would interpret those covenant refrains "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation." (Exodus 34:5-7).

As a parent with two young children who is striving to raise them in the Lord, I struggle back and forth with how to interpret the principle of Proverbs and the seeming promise of this refrain throughout the OT.

Thanks for your work on TWTG and this book. Looking forwarding to reading your Proverbs book shortly!


Anonymous said...

Did Doug really say that. Hmmmm... yeah, I'm wid you on that.

Jeff said...

Thanks for taking time to write GWiP, Dan.

My first reaction, simply upon hearing the existence of the title and author, was to consider buying a copy for my father-in-law.

Upon reading to my children Rom 12:1-2 this morning, I'll be buying two. ;)

DJP said...

Thanks so much, Jeff; I appreciate it!

In Russet Shadows said...

Good point. I've been worn out by the legalistic approach to Proverbs for some time. I have to keep reminding people that they are p r o v e r b s, not formulas.

Marla said...

Thanks for the post Dan (Rachel Starke said it with so much more wit than I.) I think I will be done with the Proverbs book before TWTG simply because I have the kindle version of TWTG and the footnotes/Kindle format drive me crazy -- I think I'm going to get the paper type before I finish it.

That said, your appendix on Prov 22:6 is excellent -- I've already read that myself and shared with my husband before I'm even done with the book. Thanks for writing it -- I grew up in a household where the Proverbs were viewed as formulas..*sigh*.
I've always thought something was wrong with the translation of that verse (and several others, e.g. Prov 18:24) and your extensive explanation was welcome. I'm very thankful for the abundance of resources (especially online now) so that I can also check the Greek and Hebrew for myself as well.

Steve Berven said...

One of the problems with the "if A then B" school of thought is that it leaves out the possibility that our present circumstances are even about US!

Sometimes when we are wailing, "Why ME?", we aren't at all prepared for the answer, "Because you are where I need you right now."

It's entirely possible that we are placed in a place of deep unpleasantness, trial, hardship solely for the purpose of being God's light to someone else. If we truly believe both in God's love for us, AND his utter sovereignty, then perhaps our response to trials should be to seek God's purpose in it.

Specifically, being less focused on what is happening to us, and more on what God may be doing through us during this time of trial.

DJP said...

Good point, Steve.

Marla, thanks so much. As to footnotes: yeah, that's what I'm thinking about folks who want GWIP on Kindle. Maybe as a backup or something, but TWTG has relatively few footnotes, while GWIP is fairly riddled with them. I would think Kindle wouldn't be the best option... unless someone just doesn't want to mess with the footnotes!

Kimberly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DJP said...

Except the thing is that the verse does not say any of that. It says nothing about "the way he should go," and it makes no promise about not departing from something good. I'd encourage you to listen to the interview and of course I recommend the book to you.

Having said that, I'm glad for God's grace in your life and your children's lives, and teaching them God's word is a great and necessary thing.

Kimberly said...

"Except the thing is that the verse does not say any of that. It says nothing about "the way he should go," and it makes no promise about not departing from something good. I'd encourage you to listen to the interview and of course I recommend the book to you."

Proverbs 22:6
New American Standard Bible (NASB)

6 Train up a child [a]in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it.

I'm not really sure what you mean since it does say that.

As for the "it makes no promise about not departing from something good" part, I didn't really say that was the promise. The promise is that the way I raise up my kids, whether good or the bad, will go with them even when they are old.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

@ Kimberly:

As you wait for a reply from Dan, I highly recommend if you are able to, listen to the 15 minute interview he links to at the end of this post. It's only about 15 minutes in length, but offers a short, clear explanation of the passage you refer to near the end/2nd half. Then of course, I highly recommend Dan's book, especially because he is trained in Hebrew.

@Dan, I just listened to the interview (finally), and it was great. A bit short, especially compared to the book, but certainly highlights the best themes and whets the appetites of seriously hungry students.

Kimberly said...

Thanks Merrilee. I was planning to do that when I had some quite time later today. :)

Kimberly said...

Ah, I did listen to the interview & see now why you said that verse didn't say that.