This is the thirty-eighth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
The books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are called “the wisdom books” of the Old Testament. Here we find honest, practical, and life-changing principles which are as true today as when they were written thousands of years ago. But how can we make sure we are understanding and applying these truths in proper ways today?
If you were to stumble upon a long-lost manuscript that no eyes had seen for generations, and if you were to read its opening lines which offered a “wisdom” like what’s described in the following lines, you might consider it one of the greatest discoveries of your life.
Proverbs… for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance. (Prov. 1:1-5)
These are the opening lines of the book of Proverbs, one of three books in the Old Testament (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) called “wisdom literature” (although other books contain sections of a similar kind). So, in addition to historical narrative, law, prophecy, and poetry, the Bible also has this lively, deep, and profound set of books referred to as “wisdom.” These are books about real life.
Proverbs is a book of practical wisdom. Job is an epic story exploring the deep issues of suffering, purpose, and God. Ecclesiastes offers a sharp-edged perspective on the hard realities of life. Once again, we see the utter honesty of the Scriptures. We see the disordered state of the world and human nature, and guidance on seeking the order of God.
Any believer would do well to read the book of Proverbs once a year, if not more often. These Hebrew proverbs (meshalim) are short, pithy statements of truth and practical guidance. They address life issues like attitude and speech, sexuality, poverty and prosperity, marriage and family issues, and much more. The statements are brief, vivid, and memorable. Because of this style, they include figures of speech, so we must understand the main point of the statement.
For instance: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine” (3:9-10). You may not be a farmer who owns barns and vineyards, but you can still get the big point: Honor God with all that you own, making giving a top priority, and you will do well in life.
When you read the Proverbs, always keep in mind that they are general statements of what is generally true. The writer does not claim they are promises from God or guarantees of what always happens. The original readers did not assume that if you honored God by giving the firstfruits of your crops, the barns would always and forever overflow. Droughts happen. Barns burn down. Thieves prowl. Life happens. But the principle is generally true.
Many parents have counted on Proverbs 22:6, which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). Therefore, some are bewildered when their grown-up children do “depart” from lives of virtue and health. They may be left thinking, We must not have done the training part right. But the proverb is not a guarantee. It is guidance—true, helpful, and clear. Parents should take the moral development of their children seriously; and most of the time, those planted seeds will bear fruit. But not every time.
The book of Proverbs is good as gold as a divinely inspired guidebook for right living. It confronts us about sloth and anger and theft and lewdness and gossip. It guides us toward prosperity through prudence, and contentment through simplicity.
It is important to read the book of Proverbs in sections, rather than one verse at a time. Selecting a single verse out of context will lead to misunderstanding and prevent us from seeing the whole. We must look at the painting, not the brushstrokes. As in reading the Psalms, let the power of the images hit home. And when you do find a single statement that could be a landmark verse for you, go ahead and memorize it (as long as you understand it in context). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (3:5-6).
Finally, just a word about two other Old Testament books that are unique. The book of Job contains wisdom, but embedded in it is the heart-rending story of a man undergoing unbelievable suffering. The main characters in the drama say many things that aren’t true at all; for instance, all suffering is the direct result of specific sins and failings. But in the end, Job finds solace in God himself and not philosophical answers.
To some people, the book of Ecclesiastes reads like a statement of hopelessness. Rather, it is a brutally honest description of the dark side of life, which ought to propel us onto the mercy of God.
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.