What Are Proverbs?

“Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser.
    Let those with understanding receive guidance
 by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables,
    the words of the wise and their riddles.”

Proverbs 1:5-6 (NLT)

The first six verses of Proverbs are much like the opening paragraph of a newspaper article – they answer the important questions of who, what and why we need Proverbs. So far, we’ve looked at who and why. It seems obvious that we would already know what proverbs are, but how would you answer that question?

Based on Pr. 1:6, proverbs and parables are words and riddles told by wise people. From the very start, Solomon tells us that proverbs are sayings to help us live wise, disciplined and righteous lives that will please God and help us live in harmony with others. We know proverbs are wise words. Verse 6 adds the idea of “parables” (or, depending on your translation, “figure,” “enigma,” or “interpretation”) to these sayings. The Hebrew translation for this idea is melitsah (H4426), meaning interpretation, satire or a mocking poem.

Satire is defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” When I think of satire, the image of the Proverbs 26 sluggard comes to mind. He’s hinged to his bed and too lazy to bring his hand to his mouth to eat. This is exaggeration at its best, but still sobering because the idea that laziness and paralyzing fear might keep us from doing useful things hits close to home for some of us.

Riddles also play a part in Proverbs. The last half of Chapter 30 includes numerical proverbs which read like riddles. Read verses 15-31, and see if you can figure out why these situations were grouped together.

The majority of Proverbs is comprised of short, wise sayings of Solomon. While they impart wisdom, they are not guarantees, or promises. Instead, they provide keen observations that illustrate likely outcomes. For example, Proverbs 22:6 tells us “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Experience shows us that this is not always the case. Loving parents who have taught their children the word of God and shown them Jesus’ love, still have sons and daughters who stray from the path of righteousness and live rebellious lives. Even so, this should not discourage parents from still “training their children” in God’s word because without God’s word, there is less of a chance of their child staying on the right path. It is wise to train our children in how they should go but it is not a guarantee that they will follow God if we do.

Proverbs are words of wisdom given to us in the form of short sayings (often only two lines), satirical situations, and riddles. They provide us with observations on how to live our lives prudently. Proverbs is poetry, each verse providing an amazing word picture of what it looks like to live foolishly or wisely.



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