Proverbs are short memorable sayings designed to help us think about what it means to live wisely. In that light, we’ve probably heard it said that a proverb is not a promise but rather a general rule about how life usually works. When we say that “a stitch in time saves nine” we are not usually trying to express an inviolable law of the universe.
The caution to not treat a proverb like a promise also seems to take into consideration that, in a broken world, the natural law of the harvest has been disrupted. If the book of Job is the oldest book in the Bible, that in itself may signal how important it is for us to not jump to conclusions about how life always works. At the very least, Job’s experience is a reminder that, in a world like ours, the law of the harvest doesn’t always hold true (not at least in our observable world, or in the seasons we expect) (Job 4:7-8).
With that said, though, it also seems that in dealing with the Proverbs of the Bible there are any number that do seem to be more than general rules about how life works. When we rest in the proverb that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don’t lean on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths (Prov 3:5-7) I think we’d agree that we have reason to take that as more than a general rule.
Yet if we are not careful, there is something about the way a proverb works that does give us reason for caution. They don’t all seem to hold water all of the time. Take for instance the one that says, “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (Prov 10:3)
Even if we clarify that “righteous” does not mean morally perfect (but rather one of whom God approves, and who is generally good and generous in relationships), how can we reconcile this with what we know about the suffering of people like Job, Joseph, Jesus, or Lazarus begging at the rich man’s gate?
Or what about Asaph’s 73rd Psalm that says, “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills” (Psalm 73:3-5).
What can be more disillusioning than hopes and expectations that don’t come to pass? How then can we keep a proverb like this from feeding our doubts?
Is there a way that we can instead see how this proverb might,
(1) Develop wisdom
(2) Strengthen our faith rather than weaken it.
(3) Give us hope in suffering
(4) Help us to see how the idea behind this proverb finds fulfillment in Christ who, when his disciples encouraged him to eat something, said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about” (John 4:31-32).
Would it help us to live wisely, and avoid wrong expectations if we added the eternal dimension to the “promise” of a proverb, as Asaph eventually does (Psalm 73:17-18)? Or could that also end up in more presumption than certainty?