Is a Proverb a Promise from God or is it Not?
Updated: May 24, 2022
The most important point contextually is that Proverbs, by their very nature, are generalizations about the way life usually is rather than promises about the way it is going to be all the time.
Take, for example a secular proverb like “Haste makes waste.” This proverb means if you do something in a hurry, you are going to make mistakes and you will have to start all over again. Here’s another one: “A stitch in time saves nine.” This proverb means: A prompt, decisive action taken now will prevent problems later.
As is often the case with proverbs, there is conflicting advice. 'Time waits for no man' is a proverb that is said to emphasize that people cannot stop the passing of time, and therefore should not delay doing things. Yet, 'strike while the iron is hot' means to do something immediately while there is still a good chance to do it.
If you followed “haste makes waste” and “strike while the iron is hot”, you’d run into conflicting advice. That’s why a proverb is a general statement, not a promise. In other words, you can’t just take Biblical proverbs and assume that they are self-explanatory promises from God.
It takes wisdom to know how to wield a proverb. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Yet you have to know the time and the place to use a proverb. And that speaks directly to context. Biblical proverbs are, in context, specific and particular statements. They speak to the minute details of life, which is why they can even sound contradictory at times.
For example, see Prov 26:4-5. "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes."
One saying is always useful in a certain context (where not answering a fool will stop you from being as foolish as he is), and the next statement works in a different context (where answering a fool will stop him from being wise in his own eyes). Wise people will discern which context they find themselves in. But both statements are always useful within their contexts.
Using other scripture like Jeremiah 29:11 is a promise with a context (not modern-day graduates, but ancient Israelites in exile), “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”, so also proverbs have a context, a specific situation at which they are aimed.
Here’s what learned scholars say about Proverbs in the Bible:
“A common mistake in biblical interpretation and application is to give a proverbial saying the weight or force of a moral absolute.” (R.C. Sproul)
“The particular blessings, rewards, and opportunities mentioned in Proverbs are likely to follow if one will choose the wise courses of action outlined in the poetic, figurative language of the book. But nowhere does Proverbs teach automatic success.” (Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart)
“The proverbs are meant to be general principles.” (John Piper)
“The proverbs appear to represent likelihoods rather than absolutes with God’s personal guarantee attached.” (James Dobson)
Here’s my last word on using Biblical proverbs in context: Be careful not to use a proverb to justify what you personally believe to be true (a moral absolute). For example, using the proverb, ““Train up a child in the way he should go; Even when he is old he will not depart from it” Proverbs 22:6 as a promise to guarantee that your child will grow up to be a Godly person.
The original text used in Hebrew for “to train up” the child is chanak, which means to dedicate or inaugurate. The word used for “the way” is derek, which means road, course of life, mode of action, journey, manner. The word used for “he should go” is peh, which means mouth. In simpler terms — how a parent habitually talks to their child about the child’s life and teaches them how to speak, is a “general principle” of what the child may believe and follow. It is not set in stone because it is a Proverb not a promise.