Question: "What is a proverb in the Bible?"
Answer: While many questions can be asked and answered about the biblical book of Proverbs, ascertaining the exact definition of a proverb, including its form, purpose, and interpretation, is rather difficult! Scholars who have dedicated themselves as paremiologists, or students of proverbs, debate various definitions of what a proverb is. Biblical scholars have better success, confining the definition to biblical proverbs.
Paremiologist (a person who studies proverbs) Archer Taylor claimed in his seminal work, The Proverb, that only “an incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not.” Many take advantage of this “incommunicable quality” by turning their definitions into proverbs themselves, such as “short sentences drawn from long experience” or “the wit of one and the wisdom of many.” Within the biblical text, these descriptions are certainly applicable.
A good definition of a biblical proverb is “a short saying that expresses a general truth for practical, godly living.” The word proverb means “to be like”; thus, the book of Proverbs is full of comparisons showing us how various images illustrate the fundamental truths of life. The purpose of a proverb is to present wisdom in a short, memorable format. Proverbs are simple yet profound. Many deal with the commonplace yet clarify the deepest realities of life. The Bible refers to proverbs as “sayings of the wise” (Proverbs 24:23) and “sayings and riddles of the wise” (Proverbs 1:6).
Since the book of Proverbs is part of the Bible’s wisdom literature, it is appropriate to interpret its contents differently than, say, a historical account. Proverbs are not necessarily to be taken literally, and they are not promises; rather, they are an acknowledgment of a common reality. For example, “Whoever says to the guilty, ‘You are innocent,’ will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations” (Proverbs 24:24). Extensive experience tells us that sometimes a corrupt judge will actually gain more power and prestige, instead of being cursed. But such cases are the exception, not the rule. The proverb’s point is that, in general, judges who allow the guilty to go unpunished will be seen as unjust and as a detriment to society.
There are proverbs in the Bible found outside the book of Proverbs itself, in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, Jesus is the master of teaching in parables, which we could consider an expanded proverbial form. He also said many pithy sayings that have become common proverbs: “turn the other cheek,” “go the second mile,” “not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” “casting pearls before swine,” “serving two masters,” “removing a speck but ignoring a log in the eye,” and, of course, the Golden Rule. Arguably, Jesus’ proverbial sayings are the most pervasive single corpus of such works in the world today, partly because of the ubiquitous translation of the Bible, and because of the value and wisdom of Jesus’ words.
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