Browsing the Bible's Self-Help Aisle

Marc Cortez

Browsing the Bible's Self-Help Aisle

People like Proverbs. When I ask my high school students what they'd like to study, Proverbs always appears toward the top of the list (right behind Genesis and Revelation). And, when pastors preach through Proverbs, they often get more comments from people expressing how much they appreciated the sermon. 

And I’m sure it’s because Proverbs has so much practical advice for daily living: disciplining unruly children (Proverbs 13:24), controlling your temper (Proverbs 14:17), managing your money (Proverbs 21:5), finding the perfect wife (Proverbs 31:10), just being wise (Proverbs 6:20), and much more. This is good stuff! Unlike those boring laws in Leviticus, these are things you can apply every day. (Before you start defending Leviticus, I don’t really think this. But admit it, most people think that Leviticus is boring and irrelevant while Proverbs is fascinating and practical.)

I recently sat through a sermon series on Proverbs that was just like this: every sermon packed with wise tidbits. I felt like I was hearing Benjamin Franklin reincarnated: be more disciplined, wake up earlier, control your temper, choose your friends carefully, spend wisely, and so on.  This is good advice that everyone should follow: the Bible’s own self-help aisle. 

But is this really what Proverbs is about? Should we read Proverbs as a book of wise advice that anyone can and should follow?

According to Proverbs, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7). But do we really read it that way? I know lots of people who understand the importance of spending their money wisely and controlling their tempers, but who have no fear of the Lord. So, if Proverbs is really about giving the kind of advice that even a non-Christian could follow, why do the first several chapters spend so much time talking about the fear of the Lord and the kind of wisdom that only God can provide? 

Proverbs In Its Proper Place

When I was a kid, I used to carry around a little Bible I got from the Gideons. It had the whole New Testament as well as Proverbs and Psalms. I think that's a great illustration of the problem. We think that books like Proverbs and Psalms can be understood in isolation from the rest of the biblical narrative of the Old Testament. They seem so timeless.

Regardless of when and why they were originally written, however, all of the wisdom books (Job through Song of Solomon) are now part of a larger story. Reading them in isolation from the rest of the Bible is like reading some random chapter in the middle of Les Miserables and thinking that you'll still be able to understand what's going on.

Instead, we need to read them as part of a story that already includes God creating humanity as his chosen image bearers, our fall into sin and alienation, God’s continued faithfulness in electing Israel to be his special people, and so much more. Proverbs can only be read well in that context: written by and for God's people as they seek to manifest His glory in fulfillment of their calling as his image bearers in a broken world.

Reading Proverbs as part of this larger story will change how we see the book in at least three ways.

1. Proverbs is about God's Glory

What is the central question that Proverbs is trying to answer for us? For most people, the answer is fairly simple. The central question of Proverbs is "How can I live a happier and more successful life?" Or, if you have slightly more theological bearings, “How can I avoid sin and live more righteously?”

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