A proverb is a short, traditional saying that speaks of an obvious truth. It is not mandatory, in that a proverb must always be true, nor is it universal to cover every possible situation. We utilize them to express a brief analogy to explain a propensity.
“Locking the barn door after the horse escapes” reminds us that preventative measures are useless after events have unfolded. “Don’t cry over spilt milk” tells us to not bother whining about the lost horse. “A stitch in time saves nine” tells us, in the future, to put in preventative measures prior to losing the horse. So does “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Of course, because they are not a universal truth, a proverb does not guarantee results. Despite the sayings focusing on prevention, “An apple a day” does not insure keeping the Doctor away. In fact other maxims caution the “Best laid plans of mice and men can go awry.” Even locked barn doors.
The Bible also provides us with numerous proverbs. Many contained within one book appropriately entitled “Proverbs.” I am informed, though, that this book—this Bible, is unlike any other book in the course of history, due to it being the sole written document with divine involvement.
What, then, is the difference between a normal human proverb, and a proverb that God had a hand in?
One of the quickest contradictions claimed in the entire Bible can be found in Proverbs. First we are informed:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him. Prov. 24:4
Without even taking a breath, the very next statement:
Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes. Prov. 24:5
If these were commands, we would be left scratching our heads, wondering—do we answer a fool according to his folly or not? But of course they are not commands. No, these are proverbs. Pithy sayings that are not intended to be universal truths, nor universal commands.
(And it is poor use of their meaning to claim a contradiction in this context.)
In fact, we expect proverbs, due to their nature of covering all situations, to conflict. “Many hands make light work” flies in the face of “Too many cooks spoil the soup.” Should one be a “rolling stone that gathers no moss” or “still waters that run deep”? When approaching a situation is it “He who hesitates is lost” or “Only fools jump in where angels fear to tread”?
It is therefore not a surprise that even a divinely inspired Proverb would conflict with another.
Which leaves me puzzling as to the difference between a proverb stated by a human, and a proverb stated by a human that is claimed to be touched by God.
Both are not intended to be true all the time. Both are applicable to only certain situations. Both are cute, pithy statements to convey a picture of a fraction of the human experience. Neither is meant to be all-encompassing, always true, always guaranteed.
What makes a stamp of “God-approved” of any real significance? Sure we can be impressed—the fact that one saying is claimed to be from a God, and another is mere human—but if both are of pragmatic equal application, doesn’t that lessen the “God Impact”? The fact that God can do no better than humans when it comes to proverbs?
Imagine I showed you two chocolate cake recipes. One from Betty Crocker herself, the other from a guy named “Fred” down the street. At first, one would expect the Crocker recipe to be better—she has the better credentials. But what if the recipes tasted the same? Do we care, at that point, who has the better credentials?
What if someone claimed they had a cake recipe from God? There could be no higher credential! Yet when we make this cake, what if it is as tasty as any other? Would we start to suspect the person is attempting to give the recipe a greater air of legitimacy by claiming it was divine?
Most of the book could be summed up in “Work hard. Don’t associate with evil people. Use your common sense.” Something humans could figure out on their own. Did we really need divine intervention to recognize that: “A faithful witness does not lie, But a false witness will utter lies.”? (Prov. 14:5) I thought that was the definition of a “false witness” !
Don’t get me wrong—I like many of the Proverbs. I have always appreciated “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, ‘I was only joking!’” (Prov. 26:18-19)
But I like Aesop’s fables, and Shakespearean sayings as well. Does not make them divine.
What is the distinguishing mark of a God-given proverb? What makes it any more beneficial than a human one?
For centuries people have continued to accept the human claim that what other humans have said involved God’s interaction. Perhaps it is time for them to accept some of their own sayings:
“The simple believes every word, But the prudent considers well his steps.” Prov. 14:15.