Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

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.


Joe E. Holman said...

Excellent article, DagoodS! So true, and very well put!


Daniel said...

What is the distinguishing mark of a God-given proverb? What makes it any more beneficial than a human one?

Something that we couldn't figure out on our own, that helps us immensely? Something that other cultures hadn't already known and figured out thousands of years ago?

Such as (circa 700 BC):
Wash your hands with lye, and of many sicknesses, you shall not die.

Boil thy water if it runs not clear, and sickness of stomach you need not fear.

When the surgeon or midwife uses his tool, flame it till red, or you'll wish you had, I pity the fool!


I don't know, something like that -- showing a serious benefit, being extremely useful in preventing sickness and disease, and far beyond the human understanding of the time.

John W. Loftus said...

You've got me wondering how many of the Proverbs in the Bible are things we might actually reject today, like "spare the rod spoil the child." (see Pr. 13:24, 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15). I wonder how many children have been physically abused because of the Bible?

Matt Pope said...

Proverbs is a poetic book; you cannot read it literally as you might a newspaper (though even that will have bias). When it says "spare the rod, spoil the child" it doesn't necessarily mean that parents must beat their children with a rod. However, it is true that if a child is never disciplined, it will become a spoiled brat (unless it was perfect to begin with). The same principles can be applied to many of the other proverbs. Misinterpretation may have been a problem, but that does not mean we should reject the proverb. Rather, reject the misinterpretation.

Mr Mantrata said...

The pope says:

"Rather, reject the misinterpretation."

splendid idea...but how does one know what the CORRECT interpretation is? Does a person need to become an OT scholar, learn greek/hebrew? Immerse themselves in history?

If a plain reading will not suffice, what good is it?

And if Christians can come up with all sorts of 'interpretations' to help build up their own pet beliefs (slavery, rapture, male dominance) then why should the unbeliever take your comment seriously at all?

DagoodS said...

Matt Pope,

We understand that Proverbs is not meant to be read literally. (Although I wonder how many Christians would say that about Prov. 1:7? Or 3:34?)

So what makes that any different than any normal human proverb? Is it always true an undisciplined child turns into spoiled brat, or a disciplined child will not turn to folly? Or is this more of a generalization? Just. Like. Every. Other. Proverb.

O.K. We agreed to not read proverbs, including those included in the Bible literally. How does this help the argument that Proverbs is somehow different—somehow divine?

Anonymous said...

In the spirit of fairness, perhaps the answer to this question can be found in thinking not about each individual proverb as a "divine proclamation" of universal and certain truth, but as a collection of generally true statements that together teach God's people to desire wisdom (after all, that does seem to be the overall purpose of the book).

In other words, each individual proverb is just like any other proverb, but the collection of proverbs together send a message to those who read the collection to seek wisdom . . . starting with this collection of wisdom sayings.

If a Christian views the book as a whole rather than viewing each individual proverb as "complete divine truth" the result would be living by principles rather than hard and fast rules. In addition, such a view would see the "divine thrust" of Proverbs as "wisdom is good, so pursue wisdom" . . . and wisdom dictates that sometimes proverbial statements are helpful, while sometimes they are not (Proverbs 26:7 - Like a lame man's legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool) . . . and sometimes certain situations call for action based on one proverb (Proverbs 26:4 - Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself) while other situations call for the exact opposite action (Proverbs 26:5 - Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes). Wisdom is realizing all this and taking the appropriate action.

Of course, there are many Christians who do not read the Book of Proverbs in this manner, but this is not necessarily the problem of the "system" but of the people trying to figure out the system.

Just some thoughts . . .

DagoodS said...


The Devil is in the Details. :-)

It is a nice sentiment—“Desire Wisdom” but there is nothing divine about it. Again, we are left with the same question: “What makes the concept of ‘Desire Wisdom’ qualify the Book of Proverbs as God inspired? Any human can (and has) come up with that idea.”

Further, How are we to obtain this wisdom? At this point, we are directed to start looking at the individual proverbs themselves. Which leaves us with the same question. Are you stating that God’s wisdom consists of pithy statements that are sometimes true and readily observable?

In order to look at the book as a whole, we must look at the individual components of the book. Are you saying that the proverbs themselves are not divine, but the overall sentiment is? How, exactly, do a number of non-divine statements accumulate to the point of being divine as a whole?

What other book(s) of the Bible would you ask us to look at “as a whole” and not look at the details therein? Tough methodology.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your comments, challenges, and further questions.

Please humor me as I post some of my own (again in the spirit of fairness to both sides).

First, your point about the message of desiring wisdom not being divine.

a) why do you not think the message to "desire wisdom" could not be divine (other than atheistic assumptions, of course)? Have you met any Christians? Have you not noticed that sometimes "religious" people are not very wise in various areas of their life? Christians need to desire and seek wisdom because they often don't act in wise ways (and to be fair, this goes for other groups as well, even some atheists). So the Christian should be able to respond to your question . . . "God sees the problem of a lack of wisdom among religious folk (and others as well) and thus inspires the book of Proverbs to cause those who read it to think more about acting in wise ways rather than foolish.

b) of course people who are not theists can advocate the same course of action, but this does not prove that the message is not divine. In fact, a sophisticated theory of inspiration would point out that the Christian scriptures were written not directly by God, nor was it (for the most part) dictated by God to humans, but God chose certain human beings to speak from their own experiences, understanding, etc., to give a message to people living at the time that would also (in an overarching way) be a message to people throughout the ages. Thus the Christian should be able to say (although I dare say most could or would not) . . . "desiring wisdom is most certainly a human idea but it is also a divine idea."

c) one of the reasons the message of "desire wisdom" would be divine (from a Christian point of view) is that seeking wisdom should lead to God, who according to Christian theology is "all wise." Of course, the atheist does not see it this way, but this point is full of other assumptions (as is well true of the Christian position) that I gather we are not discussing at the moment (the topic at hand being "does the very nature of the book of Proverbs negate its divine inspiration?").

Second, your point about the relationship of the details and the whole . . .

of course one would need to look at individual components of the book to understand the whole. This is the case for reading any statement. But we also know that to understand the part one must see its relation to the whole. For every text unit (word, sentence, paragraph) there is a context which gives meaning to the statements themselves. For example, here is a text unit taken out of the context in which you placed them.

"God's wisdom"

Does the fact that you speak of "God's wisdom" mean you are advocating that we seek God's wisdom? No! The immediate context of these words demonstrate this ("Are you stating that God’s wisdom consists of pithy statements that are sometimes true and readily observable?"). By using the phrase "God's wisdom" are we to understand you believe in God? Of course not. Your fuller context demonstrates that. Details are important, yes, but fuller context is what helps us discern the meaning of those details.

A similar argument can be made about any collection of words (including the Book of Proverbs). One proverb by itself does not present the whole truth about the wisdom advocated therein. So to understand how the part should be understood (a given individual proverb, for example), one must know how the part fits into the whole.

Now this does set up an philosophical quandry . . . how can one understand the whole if one must understand the parts?/how can one understand the parts if one does not understand the whole? . . . but this part/whole problem of langauge is not simply a problem for religious texts . . . it is a problem for any text . . . and is another discussion altogether . . .

But back to your questions . . .

a) "Are you stating that God’s wisdom consists of pithy statements that are sometimes true and readily observable? . . . Are you saying that the proverbs themselves are not divine, but the overall sentiment is? How, exactly, do a number of non-divine statements accumulate to the point of being divine as a whole?"

What I was suggesting as a possibility was that God's wisdom (as defined by typcial, historic Christian theology) would point to truth. Does a proverb point to truth? In some way, yes. So, the Christian God could use a proverb to point people to that truth. In this sense, it oculd be considered divine (that is, used by the Christian God to point people to a particular or general truth). Is it an exhaustive statement of truth? No. But what one statement is? So the Christian God could use a proverb just like any other statement to put it together with others to make an overall point.

b) "What other book(s) of the Bible would you ask us to look at “as a whole” and not look at the details therein?"

None. What I suggested is that the details in any text by themselves do not give us the whole picture. Again we can talk about the philosophical problems of language when it comes to these issues, but that is related but distinct topic.

RubySera said...

Daniel Morgan said:

>I don't know, something like that -- showing a serious benefit, being extremely useful in preventing sickness and disease, and far beyond the human understanding of the time.<

I disagree that this is beyond human understanding of the time. I think I come from a culture that is as close to the unlearned culture of biblical times as one can easily get in Western society. We believed these kinds of proverbs because they worked. Every single one of the things you list has been scientifically proven by now. The only difference between then and now is that now we can spell out WHY it works. Until scientifically proven, it was easy to believe it came from superhuman insight.

under_the_mercy said...

RE: "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"

Just to let you know, Prov. 24:4-5 says:

"Pro 24:4 And by knowledge are the chambers filled With all precious and pleasant riches.
Pro 24:5 A wise man is strong; Yea, a man of knowledge increaseth might"

DagoodS said...

under_the_mercy—you absolutely correct. It should be Proverbs 26:4-5. I would change it in the original post, but I like to leave my mistakes for the world to see. Keeps me human.


I like your more open approach to the Bible. Sounds almost (dare I say?) of a more liberal persuasion.

Unfortunately, we are left with no method to determine what is divine or not. “Early to bed, Early to rise, makes a person healthy, wealthy and wise” or “The soul of a lazy man desires, and has nothing; But the soul of the diligent shall be made rich.” (Prov. 13:4)

You indicate that “God chose certain persons...” What makes a person’s claim that Agur was chosen more plausible than Ben Franklin? How are we to determine what persons were “chosen?”

I am unconvinced that “desire wisdom” is divine, is because we do not need divinity to make that claim. We certainly do not need Christianity. Numerous nations had proverbs and sayings long before Christianity existed, let alone before they learned of it.

Humans figured out long ago that hard work reaps benefits, evil people cause trouble, and cantankerous spouses make for long evenings. If it requires “divinity” to recognize it, then we have to include many more writings as divine. If it does not, Proverbs gets the chop.

Again, if “desire wisdom” is divine, than a great deal more than Proverbs is divine. If you want to claim that the Bible is not the only thing divine, than this would be appropriate.

Could the Christian God do better than just “point people to truth” but rather show them truth itself? Seems quite a round-a-bout way of doing it—humans write it, other humans claim it is divine, other humans believe it, and it all is indistinguishable from other human writings and claims.

Anonymous said...


Thanks once again for your comments and questions. I especially appreciate your willingness to ask probing questions. This indicates your willingness to understand on a deeper level (a virtue I wish more people shared with you).

Please humor me once again as I take a stab at clarifying and illuminating certain aspects of our discussion.

First, as to the question of how one determines which set of proverbs (or which individual proverbs) are indeed "inspired" and which are not . . .

the most obvious Christian answer to that question would be the received text Christians have (i.e., the Bible and more specifically the Book of Proverbs). Historic Christianity has viewed the Book of Proverbs as one part of the canon of books considered in some sense to be divine. Proverbs is thus a received and authoritative text for generations of Christians. Ben Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" is not (although you wouldn't believe how many Christians I encounter who believe the proverb "God helps those who help themselves" is found somewhere in the Bible). So on historic grounds (at least as far back as the New Testament was being written) it seems Proverbs has the honor of being considered "divine" in some sense of the word. Of course, one has the right to reject the claim of divine status, but the fact of history still remains . . . Proverbs has been considered by many Christians (and Jews alike) to have some kind of "divine" status.

So . . . how does a Christian distinguish between "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" and "train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart far from it"? . . . Such a Christian looks at the Christian Scriptures and sees which proverb is collected within . . . and for most Christians this is the end of discussion.

But to be fair, however, your question is not aimed at Christianity's received texts. It is really aimed at how one knows any text that has a claim of divine origin (Bible, Quran, Tripitaka, Upinshads, etc) is in fact divine. This is a much more difficult question for the "believer" (and I am using this term to indicate anyone who believes a particular text to have a "divine stamp of approval") to give an acceptable answer to the skeptic. I would venture to guess that 99 times out of one hundred, any response from a "believer" (even a well-reasoned, thoughtful, and philosophically engaged one) would be unconvincing to a person who does not believe. There may be many reasons for this, but one reason I think is high on this hypothetical list is . . . it is so damn hard to prove most anything with any degree of certainity (I'm having flashbacks of my philosophy instructor asking us to prove a chair in the middle of the room existed), especially to prove something as abstract and intangible as "divine influence."

Again, to be fair . . . this difficulty of proof does not mean divine influence on a "sacred text" is false. Something may very well be difficult to prove but nevertheless true . . . but what most of us want is proof positive (or negative, as the case may be). Which leads me to ask . . . why is it that some believe and others do not? I think that is an excellent question for both religious and non-religious people to ask without resorting to name-calling and over-generalizations (but I am digressing far too much).

Second, as to your claim that "desire wisdom" does not need to be divine . . .

in one sense I agree. People who are not religious can and have advocated a way of wisdom.

But in another sense I must respectfully disagree on the grounds that I think you are making a dichotomy where there need not be one.

I'm not certain a divine message to people would necessarily have to be one that human beings could not figure out on their own. It certainly could be, but doesn't have to be.

And I must fall back on my earlier example . . . have you been around any Christians lately? Wisdom is lacking in many, many cases. Just walk into any so-called "Christian Bookstore" . . . notice there are more "Christian trinkets" and just plain crap than there are books. Then pick up any three books in the "Christian living" section. Chances are all of those books are lacking serious theological reflection on the Bible and historic Christianity. And yet Christians buy these books and think they are priceless treasures. If the Christian God didn't give a message of "desire wisdom" in a situation like this, then THAT would be another weapon in the atheists arsenal.

DagoodS said...


Ah, Christian Bookstores. The shelves bulge with self-help books. Books on children with learning problems, pre-teens with esteem problems, teenagers with all sorts of problems, children who date, college students, looking for a spouse, getting married, married without children, married with young children, married with children who have died, married with children with learning problems, married with pre-teens, married with teens, married with college students, married with children that date, married and middle-age syndrome, married with parents who are dying, people who are sick, people who are dying, people looking for work, people unemployed, people struggling with their sexual identity, people struggling with depression, people in relationships, people without purpose, and on and on and on.

Every single one a testament that divinity is not enough. The Book of Proverbs was not enough. “Desire wisdom” is not enough. Every book, every shelf, every section all pointing out that God was not sufficient in writing a Divine Book of how to live!

Anonymous, all I have ever looked for is a method. A way in which I can say, “Hey, that is divine.” Yes, I understand holding someone to absolute proof would be far to onerous. All I am looking for is plausible.

Look, people of a variety of beliefs tell me that there is something out there that is divine. Whether .05% divine or 100% divine, it is some way distinguishable from human. And when I look to learn how I, too, can make this awesome determination as to what is not quite human, I get 1000’s of complete varying responses as to how to do it. Humorously, many responses assuring me that some of the other responses are completely incorrect.

Divine writing is a great example. Here we have a claim that there are a set of sayings that point to a general, but not certain truth. And that some of those writings are divine. (Whether .05% or 100% does not matter. They are to be treated specially.) And I wonder why.

I am looking for a method. A system we can utilize and upon implementing, the books of the Bible and only the books of the Bible emerge as divine.

I have yet to meet a believer willing to meet this challenge. Not one, anonymous.

See, every method I have seen develops two problems. Either it is so broad, that it encompasses more writings than just the Bible, OR it becomes so narrow that it eliminates the Bible.

(I would note, it is possible to develop a method in which the Bible solely appears, but it is a method designed for a specific result. And seen to be the farce that it is. For example, I could claim the method, “The way we determine divinity is by using the method that every book that is on my night stand right now is divine. Whoopee!! It turns out to be the Bible.”)

If you would forgive me, I will pick on the method you proposed to demonstrate this. (It is just as good as any other.) “Historically it has been considered divine.”

But if we apply this method fairly, we come out with the Tanakh, the Protestant Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Greek Orthodox Bible, the Ethiopian Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. (You recognized this problem yourself in your comment.)

In order to get the Bible, we have to narrow down the method. To what? How long must it be considered Historically Divine, before it qualifies? 1 Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas were considered Divine for a long, long time. Do we include them? Martin Luther and John Calvin were ready, despite the long historicity, to drop Revelation. Can we now exclude them?

Further, most would claim that, for example, the Gospel of Matthew was divine immediately after being written—when it had no historicity. When did it “become” divine? 10 year? 20 years?

And who is it that gets to make the qualification of historicity? If a majority of Christians now decide to axe Revelation, does it lose divinity despite being divine?

As to Proverbs itself, I would agree that for an extended period of time it was considered Divine. But the very people that originally determined it was divine REJECT the Christians’ claim that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are divine. Why should I listen to Christians as compared to Jews? (Rhetorical, I am not grilling you personally, of course.)

Your response would not be rejected, simply because you are a believer, and I am not. But understand this. I was once a believer. I, too, would have been arguing the same points you have been. Through conversations, I have been convinced otherwise. In order for me to change a long-held position it has taken a lot of such discussions, and a great deal of study.

It is not so much that I reject anything you claim, it is that I have studied it so much, to the point of losing my own belief, that I have often seen the claim already. I have already argued it from you side. I have already been forced to review my position and attempt to refute pesky atheists such as myself. *smile*

I know at times we appear dismissive, and I do my best to approach each person as if it was new. To avoid, the “Oh THAT old chestnut. I will not even grace you with a response.” I find that rude.

I do find the question, “why do some believe and some do not?” as interesting. Recently I have become more interested in the question of “why do some change their beliefs, and others do not.”

So, the question for you, Anonymous. (Not that I expect, nor desire a response. Something to think about late at night, when you are alone.) Can you come up with a method that is plausible? Something that would not necessarily convince you, or me, but a neutral person? Something that you could show to a person that has no knowledge of the differences between various writings, divine or otherwise, and they clearly see that the Bible is divine?

Anonymous said...

sorry, but your post really proves nothing.