“Giant strides toward fulfillment come one small step at a time.” “No one can make you feel anything; you are the owner of your feelings.” “Have faith in God, and tie your camel tight.” These and volumes of other popular proverbs guide the lifestyles of the poor and the affluent, adolescents and adults, on everything from job performance and parenting to career choices and financial management. Proverbs are a popular quick fix for today’s complicated life-demands.
Proverb-like advice is used by people as a basis for decision-making, arranging agendas, forming values, and organizing schedules. Many of today’s popular proverbial expressions, however, prove to be inadequate in the critical moments of life. Biblical proverbs, on the other hand, extend wise advice as an alternative to often unhealthy non-biblical proverbial advice.
Proverbs are not new. Everyone is familiar with proverbs in the Old Testament. But the value of proverbial wisdom was also recognized by New Testament authors. New Testament proverbs? Where are they? What are they? Are New Testament proverbs valuable preaching texts for today? The answer to these questions reveals a powerful preaching experience.
A collection of wise sayings is found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Commonly agreed to have been written by Solomon, Proverbs is an often abandoned expository shore. Sometimes viewed as theologically shallow, Proverbs has been placed between the rich Old Testament psalter and The Preacher’s diary, Ecclesiastes. But, in reality, proverbs are valuable statements of personal commentary that reveal characteristics of successful living.
New Testament proverbs are equally helpful for discovering victorious Christian living. While there is not a New Testament collection of wisdom material, proverbial sayings are common. Proverbs are short characterizations of life’s general experiences. Proverbs are used to introduce, illustrate, or to simply state divine truth. Although the Markan Jesus spoke most often in parables, the Johannine Christ confessed that He spoke proverbially (John 16:25). And Peter used an Old Testament proverb (Proverbs 26:11) to make a New Testament point (2 Peter 2:22).
New Testament proverbs are common preaching texts which are often unrecognized as proverbs. These bite-size wisdom snacks provide valuable and understandable preaching material for people today who are hungry for meaningful biblical truth.
Proverbs as literary genre
What are proverbs? Proverbs are brief, non-narrative sayings that present truth to broad categories of experience. Generally, proverbs consist of a single sentence with two parts. Proverbial application is not necessarily universal. Proverbs describe the way things are during times and situations that are relatively stable. Proverbs become general guidelines for proper behavior because of their tried and proven character in real-life circumstances.
Further, New Testament proverbs are related to individuals who are related to the Lord. Proverbs imply a story behind the saying; a story shaped in relationship to a spiritual pilgrimage. Proverbs make sense only when they are heard against the backdrop of a covenant between community and God.
What is the difference between parables and proverbs? Parables are stories that describe divine truth. Proverbs state divine truth in a simple, memorable form. These literary expressions are composed of sayings, bywords, and cliches expressed in terse, non-narrative form.
Historical concerns
Every biblical text has an original setting with its own peculiar historic orientation. The preacher must be familiar with the political, economic, ethical, and religious norms of the first audience.
Proverbs have the advantage of being widely-known phrases with a public popularity which describes everyday life. The language and imagery is common, predictable, and earthly. Understanding the secular world which provided the terrain on which sacred truth was shaped helps the preacher more adequately interpret proverbs with integrity and accuracy.
Literary characteristics
Literary analysis is another important exegetical task. Does the biblical writer use a play on words to make a spiritual point? Does the proverb answer its own question? Is the proverb used to illustrate a point already made, or does it introduce a point to be further explained? These questions reveal both how and why the proverb was used. Most proverbs were constructed according to one of three basic schemes.
Antithesis is a two-part sentence in which the second part expresses the reverse of the first part, such as Jesus’ words in Luke 14:11, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” The point of exaltation of the humble-spirited person is made following the statement that a person who exalts himself is repulsive. That experience is as valid today as it was in Jesus’ day.
Elaboration is a two-part sentence in which the second part intensifies and explains the thought of the first part. Galatians 6:7b — “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” — is an example of an elaboration. The proverb cautions a person from being deceived by actions contrary to God’s will (that might be colored by religious trappings but are void of sacred content).
The Answer formula is a two-part sentence in which the parts work together to create what seems to be the answer to a question which itself is not recorded. James 1:8, “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways,” answers the implied question, “What man is unstable in all his ways?” The proverb urges us to seek areas of our lives where we are unstable and establish a single focus of life.
Proverbs also use humor to exaggerate (or intensify) observed qualities of divine truth applied to human experience. Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:25 was so arresting that it was used by all three synoptic editors: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” A camel will not fit in the eye of a needle! Most of us have difficulty fitting a length of thread through the eye of a needle. Jesus’ humor caught them off guard, and broke the intensity of the difficult theological issue about the relationship of financial wealth to Kingdom residency. More significantly, Jesus clarified the difficulty people have making substantive commitments to Christ when they have acquired financial wealth and independence. Personal independence and spiritual dependence are generally mutually-exclusive conditions.
Sermon preparation
Preparation to preach proverbs must begin with a thorough exegesis that discovers the point of the proverbial advice. The central nugget of truth must be understood in its specific faith context.
Preaching proverbs reverses the expository process. Rather than a statement of divine truth bringing to mind applicable situations, the writer reminds readers of common experiences that suggest divine truth. Preaching proverbs is communicating principles of biblical truth that affect appropriate and successful behavior within the Kingdom of God. For example, proverbial financial principles may not make you a Wall Street success but will guide financial management that both honors God and sets the parameters for healthy spending habits.
Basic exegetical considerations should be considered. Study of the historical background reveals social, economic, political, and cultural dynamics that influenced the use of the proverb. The motivation for using a particular proverb is a hint to its meaning.
Theological analysis
Each word of the text contributes valuable information for understanding the proverb. Often, a proverb can be defined as “folk wisdom.” In a religious context, proverbs are a concise and understandable summary of a larger theological truth. Careful exegesis will reveal important theological perspectives such as the nature of God, the nature of man, the nature of sin, and God’s redemptive purposes.
The preacher must realize that proverbs are statements of general belief or behavior in the context of religious influence. Proverbs possess the dynamic character of explaining the value of a religious experience as the key element for living successfully.
Proverbs are, in a sense, illustrations of divine truth. It is difficult to illustrate an illustration without being redundant. Effective illustration of proverbs can be made by using biblical texts that state clearly what the proverb suggests. Also, consider reinforcing positive proverbs with negative stories, or negative proverbs with positive experiences.
Illustrations should be brief. Avoid use of spectacular happenings or highly visible personalities. Common and ordinary experiences seem to relate more effectively when illustrating proverbs.
Effective communication of the principles of a proverb depend on specific and achieveable application. Every person must be able to do something tangible to make his or her behavior correspond with the specific biblical principle. The proverb expresses truth that is more general than individually related. Thus, proverbs become truth to be applied to a wide range of life experiences.
The primary function of a proverb is to describe how life is at a given point in time, or within a given circumstantial reference. Proverbs do not tell us how we ought to live. Rather, they grow out of the author’s observations and describe how life is being lived — generally. Proverbs do not tell a story, but are suggestive of a real story.
Proverbs present a reflective view of life because they state previously-observed situations. Proverbs are also futuristic because they are statements that can be applied to general experiences which can be anticipated and predicted. For that reason, proverbs are valuable preaching material.
Members of your congregation are looking for simple answers to complex issues and crises. Proverbs do not provide those answers but hint at the character of life that confronts issues confidently.
Proverbs are the product of culture in balance. Understanding proverbs requires a clear understanding of the social and theological climate from which they develop. New Testament proverbs were drawn not only from a culture characterized by a deep religious faith, but also from a community bound together by the person of Christ.
Biblical proverbs make sense only to those who value the covenant experience of redemption. Within the community of faith, which often exists in contradistinction to accepted cultural standards, proverbs suggest characteristics shared by those whose faith has proven to be adequate.
The preacher must remember that proverbs are expressions of a writer’s perception of life as it is generally observed. All proverbs are not biblical mandates for moral behavior or spiritual correctness. Biblical proverbs must be properly interpreted. The proverb is a sophisticated literary device that demands careful examination and expression.
Proverbs offer one genre of biblical literature that is not well suited for a general selective series of sermons. It seems to me that preaching proverbs works best in two forms. Preaching proverbial literature can be accommodated by a series of messages or by periodic treatment for a focused and specific need. If you choose to preach a series of messages on proverbs, consider selecting proverbs around specific themes: discipleship, spiritual growth, prayer, stewardship, or spiritual renewal. A thematic approach will enhance your effectiveness in communicating proverbial truth.
The preacher can also use proverbs to address specific needs as an occasional fresh spark to pulpit performance. These sermon briefs suggest the exciting potential of preaching New Testament proverbs.
Let’s Make a Choice
(Matthew 6:24)
Do you remember the television game show “Let’s Make a Deal?” The show’s host made deals with individuals in the audience. Sometimes the audience member won and the prize was enviable. Many times the audience member lost. But losing was not so bad either. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronted His fellow countrymen who had both everything to lose and everything to gain. The game was not “Let’s Make a Deal,” but “Let’s Make a Choice.” God never intends for you to be a loser. Christianity is not a gamble. Making the right choice, you can champion life with olympic style. Jesus stated the concept, “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Two principles from Jesus’ proverb can transform your life.
First, every person has a ruling passion. The tension with which we struggle is the choice of what we recognize as our ultimate authority. The Hebrew word amon means “prop, support, or something relied upon.” Mammon, an Aramic word, means “riches or wealth.” John Milton used “mammon” to personify one of Satan’s host in Paradise Lost.
People are searching for spiritual absolutes. Every person has a ruling passion — that is a spiritual absolute. Every individual recognizes something as the last word, the ultimate authority for life. But no one can have two absolute standards of authority.
The second principle is that loyalty is indivisible. Human beings do not have the capacity to satisfy the demands of mutually exclusive and competing authorities. God will not share His sovereign authority with any other god of our choosing.
The natural consequence is to respect the direction of one authority to the neglect of the other authority. God’s promises are inviting. Eternal life is alluring. But the acquisition of those promises comes by making a choice to allow God to be the ultimate, indivisible authority of your life.
Every person has a ruling passion. And loyalty, by definition, is indivisible. You do not have to live a fractured life. Make a choice to allow Christ to be Savior and Lord.
Double Pleasure
(James 1:8)
The context of James 1:6-8 describes a strategy of managing your life for consistent satisfaction. Everyone searches for double pleasure in life. We want to get the most out of life. But that desire sometimes leads to a compromised spiritual life. A divided hope, a divided strength, a divided resource means you will experience a dysfunctional spiritual life.
James introduces us to two unnamed but representative characters who provide proverbial examples of those who live successful lives and those who live defeated lives. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (1:8). What are these two characters?
The fractured person has a splintered spirit. He has absolute resolve in the reflective exercise of prayer, but is hesitant in action. A double-minded person maintains conflicting religious motives.
Do you have one standard for your family’s religious orientation and another standard for your social involvement? Life is fractured when your faith has one set of values within religious circles and another set of values outside your religious circumference.
How do you know if you are a fractured individual? Is your life marked by inner discord? Are you prepared for the distorted crisis moments of life? Are you spiritually reliable? If so, your spirit has become frayed and you need to meet the other character in James’ proverb.
The focused person is a simple person with a simple routine. James described the focused person as one who prays — who seeks God in faith. You become a focused person when you maintain a conscious awareness of God through unceasing prayer.
A focused person also maintains continuous appraisal of his spiritual condition. Prayer is a process of checks and balances to ensure that an individual is fulfilling God’s purpose for his or her life.
And a focused life experiences convincing assurances. James promises “and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). When you maintain a focus on God you will experience the double pleasure of life that is free of sin’s fracturing distractions.
A number of other New Testament proverbs provide dynamic preaching texts. Consider these one liners from the first chapter of James: “Wishy Washy Prayer” (1:6); “A Royal Humility” (1:9); “Steps to Righteousness” (1:19).
More proverbs can be found in the Gospel of Matthew: “The Power of Light” (5:14); “The Treasure Hunt” (6:21); “The One Lord Person” (6:24); “A Day Without Stress is a Day Without Worry” (6:34); “Timbers and Splinters” (7:5); “Through the Eye of a Needle” (19:24).
Preaching biblical proverbs is a dynamic approach for connecting your hearers to divine principles for living successfully.

Share This On: