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Interpreting and Applying Proverbs
Proverbs will help us apply religion where it counts---in the family, in work
and business, in care of our health, and in our relationship with others and
with God. Proverbs is a philosophical book that seeks to
answer the eternal question: How should we live? Proverbs presents to us the
wisdom of God for our daily living. It presents us with a much needed relational
theology. Its moral maxims put religion into the arena of daily relationships.
Kenneth Taylor concluded, “No other [portions of the Word] have such exciting, thoughtful wisdom as the Proverbs.”
The passages below are taken from Michael A Zigarelli’s book “Management by Proverbs,” published in 1999 by Moody Press.
A PROFILE OF THE BOOK OF PROVERBS
Renowned Bible teacher Chuck Swindoll characterizes the Book of Proverbs as “the most practical book in the Old Testament and, in many ways, the most practical book in all the Bible.”1 A counterpart to Psalms, which furnishes insight into how to relate to God, Proverbs offers counsel on how people should relate to one another and to the world around them. The book contains wise counsel in making business decisions and understanding people, including those we work with Monday through Friday.
Before we glean the management principles from this God-inspired resource, a little background about the book. Structurally, Proverbs spans thirty-one chapters and primarily contains the sayings of Solomon, Israel’s third and wisest king (1 Kings 3:12). The book also includes the “Sayings of the Wise,” and of Agur (Proverbs 22:17—24:34 and Proverbs 30, respectively). It concludes with the “Sayings of King Lemuel” and the epilogue about the wife of noble character (Proverbs 31). The majority of its contents are traditionally dated to the tenth century B.C.
In contrast to the history, biography, and prophecy of the rest of the Old Testament, Proverbs is a philosophical book that seeks to answer the eternal question: “How should we live?” As such, it speaks to every life issue of consequence, and, not surprisingly, it affords us an impressive amount of guidance in business matters. Borrowing from the work of Roy B. Zuck, Table 1 summarizes those themes with the most patent application to management.2
PROVERBS THEMES APPLICABLE To MANAGEMENT
Advice to leaders
Proper use of words
Improper use of words
Work and family
Be honest, humble, just, reliable, self- controlled and sober.
Avoid get-rich-quick schemes, unfair pricing, charging exorbitant interest rates, and bribery; recognize consequences of gaining money dishonestly, money’s ability to motivate people to work; share money liberally with the poor
Use words to impart wisdom, encourage, protect, and nurture.
Avoid lying, slander, gossip, false witnessing, mocking, perverse talk, boasting, flattery, or quarreling.
Show courage, diligence, humility, generosity, honesty, integrity, kindness (to poor, to needy, to animals), love, patience, self-control, reliability, sobriety, teachability, and truthfulness.
Don’t acquire money dishonestly, be angry or lose temper, bribe, be drunken, envious, greedy, hypocritical, unjust, jealous, lazy, oppress the poor, or be proud.
Be faithful to spouse; show priority of spouse and children over work.
When we apply Proverbs’ principles for human relationships to the workplace, they offer guidance for (1) building a competitive work-force, (2) cultivating a culture of commitment, (3) evaluating and rewarding performance, and (4) minimizing strife. We will explore each of these four areas in parts 2 through 5. First, however, we should consider Proverbs’ contemporary relevance and review some rules for its responsible interpretation. We then will look at (in part 1) some personal attitudes and attributes of the manager who will be most effective in applying Proverbs’ principles in the workplace. Why not just proceed to Proverbs’ application to traditional business functions? you may ask. Because effective application of Proverbs’ content depends on accurate interpretation and being able to recognize our personal attitudes. This is fundamental for achieving long-term success in management by proverbs. Ignore this foundation, and you may find yourself achieving few desired results and, ultimately, abandoning the effort completely.
WHY THE ANCIENT PROVERBS?
The threshold question that arises in any study of this nature is: “Why Proverbs?” Why use ideas from another time and culture? Are they truly superior to the ideas that are contemporary to our experience? To answer this, let’s first look to the credentials of its authors.
Solomon and Business
As noted earlier, most of the proverbs are from the mind of King Solomon. The king achieved notoriety for many things: for building a magnificent temple, for keeping a politically divided nation intact, for having 700 wives and 300 concubines, and for writing 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 hymns. (See 1 Kings 11:3; 4:32) Still, John Bright, perhaps the foremost Old Testament historian of our day, wrote that “Solomon’s true genius. . . lay in the realm of industry and trade.”3
Solomon knew business. Under his leadership, Israel’s copper industry as well as its horse, chariot, and other trades were consolidated under a state-ownership umbrella and transformed into tremendously lucrative enterprises. Consequently, Israel accumulated vast riches and enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity throughout this era. It is an astute businessman who offers us insights throughout Proverbs.
Still, Proverbs was written centuries ago. And it was composed by a CEO who was unencumbered by our present business realities and addressed to a culture vastly different from our own. Solomon did not live in a world of global competition, E-mail, and total quality management. He was accountable to no shareholders and did not have to bargain with any unions. He held monopoly power over every industry. He could rewrite any government policy he didn’t like, and he could not be fired. Notwithstanding Solomon’s managerial proficiency, the business environment of 900 B.C. was so incongruent with our own that applying his advice might not seem responsible, much less sagacious. Common sense would suggest, then, that the king’s time-and culture-specific “wisdom” would not generalize across the millennia.
The Inspired Scriptures
Common sense, though, is often a blunt analytical tool for interpreting something as uncommon as Scripture. As we consider whether to apply three thousand year-old ideas, let’s remember that the authors of Proverbs, like those in all the books recognized as Holy Scripture, are really co-authors with God. A central pillar of Christian theology is that the human authors of Scripture wrote under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20—21). They were not taking dictation, nor were they required to compromise their personality or literary styles; but at the same time, they were not simply advancing their own personal theologies. The Spirit of God guided them to communicate a message intended not just for the writer’s local community, but for all people across generations.
The Book of Proverbs, therefore, does not represent the ruminations of some pensive and perceptive king writing independently. These thoughts are not mere human musings about what worked in Solomon’s personal and business affairs. They are, in fact, nothing less than God’s counsel to His people, filtered through a messenger of His choosing.
And, despite the cultural differences three thousand years later, this divine advice informs us today with comparable force. This is because the central problem which Proverbs seeks to correct---a human nature that is bent on doing things its own way rather than God’s way---is one that transcends generations, cultures, and circumstances. People remain prone to the greed, envy, dishonesty, and sharp tongues that typified those living in Solomon’s day. It is still in our basic nature to set our own rules for relating to one another and to the world around us. This is what makes the Book of Proverbs so relevant to our lives thousands of years after Solomon’s ink dried. Proverbs affords us insight into our shortcoming of self-reliance and all of its manifestations, and provides a road map to traverse the less-traveled paths of righteous behavior.
A proverb that succinctly and trenchantly warns against self-reliance and points to righteous behavior is one that many learned in Sunday school:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.(Proverbs 3:5—6 NIV)
Our perception of self-sufficiency, an obstinate leaning on our own understanding, is one of humanity’s fatal flaws. It has been this way ever since the Garden of Eden. And it is for this very reason that Proverbs applies to each one of us today: It continues to represent God’s unchanging counsel to His children, who are called to trust in Him.
INTERPRETING AND APPLYING THE PROVERBS
When it comes to properly interpreting and applying the Proverbs, we should recall Solomon’s wise similes in Proverbs 26:7, 9:
Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool....
Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
An inherent danger always exists when applying Scripture, especially short Scriptures like the proverbs. Without proper care, our misinterpretation of a proverb may render its wisdom, as taught by Proverbs 26:7, as powerless as a “lame man’s legs.”
For example, a person who misunderstands fear in Proverbs 1:7 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”) to mean “be afraid of God” rather than “be reverent of and deferential to God” (as revealed by the original Hebrew meaning), will likely have his relationship with God inhibited by terror of wrath and judgment. This person’s intellectual and spiritual development will be stunted, as will his ability to think as God thinks and see as God sees, since his conception of God is one-dimensional. Sadly, the life-changing potential of this verse is relegated to lameness when its message is misconstrued.
Hasty interpretation of a proverb may have ramifications far beyond leaving its wisdom dormant: It may actually culminate in harm to oneself or others. This second cautionary note comes from Proverbs 26:9, which paints the unusual but vivid picture of a drunkard wielding a thornbush. Consider, for instance, the parent who reads into proverbial discipline no farther than “He who spares the rod hates his son” (Proverbs 13:24a NIV). Bible-based disciplining of children is a relatively complex doctrine that surely cannot be reduced to a sound bite, much less half a proverb! When one attempts to do so, though, the potential for misunderstanding and subsequent damage is enormous. Not only is this person at risk of treating his children too harshly, but because he believes that he is acting on the authority of Scripture, he may perpetuate this behavior regardless of its observed consequences.
The central instruction of these highlighted warnings is reasonably clear: One must vigilantly resist the superficial interpretation and application of Proverbs. Any reading of Scripture that neglects basic hermeneutical (interpretational) guidelines for extracting the Scriptures’ wisdom may result in speculative, inaccurate, and even dangerous constructions of its meaning. In recognition of the admonitions in Proverbs 26 to handle the proverbs responsibly, I will use the following five safeguards to protect against cursory or inaccurate applications of Proverbs to employee management:
1. Interpret Proverbs by Tapping the Original Language
Like most of the Old Testament, Proverbs was initially written in Hebrew. And although the English translation certainly captures many of the book’s insights, some important nuances of the Hebrew do not survive a translation process. Words that generally carry one connotation in English may have a different or additional contour in Hebrew that renders the English version a less than complete reflection of the original message. The “fool” in Proverbs 1:7, for example, is not just someone who is foolish. When we trace the word back to the Hebrew, ‘eviyl (ev-eel’), translated here as fool, is a person who is morally deficient. The word ‘eviyl comes from a root that means “to be perverse,” and is used to describe those who are licentious, quarrelsome, and defiant when guilty. Through tapping the original language, then, we gain additional and valuable information about the message of this proverb: When we turn our backs on God’s wisdom, we are more than merely foolish. In fact, our morality has become suspect. So, when viewed through the Hebrew language lens, Proverbs 1:7 reveals a sharper diverging of the paths before us than would be implied by a flat reading of the translation. We can choose respect and reverence (“fear”) and knowledge, or we can choose moral deficiency. There is no middle ground.
2. Interpret a Proverb in Light of Other Scriptures on the Topic
Principles of Scripture are multifaceted. Their total shape is typically manifest only when various passages that speak to the same theme are examined and assimilated. Conversely, if one impetuously analyzes and applies any verse in a vacuum, one runs the risk of severe misapplication.
“A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds,” declares Proverbs 17:8. Without further investigation of the biblical teaching on bribery one might conclude based on this verse that bribery is not only sanctioned by Scripture, but it is advanced as a means to success! But that conclusion opposes the plain teaching of many other Scriptures, both in Proverbs and in other books of the Bible. (For example, see Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 27:25; Proverbs 6:35; 15:27; 29:4.) Since so many other passages speak of bribery as a transgression, Proverbs 17:8 should be interpreted consistently. In all likelihood, it represents a general observation about the perspective of those who offer bribes: They view them as an effective vehicle to get what they want. Without completing this topical study of bribery, the reader could easily rationalize a payoff on the basis of Proverbs 17:8.
Just as one piece of evidence does not indicate a trend, one proverb does not constitute a scriptural principle. Accordingly, to avoid such interpretational pitfalls, the highlighted proverbs in each chapter of this book are reinforced by other Scriptures on point.
3. Interpret Individual Proverbs in the Context of the Book’s Central Theme
A basic rule of literary interpretation is that “a text without a context is a pretext.” Typically, when interpreting a passage of the Bible, one must place the passage in logical context by examining (1) what comes before and after the passage, and (2) how the passage is related to the author’s thesis. In doing so, the Bible student can minimize the spectre of spurious or imprecise constructions.
For most proverbs, their adjacent verses are generally unrelated. That is, the immediate context of the proverb is limited to the proverb itself not the neighboring text. As such, the “before and after” issue does not exist. That’s simple enough. But still relevant---and some say central to the proper interpretation of Proverbs4---is understanding the proverb’s relationship to the author’s central message. The overarching theme of the Book of Proverbs is that two roads lie before us at all times. Moment to moment we have a choice to make regarding which road will wear our foot-prints. The high road is labeled “wisdom”---or sometimes “righteousness”; the low road, ‘folly”---or sometimes “wickedness.” Chapters 1 through 9 of Proverbs are essentially an extended discourse on these paths, painting in broad strokes the nature and consequences of each. Table 2 summarizes the character of those two paths.
But so what? How is this topology important to interpreting the brief proverbs that follow in chapters 10 through 31?
Plain and simply, this topology is a critical interpretive filter that helps us understand the broader significance of a narrow teaching. Indeed, the two-and-four line proverbs that comprise the majority of the Book of Proverbs offer profound insights into relating to other people. But we should interpret them as more than this. These chapters fill in the particulars of the two paths that are abstractly depicted in chapters 1 through 9: the path of wisdom (or righteousness) and the path of folly (or wickedness).
For example, Proverbs 15:1 teaches us something about each path: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” As we attempt to interpret its message, we should be sure to do so on two levels, one interpreting the word, the other applying it according to the theme. Gentleness should, on one level, be viewed as something that drains tensions; but in the bigger picture---the book’s theme---gentleness typified in a gentle answer is a mark of one who pursues knowledge and who is devoted to the Lord. It is an attribute of those on wisdom’s road. Harshness, by comparison, is on one level something that exacerbates conflict; more broadly, though, a harsh word is a sign that one is traveling the alternative path, the path of folly, wickedness, and moral deficiency. When we recognize and respect this second level of analysis, the compulsion to apply the instruction becomes stronger, perhaps even strong enough to direct one’s behavior at the emotional moment when one is inclined to respond harshly.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE TWO PATHS AS DESCRIBED
IN PROVERBS 1 THROUGH 9
THE PATH OF WISDOM AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
THE PATH OF FOLLY AND WICKEDNESS
. Disciplined and prudent life (1:3)
• Understand what is right. just, and fair (1:3; 2:9)
• Discretion (1:4; 2:11)
• Safety (1:33; 3:23; 4:6)
• At ease with no fear of harm (1:33)
• Knowledge of God (2:5)
• Avoidance of adultery (2:16)
• Long life (3:1—2; 3:16)
• Prosperity (3:2; 3:16; 8:18; 8:21)
• A good name (3:4)
• Honor (3:35; 8:18)
• Faithfulness to spouse (5:15—20)
• Strategic thinking (6:6—8)
. Hatred of evil, pride, arrogance, evil behavior, and perverse speech (8:13)
. Blessedness (8:32; 8:34)
• Exploit and harm the innocent (1:10—14; 6:17)
• Quick to sin (1:16; 6:18)
• Inevitable calamity (1:26—27)
• Distress and trouble (1:27)
• Delight in wrongdoing (2:14)
• Deviousness (2:15)
• Wise in one’s own eyes (3:7)
• Withhold good from those who deserve it (3:27—28)
• Plot harm (3:29; 6:14; 6:18)
• Falsely accuse (3:30; 6:19)
• Seek to make people fall (4:16)
• Oblivious to one’s own folly (4:19)
• Perverse mouth and corrupt lips (4:24; 6:12)
• Will ultimately relinquish one’s wealth (5:10; 6:11)
• Lazy (6:9—11)
• Stir up dissension (6:14; 6:19)
• Haughty eyes and a lying tongue (6:17)
• Lusty (6:25)
• Seducible (6:25—26; 7:21—23)
• Sneaky (7:8—9)
• Loud and defiant (7:11:9:13)
• Brazen (7:13)
• On a highway to the grave (7:27)
• Undisciplined (9:13)
• Lacking in judgment (9:16)
We must not forget the impact of context. It is easy to dismiss individual proverbs as trivial based on their seemingly narrow content. However, when we interpret this content in the context of Proverbs’ central message, when we locate it on the road of wisdom or folly, God’s way or our way, the proverb takes on a renewed practicality and power that enables its wisdom to penetrate our lives.
4. Interpret Proverbs in Cultural Context
To understand the meaning of some proverbs requires that we know about the culture and customs of the time (in this case, the tenth century before Christ) and place (Palestine). Without this information, we will sometimes miss the intensity of the proverbs’ message; other times, we will miss the message completely.
Proverbs 26:17, for example, says, “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” On the face of it, the verse’s counsel appears unambiguous: Keep your nose out of other people’s disputes. However, the admonition loses its force if we conceive of pulling up our pet dog by the ears. The dog won’t like it, but with most pets, the puller will not be in much danger.
If we read this verse in cultural context, however, the admonition is more compelling than we first thought. Dogs were not pets in the ancient Near East, but rather wild animals, like jackals.5 If one were to grab such a beast by the ears, the person would indeed be in jeopardy. In this light, the warning takes on a degree of urgency missing when we mentally transport Rover to 900 B.C. Proverbs 26:17 implies that one could in fact be seriously harmed by entering the fray.
In some instances, ignoring the cultural context goes beyond missing the degree of the message to entirely missing the point. In Proverbs 25 Solomon wrote, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (verses 2 1—22). A modern reader, ignoring the cultural context, might conclude that if we are kind to our enemies, they will be injured or even devastated by the kindness. One could easily misread this as a strategy for some sort of passive retribution. But this would be erroneous, since “burning coals on his head” most likely refers to an ancient Egyptian custom of showing repentance by carrying on one’s head a clay dish containing burning coals.6 Accordingly, this proverb argues that if we are kind to our enemies, they may repent of their ways. Without knowledge of the culture to which this proverb was originally addressed, however, the reader cannot properly apply this wisdom.
5. Interpret Proverbs as Probabilities, Not Certainties
In his widely cited work An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Testament, C. Hassell Bullock wrote that the proverbs are not “legal guarantees from God” but instead “guidelines for good behavior.”7 Similarly, in his treatise on principles of interpreting Scripture, noted author and professor Grant Osborne has written that “by their very nature [the proverbs] are generalized statements, intended to give advice rather than to establish codes by which God works.”8
In interpreting the many promises of Proverbs, then, one should remain mindful that these are pithy nuggets of wisdom written to be memorable. Proverbs should not be construed as a rigid and contractual business manual. Rather, it offers advice that leads to a greater likelihood of human-relations success---on and off the job---for those who adopt and follow its edicts.
The goal in Management by Proverbs is to spotlight those principles of human relations found in this practical Book of Proverbs and show how managers and organizations can tailor those proverbs to their particular needs. I will use the five interpretive guidelines above to illuminate the many selected proverbs and then apply the meaning to the workplace. As we consider their application, we will often look at how the teaching has succeeded at a specific organization. Like most business innovations, many organizations have intuitively implemented components of proverbial management for years, albeit without formally labeling these initiatives as such. Indeed, the advice available through Proverbs has been road tested, and we will tap practitioners’ experiences with it for insight into implementation issues and likely outcomes.
Furthermore, many chapters will go beyond case studies and best practices to dovetail the findings of empirical research on employee-management practices.
As we identify and illustrate each principle, I believe it will become clear that managing by Proverbs is not so much a novel paradigm as it is a transcendent approach that may simultaneously honor God and fortify one’s employee-management
THE PRINCIPAL BENEFICIARY
When God offered Solomon whatever he wished (see 1 Kings 3:5), the new king of Israel responded with humility:
Now, 0 Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 3:7—9 NIV)
The request pleased God, who granted Solomon “a wise and discerning heart” (and riches and honor as well; see 1 Kings 3:10—1 3). God richly blessed Solomon with the insight and discernment that is so often elusive in our own lives. By extension, though, anyone who studies the written record of this ancient partnership, largely preserved in the book of Proverbs, can share in this blessing. Through careful interpretation of the book’s instruction, one gains access to a system of time-honored human-relations principles that is not available through any amount of schooling or life experience. When consistently applied in the workplace, this system has the power not only to generate a competitive advantage that is difficult to replicate, but also to do so while genuinely improving the quality of life for all who participate in that system. In the context of management theory, therefore, managing by Proverbs can be construed as an ethical grid whose benefits can accrue to both subordinates and the organization as a whole.
However, the principal beneficiary of this approach is the manager who earnestly examines, contemplates, and implements Proverbs’ instruction. Indeed, many things about this person may change because, beyond being an ethical model, the book of Proverbs is a tool for intellectual growth and personal sanctification with God.
Proverbs offers the acquisition of knowledge disdained in business school and overlooked in management training programs. But it offers much more---more than the perpetual bestowal of “boss of the year” honors or the ability to think beyond the suffocating constraints of corporate culture. God’s standing invitation to dine at wisdom’s table offers every manager the opportunity to pursue and ultimately reach the next level of both business acumen and spiritual development.(15-34)
1. Charles R. Swindoll, gen. ed., The Living Insights Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 632. Swindoll is president of Dallas Theological Seminary.
2. Compiled and adapted from Roy B. Zuck, “A Theology of Proverbs,” in Roy B. Zuck, ed., Learning from the Sages: Selected Studies on the Book of Proverbs (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1995),107—l10; the text first appeared in “A Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs,” in Roy B. Zuck, ed., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 240—242.
3. John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster Press, 1981), 214.
4. See, for example, Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as a Scripture (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1979), 552—55.
5. Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs,” in Roy B. Zuck, ed., Learning from the Sages, 161.
6. Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991), 192.
7. C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Poetic Books of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 162.
8. Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996), 195.
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