Imagine living in the first century and discovering that Jesus is coming to visit you. The time of his of arrival is at hand, and you hear someone knocking. “Here I am,” you hear Jesus say. “I’m standing at the door. Will you allow me to come in?” You invite him in and begin to chat about the sermon he gave while on a mountain the week before.
Soon, pangs of hunger overtake your attention. You offer to prepare some bread for Jesus, but he declines, citing something about not living by bread alone. Still, you want to eat, so you head to the refrigerator to grab some food. Looking inside, you notice you only have an apple and a Pop-Tart. A dilemma ensues. You really want the Pop-Tart but remember learning in Sunday school that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus is right there and is co-eternal with the Holy Spirit, you definitely don’t want to pollute your temple with junk food…right in front of Jesus! So, you take the apple and then hear Jesus say, “Good choice. After all, an apple a day keeps the doctor away!”
The phrase “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is a modern proverb. It’s not found in the Bible, but the book of Proverbs is of the same genre and same style of literature. Proverbs, in general, are pithy and memorable sayings that express basic truths of life. Here’s the most important interpretive principle to remember about them: proverbs are not promises. They describe the way life generally goes. As such, they teach probable outcomes, not guaranteed outcomes.
Consider our example. Is it generally true that if you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, you’ll be a healthy person? Sure. Is it guaranteed that if you eat an apple every day, then you will never need to see a doctor? Obviously not. Does that invalidate the proverb? No, because the proverb is meant not as a promise, but as an expression of the way life generally goes.
Here’s the key question: If Jesus says a proverb, does it become a promise? No. Proverbs still express probable outcomes no matter who says them, even if that person is divine. The same would apply to the book of Proverbs. Though they are God’s words, these proverbs don’t becomes promises simply because their ultimate author is divine.
Proverbs 16:7, for example, says, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Were the apostle Paul’s ways pleasing to the Lord? Most people would agree they were. After all, this guy wrote Scripture! Were his enemies at peace with him? No, they beheaded him! Does this mean that God didn’t deliver on his promise? No, because Proverbs 16:7 is not a promise. It’s a proverb.
This simple principle—understanding that a proverb is not a promise—can make a significant difference in how we understand what God is saying. If we interpret proverbs as promises, we will become disappointed when we think God is not fulfilling his promises. If we understand proverbs properly, however, we won’t make that mistake.