Reading and understanding the Bible well is something I believe that every Christ-follower desires. Having read and taught over the past six-plus years in the arena of biblical personal finance, I have noticed that there are three common misuses in our reading and understanding of the Bible. This article will look at the second of those three misuses: using Proverbs (and other wisdom literature) shallowly.
The book of Proverbs is one of the most widely used books among Christians in the financial world. Simply understood, Proverbs is a book of succinct statements which express a truth about reality. As such, many people mine this book to find principles for wise living by appealing to individual verses. While this is a commendable endeavor, it all too often falls short and leads people to build principles for life based on a shallow understanding of Proverbs.
So, how do we use the Proverbs well? To understand this, let’s first look at what Proverbs isn’t. Proverbs isn’t a book of universal promises at all times for all people. In fact, proverbs and promises are very different things. Promises guarantee something will happen. Proverbs are statements of general truth that make no attempt to deal with exceptions or qualifications. They “paint a small word picture of what life is like or should be like. . . . However, as with every snapshot, a proverb does not always represent what life always looks like. One picture does not capture everything.” There are many times when the very verses within Proverbs seem to contradict each other (Prov. 26:4 vs. Prov. 26:5; Prov. 14:23 vs. Prov. 23:4) or other parts of the Bible (Prov. 6:6-8 vs. Luke 12:16-21). There are other times when a general truth expressed in Proverbs is clarified or qualified in the other wisdom books, Job and Ecclesiastes (Prov. 15:6 vs. Job). As a result, we need to take care when understanding single verses in Proverbs. Some verses will need to be treated differently than others and all verses will need to be read and understood in light of the rest of the book of Proverbs, other wisdom books, and the rest of the Bible. That means, even though verses in Proverbs may seem simple to understand on their face, we need to be students of the Bible in order to ensure we are understanding the full depth and weight of any particular verse.
Let’s take an example of a verse that is often shallowly understood in financial circles to see how we might become better readers of Proverbs. Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” This verse seems simple enough on its face – inheritance (financial) is a good thing good people leave. This verse is often used to affirm our pursuit of accumulating enough wealth to leave a financial inheritance to our families. I’ve even seen it used to affirm buying life insurance as a means of making sure we leave an inheritance to our families. However, I believe that if we dig a little bit into this verse, we’ll see this is a shallow and incorrect understanding of this verse.
First, if, as a proverb, this is supposed to be a general statement of truth, we must ask what general truth it’s stating. To do this, we must answer a few questions:
- What kind of inheritance is it talking about? What kind of inheritance is lasting?
- What does it mean to be a “good” man?
- What makes this person “good”, the leaving of an inheritance, or is there something about his goodness that compels him to leave some type of inheritance?
- Is the reverse of this verse true – are people who don’t leave inheritances bad people?
Based on these questions, it quickly becomes clear that we need to do a little more digging to understand what general truth this verse is stating. To dig deeper, the first place to look is in the verses immediately surrounding our verse in question. Verses in Proverbs are regularly coupled together with other verses to express a broader truth. Here, this verse is a part of a group of verses contrasting the righteous and unrighteous. This helps us understand that the “good” man spoken of is good because he is righteous. As such, we can then ask what kind of inheritance a righteous person in Israel during this time would be able to leave to his family? (Remember, this verse was written to mostly poor farmers living in a land-based society.) The one thing that every righteous person could pass along to his family was wisdom. He did this by teaching his family how to worship the Giver of the land (Yahweh) and how to honor Him by not squandering the land through laziness or unrighteousness. If the good/righteous man did this, his descendants would (generally) be able to hold on to the land of their fathers through righteousness, diligence, and character. This was the way of inheritance that was and is still generally available to every righteous person. This is the type of inheritance that every good and righteous person can pass along to their family. Whether that person lives in North Korea or North America, now or 1,000 years from now, they can pass on a right picture of worship, righteousness, and character, which will result in an inheritance that is lasting and worthwhile for generations to come.
Second, once we feel as if we have determined what we think the general statement of truth represented in the verse is, we should look at the rest of the book of Proverbs, other wisdom books, and the rest of the Bible to see if we are properly understanding the verse. Seeing how many verses in Proverbs say that other things are far superior to wealth (Prov. 3:13–16; 8:10–11; 8:18–21; 15:16; 16:8; 16:16; etc.) and that wealth is fleeting and won’t last (Prov. 18:11; 23:4–5; 27:23–24), how Ecclesiastes makes clear that toiling to leave wealth to another is vanity (Eccl. 2:4-11; 2:18–21), how the New Testament is full of warnings around the dangers of wealth (Matt. 13:22, 6:25–34, 18:23–25, 19:23; Luke 10:29–37, 12:22–34, 14:17–21, 16:22–26, 18:18–30; Mark 10:17–31; James 5:1, 5; Rev. 3:14–22), and how the early church demonstrates a radical posture of generosity with respect to their possessions (Acts 4:32–37, 16:11–15; 2 Cor. 8:1–7; Philem. 1; 1 Tim. 6:17–19), it seems proper to read this verse as commending righteous people to train their children in the way of righteousness and the worship of God as a lasting generational inheritance. Interpreting this verse as teaching people to pursue leaving generational wealth so that they can be “good” people, seems rather inconsistent with the whole counsel of the Bible. Therefore, I believe that a proper understanding of this verse says that a good/righteous person ought to instill character and righteousness in their children which will be passed on for generations and will be an inheritance that will draw them towards God.
Ultimately, we need wisdom and patience to know how to read and understand the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is only gained through the diligent study of God’s Word and a life spent seeking to trust in the Lord with all our hearts, and not lean on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5–6). Let’s be people who take the time to be filled with the Word of God by meditating on how to use it. Let’s not make the mistake of lazily grabbing verses from Proverbs and thinking we are acting wisely or biblically. We can learn a lot from Proverbs, but we learn even more when we try to understand how God’s truth points us toward trusting Him as we seek to understand how to live a wise and godly life.
[Author’s Note: What I have offered above is simply an introduction to a relatively complicated subject matter. If you’d like to go a little deeper into what I have introduced above, you could start with these online resources:
To read the first article in this series, click here.
 Proverbs may be promises, but this only occurs when we see the same idea stated as a promise in other parts of the Bible.
 Dr. Tom Constable, https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/ot/proverbs/proverbs.htm
 The land was originally given to each tribe of Israel upon conquering the Promised Land. This land was to be returned to the original owner in the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:8-13), which was every 50 years.
 The inheritance might include some financial aspect to it, but that is not the focus of this verse and will simply be an ancillary product of the righteousness displayed and passed along.