How to Read Proverbs Effectively in English
Our Bite-Sized Exegesis posts on the book of Proverbs are meant to be accessible viewports into the first stages of translation and interpretation at the highest level. Of course, this means that we are translating from Hebrew. But one of our core beliefs is that the Bible is thoroughly understandable even in translation. While certain things are inevitably lost in translation, whatever makes it God’s revelation will come through, meaning that through careful reading of the English Bible you can find life giving richness.
So given that so much of the interpretation of Proverbs in the Bite-Sized Exegesis posts does seem at least partially dependent on its Hebrew language characteristics, what does a careful reading of them in English translation look like?
We are conditioned to doing our personal Bible study on a chapter-by-chapter basis. While the chapter and verse divisions are relatively recent innovations to the text (and often divide the content in awkward places), these chapter divisions do make convenient stopping points or mini-goals.
Taking this strategy into the book of Proverbs is uniquely challenging, particularly once we reach chapter 10. From 10:1 through the end of the book, the unit of thought is usually one or two verses. Even Proverbs 31 only coheres to its most famous single topic in verses 10-31, and arguably even here the text is best studied on a verse-by-verse basis. What this means is that while reading one chapter from most other books of the Bible will mean covering one or at most a handful of unified topics, virtually every one of the approximately 30 verses in a chapter of Proverbs will have a more-or-less unique thought to ponder. Reading a chapter or two of Proverbs in one sitting certainly feels more like skipping across the surface rather than plunging beneath it.
But the book of Proverbs can still be read productively at this pace, if, that is, you take some time to digest it. Here’s what I mean:
- Make sure to have a pen and paper handy.
- As you read, write down some basic features of the various oppositions or comparisons Proverbs is describing.
- Once you are done, see if you can make some connections between these oppositions and comparisons.
- For example, one chapter may talk a lot about laziness versus industriousness. How are these ideas connected to the other ideas in the chapter? What characteristics do laziness and foolishness share, or laziness and wickedness?
- Are there any apparent (even very light) conflicts among the sayings of the chapter? Go ahead and explore that apparent conflict (there’s usually some key in a conflict, so don’t ignore them or lightly explain them away).
- Construct a list of characteristics of good and bad behavior from this chapter. List which verses deal with which characteristics. In this way, you will begin constructing your own personal index of Proverbs.
This is just one suggestion for a (partially constructed) method, but the point is that it is possible to apply the principles of careful reading to the book of Proverbs, even if you are reading chapter-by-chapter.
By far, the best and most productive way to read the book of Proverbs is by focusing on one or two verses at at time.
- It doesn’t even have to be one verse a day. Take a couple of days to read and digest a single verse (I’ve dealt with one proverb for a week or more).
- Talk about it with your friends and family. This helps you flesh out your thoughts on the proverb. You also will likely get some surprising and helpful insight into the proverb from your friends and family who will come to the proverb from a completely different angle than you do.
- Memorize it, perhaps in several different translations. At the very least, consult multiple translations. If you cannot read Hebrew, reading multiple translations can give you a window into the places where the text is ambiguous. See if you can articulate the basic differences between two or more translations of the same proverb. Do these differences alter the meaning of the proverb in any way (even a very minor one)?
- Ask questions of the text: don’t assume its full meaning is immediately apparent to you. Probe it by asking what may seem like obvious questions. For example, in Proverbs 10:24 (post coming next week!) ask: “What does the wicked person fear? What does the righteous person hope for?” Write these things down and test them. Does the proverb hold true?
- What other parts of the Bible agree with, or perhaps appear to disagree with, this verse? How so?
- Take some time to journal. How have you seen this proverb in action in your own life or in the lives of the people around you? How does this proverb describe our culture, and how does it confront our culture?
- Finally, ask yourself: what can I do today to begin aligning your thoughts, values, and actions more completely with those of this verse? How have I acted foolishly or lazily? How has the Spirit of God been working in my life to make me act or think wisely?
If you do these things, reading either chapter-by-chapter or verse-by-verse, you will be on your way to a far more effective and enriching reading of the book of Proverbs than, I suspect, most people usually experience.