And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel,
To understand a proverb and an enigma,
The words of the wise and their riddles."
These two verses included in the opening paragraph of the Book of Proverbs give us an important clue as to how the proverbs are to be read. This book is not a set of direct instructions, but is rather proverbial wisdom literature that makes liberal use of metaphor, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, and other types of figurative language, none of which are intended to be taken literally.
Taking Proverbs Literally
In spite of the figurative language used throughout this book of wisdom, there are many who insist upon a literal interpretation of the five "rod verses". This literal interpretation is then applied in a pseudo-literal manner to form the idea of a "biblical model" of corporal punishment of children.
What would it look like if we took other proverbs literally? This is the question we will be exploring. My comments on each will be brief; the concept as a whole will be expanded upon in the "Figurative Language" section below.
Proverbs 1:8-9 "My son, hear the instruction of your father,These proverbs could be used to make a case for a modified version of Tefillin, with a parent's instructions physically bound around the child's neck.
And do not forsake the law of your mother;
For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
And chains about your neck."
Proverbs 6:20-21 "My son, keep your father’s command,
And do not forsake the law of your mother.
Bind them continually upon your heart;
Tie them around your neck."
Proverbs 7:1-3 "My son, keep my words,
And treasure my commands within you.
Keep my commands and live,
And my law as the apple of your eye.
Bind them on your fingers;
Write them on the tablet of your heart."
Proverbs 1:31 "Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way,Just as we recognize that the phrases "fruit of their own way" and "fruit of his mouth" are referring to something other than physical fruit, it is not unreasonable to presume that the phrase "rod of correction" is referring to something other than a physical rod.
And be filled to the full with their own fancies."
Proverbs 18:20 "A man’s stomach shall be satisfied from the fruit of his mouth;
From the produce of his lips he shall be filled."
Proverbs 3:21b-23 "Keep sound wisdom and discretion;To read this as a guarantee that the wise will not trip is to miss the bigger picture. Furthermore, reading the proverbs as promises can lead to much spiritual abuse; for instance, the idea that the wise will always be safe (as this proverbs states) lends support to the popular notion that those who experience injury or illness are experiencing the wrath, punishment, or discipline of God.
So they will be life to your soul
And grace to your neck.
Then you will walk safely in your way,
And your foot will not stumble."
Proverbs 4:17 "For they eat the bread of wickedness,The bread of wisdom...the wine of violence...the rod of correction...
And drink the wine of violence."
Proverbs 10:10 "He who winks with the eye causes trouble,Is this a warning against winking...or is there a larger meaning behind the words, perhaps a warning against being dishonest, sowing discord, mocking others, or tempting others into sin?
But a prating fool will fall."
Proverbs 12:11 "He who tills his land will be satisfied with bread,These are very wise sayings, yes, but they are not promises or guarantees. Many a hard and faithful worker has fallen on hard times; many who work hard to till their land still go without food; many who are frivolous have more earthly riches than they could ever hope to use.
But he who follows frivolity is devoid of understanding.
Proverbs 28:19 "He who tills his land will have plenty of bread,
But he who follows frivolity will have poverty enough!"
Proverbs 14:1 "The wise woman builds her house,A literal interpretation of this would have many of us learning a few new trades; however, it would miss the deeper meaning and true wisdom in this proverb.
But the foolish pulls it down with her hands."
Proverbs 14:3 "In the mouth of a fool is a rod of pride,There's the rod again - only this time, it's a rod of pride. Is there a literal rod in the mouth of the foolish?
But the lips of the wise will preserve them."
Proverbs 17:12 "Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs,Truly, I would take the fool over the mama bear robbed of her cubs! But to argue the point would be to miss the point of the verse altogether.
Rather than a fool in his folly."
Proverbs 18:22 "He who finds a wife finds a good thing,The contrast of these two proverbs is an interesting one. A wife is a good thing, but a contentious wife is (like) a continual dripping. The first proverb is not a definite statement, but rather a generally true idea.
And obtains favor from the LORD."
Proverbs 19:13 "A foolish son is the ruin of his father,
And the contentions of a wife are a continual dripping."
Proverbs 19:4 & 7 "Wealth makes many friends,All of the brothers of the poor hate him, and all of his friends abandon him. Is this always and invariably true?
But the poor is separated from his friend.
All the brothers of the poor hate him;
How much more do his friends go far from him!
He may pursue them with words, yet they abandon him."
Proverbs 19:24 "A lazy man buries his hand in the bowl,I love the imagery here; to take it literally, however, would be foolish.
And will not so much as bring it to his mouth again."
Proverbs 20:4 "The lazy man will not plow because of winter;...generally speaking, that is. Many lazy people, in spite of their laziness, do not go without. The Proverbs are not literal truths or guarantees; they are, however, very true when read as the wise sayings they are.
He will beg during harvest and have nothing."
Proverbs 20:13 "Do not love sleep, lest you come to poverty;Tired moms like myself are doomed. I love my sleep.
Open your eyes, and you will be satisfied with bread."
Proverbs 21:9 & 19 "Better to dwell in a corner of a housetop,Truly better? Is this the advice we should offer to our friends who are having marital troubles, or the tactic a man should employ when living with a contentious and angry woman?
Than in a house shared with a contentious woman.
Better to dwell in the wilderness,
Than with a contentious and angry woman."
Proverbs 21:17 "He who loves pleasure will be a poor man;The entertainment industry alone proves that this is no promise or guarantee. Many who love pleasure luxuriate in their riches.
He who loves wine and oil will not be rich."
Proverbs 23:2 "Put a knife to your throatThe instruction is clear; there is really no gray area here.
If you are a man given to appetite."
Proverbs 26:3 "A whip for the horse,It is interesting that we no longer use corporal punishment on criminals, and yet we strike our children based on similar proverbs.
A bridle for the donkey,
And a rod for the fool’s back."
Proverbs 26:4-5 "Do not answer a fool according to his folly,So...do or don't?
Lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes."
This is only a minute sampling of the proverbs that make use of some type of figurative language. The idea of taking any of the above proverbs literally is unimaginable. Despite this, there are many who read the proverbial rod verses and, ignoring the figurative language they contain, use them to create an entire model of corporal punishment of children. As with other proverbs, this literal interpretation fails to unearth the rich wisdom and meaning the verses contain.
I would like to draw particular attention to two of the forms of figurative language used throughout the Book of Proverbs: metaphor and hyperbole. According to Merriam-Webster, these two terms are defined as follows:
Definition of metaphor:
a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly : figurative language
Definition of hyperbole:
extravagant exaggeration (as “mile-high ice-cream cones”)
In addition to making use of such analogy and exaggeration, it must be stressed that the proverbs are general principles, not promises or guarantees. Interpreting them as promises lends support to many atrocities, including spiritual abuse ("your financial/health/marital struggles are evidence of your unrepentant sin...") and prosperity theology (the "health & wealth gospel").
The Bible includes narrative, prophesy, law, proverbs, poetry, epistles, and more. To take it "literally" where it is not intended to be is to misunderstand it. Scripture must be viewed as a total work and grounded in context (exegesis), not used backwards to support man-made concepts (eisegesis). When reading Scripture, we are to be wise and discerning, testing the spirits, and recognizing hyperbole and metaphors where they clearly exist.
From the above examination, we can draw three conclusions:
- Proverbs are not promises or guarantees.
- Proverbs make liberal use of metaphor.
- Proverbs make liberal use of hyperbole.
With this foundation in mind - first, the comparison between the "biblical model" of corporal punishment of children and the underlying rod verses themselves, and second, the exploration of the figurative language used throughout the Book of Proverbs, we can move on to the meat of the series in Part 3: What are the rod verses really saying?