The Problem with Misinterpreting Wisdom Literature

Jill’s parents did everything right. They raised their daughter according to the truths of Scripture. Prayers before meals; prayers before bed. Church three times a week. During the summer, Jill attended church-sponsored camps where she memorized Bible verses. During the semester, she attended a top-tier private Christian school.

But in college, Jill renounced the faith and intentionally distanced herself from church. Expelled for drug and alcohol use, she moved in to live with her boyfriend. Jill’s parents were shocked. “What have we done wrong?” they asked. “Why has Jill rejected the God we raised her to love?”

Church friends quietly whispered about Jill’s parents’ failure to raise a good child. After all, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Teach a youth about the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” If Jill departed, it must mean her parents failed. Good parenting in; good kids out, right?

Not so fast. Interpreting the proverbs as promises is a critical mistake that can fuel legalism, moralism, and disillusionment. Once again, we see the importance of knowing how to interpret the different genres of Scripture and the heartache that comes from a misguided interpretation.

The Purpose of the Proverbs

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings categorized under the umbrella of wisdom literature. Unlike the genre of historical narrative that purposes to tell a story, wisdom literature provides general truths about living in a way that honors God.

A proverb is a pithy and persuasive statement or series of statements that has been proven true by experience. However, proverbs are not proven true in every case. For instance, Proverbs 3:1-3 says that if you obey the commandments in Scripture, “they will bring you many days, a full life.” This doesn’t mean that all Christians who obey God’s commandments will live into their late 70s and 80s. Instead, it means that if you live a life of discipline (1:2), avoid falling into sexual promiscuity (2:16-19), maintain character and integrity in your relationships (3:29-30), and guard your lips from lies (4:24), then it is generally true that the pitfalls that come from sinful actions will escape you.

Not always, though. Sometimes obeying God’s commandments can directly lead to premature death. Take Stephen, for instance. After being faithful to Christ’s instructions to preach the gospel to all nations (Mark 16:15), Stephen boldly proclaimed God’s truth and was stoned to death (Acts 7:54-60). Proverbs are general truths. We need to interpret them in that way.

Likewise, we cannot pull one proverb out of context and apply it universally. The two proverbs in Proverbs 26:4-5 appear to contradict one another until you realize that the author is referring to different circumstances. Sometimes it’s best to speak to the fool; other times it’s best to stay silent.

The Purpose of Wisdom Literature

Like the Book of Proverbs, the other books of wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes) must be interpreted according to their individual purposes. Whereas Job sheds light on the proper relationship between God and people, Psalms has a variety of purposes: lament and petition, thanksgiving and praise, exaltation of the king, and expressions of trust. These purposes must be interpreted according to each individual category within the Psalms.

At first glance, some verses in the Song of Songs may be interpreted to promote promiscuity (Song of Songs 4:5); however, when they are interpreted in the context of marriage, they illustrate the beauty of intimacy shared between a husband and his bride, beauty that points forward to the relationship between Christ and his church.

What about Ecclesiastes? This book shows us by negative example how best to behave. For instance, when the author says, “Everything is futile” (Eccl. 1:2), we must interpret this statement in light of other Scripture verses that explain the true meaning and ultimate value of living a godly life (Rom. 12:2; 15:14; Eph. 5:8; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).

Misinterpreting wisdom literature can point us in the wrong direction, away from a life that honors and glorifies God. Jill never returned to the faith she was raised to observe . . . at least not yet. But who knows? Like the prodigal son who “came to his senses,” Proverbs 22:6 might just prove to be true in Jill’s case after all.


This is an excerpt from The Gospel Project for Adults Bible Study from LifeWay. The Gospel Project is an ongoing 13-week Bible study curriculum for all age groups that helps people see Scripture as one over-arching story that points to what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Find out more and download one month to review free at

  • Steve Cornell

    This is an important consideration for helping others understand the way to approach the Bible. Another way to look at it is to ask, “Does Proverbs promise too much?”

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  • Clarice

    I don’t mean to be too controversial here, but this is still on topic I think:

    “Spanking” is often defended by Christians using different Proverbs about “the rod”…is this a faulty hermeneutic?? I’m inclined to think it is, but I’d love to hear other thoughts.

    • AStev

      I think it would be faulty hermeneutics if people were arguing “If I spank, my child will grow up to be God-fearing.” That would be an utterly false and anti-gospel notion.

      But if they are simply saying, “Proverbs supports the idea that spanking is one valid form of discipline that parents may employ” then I don’t think they’re making any hermeneutical errors.

      Spankings, administered with love and grace, are indeed one way that parents can show their children the seriousness of sin, but no one should ever be under the illusion that a well-behaved child is a saved child. There are plenty of “well-behaved” children who grow into unbelieving, but “well-behaved” adults.

      Wisdom literature gives general guidelines dispensed by God’s grace, not guarantees seized through human legalism.

      • Clarice

        Thanks, this is helpful.

        I guess saying “Proverbs supports the idea that spanking is one valid form of discipline that parents may employ” is very different than saying “Proverbs COMMANDS that spanking is the ONLY valid form of discipline that parents employ.” Tripp uses caps in the last chapter of Shepherding a Childs Heart in saying that parents who fail to spank their child are in clear violation of Scripture. That’s quite…well, at least it binds people’s consciences if Proverbs only “supports” spanking but doesn’t “command” it…like Scripture supports marriage but doesn’t command it, etc.

        • Alan

          Hi Clarice, just saw your question and thought I’d throw a though in to the mix.
          I’d support AStev’s reply and think you’ve summed it up well, although I’d be just a little stronger about whether it’s suggestion or a command. I would say that Proverbs presents spanking as required, so it’s stronger than a suggestion. And the caveat that brings the principle into practical life properly so that it’s not misused as an excuse for abuse is that it is far from being the only form of discipline, and it is also only for certain circumstances.
          The wider theme of discipline’s purpose being positive also helps there. Hebrews 12:4-11 is a great passage that speaks of God’s discipline, and the thing that stops discipline becoming abuse (in both the purpose it gives it and the limits it puts on it) is verse 10, that discipline is for the good of the child.

          I guess Tripp’s statement is a little strong, but if you add in fallen nature then you’d have to admit it is pretty realistic. It’s not impossible, but you would be pretty unlikely to find a child with whom some form of punishment such as smacking wasn’t ever appropriate.

          (Incidentally I’d say marriage is set out as the proper way, so it’s more than support – forgive me if I’m being pedantic, I’m a Bible college student so I’m trained to be picky about word choice!)
          I hope that’s a help. :)

          • Wendy Alsup

            The rod in Scripture is not synonymous with spanking.

            • Wendy Alsup

              “Thy rod and thy staff comfort me.” The rod is neither spanking or timeout. It’s … a rod, simply the symbol of His pastoral authority over the sheep. His authority to lead and provide for His sheep brings comfort, and when we employ such God-given authority over our children, we are showing our love for them.

            • Clarice

              I’ve understood “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” to mean that his rod of discipline and his staff of training/direction comfort the sheep because it affirms The Shepherd’s love for them. He wouldn’t discipline or direct if he didn’t love.

            • Clarice

              Wendy, there are plenty of Proverbs that speak of the rod striking the backs of fools. So…perhaps it’s not ALWAYS correlated to “spanking,” but sometimes it is.

    • Karen Butler


      This article by Dr. Paul Wegner is one of the most helpful guides to interpreting these passages in Proverbs that I’ve found.

      I struggled so much in understanding the ‘rod’– after the Lydia Schatz tragedy I was rejecting it wholeheartedly after reading less skilled hermeneutics, but this is the best treatment of those controversial teachings that I’ve read.

      I hope it helps you as well.

  • Noel

    This was a very good article..In reading, studying and understanding scripture,it is very essential to rightfully divide the words of truth…we are given the ability to exercise free will and the ability to reason by if in context, our intent is purely set on doing the Lord’s will, then the outcome will be guaranteed by the word of the Lord…but if we misinterpret, add or subtract to the word by OUR actions, then absolutely nothing ETERNAL is guaranteed..I’m glad the author at the end mentioned that Jill has not yet fully been ruled out of conversion..I am faithfully confident that if she repents and turns to the Lord as she was raised to do, then she will have realized not only Proverbs..but she, along with every believer who has and will ever exist, will have eternal life given by the Lord..its not about just wisdom or knowledge, heaven or hell..its being in right relationship to the Father, being reconciled & redeemed in Jesus Christ, just like in the parable of the Prodigal Son..its all about life or death…a choice that is and will be both physically & spiritually realized by either properly following or shamefully disregarding God’s words of truth… “For the wages of sin is DEATH, but the GIFT OF GOD is ETERNAL LIFE through Jesus Christ our Lord” Romans 6:23

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  • Brian Warshaw

    Great article, though your point at the end, while true, may distract from your main point, I think. Just my opinion. But otherwise, quite good.

  • jaykay

    The author of proverbs himself is the exception to the rule about training a child [when he was old his wives turned his heart away from the LORD]… it ought to be pretty obvious these aren’t hard and fast ‘promises.’

  • jaykay

    “Wisdom Literature” is just a technical term for specific books of the Bible: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Personally, I don’t get why Song of Songs is included! By the way, for those who accept the Apocrypha, two extra books join the category of “Wisdom Literature”: the Book of Wisdom, and the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach [aka the Book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus]. One obvious reason why Proverbs is called “Wisdom Literature” is because of its praise of wisdom. I mean, the very first verse of the book says “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight;…”

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  • Frank

    I certainly appreciate the hermeneutic: you must know what type of literature that you are exegeting. However, my frustration has been, and will always be, how quickly we discount the passages that are difficult as being ideals, and not literal. Please read what I am saying – because of the genre, I understand Proverbs to be pithy sayings. However, using Prov. 22:6 is a convenient “out” for many families. I know, that seemed harsh, but please allow me the courtesy to explain.

    Instead of dad admitting regularly that he is a fallen man who has not raised his kids perfectly, or mom falling on her proverbial sword (see what I did there?) saying that her sin also affected the way she parented… instead of saying Proverbs 22:6 is true, but the reason we see our little cherubs fail isn’t because God didn’t mean it, but because parents are still sinners, and their parenting regularly shows it, and the child chose the path of the prodigal.

    Enter the argument, “but I know so-and-so, and they parented perfectly, and their kid, like, you know, smokes and stuff now!” Really? Perfectly? No sin in that house at all? Of course there is sin in the house! Why is it so difficult to admit? Why can’t we admit that we have taken liberties (in our sin) with the “way they should go?”

    This isn’t a rant against parents who’s children don’t “turn out.” It’s actually a rant against those of us, unfortunately myself included, who struggle to admit that we regularly mess with God’s recipe of life, and that our sin causes us to come up short, even if we are 100% dedicated to following Him.

    So, in the end, let’s do good exegesis, understanding the genre of the literature, and understanding the reality that sin brings into our lives.

    And then as parents, lets pray more, repent regularly, and be honest with ourselves and our kids…

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