How to Read Proverbs

The Book of Proverbs

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

The book of Proverbs is a guidebook for living wisely and well in God’s world. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the book of Proverbs, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video.

As the video points out, Proverbs is a fountain of wisdom and collection of practical skills for living along the grain of the universe, and as a result, thriving. Since the entire book is composed of a variety of speeches, poems, and topics, this post focuses on Proverbs 3:1–18. Use the principles from the video to inform your answers to the following questions about Proverbs 3:1–18.

Proverbs 3:1-18 (ESV)

Trust in the Lord with All Your Heart

1 My son, do not forget my teaching,

but let your heart keep my commandments,

2for length of days and years of life

and peace they will add to you.

3Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;

bind them around your neck;

write them on the tablet of your heart.

4So you will find favor and good success

in the sight of God and man.

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

and do not lean on your own understanding.

6In all your ways acknowledge him,

and he will make straight your paths.

7 Be not wise in your own eyes;

fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.

8It will be healing to your flesh

and refreshment to your bones.

9Honor the Lord with your wealth

and with the firstfruits of all your produce;

10then your barns will be filled with plenty,

and your vats will be bursting with wine.

11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline

or be weary of his reproof,

12for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,

as a father the son in whom he delights.

Blessed Is the One Who Finds Wisdom

13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,

and the one who gets understanding,

14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver

and her profit better than gold.

15She is more precious than jewels,

and nothing you desire can compare with her.

16 Long life is in her right hand;

in her left hand are riches and honor.

17Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

and all her paths are peace.

18She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;

those who hold her fast are called blessed.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: Wise people trust God with all their heart, rather than trusting their own wisdom or understanding. 

Observe: As you watched the video, what observations did you make about Proverbs 3:1–18? (Consider the characters, locations, objects, metaphors, comparisons, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) Wise people trust God with all their heart, rather than trusting their own wisdom or understanding. (Interpretation) Wisdom is found by believing that what God says is true, and living in accordance with how He designed the world to operate. Foolishness is seen in people trusting themselves to be god, and in believing they can create and impose their own boundaries and design upon the world. 

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Proverbs 3:1–18? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: The wise listen to and obey God throughout Scripture. Jesus compares those who hear and obey His teaching to a wise man who built his house on a solid rock foundation.

Contextualize: What themes does Proverbs 3:1–18 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Psalms? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) or the historical books (Judges through 2 Kings)?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: To be a wise person, I need to trust that God knows how He has designed the world to operate. I need to trust Him and the boundaries He has put into place in life. For example, I can trust His wisdom over my own by choosing to avoid debt rather than purchase excessively with a credit card, to have sexual integrity rather than fall into temptation, or to keep good company rather than spend time with friends who may be negatively influencing me. Even when I do not feel like staying within those boundaries, wisdom looks like trusting what God says to be true over what I feel like doing in the moment. 

Apply: How does the truth from Proverbs 3:1–18 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps us wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Proverbs, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Proverbs this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.