Preaching the Proverbs

Opened an email from a pastor-friend of mine this morning. He is putting together a study of the Proverbs. He asked if I had done much with that book over the years. I’ve read a jillion times. I’ve never preached through the book, but I’ve preached a number of Proverbs in other series across the decades.

Good things can come from preaching the Proverbs. What’s not to love about laying out biblical wisdom for the congregation? What can’t be gained by drawing a distinction between a foolish life and wise one. In a culture where self-help books sell like hotcakes, Proverbs might gain a hearing even among those who don’t follow Jesus.

And Proverbs can be flat out fun to preach. There are some rich images and pictures in the book that fire up the imagination. Metaphors and similes abound. Employing the image-rich language of the Proverbs in our preaching can help people see the sermon as well as hear it. Most practical situation in life find voice in the Proverbs. The preaching can be very down to earth. People can relate: “Yes, I get it. I’ve been there. That’s me.” There’s some good preaching to be had from the Proverbs.

But there are some challenges too. There is so little historical context. So much of Proverbs are collected “sayings” that are rooted in life experience but in no particular historical situation (other than the kingship of Solomon). That creates a more generic, free-wheeling feel to the Proverbs, which makes the bridge over the river that separates their time from our time a little shorter maybe.

Another challenge in preaching the Proverbs is the temptation to preach them as promises. They are not promises. They are conventional biblical wisdom that describe things as they are or at least tend to be in the general course of life: lazy people end up with empty hands while industrious people have what they need; children raised in the right way tend to walk in that way when they get old; live wisely and your life is likely to be stable, fruitful, and joyful, but live like a fool and reap disaster. It’s tempting to preach the Proverbs as promises. Don’t do it. Preach it as wisdom literature.

Another challenge in preaching Proverbs is working in the gospel.  I’m afraid I’ve not done as well at this in the past as I do now.  It’s easy to turn Proverbs into moralistic preaching that invites people to live life in their own strength instead of in the strength of Jesus. It’s easy in preaching Proverbs to stir in people a sense of “Hey, I can do that.” We’d be wise to avoid that approach to Proverbs.  I would encourage you in whatever proverb you teach or preach to show our incapacity to live wisely without Christ’s strength and presence. The wisest life is not enough to bring us into relationship with God and gain us heaven. We need Jesus. Keep that in your Proverbs preaching. And in a larger sense, use the Proverbs to demonstrate that Jesus is not only source of wisdom, he is its personification. Though wisdom is pictured as a lady in the Proverbs; the larger, better picture is wisdom as Jesus.

Like any book, preaching Proverbs has its blessings and challenges. But there is rich wisdom in the Proverbs God’s people need to learn and apply.

But how to get at it? Because there is no narrative plot to the Proverbs, some pastors preach through them thematically.  They gather up what various proverbs say about money, work, the tongue, marriage, parenting, integrity, laziness, etc., and they work through them that way. That seems to me more effective than a verse-by-verse approach.

Anyway, in the next couple of posts I’m going to share some of the attempts I’ve made at Proverbs.  No doubt you will do better than I.  Blessings as you teach this great book! May it lead to a wiser, more Christ-dependent congregation.

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