What is a proverb? What makes a saying in the Bible a proverb?
Scholars whose specific discipline is studying the literary device, proverbs, are called "paremiologists." Many paremiologists debate on the numerous definitions of a proverb. The definition of a proverb is dependent on its form, purpose, and interpretation. Archer Taylor, a renowned paremiologist, wrote a concise seminal work titled, The Proverb. In this work he states that only "an incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not." Oftentimes a paremiologist will turn the definition of a proverb into a proverb itself.
A biblical proverb can be defined as "a short saying that expresses a general truth for practical, godly living." The fundamental truths of life are illustrated through comparisons in the book of Proverbs. In fact, the word "proverb" means "to be like." The purpose of proverbs is to relay wisdom in a memorable and concise format. This creates a contradiction of simplicity, yet profundity. Vast wisdom is communicated through everyday language. The Bible even describes proverbs as "sayings of the wise" (Proverbs 24:23).
The biblical book of Proverbs must be interpreted differently from other parts of the Bible. It is wisdom literature and must be read as such. Proverbs do not describe every situation every time. Nor are they promises. An example of this is shown in Proverbs 24:24. "Whoever says to the wicked, 'You are in the right,' will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations." This proverb is describing how a corrupt judge is generally not well regarded by people. However, we know from experience that sometimes a corrupt judge can gain more power than a righteous judge. So the proverb speaks to a general truth, not a hard and fast reality or promise.
Proverbs is not the only book of the Bible that contains proverbs. The Old and New Testaments contain proverbs throughout, especially in the Gospels when Jesus taught in parables. Parables can be considered a variation of proverbial form. His teachings have also turned into proverbs. Because of their short and concise nature, proverbs have the ability to survive centuries of time. Some of the common proverbs that Jesus coined are, "turn the other cheek," "go the second mile," "casting pearls before swine," "serving two masters," and the Golden Rule. Jesus' proverbs survived many years, partly due to the ubiquitous translation of Scripture, and partly because His words were wise and valuable.
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