I admit it, I love dictionaries. These are from my Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary:
Definition: statement of the precise meaning of a term
Proverb: short pithy saying in general use
Good, aren’t they? And true. Compare them with the following couplet:
A definition closes the gates,
but a proverb breaks down the fence
These lines also are about definition and proverbs, but so much more confusing! Who wrote that rubbish? (Oh yes. It was me.)
Although the second box is very different from the first, I think it is just as true. And more like the way we should approach Proverbs.
The wisdom of the proverbs in the Bible book of Proverbs is not a series of definitions. It is not a series of specifications of how to behave and think. More often the proverbs make creative associations. They surprise us and our minds go in unexpected directions – good and helpful directions.
Here’s one example.
Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit
but righteousness delivers from death. (Prov 10:2 esv)
If we treat this as simple prose, we get a mundane tip. ‘For a good outcome, don’t chase money but be righteous.’
Reading slowly, however, we find the unexpected and possibly confusing. Treasure is not profit? Profit defines treasure! OK, perhaps we’re meant to think of a ‘deeper’ meaning, of treasure as a metaphor for what’s really valuable.
But it’s still pretty simple. Isn’t it?
The second line of the verse doesn’t let us settle easily. This is the flip side of line one. We might expect the righteous to gain wealth by righteousness, but no. The righteous here couldn’t be bothered listing any possession at all.
Instead, the contrast with ‘no profit’ is ‘deliver from death.’ Is this meant to be a profit? And what kind of death does it mean? And – going back to acts of wickedness – are we meant to see that the unjust treasure is actually the fear of death? Perhaps the wicked possess gold as a foolish way to ignore their own impending death: how pitiful they are!
After reading this one proverb – just one! – we get a reminder of some straightforward advice. But so much more happens, and God puts so many more questions before us. We are meant to ponder and consider and enjoy the creativity of the saying. We cannot claim that we have exhausted the meaning of the text, not even of a single proverb.