How to Preach Proverbs
Focus on the Fear
In his “Introduction to Proverbs” for the ESV Literary Study Bible, Leland Ryken notes that one of the theological themes of Proverbs is “the view of God,” namely, that various proverbs provide a “detailed outline of what God likes and dislikes, values and regards as worthless, and as we contemplate those things, we come to an understanding of God.”1 Put differently, and more specifically, the biblical proverbs as a whole have a Godward goal: the fear of the Lord. As preachers, our job is to focus on that fear.
If we focus on our proper response to God, it protects us from preaching moralistic sermons. Also, with this Godward goal in mind, it is difficult to preach the health-wealth gospel of the popular prosperity preachers. As Arthurs asserts, “Proverbs are not prescriptions for the American dream. They are prescriptions for how to live skillfully in a world created by the sovereign, generous, and fearsome Master.”2 If you are preaching that holy, awesome, powerful God whom you should revere with your face to the ground and sandals off (Eccles. 5:1–7), it is unlikely that you will in the next breath say something that makes you the center of the universe and your best life now the priority.
Preach How to Live
A decade ago, I wrote a book on preaching Christ from Old Testament wisdom literature. I received a one-star review from a pastor who said, “I pity the congregation who sits under this man’s preaching.” Ouch! The reason for that review had to do with that pastor’s hermeneutics. He believed that books like Proverbs taught law, not gospel, and we are to preach them not as commands to keep but as commands that only Christ has kept. Well, I (still!) fundamentally disagree with that theology as it relates to the wisdom literature of the Bible. The wisdom literature, found in both the Old Testament and New Testament, are not ethics to get into the kingdom but ethics for those already in. As Graeme Goldsworthy summarizes, “[The Wisdom Literature] complements the perspective of salvation history . . . [and offers] a theology of the redeemed man living in the world under God’s rule.”3
The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition
Douglas Sean O'Donnell, Leland Ryken
Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken give pastors tools to better understand the literary nature of Scripture in order to give sermons that are interesting, relevant, and accurate to the author’s intention.
If you fail to preach to Christians the necessity of character formation, you fail to preach proverbs properly. “The real intent” of such literature, states Roland Murphy, “is to train a person, to form character, to show what life is really like and how best to cope with it.”4 God has not left us alone. He graciously gives us in his Word his pattern for the good life, offering lessons on discretion, purity, industry, hard work, justice, leadership, and controlling the tongue. To fail to preach Christian ethics is to fail to preach the whole counsel of God.
Follow the Formula
If you don’t know where to start in heeding the above suggestion, just follow this God-inspired formula. Some proverbs, or strings of proverbs, offer all or a few of these four ingredients: (1) a summons to listen, (2) admonitions, (3) motivation for obeying, and (4) consequences of obedience. For example, Proverbs 4:1–9 combines all four, starting in verses 1–2 with a summons to listen (“Hear, O sons . . . be attentive”), a motivation (“for I give you good precepts”), admonition (“do not forsake my teaching”). It concludes with four more admonitions to “get wisdom” and the positive consequences for doing so: she will keep, guard, honor, and bestow a crown on you. In your preaching, follow that formula.
It is possible, but not recommended, to organize sermons with the structural forms we find in some biblical proverbs. For example, I don’t advise a twenty-two-point sermon on the acrostic poem in Proverbs 31:10–31, or a seven-point sermon based on its chiastic structure. Nor would I recommend dividing the five rhetorical questions (and their one answer!) into your five points. You could do a four-point sermon on the four things that are too wonderful and inexplicable—(1) the way of an eagle in the sky, (2) a serpent on a rock, (3) a ship on the high seas, and (4) a man with a virgin (Prov. 30:18–19)—but it would be a short sermon, I would imagine.
My point is this: where there is clearly structural order that fits a sermonic outline (e.g., the Beatitudes), use the inspired structure. However, a suggested way to preach most biblical proverbs, especially those in the book of Proverbs, is to group verses together thematically. Ryken elucidates: “Except in the first nine chapters and the encomium on the good wife at the end of the book, it would be futile to look for structural coherence and continuity as we read. . . . Although the proverbs in the book of Proverbs are not generally arranged in topical clusters, it is possible to peruse the book looking for proverbs on a topic and compose one’s own proverb cluster.”5
Make Your Central Idea “Proverbial”
I borrow this suggestion, and the language for it (including the title above), from Arthurs. His words and my illustrations will suffice to summarize the suggestion:
That central idea [of the sermon] will lodge in memory if you word it like a proverb, with brevity, balance, image, and sound values. By doing this, we preach not only as the sages spoke, but also as the listeners listen because in the age of secondary orality, the distilled, memorable phrase is as common as cornflakes. Advertisers coin jingles to lodge in the memory, and politicians summarize their messages in sounds bites to make the evening news.6
Next, Arthurs offers four ways we can heed his advice. First, use the proverb itself and restate it throughout the sermon. If after every five minutes of exegesis, illustration, and application, you say, “Pride goes . . . before a fall” (Prov. 16:18), it is likely that each and every member of your congregation will walk away with the main point. Second, create your own proverbial saying. In his sermon on overcoming bitterness, John Piper coined this sermonic slogan: “If you hold a grudge, you slight the Judge.” That’s good! That will preach. That will be remembered, and Lord willing, applied that week, if not for a lifetime. Third, rant a refrain. Okay, that’s my alliteration, not Arthurs’s, but it fits what he suggests. Tim Keller’s ministry motto is the illustration Arthurs offers: “He [Jesus] lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died.” Piper’s refrain on Christian hedonism could fit here as well: “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.” Fourth, take a contemporary slogan (“seeing is believing”) and give it a twist (“believing is seeing”). This slogan describes well the blind men in Matthew 20:30 who correctly perceive that Jesus is the powerful “Lord” and the merciful “Son of David.”
A proverb is a concise, memorable statement of truth. Are your points that? And the biblical proverbs “express truth with a punch.”7 Do you? Do you not only express an insight, as God’s proverbs do, but also compel your people to follow that insight, as proverbs also do?
Tell and Show, or Show While You Tell
One day, the ten-year-old triplets in my church asked me questions about my sermons. To the question, “What was your favorite sermon to preach?” I replied, “The sermon on Ecclesiastes 2, the one I called ‘The Hollow House of Hedonism.’” Each one of them nodded and said, “Oh, yeah, I remember that sermon.” One of the children walked me through the whole sermon outline. No joke!
If you fail to preach to Christians the necessity of character formation, you fail to preach proverbs properly.
Why did I like it and why did they remember it, and like it too? Simple. It was perhaps the most visual sermon I ever preached. I don’t always use PowerPoint or make use of screens, but I did that day, and as I walked through four rooms of Solomon’s House of Hedonism, an interesting and clear image accompanied each point. I have mixed feelings about screens in churches, but I have no qualms about saying, “Make your sermons as visual as possible!”8
Relive the Story behind the Saying
Remembering that “a story, or a group of stories, lies behind each proverb,” use “statistics, examples, current events, and stories” to “encourage and warn.”9 Here are three examples: When teaching on Proverbs 30:8 (“give me neither poverty nor riches”), offer statistics on spending habits. For example, Craig Blomberg begins his book Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions, with a sampling of statistics: “At least one billion . . . people in our world today fall below any reasonable poverty line. . . . Americans spent annually twice as much on cut flowers as on overseas Protestant ministries . . . and a staggering 140 times as much on legalized gambling.”10 When instructing on “when the wicked rule” (Prov. 29:2), illustrate with news clippings about the “cruel oppressor[s]” (Prov. 28:16) of Myanmar or a dozen other countries. When preaching on the proverbs that warn young men to avoid keeping bad company (e.g., Prov. 1:10–19; Prov. 7:6–27), share the story of Augustine’s youth, when he stole fruit solely due to the gang’s collaborate misguided desire: “We took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs.”11
Make ’Em Laugh
I married into a family that loves musicals. Pray for me! When I watched West Side Story and the two street gangs approached each other singing and dancing, I needed a break from this reality. Yet, when I was dragged to watch professional actors sing and dance to the production of Singin’ in the Rain, I was impressed. I was especially impressed when I heard and saw the skit “Make ’Em Laugh.” Brilliant! The final tip is use humor, whether overt (a joke or cartoon clip) or minimalist (a witty one-liner). First, do so because Proverbs does so.
Second, do so because it works. A good joke or witty line, like a well-told story, engages, illustrates, and refocuses people.
Think of preachers whose sermons you admire. Do they convey passion and conviction? Do they engage you in a visceral way? Do you feel as if they are talking directly to you about the ancient text and the Ancient of Days? Are they personable, relatable, energetic, clear, honest, and persuasive? And do they offer concrete descriptions, engaging anecdotes, satirical riffs, clever turns of phrase, surprising insights, and wry asides? Do they make you laugh? And did you answer “yes” to the above questions? I’ll bet you did. Copy the masters.
In his brilliant book Short Sentences Long Remembered: A Guided Story of Proverbs and Other Wisdom Literature, Ryken points out that the essential form of wisdom literature—the individual proverb—“appears on virtually every page of the Bible.” He goes on to claim, “The Bible is the most aphoristic book of the Western world.”12 Ryken also shares his journey from “undervaluing . . . proverbs as a form of literature” to having “a growing appreciation” for them.13
In every preacher’s case, we hope, as Paul hoped for Timothy, “that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). Paul speaks of progress in holy living (“train yourself for godliness,” 1 Tim. 4:7) but also in word-ministry (“be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith,” v. 6). Part of such training includes knowing how to rightly handle all of Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15), including proverbs. In the coming years, make it a priority to show your people your progress in understanding, explaining, illustrating, and applying proverbs.
- Leland Ryken, “Introduction to Proverbs,” in Literary Study Bible, English Standard Version, 953.
- Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Preaching with Variety, 142–43.
- Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom: A Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament (Exeter, England, UK: Paternoster, 1983), 142, emphasis mine. Cf. Duane A. Garrett, “Preaching Wisdom,” in Reclaiming the Prophetic Mantle: Preaching the Old Testament Faithfully, ed. George L. Klein (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 108–10.
- Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 15.
- Ryken, “Introduction to Proverbs,” 953. Cf. Longman, How to Read Proverbs, 157.
- Arthurs, Preaching with Variety, 140–45.
- Ryken, Short Sentences Long Remembered, 22.
- “As neuropsychologist Allan Paivio [Mental Representations: A Dual Coding Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)] and others have documented, words and images are processed by the brain along entirely separate pathways; unsurprisingly, readers understand new concepts more clearly and recall them more readily when they are presented both verbally and visually rather than just one way or the other. . . . Visual illustrations activate the eyes as well as the mind. . . . abstract concepts become more memorable and accessible the moment we ground them in the material world, the world that our readers can see and touch” (Sword, Stylistic Academic Writing, 108).
- Arthurs, Preaching with Variety, 143.
- Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 17, 19.
- Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), 47.
- Ryken, Short Sentences Long Remembered, 17.
- Ryken, Short Sentences Long Remembered, 19.
This article is adapted from The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition: Preaching the Literary Artistry and Genres of the Bible by Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken.
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