Question: Is the Book of of Proverbs to be understood literally?
For example, Proberbs 15:1 teaches that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Taken literally, doesn’t this mean that a gentle anger always turns away wrath and that harsh words always stir up anger? The obvious answer seems to be “no,” that this proverb is making a general point. But if that is the case, what does that do to a literal understanding of Scripture?
The Bible is comprised of many different types of writing—history, poetry, instruction, prophecy, teaching, etc. Proverbs is a teaching style. Each kind of literature style has its own rules of interpretation. For example, Matthew 27:5 records that Judas Iscariot, after betraying Jesus, “threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” The writing style is narrative—it tells us of an event that took place. Mark 16:15, on the other hand, is instruction. Jesus is giving His Great Commission to the church through His disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” From that instruction the doctrine and practice of evangelism and world missions developed, and rightly so. That was Jesus’ intent and purpose.
Both the Mark passage and the Matthew passage are to be understood literally. Fortunately, however, the purpose of the Matthew 27 narrative was to tell us what happened to Judas, not instruction on what we should do if we make serious mistakes we later regret. The purpose of Jesus’ instruction in Mark 16 was to launch world evangelization. So also, the purpose of the teaching in Proverbs 15:1 is to guide our behavior in a tense interpersonal situation. If this were a prophetic writing style, prophetic rues of interpretation would take over and the passage might be understood to tell us what will happen in the future …but that is not the case.
Understood literally, as a teaching, God is giving us guidance in how to conduct ourselves in situations where tempers might get out of control. It does not tell us prophetically that every time we respond to someone’s angry outburst that our gentle reply will instantly calm the person down. It does show us what we can do to help turn an ugly situation into one that will honor the Lord and restore peace much better than a shouting match!