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.
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
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.