I was reminded recently of how proverbs (both Biblical and otherwise) are often abused: through universalizing their claims to all situations.
A proverb, by definition, is a commonly received piece of wisdom that seems to be generally true and is offering some form of advice. It is not, however, a claim to a universal form of truth that speaks to any and every situation regardless of circumstance.
Here is one recent example of a modern proverb I heard misapplied (and this is the form in which it was stated):
What parents do in moderation, their children do in excess.
This proverb was used to suggest that parents should not do things (considered inappropriate by conservative Evangelicalism) in moderation, because their children will do it in excess. While this is true in some senses, it utterly fails in others. Children do not automatically (as was suggested in this conversation) do to excess what their parents did in moderation. Children might completely avoid the issue altogether, or perhaps even themselves learn the moderation from their parents (which seems the best option for parents wanting to instill such a life skill into their children).
A Biblical example that readily comes to mind is:
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. (Proverbs 22:6 NIV)
I have heard far too many older folks claiming this as a universal promise that their wayward grown children will someday come back to the Faith. Many a preacher has led them into this false interpretation. As a proverb it must be remembered that it is generally true that the manner in which a child is raised determines the sort of person they will be later in life. But children (as their parents) are always choosing the paths they will take in life. Some children who have been raised by good parents simply rebel and choose their own way. This proverb is not a universal promise. It is a generally true notion. It is a reminder to bring up children properly in order to give them the best opportunity to live a full life on the right path.
So, please dear friend, listen to wisdom and do not make proverbs say what they have never said. Let proverbs be what they are and let them bring you a long and fruitful life (so long as that is your lot 😉 ).
I preached on that parenting proverb a couple of months ago and made as similar point. In fact, I believe it’s later in that chapter that one finds a proverb directing a son to obey his parents so it will go well with him (or something like that). Even the proverbs recognize their own limitations!