The Meaning of “Proverb”


book of proverbsEditor’s Note: This entry is part of an occasional series Nuggets of Gold: Deeper Theological Truths.

To most people, the meaning of any word, whether Biblical or not, is rooted in their knowledge of that word, a knowledge that is a composite of all their experience with the word, whether formal or informal.  For most people, this knowledge is almost totally recent, that is, the meaning of the word in the mind of the person, with all its various connotations and associations, has been formed solely by modern usage.  While modern knowledge may be sufficient for interpreting modern communications, its application to ancient texts, like the words of Scripture, can lead to serious error.

In the Biblical realm, the instances are numerous where the application of erroneous definitions resulted in erroneous interpretation, and a corresponding misrepresentation of God and His perfect design for all that exists.  Incomprehensible numbers of people have been left without an accurate view of their Creator and His true nature, leaving them to respond to their perception of His existence by constructing their own concept of who and what He is.  The magnitude of the adverse effects, the destruction, in the life and experience of those influenced by the misrepresentation grows exponentially as the error passes from generation to generation, even at times reaching the point where “belief in God” bears little or no resemblance to the true person and nature of the One it is supposed to reflect.  Man, lacking understanding of the actual progression away from truth, looks only on the plethora of “religious beliefs” evident to his senses and proceeds to evaluate the Original by the flawed copies supposed to represent the Original.  His evaluation leads him to lower his esteem not only for the Original but for any expression of the will and design of the Original, and the destruction multiplies.  Certainly, use of correct word meanings is essential in Biblical interpretation.

Thus, to characterize the proverbs according to the modern meaning of the word proverb is to invite grievous error into an analysis of their nature.  Accuracy and validity demand an application of the ancient meaning, the meaning that was in the mind of the God-inspired writers and readers of the ancient times during which the proverbs were written.  Anything less renders a highly suspect result, and the degree to which an interpreter strays from the ancient meaning imparts a similar degree of doubt in the validity of his findings.  The nature of the Book of Proverbs as an ancient Hebrew document makes indispensable an understanding of the ancient Hebrew concept of the word proverb.

The English word proverb is a translation of the Hebrew word mashal (lv’m’, pronounced mah-shahl), which is a noun related to the Hebrew verb mashal (lv;m’, pronounced mah-shal).  With respect to Proverbs, this verb carries the concept “to be like, to resemble,” a sense derived from its basic meaning “to rule, to have dominion.”

The criteria of God’s design were His “laws,” His “commandments,” His “way,” for His creation.  Stated alternately, they were the expression of His “will,” His “plan,” His “desire.”  Thus, in order to please God, man needed to live by these criteria.  They formed the standard by which man could evaluate any situation of life to determine whether or not it conformed to the Creator’s design.  The criteria provided man with “mental pictures” of how God had designed life to be.  They functioned as “standards of comparison,” and in a real sense, man could look at any condition of his existence and draw a comparison between what he actually saw and what God’s “pictures” indicated should exist.  He could then determine what needed to be done to bring his condition into correspondence with God’s design.  If a condition of life truly “looked like” the standard that God had established, then man could expect the results God had indicated would accompany the fulfilled criteria.  On the other hand, if a condition did not “resemble” the standard, then man could only expect results intended by God to show him the error of his way.  Accordingly, the criteria of God’s design, His standards, were the rules for evaluating life, that is, they “ruled,” they “had dominion,” over life.  In other words, God’s rules for life dictated what life was to “resemble.”  In this way, the ancient Hebrew derived the meaning “to be like, to resemble” from a verb meaning “to rule, to have dominion.”

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