Promises, Principles, Proverbs, and Prophecies
When interpreting and applying Scripture, it is important to distinguish between promises, principles, proverbs, and prophecies. The common error is to count most all the Biblical statements regarding what God says He will do, provide, or how He will respond as promises. For instance, Psalm 37:25 says, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” By considering this statement as a promise one may draw the conclusion that God has promised that the righteous will never go hungry or be left to beg for provision of any kind. Yet when we survey the historical and present experience of many devoted followers of Christ, we quickly realize that many of them have indeed been hungry. Paul expressed in Phil. 4:12 that he has experienced need and hunger. In this case Paul does not mention God’s provision, rather he mentions that he responded by learning the principle of contentment. Most glaring for us is that on the cross, the righteous Son of God asked a poignant question of God, “Why have you forsaken me?” In desperate circumstances it is not uncommon for God’s people to feel forsaken.
We see then that if Psalm 37:25 is considered a promise of God, and we know God’s promises do not fail (Josh 21:45, 1 Kings 8:56, Titus 1:2), how do we reconcile Biblical text with experience? If we do not make a distinction here between what is a promise and what is not, our faith in the text stands in jeopardy. It is important then, for us to exercise a faithful hermeneutic, to rightly handle the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15) by distinguishing between promises, principles, proverbs, and prophecies.
A promise is a declaration of God that grants to its recipients the right of expectation. God does not fail to keep His promises because of His righteous character. Instead of saying that the promises of God do not fail, we could say rightly that God’s promises cannot fail as it would betray God’s nature. A failed promise is like a squared circle; it simply cannot be. However we should also distinguish between promises that are conditional (conditioned upon certain responses by God’s people – if you will, then I will . . .), personal instead of universal (as God has promised certain things to certain people or nations that do not universally apply to all people or nations), and circumstantial rather than universal (promises that apply to a certain time or situation, but not necessarily to all times or situations).
We should also be careful to note that not all of God’s promises are positive. Many people apply an immature hermeneutic to Scripture by wanting only to focus on promises that would seem to prosper them rather than judge them. God has promised to forgive sin, conditioned upon repentance (1 John 1:9), but He has also promised wrath upon those who do not “obey” the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8-9). God’s promises are not always positive.
Principles are rules, axioms, or doctrines that we take from Scripture and apply to the habits of life. If promises are what God says He will do, principles are what God says we should do. When it comes to principles we should investigate 3 aspects of a principle for proper application. When was the principle given, to whom, and why? Investigating these 3 aspects will help us determine what the principle is and to what extent it should be applied. For example, 1 Timothy 2:9 calls for women to adorn themselves with modesty, not with braided hair, gold, pearls, or costly attire. Some would take this verse as a command and call for Christian women in 2011 to wear burlap and to put their hair up in a bun. The result is often a judgmental reaction to a woman who wears jewelry, has a trendy haircut, and enjoys fashionable clothes. Personally, I married a hottie and I would like to avoid burlap and buns at all cost!
When interpreting principles we must discern the principle and the extent of its application by considering the 3 aspects mentioned above. By nature, many of Paul’s epistles, or letters, are personally addressed and specifically applied. Universal application of them becomes problematic in many respects. Without a historical/cultural/contextual understanding of Paul’s audience we may become a cult of legalistic prudes rather than a people liberated by Christ. The principle of 1 Timothy 2:9 is modesty. Had Paul written to Timothy, an American pastor in 2011 he may not have mentioned jewelry and hair at all. He may have addressed current fashion trends such as how tight or how short should a Christ follower’s clothing be? Yet not matter the time or the culture, the principle is the same, modesty for the sake of Christ.
Overall, we should say that throughout the text there is generally always a principle to be applied, no matter how archaic or oddly cultural a Biblical statement may be. Although I am not living Leviticus in the sense that I am slaughtering rams for my morning devotion, I am called to be holy and distinct from the surrounding culture. In the case of Psalm 37:25, from which our discussion is spawned, there is indeed a principle here. We are called to righteousness and God is good in caring for His own.
Failure to distinguish promises from proverbs is perhaps the greatest hermeneutical error committed against the Biblical text. While promises are declarations that give one the right of expectation, proverbs are OBSERVATIONS that give one a SENSE of GENERAL expectation. While a promise carries a sense of “Thus says the Lord”, proverbs have more of a tone of “This is the way life works.” In geometry it can be said that a while a square is a rectangle, a rectangle may not necessarily be a square. In the same way it can be said of proverbs and promises, a promise is a proverb, but a proverb many not necessarily be a promise. Proverbs are so because God has ordained the moral laws of the universe to work according to certain patterns. If a man plays with fire, he will be burned. Yet we go to the circus and watch the .0001% of us who can play with fire safely and think it’s cool. This is where the disclaimer is generally added, “Don’t try this at home.” Why? Because the other 99.9999% of us will become a human torch if we try this at home. Such is the nature of proverbs.
In the case of Psalm 37:25 the author makes it clear that the righteous not begging for bread has been his personal observation. This does not mean there are not other righteous people who are hungry in the world at the time the author made the statement. Yet it is amazing how, when righteousness prevails in a people, a culture, a nation, a family, a life – there is adequate provision and God’s will is accomplished in that poverty is eliminated (Deut. 15:4).
There is a great deal of misunderstanding of the nature of prophecies. Most believe prophecies to be Nostradomas-esque statements that supernaturally predict the future. While there are these types of statements in the Bible, the general definition of prophecy is concerned more with “forth” telling rather than “fore” telling. Forth-telling carries the equation God’s will in God’s Word + human reaction = future consequence. Prophecy is the Newton’s apple of the Bible. If I jump from a tall tree it will not go well for me; bank on it!
Prophecy is not abstract, fanciful, comic book metaphors. While there are these sorts of apocalyptic images in Scripture, generally prophecy is the forth-telling of how God’s covenant promises will play out in human history. For those who participate in the covenant promises of God, there will be victory. For those who rebel against God’s covenant promises, like a man who jumps from a tall tree, it will not go well. Why, because by declaration of God’s Word, it is the nature of things. Prophecy is not the creation of a new scenario, it is the playing out of what already is.
In this sense we can say of Psalm 37:25 that it is not necessarily prophetic in the sense of, if you are hungry, get righteous and you will get bread. This is the inherit mistake of those who preach a prosperity gospel and mislead the people. If there is any prophetic element to Psalm 37:25 it is that when sin is eradicated and God rules the universe in righteousness there will be no hunger amongst His people. Yet we should also say that while this message may be present in Psalm 37:25 there are countless other Biblical texts that would communicate this idea more clearly (Isa. 49:8-26; 61; 65:17-25).
If we are not to be led astray or lose faith when it seems that the statements of Scripture do not meet expectation and experience we must rightly handle God’s Word and discern the difference between promise, principle, proverb, and prophecy. Is what God has said to a certain people, in a certain circumstance also true for you or generally true for your world? Is there a principle to be observed? Is there a prophecy to be heeded? In any case God’s Word is not to be treated like a lottery ticket, but rather as an invitation to participate in God’s righteous covenant.