Proverbs Lesson 3


Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World

Lesson 3 | June 26, 2016

By Daniel L. Segraves

How the New Testament uses the Book of Proverbs

In our previous lesson, we noted how the NT uses 3:11-12, 3:34, and 24:12. There are three more texts quoted in the NT. We will look at them in this lesson.

Fourth and Fifth Quotations

“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (25:21-22).

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head” (Romans 12:20).

Pro 25:11-12 is located in the section of the book comprised of “proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied” (Pro 25:1). Apparently these proverbs were copied by Hezekiah’s scribes for his personal study. The increased emphasis on royal authority and behavior in the remaining chapters of the book support this idea. In the first twenty-four chapters of Proverbs, some form of the word king appears eighteen times. In the last seven chapters, some form of the word king appears fourteen times. The first six verses of this chapter use some form of the word king five times, and the seventh verse uses prince.  Verse 15 refers to a ruler. It seems, then, these proverbs were viewed as offering especially important advice to kings.[1]

From this perspective, Pro 25:11-12 can be seen as an antidote to war. A king who is proactive in treating his enemies with kindness may defuse situations that would have led to international conflict. This principle could have applied, of course, to individual interpersonal relationships, and that is how Paul used this text in Romans.

In their context in Romans, the words of Pro 25:21-22 fit into an extended discussion of relationships between those who are at odds. This discussion flows into Romans 13 with its call for submission to civil government. (See Rom 12:14-21; 13:1-10.)

In our culture, the idea of heaping coals of fire on the head of another person is puzzling. How is this connected with feeding our hungry enemies and giving them something to drink? A common explanation is that this is an allusion to the shame or conviction one’s enemies will feel in response to the kind treatment they receive.

Suggestions offering cultural explanations have included . . . an Egyptian ritual . . . in which a man apparently gave public evidence of his penitence by carrying a pan of burning charcoal on his head when he went to ask forgiveness of the one he had offended . . . .[2]

. . . Solomon might have meant “heap burning coals upon his head” as the enemy’s emotional misery” . . . .[3]

                A more positive view of this analogy has also been suggested:

Sometimes a person’s fire went out and he needed to borrow some live coals to restart his fire. Giving a person coals in a pan to carry home “on his head” was a neighborly, kind act; it made friends, not enemies. Also the kindness shown in giving someone food and water makes him ashamed of being an enemy, and brings God’s blessing on the benefactor.[4]

                Whatever the precise meaning of this “coals of fire” imagery may be, it does not refer to a revengeful act but a helpful one, for the inspired interpretation in Romans speaks of overcoming evil with good.

Sixth Quotation

“As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (26:11).

“But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and, ‘a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire’” (II Peter 2:22).

There are eleven references to fools in the immediate context of Pro 26:11. (See Pro 26:1-12.) Dogs were considered unclean during the time of these proverbs, so the idea is that there is similarity between fools and dogs, vomit and folly.

Peter’s use of this proverb compares those who have been false teachers, but who come to know the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then return to their former error, to fools. He does this by means of analogy to dogs and swine, both of which were considered unclean. (See II Peter 2.)


One verse in Proverbs is paraphrased twice in the NT.

“And so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man” (3:4).

“Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men” (Rom 12:17).

“[P]roviding honorable things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (II Corinthians 8:21).

In their context in Proverbs, these words mean that a person whose life is characterized by mercy and truth will be highly esteemed and find favor with God and man. (See Pro 3:3-4).

In Romans, to refuse to repay evil with evil, to associate with humble people, and to avoid being “wise in your own opinion” are evidences of mercy and truth. (See Romans 12:14-21).

In II Corinthians, the mercy referred to in Proverbs is demonstrated by the earnest care found in the heart of Titus, and the idea of truth is captured by the integrity of those who delivered gifts to the needy saints in Jerusalem. (See II Cor 8:16-24.)

Coming Lessons: Allusions

There are six allusions to Proverbs in the NT. We will begin to look at them in future lessons.

[1] ASB, 1015.

[2] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 568-69.

[3] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 440.

[4] John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1985), 961.