Every culture seems to have its own unique, collected wisdom, pithy insights of the wise. Oftentimes, these tidbits of wisdom are preserved in the form of the proverb. We have proverbial sayings in American culture. I am thinking of sayings such as “A stitch in time saves nine” or “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
The Bible, of course, has an entire book of such pithy sayings—the book of Proverbs. However, this compilation of proverbial wisdom is different from all other such collections in that these sayings reflect not just human wisdom but divine wisdom, for these proverbs are inspired by God.
Still, we must be very careful in how we approach and implement these wise sayings. Simply because they are inspired does not mean that the biblical proverbs are like laws, imposing a universal obligation. Yet, some people treat them as if they were divine commandments. If we regard them in that way, we run into all kinds of trouble. Even divinely inspired proverbs do not necessarily apply to all life situations. Rather, they reflect insights that are generally true.
To illustrate this point, let me remind you of two of our own culture’s proverbs. First, we often say, “Look before you leap.” That is a valuable insight. But we have another proverb that seems to contradict it: “He who hesitates is lost.” If we tried to apply both of these proverbs at the same time and in the same way in every situation, we would be thoroughly confused. In many situations, wisdom dictates that we examine carefully where we should place our steps next so that we are not moving blindly. At the same time, we cannot be so paralyzed in our evaluation of the pros and cons of our next move that we hesitate too long before making a decision and lose opportunities when they present themselves to us.
Naturally, it does not really bother us to find seemingly contradictory proverbs in our own cultural wisdom. But when we discover them in the Bible, we find ourselves wrestling with questions about the trustworthiness of Scripture. Let me cite one well-known example. The book of Proverbs says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly” (26:4a). Then, in the very next verse, we read, “Answer a fool according to his folly” (26:5a). How can we follow these opposite instructions? How can both be statements of wisdom?
Again, just as in the example I gave above, the answer depends on the situation. There are certain circumstances when it is not wise to answer a fool according to his folly, but there are other circumstances when it is wise to answer a fool according to his folly. Proverbs 26:4 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (emphasis added). If someone is speaking foolishness, it is generally not wise to try to talk to him. Such a discussion will go nowhere, and the one who tries to carry on the discussion with the fool is in danger of falling into the same foolishness. In other words, there are circumstances when we are better off saying nothing.
At other times, however, it can be helpful to answer a fool according to his folly. Proverbs 26:5 says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (emphasis added). Although it was made an art form by the ancient Greek philosophers, the Hebrews understood and in biblical teaching sometimes used one of the most effective ways of arguing with another person. I am referring to the reductio ad absurdum, which reduces the other person’s argument to absurdity. By means of this technique, it is possible to show a person the necessary, logical conclusion that flows out of his argument, and so demonstrate that his premises lead ultimately to an absurd conclusion. So, when a person has a foolish premise and gives a foolish argument, it can at times be very effective to answer the fool according to his folly. You step over onto his territory and say, “Okay, I’ll take your position for argument’s sake, and I’m going to take it to its logical conclusion and show you the foolishness of it.”
So, the book of Proverbs is concerned to give us practical guidelines for daily experience. It is a neglected treasure of the Old Testament, with untold riches lying in wait in its pages to guide our lives. It holds real, concrete advice that comes from the mind of God Himself. If we want wisdom, this is the fountain from which to drink. He who is foolish will neglect this fountain. He who is hungry for God’s wisdom will drink deeply from it. We need to listen to the wisdom of God so that we can cut through the many distractions and confusions of modern life. But, as with the entirety of the Word of God, we need to be zealous to learn how to handle the book of Proverbs properly.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.