As I was getting ready to cover the book of Proverbs in my History and Literature of Ancient Israel class I was reminded of what many think is a clear contradiction in the book. Proverbs 25:4 instructs, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” The very next verse cautions, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”
Sure sounds like a contradiction doesn’t it? But it isn’t. This apparent contradiction provides the opportunity to suggest a few things for reading and applying this book of wisdom to our lives.
First, getting a handle on the meaning of wisdom in the book of Proverbs will be helpful. It’s not about intellect, a high IQ, or significant knowledge. According to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart it is not theoretical and abstract. Wisdom in the book of Proverbs is practical insight for living a godly life. It’s about attitude and behavior in daily life. And Proverbs 1:7 gives the foundation, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” My sense of what it means to fear the LORD is to recognize and honor Him through worship and obedience.
Second, the affirmations in the book of Proverbs are not absolute laws. They describe life in terms of how things generally work; what they say is not always and universally the case. The first principle of interpretation Fee and Stuart list is “Proverbs are not legal guarantees from God.”
Finally, and flowing from the previous paragraph, what a Proverb teaches must be applied at the right time and in the right situation. In the words of Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III, “Wisdom is knowing the right time and the right circumstance to apply the right principle to the right person.”
This brings us back to Proverbs 25:4 and 25:5. Do we answer or do we not answer a fool according to his folly? It all depends. It depends on the person and the situation. Sometimes to answer a fool would only give credibility to him. At other times not to answer a fool would only result in him thinking he was right.
Would you like to grow in wisdom? For the past several years I have been reading the book of Proverbs every January—one chapter a day, 31 chapters in 31 days. If you are not committed to a Bible reading plan I invite you to join me as we begin the month of April with Proverbs 1:1-7 and then go to chapters 10 through chapter 29. (You can go back and pick up the rest of chapter 1, chapters 2-9, 30, and 31 later because these chapters are not in the same form.) Go at your own pace—don’t rush—slow down and reflect on what you read.
And since we are coming to April 1, I close with, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorny branch brandished by a drunk” (Proverbs 26:9 NLT).
Share these thoughts on social media and feel free to comment below.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/41115707@N05/4551694931″>IMG_5372</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>