How Should You Interpret a Proverb?


How should you interpret a proverb?
 
Consider Proverbs 26:4-5:
 
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
 
Taken at face value, this proverb tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly; then it turns right around and tells us to do exactly that. It utters a contradiction.
 
Then again, you can find all sorts of contradictions in proverbs—whether biblical or not. Consider these non-biblical proverbs:
 
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.
 
Look before you leap.
He who hesitates is lost.
 
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Many hands make light work.
 
Each of these three sets of proverbs also offers contradictory advice. Either absence makes you fonder for your loved ones or more forgetful of them, not both. Either you proceed with caution when making a big decision or you don’t, not both. Either more laborers make work more efficient or they don’t, not both. Given these contradictions, you might conclude that proverbs (biblical or otherwise) make no sense at all.
 
If you do, however, you’ve missed the nature of a proverb. The philosopher Aristotle once stated the law of non-contradiction this way: “one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.” Even though two proverbs may say “that it is” and “that it is not,” they do not do so “in the same respect” and “at the same time.” They are not an absolute contradiction; rather, they are a relative truth. Or, as Tremper Longman puts it, “Proverbs are not universally valid. Their validity depends on the right time and the right circumstance.”[*]
 
Let’s go back to Proverbs 26:4. It says,
  
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
 
According to Longman, what this proverb teaches is that “the wise person must, to put it baldly, know what kind of fool he or she is dealing with. If this a fool who will not learn and will simply sap time and energy from the wise person? If so, then don’t bother answering. However, if this is a fool who can learn, and our not answering will lead to worse problems, then by all means, answer.”[†]
 
Just as a good doctor knows when to prescribe medicine and in what dose, so the wise person knows when and how to apply a proverb. For, as Proverbs 15:23 puts it:
 
A man finds joy in giving an apt reply —
and how good is a timely word!
 
Copyright © 2007 by George P. Wood


[*] Tremper Longman III, How to Read Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 49.
[†] Ibid, 56.

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