“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Prov. 26:4–5).- Proverbs 26:4–5
Though the wisdom books of the Old Testament have many things in common, we also find distinctions among them. Job, for example, contains extended narrative portions while the book of Psalms is comprised only of songs. Each book contributes to our understanding of wisdom by means of a distinct style.
Today we will look at the book of Proverbs and examine how its distinctive collection of proverbial sayings is to be applied to our lives. Let us first note that while the book of Proverbs is unique because it is divinely inspired, the proverbial form itself is not. Every culture on the planet has expressions that convey wisdom in short, pithy forms.
In English, for example, we have several proverbial sayings. One of the more well-known is the proverb “Look before you leap.” This statement cautions us to be careful and to take the future into account before we make any decisions. Another well-known proverb is “He who hesitates is lost.” This saying warns us that if we are too cautious, we might miss out on some kind of “golden” opportunity.
In our everyday lives, we have no problem understanding that we cannot equally apply both of these proverbs to every situation. Sometimes an analysis of circumstances tells us to be extra cautious, and sometimes we see that it is necessary to be a bit more adventurous. The situation itself helps us to determine which principle to apply.
Unfortunately, we do not always see that this is also the case when we read the book of Proverbs. Unlike our English proverbs, the book of Proverbs is divinely inspired. However, like our English proverbs, the biblical proverbs are also general maxims that apply to most, but not necessarily all, situations in life. Therefore, in order to get the right wisdom from the right proverb, we must have a thorough understanding of the circumstances for which we need wisdom.
This is not to make our ethics situational or to deny the objectivity of the Word of God. We are simply recognizing that proverbs are not commands and so they may not be applicable to every situation. We will only benefit from the wisdom of the book of Proverbs when we apply the proverbs as proverbs and not as commands.
In the book of Proverbs, we find many themes addressed including the importance of the fear of God, the respectability of work, the need to be industrious in our labors, the folly of sexual immorality, and the raising of a godly family. Take some time to read through the book of Proverbs in order to get glimpses of the wisdom found therein. Pray that the Lord would help you to understand this book so that you may live wisely before Him.
Passages for Further Study
Prov. 1; 8; 31
2 Peter 2:22