How to Read Proverbs

As Longman observes, “A proverb does not give guarantees; rather, it indicates the best route to a desired end. That end will be achieved, all other things being equal.”

But situations are complex, and all other things may not be equal.

Hildebrandt says it well: “In order to describe a multifaceted situation comprehensively, multiple proverbial vectors may be needed.” A proverb may be true in one situation, but different in another. The classic example is 26:4-5, where opposite responses to the fool are commanded, and wisdom is required in order to know which is most appropriate for the situation. Hildebrandt explains the writer’s intention: “The editors deliberately placed these contrary proverbs back to back. This dissonance leads one away from simplistic dualistic dogmatism to a situationally nuanced wisdom.” As Van Leeuwen remarks, “In a certain sense, it takes wisdom to use wisdom.” [emphasis mine]

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