A Plea for Wisdom: Proverbs and the Question of Application

The book of Proverbs (Prov) is one book of all the books of the Bible to which even the most biblically illiterate of Christians turns and is at least somewhat familiar. This book is commonly recognized to fall within the collection of literature in the Bible known as wisdom literature, alongside Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes (and, some would argue, the Song of Songs). Yet, given the misuse of various proverbs found in the book, it is our purpose to urge for the use of wisdom when reading the wise sayings found in the book of Proverbs.

I. Literary Form

It is commonly recognized that Proverbs contains a mixture of prose and poetry; and, more important for our purposes, it contains both longer exhortations and shorter sayings. Bruce Waltke distinguishes the former from the latter when he writes, “… the longer poems tend to contain enough extended discourse to protect themselves against misinterpretation; but the short sentence-sayings tend to express a truth that may seem like the whole truth, but in fact these sayings must be qualified by other sentence-sayings” (2004: 58). With this distinction in mind, the need for wisdom regarding the book becomes clearer; that is, it is required in order to properly interpret and apply the sentence-sayings contained within the book.

II. The Nature of the Shorter Sayings

The very nature of these shorter sayings, which are brief and incisive, necessitates the use of wisdom. Perhaps one example that most clearly illustrates this need is Prov 26:4-5, which reads, “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” (ESV). Although one could argue this is a clear contradiction, it is more likely (especially when one considers that they were placed next to each other) that this hints at the very nature of these shorter sayings.

While they are true, they are not true in a static, fixed, cemented sense. That is to say, context determines how these shorter sayings are to be interpreted and, most especially, applied (Longman 2006: 31-32). If one were to apply Prov 26:4-5 woodenly (i.e., irrespective of context), then we should not answer a fool “according to his folly,” yet, we, at the same time, should. Rather than solve this conundrum (we’ll leave this up to the wisdom of the reader), we’ll turn to some other examples of the need for wisdom when applying the shorter sayings. Continue reading “A Plea for Wisdom: Proverbs and the Question of Application”