The Proverbs: Wisdom or Universal Principles?

Proverbs 26:4 4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you yourself also be like him. Context (NET)
Proverbs 26:5 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own estimation. Context (NET)

These two proverbs which happen to be specifically placed alongside of one another are key to recognizing the nature of proverbs (and I believe the nature of Scripture). The first says “Do not answer a fool according to his folly…” while the second says “Answer a fool according to his folly…”. How should we understand this seemingly contradictory instruction? I believe that it is imperative to understand context and by “context” I do not simply mean the necessity to understand the biblical, religious, cultural, historical context of Scripture (as important as that is it is still only part of the context), but also our own personal context. This is where one must practice wisdom. Wisdom is not simply knowledge, but it is knowledge applied in the right time and the right way. This is the life lived in step with the Spirit.

The proverbs are not intended (at least most) as universal principles, but as teaching one to use discernment in all matters. One needs to recognize when it is the right time to help someone out financially (Prov. 3:28; 21:26; 25:21) and when and how to not help someone out financially (Prov. 6:1-3; 11:15; but contrasted in Prov. 20:16). One needs to know when it is the right time to confront a fool (Prov. 26:5; compare Matt. 23:17) and when not to confront a fool (Prov. 26:4; Matt. 7:6).

Reflecting on Scripture outside of Proverbs one needs still to know when they should be in mourning and repentance (James 4:8), and when to stand firm on the promise of their sure salvation (Heb. 6:11). One needs to know when it is the right time and manner to confront the hypocrites (Matt. 23:13, 15, 23, etc.) and when it is the right time to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39).

May I learn wisdom…may I learn to apply the truth of Scripture to my own circumstances in line with the leading of the Spirit of God…may I learn to not treat Scripture like a simple check-list where I go to know to do this-or-that, but where I encounter the living voice of the Living God and offer a living sacrifice of obedience.

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