How to Read Proverbs

Q:  Proverbs 26:4-5, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly and, or you will be like him yourself.  Answer a fool according to his folly or he will be wise in his own eyes." seems to be a contradiction.  Would you explain please?

A:  I love this question because it gets to the heart of why the Bible, with a simple message, is sometimes complicated to understand.

I would say that in understanding a passage like this one, it's important to focus on the fact that the book of Proverbs is a book of proverbs--that may seem obvious, but proverbs are a genre that require to be read differently than say, the Ten Commandments.

The Bible has different genres, or styles of literature.  Jesus tells "parables" that are found in "gospels".  The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic letter.  Psalms involves poetry, as does much of the Old Testament prophetic literature.

In the case of the proverbs found in the wisdom books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations), many statements are made that are not intended to be read as iron-clad promises, but as statements about what is generally true.  The two statements above seem both to reflect what is generally true.  A fool won't be usually listen to you.  Sometimes, when you correct a fool, he won't listen, and sometimes he will.  It seems to me that the general direction of these verses is something along these lines:

"You can try to correct a fool, but don't put too much hope that he will take your advice.  If you do try to correct him, a good approach might be with his own poor thinking."

To learn more about how genre affects how we read and interpret scripture, one of the best books I ever read on reading the Bible is How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.  You can find more out about this great, simple read by clicking here.


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