Jul 21, 2020

"Contradictions" in Proverbs

Readers of the Book of Proverbs are sometimes surprised when they read Proverbs 26:4-5 since the divinely inspired advice seems to be contradictory.

4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
      lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
      lest he be wise in his own eyes.

But in reality this reflects the complexities of life. Secular wisdom reflects this. For example, one might be told, "he who hesitates is lost" or "haste makes waste." Can both be true? Many would probably say, "yes" because one might relate this circumstance while the other to another circumstance. Yet the struggle is real. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen also notes.
Modernity has objected most to the unscientific, contradictory character of proverbs. But it is precisely the ability of proverbs to contradict one another that lends them their versatility and power. Rather than being a defect, this is essential to the genre. A proverb, even when couched in a universal form, is not a universal absolute, like the law of gravity or the speed of light. Proverbs are diverse and contradictory because human life is contradictory and diverse.
Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “In Praise of Proverbs,” in Pledges of Jubilee: Essays on the Arts and Culture in Honor of Calvin G. Seerveld, ed. Lambert Zuidervaart and Henry Luttdchuizen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 318.

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