Opposite Proverbs

While I was watching the lectures to an online course I am taking on models (and which has proven to be highly interesting so far), the professor spoke about one of his favorite websties, called “Opposite Proverbs.” There are a great many proverbs which appear at first glance to give very contradictory advice, because the proverbs themselves come with certain circumstances that they apply to and certain given assumptions about the sort of situation that the person using the proverb is dealing with. Rather than being a substitute for thought, they are a distillation of practical wisdom that depends on an accurate knowledge of what kind of situation one is dealing with. Of course, such proverbs can be misused and misapplied, but that sort of abuse does not detract from the wisdom of the proverb itself, but rather on the lack of wisdom on the part of the person using them as justification for a particular course of action.

It is striking that the misuse of proverbs as well as other bare statements of scripture are so commonly found both among professed friends and enemies of the Bible, a place where proverbs can be found in large quantities (there is, after all, an entire book of them where they are found en masse [2]). It is not any surprise, after all, that those looking to discredit the Bible would seek to find apparent contradictory comments that could be taken out of context and used against believers. That is only to be expected. What is more striking is the way in which proverbs are often abused suggests a desire to simplify the genuine tension to be found within scripture by picking one side rather than another between grace and judgment, truth and love, to give some examples of some common tensions.

There is, of course, a set of apparently “opposite Proverbs” that are placed right next to each other. These particular proverbs are well known, in Proverbs 26:4-5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Now, aside from the meaning of the text, it would appear as if the fact that these two seemingly contradictory proverbs [3] are placed right next to each other would seem to indicate that the Bible is clearly aware of the nuanced application of its own wisdom. By placing a seeming “contradiction” right next to each other, with no hiding it or attempt to explain, the Bible appears to be encouraging readers to recognize the fact that application of biblical wisdom requires an attention to context as well as a knowledge that at different times different courses of action are best. We need to be multi-layered, with more than one model of behavior to work on. This is obvious from anything beyond a surface-level reading of the Bible, and this particular set of verses makes it clear that dealing with “fools” is a complicated and nuanced matter.

To comment at least a little bit on what this passage means, it would appear as if the way one handles scoffers is a difficult one. For one, we must be very difficult about approach. It is hard to deal with rude and insulting and abusive people without becoming that way in response. Once we respond in kind, we get taken down to the level of others. A fool will try to drag us to their level and beat us with experience, after all. We must not answer a fool in the same kind of railing and abusive manner or we will become like them. This is obviously something we wish to avoid. However, we must often deal with scoffers because they are so wise in their own eyes. In such circumstances, one can have a moral duty to deal with foolish people, no matter how polite and restrained one would prefer to be. Sometimes, for the well-being of a fool, we must deal with one, but we must be wise about it. This is, of course, like anything, far easier said than done.

What we see from looking at the Bible is that the critical examination of opposite proverbs, which is something that is viewed as the province of critical thinkers who fancy themselves to be wiser than the texts that they deal with, is something that the Bible itself participates in and (in the case of Proverbs 26:4-5) may have originated. By placing the problem of wisdom and discernment front and center in a book of proverbial wisdom, the Bible indicates clearly to anyone who reads it wisely that a wooden and superficial reading is insufficient and that one must dig a bit deeper to understand the context that is implicit in a statement, which leads one to read the Bible better and behave more sensibly and responsibly in dealing with proverbs.

[1] See, for example: http://www.wolaver.org/WordPlay/OppositeProverbs.htm

[2] Some of which I have been fond enough of to write about them before:








[3] This is an obvious apparent “contradiction” so it gets written about a lot:




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Opposite Proverbs

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