Have you ever come to an event and been surprised to discover that you were inappropriately dressed for the occasion? Have you ever found yourself dressed either too formally or informally for a particular event? I recall just a few years ago when I was asked to renew the wedding vows of a couple who had been married for 38 years. She told me it was going to be a small informal setting among friends in their home. When I showed up dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans while everyone else had on coats and ties, I knew I had misunderstood what she meant by informal. Someone was kind enough to loan me their coat and I proceeded with the renewal of vows. I was clearly out of place.
For a long time I had no interest in whether or not something was appropriate. I thought Christianity dealt only with those important things like right and wrong, good and evil. Who is concerned about propriety in the church? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that it is one of the most vital questions asked about anything. Not just is it true but is it appropriate?
The proverbs in this text are clustered around this theme. The first three proverbs are an introduction. There are some things that just don’t fit. In fact, in and of themselves they are good but the timing is off. The first proverb sets up an analogy — snow on a hot summer day is out of place. In like manner, praising someone for engaging in foolish behavior is not fitting. The proverb in verse two observes that a malicious word aimed at an innocent victim is inappropriate and will do little harm. The third proverb identifies something that is appropriate — punishment for fools. These all set the tone for the way in which the proverbs that follow are understood.
Based on the accumulation of experience, several of the proverbs observe that certain actions, words and sayings are folly because they are out of place. For example, sometimes proverbs themselves are misused. The sage remarks in verse seven, “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” The image is that a proverb spoken by a fool is handicapped, impotent, like the dangling emaciated legs of a paraplegic. The saying is useless because of the ineptness of the one who uses it.
Soren Kierkegaard tells the parable of a man who escaped from an insane asylum. He knew he must disguise himself otherwise he would be caught and sent back to the asylum. He thought if he could come up with a phrase that everyone would acknowledge as true, they would not recognize his insanity. The phrase he settled on was “the world is round.” So to everyone he met he uttered this phrase “the world is round,” “the world is round.” Needless to say he was discovered and returned to his former confinement. A proverb or proverb-like saying in the mouth of a fool sounds ridiculous.
Not only is it ridiculous, at times it also is destructive. Another proverb observes, “Like a thorn bush in the hand of a drunkard, is a proverb in the mouth of a fool” (Proverbs 26:9). Here the analogy moves beyond impotence to a proverb that is hazardous. The drunkard wielding a thorn bush has no control over his faculties and not only is a danger to himself but to others around him. He thrashes about inflicting injury to everything within reach. In like manner, proverbs in the wrong hands are destructive.
In the wrong hands, proverbs are used mechanically — intentionally or unintentionally — to harm another. Job’s friends used proverbs in order to thrash Job into submission. Their favorite saying was “righteous people prosper and wicked people suffer. They believed life was programmed to fulfill this truth. They harassed Job over and over with this proverb. Job, finally fed up, fires back, “Your proverbs are maxims of ashes” (Job 13:12). The three friends were not so much guilty of speaking what was false as speaking what was inappropriate for Job’s situation. So we scold the parent who is grieving over a wayward child, “If you would only ‘train up a child in the way he should go when he is old he will not depart from it.'” Like a thorn bush in the hand of a drunkard. In the wrong hands proverbs are viewed as absolutes.
In the wrong hands proverbs are used to avoid serious reflection. One professor tells of the time he was teaching a class on Galatians. He was struggling to understand and then to communicate to his freshman students Paul’s message in the letter. One student brought this big thirty-pound family Bible to class every day. He never went to sleep, never took a note, never said a word. He had this Mona Lisa smile on his face. He looked just like a beatitude sitting there. Finally, the professor couldn’t take it any longer and one day after class after he had been working with a difficult concept asked the student, “Why aren’t you struggling with this material like the rest of us? You seem like you’re not taking it seriously.” The student, with a smile replied, “Well professor, the way I figure it is this, ‘If you lift Him up, He won’t let you down.'”
I’d have to say that that’s a true statement. You can’t argue with him about that. But it was an end run around some difficult issues. It was a way of avoiding serious reflection. Sometimes well meaning Christians throw out sayings or truisms that short-circuit the thought process and lead to harmful behavior. Like a thorn bush in the hand of a drunkard. The wise are not wise because they know a lot of proverbs. They are wise because they know the appropriate time and context in which to use them.
Standing at center stage of this text however, are a pair of proverbs that offer valuable advice. Initially these proverbs appear confusing. They seem to give contradictory advice. The first one counsels, “Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest you be like him yourself.” The very next one advises just the opposite! “Answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Perplexing! Which is it? Do we just average it out and take the middle of the road? Is this the “moderation in all things?”
I think not. The problem here is not one of contradiction or moderation but of fittingness. It is an admonition to understand the importance of timing. With these two contradictory proverbs intentionally placed side by side, a statement is being made — timing is everything.
The sage does not respond to situations mechanistically, grasping for some standardized or pat answer. And we can relate to this. On one occasion we might offer the advice to someone working on a particular project, “many hands make light work.” On another occasion to that same person we might advise, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” We may say to one couple anxious to get married, “marry in haste repent at leisure.” To another couple we might say, “happy the wooing that is not longin doing” or “strike while the iron is hot.” The advice we give is based on a series of factors including our understanding of the situation, of the relationship, and of prayerful consideration for what is best.
Not only do these two proverbs acknowledge the importance of right timing, they also acknowledge something else that is most important: we are limited in always knowing what is best. No definitive answer is given in this text about when it is appropriate to respond or not respond to a fool. Why? Because wisdom has its limits. Wisdom cannot dictate how to respond in every situation. There are limits to our ability to know what is fitting. The one who is truly wise acknowledges that only God knows what is appropriate in every situation. “No wisdom, no counsel, can avail against the Lord.”
The proverbs in this text affirm that the wise are not wise because they have accumulated a lot of knowledge and experience. They are wise because they know how and when to use their knowledge and experience at least within the limits of human understanding. One of my favorite poems of Elizabeth Browning’s affirms this:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise
As lightening to the children eased
with explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every one be blind
The wise instruct others in the truth. But they do it with a sensitivity to how much the other person is able to handle. That is, they do it with a “slant.” An effective teacher instructs students at their own intellectual level. A parent explains sensitive subjects at the child’s mental and spiritual level of maturity. Full disclosure can maim and destroy. A Christian always asks, “what is appropriate?” The truly wise person is the one who asks “what is fitting?”
Do you remember Hamlet? The grieving prince Hamlet was so disturbed. His father had died. His mother was widowed. Shortly thereafter she married his father’s brother. There was nothing wrong with marrying again. There was nothing wrong with marrying the father’s brother. But so soon! Young Hamlet says “What grieved me was that as some of the food was brought to feed the funeral guests, some was used to serve the wedding guests.” He said, “it’s not appropriate.”
This is not an insignificant subject. It touches part of the quality of God Himself. God acts according to the right time. The Lord spoke to Abram and told him that his descendants were going to be oppressed for four hundred years. Why? The iniquity of the Amorites was not yet complete (Genesis 15:16). It was in accordance with the appropriate timing that Isaac was born. Abram and Sarah must wait.
Humans tend to get impatient with God’s timing. But God is precise in initiating his plans. It was at just “the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). Paul explained this very fact to the Galatians, “when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons”.
Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus himself was always sensitive to doing things at the appropriate moment. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has to remind others that His “hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ own family wanted Him to observe the feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem so that the world might see Jesus for who He really is. But Jesus refused saying, “Go to the feast yourselves; I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come” (John 7:8). When Jesus close friend Lazarus was ill, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus to immediately come to heal him. But Jesus delayed His arrival because it was not the right time for Him to be present (John 11). On several occasions the Jews sought to arrest Jesus but were unable to because “His hour had not yet come” (John 7:30; John 8:20).
It was only at the right time that Jesus laid down His life. As Jesus prays His high priestly prayer just before his crucifixion, He lifts His eyes to the Father and concedes, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son that the Son may glorify Thee” (John 17:1). One day Jesus will return. When that day is no one knows, not even the Son. Only the father. Whatever the day or the hour is, it will be at precisely the right time. To say and do what is appropriate at the right time is a work to which all Christians are called. It is a sign of the Spirit working within. True wisdom is the ability to discern what is fitting. As one wise man has said, “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under Heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to harvest. … A time to keep silence and a time to speak …”

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