As I wrote my commentary on Proverbs (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 2018), I began to realize how often Proverbs was useful for dealing with conflict.
However, I also discovered that it is not always as straightforward in its application.
Are proverbs universal?
Some people want to treat the book of Proverbs as if they are promises: If they’re in God’s word, they must be universal—right? They are certainly part of God’s authoritative Bible, but Proverbs are still proverbs, just as a question is still a question even if it is found in Scripture.
Proverbs 26:4 says, “Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness or you’ll be like him yourself.” But then the very next verse says, “Answer a fool according to his foolishness or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.” These two verses, placed side by side, help us to see that a proverb is not a promise or a guarantee.
Often vs. always
So how do I use Proverbs when someone approaches me and speaks foolishly? There are several useful ways to respond when people say foolish things to you. These proverbs indicate that you often need to correct the person, but not always. Sometimes you need to ignore their provocative words—for your own good.
The proverbs in Scripture, in other words, are true, but they were not always intended to apply to every situation. That is why we have proverbs that seem to conflict with each other. Even in English this is true: “Many hands make light work,” but then, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Or think of, “Look before you leap,” versus, “He who hesitates is lost!” These are helpful truths gleaned from years of experience and passed down from generation to generation. They often—but not always—instruct us in how to act.
In the book of Proverbs, God saw fit to record some of this Israelite wisdom about how to deal with other people, but we should never press these proverbs to mean that there is only one way of responding during conflict.
One who is patient calms a quarrel (15:18)—often, but not always. When a person’s life pleases God, he causes even their enemies to make peace with him (16:7)—often, but not always.
This idea, often but not always, is a very helpful tool for thinking through how to respond in situations of conflict. At times we will need to overlook someone’s foolish actions or words (19:11) or even cover them over with love (10:12; 17:9).
At other times, as Proverbs 15:1 tells us, a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger—often, but not always. A soft response (gracious words, 16:24) to a colleague’s strong outburst often prevents conflict escalating to the next level, but when you are approached by a bully a soft answer can simply give them more fuel to keep going.
Some observations in the Proverbs will almost always apply. Proverbs 18:13 reminds us that to answer before listening is folly and shame. It is very human to be too quick to speak before fully understanding a person’s hurt or problem. We want to give advice before we’ve even listened long enough to identify what the real issue is.
Proverbs 17:14 also offers some wisdom for conflict, vividly reminding us that starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam. I myself have needed to learn that one wise way to deal with conflict is not to create unnecessary or unproductive conflict in the first place. Stirring up conflict is twisted, and gossiping about others is destructive (16:28; see also 26:20; 29:22a).
But perhaps the most important thing that Proverbs tells us about conflict is that the real issue is not just in our words and actions but in our heart and character. Proverbs 4:23 reminds us to guard our hearts above all else, for everything we do flows from the heart. Our actions and words need to be shaped by the advice in Proverbs, but we must also look within and see what we are contributing to any given conflict. As Proverbs 16:2 tells us, our own motives—and not just those of our opponents—are weighed by the Lord (see also 21:2).
For further explanation of these ideas, see the sections on speech, the heart, and the development of character in the introduction of my commentary on Proverbs.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
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