The enduring value of a proverb



Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe notes: “Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.” We have a little flip calendar with a different proverb for each day. I like one from this week:

The one who wants to do something finds a way; the one that doesn’t finds an excuse.

How true is that, not just in Sudan but globally?

Here’s a list of five American proverbs that I learned as a boy from my parents:

  1. He who hesitates is lost.
  2. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  3. If at first you don’t suceed, try, try again.
  4. Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone.
  5. Stick and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.

The funny thing about proverbs is that sometimes they’re just not true. The fifth proverb in the list is well-intentioned, but probably has done more harm than good. As for the second proverb, I prefer oranges and bananas.

Even the Bible realizes that proverbs can become so overused that they obscure other truths. Ezekiel 18:1-4 (CEB) is one such case:

The LORD’s word came to me: What do you mean b this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: ‘When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer’? As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! All lives are mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child belong to me. Only the one who sins will die.

With these cautions acknowledged, we can still celebrate that most proverbs are valid and square with God’s truth. We’re grateful to be living in Africa where people still value proverbial gems of wisdom and enjoy inserting them into conversations.

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