For many Christians, the book of Proverbs provides great wealth in terms of wisdom, useful for living life in a way that is pleasing to God.
A good portion of these proverbs are straightforward often appeal to common sense, words that can be considered wise even by someone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ. However, some can seem almost contradictory, though given some thought, they rarely are.
One such example can be found in Proverbs 26:4-5.
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (NIV)
First, the proverb tells us not to bother answering a fool, then it tells us we should answer the fool, or they will think that they are wise. So, which is it? We obviously can’t do both at the same time.
It’s not anymore clear in another translation:
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (NKJV)
What’s the reason behind this apparent contradiction, where we’re told two different ways to address a fool?
One could argue about a poor translation, but a look at even more versions, or even the Hebrew, will show that this isn’t the case.
What it is, however, is probably the use of a literary form used in sections of the Old Testament, where one idea follows another similar idea in parallel, often using similar words. This suggests that, instead of a contradiction, the author is presenting two ideas with a similar theme.
One way to read verse four is as a warning: that if you do answer a fool, then you could end up as foolish as they are. This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar warning, or situation, and there’s even a common saying that warns us metaphorically against wrestling a pig: you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.
Sometimes it can be found online in various forums, where people start pointless arguments, and then are warned “not to feed the Troll.” Sounds simple enough: if a fool talks, to avoid looking foolish yourself, the best thing to do is not to answer them.
Verse five appears to be a command and a challenge. That if someone’s being a fool, it’s the responsibility of the wise to correct them. This idea shouldn’t be unfamiliar either, to both Christians and non-Christians.
The stereotypical Grumpy Old Men make a hobby of correcting fools, and even young men who believe they are wise do it all the time. In the New Testament, we’re even told that we should correct our brothers and sisters in Christ if we see them doing something wrong.
Again, these are two different, but similar situations, and the difficulty is in figuring out which applies. When do we avoid answering the fool, and when do we correct them?
One way to look at it is in terms of importance.
- How important is the foolishness in question?
- Is it a matter of someone insisting on wearing non-color coordinated clothes to Church?
- Or someone who insists on a doctrine that goes against the Word of God?
The second example is obviously more important, unless the in the first example, the person believes that the only clothes God will respect in Church are clothes that aren’t color coordinated.
Another way to look at these verses is in terms of approach. We’re told not to answer a fool according to his folly, so this can also mean we shouldn’t answer or correct a fool in the same way that a fool would.
Say, if someone speaks in an insulting manner to you, don’t answer them back in an insulting manner. Either ignore them, or correct them in a way that will bring honor to the Christ that you believe in.