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Allow Me to Explain (31 of 439) – How To Answer a Fool

August 16, 2011

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31. Should you answer a fool according to his folly? Proverbs 26:4 vs Proverbs 26:5

I have to say I find this conversation really ironic.

Proverbs 26:4
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.

Proverbs 26:5
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Yes, the verses are right next to each other. This isn’t just a same-chapter proximity, this is a same-breath proximity.

So I’d like to start by reiterating: Really?

The atheist makes the argument that the scriptures were written by men, without any kind of divine guidance or inspiration. We’re supposed to believe that people who are supposedly composing and collecting a huge volume of texts, with the intent to use that volume to control and manipulate the masses, overlooked something like this? If the atheist view of the Bible is true, wouldn’t some scribe or monk or cleric or priest have corrected this glaring error on the first proof-read?

If two verses, side-by-side, seem to blatantly contradict, then we assume one of two things:

  1. The atheists are right, and the original authors, editors, copyists, etc. of scripture were so stupid that they didn’t notice verse five directly contradicting verse four. Ever.
  2. There is a little piece of wisdom in Proverbs 26 that the Author/author wants us to think about.

I’m going with Number 2 because I have a really hard time believing Number 1, and because it’s pretty consistent with much of scripture. The Bible is not an instruction manuel. It’s not written in numbered steps and bulleted lists. Much of it is poetry. Much of it is allegory and parable. It is not out of character that scripture would present us with a nugget to think about.

Thus, many have, and many have come to the same simple conclusion. Should you answer a fool according to his folly? Sometimes.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary remarks,

Wise men have need to be directed how to deal with fools; and they have never more need of wisdom than in dealing with such, to know when to keep silence and when to speak, for there may be a time for both.

The reason given for not answering a fool is, “lest you (the answerer) also be like him.” The reason given for answering a fool is, “lest he (the fool) be wise in his own eyes.” In a specific situation, the potential answerer would have to weigh the probable outcome.

Is he so frustrated that he’ll lose his cool in answering? Then don’t. Bishop Warburton, in Treastie on Grace, here comments,

The cause assigned for forbidding to answer, therefore, plainly insinuates that the defender of religion should not imitate the insulter of it in his modes of disputation, which may be comprised in sophistry, buffoonery, and scurrility.

(Don’t make a poster with a sensational graphic on it about how dumb the irreligious are, in answer to a poster that supposedly cites hundreds of contradictions in the Bible.)

Is he capable of showing the fool his own foolishness? Then do. Matthew Henry’s Commentary continues,

Yet, in other cases, a wise man will use his wisdom for the conviction of a fool, when, by taking notice of what he says, there may be hopes of doing good, or at least preventing further, mischief, either to himself or others.

Jesus gives similar advice in Matthew 7. He talks about judging people, and then he says this:

“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

You may have great wisdom, but if the hearer is not going to accept it, don’t bother.

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