Proverbs 26: Should I answer a Fool?

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Why does the advice in Proverbs 26:4-5 seem so contradictory? One verse says don’t answer a “fool,” and the next says to answer him! Is the Bible unreliable?

To the contrary, these seemingly contradictory verses illustrate how reliable the Bible truly is—and how useful it is as a guide to daily life!

Bible contradictions? Jesus said in essence, “No way!”

First, we need to realize that the Bible, as originally inspired by God, contains no contradictions—anywhere in Scripture. In His prayer to God in John 17:17, Jesus said of God’s Word, “Your word is truth.” Christ could not have made a stronger statement of confidence in the reliability of Scripture.

In John 10:35, Jesus punctuated a point He was making to the Jews who failed to understand the absolute trustworthiness of Scripture. He said, “The Scripture cannot be broken.” The Nelson Study Bible explains that the word for “broken” means “to loose, untie.” Jesus’ declaration meant that Scripture cannot be “loosed,” “untied” or rendered not binding.

The verses of Proverbs 26 that some say contradict

Now let’s look at the two verses in Proverbs 26 that some say prove that the Bible has contradictions.

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him” (Proverbs 26:4).

This is followed immediately by: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5).

Complementary, not contradictory, verses

Correctly understood, these biblical proverbs actually complement each other. They aren’t Bible contradictions. Two facts will help us see how these verses deal with the same subject but under different circumstances. First, we will look at the meaning of the language used; and second, we will consider the last part of each proverb—the part that explains the set of circumstances under which each is to be used.

The Hebrew word for “fool” figuratively means “silly,” while the word for “wise” can mean “cunning” (Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries).

Proverbs 26:4 tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly lest we be like him. In this situation, to answer the person’s silly argument or question, you would be descending to his level and end up in a pointless quarrel. The person asking this type of question does not want to be taught. Instead, he is spiritually immature and just wants to argue his point. Some people love to debate religion!

An example of not answering is given in Luke 20:1-8, where the Pharisees asked Christ by whose authority He did certain things. The Pharisees in this account were not seeking to learn anything. They were trying to get Christ to say something that they could later twist and use against Him.

Rather than answering their question, Jesus asked them a piercing question! Looking at the context, we see the brilliance of Christ’s response, for they could not answer without condemning themselves. Since the Pharisees would not answer His question, the discussion was dropped.

When to answer a fool according to his folly

Proverbs 26:5 tells us that under another set of circumstances we should answer the silly or immature person “according to his folly,” responding to his line of reasoning. The answer we give should expose the weakness of his thinking. His thinking needs to be challenged, for the person’s sake, “lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

In other words, answer him, lest he think of himself as so cunning that his reasoning is sound.

This case is illustrated by Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 11:23. Certain men at Corinth claimed to be true apostles of Jesus Christ, but they were false apostles (verse 13). For Paul to have remained silent at the time would have given tacit approval of these men who were seeking to lead the Church astray. They would have thought their reasoning was superior to Paul’s; and furthermore, they would have gained unwarranted influence over the people.

Under these circumstances, Paul responded: “Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often” (2 Corinthians 11:23).

These men had been boasting of their qualifications, so Paul listed his personal qualifications for serving as Christ’s minister, which far outweighed their claims. In Paul’s writings, he did not normally draw attention to himself. He made an exception here because it was necessary to expose the cunning imposters for who they were. Paul answered these false apostles’ claims so they and others would see just how shallow and weak their claims were.

Ask God for wisdom

These biblical proverbs do not illustrate Bible contradictions! Taken together, Proverbs 26:4-5 explain two different methods of handling the questions and statements of people who lack spiritual maturity (“fools”).

The Nelson Study Bible summarizes this well: “The phrase according to his folly appears twice as a play on words with two shades of meaning. On the one hand, it means ‘avoid the temptation to stoop to his level’; that is, don’t use his methods, lest you also be like him. On the other hand, it means, ‘avoid the temptation to ignore him altogether’; that is, respond in some way, or else he will become wise in his own eyes and his folly will get worse.”

We need wisdom to know when and how to apply these principles, and wisdom comes from God. We should ask Him for wisdom and search the Bible for additional advice and examples that will help us apply these principles.

WAYS TO BETTER RELATIONSHIP

Why do some relationships sour and end? What principles can we glean from the Bible to preserve or heal our relationships with family and friends?

 

The state of human relationships today is generally poor. No matter the level—whether head of state to head of state, nation to nation or person to person—there are many examples of strained and broken relationships.

Person against person

it has sadly become routine to hear of disgruntled employees shooting their supervisors and fellow employees. And then there are the mass shootings at schools, shopping centers and movie theaters orchestrated by angry and mentally disturbed individuals.

Internationally, bullying, stalking, kidnapping and street violence are all symptoms of our damaged world.

At home, in the intimate personal relationships found in marriage, many husbands and wives struggle to get along. In most Western countries about 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and millions of other couples (many with children) break up without ever making a commitment of marriage.

Dissecting a breakup

Since we humans have had plenty of experience with bad relationships, it is actually quite easy to document and even predict the progressive steps that generally occur as relationships go bad. At the earliest stages of conflict, little disagreements are glossed over or ignored. Eventually something happens that evokes anger and frustration, which moves the relationship into the conflict stage.

As the conflict progresses, both parties experience hostile feelings and negative communication from the other. At this stage, many share their side of the disagreement with others and look for consolation from them. The relationship comes to an end after one or both individuals decide that the pain and dissatisfaction are no longer worth continuing the relationship. Although this progression can be stopped at any stage, too often the process runs its course to the end.

Steps that heal and preserve

Although there are occasions when relationships must regrettably end many can be saved, healed and preserved by following principles revealed to us in the Bible. Here are seven keys to better relationships:

Key No. 1: Don’t raise your voice. The Bible says that a “soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). When discussions turn into yelling matches, people’s opinions are not changed. Instead, they are hardened and people feel justified in their own position because of the other person’s behavior.

Key No. 2: Always tell the truth. Although it has become common for people to routinely lie, if your friend realizes that you don’t always speak the truth, he or she will never know whether to believe what you say. Relationships are built on trust; and when one party lies, trust is undermined. Focusing on this point, Paul told the Ephesians to put “away lying, ‘Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor’” (Ephesians 4:25).

Key No. 3: Always show respect. While we may not appreciate or agree with someone’s opinions or actions, we need to show respect to the person. We may not understand all that went into the decision, or the person may have simply made a mistake. As Paul wrote, “Speak evil of no one” (Titus 3:2).

Key No. 4: Strive to be a gentle, peaceful person. While some people mistakenly believe such attributes are signs of weakness, they are actually keys to better relationships and reflections of godliness. Paul admonishes us: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). James adds: “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17).

Key No. 5: Think before you speak. While it is tempting to quickly respond to slights and false accusations, we will do well to carefully consider our words before we speak. Will what we say help resolve the issue or only deepen a wound? Once uttered, words cannot be retracted. Even though we may apologize, the other person is still likely to remember what we said. As James wrote: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).

Key No. 6: Be quick to apologize and to accept an apology. Everyone makes mistakes, so be quick to apologize when you learn that you have offended someone or done something wrong.

We also need to readily accept apologies when others admit they made a mistake and apologize to us. Expounding upon this expectation, Christ said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Key No. 7: Use God’s Holy Spirit. The evidence of God’s Spirit working within us is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The Holy Spirit also helps us to be sound-minded and spiritually mature (2 Timothy 1:7). If we truly “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), these traits will characterize our actions and communication. These traits will also endear us to our friends.

Many biblical passages give practical details about how using God’s Holy Spirit can help our relationships. Consider how pleasant it would be to have a friend who fully displayed the fruit of love as the apostle Paul described it:

“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Growing in that kind of love leads to the kind of healthy, beautiful relationships that God wants us to have! Other passages that can help us develop godly relationships include Philippians 2:1-5 and Romans 12:9-21. Study these passages and ask for God’s help to apply them.

Put these keys to work in your relationships and watch the positive results unfold. God’s timeless principles always bear good fruit.

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