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.