Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Answer the fool--Proverbs 26:4-5

These verses are the source of head-scratching, double-takes and careful rereading. Hopefully that was the intent of the author.
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5, ESV)
At first glance, these verses appear to teach the exact opposite principle. Surely the author or his scribe would catch this contradiction since the verses sit next to one another. A perusal of Study Bible notes and commentaries feels like an exercise in vindication. Here are a few published thoughts, which may be helpful:

  • Taken together these verses illustrate the point that no proverb is intended to cover every possible situation.1
  • The apparent contradiction with the last verse has troubled commentators for some time. The Rabbis solved it by saying that v. 4 referred to secular things, but v. 5 referred to sacred or religious controversies.2
  • These twin sayings, which would have invited the charge of inconsistency had they not stood together (and did incur it, even so, from some Rabbis, who thereupon questioned the canonicity of the book), bring out the dilemma of those who would reason with the unreasonable.3
  • These two proverbs seem to contradict each other. The first one warns not to answer a fool according to his folly, while the second encourages answering a fool according to his folly. However, the book of Proverbs is not a list of rules; it is a collection of general principles for life—principles which must be applied carefully to relevant situations.4
Points taken. However, what if the proverb were a play on words? Why must the phrases be taken the same way? The proposal is that "according to his folly" is meant in two senses. Here is a paraphrase that shouldn't violate the grammar of the original:

4 Do not answer a fool using his foolishness or you will be like him.
5 Respond to a fool because he is foolish or [by your silence] he will consider himself wise.

What Proverbs 26:4-5 appear to be saying is, "Make sure you answer a foolish man so he is not self-justified, but don't stoop to his level."

Oh how often we err on either side! Thankfully God gave us Proverbs to encourage our growth in wisdom.

1 The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version. 2005 (R. C. Sproul, Ed.). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.
2 Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes. Biblical Studies Press.
3 Kidner, D. (1964). Vol. 17: Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
4 Barry, J. D., Grigoni, M. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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