Have you ever found yourself dealing with someone – especially a Christian – who says some really bizarre, inane, or reckless things – either in person or online – and you have a hard time deciding if you should run with Proverbs 26:4 or Proverbs 26:5 in response?
If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me offer the two passages in question:
Proverbs 26:4 – Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Proverbs 26:5 – Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
These two passages may not be difficult so much as puzzling to some. The atheist or critic of Christianity will simply say, “See, another clear example of how the Bible is full of contradictions!” But even a devout believer may have some questions about how both texts can be true, seeing how one follows after the other.
Well, the very short answer – and we could finish our discussion here with this – is that both statements are true, and it is simply a case of sometimes one verse being more appropriate or suitable than another. But let me explore this in more detail.
The real trick here it seems is simply to have the wisdom and discernment to know which verse is the best one to apply to a particular situation. Sometimes a fool is prattling on and on and our best and wisest response is to just ignore him, and not feed his ego any further.
He may just need to be given the flick, and not interacted with. Some words of Jesus come to mind here in this regard:
-“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.” (Matthew 7:6)
-“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26)
So sometimes we should just ignore and walk away from someone who is saying foolish things. Of course we can always pray for such a person, but not every instance of a fool carrying on warrants a direct and immediate response. Again, wisdom is needed here.
But sometimes a person who is spouting forth nonsense does indeed need a reply. His nonsense, which may cause real damage if left unchecked, deserves an answer. If he is stating blatantly unbiblical or anti-biblical things and deceiving others, then there may well be a need to challenge his harmful beliefs.
So in the case of false doctrine and false teaching, one may be obliged to take him on, and refute his views. Of course even here one still needs discernment: should the rebuke be private or public? Is now the best time to reply, or should I wait a bit? And prayer should undergird all such responses.
Related to this, I will often see a believer put up some great, but controversial, post, and when a critic or two replies, they go all quiet and do not follow up the discussion as they should. I am glad they posted truth on the social media, but they need to learn how to be bold and to stand their ground, and defend what they have posted, instead of wilting away. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/05/28/study-show-approved/
Let me add a personal note here on this. As many of you would know, I have a teaching ministry, and a sort of prophetic ministry as well. So I am involved with disputes, debates and polemics all the time. I constantly need divine wisdom as to if and when I should respond to something.
Obviously this gets magnified big time on the social media. On any given day you will see dozens of posts – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The temptation for me at least is to reply to every iffy, dodgy, bogus and patently false post out there. And sometimes I do indeed have an obligation to speak out publicly on some of these.
But hopefully as I get older (more mature?), I am learning to pick my fights a bit more carefully. I certainly do not need to respond to everything I see, and even if there is some real rubbish or harmful material being shared, I still may not need to reply – at least immediately.
So I am learning to sit on things a bit, pray more, and wait somewhat. I may still reply after a day or two, or I may just let it go through to the keeper, as the Aussies and Brits put it. It seems there are two extremes to avoid here: to feel you MUST respond to everyone and everything, and to NEVER respond to anyone or anything.
Sometimes we must just bite our lip and allow someone to say some really foolish stuff (and there is plenty of that around sadly). And sometimes we must reply to real theological error, heresy or just plain lousy nonsense from fools. And the Bible talks plenty about fools who lack understanding, knowledge and wisdom. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/23/not-suffering-fools-gladly/
But enough about me and how I am seeking to learn and grow in this area. Let me finish by allowing a few Old Testament experts to offer a bit of commentary here. I begin with Lindsay Wilson and his remarks:
This actually helps us to see the nature of proverbs. Few proverbs are designed to cover every situation. ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ and ‘many hands make light work’ both seem to be true, but they cannot both apply to the same situation at the same time. Similarly, Proverbs tells us that we need wisdom to know when not to answer fools according to their folly (v. 4) and when to answer (v. 5). Both are true and helpful as proverbs, but we need to discern which is the best proverb for any specific circumstance…. The difficulty is knowing when to rebuke and when to ignore.
Bruce Waltke reminds us of the relevance of Ecclesiastes 3:7: there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak”. He then goes on to say:
The rationale for the admonition not to answer a fool according to his folly (v. 4a) is to avoid the negative consequence of becoming like the fool (v. 4b)…. The rationale for answering a fool according to his folly (v. 5a) is to avoid the negative consequence that the fool arrogantly replaces the Lord’s heavenly wisdom with his own (v. 5b)…. The wise person must expose the fool’s distortions to serve his own interests at the expense of the community and must not silently accept it and thereby contribute to establishing his topsy-turvy world against the rule of God.
Lastly, David Hubbard puts it this way:
Each situation calls for a response that the wise must have confidence to discern on the spot. In one case, to answer would lead to prolonged argument in which the wise might be trapped into babbling like a fool. Where there is a chance of that, silence is the prudent way… In another case, one prick of the fool’s balloon may bring him back to reality and burst the bubble of his conceit (‘wise in his own eyes’). To answer in that circumstance does a favor to everyone, including the fool. Judging how the fools will respond, what he needs, and how the audience will react is part and parcel of applied wisdom. Both proverbs are valid, each in its own setting.
So the two passages in tandem are not so difficult. What can be difficult is to discern which one is best and most useful in each particular situation. To determine that, we certainly need humility, wisdom, and prayer unceasing.