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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Difficult Bible Passages: Proverbs 26:4-5

Dec 27, 2018

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: 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: 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.

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7 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Proverbs 26:4-5

  • I find the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) puts it well:
    4 Don’t answer a fool in terms of his folly, or you will be descending to his level; 5 but answer a fool as his folly deserves, so that he won’t think he is wise.
    Which as you have covered, directs to “not return fire with (fool’s) fire”, but to answer in terms of framing his speech as folly, thus deflecting his fool’s wisdom.
    I pray for wisdom all the time!

  • An excellent exposition, Bill.

  • I know what you mean Bill. Some time ago I spent hours upon hours having a thorough look at some fairly obvious injustice after a comment seemed to (in an indirect way) question the idea that what occurred was wrong. I kept an open mind but after all the hours of research I put into it (and coming to the conclusion that what occurred was indeed wrong) I wondered if this was good time management on my part.

  • Greg Bahnsen wrote on these verses in connection with apologetics. I suppose paradoxes like this are teaching devices. It would be ridiculous to suppose that the writer put these apparently contradictory verses together by accident.

  • You answer people considering what is the best interest for the other person and yourself.

    When we see Jesus saying:-

    Mat 23:33 Serpents! Offspring of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?
    (MKJV)

    Jesus did not say that to be offensive and we know this because the purpose of His coming was to save the lost and Peter tells us plainly that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9). Jesus said this because His thinking was literally to do with what could be done to save these people.

    The scriptures tell us plainly that those who work iniquity will not be saved yet there is a huge movement within Christianity that wants to do exactly this. They have no intention of bringing people to a position of repentance and want to affirm people in their sin. Of course saying sin is not sin is very obviously working iniquity. These people need to know that by doing this their own salvation is in jeopardy and they are almost certainly lost. They think that doing this is an act of faith yet the scriptures tell us that if you have faith you do what God says. If you love God you keep His commandments. What they have faith in is a false Jesus who says different things to what God has told us and is made in their own image and this faith will save no one. Just like with the Pharisees, it is very possible to worship God in vain by teaching the commandments of men instead of God’s commandments (Mat 15:9). Christianity is not immune to that same problem, despite what many people think, the scriptures are clear that working iniquity results in being lost whether they do the iniquitous actions themselves or not – they are still opposing God and His commandments.

    Mat 5:17 Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy but to fulfill.
    Mat 5:18 For truly I say to you, Till the heaven and the earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall in any way pass from the Law until all is fulfilled.
    Mat 5:19 Therefore whoever shall relax one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of Heaven. But whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven.
    (MKJV)

  • Yes, Mr M, you are quite correct, as an example If someone is making a strawman argument, engaging in that argument means you will finish up defending the strawman they have created for you to do so, therefore, if someone created an evil god for me to defend it just needs the comment “I do not know this evil god you speak of, are you sure it isn’t of your imagination or you have been indoctrinated into believing in this imaginary evil god”. We should ensure we play their game, hence the evil god is in all lower case characters and we should play on their “delusions”, remember what they attack us on they fear themselves. It’s important to them that they are seen as rational and logical, their self-worth is often built on this, so we should use their straw god against them. If its a boy I am communicating with, boys crave respect, I respect my dad, teacher and Godly men. I do not respect those who need no respect in order that they may gain respect.

    When Peter drew his sword in John 18:10 that was the correct thing for him to do, it was also correct that Jesus told him to put it away. We are right to defend the name of our God and it is also right we get admonished for doing so if our defence brings into disrepute our God, however, I would rather be admonished for drawing the sword and told to put it away than passively listening to the crowing of the atheist, we are, after all, a people in need of a saviour.

    I’m sure you or someone will admonish me for my methods, however, it is likely I will live the latter years of my life in a Muslim state since adults have given the keys of my Christian nation to those who not only draw the sword but use it. In times of war, Godly Christian men kill other men yet the Godly men should never have allowed the war in the first place, the sword was drawn and used since Godless nations belong to the enemy.

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