Sunday, April 25, 2010

Answering a Fool: Proverbs 26:4-5

The Bible seems to have many contradictions. I am of the opinion that most can be sorted out by a better understanding of the text. Others are more challenging. While it would be enjoyable to confront all proposed biblical contradictions, it would be redundant as many have attempted to do it already. The Christian perspective on many of these issues can be found here and here.

I recently had one of these apparent contradictions brought to me by a student. The issue is how to appropriately handle a foolish person.
Proverbs 26:4-5 NASB
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
     Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
     That he not be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5 KJV
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

Well then.Somebody is either arguing with himself or forgot what he just said, right?

On the spot, I see two possible ways to reconcile these obvious opposites with each other. Firstly, the author could be merely stating an apparent reality. In other words, "It seems that if you answer a fool, you become foolish, but if you don't, he thinks he's wise!" Frustrating indeed. While the Proverbs often do this, it is not the only possible reconciliation.

I hoped to find some help by looking up the phrase "according to/as his ...deserves" in the original Hebrew. Maybe they are different words for the two lines.

No dice. They were identical.

So the author used the exact same phrase twice. Don't answer a fool according to his folly, just like it deserves. Better yet, do it.

I found one other instance of this phrase in the Hebrew Bible that was of some help. At the end of Job, God is correcting Job's frenemies for their foolishness and says:
"Now therefore...offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and My servant Job will pray for you For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly, because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has." (Job 42:8 NASB)
The phrase seems to indicate a relationship of authority giving punishment. This works, as the context of Proverbs 26:1-5 is all about putting a fool in his rightful place...downward.

Finally I found some help from early interpretive tradition: the Septuagint. This is the attempt of Jewish scholars to translate their writings from Hebrew into Greek completed in the 2nd century BC. They rendered the phrase "according to" in two different ways in the two verses. They used "pros" in verse 4 and "kata" in verse 5.

There is a slight nuance in meaning difference here. Pros seems to indicate going toward something else on the same level. I would answer pros my wife if she asked a question. Kata seems to refer to a downward approach as with one in authority. I would answer kata my son if he challenged me. The result is something like you see in the NASB translation above. Don't answer a fool toward or on the same level with his folly. Do put his foolishness in its rightful place.

Of course, the practical reality is that one is usually a poor judge of whether the other is a fool. It seems that the answer should only be given to correct a person that you are in intellectual authority over. Otherwise, it will look like the conversation of two fools.
Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference. - Mark Twain?


  1. Jordan McGuinty6:39 PM

    Thank you very much for shedding much needed insight into this useful scripture of how to deal with a fool who confronts us. In my experience, it seems that most of the fools who confront us with foolish statements or questions usually are motivated by a dark spirit of some sort. Whether that spirit be demonic, inspired by a religious spirit (which is also demonic but masked), or motivated by a human spirit that contains jealousy, pride or abusiveness, etc...nonetheless, I have discovered that the fool's intentions are usually directed in an effort to attack our spirits, intelligence, reputation or to make the fool feel good about himself by saying something either abusive or witty to the victim.
    Since WE are purely the victim in this case, I completely agree with you when you look to find scripture which helps us to confront and combat the attack. If we take the "turn the other cheek" stance to often in abusive situations then we will get run over by our enemies and they will feel powerful and revel in their evilness and cruel heartedness - which ultimately means they will have little respect for us and we will become intimidated by them which is exactly what they want. We as a democratic and equal society and more importantly as human beings, have the right to defend ourselves when we are being mistreated and made to look like garbage. If we have the spiritual gift of discernment (discerning spirits), then I believe we are able to quickly identify a fool and promply deal with him or her in an appropriate manner. Remember the scripture also that states: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places, EPH 6:12. One tricky thing about fools is that they can "fool" us also since they are crafty and malevolent, and what's more, they may mask or paint their statements to be constructed as innocent or truthful when in fact they are driven out of evilness and disdain for us as children of God (since all fools are misguided and confused and hate the Holy Spirit living within us). One of the reasons why the Holy Spirit and our spirits are attacked is because while a fool (or sinful person) may not understand or obey the Holy Spirit, he often becomes jealous of its apparent power and purity but at the same time is opposed and at war with it since it is foreign to his soul possibly. Finally, I will end my comment on this subject with just one more revelation on discernment of spirits and HOW we can decipher one's spirit more accurately. Here are two scriptures which help us to identify and "test the spirits" as we are instructed to do so when in the dilemma of determining the purity of one's heart and motives. 1. "Whatever is in the heart will ultimately come out of the mouth" -Matthew 12:33-34. And finally,"they eyes are the window to the soul" or biblically: Matthew 6:22-23 (King James Version)(KJV)

    22 The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

    23 But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

    EYES ARE THE MIRROR (MIRRORS) OF THE SOUL -- "A person's thoughts can be ascertained by looking in his or her eyes. The proverb has been traced back in English to 'Regiment of Life' (1545).

  2. It would seem the author is prescribing a condescension and debasing of the fool. This can be done without intended insult if one has given forethought to the topic as well as the condition of the fool's spirit and can shine the light of truth on both in a few words. This requires a skill to articulate and an education to have a prepared philosophic response. Ergo, the need to study and meditate on the Word. Each Christian with a capable mind should intellectually defend the faith. eg. be prepared to give every man an answer for the hope that is within you. It is incumbent on every believer to prevent foolish attacks from diminishing the reasonable logic of the Gospel.

    1. Anonymous8:39 AM

      Wow! On target with this response!In a few words, you said it succinctly. thank you.

    2. Your response was wonderfully articulated Judge Bob. I could not have said it better myself. Thank you!

  3. Anonymous10:11 PM

    or it could simply be dont answer in a way that you become like him but rather answer him in a way that open his eyes to his own stupidity

  4. Anonymous3:00 PM

    In my humble opinion, some people are simply so opposed to the truth, that it's probably better to leave them to lie in their ignorance for the world to see.

  5. Anonymous2:47 AM

    Mark Twain was a fool - he said there is no God.


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