A lot of people, including myself, include reading something out of Proverbs every day as part of their Bible reading plan. Whoever it was that originally divided up Proverbs into 31 chapters helped us out with that, making it easy to read through the book each month. So today, being the 26th of the month, included a reading from Proverbs chapter 26. In that chapter we find these two verses back to back.
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)
Have you ever read those verses and thought, Wait a minute, God. Which is it? Should I answer a fool according to his folly or not? A friend and fellow servant brought this up a while back and we sat down to figure out what the writer was trying to say. I want to briefly share my thoughts on it here.
I believe the phrase according to his folly is used differently in the 1st statement than in the 2nd. Here are a couple of “Jono Paraphrases” of those 2 verses as I understand them:
Do not answer a fool using his own foolish methods and mannerisms, or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he seem to himself to be wise.
Do not answer a fool as if his words are accurate, or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool by pointing out the folly of his words, lest he seem to himself to be wise.
Answering a fool as if his words are accurate, for example, is like accepting a false dichotomy or a false assumption. Take these examples:
- “Hey John, are you still beating your wife?”
That question assumes that John used to beat his wife, which may not be true.
- “If God is all-powerful, he could stop evil from happening, and if he’s all-loving, he’d want to. Therefore God can’t be both since evil exists.”
This is a typical false dichotomy used by atheists to try to disprove God’s existence using the problem of evil.
An example of a fool’s foolish methods or mannerisms might be something like this:
- “You think your God is all-powerful? Can he create a rock so big that he can’t lift it?”
That’s a foolish argument that misunderstands the concept of omnipotence. God can do all things that power can do. He can’t use his power to defeat his power; that’s impossible. He also can’t be illogical in the use of his power. For example he can’t create a square circle, or a triangle with anything other than three corners.
The idea behind Proverbs 26:4-5, I think, is to not allow a fool to capture your thoughts or the conversation with foolish arguments or speculations assumed to be true. Instead, if we answer a fool at all, it should be to point out his assumptions or shed light on his statements revealing them as foolish.