Proverbs 26:4 – 5: 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.
This proverb is a riddle. We are told to not answer a fool, then we are told to answer a fool. Now you should be thinking, “Huh? What does that mean? What am I supposed to do?” The plain reading seems contradictory.
The meaning of the proverb isn’t as plain and clear as other sections of Scripture. That is precisely why we need to have a biblical “doctrine of Scripture.” Whether a passage of Scripture is as clear as day or as clear as mud, we must approach the Word of God with humility, confessing that its authority, truthfulness, and reliability are wholly dependent upon God because God is the author of Scripture. As Paul said, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). God is the author of Scripture, which is why we believe there are no errors in Scripture. God is the author of Scripture, which is why we believe there are no accidents in Scripture. God is the author of Scripture, which is why we believe all of Scripture is profitable.
Scripture is profitable. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 89, summarizes how Scripture is profitable unto salvation.
How is the Word made effectual to salvation? The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation. (Neh. 8:8; 1 Cor. 14:24-25; Acts 26:19; Ps. 19:8; Acts 20:32; Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Rom. 10:13-17; Rom. 1:16)
God has ordained to use Scripture as a means for our salvation; Scripture is a means for our instruction in righteousness. That means we need to understand Scripture. So. If you or I read a passage of Scripture, and it causes our eyes to go cross-eyed with confusion, don’t just close the Bible and say, “That was weird. I’m confused now.” If you read the Bible, and you are confused, then you need to dig deeper into the Word. Pray for the Spirit to illuminate the Word, and then go look for answers. You need to be curious like a cat. (They call me whiskers ’cause I’m curious like a cat!) If you watched a Christopher Nolan film and at the end the movie the plot doesn’t add up to you, do you walk out of the theater and never think about the film again? Probably not. You probably watch it, again, and turn the film over in your mind, again. Or perhaps you ask your best-friend Google what he thinks, and you click on a link to a link to a link to a link and read what other folks think about the confusing film.
The best way to start looking for answers to questions (confusion) derived from the text of Scripture is to go and consult the other clear sections of Scripture; the other clearer sections of Scripture will help you understand and interpret the less plain and less clear passages of Scripture. The other clearer sections of Scripture will help you notice things about the confusing passage that you hadn’t thought about before, and with a bit of time and work, most likely, a type of cumulative understanding will develop. See the Westminster Confession of Faith, I.9:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
This discipline and habit of consulting Scripture in order to interpret Scripture was called called “the analogy of faith” by the Protestant Reformers.
How does this principle of interpretation help us better understand Scripture when we find ourselves cross-eyed or confused when we read the Word of God? Specifically, this interpretive principle will help us when we read something and initially think, “Huh? That reads like a contradiction.” That is precisely when we need to call to mind that Scripture interprets scripture: God cannot lie, as the Bible so clearly teaches (Titus 1:2), and that means the Word of God always leads us into truth. Consider Proverbs 26:4-5 as an example: If we consult Scripture to understand Scripture, the thing we quickly realize is that any and every contradiction is never a “real contradiction” but only an “apparent contradiction.” That proverb only seems to be contradictory. Proverbs 26:4-5 is a dark saying, a paradox and life-riddle for wise living. Note: Jesus Christ also spoke in paradox and riddle, e.g., “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Jesus spoke in parables, in fulfillment of prophecy (cf. Matthew 13 and Psalm 78).
So, what is the point of Proverbs 26:4-5? I believe this dark saying, similar to the dark saying in Matthew 10:16, instructs us in equal-ultimate cultivation of discernment and compassion. Christians must cultivate both discerning-compassion and compassionate-discernment, i.e., “answer not a fool/answer a fool” / “in the midst of wolves . . . be serpent-like/be dove-like.”
What do I mean by equal-ultimate compassion-and-discernment? It means Christians will escape the gravitational pull of meaningless polemics. There are certain patterns of conversation that are of the time-sucking variety, and are figurative black holes. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.” Christians should compassionately discern whether a particular conversation with a particular fool would be helpful or expedient; sometimes it is wise to say nothing. Consider Proverbs 29:9: “If a wise man contendeth with a foolish man, whether he rage or laugh, there is no rest.” There are some fools who have an insatiable appetite for contention, and getting baited and sucked into their vortex of folly is proof that you, their interlocutor, are also a fool. That is to say, some folks are militant in their folly, and all they are really looking for is a crowd see the multiple hobby-horse hills they are willing to die on. In the final analysis, they are only going to burn up your figurative cell phone minutes. They don’t really want to have a conversation or meaningful dialogue, they only want an echo chamber. To answer that type of fool is a type of poetic irony: it reveals and discloses your own foolishness!
This discernment does not liberate us from the command to speak a “word fitly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11). Christian compassion requires us to engage and speak truth to non-believers and believers alike. However, that word must be on God’s terms and not on the terms of fools; it is only a “word fitly spoken” if it is timely and compelling. So, sometimes you and I should “answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” When do we answer a fool? When it is timely; when it is compelling; when it is, three times I say, truly a “word fitly spoken.” What that means is that speaking to fools can never be turned into some “canned” or “ready-made” exercise. If going into a conversation you already know every single line you are going to say, down to the letter, down to the prolonged pause for added emphasis . . . then guess what? The person will never be convinced that you really care about them, or about the truth. All you really care about is winning the argument, not the person.
Do you want to know what will suck the air and life out of a conversation faster than anything? Do you want to know how to lose the person as quick as possible? Not genuinely listening. If you engage somebody in a conversation, and start verbally sparring back and forth, but then begin to realize the other person isn’t actively listening to what you are saying–they are nodding their head, and interjecting the appropriate “Uh huh” or “Sure” or “Okay” on cue–you realize in that moment that you aren’t having a conversation, but rather, the other person is just waiting for you to give them enough vocal space to jump in with their phony “word fitly spoken.” If you are going to have a conversation, then have a real conversation. Both of you need to listen. Both of you need to meaningfully engage with what the other has to say.
If you want to speak a word fitly spoken, then you have to listen, you have to collect data, you have to begin to understand the person, the context, the situation, and the undercurrents of the conversation. Once you have that baseline of knowledge, then you can begin to apply Truth to that particular situation. Speak the word fitly spoken, and if it is fitly spoken, if it is timely, if it is compelling, then that true Word will reveal and disclose the fool’s foolishness, e.g., answer a fool and lead them to the Law of God which reveals their sin and misery, and then answer the fool and lead them to the Gospel and all of God’s merciful promises for those who repent and place their trust and faith in Christ.
May the Lord teach us to consult Scripture to understand and interpret Scripture, and may the Lord bless us with discerning-compassion and compassionate-discernment, in order to speak wise words of Salvation to a world suffering in foolishness and bondage to sin. “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”