Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
One of my favorite candy as a kid was the “jawbreaker.” This ridiculous hard candy would slowly dissolve in my mouth and once I thought I was through one layer and to the soft center, another layer would appear. The same is true for many of the proverbs. At first glance, these short pithy phrases seem easy to understand, but as you reflect on them, their depth and wisdom become more and more apparent.
This set of proverbs in particular is rather confusing. As you come to verse 4, you likely nod your head in agreement thinking of that time you got into a foolish argument with a stubborn friend. You know what it is like when you are trying to talk sense into another person, but they just hear what they want to hear. It is a fool’s errand, so easily captured in verse 4. Assuming you understand that simple proverb, you move onto the very next one.
Now most of the Proverbs are rather scatter shot, so the following verse rarely has anything to do with the proceeding one. Yet Solomon, in his wisdom, aligned these two verses to capture the jawbreaking frustration of proverbs. For, verse 5 is identical in its structure, yet opposite in its application.
Now it tells us to answer a fool, because otherwise we will fail to help him. Just a moment ago, we were let off the hook, but now we are told to do it. What a scriptural contradiction! What confusion and frustration. Yet, this is precisely what scriptural wisdom is about. Wisdom is knowledge in action. To become wise, one must know when to implement which strategy–should I address the fool or avoid the conflict?
Scripture rarely tells us exactly what we are supposed to do, but gives us the tools to discern what we should do in a particular situation.
Even Jesus Christ models these two approaches. Sometimes he called out the foolishness of the religious leaders. In Matthew 22:23-33, we read that Sadduccees asked Jesus a perplexing question: “Who will we be reunited with in heaven?” The problem–the Sadduccees do not believe in an afterlife. They really do not care about Jesus’ answer, they are just trying to agitate the system. Jesus, however, decides to loving confront this foolishness by simply telling them, “You are mistaken.” He is trying to show them that their view of the resurrection is mistaken. And this astonishes the crowds. Jesus follows the wisdom of Proverbs 26:5 and shows the Sadduccees they are not as wise in their own eyes as they assume.
However, another time, the chief priests and elders of the Temple came to him with another question and in Matthew 21:17 he replied: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” He implemented Proverbs 26:4; he held his tongue.
Jesus shows us that there are times to correct our foolish friends, and that is when they may be receptive to what we are saying — or others listening to our conversation. There is a willingness to change. Then Jesus shows us that there are also times when not to answer fools. That is when the person has a manipulative and malicious intent, when he would rather be right than listen, or when he merely enjoys the verbal sparring of an argument.
Wisdom is knowing when to speak and when not to speak. It is knowledge in action. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing that a tomato does not belong in a fruit salad. The Wisdom of Proverbs is complex, because as we read and reflect on it, it causes us to bring intention to all that we do.