Do Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5 Contradict? On the Contrary . . . 

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.

Which one is it? Answer the fool or not?

On the surface, these verses appear contradictory. But with just a little thought, the brilliance of the poetry comes through, and the meaning is clear and agreeable.

It all hinges on how you interpret the preposition ke (“according to”) in each line.

Taking ke as the same

If you take them as having the same meaning, then there is indeed a contradiction.

Most commentators of this persuasion find resolution in holding that the proverbs are true depending on the circumstance. Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut, and others to rebuke the fool. It’s true that wisdom involves knowing what to do when, so this position isn’t without merit.

However, Fox points out that “nothing in the verses connects them to particular settings,” and even then, the advice isn’t very helpful, “since no further guidance is offered as to when one should do what.”1

This interpretation could do, but isn’t necessary, because a better one exists.

Taking ke differently in each line

If you take the two appearances of ke differently in each line, you end up with something like this:

Don’t answer a fool “with behavior similar to his”

Answer a fool “with an answer appropriate to his particular folly”
2

In other words, don’t run your mouth back at a fool. Instead, rebuke him with wise words.

The preposition functions slightly different in each line, which is part of the brilliance of the poetry.

“[. . .] In poetry the point of comparison may be left vague in order to allow an analogy to open up, inducing the reader to engage the analogy and find not one but many contacts between the things compared.”3

What seems at first a contradiction instead becomes a clever device of the author to help you remember how to answer a fool: not with words that match his folly, but with words that reveal it.

I appreciate how Waltke sums up the issue in his commentary (currently 40% off):

It is unfitting to meet the fool’s insult with insult (2 Pet 3:9). Should the disciple reply vindictively, harshly, and/or with lies—the way fools talk—he too—“yes, even you”—would come under the fool’s condemnation. Rather, without lowering himself to the fool’s level in a debate, but by overcoming evil with good (25:21f.), the wise must show the fool’s folly for what it is. The wise do not silently accept and tolerate the folly and thereby confirm fools in it. Both proverbs are absolutes and applicable at the same time, contrary to the opinion of many commentators, who think they are relative to the situation. To be sure there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecc 4:5), but one must always, not in only certain situation, answer a fool to destabilize him, but, always, not sometimes, without becoming like him.4

 

  1. Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10–31 in the Anchor Yale Bible series (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), 794.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 208.
  4. Bruke K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, 15:30–31:31 in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 349.

Comments

  1. Would have been nice to see a reference to another book carried by that speaks to this issue: http://tinyw.in/qV6q

  2. “Carried by Logos,” that was originally.

  3. Bob Rasmussen says:

    In reality not everyone knows Hebrew, nor understands it, which is OK because the Bible interprets itself. For an example of this text, in how we are not to answer a fool according to it’s folly, and at the same time answer a fool according to his folly, just look to Jesus in John chapter 8, how He answered the question of the scribes and Pharisees, “what do you think”…

  4. Ultimately, to take ‘Ke’ differently in each line as argument from silence as we’ve no way of knowing if the author of the proverb intended it to be taken differently in each verse. We can’t even be sure if they were authored by the same person or if an editor placed them next to each other to make a point, or by accident (humanly speaking).

    Waltke is an amazing exegete, but in my humble opinion is that he is wide of the mark here. Since proverbs more often than not assert situational principles that need careful (wise) application rather than absolute ones, it is more likely the case here too.

    Both proverbs deal with a different kind of fool in a different kind of situation. One who will learn when corrected; one who will not. It takes wisdom to know which one we are dealing with, and wisdom to know how to respond. That is essentially the argument made by Tremper Longman’s treatment of these verses, here: https://www.logos.com/product/22823/baker-commentary-on-the-old-testament-wisdom-and-psalms-proverbs and here: https://www.logos.com/product/52901/how-to-read-proverbs).

    He makes a strong case for the situational argument and is able to do so without appeals to Hebrew grammar.

  5. NEAL KORFHAGE says:

    This proverb is absolutely necessary when engaging in apologetics with village atheists who are a lot more steam than rationality. Greg Koukl has pointed out that one of the most “least committal” ways to defend the faith is to ask a question. The best question to ask that doesn’t expose you to ridicule is “what do you mean by that?”. In my experience if you simply get the biblical fool talking long enough by asking “what do you mean by that?” eventually the Holy Spirit will point out to you what you can correct with wisdom without stooping to the level of anger, vulgarity and mudslinging of your opponent. Ravi Zacharias is fond of saying “I don’t engage in mudslinging because you get really dirty and lose a lot of ground.”

    Greg Koukl on asking questions in evangelism https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySlpcYUTvtY

  6. read Tremper Longman’s “How To Read Proverbs”. You can find it here in Logos Bible Software

  7. My suspicion is that the author (i.e. Faithlife staff) has not done sufficient justice to clear up confusion on this particular matter. Perhaps the trouble lies in the attempted summation, “In other words…”

    Consider Proverbs 9:8-9, “Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke the wise and he will love you. Give to a wise one and he will become more wise; teach a righteous one and he will increase learning.”

    Moreover, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the disorderly, console the discouraged, help the sick, be patient toward all people.”

    Someone has already mentioned how Jesus in John 8 “answered a fool according to his folly” when he responded to the Pharisees. By providing an answer, in this case a question, he called into question their own understanding of the Law. He determined not to let their malice slide, for he knew their influence was great enough to infect and shape the attitudes of the broader population.

    There are those who would believe our Lord Jesus in his interaction with the religious elite intentionally embarrassed them among the Jewish people. This is a particularly common view I’ve encountered in New England churches. However,, upon intellectual consideration this is not consistent with the picture of Jesus we have in the Scriptures.

    We must be certain that in all his interactions with others, because he is Jesus, he did not sin in the least. Rather, he perfectly fulfilled the greatest and second commandments to love both God and neighbor. In this way, we have an example of one who was truly and always “patient toward all people” and consequently did always “answer not a fool according to his folly.”

    So how is it that we are to understand the proverb? Realizing that not all men are wise, Waltke has said it as succinctly as I imagine anyone could, “One must always… answer a fool to destabilize him, but… without becoming like him.” In this is wisdom: to be able to respond to a fool not in kind, nor kindly, but Kingly, in the manner of our Lord Jesus Christ. To do so is not only right, but necessary in order to partake in this one aspect of his suffering.

  8. Richard says:

    Mathew 7:1

    Is one born a fool