There are two verses in Proverbs that appear contradictory. In fact, some use them to try and prove that scripture is flawed or not inspired.
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes. Proverbs 26:4–5 (NKJV)
On the surface these two verses are contradictory as they give opposing exhortations. We cannot simultaneously answer and not answer at the same time. To understand we dig a little bit. The point of verse 4 is that we are not be like a fool and the point of verse 5 is that we are not to let a fool be deceived into thinking he is wise. Here an explanatory note is needed. In the book of Proverbs, the term ‘fool’ refers not to a lack of intelligence but to one who rejects the knowledge of God.
We now come back to understanding these verses. The warning in verse 4 is ‘Lest you also be like him’ while in verse 5 the warning is ‘Lest he be wise in his own eyes.’ It is the endings in each statement that enable us to make sense of the seeming contradictions.
In verse 4 heeding the warning is similar to the idea of ‘getting in the mud with someone.’ Think of politics. People speak of maintaining the ‘moral high ground.’ That is what this Proverb is referring to. We can argue and debate with someone and become quite vociferous in our exchanges. However, that approach generally alienates people and builds walls rather than bridges. When someone is engaged in folly it is folly to try and point out their folly if they don’t have a teachable spirit. I am in some online theological debate groups and try to avoid this approach. I am not 100% successful but I am working at it. In an exchange with one fellow, we disagreed on a theological point. One of the many doctrines he dismissed while claiming to be a Christian was that Jesus was God or part of the Trinity. When we disagreed he challenged me by asking what my credentials were. In response I went over my decades of bible study and teaching scripture along with my academic credentials, none of which he possessed. He quickly conceded my point and acknowledge that I was correct – just kidding! His response was, “I don’t care.” While his response was in direct opposition to what he had asked it was clear that I had fallen into the verse 4 trap of answering a fool according to folly! I should have simply said that I did not agree and left the matter there as this fellow was not open to examining his position.
In other instances, I have simply asked questions to get others to reflect on their position then highlighted what the scriptures actually say. This works better at creating accountability and fits with answering them according to their folly. Truth is highlighted for them to consider. This fits with what I used to say when doing a lot of adult education. I would tell participants that my teaching philosophy was to open doors and offer them opportunities and they needed to decide whether to walk through the door.
Another example, I recently had a debate with an articulate Mormon who identifies himself as a Mormon apologist. We obviously didn’t agree on what scripture said so I suggested we each share what we believed and why from a dialogue rather than a debate perspective. Trying to learn from one another first. While I am convinced his belief system falls under the broader category of ‘fool’ as stated in Proverbs, I sought to answer him according to his folly. There was no response from him once I made the offer and essentially asked him to ‘put his cards on the table.’
The conclusion, we need to discern how to respond in different situations. We don’t want to leave people in the wrong place with the wrong conclusions if we can help them extricate themselves. At the same time, we can’t help those who refuse help. It is like a dream a friend of mine had years ago. In the dream someone he knew was in the water drowning and needed help to get out. He offered his hand and the person refused. They wanted help, just not his help! Let’s try to help where we can and recognize when we can’t.