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Proverbs 26:4-5 (NLT)

4 Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools,
      or you will become as foolish as they are.

5 Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
      or they will become wise in their own estimation.

At first read, these seem to be contradicting one another. Verse 4 tells us not to answer fools' arguments and verse 5 tells us do answer fools' arguments. With such a seeming contradiction, there is certainly some sort of official material out there that resolves this issue. According to the Wesleyan denomination (or as close as possible), how is this apparent contradiction resolved?

  • 2
    How about "You can't win with a fool"? :-) (Proverbs are generalized advice. The verses seem to be pointing to two dangers. It might not be any more contradictory than something like "Eat dessert with thanksgiving because it is a gift of God. Those who eat desserts become unhealthily fat." Part of wisdom is discerning the season in which an activity is appropriate.) (This statement is not good enough for an answer, but I hope it is not entirely useless.) – Paul A. Clayton Mar 12 '13 at 12:35
  • I don't know much for official Wesleyan tradition and doctrine but I think @paulA got really close. I would say that the proverbs, being wisdom for life, mean to show you that you cannot win with a fool, therefore, don't even listen to his argument at all. Just let him know that it was dumb in the first place. Mike's answer says just about that. – 3961 Mar 13 '13 at 8:45
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The common understanding of this apparent conflict is that the two verses describe two situations.

  • One involves answering foolish questions... The ones that are so foolish they don't deserve an answer. The ones that people ask to get a rise out of you, or make a point, when there's no real possibility of an intelligent conversation. The kind we quickly vote to close, downvote, and delete. Don't waste your time on them.

  • The other addresses rebuking foolishness where necessary. When someone is honestly confused, or their foolishness is causing another to stumble or fall into error.

There's a relevant article on it at Ask the Pastors that spells this out better than I, with the following points.

  1. Wisdom is only acquired by those who want it bad enough to work for it
  2. Every issue has many sides to it
  3. There are exceptions to some rules

and the conclusion of that article:

In the proverb you cite, there is a time to answer a fool according to his folly and a time not to. Jesus talked about not casting our pearls before swine (Matthew 7). This describes a situation where the receiver of truth despises truth and it is not worth telling it to him and may even be dangerous to. Paul is an example, however, of answering a fool according to his folly when in 2 Corinthians he brags and boasts of his “accomplishments” to the Corinthians because it was the only way they could receive him (11:16; 12:11). The wise person will learn when and how to respond to the fool in the best way possible, though even then he or she may not know which way was best until he or she got into it.

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  • Let's raise the stakes or confusion: Mathew 5:22 "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." And not to mention Paul referring to God's plan as Foolish: biblegateway.com/passage/… – user1361315 Mar 13 '14 at 19:33
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I don't know Hebrew, so I can't offer a whole lot of guidance here, but it seems the apparent contradiction could be a result of different language paradigms.

It is interesting that the Hebrew texts for the verses seem to use the same word for "fool" and "not a fool".

The grammatical structure and conjugation is baffling to me, but according to the Blue Letter Bible:

Proverbs 26:4 reads as follows: אַל־תַּעַן כְּסִיל כְּאִוַּלְתֹּו פֶּֽן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לֹּו גַם־אָֽתָּה׃

where:

  • ענה - Answer
  • כסיל - not a fool
  • אולת - according to his folly
  • שוה - lest thou also be like unto him

Proverbs 26:5 reads as follows: עֲנֵה כְסִיל כְּאִוַּלְתֹּו פֶּן־יִהְיֶה חָכָם בְּעֵינָֽיו׃

where

  • ענה - Answer
  • כסיל - a fool
  • אולת - according to his folly
  • חכם - lest he be wise
  • עין - to his own conceit

I think Mike's answer is a good one. The Proverbs provide wise topical advice using a pithy and often symmetrical or somewhat poetic format. The two verses together seem to be warning that it's not wise to stoop to a fool's level while answering his folly, but that it's also not wise to let a fool's folly go totally unchecked. It seems to utilize a bit of equivocation in what it means to answer him "according to his folly" (i.e. identify his bad assumptions or conclusions and try to correct them, but don't be baited into arguing foolishly yourself)

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  • 2
    Sorry this took over a year, but to address your bafflement: the first two letters in the Hebrew of v4 אַל are the negative particle, rendering the verb that follows a prohibition "do not answer" (or KJV "answer not"). The negation is not found in v5. The BLB is (very!) confusing here in the reverse interlinear, but the Hebrew is not using the same phrase for "answer not a fool" and "answer a fool." :-) – Susan Nov 22 '14 at 13:16
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I think Keil's, Commentary on the Old Testament has it right. I summarize them as this: You should NOT recognize the foolish assumptions of a fool. You should NOT answer as though his questions or statements were reasonable, that would be debasing your own self and your own mind. Rather you SHOULD answer a fool as is due to according to his folly. You should answer a fool with a full rejection of his foolish assumptions and assertions. If you do not rebuke him in this way he may think his foolish ideas are wise.

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The two verses are in apparent contradiction. The sages explain that one should not be drawn into vain arguments with a fool in worldly or inconsequential matters. However, if he disputes or errs regarding the Torah, it is essential that he be corrected..

So in light of this, it is not a contradiction. You just have to understand when you answer a fool, and when you shun him, least you too may look like a fool.

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Here is the simplest answer I've ever heard to this question.

  • Question: How should I respond to people who say (insert name of book here) is irrational and unreasonable, and therefore worthless; because it contains contradictions?

  • Answer: See Proverbs 26:4-5

In other words, this very item both poses and answers the question recursively.

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Proverbs has much to say about fools. They despise wisdom (Proverbs 1:7, 22, 10:21, 23:9); they are right in their own eyes (Proverbs 12:15); they are deceitful (Proverbs 14:8) and scornful (Proverbs 10:23, 14:9). The wise are also given instruction on how to deal with fools in Proverbs. Instructing a fool is pointless because his speech is full of foolishness (Proverbs 15:2, 14) and he does not want wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 18:2).

The futility of trying to impart wisdom to a fool is the basis of Proverbs 26:4-5, which tell us how to answer a fool. These seemingly contradictory verses are actually a common form of parallelism found in the Old Testament, where one idea builds upon another. Verse 4 warns against arguing with a fool on his own terms, lest we stoop to his level and become as foolish as he is. Because he despises wisdom and correction, the fool will not listen to wise reason and will try to draw us into his type of argument, whether it is by using deceit, scoffing at our wisdom, or becoming angry and abusive. If we allow him to draw us into this type of discourse, we are answering him “according to his folly” in the sense of becoming like him.

The phrase “according to his folly” in verse 5, on the other hand, tells us that there are times when a fool has to be addressed so that his foolishness will not go unchallenged. In this sense answering him according to his folly means to expose the foolishness of his words, rebuking him on the basis of his folly so he will see the idiocy of his words and reasoning. Our “answer” in this case is to be one of reproof, showing him the truth so he might see the foolishness of his words in the light of reason. Even though he will most likely despise and reject the wisdom offered to him, we are to make the attempt, both for the sake of the truth which is always to be declared, and for the sake of those listening, that they may see the difference between wisdom and folly and be instructed.

Whether we use the principle of verse 4 and deal with a fool by ignoring him, or obey verse 5 and reprove a fool depends on the situation. In matters of insignificance, it’s probably better to disregard him. In more important areas, such as when a fool denies the existence of God (Psalm 14:1), verse 5 tells us to respond to his foolishness with words of rebuke and instruction. To let a fool speak his nonsense without reproof encourages him to remain wise in his own eyes and possibly gives credibility to his folly in the eyes of others.

In short, in negligible issues we should just ignore fools, but in issues that matter, they must be dealt with so that credence will not be given to what they say.

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wisdom is knowing when to apply the principle - there will be times when you should reply and there are other times when you shouldn't reply. Those who are wise will know what and when to do it. So seek after wisdom and learn from the wise - if you walk with the wise - you will become wise. learn to Love wisdom. (Student of Dr Willem VanGemeren, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School).

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