“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.” – Proverbs 26:4-5
This post is a follow-up to the one released a few weeks ago: On Truthfulness.
I received a lot of good comments, questions, and pushback on that one. I’ve also continued to study the book of Proverbs. So, this blog post serves as the beginning of my response to some of those questions as well as a report of my continued study.
What is the book of Proverbs? How does it Function?
Proverbs is a book concerned with wisdom. But biblical wisdom is not really the same as the “wisdom” talked about today. Biblical wisdom isn’t just good moral judgement. It also has to do with physical skills, social etiquette, good farming, balancing your checkbook, and even the supernatural means that God used to create the universe.
Because of that, it’s better to understand biblical wisdom as a synonym for “order.”
God, in His divine logic, ordered the universe from chaos. He made something from nothing. And He also embedded within His creation creatures that have the ability to create and to bring about order from chaos. A stonemason might use tools to make a good solid wall. She ordered those stones to sit on top of one another, giving them purpose. An Israelite judge might have to decide on a verdict within the court. His decision making brings about order in society. A person might wish to share something with someone else. Their speech has the ability to order up facts and dispense knowledge. All of that would fall under the heading of “wisdom.”
Proverbs also makes it clear that there is wisdom that follows the logic of the order that God has set in motion. But then there’s foolishness that might masquerade as order, or skill, or knowledge, but it doesn’t actually come from God. There’s righteous action, skills, and learned knowledge. And then there’s chaotic or wicked actions, skills, and knowledge. So, pursuing wisdom without also “fearing the Lord” would be hedonistic. It’d be worthless. That’s why scripture like Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgement.”
The tricky thing, though, is that the book of Proverbs doesn’t always come out and tell us what appropriate or inappropriate wisdom actually is.
This book doesn’t provide its readers a black-and-white guide.
Instead, Proverbs gives us a set of speeches, and then a large number of maxims collected over a long period of time, that are all related to wisdom. And we’re not necessarily supposed to memorize all of these individual proverbs to see where they might directly fit within our own lives. Rather we’re to take in the entire book in masse. Because, by looking at Proverbs as a whole, we are able to better observe the pattern of God’s logic at work. Only then can we learn to apply individual maxims where wisdom might dictate.
Proverbs is a book about wisdom. But it also leaves it up to the reader to use wisdom to discern where a particular proverb might apply or not.
Why (I) Study Proverbs?
Like I mentioned above, God has intentionally given all humans the ability to bring about order from chaos. That is part of what it means for humanity to have been made in God’s image. But, and because of the Fall, our propensity for creating order has been severely damaged.
The logic of Proverbs helps us catch a glimpse of God’s good order. It helps us better align ourselves with the Lord’s desire for justice.
And that’s why I have been personally studying this book for a while now.
I’ve been convicted to think more about why I think about the things that I think about. That is, I would really like to be a person committed to truthfulness. And a big part of truthfulness is being honest about my own thoughts (and where they come from), my own words (and why I have a desire to speak them), and my own actions (and the motivations behind those actions).
So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
In my study time, I’ve been reading through the book of Proverbs in order to discern what good truth-telling might look like. And I’ve been trying to catalogue proverbs that are related to this, not for the sake of memorization, but in order to get a better handle on how I might speak and embody honesty and truthfulness in my own life.
How might I be a better chaos wrangler? Proverbs is helping me answer that question.
Answer a Fool According to His Folly?
There is a set of side-by-side passages in Proverbs that I’ve been wrestling with towards that end. They have everything to do with truth telling. But they also illustrate well this book’s refrain from giving its readers a black-and-white guide to applying wisdom.
This is Proverbs 26:4-5 –
“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.”
At first glance, these two proverbs seem to contradict each other. That’s because they sort-of do. They are offering competing wisdom. The advice that 26:4 gives is opposite to that of 26:5 and vise versa.
That is intentional.
Remember that Proverbs aren’t meant to be plug-and-play. They also aren’t meant to be understood as telling the reader exactly what to do. No, we have to first use wisdom to discern where they could and should fit. Not every proverb will fit every context. And that is why these two sayings are both contradictory and not.
They offer competing advice, but that’s because it is sometimes appropriate to answer a fool according to their folly and it sometimes isn’t.
It is also important to note that this is not the only place in Proverbs where advice like this Is offered up. The proximity of these two verses makes it more apparent, but also consider Proverbs 10:10, 12:26, 16:21, 16:23, 21:11, 22:10, and 28:23. All of those passages instruct the reader to offer bold persuasive correction to those who have lost their way. Then, Proverbs like 9:7-9, 15:1, 17:27-28, and 23:9 tell us that offering correction can produce unwanted retaliation, and because of that, it’s not worth pursuing.
But how do we discern when it is the right time to answer a fool according to his folly and when it isn’t? Let’s talk about that next.
Chaos, Conspiracy Theories, and Thought-Terminating Clichés
I think that understanding Proverbs as a book which aims to teach the reader to bring order from chaos is key.
When we are faced with a situation in life where we are tempted to offer correction to someone we know is in the wrong, we should ask ourselves: will this bring about order? Or will it only bring more chaos?
You may have noticed that belief in conspiracy theories is on the rise.
First there was the theory that China had manufactured Covid-19 as a weapon to use against the United States. Then there was the theory that Bill Gates was producing vaccines to secretly microchip the world’s population. The theory that mask mandates weren’t actually about mitigating spread but just control-tests for stronger freedom-robbing restrictions came shortly after that. And that’s not to mention all of the equally crazy conspiracies pushed out by QAnon about election interference and a soon-coming military takeover.
But have you ever attempted to talk someone out of believing such things? It seems all but impossible.
For each fact check we offer, the conspiracy theorist has a counter argument as to why we are wrong. For each authoritative source we point to that disproves their belief, the conspiracy theorist has an answer on why our sources aren’t credible. And if we continue to push, conspiracy theorists offer up thought-terminating cliches (like “you can’t trust any statistic from any source”) in order to force the argument into an unending spiral of irrationality.
Of course, the counter points conspiracy theorists use are often based in absurdity. But that’s beside the point. Because, entertaining an argument like this usually only brings more chaos, not order.
A few months ago, I made the mistake of challenging someone on their false assumptions about the national coin shortage. I had mentioned to this person that I was frustrated about not being able to get cash from the self-checkout machines at Meijer. They replied that I better get used to such a thing because it was only the beginning of the One World Government’s plan to do away with all currency that isn’t digital. When I reminded him that this was more likely caused by the need of the employees at the US Mint to follow Covid restrictions, he became irritated. I was labeled a “communist,” and I’ve likely lost credibility to speak into this person’s life in other areas because of such an interaction.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that what I did there was wrong. I just wasn’t following the right maxim. Instead of employing Proverbs 26:5, I should have been following the advice of 26:4.
But when do we “answer a fool according to his folly” then?
I think that there are times when offering correction to someone is the orderly thing to do.
Take, for example, a QAnon supporter who is now beginning to ask questions about their assumptions in light of recent non-events. I think that it would be orderly to help this person process by offering up corrective answers with the attempt of helping them escape their delusions.
It’s also appropriate to answer a fool according to his folly when such a person is calling into question orthodox beliefs like Jesus’ resurrection, our need for a Savior, the existence of God, and so forth. To let such a person continue to speak against beliefs like that without also offering correction would be very damaging. They might think that our lack of response is evidence of our agreement with them. Others listening might also be persuaded by their speech if it’s left unchecked.
But all in all, when do we answer a fool according to their folly and when do we not? Thinking about it in terms of order and chaos will help us better discern the steps we should take in the moment.
 See Proverbs 8:22-31
 See John Walton’s explanation of this here: https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/walton-and-hill-ask-what-is-wisdom-an-excerpt-from-old-testament-today-2nd-edition. The Bible Project also has a great introductory podcast to Proverbs. Check that out here: https://bibleproject.com/podcast/wisdom-series-proverbs