Updated: Sep 20, 2019
Question or Topic
We know that God does not contradict himself yet it seems there is a direct contradiction in verses 4-5 in Proverbs 26. What does this mean?Proverbs 26: 4-5
Proverbs 26: 4-5; "4Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. 5Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."
As mentioned above God does not contradict himself so in cases where it seems that He does, further study must be undertaken to understand the meaning of the passage. The definition of a fool as given in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is, "a person who lacks sense or judgment". This does not necessarily mean a person who is mentally deficient but mostly one who refuses to take instruction and teaching, especially of obvious truths.
It does no one any good to bandy words with a person who refuses to see obvious truths that stand before his very eyes but do not fit his ideas. They will just keep coming back with the same old arguments until the situation is completely confusing and disturbing to those present. The only way that progress can be made is to elevate the subject of discussion to a higher level. Sometimes this can be accomplished using some of their own arguments but expanding them into a more educational way. I think that this is at least part of the meaning to the verses in question.
Bullinger's Companion Bible has a note on this verse that might help us to understand what is meant in the verses in question; "Answer not. The point of v.4 is that you cannot reason with a fool; v.5 gives the reason. If you answer not according to his folly, he will think he is wise as yourself. If you do answer him according to his folly, he will think you are a fool as he is: These are finely stated facts, not commands."
I think some of the best illustrations of such are the Jewish learned men who in their own society were considered very wise. They were so wise in their own conceit that they refused to acknowledge Christ even in the face of the vast number of miracles that he performed before them. Just because what he was trying to teach them did not match what they wanted to hear they closed their ears and minds to him and his followers. This is why Christ taught so much in parables which he elaborated on for his followers but left the fools as puzzled as when they started.
In Matt. 12:39-40 is one illustration of how Christ handled such a situation. He had been performing various miracles including the healing of the sick when the Pharisees approached him and asked for a sign to prove his identity. Jesus, instead of giving them another sign told them that they would not believe it if he had given it to them. He then referred them to Jonah, one of their prophets, and likened the 3 days and 3 nights that Jonah had stayed in the belly of the great fish to what he himself was to experience very soon. When he was buried for 3 days and 3 nights in the earth then was resurrected and was taken into Heaven they still refused to acknowledge him as God's son and as their Messiah. Jesus gave them sign after sign for three and a half years doing things that could only have been accomplished through the use of God's Holy Spirit. They were not impressed and even attributed his powers to the pagan God of the fly, Beelzebub. This was a blasphemy for which they could not be forgiven as it denied the Holy Spirit. Their foolishness was their doom.
He referred again to this same sign in Matthew 16-4; "The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would show them a sign from heaven. 2He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.3And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O yehypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? 4A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed."
He brought to their attention how they tried to predict the weather by watching the colors and conditions of the sky, which we know is a very iffy thing as weather conditions can change very suddenly. In this way he approached them on their level yet did in no way place himself within their way of thinking. He then drew their attention to the sign of Jonah given to them previously thus making his answer on a much higher level yet one, had they heeded, would have been the greatest lesson they could have learned.
How many times in our lives have we met people that want to argue the Bible but refuse to seriously examine it for answers? They may actually study the Bible seriously but their understanding may contradict the Gospel. One can talk to such for hours and never accomplish anything. They just keep coming back with the same arguments completely ignoring the word of the Bible in their own hands. A person of this type is what Proverbs refers to as a fool. We cannot reason with them on their level as they think you consider them wise but maybe we can take some of their arguments to a higher level and draw their attention to something they have overlooked in scripture. This seldom seems to happen and if no progress is being made we have scriptures that tell us what to do, one of which; "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." (Matthew 7:6).
Let us finish this with a bit of exhortation. It is very easy for any of us to fall into the fool category. We can let ourselves develop an idea with which we become so absorbed that we can refuse to listen to any other view. This can only be avoided with study and prayer. We must keep examining ourselves and make sure that our views are in compliance with God's word. This is the life long occupation for believers.