Do the Proverbs Contradict Themselves? (Article)
Life is full of contradictions, and many of them are hilarious! Dolly Parton said, “It costs a fortune to look this cheap.” Yogi Berra said, “No wonder no one comes to this restaurant anymore, you can’t ever get a table.” My daughter wants to be fiercely independent (cook for herself, take out the trash, etc.), but she wants me to carry her up the stairs when it’s bedtime. We are fallen creatures, so we all have our own contradictions and inconsistencies.
It’s one thing for us to have contradictions; it’s another thing to charge God with them! You can google “contradictions in the Bible” and find tons of lists. It’s a popular charge against Christianity. People want to show the Bible is inconsistent, so they can prove that it is NOT God’s Word, and therefore they don’t have to take its claims seriously (i.e. John 14:6). These so-called contradictions are an attempt to turn people away from the faith. Most of them are EASILY addressed to be honest, but we want to look at a common one here in Proverbs 26:4-5.
Proverbs 26:4–5 (ESV) 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.
Is the Bible contradictory, and therefore untrue? NO! So, what does it mean? Doesn’t it seem to contradict? This is only an APPARENT contradiction NOT a real one. Some try to solve the dilemma by saying Proverbs aren’t timeless or absolutes; they are general rules that are RELEVANT to a given situation. BUT, that’s wrong…Proverbs are ABSOLUTE truths!
The sages who collected Solomon’s proverbs were NOT stupid. They were WISE men. Why would they put these 2 verses right next to each other? Because they’re showing that they must be read TOGETHER. Together – not separately – they give the true picture of reality (i.e. how to correct a fool).
Don't Stoop to the Fool's Level by Playing His Game
There are some types of fools and situations where you shouldn’t rebuke, correct, confront, or answer. Wisdom is the discernment to read the person/situation and know if that’s the case. How do you know? If your answer to them will require stooping to their level, then avoid it. If your answer or attempt at correction will do no good, if it will drain your energy and not get anyone anywhere, then it’s best to remain quiet.
Prov. 9 says something similar. If despite your best efforts, they won’t be corrected, if you only hurt yourself by playing his game, then stay quiet. There are people who will ask you questions but don’t really want to hear your answers because they think they know it all. Don’t waste your time thinking through and answering their questions, emails, Facebook posts, etc.
I think 26:4 also means to NOT answer a fool in a foolish way…don’t lie, exaggerate, mock, or speak unkindly just to get your point across. Example: You have to win the argument and shut them up, so you exaggerate to make the point. Don’t fight fire with fire…otherwise you are the level with the fool, AND, no honor is given to the fool (26:1)[i] and he is under judgment. So, there are some people you shouldn’t answer/correct/keep the conversation going.
Don’t play his game or by his rules > if you’re going to answer, then change up the rules! For example in evangelism, you need to recognize sidetracking comments, don’t play the game, keep the focus on Jesus’ not objections about manuscripts. But, this is true in any type of conversation, dialogue or relational interaction: Family, Church, Office, Neighbor, Classmate, Facebook, Blogs, Friends, Education, etc. Any counseling (pro or just advice) > wherever conversing takes place.
Refuse to play the fool’s game with him! It’s so easy for us to get sucked into responding on Facebook because want to be seen as right (let it go). Like the guy who tried to convince me one time that Jesus would’ve dated non-Christians. That’s NOT even worth responding to. Don’t let someone get a rise out of you. Don’t get into never ending arguments where you have to have the last word (in marriage, or a friendship, etc.).
Transition: BUT, don’t use this as an excuse to chicken out because there is a time to answer…
Correct a Fool So He Doesn't Think He Is Wise
26:5 says that there are some fools and situations that should be confronted, answered, or corrected. Don’t stay quiet in those cases because if you don’t answer them, they’ll be wise in their own eyes and destroy themselves (26:12). For some, it will do good to correct them because they might listen! Also, there are times when there are others around who’ll be hurt by the person’s foolishness, so you can’t stay silent. Don’t tolerate foolishness in such a way that the person thinks what they’re saying is right. So, lovingly correct them – show their folly – without lowering yourself if it will do the person or others good. Otherwise, they might think they’re smart because no one is correcting them. This is true in BIG matters like evangelism, marital issues, etc., but it’s also true in “little” matters like spending, laziness, bad thinking on a specific subject, etc. You will regret not speaking up when you had the chance if they hurt themselves
Wisdom Is the Discernment to Know When to Correct
The sages’ point is this: Wisdom is the discernment to read people and situations and know when to respond and when to stay silent. Wisdom = growing in the knowledge of when to correct someone and when not to. You’re discerning the outcome – you know when answering will help him or play his game. Daily life has both situations, and wisdom is the ability to assess them and decide what to do.
Proverbs has taught us that Wisdom isn’t a thing; Wisdom is a person – Jesus of Nazareth. So, growth in Him doesn’t just mean growth in not sinning as much, although it does. It also means growth in DISCERNMENT! You know if answering will get you nowhere, or if it’ll help the person or others around them! This is what growing in Christlikeness looks like.
The Power to Grow in Discernment is in Christ not in You
NOT having this discernment reveals a problem with Jesus in your life. You’re not walking with him – you have an idol in your life. If you’re too cowardly to confront, or if you’re not able to read a situation and know when to let it lie, then it’s because you’re not believing in Jesus rightly!
After all, Jesus AMAZED people with this ability. He knew when to stay silent because a reply would do no good. And, He knew when to correct. He could read people and situations and knew exactly how to respond or not respond.
In Matt 15, the Pharisees challenged Him because His disciples didn’t follow the rules. He turns around and busts them for not honoring their moms and dads – He revealed their hypocrisy, so that they were not wise in their own eyes or the eyes of the crowd.
In Matt 16, Peter foolishly rebukes Jesus concerning the cross, and Jesus answers him to correct his folly, “Get behind me Satan!”
Look at Matthew 22:15-22. Jesus is able to know when they’re testing Him, and the opponents marvel at Him, so that the text says in 22:46, “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (WOW!) Jesus knew when to stay silent and refuse to play their games (Matt 21:27). When he’s on trial with the Jewish leaders, He remains silent…he later amazes Pilate by this (Mark 15:5).
Jesus grew in this ability and this is what He produces in His followers. They couldn’t resist Stephen’s wisdom (Acts 7:10). So, if you’re NOT growing in this ability, then repent and go to Jesus. Cry out to Him, “Lord, show me where I lack discernment. Judge me in this and give me wisdom” (i.e. James 1). It could be because you’re not a believer and need to trust Him for the first time. It might be because you are a believer but not walking with Christ in this area. The answer is the same for both…repent and believe!
[i] Roland Murphy, Proverbs, NIBC (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 129.