Proverbs twenty-six, especially verses four and five, came to mind today because of an exchange with a self-style prophet. When dealing with such fools, one finds it hard to know the right course of action to take. Verse four discourages answering a fool, while verse five encourages answering him. This apparent contradiction is not lost on most who read the passage. Interestingly, it comes across as a “darned if you do; darned if you don’t” sort of situation. It appears that no matter what one does in response to a fool, it will not go well.
The entire chapter is about avoiding interaction with, and the dangers of close proximity to fools. Unfortunately, the internet in general (and social media in particular) seems to be a magnet for fools and any time spent online will lead to discussions with them. While I would never support some sort of internet censorship, I do think we as Christian should know how to respond. Before I lay out some pointers on how to respond, let me tell you that I come to these conclusions as one who too often did not respond well. I’ve been burned in the flame war. I’ve been called names and done a fair share of name calling myself. I have ruined relationships with people because the anonymity of the internet made it possible to act in a way that I would never have done face to face. Sometimes, I fear that I have been the fool others were trying to correct.
In thinking about Proverbs 26:4f I wanted to share some thoughts about dealing with fools and especially about what this passage tells us. The book of Proverbs, like Ecclesiastes, is part of a genre known as Wisdom Literature. Wisdom Literature is mostly poetic and meant to provide practical guidance for the day to day living of life. This type of literature is common throughout the world and can be found in most cultures. Much of Proverbs is written in the form of an elder telling a youth how to behave and how to respond to the world.
In English poetry, the primary tool used is rhyme and rhythm. A major attribute of Hebrew poetry is parallelism (sometimes defined as a logical rhythm). In parallelism one line, or thought, will be repeated with an identical, supporting or contrasting line or thought. We see this poetic feature throughout the Old Testament, including Proverbs. Here is an examples to consider:
Proverbs 25:16f (NIV)
16: “If you find honey, eat just enough—too much of it, and you will vomit.”
17: “Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house—too much of you and he will hate you.”
Some will ask how this is parallelism, since one is about overeating honey and the other about not making a pest of yourself. Actually, they are both about moderation in pleasant things. Just as too much of something wonderfully sweet will become repulsive, too much of you—no matter how sweet you may find yourself—will become repulsive. An interesting version used by Dave Ramsey is: “If you eat enough lobster, it starts to taste like soap.”
Psalms are full of examples of parallelism. Let’s look at Psalm 51 (one of my favorites) for examples:
5 (NIV): “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
7 (NIV): “Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”
You can see the parallelism in both passages. In verse 5, David speaks of being sinful at the moment of birth, and in the next breath he takes this further by pointing out that he was conceived sinful. Both are related, but he has taken the first statement and made it stronger. In verse 7 he speaks of being cleansed by God as being truly clean then steps it up by saying “wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” It is easier to understand if we consider that in the first part he speaks of ceremonial cleansing (with hyssop) and then speaks of the action of a fuller doing laundry. The word for “wash me” describes the action of a fuller, who would put clothing into a vat and then stomp the filth from them and add uric acid to bleach them white and dissolve the grime. So verse 7 is literally “Stomp the filth out of me and I will be whiter than snow.” This juxtaposes the spiritual cleansing making one ceremonial clean and the practical cleansing of garments.
The examples also show that in parallelism the compared lines or thoughts do not have to say the same thing in the same way—parallelism is not simple repetition. Sometimes, like in Proverbs 26:4f, the two lines are set up to contrast. However, there are enough details to get some great meaning out of verses 4 and 5. Let’s lay them out here before looking at them (both are from the NIV):
4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.”
5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”
Notice that in one you are told a bad thing will result if you answer the fool, and in the other you are told a bad thing will happen if you do not answer a fool. In each case following the command is meant to prevent the bad result. When you start to break this down you will actually see that there is no contradiction. It shows the bad situation possible when interacting with fools. This problem alone should be enough to steer us away from them, when possible. Yet, we can discern from it how to respond in those situations where you inevitably deal with fools.
Understand from the passage that if you interact with a fool, you are going to look foolish and if you simply ignore him and let him go on his way, he will likely take that as tacit agreement with his views. So the question of “Then how should I respond to the fool?” is better asked as, “Should I risk looking foolish to help the fool or should I allow the fool to assume I agree.” The answer to this will differ according to the situation. If the fool is someone you are responsible for (meaning that you will be held responsible for the fool’s actions or that you are responsible for making them wise) then it is better to look foolish and intercede. If the fool’s actions will endanger others, and you could stop it, then it is better to risk looking or being foolish by stepping in. However, if the person is simply a fool for whom you are not responsible, and his actions or words do not endanger others, then it is probably best to let it go and leave the fool to his foolishness. We all have the same amount of freedom and that includes the freedom to be a fool, co long as our foolishness hurts only us.