Monday, July 27, 2009

on the apparent contradiction in Proverbs 26:4-5

A buddy emailed me the following question last evening. . . .


Reading Proverbs 26 tonight, I came across a couple of verses that
confused me.

Four and Five seem to contradict one another, and even after checking the context and consulting a few different translations, I was lost.

When you have a minute, could you clarify.

Thanks brother!
Needless to say, I was just encouraged that he was reading along with me in the Proverbs. . . . but its true. . . . those two verses do seem to contradict one another. Take a look. . .

(26:4) Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Or you will also be like him.

(26:5) Answer a fool as his folly deserves, That he not be wise in his own eyes.
So what do we do with that? Here's my answer followed by a few additional thoughts by commentator Tremper Longman. . .
Great question! Some of the Proverbs do seem to contradict each other reminding us that wisdom is often situational. What is wise in a given situation varies. There are times when answering a fool according to his folly can suck us into his folly, depending on the question that's being asked by the fool or the situation in which he is asking. There are other times, when a fool should be answered according to his folly, to show him his folly and put him in his place and to help him along.

After taking my own shot at your question, I checked to see what commentator Tremper Longman thought. Here's his perspective. . . .

This proverb pair is prime evidence leading toward the proper understanding of the proverb genre. Proverbs are not universally true laws but circumstancially relevant principles. In short, the answer depends on the nature of the fool with whom one is engaged in conversation. In other words, the wise person must assess whether this is a fool who will simply drain one's energy with no positive results or whether an answer will prove fruitful to the fool or perhaps to those who everhear. The wise not only know the proverb, but also can read the circumstances and the people with whom they dialogue.

Hope that helps. Let me know what you think.
So what do you think? Did you catch the apparent contradiction? Did you just rush over it and not even try to reconcile it? Or did you reconcile it in another way?

Are you reading along in Proverbs with me, a proverb a day corresponding to the day of the month? Maybe you've missed a day or two and are on the verge of throwing in the towel. Don't do it!

If you miss a day, don't give up and don't beat yourself up, just start again today reading the chapter that corresponds to that day. (I've even missed a couple of days. . . its not a big deal!)


Brian Wong said...

Hey Pastor Tim,
I saw the "contradiction" in the Proverb, but it actually made pretty good sense to me right off the bat.

I think this goes along with what you and the commentator wrote, but the paraphrase I came away with was (26:4) "Do not answer a foolish question with a foolish answer because you'll be no different than he."
(26:5) "Answer a foolish question with a wise answer in order to call out the foolishness of that question."

This has been a lot of fun! Thanks for encouraging us to read the Word together.

Greg Turner said...

Brian Wong,

I read it along similar lines. I'd be interested if any of the "original" langue translations would shed more light? Perhaps different forms of the word that here is translated as "according"?

MB said...

Thanks guys. If you can, take a peak at Matthew Henry's Commentary (aval. Online if you search for it). It might make the most sense out of everything I read. Thanks!

Geckomayhem said...

I've thought about this verse pairing a number of times over the years. I came to pretty much the same conclusion as both you and the commentator: that they are reflections of each other in Proverbial form, to emphasise the point that wisdom is indeed situational. It's like an arrow pointing towards wisdom itself and saying, "Hey, if you utilise godly wisdom, this verse-couple will make sense to you, and you'll see that sometimes a fool should be answered and sometimes it's just not worth your while." :)