When we study the Bible and what it teaches, we must do more out of our desire to please God than out of any effort to inflate our egos. Because the Bible provides essential wisdom for life, if we are wise we will use it, and if we love others, we will share its wisdom with them.
We should not use the Bible to bludgeon others. In so far as it is possible, humility requires us to judge others no more harshly than we would be judged. Therefore, when we call someone a fool, we must do so because they have left us no other choice.
Consider this example. 2 Samuel 11-2 Samuel 12:14 tells a story about great sins that King David committed. One might think that these sins showed David to be a fool. David committed adultery and murder. He made others his accomplices, that is, he used his power as an absolute monarch to coerce his officers and servants to participate in his sins.
What did David do? He betrayed the trust of one his most loyal retainers, Uriah the Hittite. While that man was in the field fighting David enemies, David took Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Then, when he had gotten Bathsheba pregnant, David tried to cover up his treachery. Ultimately, David had Uriah murdered. He ordered Joab, his commander in the field, to abandon that brave and loyal man to the mercies of an enemy who had none.
Yet for all his foolishness, God did not call David a fool. Instead, something that still seems very strange to us happened. David repented, and God forgave him. God punished David severely, but God did not condemn him to Hell for his sins. In fact, because David repented, the Apostle Paul could still say these words.
Acts 13:22 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
22 After He had removed him, He raised up David to be their king, concerning whom He also testified and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My heart, who will do all My will.’
What those around David could not see — what we cannot see — God saw. After David sinned, God saw David’s trouble conscience.
Psalm 32:3-5 English Standard Version (ESV)
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
David’s sorrow for his sin led God to show mercy. God sent Nathan the Prophet to David, and Nathan accused him of his sins. Then David ceased playing the fool. Instead of having Nathan murdered, David confessed his sins.
What distinguishes the fool when he sins? He sins without shame or remorse, and because of his sinfulness, he feels himself clever and wise.
Isaiah 5:20-21 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
20 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight!
All each of us knows of another is what they say and do. We do not read minds. We cannot see into another’s conscience. When another shows remorse, we can only guess how real it might be. Therefore, when we treat someone as a fool, we must do so judiciously.
Why? Consider what it means to treat another as a fool. When Jesus spoke of judging others (Matthew 7:1-6) in the Sermon on the Mount, He included these words.
Matthew 7:6 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
When someone behaves as the worst kind of fool, there is no purpose in having anything to do with them. Such a person can only be regarded as a dangerous threat.
Hence, when we must debate a fool, Proverbs 26 does not advise us to treat his words with respect.
Proverbs 26:4-5 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
5 Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.
Consider how Nathan spoke to David (2 Samuel 12:1-14). He shows respect for David’s person, but Nathan is uncompromising with respect David’s sin. Even though David is the king, Nathan vehemently rebukes him.
Did what Nathan did require great courage? Yes. Fortunately for Nathan, David repented, but David could have continued to behave like a fool. Then Nathan would have been the next victim of David’s foolishness.
Considering Other Views
The Book of Fools by Dr. Joe Temple @ www.livingbiblestudies.org
In the section entitled “A Fool is Insensitive,” Dr. Temple explains the meaning of Proverbs 26:4-5 using the King James translation. Here Temple provides a couple of examples of where Jesus answered the questions of fools (Since we are all fools, Jesus sort of had to do that.). I recommend reading this section as is. To extract part of the text would not do it justice. So I won’t.
Note that when we read most translations of Proverbs 26:4-5, we can easily get the idea that the verses are in direct contradiction. That is why I chose a translation that makes the distinction between the verses more obvious.
Here is Temple’s explanation of what the verses advise.
First Proverbs 26:4-5.
Proverbs 26:4-5 King James Version (KJV)
4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.
Dr. Temple asks us to:
Notice the last part of the verses. They keep them from being contradictory. There are times when you answer a fool according to his folly. When you do, you lower yourself to his level. You become like him. There are other times when it is necessary to answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. (from here)
Apparently, these verses confuse lots of people. So the writer at www.gotquestions.org has a post on it. Here are the guts of it.
Verse 4 warns against arguing with a fool on his own terms, lest we stoop to his level and become as foolish as he is. Because he despises wisdom and correction, the fool will not listen to wise reason and will try to draw us into his type of argument, whether it is by using deceit, scoffing at our wisdom, or becoming angry and abusive. If we allow him to draw us into this type of discourse, we are answering him “according to his folly” in the sense of becoming like him.
The phrase “according to his folly” in verse 5, on the other hand, tells us that there are times when a fool has to be addressed so that his foolishness will not go unchallenged. In this sense answering him according to his folly means to expose the foolishness of his words, rebuking him on the basis of his folly so he will see the idiocy of his words and reasoning. Our “answer” in this case is to be one of reproof, showing him the truth so he might see the foolishness of his words in the light of reason. (from here)
SIH’s Think On These Things: Proverbs 26:4-7 @ settledinheaven.wordpress.com
Rob Barkman has a series of posts on Proverbs that explains the book verse-by-verse. Here is ‘s example of applying Proverbs 26:4.
An example of answering according to his folly would be to take his objections to the Word lightly, answering him in jest, and joining in his attitude of mockery of it. Instead, we should seriously seek the Lord’s guidance to show to the fool, through our speech and actions, the importance of the Word of God. (from here)
expresses a deliberate reluctance to respond to the ramblings of a fool, but he admits that there are times that call for the application of Proverbs 26:5.
1. At times, it is better to not respond to the ramblings of a fool…
a. when a fool is hardened in his ways, no response will change the course of his life.
b. or when he speaks, his foolishness is made evident and those watching him realize they need to avoid his ways.
2. At other times, it is better to respond to the fool when….
a. the fool, through God’s grace, is given a teachable spirit which is demonstrated by a willingness to take our words seriously.
b. when he is misleading those around him, influencing their life to follow in his ways. It is best for the sake of those around to publicly reveal the error of his ways.
What Should We Conclude?
What defines a fool limits the way we can debate them. Like the rest of use, the fool has a propensity to sin, but the fool does so shamelessly, without remorse.
As observed in The Fall of Man (Genesis 3:1-24), we progress in sin from doubting, to denial, to deception, and finally disobedience to God. That is, either the fool convinces himself or is convinced that there is nothing wrong with the sin he wishes to commit. Therefore, the worst kind of fool, in order to persuade himself there is nothing to be gained by being good, convinces himself there is no God.
Psalm 14:1 New King James Version (NKJV)
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt,
They have done abominable works,
There is none who does good.
Uncertainty that God exists is foolish, but disbelief is entirely illogical. There is no way to prove such a thing. But that is part of what makes a fool a fool. In order to make it all about him, he does away with God.
Note: The post is part 3 in the ANSWERING FOLLY series. To find other posts in the series, just click on the link.