“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” (vv. 4–5)- Proverbs 26
The books of the Old Testament Wisdom Literature all come to us in the genre of poetry, but each offers its own unique perspective. Together, they give us a full picture of what it means to live wisely in this world. For example, the poems in the book of Psalms show us how wise men and women praise the Lord. The often darker notes sounded in Ecclesiastes help us to look at the repetitiveness of life from the standpoint of eternity. Song of Solomon gives us a picture of marital love that encourages us to look beyond this world for a love that will never fail to satisfy. The narrative framing sequences in Job reveal the sovereign God behind all things.
Proverbs, of course, emphasizes practical living before the face of God with its distinctive aphoristic sayings. As we consider the background of this book, the majority of which comes to us from King Solomon, we need to recognize that while the book is inspired by God, it makes use of a literary form that is common even in cultures that do not know the Scriptures—the proverbial saying. Proverbial sayings can be found around the world, and getting an idea of how they work in a non-inspired context will help us see just what Solomon and others are doing with their divinely inspired proverbs.
Among the most well known of all proverbs in English is, “Look before you leap.” It is easy enough to grasp what this saying means—we should carefully take the future into account before we make any decisions. This is true in general, but particularly regarding decisions with long-term consequences. In English we also find the proverb, “He who hesitates is lost.” This saying gives us the opposite warning. There are times that we will miss a good opportunity if we are too cautious. Obviously, we cannot apply both of these proverbs in the same way to every situation we face. Whether we must be extra cautious or quick to act depends largely on the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Though they are divinely inspired, the proverbial sayings in the book of Proverbs work in a similar fashion. To apply the book of Proverbs rightly, we must carefully consider the situation in which wisdom is needed. We are not endorsing situational ethics or denying the objective truth of the Word of God. We are only recognizing that we apply proverbs differently than we do other literary forms such as commands.
The pair of proverbial sayings chosen for today’s passage shows us that many of these statements from the book of Proverbs are situation-specific. Sometimes a fool cannot be silenced by responding in kind, and at that point one must say nothing. But if the fool is teachable, responding in kind can be beneficial. How do you know which one applies? As with all proverbs, you have to know the kind of circumstances—the kind of person in this case—you are facing.
Passages for Further Study
Proverbs 1; 8; 31
2 Peter 2:22