Proverbs 26:4 (KJV) says,

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

The very next verse, verse 5, says,

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

To answer or not to answer?

This seeming contradiction has me scratching my head. I wonder if this is a translation issue. I've looked it up in the YLT and a handful of other translations and they all say the same thing.

The Brenton Septuagint adds "Yet" to the beginning of verse 5, which might mean something, but I'm not sure what.

I'm very interested in seeing if someone has some insight into this quandary.

  • Depending on the extent to which the fool in question understands sarcasm, a witty answer could be either enlightening or obscure. – Lucian Sep 16 '19 at 2:21
  • I don't think anyone has ever asked about these verses on this site before. Which is kind of amazing. – curiousdannii Sep 16 '19 at 3:44

I think the thing which is causing you to see a contradiction is the use of the imperative. Rephrase using conditionals:

If you answer a fool according to his folly, you risk becoming like him.
If you refrain from answering a fool according to his folly, he may become wise in his own conceit.

and the problem disappears. Instead you're left with a complementing couplet which can be summed up as "You can't win in an interaction with a fool".

As to why the imperative is used: I don't have data, but a quick skim suggests that conditionals are fairly rare in Proverbs. As a working hypothesis I would propose that the preference for the imperative is a rhetorical device which (quite reasonably) was considered appropriate for giving advice.

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  • Nice idea. Quick morphological note: in v. 4 the form is not imperative but אל + jussive (as there is no negated imperative). – user2672 Sep 15 '19 at 8:05
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    Okay, that's pretty nifty. Thanks! – Iconoclast Sep 15 '19 at 10:18
  • Exactly, you can't win against a fool, at least not in his eyes. Could at times be related to Proverbs 26:16. Either you respond according to the way in which he framed it or a manner in which he can understand, in which case you're foolish like him (as well as your response), or you answer in a different way or a manner in which he does not understand - or refrain from answering altogether - and he thinks himself wise and victorious. He is a fool for a reason, and he may likely remain a fool. – Andrew Sep 16 '19 at 15:02
  • @Iconoclast So for instance, suppose the original question here was, "These proverbs are obviously contradictory and wrong, and yield no suitable advice. What's the point?" Well, you could try to answer that according to his question, like, "Because they're in the Bible so we should follow them even if they're wrong." Then you are the fool. Or you could say e.g., "They're not wrong, just presenting 2 bad outcomes to consider when dealing with a fool, and to help you identify a fool." Then the fool would scoff and think you stupid, because he is not willing to understand. See Proverbs 20:9. – Andrew Sep 16 '19 at 15:07
  • That makes sense. It also fits with what I've learned from experience. – Iconoclast Sep 16 '19 at 15:48

The contradiction is intended, and rhetorical—and present in the Hebrew. However, there may be a slight play on the use of the preposition כ which means "according to, like" as in "according to his folly." If taken to mean "in the way he is foolish," it could refer to not being like him, "lest you become even as he is." But if taken in the "in his folly" sense, it could mean, "while he might be foolish [don't be foolish yourself]." Either way, the thrust is that answering him "according to his folly" is, by definition, foolishness, and makes you a fool; but that, on the other hand, answering him prevents him from thinking his foolishness valid, inasmuch as it goes not go unchallenged.

Rhetoric like this is helpful to show that there is both a downside and a benefit from the thing mentioned, and to prevent one being remembered without the other (running away with half the story), and it is implied that prudential judgement will judge which is more appropriate for the situation.

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  • I appreciate your reply. This makes sense. I'm sure it comes through much more clearly in the Hebrew than it does in English. – Iconoclast Sep 14 '19 at 20:59

Answer Not A Fool, or Answer A Fool?

Proverbs 26:4-5 Amplified Bible (AMP)

4 "Do not answer [nor pretend to agree with the frivolous comments of] a [closed-minded] fool according to his folly, Otherwise you, even you, will be like him."

5 "Answer [and correct the erroneous concepts of] a fool according to his folly, Otherwise he will be wise in his own eyes [if he thinks you agree with him]."

To answer or not to answer? Yes by all means answer the fool, but how?

There is no contradiction ,the verses simply differentiate the correct and incorrect ways to answer a foolish person, in verse four it warns that you should not answer the stupid person according to his foolishness, that is using , ridicule, with fits of rage, scorn, or resorting to demeaning language or arguments, and so forth. For if you do so, you will lower yourself to his level and you are like him.

In verse five by all means answer the foolish person , using the power of reasoning to expose his erroneous concepts and conclusions as being ridiculous . In this way you will expose his stupid ways, which will act as a discouragement to him in continuance of his foolishness. This will serve as a rebuke and therefore he will not feel wise in his own eyes.

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"Too many cooks spoil the broth" or "It takes many hands to make light work [ make hard work easier ]" - which one is true? More people is good or bad?

Both are true, and the invitation into tension is also an invitation into wisdom and relationship. Rather than black and white answers, we're encourage to see that many issues have multiple perspectives and knowing what the right answer is can be contextual so that having insight from God helps us to apply the right answer.

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  • Hello Nathan, welcome to BHSE, so glad to have you with us! If you haven't already, make sure to take our tour to get yourself familiar with this site, you'll discover that we are a little different than other sites you know. (hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour) Thanks! – sara Sep 15 '19 at 6:10

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