Chapter 26

from
Lectures on the Book of Proverbs
by
Ralph Wardlaw


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Proverbs 26:4,5

"Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."

In these two verses there is the appearance of contradiction. But it is appearance only. The principle of harmony seems to lie in the different senses which the words "according to his folly" are susceptible.

The case is obvious. There may be folly both in the matter and the manner of the fool's talk. In neither must he be imitated. We must not bring ourselves down to his level.

We must not debate with him in his own style or manner, allowing him to get the better of our temper and self-possession. The evil of answering the fool according to his folly in this sense is stated in the end of the verse: "lest you also be like him;" that is, lest you pass for a fool like him and share in the contempt that attaches to his character. And this is especially apt to be the case when a man--in the presence of those who do not know him--enters into the foolish, frothy, absurd, contemptible talk of the silly, the vain, and the worthless fool; chiming in, encouraging, and seemingly approving his folly, relishing and enjoying it. In point of fact, however, he really contracts resemblance to the fool, for by descending to the level of his folly he risks contracting the smallness and silliness of the fool's mind.

On the other hand, "answer a fool according to his folly" means to answer him as his folly deserves. Often times entire silence is a most suitable reply. The fool's trivial objections and questions may not really be deserving of notice at all. In such cases, it is essential that a man's pointed silence make this unworthiness plain. Otherwise the fool will impute that silence to his inability to answer and thereby take credit to himself. This "triumph" will settle him in his self-conceit. Nevertheless, this should not be done in any such way as would render us guilty of the very principle which we seek to repress in him, that is, of ill temper and self conceit. That would be to answer him according to his folly in the sense of the fourth verse, and "be like him."

The objective is to give an answer that will expose the ignorance or malice of the fool and put a reply out of his power, making him feel his folly in order to bring down his self conceit. This should be done in meekness as well as firmness, and more in the spirit of pity than of scorn. This is especially true when the subject is a serious one. Then we must show forth the importance of the subject, that it is not one to be trifled with or treated with lightness. We need to use such force of argument as shall settle the question, such determined firmness as to rebuke and repress the spirit of self conceit, and such gentleness and kindliness as shall arouse attention and candid consideration, and contribute to winning the heart.

This last great objective we are too prone to forget. Never should we imagine it sufficient merely to gain a victory on a disputed point. Our aim should be to gain the foolish, to draw him to a conviction of God's truth and a choice of God's ways.


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Proverbs 26:12

"Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him."

How strong is the expression for the utter hopelessness of the self-conceited man! From what Solomon had just said of the fool, and especially of his attachment to his folly and his proneness to return to it, we can hardly imagine a stronger statement than this: "there is more hope of a fool"--yes, of a fool (the man who returns to his folly like the dog to his vomit)--"than of him."

The man who is thoroughly possessed with a high notion of his own superiority in wisdom and excellence will listen to nothing. He is so encased in his self-sufficiency and self-esteem that no advice, no reproof, no counsel can reach him. He follows his own way with a headstrong impetuosity and a sovereign contempt of all who would presume to offer him any direction. All the wisdom of the wise goes past him like the idle wind.


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