“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.”
How and when should a person answer foolish arguments? These two statements, which at first glance appear contradictory, give a balanced approach for dealing with foolishness in a godly way.
Who is the “Fool”?
The “fool” in Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature has less to do with a person’s mental faculty and more to do with his unwillingness to hear the voice of divine wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33). The road to knowledge, wisdom and living well in general begins with “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Psa. 111:10). A person may have a very high IQ and still have a foolish attitude and outlook on life (Psa. 14:1). So, foolishness is not a result of a lack of education, intellectual training or natural mental acuity. Rather, one becomes a fool and remains a fool by choice.
The Apparent Contradiction
The above two proverbs say, “Answer not a fool according to his folly…” and, “Answer a fool according to his folly…” What is going on here?
The Rabbis solved the issue by saying that v.4 referred to secular things while v.5 referred to sacred or religious controversies. While this does not resolve the issue, it does give a sound application for the two verses together – in negligible issues one should just ignore the stupid person, but in issues that matter the fool must be dealt with, lest credence be given to what he says (W. G. Plaut, Proverbs, 266).
I believe each verse gives separate instructions. Taken together, they give us a balanced, more comprehensive approach to dealing with stupidity. Verse 4 gives us the rule while verse 5 gives us the exception. So each verse has a different purpose depending on the situation.
Most of the time, to answer “a fool according to his folly,” or by his own mode of reasoning, will only perpetuate folly. The interchange will never end and you end up looking like a fool in the process. But to answer him not at all may create a new problem. If a foolish remark is never answered others may think the fool is actually wise and cannot be answered. “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Prov. 26:12) So when do I know when to keep my mouth shut and when to speak up?
When Not to Answer the Fool (v.4)
The general rule is to remain silent. Arguing with a fool hardly ever gets anywhere. Most foolish statements are too ridiculous to dignify with a response. “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.” (26:1) “Fine speech is not becoming to a fool…” (17:7a) Besides, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)
To answer a fool according to his own reasoning is to allow one fool to make another. Foolishness is contagious. So silence is usually the most effective reply to foolishness. “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (17:28) Therefore, before jumping into an argument make sure you won’t be lowering yourself into the fool’s arena only to become one yourself!
When to Answer the Fool (v.5)
There are times, however, when suffering a fool to speak is too great an evil. If a fool is never answered he may gain confidence and be considered wise by others. Others may be duped into believing the fool’s arguments and positions are unassailable. To meet the fool on his own ground may puncture his inflated ego and stop his stupidity from spreading to others.
In one assembly with a question-answer format, a preacher unfolded a paper containing a submitted question and read the it aloud: “When did Job’s turkey die?” The audience laughed. The preacher then replied, “From the looks of the scratching on this paper, he hasn’t died yet.” Even more laughter. The fool was answered according to his folly.
The apostle Paul answered the foolishness of the false teachers who questioned his legitimacy as an apostle with a little foolishness himself. And boy did he beat them at their own game! “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me!” (2 Cor. 11:1)
He wrote about things in which a fool would boast of. “I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!” (2 Cor. 11:16-19, 20ff)
Paul hated to be lowered to this kind of reasoning (2 Cor. 12:11) but circumstances called for these fools to be answered according to their own folly. Brethren, we need wisdom to know how to answer stupidity. Some cases call for silence while others demand a bold answer. With that being said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6)
“My times are in Your hand; Deliver me from the hand of my enemies and from those who persecute me.”
In last week’s article we established the fact that we are not locked in the grasp of a cruel, unchanging fate nor are we ships tossed about on a sea of chance. Rather we are servants willfully submitting to the sovereign reign of God who, by His providence, controls all things according to His will. What are the practical implications of living in God’s “hand”?
(1) Prosperity should never be the occasion for pride.
Just because God grants us freewill to choose does not make us the source of blessing. The farmer must do his work in preparing the soil and wisely planting at the right time but he is utterly powerless to make the sun shine or the rain fall (Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17; Jas. 5:7).
Likewise, if we are financially successful we must thank God who gives us the ability to get wealth. “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deut. 8:17-18)
If we are at peace with our enemies we must thank God for teaching us the way of reconciliation (Prov. 16:7). If we are forgiven we must thank God for His grace and mercy (Eph. 2:8-9). As Israel’s rescue from Egyptian bondage was not due to Moses’ leadership abilities or Pharaoh’s cowardice but of God’s power and love, so is our rescue from sin (Ex. 3:7-9).
(2) Uncertainty should never be the occasion for panic.
God knows how prone we are to anxiety judging by the frequency the topic is addressed in Scripture (Mt. 6:25-34; Phil. 4:6, etc.). All our panic, anxiety and fearfulness is due to a loss of confidence in the phrase, “My times are in your hand.” Like Habakkuk, we might look at our surroundings and feel as if the world is out of control and say, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear?” (Hab. 1:1)
It is easy to be overwhelmed by life’s uncertainties. Living on this sin-cursed earth, we are always steps away from disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, danger and death “but in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us…” (Rom. 8:37-39). The antidote is resigning our will to the Father’s and committing our spirit into the hands of the One who formed it. (Lk. 23:46; Psa. 139:13)
(3) Adversity should never be the occasion for self-pity.
All self-pity can be traced back to a failure to realize God’s control. But there comes a time when we all ask, “Why me?” and forget that the question should be, “Why not me?” (Jn. 15:20; 2 Tim. 3:12) Joseph had good reason to be miserable considering his circumstances and yet he said to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5).
In other words, “My times are in Your hand.” Joseph attributed his situation to God’s control, chalking the whole thing up to providence (Gen. 45:7-8). God can even use human evil to work out to His glory, shaping us into the image of His Son along the way (Rom. 8:28-29).
(4) Providence should always cultivate a sense of humility.
Prosperity causes most people to congratulate themselves but when Pharaoh asked if Joseph could interpret his dream, he didn’t say, “Oh, yeah! I’m great at dreams! I’m your man.” Instead, he said, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Gen. 41:16)
When Goliath came slandering God’s people, David didn’t say, “Here I am! My name’s David, and I’m going to kill you!” Instead, he said, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand…” (1 Sam. 17:45-46). David knew God would provide the victory.
There was no pride in Joseph’s and David’s voice. Only humility and wonder and confidence in God’s power. We are dependent upon God at every level of our lives. Let’s not forget it by drawing attention to ourselves and trumpeting our achievements. Let us acknowledge that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
(5) Providence should always increase our sense of security.
It is only when we are willing to commit ourselves to this truth, “My times are in your hand,” that we can ever be freed from the regrets of yesterday, strengthened for the challenges of today and safeguarded for the uncertainties of tomorrow.
Believe in the providence of God. But more than that, be trained by it to live a life of faithful obedience and submission to God’s will. Can you really say, as David did 3,000 years ago, “My times are in Your hand”?
“But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord, I say, “You are my God.” My times are in Your hand; Deliver me from the hand of my enemies and from those who persecute me.”
One of the many unique benefits about living as a Christian is how we view personal tragedy. As we live by faith, we can affirm with David, “My times are in [God’s] hand.” The very expression “my times” is an admittance of the brevity of life (Jas. 4:14). We are subject to change and adversity. But David also affirms his fleeting life is in the “hand” of God, submitting himself to God’s control.
The sons of Korah expressed this comforting truth another way, “Cease striving and know that I am God” (Psa. 46:10). What does it mean for us to commit ourselves to the care of God amid tragedy?
We Are Not Transcendentalists
Because we believe in a sovereign God, we are not trapped in the grip of blind predetermined forces. The Stoic philosophers Paul encountered in Athens (Acts 17:18) believed in a merciless system of unchangeable fate. They believed events were predetermined, so instead of struggling against this blind force we should simply accept things with a spirit of resignation.
This is true not just of the ancient Stoics but also of our modern day Pantheists. This blind impersonal force that directs the fate of men is really just a personification of what people call “mother nature” today. Life is a collection of individual cells making up a global organism. And we are all part of one awareness not unlike “the Force” (see Star Wars).
Man-made spirituality like Hinduism, the New-Age movement, Qabbala, even radical environmentalism, all have a Pantheistic view of reality (Universe=deity). Nature is sacred (see Avatar) and the only way we can contact god is through nature and in ourselves. But where does this thinking lead? Like the Stoics, “Que sera sera” (whatever will be will be).
But we say, “My times are in your hand” or as David said of God in another psalm, “You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me” (Psa. 139:5). It is a personal, loving God who is in control of our lives, not some blind predetermined force.
We Are Not Existentialists
Because we believe in a sovereign God, we are not ships tossed about on the sea of chance. The other philosophers that Paul encountered were Epicureans (Acts 17:18) who believed everything happens by chance. Since there is no existence before birth and nothing after death, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). The greatest good is what brings the greatest pleasure.
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We are left alone, without cause… condemned to be free.” He viewed freewill as a prison. In his novel Nausea he observed life and saw the nauseating quality of existence and the meaningless drudgery of life. “Man is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” Existentialism turns into nihilism which turns into fatalism. Life becomes devoid of purpose and value which translates into hedonistic and indulgent behavior.
So the attitude is, “Carpe diem!” (seize the day). The nihilist says there was nothing yesterday and there will be nothing tomorrow so do what you want today. Isn’t this what Jesus is saying in Mt. 6:34? No! Jesus says today matters because of what God has done in the past and what God has promised for the future. “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself…” (Mt. 6:34)
Our lives are not the result of random chance with only black nonexistence in the future. Our lives matter because there is a loving God in control of all things who works all things according to His will.
We Are Clay Shaped by God
Because we believe in a sovereign God, we are being trained in the school of God’s providence. God has not abandoned His creation (Deism) nor is God a personification of nature (Pantheism) nor has God forced His will upon His creatures (Calvanism). Rather, He is orchestrating everything according to His plan and incorporates us into His plan when we obediently follow His will (Acts 17:25-28; Eph. 1:5-7).
God’s hand may be hidden but His rule is absolute. Though His hidden will may be mysterious and confusing to us, especially when we are suffering, His revealed will is clear: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:28-29)
We are being shaped, one painful experience at a time, into the image of Jesus, the perfect image of God (Heb. 1:3; 2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Jn. 3:2). Despite our difficult circumstances we must commit ourselves into the Potter’s shaping hands. We may feel as if God isn’t there but we must remember His hand may be hidden but His rule is absolute. He is aware of the most minute details of life on earth, even to the lifecycle of a lowly sparrow, “and you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt. 7:11; 10:29-31).
“… you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.”
If you are like me, the first time you read through the law and came to a passage like Leviticus 25 you were gob smacked. After redeeming the Hebrews from slavery God provided His newborn nation with His law and ethic at Mount Sinai. It would seem a good time to outlaw the practice of slavery but instead He does not condemn it but merely regulates it. What is more, although they were not to make slaves of their kin it seems the Israelites were allowed to enslave non-Israelites. What is going on?!
It is helpful to remember that we all read the Bible through the lens of our experience and culture. When our western ears hear “slavery” we think of owned property, dehumanization, human trafficking, kidnapping, violence, rape, racism, chains, persecution, etc. This has led some people to ignore passages like these or tune out the Bible altogether.
Different Answers to the Problem
First, many opposed to the Bible use passages like these as ammunition against its credibility. ‘The Bible allows slavery so I don’t want any part of it!’ Richard Dawkins, the modern champion for Darwinian evolution, said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Second, liberal scholars use passages like these to teach the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God and question its reliability. ‘The author was speaking in the world that was and we’ve moved beyond such archaic beliefs.’ The same is said about homosexuality or women in ministry.
Third, some have even used passages like these to justify the practice of slavery. Men actually used Scripture to defend the Trans-Atlantic slave trade! I believe all three of these views are incorrect. But there remains a more nuanced and preferable reading of texts like Leviticus 25.
A More Preferable (Biblical) View
I don’t believe Mosaic Law is referring to the kind of exploitive labor that Africans were subjected to in this country in the not-so-distant past. The kind of slavery in Lev. 25 was more like service in the payment of an accrued debt; a temporary giving of oneself to a “master” for the purpose of paying off a debt. The master does not have total authority over his bondservant but was to treat him with dignity and love (see 1 Cor. 7:21-24; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; Philemon). Some modern translations have picked up on this and have replaced the word “slave” with “bondservant.”
So, what does the passage teach?
First, we must recognize Lev.25 does not promote or even allow ruthless treatment of non-Israelite slaves. Lack of prohibition against ruthlessness here does not imply such brutality was ever authorized. The other portions of the law still apply and must harmonize with ch.25 (Lev. 19:18).
Second, Lev.25 does not imply the evils of slavery our American ancestors inflicted upon Africans were allowed or promoted. In fact, the evils of slavery we are familiar with are explicitly prohibited:
So, if slavery could be used for such evil (and it was, even by the Israelites, Amos 5:11-13), then why not just ban it? “Slavery was such an integral part of social, economic, and institutional life of the ancient world that it is difficult to see how Israel could have excluded it altogether or effectively abolished it. So the Bible seeks to regulate, reform and correct the practice.” (Christopher Wright, “Old Testament Ethics”)
We must seek to understand the way God intended for Israel to use this system (again, see 1 Cor. 7:21-24; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; Philemon!). This type of servitude was not ideal but “was certainly realistic given the realities of poverty in a fallen world” (Jay Sklar, “Leviticus”). In a society where poverty produced starvation and death, this type of system aimed to help the poor, giving them food, shelter, and a stable family. In this way, it is not so different than many kinds of paid employment in a cash economy today.
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
(1 Corinthians 1:10)
Jesus’ desire is for His disciples to be perfectly united (Jn. 17:22-23). Like love (Jn. 13:35), unity is like God’s signature on a church. The Corinthian church, however, was giving God a black eye in their community. Paul wrote to expose and correct their shameful disunity which was a direct result of their lack of mutual love.
A Brotherly Appeal
He begins with an “appeal,” or an exhortation, as opposed to a command. First, Paul urges the Corinthians on the basis of their spiritual kinship as “brothers” and sisters in God’s family. Sharing this family tie by the blood of Christ they should conform their behavior to the gospel, not as law but as a response to the grace that is in Christ who brought them together.
An Apostolic Command
Paul does not end with a mere exhortation. By the middle of his sentence he flexes his apostolic muscles with the phrase “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul isn’t just requesting unity in Corinth, he is commanding it with his full apostolic authority! The name of Jesus, and all that it stands for, is the bedrock of his appeal. His appeal for unity is stated both positively and negatively three ways in an A, B, A pattern. He is teaching the same truth from three different angles.
Paul is urging them that…
A. “all of you agree” (positive)
B. “there be no divisions among you” (negative)
A. “be united in the same mind & the same judgment” (positive)
Positively, Paul urges unity by repeating “the same” three times in the mirrored lines (A) – that they all “agree” (literally, “say the same thing” NET) and be “united in the same mind” and “the same judgment.” Christians who work and worship together must agree on the fundamentals of the gospel, which Paul later spells out in the letter (1 Cor. 1:18-3:23). Paul isn’t suggesting that every Christian is uniformly “the same” and shares the same function in the body (ch.12). There is a necessary diversity in the church that serves to strengthen the body.
Rather, Paul is teaching that Christians must agree on the fundamental matters of the gospel, like the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-5) or the seven “ones” he lists to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:1-6, esp. vv.4-6). How then could the Corinthians be in agreement? To find out, we must note how Paul states his teaching negatively (line B).
Tearing Up the Church
Our English word “schism” is derived from the Greek word for “divisions” (schismata) that Paul uses here. Paul is not necessarily speaking of parties or factions in this verse (although he will later, 1:12ff). The word means “tear/rent” (cf. Mk. 2:21). The same word could be used to describe a plow dividing the soil into two separate lines in a field. John uses the word to describe the divided opinions different groups had concerning Jesus which resulted in them arguing with one another.
“Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division (schisma) among them.” (Jn. 9:16; cf. 7:40-43; 10:19-21)
This was the situation in Corinth, though their divided opinions were not of Jesus. The Corinthian division was over their divergent opinions of their various church leaders. This tear within the congregation had developed into jealousy and quarrelling. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers” (1 Cor. 1:11; cf. 3:3). What is Paul’s solution to this worldly problem?
Mending the Church
Rather than tearing up what Jesus had died to unify, the Corinthians needed to work towards being “united.” This would require diligent effort on their part (Eph. 4:3). The word Paul uses here is the same word Mark uses for the “mending/restoring” of fishing nets (Mk. 1:19). In other words, the Corinthians had torn the threads that once bound them and now needed to be “knit” back “together” (1 Cor. 1:10 NET).
A torn congregation can only be knit together by the same thread that united them in the first place: the love of God. This lack of mutual love was at the heart of all of the Corinthian’s problems which Paul highlights later in the letter (1 Cor. 8:1; 13:1ff; 14:1; 16:14).
Exhibiting the same selfless love Jesus showed us is the one-size-fits-all approach to mending a torn congregation. We are to be “knit together in love” (Col. 2:2), “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17) and “owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). For unity to exist, love must abound.