“Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.”
~Proverbs 26:4-5 (NRSV).
This quatrain sitting above has us thinking long and hard. How on earth can we reconcile it? This is just the point. Foolishness often has no valid ‘default’ response. Indeed, it is the perfect seminary for any sage’s development in true wisdom—to wrangle with foolishness and determine their own answers to it, from situational measures.
The structure in Proverbs 26 is a lot neater than many previous chapters. For beginners, it’s almost exclusively talking about fools and their folly. There is a bracket of comparative proverbs on the topic (verses 1-12) and thereafter two types of fool are spotlighted: the sluggard (verses 13-16) and the malicious one (verses 17-28).
Defining the Fool
Before we launch into these proverbs we should attempt a crude definition to pin the fool down. Perhaps they can be seen as those lacking sense; one who is beyond good sense (until they would choose to repent).
Folly, therefore, is based in moral ineptitude and is not an intellectual lack at all. It is, at root, a sick or malformed, impetuous heart. The mind may still be very functional, but the ‘weak’ heart contorts the thought-world of the fool toward myriad form of wickedness. They cannot help themselves, it seems, in doing foolish things.
The Comparative Proverbs – Little Images of Folly
These proverbs with the comparative “like” word connecting A and B lines, as we learned from chapter 25, give us some great insight via imagery into what folly actually looks and feels like. They are great for the student of Wisdom.
For the fool, honour and the use of wisdom are both absurdities (verses 1 and 7-9). Wise words at the disposal of the foolish prove docile and depowered.
The fool is as unpredictable in method as they are in creating pain as the consequence of their actions—imagine for a moment “drinking down violence” (verses 6 and 10).
A consummate fool is wise in their own eyes (verse 12). Sure, we’ve all been there, having suffered bouts of stubborn pride. The great paradox of wisdom is it resides happily in only the genuinely humble. Wisdom is about high morality of character.
Folly is a repetitive mystery against sense (verse 11). Fortunately, those who are unjustly cursed, slandered or accused are acquitted without undue cost as they express faith in the Wisdom of God (verse 2). This is why we let God handle our fights for vindication.
What Can We Learn from the Sluggard?
Earlier chapters have profiled the sluggard poignantly. Excuses are their domain (verse 13) as they roll about their beds in a vacant sort of dreaminess (verse 14) that mystifies the logical person who would just itch to get out of that bed and get the day under way.
The hyperbolic imagery continues to astound us in verse 15. How confusing it is that the desire for gluttony is conquered by the sloth that sees the sluggard unable to bring the hand back to the mouth once it’s grabbed the food from the dish.
And defying all manner of sense, the sluggard is wiser in their own eyes “than seven who can answer discreetly” (verse 16).
What Can Prepare Us for the Malicious One?
The worst and most dangerous fool is the malicious one. These are the types that make nightmare neighbours. They get involved in others’ fights in ways that inflame situations (verses 17 and 21).
There is a heart of depravity behind this fool as we see them feeding with intent on “delicious morsels” which fortify the heart toward wickedness (verse 22). Their speech can be as smooth as silk, for they are devious beyond normal means (verses 24-25), but they will eventually be “exposed in the assembly” which is just as well (verse 26). Justice is known in the end as they reap the pain of their own deviant plans (verse 27). There plans will backfire awkwardly and embarrassingly for them.
The malicious one is found in some very surprising ‘offices’ in life. We are best to be wary of these, and to steer particularly away when there’s a deviant plot cooking.
The one positive note in this section lies in verse 20. The person with humble wisdom is not adding any fuel to the fire of conflict; it dies down of its own accord when we refuse to fight back.
© 2010 S. J. Wickham.