The Layman's Bible

Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation

A Confusing Proverb

I’ve heard a few people comment that a good place to start in Bible reading is in the Proverbs. I suspect this advice is given under the notion that the Proverbs link closely to our daily lives and how we should live, so that through practical advice we may build up our wisdom a little bit as we go into the world. But quite honestly, the Proverbs are about as confusing as any of the other texts of the Bible (except the books of prophecy, those can be really hard the first time around). Solomon can be an interesting guy at times and in a couple of places he seems to contradict himself. One of the most glaring examples of this is found in Proverbs 26:4-5,

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Or he will be wise in his own eyes.

A Confusing Proverb (Confused Kid)…What? So am supposed to answer a fool or not? Usually when people point out apparent contradictions in the Bible they jump all around the scriptures, but Solomon lined this one up one after another. Since as believers we trust that all Scripture is true and good (since that’s what Jesus believed [and Jesus was the son of God {and to that end God in the flesh}]) then there’s gotta be an answer for this passage. I asked the Holy Spirit to explain what Solomon was getting at, and as faithful as he is, the Holy Spirit answered. So today let’s unpack this odd pair of maxims and understand what we’re supposed to do when a fool is being foolish.

Alright, first Solomon tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly. Now before getting too far into this, I should note that my NIV Bible made sure to explain to me in the footnotes that the term “fool” in books like Proverbs and Psalms refer not to a stupid person, but a person who is morally deficient (though Solomon sets up pretty well that those who are without morals are stupid anyway). Therefore, when we’re told not to answer a fool according to his folly, what we’re being told reads more as “Do not answer a morally deficient person according to his moral deficiency.” That is to say, don’t lower your morals to his or her level. Paul reminds us, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). When we’re around somebody who’s clearly lacking the lifestyle that comes from a relationship with Christ, we shouldn’t adopt his ways, even if we’re trying to communicate with said person. Because as Christians, we should be abstaining from the practices of our largely immoral world,

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person- such a man is an idolater- has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Ephesians 5:4-5).

Even if somebody doesn’t understand a sentence that isn’t laced with profanity, that doesn’t mean we should use profanity in order to reach them; because at that moment we’ll become like them. And quite honestly, sometimes it’s none of our business. Solomon reminds us in Proverbs 26:17, “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” After being baptized into the Holy Spirit through the saving sacrifice of Christ on the cross a believer wants to go out and save the world- And this is good. After all, speaking of Jesus in Mark 16:15 we read, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” Our goal and our calling as followers of Christ is to bring others to the Lord. But there’s a time and a place for everything. If you see a fool raging or trying to quarrel people don’t jump in. There’s nothing wrong with stopping an altercation in which someone is being physically attacked, but if two people are arguing loudly just stay out of it- you won’t be winning any souls for Christ by trying to have a discussion with an angry person. What Solomon is getting at comes down to is one of the defining differences between the believer and the rest of the world. Paul writes it like this,

So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8).

What sets a Christian apart from most of the world is self-control. The atheist has no moral compass (I’m not trying to be insulting, I’m speaking literally) because they have no ultimate authority by which to judge their actions. Therefore, amongst non-believers we’ll see all sorts of sins as they walk “in the night.” Since their minds are clouded with darkness, being without the light of Christ, it should come as no surprise that they are fools caught in their folly. However, those who have Jesus in their hearts and the Holy Spirit as their guide do have a way to live and that is a life of self-control. So whether you are having a normal day; being tempted by sin; or feeling drawn into a conflict with a morally deficient person, the same response is always appropriate: self-control. Therefore, when you see someone who does not life by our standards acting in a morally deficient way, don’t just run in to try to fix it, lest you end up accidentally on their level of sin; rather you should administer some self-control and better understand the situation before making a rash decision.

Having said that…Solomon tells us to answer a fool according to his folly. Wait, what? Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” If someone is sinning against you and you keep quiet about it, they might not even know what they’re doing is wrong. Therefore Jesus tells us to quietly and privately bring the matter up at a convenient time for both parties. Now for a believer-believer issue, this really isn’t that hard since we speak the same language. However, what do you do if the person you need to talk to is a nonbeliever? Paul ran into this issue one time in a passage that the Holy Spirit really crammed into my heart when I first read it. Scripture records,

As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”

“Do you speak Greek?” he replied (Acts 21:37).

Paul needs to say something to the guards as he’s being carried away from a rioting crowd, but before he can say anything, the person he wants to talk about asks if he can speak the guard’s native language. As Christians we must know the languages of the world. I’m not talking about the official languages (though if you’ve got a talent for that, by all means), what I mean is that we need to know how to talk to people outside the church. If you start whipping out some King James words to an outsider, their ears will close faster than you can finish the first “thine.” Rather, as believers we’re called to be able to see where a person is in their lives and respond accordingly (while still not betraying our own beliefs with foul language or inappropriate behavior). Paul puts it this way,

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

To give this a little updated language think of it like this, “To the gamers I became like a gamer, to win the gamers. To the sports fans I became a sports fan, to win the sports fans.” Paul made it his lifelong goal to help as many people as he could come to an understanding of Christ in order to save as many as possible. To this end, Paul used all of the resources he had in order to reach the lost. To the Jews he used his experience as a Jew in order to open a line of communication. To the people who were strict about the Law, Paul used his Pharisee-level of understanding of the Law to open a line of communication. To those who were completely without God, Paul used his freedom in Christ to open a line of communication. The Lord has given us experiences that help us to be equipped for spreading the love of Christ. I’m not saying to pretend you’re something you’re not. What I’m saying (and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the Holy Spirit behind me on this) is that you should use what you do know to be understanding, compassionate, and approachable for people who refuse to get close to a church. Don’t enter the world of sin in order to make a difference, but understand that a sinner isn’t gonna come running to church either.

Still confused? It’s a weird concept to get a hold on and a thin line to walk. This is what the Bible tells us,

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself (Galatians 6:1-3).

A Confusing Proverb (Jesus with Sinners)We are called to bring our non-believing brothers and sisters to the light of Christ. However, this is something to be done with grace, understanding, and self-control. Citing Bible verses to someone who doesn’t believe the Bible doesn’t save souls. You’ve gotta learn to convey the Gospel in their language, while still not abandoning the principles set down in the Word of God. Jesus came under a lot of scrutiny for having dinners with tax collectors and prostitutes, but although he had these dinners, he didn’t lower himself to their level of sin. Jesus didn’t discuss how to cheat people with the tax collectors and he didn’t show any sign or immorality around the prostitutes. Rather though he went to where they were, the tax booths and the street corners, and said, “Hey, wanna grab a bite to eat?” Paul reminds us,

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16).

As a believer, the last thing you should be doing is emulating the world. But at the same time we do have to reach out to the world and understand that the language of God is completely foreign to them. So as you speak with people who are lacking the guiding light of the Lord, try to see things from their eye-level and within their sphere of understanding. However, at the same time, “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). So yeah, don’t answer a fool according to his folly, but answer a fool according to his folly. I love the Bible.

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This entry was posted on May 17, 2014 by in Bible Stuff and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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