What the Bible says about
(From Forerunner Commentary)
In his article, "Is Proverbs in Contradiction on Answering Fools?" James Patrick Holding feels that the alleged contradiction between Proverbs 26:4-5
wins a major award for silliness. What we have here is not contradiction, but dilemma—an indication that when it comes to answering fools, you cannot win—because they are fools, and there is no practical cure for foolery (as this citation demonstrates). So: It is unwise to argue with a fool at his own level and recognize his own foolish suppositions, but it is good sometimes to refute him soundly, lest his foolishness seem to be confirmed by your silence.
In his Alleged Contradictions in the Bible, B.J. Clarke points out that the close proximity of these verses (back to back) would rule out the idea of discrepancy even for the most sophomoric of scholars. James Jackson, in his article, "Answering the Fool,"suggests that "such close proximity reflects design, not disorder."
Dr. E. W. Bullinger suggests that the connection between these verses can be explained by an ellipsis (something deliberately left out to grab the reader's attention) beginning in verse 3, which compares reasoning with a fool to reasoning with a donkey. Rather than considering these proverbs as absolute commands, the reader finds cause-and-effect cautions: If you answer a fool, you will be like him, but if you do not answer a fool, he will assume you are like him. Either way, we would lose.
Along with ellipsis, the technique of parallelism (repeated similarities used for rhetorical effect) is used throughout Proverbs to amplify meaning. Consider Proverbs 28:1: "The wicked flee when no one pursues; but the righteous are as bold as a lion." In this light, Proverbs 26:4-5 can be read: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him. [But on the other hand,] answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."
Paradox provides another explanation for the alleged "contradiction." Lynn Anderson, in his article "The Case for Mystery," asserts that the Bible embraces paradoxes throughout. The apostle Paul, for example, in the same chapter (Galatians 6:2, 5), urges, "Bear one another's burdens," and three verses later suggests, "Each one shall bear his own load." Similarly, Paul warns Christians not to be "burdened again by a yoke of bondage" (Galatians 5:1), while teaching elsewhere that we are to become "slaves to righteousness" (Romans 6:18). Jesus Christ provides the most sterling example of paradox when he warns His disciples that whoever desires to lead must become a servant (Luke 22:26) and whoever would save his life must be willing to lose it (Luke 17:33).
A special instance of paradox is the conundrum or riddle. Stephen Tecklenberg, in his article "No Matter What You Do,"maintains that the "Answer not a fool . . . Answer a fool" juxtaposition is just that, a conundrum focusing more on the "readiness" to answer rather than on the answering. He adds, "If appropriate, give answers. If not, withhold."
Thomas Henry Reardon, in his article "Folly to Be Wise?" points out that while much of Scripture demands making right choices, certain decisions, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.), demand discernment, prudence, and choosing wisely between alternatives.
David Jon Hill, in his article "Twelve Rules for Bible Study" (Tomorrow's World, July 1969), substantiates the turn of phrase and accent explanations, asserting that differing circumstances account for the so-called contradictions:
Actually, these two verses are not contradictory—but complementary!
The use of either verse—that is, its principle applied to a particular use—depends on the set of circumstances. Both these verses contain gems of wisdom that each one of us needs to learn to properly apply in answering other people's questions.
The last part of each verse holds the key which unlocks the meaning of these verses—and shows them to be practical, usable and wise principles.
Verse four reads, "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him." The last part of the verse holds the key: don't degrade yourself by descending to his level in an argument! Don't harangue—don't bite back—don't try to "argue back" with someone who is obviously trying to stir contention.
Robert Deffingbaugh, in his Bible study, "The Fool,"says of Proverbs 26:5:
We should not allow the fool to drag us down to his level. The fool is exasperating; he is looking for trouble, and he often tempts us to oblige him. Since the fool will spout off and speak his mind, we are tempted to lose our temper with him as well. Proverbs instructs us not to allow him to get the best of us, lest we be lowered to his level.
When Donald Trump mistakenly got into a name-calling contest with Rosie O'Donnell, it gave her a fallacious, elevated estimation of her debating abilities, deluding her into a false sense of importance and wisdom, and at the same time, it artificially boosted the ratings of The View. Fred Thompson, on the other hand, when asked to debate the merits of "universal" health care with Michael Moore, who lauds Fidel Castro's system in Cuba, made it clear that he would not lower himself to Moore's foolishness.
David F. Maas
To Answer a Fool—or Not
The situation in verse 15 is a paradox, an irregularity from the way one would expect a thing to be. A paradox is an inconsistency in circumstance, statement, activity, or conduct contrary to what a person would consider normal. Here, the paradox is found within a relationship with God. The sinner prospers, but the righteous suffers all kinds of difficulty in life. Is it not more natural to think that the sinner would have difficulty and the righteous, a prosperous, smooth-running life?
A paradox, in turn, creates a conundrum, that is, a riddle or puzzle. A righteous individual may ask, “Why should such a situation exist?” “Where are the blessings God has promised?” “Where is God in this picture?” “Has God not promised prosperity and long life if we obey Him?” Yes, He has.
Solomon's paradox could spur a carnal person to assume that doing evil, because it can be profitable, is the better way. This especially seems so when the evil person lives to old age in relative peace, is honored in the world, and has more-than-enough wealth. In contrast, it is not rare for a righteous person to die early, perhaps following a time of difficult persecution.
One way of understanding these verses involves misjudging both God and the circumstance, which generally results in expounding on what we might consider “normal” self-righteousness. As Ecclesiastes teaches, God is sovereign and rules His creation all the time. So thorough is His care of His creation that His eye is even on sparrows (Matthew 10:29). Therefore, God is fully aware of any circumstance like that described in verse 15. In fact, He may have directly created it and is using it for His purposes.
The challenge for us, then, is whether we find fault with Him in allowing or arranging this sort of circumstance. Do we even think that God overlooks what any of His children might be going through? It is likely that He is directly involved, having caused the circumstance.
Could we be calling God into account, deciding—without knowing all the facts—that what He is overseeing is unfair? Understand, however, that even though He may or may not be directly involved in causing such a circumstance, He is not indifferent to human conduct and attitudes whenever or wherever they are. Our judgment must begin with knowing that His governance contains no complacency at any time. Though the righteous may die young, who knows God's entire judgment that lies beyond the grave for either the righteous or the wicked?
In addition, in this world prosperity is frequently associated with some level of evil. God Himself says that He sometimes sets the basest of men on thrones of great power, but He does not mean He favors them in terms of economic prosperity. We should understand those persons are in that position for some good reason, and God is fully aware. The wise person grasps and accepts that God is never out of the picture. He rules!
There is, therefore, a primary lesson about judgment here: Things are not always as they may appear to our narrow perspective. This verse teaches us to be cautious when making judgments about a person's spiritual standing before God and his morality as we might perceive them in his day-to-day surroundings.
This supplies insight into why Jesus cautions us about judging. The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man contains a clear example of the pitfalls in making these kinds of judgments. The rich man could easily have been judged as favored by God. But which man was truly favored by Him? It was Lazarus, the beggar, who was the better spiritually.
We should not allow ourselves to jump to self-righteous conclusions about people and to misjudgments about God's involvement. In either case, we are fully capable of raising ourselves spiritually above them. Thus, an overall lesson in these verses is that we must learn to be cautious about accusative thoughts that may arise within us.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Ten): Paradox
The sense of this passage clarifies when we fit it into a sub-theme present throughout the book: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” As chapter 7 opens, Solomon presents several unusual and mystifying statements about some of life's experiences. He writes that the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth and that it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting.
These unusual statements are true within Solomon's theme, but reasons are not immediately available. Verse 15 and his ensuing explanation contain a parallel situation for which no easy answer exists. It, too, may be simply so much vanity. Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon is explaining matters that we vaguely grasp but need support to understand more completely.
Ultimately, God is the Author of Ecclesiastes, and He intends it should be understood this way. Supported by our faith in God, we must deal with our lack of complete knowledge and accept it. Some truths that God intends us to grasp we must dig out, requiring hard intellectual labor. He allows this sub-theme of not fully knowing what is going on in our lives to exist because it helps to create tests to fulfill His purpose, that we live by faith, trusting Him (Hebrews 10:38).
Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 confirms this sub-theme:
I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.
Solomon repeats a form of it in Ecclesiastes 7:23-25, 29:
All this I have proved by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise.” But it was far from me. As for that which is far off and exceedingly deep, who can find it out? I applied my heart to know, to search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things, to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness. Truly, this only I have found; that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
He is still searching for reasons for these confounding circumstances, but he admits a dissatisfying failure. In Ecclesiastes 8:16-17, he still has no personally satisfying answer to his search:
When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night, then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it.
In Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, he concludes the book:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil.
Solomon admits to finding no fully satisfying answer to every paradox, conundrum, or irregularity in the life of even the faithful person in his relationship with God. The conclusion? By faith and without disrupting our obedience to God, we must accept and live with some events of life. The wise know that God will work things out.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Ten): Paradox
Ecclesiastes 7:15 presents a Christian with a paradox about Christian living. A paradox is a circumstance, statement, activity, or conduct that is contrary to expectation. It is an inconsistency, a sharp irregularity, that often produces a conundrum, which is a riddle or puzzle. In Solomon's paradox, the righteous person may ask, “Why should such a situation exist? Where are the blessings God has promised? Where is God in this picture? Has He not promised prosperity and long life if we obey Him?” Yes, indeed He has.
There are two problems that may arise from this experience, both of which involve misjudgments made by the righteous. The first is to misjudge God and accuse Him of being unjust, assuming we know a better way than He does. Not much humility is shown in coming to this conclusion! We need to spend no more time on this one.
The second problem arises when one misjudges, not only God, but also the self, the circumstance, and the possible “solution.” This combination can lead to making the paradox truly destructive to one's spiritual health.
In the vivid description in Psalm 73, we see the spiritual and emotional agony of a converted man experiencing a situation similar to what Solomon describes. The author survived it because he responded in the correct way. God intervened to ensure his rescue, or he might have slid “right out of the church,” as we might say today. The author never slid into the “righteous over much” mode, as the King James Version phrases it in Ecclesiastes 7:16, or into “super-righteousness,” as some modern commentators call it. Solomon warns us that this reaction is destructive.
In Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, Solomon gives a warning right on the heels of his mention of the paradox, making a clear connection between the paradox and the possible reaction of a righteous person. He does it with a strong admonition: “Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: Why should you die before your time?” A stern caution indeed. Super-righteousness is a misguided response that seems to arise from our judgment that we are having all this trouble because we are being punished.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Eleven): Paradox, Continued
The solution to the Ecclesiastes 7:15-22 conundrum involves the converted person's faith in God. At the same time, it also heavily involves his fear of God and applying thoughtful wisdom to ensure he analyzes the situation accurately. Two of these spiritual qualities are directly named in Ecclesiastes 7, while faith, which is not directly named, is critical to the right solution. Influencing all three qualities is knowing God well enough from within the relationship to activate them all correctly. Consider II Corinthians 5:4-7:
For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight.
God is preparing us for entrance into His Kingdom in a similar way a human instructor prepares a school student for graduation and service. There are two major differences though: We must matriculate our lessons by faith, and in our case, the purpose—to be clothed with glory and eternal life—is huge by comparison.
These verses assure us that God has made a contract with us—the New Covenant—in which we are responsible for carrying out assigned duties. He is preparing us to fulfill those responsibilities to a far greater extent in His Kingdom. As He is preparing us, we must live by faith.
Luke 14:26-27 reminds us of the seriousness of the pledge we made to Jesus Christ at baptism, to live by faith while carrying out our responsibilities. This serious commitment works in our favor. Knowing God's character from the midst of this close relationship, we can always confidently be reassured that God is in control despite how difficult events look to us. This truth became the foundation for the psalmist's victory in his situation (Psalm 73). Our responsibility is to trust Him as the psalmist did, to walk by faith, not by appearance or physical observation. God is faithful!
Paul, then, clearly establishes what our aim should be no matter the circumstances in our lives. We should desire to please God by being faithful to Him in return as demonstrated by trusting Him. He reinforces this by stating that we must be ready to answer for our choices.
Romans and Ephesians make it clear that God accepts us in His presence at conversion and at all times during conversion only upon the meritorious sinless works of Jesus Christ. This is because, as Paul shows in Romans 7, sin stains all our works no matter how meritorious they may seem to us.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Twelve): Paradox, Conclusion
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
How plain! What we have in the gospel is a revelation. We must tie this concept of God's revelation to the word "mystery" (verse 7).
In English it does not mean exactly the same thing as in Greek. In English, mystery means "a puzzle that is difficult to solve," but in Greek, it means "a secret that is impossible to penetrate." So, the Word of God, His purpose and plan, is a mystery, a secret that is impossible to penetrate. Paul is implying that man would never find out what God intends, except that God gives it to us by revelation.
We have in no way earned this revelation. We have it because it pleased God to give it to us. He withholds it from others, but He has given it to us. He is in no way beholden to us, as if He owed us something. We could dig in His Word over our entire lifetimes and never come to what He freely gives to us for His purposes, for His own reasons.
Brilliant men like Adam Clarke have dug into God's Word through the centuries. It took him forty years to produce his famous commentary. Considering that the man was unconverted, it really is a magnificent work, done with all sincerity and dedication. Yet, at the end of his efforts, he did not fully penetrate the mystery of what God is doing among men. A brilliant man and a brilliant work, yet he emerged from his studies not understanding the divine purpose that God gives to us without our earning it. On the other hand, it is very likely that many of us never cracked the pages of a Bible before God began to open our minds. Some have, some have not. But God called many of us in that situation, and though we did not deserve it, He revealed His way to us.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Grace Upon Grace
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