When The Proverbs Contradict

We’re going to be in Proverbs 26 today.

The last month or so we’ve been exploring the treasure chamber of wisdom 
found in the middle of the Bible.

We’ve been chewing on the micro-poems that we call the proverbs
and letting them unfold before us what the life of wisdom looks like—
what the truly alive kind of life looks like.

This week, I want to chew on a pair of proverbs in Proverbs 26.

And these proverbs are going to take us to a few interesting places,
and then in a few minutes they’re going to bring us to the table.

(26.4) Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.

Got it. Don’t wade into the mud with a fool
because you’ll end up getting dirty and looking silly.

Bad idea to answer a fool.

Good idea, Proverbs. Thanks, friend!
You always give such practical advice!

(26.5) Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Got it. Wade into the mud with a fool
so that they realize they’re acting like a pig.

Good idea to answer a fool.

Wait a second—maybe I missed something.

Verse 4… don’t answer a fool according to his folly…
Verse 5… answer a fool according to his folly…

Don’t answer.

Well which one is it!?
What’s the wise thing to do?

When I see a fool—a person with relentless, destructive behavior—
what am I supposed to do?

Should I not answer them 
or should I answer them?

And according to Proverbs,
the answer is “yes.”

“Yes, you answer them
so they’ll see they’re acting like a pig.

“Yes, you let it go—you don’t answer them—
so that you don’t wind up in the mud.


Here’s the wise thing to do—
do it and don’t do it.

What do we make of this?
The Proverbs are contradicting each other.

They’re both making a good point,
but they’re pointing in opposite directions.

It’s like we’ve got two contradicting proverbs 
that have been put into conversation with each other.

What’s the book of Proverbs playing at?

Putting these two sayings together is a bit like putting these sayings together:

[first slide]

Here are a few other examples of sayings that contradict each other
and yet most of us would probably recognize that both are true.

Perhaps you should slow down,
haste makes waste.

Perhaps you should get going,
time waits for no man.

Sometimes “out of sight” makes the heart grow fonder,
and sometimes “out of sight” makes the mind forget.

Don’t go looking in the mouth of horses being given to you.

Horses’ teeth are a bit like tree rings—
they give you an idea of how old a horse is.

But it’s a gift!
Good grief, it’s a horse you didn’t have!
Don’t go getting critical about a gift horse!

Unless (of course) it’s a big wooden horse 
that’s housing an elite enemy squadron of soldiers 
that’s going to destroy the city of Troy.

In that case… maybe you should look that gift horse in the mouth.

I think what’s happening with these pairs of contradictory sayings
is what Proverbs is doing with this pair of contradictory sayings.

I don’t think Proverbs is trying to be elusive or confusing or even profound—
Proverbs is just being practical.

Sometimes you answer.
Sometimes you don’t answer.

Wisdom is found in the tension between those two sayings—
in the conversation between these two sayings.

The wise person is the person 
who is learning to answer a fool 
and learning to not answer a fool.

Both of those things.

We shouldn’t be too surprised that Proverbs is doing this—
that Proverbs puts two contradictory truths in conversation with each other.

I mean, the Bible as a whole does this.

The Bible is full of truths that are in tension with each other.
[next slide]

Ecclesiastes looks around the world grapples 
with the repetitiveness of the world.

That’s a primary thrust of the entire book.

The years, the seasons, the cycle of birth and death,
the lives of men, even history itself
seems to endlessly repeat itself.

And yet, says the book of Daniel,
there’s something new coming in the world.

Like a mountain that will fill the world (Dan 3),
like a human being that will rule the world instead monsters (Dan 7),
God will do something new in history.

Ezra and Nehemiah and even the laws of Deuteronomy
will repeatedly and explicitly say that marriage to outsiders 
is dangerous and forbidden.

The whole community will be led astray and eventually disintegrate 
if the people of Israel marry people who are not part of the covenant.

Don’t marry outsiders.

Deuteronomy 23.3 couldn’t have been any more clear:
“No… Moabite… may enter the assembly of the Lord,
not even in the tenth generation.”

But then everyone the Bible goes and includes an entire book (the book of Ruth)
that celebrates the story of an outsider—a Moabite woman!—becoming part of Israel.

Don’t intermarry with outsiders. No Moabites.
Well, OK, unless your Ruth.

The prophecies of Amos 
are basically one long indictment of Israel’s worship services—of the people hearing: 

“Stop worshipping, 
God hates—despises—your worship, 
God thinks your sacrifices smell terrible, 
and, no, he don’t want you to sing” (5.21-23).

But then the book of Chronicles comes along
and is basically one long encouragement to praise and worship—of the people hearing:

“Bring sacrifices to God, 
praise God’s name, worship God, 
celebrate and sing to God” (cf. 1 Chr 16.29).

Are the people of God supposed to be singing and worshipping God?

Amos says, “Stop singing for pity’s sake,”
Chronicles says, “Sing, sing, sing.”

And that, of course, 
is because both are true.

Amos is addressing the people of God 
at their most hypocritical—at their least repentant.

People who are regularly singing to a God 
with no concern that the rest of their lives don’t honor this God.

And Amos is telling them to stop singing.

And Chronicles is addressing the people of God
at perhaps their most discouraged—when they feel hopeless and fearful.

And Chronicles is telling them not to be afraid—there is hope.

“Sing to God—celebrate!
“God will hear your prayers and heal your land.”

You’ll get really frustrated 
if you approach the proverbs or the rest of Scripture 
like a flowchart that should direct your behavior.

I mean, I suppose God could have given us 
an encyclopedic, exhaustive flowchart of decisions 
that could govern every possible situation we could ever face.

If God was wanting neat and orderly and mechanical obedience from all of us,
surely it would have been better to give us a flowchart
or some other quick-reference guide to life.

But it’s like God is interested in something deeper 
than just directing our behavior.

Because God has given us something better than a flowchart—
something so much better than a quick-reference guide.
God has given us something that will humble us.
God has given us a conversation.

It’s slower than a flowchart,
but it also works deeper.

A conversation between this pair of proverbs. 
A conversation within Scripture itself.

And a flowchart might get us doing the right things,
but I don’t think a flowchart would help form us into the right kinds of people.

In fact, a flowchart would probably just reinforce 
one of the darkest shadows within us—our pride:

“Look how great I am at following the steps.”
“I might not be perfect, but—hey—I’m doing a lot better than him.”

But the very nature of the conversation between verses 4 and 5—
and for that matter the conversation throughout all of Scripture—
sabotages our pride.

Listening to tension between 
these two proverbs keeps us humble.

There’s a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity between verse 4 and verse 5.

There’s an assumption built into this pair of proverbs:
we might not always when to practice each of these.

Even on the path of wisdom,
even as we’re pursuing the life of faith,
even as we’re seeking after Jesus,
we don’t always know how to tell the time.

The ability to tell the time—
that’s what God is interested in forming us.

God is interested in forming us 
into the kinds of people
who can tell the time.

Because both of these proverbs are true—
it just depends on what time it is.

Is it time to do this or time to do that?
And sometimes we’re going to get it wrong.

This pair of proverbs sabotages every form of pride—
especially that pride that we call perfectionism.

Sometimes we’re going to end up covered in mud 
because we shouldn’t have answered the fool.

Sometimes foolishness is going to keep hurting people
because we should have answered the fool.

All of the conversations within the Bible itself
actually go a long way to sabotaging our pride,
if we’ll let them.

Think about it—
God’s word through Amos isn’t the same as God’s word through Chronicles.

Even if we’re clinging to God’s word—obeying God’s word—
we may get the time wrong.

We might wind up sing when we should be silent;
and we might stay in despair when I should learn to sing.

There is a time to not answer the fool—
to just let that comment slide,
to just let things play out,
to stay out of the mud.

But there’s also a time to answer the fool—
because enough is enough, 
because the situation needs to be addressed
because they’re acting like pig.

The life of wisdom is found 
in learning to listen to the conversation between these two proverbs—
in learning to listen to and understand both of them—
and then learning to tell the time—
to know when each of them is true.

And the beautiful, brilliant thing about Scripture 
is that’s what its doing as a whole again and again and again.

The witness of Scripture doesn’t flatten life into a flow chart 
for how we should behave in the world.

The witness of Scripture invites us into a conversation 
about what it means to be live a truly alive kind of life with God. 

It’s a conversation with different voices—
we can definitely see that

with Amos saying this
and Chronicles saying that,

with Ecclesiastes emphasizing one thing
and Daniel emphasizing another,

with verse 4 telling us not to answer a fool,
and verse 5 saying, “answer a fool.”

And through the very process of listening to both of them—
of learning to understand both of them—
God shapes us into humble, listening, patient people.

And doesn’t the world need more those kinds of people?
Humble, listening, patient kinds of people?

I may get it wrong. 
I’m not perfect, that’s why I need God’s grace.

Learning to listen to different voices, to different perspectives,
and recognize that there’s probably some kind truth somewhere in there.

Since God is so patient with me,
perhaps I can learn to be patient with others.
(and even patient with myself).

Humble, listening, patient people—
that’s what this pair of proverbs produces.

That’s what the entire conversation of Scripture is aiming to shape us into.
Because it’s ultimately a conversation that leads us to this table.

All the voices of Scripture build to the moment when
God himself steps onto the scene and

takes bread, and after he gave thanks, he breaks it, and he says, 
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

And in the same way, after supper he takes the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

This table is where God takes the conversation.

Jesus is God’s clearest word to world.
God’s Word with a capital W.

And this is what God says:
“You’re not going to get it right.
In fact, you’re going to get it really wrong.
As in: I’m-going-to-wind-up-dead-on-a-tree-wrong.

“But be encouraged. Do not be afraid.
I’m taking your wrongness—I’m taking your death—
and I’m giving you my life.”

We’re the fools that God has answered.

In fact, God has gotten down in the mud—he’s become just like us (v4)—
so that we won’t be wise in our own eyes (v5).

For God, answering a fool was an act of love.
He intends for us to be like him.

He invites us to lay down our pride—to lay down our perfectionism—
and to humbly, patiently, listen to a conversation where God is speaking
grace and healing and life into the world and into our lives.

That’s the conversation we’re invited to hear,
that’s the conversation we’re invited to join.

And as far as what it is?

It’s salvation-time. 
Today is salvation-day (cf. 2 Cor 6.2).

Don’t be afraid.
God is patient too.
He knows our weakness—I mean, he listens too.

Our Father is humbling holding our hands—
even when we stumble and bang into things and scratch our knees.

And he will teach us to walk and run and even dance the path of life
if we’ll continue to listen to his voice of love.

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.

Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory
and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.