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Your An Idiot (*You’re)

Wisdom in not being a fool when correcting a fool

Proverbs 26:4-5

4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.


Are you in a profession that requires a lot of skill, knowledge and understanding? Maybe you have a specialty, or possess talents and experience that allow you to perform your job or enjoy a favorite pastime in a way that puts you head and shoulders above your peers. Many athletes are like finely-tuned instruments, and a well-practiced quilter, photographer, or the one who prepares dinner for her family every night can make even the most difficult things look easy.

If you have something that you excel at doing, or a job that the average person does not do, you are often accosted by those who will offer unsolicited advice or uninformed criticism. People like this can try your patience—and sometimes seem to challenge your sanctification. 

Comedian Jerry Clower, of Grand Old Opry fame, told the humorous story of the farmer and the city-slicker. The farmer (told as Jerry’s best friend “Marcel Ledbetter”) is busy one afternoon plowing a field behind his trusty mule. Up drives a big fancy car and a “city slicker” hops out. He leans on the fence and watches Marcel hard at work, plowing that field. 

As Marcel and his mule work their way along the row and come alongside, the man calls out to him. Marcel “whoas” his mule and stops to answer this indoor-faced fella, “What do you want?”

The city-slicker says, "Your rows are all crooked." 

Marcel looks back behind him at the freshly plowed field and says, "Yep." 

"Well, why in the world would you want to plant corn in crooked rows?" 

Marcel thinks for a little bit and then slowly answers, "You can plant just much corn in a crooked row as you can in a straight one." 

The city slicker is appalled and says, ”Well, there's not much separating you from a fool, is there?" 

Without hesitation, Marcel says, “Nothin but a fence.”

Do you feel as if you are surrounded by fools? Everywhere you turn it seems someone is trying to harm or at least inconvenience you with their destructive behavior. Chaotic people in your life offer you unhelpful “advice,” and everywhere you look on social media, they are pontificating and opinionating on every subject from politics to parenting to prayer.  

Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke reminds us that the book of Proverbs divides people into the “wise and righteous” and the “fools and wicked.” What do you do when you encounter a fool in the wild? Unlike Marcel in the story above, you may not be able to silence him with a little “folksy wisdom from down on the farm,” but you know that the Bible does provide instruction in wisdom. Here in chapter 26, Solomon puts you to the test:

4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.–Proverbs 26:4-5

Verses four and five of Chapter 26 are seemingly incompatible. Verse four tells you “do not answer a fool according to his folly,” but verse 5 tells you, “answer a fool according to his folly.” What gives? Is this one of those passages that atheists love to trot out in order to claim that the Bible contradicts itself? 

No, Solomon, in his wisdom, is using two opposing statements to stress not only the wisdom of each proverb, but the wisdom that both verses provide when understood together.

Here is the scene: you have been insulted, or perhaps one who is “wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 12:15) has uttered a falsehood or malicious statement in your presence. Maybe he is a braggart who will not cease in his boasting, or a modern cultural devotee who moralizes about the self-serving values of the current social imaginary. 

When you feel you can take no more, you feel you need to say something to put this fool in his place. After all, as one who pursues God’s wisdom, you have access to His book of wisdom—as well as being united to Him in Christ, “the wisdom of God.” You ready your crushing blow to fell the braggart, or limber your fingers to post a nuclear-grade retort to destroy the keyboard warrior posting his immoral nonsense on your timeline. 

But Solomon says, “don’t.”

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly,” he says, “lest you also be like him.”  No matter how badly you wish to respond, deep down, you know what will happen if you do: the fool will simply “double down” on his folly…and drag you with him. 

There is a saying that has long been attributed to Mark Twain: 

Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.–Mark Twain [attributed]

Literary types and quote investigators have determined that Twain never wrote or said this, but they do confirm that this nugget of wisdom indeed may have come from “down on the farm,” in the form of wise sayings from older generations. Solomon’s and Twain’s (and your grandmother’s) point is that when you engage a fool in like manner, you will be stooping to his level—and the mud he slings will inevitably get on you. 

You have seen this a thousand times. A harmless social media post garners a snide comment from a friend or a random follower. This particularly happens when your post is political or religious in nature—but some fools will argue with anything. Plus, if they retort with, "Your an idiot," you can also correct their grammar, further endearing them to you. An online argument is much like that of the two children Chaca and Tipo in Disney’s “The Emperor’s New Groove.” 

Once you respond to a fool on his terms, the race to the bottom is on, and will not end until one or both of you is humiliated: “Lest you also be like him.”

It is unbecoming to those who are wise, to respond to a fools in the same manner in which they speak. There will be times when you must simply endure a fool—much in the same manner that God endures the folly of you and me. Peter, who has acted the fool on numerous occasions in his life and as a disciple of our Lord, reminds you of God’s seemingly endless forbearance;

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.–2 Peter 3:9

As one who seeks to follow God’s wisdom you know that there will also be times when you must respond, and in a righteous way, put a fool in his place. You must overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). This means that when it becomes necessary to rebut the fool, you do so…but in a wise manner. Bruce Waltke again explains:

One must rebut the content of the fool, but never in the style of the fool.–Bruce Waltke, "Proverbs"

In verse 5, Solomon takes the same formula and flips it on its head, and reveals to you the wise response to a fool:

Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.–Proverbs 26:5

The point of this proverb is clear: as a wise person, you must consider the nature of the fool you have encountered, the remark he has made, and the situation. Only with this full picture in mind, do you then respond. This may seem like too much cogitating and not enough altercating, but if you take a moment to breathe and think, both of you will be better off in the end.

The reason for taking this time and responding properly is two-fold: you will not be falling into the trap of an unwindable tête-à-tête with a foolish person, you will also be responding in a way that shows love for the fool. For by allowing him to continue unopposed, he runs the risk of replacing the wisdom of I AM with his own foolishness. Thus, he will be replacing the wisdom of life, with death.

You must remember, that as a follower of Christ, you seek to follow His law of love in all that you say and do. As the apostle Paul writes to his dear friends of the wayward, fractured church in Corinth:

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.–I Corinthians 13:4-7

You cannot seek to live out these heartfelt instructions with a vindictive, reactionary heart. For your heart is the heart of Christ, and ultimately He is your example of how to respond to the foolishness of those in this sinful world. Jesus knew the hearts of men and those whom He encountered, and so was able to always provide the perfect answer. He is the key that unlocks your quandary. 

You may not know the mind of one who mocks you, or the personal history of someone who denigrates your beliefs, but you may be able to understand his true intent. 

A mocker is often seeking power, like a bully. A man who insults may feel small inside, and a liar may live a life of fear in which he feels he has no control of everything around him. These are matters of the heart, and as someone with the heart of Christ, you are able to respond in a what that matters.

Jesus is a master at this all throughout the Gospels. In Mark, He is challenged by the Pharisees, who present what they think will be a trick question:

The Pharisees came and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” testing Him. And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”–Mark 10:2-3   

Jesus is asked a “hot button” question by a group of men who themselves are notorious for violating the laws on divorce. Jesus does not venture off into the weeds discussion scenarios or examples, He sends them back to the original law, knowing that they cannot respond.

Again in Matthew, the keepers of religious tradition challenge Jesus: 

1 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?–Matthew 15:1-3 

They come to Jesus to accuse and entrap, and with a question, He reveals their arrogance and the weakness of their case.  

In your life you are called on at times to answer fools in word, but also in deed. This too is like Christ, for His life of kindness and compassion often caused his accusers to hesitate in their attack: 

31 Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. 32 Jesus answered them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?”–John 10:31-32  

As you learned in Proverbs 25:21-22, showing kindness and the example of Christ in the face of fools can serve to bless them and even restore a broken relationship. Do you have the strength and wisdom to pause and assess an accusation, an insult, or a foolish comment before responding? If you do, you will save yourself considerable heartache and stress—and by the Spirit, you just may sow Gospel seed into the heart of one who desperately needs it.

Even a fool cannot argue with that. 


The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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