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Isn't there a contradiction in Proverbs 26:4&5, where we are told to answer a fool in one verse and not answer a fool in the next verse?
Thanks for this question. Questions like this help me to learn also. I have learned that when we see an "apparent contradiction" in the scriptures, a little study will show that it is really a great truth.
Prov. 26:4 in the KJV "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him".
Prov. 26:5 in the KJV "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceipt".
The best answer I found to explain the apparent contradiction in Proverbs 26:4&5 is from Dr. E.W. Bullinger, who spent half his life in the late 1800's studying "figures of speech" in the Bible. He identified over 200 different types in his book "Figures of Speech Used in the Bible", published in England in 1898. We use many figures of speech today without realizing it, and I believe the Bible writers used the ones that were common in their day also.
Dr. Bullinger states that the proverb in Prov. 26 verses 3 - 5 contains a figure of speech called an "ELLIPSIS". An ellipsis is when the writer leaves something out to grab the readers attention and amplify the meaning.
Dr. Bullinger reminds us that each "proverb" is one or more connected sentences, and that the proverb in Chap 26:4&5 starts in verse 3.
--- If you look at verse 3, the proverb starts out stating that you cannot reason with a fool any more than you can reason with a horse or a donkey.
--- Verses 4&5 are not commands in the Hebrew, as they seem to be in the English, but are statements of factual "cause and result", with the "AND" between verses 4 & 5 left out. In this "figure of speech", both verses 4 & 5 continue to amplify the futility of trying to reason with a fool, that is stated in verse 3.
--- Verse 4 Is stating "DON'T ANSWER a fool according to his folly - because he'll think you are a fool like him".
--- Verse 5, Again amplifies the fact stated in verse 3, and states: "ANSWER a fool according to his folly - and he'll think he has said something wise and assume that you agree with him". You're stuck! - it's not worth trying, either way.
I think that just looking in the Concordance at the word "fool" in the Book of Proverbs shows the futility of trying to reason with a fool and convinces me that that Bullinger's interpretation is correct:
--- Prov 12:15, "The fool is right in his own eyes". (It's useless to reason with to one.)
--- Prov 23:9, "Speak not in the ears of a fool". (Don't even waste your time.)
--- Prov 16:22, "It is folly to try to instruct a fool". (It's "foolish" to try.)
--- Prov 9:6, "Forsake the fool and live". (Stay away from them.)
--- Prov 17:12, "Better to meet an angry bear than to meet a fool".
You can look up "fool" in the Bible and see this over and over, and I think the fool's problem starts in Psa 14:1 - "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God".
I love Proverbs Chapter one, and especially verse 7, which says that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge".
We Christians must choose our friends and associations wisely. The fool needs to hear and believe the gospel, and until he does believe, it is futile for us to try to reason with, or argue with them about spiritual things.
There is a very practical aspect here that applies to our witnessing for Christ also. We are often tempted to argue about the Bible, or about Christian teachings with unbelievers, but a person who cannot hear the "good news" about Jesus, cannot believe any other spiritual truths either. I believe Jesus is stating this same "futility" in Matt. 7:6, when He stated not to give that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine. Stated another way, give them the "good news", then let our actions do the rest of the witnessing.
I hope this is a satisfactory answer, and again, thanks for the question!