Answer/answer not – but what was the question?

Twenty chapters of the book of Proverbs (Proverbs 10:0; 11:0; 12:0; 13:0; 14:0; 15:0; 16:0; 17:0; 18:0; 19:0; 20:0; 21:0; 22:0; 23:0; 24:0; 25:0; 26:0; 27:0; 28:0; 29:0) are wise pithy sayings – mostly one-liners attributed to Solomon, the final five collected and edited by King Hezekiah (Proverbs 25:1). Was the good king burning the midnight oil when he put these two together? –

[] ‘Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself’ (Proverbs 26:4).
[] ‘Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes’ (Proverbs 26:5).

And have you ever read them before you were properly awake, and did a double take in case your eyes were rotating on the same verse while you tried to kick start your brain?

Thankfully the editor wisely left this conundrum till near the end of the series, so that the readers have already got used to the consistent style of writing throughout. And, anyway, have you perhaps found, as I have, that you cannot read a whole chapter straight through without stopping for breath and meditation? I guess the editor wanted to jolt our numbing minds into thinking about what we are reading?

It is a sharp reminder that no proverb contains the whole range of God’s wisdom. The book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ begins with a paragraph of just three words: ‘Life is complex’. Naively, we try to simplify life’s mysteries by forming easy patterns of answers – mental collecting boxes into which we can slot quick solutions. So, Hezekiah here is forcing us to face the many realities of life’s contradictory formulas.

[] It is too easy to read these pearls of truth merely to remind ourselves of facts and knowledge; but knowledge only tells us the answer to the question What?

[] In the prologue of the whole book (Proverbs 1:2-7) we are introduced to other facets of God’s ways. For instance, wisdom is the practical application of knowledge to various situations, and handles the question How?

[] Understanding makes us face the purpose for doing things in a particular way; it relates more to the important question Why?

[] Insight, for instance, might answer the question When? And so on.

[] The base line is: ‘the fear of the Lord’.

The margin of my Bible (the highly commendable English Standard Version Study Bible ) offers some examples of when not to answer a fool (see David the fugitive when insulted by an ungodly enemy, 2 Samuel 16:11; Hezekiah’s people when mocked by the besieging Assyrian general, 2 Kings 18:36; and Jesus when cross questioned by Pilate, Luke 23:9); and examples of how to answer a fool wisely (Jesus catching out the Pharisees using their own argument in Matthew 16:1-4; and shutting up the opposition of the chief priests and elders similarly in Matthew 21:24-27).

Read these stories thoughtfully for yourselves – and always pause to heed the whispers of the Holy Spirit in each fresh dilemma you face.

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