Answering the Foolish Wisely – August 2022 “Standard Bearer”

The August 2022 issue of the Standard Bearer contains a guest editorial by Prof. C. Griess, the title of which is “Answer a fool… do not answer a fool.” The article seeks to explain and apply the principles found in the Word of God in Proverbs 26:4-5, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”

And the specific context in which he explains and applies this passage is the recent controversy and schism in the PRC, where foolish words were (and still are) flung at the church and her members by those who left us. But, of course, the use of this passage can be found in manifold situations in which the wise (in Christ) believer finds himself or herself.

Let’s listen to part of his explanation and application and learn to walk wisely toward those who would harm the church and her saints with words.

The Fool and His Folly

To understand the text, we must first remind ourselves who the fool is according to Proverbs. Since the text puts us in the realm of the audible and written word that has attacked us, we ought to stick to the description of the fool as Proverbs displays him in his use of the tongue/pen.

According to the inspired preacher, the fool is one who turns his tongue into an instrument of his pride. With the weapon of his tongue he fights not falsehood, but he beats and pierces those who have offended his pride (14:3, 12:18). Like a drunk chiding his wife, he thinks that he is reinforcing his status in the minds of listeners, when in fact he only lays open his folly (13:6). Further, in the fool’s lips are lies which are an abomination to the Lord (12:22). He will not tell the full truth, but will vehemently protest that he is doing so. By his lies he has the immediate reward of convincing some, but his victory is momentary. If instead he would speak truth, his lips would be established forever (12:19).

The Hebrew dictionaries tell us the fool’s “lying tongue” (12:19), can be “the falsity of self-deceived prophets.”  Others have not deceived them, instead, they have deceived themselves. Yet they cast the blanket of their self-deceit also over others (Jer 23:26). The fool’s tongue also utters slander (10:18). Slander is a specific kind of lie about others and what they have said or done, taking a person’s words and making them seem to say a thing that is not the intent of the speaker nor the honest reading of his words. The fool seeks to “do mischief” (10:23) with his words. He wants to create turmoil, to ignite an uproar, for then he can exploit the fearful. His words are really the expression of rage that has consumed him (14:16). With his writing and speaking he is not interested in understanding, but merely wants to unleash what is pent up within him (18:2). His words are deceitful and crooked. He twists things to fit his agenda (4:24, 6:12, 19:1). With his mouth and pen he is attempting to lift himself up, instead of letting others exalt him if it is due (27:2). His speech therefore is like an uncontrolled fire (16:27).

So, should we give answer when one speaks or writes this way, seemingly with no shame?

It depends. “Answer…” “Answer not…”

Answer Not

We are not to answer this kind of folly if the consequence is that we are dragged into this kind of speaking or writing ourselves. Verse 4 tells us not to answer then, “lest you also be like him.” The temptation is to answer in like manner, to hurl back what has been hurled at us. It is better not to answer. In cases like this, silence may speak the most powerfully. There is a time to allow foolishness to show itself folly. When the Rabshakeh was carrying on in his folly, calling out to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that Hezekiah was deceiving them and they ought to come out and join Assyria, Hezekiah must have felt a strong desire to mount the wall as pulpit and respond. Instead, his command was, “Answer him not” (2 Kings 18:36).

In many cases, responding will spur the one spewing foolishness to keep on in his folly. His rage fuels him and answering only provides an open door for his folly to pour forth. Wisdom will not win him now. Proverbs 23:9, “Speak not in the ears of a fool: for he will despise the wisdom of thy words.” He will only continue to twist your words and make baseless attacks, for his pursuit of victory leads him to set aside all other considerations. Though one wants to answer again and again to set the record straight, it only draws one into an exhaustingly endless match that does not honor the Lord and only brings one under the judgments due a fool. This may well explain the silence, at times, in recent PRCA history.


And yet…

There are occasions when an answer to folly must be risked. The inspired preacher tells us these are the occasions when the consequence of not answering is that the one playing the fool becomes “wise in his own conceit” (Verse 5). In other words, there are occasions when the foolish one is puffed up in pride, thinking he has won the day for wisdom because no answer has been given. Others, hearing him boast, start to be overcome, ensnared by the folly and propagators of it. In other words, an answer must be given when there is a risk to God’s people that they be taken in by the folly. How astounding that this can happen! People who have thoroughly imbibed the Reformed creeds can be convinced by strong personalities that their church is heretical for holding to the creeds, all the while the personalities twist the meaning of the creeds to meet their agenda!

Though it means the discomfort of stepping into the folly being spewed forth, one must answer for the sake of the erring brother and especially for the sake of the church of Jesus Christ (all the while resisting taking on the character of the folly). Watchmen on the walls of Zion may not fail to blast the trumpet of warning! An answer must be given. “When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul.” (Eze 3:20-21).

…Once an answer has been given exposing the folly for what it is, to the safety of the church and hopefully even the one wise in his own conceit, then one does not need to feel burdened to continue to engage the folly if it continues. He does not get sucked in to thinking he needs to answer every twisting and rage filled attack, lest he fuel the folly or become foolish himself. Nonetheless, an evaluation of the situation will have to be made again and again going forward.

God give wisdom!

Published in: on August 28, 2022 at 8:54 PM  Leave a Comment