There are two Proverbs that have always puzzled me. Either one — alone — would be fine. But they come back to back in the midst of a string of pithy observations about fools. Nothing in the assorted zingers seems to explain this blunt contradiction. I am mildly surprised I’ve never seen them listed as proofs that “the Bible is full of contradictions.” Here they are:
Proverbs 26:4. Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
5. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
“Do not answer” and “answer.” Which is it?
One of the devotionals Melanie and I were reading over breakfast pointed to a similar moment in the New Testament that I hadn’t recognized before. It describes encounters Jesus had with Martha and Mary when he arrived after the death of Lazarus. Jesus has two different responses to the same reproach from each sister.
John 11: 21. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
22. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23. Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24. Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26. and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27. “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
32. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33. When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
34. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35. Jesus wept.
John notes that Mary “fell at his feet” but says nothing about Martha’s posture when she says the same words to him. Is that why Jesus responded differently to each of them? If so, it would at least suggest that although their words were the same, Jesus saw some kind of difference in their hearts or attitudes. And so he wasn’t so much answering their words as he was their hearts.
It can be important to hear behind a person’s words, so you don’t misunderstand them.
I once was discussing the story of Job with another minister. I posed the question, “What did Job want?”
My friend immediately answered, “Healing.”
It suddenly flashed through my mind that this was not what Job had asked for. In fact, he never asks God for healing. He finally received a healing and restoration from God. But what Job asked for, over and over, was an explanation. Ultimately, he even withdraws that request and simply trusts the Lord, leaving it at that.
But what I’m thinking about now is that I, like my friend, had assumed for years that all Job really wanted was a return to good health and prosperity. By not hearing what he was saying, and misunderstanding what I had heard, I stood with Job’s useless friends, full of useless answers and advice for him and anyone like him.
There comes a time when answering the words of a question still won’t answer the cry of a heart. My wife’s book series on the theme of listening for God’s voice is pertinent. Regardless of what people say, sometimes I need to wait to know what Jesus is saying in response, before I assume I already know what he wants me to say for him.