The two verses of Proverbs 26:4-5 appear on the surface to be contradictory:
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”
But a moment’s thought make’s their point obvious: “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” That is, no matter how you interact with a fool, you’re only going to get yourself into trouble. Another proverb tells us that “Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his folly.” (Proverbs 17:12) These two verses therefore fit into that overall understanding of the nature of fools: when you see one coming, run away. Don’t have anything to do with them, because you’re bound to lose out.
After graduating from college, while I was working on my graduate degree at UCLA, I took up residence in a three bedroom house in Canyon Country that I shared with two other guys. One had been my roommate in college. The other was a new guy that we didn’t know so well when we offered him the room.
He had seemed nice enough when we first let him move in, but it wasn’t long before we realized that he had not exactly been blessed with wisdom. He repeatedly made odd choices in the things he purchased, and without fail fell victim over and over to scam artists. When the tropical fish that he’d paid five dollars for doubled in size, he insisted that it was now worth ten dollars, as if a tropical fish was some sort of an investment property. Worse, he was not always good about paying his share of the rent or utilities.
One day he approached me and asked me if I could teach him something to say in Hebrew. Apparently he wanted to impress people or something.
Being a bit devious, as well as annoyed with him in general, I rattled off a phrase. He dutifully tried to memorize it, and had me say it over and over again while he practiced until he could say it quite clearly. Satisfied, he went away happily muttering it to himself.
Unexpectedly, he never asked me what the phrase meant in English.
About three months later, after he’d been saying the phrase every chance he got to everyone he met, he sidled over to me one afternoon and finally asked me the obvious question: “Hey, what does that phrase mean?”
“Um,” I began slowly, “It means, ‘I am a stupid donkey.’”
He was quite angry, of course.
But my other roommate and I didn’t stop laughing for a long time.