Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5

What does it mean to hear words of wisdom? Who can really teach wisdom to another person?

You don’t need a dictionary to understand what wisdom is. “Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing it doesn’t belong in a fruit salad.” That statement or a version of it is attributed to British humorist Miles Kington. Wisdom, both in its definition and its recognition is experiential. We know wisdom when we see it and we gain wisdom when we see it.

That is why there can be a seemingly contradictory couplet of proverbs right in the middle of the Bible’s most famous book of wisdom. Which is it? Do I answer a fool or do I not? It depends. There is a brilliant moment (for which I have no other context but this) where a British call in show host takes a call from a carpenter. The young man who has called in is making a point that carpentry is a more responsible building method than concrete because trees can be regrown, so there is a virtually unending supply of trees in the world. He makes the simple statement, “You can’t grow concrete.” To which the host quickly retorts “Yeah, you can.” The caller doesn’t respond and the host is unable to give a reasonable follow up, it seems, so he ends the call.

The host’s quick and patently silly response that concrete can be “grown” was foolish on its face; no further explanation was needed. Silence was the right response. But all too often, silence in the face of foolishness leads to further foolishness. We know the moment when we experience it. We see the wisdom in the act of being wise.

So we answer foolishness, either in silence or in words, not because we store up wisdom from teaching or from life experience but when we see foolishness and respond in contrast to it, not falling into folly ourselves. Wisdom is walking with unsoiled hems in the dry spaces between puddles of foolishness.

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?
    There is more hope for a fool than for them.

Proverbs 26:12

Don’t seek wisdom for the sake of avoiding foolishness alone, or else you might fall into the worse category of believing yourself to be wise. Instead, hold onto wisdom as a tool to correct fools. Gently correct those that you encounter occasionally and that fool from whom no one escapes, himself. You know not to put the tomato in the fruit salad. You know that you can’t grow more concrete. But don’t neglect the fact that there are many more things your experience has yet to teach you.

Ethan Kirl