Proverbs Thematic Sermon: Discernment, Discretion, and Answering a Fool (Erik Veerman)

Feb 18, 2024    Erik Veerman

Discernment, Discretion, and Answering the Fool

Our proverb’s focus this morning is on discernment, discretion, and whether to answer a fool in his folly. Originally, I was planning on preaching these in two sermons, “Discernment and Discretion” and Answering a fool. But I realized that the verses about answering a fool in his folly are really about discernment. So, I thought we’s take them together.

If you’ll take out you proverbs insert, we’re starting with a few verses from chapter 23. If you’d like to read them directly, you can find those verses on page 646 in the provided Bibles. We’ll start with those verses from chapter 23 and then read the read the rest of the selected verses on the insert.

Reading of Selected Proverbs.


Proverbs 23:1-3; 6-9

1 When you sit down to eat with a ruler,

        observe carefully what is before you,

2 and put a knife to your throat

        if you are given to appetite.

3 Do not desire his delicacies,

        for they are deceptive food.

6 Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy;

        do not desire his delicacies,

7 for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.

        “Eat and drink!” he says to you,

        but his heart is not with you.

8  You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,

        and waste your pleasant words.

9  Do not speak in the hearing of a fool,

        for he will despise the good sense of your words.

Pursue Discretion and Discernment

11:22 Like a gold ring in a pig's snout

    is a beautiful woman without discretion.

18:13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.


7b What your eyes have seen

          do not hastily bring into court,

8  for what will you do in the end,

          when your neighbor puts you to shame?

9  Argue your case with your neighbor himself,

        and do not reveal another's secret,

10 lest he who hears you bring shame upon you,

        and your ill repute have no end.

25:15 With patience a ruler may be persuaded,

    and a soft tongue will break a bone.

25:17 Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor's house,

    lest he have his fill of you and hate you.


25:20 Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart

    is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day,

    and like vinegar on soda.

27:14 Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice,

    rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.

Answering a Fool and His Folly

13:20 Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise,

    but the companion of fools will suffer harm.

14:7 Leave the presence of a fool,

    for there you do not meet words of knowledge.

17:12 Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs

    rather than a fool in his folly.

26:1 Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.


4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,

       lest you be like him yourself.

5 Answer a fool according to his folly,

       lest he be wise in his own eyes.

6 Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool

       cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.

26:8 Like one who binds the stone in the sling

    is one who gives honor to a fool.

26:10 Like an archer who wounds everyone

    is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard.

29:9 If a wise man has an argument with a fool,

    the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.



Last year, a guy named Young Baek was crowned king of coffee tasters. It’s a thing. The formal job title is coffee cupper. It’s the person who tests the quality of coffee batches on behalf of producers or buyers. Their taste buds are highly refined. Mr. Baek is constantly practicing and honing his skill. He studies beans from all over the world and soils and altitudes. He intimately knows the different roasting methods. And when he’s tasting, he can identify impurities in the beans or issues in the roasting or finishing.

Basically, being an expert coffee cupper requires three things:

·       First, it requires knowledge about all things coffee and beans.

·       Second, it requires understanding the problems that may arise when the beans are processed.

·       Those first two things are the easy part. The third thing is applying that knowledge and understanding practically when you taste the coffee. In other words, having coffee discernment.

And those three things are very similar to wisdom. Wisdom, as Proverbs has taught us, requires:

·       First, knowledge. Knowing God, his Word and his world

·       Second, having wisdom requires an understanding of what is good and right and true compared to what is not.

·       And third, wisdom requires discernment. Discernment is basically applying that knowledge and God’s standard of right and wrong in life situations.

That definition of wisdom is how King Solomon began Proverbs back in chapter 1. And he’s been, or I should say, God has been working that out that definition in different ways throughout the book.

What I’m saying is that discernment, Biblical discernment, is part of the equation of having wisdom. You can’t have wisdom without discernment.

Our goal today, therefore, is to answer two questions: what is discernment? And how do we learn discernment so that we may mature in wisdom? In other words, how do we become a coffee cupper in life?

I want you to look on the front page of the proverbs insert. You’ll see that Proverbs give us two main contrasts. Those are in the bold. We’ve been talking recently about wisdom contrasted with foolishness. In a couple of months, we’ll be getting into the second main contrast. Righteousness and wickedness. Notice also that several of the sub-categories in Proverbs are also contrasts. Like last week, sloth versus industry. Or two weeks ago deceit versus honesty. A little further down the list you’ll see others like pride versus humility, anger and hate versus peace and love. Just and unjust leadership.

You see, one of the things that God is teaching us in proverbs is discernment. Not just knowing what wisdom and foolishness and righteousness and wickedness are… but being able to differentiate between all of the categories listed here and apply that understanding in life - in your life, in the situations that you find yourself in, and the people that God has brought into your life.


Ok, let’s now look at some of these verses. Let’s start with those opening verses in Proverbs 23. It’s a helpful illustration of discernment.

You are sitting down to eat with a king. He’s invited you. And there’s an amazing spread of delicacies from all over the world. His goal, however, may be to distract you or to bribe you or for you to become indebted to him. It’s deception as verse 3 puts it – deceptive food. And notice what verse 2 says – “put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.” In other words, your appetite could be your undoing in that situation. You will fall prey to the king. What it’s saying is you will need self-control in those situations.

What is discernment in that scenario? Well, it’s knowing the human condition. It’s seeing beyond what is in front of you. It’s understanding both the heart of the king and your own heart. And it’s responding by not falling into his trap. You see that?

And verses 6-8 are similar. But instead of a ruler, you are being offered food from a man who is stingy. He may say, “eat and drink” but he will hate you if you actually eat and drink.

So, having discernment is the ability to navigate the complexities of a situation. It’s being able to apply your knowledge of God, his Word, and his world to a situation. First and foremost, discernment is understanding. Look at Proverbs 18:13. It’s on the left side of the page. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Our tendency is to react immediately or overreact in a situation… or presume something and respond out of that presumption.

But first, we need to listen in order to understand. Perhaps ask questions, or if that is not appropriate, observe what’s going on. Evaluate the situation through the lens of what we have been learning in Proverbs.

Then, ask yourself, how should I respond? Should I even respond at all?

So discernment is, in a sense, decision making. It begins with evaluating and understanding a situation and then it moves into responding. It’s knowing what is appropriate and not appropriate. Follow me?

Now, we will talk about how to gain discernment and therefore grow in wisdom. Hang on for a few minutes. We’ll get there.

But before we get there, let’s consider two practical areas of discernment from these verses. First discretion and second interacting with a fool.


That word discretion is used there in Proverbs 11:22. That may be the most well-known Proverb in this group. “Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.” Discretion is having good judgment to act appropriately and thoughtfully. In that verse, if a woman with external beauty flaunts her beauty, or has no moral sensibilities nor propriety, or perhaps she is rude and unruly, then she is, in fact, not beautiful. Ether her indiscretion overshadows her external beauty, or her indiscretion takes away her beauty. She’s either the gold ring in a pig’s snout… or she’s the pig with a gold ring.  Either way, it is to her shame.

Ok, part of having discretion is being sensitive to situations.

Let’s say that your neighbor is going through a tough time. And you want to help her with yard work. So, you get up at 7am on Saturday, you get your leaf blower out, and you start blowing her leaves. Well, Proverbs 27:14 addresses that: “Whoever blesses his neighbor with a [leaf blower], rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” I think we can relate to that one. That’s poor judgment.

And there are a couple of other examples of this… like not rushing to court to expose your neighbor. That one is about being discrete, and first going to your neighbor.

I like how Coleman described it earlier this week. He said it’s like having good emotional intelligence. That applies to discernment in general, but I think it especially applies to having discretion. It’s being able to understand the emotional dynamics going on, including your own… and responding appropriately. Proverbs 25:20 captures that. “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day…” It goes back to navigating what is appropriate and inappropriate and responding in measure.

So, to summarize, having discretion is acting with thoughtful judgment. It’s being careful and sensitive. You can think about it this way, discretion is essentially applying your discernment in situations with others.

Answering a Fool

Ok, so that is discernment and discretion – understanding and acting. Which brings us now to a very focused application of that. Interacting with fools.

Now, before we go there, I think it would be helpful for me to summarize Proverbs teaching on the fool. We considered a few weeks ago the contrast between the wise and the fool. How the fool pursues folly and the wise pursues wisdom. As a reminder…

·       A fool is someone who ignores or rejects seeking knowledge, understanding, and guidance. That’s either actively or passively.

·       A fool also disregards moral truth and he opposes God’s wisdom.

·       In addition, Proverbs describes a fool as being very much wrapped up in himself, and his thoughts. He is right in his own eyes, and he acts out of his selfish disregard for others and he acts out of his rejection of truth and goodness.

·       A fool flaunts his folly. Remember that Proverb. And we’ve seen a couple of examples of foolishness so far. Last week was about the sluggard. And the week before about how a fool lacks integrity and is instead deceitful.

So, with that in mind, how should you relate to a fool? How should you respond to a fool in his folly?

Of course, this takes us to Proverbs 26 verses 4-5. You see them on the right side of the sheet. Verse 4 – “Answer not a fool…” and verse 5 “Answer a fool…” So, which is it?

Now, some have critiqued Proverbs because of this seeming contradiction. But the thing is, those verses are intentionally together. The reason is, it takes discernment to know if, how, and when to answer a fool.

Let me give you an example of how not to answer a fool. And I want to do that with a modern-day parable. Some of you have heard of Juha, especially down in front here. Juha is a middle eastern man living somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.

Well, one day Juha was in the market. And he ran into a guy who loved to argue. It didn’t matter what, he just liked to disagree. And this guy said to Juha. “Did you know, the sky is green and the grass is blue?” Juha couldn’t pass up the opportunity to respond. “The sky is not green and the grass is not blue. You are out of your mind. The sky is blue and the grass is green.” “No it’s not, the guy answered.

Well, Juha and this guy went at it for a long time. They caused so much disturbance in the marketplace that the police showed up and arrested both of them.

They were soon brought before the judge. Juha knew that he would finally be vindicated. The judge, of course, would agree that the sky was blue and the grass green… and besides that, the judge was his friend.

And so, the judge listened to both sides of the story. And then he pronounced his judgment. He ordered Juha to spend a week in jail.

Well, as you can imagine, Juha was shocked and confused. He waited until the courtroom emptied, then asked the Judge: “Judge, you know the sky is blue and the grass is green. How could you rule against me and send me to jail for a week?”

The Judge replied, “You’re not going to jail because of the color of the sky or the grass! No, you are going to jail for disturbing the peace by arguing with a fool in the market and then wasting my time by bringing the stupid argument into my courtroom!”

Juha learned his lesson the hard way.

You see, answering a fool by stooping down to the level of his foolishness is not how to answer a fool.  Look at verse 26:4 again. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” You see how that directs us not to enter into a fool’s folly? Now, verse 4 could either mean, don’t answer him at all, or it could mean, don’t answer him using his foolish ways. I think either interpretation is fine.

If you look at the very last Proverb listed, 29:9 it’s similar. “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.” Juha would have been served well to know that one.

So, if you choose to answer a fool, how should you do it? Verse 26:5 gives us some clarity: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” What it means is to answer by revealing the folly of his ways. The purpose would be for him to see his foolish ways, or to at least know that what he thinks… is regarded as folly.

In a conversation, that would mean changing the direction of the conversation. It would be showing him (in some way) why his thinking or his actions are self-contradictory or selfish or unwise in whatever way… Just know that depending on the situation, that may only stir up more folly. If so, then maybe you should not respond.

So, in the end, how do you know if, when, and how to answer a fool? Well, it takes wisdom and discernment. And so, we’ve come full circle.

Learning Discernment

Which brings us back to the question of “how?” How do we grow in discernment so that we may mature in wisdom?

Again, we’re talking about Biblical discernment. Now, there is discernment in a general sense of the word that is something available to all people, Christians and non-Christians. It’s someone with a keen sense to understand situations and people. And that’s good. But the discernment that Proverbs speaks of goes much further. It’s a discernment based on the wisdom and knowledge of God. It is a discernment that understands God’s commands and the righteousness to which he calls us.

And so the obvious prerequisites to having discernment are having the first two components of wisdom. First, knowledge… knowledge of God, his word and world. And second, an understanding of righteousness. Let’s take those one at a time.

·       First, the knowledge part. It’s knowing what God has revealed. Or to put it another way, it’s having a worldview based on what God has revealed. Revealed in his Word and revealed in the creation around us. You have to have those. First, you have to be in God’s word to know God’s word. There’s no substitute for that. And, second, you have to be a student of God’s creation – his general revelation. To be sure, we are limited in our knowledge. So, I’m talking about having a general understanding of how the world works, how people are, and how people and systems interrelate. And that includes a general understanding of history. In order to pursue discernment, you have to be growing and learning in those things.

·       Second, the morality part. It’s not just knowing God’s law. You have to know it, of course, but you have to believe and apply God’s commands in your life. I know I probably sound like a broken record sometimes, but I’m trying to ingrain this in your head: God’s wisdom necessarily requires pursuing righteousness. You can’t read Proverbs without seeing that over and over. And we’ve talked over and over about how that righteousness comes by and through Christ. We’ll come back to him in a minute.

 So those are the two pre-requisites to Biblical discernment – growing in knowledge and righteousness.

And it’s from that platform that you then will be able to learn and grow in discernment. Discernment is being able to see how the different aspects of that knowledge and that righteousness interrelate in different circumstances. Hebrews 5 speaks to this. It says, “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.” It’s talking about not maturing in knowledge and righteousness.  “But,” it says, “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

It takes practice, like a coffee cupper. It takes learning from your mistakes and thoughtfully analyzing situations. It takes being with people in the marketplace. It takes serving and working and reading. It takes being around people with wisdom – that’s right there in Proverbs 13:20. “whoever walks with the wise becomes wise…”

And, of course, it involves prayer. Pray that God would give you wisdom and discernment in situations. In the book of James, God tells us to pray for wisdom, and he promises to give it to you graciously. Ask for the Holy Spirit to guide you as you navigate life.

Ok, here’s where I want to draw us back again to Christ and the Gospel. Because, in order to receive and grow in Biblical discernment, knowing Jesus and his Gospel of grace are the foundation.

Let me give you three reasons why.

·       Number 1: Jesus is the perfect model of discernment. Even though we don’t have Jesus’ omniscience – how he intimately knew the hearts with whom he interacted, yet his interactions are still examples of discernment and discretion. All throughout his ministry, he was able to get to the core of the matter. He was able to call out the deceitful and reveal the folly of the fools with whom he interacted. There were times, on the way to the cross, that in discretion, he did not speak. There were times when he did. We could spend all afternoon considering each situation and how his great discernment was on display. The point is that in him we can grow in discernment as he leads us in discernment.

·       Second: Discernment of situations outside of you first requires discernment inside. God has to first awaken your heart so that you may see your sin… as Proverbs puts it, your foolish and evil ways. That’s where discernment begins, seeing your need for him and the grace and forgiveness that God offers in Christ. Part of that internal discernment is knowing that when you are his you are a redeemed sinner. You are redeemed by faith. You are secure in that. But in this life, you will still struggle with sin. Discernment is knowing your own sin struggles as you seek to be discerning.

·       And related to that, number 3 is the Gospel. As the apostle Paul put it, the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The Gospel includes that Jesus has redeemed you from your sin, but it’s also how God redeemed you. He accomplished your salvation through the most amazing display of wisdom and discernment - the cross. God, in all of his vast wisdom… in his perfect and eternal justice and love, and in his infinite power, discerned a way for his greater glory and our good. At the very center of his eternal wisdom and discernment is the cross. It’s where God’s infinite, eternal, and unchangeable justice and love intersect. It’s where Jesus, the eternal son of God, in his perfect righteousness took on the eternal consequences of our sin… as only he could as truly God and man. Is that not the most amazing wisdom and discernment? It is the lynchpin of all things - the center of history. What I’m saying is that in order to begin down the path of Biblical discernment, you need to know this Gospel. To know not just what God has done, but to believe it yourself, and to see Jesus for who he is, Lord and Savior.

This truth is what unlocks the door to your journey of wisdom and discernment.

So… may we each understand the importance of having discernment and discretion in our lives. May we each navigate, with the help of God’s Spirit, different situations and relationships through that Biblical discernment. And may we each mature in our discernment, through the grace of God in Christ through what he has done. Amen.