Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.—Proverbs 26:4-5
The Word of God has much to say about fools, none of it flattering. The first twelve verses of the twenty-sixth chapter of Proverbs are all about fools and how those who are wise should understand and handle them. Solomon had his share of interaction with fools, and in our text the wise king gives sound advice as to how to deal with such people. Some see this text as a contradiction. At first blush one could come to this conclusion — as some ancient rabbis have reportedly done. However, two important principles of biblical interpretation must be kept in mind. First, the Scriptures never contradict themselves since they are God’s Word and He is incapable of such. Second, the book of Proverbs hasn’t been given in order that we have precise answers to every question it addresses, rather that we have guidance in making wise decisions. So what wisdom is God giving us when He says both not to answer and also to answer a fool according to his folly?
What is a Fool?
Before we get into specifics of interacting with fools, it is wise to know how to identify one. The fool (aka—the simple, scoffer, mocker, scornful) says in his heart, “There is no God,” he is morally corrupt and engages in wicked activity (Ps. 14:1). He brings grief to his family (Prov. 17:25), danger to those who meet him (Prov. 17:12), and is a know-it-all, wise in his own eyes (Prov. 3:7; 23:9; 29:9). In a word, the fool is dead in trespasses and sins, leaning on his own understanding instead of trusting in the LORD (Prov 3:5-6). Foolishness is not defined by mental capability, but moral depravity. But what are we to do when he heads our way?
To Answer or Not to Answer
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will become like him (v. 4). When we do not see good coming from engaging the fool we are not to answer. When the fool is self-promoting, arguing in anger, drunk or stubbornly obstinate, it is best to simply walk away. Acknowledging him with a counter argument will likely promote the idea he actually has something important to say. Also, we far too easily find ourselves playing by his rules and acting the part he has established. Even when we are able to avoid such foolish actions, the Lord tells us: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Mt. 7:6). There are times when it’s best to shake the dust off our feet and move on.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes (v. 5). When we believe correction is possible we must speak up. Not all fools are hopeless. Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for the fool than for him (Prov 26:12). While there are times to refrain from casting the pearls of Scripture, God’s Word makes wise the foolish whenever and wherever He pleases. You don’t have to look far for evidence of this truth. Do you have a mirror available? It is necessary as well to answer the fool when failure to do so would be taken as agreement with or defeat by his position. Certain people and “truth” claims must not be left unchallenged.
Have the Mind of Christ
I’m sure we all feel the tension here, to know when and how to respond to the fool. The wisdom our text exhorts us to, is nothing more or less than an admonition to have the mind of Christ. No one ever has or will both identify such times and answer with such wisdom as Jesus Christ. Scan the gospels and see perfect wisdom in action during Christ’s earthly sojourn and interaction with the people of His day.
Biblical Illustration of Answering a Fool
Maybe an Old Testament biblical illustration will help. Is it possible that Solomon recalled the events of 1 Samuel 25 as he wrote this text in Proverbs? Whether or not he did, this historical narrative serves as a fine exposition. The main characters in the story were: Nabal, the fool (for that is literally what his name means); David, the one who almost answered a fool according to his folly thereby becoming like him; and, Abigail, a wise women who answered a fool as his folly deserved revealing to Nabal his utter lack of wisdom and preventing David from foolishness. Read this chapter again with Proverbs 26:4-5 in mind.
Solomon, in another piece of wisdom literature, wrote: There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven… A time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecc. 3:1, 7b). When it appears we can keep the dog from returning to its vomit (Prov 26:11), it is a time to speak; but when answering the fool leads us to join in swallowing his regurgitation, it is undoubtedly a time to be silent. The greatest fool we will ever encounter and the one we should never answer according to his folly is the apostate (see 2 Pet 2; note well the application in v. 22).
Honoring the Lord with Speech or Silence
God never flatters the fool, and neither should we. Ultimately, that is the thrust of this text. Do not answer the fool when doing so would flatter him, in particular by imitating his folly. Do answer the fool when silence would flatter him by giving him the notion that he is indeed wise. Flattering a fool gives the appearance of honoring him, which is not fitting (v. 1). The fundamental reason honor is not fitting a fool is because the fool finds it unfitting to honor the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether in speech or silence our lives ought to shout out to every fool around, “Kiss the Son, that He become not angry, and you perish in the way. For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!”
This article was first published in Every Thought Captive magazine, 2010.