This passage of Scripture has indeed puzzled many people. Proverbs 26:4 reads: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him.” Verse 5 adds: “Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
When trying to understand these two verses, we need to realize that the Bible does not contradict itself. God’s entire Word is truth, as Christ said in John 17:17: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” This is a strong statement of Jesus’ confidence in the truth of the entirety of Scripture. Christ also said in John 10:35: “the Scripture cannot be broken…” There are no contradictions in God’s Word–no passage of Scripture “breaks” or contradicts another passage. Jesus’ response made the truth of His argument rest on the absolute trustworthiness of all Scripture.
Rather than being contradictory, the two statements in Proverbs 26:4, 5, complement each other. The last part of each statement shows the sets of circumstances or scenarios under which each of the two statements is to be applied. In every case, before deciding whether or not to answer, we need to consider the questioner’s motives–where the questioner is coming from–the content of his question, and his attitude!
Proverbs 26:4 tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly, lest we be like him. In this situation, the fool is not there seeking to learn anything. He is just argumentative, wanting to quarrel and debate. To answer the fool’s specific allegation or even accusation would end up in a meaningless discussion. In such a case, both parties would end up being foolish or behaving foolishly. Luke 20:1-8 gives us one example. When Christ was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the Pharisees confronted Christ and asked Him: “Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?” (compare verse 2). Christ understood the wrong motives and intentions of the Pharisees. He did not answer their question. Rather, He asked them a question that He knew was impossible for them to answer without condemning themselves (compare verses 3 and 4). As Christ expected, the Pharisees refused to answer the question. As a consequence, Christ stated that He would not answer their question either, and the discussion ended (compare verses 7 and 8).
On the other hand, Proverbs 26:5 tells us that there are selective times when we are to answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
This approach is well illustrated by Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, in his second letter to the Corinthian Church. Certain men at Corinth falsely pretended to be apostles of Christ. In order to protect the Church and not to give the impression of approving their claim through silence, Paul had to speak up. Therefore, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 11:23: “Are they ministers of Christ?–I speak as a fool–I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often.” Paul answered these false apostles’ claims, by showing, in a “foolish way,” who was really an apostle of Jesus Christ, so that they would not appear wise to themselves and to others in the Church, thereby causing great damage.
Another example can be found in Job 2:9, 10: “Then [Job’s] wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” In this case the expressed folly is answered with reproof, as well as with a brief statement of the true facts and circumstances, exposing it in the manner deserved.
In conclusion, the two passages in Proverbs 26:4,5, do not contradict each other, but taken together, they explain different methods of handling the questions and statements of foolish people. In verse 4, we are told not to answer a fool, “…Lest you also be like him.” We are admonished to avoid a pointless argument, wasting fruitless time and energy on foolishness, and to avoid responding approvingly by like folly. However, in verse 5, we are told to answer a fool, “… Lest he be wise in his own eyes.” There is a time when we cannot give tacit approval by silence. There is a selective time to stand up, and not close our eyes to damage. We need godly wisdom to know just when and how to apply these principles, and this wisdom comes from God. James 1:5 tells us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
Lead Writer: Bill Grams