“How To Answer A Fool”

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

(Proverbs 26:4-5)

How should a person answer foolish arguments? When is it appropriate? These two statements, which at first glance appear contradictory, give a balanced approach for dealing with foolishness in a godly way.

Who is the “Fool”?

The “fool” in Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature has less to do with a person’s mental faculty and more to do with his unwillingness to hear the voice of divine wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33). The road to knowledge, wisdom, and living well in general begins with “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Psa. 111:10). A person may have a very high IQ and still have a foolish outlook on life (Psa. 14:1). So, foolishness is not a result of a lack of education, intellectual training or natural mental acuity. Rather, one becomes a fool and remains a fool by choice.

The Apparent Contradiction

The above two proverbs say, “Answer not a fool according to his folly…” and, “Answer a fool according to his folly…” What is going on here? The Rabbis solved the issue by saying that v.4 referred to secular things while v.5 referred to sacred or religious controversies. While this does not resolve the issue, it does give a sound application for the two verses together – in negligible issues, one should just ignore the foolish person, but in issues that matter, the fool must be dealt with, lest credence be given to what he says (W. G. Plaut, Proverbs, 266).

I believe each verse gives separate instructions. Taken together, they give us a balanced, more comprehensive approach to dealing with foolishness. Verse 4 gives us the rule while verse 5 gives us the exception. So each verse has a different purpose depending on the situation.

Most of the time, to answer “a fool according to his folly,” or by his own mode of reasoning, will only perpetuate folly. The interchange will never end and you will end up looking like a fool in the process. But to answer him not at all may create a new problem. If a foolish remark is never answered others may think the fool is actually wise and cannot be answered. “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Prov. 26:12) So how do we know when to keep our mouths shut and when to speak up?

When Not to Answer the Fool (v.4)

The general rule is to remain silent. Arguing with a fool hardly ever gets anywhere. Most foolish statements are too ridiculous to dignify with a response. “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.” (26:1) “Fine speech is not becoming to a fool…” (17:7a) Besides, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)

To answer a fool according to his own reasoning is to allow one fool to make another. Foolishness is contagious; we need look no further than the news coverage of the upcoming election for proof! So silence is usually the most effective reply to foolishness. “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (17:28) Therefore, before jumping into an argument, make sure you won’t be lowering yourself into the fool’s arena only to become one yourself.

When to Answer the Fool (v.5)

There are times, however, when suffering a fool to speak is too great an evil. If a fool is never answered he may gain confidence and be considered wise by others. Others may be duped into believing the fool’s arguments are true and that his positions are unassailable. To meet the fool on his own ground may puncture his inflated ego and stop his stupidity from spreading to others.

Examples of Answering the Fool

During the 19th century, the expression “poor as Job’s turkey” was used in popular literature. In one assembly with a question-answer format, a preacher unfolded a paper containing a submitted question and read it aloud: “When did Job’s turkey die?” The audience laughed. The preacher then replied, “From the looks of the scratching on this paper, he hasn’t died yet.” Even more laughter. The fool was answered according to his folly.

The apostle Paul answered the foolishness of the false teachers who questioned his legitimacy as an apostle with a little foolishness himself. And boy did he beat them at their own game! “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me!” (2 Cor. 11:1) he said to the Corinthian Christians, who thought themselves a very wise bunch.

He wrote about things in which a fool would boast of. “I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!” (2 Cor. 11:16-19, 20ff)

Though Paul’s words were dripping with sarcasm, he hated to be lowered to this kind of reasoning (2 Cor. 12:11). But  the circumstances called for it. These insufferable fools needed to be answered according to their own folly! There was no other way.

We need wisdom to know how to answer foolishness. Most cases call for silence; but some situations demand a bold response. With that being said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6) It’s easy to respond to folly with “obscene talk” (Col. 3:8), a kind of low, tit-for-tat, retaliatory speech. Rather, our words are to be designed to build up, fit the occasion, and give “grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29)