Do not answer a fool according to his folly,Proverbs 26:4-5 NIV
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
This, on the surface, is a strange and seemingly contradictory pair of proverbs. Should we answer a fool according to his folly? Or not? I do believe that the answer is actually both.
In this passage, the word translated as fool means one who is “foolish, stupid, or insolent.” I realize that identifying a person as a fool is not politically correct. But I believe it is an appropriate term for what these proverbs are talking about. Foolishness, as used here, has nothing to do with intelligence. Some very intelligent people are fools. When you read the book of Proverbs as a whole, you find that it uses fool as more a moral attribute than an intellectual one. The fool acts, or speaks, in ways that bring harm or discredit to themselves and others. And we all know people who are like this. Especially if you are on social media. People who speak without thinking first. Often in thoughtless and hurtful ways.
Answering a Fool
The author of these two proverbs gives us two distinct ways to respond to people like this. The first is not to respond as they do. If I respond to them thoughtlessly or hurtfully, I am no better than they are. But if I respond with integrity and reason, I can potentially help them to recognize their foolishness for what it is. I don’t believe we are being told that we need to respond to the fool. But if we do, be sure to answer them in a way that will not validate their positions and might help correct their thoughts.