“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. Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” (Proverbs 26:4-5, 9 ESV)
The first part of Proverbs chapter 26 dedicated to the fool. Stretching from the first to the twelfth verse, Solomon’s discourse reveals that “honor is not fitting for a fool” (v1), the “rod is for the backs of fools” (v3), one should not send a message by the hand of a fool (v8) nor hire a fool (v10), and that fools are generally hopeless, repeating the same sins over and again (v11-12). This passage doesn’t hold much hope for the fool!
Solomon’s Spirit-inspired language is precisely crafted for such a purpose. As he speaks to his sons, the father-king lovingly warns them against all sorts of foolishness in themselves and warns them to stay away from fools as well. As the Book of Proverbs starts coming to a close, Solomon seems to heighten his conviction and uses quite a number of similes and metaphors to accomplish his task: fools are likened to unpredictable weather, animals in need of discipline, the lame, drunkards, dogs, and the prideful.
In the middle of this passage, a pair of verses demands our attention. Unbelievers often point to verses 4 and 5 as contradictory, and many Christians have wrestled with their meaning. In verse 4, we’re told not to answer the fool; in verse 5, we’re told to. So do we answer the fool or not? The short answer is yes (the longer answer, of course, will be found in the sermon). These verses together are complementary, not contradictory, teaching us that we ought not bring truth to the level of foolishness only to amuse while at the same time teaching us that fools must be shown the error of their ways. Like Paul, we are to “become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9), communicating truth to all, condescending as Christ did for us while not become foolish ourselves. Such task requires wisdom.
The Proverbs gives us God’s wisdom. But what good is this wisdom “in the mouth of fools?” (v9) The picture given to us here seems bleak. In fact, verse 12 says there is hardly any hope for such a fool, especially those who are wise in their own eyes. The story doesn’t end there, however – verse 5 instructs the wise to answer the fool to deliver him from such blinding pride. As long as truth remains, there is hope even for fools.