Why are we told to answer not a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4)?

In Proverbs 26 Solomon critiques the fool, often using similes to illustrate the importance of applying wisdom to areas of everyday life and to avoid the way of the fool. In this chapter readers are told to "answer not a fool according to his folly" (Proverbs 26:4). Yet, immediately after that urging, Solomon adds that one should answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:5).

Earlier in this section of Proverbs, Solomon illustrates how out of place honor for a fool is by referring to snow in summer and rain in harvest (Proverbs 26:1), and he compares a causeless curse to a wandering bird and a flying swallow (Proverbs 26:2). He likens the appropriateness of the whip to guide the horse and the bridle to guide the donkey to the rod to guide the fool (Proverbs 26:3). In each of these three situations, it is obvious that one should avoid foolishness and being a foolish person. The things a fool does are not worthy of honor and are ultimately destructive. Consequently, not only does Solomon encourage his readers not to be fools but also not to relate to them improperly.

Solomon adjures his readers to answer not a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4). The reason given is simple and direct: lest you be like him. If one answers a fool like a fool, then the one answering is as much a fool as the first person. Solomon is cautioning against hypocrisy and the foolishness associated with that strategy. On the other hand, one cannot simply ignore a fool in every instance. So, Solomon provides direction for how one should answer a fool when it is necessary to do so. After telling his readers to answer not a fool according to his folly, Solomon instructs his readers to answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:5). Again, the reason is straightforward: if the fool receives no response, he will be conceited in thinking his foolishness is wise. The key is to respond to the fool wisely, not foolishly.

Solomon wants his readers to avoid being fools; hence, the various similes used to describe the fool and the destructiveness of foolishness. Because of the danger of being like the fool, Solomon tells his readers to not answer a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4). To answer the fool according to his folly is to risk stooping to that level of foolishness. On the other hand, there are times when it is necessary to respond to a fool, particularly so that their foolishness does not go unchallenged and they do not think themselves wise in their own conceit.

Solomon's twin instructions may appear contradictory at first glance. One prohibits an action; the other advocates it. This is where wisdom comes in. It is evident that good judgment is needed to determine which action the occasion calls for. Sometimes one should not respond—one should answer not a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4). Other times require a response in order to expose the foolishness of the fool (Proverbs 26:5). Solomon leaves it to the reader to determine which is the appropriate course of action. In context, it is also evident that his instructions are not contradictory; they simply help the one who would be wise to recognize that foolishness must be addressed carefully and for the right reasons to avoid falling into the trap of foolishness himself.

Related Truth:

How does the Bible describe a fool?

What is the meaning of Psalm 14:1 (53:1), "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'"?

Does the tongue really have the power of life and death?

What does the Bible say about edification? Why is it so important for Christians?

What does 'iron sharpens iron' mean?

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