A fool: answer him or not?

Proverbs 26:4-5

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.

Hmm…which is it?   When we come to confusing passages, we can approach it in one of two ways:

  1. “Do these verses contradict each other? Sure looks like it.  Guess I’ll give up reading the Bible now.”
  2.  “How can I understand what God is trying to teach me here, since I believe that God does not contradict Himself?”

John Piper comments: 

We believe that the Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). It is the very word of God, written. Therefore, we believe that the Bible is true and coherent. It does not teach us things that are false. It does not contradict itself. We believe this because Jesus Christ has made himself real to us and has shown himself to be the trustworthy Son of God. He has taught us that the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). He commissioned apostles to teach the church and promised to lead them into all truth (John 16:13). And he has given us his Spirit to open our eyes to see reality for what it is (1 Corinthians 2:14-15). So we have come to receive his Word as the very Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13), free from error and contradiction, because God is true and not a God of confusion.

The Ambiguity of Words

But this does not mean that there are no problems for us in the Bible. We are finite. We are sinful. We are culturally biased. And language itself can confuse us when different words carry the same meaning, and when the same words carry different meanings.

Here’s my attempt at understanding what the Proverb means:  To answer not a fool (v4)is the general policy because you will end up like him yourself, falling into his trap and getting sucked in to playing his game by his rules.  You will be replying to his remarks as he responds to your reply with further stupidity: ad nauseum!  To answer a fool according to his folly (v. 5) is to keep a conversation going with a fool,  in order to expose his stupidity.  This is the exception (to answer a fool), because sometimes he or others may think (to their own harm)  that he is “so wise!”  that we just can’t come up with an answer.