“4Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
5Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” ~ Proverbs 26:4-5
At first glance, these two verses from The Book of Proverbs appear to be contradicting each other. However, closer examination shows that is not actually the case.
To understand the teaching contained in this couplet, we first need to see how the Bible defines the primary terms used in the passage, then we can examine them separately before finally putting them back together to see God’s message to us.
Who is a Fool?
The Bible defines a fool as one who rejects God, and so hates the teachings of God (i.e., God’s Word: The Bible).
“The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” ~ Psalm 14:1a
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” ~ Proverbs 1:7
Therefore, in our text, to “Answer a fool” (v. 5) means replying/responding, as in a discussion/debate, to one who (by words or deeds) denies the authority of God over his/her life.
Conversely, to “Answer not a fool” means NOT replying/responding to one who denies the authority of God over his/her life.
What is the Fool’s Folly?
Again the Bible gives us a clear definition: the fools’ folly is deceit.
“The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way: but the folly of fools is deceit.” ~ Proverbs 14:8
The rejection of God is the rejection of truth. Romans 1 explains the fool’s folly this way:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,” ~ Romans 1:18, 21-22
The phrase “hold the truth in unrighteousness”, in Romans 1:18, means to reject the truth. That is, to reject God’s existence and authority, to consider/treat it as false. In other words, fools deliberately deceive themselves and others about God.
The fool rejects God and therefore must deny the truth of God to himself and all who would hear him.
Answer Not a Fool…
Now that we have seen the Biblical definitions of a fool (one who rejects God) and his folly (deception), the first verse of the couplet (i.e., v. 4) becomes clearer. Believers are warned that there is a danger in debating with those who reject God; because our faith in God can be greatly shaken by their deceptions. For example, when speaking about the end times, Jesus said:
“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” ~ Matthew 24:24
The “false Christs, and false prophets” are those who reject God and, therefore, are fools by definition. And their intent is to “deceive the very elect”, to deceive Believers.
Jesus does indicate that, ultimately, Believers are not deceived: that is, they don’t stay deceived. But, as Galatians 2:11-21 reveals, even a stalwart like Peter was deceived for a period of time.
Apply great caution when debating fools ensnared by deceptions, for you might also become trapped by those same deceptions.
Answer a Fool…
In the second verse of the couplet (v.5), we are encouraged to challenge the deceptions spewed out by those who reject God. However, now the focus shifts from the Believer to the fool. If the fool is not challenged, he might think he is right, i.e., “be wise in his own conceit.”
The idea here is that God still loves the fool. Even though the fool has rejected God, God desires to rescue the fool from His folly, so that he can know the Truth and be saved.
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” ~ John 3:17
“And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” ~ 2 Timothy 2:24-26
Retaining Faith while Rescuing Fools
Rather than being contradictory, our couplet outlines the tension that exists for Christians interfacing with the world. On one hand, a Believer can have his/her faith challenged, even to the point of becoming (though not permanently) deceived. On the other hand, the imperative of God’s love for mankind (even for those who reject Him) means that we must engage even those who have rejected God and are ensnared by deceptions of their own making.
In some ways, it is like rescuing a drowning man. If the drowning man, in his panic, fights the rescuer, he can cause them both to drown. Nevertheless, even with that risk in mind, the rescuer tries to help because he wants to save the drowning man’s life.
Indeed, in Galatians 6:1 we see a similar tension:
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.“ ~ Galatians 6:1
Here, mature Believers are both challenged to restore the fallen brother and warned of the dangers of engaging with a brother trapped in sin.
In our text, God wants us to be fully aware of both the challenges and opportunities that can arise when sharing the Gospel, His truth, with those who have rejected Him.