Answering a Fool
1. In verses four and five, Solomon gives advice concerning how to deal with a fool. It is not always easy to know what to do or what to say.
2. The problem is that verse four tells us to do the opposite of what verse five says. Verse four commands us not to answer a fool. Verse five tells us to answer a fool.
3. Clearly these verses contradict each other – but the contradiction is obviously intentional and is designed (like all proverbs) to cause us to stop and think.
Answer Not a Fool (vs.4)
1. In this verse, Solomon’s advice is that we NOT answer a fool when he does or says something foolish.
2. “According to his folly”
a. This expression speaks of some expression of a fool’s folly.
b. It may be a fool is boasting; it may be that a fool speaks of how he cheats and gets away with it; it may be the fool speaks evil of God or spiritual things; it may be that the fool tears down a godly man verbally; it could be an outburst of anger or cursing; it could be the antics of a drunkard;
c. There are countless ways a fool behaves “according to his folly.”
3. It is not always easy to know how to respond.
a. Thankfully, Solomon gives his inspired advice in this passage.
b. He commands us NOT to answer the fool in his folly.
4. Answer: To pay attention to; to respond to; to speak to; to declare; to answer; to give information to.
a. Don’t answer him means don’t pay any attention to him; ignore him; don’t respond to his foolish behavior or words.
b. Just walk away.
c. Definitely, don’t get in a debate with a fool.
• It will go nowhere. It will degenerate in a hurry.
• You will not bring him up to your level; but He will drag you down to his.
• Debating with a fool is a losing proposition.
5. The reason why we should not answer a fool:
a. “Lest you be like him.”
• The temptation is to respond to folly with more folly.
• By answering a fool others will assume that you and he are on the same level…
• If you respond to his folly you dignify it… you elevate the fool.
• By answering the fool, you are in effect stooping to his level.
• One man noted: “When a wise man talks to a fool, two fools are conversing.”
• By answering a fool’s foolish question you are implying that his question is not foolish but is worthy of a response.
b. By not answering him or responding to his antics, you are actually sending out a loud message of disapproval—without a word.
• You are saying that his folly is not worthy of a response.
• By not answering him, you are refusing to allow yourself to be dragged into a quagmire by a fool.
• The fool would like nothing more than to drag you into a debate, a confrontation, or a discussion on his folly.
• II Kings 18:19-20 – Rabshakeh came to Jerusalem and began to blaspheme the Lord – saying the most foolish things (like the Lord isn’t able to deliver Jerusalem from Assyria; etc.)
• II Kings 19:36 – King Hezekiah gave them wise advice: “answer him not.” Hezekiah refused to dignify the foolish remarks of these pagan invaders.
• Hezekiah chose to obey Proverbs 26:4 in this situation.
c. Don’t become LIKE him.
• If he starts getting angry; keep your cool.
• If he starts to slander you or your side; don’t be like him—don’t respond in kind.
• You will end up being a fool too—and he will have won the battle.
d. If you just walk away, all other observers will understand why you did not respond… everyone except for the fool.
• Sometimes silence is the best answer of all.
• Silence can be (as Charles Bridges put it), a “dignified rebuke.” This was a method used by the Lord often in dealing with His foolish accusers.
• By not answering a fool, it may give the fool a cause to pause and think about his folly and be convicted.
• A small fire that is not around anything flammable will just burn itself out. It doesn’t require calling the fire department.
e. Usually the “answer” is as obvious as the nose on your face. It doesn’t really require a response.
Answer a Fool (vs.5)
1. This passage tells us to answer a fool according to his folly.
2. There are times when a fool challenges you, confronts you, or seeks to promote his foolish views (especially publically), and that folly may need to be extinguished before it spreads.
3. Sometimes by not answering a fool’s challenge, the fool walks away assuming that he has won the argument—that no one has an answer to his “intelligent” question.
4. A fool may think that he has come up with a brilliant “proof” that the Bible is not true and challenges you in public.
a. That may need to be answered.
b. You don’t want him or any observers of the conversation to think that his foolish argument has any merit.
c. If you don’t answer him, his unanswered words will be considered unanswerable—at least in his mind.
d. He will become wise in his own conceits.
e. In some situations, his arrogant folly may require an answer.
5. A fool may seek to challenge a substantial truth with a silly straw man argument.
a. By not answering, he and others may think they have won the debate… and walk away smugly.
b. In that kind of a situation, you may have to answer a fool.
c. Otherwise, he will be “wise in his own conceit.”
d. He will think that he has superior wisdom, and will likely attempt to promote it elsewhere and do even more damage.
6. Pray for wisdom in knowing when to answer and when not to answer a fool.
The Reason for the Apparent Contradiction
1. Ecc. 3:7 – There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent.
a. Wisdom knows the difference.
b. In minor issues of no significance, it is often best to ignore it.
c. However, in more substantial issues (where damage could be done), it may be wise to confront and reprove the fool’s folly.
d. Different situations may require a different response.
e. Pray for wisdom in dealing with fools.
f. There may be times when it is not wise to debate with a fool; but there may be times when reproof and correction are necessary.
g. Prov. 15:23 – “a word spoken in due season, how good is it!”
h. Knowing what to say and when to say it is an art… wisdom in action.
2. Solomon obviously did not want to lay down a hard and fast rule on answering a fool because folly comes in countless forms and every situation is different.
3. Also, these two proverbs were placed together and were intended to be read together.
a. Together, they give you the whole picture.
b. Either proverb alone could be misleading because it speaks of only one type of situation and should not be applied in all situations.
c. Taken together as a unit, they are not contradictory; they actually reinforce each other.
4. Also, the juxtaposition of these two verses is designed to highlight the difficulty of dealing with a fool.
a. There really is no good way to deal with a fool.
b. There is an upside to answering a fool, but there is a downside.
c. There is an upside to not answering a fool, and there is a downside.
5. I guess you could say that Solomon wants us to know that dealing with fools is a lose-lose situation.
a. He is not going to be corrected by truth or wisdom.
b. He may be successful in dragging you down to his level.
c. The Jewish rabbis wrote another proverb (not part of Scripture – a proverb of tradition) that says, “A fool can ask more questions in an hour than a wise man could answer in a year.”
d. You may not want to spend the rest of your days answering the arrogant questions of foolish men.
e. And yet on the other hand, some of those foolish questions, under certain circumstances, may require a response.
f. Be careful in dealing with fools!