How do you explain Proverbs 26:4–5, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit”? These two verses seem to be contradictory.

First of all, we must insist that the two verses are not contradictory. Contradiction would imply error. But the Word of God, being from the mind of God, must be inerrant. Nevertheless we must admit that the verses do appear contradictory at first sight. In fact, during the inter-testamental period there were rabbinical councils which met to discuss the canonicity of various books in the Old Testament, and Proverbs came into discussion because of Proverbs 26:4–5. It was suggested that the book was self-contradictory because of this couplet. But the apparent contradiction was quickly resolved (for more information, see Robert C. Newman, “The Council of Jamnia and the Old Testament Canon,” Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 38, no. 3 [Spr 76]:339).

Given the fact that these two statements occur side-by-side, we may conclude that they are intentionally paradoxical in order to teach us an important lesson concerning life, namely, that in our relationship with fellow fallen human beings, it is not always possible nor prudent to deal in exactly the same way at all times. This is especially so in our dealings with ‘fools,’ such as those who have no regard for God (Ps 14:1), or those who despise wisdom and instruction (Prov 1:7), or those who speak before they think (Prov 15:2, 18:7). Not only does one fool differ from another, but the circumstances in which we have to deal with fools also differ from one time to another. Wisdom is therefore needed to know how best to deal with them. In particular, we need to know when to keep silence and when to speak and how to speak.

In some cases, it is wise not to be dragged into conversation with the fool according to direction or tone he has set. In such circumstances, it may be wise to keep silent for the moment, or to speak in such a way as to appear to be ignoring the remarks of the fool. In particular, if the fool boasts about himself, wisdom would require us not to be tempted to boast even if we think he has over inflated himself. Similarly if he speaks in an abusive manner, wisdom requires the saint not to respond in kind. Otherwise, we would be no better than the fool.

But in other cases, wisdom may dictate that it is best to confront the fool so that he be not puffed up in conceit and think that he is right. The guiding principle on which course of action should be taken, should be that which is best for doing good to the fool, to those who hear him, and to the cause of the promotion of truth. Much wisdom is needed to know which approach is best. So, for example, if you find that being silent may be deemed by the fool as evidence of weakness of your cause, then answering back becomes imperative. Or in the case when the fool offers an objection to what you have said, and believes that his objection is unanswerable, it behoves you to give a response lest the fool be wise in his own conceit.

These two verses are particularly instructive when we are seeking to witness to our colleagues or loved ones. Sometimes, keeping quiet may give us opportunity to speak effectively on another occasion. Sometimes, keeping quiet may be a betrayal of the truth. Remember to pray for wisdom each time you have occasion to talk to one whom the Scripture may describe as a fool.