Question: It appears on the surface that Proverbs 26:4-5 is contradicting itself. Verse 4 says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him.” But verse 5 says, “Answer a fool according to his folly or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Does this mean that we are to answer a fool according to his folly, just do it with love and the Word of God, not in arrogance and ignorance like the fool himself or we will become like him and he will become wise in his own eyes?
We have a saying in English that there are two sides to a coin. This passage in Proverbs is an example of the two sides of a coin in dealing with “fools.”
On one side of this coin, Verse 4 gives the usual approach a person should take in dealing with a fool. Responding to a fool at all will likely make you look like a fool as well. The Bible is cautioning us to stay away from getting into a fruitless argument or discussion with fools. There is virtually no way to answer such a person without coming across ourselves as equally opinionated, argumentative or just plain ridiculous.
However, on the other side of that coin, in verse 5, there are times when the “fool” is expressing ignorant or even dangerous opinions about important topics, and to say nothing could give the impression of being in agreement. In that case, it can become necessary to “answer a fool according to his folly”—in other words, rebuke him for saying something foolish that could lead others astray. If the fool is not challenged and rebuked, he will prattle on and on, thinking himself wise.
The apostle Paul had to take this second approach in dealing with some self-proclaimed spiritual leaders in the Corinthian church who contradicted Paul’s teaching and boasted about their superiority over Paul. Like all fools, they viewed themselves more highly than they deserved. Because of the damage they were creating in the church, Paul had to answer these fools “according to their folly” by boasting about himself in order to show how ridiculous they sounded:
2 Cor. 11:16-17 I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool.
So, rather than contradicting itself, proverbs 26:4-5 shows two different ways of responding to a fool, depending upon which response is the most helpful and wise.