Skeptics Annotated Bible A Response

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#26 - Should you answer a fool according to his folly?

Response by Dave Marr

The skeptic's puzzlement:

You should answer a fool.
"Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit." Proverb 26:5

You should not answer a fool.
"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him." Proverb 26:4


These proverbs follow one right after the other in Proverbs chapter 26. Therefore, these verses, taken together, imply that there are certain times to answer a fool, and other times not to. Since “answer not a fool” is listed first, this is the general tact that should be taken. The commentator Matthew Henry offers an excellent exposition on the circumstances in which one should answer a fool:
“If thou have reason to think that thy silence will be deemed an evidence of weakness, in such a case answer him; beat him at his own weapons, and that will be an answer to the point.”
I would also add that a conversation should not be had with a person acting foolishly if it is unprofitable spiritually(e.g. name-calling, false report, deceptive social games), which is generally the case.

Response by Wendell Leahy

You should answer a fool.
"Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit." Proverb 26:5

Reprove him as the matter requires.
~1599 Geneva Study Bible

Examples of Poverbs 26:5 in the scriptures (Holman translation)

1 Kings 22:24-28
Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up, hit Micaiah in the face, and demanded, "Did the Spirit of the Lord leave me to speak to you?" Micaiah replied, "You will soon see when you go to hide yourself in an inner chamber on that day." Then the king of Israel ordered, "Take Micaiah and return him to Amon, the governor of the city, and to Joash, the king's son, and say, 'This is what the king says: Put this guy in prison and feed him only bread and water until I come back safely.'"But Micaiah said, "If you ever return safely, the Lord has not spoken through me." Then he said, "Listen, all you people!"

Jeremiah 36:17,8
Then they asked Baruch, "Tell us-how did you write all these words? At his dictation?" Baruch said to them, "At his dictation. He recited all these words to me while I was writing on the scroll in ink."

Matthew 15:1-3
Then Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem to Jesus and asked, "Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they don't wash their hands when they eat!" He answered them, "And why do you break God's commandment because of your tradition?

Matthew 16:1-4
The Pharisees and Sadducees approached, and as a test, asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them: "When evening comes you say, 'It will be good weather, because the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'Today will be stormy because the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to read the appearance of the sky, but you can't read the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation wants a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah." Then He left them and went away.

Matthew 21:23-27
When He entered the temple complex, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Him as He was teaching and said, "By what authority are You doing these things? Who gave You this authority?" Jesus answered them, "I will also ask you one question, and if you answer it for Me, then I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Where did John's baptism come from? From heaven or from men?" They began to argue among themselves, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say to us, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we're afraid of the crowd, because everyone holds John to be a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." And He said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to trap Him by what He said. They sent their disciples to Him, with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth. You defer to no one, for You don't show partiality. Tell us, therefore, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But perceiving their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing Me, hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the tax." So they brought Him a denarius. "Whose image and inscription is this?" He asked them. "Caesar's," they said to Him. Then He said to them, "Therefore, give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away.

Luke 12:13-21
Someone from the crowd said to Him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." "Friend," He said to him, "who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?" And He told them, "Watch out and be on guard against all greed, because one's life is not in the abundance of his possessions." Then He told them a parable: "A rich man's land was very productive. He thought to himself, 'What should I do, since I don't have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,' he said. 'I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I'll say to myself, "You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself." "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared--whose will they be?' "That's how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God."

John 8:7
When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, "The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her."

John 9:26-33
Then they asked him, "What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?" "I already told you," he said, "and you didn't listen. Why do you want to hear it again? You don't want to become His disciples too, do you?" They ridiculed him: "You're that man's disciple, but we're Moses' disciples. We know that God has spoken to Moses. But this man--we don't know where He's from!" "This is an amazing thing," the man told them. "You don't know where He is from; yet He opened my eyes! We know that God doesn't listen to sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He listens to him. Throughout history no one has ever heard of someone opening the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He wouldn't be able to do anything."

Titus 1:13
This testimony is true. So, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith

You should not answer a fool.
"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him." Proverb 26:4

Consent not to him in his doings.
~1599 Geneva Study Bible

Isaiah 5:21
Woe to those who are wise in their own opinion and clever in their own sight.

Romans 12:16
Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation.

John Wesley
Proverbs 26:4 According - So as to imitate his folly, by passionate or reproachful speeches.
Proverbs 26:5 According - So as his folly needs and requires, convincing him strongly, reproving him sharply, and exposing him to just shame.

Jamieson, Fausset, Brown
Proverbs 26:4 Answer not--that is, approvingly by like folly.
Proverbs 26:5 Answer--by reproof.

Response by James Patrick Holding - Tektonic Apologetics Ministry
I Pity the Fool I Answer
Is Proverbs in Contradiction on Answering Fools?

Prov. 26:4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

Prov. 26:5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

Among alleged contradictions charged, this one wins a major award for silliness. What we have here is not contradiction, but dilemma -- an indication that when it comes to answering fools, you can't win -- because they are fools, and there is no practical cure for foolery (as this citation demonstrates). So: It is unwise to argue with a fool at his own level and recognize his own foolish suppositions, but it is good sometimes to refute him soundly, lest his foolishness seem to be confirmed by your silence. (Note further that proverbs are not absolutes -- which fits right in with our "dilemma" answer.)