Proverbs 26:4-5. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
This proverb echoes Hamlet’s dilemma, “To be or not to be?” To restate the question in the terms of the proverb we might say, “To answer or not to answer?” Read the proverb again and ask yourself, “Should I answer a fool or not?”
As you’ll notice the first half of the two sentences are identical with the exception of “not” in the first sentence. In back to back verses Proverbs tells us to both ‘answer not’ and ‘answer’ a fool. So, which are we to do?
Well, in some situations it is wise to not answer a fool, or to respond to a foolish statement, so that you do not become a fool yourself. How many of us could use to apply this proverb to our social media interactions? In other situations, however, it is wise to answer a fool, in order to hold up a mirror, as it were; in order to show him his folly. This is not about name calling or pointing out every slip of the tongue, but graciously helping someone who is blinded to their own foolishness see. Obviously, neither one of these proverbs is meant to be applied in every case; rather, it takes wisdom to discern when each should be applied.
And this highlights something important about proverbs as a genre, that is, proverbs are general truths, not hard and fast promises. In other words, proverbs expect exceptions (however, the exception to this would be those proverbs that affirm something about God’s character, e.g. Proverbs 21:30) . While proverbs present the rule, the way the world normally works, there are naturally instances that do not follow the ‘rule’ as outlined in a particular proverb.
For example, Proverbs 16:31, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” While it is often the case that gray hair comes as the fruit of a life well-lived, there is no necessary connection between gray hair and a righteous life. For there are people who go gray early in life, there are wise people who never go gray, and there are certainly gray haired folks who are not very righteous.
Reading a proverb is, therefore, a bit like looking at a coin. You can only view one side at a time, but you know there’s another side that’s different. So also, a proverb holds before our eyes what is generally the case, but leaves the exceptions unstated.
Interestingly, however, Proverbs 26:4-5 have been put side by side, so as to make explicit this principle of exceptions. When reading a proverb we don’t usually get to see the other side of the coin, but in this case we do. This is important to keep in mind as we read and apply proverbs to our lives today, especially when considering if you should talk back to a fool.