Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
lest you yourself also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own estimation.
What?! Don’t do it, but do it. You’re probably saying to yourself, “I knew the Bible contradicted itself.” And I can see why you might think that after reading this verse. But, let’s look at it a little more before we make that assumption.
Verse 4 – don’t answer a fool according to his folly. Why? Or else you too will become a fool. That make sense right. Don’t engage in a debate with a fool, otherwise you will have to lower yourself to his level, the level of a fool in order to argue with him. In other words, you will make yourself a fool to try to argue with the fool.
Verse 5 – Answer a fool according to his folly, or else he’ll think he’s a wise person. That makes sense too doesn’t it? If you’re going to answer a fool, then you have to answer them in a way that reveals their foolishness. If you are answering a fool, you cannot use wisdom because he’s not wise. You have to use an argument that the fool will understand. And in doing this, you will also reveal that he is a fool. This doesn’t mean we engage in his folly. This means that we engage him in the truth so that his folly can be revealed.
In other words, it’s not okay to let a fool go on thinking and talking like they’re wise. It’s not okay to answer a fool with a foolish answer and let him think he’s a wise person. But, you do have to express the truth in a way they understand. You have to address the problem of his foolishness and yet not be a fool.
Sometimes you have to ignore the fool (the premise of verse 4) and sometimes you have to engage the fool. When we do which will require wisdom. You will have to use your wisdom to try to assess how the fool will respond. You might be right, you might be wrong. But don’t just enter into a conversation with a fool without thinking first.