Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation. [Proverbs 26:4-5 NLT)
Since they’re not hard and fast rules, some proverbs are contradictory. Perhaps the most glaring contradiction (and one non-believers love to mention) is found in Proverbs 26:4-5. First, we’re told not to answer the foolish argument of fools but then we’re told to do that very thing!
Proverbs 26:4 reminds us never to stoop to the fool’s level, which can mean anything from answering vindictively or hurtfully to resorting to half-truths or misinformation. Foolish arguments often come from out of the blue. Unanticipated, we rarely are prepared with specifics, facts and evidence to answer intelligently. I recently had such a situation during a casual dinner conversation with a fervent global warming denier. I thought him a “fool” and his “facts” misleading and incorrect but, at the time, I wasn’t armed with decisive evidence of my own. Replying, “I’m not so sure about that,” I moved on to another, less controversial, topic. When we imitate the style of a fool, we become fools ourselves and, had I entered into a debate at that time, I would have looked as foolish as did he!
On the other hand, Proverb 26:5 tells us there are times when foolishness and absurdity must be brought to light and rebuked: that fools should be dealt with to prevent credibility being given to their words. While we can ignore the fool in trivial situations or on negligible issues, the fool should be answered on issues that matter, especially in a more public setting. For example, there were several of us together when one person made a sweeping and offensive generalization about a minority. In that case, his incorrect and offensive statement required an answer, both to correct him and to make clear his opinion was not shared. When remaining silent supports a fool’s position, his assertion should be answered, especially if there is a possibility of enlightening him.
The New Bible Commentary describes fools as “students who have accumulated knowledge but not acquired the ability to apply it: like someone who has a dangerous weapon but does not know how to use it.” We would be fools if we thought one proverb covers every situation. Life is complex and there is no one solution to every problem. How we respond to foolish, irrational, obtuse, fatuous, thoughtless, or futile arguments depends on the circumstances. The point of Proverbs is to teach discernment and the truly wise do more than recite proverbs; they know how and when to apply them. Regarding these two contradictory proverbs, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is “a time to for every activity under heaven.” If we’re not sure which time it is, the Apostle James reminds us to ask God for wisdom.