The inspired writer of Proverbs cautioned:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him” (Prov. 26:4).

And then in the very next verse, he said:

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

Is it not remarkable that these two statements, which appear so at odds, are found side-by-side? Do they contradict one another?

They do not. The fact that they occur in such close proximity reflects design, not disorder.

These juxtaposed admonitions urge caution in responding to a fool.

First, it should be observed that in Bible language, the “fool” is not merely a simple-minded person.

Rather, the term denotes one who is spiritually senseless. The fool is an individual who ignores the divine demands for religious and ethical conduct.

In both cases, an “answer” is being made to the fool. This means that the fool had made a statement, asked a question, or offered a challenge that was designed to elicit some response.

From that implication, then, comes this general truth. Not all circumstances are of equal merit. There are times to answer the opponent of God, and there are times when he ought to be ignored.

The prudent person must decide when to do what.

Jesus: Our Example for Dealing With Fools

Perhaps this principle can be illustrated best from the ministry of Jesus himself. After all, he was the supreme Teacher of all time (Jn. 3:2).

On one occasion, Jesus was teaching in the temple. The chief priests and elders of the Jewish system approached him and asked: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Rather than answering their questions directly — because they were not honest inquiries — the Lord asked: “Was John’s baptism from heaven or from men?” (Mt. 21:25).

They managed only the confused response: “We don’t know.”

Actually, they had carefully calculated the dilemma of the Savior’s question. If they denied the validity of John’s mission, they would be in deep trouble with the multitudes—who were impressed with John’s prophetic office.

On the other hand, if they admitted the truth of John’s mission, they could be asked: “Why did you not believe him?”

The Lord’s brilliant maneuver, in just the right manner at the most propitious moment, was devastating. These blind guides, who fancied themselves as skilled teachers of the law, needed to be “put in their place.” The Master-of-all-occasions neatly put them there!

Then again, consider the episode when Jesus was presented to Herod Antipas during those outrageous trials through which he was taken preliminary to his crucifixion. This was the wretch, who had beheaded John the Baptist because he was an evil and weak man controlled by a worse woman. On this occasion, he interrogated Christ with “many words.”

And yet, significantly, the Lord “answered him nothing” (Lk. 23:9). There was nothing at all to be gained by disputing with this old fool whose main desire was to be entertained by seeing the Savior perform a miracle (cf. v. 8).

The teacher of God’s word will be called on time and again to make decisions about with whom, and how much time, is to be expended in responding to those who appear to be antagonistic to the gospel.

It is a chore of no small magnitude to identify the dogs and hogs that clutter the religious terrain (Mt. 7:6). Wisdom is needed in framing the appropriate response, or non-response, to those who would dispute.

Our office receives dozens of questions from readers each week. Surprisingly, a good number come from skeptics,

On a rare occasion, an unbeliever will pose a thoughtful question. Misguided though it may be, he seems to be sincere. His inquiry is decently presented.

To such folks, we try to respond showing as kindly as possible the fallacy of the logic and perhaps the underlying bias harbored. Sometimes we seem to be making some progress, and such is a thrilling reward.

In the vast majority of cases, though, venomous tongues of infidelity spew nothing but willful ignorance and disgusting arrogance. Frequently laced with profanity, these fools throw out some trite argument that has been answered countless times by competent apologists. They demand that it be answered.

When I encounter this disposition, I remind myself of something that I once read from the celebrated scholar, Thomas H. Horne, who for many years was associated with the British Museum. Horne wrote:

“Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer; and when this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again next year, as if nothing had ever been written on the subject.”

It is therefore prudent, in most of these instances, to ignore these pathetic souls and let them rant on. Rarely have they anything substantive to say, and it is valueless to spend precious time quibbling with them.