The inspired writer of Proverbs cautioned:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.”

And then he said:

“Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit” (Prov. 26:4-5).

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 the “fool.” First, it should be observed that in Bible parlance, the “fool” is not merely a simple-minded person; rather, the term denotes one who is spiritually senseless. The fool is an individual who is insensitive to the divine demands for religious and ethical conduct.

Note, then, that in both cases an “answer” is being made to the fool—which means that he had made a statement, asked a question, or offered a challenge that was intended 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. And the prudent person must decide when to do what.

Jesus: Our Example

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, when 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,” for they 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 such skilled teachers of the law, needed to be “put in their place,” and the Master-of-all-occasions neatly put them there!

Then again, consider the episode when Jesus was presented to Herod Antipas (during the course of those outrageous “trials” through which he was taken, preliminary to his crucifixion). This wretch, who had beheaded John the Baptist, merely because he was an evil and weak man—controlled by a worse woman—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 upon 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). One certainly needs wisdom in framing the appropriate response, or non-response, to those who would question him.

This office receives dozens of questions from readers each week. Surprisingly, a good number of them are from skeptics. On a rare occasion, an unbeliever will pose a thoughtful question, which, misguided though it may be, seems to be sincere, and 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, the venomous tongues of infidelity spew nothing but willful ignorance and a disgusting arrogance. Frequently, laced with profanity, these foolish people throw out some trite argument (that has been answered countless times by competent apologists), and demand that it be answered.

When I encounter this disposition, I remind myself of something that I read once 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.