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.
Our post-modern society finds no contradiction between contradictory statements because everything is seen as relative. So these proverbs may seem to be expositing post-modernism in a pre-modern age! However, these two apparently contradictory proverbs juxtaposed next to each other clearly indicate, especially because of being placed next to each other, that they are teaching two different principles in how we should respond to a fool. A fool is one who lacks wisdom, discernment, and self-control, says things with poor judgment, and randomly wounds others without concern for consequences. Different contexts will determine which is the appropriate response from these two approaches.
The first proverb is teaching us that we should not stoop to the low level of behavior of the fool. If a fool says nasty things and slanders others, do not respond in kind. It will only aggravate the situation and escalate the tensions and in the process will bring you down. Rather, as Peter wrote suffering Christians, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9, NIV). Additionally, a fool will not listen to admonition and correction. They will simply scorn your wisdom (Prov. 23:9) and heap abuse on you for your words and hate you (Prov. 9:7, 8). That is because the fool despises wisdom and discipline (Proverbs 1:7) and hates knowledge (Proverbs 1:22).
This also relates to those who reject the gospel and your Christian testimony. Many will hate us simply for whom we stand, as believers in Christ, and thus may pour out all kinds of abusive language, discrimination, and slander upon us. For such persons Jesus taught us: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). So it may be best to simply not waste your time and be anxious about responding to them. Let them alone and proceed to do what God has called you to do, and teach those who will listen and learn. For this reason Jesus gave warning to Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum of judgment, for they would not listen to the gospel he preached and repent (Matthew 11:20-24).
The second proverb teaches us another approach towards the fool that helps to keep his pride and boasting in check. At times foolishness must be plainly exposed and denounced. In order to demonstrate clearly how foolish someone is acting, one simply needs to reveal the truth of the matter that all may see the light. Take for instance Jesus’ responses to the Jewish authorities who were seeking to trap him with trick questions, such as the matter of a woman who had seven husbands: whose wife she would be in heaven; and concerning paying taxes to Caesar. In each case, Jesus demonstrated the foolishness of their questions and lack of belief in the Word of God by his wise, authoritative responses. Yet, on another occasion, when they asked Jesus, “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things?” Jesus simply responded with a question concerning whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men, which they could not answer. Therefore, Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Luke 20:8). So here we see both approaches of Solomon’s wisdom being implemented.
Another principle of response to the foolish comes from Peter, who wrote, “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:15, 17). Additionally, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
Of one thing we can be encouraged in responding to a fool, when we respond in the name of Christ with his wisdom we have this assurance from Jesus: “The one who hears you hears me….” But it follows with a warning: “…and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). To reject Christ’s ambassador is to reject Christ and God the Father. In that rejection there is no hope both in this life and in the next.