Proverbs 26:4, 5 – Wise Answers
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.
We notice in v:4, (depending on your Bible translation) the words "according" and "like." Don't answer and be "like" the fool. A foolish question does not become more wise by giving a foolish answer. You see, to answer his ridiculous question would be as if you are saying this is a worthwhile question. There are questions that does not deserve an answer.
But notice in v:5, there is not the word "like" but the word "wise." Answer the fool wisely so that he doesn't think he is wise. We must be very careful how we answer. The only reason to answer at all is to show him not to be conceited.
Taken together, these verses teach the appropriate way to answer a fool who is an unbeliever who rejects truth. He should not be answered with agreement to his own ideas and presuppositions, or he will think he is right. Rather he should be rebuked on the basis of his folly and shown the truth so he sees how foolish he is.
What may be at one time our duty to restrain, at another time, and under different circumstances, it may be no less our duty to do. Silence may sometimes be mistaken for defeat. Unanswered words may be deemed unanswerable, and the fool become arrogant, more and more wise in his own conceit (Pro 26:12; Job 11:2).
An answer therefore may be called for; yet not in folly, but to folly; “not in his foolish manner, but in the manner which his foolishness required;” not according to his folly, but according to your own wisdom.
Oh! for wisdom to govern the tongue, to discover “the time to keep silence, and the time to speak” (Ecc 3:7); most of all to suggest the “word fitly spoken” (Pro 15:23; 25:11) for effective reproof.