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. Proverbs 26:4-5 ESV
Proverbs 26:4-5 highlights the futility of trying to impart wisdom to a fool. Verse 4 warns against arguing with a fool on his own terms, lest in stooping to his level we become as foolish as he. Since a fool despises wisdom and correction, he will not listen to wise reason and will try to draw us into his type of argument, whether it is by using deceit, scoffing at our wisdom, or becoming angry and abusive.
Verse 5 reminds us that there are times when a fool has to be addressed lest his foolishness be seen as wisdom. Our answer should be one of reproof, showing him the truth so he might see the foolishness of his words in the light of reason. Even though he will most likely despise and reject the wisdom offered to him, we are to make the attempt, both for the sake of the truth, which is always to be declared, and for the sake of those listening, that they might see the difference between wisdom and folly and be instructed.
“The hardest thing in life is to know which bridges to cross and which to burn” (David Russell). Wisdom is needed to decide whether to respond to a fool, or to ignore them. In matters of insignificance, it’s most likely better to disregard a fool. In more important areas, such as when a fool denies the existence of God (Psalm 14:1), verse 5 tells us to respond to his foolishness with words of rebuke and instruction. To let a fool speak his nonsense without reproof encourages him to remain wise in his own eyes and may give credibility to his folly in the eyes of others.