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.
MATTHEW HENRY (1662-1714): Wise men have need to be directed how to deal with fools; and they have never more need of wisdom than in dealing with such, to know when to keep silence and when to speak, for there may be a time for both.
CHARLES BRIDGES (1794-1869): Great wisdom is required as to when, as well as what to speak.
THOMAS COKE (1747-1814): To “answer,” and “not to answer,” is a consistent, and may, for aught critics know, be a very wise direction. Had the advice been given simply, and without circumstance, to answer the fool, and not to answer him, a critic, who had reverence for the text, would satisfy himself in supposing that the different directions referred to doing a thing “in and out of season.” But when to the general advice about answering, this circumstance is added, “according to his folly,” that interpretation is excluded; and a difficulty indeed arises―a difficulty which has made those who have no reverence for the text, accuse it of absurdity and contradiction. But now to each direction reasons are subjoined, why a fool should, and why he should not be answered; reasons which, when set together and compared, are at first sight sufficient to make a critic suspect that all the contradiction lies in his own incumbered ideas.
JOHN ANGELL JAMES (1785-1869): But suppose that reason should meet with palpable contradictions in the Word of God?
C. H. SPURGEON (1834-1892): The fault is in our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.
A. W. PINK (1886-1952): God’s Word does not contradict itself…Each of these passages may be given its full force without there being any conflict between them.
MATTHEW POOLE (1624-1679): How can these contrary rules be reconciled, answer him not, and answer him?
CHARLES BRIDGES: Apparently contradictory statements are in fact only balancing truths; each correcting its opposite, and, like the antagonal muscles, contributing to the strength and completeness of the frame…We are forbidden, and yet commanded, to answer a fool. One rule decides—Answer him not; the other—Answer him. The reason, however, attached to each rule, explains the apparent contradiction. Both together are a wise directory for the treatment of the fool, according to the difference of character, time, or circumstances.
THOMAS COKE: The reason given why a fool should not be answered according to his folly is, lest he―the answerer―“should be like unto him.” The cause assigned for forbidding to answer, therefore plainly insinuates that the defender of religion should not imitate the insulter of it in his modes of disputation, which may be comprized in sophistry, buffoonery and scurrility.
MATTHEW HENRY: In some cases a wise man will not set his wit to that of a fool so far as to answer him according to his folly―“If he boast of himself, do not answer him by boasting of thyself. If he rail and talk passionately, do not thou rail and talk passionately too. If he tell one great lie, do not thou tell another to match it. If he calumniate thy friends, do not thou calumniate his. If he banter, do not answer him in his own language, lest thou be like him, even thou, who knowest better things, who hast more sense, and hast been better taught.”
CHARLES BRIDGES: Suppose a ‘free-thinker’ or scoffer at religion, showing the desperate “folly of his heart by making a mock at sin,” Proverbs 14:9, by witty and profane jestings, or specious arguments against the Word or ways of God. Generally speaking, it would be better to follow Hezekiah’s command concerning Rabshakeh’s blasphemy—“Answer him not,” 2 Kings 18:36. Jeremiah thus turned away in silence from the folly of the false prophets, Jeremiah 28:11.
MATTHEW POOLE: Answer him not, when he is incorrigible, or when he is inflamed with passion or wine, or when it is not necessary, nor likely to do him good.
JOHN TRAPP (1601-1699): When either he curseth thee, or cryeth out upon thee for giving him due correction, pass such a one by in silence, as not worthy the answering. “Lest thou also be like unto him”―as hot and as headlong as he; for a little thing kindles us, and we are apt to think that we have reason to be mad, if evil entreated; to talk as fast for ourselves as he doth against us, and to give him as good as he brings; so that at length there will be never a wiser of the two, and people will say so. Hezekiah would not answer Rabshakeh, nor Jeremiah answer Hananiah; nor our Saviour his adversaries, Matthew 26:32; John 19:9; He reviled not his revilers, He threatened not, 1 Peter 2:23.
A. W. PINK: The Lord Jesus has expressly bidden us, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you,” Matthew 7:6. That command is designed to bridle the restless energy of the flesh.
CHARLES BRIDGES: But 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.”
JOHN GILL (1697-1771): He is to be answered when there is any hope of doing him good, or of doing good to others; or of preventing ill impressions being made upon others by what he has said; when the glory of God, the good of the church, and the cause of truth, require it; and when he would otherwise glory and triumph, as if his words were unanswerable―“lest he be wise in his own conceit,” which fools are apt to be, when no answer is given them, imagining it arises from the strength of their arguments.
JOHN TRAPP: Cast in somewhat that may sting him, and stop his mouth. Stone him with soft words but hard arguments, as Christ dealt with Pilate, John 19:8-11, lest he look upon himself as a conqueror, and be held so by the hearers. In fine, when a fool is among such as himself, answer him, lest he seem wise. If he be among wise men, answer him not, and they will regard rather thy seasonable silence than his passionate prattle.
MATTHEW HENRY: See here the noble security of the scripture-style, which seems to contradict itself, but really does not.
CHARLES BRIDGES: Oh! for wisdom to govern the tongue; to discover “the time to keep silence, and the time to speak,” Ecclesiates 3:7; most of all to suggest the “word fitly spoken,” (Proverbs 15:23; 25:11) for effective reproof! How instructive is the pattern of our great Master! His silences and His answers were equally worthy of Himself.
A. W. PINK: Once more, in Proverbs 30:5 we read, “Every word of God is pure.” There is no admixture of error in God’s Word. In it there are no mistakes, no contradictions, no blemishes.