In his article, "Is Proverbs in Contradiction on Answering Fools?" James Patrick Holding feels that the alleged contradiction between Proverbs 26:4-5
wins a major award for silliness. What we have here is not contradiction, but dilemma—an indication that when it comes to answering fools, you cannot win—because they are fools, and there is no practical cure for foolery (as this citation demonstrates). So: It is unwise to argue with a fool at his own level and recognize his own foolish suppositions, but it is good sometimes to refute him soundly, lest his foolishness seem to be confirmed by your silence.
In his Alleged Contradictions in the Bible, B.J. Clarke points out that the close proximity of these verses (back to back) would rule out the idea of discrepancy even for the most sophomoric of scholars. James Jackson, in his article, "Answering the Fool," suggests that "such close proximity reflects design, not disorder."
Dr. E. W. Bullinger suggests that the connection between these verses can be explained by an ellipsis (something deliberately left out to grab the reader's attention) beginning in verse 3, which compares reasoning with a fool to reasoning with a donkey. Rather than considering these proverbs as absolute commands, the reader finds cause-and-effect cautions: If you answer a fool, you will be like him, but if you do not answer a fool, he will assume you are like him. Either way, we would lose.
Along with ellipsis, the technique of parallelism (repeated similarities used for rhetorical effect) is used throughout Proverbs to amplify meaning. Consider Proverbs 28:1: "The wicked flee when no one pursues; but the righteous are as bold as a lion." In this light, Proverbs 26:4-5 can be read: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him. [But on the other hand,] answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."
Paradox provides another explanation for the alleged "contradiction." Lynn Anderson, in his article "The Case for Mystery," asserts that the Bible embraces paradoxes throughout. The apostle Paul, for example, in the same chapter (Galatians 6:2, 5), urges, "Bear one another's burdens," and three verses later suggests, "Each one shall bear his own load." Similarly, Paul warns Christians not to be "burdened again by a yoke of bondage" (Galatians 5:1), while teaching elsewhere that we are to become "slaves to righteousness" (Romans 6:18). Jesus Christ provides the most sterling example of paradox when he warns His disciples that whoever desires to lead must become a servant (Luke 22:26) and whoever would save his life must be willing to lose it (Luke 17:33).
A special instance of paradox is the conundrum or riddle. Stephen Tecklenberg, in his article "No Matter What You Do," maintains that the "Answer not a fool . . . Answer a fool" juxtaposition is just that, a conundrum focusing more on the "readiness" to answer rather than on the answering. He adds, "If appropriate, give answers. If not, withhold."
Thomas Henry Reardon, in his article "Folly to Be Wise?" points out that while much of Scripture demands making right choices, certain decisions, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.), demand discernment, prudence, and choosing wisely between alternatives.
David Jon Hill, in his article "Twelve Rules for Bible Study" (Tomorrow's World, July 1969), substantiates the turn of phrase and accent explanations, asserting that differing circumstances account for the so-called contradictions:
Actually, these two verses are not contradictory—but complementary!
The use of either verse—that is, its principle applied to a particular use—depends on the set of circumstances. Both these verses contain gems of wisdom that each one of us needs to learn to properly apply in answering other people's questions.
The last part of each verse holds the key which unlocks the meaning of these verses—and shows them to be practical, usable and wise principles.
Verse four reads, "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him." The last part of the verse holds the key: don't degrade yourself by descending to his level in an argument! Don't harangue—don't bite back—don't try to "argue back" with someone who is obviously trying to stir contention.
Robert Deffingbaugh, in his Bible study, "The Fool," says of Proverbs 26:5:
We should not allow the fool to drag us down to his level. The fool is exasperating; he is looking for trouble, and he often tempts us to oblige him. Since the fool will spout off and speak his mind, we are tempted to lose our temper with him as well. Proverbs instructs us not to allow him to get the best of us, lest we be lowered to his level.
When Donald Trump mistakenly got into a name-calling contest with Rosie O'Donnell, it gave her a fallacious, elevated estimation of her debating abilities, deluding her into a false sense of importance and wisdom, and at the same time, it artificially boosted the ratings of The View. Fred Thompson, on the other hand, when asked to debate the merits of "universal" health care with Michael Moore, who lauds Fidel Castro's system in Cuba, made it clear that he would not lower himself to Moore's foolishness.
David F. Maas
To Answer a Fool—or Not
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Proverbs 26:4: