“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.”—Prov. 26:4.
“Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”—Prov. 26:5.
A “fool,” in the sense of Scripture, means a wicked man, or one who acts contrary to the wisdom that is from above, and who is supposed to utter his foolishness in speech or writing. Doubtless, there are different descriptions of these characters; and some may require to be answered, while others are best treated with silence. But the cases here seem to be one: both have respect to the same character, and both require to be answered. The whole difference lies in the manner in which the answer should be given. The terms “according to his folly,” in the first instance, mean in a foolish manner, as is manifest from the reason given, “lest thou also be like unto him.” But in the second instance, they mean in the manner which his folly requires. This also is plain from the reason given, “lest he be wise in his own conceit.” A foolish speech is not a rule for our imitation; nevertheless our answer must be so framed by it as to meet and repel it.
Both these proverbs caution us against evils to which we are not a little addicted; the former, that of saying and doing to others as they say and do to us, rather than as we would they should say and do; the latter, that of suffering the cause of truth or justice to be decried, while we, from a love of ease, stand by as unconcerned spectators.
The former of these proverbs is exemplified in the answer of Moses to the rebellious Israelites; the latter in that of Job to his wife. It was a foolish speech which was addressed to the former: “Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?” Unhappily this provoked Moses to speak unadvisedly with his lips; saying, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” This was answering folly in a foolish manner, which he should not have done; and by which the servant of God became but too much like them whom he opposed. It was also a foolish saying of Job’s wife, in the day of his distress, “Curse God, and die!” Job answered this speech, not in the manner of it, but in the manner it required. “What, shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”—In all the answers of our Saviour to the scribes and Pharisees, we may perceive that he never lost the possession of his soul for a single moment; never answered in the manner of his opponents, so as to be “like unto them;” but neither did he decline to repel their folly, and so to abase their self-conceit.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 667–684). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.