Prov. 26:4-5, ESV
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.
The Majority View
D.A. Carson, in a long review of three recent bibliology books, says he has often used the verses above “to demonstrate the way proverbs work: they are not universal case law. The formal divergence in this instance powerfully embraces more comprehensive reflection than either proverb alone could have done.”
I agree with his conclusion, but my jury is still out on whether or not these verses are a good example of it.
Under Carson’s view, the warning could be understood two different ways (cf. UBS Handbook on Prov.): “This verse is a warning, either against taking a fool at his own estimation and giving him a serious reply, or perhaps against speaking to a fool in the same foolish way as he has spoken to you. By doing so you share in his foolishness.”
The Bible Knowledge Commentary, too, says it takes wisdom to know when to apply v.4 and when to apply v.5. Likewise Matthew Henry, the New Bible Commentary, and the New American Commentary. Garrett (NAC) summarizes this view well: “On the one hand, one should not deal with a fool on his own terms lest the imitation of folly become habitual. On the other hand, one must sometimes answer fools in the words they understand in order to reprimand them effectively.”
Waltke Weighs In
But Waltke (NICOT) argues for a different position. He specifically opposes the view that sees these as applying at different times (the NLT clearly takes this interpretation, leaving no ambiguity). They both apply absolutely at all times, he says; and both proverbs (v.4 and v.5) actually call for the wise son to reply to a fool. The first one (v.4) warns him not to be like the fool in his answer–that is, don’t be malicious or self-conceited or what have you. The second one (v.5) tells the son to go ahead and answer the fool with wisdom that flips his world upside down: no longer is he the wise one; he is the fool.
Waltke argues this based on the flexibility of the K (kaph) preposition. It points to an element of similarity, but leaves the point of similarity open to some interpretation: “Joshua is like Moses” could be pointing to his likeness as being a leader or as being a prophet. Interestingly, the LXX seems to support Waltke: it uses different Greek prepositions to render the K. I’m not sure what difference that makes in Greek–perhaps “Do not answer a fool with that foolishness [he just used]” and “Answer a fool against his folly”? I just checked out BDAG on προς (v.4) and κατα (v.5), and I’m not at all sure I can land on renderings which support Waltke’s reasoning. However, that’s due more to my inexpertise in pinpointing prepositional meaning (though what expertise I do have leads me to say that context would be the determiner anyway and that Koine doesn’t get that specific), and the point stands that the LXX chose different prepositions to render the exact same phrase.
One other argument that inclines me toward this view is the simple fact that “Do not answer” is qualified by something rather than nothing. It’s like the difference between saying “Don’t cross the street” and “Don’t cross the street without looking first.” Likewise, “Don’t answer a fool” and “Don’t answer a fool with the same kind of reply he typically gives.” The first command in each example is absolute. The second not only allows the action but actually commends or even commands it.
Murphy (WBC) does a good job bringing up parallel passages, but I find him ultimately unhelpful. He points out that in 17:12 the son is warned that it is better to run into a she-bear robbed of her cubs than to run into a fool. This would seem to support the “Don’t answer at all” position, but that can’t work with the very next verse (26:5)! Vv. 4 and 5 need to work together. They can’t be analyzed discretely. In 26:12b there is “more hope for a fool” than for someone who is “wise in his own eyes.” So maybe there is hope for a fool before he becomes wise in his own eyes.
Waltke seems to be the only commentator who bothers with the actual grammar of the passage. Murphy makes a passing reference to it and others tell us what the kaph preposition “literally” means, but that’s another argument in favor of Waltke.
In sum… I’m close to willing to see the LXX as decisive. But because it could have been style or sloppiness or some unnecessarily fastidious translator who chose the two different renderings, I’m in a strait betwixt Waltke and Carson but leaning slightly toward the former.