Answer not the fool
I have been in situations where I say something so foolish, then stand there waiting for someone else to say something - what am I waiting for? I want them to say something so that I don't look as foolish! My hope is that my foolishness will be covered up by something they say. How would that work? There is this principle of answering a fool - when you do, you look foolish yourself! It is quite true - think about it. The last time you were around someone who really said something downright foolish and kind of dumb, did you just jump in with some type of argument to the contrary or something equally as foolish? How'd it make YOU look at that moment? Their jumping in really took the light off of you and put it on them. They now look even more foolish than you did. You might think you can "answer" a fool, but in truth, whenever you do you are setting yourself up to look even more foolish. No amount of argument, "wisdom", or advice will turn the folly of the fool around again - once the train has left the station (the words are out of the mouth), it is too late to stop it!
There is no good way to answer fools when they say something stupid. If you answer them, then you, too, will look like a fool. If you don’t answer them, they will think they are smart. (Proverbs 26:4-5 ERV)
If this principle is true (and I don't think God would put principles in scripture which are not the truth), then we should examine how it is we avoid the conflict with fools (and avoid being the one labeled the fool). To find out a little more, we need look no further than a few more verses into this same chapter:
- Never let a fool carry your message. If you do, it will be like cutting off your own feet. You are only asking for trouble. (vs. 6) Now, those are poignant words, are they not? The message a fool brings is often "messed up" in the delivery simply because it has been carried by a fool. Do you remember the adage, "If something can go wrong, it will"? In the hands of a fool, your message is sure to go wrong. Why? They don't have the same respect for your message as you do - so they won't carry it with the same "value". When something is worth saying, it is worth saying by you!
- A fool trying to say something wise is like a crippled person trying to walk. (vs. 7) What a picture, huh? Think about a person crippled by some disease and then imagine them trying to walk. They stumble around a lot, right? A fool is a bit like the cripple man trying to walk - they stumble over their words, find it hard to put things in the right order, and get things a little mixed up on occasion. The fool rarely knows up from down because he is trying so hard to keep all the balls in the air in order to keep the eyes off of him.
- A fool trying to say something wise is like a drunk trying to pick a thorn out of his hand. (vs. 9) Another pretty graphic picture of how it is when a fool tries to "manage his words". A drunk lacks dexterity - fine motor coordination is just not there! He cannot focus - a common problem with the fool - a lack of focus. This is probably the most important reason to not entrust a fool with important things - he cannot maintain focus. We might have one intention in mind, but he is easily distracted and sent off-course.
In examining just a few short verses, we see the problems inherent in reasoning with or answering a fool. There is an inability to focus, the desire to distract from what has been said, and this idea of committing priceless treasure to someone who will not value it in the same way you do. This is probably the main reason we don't answer a fool - they don't value the treasure of your words. Just sayin!