Have you ever attempted to argue with a fool? Voices raise, tones become harsh, tempers flare, words demean, and no one seems to benefit. In his Thirty Sayings of the Wise, Solomon cautioned against wisdom wasted: “Do not speak to fools for they will scorn your prudent words” (Proverbs 23:9).
The fool Solomon describes in this verse is the stupid fool, one who constantly repeats gullible behavior. He is the second of five progressive levels of a fool in the Hebrew language: simple, stupid, stubborn, scorning, and secular. A fool’s heart begins as wet cement, but completes a hardening process that culminates as cured concrete. Each of us has an indelible impression made on our hearts. The image embedded on a believer’s heart represents the handprints of God. The image on a fool’s heart reflects his own handprints: “Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe” (Proverbs 28:26). As we humble our hearts to our Restorer, He shapes them to be like His, not so with the fool.
When we communicate with the stupid fool, we risk being drawn in to their web of destruction. Solomon warned against engaging a fool in his famed couplet of complementary sayings. First, he noted how the fool desires to bring us down to their level, but we must exercise restraint: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you yourself will be just like them” (Proverbs 26:4). Second, Israel’s king seemed to imply that there is a time to refute the fool: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5). The Jewish Talmud implies the former verse correlates with foolish comments that can be ignored, and the latter references inaccurate, untrue, potentially damaging comments that warrant correction. Examples where we might engage in stern words with a fool could be while parenting a child, navigating a crisis, or leading a team into battle. Like a coach once said, “Sometimes we need to talk in terms they understand.” In any case, we should be slow to debate with a fool because we will rarely win, due to their unsound reasoning and their tendency to shift the goalposts in order to twist the outcome in their favor.
If you are in a conflict with a fool, be sure not to play one yourself. Restrain your words. Pray, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance for your next steps. If you are in a leadership role, consider implementing a strategy of behavior modification, such as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or punishment, instead of always talking. You don’t want your wisdom to be wasted.