“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.” (ESV)
One of the most common criticisms of the Bible (usually made by people who have either not read it at all or else not read it closely) is that it is full of contradictions. Places like this give these folks a great deal of ammunition. At first read and even second and third, this is obviously a contradiction. As one commentator noted, if these verses were located in different parts of the Bible it would seem the contradictory nature was exceedingly obvious.
And yet, they are not separated by centuries and authorial intent. They are located right next to each other and in the collection of proverbs. This is a giant clue that what we are seeing is not a contradiction at all, but rather a humorous observation about the nature of dealing with foolish people. What’s more, it’s an observation that is particularly suited to the state of modern culture and social media trends.
Look at this pair more closely. In the first observation, if you answer a fool according to his folly, you are just going to bring yourself down to his level. As another, more recent, proverb puts it: Don’t wrestle in the mud with a pig. You’ll both end up muddy, and the pig will like it. Or perhaps as is more commonly expressed today: Don’t feed the trolls.
There are people today who seem to delight in putting stupid things on the internet. They are merely fishing for a response. If you do, they have you hooked. They’ll reel you in with more and more stupid things until you are finally reduced to responding in kind rather than with charity and dignity. There’s no way to win these interactions. It’s better to not make them.
On the other hand, if you don’t respond to these folks at all, they’ll just think they’re right. The thing about so many internet trolls is that they don’t just say things that are senseless and offensive, they actually believe them. Unless they are corrected, they will sit in their echo chamber becoming more and more convinced of their rightness and even righteousness (and convincing others as well) to the point that reason and sound argument contrary to their wild ramblings will neither phase them nor even be heard by them. The only way to get through is to communicate on their level and then try and elevate the dialogue from there.
But, if you communicate on their level, you run the risk of slipping down to their level. See the trap? In other words, you can’t win when it comes to trying to respond to a fool. Solomon knew this almost 3,000 years ago. People haven’t changed much since. So what do we do? We sit back and laugh at how silly people can be. We weep at the impact of sin on peoples’ hearts and minds. And we pray for God’s wisdom to know which trolls to ignore and which ones to slay.