or you yourself will be just like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
That was my response, gentle reader, when I first read these two verses. I knew I needed help, so I turned to Matthew Henry's and John Gill's commentaries . . .
John Gill covers these verses by telling us that one should not answer a fool at all. He cites as examples the ministers of Hezekiah and King Hezekiah himself, who did not respond directly to Rabshekah, the field commander of the Assyrian king. (You can read the whole story in Isaiah 36-39.)
There was a time when Christ did not respond to the railing of the scribes and the Pharisees, either. Check out the passage in John 8. There was an onslaught of questions, aimed at cornering and discrediting Him, and He simply did not answer.
Matthew Henry notes that the proverbs here are cautioning us against answering the foolish question in the same manner in which it was asked -- to avoid responding to anger with anger, railing with railing, sarcasm with the same, etc. When we answer a foolish person, we must do it in wisdom, to keep him from thinking he has "won the argument" and puffing him up with pride about his superior intellect and reasoning! In other words, you don't let the person get away with his foolishness, but don't respond in the same manner in which he proposed the question. And, sometimes, silence is golden -- especially if we realize that answering would make our argument or solution appear weak, because we are not fully prepared to answer in wisdom.
Now there are some real, rational questions that people may raise when discussing the Christian faith. But we all probably know people who think up questions that they know are not constructive; going round and round on a trivial issue with someone who is being hostile, combative, and argumentative is not going to accomplish anything --- except that you might begin to lose your composure and then lose your effectiveness as a witness. Someone watching the two of you might have a difficult time deciding who was the Christian, and who was not!
We can be better prepared for these situations by immersing ourselves in His word; by knowing the scriptures backwards and forwards; by praying for the opportunity to share with someone who is willing to hear.
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. I Peter 3:15-16