From the Archives – The Proverbial Fool and the Importance of Avoiding Him

Scripture is clear—Proverbs in particular—that there are such things as fools and these individuals are nothing but trouble. We shouldn’t be in their company more than necessary—much less, put important responsibilities in their hands.

Though the English word “fool” appears 60 to 65 times in most English versions of Proverbs, the book doesn’t offer a concise definition. That leaves us with some ambiguity. How many of the traits of fools does someone have to have to be rightly classified as a fool? Are we supposed to take the qualities of fools only as way to gauge the degree of foolishness?

Though we’re all foolish at times, the fool is consistently spoken of in Proverbs as belonging to a distinct category. There may be degrees of severity, but either someone is a fool, or he isn’t.

It’s probably best to approach the question of who’s a fool sort of like a disease: how many symptoms do you have to have in order to be diagnosed as having, say, rabies? Though I’m often a little photo-phobic, cranky, and confused, the probability remains low that I’m rabid. On the other hand, if somebody has six of the usual symptoms of rabies but is not oversensitive to light, probability remains high that they’re infected.

The more symptoms, the more confident the diagnosis, and you don’t need all of them to be pronounced a fool.

A high-level summary of Proverbs’ take on fools:

  • You can learn to spot that guy.
  • Don’t be like him.
  • Avoid him if you can.
  • Don’t even think about giving any important jobs to him.

Trouble, Best Avoided

Several Proverbs vividly communicate that we should keep our distance from fools as much as possible. It might be fair to say that a fool is a stupid bomb waiting to go off and you want to be outside the blast radius.

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. (ESV, Proverbs 13:20)

Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly. (Proverbs 17:12)

A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both. (Proverbs 27:3)

The meaning of 27:3 is more clear in a couple of other translations:

(Christian Standard Bible) A stone is heavy and sand, a burden, but aggravation from a fool outweighs them both.

(New English Translation) A stone is heavy and sand is weighty, but vexation by a fool is more burdensome than the two of them.

A group of Proverbs in chapter 26 emphasizes that we should not assign important responsibilities to fools.

Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence. Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools. Like one who binds the stone in the sling is one who gives honor to a fool. Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools. Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard. (ESV, Proverbs 26:6–10)

Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool. (Proverbs 26:1)

You can’t trust a fool to convey a message or teach a proverb. If you try to honor him by giving him important responsibilities or positions of leadership, you’re likely to fail and bring harm on yourself and others in the process. If you give him a job, you’re like an archer shooting randomly into a crowd.

Because fools lack the good sense to lead effectively, they aren’t normally put in responsible positions. They don’t normally “speak in the gate.” But because we sometimes do make the mistake of putting a fool in charge, Proverbs 24:7 reminds us that it’s a bad idea.

Wisdom is too high for a fool; in the gate he does not open his mouth. (Proverbs 24:7)

In case all this isn’t enough to energize us against handing important work over to fools, Proverbs also warns us that fools tend to self-destruct (Prov. 1:32, 18:7, 10:21, 14:3, 3:35). That means they’re going to do a lot of damage to everything connected to them as well.

Characteristics of Fools

Partly for the purpose of helping us identify fools, Proverbs offers a list of traits. For the sake of brevity, I’ll group several of the most prominent here under five headings, mostly without comment.

A person is probably a fool if …

1. He is arrogant, overconfident, and rejects good advice and learning.

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18:2)

… How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? (Proverbs 1:22)

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)

Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered. (Proverbs 28:26)

The discerning sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth. (Proverbs 17:24)

A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent. (Proverbs 15:5)

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet. (Proverbs 29:9)

Sometimes it’s tempting to try to beat some sense into a fool, but they’re often too stubborn and proud even for that (Prov. 17:10, 27:22).

2. He lacks appropriate shame; brags and rejoices in wrongdoing.

Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding. (Proverbs 10:23)

Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly. (Proverbs 13:16)

A desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools. (Proverbs 13:19)

The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly. (Proverbs 15:14)

3. His communication is reckless, foolish, and often damaging.

The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (Proverbs 15:2)

The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near. (Proverbs 10:14)

A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly. (Proverbs 12:23)

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 29:20)

Fine speech is not becoming to a fool; still less is false speech to a prince. (Proverbs 17:7)

Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it, but the instruction of fools is folly. (Proverbs 16:22)

[By contrast] The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. (Proverbs 16:23)

4. He is self-indulgent, particularly in interactions with women.

Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man’s dwelling, but a foolish man devours it. (Proverbs 21:20)

He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth. (Proverbs 29:3)

The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray. (Proverbs 5:22–23)

In addition, though the words “fool” and “folly” are not used, Proverbs 7:6-23 describes the unrestrained sexual indulgences of “a young man lacking sense” (6:7).

By contrast, wisdom delivers from the “forbidden woman” (Prov. 2:16, 5:1-3, 7:4-5).

5. He is quarrelsome and often angry, delighting in picking fights and insulting people.

A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. (Proverbs 18:6)

It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling. (Proverbs 20:3)

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. (Proverbs 14:29)

The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult. (Proverbs 12:16)

A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back. (Proverbs 29:11)

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet. (Proverbs 29:9)

The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool. (Proverbs 10:18)

See also, Proverbs 13:10, Ecclesiastes 7:9.

Conclusion

Given the nature of the Proverbial fool, would you want him to be your boss, the chair of your deacon board or your county sheriff? How about one of your son’s school teachers or your daughter’s volleyball coach? Would you want him to manage your retirement investments? Would you trust him to fix your car or fill your prescriptions at the local pharmacy?

Beyond what we would be inclined to do, how does Proverbs instruct us to relate to fools?

Photo: ID 117058506 © Elen33 | Dreamstime.com

Aaron Blumer Bio


Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.

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There are 3 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

In Proverbs 26, you've got an interesting case for sometimes engaging with a fool.  In verse 3, it tells us that the rod is for the back(s) of fools, and verses 4 & 5 have a seeminingly contradictory, but in reality paradoxical, approach to the fool--don't approach if you find yourself becoming like him, but do approach because if you don't, he'll become wise in his own eyes and become worse than ever.  For that matter, evaluating the prospective fool for the application of rebuke and the rod is indeed an approach for him--so I don't know that we can simply altogether avoid them, if for no other reason that we cannot know he's a fool.....before we interact with them.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"Sometimes engaging with," yes. I do think that's the point there. It depends on the situation--if we take "engaging with" as a way of saying "confronting." It's nothing like "hiring" or "trusting with important responsibilities."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

I'd say that to come to the conclusion that someone is a fool, one must interact with them in such a way as to come to the conclusion that they're a fool.  To do so, you've got to start by watching/listening/observing, not going directly to confronting.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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