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

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There are 11 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think I know what this article is really about ... !

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

TylerR wrote:

I think I know what this article is really about ... !

I think he posts his opinions on SI occasionally.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

dmyers's picture

Genuine questions here:

1.  Is this the same thesis, selection of passages, and organizing categories you'd have written absent your pet peeve against Trump?

2.  Is your work here supported by any (Bible-believing) commentator on Proverbs?

I'm no expert in Proverbs, but as I understand it Proverbs as a book is scattershot -- most of the time (not always; see Prov. 31) there is not an extended discussion of a particular topic but only very short, pithy sayings reflecting situational wisdom, not hard and fast commandments.  No surprise -- it's a book of proverbs. You've cobbled together an ends-oriented list and categorization of (some?) of the book's examples of or references to fools and foolish behavior.  Your self-serving conclusions are that (a) some individuals should (must?) be described in their totality as fools (forever?), (b) we can use Proverbs to categorize such people, (c) Proverbs therefore commands us how to treat those individuals (including whether to vote for them, regardless of their actual policies, their opponents, etc.), and (d) we're sinning if we don't treat them the way Proverbs tells us to treat them.  But these conclusions are all completely unsupported.  As just one example, it's quite an extrapolation from examples involving message-bearing and proverb-teaching to a commandment applicable to U.S. presidential election voting.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but here's what the Bible says in dismissing an individual as not merely acting foolishly but actually being, in total, a fool:  "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God" (Ps. 14:1).  I doubt that Trump is actually a Christian, though I don't dismiss the possibility entirely (if he is redeemed, he's certainly not a well-instructed or mature Christian), but he explicitly acknowledges that God exists.  This presents two problems for you.  First, you're categorizing as a fool a man who doesn't even meet the most important definition of a fool.  Second, by your reasoning, every atheist or agnostic politician is "unqualified" to be any sort of leader, let alone president.  Have you always voted accordingly?  Have you always remonstrated against other Christians for voting differently?

If you'd written this article before you ever heard of Trump, it might bear some consideration.  After the fact, it's just not very credible.

RajeshG's picture

dmyers wrote:

Genuine questions here:

1.  Is this the same thesis, selection of passages, and organizing categories you'd have written absent your pet peeve against Trump?

2.  Is your work here supported by any (Bible-believing) commentator on Proverbs?

I'm no expert in Proverbs, but as I understand it Proverbs as a book is scattershot -- most of the time (not always; see Prov. 31) there is not an extended discussion of a particular topic but only very short, pithy sayings reflecting situational wisdom, not hard and fast commandments.  No surprise -- it's a book of proverbs. You've cobbled together an ends-oriented list and categorization of (some?) of the book's examples of or references to fools and foolish behavior.  Your self-serving conclusions are that (a) some individuals should (must?) be described in their totality as fools (forever?), (b) we can use Proverbs to categorize such people, (c) Proverbs therefore commands us how to treat those individuals (including whether to vote for them, regardless of their actual policies, their opponents, etc.), and (d) we're sinning if we don't treat them the way Proverbs tells us to treat them.  But these conclusions are all completely unsupported.  As just one example, it's quite an extrapolation from examples involving message-bearing and proverb-teaching to a commandment applicable to U.S. presidential election voting.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but here's what the Bible says in dismissing an individual as not merely acting foolishly but actually being, in total, a fool:  "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God" (Ps. 14:1).  I doubt that Trump is actually a Christian, though I don't dismiss the possibility entirely (if he is redeemed, he's certainly not a well-instructed or mature Christian), but he explicitly acknowledges that God exists.  This presents two problems for you.  First, you're categorizing as a fool a man who doesn't even meet the most important definition of a fool.  Second, by your reasoning, every atheist or agnostic politician is "unqualified" to be any sort of leader, let alone president.  Have you always voted accordingly?  Have you always remonstrated against other Christians for voting differently?

If you'd written this article before you ever heard of Trump, it might bear some consideration.  After the fact, it's just not very credible.

I was thinking some of the same things today. Psalm 14:1 and related passages seem to me indeed to pose a serious problem concerning the validity of the overall implicit thrust (it is wrong to vote for President Trump) of this article.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I see no problem with attempting to systematize what Proverbs says on a particular subject. Many commentators address what to do with Proverbs, and this is certainly one way to do it.

All kidding aside about what may lurk behind the curtain, is the analysis of "the fool" somehow flawed, here? I'm surprised about the negative response.

It reminds me of the time I preached on 1 Cor 5, and many people were upset because they suspected I was laying groundwork for a forthcoming church discipline issue. I only preached the text, yet many people connected the dots pretty easily. That tells you something, right there!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

1.  Is this the same thesis, selection of passages, and organizing categories you'd have written absent your pet peeve against Trump?

Feel free to point out where the facts are incorrect and/or my reasoning is faulty.... or where things belong under better headings. The facts aren't going to change.... and you can shuffle the deck differently on the "traits of the Proverbial fool" but it'll still have all the same cards in it.

I wouldn't vote for such a man for village clerk.... wouldn't hire him to walk my dog.

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.

Mark_Smith's picture

I was watching Meet the Press this Sunday and lo and behold, who was a first time guest on the panel but David French! I just about spit out my Cheerios and fell off the couch. I would have had no idea who he was, seriously, except for Aaron's repeated mentioning of him.

Yep... he's a never Trumper. Fit in well with the Democrats at NBC. Fit like a glove. Chuck Todd and NBC will do anything to attack the President, and David helped them very well.

dmyers's picture

First, I'm not saying your "facts" are incorrect; I'm saying they're selective.  Unless you're saying you quoted every single verse in Proverbs that describes a fool. Is that your claim?

Second, I did point out where your reasoning is faulty, and you have not responded to any of the points I made.  Is a response coming?

Mike Harding's picture

Aaron, you have made your point about Trump over and over again.  It's becoming a hobby horse.  Trump's policies have been very good.  From a policy position he could go down as a great president.  On a personal character issue, Trump has many flaws.  We all get it.  None of us are hanging around Trump.  He is our president.  On a personal level I really liked President Obama; on a policy level I thought he was a very poor president; yet, I never attacked him personally and there were plenty of issues to be explored.  I dealt exclusively with his bad policies.  Bill Clinton on a personal level committed heinous acts while President in the oval office and then lied about it under oath, claiming he had no sexual relations with his intern, which he did on numerous occasions.  The famous blue dress proved him to be a perjurer.  Nevertheless, he was a pragmatist as a president and because of the conservative congress, his policies were not nearly as devastating as they could have been.  What do you know of the personal character of John Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, FDR and countless others?  Some of President Trump's actions are foolish, but the policies of the left are absolutely destructive, dangerous, and deadly.

Pastor Mike Harding

josh p's picture

The fact is that people are partisan by nature. If a person supports Trump they will excuse his flaws and celebrate his victories. If they are a never-Trumper (as I am) they will criticize his flaws and probably downplay his strengths. We are at a point in broad evangelicalism where republican politics has become a fruit of the spirit in most people’s minds. As a libertarian, when I criticize the war mongering buffoonery of neo-cons I am assumed to be a liberal when the opposite is true. Christians if anyone should seriously consider the arguments of the old right. Personally, I am a never Trumper because I think many of his policies are ridiculous. Some have been very good. His character (or lack thereof) is certainly a consideration too.

I believe that it’s pretty obvious that Trump meets the qualifications of a fool. As Mike Harding has pointed out, that may be true of certain past presidents as well. The difference is they didn’t brag about it and make our country look completely ridiculous.

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