Proverbs

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:

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Having previously considered some important hermeneutic principles, we return to our discussion of Proverbs 22:15:

Folly or foolishness (Heb., iuelet, feminine singular noun) is being bound (Heb., qasurah, verb passive participle) in the heart (Heb., beleb, preposition and noun) of a child (Heb., nayer, masculine singular noun), a rod (Heb., shebet, masculine singular noun) of discipline (Heb., musar, masculine singular noun) will cause it to be distant or far (Heb., yarechiyqenah, hiphil or causative verb, imperfect, third person singular feminine suffix) from him (Heb., mimenu, preposition with third person singular masculine suffix).

In the previous installment, we focused especially the meaning of the term translated in the NASB as child, the Hebrew nayer. We saw that the term, understood literally, can reference anyone from infants to teenagers (see Ex. 2:6, Judg. 13:24, Gen. 14:24). In this current installment, we address three questions about the remainder of this verse:

  1. What is a rod? (shebet)
  2. What is the purpose for using the rod?
  3. Does this verse indicate when one should stop using the rod?

The rod (shebet) is described here as the instrument of discipline, and seems not identical to the staff (maqel, e.g., see Gen. 32:10), an instrument that aided the shepherd in walking, and served as a weapon and a goad. Nonetheless, the rod was an implement, which if used too intensively, could cause death (Ex. 21:20), and so it was not to be used carelessly. Elsewhere the term is used to describe a scepter, or rod of ruling (Gen. 49:10), an instrument of judgment (Job 9:34), and an instrument of comfort (Ps. 23:4). And of course it is also a word used frequently in the OT as referring to a tribe. Rashi described the rod as both capable and incapable of killing, and noted that the manner of use (location on the body and intensity) was determinative.*  Rashi’s implication is that the rod would be applied to different parts of the anatomy for different purposes.

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