Character Studies in the Book of Proverbs - Part 3: The fool and his friends
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
The first man in scripture considered to be a fool, by his own admission, was Saul the king of Israel. Saul was a man who was given privilege, time and opportunity to make something of his life. Sadly, he allowed pride, jealousy and selfishness to control his actions, and in 1 Samuel chapter 26 verse 21, he recorded his own epitaph, ‘I have played the fool’. What a contrast is seen in the Saul of the New Testament, who, as Paul the apostle, at the end of his life could say without pride or boasting, ‘I have kept the faith’.
In the book of Proverbs, the fool is not seen as someone to be laughed at or dismissed lightly. He is rather one who despises wisdom and instruction, 1. 7, and who hates knowledge, v. 22. It is not that he is ignorant of the truth, but chooses rather to ignore it. Wisdom is not hidden from him, but his heart is closed to it.
On most occasions when we meet the fool in the Proverbs, he is seen in contrast to the wise man, sometimes in his actions, and on other occasions in his words. He invariably carries a spiritual health warning! His behaviour is that of the unregenerate man and yet it is alarmingly possible for true believers to exhibit the characteristics attributed to the fool. How many today are guilty of turning their backs on the truth of God’s word in both doctrine and practice? How many, under the guise of spirituality and ‘the Lord’s leading’, have chosen something inferior, because it makes fewer demands upon them? How many, blessed with the care and prayer of a Christian home and assembly, have ridden roughshod over it all and have chosen their own pathway? The book of Proverbs says they are fools.
The character of the fool does not really begin to manifest itself until chapter 10. In the first nine chapters, the instruction of the wise man has a tone of intimacy. A father addressing a son, a teacher to an individual pupil; note the pronouns used are in the second person, ‘thee’, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’. On a number of occasions, in chapters 1 to 7, and more particularly in chapters 8 and 9, the pronouns become personal as wisdom takes the role of the instructor. The tone is appealing and from the heart, 8. 5ff.; 9. 4ff. How these verses remind us of the loving tones of the Saviour as with gracious words He spoke to those around Him, imparting true wisdom from a heart of compassion!
From chapter 10, the Proverbs, as directly attributed to Solomon, take a more general and impersonal approach, and are given in the third person, ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘they’. In chapters 10 to 29, the fool and those of similar character are very prominent. The warnings and instruction given cover a number of situations.
On several occasions, the fool is seen in the home where his behaviour makes his parents’ life a misery.1 The scriptures, not least in the book of Proverbs, are very clear in their teaching regarding parental responsibility. The care, the instruction and discipline of children is of vital importance. Equally so, children are left in no doubt as to their obligations of obedience and subjection to parental control. Sadly, in today’s society ‘man’s wisdom’ is considered superior, resulting in broken homes, dysfunctional families and whole communities where the ‘sins of the fathers’ are wreaking havoc upon a generation of feral children.
As we follow the fool going about his daily routine, we notice that he is often recognized not so much by how he looks, nor yet by what he does, but by what he says! While he remains silent, he is even considered wise, 17. 28! Yet such is his nature that he cannot keep quiet for long, 12. 23; 15. 2. The true character of a man or woman is often made apparent in both the content and the manner of their speech. Simon Peter could protest loudly at the accusations in the high priest’s palace, yet his speech showed decisively what he really was, Matt. 26. 73. The Epistle of James is the New Testament counterpart of the book of Proverbs. He also has instructive words, particularly in chapter 3, on the importance of guarding our tongue.
The fool has no discernment in matters of morality. He makes a mock at sin, 14. 9; he is arrogant and careless, v. 16. In chapter 26, the wise man gives clear instruction on how to respond to those who manifest the character of fools. They are not worthy of respect, vv. 1, 4 and 5, and deserve only discipline, v. 3. They should not be given responsibility, v. 6, nor opportunity to teach, v. 9.
The warnings against taking the character of the fool are like beacons throughout the book. Perhaps the most succinct is given in chapter 14 verse 24. Here are seen his behaviour, his character and his attitude. ‘The foolishness of fools is folly’!
Another character, often seen in the company of the fool, is the simple man. In many ways, he is more to be pitied than blamed. He is not mentally deficient, but is gullible, easily led, naïve and lacks discernment. He is food and drink to the fool, who finds in him a natural audience and a willing disciple.
There are certain matters in which it is appropriate for the believer to be simple, e.g., ‘concerning evil’, Rom. 16. 19. It is best not to know the intricacies of behaviour, ‘done of them [unbelievers] in secret’, Eph. 5. 12. It is not too difficult for the believer to exercise wisdom and discernment, without becoming involved in inappropriate situations. Abraham did not need to visit Sodom to know that its behaviour was evil. We, as believers, do not need to see, hear or frequent many of those attractions which engage the mind of the world in order to know that there is nothing in them for the spiritual mind to feed upon.
In chapter 7, instruction is given to warn of the dangers of becoming ensnared in immorality. The character used to illustrate this is the simple man. His first mistake is to linger in the vicinity of temptation v. 8. How different to Joseph, who fled from the presence of his tempter, Gen. 39. 12. For this man, however, the lust of the eyes becomes the lust of the flesh, vv. 13-20, and the pride of life finally traps him, v. 21. He is left permanently damaged, v. 23!
In our present day, because the word of God is ignored, there appears to be no ultimate standard of truth. Therefore, with the proliferation of so much falsehood, even in nominally Christian society, souls lack discernment, and take on the character of the simple, ‘believing every word’, 14. 15. The result is that they ‘inherit folly’, v. 18. The only sure safeguard is a true knowledge of God through His word, and the constant application of that word to our lives.
Our final encounter with the simple man is a repeated warning in chapter 22 verse 3 and chapter 27 verse 12. ‘A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished’. This good advice can be applied to many circumstances of life and is an excellent scripture from which to preach the gospel; it also teaches us to be aware of the possible outcome of our actions and to weigh up every option before making important decisions. Remember Lot’s choice in Genesis chapter 13 verse 11. It seems that he did not even consider choosing Bethel, the house of God, but turned his back upon it and his decision ultimately cost him everything. May the Lord help us to rise above the attributes of the simple man as seen in the book of Proverbs.
Another character quite at home in the company of the fool is the scorner, 1. 22; we do not intend to linger in his company. He is a mocker, he will not listen to advice, 13. 1; 15. 12. Consequently, he is devoid of wisdom, 14. 6. Punishment has no effect upon him, though it may benefit others, 19. 25; 21. 11. There are no redeeming features about this man; he is unregenerate, awaiting only judgement, 19. 29. Yet we meet him often in the workplace, in the college, in the street and on the doorstep. He needs the gospel; he needs the Saviour. May the Lord give us grace to reach out to him and others like him before it is too late.
1 e.g., 10. 1; 15. 5, 20; 17. 21, 25; 19. 13.