The Wise, the Fool, and You
Well, it is a joy to get to be back with you in this way; I’ve really been looking forward to bringing God’s word to you again today. It’s also been a joy to sit under the preaching of others over the past number of weeks.
I’ve often told younger or developing preachers that the only way to really grow as a preacher is to simply preach more. And as a church we have the real privilege of giving these growing preachers the opportunity to do just that. A part of that process includes me giving them feedback, but we all have a part to play and I’m thankful we’ve been able to do that in these past weeks.
As we get into today’s message, I’m reminded of an experience I’ve had several times over the past year. Perhaps I’m just getting home, or I’ve been working in my office, and I’ll walk into the kitchen, where I a story is being read—either by Aimee or an audiobook. And the story sounds really intriguing, but I have no idea what’s going on because I don’t know who any of the characters are.
So often I’ll request a brief pause and Aimee or one of the kids will fill me in on who the different characters are, and all of a sudden what they are saying or doing in that brief part of the story makes sense.
Some of you, no doubt, have read books or plays which do this at the very beginning: they list the characters and tell you a few brief points about them all. And from that point on, the whole story makes sense.
A. FIVE CHARACTERS
The book of Proverbs has a cast of characters. We’ve been hearing about these different characters over the past seven weeks, and by now I think we’ve picked up enough to identify them well enough. But here, right at the half-way point of our series in Proverbs, we’re going to consider a number of passages that describe these different characters for us in their essence. Perhaps we should have done this right at the beginning.
But here we are, and I expect that considering these different characters this morning will not only bring the book of Proverbs into focus but also bring many of our own life experiences into focus, and perhaps in some surprising ways.
1. The Simple
So let’s consider the first character in our line up, and this is “the simple.” We’ve heard about “the simple” several times in the first part of Proverbs. Chapter 9 described both wisdom and folly calling out to the simple person, asking him to listen to them.
And perhaps that’s the best way of thinking about “the simple” in the book of Proverbs. The simple person is the person who is not committed to either wisdom or folly. They are not wise, but they are also not yet a fool. They could go one way or the other.
And so there is still hope for them. They could become wise. That’s what we heard back in chapter 9, when Lady Wisdom called out, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here! …Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:4,6).
Later on, we read that if you “Strike a scoffer… the simple will learn prudence… When a scoffer is punished, the simple becomes wise” (19:25, 21:11). So the simple can become wise. But so long as they are “simple,” they are not wise. Proverbs pictures the simple as clueless, naïve, and gullible. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (14:15).
You see there how the “simple” is contrasted with the “prudent” person, someone who is actually thinking and is sharp enough to not believe everything they hear.
And if the simple person stays simple, it’s not going to work out well for him. “The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (Proverbs 14:18). “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it” (Proverbs 22:3).
Something that’s very interesting is that Proverbs not once describes the simple person as saying anything. And that’s not because simple people never talk. It’s because, according to Proverbs, what a simple person needs most is to listen and learn from those who are wise.
That’s very different from this contemporary idea that everybody has something to say, and everybody’s opinion and perspective is as valuable as anybody else’s.
And Proverbs disagrees. Every person is valuable, but not everything everybody has to say is valuable. And Proverbs tells those who are simple, naïve, and gullible, to use their ears more then their mouths, and to carefully listen and learn to wisdom.
2. The Fool
The next character we meet in Proverbs is the fool. The fool is someone who is no longer merely simple. The fool has chosen to listen to Lady Folly, and has bought into her scam. They are now committed to foolishness.
And in the past several weeks we’ve already heard a lot about the fool. We’ve heard that they have a poor approach to money, to their parents, to their neighbours and friends, to justice, and especially to discipline and correction.
But there’s something at the root of all of this. And according to Proverbs, the common characteristic that makes a fool a fool is that he is unteachable. He is always talking instead of listening and learning. “The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin” says Proverbs 10:8. And we should note that “babbling fool” is not one specific kind of fool. That’s what fools do: they babble. They are always spewing out their words and thoughts, and so they can’t receive commandments like the wise.
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” says Proverbs 18:2. Picture a group of people at a table, and one person is rattling on with “I think this and I think that and I don’t like this and I like that.” That’s what a fool sounds like. They’re not interested in actually understanding anything, just in making sure that everybody knows what they think.
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” says Proverbs 29:11 (cf. 12:16). You never have to wonder what a fool is thinking or feeling. Everything going on in their inside gets broadcast to the outside. And some people in our world today might say, “That’s just my personality,” and Proverbs says, “No, that’s foolishness.” A wise person knows when to keep something in. A fool has no filters.
Fools are unteachable, not only because they never listen, but because they think that they already know everything. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” says Proverbs 12:15. “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words” says Proverbs 23:9 (cf. 17:16).
Chapter 26 verse 3-12 contains a string of Proverbs that show this relatively hopeless perspective on the fool. Fools are going to need constant discipline, just like an animal (v. 3). Verses 4-5 give advice on how to talk to a fool, but the rest of the chapter holds out little hope that the fool is ever going to get it. Even wise words are worthless in a fool’s mouth, because his heart doesn’t understand what he’s saying (Proverbs 26:6–12). These verses warn us not to trust a fool, not to give them honour (cf. 26:1), and not to expect them to change.
And yet—and yet—there’s a little bit of hope in there. Verse 5 gives a slight possibility that you could help a fool realize he’s not actually wise. And verse 12 says, “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12). There is more hope for the fool than for someone who thinks they are wise. In other words, perhaps there is the tiniest bit of hope for a fool.
But overall, Proverbs holds out very little hope for the fool. “Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him” (Proverbs 27:22). “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (Proverbs 29:9). Folly is their food and joy, as 15:14 & 21 says. They enjoy doing wrong (10:23, cf. 13:19) and flaunting their folly (13:16). They are reckless (14:16), deceptive (14:8), argumentative (13:10, 20:3, 27:3), and ultimately dangerous.
“Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly” (Proverbs 17:12). It would be better to tangle with an angry bear than a fool in the midst of his folly, because the damage that the fool can cause is ultimately so much greater.
3. The Scoffer
So, you can see how we’ve moved from bad to worse as we’ve moved from the simple to the fool. And yet things get even worse yet when we encounter our third character, the scoffer. “Mocker” is another way we can translate this word, like the NIV does.
The scoffer is someone who has gone a step beyond the fool. Whereas the fool is clueless to wisdom, the scoffer openly mocks wisdom. They are cynical and arrogant and loud and brash. “‘Scoffer’ is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride” says Proverbs 21:24. And the rest of Proverbs describes a scoffer as kind of like a fool on steroids, a dangerous person for whom there is no hope.
We could put it this way. The simple person clicks on every scam email that gets sent to them. The fool posts to social media every five minutes, letting you know what they think about absolutely everything. The scoffer, meanwhile, is the person designing sarcastic memes to arrogantly mock every single person they disagree with.
And you can’t get through to them. “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain” says Proverbs 14:6 (see also 15:12). They do nothing but plan (24:8-9) and cause (29:8) trouble. And when they are punished (19:29), it is only so that others may learn from their negative example (19:25, 21:11)
Scoffers ultimately cause so much quarrelling and abuse that they simply need to be driven out (22:10). 24:9 says it most harshly when it says that “the scoffer is an abomination to mankind.”
4. The Wicked
Now I’d frankly like to be done with all of these characters so far, but there’s one more villain in Proverb’s cast of characters. And this is the wicked person, also described as “evil” or “violent” or “crooked.”
Something we should understand right away is that the wicked person is not really a separate group of people from the last two. There is a progression from “simple” to “fool” to “scoffer” or “mocker.” But “wicked” or “evil” or “violent” person is really just a different way of describing fools.
We see this in verses like 10:23: “Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool.” Or 13:19: “To turn away from evil is an abomination to fools.” Or 14:16: “One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.” (14:16)
We see there how wisdom and evil are opposites just as much as wisdom and folly. In other words, foolishness and wickedness go hand in hand, just like wisdom and righteousness go hand in hand. Everything that Proverbs says about the wicked is also generally true about the fool and the scoffer.
And Proverbs says a lot about the wicked. I’ll read a few verses here, and there are some more references in your notes.
- “…The mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Proverbs 10:6).
- “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil” (Proverbs 12:20).
- “The soul of the wicked desires evil; his neighbor finds no mercy in his eyes” (Proverbs 21:10).
- “…the wicked brings shame and disgrace” (Proverbs 13:5).
I encourage you to read the other passages in your hand-out to get a richer picture of what this wicked, violent, crooked, deceitful person is like (Proverbs 10:9 12:5, 12:10, 12:12; 16:30, 21:8, 21:18, 21:21, 28:1, 28:4, 28:12, 28:28, 29:6, 29:10, 29:27, 30:20). And what I hope we see this morning is how much Proverbs, the book of wisdom, says about wickedness and evil. According to Proverbs, foolishness and wickedness go together like a hand in a glove.
In other words, you can’t reject wisdom and still hope to be a good person living a good life. You can’t separate our minds from our hearts, how you think from how you live. It’s all connected.
The fool will be, or will become, wicked, and the wise will be righteous.
5. The Wise/Righteous
And that brings us to our fifth and final character today: the wise/righteous person.
The person who has chosen wisdom.
And what do the Proverbs have to say abut this person? “When a wise man is instructed, he gains knowledge” and that if you “reprove a man of understanding… he will gain knowledge” (Proverbs 19:25, c.f. 21:11). While “the simple believes everything,” “the prudent gives thought to his steps” (14:15).
“The prudent are crowned with knowledge,” and know how to avoid danger (14:18, 22:3).
“The wise of heart will receive commandments” (10:8), “a wise man quietly holds…back” instead of venting his spirit (29:11), and “a wise man listens to advice” (12:15). Consider some of these other statements Proverbs makes about the wise: “wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding” (Proverbs 10:23). “With those who take advice is wisdom” (Proverbs 13:10). “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 15:14).
It’s not hard to see the picture emerging here, is it? The wise person is fundamentally teachable. They knew that they needed understanding, and so they sought after it. Like we heard last week, they listen to advice, and can take a rebuke.
Now, they don’t listen to just anybody, like the gullible person. Their heart is tuned into wisdom. But when they hear that wisdom, even if it comes in the form of a correction, they listen.
And so this helps us see that being wise, according to Proverbs, is not about knowing everything. In fact, thinking you know everything is the definition of a fool. Being wise and righteous also doesn’t mean you’re perfect and sinless. Like 20:9 says, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?” The answer is “nobody.”
But it’s that understanding that shapes the wise and righteous person. They seek after wisdom because they know they have much to learn. And this wisdom causes them to turn aside from wickedness. And this teachability is what helps them gain instruction, making them deliberately listen as other wise people speak wisdom to them.
And this wisdom leads to, and is tightly connected with, righteousness. “One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil” (Proverbs 14:16). The wise person rejects wickedness and pursues the righteousness that God has revealed in His word.
Now what we’ve seen so far is his is just a sample of what Proverbs says about the wise and the righteous person. There’s a list of further verses in your handout and once again I encourage you to read and consider them (12:5, 12:10, 13:5, 14:6, 14:16, 14:33, 15:21, 17:24, 18:15, 20:5, 20:18, 20:3, 21:9, 21:29, 28:12, 29:6.)
B. TWO OBSERVATIONS
So, where are we at? By now we’ve been introduced to this cast of characters, and we’ve seen who they are. And at this point we’re going to make two observations and then ask two questions to try to tie this all up.
1. Wisdom and Folly Are Not a Matter of Intelligence but of Our Heart
The first observation, based off of everything we’ve seen, is that, in the book of Proverbs, wisdom or folly are not primarily a matter of our intelligence. It’s not about our IQ. They do have to do with learning and knowledge, but it’s not about how smart you are.
It’s about your heart: who you are on the inside. That’s where it all starts. Remember Proverbs 4:23? “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” What is in our heart flows out to our mouth and our actions. As 27:19 says, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.”
According to 16:23, what makes a wise man have wise words? “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” A wise heart shows up in wise speech.
Now according to the Hebrew way of thinking, the “heart” included the mind. But not in the way we often think about it. It included the whole person. And like we’ve seen, wisdom has a strongly moral dimension to it.
What this means is that wisdom is not about how many facts you can memorize or how well you did on your standardized tests in high school. It’s about whether your heart is turned towards learning from God and His people, or whether your heart is turned towards yourself.
2. Wisdom and Folly Are Seen by Our Words and Actions
The second observation here is that wisdom and folly are seen by our actions. This is just obvious, right? So many of these proverbs that we’ve seen today tell us that the wise person is known by their wise words and actions, and the foolish person is known by their foolish words and actions.
And that’s why Proverbs 20:11 says, very simply, “Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.”
How you talk and act—that’s who you really are. And this is particularly true in the unguarded moments, when we forget to turn our filters on.
So have you ever had one of those moments when someone says or does something really terrible, and afterwards they apologize and say “That’s not really me”? Proverbs says, “Actually it is. Your words and your behaviour is a reflection of your heart.”
So, we don’t need a psychology degree to be able to tell apart the wise from the foolish or the righteous from the wicked. Proverbs gives us everything we need to know as we simply watch and listen to what people do and say.
C. TWO QUESTIONS
1. Why Does This Matter?
Now let’s ask our first question. Why does this matter? Why does it matter whether we or anybody else is simple or foolish or wicked or wise? Why is teachability so important?
The book of Proverbs gives many, many answers to this question, but as I studied things this week, I boiled it down to two main answers. Why should we care?
1) God Cares
The first answer is it matters to God. “Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord, but those of blameless ways are his delight” (Proverbs 11:20).
God sees and knows and cares whether we are foolish or wise, whether we are righteous or wicked. He delights in the righteous, but the wicked are an abomination to Him.
I don’t know about you, but few things are more terrifying to me than the thought of being an abomination, of being detestable or abhorrent to the creator of the universe. But, according to Proverbs, that’s what the wicked are to God. And all of the religious performance in the world can’t change that for a second.
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him” (Proverbs 15:8, cf. 21:27). “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9). “Fools mock at the guilt offering, but the upright enjoy acceptance” (Proverbs 14:9).
Several other Proverbs connect these themes together (Proverbs 14:2, 15:9, 15:26, 19:3) and tell us that we should care about these things because God really cares about them.
2. Because Wisdom and Folly Affect Us, Now and Into Eternity
And this leads into the second answer of why this matters. Because God knows and cares, and because God is king over all of creation, walking in wisdom or folly has a massive effect on our lives—now and into the future.
“How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver” (Proverbs 16:16). “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (Proverbs 23:23).
Wisdom is valuable because of the incredible benefit that it brings into the life of the person who has it.
“Whoever gets sense loves his own soul; he who keeps understanding will discover good” (Proverbs 19:8). Proverbs 24:13–14 says, “My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” (See also Proverbs 24:3–7.)
On the other hand, foolishness and wickedness are destructive beyond imagination. “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short. The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish. The way of the Lord is a stronghold to the blameless, but destruction to evildoers. The righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land” (Proverbs 10:27–30).
Do you get the picture? Righteousness and wisdom make for a strong and secure and bountiful life. Foolishness and wickedness bring pain and destruction. And I’ve read just a small sample of the many other passages which point in this same direction (Proverbs 10:6-7, 10:9, 10:10, 10:24, 11:3-8, 11:17–19, 11:21, 11:23, 11:27–31, 12:2–3, 12:7, 12:8, 12:12, 12:20-21, 13:6, 13:9, 13:15, 13:21, 14:1, 14:11, 14:14, 14:19, 14:22, 14:32, 16:17, 16:22, 16:31, 17:2, 17:11, 17:19, 18:3, 19:29, 21:20–22, 21:7, 21:16, 22:5, 24:15-16, 24:19-22, 27:12, 28:10, 28:18, 28:26).
One more—one of my favourites: “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). The righteous can face whatever comes their way because they know that God is overseeing their life and that their future is secure in Him. But the wicked have nothing but fear.
Now, we can’t forget the covenant. These words were written for the Israelites who lived under the Old Covenant, who were promised very specific blessings for obeying God, and very specific curses or disobeying Him. Remember Deuteronomy 28? In many ways these words here are just repeating those covenant promises of blessing and curse.
But even beyond that frame of that covenant, don’t we know that being foolish is generally harmful? And being wise is generally beneficial? And the overall message of Proverbs is that wisdom is surpassingly valuable, and folly is surpassingly destructive, both now and into the future.
And what surprised me this week what realizing that several of the Proverbs actually hint beyond this life to point to the eternal blessing that awaits the wise and the righteous. “When the tempest passes, the wicked is no more, but the righteous is established forever” (Proverbs 10:25). “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (Proverbs 12:28, cf. 15:24).
Righteousness and prudence and wisdom have benefits not just for this life, but beyond the grave itself. And that’s something that certainly applies to us as we consider the wisdom of God in Christ, revealed in the gospel.
2. What About Us?
And that brings us to our second question: what about us?
Do these different characters have anything to say to us today?
And there’s lots of different ways I could go at this question, but let me get really specific here: is it possible to be a Christian and a fool?
That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Last week, Jason talked about the blessing of correction, and our temptation to act like polite Canadians and not offer the correction or even the rebuke when it’s needed.
But isn’t it true that, very often, we shy away from offering correction because we’re afraid that people might not respond well? Or even worse—we know they aren’t going to respond well?
How many times have we seen people who call themselves Christians respond very poorly to correction? They get defensive or angry, or play the victim and lash out, or they blow up, or otherwise not respond well to any suggestion that they might have some things to learn in that situation?
In other words, they act like fools. And sometimes, even scoffers, arrogantly mocking those who try to call them to account.
And this should not be. There should be no such thing as a Christian fool.
There should be no such thing as a Christian fool because a Christian should know, better than anyone else, how to receive correction. And that’s because we’ve received the ultimate correction in the gospel. God, through someone else, told us that we were wicked and were going to be destroyed, and there was nothing we could do to save ourselves.
But then He gave us soft hearts to repent and turn back from our evil ways and trust in Jesus and all that He was and had done for us. We have become disciples of Jesus, students of His wisdom. We have learned Christ, and have gone on to be taught in and by Him, as Ephesians 4:20 tells us.
A genuine Christian is someone who has been corrected in the most fundamental way possible, and who has entered into a lifestyle of continued learning from Jesus and His body, the church.
There should be no such thing as a Christian fool, because the gospel has transformed us into teachable seekers of wisdom.
But you know, and I know, that all too often foolishness nips at our heels. It’s all too easy to give in to temptation, and start to think and feel like act like we’ve got it all together. To act like our old selves. To act like a fool.
And so this morning, if the Holy Spirit is convicting you of a time, or perhaps times, where you’ve acted like a fool, or even a scoffer, I invite you to repent. Confess your sins to God and those you have wronged. Confessing our sins to each other, like James 5:16 describes, is an important step for fighting back against foolishness.
And I invite you again to reflect on the gospel. We’re going to end today by singing “All I Have Is Christ,” a song that celebrates the pure-grace rescue that God accomplished for us. If you know Jesus, this is your story. The deeper we embrace this, the deeper we get this, the more we will be the wise people God is shaping us to be.
And if you’re here this morning and you don’t know Christ, hear him calling you today. Away from your wickedness and folly and into Himself. Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and begin to enjoy the eternal life that He died and rose again to purchase for you.