The Character Deformation of a Fool: Meditation on Proverbs 26

26 Jan

Proverbs 26.1-11 NIV

1Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, honor is not fitting for a fool. 2Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest. 3A whip for the horse, a halter for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools! 4Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 5Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. 6Like cutting off one’s feet or drinking violence is the sending of a message by the hand of a fool. 7Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. 8Like tying a stone in a sling is the giving of honor to a fool. 9Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. 10Like an archer who wounds at random is he who hires a fool or any passer-by. 11As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.

Glen Pemberton, in his article “It’s a Fool’s Life: The Deformation of Character in Proverbs” (Restoration Quarterly, 2008), attempts to take all of the proverbs that speak about a “fool” and to categorize them in such a way as to answer the question, “How does one become a fool?” The following is a summary of his article with all of the words that follow being direct quotes from Glen Pemberton, albeit only selected quotes from the article.

The Character Deformation of a Fool

Stage 1 : Foolish Actions

The first stage of character deformation is the time in which a person commits isolated foolish actions. Here Proverbs identifies numerous specific activities as foolish or characteristic of a fool, most stemming from a simple lack of self-control. For example, the failure to limit one’s speech denotes folly (18:2; 15:2; 12:23), as does speaking hastily (29:20),speaking before listening (18:13), a quick temper (12:16; 14:17, 29), an eagerness to quarrel (20:3), being undependable (26:6, 16), and quickly consuming any income (21:20).

Other speech patterns are also characteristic of fools: ignorant chatter (14:7; 15:7, 14; 9:13), slander (10:18), arrogant talk (14:3; 17:7), provocation (27:3), perverse speech (19:1), scoffing ( 19:29), the inability to deploy a proverb (26:7), or causing harm with a proverb (26:9).

According to Proverbs, left to their own out-of-control nature, youths will become fools. Thus the time for shaping character occurs in this stage of isolated foolish actions, and Proverbs places the responsibility for this formation in the hands of the parents. This stage of development offers hope that foolish actions may be corrected before a full-blown fool emerges.

Stage 2: Folly Becomes Sport

At least three decisive steps separate youths who act foolishly from those in the second stage of becoming a fool. First, youths who despise the discipline of their parents cross a significant boundary that formerly guarded them from the character of the fool. When youths deliberately, consistently, and flagrantly disregard parental guidance that they take giant steps toward becoming a fool.

Second, those who repeat foolish behavior stride closer to the character designation of a fool. Isolated actions may not make a person a fool, but repeated conduct does. The sages put it more graphically: “As a dog who returns to its vomit, a fool repeats his folly” (26:11). Fools are those who consistently repeats their folly. Even though the foolish behavior is grotesque and repulsive, fools will eat what made them ill again and again.

Third, a person on the path to becoming a fool also undergoes an important attitudinal shift: foolish behavior becomes desirable. Folly becomes “a joy to one who lacks sense” (15:21a) and evil activity becomes “like sport” (10:22a). Foolishness becomes a game, a challenge, even fun. The process is more subtle. Proverbs warns that those who consistently choose to act in foolish ways and think they are not deforming into fools are only fooling themselves. A fool is not born, but made as the result of daily decisions that form habits and mold character.

Stage 3: Beyond Correction

By this point in the character deformation of fools, almost all hope is lost. In stage 3 fools have no desire to attain wisdom; even if an opportunity presented itself they would not seize it (17:16). They hate even the idea of knowledge (1:22) and despise wisdom and instruction (1:7). Unlike the wise, fools will not listen (10:8; 12:15) and any effort to correct or counsel fools will meet with their derision (23:9). Thus unlike stage two, to discipline fools at this point is itself an act of folly (16:22). Proverbs suggests at least two things at this point that contribute to fools’ refusal to learn. To begin, they will not listen to counsel because they are “wise in [their] own eyes” (12:15) or thinks their “own way is right.”

By this stage, fools are convinced that they know everything, and as a result, they not only babble on and on, spouting their so-called knowledge ( 18:2) but trust completely in themselves (28:26; 14:16). As a result, no one can tell fools anything. Should a wise person go to court with a fool there will only be “ranting and ridicule without relief (29:9). Fools are more self-confident in their knowledge than the wise, more experienced in arguing, and unwilling to listen. One will never win an argument with a fool.

At this phase of character deformation, fools become a menace to society. The sages urge their listeners to avoid companionship with fools because they will not grow in knowledge (14:7; 15:7) and because of the inevitable harm that will come from such relationships (13:20; 27:3).

Even a proverb in the mouth of a fool will inflict harm (26:9). But the greatest risk in relationships with a fool is that a companion of fools is apt to become a fool himself (26:4).

Stage 4: Collapse and Rage

According to the sages, only tragedy waits at the final stage of the fool’s character deformation (28:26). Honor will never befit a fool (26:1, 8), nor will luxury (19:10). Rather, fools should expect disgrace (3:35), stumbling or to be lost (5:23), ruin or terror (10:14), flogging ( 19:29), indentured service to the wise (11:29), destruction (1:29-32), and premature death (10:21). Above all, Proverbs stresses that it is the character of fools that leads to these tragic ends. Their actions, specifically their speech, bring nothing but trouble.

Perhaps at an earlier period such a person might turn back to God, but it is unlikely now. Despite the deep need for reconciliation to God and others, the hardened fools mock the idea of a guilt offering (14:9). In sum, fools destroy their own life and the lives of those around them (14:1). Then, in a final climactic move that sets fools apart from all others, they blame the Lord for their downfall: “A foolish person ruins his way, but his heart rages against the Lord” (19:3). Fools self-destruct and then hold God responsible for all their problems. Nothing is their fault. Family, friends, society, and God are to blame for the disarray of their lives.

(This ends the quotation, and begins my words)
Pemberton’s article reminds us of the importance of passing wisdom along to our children, particularly fathers investing in sons, just as Solomon was investing in his son. May these words be of some value to those of us who have been entrusted with such a great task.
1 Comment

Posted by on January 26, 2011 in Uncategorized


One response to “The Character Deformation of a Fool: Meditation on Proverbs 26

  1. Steve Suffron

    January 26, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    This is an interesting summary of what Proverbs teaches about fools. I was really reminded of a lot of the attitudes of the kids I taught at RMA when I would read Proverbs, and I can see a lot of that process here. Most of those kids have been left on their own, with no (or foolish) guidance.

    We all see this foolish stuff in ourselves at times, but extracting this “process” from the text gives us both hope and a warning–hope because we can cut off the process (and not call ourselves “fools”) by yielding to correction and seeking wisdom; a warning because we are in danger of becoming a fool if we refuse to change.

    Lastly, it seems Rehoboam fits this description pretty well. Solomon was a great example of why more wisdom brings more sorrow at times: because we can’t or don’t follow our own good advice.


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