All it takes for fires to rage out of control are certain ingredients and contexts. We see that in major forest fires and we also see it in social unrest. In 1989, Charles Colson, wrote a book, entitled, ‘Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages.’
I believe today in the West, …the new barbarians are all around us. They are not hairy Goths and Vandals, swelling fermented brew and ravishing maidens; they are not Huns and Visigoths storming our borders or scaling our city walls. No, this time the invaders have come from within. We have bred them in our families and trained them in our classrooms. They inhabit our legislatures, our courts, our film studios, and our churches. Most of them are attractive and pleasant; their ideas are persuasive and subtle. Yet these men and women threaten our most cherished institutions and our very character as a people.[i]
When American news anchor, Barbara Walters was addressing the issue of the crisis in American Education in October of 1988, she continued by saying that the real crisis was one of character. “We are becoming a generation of undisciplined cultural barbarians.”[ii] Colson’s response is that it shouldn’t surprise us.
Modern education could not logically be expected to produce anything else. Why? Because so-called value neutral education, which purports to teach no values, does in fact promote a value system of its own. And that system runs counter to the moral restraints essential to character.[iii]
To develop character requires ‘moral restraint,’ which is what wisdom literature advocates as championed in the book of Proverbs. The New Testament equivalent is the idea of ‘self-control,’ which is the result of God’s Spirit at work within the human heart or as the apostle Paul states it, is a ‘fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22-23).’
In Proverbs chapter 26, we find both appropriate and inappropriate behavior addressing the issue of character and the resultant social skills that make people successful in life. We need to remember that wisdom is a skill. So what are the results of wisdom in our lives? How does being under the influence of God’s spirit help us to relate to others, successfully? The key to a successful life is the manner in which we relate to God and then to others.
Here in Proverbs 26, we see four negative character sketches of walking the path of folly. We see the identification of the fool, the sluggard, the quarreler and the deceiver. Wisdom teaches us to not only identify and avoid this behavior in our own lives, but also to learn how to identify and respond appropriately when we encounter these behaviors in the lives of others. The way we deal with people, even those who are difficult is critical to a happy and successful life. Here in Proverbs 26 we see three types of difficult people who reveal either wisdom or folly.
I. THE FOOL
Who are these people? When we think of a fool, we may think of someone who is somehow socially or mentally deficient, but the wisdom writers don’t define the fool that way, rather it is someone who is morally deficient. This is the person who does not revere God.
The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.[iv]
What this means is that people who are biblically identified as fools are those who put their trust in themselves and rely upon their own understanding rather than trust God (cf. Proverbs 3:5-7). The outcome of trusting in our self rather than God is what the wisdom writers consider a fool. This is why it is critical for us who are embracing the path of wisdom to learn to respond wisely to fools. We must be careful that we don’t respond to a person like that in a foolish manner or a morally unrestrained manner as we are instructed here in chapter 26. It takes biblical wisdom in identifying and addressing the fool appropriately. One thing we do not want to do is honor them as that creates all kinds of problems. But what does it mean to honor them? We honor them by trusting them and looking to them for assistance. Bruce Waltke points out that the first twelve verses make it clear that “giving him [a fool] social standing will cause great damage.”[v] “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest honor is not fitting for a fool (Proverbs 26:1).” Here we have two unwelcome weather conditions, ‘snow in summer,’ or ‘rain during the harvest season.’ These two similes are used to explain that honor is inappropriate for a fool. Very few people rejoice to have snow in the wrong season, or to have rain impede harvest. Just as these weather conditions are unwelcome intruders, so are people who are honored when they are morally deficient. Paul Koptak relates that the first two proverbs here speak of what is appropriate or not.
If verse 1 depicts natural order out of whack, verse 2 depicts the order as it should be-undeserved curses do not stick because, like the glory of a fool, they are not fitting.[vi]
“Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest (Proverbs 26:2).” The picture that is painted for us in verse two of the fluttering sparrows and darting swallows is that they don’t land. In other words we have nothing to fear when curses are uttered against us when they are undeserved. We need not live in the fear of groundless threats by fools.
The next verse explains the challenge of trying to motivate a fool and get them doing the right thing. At the very beginning of the book of Proverbs, we see that Wisdom is calling to out to be heard by fools. If they will embrace her, they will discover the path of wisdom. Proverbs teaches that discipline is a necessary tool to instruct and motivate the fool to do what is right. Here in Proverbs 26:3 we are reminded of the need of discipline. “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools! (Proverbs 26:3).” We know that whips motivate a horse to move and a halter directs a donkey, and so like these animals, it takes discipline, here described as the rod, to get a fool moving in the right direction. “If a rod is recommended, it is assumed that the fool is no smarter than these beasts of burden, beyond convincing by arguments.”[vii]
The next two verses appear in conflict with each other, but what we learn is that Proverbs reveals that time, context and circumstance determines what is fitting or appropriate. Here in our context we discover how we need to respond to fools. It takes wisdom and discernment to know how to respond.
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.[viii]
Temper Longman uses these two proverbs to teach the nature of Proverbs as a literary form. Proverbs are not universally true laws but circumstantially relevant principles.”[ix] He goes on to explain the nature of what these two seemingly contradictory proverbs are trying to teach us.
…the wise person must assess whether this is a fool who will simply drain one’s energy with no positive results or whether an answer will prove fruitful to the fool or perhaps to those who overhear. The wise not only know the proverb but also can read the circumstance and the people with whom they dialogue.”
Part of the context we find ourselves in determines if we should respond and not just how to respond. If one is a parent or a boss, then we have a responsibility to speak to the issue, hoping that the person gets the message and responds in an appropriate way. I heartily agree with Harry Ironside’s assessment of these texts:
To answer him [fool] in the same scoffing and egotistical spirit that he manifests would be to sink to his level. If he rails, to rail in return would be but to follow his evil example. But on the other hand to allow foolish, unlearned statements to go unchallenged and without rebuttal, will but strengthen him in his self-assurance and conceit. To expose his shallowness and reply convincingly to his folly may at least humble him and give him to feel the need of fuller investigation.[x]
It is interesting that the book of Proverbs are the words of a father to his son, teaching him the way of wisdom. There is so much we can learn as parents and educators in giving moral guidance. We see the moral deficiencies in our society and instruction and discipline are critical in helping the undeveloped grow in wisdom.
The following Proverbs speak of the effects of honoring fools.
Sending a message by the hands of a fool is like cutting off one’s feet or drinking poison.
Like the useless legs of one who is lame is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
Like tying a stone in a sling is the giving of honor to a fool.
Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
Like an archer who wounds at random is one who hires a fool or any passerby.
As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.
Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.[xi]
When we hire fools, as in verse 11, or by sending a message through them (verse 6), they will cause problems. Even educating or instructing them, implied that they are speaking a proverb, they lack the wisdom to apply it to the right context. Knowledge can simply be information without the corresponding correct application, which is the essence of wisdom. Undeveloped character is still a morally crippling condition. While knowledge empowers, it can also be dangerous without the proper moral restraint that may be needed. Here we see in these proverbs that the effects are not only worthless, they are dangerous both to the person who is hiring and educating them and the people they are about to interact with. Verse 10 tells us that when we hire the fool it is like ‘an archer who wounds at random.’ They have no conception of the damage they will do.
The wisdom writer utilizes powerful images to get the point across. If we are relying on a fool to represent us it is like cutting our own feet from under ourselves or worse, drinking poison. It is a deadly thing to do. To educate a fool means we are empowering them with knowledge but without moral character, much damage occurs. It is described as tying a stone in a sling or a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand. The idea is that sling is impeded or restricted; or worse, it hurts the fool and others. That’s exactly what happens when a thornbush is in the hand of a person who is inebriated; it causes that person pain, though at the time they may not feel it. Richard Clifford points out: “A proverb is effective only when applied rightly to a situation (25:11), and fools do not know how to apply it.”[xii]
It is not just knowing what to say, but how to say, and when to say it, or if the moment is the wrong time and silence is more appropriate. We are reminded that giving just the right words in the proper context is powerful and appropriate. “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given (Proverbs 25:11).”
However, the real tragedy is the inability of fools to be corrected. They continued to repeat the same vile behavior. Like a dog returning to its vomit they continue to repeat vile behavior. The distinction between a wise person and a fool is not that they don’t make mistakes, but the wise person is teachable and learns from them, whereas the fool continues to repeat that morally repulsive behavior over and over again. That’s one reason why for the most part we can say that ‘past performance is the best indicator of future performance or behavior.’ Wise people learn from mistakes, fools continue to repeat them, both to their own harm and the harm of others.
II. THE LAZY
We are not just speaking here of people who are not diligent but they are neglectful. Many of them expend more energy trying to avoid work. What we have here are satires, powerful images in the manner in which people who are lazy function. They have all kinds of ridiculous and exaggerated fears and excuses for why they cannot do what needs to be done. “A sluggard says, ‘There’s a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets’ (Proverbs 26:13)!”
This statement is also reflected earlier in Proverbs 22:13: “the sluggard says, ‘There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square.’
In other words, unjustifiable fears are hindering this person in performing their responsibilities. They point to the dangers and find incredible and unjustifiable reasons to avoid doing what needs to be done. Their excuses are so pathetic that they are laughable. Though there were lions in the land during this time, they were few in number. The probability of what is used as an excuse for happening was extremely improbable.
The second image given of the lazy person is what we would call ‘the couch potato.’ They won’t get moving. “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed (Proverbs 26:14).” Here is the picture of someone who is not interested in meeting the challenges of the day. Even though they move, they don’t get anywhere or get anything done. Like a hinges that keep the door from going far.
The third picture is even more insightful. “A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth (Proverbs 26:15).”
The sarcastic proverb teaches that the sluggard starves in spite of opportunity. …The sluggard so dislikes any form of work that the very thought of exerting himself exhausts him.”[xiii]
The conclusion of these proverbs on the sluggards is just another form of being a fool. Laziness is a sin. It is describing a morally deficient person. Notice how being a sluggard is a form of folly. “A sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven people who answer discreetly (Proverbs 26:16).” You can’t reason with the lazy person. They are choosing a certain lifestyle. The wisdom writers believed that it took effort and diligence to be successful in life and relationships. Negligence was destructive, but those who were sluggards were so deluded that they continued to perpetuate their self-destructive way of life despite the advice of others who generally are the very people they are asking help from. There are two types of poor: those who are incapable or unable to care for themselves, which we need to care for, and those who are capable but unwilling. Even though they have opportunity, they won’t do anything for themselves. The sluggard fits the latter category.
III. THE MISCHIEF MAKERS
These are people who bring grief into their own lives and the lives of others. They intrude into other people’s business. Their gossip and slander creates conflict. Other forms of mischief makers are those who are liars and deceivers and will use flattery to achieve their ends.
A. The first expression of mischief maker is the busybody.
“Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own (Proverbs 26:17).” These are the people who take offense at other people’s issues. Dogs in the ancient Hebrew world were usually wild or semi-wild and not seen in a positive light. They were considered unclean and dangerous. By grabbing the ears, the busybody would get wounded in the process. We are living in a day with instant access to information and misinformation which can constantly bombard and arouse the emotions. Often we are putting on other people’s agendas and take on many misconceived offenses. Much of what we hear is only a small part of the story and used to incite anger. The problem with being aroused to action without really understanding the full story is that we become like Don Quixote. People are fighting battles in impractical ways, often by using evil in return. Rather than responding in wisdom, we battle folly with folly, which is only exasperates the problem.
B. The second expression of mischief makers is seen in reckless speech.
“Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking (Proverbs 26:18-19)!’
Words can be harmful and we need to consider what we are saying and the kind of impact they might have on others. In the book of James we see the tongue as described as a spark that sets an entire forest on fire and the destruction that it causes. What we say comes from the heart and it can ignite a terrible disaster.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.[xiv]
Before we repeat things and attack with our words, we ought to fully investigate things from various viewpoints, and prayerfully consider what is the best course of action. We are responsible for what we communicate. While what we say reflects our inner convictions, when we repeat what others say that is destructive, it violates us through and through.
C. The third expression of mischief making is gossip.
Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.
Like a coating of silver dross on earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.[xv]
What we see here is that gossip is the fuel that keeps contention alive. Where gossip ceases, peace can be created and healing can begin. Here we see the people who cause division and social strife will be severely addressed by God. In Proverbs 6 there are seven things that are detestable to God, two of which are described as ‘a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community (Prov. 6:19). What is the result of our words? While there is opportunity for the conflict to mend and be healed these are the people who inflame the situation with their slander. Bruce Waltke warns us all: “The community that tolerates the slanderer is also culpable for the conflicts that tear it apart.”[xvi] We need to hold people accountable for what they say, otherwise we’ll have tremendous strife. We see now in our culture that unrestrained words are leading to unrestrained actions and people’s livelihoods and lives are in jeopardy.
IV. THE DECEIVER
Enemies disguise themselves with their lips, but in their hearts they harbor deceit,
Though their speech is charming, do not believe them, for seven abominations fill their hearts.
Their malice may be concealed by deception, but their wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.
A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.[xvii]
Harry Ironside reminds us that “the last verse expresses a truth which has long been recognized among all nations, and is preserved in proverbial form among many people. ‘It is common for men to hate those whom they have injured…’”[xviii] It is a form of self-justification. Ultimately people who are deceiving others eventually overplay their hand and they are exposed. What they intended for others often comes to haunt them. What starts out as smooth, flattering words, turn out to be bitter, malicious communication that turns ugly and causes great damage.
When we do not walk in wisdom we can cause a lot of interpersonal relational damage. We can just dismiss people because we see them as fools, sluggards or mischief makers. God calls us to minister to people. We need wisdom and discernment in identifying where people are coming from and how to best respond to them. We need to be delivered from responding in like manner to those who walk in folly. We must not become indifferent, negligent, angry or overcome by evil, rather we need to be filled with God’s gracious love and overcome by demonstrating the behavior of Christ; rendering good for evil.
[i] Charles Colson, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1989), 23-24.
[ii] Barbara Walters television special, ‘America’s Kids: Why They Flunk,’ October 1988 as quoted in Charles Colson, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, 80.
[iii] Charles Colson, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, 80.
[iv] Psalm 14:1, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[v] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 345.
[vi] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 591.
[viii] Proverbs 26:4-5.
[ix] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 464.
[x] Harry A. Ironside, Proverbs and Song and Solomon, An Ironside Expository Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 224.
[xi] Proverbs 26:6-12.
[xii] Richard Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 231.
[xiii] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 122, 357.
[xiv] James 3:6.
[xv] Proverbs 26:20-23.
[xvi] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31, 360.
[xvii] Proverbs 26:24-28.
[xviii] Harry A. Ironside, Proverbs and Song and Solomon, 231.