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The Pastoral Implications of Wise and Foolish Speech in the Book of Proverbs

This article is written in love and admiration for pastors in North America. It is also written in brotherly concern because pastors in our culture are frequently subjected to gossip, slander, and malicious speech. You probably do not have to attend church meetings for very long before witnessing this for yourself. I remember speaking with a friend who attended a church meeting that quickly turned ugly. His comment to me, as a new Christian, was, “My honeymoon in the church was over.” I doubt any of my readers will have trouble imagining what that meeting was like for my friend. While this is naturally a problem for any church in any age, certain tendencies in our culture make it an especially glaring one—and the Internet only makes things worse. I would like to think through the issue of foolish speech in a pastoral context by turning to the book of Proverbs because this book contains rich resources for both understanding and interpreting the roots of foolish speech and responding to it in a faithful way.

I would like to argue that, in the book of Proverbs, one cannot argue with a fool without making things worse. The wise person instead trusts the Lord to intervene by silencing and stopping foolish speech and vindicating those who trust him. I realize this conclusion may seem extreme. In order to recommend it, this article briefly sketches how the major characters in Proverbs speak and examines how the wise respond (or do not respond) to foolish speech. Then it turn to the NT, focusing on Paul’s directions to how Timothy and Titus should speak in different situations, as well as Paul’s presentation of Christ as the wisdom of God in 1 Cor 1. The essay closes by applying the wise speech of Proverbs to everyday-ministry settings.

1. Major Characters in Proverbs: The Simple, the Fool, and the Wise Man

The first major character in Proverbs is the simpleton, most often identified with the son or the youth in the book. The book of Proverbs portrays a pious Israelite father, guided by Solomon, teaching his son how to engage successfully in the complex adventure called “life.” The son or youth is classified as “simple” (פֶּתִי) in the sense of being naïve about how life works and easily fooled (see Prov 1:4). While not morally wrong in itself, the youth’s simplicity is dangerous because it is susceptible to influence from either wisdom or folly (9:4-6, 16). If not left behind, the youth will suffer the most terrifying consequences (1:22, 31). Although more could be said about this character, it turns out that the simple youth does not have much to say in Proverbs—he is rather called on to listen quietly to the wise instruction of the father.

For this reason, we turn to the two other major characters in the book: the righteous-wise and the wicked-fool.[1] In making this distinction, I am not ignoring how Proverbs uses a number of words are for different kinds of people. For instance, לֵץ (“scoffer”) seems to denote a hardened cynic for whom there is the least hope of change.[2] Nevertheless, it is fair to make a broad distinction between two basic kinds of people in Proverbs: the righteous and the wicked, the wise and the foolish. The entire book of Proverbs is an appeal to the son to leave behind his simplicity and join the ranks of the righteous-wise by describing the life (and especially the speech) of these people and the blessed consequences that meet them under YHWH’s hand.[3]

The righteous-wise can be defined, first, as those who “do right by” God and neighbor (1:3, 2:9, 12:17, 21:21, etc.). They discharge all relational obligations, doing what is right in the complex junctures to which every relationship is subject. This righteousness should not be understood only in the sense of fairness or balance, but more extremely as going “over the top” to do as much as possible to enhance the life of one’s neighbor. “The righteous are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.”[4] Second, this category of people are “wise” in the sense of being skilled at engaging with the complex order God has set up in creation, and especially in relationships (1:2-7). This category of people is consistently portrayed as morally upright and insightful about how life and relationships work.

By contrast, the wicked-fool privileges self over neighbor. His wickedness consists in working for his own advantage to the detriment of others. His folly is similarly seen in the lack of skill with which he lives, despite the disastrous consequences to himself and others. Furthermore, this type of person consistently refuses to listen to instruction or rebuke or advice. The fool is someone who is incorrigibly certain he knows how life works, no matter how he is warned (1:7, 22; 12:15, 15:5). They are the ones who are wise in their own eyes (3:5-8). In contrast, the wise are receptive, open, and listening to wisdom (1:7-8, 2:1-4, 10:8, etc.), even loving rebuke (9:8).

How do these two groups of people talk? Proverbs spends no small amount of space portraying wise and foolish speech.

2. Foolish Speech in Proverbs

We can broadly summarize foolish speech in two ways.

2.1. Constant

First, there is a lot of it: the fool is always talking. Instead of pondering how he should answer, his mouth pours forth wicked things (Prov 15:28; cf. 15:2). He answers before he listens (18:13). He gets involved in arguments not his own (26:17). This kind of person is completely unrestrained: cross him and he explodes (12:16; 29:11). He cannot keep another’s secret (11:13; 12:23). He abuses people he dislikes (11:12)[5] and criticizes them to others (10:18). Instead of keeping quiet, his rash words are sword-thrusts (12:18) that spark arguments with others (15:18).

The first-time reader of Proverbs might conclude at this point that people who are naturally outgoing and talkative are closer to folly than those with a quieter personality. Proverbs does contain some sober warnings about talking a lot: “in many words, sin is not lacking” (10:19); “the one guarding his lips guards his life” (13:3). But the biblical portrayal of the fool’s unrestrained speech locates its source elsewhere: the fool talks so much because he is someone who has to be right. He will not stop arguing (20:3). If you get into an argument with the fool, instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt and working with you toward a resolution, “he only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (29:9). From the very first chapter of Proverbs, gaining wisdom means listening to those wiser than you; one cannot become wise without being receptive. An essential characteristic of the fool is that he will not do so, instead despising יסר, “fatherly instruction” (1:7, 5:23, 10:17, 12:1, 13:1; cf. also the understatement for effect in 15:12). Refusing to accept instruction in how life works, the fool is interested only in airing his own opinion (18:2).

And there is a sense in which the fool cannot accept such instruction. The fool’s unwise speech is constitutional: he does not know how to say anything else. The mouths of the wicked know only what is perverse (10:32); when a fool decides to instruct someone, all he can dispense is more folly (16:22). Truths that would otherwise help others dangle like crippled legs in his mouth (26:7; cf. 1:22, 23; 13:19; 17:10; 24:7; 27:22).

Continue reading at Themeliosan international evangelical theological journal that expounds and defends the historic Christian faith. It is published three times per year by The Gospel Coalition.


[1] I use hyphenated terms for these two groups because Proverbs refers to righteousness (צְדָקָה) and wickedness (רֶשַׁע) almost as frequently as it does to wisdom and folly; the book cannot invoke wisdom terms without also referring to moral ones. For instance, Proverbs uses the חכם root (“be wise”) 55 times, while it refers to the צָדִּיק (“the righteous”) 66 times. Similarly, the two most common words for “fool,” אְֶוִיל and כְּסִיל, combine to occur 76 times (27 and 49 times, respectively), while the רשׁע root (“be wicked”) occurs 83 times. While “righteousness” and “wisdom” are not synonymous (nor are “wickedness” and “foolishness”), in Proverbs, one cannot be wise without being righteous, and vice-versa. For this reason, I will refer sometimes to “the righteous-wise” and sometimes just “the wise,” but the same group of people is intended by both designations. The same is true of “the wicked-fools” and “fools.”

 

[2] See Bruce Waltke, Proverbs 1-15 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 93-116, and Michael Fox, Proverbs 1-9 (AB 18A; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 28-43, for an extremely helpful discussions of the nuances of different terms used for wisdom and folly.

 

[3] In speaking this way, of course, I am taking a book that was edited in several stages as a coherent, unified whole (for indications of redactional layers, see 25:1; 30:1; and 31:1; recall also the connection between the Instruction of Amenemope and Prov 22:17-23:11). Doing so is unproblematic in my opinion, for whatever differences one might detect in different parts of the book, no one editorial layer contradicts or criticizes the whole. A consistency in the book is unmistakable even within the diversity of thought that wisdom literature allowed and perhaps even encouraged.

 

[4] Waltke, Proverbs 1-15, 97.

 

[5] When the second clause of this verse says that the man of understanding keeps silent, it implies that the third party in question is not worthy of praise. In other words, the fool who despises his companion is not necessarily saying false things. His folly consists in speaking when he should keep quiet.

 

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