Volume 38 - Issue 1

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

By Eric Ortlund


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.

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 theroots 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 sketcheshow the major characters in Proverbs speak and examines how the wise respond (or do not respond) to foolish speech. Then it turns 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”  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,  (“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; 21:2; 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 mouth 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).

2.2. Deliberately Violent and Destructive

The individual proverbs already cited show that the fool is a desperate character. But Proverbs has more to say about this kind of person: in addition to his ingrained, argumentative talkativeness, the fool speaks with the intention of hurting others. This is the second major characteristic of foolish speech: it is violent and destructive, and not merely as a secondary consequence, but deliberately so. The mouth of the wicked covers violence  and hatred (10:6, 11, 18): no matter what he says, violence lurks beneath. The most vivid metaphors are used for the destructive effects of the fool’s speech: it sets a city on fire (29:8) and tears it down (11:11); it is a burning fire (16:27) and a cudgel to beat others (25:18). Wicked words “ambush blood” (12:6): the fool lies in wait, looking for ways to destroy others through what he says (cf. 14:25; 24:2). His desire is for violence (1:16; 13:2): his whole intention in starting a conversation is for the other person to walk away wounded and broken. This is the case even when the fool is practiced at hiding his hatred of others and passing himself off as a friend through flattery (26:24–26, 28; 29:5).

We should not fail to be shocked at this portrayal of the fool. In these proverbs and others, the Israelite father warns his son that there are members of God’s people who can pass themselves off as entirely spiritual and loving, but whose conscious intention, when they speak, is to destroy someone. I am especially struck by 11:9:

With his mouth the hypocrite would destroy his companion;

but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.

Passing himself off as a friend, the hypocrite would ruin his neighbor. The verb in this verse (תחשׁ in the Hiphil) occurs in 6:32 for the deadly damage the adulterer does to himself; it occurs elsewhere for the destruction of the world in the flood (Gen 6:12–13) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (five times in Gen 18–19). Clearly, Prov 11:9 is not warning against only receiving wounds from someone else, but the complete spiritual destruction of one of God’s people by someone who hides their evil intentions. The proverb does not specify exactly how the hypocrite would devastate his neighbor; but the knowledge of the righteous that delivers them probably refers to their understanding of YHWH’s rule over creation and the way he has set up life to work.6 As a result, this example of foolish speech probably has to do with the hypocrite’s attempts to draw off those around him from trusting YHWH and fearing him (the overarching goal of the book of Proverbs [1:7; 3:5]) by joining the hypocrite in foolish behavior. This proverb is a most striking example of the frightening power of foolish speech and the sinister intentions against the righteous of those speaking this way.

Speaking of the knowledge of the righteous raises the issue of how this other category of persons speaks. But before exploring wise speech further, we must note Proverbs’ insistence that YHWH will judge the fool and his speech. There are a number of ominous divine passives describing in particular the judgment of foolish speech (10:8, 31; 12:19; 19:5, 9; 21:28; 22:12; 26:2). Even if these verses leave the exact manner and timing of this judgment open, they insist that YHWH governs his creation in such a way that such speech will be judged, for it is an abomination to him (12:22; 15:26). Simultaneous with these assertions of divine judgment on foolish speech are predictions that it destroys itself: the mouth of a fool brings ruin near (10:14), acting as a snare for him (12:13) and a rod for his back (14:3; see also 10:13, 21; 18:6–7; 21:6). This dual assertion of divine judgment and natural consequence neatly fits, of course, with Proverbs’ theology of retribution.

3. Wise Speech in Proverbs

How do the righteous speak? Just as the character of the righteous neatly mirrors that of the fool, so their speech: it is restrained and life-giving.

3.1. Restrained

Proverbs frequently portrays the righteous-wise as extremely cautious when they talk. Often they simply say nothing (Prov 10:19; 11:12–13; 23:9), even when insulted (12:16; 19:11). Out of love, this kind of person does not repeat a matter (17:9). The prudent man even covers  “knowledge” (12:23)—the word referring elsewhere to that spiritual insight which YHWH himself gives those who fear him.7 One would think that something so precious would be shared, but, strikingly, it is precisely the wise man’s spiritual insight that is sometimes hidden.

When the righteous-wise do speak, they speak softly, even when someone is furious with them (15:1; cf. 29:8). This kind of person is sensible enough to stop before an argument starts (17:14; 20:3). His patience quells strife (15:18). He thinks about how to answer instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind (15:28). He is restrained and cool in spirit (17:27; 29:11). But his speech is not weak: it is sweetly persuasive (16:21, 24), judicious (16:23), and powerful even when gentle (25:15). If an issue with a neighbor does arise, he speaks directly to the offending party instead of criticizing him to others (25:9–10).

It was argued above that the fool’s talkativeness arises from a deeper moral defect, i.e., a need always to be right. In a similar way, the sparse speech of the wise is tied to a humble receptivity in them (13:10; 15:32; 17:10; 19:20, 25; 21:11). While fools always have to be right, the righteous-wise accept rebuke, confess their wrong, and abandon their sin (28:13). Instead of insisting on their own ideas about how life and relationships work, these are the ones who have turned to Lady Wisdom (1:23; 9:4–6), listened to their parents (1:8; 2:1–5), and submitted to YHWH’s discipline, even when it was painful (3:11–12). This is part and parcel of their fear of YHWH (1:7)

3.2. Life-Giving

The second major way wise speech is characterized in Proverbs concerns its wonderfully life-giving effect on others. Proverbs reserves the highest of praise for this kind of speech (10:20; 20:15; 25:11), calling it a well of life (10:11) and even a tree of life (15:4). The implication is that YHWH’s own life is communicated to others through wise human speech. This is “life” in the Johannine sense of the word.8

But how can wise speech produce such spiritual blessing in others? Part of the answer is that their instruction (lit. “torah”) in living wisely and skillfully in YHWH’s ways turns people away from spiritual death (13:14) and shepherds many (10:21). Another reason for the great spiritual benefits of wise speech is simpler: the contrast between the two clauses of 12:18 implies that the tongue of the wise is healing just because they are not rash in their words. Their restraint is healing in itself.

It should be added that, in addition to benefitting others, the speech of the wise satisfies themselves as speakers (12:14; 13:2; 15:23; 18:20) and delivers them from the destruction that fools bring on themselves (11:9; 12:6, 13; 14:3; 21:23). The neat contrast with the way foolish speech harms the speaker is obvious.

4. The Pastoral Implications of Wise Speech

The righteous-wise and foolish-wicked neatly contrast in their character (§1) and in their speech: life-giving restraint sharply differs from a harmful talkativeness (§§2–3). But what do the righteous-wise say to fools? It is easy to imagine (or, unfortunately, as may be the case, remember) the abusive and destructive way in which fools speak to those who fear YHWH. But how does Proverbs portray the speech of the wise to the foolish? This question takes us to the heart of the pastoral implications of wise speech.

4.1. The Righteous-Wise Do Not Argue with Wicked-Fools

Stated briefly, Proverbs never shows the wise man arguing with the fool.9 For instance, in 19:25, Solomon teaches:

Strike a scoffer, and the simple grows prudent;

rebuke a wise man, and he understands knowledge.

21:11 teaches the same truth in different words. Notice the implication: when a fool is confronted, a third party (the simple) may learn as they observe the situation. But the scoffer learns nothing. No matter how obvious his wrong is to you and those around you, the fool is constitutionally unable to see and admit their wrong. Little wonder that Proverbs elsewhere says that one word of rebuke sinks deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool (17:11).

Following the use of the words for rebuke (Hiphil of יכח) and instruction (יסר)—specifically, who rebukes whom in Proverbs—leads to the same conclusion. The wise instruct the simple in 1:2–3, and chs. 1–9 are full of instruction from the father to the son (1:8; 4:13; etc.). As mentioned above, however, fools despise instruction (1:7; 10:17; 12:1; 13:1); only Lady Wisdom rebukes them at the end of ch. 1. It is hard to find any example in Proverbs of a successful rebuke of a fool or a command that we should rebuke this kind of person.10 Quite to the contrary: the one rebuking a scoffer or the wicked gets themselves only scorn and abuse (9:7). Proverbs recommends rebuking the wise, not a scoffer (9:8). Given what has been said above, it is not difficult to see why. This category of people will not be able to receive a rebuke, even when it is entirely justified. Because they have a deep-seated need to be right, they will turn any claim of wrongdoing back on the one giving the rebuke. Whatever the intentions of the one giving the rebuke or whatever valid reasons he could give for the rightness of his rebuke, he will get only injury and abuse for his efforts.

Other proverbs are similarly pessimistic. 18:2 teaches that a fool has no delight in  (“insight”), in understanding the moral and relational dimensions of a situation and how he may have hurt others; he wants only to air his own opinions  lit. “in revealing his own mind/heart”). Because he cannot stop arguing (20:3), the only way for the argument to stop is to show the fool the door (22:10). If you do speak, you will not be heard, no matter how persuasive or biblical your claims are; the fool will only despise the good sense of your words (23:9). The aesthetic dimension of wisdom is in play in this proverb: it was painful to the sages to think of something as precious and worthy as wise speech  being held in contempt by a fool (see the opposite sentiment in 25:12).11 A proverb mentioned above bears repeating: “A wise man enters into controversy with a foolish man, and [the fool] rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (29:9, author’s translation).

These pessimistic statements in Proverbs are somewhat surprising and perhaps difficult to hear. After all, it is extremely easy to start arguing when subjected to foolish speech in the context of ministry (or any other context). Even when the fool is saying things that may be factually correct, they do so in deceptive, one-sided, and misleading ways. It is very difficult not to respond to such statements—and even more so when the fool is damaging your ministry by what they say. Often the fool’s claims about the pastor and his ministry are of a sort that cannot be adjudicated: either the fool is right and the pastor should resign, or the fool is wrong and should apologize. In these situations, it is extremely tempting to engage with the fool on the fool’s terms, to try to convince him he is wrong and compel him to apologize.

While I sympathize with the above strategy for dealing with foolish speech, the consistent witness of the book of Proverbs is that such arguing causes only more damage. The wise man holds his tongue; he is able to do so, even when subjected to the most vexatious criticism from fools (27:3), because he trusts that the Lord is active in the course of human events, both by direct intervention and through natural consequence, to protect, establish, and vindicate those who trust in him and to judge those who rebel and live life on their own terms (cf. 10:30). Indeed, the entire burden of Proverbs is to convince the son that the Lord is worth trusting and fearing even when the way of wisdom does not appear to be the most attractive or profitable way to live one’s life, even when it does not seem that the Lord is active in the world. Those bowing before YHWH’s rule of all things and accepting his way of dealing with each individual—in other words, those walking the path of wisdom—will remember and believe Proverbs’ repeated insistence that YHWH judges not only the wicked but also the speech of the wicked. Such wise men and women do not enter into controversy with the fool (Niphal of שׁפט , 29:9). They leave that to the Lord.

4.2. The Righteous-Wise Are Not Necessarily Silent

This is not to claim, however, that the wise are reduced to stoic silence when subjected to foolish speech. In two frequently quoted verses, the sage teaches us.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,

lest you become like him—even you.

Answer a fool according to his folly,

lest he be wise in his own eyes. (26:4–5)

Why are we told, in adjacent verses, both not to answer the fool and also to answer him? Surely the answer must lie in the repeated phrase, “according to his folly:” even though it is the same in both verses, it must mean something different in each verse. Waltke helpfully interprets v. 4 to mean that one does not answer the fool “according to his folly” in the sense that one does not answer in a foolish way.12 One does not answer sarcastically or abrasively with insinuations and half-truths meant to harm and shame the fool, for otherwise, one is acting just like the fool.

On the other hand, the wise man is not necessarily silent. He may be very slow to speak and speak only little; but he does answer the fool “according to his folly” (v. 5) in the sense that he answers the fool’s folly. The wise man names the lies that the fool speaks and the harm that his words cause. In Waltke’s words,“The wise do not silently accept and tolerate the folly and thereby confirm fools in it.”13 Despite the danger of speaking with a fool at all, the wise “must expose the fool’s distortions to serve his own interests at the expense of the community and must not silently accept it and thereby contribute to establishing his topsy-turvy world against the rule of God.”14

Part of what is helpful in Waltke’s interpretation of these two verses is his refusal to relativize them to different situations. Claiming that each proverb applies to a different situation is a common strategy for resolving the seeming paradox created by Prov 26:4–5: sometimes one remains silent before a fool, and sometimes one speaks. Part of wisdom (according to this line of thinking) is that facility by which one knows when to apply which proverb. In contrast, without denying that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, Waltke argues that one never answers a fool in such a way that one becomes like him, but one also always answers the lies and damage of foolish speech by naming them for what they are.15

The characteristics of wise speech given above can be enlisted here to flesh out the particular kind of response 26:4–5 calls for. As argued above, the many statements in Proverbs about the speech of the wise can be summarized under two headings: it is humbly restrained and life-giving. In the particular situation of being subjected to foolish speech, this restraint and humility does not necessarily imply that the wise man will admit that the fool is right, for even when the fool makes factually correct statements, he does so with the worst motives, only to hurt and destroy. Rather, the wise man is restrained in the sense that he gives up trying to be right in the eyes of the fool. Although the wise man will tell the fool what is misleading and distorted in the fool’s claims, as well as what will harm others, the wise man does so without trying to compel the fool to admit that the fool is being misleading and harmful. If I can put it this way, the wise man speaks the truth without hope that the fool will acknowledge it, but in full hope that causeless curses will not reach their target (26:2) and that the Lord will support and bless and establish wise speech (10:31; 11:30). The wise man answers the fool entirely in faith in the Lord, without any hope of producing results in the fool.

It seems to me another dimension of the restraint of the wise man is that he restricts his answer to the claims that the fool has made. He does not extend his comments to the moral character of the fool—even though the connection between the two may be obvious. In other words, I understand 26:5 to call on us to expose the half-truths and distortions of the fool; but perhaps we should refrain from also saying that the fool is acting in an unbiblical and sinful way (even when they clearly are). Because the fool simply cannot receive any kind of criticism, commenting on the moral character of a fool will probably spark a new volley of criticism and finger-pointing. One says simply what is false and harmful and then stops.

5. Wisdom and Wise Speech in the New Covenant

5.1. Paul

One does not have to look far in Paul’s letters for the issue of foolish and wise speech to surface. Sinful humanity, suppressing God’s truth (Rom 1:18), has become foolish (1:22), full of deceit, maliciousness, gossip, and slander (1:29–30, ESV). Paul also ends the letter by warning against people who cause divisions and create obstacles for people that go against sound doctrine (16:17–18). In reading this, one is quickly reminded of the refractory nature of the fool, as well as his ingrained tendency to turn away from wise instruction in the way of the Lord.

Similarly, Paul’s list of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit echoes wise speech in Proverbs at a number of points, especially as rivalry, dissension, and divisions are contrasted with patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control (Gal 5:20–23). Paul also warns Timothy about people possessed by “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth” (1 Tim 6:4–5). It is hardly a stretch to see the foolish speech of Proverbs at work in such people.

In a similar vein, Paul later calls for a wise restraint in speech as Timothy avoids arguments about words that hurt those involved (2 Tim 2:14), as well as irreverent babble that leads to ungodliness (2:16). Having nothing to do with foolish controversies that only lead to arguments, Timothy is not to be quarrelsome but kind, correcting his opponents gently in the hope that God would grant them repentance (2 Tim 2:23–26). This fits well with the cautious but truthful response called for in Prov 26:4–5. Proverb’s pessimism about arguing with fools also fits well with Paul’s advice to Titus: when Titus faces a divisive person, he must warn him twice and then sever his relationship with that person (Titus 3:10–11).

§4.2 discussed Proverbs’ hesitancy about rebuking a fool. Rebuking is clearly part of Timothy’s job description, along with preaching and exhortation (2 Tim 4:2). In itself, this is not surprising, since the wise of Proverbs do give instruction and rebuke to the simple and other wise men. But Paul seems less hesitant than Proverbs to call Timothy to rebuke others. In 1 Tim 5:20, for instance, Timothy must publicly rebuke the one persisting in sin so that the rest of the church will fear. Titus 1:13 also calls for a sharp rebuke as “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” upset whole families by insisting on circumcision (Titus 1:10–11). If the false teachers themselves are the intended object of this rebuke, then Paul’s instruction here forms a relatively sharp contrast with Proverbs’ teaching. There is some ambiguity, however, as to whether Titus must rebuke those of the circumcision party or those troubled by that party.16

This is only a brief discussion of several complex passages, but the harmony between Proverbs’ teaching on wise and foolish speech and Paul’s directions to Timothy and Titus—if not the perfect symmetry—is already apparent. We cannot, however, close the discussion at this point, for to do so would be to ignore Jesus Christ, who is both the mediator of a better covenant (Heb 9:15) and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18–31). Even brief reflection on this point will enrich our understanding of wise speech and its non/response to foolish speech.

5.2. Jesus

We can parse Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God in two ways, according to his human and divine natures. First, Jesus Christ perfectly embodies the wisdom of which Solomon speaks in the sense that, as our representative, he “fulfills all righteousness” (Matt 3:15) by perfectly discharging every obligation God laid on his human covenant partner in the OT. Jesus is that perfect example of a wise man who trusts his heavenly Father (Prov 3:6) and, as a result, enjoys not just long life in the promised land (Prov 2:21) but eternal life at the Father’s right hand.

But Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God in another sense, as God in the flesh, exegeting the Father to us (John 1:18). It was mentioned above that part of Israelite wisdom involves a skillfulness at engaging with the complex order that God has set up in creation (Prov 3:19–20). In 1 Cor 1:18–31, however, the cross in its folly and weakness is presented as that new order or wisdom by which God is ruling over a new creation. Just as, in the old covenant, YHWH cared for, protected, and blessed those who fear and trust him and live wisely in a wicked world, so now, in the new covenant, God protects and blesses (not physically, but spiritually and eschatologically) those who trust in the folly of Christ’s death and live by the wisdom that comes from the cross. Forsaking their own ideas about how salvation is to be found, new covenant wise men and women come to God entirely on terms of grace in his Son and participate in his strange upheaval of human ideas of wisdom and status and worth (1 Cor1:27–28) as Christ brings all things in submission to him (15:25). They trust a despised, humiliated, condemned criminal as their savior and take up their own crosses, dying with him in order to save their lives (Matt 16:24–25).

5.3. Folly and Legalism, Wisdom and Faith

A defining characteristic of the fool in Proverbs is his insistence that he is right (see §1 above). He rejects all instruction about how to live well in the world YHWH rules. In light of this, it is difficult not to draw a connection between fools in the old covenant and legalists in the new—and, correspondingly, between the wise who trust in YHWH in the book of Proverbs and Christians who have faith in Jesus. The analogy is not exact. Nevertheless, the fool in the book of Proverbs is someone who has to be right; the legalist in the new covenant is someone who tries to establish his own righteousness before God on the basis of religious accomplishment. Both groups of people are wise in their own eyes about how life works; neither trusts and fears God as Savior and Lord. Similarly, just as wisdom in the old covenant entirely trusts YHWH (Prov 3:5–6) and bows in reverence before him as God (1:7), so new covenant believers abandon every innate idea about how to achieve life and blessing through their own efforts, every attempt at self-salvation, and instead trust in God’s provision for sinful people (Rom 5:6). In making this connection, of course, it should be emphasized that part of trusting Jesus Christ is confessing that we are not inherently wise: left to ourselves, we will fall on the wrong side of Prov 1:7. Part of our inheritance from Adam is an innate tendency to try to play God for ourselves (Gen3:5), trusting our own ideas about how to fix what is wrong with us, continually making fig leaves to cover over our shame (3:7). Only Jesus is that perfect wise man, and we share in the blessings that Proverbs promises only as God makes us more like his Son.

6. Conclusion and Application

Let us draw together the various strands of this article by fleshing out our understanding of wise and foolish speech in the context of the life of the church. In broaching this issue, I am assuming that Christians, regenerate and reborn as a new creation in Christ, can speak and act in foolish ways. Although I do not think it would be correct to label a Christian as a fool in the sense that Proverbs gives it—after all, fools in Proverbs are the wicked, who have forsaken God—Christians can speak and act in wicked and/or foolish ways, and this sin can become ingrained with time. (Of course, this distinction can cut both ways: it can apply to us as much as to others. We are perhaps more foolish than we think.)

Why does the fool always have to be right? Why is he always arguing, always putting others in the wrong and justifying himself? Because he does not relish the righteousness that is found in Jesus Christ—the very righteousness of God (Phil3:10) that God confers on anyone forsaking whatever righteousness they can achieve on their own (3:9). In my experience, some Christians are burdened with a profound a sense of the wrongness of the world and the church, but do not have a correspondingly sweet sense of God’s grace for sinful people. Their strategy for dealing with the pain of this pervasive sense of wrongness is to offload it on others. I have known Christians whose “ministry” was pointing out others’ faults, being suspicious of false teaching in others, criticizing and scrutinizing other Christians, and so on. A Christian can rebuke and exhort in a larger context of grace, but the person I am talking about does not do this—it is a ministry of condemnation, not reconciliation.

Foolish Christians of this sort are recognizable in four ways. First, they are gossips. Instead of speaking directly to other Christians, they criticize others behind their backs. Second, they spin things in their favor: impartiality and honesty are not priorities. Third, they will tend not to work toward reconciliation. They will not lay out conditions, after the meeting of which they would be happy to reconcile. There is always another problem or worry or suspicion. Fourth, there is no larger gracious context to their speech. They do not receive and welcome other Christians as Christ has received them (Rom 15:7). This kind of Christian cannot be reasoned with. They will not meet you halfway. Their whole aim is to condemn you to make themselves feel better. Their gracelessness renders them unable to admit wrong and confess it. They are delivered from their sins by sealing others in their sin. They act and speak “unwisely” by walking contrary to how God is reordering all of creation—and the relationships in it—by grace.

Part of the burden of Proverbs is to put the son on his guard against foolish and perverse people (Prov 2:12). This involves describing them, as I have above. But another part of the book’s burden is to turn the son away from folly. In light of this, before proceeding further, we must scour our hearts, with the help of the Spirit, for foolish tendencies in ourselves. For instance, if I have something negative to say about another Christian, have I said it to anyone else? While there are a few situations in which one might have to do this (if one is asked, for example, to recommend another Christian for a ministry position), it is extremely easy to point out the faults of other Christians to third parties. This is foolish because Jesus, our wisdom and our great high priest, is interceding for all Christians, speaking the best of them before the Father. Why would we speak any differently? To give another example: in a disagreement, do I spin things in my favor? Do I believe all things and hope all things for the other Christian (1 Cor 13:7)? Or do I assume the worst about them?17

In any case, to whatever extent we can repent of and crucify our tendencies toward folly, how do we respond to foolish criticism in a new covenant context? The wisdom of Proverbs can be restated for Christians in the following way: the righteous-wise of the new covenant—those reckoned righteous by faith, who are wise to God’s strange way of dealing with people in the cross—do not try to justify themselves in front of others. God is about reordering and reconquering his rebellious and corrupt creation by grace, justifying the godless by faith (Rom 4:5). It is therefore contradictory to get into an argument with a fool who condemns you because such an argument focuses on you and your relative merits. This is the exact opposite of how God deals with you in Christ. While remembering the command of Prov 26:5 to answer foolishness, new covenant wise men and women do not give into the temptation to justify themselves to others on the basis of themselves because doing so amounts to swimming upstream against God’s redemption of all things. The new covenant wise person is so delighted and content in their perfect, spotless rightness in Christ that they are able to remain quiet when others condemn them.

As stated above, Proverbs consistently insists that God intervenes to uproot and destroy foolish speech and to judge those who speak in this way. As a result, wise people, instead of arguing and justifying themselves, wait for God to intervene among his people as King, to establish his kingdom, to purge his people. And when wise people do so, they do nothing more than mimic Jesus, who went as a sheep to the slaughter silent, who trusted God to vindicate him when unjustly condemned. This is how God wins victories for his kingdom.

Proverbs 16:13 tells us that “Righteous lips are pleasing to kings; the one speaking uprightly, he loves.” If this was true of human Israelite kings, how much more is it true of that greater descendent of King David? How much more is he delighted when his children trust his righteousness enough to stay quiet when condemned? And how much more attentive will our Divine king be when one of his servants is attacked and when that servant speaks well?18


[1] I use hyphenated terms for these two groups because Proverbs refers to righteousness (ְצ ָד ָקה) and wickedness ((ר ַשׁע) 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 ָצִדּיק (“the righteous”) 66 times. Similarly, the two most common words for “fool,”ְֶאִויל and ְְכִּסיל , 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.

[6] Elsewhere Proverbs equates this knowledge with wisdom and the fear of the Lord; it gives the same benefits that wisdom does (1:7; 2:5–6; 8:12; 9:10; 13:16; 15:2; 19:2; 20:15; 21:11; 22:12; 24:4; 30:3).

[7] See the references listed in §2.2 above with the discussion of 11:9.

[8] See Waltke, Proverbs 1–15, 105, 615, for this maximal interpretation of “life” in Proverbs.

[9] §4.2 discusses whether 26:4–5 is a possible exception.

[10] The few exceptions to this rule turn out to be more apparent than real. In 24:25, a “good blessing” is promised to those who rebuke the wicked; but v. 23 shows that a legal context is in view here. This passage is speaking to judges (v. 23), promising a blessing for those who do not acquit the guilty. Similarly, 28:23 promises favor to the one rebuking a man—but the target of the rebuke in this verse is an ָא ָדם (adam), not a fool. The point is that if you have to rebuke someone (whoever that might be), better to do it quickly (cf. 27:5). The verse does not say anything about who will receive a rebuke and who will not.

[11] Michael Fox has helpfully shown how wisdom in Proverbs has intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions: it involves what one knows, what is perceived as attractive and valuable, and one’s sense of what is fitting and appropriate. See Fox, “The Epistemology of the Book of Proverbs,” JBL 126 (2007): 669–84, especially 681, 684.

[12] Proverbs 15–31 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 348.

[13] Ibid., 349.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See the discussion in William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (WBC; Nashville: Nelson, 2000).

[17] I found most striking the evidence assembled by Cordelia Fine in her book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (New York: Norton, 2006), for the unreliability of the moral judgments we make about others and our tendency to privilege ourselves in such judgment.

[18] Those wishing to read further on the subject of wise and foolish speech in Proverbs—especially with reference to pastoral settings—are directed to Bruce Waltke’s superb commentary (Proverbs 1–15 and Proverbs 16–31; NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004–2005). Waltke vibrantly describes the different characters one meets in Proverbs and how they speak, making it easy to see the application of different proverbs to everyday life. Beyond Waltke’s commentary, however, not many other scholarly works on Proverbs and wisdom literature are helpful pastorally for guiding a wise response to foolish speech; even the superb Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom Poetry and Writings(ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns; Downers Grove: IVP, 2008) lacks an article on this subject, and its entries for Proverbs do not discuss this dimension of the book’s teaching. Outside of academic literature on Proverbs, I have also found helpful the second chapter of Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, entitled “Silence” (San Fransisco: Harper and Row, 1981). Nouwen refers frequently to the desert fathers in his book, who themselves spoke often of the virtue of silence (see The Sayings of the Desert Fathers[trans. Benedicta Ward; Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1975]). Even though the desert fathers discuss silence in a different context (that of retreat from the world for communion with God), there are numerous points of contact between Proverbs’ teaching on the tongue and theirs. Finally, the fourth section of Jonathan Edwards’s treatise, “Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England,” although not specifically geared toward the issue of speech, touches on many of the issues in this paper (see The Works of Jonathan Edwards [ed. Edward Hickman; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1992), 365–430.

Eric Ortlund

Eric Ortlund is a tutor in Hebrew and Old Testament at Oak Hill College, London, England.

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