Proverbs 26:1-16: The Fool and the Sluggard!
September 16, 2022
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Isaiah 42-43, Proverbs 26:1-16, Luke 23:26-31, Hebrews 9:11-28
“Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, honor is not fitting for a fool” (26:1).
Because God is the Creator, there is in his creation—though his creation is fallen—still a sense of what is “fitting,” or what seems to reflect the beautiful order of the original intention. Proverbs is full of this kind of wisdom: in most cases, because the world is made by a beautifully ordered Creator, life works like this. There are also, therefore, things that are not fitting. In this instance: “honor given to a fool.” It is tempting, sometimes, to try to ameliorate a foolish person by honoring them. But that, says proverbs, is not fitting. We should look for what accords with the wisdom of the Creator, not what is simply an apparently pragmatic policy. In any case, “buttering up” (or honoring) a foolish person will not, even at a pragmatic level, make them any less foolish. It will only help to confirm them in what is foolish.
“Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest” (26:2).
Sometimes people “curse” us under their breath—or they seem to agree with us when we are present, but thereafter badmouth us. We can fear for the damage this can have on our reputation. This proverb tells us that we should have no fear, at least in the long term. Gossip can, of course, cause great damage, and it must be corrected when possible and when discovered; but a curse will not in the end come to rest if it is undeserved. Usually, in the end, and after considerable damage has been done, it just makes the person who is bad mouthing look bad.
“A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools!” (26:3).
Hardly a politically correct proverb this one! The exclamation mark in our translation (“!”) indicates that the translators want us to understand that the author is not intending us to take him literally. He is making his point by what is known a “hyperbole”: exaggerating for effect. The point, of course, is that rather than flattery (see verse 1 above), the only way to deal with foolish people is to correct them, and in the end if they remain incorrigible, then in church life will be the necessity of loving, biblical discipline.
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (26:4-5).
I take these next two proverbs about fools together because they are a “cause celebre” of those who wish to argue that the Bible contradicts itself. See, they say, in the very next verse we are told to answer a fool according to his folly having been told right beforehand not to answer a fool according to his folly! How foolish is that! Who can really take the Bible seriously! But such charges against the Bible are not well thought through. Who in their right mind would put two proverbs that (apparently) contradict themselves right next to each other unless they were trying to make a point? We must think harder, not less hard to understand these apparently contradictory parts of the Bible. What is the point that the author is trying to make? Well, obviously, to begin with he is saying that even if you do your very best and follow the very wisest strategy, then with fools you cannot always be guaranteed a good result. In one place it is good to answer a fool according to his folly; in another it is not good so to answer. It is unreasonable to expect that you will always pick the right option. This should comfort you if you are dealing with foolish people. Sometimes there is not right policy. Sometimes the best policy is to ignore the fool, or (as the proverb above tells us) to bring into play loving, biblical, church discipline. But there is another aspect of these two apparently contradictory proverbs: what can both answer a fool according to his folly, and not answer a fool according to his folly? It sounds like a riddle, but really it is not. It is the policy that Jesus followed when dealing with the foolish questions of the Pharisees in his day. The right thing to do sometimes it is to ask a question in return. That can expose the folly of the question itself. In other words, you must not accept the premise of the (foolish) question.
“Sending a message by the hands of a fool is like cutting off one’s feet or drinking poison” (26:6).
This time the fool is characterized as someone through whom it is useless to attempt to send a message. Don’t try to ask someone who is foolish to carry a message from you to someone else. You might as well cut off your own feet!
“Like the useless legs of one who is lame is a proverb in the mouth of a fool” (26:7).
How interesting is this proverb! Even a wise proverb can become useless in the mouth of a fool. Useless to whom? Useless to the fool. Someone who hears the wise word of the proverb uttered by the fool might believe the proverb (even if they discount the fool who speaks it), but even then, it does not help the fool. How many preachers are there who have fooled themselves to think that the wisdom of God’s Word with which they speak guarantees their own spiritual maturity, even their own salvation. It is not so! We ourselves who teach, preach, parent our children, we ourselves must receive God’s Word, and not rely on our ability to be able to explain it.
“Like tying a stone in a sling is the giving of honor to a fool” (26:8).
Again, we are told not to give honor to fool. See verse 1 for comment.
“Like a thorn-bush in a drunkard’s hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool” (26:9).
And again, we are told that there is no point even having a wise proverb in the mouth of a fool. See verse 7 for comment.
“Like an archer who wounds at random is one who hires a fool or any passer-by” (26:10).
Be careful who you hire! The person whom you hire represents you to some degree or to some extent. It is wise to be careful about the hiring process. And if you are looking for a job, do your best to be the kind of candidate that a wise person would want to hire.
“As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly” (26:11).
There is something about a foolish person that does not learn. Being willing to learn is the first step towards continued wisdom. By contrast, thinking that you have all the answers already is the slide towards increasing foolishness. Are you teachable?
“Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them” (26:12).
This proverb drives in the point of verse 11 above. Do not be wise in your own eyes. Do not think that you have all the answers. By definition, you are fallible for you are fallen and finite. What is more, if you think that you already have all the answers, you will not learn. You might as well be a fool.
“A sluggard says, ‘There’s a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!’” (26:13).
Now we switch to emphasize the dangers of being a sluggard or being lazy. What makes someone lazy? Interestingly, the proverb here diagnoses the root issue as fear. If you are frightened that whatever you do will fail, if you are frightened that if you take risk, then everything will fall apart, then the natural result is to do as little as possible. A sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside,” and therefore does not go outside (or get out of bed) to do any work. “I’m going to fail so why bother?” Such is the logic of the sluggard. The solution? Fear God. That is the beginning of wisdom. One day you will have to give an account for how you used your time. And that is a scarier prospect than any imagined fears you might have of “lions in the streets.”
“As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed” (26:14).
A wonderful image! Can you hear the creaking of the door turning in the wind? Open, shut, open, shut. There’s the sluggard, turning one way on his bed, then another way. Do not be like this! For how to avoid this way of living, see comment on verse 13 above.
“A sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” (26:15).
Another wonderful image. Rarely, I suppose, will you come across someone literally too lazy to eat. Human appetite will force someone to get food wherever they can in the end. But often you come across someone who is half towards their goal, but when it comes down to it, they cannot be bothered to close the deal or go the extra mile. It’s like their hand is buried in the dish and they can’t muster up the energy to actually bring the food to their mouth!
“A sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven people who answer discreetly” (26:16).
There is another cause of laziness: pride. On the one hand, there is the fear that something bad might happen, or they will never succeed, so why bother? That was masterfully depicted in verse 13. But there is another source of the sluggard’s behavior, and that is their own pride or arrogance. Often a lazy person will reason like this: “I’m better than all these other people anyway; what do they know? Why should I put in the effort to show what I can do. I know I’m better than them before I have to do anything.” If necessity is the mother of invention, arrogance is the mother of laziness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
To receive God Centered Life devotionals directly in your inbox, as well as other resources, enter your email address in the form at the bottom of this page and click "subscribe."