Thoughts on Proverbs: Wisdom vs. Folly

I believe Proverbs 1.7 to be thematic for the entire text:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

I’ve already written about the fear of the LORD in a previous post; but the latter part of this foundational passage emphasizes the competing ideologies of wisdom and folly.

The portrait of the fool emerges as a contrast to the one who seeks the wisdom of YHWH. Here are only a few of the references to folly in the Proverbs:

  • He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray. 5.23
  • In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly. 13.16
  • Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. 14.29
  • The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly. 15.14
  • Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly. 17.12
  • The devising of folly is sin, and the scoffer is an abomination to mankind. 24.9
  • Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly. 26.11

The fool is an undisciplined scoffer of God and His wisdom. The fool in his folly is reckless in his anger — worse than a Momma bear on the prowl for her cubs! Even worse, he is proud of his foolishness, wearing it as a badge of honor, unaware that the cycle of folly is destroying him each time he returns to it.

Contrast this with the 60+ references to “the wise” in Proverbs alone. Again, this is far from an exhaustive list, but the character of the wise emerges with even a cursory glance.

  • The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace. 3.35
  • Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. 9.9
  • A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother. 10.1
  • The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near. 10.14
  • The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. 12.15
  • One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless. 14.16
  • The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. 16.23
  • A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back. 29.11

The wise man exercises discernment and self-control, a distinct alternative to the reckless behavior of the fool. Wisdom is also the measured way of life, guarding against impulsiveness by counting the cost of one’s actions. He who is wise seeks counsel, is quick to listen, and is judicious in his speech.

All of this comes to a head in the personified narrative of Proverbs 9. Two women call out for the attention of a young man: “Come eat at my table!” they cry out to him. The first voice belongs to Lady Wisdom, the female personification of God’s wisdom in the Proverbs. This is the way of life that demonstrates fear of YHWH and obedience to His instruction. The second voice is Woman Folly, whose siren song tempts the young man with stolen water and food eaten in secret (9.17), symbolizing illicit activity and the fleshly appeal of sin. Each of these ladies live at the highest point of the city (9.3; 9.14), often the places of worship in the ancient culture. What at first blush appears to be a squabble between two women for the attention of the young suitor is properly understood as something much more significant: the young man’s decision is primarily a question of worship. Which voice will I heed? The path of folly is the way of excess, of indulgence, of immorality and sin. But the fear of the LORD prompts worshipful obedience to Wisdom’s call on one’s life.

The struggle between Wisdom and Folly defines not only the narrative of the Proverbs, but the narrative of our lives as well.

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