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"As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honour is not seemly for a fool....

A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the back of fools.

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

He that sendeth a message by the hand of a fool cutteth off his own feet, and drinketh in damage.

The legs of the lame hang loose: so is a parable in the mouth of fools.

As a bag of gems in a heap of stones, so is he that giveth honour to a fool.

As a thorn that goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouth of fools.

As an archer that woundeth all, so is he that hireth the fool and he that hireth them that pass by.

As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so is a fool that repeateth his folly.

Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him."—Prov. xxvi. 1, 3-12.

This passage points out certain characteristics of the fool, a term which occurs so frequently in the book of Proverbs that we must try to conceive clearly what is to be understood by it. The difficulty of forming a distinct conception arises from the fact that there are three different words, with different338 shades of meaning, all rendered by the one English expression, fool or folly. For want of carefully distinguishing these delicate varieties of the original, some of the proverbs appear in English tautological and almost meaningless. We must try then to separate and to understand these several terms.

The Hebrew word which most frequently occurs in the book to designate fool, אֶוִיל, together with its derivative, which is the usual word for folly, אִוֶּלֶת, signifies weakness. We are to think of that ignorant, inconsiderate, sanguine, and self-confident temper which eschews counsel, which will have its own way, which declines to be governed by reason, which forms fond expectations and baseless hopes, and which is always sure that everything will turn out according to its wish, though it takes no means to secure the desired result. Perhaps the simplest way of describing the habit of mind and the type of character intended by the Hebrew is to use the word infatuation. This would not do as a translation in all the passages where it occurs, but it will serve to point out the underlying idea.

The word which comes next in frequency, כְּמִיל,—the word used uniformly throughout the particular passage before us,—has at its root the notion of grossness, the dull and heavy habit of one whose heart has waxed fat, whose ears are slow to hear, and whose higher perceptions and nobler aspirations have succumbed to the sensual and earthly nature. We have to think of moral, as well as mental, stupidity, of insensibility to all that is true and good and pure. The fool in this sense is such a dullard that he commits wickedness without perceiving it,642642   Prov. x. 23. and utters slanders almost339 unconsciously;643643   Prov. x. 18. he does not know when to be silent;644644   Prov. xii. 23. whatever is in him quickly appears,645645   Prov. xiv. 33. but when it is known it is very worthless;646646   Prov. xiv. 7. nor has he the sense to get wisdom, even when the opportunity is in his hand;647647   Prov. xvii. 16. his best advantages are quickly wasted and he is none the better.648648   Prov. xxi. 20. Perhaps the English word which best fits the several suggestions of the Hebrew one is senseless.

The third term, נָבָל, occurs only four times in the book. It is derived from a verb signifying to fade and wither. It describes the inward shrinking and shrivelling of a depraved nature, the witlessness which results from wickedness. It contains in itself a severer censure than the other two. Thus "He that begetteth a senseless man (כְּמִיל) doeth it to his sorrow, but the father of the bad fool (נָבָל) hath no joy."649649   Prov. xvii. 21. In the one case there is trouble enough, in the other there is nothing but trouble. Thus it is one of the four things for which the earth trembles when a man of this kind is filled with meat.650650   Prov. xxx. 22. This third character is sketched for us in the person of Nabal, whose name, as Abigail says, is simply the Hebrew word for fool in its worst sense, which fits exactly to its bearer. But dismissing this type of folly which is almost synonymous with consummate wickedness, of which indeed it is the outcome, we may turn to the distinction we have drawn between infatuation and senselessness in order to explain and understand some of the Proverbs in which the words occur.

First of all we may notice how difficult it is to get340 rid of the folly of infatuation: "Though thou shouldest bray a person possessed of it in a mortar with a pestle among bruised corn, yet will it not depart from him."651651   Prov. xxvii. 22. "It is bound up in the heart of a child,"652652   Prov. xxii. 15. and the whole object of education is to get it out; but if childhood passes into manhood, and the childish wilfulness, self-confidence, and irrationality are not expelled, the case is well-nigh hopeless. Correction is practically useless; "He must be a thorough fool," it has been said, "who can learn nothing from his own folly;" but that is precisely the condition of the infatuated people we are considering; the only correction of their infatuation is a further increase of it.653653   Prov. xvi. 22. The reason is practically choked; the connection between cause and effect is lost: thus every ill consequence of the rash act or of the vicious habit is regarded as a misfortune instead of a fault. The wretched victim of his own folly reviles fortune, nature, men, and even God, and will not recognise that his worst enemy is himself. Thus, while the wise are always learning and growing rich from experience, "the infatuation of senseless men is infatuation still."654654   Prov. xiv. 24. This seems simpler than supposing that the clause אִוֶּלֶת אִוֶּלֶת כְּמִילִים contains a play upon the possible double meaning of אִוֶּלֶת, which, though it yields an excellent sense,—"the power of fools is only folly," i.e., when they have power they turn it only to a foolish account (cf. xxvi. 1),—must be regarded as very obscure, especially seeing that we have no positive instance of אִוֶּלֶת as a derivative of אוּל in the sense of "power." It is this which makes them so hopeless to deal with; their vexation being quite irrational, and always refusing to recognise the obvious facts, is worse than a heavy stone or the piled-up overweight341 of sand for others to bear.655655   Prov. xxvii. 3. If a wise man has a case with such a person, the ill-judged fury and the misplaced laughter alike make it impossible to arrive at any sound settlement.656656   Prov. xxix. 9.

The untrained, undisciplined nature, which thus declines the guidance of reason and is unteachable because of its obstinate self-confidence, is constantly falling into sin. Indeed, strictly speaking, its whole attitude is sinful, its every thought is sin.657657   Prov. xxiv. 9. For reason is God's gift, and to slight it is to slight Him. He requires of us a readiness to be taught, and an openness to the lessons which are forced upon us by Nature, by experience, by our own human hearts. This flighty, feather-brained, inconsequential mode of thinking and living, the wilful neglect of all the means by which we might grow wiser, and the confident assurance that, whatever happens, we are not accountable for it, are all an offence against God, a failure to be what we ought to be, a missing of the mark, a neglect of the law, which is, in a word, sin.

But now let us look at the fool in the second signification, which occurs in this twenty-sixth chapter so frequently,—the man who has become spiritually gross and insensible, unaware of Divine truths and consequently obtuse to human duties. We may take the proverbs in the order in which they occur. "As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honour is not seemly for a fool." It is a melancholy fact that the kind of person here referred to is too often found in positions of honour among men. Men rise to distinction in an artificial order of society, not by wisdom, but by342 the accident of birth and opportunity; and not unfrequently the ill-placed honour itself leads to that insensibility which is so severely censured. The crass dulness, the perversity of judgment, the unfeeling severity, often displayed by prominent and distinguished persons, are no matter of surprise, and will not be, until human society learns to bring its honours only to the wise and the good. "Delicate living is not seemly for such persons."658658   Prov. xix. 10. It is precisely the comfort, the dignity, the exaltation, which prove their ruin. Now it is true that we cannot always trace the effects of this misplaced honour, but we are reminded that it is out of the course of Nature's eternal laws, incongruous as snow in summer, hurtful as rain in harvest. Consequently the due penalty must inevitably come. According to one reading of ver. 2, this penalty which overtakes the exalted fool is thus described:659659   This is reading לוֹ for לֹא, a constant source of confusion and interchange in Hebrew MSS. "As the sparrow in her wandering, and the swallow in her flying, so a gratuitous curse shall come upon him." In any case ver. 3 states clearly enough what will eventually happen: "A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the back of fools." It is not, of course, that this penalty can be remedial, but Nature herself prepares a "rod for the back of him that is void of understanding;"660660   Prov. x. 13. "As judgments are prepared for scorners, so are stripes for the back of fools."661661   Prov. xix. 29. Nor must we only understand this of fools that attain to unnatural honour: there are many dullards and insensates who are not made such by the343 stupidity of misdirected admiration, but by their own moral delinquencies; and as surely as the sparrow after flitting about all day returns to her nest in the dusk, or as the swallow in the long summer flight arrives at her appointed place, the punishment of folly will find out the delinquent. It may be long delayed, but an awakening comes at last; the man who hardened his heart, who turned away from the pleadings of God and mocked at His judgments, who chose the vanishing things of time and scorned the large fruition of eternity, discovers his incredible stupidity, and the lash of remorse falls all the more heavily because it is left in the hand of conscience alone.662662    "Quos divi conscia facti Mens habet attonitos et surdo verbere cædit, Occultum quatiente animo tortore flagellum." —Juv., Sat., xiii., 193. We must never lose sight of the fact that by the fool is not meant the simple or the short-witted; there is in this folly of the proverbs a moral cause and a moral responsibility which involve a moral censure; the senseless of whom we are speaking are they whose "heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart."663663   Matt. xiii. 15.

We are in the main obliged to leave the insensate to God and their conscience, because it is well-nigh impossible for us to deal with them. They are intractable and even savage as wild animals. "Let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man, rather than a fool in his infatuation."664664   Prov. xvii. 12. They are irritated with any344 suggestion of spiritual things, indignant with any hint of their own case and its responsibilities. If, on the one hand, you try to approach them on their own ground, to realize their motives and work upon the base ideas which alone influence such minds, you seem to lose all power over them by coming down to their level. "Answer not a fool according to his infatuation, lest thou also be like him."665665   Prov. xxvi. 4. If, on the other hand, you feel bound to convict him of his folly, and to humble him to a sense of his position, you are obliged to use the language which will be intelligible to him. "Answer a fool according to his infatuation, lest he be wise in his own eyes."666666   Prov. xxvi. 5. I recollect one Sunday afternoon passing by a large village public-house, and it chanced that a little group of street preachers were doing their best to make known the Gospel to the idlers who were sitting on the benches outside. Going up to interest the men in what was being said, I was confronted by the landlord, who was in a state of almost frenzied indignation. He denounced the preachers as hypocrites and scoundrels, who lived on the honest earnings of those whom he saw around him. Every attempt to bring him to reason, to show that the men in question spent their money on drink and not on the preachers, to secure a patient hearing for the gracious message, was met only with violent abuse directed against myself. The man was precisely what is meant in these verses by a fool, one in whom all spiritual vision was blinded by greed and sensuality, in whom the plainest dictates of common sense and human courtesy were silenced; to answer him in his own vein was the only way of345 exposing his folly, and yet to answer him in such a way was to come down to his own level. What could be done except to leave him to the judgments which are prepared for scorners and to the stripes which await the back of fools? A fool uttereth all his anger, and facing the torrent of angry words it is impossible to effectually carry home to him any wholesome truth.667667   Prov. xxix. 11.

We have seen how the kind of man that we are describing is in an utterly false position when any dignity or honour is attributed to him; indeed, to give such honour is much the same as binding a stone in a sling to be immediately slung out again, probably to some one's injury;668668   Prov. xxvi. 8. but he is almost equally useless in a subordinate position. If, for instance, he is employed as a messenger, he is too dull to rightly conceive or correctly report the message. He will almost certainly colour it with his own fancies, if he does not pervert it to his own ends. To receive and to deliver any message accurately requires a certain truthfulness in perception and in speech of which this unfortunate creature is entirely devoid. Thus any one who employs him in this capacity might as well cut off his own feet, as he drinks damage to himself.669669   Prov. xxvi. 6.

It is the awful punishment which comes to us all, when we allow our heart to wax gross, that wisdom itself becomes folly in our lips, and truth herself becomes error. Thus if we know a proverb, or a text, or a doctrine, we are sure to give it a lame application, so that, instead of supporting what we wish to enforce, it hangs down helpless like a cripple's legs.670670   Prov. xxvi. 7. In this346 way the insensate corruptness of the Mediæval Church tried to justify the abuse of giving great ecclesiastical preferments to young children by quoting the text, "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise." Sometimes the result of this culpable stupidity is far more disastrous; it is like "a thorn which runs up into a drunkard's hand," visiting with terrible condemnation those who have misused and perverted the truth,671671   Prov. xxvi. 9. as when Torquemada and the administrators of the Inquisition based their diabolical conduct on the gracious words of the Lord, "Compel them to come in." No, the fool's heart can give no wholesome message; it will turn the very message of the Gospel into a curse and a blight, and by its dull and revolting insensibility it will libel God to man, suggesting that the Infinite Father, the Eternal God, is altogether such an one as these who profess to speak in His name.

The offence of the fool then cannot be condoned on the ground that he is only an enemy to himself. It is his master that he wrongs. As the proverb says, "A master produces all things, but a fool's wages and hirer too pass away."672672   Prov. xxvi. 10. This rendering Delitzsch obtained by altering the vowel points in the first שׂכֵר into שְׂכַר, and the sense is good, if a little far-fetched. On the other hand, the received reading gives a plain though a somewhat insipid meaning: "Much produces all,"—whoever has a little and uses it well quickly gets more,—"but he that hires a fool is as he who hires passers by," i.e. the employment of a fool is a barren undertaking which practically leads to nothing. The fool loses what he earns himself: that is true, but he undoes his employer also. One is our Master, even Christ; He hires us for service in His vineyard; when we suffer our heart to347 wax dull, when we grow unspiritual, unresponsive, and insensate, it is not only that we lose our reward, but we crucify the Son of God afresh and put Him to an open shame.

And the worst, the most mournful, feature about this fool's condition is that it tends to a perpetual self-repetition: "As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so a fool is always repeating his folly."673673   Prov. xxvi. 11. Every hardening of the heart prepares for a fresh hardening, every refusal of truth will lead to another refusal. Last Sunday you managed to evade the message which God sent you: that makes it much easier to evade the message He sends you to-day. Next Sunday you will be almost totally indifferent. Soon you will get out of reach altogether of His word, saying it does you no good. Then you will deny that it is His word or His message. You pass from folly to folly, from infatuation to infatuation, until at last you can with a grave face accept the monstrous self-contradiction of materialism, or wallow unresisting in the slime of a tormenting sensuality. "As the dog returns to his vomit"!

It must be owned that the condition of the fool seems sufficiently sad, and the gloom is deepened by the fact that our book knows nothing of a way by which the fool may become wise. The Proverbs uniformly regard the foolish and the wise as generically distinct; between the two classes there is a great gulf fixed. There is the fool, trusting in his own heart, incurring stripes, not profiting by them, always the same incorrigible and hopeless creature; and there is the wise man, always delivered, learning from experience,348 becoming better and better.674674   Prov. xxviii. 26; cf. ix. 8 and xxiii. 9. The only suggestion of hope is a comparative one: "Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him."675675   Prov. xxvi. 12. But there is no tone of confidence about this assurance, because, as we have repeatedly seen, the case of the proud or conceited man is regarded as practically desperate.

No, for comfort and hope in this matter we have to turn away from the Ancient Wisdom to the revealed Wisdom, Christ Jesus. It is He and He alone who practically forbids us to be hopeless about any one. A noble Roman in the time of the Punic Wars received an honourable recognition from the Senate because he had not in the darkest times despaired of the Republic. That is the kind of debt that we owe to the Saviour. He has not despaired of any human being; He will not let us despair. It is His peculiar power, tried and proved again and again, to turn the fool into the wise man. Observing the threefold distinction which is hidden under the word we have been examining, Christ is able to arouse the weak, fond, infatuated soul to a sense of its need. Could there be a better instance than that of the woman at the well,—a foolish creature living in conscious sin, yet full of specious religious talk? Did He not awake in her the thirst for the living water, and satisfy the craving which He had excited? Christ is able to transform the dull and heavy soul, that has suffered itself to be mastered by greed and petrified by selfishness. Was not this what He did to Zaccheus the publican? And349 even with that worst kind of fool, whose heart is withered up within him by reason of sin, and who has learnt to say in his heart that there is no God,676676   נָבָל, Psalm xiv. 1. the Lord is not helpless. We do not see such an one in the pages of the New Testament, because the folly of Atheism was not among the follies of those times. But in our own day it is an experience by no means uncommon; when an avowed infidel comes under the power of the Gospel, Christ enters into him with the overwhelming conviction that there is a God; Christ shows him how it is sin which has thus obscured the elementary conviction of the human spirit; and, by the direct power of Christ, his heart comes to him again as that of a little child, while in the rapturous joy of believing he lays aside the folly which made him doubt along with the sin which made him unwilling to believe.

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