Pity the Fool

Pity the Fool

It’s April Fools’ Day, and whatever its origins, the Scriptures have something to say about playing the fool.

There is uncertainty about how and when people began mocking the fool on the first day of April. Many think it goes back to sixteenth-century France when the nation changed from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian. April 1 had been the end of a weeklong festival celebrating the coming of Spring and with it the new year. Now the new year changed to January 1. Some refused to make the switch, or lived in rural areas and didn’t get the word, and were mocked as fools by those who made the change.

Others think the origin may be in a scribal error in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that had readers thinking the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” — and the fox’s fooling of Chauntecleer the vain cock — occurred on April 1 (when Chaucer actually meant May 2). Still others connect the day to celebrations in ancient Rome, Persia, and India.

But however murky the true origin of April Fools’ Day, what’s clear enough is the Christian teaching about what makes a person truly foolish.

Wisdom: The Skill of Living

The Book of Proverbs provides the Bible’s densest teaching about wisdom and folly, and what quickly becomes plain is that the biblical concept is radically God-centered.

God himself is the source of wisdom. Thus, it is the fool who says in his heart there is no God (Psalm 14:1; 53:1), and Proverbs gives us the refrain, “the fear of the Lᴏʀᴅ is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; 2:5; 8:13; 9:10; 15:33). True wisdom begins with God and has its constant source and supply in God. So, says Tremper Longman, Proverbs teaches us that “relationship precedes ethics” (Intro to the OT, 269).

According to Longman, “wise” is the biblical word to “describe the person who navigates life well” (How to Read Proverbs, 13). Wisdom is

the skill of living. It is a practical knowledge that helps one know how to act and how to speak in different situations. Wisdom entails the ability to avoid problems, and the skill to handle them when they present themselves. Wisdom also includes the ability to interpret other people’s speech and writing in order to react correctly to what they are saying to us.

Wisdom is not intelligence pure and simple. . . . Biblical wisdom is much closer to the idea of emotional intelligence than it is to Intelligence Quotient. Wisdom is a skill, a “knowing how”; it is not raw intellect, a “knowing that.” (14–16)

The biblical concept of wisdom is, in large measure, analogous with the idea of maturity. The wise person is one who is mature in his knowledge of God — based on God’s self-revelation — as well as his understanding of himself and his surroundings. The wise person is able to “navigate life well,” in the real world, as defined by God in the Scriptures.

The Folly of Not Navigating Well

Meanwhile, the fool does not possess such skill. He does not navigate life well in God’s universe, from God’s perspective, in God’s categories. The very essence of foolishness is the suppression of God’s truth (Romans 1:18).

Folly is not just silly, but sinful (Psalm 69:5; 107:17; Romans 1:22). Fools desperately need to “learn sense” (Proverbs 8:5), but instead they hate knowledge (Proverbs 1:22). They are complacent (Proverbs 1:32), easily frustrated (Proverbs 12:16), reckless and careless (Proverbs 14:16), and crooked in speech (Proverbs 19:1). Fools are prone to “a hasty temper” (Proverbs 14:29), “anger lodges in the heart of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). Fools “walk into a fight” and invite a beating (Proverbs 18:6).

The fool despises instruction, even from the ones who love them most (Proverbs 15:5), and thus brings misery to his own biggest fans (Proverbs 17:21).

While the wise have learned the beauty and value of righteousness, “doing wrong is like a joke to a fool” (Proverbs 10:23). While the wise are able to hold back quietly, “a fool gives full vent to his spirit” (Proverbs 29:11). And as Jesus taught, while the wise are “rich toward God,” the fool presumes on “many years” and “lays up treasure for himself” in this life (Luke 12:19–21).

A fool is “like an archer who wounds everyone” (Proverbs 26:10) and “like a dog that returns to his vomit” (Proverbs 26:11). It is better to meet up with “a she-bear robbed of her cubs” than a fool in his folly (Proverbs 17:12).

Prideful, Mouthy, and Alone

Because the biblical notions of wisdom and folly are God-centered, at the very heart of folly is pride and self-sufficiency. The fool is arrogant, and the arrogant are fools. The fool says in his heart there is no God — and sees no need for God, quite frankly. The fool is “wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:12), “right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 12:15), and “trusts in his own mind” (Proverbs 28:26). He feels that he has all his ducks in a row and doesn’t need others’ input — especially not God’s instruction.

The fool is more the talker, less the listener. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul” (Proverbs 18:7). He is one “with many words” (Ecclesiastes 5:3) and “multiplies words” (Ecclesiastes 10:14). “The woman Folly is loud” (Proverbs 9:13). The fool “gives an answer before he hears” (Proverbs 18:13).

While the wise aggressively listen and long for the counsel of others — and “the wise of heart will receive commandments” — ruin comes to “a babbling fool” (Proverbs 10:8). It is “the mouth of a fool” that brings ruin (Proverbs 10:14).

The fool not only suppresses his need for God’s words, but also for the counsel of others. “A wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). Keeping company with the wise is essential in learning wisdom (Proverbs 13:20). Fools would rather talk than listen. They may say they love to “have others in their lives,” but they don’t really want to hear any correction. They would rather utter slander (Proverbs 10:18) than heed reproof (Proverbs 15:5).

While wisdom leads to life (Proverbs 3:18; 16:22), folly ultimately leads to death (Proverbs 5:23; 10:21).

All the Treasures of Wisdom

For the Christian, the radical God-centeredness of wisdom in the Proverbs takes a radically Christ-centered shape in the New Testament.

Jesus himself, as the fullest and final revelation of God (John 1:18; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:1–3), is now-revealed as the secret to true wisdom. As the God-man, he is the perfect embodiment of divine wisdom in human form — he is the life of God in the soul of man — and in him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). To those who are perishing, “the word of the cross is folly,” but to those who are being saved, it is God’s power and the paragon of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18).

If wisdom is the ability to navigate life well, in God’s world, on God’s terms, now we see that it can mean nothing less than having him who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only one through whom we may come to the Father (John 14:6). And so to present anyone truly wise, truly mature, it is “him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom” (Colossians 1:28).

Only in Jesus can those born into folly, increasingly manifesting foolishness, on a crash course for destruction, be set free to true wisdom and ultimate life. “We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). But Wisdom himself saved us (Titus 3:4–5).

Only in Jesus can we truly have Wisdom and then be sufficiently changed to not merely mock folly, but pity the fool.


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David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.