God’s Word for You
Proverbs 26:1-5 The fool and his folly
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, January 18, 2020
I have speculated more than once that it seems to me that Solomon’s proverbs were the things that the wise king used to say after the morning’s judgments as he held court. Two people would come up to him with a suit against one another, he would hear it and pronounce judgment (as with the two prostitutes, 1 Kings 3:16-28), and then as they left the court, he might say to himself something like, “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both” (Proverbs 17:15). Later he would write these things down. So much for my imagination. What we know for certain is that Solomon wrote the words before us (Proverbs 25:1) and they were accepted as God’s word since they point to the difference between faithful wisdom and foolish unbelief. Most of this chapter is a warning about dealing with the lazy and the foolish.
26 Like snow in summer
and rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.
Rain hardly ever falls during harvest in Israel (from June to September), and snow is rare in Israel at all except on the highest peaks like Mount Hermon. Honor should be as rare for a fool, since it will only make him want to remain as foolish as he is.
This proverb matches C.F.W. Walther’s 8th Thesis about the proper distinction between law and gospel. He said: “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.” The frightened sinner needs to be shown the gospel: “I was pushed back and about to fall, but the LORD helped me” (Psalm 118:13). But the sinner who is unconcerned about his sin, doesn’t believe he has sinned, and becomes angry or mocking when someone tries to show him his sins, is beyond help. He must be crushed by the Law of God. If the peace of the gospel is offered to a sinner who is not convinced of his sin, like a fool being honored for his folly, it might actually do him more harm than good. He will become convinced that salvation is possible for him even if he embraces his sin. If he is a thief, he will go on stealing. If he is greedy, he will go on coveting. If he is a drunk, he will go on drinking. If he is a slanderer, or a swindler, he will keep warping the truth or twisting the law of the land into a clever funnel for making a profit from honest folk. Look at the whole list of dangerous sins in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. No one guilty of such sins should hear the gospel if they think God loves such sins or that he doesn’t care.
2 Like a migrating bird,
or a flying swallow,
an undeserved curse does not land.
When anyone curses you when you don’t deserve it, whether in a spiritual matter or an everyday (secular) matter, God blesses you. Such a curse does not and cannot stain you in God’s eyes. It may even fool dear friends of yours, but you have a friend in Jesus who is never deceived by the devil’s lies. Luther says that “it will always be a cause of unusual glory before God” when we are needlessly cursed (LW 40:16).
While this is true of all such curses and rants, it is especially the case when we are attacked because of our faith. How many of us have felt the sting of people saying, “Oh, you belong to that church that doesn’t let visitors come to communion” or some such thing? Words like those give glory to God, because they are the testimony from the world that we have been faithful to God’s word, so faithful that we have gained a reputation for that fidelity. “Here” (says Luther again) “Solomon teaches us that we ought not to heed vilifications or curses that come to us undeserved, without cause or reason, since they pass by and do not alight. This is proved by all of history and its examples. Where are the vilifications that Arius and all the heretics made against the church?” (LW 41:189). Let their indignation and their jokes fly. The word of God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8).
3 A whip for a horse,
a bridle for a donkey,
and a rod for the back of a fool.
A fool never believes he is foolish. Luther simply echoes this proverb when he says, “one must delouse a fool with a club” (LW 6:62). Animals generally won’t obey unless they are disciplined and conditioned to do so. A fool, especially an unbelieving and wicked man who doesn’t believe the gospel, is not motivated to respond unless failing to obey is to his disadvantage. If a fool thinks that some of his sins are not so bad, he falls into a deadly trap: “The evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matthew 12:35). On the other hand, if a fool is told that if he just gets rid of certain sins in his life and does a few pious things such as showing up for church now and then or going to communion at least half a dozen times each year, he will “be in good with God,” he is in another equally deadly trap. “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). No one can shoehorn a fool or an unbeliever into making himself look more Christian in such a way that it will benefit that fool at all. If you teach a murderer that if he is caught murdering, he will be imprisoned and maybe even executed, he will only learn to cover up his crime; his heart will not be changed. Even if he doesn’t commit murder out of fear of the punishment, he isn’t obeying the Fifth Commandment. Still, with regard to the Fourth Commandment and public safety, the threat of punishment has its place. It makes the village a safer place, but the village fool will always be a fool without the gospel.
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will become like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will think he is wise.
These two verses are just as similar in Hebrew as they seem to be in English. In order to understand them, we need not imagine that “according to his folly” in verse 4 is a different phrase from its twin in verse 5. They are the same, and the two verses are only different in one respect: Verse 4 is a warning about the danger of becoming like the fool, whereas verse 5 is a command to address what the fool says or else he will get worse; he will think he is wise.
Luther quotes this proverb in his commentary on Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That verse is an excellent guide for handling the two similar but seemingly opposite commands which are presented here by Solomon.
A Christian can “become like the fool” (verse 4) if he takes up the fool’s brand of argument (slander, exaggeration, libel, gossip, cleverly invented stories, or outright lies) and tries to use such things for a good purpose. This is allowing oneself to be overcome by evil.
On the other hand, a Christian does not want an unbelieving fool “to think he is wise,” and therefore the kinds of things that a fool says (slander, exaggeration, libel, gossip, cleverly invented stories, or outright lies) need to be exposed for the foolishness that they are. When everyone is aware of his lies and foolishness, he will be exposed, and he will know that he isn’t wise.
Besides a guide for debate, this also shows us the path for spreading the gospel. Sins, whatever they are, need to be exposed, but the one who exposes them must not get caught up in the same sins. Then, when these things are laid bare and shame and guilt result, then the gospel must be preached so that the sinner will see that Christ has rescued him from his own foolishness. This is always our prayer, for enemies as well as for friends.
Pastor Timothy Smith