by Chris Ritter

My wife, Becky, and I were travelling recently and found ourselves scanning radio stations to find something to pass the time.  We paused on the syndicated Delilah Show where people call in to talk about their relationships and request songs.  One caller’s story went something like this:

Delilah, a few months ago I met the most wonderful man.  We fell in love and began planning our lives together.  I was really disappointed to learn later that he was also seeing someone else.  I confronted him about that.  He apologized, promised never to do that again, and we were able to reconcile.  This past week, I found out that he, again, is seeing someone else.  Could you play a song to let him know how much I love him?  He is such a special guy and I really want to fight for what we have together.

By the time she got to the end of her story, we were screaming at the radio.  “Are you crazy?  He’s a dog.  Get out while you still can!” 

It is so easy to get sucked into a game called, “What were they thinking?”  We play it whenever a famous person does something stupid, when a local politician becomes a moral train wreck, or when a friend steps on the same relationship landmine for the dozenth time. 

Foolishness is so easy to spot.  You put up with that? Foolish!  You took out a loan for that?  Foolish!  Your wife asked if those jeans make her look fat and you said what?  Foolish!

Foolishness is so easy to recognize… except one place.  It is hard to see in our own lives… at least in the moment.  Hindsight is, of course, 20/20.  We can look back on all the poor decisions of our lives and wish for do-overs.  Life, sadly, has no rewind button.  But we don’t have to hit “repeat,” either.

Wouldn’t it be great to identify foolish choices in real time?  That is why we are going to spend four weeks studying what the Book of Proverbs has to say about foolishness.  When we are done, you are going to “know fooling” so we can recognize and avoid it.

You can find the word “fool” or “foolish” some 175 times in Scripture.  Many of these instances are in a section of the biblical library called the Wisdom Literature.  The heart of this section is a book called Proverbs, attributed to Solomon. 

By the way, this series of messages will last about a month.  Many months have thirty-one days.  Proverbs happens to have 31 Chapters.  Would you join me is reading through a chapter a day of Proverbs, starting today?  Let’s take a look at the first seven verses of Chapter One:

1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:

2 To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
6 to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.

7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:1-7 (New International Version)

The Wisest Man

Most of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon, the son of David.  He was not the oldest son, but (as the child of the favorite wife) he was nonetheless chosen by his father as successor to the throne.  After David’s death, God came to Solomon in a dream.  To honor his covenant with David, God invited Solomon to ask for anything he wanted.

What an offer!  The God of the Universe gave Solomon a blank check.  What would you ask for?  Kings generally wanted more wealth, more power, or the death of their enemies. Solomon didn’t ask for any of those things.  Instead, he told God that he was young, not quite sure what to do with the authority he had inherited or how to lead God’s people.  Solomon asked for wisdom.

Solomon’s wish pleased God greatly and he responded by saying that he would grant Solomon wisdom surpassing anyone else… and throw in wealth and power to boot.  Solomon’s reign was something of a Golden Age for Israel.  Their borders expanded.  Their economy boomed.  And Solomon built a magnificent temple for Israel’s God.

Solomon’s reputation for wisdom began to grow.  In a famous legal case, two women came before the king seeking justice.  Both lived in the same house and gave birth to babies about the same time. Soon after the children were born, one of them died during the night.  One woman claimed that her child was alive, but the other woman switched her own dead infant for the living infant of the other.  The other woman claimed the living child was hers and that the other invented the story to take her baby.  It was she said/she said.  There was no DNA testing available.  Who could discern the truth?

Solomon listened to the women argue their cases and then called for a sword.  He announced that he would cut the living infant in half, giving half to each mother.  One woman agreed to this plan.  The other, however, begged the king to do the infant no harm and to give him to the other woman.  King Solomon (never really intending to use the sword) had identified the real mother:  The one who would rather give her child away than see him harmed. The baby was restored to its true mother.

Solomon made a study of the natural world… botany and zoology.  He collected wise saying.  People began visiting Jerusalem just to sit at his feet and listen to his words.  Famously, the queen of Sheba, a far kingdom as the southern extremity of the known world (perhaps Africa or the southern Arabian peninsula), travelled the great distance in a grand caravan to visit Solomon and hear his wisdom. She was left breathless.

But just because you are the wisest man on earth, it does not mean that you are immune to foolishness. Yes, Solomon, too, became a fool.  His particular brand of foolishness had to do with his relationships.  He had seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines.. excessive by anyone’s standards and a clear departure from God’s established pattern of one man, one woman.  He collected all these wives through political marriages.  He took the daughters of other rulers to cement his own diplomatic relationships.  One of his wives, for instance, was a daughter of Pharaoh.

To please his many wives, Solomon built them special palaces and, sometimes, even their own temples to practice their native religions.  The king chosen to build God’s temple ended up constructing pagan temples, forbidden in God’s law.  Because of his unfaithfulness, God announced that Solomon’s vast kingdom would be divided after his death.

So, if Wise Solomon had run-ins with foolishness, don’t you think you and I can expect to struggle with it, too?

Look in the Mirror

I grew up next door to my grandma on the dairy farm.  She was old school. She didn’t like to see us kids rolling dice on her kitchen table.  Even if we were just playing a board game, there was an association with gambling.  My cousins and I never even thought of using off-color language around her.  But she would correct us any time we called each other “dummy,” “idiot,” or “stupid.”  Grandma would quote Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Whoever calls his brother a fool is in danger of hellfire.” 

When your grandma threatens hellfire, you tend to listen!

Grandma knew what Jesus knew.  If you are looking for a fool, you don’t need to search any further than the person in the mirror.  The most important foolishness to recognize in our own.  We are all subject to be hurt by the foolishness of others.  I think of inconsiderate words, drunk drivers, and germ-passers.  But we are MUCH more likely to be harmed by our own foolishness. 

Everybody plays the fool sometimes. 

What is a Fool? 

Proverbs offers no single definition, but there is much to be learned by what it describes as foolish behavior.  A fool is not the same thing as an uneducated person.  The Bible is very pro-education.  But it is possible to be an educated fool.  Those lacking education are called, in Proverbs, “simple ones.”  It is not a sin to be a simple one (we all start out that way), but you don’t want to stay in that state because simpletons are fertile ground for foolishness to develop.

Back in 1997 Robert Kiyosaki wrote a best-seller called Rich Dad, Poor Dad.  He told the story of the two father-figures in his life growing up in Hawaii.  One was highly educated, but spent every dollar he ever earned.  The other “dad” had little formal education, but just seemed to understand how to build wealth.  He wrote his book to share the wisdom he gleaned from his “rich dad.”  Education and wisdom should go together, but this is no guarantee.  Wisdom is a type of applied knowledge… the art of good living.

Interestingly, being a fool is not the worst thing you can be, according to Proverbs.  The harshest words of Solomon are reserved for “scoffers.”  These are a type of fool that spurn knowledge and understanding.  Believing the already know it all, they are unteachable.  Any vessel can be filled… except those already full.  Scoffers are allergic to self-improvement.

Is There a Vaccine?

The good news is that most foolishness can be treated.  There is a vaccine.  Fools can learn.  But this brings us to the central characteristic of a fool.  Fools can learn… but only through pain.  Wise people learn through teaching, example, and instruction.  That is why there is such a strong correlation in Proverbs between foolishness and beatings.  Fools learn only through pain.

Wise people learn that smoke causes cancer through the Surgeon General.  Fools learn that through a general surgeon.  Wise people learn not to drink and drive through public service announcements.  Fools learn through DUI’s.  Wise people learn to respect and care for their spouse by watching successful couples with long marriages.  Fools learn through broken relationships.

The worse the fool, the more pain it takes to correct them. 

I just accepted a new ministry as the chaplain for our local state police district.  That means I have been hanging out with police officers more than usual, which is my honor.  I have noticed that law enforcement is based on a graduated scale of pain.  If you don’t learn not to speed from a warning ticket, you can pay a fine, or (eventually) have your license revoked.  Choose your level of pain.

The captain of our state police district is part of our church family.  He and his officers are often called in for crowd control when there are riots and demonstrations.  He said they use a system called, “(1) Ask you, (2) Tell you, (3) Make you.”  Choose your level of pain.

How many times do you have to touch the stove before you learn it is hot?  How many losers do you have to date before you learn that Mr./Ms. Wonderful won’t be found in a bar?  How many overdraft fees do you have to pay before you learn to watch your bank account?

A Higher Look

Proverbs calls us to look deeper.  Becky and I lived in Georgia for three years and there was a guy in our church named Roy.  Roy was the guy you called when something needed to be done around the church.  I was talking to Roy one time about a growing pothole in front of the parsonage.  I mentioned that I might call City Hall and see if they can get someone out to fix it.  Roy suggested a different path.  He said, “Take your need right to the bottom.”  Don’t call city hall.  Call the guy in the city that fixes potholes… and be sure to show him a lot of appreciation.  The pothole was fixed that very afternoon.

Roy shared with me how he taught his kids to drive.  He told them not to worry about how much gas in in the tank.  The car, he explained, would tell you when it needed gas.  It would stop running!  Instead, focus on the oil.  The quality of the oil would determine the longevity of the car.

Too many people go through life staring at the gas gauge.  Proverbs teaches us to think about the oil. Solomon tells us, to be wise, first focus on the fear of the Lord.  This is the beginning of wisdom. 

Fearing God is not the same thing as being scared of God.  It is living in reverence and awe of God.  This provides a respect for his Law, for sure.  But it also gives us another set of eyes on our lives.  We see God seeing us… and that changes the way we live. 

Seeing God see us is the beginning of wisdom.  It leads to a life steeped in prayer, scripture, and worship.  When we read Proverbs, we are reminded of a truth experienced all throughout the Old Testament.  The Old Testament is always incomplete… but it points toward something greater.  It is fitting that the wisest man in the Old Testament succumbed to his own brand of foolishness.  This shows the need for someone greater.

Greater Than Solomon

Solomon is introduced as the “son of David.”  But this son of David was fallible… and became a fool.  Just as Jesus is the Second Adam (succeeding where the First Adam failed), Matthew 1:1 introduces Jesus as great David’s greater son.  One of the prophecies of Messiah is found in Isaiah:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

Isaiah 11:1-3 (NIV)

The thing that will set Jesus apart from others is his delight in the fear of the Lord, and the Spirit of Wisdom upon his life.  Everybody plays the fool sometimes, but Jesus “ain’t nobody’s fool.”  In just a month we will be singing, “O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh.” (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”)

In speaking of his own generation, Jesus mentioned the queen of Sheba:

42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

Matthew 12:42 (NIV)

She travelled far to sit at the feet of Solomon, but the people of his day did not recognize him as someone greater. 

Even Solomon let us down in the wisdom department.  But Jesus is greater than Solomon.  He is the true wisdom from on high.

Next Week: What a Fool Believes.