The Mildest Sort of Fool

Theme Party for July 9 (’14),  by Daniel Hoffman

MrTThe book of Proverbs divides the world into two kinds of people: Those who are wise, and those who are pitied by Mr. T, the fools. These do not equate to smart and dumb. They are moral categories, not intellectual ones. Now, among the vast hordes of the foolish, there are gradations. Not all fools are on the same level. Some are prospects for reform, and some are so far gone that their only use is as an object lesson for others. Roughly, the scale of folly in Proverbs runs like this: The simple, to the fool, to the scoffer, with the “simple” being close to what we would think of as gullible, naive, or impressionable, and the “scoffer” being soundly entrenched in his folly. As a broad term, covering the whole field but also standing more or less between the simple and the scoffer, is the “fool”.

In this post, I want to look at the simple, and in my next post, at the scoffer.

The Hebrew word translated as “simple” comes from a verb which means to “entice” or “deceive.” The simple is one who is easily enticed, easily drawn away. He’s gullible. He has no defense against peer pressure, unless that defense is other peers. The verb is used to describe the seduction of a virgin (Exodus 22:16), being drawn into rebellion (Deuteronomy 11:6), or even military tactics that would use flattery to deceive an enemy (2 Samuel 3:25). Perhaps the closest we get in Proverbs to an actual definition of the simple is this: “The simple believes everything” – unlike his opposite – “the prudent [who] gives thought to his steps” (14:15). It’s a stated purpose of Proverbs to turn the former into the later, “To give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth” (1:4). And there we see that to be simple is the characteristic folly of the young. In Solomon’s thinking, the “simple” and the “youth” are more or less synonymous terms. Simplicity in Proverbs is the kind of foolishness that is naturally bound up in the heart of a child (22:15). We can see this in chapter 7, where the simple is found among the “youths” and lets himself be seduced by the streetwalker with her Egyptian sheets, the one who says when you’re ready come and get it, na na na na. He follows her like a dumb ox. Because the simple, you see, lacks the ability to think ahead. He can’t see the danger in front of him like the prudent can (22:3; 27:12).

The good news is, the simple are not hopeless. They can be taught, they can be grabbed by the collar and exhorted to learn prudence. That’s what Proverbs is for. That’s why the scene in chapter 7 compares the situation to that of an animal walking into a trap, and tells the youth that “many a victim she has laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng” (7:26). Proverbs holds out hope that the simple will see what becomes of the scoffers and wisen up (19:25; 21:11). They can be molded, they may still move into the right road. The simple are like that band of undecided swing voters we hear about at election time, with Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly competing for their allegiance (9:1-18). The simple is man in his warning-signnatural state: Inclined to evil, perfectly positioned to fall of his own weight, but in some sense still at a crossroad.

So there is a profile of the simple. He is someone who is intrigued by evil, but hasn’t thought through the consequences, and is all too easily tempted. He is the youth who needs warning and exhortation.

It’s this childish propensity to sin that the new covenant in Christ corrects. Christ established his church and gave to it apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers for building up the body of Christ “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:13-14). Maturity, prudence: the opposite of children carried away by cunning, the opposite of the simple. Those with some years in Christ ought be mature, to be “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The “prudence” that Proverbs wants the simple to achieve is basically the same Hebrew word used for the “craftiness” of the serpent in the garden. It isn’t in itself a negative term. It refers to deliberateness and planning, to forethought. And Jesus wants his disciples to be as wise as serpents.

The prudence that is the opposite of the simplicity which Proverbs rebukes was practiced to perfection in Christ himself. Solomon wrote the Proverbs first of all for his son who was to be king after him. It’s a book of kingly wisdom. As it turns out, Solomon’s son Rehoboam was a fool who didn’t listen, and his folly split the kingdom. But the true Son, Solomon’s distant Grandson Jesus, heeded Lady Wisdom. Rejecting the enticements of Satan in the wilderness, escaping the nets of the Pharisees, refusing to leave the path that the Father appointed for him – he learned obedience and so was made “perfect” – mature, that’s what the Greek word means (Hebrews 5:8-9). In union with the wise Son, who became for us wisdom from God, when we heed his word, we learn prudence and so may inherit a crown of glory instead of folly (Proverbs 14:18).

The simple may be the mildest sort of fool. But at the other end of the spectrum is the scoffer, and we’ll take a gander at him next week.

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