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The Wise Man and Fool


            The word “fool” is used 62 times in the NASB translation of Proverbs. The English translation for “fool” and for the related concepts of folly translate a series of Hebrew words which emphasize various aspects of the foolishness. Michael Fox1 notes six different words which cover the semantic range. His breakdown is as follows: 1) ba‘ar: ignoramus; (2) hasar leb: mindless, empty-headed person; (3) ’iwelet: folly, perverse folly; ’ewil: fool, knave; (4) kesel: stupidity, doltishness, oaf; (5) lason: scorn, insolence; les: scornful, insolent man; (6) petayyut: callowness, naivete, gullibility; peti2: callow, naive, gullible. Adams handles this range as follows:

There are three words for fool in Proverbs. I have distinguished them by adding an adjective to each: The ewil (used here) I translate ‘stupid fool;’ the kesil, “stubborn fool” and the nabal “shameful fool”.3


            The semantic range of the various words used for fool, foolish, folly are quite pertinent to the help offered to Proverbs: The problem of a callow youth will require a different medicine than the rebellion of a scorner.

            Likewise, a series of words are used to describe the semantic range of wisdom. Fox4 sets forth 11 words sets which cover this issue: (1) binah, understanding; mebin, discerning man; nabon, astute man, sensible man; (2) da‘at:  knowledge; yodea, knowledgeable man; (3) ‘esah, planning, design; yo‘es, adviser, planner; (4) hokmah: expertise, wisdom; hakam: expert, wise man5; (5) mezimmah: shrewdness, circumspection, discretion; (6) musar, discipline, correction, education; (7) ‘ormah: cunning; ‘arum: cunning person; (8) sekel: discretion, good sense; maskil: discreet man, man of good sense; (9) tahbulot: strategy, guidance; (10) tebunah:good sense, competence; mebin: intelligent, sensible man; nabon: sensible man; (11) tusiyyah: resourcefulness, competence, wits.                     

            The interaction between these various strands and relationships are seen in Proverbs 14:15-18:

The naive (peti) believes everything,

                                    But the sensible (‘arum) man considers his steps.

                        A wise man (hakam) is cautious and turns away from evil,

                                    But a fool (kesil) is arrogant and careless.

                        A quick-tempered man acts foolishly (’iwel),

                                    And a man of evil devices is hated.

                        The naive (peti) inherit foolishness (’weleth),

                                    But the sensible (‘arumim) are crowned with knowledge (yadath).   


            In verse 15, the simple/naive  does not careful think, consider, weigh: He “believes everything”. He is open for every thing which comes along. And although the moral element of his “foolishness” is not immediately present, it will result in a far more serious end than mere callowness6: it will result in one who is “perverse”.  Continued simplicity, will eventually congeal7 into rank, persistent foolishness.                       

            The problem of the peti is seen in the contrast with the sensible man: a sensible man will

“consider his steps”.    This same contrast is found throughout Proverbs. In 22:3 we read, “The prudent sees the evil and hides himself, But the naive go on and are punished for it.” Thus, the naive one must be taught to think.  This is the promise of Proverbs (1:1 & 3b).The peti can also learn from what happens to others, “Strike a scoffer [the worse sort of sinner; cf. Ps. 1:2] and the naive may become wise” (19:25).

            From this we can determine that there will be some people who are desperately in need of counsel, because they simply do not know better. As Adams says:

Now the sort of person who needs the teaching of this training manual is mention: to give clear perception to the naive, knowledge and discretion to the young man (v. 4). The “simple” or naive is the one who is highly impressionable, who is open to all sorts of influences – both good and bad. He lacks the know-how and the discretion to distinguish the one from the other. He is in a dangerous place; . . . .8


Thus, when receiving a counselee, it will be necessary to determine whether he even knows what he is supposed to be doing. The call to them will be to leave their simple way and live (9:6).

            At the other end are the stupid or stubborn fools, those who have dug into their sin. The kesil can be “stupid (in practical things), insolent (in religion)”.9 The kesiloth is the woman Folly who calls to the simple to be destroyed.  Kesil appears in 49 verses in Proverbs (NASB). In Proverbs 1:22, the kesil is said to “hate knowledge”. They are “complacent” in their state (1:32). They have no sense (8:5) and are shame to their family (10:1). They are those who actively engage in openly destructive behavior, such as slander (10:18), or doing evil “as a joke” (10:25). They “proclaim” their folly (12:23); they even “flaunt” (13:16), or “pour out folly” (15:2). They are injurious to everyone around them (13:20 & 14:7). They are nearly impossible to correct (17:10, 17:21, 18:6, 19:26, 26:3, 26:7).

            The ’ewil is used 19 times in Proverbs. This one is most plainly the opposite of the wise man. While it is the naive who sets out aimlessly, it is the ’ewil who goes with the immoral woman (7:22). This fool is contrasted with the wise man who will receive commandments: This fool continues to speak and not listen (10:10;10:14). He will not listen to others, because he is already “right” – unlike the wise (12:1510). His foolishness will be his ruin – unlike the wise man whose words “will preserve him” (14:3). The most frightening aspect of such a fool is his religious insolence. He is said to “mock at a guilt offering” (14:9). This is again contrasted with the wise who gain acceptance before the Lord. The only hope for this kind of fool is that he will eventually hear (Prov. 15:511). Unfortunately, such a one will likely not receive instruction12. “Wisdom is too high for a fool” (20:3). Even when he is confronted by a wise man, he is likely only to argue (29:9, 20:3).  As a practical matter, a determination must be made whether the fool before will ever listen – is he merely uninformed, or is he hardened in his foolishness? If he is a hardened fool, then there is nothing which can be done (Prov. 27:2213).When such a fool (whether arrogant or stubborn) is discovered in ministry, the best advice has been given by Paul to Titus: such people, “must be silenced” (Tit. 1:10; see, 3:10)14.

1 Michael Fox, Proverbs 1-9 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), the material used in the succeeding section come from pages 38-43.

2 Commenting on Proverbs 1:4, George Lawson calls the peti “the simple man who is easily deceived . . . . the young and inexperienced” (George Lawson, D.D., Exposition of the Book of Proverbs (Edinburgh: David Brown, 1821), 4-5).

3 Jay Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Commentary on Proverbs (Woodruff: Timeless Texts, 1997), 9-fn. 1. See, Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 102 (“Nonetheless, a hierarchy of fools can be roughly constructed, and the ’ewil stands between the kesil (fool) and les (mocker). . . Shupak characterizes the ’ewil as an ‘incorrigible ignoramus.’ . . . It would take such a fool to reject wisdom and discipline . . . .”).

4 The following material comes from Fox, pages 30-38.  Ross adds the following information in his comment on the introduction in Proverbs 1: “The first purpose statement is now developed from the teacher’s point of view—he will give shrewdness to the naive or “simple.” (For a discussion of the simple person, see Kidner, Proverbs, p. 39). This naive person (peth i) is one who is gullible (14:15), easily enticed (9:4, 16), and falls into traps (22:3). The instructor wants to give such a one a sense of shrewdness (`ormah; NIV, “prudence”), the ability to foresee evil and prepare for it (13:16; 22:3). With `ormah the naive will be able to avoid the traps in life (see Matt 10:16).

“The second half of the verse parallels “simple” or “naive” with “[immature] youth” (na`ar) and “shrewdness” or “prudence” with “knowledge” (da`at) and “discretion” (mezimmah from zamam “to devise”). This latter expression refers to devising plans or perceiving the best course of action for gaining a goal (Toy, p. 7). Da`at and mezimmah may form a hendiadys, to be translated “purposive knowledge”; viz., the perceptive ability to make workable plans. Such ability is crucial for the immature youth in this world (Allen P.Ross, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 5, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,1991) 905-906)”.                      

5Hokmah is essentially a high degree of knoweldge and skill in any domain. It combines a broad faculty (including powers of reason, discernment, cleverness) and knowledge (communicable information, that which is known and can be learned). Both facets are always implied by the word hokmah; one cannot have hokmah purely as potential or as mere inert information” (Fox, 32).

6 “[A]nd if they, by a simple facility shall lay themselves open, not only will their eneimies be able the more easily to wound them, but the wounds also will be the more dangerous which are received by them” (Michael Jermin, D.D., Paraphrasticall Meditations by Way of Commentaries Upon the Whole Book of the Proverbs of Solomon (St. Paul’s Churchyard: R. Badger, 1638), 3).

7Lwa Arb. ’wl to congeal, thicken > become stupid.” Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M., & Stamm, J. J.. The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament. Volumes 1-4 combined in one electronic edition ( Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill 1999, c1994-1996) (electronic ed.) 21)” . The peti in Proverbs 7:7 is a perfect example of how quickly simplicity turns to disaster. This, of course, is an essential element of counseling the naive, letting them see plainly where their careless with sin will end.

8 Adams, 7.

9  Koehler, 489.

10 “[T]he fool is stupidly self-confident and does not see the need of seeking advice” (Crawford H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Proverbs (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), 251).

11 The wise man is precisely opposite, “Instead of being wise in his own opinions (26:5, 11, 12, 16), the wise is teachable, seeking knowledge the gullible need (18:15), and storing it up (10:14). He listens to instruction (13:1) and counsel (12:5) accepts commands (10:8) and even loves reproof.” Bruce Waltke, Proverbs 1-15 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 94.

12  The wise will be recognized by the opposing characteristic: “There is no other wahy to gain knowledge than through disciplined effort (v. 1).  That is why, in addition to other matters, biblical counselors find themselves teaching and structuring for discipline” (Adams, 89).  The counselor creates conditions and assist the wise in gaining knowledge and discipline. 

13 “It is significant that Proverbs never addressed them directly.” George Schwab, “The  Proverbs and the Art of Persuasion,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 14, no. 1 (Fall 1995) 7. Schwab goes on to give a very useful summary of this information: “The principal quality of the wise seems to be the accepting of counsel coupled with the offering of it (9:8-9, 10:8, 12:15). The evilim offers counsel but does not accept it. The pethaim may be appealed to by a counselor, but do not offer counsel. The naar are on the threshold of becoming either wise, or evil.  So counsel is not for evilim. The naar requires it in the form of the rod and discipline, to push him towards maturity. The pethaim must be filled with counsel. And the wise and discerning benefit from counsel and become ever wiser (Schwab, 7).”

14 This is the advice given by Adams: “Because of his pride, he scorns others who know more than he; he will not acknowledge the fact (cf. 14:6).  Once you recognize that you have a scorner for a counselee, resolve to dismiss him unless he is willing to humble himself” (Adams, 118).