A people are known by their proverbs — what they value and what they do not, where they profess to find wisdom and where they do not. Our modern culture hates objectivity — countless propaganda pieces tell us that we must find the truth within ourselves, we must be true to ourselves, we must always believe in ourselves, ad nauseam. But the Word of God says “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but whoever walks wisely will be delivered“ (Prov. 28:26). But shouldn’t we express ourselves? “A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back“ (Prov. 29:11; cf. 18:2).
And, because we are rightly concerned that a wise man will see right through this stupidity of ours, we disparage and demean the importance of moral knowledge and moral imagination. Tragically, many Christians have led the way in this folly. But, “The heart of the prudent increases knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge“ (Prov. 18:15; cf. 24:5).
The book of Proverbs shows us that wisdom and folly are moral issues. It is not a matter of IQ. Proverbs teaches clearly that the fear of the Lord is the very start of wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Wisdom is clearly the gift of a gracious God. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly“ (Prov. 2:6-7). Wisdom and folly bring two inevitable results: “The wise shall inherit glory, but shame shall be the legacy of fools“ (Prov. 3: 35). Wisdom is also important. “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding“ (Prov. 4:7). In all our getting — scholarships, promotions, houses, jobs, etc. — make sure that the one thing needful is not missing. Get wisdom.
The first characteristic of wisdom to note is that the wise are teachable. One of the clearest distinctions in Proverbs between the wise man and fool would be their respective attitudes to rebuke, correction, instruction, etc. A fool needs it desperately, and will not have it. A wise man needs it far less, and welcomes it gladly. “A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel“ (Prov. 1:5; cf. 10:8). A word will do for a wise man what a club won’t do for a fool. “Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool“ (Prov. 17:10). No real sense in talking to a fool. “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words“ (Prov. 23:9).
The wise are diligent. Wisdom is a moral attribute — it is not surprising to find that it is connected to things like work, just as folly is to laziness. “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise“ (Prov. 6:6). Wise men are producers; fools have their identity as consumers. “. . . a foolish man squanders it“ (Prov. 21:20).
The wise are humble, but the fool is self-important. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise“ (Prov. 12:15). In contrast to this, the wise man is humble, as we saw above. “A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident“ (Prov. 14:16). Another way of putting this is that the fool is a thoroughbred. The saying is that beauty is only skin-deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone. An application to folly can be found here. “Though you grind a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him“ (Prov. 27:22). In other words, if you grind a fool up, all you will have is stupid powder.
Folly is not something that can be safely ignored. The fool should be recognized. The Bible teaches that it is not seemly for a fool to be honored. “As snow in summer and rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool“ (Prov. 26:1). In addition, it is not even seemly for a fool to pretend to be something else. “Excellent speech is not becoming to a fool . . .“ (Prov. 17:7). If for no other reasons, fools should be identified simply out of self-defense. And because we do not have yellow warning stickers attached to their foreheads, we must use the biblical criteria. “Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs, rather than a fool in his folly“ (Prov. 17:12).
And as we stay away from fools, we must also seek out the wise: “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed“ (Prov. 13:20).