Expository Times 11 (1899): 13-16.

                                    Public Domain


                The Fools of the Bible


                   By the Rev. W. P. Paterson, D.D.,

                                   Professor of Theology,

                                   University of Aberdeen


WHETHER it was because of its greater or because

of its lesser rarity, the subject of folly commanded

more attention in earlier ages than it does among

ourselves. Alike by the poet, the moralist, and

the philosopher, the theme was felt to be as

important as it was attractive. Some set them-

selves to describe its chief manifestations in man-

as in Brandt's Ship of Fools, which pithily describes

many varieties, and points out the special humilia-

tion or punishment appropriate to each kind.

Others speculated as to the purpose which it

serves in the world-for instance, Erasmus, who

in his Praise of Folly ascribed to it many bene-

ficent uses, and undertook to show that in many

positions a man may find it to his advantage, and

at all events may be the happier, for not being

over-wise. And to the Literature of Folly the

Bible had already made its large, while more'

profound and solemn, contributions. For the

Bible has to some extent the character of a 'ship

of fools'--having on board, and carrying to judg-

ment, human and Divine, the most representative

and striking of the members of the family. And

certainly if we except the sinner, the saint, and the

sufferer, there is no human type which it so

closely scrutinizes as the fool, or in which it is

so keenly interested.

      In the idea of the fool, as it is met with in

Scripture, the fundamental element seems to be

that he is unable to look after his own interests-

that if not his own enemy he is at least his own

very inefficient servant and guardian. And when

this, the practical outcome of his conduct, is



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traced to its source, it is explained by the peculiar-

working of a mind which does not do justice to

facts, His is a mind to which realities are largely

imaginations, and imaginations realities. The

temple of its building is the fool's paradise. 'The

fool walketh in darkness' (Ec 214).

      Starting now from such general conception,

the Bible first gives us a tolerably minute portrait

of the fool proper, a weakling in respect of

intellect and will, This variety, which is specially

prominent in Proverbs, may be cited as Solomon's

fool. Next, it was observed that the title might

be extended to include wicked men as such, on

the ground that they too are guided by the fool's

maxims; and from the specially clear perception

of this in the Psalter, we may distinguish as the

Psalmist's fool the evil-doer. Yet again, it had

.become clear to the prophetic mind, and was

confirmed by our Lord, that godlessness is foolish-

ness; whence we may distinguish as a third type

Christ's fool-the irreligious man. These are the

classes of fools seriously so-called, and in addition

there is in the New Testament an ironical

extension of the title to the Christian. This is

St. Paul's fool.

      I. Solomon's Fool.--In analysing the character

of the weakling, or Solomon's fool; we find that

stress is mainly laid upon four qualities. The

first is the essential feature already referred to,

which in his case takes the form of disregard of

the three natural blessings of life. These are

health, issuing in long life, a fair portion of this

world's goods, and the respect of society; and


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while wisdom heaps them with lavish hand upon

her children, the fool cannot acquire or retain them

(Pr 316). Health and wealth he squanders, and

his only promotion is from shame to shame (335).

      With this essential characteristic, now, three

other qualities are seen in experience to be

inextricably associated. Perhaps the most con-

spicuous is want of the power of self-control. The

fool is a larger child, governed by the impulse of

the passing moment, and indisposed to make any

sacrifice on behalf of the unseen, or to stake any-

thing on the future. In many ways he shows his

lack of self-restraint. He cannot rule his temper

--'his wrath is presently known' (1216), or his

tongue-' he must utter all his mind' (2911), and

he may even be pretty confidently identified' by

multitude of words' (Ec 53). Nor can he refrain

from mixing himself up with what does not con-

cern him--'every fool will be meddling' (Pr 203).

Of the accidental characteristics, the next and

only less prominent quality is his self-conceit.

Though he might have learned humility from his

mistakes and failures, though he may have drawn

upon him many a rebuff because of his empty

speech and his volunteered advice, the experiences

have not at all affected his self-esteem, or shaken

his faith in his own judgment. 'The way of a

fool is right in his own eyes' (Pr 1215). And

lastly, and very pathetically, he is virtually incor-

rigible. If he be taken in hand early, it is taught,

the earnest teacher may effect some improvement

through sound instruction enforced by the rod,

but if the season be neglected, his case becomes

well-nigh desperate--'though thou shouldest bray

a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet

will not his foolishness depart from him' (2722).

        What is most striking in the above portrait is

the combination with unmistakable foolishness of

certain qualities which we often place in another

category. A violent temper rather impresses

timid people as evidence of force of character, the

multitude of words is often regarded with respect

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by the uneducated as good proof of intellectual

ability; and it is well to be reminded that both

may have their root in foolishness, and that the

Carlylean contempt for loquacity may properly be

extended to unbridled anger.

2. The PsalmIst's fool is distinguished by moral

depravity rather than by weakness of mind and

will. He is, in short, a wicked man, who quite

probably is clever, rich, and powerful. 'I was

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envious at the foolish,' it is said, 'when I saw the

prosperity of the wicked' (Ps 733)--clearly imply-

ing thereby that the two classes are identical. In

the Book of the Proverbs, it is true, there is also a

distinct consciousness that bad men come within

the definition--'fools make a mock at sin' (149),

but in the Psalms sinners are the main body,

the fools par excellence.

      And probably no more important announce-

ment was ever made in the region of conduct

than that the wicked man as such is a fool. For

the discovery dealt at wrong-doing the deadly

blow of turning the laugh against it. The

difficulty was to prove it true to the whole range

of human experience. Many sins and vices, it

was easy to show, had the character of folly-sins

of the flesh, notably, into which the weakling-fool

easily and naturally glides. But it was not so

clear that other violations of morality, as lying,

dishonesty, oppression, left the doers thereof with

the worst of the bargain. Especially was it not

clear until the definite announcement of a future

life and a final retributive judgment. But even

without the aid of the doctrine of immortality,

the sages of the Old Testament undertook to

show that the good man as such is wise, and

that the bad man, however prosperous and

honoured, is no better than a fool. And even

when they had no proof to offer, as in Ecclesiastes,

they had faith enough to believe it.

       That wickedness is folly was maintained on two

grounds. The argument of Ps 13 is that the pro-

sperity of the wicked, though often great, is short-,

lived--'Thou didst set them in slippery places'

(7318). Judgment might be delayed, but it would

come at last-involving them and their house in

ruin. But well-founded as this observation was

in general, it was not borne out in every case;

and so the writer of the Book of Job was im-

pelled to undertake a more exhaustive examination

of the subject in the form of a study of suffering

innocence. What his main argument is has been

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much disputed, but he at least suggests the

thought that a good man, though suffering all the!

ills that flesh is heir to, nevertheless preserves and

augments his best possession if he preserves his

rectitude and his faith in God. And, conversely,

it would hold that a bad man, however he might

have prospered by intrigue and injustice, was at

lir bottom a failure and worthless. The book at

least contains in germ the argument which is the)

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strongest against an evil life, apart from that

supplied by immortality, and which the latter does

not render superfluous-that goodness is wisdom,

wickedness folly, because of the harvest to which

they ripen in the soul.

       3. The Fool in the teaching of our Lord is chiefly

distinguished by want of spiritual insight, or 'the

imprudent ordering of the life in regard to

salvation' (Mt 726 2317 252, Lk 1140 1220, 2425).

The epithet is applied to those who have perverted

views of religion, or who fail to understand essen-

tial features of the faith and life of the gospel.

And most appropriately of all does it apply to

those who practically have no religion. Of the

fools of the Old Testament he 'who saith in his

heart there is no God' (Ps 141) seems to be

fastened on by Jesus as most faithful to type.

In the twelfth chapter of Luke he is clothed with

flesh and blood in the Parable of the Rich Fool

(vv.16-21). This man has not the qualities of the

weakling, for he is shown to have understanding

of his business, to grow rich, and to make provision

for the future. Nor is anything said as to his

being dishonest or profligate. His claim to the

title rests upon the fact that his life was bounded

by the things of sense and time, and that he took

no account of God and of the event which brings

into the nearer presence of God.

       Is the irreligious man as such a fool? Many

will admit something less than this-that he is at

least deficient in one of the higher capacities of

human nature, that he wants a finer sense, and

that to that extent his character is impoverished

or mutilated; yet for the much stronger language

of our Lord we can discover a double ground.

For, in the first place, if it be most distinctively

the fool's way, as was seen, to shut the eyes to

facts, it must be the height of foolishness to give

no place in our thoughts, and to allow no influence

upon our lives, to the Being who is the Alpha and

the Omega of existence, the God of whom and by

whom and to whom are all things. To ignore

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God is to be supremely guilty of fleeing from the

real to take refuge in an imaginary world. In the

second place, irreligion means neglect of the only

existing provision for securing our highest personal

interests. Everywhere and always religion has

given itself out as the vehicle of attainment and

victory; and the achievement of the highest good

that was foreshadowed and promised in lower

religions is fulfilled in Christianity. It must be


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admitted to be supremely desirable that we should

be able to rise to the height of our destiny-by

going on to the perfection of character and the

possession of eternal life; and of this there is

absolutely no prospect apart from the promises and

conditions of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus

Christ. And if in common life the fool is promptly

recognized by his inability to guide his worldly

affairs, more appropriately must the title cleave to

those who neither desire nor seek through union

with God to gain the victory over the world's

threefold evil of sin, sorrow, and death.

      4. Paul's Fool, as has been said, is ironically

so-called, and is nothing less than the Christian

believer: The conception is most freely made

use of in 1 Corinthians; and the explanation of

its occurrence here, doubtless, is that in the Greek

world the apostle's gospel was, as a rule, con-

temptuously dismissed as foolishness. 'The

natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit

of God, for they are foolishness unto him'

(I CO 214). In view of which St. Paul seems to

say, 'Be it so, call us fools, judged by the world's

standards there is ground for it; only we are not

ashamed of our foolishness, which will yet prove

to be more than all the wisdom of this world.'

'If any man among you seemeth to be wise in

this world, let him become a fool, that he may be

wise' (318). Let us note the chief features of St.

Paul's gospel which provoked this charge of

foolishness in which he was enabled to glory.

     To begin with, the Christian was liable to be

regarded as a fool by educated Greeks because of

his appeal to Revelation as the source of his

knowledge. What passed for wisdom in the Greek

world was the result of human observation and

reflection, was laboriously evolved by reasoning

processes from data of nature and experience;

and it is easy to appreciate the impatience with

which thinkers trained in such a school regarded

the methods of those, whether Jew or Christian,

who surmounted their difficulties and cleared up

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their mysteries with the help of an alleged revealed

Word of God. The cultured antique mind,

accustomed to gropings and speculations, did not

take kindly to a principle of undisguised authority

in matters of highest thought-' not many wise

men after the flesh' were called (126). But had

their method, the apostle could retort, been so

successful that they were entitled to take up this

scornful attitude? As a fact they had discovered

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little by reason, and that with small certainty, in

regard to the deep things of existence which are

most worth knowing. 'Where is the wise? where

is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world?

hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this

world' ? (120) Man having failed in his quest (or

truth, it was not strange that God should have

Himself sent light into the world. 'After that in

the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not

God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching

to save them that believe' (121).

      Still more, it would seem, was the contempt of

educated hearers excited by the doctrine of the

salvation of the world by the crucified Christ.

'Unto the Jews a stumbling-block,' it was' unto the

Greeks foolishness' (123). Had the apostle con-

tented himself with saying that the greatest and

wisest of all teachers had died the death of a

martyr, it might have passed-the event had its

well-known parallels; but to teach that a Jew as

crucified, because He had endured a cruel and

shameful death, was the Saviour fully furnished to

cope with the sin and woe of the world, was to

make an impossible demand on their credulity.

But if it sounded foolish, it was not said without a

reason given that could be tested. He and those

for whom he spoke had realized in their own

experience that the once crucified and now risen

Christ had the power to save them from their sins

and to build them up in holiness. He was' unto

them which are called, both Jews and Greeks,

Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God'

(124). And St. Paul's appeal to experience has since

been corroborated by the testimony of history.

What once seemed a foolish dream has become an

historical fact. The death of Christ, through which

He passed to His throne, to become the acknow-

ledged King of kings, is now seen to have been,

as St. Paul taught, the most signal manifestation

of the wisdom with which God exercises His govern-

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ment, and realizes His purposes, among the sinful

children of men.

       It is probable also that, on the ground of his

moral ideal with its elements of humility and self-

abnegation, the Christian was deemed a fool by

the representatives of antique culture. Those who

being reviled, blessed; being persecuted, suffered

it; being defamed, entreated; and who counted the

goods of life but dung that they might win Christ,

clearly were, from the Hellenic standpoint, 'fools

for Christ's sake' (410).

     Such, then, has been the course of the contro-

versy between revealed religion and the world:

the first laboured to prove that the world was

steeped in folly, and the world retorted the charge

upon Christianity. That St. Paul, while he meets

it smilingly, keenly felt the contemptuous rejection

of the gospel by the thinkers and the learned, is

more than evident; and it is well that he ex-

perienced the trial, as it prompted him to utter;

the apostolic mind in regard to a conflict which

may possibly be perennial. For, again, in the

modern world Christianity is face to face with the,

same questioning, doubting, self-confident spirit

that worked in the Greek world, and again a great

movement of thought tends to raise the question

if Christianity is wisdom or foolishness. And

assuredly the Christian, with his belief in a special

revelation, a crucified Saviour, and a Christlike life,

is either supremely wise or unspeakably foolish

splendidly right or deplorably astray. That his

faith is wisdom and not foolishness is certified

him inwardly when he lives near his God, and is con-

firmed by knowledge of the lives and the deeds it

has inspired. And he is persuaded that, whatever

conflict and falling away might come to pass, the

needs of mankind would draw them back to

Christ, and that history would repeat the proof

that 'the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and;

the weakness of God is stronger than men' (125).


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu