A Little Folly Goes a Long Way

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench;
    so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right,
    but a fool’s heart to the left.
Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves. Ecclesiastes 10:1-7 ESV

There is little doubt that Solomon was a big fan of wisdom. He knew first-hand the value that wisdom could afford a man. But he also knew that wisdom has its limits. In the world in which he lived, there was no one who possessed perfect wisdom. Even he, the wisest man who ever lived, had made foolish mistakes. Despite the vast amount of God-given wisdom he possessed, he had ended up violating the commands of God. During his long life, he had made many unwise decisions that had left an indelible mark on his life and his reign as king.

That seems to be his point in verse 1, where he uses the metaphor of a fly in the ointment. The ointment Solomon had in mind was most likely olive oil, which was used as both a perfume and a healing agent. Like wisdom, the ointment was intended to have a positive effect, acting as a sweet-smelling perfume or a health-inducing medicine. But one dead fly could turn the positive properties of ointment into a diseased-filled, stench-producing product that was of no good to anyone. In the same way, one foolish act can destroy years of wise decision-making. The damaging effects of even a modicum of foolish behavior are immeasurable. It doesn’t take much. And Paul used a similar metaphor when he warned against the impact of false teaching on the church.

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! – Galatians 5:9 NLT

There are two ways we can look at Ecclesiastes 10:1. The first is that a wise person can destroy their reputation for wisdom by making one foolish decision. It can become like a fly in the ointment, quickly nullifying the years of beneficial value established by living a life of wisdom. But it can also refer to the impact one fool can have on a family, community, or nation. All it takes is a single individual making one foolish decision to destroy years of wise counsel and leadership. And interestingly enough, Solomon’s own foolish decisions would eventually reap devastating consequences for the nation of Israel. The kingdom his father David had established would end up divided in half and would never regain its former glory. The book of 1 Kings provides a description of Solomon’s fly-in-the-ointment failure that led to God’s removal of him as king and the division of the Davidic Kingdom.

The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. But for the sake of your father, David, I will not do this while you are still alive. I will take the kingdom away from your son. And even so, I will not take away the entire kingdom; I will let him be king of one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, my chosen city.” – 1 Kings 11:9-13 NLT

And perhaps it was because Solomon had seen the error of his ways, even if a bit too late, that he spoke so often and so highly of wisdom. He knew that godly wisdom was a deterrent to poor decision-making because it led its adherents down the right path.

But the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light,
growing brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like gloomy darkness;
they do not know what they stumble over. – Proverbs 4:18-19 NLT

Solomon knew that a fool, devoid of godly wisdom, would allow his deceived heart to lead him down the wrong path. And it’s not difficult to spot a fool, because the course of his life gives ample proof that his decision-making is godless and unrighteous.

Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool. – Ecclesiastes 10:3 ESV

He’s unable to hide his foolishness because his life choices provide glaring evidence of his lack of wisdom. And Solomon provides a real-life example that contrasts the actions of a fool with those of a wise man.

If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest. – Ecclesiastes 10:4 ESV

If you find that someone in authority is angry with you, don’t act like a fool and impulsively quit. Instead, respond with wisdom, remaining calm and allowing your superior time to cool off. Use self-control. Don’t allow foolish pride to dictate your response and determine your fate.

This is not a guarantee that the ruler will calm down. It doesn’t mean that your wise response will necessarily produce the right reaction from the one who is angry and acting unjustly. But a wise person will not allow the foolish behavior of another to infect and affect their own behavior.

The truth is, there are sometimes fools sitting in places of authority who wield great power. That seems to be Solomon’s point when he writes, “folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place” (Ecclesiastes 10:6 ESV). The sad reality is that the undeserving and unqualified are sometimes rewarded with positions of power where they rule over those with greater skills and proven track records of success. Solomon refers to them as “rich”, but the Hebrew word can refer to someone who is honorable and noble. In other words, they are someone of worth and character who finds themselves placed in an inferior position and having to submit to the authority of a fool. Solomon describes this sad state of affairs as an evil under the sun. But it’s just a reality of life.

Like Solomon, we live in a world that is sometimes topsy-turvy, where everything appears to be just the opposite of what it should be. In his day, he put this incongruity in visual terms, describing the disturbing sight of “slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves” (Ecclesiastes 10:7 ESV).

This was just further proof of the injustice and inequities that abound in this life. And we see the same thing in our day. How many times have we witnessed the promotion of a less-qualified individual for a position of prominence in our company? How often have we seen the undeserving fast-tracked to promotion while the more gifted and talented are overlooked? We have experienced this kind of injustice ourselves. But the fact that it happens doesn’t disqualify the value of wisdom over folly. It’s simply proof of the pervasive presence of sin in the world. 

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a glimpse into the mindset that permeates our fallen world.

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

What an apt description of the world in which we live. And it was true in Solomon’s day as well. It is the nature of life in a world where godlessness has produced a pandemic of foolishness. And while wisdom is essential and to be desired above all else, wisdom alone cannot rectify the problem we face in this world. As Solomon so aptly put it in Proverbs 1:7: “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

Without a knowledge of God and a reverence for who He is, humanity lacks the ability to understand right from wrong, truth from falsehood, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness. Without God, mankind invariably turns to human wisdom, which always proves insufficient and incapable of providing reliable help in navigating through life. The apostle Paul gives us a wonderful description of the difference between worldly wisdom and that which comes from God.

Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say,

“He traps the wise
    in the snare of their own cleverness.”

And again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise;
    he knows they are worthless.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 NLT

Surviving in this world requires wisdom, but it must be wisdom that is founded on a relationship with God Almighty. The wisdom we need must be based on who He is and what He desires. Without Him, our wisdom becomes folly. Apart from God, man’s wisdom always proves insufficient and inadequate to comprehend the dangers of a fallen world and a foolish heart.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Without God, Even the Wise Become Fools

1 Who is like the wise?
    And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
    and the hardness of his face is changed.

I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. Ecclesiastes 8:1-8 ESV

It shouldn’t be surprising that Solomon has a lot to say about the topic of wisdom. After all, he was known as the wisest man who ever lived. In the early days of his reign, when given an opportunity by God to ask of Him whatever he wished, Solomon had asked for an “understanding heart” so he could govern the people of Israel well. And God responded, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have!” (1 Kings 3:11-12 NLT).

And God followed through on His commitment, blessing Solomon with unsurpassed wisdom. When the queen of the nation of Sheba (modern-day Ethiopia) made a royal visit to Jerusalem, she was impressed by Solomon’s wisdom and wealth

When she met with Solomon, she talked with him about everything she had on her mind. Solomon had answers for all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba realized how very wise Solomon was, and when she saw the palace he had built, she was overwhelmed. – 1 Kings 10:2-5 NLT

But like everything else in his life, wisdom became an obsession for Solomon. Seemingly unsatisfied with what he had been given by God, he constantly attempted to increase his wisdom through self-effort. He wrote and collected wise proverbial sayings and put them in a book. In this book, known as The Proverbs of Solomon, he personifies wisdom as a woman calling out from the streets, attempting to get the attention of those who pass her by.

Wisdom shouts in the streets.
    She cries out in the public square.
She calls to the crowds along the main street,
    to those gathered in front of the city gate:
“How long, you simpletons,
    will you insist on being simpleminded?
How long will you mockers relish your mocking?
    How long will you fools hate knowledge?
Come and listen to my counsel.
I’ll share my heart with you
    and make you wise. – Proverbs 1:20-23 NLT

But despite wisdom’s generous offer of wisdom for all, her calls remained ignored by the simpletons, mockers, and fools. They rejected her advice and shunned her correction. Nobody wanted what she had to offer. And as a result, they were left in their ignorance and complacency. The time would come when wisdom was needed, but they would find it unavailable.

For Solomon, wisdom was a commodity worth pursuing. He even explained his purpose for writing his book of proverbs by stating:

Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline,
    to help them understand the insights of the wise.
Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives,
    to help them do what is right, just, and fair.
These proverbs will give insight to the simple,
    knowledge and discernment to the young. – Proverbs 1:2-4 NLT

Wisdom became one of many obsessions for Solomon. He pursued it with a vengeance, and never seemed to think he had enough of it. It seems that he often forgot his own advice, failing to remember that “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 NLT). The pursuit of wisdom without a healthy fear and worship of God is a futile effort. But too often, we make wisdom the focus of our attention, not God.

Yet, Solomon knew the benefits of wisdom. He had experienced them firsthand, and this is why he could sing the praises of a life of wisdom.

How wonderful to be wise, to analyze and interpret things. Wisdom lights up a person’s face, softening its harshness. – Ecclesiastes 8:1 NLT

In the verses that follow, Solomon provides his readers a number of examples of what wisdom looks like in real life. But notice that they all have to do with their allegiance to the king. In other words, their faithful service to him.

He starts out with a not-so-subtle admonition to “Keep the king’s command.” This is the king telling his own people that if they’re wise, they’ll obey him. Sounds more like a threat than a recommendation for wise living. While there is a degree of truth and wisdom in what Solomon says, it can’t help but come across as a bit self-serving.

If someone is an official servant of the king and has taken an oath to faithfully serve him, it makes perfect sense for them to follow through with their commitment. It would be unwise for them to shirk their duty or to join in a plot to overthrow the king. But Solomon’s words are not specifically directed at members of the royal household or administrative staff. It would be foolish for anyone, whether they were a civil servant or civilian, to question the decisions of the king, because his word is final, and he has the power to enforce whatever he has commanded.

If you obey the king, you won’t have to worry about being punished. The wise person knows when to speak up and when to shut up. He understands that there’s a time and a place for everything, even when facing trouble. And it’s our inability to control our words during times of difficulty that can get us in hot water, especially if it involves the king.  Without the benefit of wisdom, a person can say things they end up regretting. They run the risk of expressing thoughts that haven’t been thought through fully. And hasty words spoken in the presence of the king can expose foolishness and risk deadly consequences. This thought is reminiscent of something Solomon wrote earlier.

Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. – Ecclesiastes 5:2 ESV

The apostle Paul shared a similar word of counsel in his letter to the church in Colossae.

Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. – Colossians 4:5-6 NLT

From Solomon’s royal perspective, it made sense not to question the wishes of a king. Of course, since he was the king, it’s easy to see why he felt this way. In his role as king, he had probably heard more than one citizen of his kingdom say, “What are you doing?” And he most likely found the tone of that question offensive and its timing unwise. No one likes to have his wisdom and authority questioned, especially the king. And Solomon appears to have viewed his authority as supreme, almost all-knowing in nature.

He states that the one who questions the king “does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be?” (Ecclesiastes 8:7 ESV). This individual has no control over anything, including their day of death. Nobody can hold on to their spirit when the time comes for it to depart. Nobody can get out of their obligation to serve when conscripted for battle. They simply have to go. They must do their duty. And the one who chooses a life of evil will find himself hopelessly stuck, experiencing the inevitable consequences of his decision.

There is a certain sense of fate in Solomon’s words. You can’t know the future, so you have no control over it, and this brings us back to Solomon’s earlier admonition: Keep the king’s command.

But how are we to take what Solomon says and apply it to our daily lives? It is essential to read the book of Ecclesiastes with an understanding of the state of affairs in Solomon’s life at the time of its writing. He was an old man, having served as king of Israel for a long period of time. But he had not finished well. His kingdom was marred by idolatry. He had repeatedly disobeyed God, marrying more than 700 different women and amassing a harem of 300 concubines. And he had eventually adopted their false gods, an act of blatant unfaithfulness to Yahweh. And his unfaithfulness would ultimately force God to rip the kingdom from his hands and divide it in two.

Solomon was still a wise man when he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, but it is safe to say that he no longer feared God as he once had. His wisdom had been marred by sin. His perspective had been skewed by his pessimistic take on life.

There is a lot of truth in the words that Solomon writes, but we must carefully search for and remove the hidden gems from the muck and mire of Solomon’s sin-distorted viewpoint. Wisdom is a good thing. Remaining faithful in your service to the king is solid and sound advice. But the one thing that is missing is a recommendation to fear the Lord.

To his credit, Solomon weaves that message into the verses that follow. But it seems that Solomon struggled with maintaining the vital connection between wisdom and the fear of God. At times, wisdom became a stand-alone for him. He operated by the misguided philosophy: More is better. There were occasions when he seemed to sincerely believe that wisdom was all you needed. But wisdom without a fear of God is useless. It too will prove futile and meaningless. It is our fear and reverence for God that gives wisdom its power. Knowing right from wrong, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness begins with knowing and revering God. Being able to make good decisions stems from a solid understanding of who God is and what He expects of us. When we live to please God, we make wise decisions. When we live to please ourselves, we end up living like fools and, as Solomon so graphically put it, eating our own flesh. In our effort to make it all about ourselves, we end up destroying ourselves.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.

19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— 28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 ESV

Don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too wicked. Don’t be too wise, but don’t be too foolish. That sounds like strange advice, doesn’t it? It comes across like Solomon is recommending a life of mediocrity – a middle-of-the-road kind of mentality that avoids the ditches on either side. His assessment is that the righteous die in spite of their righteousness and the wicked succeed in spite of their wickedness. So, he recommends avoiding the extremes and fearing  God instead.

What Solomon seems to be saying is that a man will end up disappointed if he pursues righteousness and wisdom thinking they will provide him with a long and prosperous life, free from trouble and trials. A life of righteousness, marked by wisdom is no guarantee of immunity from difficulty. Good people still suffer and die. Wise people still make dumb decisions. But at the same time, Solomon warns that a life of wickedness may bring you a semblance of pleasure and happiness, but you’ll end up paying for it in the long run. This leads him to conclude: “Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NLT).

It’s important that we not misunderstand or misinterpret what Solomon is saying. He is not diminishing the importance of righteousness or wisdom. He knows that both are essential and, when pursued properly, honoring to God. He even acknowledges that “One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town!” (Ecclesiastes 7:19 NLT). A wise person possesses an inner strength that provides protection from the effects of adversity. It provides a form of self-reliance and security that is preferable to dependence upon outside sources.   

But wisdom has its limits. So does righteousness. There is no one who is all-wise. There is no one who is fully righteous.

Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT

That’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s so important that we recognize and come to grips with the truth it proclaims. In this lifetime, we will never experience unvarnished righteousness. We will never be completely holy and sinless. So, while righteousness is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, we must remember that it will never keep us from suffering. Or to put it another way, no amount of righteousness in your life will protect you from pain and suffering. The righteous and wicked both experience difficulties in life. In fact, sometimes it appears as if the righteous suffer more than the wicked. The prophet Jeremiah took pains to share his frustration with this disturbing reality to God Himself.

Lord, you always give me justice
    when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
    Why are evil people so happy?
You have planted them,
    and they have taken root and prospered.
Your name is on their lips,
    but you are far from their hearts. – Jeremiah 12:1-2 NLT

From our earth-bound perspective, it can sometimes appear as if the wicked are being blessed by God. They seem happy and content. Their lives appear to be relatively free from pain and marked by prosperity. But as the saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” Solomon had lived long enough to realize that the righteous and the wicked both experience their fair share of suffering. No amount of wisdom can guarantee a trouble-free life. This was a man who had pursued wisdom in a vain attempt to make sense of the incongruities and inequities of life.

And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 ESV

Solomon had been blessed by God with greater wisdom than any other living man. But he had not been satisfied. Instead, he spent years trying to acquire even more wisdom. It became an obsession. For Solomon, the accumulation of wisdom had become the end-game, rather than recognition and reverence for the One who made wisdom possible.

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright describes wisdom as “not the knowledge of accumulated facts but the inner strength that comes from a God-instructed conscience” (J. S. Wright, Ecclesiastes). John Piper describes wisdom as “that practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. It begins with the fear of the Lord and consists in humbly hearing and doing God’s will perceived both in Scripture and in the unique circumstances of the moment” (John Piper, desiringgod.org, “Get Wisdom”).

Solomon knew and understood the importance of wisdom, so he went out of his way to get his hands on it. But it seems as if he treated it as just another commodity, like gold, silver, horses, houses, chariots, and servants. As John Piper stated, the fear of the Lord is central to getting the full advantage of wisdom. And, of all people, Solomon should have understood that truth. After all, it was he who included the following proverb in his well-known collection:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. – Proverbs 9:10 NLT

But despite his awareness of this truth, Solomon’s self-obsessed accumulation of wisdom left him less than satisfied.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 ESV

Solomon had lived a long life. He had accomplished much and enjoyed all the perks that came with his achievements. And while he could put abundant wisdom at the top of his long list of assets, he still found himself operating in the red.

I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 NLT

Despite his superior intelligence, the only conclusion Solomon could reach was that wisdom was an antidote to foolishness. It was like a vaccine that protected one against infection from folly.

I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:25 NLT

To Solomon, wisdom was nothing more than a panacea against a life of foolishness. He even characterizes folly as a seductive woman.

I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. – Ecclesiastes 7:26 NLT

And Solomon was somewhat of an expert when it came to seductive women. He was addicted to them. You don’t amass 700 wives and 300 concubines without some kind of a physical and psychological obsession with the opposite sex. And so, when Solomon attempted to describe the attractive nature of folly and the life of foolishness, he tended to use the familiar allure of a promiscuous woman.

For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
    and her mouth is smoother than oil.
But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
    as dangerous as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.
For she cares nothing about the path to life.
    She staggers down a crooked trail and doesn’t realize it. – Proverbs 5:3-6 NLT

Solomon knew that a life of foolishness could be highly appealing, but also extremely deadly. It was an equal-opportunity trap that ensnared both men and women. In fact, when he makes the statement, “Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous”, he uses the Hebrew word adam, which can be translated as “man” but is actually a generic term referring to both sexes. Foolishness is not a male-dominated trait. Every human being, regardless of gender, class, educational status, or social standing, is susceptible to the allure of foolishness.

Yet, in verse 28, Solomon seems to be saying that only men can be virtuous.

I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman! – Ecclesiastes 7:28 NLT

It would seem that his use of the term “woman” in the second half of this verse is a direct reference to the seductive woman in verse 26. He is stating that folly is never virtuous. The individual who pursues a life of foolishness will never discover virtue or righteousness. Wisdom can prevent us from succumbing to folly’s temptation, but folly will never produce wisdom or result in a life of righteousness. This is why Solomon closes out this chapter by saying, “God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path” (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NLT). God created men and women to live righteously. But ever since the fall, humanity has made a habit of following a divergent path, pursuing darkness rather than light.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. But pursuing wisdom without a healthy reverence for God simply turns it into a commodity to be coveted and acquired. It becomes the objective rather than a relationship with God. Instead of viewing wisdom as a gift from God, designed to help us live in obedience to Him, we make it our end goal. Wisdom becomes nothing more than a tool to make us smarter, wealthier, healthier, and happier.

Solomon had spent decades in search of the meaning of life. And, in his relentless quest, he had tried wisdom and wickedness, viewing both as potential doorways to his desired destination. But God and a healthy reverence for Him were, and still are, the only ways for a man or woman to discover their true purpose in life and enjoy their days “under the sun.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Heart of the Matter

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:12-26 ESV

I’m sure there was a day when Solomon was fun to be around, but at this point in his life, he comes across as a pessimistic, old curmudgeon who has long lost the capacity to smile. His gloomy rhetoric portrays him as a glass-half-empty kind of guy. But it might be more accurate to say that his glass is bone dry and his temperament is dark and depressing. But he still has his wisdom and the ability to see things that many of us tend to miss. And recognizing his responsibility as the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, Solomon deigned to share his somewhat somber life lessons with others. Which is the whole reason he took the time to write this book.

Solomon seemed to believe that his role as king, equipped with virtually unlimited resources, unbridled autonomy, and unparalleled wisdom, placed him in a unique position to investigate the true meaning of life. So, he did. And he did so with all his heart, expending a great deal of time, money, and energy in his pursuit. In fact, Solomon repeatedly refers to his heart throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. He mentions it no less than eight times in this chapter alone.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” – vs 1

I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom – vs 3

I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. – vs 10

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. – vs 15

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun – vs 20

For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. – vs 23

While Solomon talks a great deal about the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation of possessions, and his many accomplishments and acquisitions, the real focus of his attention is the state of his own heart. Everything he did in life was meant to fill the void that existed there. His focus on external remedies was an attempt to address an internal problem. But he discovered that they were all like mist, fleeting and ephemeral. They brought temporary relief and short-lived satisfaction, but could never address his real problem: The spiritual condition of his heart.

Solomon even viewed the wisdom given to him by God as an insufficient and inadequate resource for addressing his heart problem. From his perspective, he could spend a lifetime using his wisdom to accomplish great good and for achieving noble goals, but when he died, he would leave it all behind, never knowing if his successor would be wise or foolish.

I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 ESV

All his accomplishments, regardless of how significant or praiseworthy, would be left in the hands of another. His wealth, possessions, palace, and even his concubines, would become the possession of someone else. And this thought cast a dark shadow over all of Solomon’s many successes.

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. – Ecclesiastes 2:20-21 ESV

And his conclusion was simple: “This also is vanity and a great evil.

Solomon is not downplaying the significance of hard work or achievement, and he is not suggesting that we simply avoid work altogether. He is addressing the need to live life with a recognition that our time on this earth is limited and we have little to no control over our own destiny. That is why he spends such much time discussing the inevitable futility of life lived under the sun. Generation after generation comes and goes, and the only thing that remains is the earth itself. The sun rises and sets, in a never-ending cycle, and man disappears from the face of the earth in a similar manner, never to be seen again.

All of this led Solomon to conclude: “So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).

We have to be careful when interpreting the meaning behind Solomon’s words. They can come across as defeatist in tone. He sounds like a man who has thrown up his hands in despair and resigned himself to simply endure life until he dies. But notice what he says: “I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 NLT).

This is one of the few times Solomon has mentioned God up to this point. He recognizes that the joy and pleasures of life are a gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated. Solomon is not a fatalist, proposing that we simply give up and fill up our lives with the mindless pursuit of pleasure. He is a realist, who is attempting to share his painful life lessons with others. He is preaching a message that promotes finding enjoyment in the things God has graciously given to mankind. We are to enjoy them, but not worship them. We are to experience pleasure from them, but not make them the source of our pleasure. This perspective was echoed by James. 

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. – James 1:17 NLT

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner shares a powerful insight into Solomon’s message, revealing that the danger we all face is the temptation to worship the gifts more than the Giver, to seek satisfaction from the things of life, instead of the Creator of life.

“. . . in themselves, and rightly used, the basic things of life are sweet and good. Food, drink and work are samples of them, and Qoheleth will remind us of others [cf. 9:7-10; 11:7-10]. What spoils them is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give; a symptom of the longing which differentiates us from the beasts, but whose misdirection is the underlying theme of this book.” – Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance

Solomon ends this chapter with what he believes to be an insight into the ways of God.

God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. – Ecclesiastes 2:26 NLT

Solomon believed that God rewarded those who pleased Him. He shared the commonly held view of his day that God blessed those who were faithful to Him, even taking what belonged to the wicked and giving it to the godly. According to this way of thinking, all the rewards of a life lived well were to be enjoyed in the here-and-now. We get our rewards in this life. And for Solomon, this was further proof of the futility of it all. Even if you worked hard, it really didn’t matter because God could simply take what was yours and give it to someone He deemed as more worthy.

But Solomon failed to recognize what the author of Hebrews understood.

…without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 NLT

Yes, God rewards those who believe in Him and who seek to draw near to Him. But that reward has little to do with this life. It involves the life to come. While God does shower us with many blessings and graciously allows us to enjoy all the pleasures that come with life under the sun, our greatest reward lies in the distant future. Solomon had lost sight of that fact and had immersed himself in a never-ending pursuit of immediate significance and satisfaction. He wanted it all and he wanted it now. But no matter how hard he worked and how much he achieved, he always came to the same disappointing conclusion: “This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.

In his head, Solomon was convinced that satisfaction could only be found in the things of this world. But nothing could fill the void in his heart. Even the temporal blessings of God were unfulfilling because they could be lost or would eventually be left behind. But Solomon was learning the painful yet crucial lesson that nothing would ever fill the God-shaped hole in his heart.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Lot to Learn

10 Do not slander a servant to his master,
    lest he curse you, and you be held guilty.

11 There are those who curse their fathers
    and do not bless their mothers.
12 There are those who are clean in their own eyes
    but are not washed of their filth.
13 There are those—how lofty are their eyes,
    how high their eyelids lift!
14 There are those whose teeth are swords,
    whose fangs are knives,
to devour the poor from off the earth,
    the needy from among mankind.

15 The leech has two daughters:
    Give and Give.
Three things are never satisfied;
    four never say, “Enough”:
16 Sheol, the barren womb,
    the land never satisfied with water,
    and the fire that never says, “Enough.”

17 The eye that mocks a father
    and scorns to obey a mother
will be picked out by the ravens of the valley
    and eaten by the vultures.

18 Three things are too wonderful for me;
    four I do not understand:
19 the way of an eagle in the sky,
    the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
    and the way of a man with a virgin.

20 This is the way of an adulteress:
    she eats and wipes her mouth
    and says, “I have done no wrong.”

21 Under three things the earth trembles;
    under four it cannot bear up:
22 a slave when he becomes king,
    and a fool when he is filled with food;
23 an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
    and a maidservant when she displaces her mistress.

24 Four things on earth are small,
    but they are exceedingly wise:
25 the ants are a people not strong,
    yet they provide their food in the summer;
26 the rock badgers are a people not mighty,
    yet they make their homes in the cliffs;
27 the locusts have no king,
    yet all of them march in rank;
28 the lizard you can take in your hands,
    yet it is in kings’ palaces.

29 Three things are stately in their tread;
    four are stately in their stride:
30 the lion, which is mightiest among beasts
    and does not turn back before any;
31 the strutting rooster, the he-goat,
    and a king whose army is with him.

32 If you have been foolish, exalting yourself,
    or if you have been devising evil,
    put your hand on your mouth.
33 For pressing milk produces curds,
    pressing the nose produces blood,
    and pressing anger produces strife. – Proverbs 30:10-33 ESV

In this next section, Agur shifts the focus of his proverbs from his relationship with God to the need for wisdom when it comes to human interactions. Agur knew that a strong bond with God was essential to having healthy relationships with all those around him. He stresses the need for integrity and honesty. There is no place for slander or false accusations among the godly. Even if someone spread malicious rumors concerning a slave, their lies would only come back and expose them.

And worse yet is the sin of hypocrisy or disingenuous. He gives the example of someone who outwardly curses his father and displays ingratitude toward his mother, all the while considering himself pure in his own eyes. This individual ignores his own inner impurity and, filled with a false sense of pride, looks down on others in disdain. These kinds of people “have teeth like swords and fangs like knives. They devour the poor from the earth and the needy from among humanity” (Proverbs 30:14 NLT). In other words, they have no regard for the less fortunate. Viewing themselves as superior, they see nothing wrong with despising and even taking advantage of the poor and needy. Because they have no understanding of God and His ways, they develop a false view of their own self-importance and treat all others with disdain.

Agur describes their appetite for self-gratification as insatiable, comparing them to a blood-sucking leech.

The leech has two daughters:
    Give and Give. – Proverbs 30:15 ESV

The inference behind this verse is that greed is contagious. In a sense, it is hereditary and is passed down from one generation to another. The leech has two daughters who share the same name: Give. Their desire has become their identity. And Agur goes on to describe the sad reality of a life marked by avarice and gluttony. He uses four familiar illustrations to accentuate the futility of a life marked by dissatisfaction and greed.

There are three things that are never satisfied—
    no, four that never say, “Enough!”:
the grave,
    the barren womb,
    the thirsty desert,
    the blazing fire. – Proverbs 30:15-16 NLT

Sheol or the grave is never satisfied. Its gates never close and there is always room for more. A barren womb never experiences the one thing it most desires: A child. So, it remains unfulfilled and dissatisfied with life. A parched and barren desert will never receive enough rain to transform it into a garden. And a blazing fire will continue to consume wood as long as someone feeds its flames.

With these two verses, Agur introduces an interesting literary device. Five different times, he introduces one of his proverbs with some variation of the phrase:, “There are three things . . . even four.” It seems that Agur is stressing that these lists are not to be considered complete or exhaustive. He could add an endless number of entries to each one. It is almost as if he is inviting the reader to come up with their own illustrations so that they might better understand the message he is attempting to convey.

Agur seems to be stressing that there is a created order to God’s world. There is a way in which things can and should work so that we experience peace and not chaos, calm instead of confusion. And when God’s way is either ignored or rejected, the result can be catastrophic and earth-shattering. It may seem simple and innocent enough, but when we fail to do life according to God’s terms, it never turns out well. When we depart from God’s natural order or path of wisdom, it creates a hole in the fabric of the universe.

in this Proverb, Agur uses this series of “three-four” sayings to act as warnings against life lived outside of God’s prescribed plan. At first glance, they appear somewhat humorous, but upon closer examination, it becomes evident that these sayings are intended to be sobering warnings.

In verses 21-23 we find a list of four seemingly innocent and innocuous individuals who find themselves in improved situations.

There are three things that make the earth tremble—
    no, four it cannot endure:
a slave who becomes a king,
    an overbearing fool who prospers,
    a bitter woman who finally gets a husband,
    a servant girl who supplants her mistress. – Proverbs 30:21-23 NLT

You have a slave who winds up a king, a fool who has an endless supply of food, an unloved woman who lands herself a husband, and a servant girl who ends up taking the place of her master’s wife. Each of these individuals experiences an unexpected and elevated change in their social status that is unaccompanied by a change in their character.

Agur seems to intend them to represent events that are not in keeping with God’s natural order of things. A slave is not meant to become king. If he does, he will tend to take advantage of his newfound power and authority and lord it over those under his control. A fool who refuses to work and is inherently lazy, but who finds himself with an endless supply of food, will gorge himself on it and never learn that blessing is the result of diligence. A bitter, unloved, and unhappy woman who suddenly finds herself a husband will not automatically become satisfied and content. She will continue to struggle with the same issues, driving her husband insane and, ultimately, away. A servant girl who becomes the focus of her master’s affections, even taking the place of his wife, will fail to honor the one for whom she works.

Each of these people is pictured as getting what they long for: power, prosperity, affection, and position, yet they remain dissatisfied and discontent. They have attained their new status unfairly or even unnaturally. Their circumstances have changed apart from God’s natural order of things. It is like a poor couple winning the lottery and suddenly finding themselves rich beyond their wildest imaginations. The likelihood of their situation turning out well is less than ideal. It is likely that their newfound wealth will result in unwanted, but NOT unexpected consequences.

It’s interesting that these examples of unhealthy life changes are stuck between Agur’s statements regarding the blood-sucking leech who is never satisfied and a series of four other creatures that reflect diligence, hard work, and a reliance upon God’s creative order for all things. Get-rich-quick-schemes are warned against all throughout the Proverbs. Laziness is villainized. The expectation of reward without work is discouraged. Achieving the apparent blessings of God without living according to the expectations of God can be dangerous and is to be avoided at all costs. We must do things God’s way, with no shortcuts and no compromises. It has to be His way if you want to experience His blessing.

Even a look at nature reveals that God has created an order to His creation. Within the animal kingdom, there is a clear display of the divine mandate for hard work, organization, diligence, and cooperation. The humble and seemingly insignificant ant provides a compelling illustration of how God has blessed the smallest of His creation with life-sustaining attributes.

There is no place for pride and arrogance within the heart of a man. While men and women may represent the apex of God’s creative order, they are still nothing more than the byproduct of God’s grace. He has made them what they are. He has given them life and blessed them with the capacity to know and obey Him. Unlike insects or animals, humanity has been made in the likeness of God. We have been given the right and privilege of knowing Him. We can commune with the Almighty and enjoy the benefits of His fathomless wisdom. Yet, far too often, we view ourselves with an inordinate and unjustified sense of self-worth, failing to recognize that, without God, we are nothing. Apart from Him, our lives lack meaning and a sense of purpose. And without His wisdom, we become no better off than the rest of the animal kingdom.

So, Agur gives us a parting word of advice.

If you have been a fool by being proud or plotting evil,
    cover your mouth in shame. – Proverbs 30:32 NLT

May we listen to the words of Agur and respond like Job with humility and repentance.

“I know that you can do anything,
    and no one can stop you.
You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’
    It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about,
    things far too wonderful for me.
You said, ‘Listen and I will speak!
    I have some questions for you,
    and you must answer them.’
I had only heard about you before,
    but now I have seen you with my own eyes.
I take back everything I said,
    and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” – Job 42:2-6 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

15 The rod and reproof give wisdom,
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
16 When the wicked increase, transgression increases,
but the righteous will look upon their downfall.
17 Discipline your son, and he will give you rest;
he will give delight to your heart.
18 Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law.
19 By mere words a servant is not disciplined,
for though he understands, he will not respond.
20 Do you see a man who is hasty in his words?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.
21 Whoever pampers his servant from childhood
will in the end find him his heir.
22 A man of wrath stirs up strife,
and one given to anger causes much transgression.
23 One’s pride will bring him low,
but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.
24 The partner of a thief hates his own life;
he hears the curse, but discloses nothing.
25 The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
26 Many seek the face of a ruler,
but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice.
27 An unjust man is an abomination to the righteous,
but one whose way is straight is an abomination to the wicked. – Proverbs 29:15-27 ESV

The life of wisdom begins in childhood. Children are natural-born fools. They come out of the womb with a predisposition for foolishness because they are born with a sinful nature, a sad but all-too-real byproduct of the fall. Many of the proverbs of Solomon are based on the premise that “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15 BSB). That’s why there are numerous proverbs dedicated to the training and discipline of children.

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.– Proverbs 22:6 ESV

Training includes exposing the child to the ways of God and encouraging him to follow the path of the righteous. But when the child fails to obey, loving discipline is required. The child must learn that disobedience comes with serious and sometimes painful consequences. Here in Proverbs 29, we find yet another wise saying that encourages the practice of loving correction so that the child will increase in wisdom rather than foolishness.

To discipline a child produces wisdom,
but a mother is disgraced by an undisciplined child.– Proverbs 29:15 NLT

But the biblical concept of discipline also includes the occasional use of corporal punishment. There will come times when a child needs to experience the painful consequences of his refusal to obey. While a “time out” may be appropriate for a very young child, that kind of behavioral correction will diminish in its effectiveness as the child matures. That’s why the Proverbs encourage a brand of discipline that includes the use of some form of physical punishment.

Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children.
Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.– Proverbs 13:24 NLT

Some people believe in discipline, but not in physical discipline such as spanking. However, the Bible is the final word on what is truth; it is not mere opinion or theory. The word rod indicates a thin stick or switch that can be used to give a small amount of physical pain with no lasting physical injury. A child should never be bruised, injured, or cut by a physical correction. – What does it mean to “spare the rod and spoil the child?”, http://www.gotquestions.org

Our modern culture tends to reject the concept of physical discipline, having deemed it as antiquated and a rather barbaric form of punishment. Instead, parents are encouraged to see the use of reason and logic as a more enlightened means of correction. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with appealing to a child’s intellect, it fails to adequately teach the painful consequences of sinful behavior. That is why the Proverbs are filled with repeated admonitions to not “spare the rod.”

Don’t fail to discipline your children.
    The rod of punishment won’t kill them.
Physical discipline
    may well save them from death. – Proverbs 23:13-14 NLT

And Solomon understood that the concept of loving discipline was not a man-made invention, but the will of God. It was in keeping with the way God disciplines those whom He loves.

My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline,
    and don’t be upset when he corrects you.
For the Lord corrects those he loves,
    just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. – Proverbs 3:11-12 NLT

It is likely that Solomon knew the story of his own birth and its close association with the sin of his own father. David had committed an egregious sin by committing adultery with the wife of one of his own soldiers. Having discovered that his one-night stand had resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, David tried to cover up his sin by ordering the woman’s husband back from the battlefield. His plan was for Uriah to be reunited with his wife so that there might be another explanation for her unexpected pregnancy. but Uriah refused to enjoy the pleasures of his wife’s company while his fellow soldiers suffered on the battlefield. So, David ordered that Uriah be sent back to the front lines and exposed to enemy fire. In other words, David ordered Uriah’s murder.

Upon news of Uriah’s death, David took Bathsheba to be his wife. But the story doesn’t end there. God was displeased with David’s actions. And while Bathsheba eventually gave birth to the son she had conceived with David, God would not allow David to enjoy the “fruit” of his sin. Nathan the prophet delivered the painful news that David’s sin would have devastating consequences.

“…the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin. Nevertheless, because you have shown utter contempt for the word of the Lord by doing this, your child will die.” – 2 Samuel 12:13-14 NLT

David mourned the loss of his child, but God eventually blessed him with another son.

Then David comforted Bathsheba, his wife, and slept with her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and David named him Solomon. The Lord loved the child and sent word through Nathan the prophet that they should name him Jedidiah (which means “beloved of the Lord”), as the Lord had commanded. – 2 Samuel 12:24-25 NLT

Solomon was the byproduct of God’s discipline of David. He was literally “beloved of the Lord” but he understood that his very existence was due to the loving discipline of God. Solomon’s father had committed a terrible sin against God and had paid the price. That’s why Solomon so strongly encouraged the practice of godly, loving discipline.

Discipline your children, and they will give you peace of mind
and will make your heart glad.– Proverbs 29:17 NLT

Solomon understood that instruction alone was not enough. To simply teach someone the ways of God was no guarantee that they would walk in them. Successful communication of the rules will not assure compliance because people have to make the choice to obey.

When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild.
    But whoever obeys the law is joyful. – Proverbs 29:18 NLT

That’s why physical discipline is required. Not everyone obeys. Not everyone willingly adheres to the rules. But if disobedience brings attention-getting and sometimes painful consequences, there is a higher likelihood that the sin will not be repeated a second time. As the proverb states, “Words alone will not discipline a servant; the words may be understood, but they are not heeded” (Proverbs 29:19 NLT).

Wisdom reveals that the coddling of a child or a servant will not end well. It will not produce the outcome you desire.

A servant pampered from childhood
    will become a rebel. – Proverbs 29:21 NLT

Those who go through life without the threat of discipline never learn the consequences of their sin. They become prideful and arrogant. They display disdain for rules of any kind. They become a disgrace to their parents and a blight on the community. The undisciplined end up becoming increasingly ungodly because they have never learned to fear God. Because their unrighteous behavior has gone unpunished, they never learn to fear the righteous wrath of God.

There is no guarantee that the godly discipline of your children will turn them into godly and God-fearing adults. But no discipline at all will almost always assure that your adult child will be characterized more by foolishness than wisdom.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Abuse of Authority

1 He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,
    will suddenly be broken beyond healing.
When the righteous increase, the people rejoice,
    but when the wicked rule, the people groan.
He who loves wisdom makes his father glad,
    but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth.
By justice a king builds up the land,
    but he who exacts gifts tears it down.
A man who flatters his neighbor
    spreads a net for his feet.
An evil man is ensnared in his transgression,
    but a righteous man sings and rejoices.
A righteous man knows the rights of the poor;
    a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.
Scoffers set a city aflame,
    but the wise turn away wrath.
If a wise man has an argument with a fool,
    the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.
10 Bloodthirsty men hate one who is blameless
    and seek the life of the upright.
11 A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
    but a wise man quietly holds it back.
12 If a ruler listens to falsehood,
    all his officials will be wicked.
13 The poor man and the oppressor meet together;
    the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.
14 If a king faithfully judges the poor,
    his throne will be established forever. 
– Proverbs 29:1-14 ESV

This chapter continues the collection of wise sayings compiled by the officials of King Hezekiah (Proverbs 25:1). We know from 1 Kings 4:32, that Solomon “composed some 3,000 proverbs and wrote 1,005 songs.” Hezekiah’s royal scholars were assigned the task of finding additional proverbs written or edited by Solomon so that they might be added to the original collection. And while there appears to be no clear categorization of these supplemental proverbs, there does appear to be an underlying theme. Since the men who gathered and curated them were working for the king, the proverbs they chose to add have a distinct leadership tone to them.

They reflect an emphasis on the need for godly wisdom at the highest levels of administrative power.

When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice.
    But when the wicked are in power, they groan.Proverbs 29:2 NLT

All of these proverbs can be applied on a broad scale and are not solely applicable to kings and other authority figures. But it almost appears as if the men who collected these sayings were purposefully concentrating their efforts to find those proverbs that would make the greatest impact on their employer: The king.

A just king gives stability to his nation,
    but one who demands bribes destroys it. – Proverbs 29:4 NLT

The sheer number of references to rulers and kings would seem to indicate that there was a concerted effort to choose those proverbs that might influence King Hezekiah to rule wisely and ethically. It was to their benefit that the king behave in a manner that was in keeping with the will of God.

If a ruler pays attention to liars,
    all his advisers will be wicked. – Proverbs 29:12 NLT

If a king judges the poor fairly,
    his throne will last forever. – Proverbs 29:14 NLT

In a way, these men were acting as unofficial counselors to the king by providing him with advice in the form of these Solomonic sayings. As the king read each proverb, he would have been positively impacted by the wisdom found in them. And while many of these sayings have a positive tone to them, there are some that could easily come across as veiled criticism. Hezekiah’s officials must have realized that, with each negative proverb they included, they were at risk of offending their employer. But verse one would have reminded the king that criticism carried just as much weight as a compliment.

Whoever stubbornly refuses to accept criticism
    will suddenly be destroyed beyond recovery. – Proverbs 29:1 NLT

These proverbs have universal application and appeal because all of us long for power in some form or fashion. Any thought of being weak and powerless is naturally repulsive to us. And the truth is, we all wield some kind of authority over someone or something else. The question is – how do we handle power when we have it? Are we fair and just or do we display our power with pride, arrogance, and in an abusive manner?

Authority is a divine concept and God holds those in authority responsible for their actions. God gave Adam and Eve special responsibility to steward His creation. Abraham was given authority by God to serve as the progenitor of a great nation. And Moses was given authority to lead those very same people out of captivity and into freedom. The prophets were given authority to act as God’s spokespersons and proclaim His word to His rebellious people. God gave the disciples authority over demons, disease, and even death.

But all authority can be abused. We can utilize our positions of power or influence for good or bad. A parent can abuse their child, using their authority to destroy the heart and soul of the one they are to nurture and love. A boss can abuse their responsibility, taking advantage of his employees, and overworking them while he underpays them. Politicians and rulers can abuse their authority, ignoring the needs of their constituents in favor of maintaining their party’s power and their own position.

The godly care about the rights of the poor;
    the wicked don’t care at all. – Proverbs 29:7 NLT

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about authority and this chapter is no exception. It reminds us that godly leadership is the best form of leadership because it produces positive benefits for its constituents (verse 2). But ungodly leadership produces pain and heartache for those who must bear up under it.

According to God, the kind of leadership or authority He is looking for is just, fair, compassionate, and caring. In other words, God expects those with authority over others to practice His brand of leadership. He wants them to lead the way He leads. That means we must lead through love. We must discipline on occasion, but always out of love. We must judge at times, but never in an unloving manner. We must guide and direct those under our care with love and not with anger.

Fools vent their anger,
    but the wise quietly hold it back. – Proverbs 29:12 NLT

Authority is a huge responsibility. Ultimately, those in authority will be held responsible by God for their actions. There’s no place for pride, selfishness, greed, or self-gain.

Those who hold positions of authority exist for the good of others. They hold the welfare of others in their hands, whether they lead a nation or a family. But ungodly, unethical leaders can use their influence to stir up trouble and cause dissent.

Mockers can get a whole town agitated,
    but the wise will calm anger. – Proverbs 29:8 NLT

People who hold positions of authority but who lack godly wisdom can be dangerous. They lack insight and are incapable of seeing the world the way God does. They view their power as a right and a privilege and fail to understand that they are no better than the people they oppress and abuse.

The poor and the oppressor have this in common—
    the Lord gives sight to the eyes of both. – Proverbs 29:13 NLT

Because they have no fear of God, they do not realize that He watches over the helpless, hopeless, innocent, and powerless. He will hold those in authority responsible for the manner in which they rule, judge, lead, care for, and protect those under their care. And anyone who holds a position of authority is wise to recognize and constantly remind themselves that God is the ultimate authority. He is the one who is in control of all things. All others report to Him. They owe their positions to Him. They get their right to rule from Him. So they should rule well and lead wisely. They should use their god-given authority responsibly.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

A Leadership Void

15 Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a poor people.
16 A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor,
    but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.
17 If one is burdened with the blood of another,
    he will be a fugitive until death;
    let no one help him.
18 Whoever walks in integrity will be delivered,
    but he who is crooked in his ways will suddenly fall.
19 Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
    but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
20 A faithful man will abound with blessings,
    but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.
21 To show partiality is not good,
    but for a piece of bread a man will do wrong.
22 A stingy man hastens after wealth
    and does not know that poverty will come upon him.
23 Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor
    than he who flatters with his tongue.
24 Whoever robs his father or his mother
    and says, “That is no transgression,”
    is a companion to a man who destroys.
25 A greedy man stirs up strife,
    but the one who trusts in the Lord will be enriched.
26 Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
    but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
27 Whoever gives to the poor will not want,
    but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.
28 When the wicked rise, people hide themselves,
    but when they perish, the righteous increase. 
– Proverbs 28:15-28 ESV

We have a leadership void. Don’t get me wrong; we have no shortage of leaders in this country. It’s just that we don’t have very many godly leaders. There are plenty of ambitious, intelligent, capable, and sometimes even moral men and women who hold positions of leadership in our nation, but most of them lack the wisdom that only God can provide.

The following verse above paints a pretty bleak picture for a nation that finds itself with a moral and spiritual leadership void.

When there is moral rot within a nation, its government topples easily.
    But wise and knowledgeable leaders bring stability. – Proverbs 28:2 NLT

The Message paraphrases verse two this way: “When the country is in chaos, everybody has a plan to fix it – But it takes a leader of real understanding to straighten things out.”

What an apt description of our own country at this stage of the game. We are in chaos, and everybody has a plan to fix it. We have an abundance of “princes” as the NIV describes them. These so-called leaders and a host of political pundits each offer up solutions to our nation’s myriad problems, but none of them really have a clue as to what should be done about the economy, terrorism, or any other issue facing us. They fail to realize that the root of all our problems is a spiritual one.

A wicked ruler is as dangerous to the poor
    as a roaring lion or an attacking bear.

A ruler with no understanding will oppress his people,
    but one who hates corruption will have a long life. – Proverbs 28:15-16 NLT

Because they lack the wisdom of God, these godless rulers have no way of understanding that the troubled economy is a symptom of a much more serious issue. Raising or lowering taxes is not going to fix what is broken. A larger or smaller government will not be the panacea for our problems. In the very next chapter, Solomon gives us the real solution.

When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice.
    But when the wicked are in power, they groan. – Proverbs 29:2 NLT

In other words, when godly men and women lead a nation according to godly principles and provide wisdom and insight directly from God Himself, the people find themselves living in peace and moral prosperity. Godly leaders make godly decisions. They are not selfish and self-centered. They are not greedy and out to benefit only themselves.

Greedy people try to get rich quick
    but don’t realize they’re headed for poverty. – Proverbs 28:22 NLT

Leaders who lack godly wisdom operate in a spiritual vacuum and are unable to see things from God’s perspective. They are motivated by pride and consumed with the need for recognition. But a godly leader views any power they possess as having been given to them by God, to whom they must report and by whom they will be held accountable.

The trustworthy person will get a rich reward,
    but a person who wants quick riches will get into trouble. – Proverbs 28:20 NLT

What we pass off as leadership today is a far cry from what God had in mind. All you have to do is look at Jesus to see what God views as godly leadership. Jesus came to earth to be the Messiah of Israel. He was to be their King and set up His kingdom on earth. And yet, Jesus claimed that He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV).

Jesus came to give His life away for the sake of others. He was concerned with and consumed by the will of His Father. He was obedient to God to the point of laying down His life. He knew that the world’s problems were spiritual in nature and the solution would have to be a spiritual one. Toppling the Roman government was not going to bring peace to the Jews. Only a Savior could heal them from what ailed them. They needed deliverance from sin, not relief from high taxes. They needed dependence on God, not independence from Rome.

Jesus did not come to tell people what they wanted to hear. He refused to tickle their ears with pleasant-sounding platitudes or comforting words designed to placate their guilt. No, as the apostle Paul makes clear, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT). And as this Proverb so powerfully states:

In the end, people appreciate honest criticism
    far more than flattery. – Proverbs 28:23 NLT

Jesus was the ultimate example of a godly leader. After all, He was God in human flesh and as a man, He manifested all the wisdom of God perfectly and completely. Jesus lived to do the will of His Father.

“My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work.” – John 4:34 NLT

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. – John 6:38 NLT

Jesus was not a flatterer or glad-hander. He didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear but, instead, He boldly proclaimed the words of His Heavenly Father and demonstrated the attributes of a godly leader. And His example was emulated by men like the apostle Paul.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else. – 1 Thessalonians 2:4-6 NLT

Paul and his fellow apostles modeled their lives and ministries after Jesus. They fully understood the wisdom found in Proverbs 28:26.

Those who trust their own insight are foolish,
    but anyone who walks in wisdom is safe.

But we live in a day when everyone seems to be doing what is right in their own eyes. Our society is obsessed with the idea of individual autonomy and freedom from restraints of any kind. Everybody wants to be their own king ruling over their kingdom. And yet, when things don’t turn out quite the way we expect, we look to the government or a political leader to bring us relief and restoration. We naively expect a flawed and failed system to deliver us from our self-inflicted predicament.

Yet God has already provided a deliverer in the form of His very own Son. Godly leaders point a nation back to God. They don’t try to act as a substitute for Him. We find ourselves in trouble as a nation, not because of a bad economy, social inequities, or global warming, but because we have appointed leaders who have no respect for God. Without Him, they are helpless and hopeless to lead us because they lack the wisdom required for the job.

We need to pray that God will raise up men and women who know Him, love Him, and are willing to live for Him. But we also need to pray for a spiritual reawakening among the people of God who have become complacent and sometimes even contributors to the moral chaos facing our nation. We lack godly leaders because we have become a godless nation. But the wise see things from God’s perspective and always know there is hope.

When the wicked take charge, people go into hiding.
    When the wicked meet disaster, the godly flourish. – Proverbs 28:28 NLT

In the end, the godly win. The wicked may have their 15 minutes of fame, but the righteous will always come out on top. Those who walk the way of the wise will find that their path ultimately leads to joy, peace, comfort, and blessing.

trusting the Lord leads to prosperity. – Proverbs 28:25 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Cultivating True Community

1 Do not boast about tomorrow,
    for you do not know what a day may bring.
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
    a stranger, and not your own lips.
A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.
Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming,
    but who can stand before jealousy?
Better is open rebuke
    than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
    profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
One who is full loathes honey,
    but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.
Like a bird that strays from its nest
    is a man who strays from his home.
Oil and perfume make the heart glad,
    and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.
10 Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend,
    and do not go to your brother’s house in the day of your calamity.
Better is a neighbor who is near
    than a brother who is far away.
11 Be wise, my son, and make my heart glad,
    that I may answer him who reproaches me.
12 The prudent sees danger and hides himself,
    but the simple go on and suffer for it.
13 Take a man’s garment when he has put up security for a stranger,
    and hold it in pledge when he puts up security for an adulteress.
– Proverbs 27:1-13 ESV

Let’s face it. Relationships are messy. Living with others can be difficult at times. But there is a huge advantage to living in true biblical community. And the Proverbs have a lot to say about the impact of wisdom and foolishness on our relationships. While we can attempt to isolate ourselves from interaction with others, no one lives in a vacuum. And, whether we like it or not, we will eventually end up dealing with people from all walks of life and from every conceivable background. Even a few fools will cross our path as we navigate our way through life.

But this chapter continues to differentiate between the wise and the foolish, describing how each displays certain characteristics – some to be emulated and others to be avoided.

When it comes to relationships, a fool is self-centered, myopic, and tends to only think about himself. He lives his life with a certain level of insensitivity and never thinks about how his words and actions will impact those around him. In fact, he doesn’t even care. Because of their self-focused manner of life, fools tend to think too highly of themselves and have a distorted view of reality. That’s why the wise person should heed the following advice.

Don’t brag about tomorrow,
    since you don’t know what the day will bring

Let someone else praise you, not your own mouth—
    a stranger, not your own lips. – Proverbs 27:1-2 NLT

Instead, a man or woman of wisdom should readily accept their responsibility to care about and for those around them, and they should live accordingly.

Fools tend to leave a wake of disrupted relationships in their path. They are relationship wreckers who allow resentment, anger, and jealousy to wreak havoc on all those around them.

A stone is heavy and sand is weighty,
    but the resentment caused by a fool is even heavier.

Anger is cruel, and wrath is like a flood,
    but jealousy is even more dangerous. – Proverbs 27:3-4 NLT

Those who care about community understand that words are powerful. They know that there will be times when words of encouragement are needed, but also times when a word of warning or rebuke is necessary. In a healthy relationship, to withhold a much-deserved rebuke is as wrong as refusing to express our love verbally.

An open rebuke
    is better than hidden love!Proverbs 27:5 NLT).

While correction and criticism are never easy to receive, a true friend will care enough about us to tell us the hard truth.

Wounds from a sincere friend
    are better than many kisses from an enemy.Proverbs 27:6 NLT)

Fools make a habit of telling others what they want to hear. They use flattery to win others over but never truly mean what they say. And while a fool will butter someone up by telling them how wonderful they are, they will overlook the faults that are preventing that person from being who God wants them to be. False flattery is deadly. It puffs us up and gives us a false sense of confidence and feeds our self-righteousness. But a true friend will tell us the truth, even if it hurts.

As iron sharpens iron,
    so a friend sharpens a friend. – Proverbs 27:17 NLT

Friendships should involve some friction but it should be productive and not destructive. As we rub up against one another in our relationships there should be a certain give-and-take that allows us to push, prod, and pull each other towards increased righteousness.

But if we are honest, we have to admit that many of our relationships are shallow and dishonest. We refuse to speak the truth into one another’s lives. We openly tolerate godlessness and flatter one another with words of kindness when what we really need is a swift kick in the pants and a dose of reality.

The heartfelt counsel of a friend
    is as sweet as perfume and incense. – Proverbs 27:9 NLT

Yet, many of us are afraid to play hardball in our relationships because we fear what others may say about how we live our lives. We’re afraid that if we critique someone else’s life, it will leave the door open for them to return the favor. And, most likely, they will. But we should welcome it.

The truth is, most of us have no idea what we’re really like. We can’t see our faults and weaknesses. Our foolish friends will leave us thinking we don’t have any. But a true friend will point them out in a loving, caring way, and help us take steps to correct them. They are able to see the true condition of our hearts, something we can’t do on our own. ”

As a face is reflected in water,
    so the heart reflects the real person.Proverbs 27:19 NLT

We need one another. We need real relationships that produce real-life change. True biblical community is messy. It involves transparency, accountability, honesty, humility, patience and love. It takes work, but it is worth it. Cultivating true community has long-term, real-life benefits.

Never abandon a friend—
    either yours or your father’s.
When disaster strikes, you won’t have to ask your brother for assistance.
    It’s better to go to a neighbor than to a brother who lives far away. – Proverbs 27:10 NLT

You never know when you will need the help or counsel of a true friend. Life is full of all kinds of surprises and, in times of difficulty, you want to be surrounded by those who can step in and help. But you’ll want to make sure you’ve surrounded yourself with wise friends and not fools.

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions.
    The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences. – Proverbs 27:12 NLT

Prepare for the inevitable setbacks in life and maintain ongoing relationships with people who can provide wise counsel when you need it. In times of difficulty, a few friends with wisdom are of far greater value than a host of fools who lack sense. Life is too short and relationships are too important to waste your time cultivating friendships with fools.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Taming of the Tongue

17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own
    is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.
18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
19 is the man who deceives his neighbor
    and says, “I am only joking!”
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out,
    and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
22 The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
    they go down into the inner parts of the body.
23 Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel
    are fervent lips with an evil heart.
24 Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips
    and harbors deceit in his heart;
25 when he speaks graciously, believe him not,
    for there are seven abominations in his heart;
26 though his hatred be covered with deception,
    his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
27 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it,
    and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.
28 A lying tongue hates its victims,
    and a flattering mouth works ruin.
– Proverbs 26:17-28 ESV

When I think of the Proverbs I can’t help but think about the fool. This collection of wise sayings from the pen of Solomon contains a large number of references to the fool and foolish behavior. It also mentions other behavior closely associated with the fool, such as laziness, lying, dishonesty, unreliability, and an uncontrolled tongue. Some of the things Solomon has to say about fools seem humorous when you read them, but they are meant to be taken seriously. “Honoring a fool is as foolish as tying a stone to a slingshot” (Proverbs 26:8 NLT). The image this Proverb conjures up is meant to be ridiculous and ludicrous. Nobody in their right mind would do something as silly as tying a stone to a sling. It makes no sense. It would serve no purpose. It would be a waste of time. And that’s exactly Solomon’s point. Showering honor on a fool is useless and will produce no beneficial results. As The Message paraphrases this verse, honoring a fool would be “like setting a mud brick on a marble column.” Absolutely ridiculous.

So why does Solomon have it out for fools? Why does he have such strong words of warning against foolish people and foolish behavior? Because he understands the danger they pose to themselves and to society. In Solomon’s mind, fools are the epitome of the person who lives their life as if there is no God. David, Solomon’s father, had warned him early on in life, “Only fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good” (Psalm 53:1 NLT). In the minds of David and Solomon, the fool was not some innocent, bumbling buffoon who just happened to be a few bricks short of a full load. No, fools were a danger to society because they failed to honor God with their lives. Fools were pariahs and a drain on society, because of their refusal to work and their tendency to excuse their laziness with lies. They didn’t carry their load and were not to be trusted or tolerated. In this section of chapter 26, the emphasis seems to be on their words, which were worthless because they refused to listen to the wisdom of God.

Fools are just as prevalent today as they were in Solomon’s day. But we have become so much more tolerant of them. We have fools in places of power and influence. We watch fools entertain us on TV and in the movies, then listen intently as they share their words of wisdom with us on everything from marriage to politics and religion. We idolize and envy them for their lifestyles of excess and hedonism. Our government is well-stocked with fools who use clever words and inspiring speeches to win over constituents and solidify their power base. Yet as Solomon warns:

Smooth words may hide a wicked heart,
    just as a pretty glaze covers a clay pot.

People may cover their hatred with pleasant words,
    but they’re deceiving you.
They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them.
    Their hearts are full of many evils.Proverbs 26:23-25 NLT

And fools populate the body of Christ as well. Yes, you can be a believer in Jesus Christ and still live like a fool. A fool is simply someone who actively spurns the ways of God. He lives his life as if there is no God in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And the fool is one who hears God’s call but refuses to listen. The Christian fool is the man or woman who is spiritually lazy, avoiding the effort demanded to live according to God’s standards. They refuse to spend time in God’s Word, making up all kinds of excuses. They want the benefits of godliness without putting in any effort. They learn to cover what is really in their hearts with “smooth words.” They pretend to be something they’re not, and they are a danger to the body of Christ. Foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. It is the natural and unavoidable consequence of a life lived apart from the life-changing wisdom of God found in His Word. Avoid the fool at all costs. Avoid foolishness at all costs.

And do everything in your power and with the Holy Spirit’s help to avoid sounding like a fool. It’s amazing how much the Book of Proverbs has to say about the tongue, which is just another way of talking about what comes out of our mouths. From flattery to lying, gossip to arguing, and rumors to wise words, there are countless passages that warn us about watching what we say. But as challenging as it is to keep a close eye on our tongue and the words it produces, we must also be wary of the words others speak to us.

It is amazing just how susceptible we can be to the words of others. As human beings, we can be so desperate for praise that we become easy prey for those who have less-than-righteous objectives. We can easily be taken in by flattery and false praise, which can be a dangerous mistake to make.

Solomon warns us to look beyond the words themselves to the heart of the one speaking. Words can be used to hide true motives, disguise intent, and distract the hearer by telling them what they want to hear. Like colorful glaze used to cover a drab clay pot, smooth-sounding words may be just a cover up to dress up what’s really there.

These kinds of people know full well what they’re doing. They’re hiding what’s really in their hearts and attempting to make you think that all is well. This can happen between a husband and wife, a parent and child, two friends, or two fellow believers. The real danger is that because we can be so susceptible to smooth words, we end up soaking in what they’re saying like a dry sponge. We’re so desperate to hear words of praise and flattery that we fail to consider the source or think about the intent.

Solomon makes it clear that he is talking about those who have wicked hearts that are filled with evil. He is warning us against people who have a reputation for hatred and wrongdoing. And yet, we can find ourselves actually buying into their lies because we find their deceptive words so appealing. We can be so desirous of kind words, that we will accept from even the most suspect source. But Solomon warns, “Don’t believe them!”

They’re lying. They don’t believe what they’re saying and you shouldn’t either. Consider the source. Think carefully about the heart of the one praising you. “A lying tongue hates its victims, and flattering words cause ruin” (Proverbs 26:28 NLT). Do not allow your need for praise to numb you to the truth.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were portrayed as dangerous and devious creatures, who usually took the form of beautiful women in distress and lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices. Casting caution to the wind and falling prey to the flattering cry of the Sirens, these seasoned sailors would steer their ships directly into the rocks along the coastline, resulting in their own deaths.

Remember, “They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them. Their hearts are full of many evils” (Proverbs 26:25 NLT). The wisdom of God gives discernment. It opens our eyes to the truth. Without it, we will listen to the smooth words and be deceived by the glossy veneer. To our own detriment. Don’t listen to the Siren’s call.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.