Bible Commentary: Proverbs 25:28-26:28

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Proverbs 25:28-26:28

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First Part of Hezekiah's Solomonic Collection

8. Portrait of a Fool (Proverbs 25:28–26:12)

"TYPE: THEMATIC, CATCHWORD....These verses describe the fool in all his destructiveness. The word for 'fool' is something of a catchword here as well, as indicated by its frequent repetition.

• "Proverbs 25:28–26:2 The collection begins with three similes (25:28–26:2) on foolish actions" (NAC). The person without self-control (Proverbs 25:28)—certainly a foolish person—is vulnerable to destruction in various forms. Proverbs 26:2 shows that curses don't happen by themselves. They cannot "land" (come down on people) without some cause. A parallel is drawn here with something else that cannot happen—a bird cannot land (literally speaking) if it is flitting and fluttering about. In context, the point seems to be either that fools are responsible for curses that come or that dealing improperly with fools—contrary to the warnings here—results in curses. As an example of the latter, "giving honor to a fool is not only inappropriate (snow in summer) but destructive (rain in harvest), as the similes imply (Proverbs 26:1), since he may think of himself as competent and actually try to take charge" (NAC; compare verse 8).

• "Proverbs 26:3-5 These verses tell how one should speak to a fool" (NAC). Verse 3 implies that fools don't respond well to reason. They are better guided, like work animals, through strict discipline.

Verses 4-5, as explained in our introduction to the book of Proverbs, are not hard and fast rules that contradict one another. Rather, they go together to illustrate the fact that proverbs are generalizations and that the specific circumstances must be evaluated to know which proverb applies. Consideration was given in our introduction to some modern English proverbs that seem contradictory but are nevertheless true depending on the circumstances. For example, "Many hands make light work" as opposed to "Too many cooks spoil the broth." Both principles are valid, but the situation may call for one or the other. Even so, circumstances will dictate whether to apply "Do not answer a fool according to his folly" or "Answer a fool according to his folly."

As The New American Commentary notes on these verses: "To 'answer a fool according to his folly' is to engage in the same emotional invective [or loud show or drawn-out debate] that the fool uses. On the one hand, one should not deal with a fool on his own terms lest the imitation of folly become habitual [or lest we appear foolish ourselves]. On the other hand, one must sometimes answer fools in the words they understand in order to reprimand them effectively"—or possibly to show others that the fool's argument has not stumped us. Much will depend on the intention of statements made to us. Are these sincere inquiries or meant to trap us? Is the person willing to learn or is he belligerent and unyielding? Sometimes a sarcastic answer is appropriate. Jesus was masterful at knowing how to answer hostile questions.

The rabbinic solution to the apparent contradiction between these approaches, as given in the Talmud (Shabbath 30b) was to apply "verse 4 to foolish opinions on secular subjects which can be ignored, and verse 5 to erroneous ideas in connection with 'learning,' i.e. religious matters, which should be refuted" (Soncino, note on verse 5). Yet there is nothing in the verses in question to support this delineation, whereas the general circumstantial application, supported even by the Jewish Soncino commentary, explains the matter rather sensibly. Of course, the delineation mentioned in the Talmud is worth taking into account in a general circumstantial view.

• "Proverbs 26:6-10 The similes in vv. 6-10 all concern how one should deal with a fool. They are arranged in a chiastic fashion as follows:

A: Committing important business to a fool (v. 6)
            B: A proverb in a fool’s mouth (v. 7)
                        C: Honoring a fool (v. 8)
            B′: A proverb in a fool’s mouth (v. 9)
A′: Committing important business to a fool (v. 10)” (NAC).

In the context of understanding verses 4-5, we may note that the wise consider not only what proverbs say, but how to properly apply them—unlike fools, who, as we see here, don't know how to use proverbs appropriately and may even wield them dangerously (compare verses 7, 9).

The Hebrew of verse 10 is notoriously difficult. While the New King James Version reads, "The great (God) who formed everything/gives the fool (his) hire and the transgressor (his) wages," the NIV reads, "Like an archer who wounds at random/is he who hires a fool or any passer-by." The Expositor's Bible Commentary explains that the first line " is difficult because it can be translated in different ways: rab can mean 'archer,' 'master,' or 'much'; and meholel could mean 'wound' or 'bring forth.' The possibilities include the following: 'A master performs all'; 'A master injures all'; 'An archer wounds all'; or simply 'Much produces (wounds) all.'" The Jewish Soncino commentary, viewing the two lines of the proverb as contrasting, says that "the nearest to the Hebrew text is R[evised] V[ersion] margin, 'A master-worker formeth all things; but he that hireth the fool is as one that hireth them that pass by' (Rashi, quoting R[abbi] Moshe). The thought would then be: if you want a task accomplished, select an expert for the work; to choose a fool is like calling upon a casual passer-by without regard to his competence" (note on verse 10). Expositor's, seeing the colons not as contrasting (with a 'but') but as synonymous (''), argues: "The [first] line must [with the second] express something that is negative—an archer/master who injures/wounds everything. Anyone who hires a fool or a stranger gives them ample opportunity to do great damage. The undisciplined hireling will have the same effect as an archer's shooting at random" (note on verse 10). The point of both these translations, unlike the NKJV rendering, is that important tasks should not be committed to fools, parallel with verse 6—which fits the concentric arrangement outlined above.

Proverbs 26:11-12 Verse 11, which illustrates that fools don't learn from their mistakes, is quoted by the apostle Peter in 2 Peter 2:22 in reference to people who are led out of the sinful ways of this world and yet then return to their former evil ways. Wise people make mistakes, but one is a fool to keep making the same mistake. And Proverbs 26:12 "is an apt closure to this section. The quintessential fool is the one who is so sure he has all the facts of life straight that he refuses to submit to wisdom for instruction and is far worse off than the run-of-the-mill fool" (NAC). Recall from verse 5 that answering a fool according to his folly is sometimes necessary to prevent him from becoming wise in his own eyes.

9. Portrait of a Sluggard (Proverbs 26:13-16)

"TYPE: THEMATIC" (NAC). "These proverbs about the lazy man have a 'can you top this' quality that provides comic relief....Each one belittles laziness and the many outrageous excuses people often use to justify it" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 13-15). Two verses here are on the table of identical proverbs included with the comments on our previous reading. Proverbs 26:13 is identical in meaning to Proverbs 22:13, and Proverbs 26:15 is identical in meaning to Proverbs 19:24. As the last proverb in the previous cluster concerned a fool being wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 26:12), so this cluster ends with a lazy person being wise in his own eyes (verse 16), deeming his sheer brilliance in avoiding work and productivity to be greater than the combined wisdom of a whole group of thinkers—when the fact that he believes this proves just the opposite.

10. Portrait of a Busybody (Proverbs 26:17-22)

"TYPE: THEMATIC....These proverbs discuss anyone who involves himself or herself in the affairs of others, who spreads gossip, or is a general source of mischief. Metaphors of violence and destruction dominate this text since these qualities characterize the aftereffects of the busybody" (NAC).

A person who injects himself into a quarrel not his own is likely to get snipped at and possibly hurt, represented here by the imagery of grabbing a dog by the ears (verse 17). Some take verses 18-19 as condemning any kind of antics, such as modern practical jokes friends might play on one another, but that does not seem to be the point here. As The New American Commentary says: "While practical jokes can be destructive and hurtful [especially if done maliciously with a view to humiliating someone as opposed to good-natured humor that the subject of the prank can himself laugh at later], the larger context here implies that such may not be precisely the nature of the deceit implied here. Rather, this is a person who enjoys gossiping about or tampering with the affairs of other people. Such a person will purposefully confuse others and engage in a kind of social disinformation. When called to account, he or she will treat the whole thing as a game and be oblivious [like a reckless madman] to all the hurt such actions created" (note on verses 18-19). Another idea here might be slanderous jokes. Humor, such a political humor, is often a powerful weapon. And people know that they can better get away with derogatory comments if they are made in a humorous way.

Verse 22 is identical to Proverbs 18:8, warning the reader that while gossip tastes good like choice bites of food, it likewise makes its way to one's innermost being. They have a corrupting effect on one's heart and character.

11. Portrait of a Liar (Proverbs 26:23-28)

"TYPE: THEMATIC....This final 'portrait' rounds off the larger collection of 25:28–26:28. The fool, the meddler, and the liar are the three agents of social discord" (NAC).

Where the NKJV has "silver dross" in Proverbs 26:23 (see also NASB and New JPS Tanakh), several modern Bible versions slightly emend the Hebrew to a meaning of "like glazes"—but this is not necessary, as silver dross was used for glaze. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament notes on this verse: "Silver dross ...refers to the scum or refuse that is thrown off, or falls, in smelting silver (see Proverbs 25:4). In the process of melting and purifying the ore, the silver, oxygen, and lead are separated, leaving lead monoxide as the silver dross. Because of its silvery gloss, this slag was used as a glaze for ceramics." The point of the proverb is that a wicked person's appealing speech conceals what he really is—which is expanded on in verses 24-26.

Verse 27 shows that those who lay traps for others will be caught in their own snares, an idea found elsewhere in the Old Testament as well (Psalm 7:15; Psalm 9:15; Ecclesiastes 10:8).