The advice to nobility continues, with an emphasis to watch out for certain kinds of people. We remind ourselves that “fool” and “folly” refer to a failure to subject the mind to the supremacy of the heart. Thus, it is more about the lack of moral discernment as the cause for acting silly.
1. As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honor is not becoming for a fool. The cited weather conditions are completely out of place in Palestine, as is treating a fool as a substantial member of society.
2. As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse without cause shall not come. This is not the best translation. The first is more like a sparrow flitting about, the second a swallow that darts back and forth and never seems to perch anywhere. Thus, a curse uttered contrary to God’s moral character will never alight.
3. A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back. In the minds of ancient Hebrew people, you wouldn’t ride a horse without whip to urge them when they tired, and you certainly couldn’t maintain control over an onager without a bit and bridle. The rod was both symbol of authority and punitive implement. The obvious point is that you can train, but cannot educate a fool.
4-5. Do not answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his foolishness, so that he may not be wise in his own eyes. This is not a self-contradiction if you catch the second part of each statement for context. Hebrew figures of speech could be ambiguous, same as in most other languages. Thus, don’t take a fool seriously or he’ll draw you into his folly. Rather, answer in such a way that you make it clear you think he’s a fool.
6-9. He who sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off the feet and drinks down damage. The legs of the lame are not equal; so is a parable in the mouth of fools. As he who binds a stone in a sling, so is he who gives honor to a fool. As a thorn goes up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouth of fools. We can never be completely rid of fools, so they do have their place in this world. These are examples where they don’t fit. Trying to use a fool as messenger is like cutting off your feet or drinking poison. Even if you teach a fool the meaning of a parable, they’ll use it wrong. Taking a fool seriously is about as smart as stitching a stone into the pocket of a sling. And just how well can a drunk pull out a thorn? Don’t empower a smart-aleck.
10. Great is the Former of all, but he who hires a fool is like one who hires one passing by. The Hebrew is ambiguous and translations vary. It seems the common essence is that a fool is the threat you recognize; treat him with the same care and suspicion you would some random foreigner.
11-12. As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly. Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. The only dogs a Hebrew encountered were dangerous sly predators, so we have a large cultural gap here. Yet even Westerners are repulsed by this behavior in dogs, and science has no good answer as to why they do it, beyond the mere fact dogs just don’t care. They’ll eat anything and this is the point of the Hebrew reference. Thus, a fool learns nothing from bad experiences, and should be as repulsive as dogs were to ancient Hebrews. Bad as that is, a conceited man is even worse.
13-15. The lazy one says, “There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets.” As the door turns upon its hinges, so does the lazy man turn upon his bed. The lazy man hides his hand in his bosom; it grieves him to bring it again to his mouth. While we’ve seen these before, the context of advice for nobility adds a new dimension. Don’t pamper even your own kin; provide for them according to their willingness to get their hands dirty with the work of the household.
16. The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can give a reason. Some people are simply efficient, having paid attention and thought about what they do. Best of all, they can tell you when inaction pays off. Lazy people can only offer lame excuses as if they were the wisdom of seven wise men combined.
17. He who passes by enraging himself over strife not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears. When you run upon a conflict in progress, you aren’t likely to have a clue which side is just. Jumping in on either side will almost surely get you hurt. It’s best to cultivate a repulsion for public disputes.
18-19. Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, so is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “Am I not joking.” The risk to life from the first is comparable with the risk to social stability (shalom) with the latter. This refers to people who would play head games for their personal amusement, not at all the same thing as a sheikh testing people under his authority.
20-22. Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, the fighting ceases. As coals to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man to kindle fighting. The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly. The rich imagery here translates poorly. A talebearer is someone who keeps pushing something until it starts to come apart. The word translated “quarrelsome” is a general term for stirring up trouble. We’ve all met people with souls so empty that their only source of entertainment is manipulating others into fighting. It doesn’t matter what excuse they claim to justify this, you can tell by the results that they are a threat to shalom. It’s not a bad idea to run off such folk because the wounds can be long term.
23-26. Burning lips and a wicked heart are like a broken piece of pottery with silver waste. He who hates pretends with his lips and stores up deceit within him. When he makes his voice gracious, do not believe him; for seven hateful things are in his heart. He whose hatred is covered by deceit, his wickedness shall be shown before the congregation. It’s easy to miss the point of the pottery image. A potshard, while useful in some few cases, like skimming dross off of molten silver, is still just a chunk from a shattered vessel. It might be interesting to look at with the shiny coating, but it has no value. So in other words, it’s just junked coated with pretty junk, the same as someone with a talent for persuasion hiding a predatory soul. Expose such a fraud.
27. Whoever digs a pit shall fall into it; and he who rolls a stone, it will return on him. The translation misses a figure of speech. More than a pit, it’s a trap. And it’s not just any stone, but one big enough for building. Those who use traps will eventually get caught in their own deceptions. People who try to destabilize social structure will be crushed when it collapses.
28. A lying tongue hates those afflicted by it, and a flattering mouth works ruin. The subtle point here is that there is no difference between flattery and outright lies. This is a warning to those with a needy ego that there is always someone willing to butter you up to destroy you.