Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent. (NLT)
Most of us have encountered fools in our lives. Some of us have been fools. One of the most annoying things in life is a fool who just won’t shut up. I have encountered a few. On one ship I served on we had an engineer cadet who was nicknamed ‘the village idiot’ because of the stupid things he said. It wasn’t that he was unintelligent, just that he never ever put his brain in gear before opening his mouth. As a cadet it was doubly stupid to make himself so visible through saying stuff that identified him as a fool. In my day cadets had to know when to speak and when not to speak.
The same thing is true for us all. We need to know when to speak, how to speak, and when to hold our tongues, however difficult that may be in a given situation. Such wisdom extends also to the written word. How easy it is to write an angry email or text message and hit the send button before we have properly considered the words we have used, and their potential impact. I once hit reply instead of forward on an email in which I had used the words ‘lazy Lenny’ to describe the Swedish individual whose email I thought I was forwarding. Imagine my shock when he replied a minute later advising me, “I am not ‘lazy Lenny lying on the beach all day drinking beer.” However, he did respond very quickly with the translation he had told me would take him at least two weeks.
So if a fool can appear wise just by keeping his mouth shut (or by not immediately hitting the send button on a mail programme or cellphone) then there is hope for all of us, especially those of us who would never consider ourselves to be foolish.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19 NIV)
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:9-12 NIV)
A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him.
Foolish children bring grief to their father and bitterness to the one who gave them birth. (NLT)
This is an easy one for me to write given the many times I brought grief to my parents. However, I could blame them. I could say that it was their fault for moving to England when I was eleven years old. Perhaps if we had remained in Guernsey I would have been a better student, and a more respectful son. The friends I left behind in the island all stayed on at school until they were eighteen, and then went to university. I don’t recall that any of them got into much trouble.
Surroundings and friends definitely played a part, but at the end of the day it was me who made the decisions. I chose to mix with the bad kids and mess around at school. I chose to start drinking alcohol at fifteen, and I chose to start smoking. I chose to bring grief to my parents. They must have been secretly relieved when I joined the Merchant Navy at sixteen. At least they could no longer see what I was getting up to. But that didn’t stop me from being a foolish son. What stopped me was the need to be responsible in a working environment that was dangerous at times.
Fast forward many years and I have four sons, one daughter, and one grandson. There may have been occasions when one or more them (but not the grandson) have caused grief, but fortunately not so many. That is something for which I am very grateful to my heavenly Father. We sometimes forget that we cause Him grief too when we act foolishly as sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. It is a huge relief to know that He made a way for fools to be forgiven, and foolish behavior forgotten.
“A man void of understanding striketh hands, and becometh surety in the presence of his friend.”
“It’s poor judgment to guarantee another person’s debt or put up security for a friend.” (NLT)
What should you do when a good friend asks you to guarantee his or her debt, or put up security for a home or a loan? Your answer may depend to some extent on your own financial circumstances, but the fact that such advice appears in the book of Proverbs, suggests that wisdom should be involved.
I found myself in this position several years ago. Friends had fallen on hard times, largely because of a lack of wisdom in financial matters. Money from the sale of a house got spent, and eventually they ended up in rented accommodation. My wife and I helped them out as much as we could, but soon realized that he in particular needed to make some changes in approach and attitude to their financial affairs.
Then one day he arrived on the doorstep, and over a cup of coffee asked if I could stand as guarantor for another property he wanted to rent. With a heavy heart I told him I could not, even though he repeatedly told me that there was no risk to me as he would be able to pay the rent. I had no confidence that he could, and I knew that it was wrong to place my family at risk. Eventually, my friend acknowledged that he had to bring his expenditure in line with his income and downsized. We remained friends, although they live in another part of the country now.
If I had stood as guarantor and my friend had defaulted I would have been required to pay his rent. This would have made it difficult for me to meet my own outgoings. I wish I had known about this verse in Proverbs at the time. I remember the bad feeling inside when I refused to help my friend, but it was absolutely the right decision. How much wisdom do we miss out on by failing to study God’s word, and by forgetting to listen for His gentle whisper.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13 NIV)
“The beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water: therefore leave off contention, before it be meddled with.”
“Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.” (NIV)
In Proverbs 17:12 Solomon used ‘bear wisdom’ to make a point. While this verse advised that it was better to confront a bear robbed of her cubs than an idiot indulging in foolishness the point is the same. There are things we can say or do that once initiated are unstoppable. Get in the way of an angry bear searching for her cubs and you probably will not live to tell the tale. If you stand in front of a dam as it breaches you will get swept away, never to be seen again.
Dam breaches have featured in several movies. The most obvious, and perhaps the most memorable for me, is the wartime story of The Dam Busters in which bouncing bombs were dropped to breach important dams with the aim of interrupting hydroelectric power generation and flooding an important German industrial area. Superman dealt with a dam breach in a movie, and X-Men 2 concluded with a dam breaching threatening lives and taking lives. Poor workmanship lead to a dam breach in the movie Evan Almighty, with a torrent of water flooding a valley and sweeping Evan’s Ark away and through the streets of Washington all the way to the United States Capitol.
The problem in comparing the movies with real life is that either we don’t get the full story, or it never quite happened/happens that way. The German dams that were breached were soon rebuilt as the Allies failed to carry out any follow-up raids. The other three movies mentioned above all involve fantasy rather than reality.
What is reality? Anyone who has ever had a heated argument knows the reality is that there are no winners, only losers. A wise person should understand that arguments do not deliver peace. With two opposing views, one person must always compromise.
Strife is never good. Not at home, not at college, not at work, and not at church. So drop the matter – before a dispute breaks out.
“An evil man seeketh only rebellion: therefore a cruel messenger shall be sent against him.”
“Evil people are eager for rebellion, but they will be severely punished” (NLT).
History is full of stories of rebellion. Some succeeded, but many failed. While not all of those who rebel against authority are evil, motive is rarely taken into consideration when rebellions are crushed.
One famous incident in British history concerned six agricultural laborers who reacted to the unfair treatment that they and their colleagues suffered. They met together and under an oath of secrecy formed a trade union. The local squire was not happy about the prospect of a unionized workforce, and action was taken to stamp out this act of rebellion. Six workers were arrested and charged with taking an illegal oath. They were sentenced to transportation to Australia and seven years hard labor.
While many of us today would probably fancy a trip down under to take in the sights and the sun, this was no tourist trip. Transportation to Australia and the conditions for convicts who were sent to Australia were brutal. While few returned, the Tolpuddle Martyrs as they became known were pardoned and freed after three years. Freedom came after a huge campaign by the British working class, and the presentation of a petition containing 800,000 names to Parliament.
Rebelling against the establishment, or against the rulers of this world is one thing. But what about the rebellion of humanity against God? The Bible records many examples involving the people of Israel. Their attitude soon after their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt seems unbelievable. After Moses climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God, the people persuaded Aaron to make a golden calf for them to worship instead of God.
It is easy to judge others. We can look back in amazement at the golden calf incident without considering whether there are any golden calves in our lives. We may compare ourselves with the Tolpuddle Martyrs and think that because we are not engaging in an evil rebellion we will not receive a severe punishment. But consider a child receiving punishment from a loving parent. My own experience of punishment for childhood misdemeanors was that the hurt I saw in my parents’ eyes was more of a punishment than anything they devised to persuade me that I should mend my ways.
We have a loving God in heaven who allows us to call Him Father. His Son took the severest punishment possible so that God did not have to punish us. So why do we rebel against Him? If we consider the hurt and the pain He suffers when we choose golden calves in our lives instead of Him, then perhaps we will begin to understand the extent and the cost of His love for us, and how much He values it when we return His love, and destroy our golden calves.
A gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him that hath it: whithersoever it turneth, it prospereth.
A bribe is like a lucky charm; whoever gives one will prosper! (NLT)
Other translations of this verse use the word bribe instead of gift. Strong’s translates the word as a donation, bribe, gift, present or reward. Matthew Henry’s take on this proverb is that: ‘Those who set their hearts upon money, will do any thing for it. What influence should the gifts of God have on our hearts!’ What influence indeed?
There is a further warning about gifts/bribes in the book of Exodus when the law was being given to the nation of Israel:
And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous. (Exodus 23:8 KJV)
My first experience of bribery occurred in the 1970s when there was port congestion in the Persian Gulf, and many ships and their crews waited months at anchor for a pilot and a berth in port to discharge or load cargo. I spent three weeks there at anchor in 1975. Each day a small boat would come out to us (and all the other ships) and a man in uniform would demand to see our Captain. Each day the request was the same, “200 cigarettes and a bottle of whisky, Captain, and you get your pilot tomorrow.” No doubt many captains were tempted to provide such a bribe, uncertain of whether the uniformed official had the power to provide a pilot. Our Captain refused to meet such requests. He had other plans. But similar challenges were often faced in other foreign ports when various officials expected to be paid to make things happen. Like the man in the uniform in the Persian Gulf, their hearts had become focused on what they could get in material terms.
I think Matthew Henry got the meaning of this verse absolutely correct. If money and the like are what warm your heart, then eventually you may do anything for the sake of money or gifts. What influence should the gifts of God have on our lives? How are we investing these gifts, and how are they changing our values? Jesus taught that it was more important to seek the Kingdom of Heaven than anything else:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46 NIV)
“Excellent speech becometh not a fool: much less do lying lips a prince.”
“Eloquent words are not fitting for a fool; even less are lies fitting for a ruler.” (NLT)
If you Google ‘Prince Philip gaffes’ you might be surprised to read some of the things the husband of Queen Elizabeth has said in an official capacity. It’s not that Prince Philip is a fool. On the contrary he is an educated man who served as an officer in the Royal Navy. He has also been an excellent husband who has never failed to support the Queen as she has served the UK since 1952. Prince Philip just has a knack of putting his foot in it. Examples include:
- To Cayman Islanders: “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?”
- To Scottish driving instructor, 1995: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”
- When offered wine in Rome in 2000, he snapped: “I don’t care what kind it is, just get me a beer!”
- To Elton John on his gold Aston Martin in 2001: “Oh, it’s you that owns that ghastly car, is it?”
- “Where’s the Southern Comfort?” When presented with a hamper of goods by US ambassador, 1999.
While Prince Philip may be able to get away with making numerous verbal gaffes, his wife the Queen cannot. If you Google ‘Queen Elizabeth gaffes’ the results all feature gaffes made by other people when dealing with the Queen. As the constitutional monarch of the UK the Queen has ruled with wisdom for over sixty years. She is widely respected, even by citizens who do not approve of royalty.
Although this proverb speaks of fools and princes it has a message for all who profess to be followers of Jesus, who Timothy says will reign with Him:
If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us; if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13 NIV)
Paul admitted being a fool for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:10) but we need to be very careful in what we say, and how we speak. The advice given by James is that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Lies are but one of many things that are not fitting for someone who is destined to rule with Christ.
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”
Being slow to get angry is not an easy task for most of us. It is quite interesting for me to consider my five children when I read this verse. Some of them fly off the handle very quickly, but only one was ever slow to anger. This stood him in good stead on the rugby pitch where provocation is often rife. There came a day when he was fifteen years old when my son did lose his temper. He punched another player who then had to leave the pitch and visit the local A&E, where coincidentally my wife was one of the two duty nurses, and my next-door neighbor was the other.
It seems that everyone saw the punch except the referee. But nobody condemned my son, except my wife who wasn’t too pleased when she found out that her son was responsible for her patient in A&E (be sure your sins will always find you out!). The other players in my son’s team and the sports teachers who had accompanied the team to the match knew that my son was slow to anger and that on this occasion a one-off well-timed and accurately targeted punch was appropriate. The boys on the opposing team more than certainly knew that their teammate on the receiving end deserved what he got because of his behavior during the match. The same boy spent hours scouring the town center (downtown for US readers) with two of his friends looking for my son to take revenge. Brave boy. Three to get one.
James, the brother of Jesus, repeats and adds to this proverb in the New Testament:
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. (James 1:19 NLT)
What excellent advice. And by the way, they won the match, which was a semi-final in the U15s Anglo-Welsh cup. My son’s team went on to win in the final. I can’t help but think that one reason they won was because as a team they were slow to react to provocation, leaving them free to focus on the match.
He that laboureth laboureth for himself; for his mouth craveth it of him.
The laborer’s appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on. (NIV)
I meet with a spiritual director/mentor several times a year. During one visit he gave me a card with three questions to be considered during the time I spent with him, and in quiet retreat during that day:
- What occurs in my life that nurtures me spiritually?
- What occupies the space at the center of my life (i.e. what captivates me)?
- What drives me and motivates me?
I added a further question to the card during the day: What distracts me?
When I read this Proverb I find myself asking the same questions again. What I am so hungry for that my appetite drives me on? Is there anything distracting me, getting in the way of my progress? The words of this Proverb directly challenge me about my spiritual welfare and growth. If I am no longer hungry, then I may become lazy and complacent, two attributes that God does not expect in followers of His Son.
Is your appetite for spiritual things constantly nagging away, driving you to feed your hunger?
- What occurs in your life that nurtures you spiritually?
- What occupies the space at the center of your life (i.e. what captivates you)?
- What drives you and motivates you?
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35 NIV)