TheOld Testament. Several Hebrew words are rendered "fool, " with nuances ranging all the way from the naive but teachable person ( Prov 14:15 peti [yit.P], derived from the Hebrew root meaning "open, " hence impressionable ) to the hopelessly incorrigible person who deserves no corrective efforts since such will be in vain ( Prov 26:3 kesil [lyis.K] ). In most cases the context will help the reader determine which of the many meanings is to be preferred.
The heaviest concentration of the Hebrew words referring to foolishness is in the Wisdom literature, where the fool is constantly contrasted with the wise. The fool is not so much stupid (except when the context demands such a meaning) as immoral and pernicious. The fool's problem is not so much intellectual as practical and spiritual. In fact, the terms "wise" and "fool" are used by the sages to designate respectively the faithful and the sinners. This characterization is well depicted in the competition between Wisdom and Folly for the attention and loyalty of the young man. Folly is a seductress who seeks to allure the young man away from the wife of his youth ( Prov 5:18 ). She personifies more than stupidity. She is immorality and adultery ( Prov 6:23-35 ; 7:6-27 ; 9:13-18 ). The fool is the naive person who succumbs to her amorous overtures.
A further insight into the nature of the fool is provided by the Hebrew word nabal [l'b"n]. This is the word used in Psalm 14:1, where the fool declares, "There is no God." Not only is the fool immoral, he is also godless. His mind is closed to God (as Nabal's mind was closed to reason 1 Sam 25:25 ). He conducts his life without any recognition of God and thus is corrupt and perverse ( Psalms 14:1 Psalms 14:3 ). He does not fear the Lord and hence knows nothing of wisdom ( Prov 1:29 ). The same Hebrew term is also applied to the nations. Wisdom is seen as the gift of God, expressed in the Torah. To be without it as the Gentile nations were ( Deut 32:21 )or to ignore it as Israel did ( Deut 32:6 )is to be foolish.
The New Testament. There are fewer Greek terms employed for the fool and these are essentially negative, indicating that the fool is lacking in sense and intelligence. The gravity of the condition of the fool can be seen in the warning of Jesus that to call a person such is to be in danger of "the fire of hell" ( Matt 5:22 ). The designation "fool" is considerably more derogatory than other terms of abuse. Clearly, to be a fool in this biblical sense is a serious matter.
Paul makes frequent ironic reference to foolishness, particularly in 1 and 2 Corinthians. He deprecates the wisdom of the world, which characterizes God's action in Jesus as nonsensical and scandalous. Human understanding erroneously takes God's wisdom to be foolishness and God's strength to be weakness since God's actions do not fit human reason or expectation. Indeed, from a worldly perspective God uses the foolish thing and calls the foolish person ( 1 Cor 1:27-28 ).
Paul characterizes his self-defense in 2 Corinthians as foolish. He is forced by circumstances to employ worldly methods of refutation of charges arraigned against him ( 2 Cor 11:1-6 ). He is forced to fight fire with fire. Further he recognizes that he is considered a fool by the world because of his suffering for the gospel ( 1 Cor 4:10 ).
Elsewhere in the New Testament foolish has a more conventional sense. Believers are urged not to be foolish ( Eph 5:15-16 ) and to distinguish carefully between heavenly and earthly wisdom ( Jas 3:13-18 ).
This negative attitude toward foolishness is understandable when its practices are observed. Among these practices are: relying on earthly wealth ( Luke 12:20 ); failing to recognize that the ministry of Jesus is God's visitation to claim his own bride ( Matt 25:1-13 ); turning away from the gospel of grace to legalism ( Gal 3:1-3 ); worshiping the creature rather than the Creator ( Rom 1:18-23 ); and abrogating the demands of God with meaningless distinctions ( Matt 23:16-22 ). Perhaps even more significant than the above characteristics is a failure to act on the words of Jesus by building a house without an adequate foundation ( Matt 7:26-27 ), and a failure to believe the good news of Jesus' resurrection ( Luke 24:25 here the foolish are described as "slow of heart" the Old Testament expression is "without heart, " without understanding, as in Prov 9:16 ). The believer is not to be foolish, but to "understand what the Lord's will is" ( Eph 5:17 ).
Bibliography. R. L. Harris, et al., TWOT; D. Kidner, Proverbs; A. Richardson, A Theological Word Book of the Bible.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Fool, Foolishness, Folly'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".