Holman Bible Dictionary
Fool, Foolishness, and Folly
Translations of several uncomplimentary words which appear approximately 360 times throughout the Old and New Testaments to describe unwise and ungodly people. The words are especially predominant in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Persons who do not possess wisdom are called “fools”; their behavior is described as “folly.” The picture which emerges from the biblical material is quite simple: folly is the opposite of wisdom, and a fool is the opposite of a wise person. Both wisdom and folly are depicted as philosophies or perspectives on life. The religious person chooses wisdom, whereas the non-religious person opts for folly. Wisdom leads to victory; folly to defeat. Wisdom belongs to those who fear God, and the “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7 ). Wisdom is the essence of life. The foolish person is the one who is thoughtless, self-centered, and obviously indifferent to God.
Old Testament Usage Seven different Hebrew words are usually translated by the single English word, “folly.” Some of the shades of meaning suggested by these various words include: a) deliberate sinfulness; b) simple-mindedness; c) malicious simple-mindedness; and d) brutal or subhuman activity. In examining the literature of the Old Testament, one gains a deeper appreciation for these various shades of meaning.
The fool may be the one who is aloof. He “foldeth his hands” (Ecclesiastes 4:5 ). This aloofness is also described in terms of the farmers who “follow worthless pursuits” instead of tending to the farm (Proverbs 12:11 NRSV).
In other passages the fool is described as the one who denies that God exists: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 14:1 ). Foolish behavior is also characterized by an inability to recognize the true character of God. Job chastised his wife for behaving as the foolish do when she denied the steadfast love of God (Job 2:10 ).
The simple-minded fool is encouraged to change in Proverbs 9:4-6 : “Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she [Wisdom] saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.” But the fool may be the one who is intentionally perverse. Nabal and Saul represent this kind of intentional and malicious folly toward David (1 Samuel 25:25 ; 1 Samuel 26:21 ).
Since numerous examples of foolishness can be found in the Old Testament, additional references provide a more complete perspective: Job 2:10 ; Job 30:8 ;Job 30:8;42:8 ; Psalm 53:1 ; Proverbs 17:7-21 ; Isaiah 9:17 ; Jeremiah 4:22 . The various shades of meaning related to the Old Testament words, all translated “foolishness” in the English versions, provide a background picture for the New Testament usage of “fool” and “folly.”
New Testament Usage The contrasting elements of wisdom and folly evident in the Old Testament were clearly in the mind of Paul when he asked, “hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20 ).However, in the New Testament, this polarity between wisdom and folly is not always stressed. In fact, it is possible that a certain kind of wisdom can actually be folly. In Matthew 7:26 ; Matthew 25:2-3 ; Romans 2:20 “folly” is used synonymously with “experiential wisdom.” Wisdom based only on human intellect and experiences without considering God is folly.
In Matthew 23:17 , folly is equated with blindness. The characteristics of folly include thoughtlessness, the pursuit of unbridled aspirations, and a life-style characterized by envy, greed, and pride.
Foolishness is also described in paradoxical terms in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 1-3 , the incarnation is portrayed as “foolishness,” but it is precisely this kind of perceived “foolishness” which is better than worldly wisdom. Our understanding of this paradoxical relationship affects the manner in which Christ is proclaimed (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 ). We must rely on God's gift and power of proclamation not on human powers and wisdom. The writer of Matthew records Jesus stating that “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22 ). See Wisdom.
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