Seven Ways NOT to be Wise

A sermon on Proverbs 25:28-26:28 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte NC, 8/6/2006

How can you learn to be godly? Scripture is our only authority in such matters. We must go to God’s Word.

So what does God’s Word tell us about becoming godly? Often, God’s Word gives us positive exhortations: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But these positive exhortations have mirror images, flip sides. Love of God is inconsistent with love of the world. So John gives us the flip side of “Love the Lord with all your heart:”

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 1 John 2:15

Indeed, often positive exhortations are paired with negative ones:

 Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life . . . put on the new self, created after the likeness of God. Ephesians 4:22, 24.

Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace. 2 Timothy 2:22 

Today’s passage in Proverbs consists almost entirely of negative examples, with their implied negative exhortations. King Hezekiah’s compilers have arranged this section to help us become more godly by displaying seven dangerous men, seven types of humans, seven ways people go wrong. We will look at these one by one, in each case asking: Who does this person endanger? How is he destructive? Once we go through the seven, we’ll reflect on how these relate to different ways that we reject Jesus and His rule in our lives.

So I pray that this time together will:

The Undisciplined Man

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. Proverbs 25:28

During biblical times, walls defined a city. Those who lived outside of cities were at the mercy of marauders, or armies passing through. The walled cities allowed civilization to develop and thrive.

A city without walls could not serve that purpose. So, for example, Nehemiah is distraught when he learns that no one has repaired Jerusalem’s walls. He returns to do that - a key accomplishment in restoring Jerusalem to what God intends it to be.

How is a man without self-control like an unwalled city? He too is unprotected from dangers. These dangers could be inside you: The desire for sex, the desire for thrills, the desire for money, the desire for power, the desire for entertainment. Each of these desires can overpower the man lacking self-control, leading him into danger. Alternately, the dangers could be outside of you – persons who will entice you, playing on your inner desires in order to get you to do something beneficial to them.

Who is in danger here? The primary danger is to the man lacking self-control. In particular, a man without self-control will never attain his long run goals. He will always be diverted from the tasks necessary for accomplishing that goal by passing temptations and lusts. Consider, for example, the man who says, “I want to be a great athlete.” But each afternoon, when the time comes around for his workout, he says, “Oh, I don’t quite feel up to working out today. I’ll just play video games.” He may be quite sincere when he states his goal. He may well desire to achieve that goal. But without some degree of self-control, he will never attain it.

Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control. We need that self-control to attain the long run goal of godliness.

The Foolish Man

The longest discussion of one type of man concerns the fool: Chapter 26:1-12. These verses are tightly knit in an interesting structure. But before we look at the passage, recall how the word “fool” is used in Proverbs. A fool is not someone who lacks basic intelligence. A fool is not someone who lacks information. Rather, the term “fool” is a moral term in this book.

In the first sermon in this series, we defined “wisdom” in Proverbs as seeing who God is, seeing how He rules the world, and responding accordingly. The fool is someone who is not wise in this sense. He does not see who God is. Or he sees, and does not respond accordingly. In particular, the fool takes his moral code, his rules for living, from any source other than God’s Word. Thus, a person can have the highest IQ in the world and still be a fool.

By this definition, who is a fool? Many, many people we encounter. But don’t just look at others! Each of us will act foolishly at times, taking some aspect of our moral code from a source other than God’s Word.

Let’s now go to the passage and apply these thoughts to our lives. Let’s start at the end, with verse 12, and note a parallel with verse 5:

Proverbs 26:12 Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (emphasis added)

Proverbs 26:5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. (emphasis added)

If the foolish person continues to go in the direction he’s headed, with his understanding of right and wrong, he will be wise in his own eyes. And that’s very dangerous. For if he himself becomes the final arbiter of right and wrong, he will never listen to rebuke or correction. He judges God; God cannot judge him, according to his thought. Self is exalted.

Is this the necessary outcome of the fool’s life? Is there hope? These verses imply that there is at least a modicum of hope. Not all fools are yet wise in their own eyes, for someone who answers a fool according to his folly may keep him from becoming that way. But the fool is headed in that direction. Thus, it is important not to give him the impression of approval, not to encourage him in this dangerous path he is on. For he is in great danger personally – headed to destruction. Furthermore, he endangers society. In effect, he is holding up an alternative to God. He is tempting others – particularly the gullible, the simple – encouraging them to become wise in their own eyes.

So the passage tells us how to deal with fools – and how to deal with foolish tendencies in our own lives. Look now at verses 1 and 3, which introduce the section:

Proverbs 26:1: Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.

Proverbs 26:3: A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.

As pointed out last week, Palestine has a long dry season. This season extends throughout the time of the wheat harvest. It never rains at this time. Were it to rain, the damp would destroy the crops. Rain does not belong at harvest, it is not useful at that time – instead it is destructive.

Just so with honor for a fool. It is not fitting. It is dangerous and destructive.

Instead of honoring a fool, verse 3 tells us what to do: Discipline him. Correct him. Perhaps such discipline will save him from being right in his own eyes.

Verses 4 and 5 elaborate on how to deal with fools. In these verses, the compilers grab our attention by seeming to give two contradictory commands:

Proverbs 26:4-5 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Are we supposed to answer fools or not? Reflection on these verses in context shows that the words “according to” are used in different ways in the two verses. In verse 4, “according to”: means “in the same manner as.” “If you answer a feel in the same manner as a fool, if you answer with anger and pride, then you are becoming foolish yourself.” The Hebrew includes a strong emphasis on “you” at the end of the verse: “You, even you, will become like him.”

Verse 5 uses “according to” to mean “as his folly deserves.” That is, correct him, point out his error, point him to God and His moral code. Thus, these two verses are not contradictory. They don’t tell us, “Sometimes answer a fool, and sometimes don’t.” Instead, they tell us, “Don’t be like a fool, but don’t let him continue to think his path is wise.”

Verses 6 to 10 elaborate on not honoring the fool. The outer two verses warn us against one way of honoring a fool: Hiring him for an important task, such as carrying a message:

Proverbs 26:6 Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.

Note the ironic nature of the danger: By hiring a messenger, the employer is in effect trying to have four feet instead of his two. He’s trying to add a pair of feet to his own. But when he hires a fool for the task, instead of adding to the number of feet he controls, he loses him own two feet! The fool so angers the recipient of the message, or so garbles the message, or so often fails to get to the recipient, that the employer wastes his own time in dealing with the fool, and then nevertheless has to deliver the message himself.

Proverbs 26:10 Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard.

The verse emphasizes that hiring a fool is dangerous not only to oneself but also to all those around. Picture this archer putting arrow after arrow to his bow and shooting at everyone who passes by. Everyone is in danger because the employer made such a mistake in hiring.

Verses 7 and 9 warn against honoring a fool by educating him with proverbs:

Proverbs 26:7 Like a lame man's legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.

Such education accomplishes nothing. It is a complete waste of time. The teacher would be better off investing his time elsewhere.

Proverbs 26:9 Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools.

The NIV better captures the image here: “Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hands.” Picture a drunk man, staggering around while holding a thornbush. Two to three inch thorn stick out all over this bush. The bush swings back and forth randomly. It will hit those around, and eventually the drunk will pierce himself. The fool so misunderstands, misuses, and misapplies the proverbs he learns that he hurts himself and those who hear him.

Verse 8 is at the center of the concentric circles of verses 6 to10. The literary structure thus underlines it’s reiteration of the main point:

Proverbs 26:8 Like one who binds the stone in the sling is one who gives honor to a fool.

Remember that a sling is different from a slingshot. A sling is a long piece of material, probably leather. In the middle it is wider for the placement of a stone. The one throwing the stone then holds the two ends together and swings the sling around and around, faster and faster. Letting go of one end at the appropriate time sends the stone sailing at high speed toward the target.

That’s what happens if the stone is just placed in the sling. But what happens if the stone is tied to the sling? Picture this: The thrower swings it around and around, faster and faster, lets go – and the stone thumps him in the head. Or hits someone standing nearby. It can’t possibly go towards the target. That’s what will happen to the one who honors a fool.

So verses 6-10 say again and again: “Don’t honor the fool! You are just encouraging him to be wise in his own eyes! He’s already on that path! To honor him is to set him in his ways!”

Verse 11 highlights the danger:

Proverbs 26:11 Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.

Will the fool repeat his folly? Perhaps not if honor is withheld, if discipline and correction is provided.

So the fool takes his moral rules from a source other than God’s Word. Avoid all foolishness. Flee from that. Being foolish, or honoring a fool, will only endanger yourself and those around you.

The Sluggard

Proverbs 26:13-16 The sluggard says, "There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!" 14 As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed. 15 The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth. 16 The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.

The sluggard is trying to go through life exerting the least effort possible. He makes up imaginary dangers to provide him with an excuse for not working. He never does anything but rest, just as a door never gets far away from its hinge. He won’t even do what is good for himself – he won’t even bring food to his mouth - if it requires any effort.

Note in particular verse 16: The fool is moving in the direction of being wise in his own eyes. The sluggard already is. Do you see why?

Consider the difference between the sluggard and the undisciplined man. The undisciplined man acknowledges what is right, but never makes himself do it. The sluggard is different. He thinks his actions are right. The undisciplined wants to change. The sluggard does not.

Thus, the sluggard is in an almost hopeless condition. Wise in his own eyes, he will not listen to correction. He is thus dangerous to himself.

The Busybody

Proverbs 26:17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.

The word translated “meddles in” might be instead “is enraged about.” In either case, the busybody too is wise in his own eyes. He thinks he has the solution to other peoples’ problems. He sees himself as the wise judge, the great arbiter. And so he gets all worked up about a quarrel that doesn’t even involve him. Like one who grabs an unknown dog by the ears, he hurts himself – whichever side he takes.

The Mischief-Maker

Proverbs 26:18-19 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death 19 is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, "I am only joking!"

This madman randomly throws “flaming missiles and deadly arrows” all around. They hit innocent people passing by. They can even hit the madman himself.

The previous four types of men are all dangerous to others primarily by example. They are not intentionally hurtful to others. But the mischief-maker and the last two types that follow are different. They are dangerous, like this madman. The mischief-maker pretends he is not trying to hurt anyone, saying he is just a prankster. He says to those who get upset with him, “Don’t get so worked up! I’m just having a little fun.” But he “deceives his neighbor.” He indeed plans to hurt others.

The verb translated “deceive” means to intentionally mislead others for your own good. Jacob uses this verb, for example, the morning after his wedding. He worked seven years for Rachel, daughter of Laban. And on the wedding night he takes this veiled woman into his tent. But in the morning light, he sees that the woman lying beside him is Rachel’s sister! Jacob then accuses Laban of deceiving him. Laban has intentionally misled Jacob in order to get another seven years of labor from him.

Thus, the mischief-maker intentionally hurts others for his own benefit, for his own enjoyment. He is dangerous to the community both through the direct harm that he causes as well as through undermining the community’s trust.

The Slanderer

Proverbs 26:20-21 For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. 21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.

Consider the image: A quarrel within the community is likened to a fire. Any fire produces flames and heat, and any quarrel produces hurt feelings. But left to itself, the flames will go out. The fire will end. The coals will cool off. The hurt feelings will lessen.

But the slanderer or whisperer does not let that happen. He adds fuel to the fire, making the flames rise higher and higher. He talks about what person A did to person B, making person C upset with A. In effect, the slanderer creates many busybodies, who are all enraged about a quarrel not their own.

The redemptive person pours water on the flames. He exhorts one talking about sins of another to go to that person, to speak directly to him, to work at healing hurt feelings, to move toward forgiveness. The slanderer instead blows on the coals of a quarrel, producing more and more hurt in the community.

Verse 22 is key here:

Proverbs 26:22 The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.

Words about other persons’ sins are tasty to us all. We like to listen to such gossip. When we do, these words infect us, enticing us to learn more, to suck it all in, even to vicariously experience that sin. Such inside information makes us feel like we are in the know, we are on the inside.

The slanderer is a great danger to the community. Clearly he hurts the one he slanders. But he also hurts the one who listens to him, and the community at large. Small fires become forest fires through his actions.

The Hater/Enemy

Proverbs 26:23-25 Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are fervent lips with an evil heart. 24 Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips and harbors deceit in his heart; 25 when he speaks graciously, believe him not, for there are seven abominations in his heart.

A few clarifications in verse 23: “Glaze” is literally “silver dross.” The refuse that’s left over after heating silver to purify it is worthless. But this refuse can be used as a cheap glaze. It retains a bit of silver’s shine, but has no inherent value. In the proverb, the glaze covers not a complete, useful clay vessel, but a broken fragment. So a worthless shine is on top of a worthless object.

One last clarification: The word translated “fervent” differs from the a word meaning “smooth” by only one small stroke. Given the context, “smooth” seems a more likely meaning.

So the idea behind these three verses seems to be: One whose heart is full of abominations, one who hates others, covers up his intentions with smooth, gracious talk. Don’t trust such a person. He aims to destroy.

Verses 26 to 28 tell us of the end of such a man:

Proverbs 26:26-28 Though his hatred be covered with deception, his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly. 27 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling. 28 A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

Despite his hatred, despite his deceit, justice will be done. What the enemy planned for another, God will bring on own head. Haman built a tall gallows on which to hang Mordecai, but God ordained that Haman himself would hang on those gallows. As in that case, sometimes God will bring about justice on earth. But always, God brings about justice in the next life.

In that light, consider verse 28: In one sense, the enemy’s mouth often works ruin to the one he hates. But not ultimately. Ultimately, the enemy works his own ruin. For God is in control, and He is just.


Each of us can act in each of these ways with little prompting. Each of us can surprise himself, for sin is deeply ingrained. Each of us will fall into one or another of these sinful types unless we guard our souls, fearing the Lord, seeking wisdom. We will destroy what we love most, we will harm what we most want to build up if left to our sinful selves.

So identify these sinful tendencies within yourself! Put off the old man! Flee from these desires!

Seven Ways to Reject Jesus

How do these seven ways not to be wise work in our relationship to Jesus?

1) The undisciplined in the spiritual life is always trying to reform, but never does. He says, “Pray for me in my struggle with anger!” But then he gets angry, and never fights the temptation. He never takes the steps necessary to grow.

He loves making resolutions. He’ll pick up a Bible reading plan – and that makes him feel good. But after two weeks he never reads again.

“The fruit of the spirit is . . . self-control.” Don’t be undisciplined.

2) The fool is confident in his own ability to see the world and discern right from wrong. Thus, he is not submitting himself to Jesus; he is not submitting himself to the Word of God. When faced with a challenging text, he will say, “Oh, that probably just applied in Jesus’ own day – that’s completely unrealistic in our own day!”

3) The sluggard does not even try to reform his life. He thinks, “Hey, I’m good enough. I’m forgiven! I walked the aisle! My ticket to heaven is punched! I’m sure it would be good for me to do a few good deeds, but I sure don’t want to be legalistic!”

These first three apply particularly to professing Christians. The last four apply primarily to those who make no claim to Christianity.

4) The busybody takes a conflict that involves Christians and gets enraged: “Oh, those crusades! That inquisition! Those Salem witch trials! Oh, those Christians who want to stifle the advance of women! I don’t want to have anything to do with Jesus if it means being identified with such people!”

The busybody may be rejecting a caricature of Christianity, or a caricature of Jesus. Or he may start as a fool and then take another step. He gets his ideas of what is right and wrong from outside of God’s Word, and then becomes offended and enraged when Christians don’t live up to his idea of morality.

5) The mischief-maker tries intentionally to subvert the faith of others, but not in an overt way.

6) The slanderer knowingly makes false statements about Jesus, about Christianity, to stir things up, and perhaps to make a buck.

7) The Hater/Enemy, hiding behind smooth lips, may say respectful words about Jesus, but deep down he has an intense, abiding hatred for Him.

So where are you?

Are you in one of those last four categories? Do you deny that Jesus is God?

If you came this morning with that opinion, we’re so glad you are here. Keep coming. Keep looking at the Jesus of the Scriptures rather than the Jesus of the caricatures made by His opponents. Listen. Examine what we say here.

The claim of the Bible is that you have no hope apart from Him. He created you to spread His fame. You are headed to eternal punishment for failing to live up to that purpose. As your Creator, He has a perfect right to do whatever He wishes with you.

But He offers you forgiveness for all your rejection of Him. Confess to Him. Acknowledge that you have no hope apart from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Turn to Him, and come! And God the Father will welcome you with open arms.

Where are you?

Are you a Christian struggling in your personal relationships with these seven ways not to be wise? Are you struggling with the first three in your relationship to Jesus?

As we saw at the beginning, Paul says, “Put off the old self which belongs to your former manner of life . . . [and] put on the new self, created after the likeness of God.”

In Christ, You have a new self! You are a new creation! You need not live in the same old pattern of life!

So depend on the Spirit within! Be changed! Put on the Lord Jesus Christ! And so rid yourself of the lack of discipline, of laziness, of unbiblical ideas of right and wrong.

Look to Him! Learn from these lessons – and so become wise.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 8/6/06. Bruce Waltke’s The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 (Eerdmans, 2005) was exceptionally helpful throughout. Every alternate translation I suggest originates with Waltke. The seven headings are also from him. Apart from this commentary, I would have taken a completely different approach to preaching this series.

Copyright © 2006, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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