The Bible has quite a bit to say about foolishness ... and about fools. And it's not always what we'd expect. Most of us use the term "foolish" to mean a kind of absurdity, or goofiness, or playing the clown. Almost everyone acts in such a manner sometimes, and it's not always a bad thing: oftentimes, it could be just honest merriment, or playing with a child, or enjoying some of the natural absurdities of life. It's hard to imagine God being displeased with this sort of thing; after all, He giveth us richly all things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17), and He has filled the world with occasions of happiness and laughter.
But when the Bible speaks of foolishness, it's considerably more serious than that. A wise man once said that "every bad thing on earth is a good thing that's been twisted." Love can be twisted into lust; zeal and incentive can be turned into ruthless ambition; and honest merriment can be transformed into cruelty, cynicism, and every kind of misbehaviour.
So, in the sight of God, what is "foolishness?"
One of the great methods of Biblical interpretation is called the "first mention" principle. It simply means this: When you track down the first time a word is used in the Bible, it usually gives you an idea of the word's most important meaning. A great example is "love:" the first time the word appears in the Bible is in Genesis 22:2: referring not to a woman and a man, or even to God and man: but to a man's love for his son. The greatest example of love the universe would ever see would be when God the Father offered up His beloved Son on Calvary, to be punished for our sins.
The first time "foolish" appears in scripture is in Deuteronomy 32:6: Do ye thus requite the LORD, O foolish people and unwise? This use of the word is mirrored precisely in Psalm 94:8: Understand, ye brutish among the people: and ye fools, when will ye be wise? So, in God's sight, "foolishness" is synonymous with a lack of wisdom. Not mere ignorance, or natural "slowness," but an unwillingness to apply knowledge in the proper way, which is the definition of wisdom. (One can be mentally retarded and not be "foolish," if he or she uses what knowledge they have properly: in fact, most people who are mentally handicapped very rarely act foolishly.) It should come as no surprise, then, that education, at even the highest levels, does not preclude foolishness: and, indeed, some of the most educated people on earth are also the most foolish.
The words "foolish" and "foolishness" are found 72 times in the Bible, and the words "fool" and "fools" occur 115 times, so obviously we're not going to cover every reference! But, going by the definition we've established here (that foolishness is the opposite of wisdom), we can find quite a few very striking examples. We learn, for example, that as members of a fallen, sinful race, foolishness is our natural condition: we're born that way. Nobody expects a young child to be wise, in the sense of knowing how to apply knowledge; but God goes out of His way to say that foolishness is rooted in the heart of a child (Proverbs 22:15). And, as we grow older, our foolishness, if not corrected, becomes much more dangerous, and ultimately deadly. Because foolishness is not an isolated condition, like baldness or blue eyes: it leads to worse things, such as sin, unbelief, and even physical and mental illness. We see the progression from foolishness to sin to suffering in Psalm 107:17: Fools because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted. Whether a person is lost or saved, a Christian or a skeptic, the consequences of foolishness are as inescapable as sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7).
(What's the difference between the two? Knowledge is simply an accumulation of facts; it's the first stage in intellectual and spiritual growth. Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge properly. The ultimate goal is understanding, which is the ability to see things from God's perspective. We acquire knowledge constantly; wisdom requires real thought and reflection; understanding comes only from communication with God, through the Bible and prayer. Satan has knowledge, and more wisdom than any human being, but he doesn't have understanding. That's one reason he hates us: because we can attain understanding, by God's grace, but Satan is too proud to seek it.)
When Job was being so horribly afflicted, and had lost his children, his health, and his possessions, his lovely wife suggested, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. Job replied, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? (Job 2:9, 10) Mrs. Job was foolish, but Job had wisdom, and understanding as well. Although he stayed with his shrewish wife, Job perfectly exhibited Proverbs 9:6: Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding. God's ideal woman, in Proverbs 31, is certainly not foolish: She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness (Proverbs 31:26). Notice that kindness accompanies wisdom, just as bitterness and temper accompany foolishness: For wrath killeth the foolish man, and envy slayeth the silly one (Job 5:2).
At this point, an impatient reader might say, "Very well, foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. It's better to be smart than to be stupid. What else is new?" But that's not the point at all. The point is that foolishness carries with it a set of characteristics and consequences that can't be brushed off so easily.
Besides anger and impatience, what are some of the hallmarks of foolishness? Well, a lighthearted attitude toward sin is one, which is why foolishness and sin run in a vicious cycle. When David was praying for God to keep him from sin, he said, Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish (Psalm 39:8). Although his son Solomon had not yet penned the words, David knew that fools make a mock at sin: but among the righteous there is favour (Proverbs 14:9). A man or woman who scoffs at sin, or laughs at the sins of others, is a fool. Another indication of foolishness is the simple inability to shut up! A prudent man concealeth knowledge: but the heart of fools proclaimeth foolishness (Proverbs 12:23). This is even true of "great and powerful" fools: The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools (Ecclesiastes 9:17). A glance at any newspaper or news broadcast will illustrate this. And, as is often the case, such foolishness can actually destroy a man or woman: Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction (Proverbs 10:14). Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? (Ecclesiastes 7:17) Foolishness is a deadly serious condition. Foolish people who continue in their ways will soon come to the point where they actually hate knowledge and wisdom: being pig-ignorant suits them just fine, thank you. So, naturally, they have no regard for their Creator: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7). And although there are many other characteristics of foolishness, we'll mention only one more: foolishness causes a woman or man to seek out the company of other fools, and delight in that company, regardless of the results. This is a particular danger for young people, who are always apt, in the old expression, to "fall in with bad companions." And the result is never good: He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed (Proverbs 13:20).
All of us have acted foolishly at one time or another; as we said, it's the human condition. That's why Jesus Christ had to die, so that we could be made new. But there's a special kind of fool, a fool who's so utterly, impossibly foolish that he or she is as close to Hell as one can be without actually going there. And God identifies this man or woman very clearly:
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good (Psalm 14:1).
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good (Psalm 53:1).
God doesn't stutter: He repeated that statement, 39 chapters apart, because He was trying to tell us something. There is no greater fool on the face of God's green earth than the atheist (or the "non-theist," as the more cowardly types choose to call themselves). A woman can be as rhetorically brilliant as Ayn Rand, or a man can be as educated as Stephen Hawking. A "comedian" can be as clever (?) or quick as Kathy Griffin or Bill Maher. But in God's sight, they are fools: and, unless and until they receive Jesus Christ according to John 1:12, and are born again according to John 3:3-7, they'll be damned fools. They don't believe this, of course, nor do many of the professing "agnostics" and even professing Christians who are "practical" atheists. But why would they believe it? The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise (Proverbs 12:15).
You and I have acted foolishly at times, but that doesn't necessarily make us fools. No matter our sins, our stupidities, or our selves, God is always ready and eager to forgive, and to usher us into His Kingdom. But first we must come to Him humbly, in a moment of time, and receive His Son as our only Saviour and Lord. Even an atheist? Yes, even an atheist, if he or she is sincere: him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out (John 6:37). Whether you're a student, an unemployed person, a captain of industry, or the President of the United States, God's offer stands: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool (Isaiah 1:18).
What an offer! What a Christ, Who can even save a fool like me!