Saturday, March 02, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (48)

Growing up, I knew teens who never skipped school, never called in sick for work just to goof around, and wouldn’t think of failing to do their chores when they got home. You probably did too.

Proverbs repeatedly highlights unhealthy ways to behave. That’s great if you and I are tempted by those habits or lifestyles: a timely warning to a wise man or woman is always a useful thing. But what if we are not subject to such temptations? Are proverbs of any use to people who seem like they came out of the womb already mature, competent and dutiful?


One reason it is important to be able to identify people with impulse control problems is that they profoundly affect everyone else in their lives. You may not be a fool or a sluggard, but you definitely don’t want to find yourself hiring one either ... or, God forbid, marrying one. It is the natural straight arrow who is least likely to anticipate the sheer magnitude of the damage people with no self-control can do when they are allowed to cut loose and indulge their impulses. The toe-the-line types among us simply don’t have imaginations that easily descend to that level.

So this chapter is for folks who look at others around them crashing and burning and wonder Why on earth would anyone CHOOSE that? The book of Proverbs has the answers.

The “Men of Hezekiah” Proverbs (Proverbs 26:1-16)

I have mentioned in passing that the defining characteristic of the Solomonic proverbs assembled by the men of Hezekiah is their thematic arrangement. A significant number of the proverbs these men transcribed are ordered in such a way that their sequence brings out insights beyond those given us in the individual proverbs. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, if you like.

We encountered one of these “juxtapositions” last week. Here are two more.

More Hope for a Fool

First, it doesn’t take much to notice verses 3-12 are thematically related. They all have to do with fools, or so it initially seems:
“A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the back of fools.
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.
Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool
cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.
Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless,
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Like one who binds the stone in the sling
is one who gives honor to a fool.
Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Like an archer who wounds everyone
is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard.
Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Geoffrey Kirkland distinguishes between the various Hebrew words in Proverbs that are translated “fool” in English. All five have different shades of meaning, some subtle and others less so. All ten fools in these verses are of the same type. They speak of the same sort of person. He is not low-IQ, but he makes wrong choices. Kirkland says:

“It is this person who deliberately knows the correct path to take yet he foolishly chooses not to follow this path.”

It’s not that this sort of fool doesn’t stop to think. It’s that he stops to think, then reliably goes the wrong direction.

Nine Tales of Folly

Not all these ten proverbs are easy to parse. Verse 3 tells us the only way to control a bad decision-maker is the sort of punishment or restraint you’d be obliged to use on an unruly animal. Horses respond to whips, and donkeys to bridles. Fools cannot be reasoned with anymore than animals with whom we do not share a language. They need to feel the pain that is a product of their choices. Telling them “this won’t end well” is about as useful as telling a horse “How about making a left up at the next traffic light.”

Verses 4 and 5 are paired, and seem initially to contradict one another. The pairing is obviously intentional, so the contradiction can only be apparent. Very likely they are paired to force the reader to give serious thought to the matter. Together, the two verses reinforce the futility of instructing a fool: if you speak his language to him, you have lowered yourself to his level; yet accepting the fool’s frame of reference is sometimes the only way to make your point. There are times when one way is better than another. Certain sorts of foolish behavior are better ignored, but the kind that can hurt others requires stern rebuke.

In business, one quickly learns which employees can be trusted to meet with clients unsupervised. Not everyone can. Verse 6 tells us not to entrust anything important to a fool, especially in the area of communication. It’s like cutting off your own feet. You will create problems for yourself simply by involving him. Where sensitivity is required, the fool is bound to create antipathy rather than calming troubled waters.

Verse 7 describes the futility of fools repeating wisdom. A fool is a living denial of wisdom. The best he can do is parrot some good advice he has heard, oblivious to the cognitive dissonance he creates by living exactly the opposite way.

You can imagine the pointlessness of binding a stone into a sling. Sure, it’ll be there when you need it, but it will be entirely useless for its intended purpose, which is to be thrown. Likewise, honoring a man for making all the wrong decisions defeats the purpose of bestowing honor, which is to approve good performance and sound decision-making so that others will want to do likewise. When you approve sub-standard performance, you are telling everyone around that nothing they do really matters, and you will get the sort of results one might expect from that.

A thorn in the hand of a drunkard may go completely unnoticed. He is too plastered to care, too desensitized to pain. Likewise, verse 9 tells us that a fool reciting a bit of wisdom reliably misses its meaning and application to his own life. His conscience remains untouched. He cannot feel its sting.

Verse 10 brings us back to the consequences of employing a person who cannot make good decisions. He’s like the archer who is so inept he shoots at his own side. His fellow employees, who to their endless regret cannot escape him, will end up picking up his slack, carrying his weight and shouldering his blame.

If you’ve ever seen a dog lick up his own vomit, you know it’s an unappealing sight. Worse, if the reason the dog threw up in the first place is that the food he ate was contaminated, he’s bound to go through the same process again. Fools are of the same undiscerning disposition, repeating their errors without shame and often without even noticing.

The Punch Line

Verse 12 is the punch line, if we may call it that. After giving us nine reasons to think being a fool is pretty much the lowest condition in which a man may find himself, Proverbs reminds us there is something worse: baseless vanity.

“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

That’s a powerful indictment, wouldn’t you say? It’s all the more powerful because of the buildup from the previous nine verses. To be wise in your own eyes is to despise advice, to believe you’ve got it all figured out, to end the search for wisdom and to act on your own impulses without restraint. Fools rarely rise to positions of authority; they are too transparently annoying to be regularly promoted. Some discerning decision-maker will pull the plug on the fool’s career advancement at one level or another, if only to avoid having to deal with such a person on a daily basis himself. But a man wise in his own eyes may be hugely successful, equipping him to do ten times more damage than the average fool, and with far less chance of redemption.

Anyway, you see what I mean about the arrangement of these proverbs. Each of these ten proverbs stands on its own and conveys useful information. But by placing them together the way they have, the men of Hezekiah (and really, the Holy Spirit) have added value to the chapter and made an unexpected and memorable point about pride.

Another Collection

You really can’t miss this trick once you’ve seen it, so the men of Hezekiah pull it again with the next four verses. This time it’s not a fool who is the subject of study:
“The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road!
There is a lion in the streets!’
As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed.
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who can answer sensibly
If there are shades of meaning to the word “fool” in Proverbs, there are not to the word “sluggard”. The word occurs only 14 times in our Bibles, all of them in Proverbs. The sluggard is indolent and lazy. He would rather be in bed than working. Oh, he has ideas, plans and ambitions; he just never does anything about them. His short-term comfort always trumps his long-term purposes. They are not as real to him as his bedsheets.

Verse 13 tells us this is a man who makes excuses. Maybe once in a while in Israel there really was a lion outside, but the sluggard wouldn’t know since he would not get up and open the door to look. All a sluggard really wants when he talks about lions is a convenient excuse to start binge-watching a new season of something on Netflix.

Verse 14 may echo Proverbs 21:25, which says, “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor.” The irony of the lazy man’s condition is that he refuses to get out of bed, but has spent so much time there he no longer really enjoys it. The image is of a man flipping back and forth from side to side trying to find real rest and never getting there. By way of contrast, “Sweet is the sleep of the laborer.” Hey, any pleasure we prioritize above our regular obligations eventually loses its appeal. In the short term, a bit of self-indulgence can be an enjoyable if guilty pleasure. In the long term, self-indulgence is just not as much fun as it looks. The sluggard has some idea what he’s missing out on; he just cannot govern himself so as to get up and make it happen.

Verse 15 is quite the image. The indolent man has sunk so low he can hardly be bothered to indulge in food even when the food is right there beside him. It’s too much work. I’ve seen this level of laziness with teens who moan about feeling starved while refusing to make themselves a meal. It’s pathetic in that context, and far worse in an adult, who should know better.

Seven Sensible Men … and One Guy Who Knows It All

The payoff in this sequence comes in verse 16:

“The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly.”

This takes us back to verse 12, and it’s quite a thought: there is more hope even for a fool than a chronically lazy man with no discipline. At least the fool is out interacting in the world. The sluggard accomplishes nothing at all, except moving one day closer to death. The phrase “seven men who can answer sensibly” means men of sufficient discernment that they may be chosen to sit in judgment on others. In other words, the sluggard believes he’s smarter than everyone else, including jurists, philosophers and subject matter experts.

A man like this is locked into his own foolishness, unable to change. Why would he? He sees nothing wrong with how he is living his life.

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