Saturday, August 01, 2020

Time and Chance (47)

Not all fools are avowed atheists.

All serious foolishness begins with the assumption “There is no God.” But there are different ways of denying the existence of God in one’s heart. One way is to do it like Richard Dawkins, who says it with a lot of pseudo-scientific bother and fuss. He can’t stop thinking about it and trying to prove it. Then there is the functional atheist. He never tries to talk anyone out of their belief in God, and he certainly doesn’t write books about God’s non-existence. He may even concede that God might possibly exist, but he lives every moment of his life as if God does not.

Either way is foolish, but at least a Dawkins recognizes the existence of God as a problem for his worldview and is working away at coming to grips with it. The other fellow is perhaps in a worse state, as he never thinks about God at all.

Here are four more related proverbs, this time about fools.

Ecclesiastes 10:12-13 — From Folly to Madness
“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness.”
There are two possible ways of rendering this first Hebrew clause in English. One is as above: “The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor.” The other is “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious.” I believe the choice made by the ESV’s translators is the correct one. We are after all dealing with a traditional Eastern proverbial form in which a deliberately constructed parallelism in most instances invites the reader to either compare or contrast two phrases. Here a comparison seems most likely. In both cases, the Preacher seems to be concerned with the outcome of a person’s speech for the speaker.

So then, the things a wise man says commend themselves to the ears of his hearers and cause them to remember their speaker in a positive light. They will seek him out whenever they need advice or well-reasoned analysis. When they find themselves looking to fill a position of responsibility, his will be the first name that comes to mind. He has established his bona fides. On the other hand, the man with no moral framework to guide him talks nonsense. Each new pronouncement only serves to diminish his standing. The more he says, the more it becomes evident he has nothing of value to contribute. Had he kept silent, perhaps he could have passed for a shy-but-intelligent observer, but now he has exposed his intellectual and moral deficiencies. Any hope of advancement in business or commendation in the community is lost to him. His peers will look elsewhere when they need a good man for the job. His babbling destroys his future prospects and makes him an object of pity and scorn.

The second couplet expands on the first, describing the downward spiral of the fool’s conversation from mere nonsense to outright evil. The fool begins in godlessness. His default assumptions never include sin, righteousness and judgment. Any worldview that fails to take into consideration God’s law, perpetual scrutiny and inevitable intervention starts nowhere good and always ends in the pit. Remove God from your calculus and any craziness becomes fair game.

This is true even of highly intelligent fools. So we read about scientists like this loon here musing seriously about the possibility of genetically shrinking humanity in order to ensure we consume fewer resources, or tinkering with men’s emotional constitution to feminize us and make us more pliable. Why? Because the absence of a divinely-authorized frame of moral reference opens up possible courses of action that would never occur to the godly man. The wise man knows he is made in the image of God and respects the Creator’s design. The fool knows no boundaries and is prepared to launch his experiment in any and all directions.

Evil madness ensues. We are living it.

Ecclesiastes 10:14 — Running Off at the Mouth
A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?”
The book of Proverbs says, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Part of the fool’s problem is that he just keeps talking. Other scriptures, most memorably the letter of James, warn of the tongue’s tendency to get off the leash when allowed to ramble. The tongue, he says, is a restless evil, full of deadly poison, set on fire by hell and setting on fire the course of life. Talking too much leads nowhere good. When words are many, sin is unavoidable, and when a multitude of words come from a man with no regard for God, we can guarantee they will be unhelpful on many levels.

The fool and the wise man have this in common: that neither knows what is to be, and nobody can tell either man what will be after him. The difference between the fool and the wise man is not that one is a prophet and one an ordinary man. Both, the Preacher tells us, are equally ignorant of how things will work out. We cannot calculate the effect of our choices on the world apart from revelation; from interaction with the divine. It is utterly impossible. There are too many variables to consider, and too many things that can happen to us unexpectedly. Jesus spoke about a fool who planned his business without reference to God, never realizing that the future he contemplated was to be denied him.

No, the difference between the wise man and the fool is that the wise man knows he doesn’t know, and recognizes his dependence on God. The fool relies on himself and simply charges in. He has no concept of the extent of his ignorance. There are no “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” for him. The fool is convinced he understands everything.

Ecclesiastes 10:15 — Missing the Obvious
“The toil of a fool wearies him, for he does not know the way to the city.”
This last of these four related proverbs is a bit of an enigma, I must confess. In many cases, when the Preacher constructs a thematically-related sequence like this one, the last proverb in the series is a sort of punch line. (A fine example of this technique may be found here.) But if that is what he has doing here, either his ending is a bit flat or something about the passage of time or a difference in culture has made it opaque to modern English readers.

Some of the more creative translation teams have tried to jazz the verse up to make something of it, with limited success. The New Living Translation reads, “Fools are so exhausted by a little work that they can’t even find their way home.” Perhaps, but reading “home” for “city” is a bit presumptuous. Then there is the Good News Translation, which goes with “Only someone too stupid to find his way home would wear himself out with work.” Again, this assumes too much. There are all kinds of good reasons to wear oneself out with work, including a solid work ethic, love of family, or even plain old hunger. Even the writers of the Jewish Targum feel the need to explain this a bit, offering “he learns not to go to the city, where wise men dwell, to learn instruction from it.” Again, there is a fair bit of speculation in that. Wise men may dwell in cities or they may not. Many of the prophets didn’t.

Stumped at finding a satisfactory literal interpretation, some of the more imaginative expositors suggest the city which fools can’t find their way to is the New Jerusalem. This may well be the case, but I don’t think it’s at all what Solomon had in mind. To introduce a heavenly destination into a book that is all about a man’s observations of the world apart from divine revelation seems exceedingly unlikely.

Back to the literal then. Perhaps the best explanations are the simplest. Even when a fool can be made to work, he does not profit from his labor because he can’t make his way to market to spend what he has earned.

Or just this: the fool always misses the obvious. Even when it’s the size of a metropolis.

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