Dumb and dumber - Proverbs 26

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 18th May 2008.

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18TH MAY 2008


This week sees the release of one of Hollywood’s most eagerly awaited sequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We’ve been waiting for it for 19 years, and for many critics that is a big problem. Harrison Ford, who stars as Indiana Jones is now 65, which if you’ll forgive me for saying, is quite an age for a big screen action hero. Just how will the hero of pensionable age cope when swinging on his bull whip or fighting a group of Russian enemies, which, we’re told, he will have to do? But for many, such questions are irrelevant. Because quite simply, Indiana Jones is a hero. For many young boys growing up in the early 80’s, like my brother and I, and girls too, Indiana was the action hero we wanted to be. Many a Saturday would be spent in the garden trying to lasso each other with our dressing gown cords and firing our cap-guns at each other. We dressed like him, we acted like him, we even hoped one day to be archaeologists like him, until I discovered during my degree that archaeology wasn’t quite as exciting as an Indiana Jones movie. But for us, Jones was a hero, and we modelled ourselves on him.

            Now actually if truth be told, all of us have people we look up to and who to a greater or lesser degree we model ourselves on. Maybe a teacher who influenced us at school, or college, maybe an older colleague, or an older relative. Many of us have such figures in our lives that we look up to and respect, and so follow. And in the Bible such modelling is recognised. It is recognised that we will be shaped by the people around us. Men and women are often put before us as examples to follow. But the big question is are our models good or bad? Are the people we admire and to a certain degree model ourselves on, good or bad examples to us? 

            And that is really what the Proverbs teaching us. If you’ve been here these last few weeks, we’ve seen that a father is passing on to his son his wisdom and urging his young son to walk in the ways of wisdom. There is a right and a wrong way to go in life, and the son must take the path of wisdom, the right way. And we’ve discovered in particular that Proverbs is an intensely practical book. It’s a book about practical Christian living, about how to live God’s way in God’s world. It gives us advice on being honest in the workplace, about avoiding extra marital affairs, about the sorts of friends we make, about how we should use our time. And all along, the question that is put to us again and again is which way will you go: God’s way or the world’s way? The way of wisdom, or the way of folly. Which person will you model yourself on, the wise person, or the fool? That’s the stark question that Proverbs puts before us. There is no third way. Just two ways to live. Wisdom or folly.

            And in our passage this evening, the writer gives us a portrait of the fool. Because he wants us to be crystal clear what the path of folly looks like and where it leads. Do you notice what he says in verse 1: “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest honour is not fitting for a fool.” Snow in summer is totally out of place, and so is honour to the fool. And if you want to know where folly leads, look at verse 27: “If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it; if a man rolls a stone it will roll back on him.” That’s the sort of thing that happens to a fool. Folly will eventually catch up with you. There is nothing glamorous about living our way, nothing exciting about living the fool’s way. It might seem on the surface of things very attractive, but it will eventually lead to death. Only God’s way leads to life. And the writer wants us follow godly models not ungodly ones. So as we look at the portrait of the fool, the writer will give us three characteristics of foolish living, all of which need to be avoided. And if any of these traits are in us, then we need to repent, and quickly. Because the way of the fool will lead to disaster. So what marks the fool?

1) Untrustworthy in his actions

2) Undisciplined in his time

3) Untamed in his tongue


1) Untrustworthy in his actions

So first we discover that the fool is untrustworthy in his actions. And very simply the fool is a person who cannot be trusted. Verse 6: “Like cutting off one's feet or drinking violence is the sending of a message by the hand of a fool.” So if you put a message into the hand of a fool, that it’s as stupid as cutting off your foot. And to trust a fool in this way could be as costly. What will happen? Well the fool will forget the message or distort it or just won’t deliver it at all! This is the person that lacks any sort of honesty. You can’t trust them as far as you can throw them and they constantly let you down. You give them a job to do and they come back with all sorts of excuses as to why it’s not been done in the right way and in the right time. But what it boils down to is that they just can’t be trusted to get something down. It’s not that the writer is attacking lack of expertise or even lack of common sense, but rather a failure to do what has been asked. This person has no wisdom and cannot be trusted.

            But notice as well this fool cannot be employed in verse 10: “Like an archer who wounds at random is he who hires a fool or any passer-by.” To hire this man is like hiring an archer who just fires off arrows at will. It’s like having a trigger happy gun slinger in a shopping centre. They will cause damage and disaster. And so, says the writer, that’s what it is like hiring someone like this, who is a fool. He’s the guy who won’t do his job properly, who will always get there late and leave early. You won’t be able to trust him to do anything, and you will always have to check his work. You’ll employ him to boost sales in the company and all that will happen is that the company will begin to leak money. And you find out that it’s this person who is costing you. Again the writer is not making a statement about competence, but attitude. For a fool in the Bible’s understanding is someone whose attitude is all wrong and that leads to wrong decision making and wrong actions. The fool is someone who lives for himself, who finds no place in the world for God, who is self obsessed and so who can not be trusted with anything. And in this case he lacks the integrity to be an honest and useful employee.

            And notice a third aspect of this fool’s untrustworthy nature in verse 11, that is he can’t learn from his mistakes: “As a dog returns to its vomit so a fool repeats his folly.” It’s a pretty gruesome image but it’s very apt. Dogs are happy to eat the most disgusting of things, even their own vomit. And so, says the writer, the fool is just a s base as a dog. Because he’ll continue to make the same mistake again and again. He has no wisdom to learn and grow. He lacks the humility to see he is wrong and to change his ways.

            Now sometimes perpetual mistakes can be quite amusing. The following advertisements reportedly appeared in a daily newspaper: Monday: 'The Rev. A. Jones has one colour TV set for sale. Telephone 626-1313 after 7 p.m. and ask for Mrs. Donnelley who lives with him, cheap.' Tuesday: "We regret any embarrassment caused to Rev. Jones by a typographical error in yesterday's paper. The ad should have read: 'the Rev. A. Jones has one colour TV set for sale, cheap... Telephone 626-1313 and ask for Mrs. Donnelley, who lives with him after 7 p.m."' Wednesday: 'The Rev. A. Jones informs us that he has received several annoying telephone calls because of an incorrect ad in yesterday's paper. It should have read: 'The Rev. A. Jones has one colour TV set for sale, cheap. Telephone 626-1313, after 7 p.m. and ask for Mrs. Donnelley who loves with him."' Thursday: "Please take notice that I, the Rev. A. Jones, have no colour TV set for sale; I have smashed it. Don't call 626-1313 anymore. I have not been carrying on with Mrs. Donnelley. She was, until yesterday, my housekeeper."' Friday: "Wanted: One housekeeper. Contact  Rev. A. Jones. Telephone 626-1313."' Mistakes can be amusing and not have huge consequences. But a character whose way is always error strew springing from a selfish attitude of me first and “it’s not my problem” type attitude is a fool and to be avoided.

It’s a pretty grim assessment of the fool isn’t it. A person who can’t be trusted, can’t be employed and can’t learn from his mistakes. But the writer shows us these characteristics to help us see that the way of folly is not to be gone down. These characteristics are to be avoided at all costs. And it’s worth us be very honest and asking ourselves if we in any way reflect these traits in our lives? Are we people who are known for being untrustworthy, unreliable and dishonest, lacking integrity, always refusing to accept responsibility and always making the same old errors, returning to our folly like a dog to vomit. If that’s us, and I dare say there are elements in all of us, then such things need to be repented of and got rid of. Because such flaws harm our gospel witness and dishonour our Lord. Instead we should be pursuing honesty, integrity and humility. And if those were our characteristics in our workplaces, our homes, our families, what attractive characters we would be and how much honour we would bring to our God? How many more gospel opportunities we would receive from such shining examples of Biblical wisdom. People would want to know why we are different, why we react differently, why we conduct ourselves with integrity, why the boss trusts us above all. Not because we want the glory, but because we are trying to live a God honouring way, the way of wisdom. Because the writer asks us very simply, which way will you walk in? The way of wisdom or the way of folly? Because if we walk in the way of folly, then sadly we’re shown up to be untrustworthy in many of our actions.


2) Undisciplined in his time

But it’s not the only characteristic that the writer exposes about the fool in this chapter. Because the second is being undisciplined in his use of time. Now we saw this more fully when we looked at chapter 6, so we won’t spend much time on this topic now, but just notice what the writer says about the sluggard. For example in verse 13, he gives pathetic excuses for putting things off: “The sluggard says, "There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!"” So this is the person who is forever putting things off. He’s the student who never gets started on his essay, because other things crowd in, important things like watching Neighbours and ER. He’s the father who is always putting off spending time with his family because he is too busy at work, when in fact a better grip on his diary would solve many of the problems. Or perhaps work has become a sanctuary from the stress of family life. He’s denying his responsibilities, tough though they might be. She’s the busy twenty something rushing around doing loads but never doing the most important thing, spending time with her God. Of the making of poor excuses there is no end, and much procrastination will weary the soul.

            Or how about in verses 14-15 where we find a person who really never finishes anything. “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed. The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth.” The bed has become a natural part of the sluggard’s anatomy. And even breakfast has become a chore as the hand cannot quite make it to the mouth with the spoonful of Shreddies. Now the writer is clearly using humour here, but he’s doing it for good reason- to shake us out of our apathy in our poor use of time. And it’s a problem not only for those of us who are naturally lazy, but also who are naturally very busy, or very active. Because very busy people can be just as undisciplined in their use of time. Busy people might easily be disguising their poor use of time through their busyness. They are busy because they have not got a grip on their time, which is as ungodly as wasting it through laziness. Or they might be wanting to prove themselves or justify themselves through their busyness. It not so much a question of whether we use time- all of us will do the things we want to do. It’s rather a question of how we use time. Time is a God given gift and such a gift must be used wisely. Not being so busy that we burn ourselves out, nor being so lazy that we wear our beds out. Both sins are problems for the fool who has lost his grip on time. Both show that we want to be lords of our time, whether to fritter it away or frantically fill our lives with all manner of things. Of not submitting to the Lord who made time, the living God. And the question for us is this: Will we be people who are wise or foolish in their use of time.

3) Untamed in his tongue

But the portrait of the fool continues. Because his third characteristic is that he is untamed in his tongue. Now the Proverbs has much to say on the power of the tongue both for good and evil. And an untamed tongue is the mark of the fool, whereas a tamed tongue, a godly use of words and speech is the mark of the wise person. So for example in 15 v 2, the writer says: “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” And in this chapter there are four particular aspects of foolish use of the tongue. The first is that the fool is quarrelsome. He’s always getting into fights and causing arguments. So have a look at verse 17: “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” Now it has to be said, I cannot speak from personal experience on this one, as I have never grabbed a dog by the ears, and in fact this verse makes it clear how stupid it is. I guess if you do try and grab a dog by the ears, the dog won’t be amused and will try and bite you. But by use of this metaphor the writer shows how foolish it is to rush headlong into things without thinking them through. So this is a person who gets involved in arguments that are not his. This is a person who simply does not think things through. They rush headlong into something and it ends in tears. He overhears a couple of people arguing and he has to say his piece. He’s the sort of guy whose mouth opens before he has had a chance to engage his brain. Out comes the comment and before long the harm is done. He’s said something that has made things worse or caused offence. Or see how the writer puts it in verse 21: “As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.” All a quarrelsome person does is stoke the fires. They always have to have the last word. They can never bite their tongues and stay quiet, always wanting to justify themselves and win the argument.

            Now it has to be said that many of us are tempted to be fools in this area but such actions are very destructive in a church’s life. Godly and gracious debate is one thing, but quarrelsome and argumentative people are very destructive. They forget the words of the writer in 10 v 19: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” How much pain and stress would be prevented if our tongues were kept in check. Abraham Lincoln once said: “I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool, than speak out and remove all doubt.”

            But the fool is not only quarrelsome he’s also a gossip. So verse 20: “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” And again verse 22: “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts.” What does gossip do? It stokes the fires of quarrelling. It’s tasty like choice morsels of food. Think of your favourite food and then imagine yourself eating it bit by bit. That’s gossip says the writer. Tasty morsels giving us great pleasure. But actually gossip is as destructive as fire. Chapter 16 v 28 gives a flavour of how destructive gossip can be: “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” And again in a church setting such foolish use of the tongue can be very destructive, possibly more so than ungodly quarrelling. Just a few words out of place can seriously damage a church’s health and it is very hard to get those words back once they have been spoken.

            A woman once repeated a nasty piece of gossip about a friend. The news travelled, and soon everyone knew the nasty news. The woman's friend was deeply hurt, not only by the untruths being said about her but by the betrayal by a friend. 

The woman who had first passed on the gossip was also wounded, wracked with guilt over the pain she had caused her friend. She approached her grandfather, a man she had always seen as very wise, and asked what she could do to set things right.

"Buy a chicken, and have it killed. Then on your way home, pluck its feathers and drop them along the road. When you have done this come and see me again."

The woman was somewhat perplexed by this advice but she followed it anyway. The next day she returned to her grandfather. This time he told her to go and collect all the feathers she had dropped on the road yesterday and bring them to him. "But that's impossible" she said. "They'll have all blown away." "Exactly" said her grandfather, "it's easy to drop them, but it's impossible to get them back. It's the same with gossip. It doesn't take much to spread a rumour, but once you do, you can never undo the hurt. The only thing to do is to ask for forgiveness."     The better thing though would be not to gossip in the first place and so avoid the hurt. To use our words for building up not tearing down. Otherwise we’re acting like fools.

            But our writer hasn’t finished yet. There’s still another mark of the fool’s use of the tongue, and that is he’s deceitful. So notice how the writer puts it in verse 18: “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbour and says, "I was only joking!"” Here’s the practical joke gone wrong. He deliberately goes out to deceive his neighbour and then tell them he was only joking. Again it’s noticeable how often in the Proverbs that the illustration of fire is used for the tongue. It’s like shooting firebrands, says our writer. They can so easily get out of control. But it’s far more serious in verse 23: “Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbours deceit. Though his speech is charming, do not believe him, for seven abominations fill his heart. His malice may be concealed by deception, but his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.” Here is the man who says one thing to your face and another thing behind your back. He disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbours deceit. He’s out to deceive you. It’s very strong stuff isn’t it. And we need to examine out motives to see what is really going on our hearts. Are we speaking in love to our brothers and sisters, to our non Christian friends? Or are we out to deceive them, to give a distorted impression of ourselves perhaps, to put someone else down to elevate ourselves. And sometimes we can become so deceived that we end up deceiving ourselves.

            And notice one final aspect of this fool’s tongue in verse 28. No surprise really, but the fool is a liar: “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” Lies only conceal hateful hearts, and flattery only ruins.

            Now you don’t need to be an expert in human relationships to see how painful a fool’s use of the tongue can be. And each one of us needs to take a long hard look at our hearts to examine how we are doing in this area. Because churches can be ruined by foolish tongues and friendships destroyed with non Christians. And again, the writer does this not to make us feel guilty, but to warn us of the way of the fool and to urge to go the way of the wise. Because the godly person will seek to tame his tongue, whereas the fool’s tongue is untamed.

            So there is a portrait of the fool as revealed in Proverbs 26, and in many ways it is very challenging. It challenges us in terms of our actions, our use of time and our tongues. But if we were to leave it there, then something would be very wrong. For it would be easy to come away from a sermon like this and think that the writer is simply wanting us to do better. To be better people. After all if we all acted in a more godly way in terms of our actions, use of time and use of our tongues, then the church would be a nicer place, no doubt. But the fact is we cannot do this on our own. This is a not a moral lesson in how to pull your socks up and do better. Because we need to go back to something that we began our sermon series with. And that is what true wisdom is all about. For wisdom is not knowing something or even doing something. Wisdom in the Bible is knowing someone. Do you remember Proverbs 1 v 7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” You see unless we understand this fact, then all we will ever do is try harder. And we will fail. But true wisdom is first humbling yourself before God and saying “I cannot change. I cannot do this. You are the king. You are the one who can change me.” And wonderfully we live the other side of the cross of Christ. For in Christ we can know forgiveness for our failings and also power to change. By his Spirit he can make us into the people he wants us to be. He can change the way we act, the way we use time, the way we use our tongues. And that process begins when we humbly submit to God and say, “My Lord and my God.” That is wisdom. It’s living in the light of the Lordship of Christ in his world and in his power. And when we do that, then truly we are fearing God, and on the way to a changed mind and changed life.

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