We’ve all acted foolishly before — probably on multiple occasions.
If you’ve ever locked your keys in the car, scanned a cart-full of groceries at the register before realizing you left your wallet at home, or searched frantically for an item, only to realize a few seconds later that you were holding it in your hand the whole time, you know what being a dunderhead feels like.
But not all foolish acts are quite so innocent.
Scripture identifies several types of fools, some more dangerous than others. Though there is some overlapping between them, we can at least discern a distinction between two main classes of fools. Let us consider these, each one successively representing ever-increasing levels of denseness.
The word, fool, stems from a Latin term (follis) meaning, bellows or an empty sac. It thus became a metaphor for an empty-headed person, deficient of knowledge or experience.
Ignorant fools tend to be the most well-known kind of fool, since they are fairly easy to spot. They fall into two types.
First, there is the simpleton. The simpleton is gullible and naive. He easily falls for seduction or deception.
One Hebrew word for fool is pethîy — “opened up.” It denotes one who lacks either moral or mental discipline (or both), and is therefore highly susceptible (open) to outside influence. As such, the simpleton is easily deceived (Prov. 14.15: he “believes every word”), as well as easily enticed (cf. Prov. 7.6-7; 22.3).
It is tempting to make fun of the simpleton, or even to denounce him quickly when he falls for temptation. But let us not forget:
(1) We were once naive too! Paul instructs us “to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.” Why? “For we ourselves were also once foolish (literally, non-thinking), disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another” (Titus 3.2-3). Yet, God exercised pity and kindness toward us (Tit. 3.4ff), and it is deplorable for us not to do the same for them.
(2) The simpleton, of all kinds of fools, is perhaps the most teachable. Their open-mindedness can become a valuable asset for learning (Prov. 1.4; 19.25; 21.11).
Second, there is the silly fool (Hebrew, eviyl). He is also ignorant, but willingly so. Whereas the simple fool is ignorant but open to learning (and will often listen indiscriminately), the silly fool regards his ignorance as a blissful, preferable condition. He does not want to be taught.
It is interesting that the word, silly, which now means one who lacks common sense or judgment, stems from an old Germanic word which meant, ‘happiness.’ The notion that ignorance is bliss is far from new!
Peter spoke of those who are “willingly ignorant” regarding the second coming of Christ and the final judgment of God (2 Pt. 3.5). Such people are behaving foolishly, for they are senselessly burying their head in the sand and putting their eternal soul in jeopardy (cf. Lk. 12.20)!
Silly fools, then, are incorrigible, refusing to listen to advice. Proverbs 1.7 reads: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools (eviyl, lit., silly-ones) despise wisdom and instruction.”
When others attempt to educate the silly fool, he becomes impulsively angry or rude, since he thinks he either knows it all, or, at the very least, thinks he does not need to learn anymore (Prov. 12.15-16; cf. 20.3).
Not all fools are of the ignorant variety. Some are informed as to right and wrong, or truth and error. However, for various reasons, they will deliberately choose the foolish path.
For sake of clarity, we shall describe three types of informed fools, each one, again, characterized by ever-increasing degrees of folly and spiritual peril.
First, there are immoral fools.
The immoral fool (Heb., kecîyl; ‘fat; sensual’) derives enjoyment or satisfaction from bad behavior. “It is as sport to a fool (kecîyl) to do mischief” (Prov. 10.23). The immoral fool may know that sinful conduct is wrong, but he has convinced himself that the thrill of the act is worth the spiritual danger, or that the act itself is not that serious after all (like a “sport” or a joke).
For example, David knew that the strength of Israel resided not in the number of their people, but in their faith toward God. Yet, on one occasion, he chose to take an unauthorized census of the people to determine the size of his military forces. Perhaps he thought that such a census was not that bad; but David had set aside his faith in God and instead embraced a reliance upon the “arm of flesh” (Jer. 17.5; cf. 2 Chron. 32.7-8).
Almost immediately, the king realized that he had “sinned greatly” against the Lord. Thus, he confessed that he acted “very foolishly (kecîyl)” (2 Sam. 24.10).
Most of us tend to fall into this category of foolishness.
Second, there are amoral fools.
The amoral fool is not necessarily uneducated or naive. Rather, he is one who simply does not care about the rightness or wrongness of an action. He is unprincipled, dishonorable — a scoundrel (Nabal, Abigail’s husband, is an example: 1 Sam. 25.1-25). This type of fool is much harder to transform than any of the preceding.
David wrote of the kind of individual who permanently thrusts God away from his decision-making process:
“The fool (nabal) has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’.”
Such an unprincipled fool is “corrupt,” practices “abominable works,” and does no “good” (Ps. 14.1). He cares nothing about those he offends and feels no shame for indecent behavior, for he is a “wicked” man, who, “in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts” (Ps. 10.4).
Third, there are anti-moral fools.
These are the most foolish of all, and the most dangerous. They are irreverent and openly opposed to truth and virtue.
The Hebrews used the word, lûwts, to describe this kind of fool. Literally, it denotes: to make mouths at (e.g., sticking out the tongue); a heckler. The anti-moral fool is the scoffer; he loves to ridicule or express disdain for others (especially those in positions of authority). As an impetuous contrarian, he particularly delights in the ruination or embarrassment of others.
It is nearly impossible to rebuke a scoffing fool successfully, for he rages senselessly (cf. Prov. 13.1; 15.12; 9.7-8). Instead, with such people, it is best to remember the shrewd warning of the hoosier poet, James Whitcomb Riley:
“A fella only hurts hisself that jaws a man that’s hot!”
The anti-moral fool prefers cleverness over kindness; mental prowess over character. Accordingly, it is generally good advice to stay away from such “revilers,” who love to insult others (1 Cor. 5.11), for they shall have no part in “the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6.10).
An Analogy of the Rattlesnake
The distinction between these fools (however slight) may be better perceived by way of analogy.
The simple fool is like a man who has no knowledge that a rattlesnake is deadly. When another man tells him that a rattlesnake bite is actually healthy, the simpleton believes him, allows himself to be bitten, and then dies.
The silly fool also does not know about the dangers of the rattlesnake. However, when someone warns him about the threat, he refuses to listen, preferring to remain ignorant. The snake bites him, and he dies.
The immoral fool is like a man who knows about the rattlesnake. However, with heightened adrenaline coursing through his veins, he derives a thrill from being around such a deadly creature, and he tells himself that the situation is not that hazardous. So he waves his arms and legs around the snake until the snake bites him, and he, too, dies.
The amoral fool is the kind of individual who simply does not care anymore. The consequences of his actions no longer concern him. So he picks up the rattlesnake and sticks its fangs into his arm and dies.
The anti-moral fool inordinately delights in the misery of others. He is the ultimate contrarian. So he runs around trying to find others to stick the snake’s fangs into, but is, himself, bitten and dies.
So is everyone who has been poisoned by Satan’s sinful venom (cf. Rev. 12.9).
It is staggering to realize that Solomon, perhaps the wisest man who has ever lived (save Jesus himself; 1 Kings 3.12), spent much of his life in immoral folly (cf. Ecclesiastes). Fortunately, near the end of his life, he came to his senses and returned to serving God and preparing for eternity (Ecc. 12.13-14). Many today, however, have failed to learn that lesson.
In order to be wise, we must first become fools (1 Cor. 3.18-20; cf. 4.10). We must empty our minds and hearts of all worldly philosophy, imaginative speculations, and hardened feelings (1 Cor. 1.18-25). We must open ourselves to God’s way (Jer. 10.23; Prov. 14.12; Acts 18.25-26; cf. Acts 13.10; 2 Pt. 2.15; Heb. 3.10).
In time, with patience, study, prayer, and experience, we may eventually become possessors of the wisdom that comes from above (Jms. 1.5; 3.17). May the Lord hasten that day to come!
“See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5.15-17).