Proverbs: The Fool

The following is an excerpt from the TOTC commentary on Proverbs [1]: 

The fool

The fool meets us under various names. It will be convenient to treat these separately, but some of the terms (especially in section II) are virtually interchangeable.

1. The simple

The Hebrew word is petî. The verb formed from this word (like our verb ‘to fool’) means to deceive or seduce (as in 1:10: ‘if sinners entice thee’), and the petî, accordingly, is the kind of person who is easily led, gullible, silly. Mentally, he is naïve (‘the simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going’, Prov 14:15; cf. Prov 22:3); morally, he is wilful and irresponsible (‘the waywardness of the simple shall slay them’, Prov 1:32).

Because of his lazy thoughtlessness, he may need a visual aid to bring him to repentance (‘Smite a scorner, and the simple will learn sense’, Prov 19:25). If he refuses it, he will graduate to a more serious condition: ‘The simple acquire folly’ (’iwwelet—see 2(2), below), ‘but the prudent are crowned with knowledge’ (Prov 14:18); for one does not stay still: a man who is emptyheaded will end up wrongheaded. In fact to the truly emptyheaded, those whom Proverbs calls ḥăsar-lêb, senseless, folly is ‘fun’ (Prov 15:21), for they have nothing better to do than ‘chase after vanities’ (Prov 12:11).

The locus classicus of the ‘simple’ is chapter 7, where he is seen at his most typical: aimless, inexperienced, drifting into temptation—indeed almost courting it. A person in such a state (and the reader is not encouraged to think himself beyond such folly) will not go far before he meets a temptress, or (as in Prov 1:10) tempters, who know what they want and what he half wants. In short, the simple (and his elder brother, the fool) is no halfwit; he is a person whose instability could be rectified, but who prefers not to accept discipline in the school of wisdom (Prov 1:22–32).

2. The fool

In Proverbs, three words are translated ‘fool’.

1. kĕsîl. This is the commonest of the three terms, occurring nearly 50 times. By derivation, it seems to mean one who is dull and obstinate; but it must always be remembered that the book has in mind a man’s chosen outlook, rather than his mental equipment. We are shown the kĕsîl as he is first in himself, and second in society.

In himself, he has no idea of a patient search for wisdom: he has not the concentration for it (‘a fool’s eyes are in the ends of the earth’, Prov 17:24), but imagines it can be handed out to him over the counter (‘Why does a fool offer the sage a fee, when he has no mind to learn?’ Prov 17:16, Moffatt). So he ‘laps up’ his opinions unreflectingly (see note on Prov 15:14), and pours them out freely (Prov 15:2), unaware that he is only displaying his folly as a trader spreads out his goods (Prov 13:16). His sage remarks either fall flat or turn round on him (Prov 26:7, Prov 26:9); but he will never realize this, for he cannot imagine himself mistaken. ‘A rebuke enters deeper into a discerning man than a hundred stripes into a fool’ (Prov 17:10).

The root of his trouble is spiritual, not mental. He likes his folly, going back to it ‘like a dog that returns to his vomit’ (Prov 26:11); he has no reverence for truth, preferring comfortable illusions (see Prov 14:8, and note). At bottom, what he is rejecting is the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:29): it is this that constitutes him a fool, and this that makes his complacency tragic; for ‘the careless ease of fools shall destroy them’ (Prov 1:32).

In society the fool is, in a word, a menace. At best, he wastes your time: ‘you will not find a word of sense in him’ (Prov 14:7, Moffatt); and he may be a more serious nuisance. If he has an idea in his head, nothing will stop him: ‘let a bear robbed of her whelps meet a man, rather than a fool in his folly’ (Prov 17:12)—whether that folly is some prank that is beyond a joke (Prov 10:23), or some quarrel he must pick (Prov 18:6) and run to death (Prov 29:11). Give him a wide berth, for ‘the companion of fools shall smart for it’ (Prov 13:20), and if you want to send him away, don’t send him with a message (Prov 26:6)!

Some people, however, cannot disown him; it is their tragedy. To his father and mother the fool brings sorrow (Prov 10:1; Prov 17:21), bitterness (Prov 17:25) and calamity (Prov 19:13). It is the price of loving him; but it causes him no qualms—he despises them (Prov 15:20).

2. ’ĕwîl (19 times). Like kĕsîl above, this word suggests stupidity and stubbornness; and the fact that the ‘folly’ of the kĕsîl is almost always called ’iwwelet (from the same root as ’ĕwîl) shows that these two names for ‘fool’ are virtually one. Yet the present term is, if anything, a darker one than kĕsîl, as used in Proverbs.

The fool, by this name as by the other, gives himself away as soon as he opens his mouth (Prov 17:28; Prov 24:7; cf. Prov 10:14), and he is as quarrelsome as his other self—for he knows no restraint (Prov 20:3; Prov 12:16) and has no sense of proportion (Prov 27:3; Prov 29:9). The feature that seems specially prominent is his moral insolence: from his first appearance onwards he is impatient of all advice (Prov 1:7; Prov 10:8; Prov 12:15; Prov 15:5), and his flippant outlook is crystallized in the famous phrase, ‘fools make a mock at sin’ (Prov 14:9). It is small wonder that his folly—unless it is knocked out of him early (Prov 22:15)—is virtually ineradicable. ‘Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar … with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him’ (Prov 27:22).

3. nābāl. This word occurs only three times in Proverbs (its verb, Prov 30:32, appears once), and adds little to the picture already built up, except an extra weight of boorishness (Prov 17:7, where see note; Prov 30:22). It does underline, however, the fact that the fool, by whatever name he goes, is by definition one whose mind is closed, for the present at least, to God (like the nābāl of Ps. 14:1) and to reason (like the Nabal of whom his wife said ‘One cannot speak to him’, 1 Sam. 25:17), since he has rejected the first principle of wisdom, the fear of the Lord.

3. The scoffer

The scoffer or scorner (lēs) makes about seventeen appearances in the book, and is contrasted with the wise, or coupled with the foolish, often enough to earn a place of his own in the fools’ gallery. His presence there makes it finally clear that mental attitude, not mental capacity, classifies the man. He shares with his fellows their strong dislike of correction (Prov 9:7-8; Prov 13:1; Prov 15:12), and it is this, not any lack of intelligence, that blocks any move he makes towards wisdom (Prov 14:6). The mischief he does is not the random mischief of the ordinary fool, but the deeper damage of the ‘debunker’ and deliberate trouble-maker (Prov 21:24; Prov 22:10; Prov 29:8). He impresses the impressionable, as long as he is allowed his way (Prov 19:25; Prov 21:11); but his bad influence is plain to most men (Prov 24:9). Of the ‘judgments … prepared for scorners’ (Prov 19:29), the final and most withering is a deep draught of their own medicine: ‘He (the Lord) scorneth the scorners’ (Prov 3:34).


1. Kidner, D. (1964). Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 17, pp. 36–39). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.