The Five Faces of a Fool
Solomon must have had high hopes for his eldest son Rehoboam. He gave him a name which meant ‘The People Have Grown Bigger’, because he knew that following in his footsteps would not be easy. Success without a successor spells failure, so Solomon started to train his crown prince early.
Some readers of Proverbs struggle to understand why the book seems to be mainly addressed to men and not women, to rulers and not subjects, to the rich and not the poor, and to the young and not the old, but this is why. Solomon makes it clear in 4:1, 5:7 and 7:24 that he has a wider readership in mind than simply Rehoboam, but he also makes it clear that his number one reader is the son who will reign after him. Proverbs 1-9 takes the form of twelve fatherly talks, the first eleven of which begin with a passionate appeal to ‘my son’. Other people can enrol in God’s school of wisdom, but the head boy of the school is the crown prince Rehoboam.
If you have read 1 Kings 12, then you will know that Solomon’s high hopes for his eldest son were not to be. When he came to the throne in 930BC, Rehoboam wore the five faces of a fool which his father warned against in these verses. Let’s look together at five Hebrew words which Solomon uses to describe the different aspects of human folly. As we do so, let’s commit ourselves to heed his fivefold warning more than Rehoboam did.
The first word is ‘ewîl in verse 7, and this word for fool occurs 19 times in Proverbs. It doesn’t mean someone who lacks mental ability, but rather someone who lacks moral humility. An ‘ewîl is not a good-hearted person who fails to grasp God’s will with his head, but a rebellious person who refuses to submit to it with his heart. Rehoboam was an ‘ewîl in 1 Kings 12 because he took his dilemma to his friends instead of to the Lord. Whilst his father began his reign by visiting the Tabernacle and listening to the Lord, Rehoboam began his reign by closing his ears to God and setting out to make his own moral choices. He ignored his father’s call in Proverbs 1:8-19 to listen to the Lord and not to sinful human counsellors, and he discovered to his cost that Solomon was right to insist in verse 19 that life only works God’s way. 2 Chronicles 12:14 tells us that Rehoboam’s evil deeds were not due to his ignorance, but his wilfulness: “He did evil because he had not set his heart on seeking the Lord.”
The second word is pethî in verse 22, and this word for fool occurs 16 times in Proverbs. It means a simple or gullible or naïve person – anyone weak-minded enough to fall for flattery and temptation. Rehoboam was a pethî when he ignored the voice of Wisdom calling out in the public square in Proverbs 1:20-33, and listened to the voice of his flattering friends instead. Wisdom shouted that “the waywardness of pethî people will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.” Rehoboam refused to listen to her or to the ten northern tribes of Israel when they pointed out quite reasonably that his father’s fiscal and labour policies had been unfair towards them.1 He listened to his friends and was flattered into acting like a macho despot. As a result, his waywardness and complacency destroyed his kingdom. The ten northern tribes broke away from his rule, and he was left with a fraction of the power which his father had bequeathed to him.
The third word is lêts in verse 22, and this word for fool occurs 15 times in Proverbs. It means a mocker or scoffer and describes the person who refuses to take the truth or the advice of wise counsellors seriously. When Solomon’s experienced counsellors pointed out to Rehoboam that his father had indeed been unfair and he could now win favour with his new subjects by reversing his father’s policy, he arrogantly scorned their advice. He might have saved his kingdom had he taken more note of these verses in Proverbs, but instead he simply proved that they were true. Verse 7 told us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and now verse 29 responds that failure to fear the Lord is the beginning of folly and disaster.
The fourth word is kesîl in verse 22, and this word for fool occurs 48 times in Proverbs and 19 times in Ecclesiastes. It means a stupid person, but again one whose deficiency is not in head capacity but in heart humility.2 Rehoboam was a kesîl in the sense that he had hundreds of his father’s proverbs to warn him that a king must rule justly, yet he wilfully refused to listen. That’s why Solomon warns in Proverbs 26:7 that a proverb is as useless as a lame man’s legs to a kesîl unless he submits his heart to Wisdom.
The fifth word is ‘âtsêl and it does not occur until 6:6, but this word for fool occurs 14 times in Proverbs. It means a sluggard or a slacker or a waster – anyone whose problem isn’t a lack of mental capacity but sheer laziness. He craves the same things as the wise, but he makes excuses to put off action till tomorrow, and when he finally prises himself out of bed and leaves the house he quickly complains that the road to success is too costly for him to travel. He never finishes what he starts and he buries his head in the sand to problems like Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12:18. Solomon warns in verse 33 that the wise always enjoy far more ease than the sluggard in the end.
So what shall we say? Did Solomon’s school of wisdom fail because its head boy failed to live God’s way? Not at all. Jesus warned in Matthew 5:22 that if we write anyone off as a fool then we are party to their murder because there is time for a person to repent and listen to Wisdom’s words. Whether we wear all five faces of a fool or just one or two, we can repent and walk a different path from the five-times foolish head boy Rehoboam.
Wisdom calls to us as we finish chapter 1, calling us fools with one breath and inviting us to become wise men and women with the next: “Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings.” None of us need wear the five faces of a fool like Rehoboam.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, “Straight to the Heart of Solomon”, published this month by Monarch Books. See www.philmoorebooks.com
- 1 1 Kings 4:7-19 tells us that Solomon taxed the ten northern tribes of Israel but not the two southern tribes. 1 Kings 5:13-18 tells us that he treated the ten northern tribes like a conquered kingdom by using Israelites but not Judahites in his army of foreign slave labourers. Their sense of injustice was quite legitimate.
- 2 The normal Hebrew word for a mentally deficient fool is nâbâl, but although this is a common word outside Proverbs it is only used in Proverbs 17:7, 17:21 & 30:22.