The biblical understanding of folly is not mere stupidity, but a self-centered pragmatism that shows contempt for the Lord, his Word, and his servants.
It is interesting that the paradigmatic example of the fool in Scripture is drawn from a social and political situation in which a wealthy businessman of bad character manifests his hostility to one of God’s wisest servants.
This successful man, the leader of a large and rich household with many workers, deliberately, needlessly and with profound ingratitude, insults and causes deep offense to God’s servant, the king-designate David, and his military men. This is in spite of the fact that David had protected and shown favor to the servants of this man whilst they were exposed and vulnerable in the wilderness shearing their flocks. When David later sent word seeking the small favor of hospitality – a meal for himself and his warriors – his servants were harshly treated, David’s actions and status were disgracefully impugned, and they were sent away with nothing but insults.
The businessman’s name was Nabal and the fascinating account is found in 1 Samuel 25. The name Nabal is actually Hebrew for ‘fool’ and so Scripture takes this incident as an illustration of great folly. Fortunately Nabal had a wise and prudent wife who was informed by one of Nabal’s servants what had happened to David’s men in the course of their request: “Now consider carefully what you must do, because there is certain to be trouble for our master and his entire family. He is such a worthless fool nobody can talk to him” (1 Sam. 25:17).
This wise and virtuous woman named Abigail went quickly to the wilderness to meet the king-designate David with gifts, and words of wisdom and kindness, asking forgiveness for the insults of her husband because Nabal could only live up to his name and “stupidity is all he knows” (1 Sam. 25:25). Her actions saved her house and preserved Nabal’s men from the sword. In any event, Nabal himself lost everything following a drunken party shortly after this incident. The following morning he had a seizure and a few days later was struck dead by God.
This incident is important because it illustrates well the biblical meaning of wisdom over against folly, as well as its application and scope. It is significant that the context for this classic example is not the challenges of personal relationships within a worshipping community – that is, it is not merely ‘churchy’ wisdom (though wisdom is important everywhere). The setting is one of social and political significance and involved matters of culture, custom, diplomacy and government. For in this account of Nabal the wisdom of a prudent woman who honors God and those who represent him, is contrasted with a rich and powerful fool who lives as though God is of no consequence, and the cause of the Lord’s servants unimportant. Nabal’s course was the way of death, Abigail’s was the way of life.
The Pragmatism of Fools
What characterized the actions of Nabal is indicative of many leaders today in ecclesiastical, social and political life – he was a pragmatist. In response to the request of David’s diplomatic delegation, Nabal said:
Who is David? Who is Jesse’s son? Many slaves these days are running away from their masters. Am I supposed to take my bread, my water and my meat that I butchered for my shearers and give them to these men? I don’t know where they are from (1 Sam. 25:9-11).
Notice that Nabal’s pragmatic response manifests nearly all of Isaiah’s marks of the fool. First, he speaks words uninformed by God’s wisdom. Second, his inaction is not just lazy, it is iniquitous. Third, his life is clearly godless, manifest not only here in his attitude toward God’s servant, but later by his drunken stupor. Fourth, his heart is dismissive of David so that his rhetoric about the king-designate is pure falsehood – as though David was an idle slave running away from his master, not the anointed and God-ordained king of Israel being persecuted by evil men. And finally, he is depriving those in need, sending them away empty, whilst implying that all his resources are his and from his own hand, not from God and by his mercy. Nabal’s heart and actions therefore seek to make the world morally ‘neutral’ by conducting his affairs without reference to God and his wisdom. The right and best is placed within the sphere of Nabal’s own desires, what Nabal perceives to be the best outcome for himself.
Pragmatism, whether ancient or modern, always replaces wisdom in the governments of fools because it is a view of life which seeks to establish the meaning of ideas and events only in reference to human experience and not to God and his law-word or purpose. At best, truth and meaning are relativistic and empirical, emerging by examining the practical consequences of actions as desirable or undesirable in terms of human preferences. The American philosopher and pragmatist William James claimed that meaning must be remade as we construct new concepts out of our new experiences of the world. Regarding meaning and interpretation James writes, “we carve out everything…just as we carve out constellations, to serve our human purposes.”[i] Somehow out of the diversity and cacophony of human ‘experience,’ meaning is to be remade, presumably by an elite who believe their experience is more ‘defining’ than everybody else’s. In such a view, the world and all human action is ethically neutral but might be ‘improved’ or progress as man, by his instrumental ideas, adjusts life in its varied aspects.
In this perspective the ethical or virtuous life is simply the adjustment or manipulation of human behavior towards more satisfying ways of living…at least satisfying to an elite.
The fool then is quite obviously sinful fallen man who lives as though there is no God and cherishes an astonishing presumption that by his own ‘wisdom’ he can save himself and society. The fool will not admit his or her need of God. The more foolish people become in obstinate rebellion, the more they will seek the leadership and government of fools. Although this is a remarkable characteristic of the modern Western world, it is not unique to our time. The Christian order that the notable Oliver Cromwell represented proved unpopular with many, not because of its allegedly authoritarian nature (his was a government pursuing freedoms for the peoples of the Anglosphere in an age of absolutist monarchs and dictators) but because of the moral character it represented. As one historian noted:
For the first and only time in modern Europe, morality and religion became the sole qualification insisted on by the court. In the whole history of modern Europe, Oliver is the one ruler into whose presence no vicious man could come, whose service no vicious man might enter.[ii]
In the Puritans, among whom we count Cromwell, we see resistance to a mere pragmatic approach to leadership, with government conducted in terms of moral courage (virtue) and transcendent principle, seeking the wisdom of God for society and culture. More modern politicians have likewise shown an awareness of the difference between Christian wisdom in thinking about government and the mere pragmatic will of the mob or an elite. In an address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, former British Prime Minister, the late Lady Thatcher said:
When Abraham Lincoln spoke in his famous Gettysburg speech of 1863 of “government of the people,” he gave the world a neat definition of democracy which has since been widely and enthusiastically adopted. But what he enunciated as a form of government was not in itself especially Christian, for nowhere in the Bible is the word democracy mentioned. Ideally, when Christians meet, as Christians, to take counsel together their purpose is not (or should not be) to ascertain what is the mind of the majority but what is the mind of the Holy Spirit – something which may be quite different.[iii]
If wisdom is identified simply as the voice of the majority, all we have left is collective pragmatism at work, within a humanistic framework, that declares the voice of the people to be the voice of God. The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words meaning essentially ‘people power.’ Whilst we can see important instances and texts in the Bible supporting the importance of freedom under God (Ex. 6:2-8; John 8:31-32; Gal. 5:1), the consent of the people to be governed (1 Sam. 8; 1 Cor. 6:1-5; Acts 15:22), and to be represented from among those being governed (Ex. 18:13-27; Titus 1:5-9), representation or a vote in itself cannot save people from themselves or from sin, nor can it preserve freedom and keep men from folly.
In 1 Samuel 8 when the people demanded a king and the prophet Samuel was dejected because he knew that this was a surrender of freedom under God, God told him to let the people have their king, but warned of the growing and invasive powers a king would wield over them. In the matters of wisdom and virtue, then, the will of the people is only as good as the character of the people making their voice heard. The collective decision of the Israelites to have a king appointed was a product of the character of those people – they wanted to be like all the other nations and found the responsibility of freedom under God too much to bear. They preferred a form of slavery to freedom. Thus, in terms of the character of leaders in every sphere, we get the kind of rulers we deserve, because the character of the people will determine the character of their leaders and government.
Whilst it is true that Lincoln’s quote has been used in support of democratic systems and institutions for many years, what Thatcher didn’t mention in her excellent speech was that these words were not original to him. He was actually quoting from the prologue of the earliest translation of the Scriptures into English: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” These words were penned by the Morningstar of the Reformation, the English theologian John Wycliffe – words which first appeared in 1384.[iv] Wycliffe understood that true wisdom and virtue for the government of our lives came not from kings, parliaments or popes in themselves, but from God’s Word.
Wycliffe did not see the Bible as a privatized book restricted to a Christian’s personal devotional life or to the church institution. Rather he saw Scripture as God’s law-word and wisdom for all of life, and that without this book for the government of the people, wisdom and virtue would vanish and liberty and godly government would die with them. The book comes before the people, not the people before the book. To put the preferences of ‘the people’ before the word of God as the source of meaning, wisdom and virtue is the steady destruction of true and just government.
Thus, the Christian view does not allow pragmatic concerns to trump God’s wisdom or moral character; nevertheless, all too many Christians today are prepared to accept such pragmatism. The obvious challenge however, is that an ungodly people do not want a moral universe, virtuous and wise leaders, and wise government. The modern Westerner is a pragmatist, a product of progressivist education where the only test of value is pragmatic – is this action personally or socially conducive to my sense of welfare or social welfare as man measures well-being? In approaching things this way we fail to acknowledge that, when in rebellion against God, man is not just a sinner, he is rendered a fool; and when acting on the principles of folly we condemn our societies to a slow cultural death.
From Nabal to Nietzsche, then, pragmatism governs the fool. For Nietzsche the solution to what he called the ‘European problem’ was “the rearing of a new ruling caste for Europe.”[v] The way to govern and save humanity was by unleashing the new wisdom of man, living beyond good and evil, that is beyond (or transcending) God’s law, in a purely pragmatic universe where truth is simply will to power – the quintessence of pragmatism. Nietzsche held that “the real philosophers however, are commanders and law-givers; they say: ‘Thus shall it be!’ Their will to truth is – Will to Power.”[vi] And so as George Bernard Shaw put it, “The art of government is the organization of idolatry.”[vii] Man is the new god and that is current temper.
The growing statism and elitism of the modern Western world simply manifests the truth that we inhabit today a large humanistic theocracy governed by the will of man as a replacement for divine wisdom and true virtue. Because of this reality, governments of fools will praise the wicked. When people abandon the wisdom of God and replace it with pragmatism, when the Bible for the government of the people is rejected, instead of battling evil and seeking to suppress it, governments will praise, endorse and celebrate it and will fight against the true and the good. Scripture is clear that “where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Prov. 29:18). Where biblical truth disappears in public life restraint goes to the wind. As Solomon wrote, “Those who forsake the law, praise the wicked” (Prov. 28:4).
[i] William James, Pragmatism, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979, first edition published 1907), 100.
[ii] John Stephen Flynn, The Influence of Puritanism on the Political & Religious Thought of the English (London, England: John Murray, 1920), 61.
[iii] Margaret Thatcher, “Sow, and Ye Shall Reap for All,” Wall Street Journal, May 31, 1988, 22.
[iv] Daniel Hannan, Inventing Freedom: How the English Speaking People’s made the Modern World (Harper Collins: New York, 2013), 32-33.
[v] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Helen Zimmern, (New York: Dover, 1997), 116.
[vi] Nietzsche, cited in R. J. Rushdoony, Sovereignty (Ross House Books: Vallecito, CA, 2007), 252.
[vii] Ibid, 253.