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One of the ways that Scripture teaches us about wisdom is by providing us with examples of foolishness. Scripture calls us to look not only to the ant but also to the sluggard to understand the wisdom of planning and labor as opposed to the foolishness of slothfulness (Prov. 6:6–11). We learn the wisdom of giving thanks to God not only by looking at the one leper who returned to Jesus to express gratitude for being healed but also by considering the other nine who foolishly failed to do so (Luke 17:11–19). Sometimes the best way to see wisdom is through the lens of foolishness. Accordingly, a wise Christian pays attention to the fools described in Scripture. Let’s examine three different types of fools presented in the Bible.

fool #1: denies god

The most egregious and deadly form of foolishness is defined by the psalmist in Psalm 14:1: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Those who deny the existence of God are, according to Scripture, the ultimate fools. After all, what could be more foolish than rejecting the God who made you and everything else?

The opening of Psalm 14 gives us the heavenly perspective on the nature of humanity. It speaks not only of the heart of the atheist but ultimately of all of us. All people (except Christ) are born with hearts that declare that there is no God. In the Hebrew mind, the heart was not the muscle that pumps blood through our circulatory system. Instead, it represented the very seat of human understanding. We moderns tend to divide mind and heart, but this was not so for the ancient Hebrew. To say in one’s heart that there is no God is to say with one’s entire emotional, psychological, and rational faculties that there is no God.

The Scriptures tell us that we are all born with hearts that say that there is no God. For example, consider Romans 3:10–11, “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.’” The Apostle Paul, drawing on the Old Testament, makes a universal declaration about the nature of humanity apart from God’s redeeming grace, and what he says, essentially, is that we are all born saying in our hearts, “There is no God.” In other words, we are all born fools.

In Reformed theology, we refer to this phenomenon as total depravity or, as R.C. Sproul put it, radical corruption. This idea does not mean that humanity is as bad as it could be or is incapable of doing any kind of good for others. Instead, it refers to a radical corruption of our minds, hearts, and wills that renders sinners incapable of self-help when it comes to knowing God and receiving His salvation. In other words, without God’s intervening grace, we are doomed to continue to say in our hearts, “There is no God.”

Our radical corruption began when our first parents foolishly chose to disobey God in the garden. In essence, through their act of disobedience, they said in their hearts, “There is no God.” Human history is merely a chronicle of the repetition of that foolishness in subsequent generations. We see it all around us. Our culture is not just saying in its heart that there is no God; it is screaming it from the rooftops and encoding it in social policies. This is an alarming and perilous trend. As we know from Scripture, foolishness does not end well. But as we appropriately critique our culture for its foolish rejection of God, let us not forget that we too were born fools.

fool #2: despises god

A second type of fool that we encounter in Scripture is the fool who despises the prerogatives, privileges, and gifts of God. Whereas the first type of fool is generally found outside the visible church, this second type of fool can also reside within its ranks. This type of fool is described in Hebrews 6:4–6:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

This type of fool has “been enlightened,” “tasted the heavenly gift,” “shared in the Holy Spirit,” and “tasted the goodness of the word of God,” but despite having been exposed to these benefits and blessings, he has chosen to reject them.

What could be more foolish than rejecting the God who made you and everything else?

The book of Hebrews draws heavily on the wilderness experience of Old Testament Israel. This was the period after the exodus but before the conquest of Canaan. During this period, all Israel was exposed to many blessings, including light from the pillar of fire, manna to eat, the spiritual leadership of God’s appointed mediator (Moses), and the very presence of God. Though all Israel was exposed to these privileges, not all Israel embraced them. Instead, some despised and rejected them. This was the generation that died in the wilderness. The writer to the Hebrews draws on this Old Testament imagery and applies it to a new covenant context. Essentially, Hebrews 6:4–6 reminds us that not all who are raised with the covenant privileges of the church will embrace those privileges. Just like some in Old Testament Israel, some in New Testament Israel (the church) will be exposed to the light of God’s presence, partake of the bread He provides, hear the proclamation regarding the Mediator of the new covenant, Jesus Christ, and yet foolishly choose to despise and reject these good gifts.

The classic example of this type of fool is Esau, the twin brother of Jacob and son of the patriarch Isaac. The book of Genesis chronicles the conflict between Jacob and Esau, which was focused on which of them would possess the privileges of the firstborn son. These privileges included a birthright (which provided the firstborn son with a double share of the inheritance) and the patriarchal blessing (which designated succession of the firstborn son to leadership of the family). Esau was entitled to both of these, but Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, wanted them for Jacob. Through clever scheming, opportunistic manipulation, and outright deception, Jacob and Rebekah were able to wrest these privileges from Esau. Certainly, Jacob and Rebekah shared some moral culpability related to depriving Esau of these privileges and deceiving Isaac, but the Scriptures actually focus more on the moral failure of Esau. Consider, for example, the harsh sentence applied to Esau by the writer to the Hebrews:

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Heb. 12:15–16)

Here, Esau is described as “unholy” because, in a moment of extreme hunger, he traded away his birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25:29–34). The NIV uses the word “godless” to describe Esau. The KJV uses the word “profane.” Esau, while not saying in his heart, “There is no God,” effectively affirmed that sentiment through his actions by despising the privileges of the covenant.

Unlike the atheist, Esau was exposed to the blessings of life in covenant with God. He was raised in a believing household. Despite this, he chose to despise and reject these privileges.

The consequences for this type of foolishness are extreme. The writer to the Hebrews reflects on these consequences as he warns his readers to avoid the example of Esau: “For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). This verse should make us tremble. It reveals that even though Esau later realized the consequences to his foolishness, there was no turning back from it. He was “rejected” and found “no chance to repent.” This depiction of the lack of opportunity to repent is in concert with the warnings described earlier in Hebrews 6:4–6. Those verses warned of the impossibility of “repentance” for those “once enlightened” who then reject the privileges of covenant life with God. Despising the things of God is foolishness, and foolishness leads to destruction.

From the example of Esau’s foolishness, we learn that the blessings of being exposed to the covenant can turn into curses should we despise them. Esau’s foolishness serves as a warning to all who sit in the pew on Sunday morning. Covenant life is always a two-edged sword. Embracing Christ and the covenant of grace brings life, but rejecting and despising them brings death. We should share the example of Esau with our covenant children as a reminder that the privileges of the covenant should not be despised. But this warning is not just for our children. It is for all of us who claim to be part of the covenant people of God. The example of Esau should cause all Christians to examine their lives and to assess whether they are foolishly despising the privileges of covenant life with God.

fool #3: disregards god

A third type of fool encountered in Scripture is the fool who disregards God. Like the second type of fool, this fool can also be found within the ranks of the visible church. The fool who disregards God is not like the atheist who denies God by saying in his heart that there is no God. Instead, the fool who disregards God professes belief in God but through his actions and mindset lives as if God were irrelevant. A classic example of this can be found in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13–21).

In this parable, Jesus tells of a rich farmer who possessed fertile land. The rich man’s land produced an abundant crop, which presented the man with the problem of what to do with his surplus because his barns could not hold it. The rich man decided to solve this problem by tearing down his existing barns and building new, larger ones. The man did this because he desired to secure a comfortable future for himself: “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’” (v. 19).

At this point, you might be wondering how this rich farmer could be considered a fool. After all, he seems prudent. He is planning for his future. Doesn’t the book of Proverbs encourage us to be planners? Didn’t Joseph store up grain to prepare for years of famine? Why, then, is this person considered a fool?

At first glance, the man’s actions seem wise, and it is true that Scripture encourages us to plan for the future. But when we dig deeper into this parable, we see why this man is referred to as the rich fool. Listen to the conclusion of the parable:

“But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (vv. 20–21)

These words leave no doubt about the status of this man before God. God explicitly refers to him as a fool. But why? What did he do that was so foolish? Well, it was not so much what he did but rather what he failed to do. This man was a fool because he was “not rich toward God.”

The rich farmer was rich toward himself. In fact, we could say that this rich farmer was entirely self-absorbed. Consider all the self-referential remarks he makes in Luke 12:17–19:

“And he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’”

When it came to this man’s life, it was all about him. His problem was not that he was rich or that he possessed great wealth but rather that he focused his life on himself instead of God and his neighbor. Jesus makes this judgment clear at the end of the parable when He condemns the man not for being rich but for failing to be rich—that is, rich toward God: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (v. 21). While this parable does warn us of materialism, its main purpose is to admonish us not to disregard God by failing to be rich toward Him.

What does failure to be rich toward God mean? It means omitting God from the calculus of our lives, disregarding God while living our lives and planning for our futures and being self-centered in our mindset rather than God-centered. This type of foolishness is subtle because it does not require us to deny God or to despise Him. All we need to do to disregard God is simply to focus on ourselves rather than Him. That’s what the rich farmer did, and that’s why God called him a fool.

Every Christian faces the risk of being this type of fool. This is particularly true for Christians living in the prosperous and increasingly secularized Western world. Our culture is constantly barraging us with messages to love and serve ourselves. We are bombarded with cultural homiletics urging us to plan for our secure retirement. Our culture encourages us to make our lives about our comfort and ourselves rather than about God and our neighbor. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit to being susceptible to buying into such messages. Apathy and selfishness are prevalent among contemporary Christians, and often the church itself indulges and encourages these attributes in its members. The example of the rich fool warns us against making our lives about ourselves. It reminds us that only a fool disregards God.

Scripture presents us with many examples of foolishness, including the fool who denies God, the fool who despises God, and the fool who disregards God. These examples are provided not to drive us into despair but to draw us toward wisdom. God provides us with examples of foolishness because He is a loving Father who desires His children to pursue the wisdom that leads to abundant life. So be wise, reject the fool, and embrace the wisdom of God found in Jesus Christ, the One “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

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From the October 2023 Issue
Oct 2023 Issue