In the book of Proverbs, we find many sayings that call us to become wise, and as they do so, they show us what characterizes the fool. Today’s passage features one of these statements, as it juxtaposes foolish self-reliance and walking in wisdom.
Certainly, there can be a positive form of self-reliance, one in which we soberly take stock of our abilities and use them, refusing to become an unnecessary burden on anyone. Such self-reliance is in keeping with faith, for it is honoring to the Lord to put to work the gifts He has given us so that we might be productive and a good witness to the world (1 Thess. 4:10b–12). Such positive self-reliance is born from an accurate estimation of ourselves, and it does not discount humility. It encourages us to be ever dependent upon God and willing to be corrected by Him, and it makes us eager to learn from others (Prov. 9:9).
Foolish self-reliance trusts in one’s own mind as the highest authority. Perhaps it would be better to say that foolish self-reliance is, in a manner of speaking, self-exaltation. This kind of foolishness does not manifest a teachable spirit but rather takes unwarranted confidence in one’s thoughts and opinions. The fool who is characterized by this kind of attitude rejects the wisdom of Proverbs, which tells us repeatedly that wise people who care for their own souls seek wisdom and look for instruction (15:32; 19:8). The fool manifests wickedness, for it is evil to have access to the standards of the Lord and yet refuse to learn them (Isa. 26:9–10). Matthew Henry, in his commentary on today’s passage, describes the character of a fool: “The character of a fool: He trusts to his own heart, to his own wisdom and counsels, to his own strength and sufficiency, his own merit and righteousness, and the good opinion he has of himself; he that does so is a fool, for he trusts to that, not only which is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9), but which has often deceived him.”
If trusting in one’s own mind and heart above all else makes one a fool, then the antithesis is to cast off all such self-trust in favor of trusting in the Lord. Walking in wisdom (Prov. 28:26b) entails submitting one’s own opinions and judgments to what God has said. When we do this, we experience deliverance because the Lord directs our paths (3:5–6). We are delivered from temptation because we look for the way out that our Creator provides (1 Cor. 10:13). Moreover, we experience final deliverance from death, for by trusting in the Lord we are granted eternal life (John 3:16).