Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Another Useless Gift (Proverbs 26:7)

What is a proverb (or wise saying) in the mouth of a fool like? A lame man’s legs [useless] (Proverbs 26:7)

The first twelve verses of Proverbs 26 constitute a unit which is largely devoted to maligning the actions of fools. Richard J. Clifford (b. 1934) formulates:

According to its topics, the chapter falls into three parts, each marked by repetition of key words: Proverbs 26:1-12, Proverbs 26:13-16, and Proverbs 26:17-28. In Proverbs 26:1-12, “fool” occurs eleven times, being found in every verse but Proverbs 26:2. (Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 228)
Leo G. Perdue (b. 1946) adds:
The first subsection of this chapter is found in the first twelve verses and focuses its attention on the fool [Proverbs 26:1-12]. Various forms are found in this section, though the comparative proverb is the most frequently encountered. Nine sayings compare the fool or the fool’s behavior with something else. (Perdue, Proverbs: Interpretation (A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 225)
This repeated theme is calculated. Claus Westermann (1909-2000) understands:
Among the proverbs of antithesis involving the foolish and the wise we encounter comparisons in the proverbs that characterize only the fool, and particularly imaginative ones at that (Proverbs 26:1, 6, 7, 9, 11). These communicate something of the tension that takes place in a small community between those who are concerned for the community’s improvement, harmony, environment, and general conduct and those who do not care about these things. It is the former who must constantly direct their efforts in resisting the latter, whose interests are blatantly selfish in nature. (Westermann, Roots of Wisdom: The Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples, 67)
Given this context, it is not surprising that Proverbs 26:7 addresses the recurring theme of foolishness.
Like the legs which are useless to the lame,
So is a proverb in the mouth of fools. (Proverbs 26:7 NASB)
The saying is relatively straightforward. A fool quoting proverbs is as useful as a pen with no ink.

The proverb features the Hebrew mâshâl, a term translated variously as “proverb” (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “parable” (ASV, KJV) or “words of wisdom” (CEV). This proverb is one of several that addresses its book’s content (Proverbs 15:23, 25:11, 26:7, 9). In doing so it is clear that the editor is painfully aware of the book’s limitations.

Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) advises:

Proverbs are not magical words that if memorized and applied in a mechanical way automatically lead to success and happiness. Consider Proverbs 26:7 and Proverbs 26:9...These two proverbs say it takes a wise person to activate the teaching of a proverb correctly. A wise person is one who is sensitive to the right place and time. The fool applies a proverb heedless of its fitness for the situation. The two...proverbs are pointed in their imagery. A paralyzed leg does not help a person walk, so a proverb does not help a fool act wisely. (Longman, How to Read Proverbs, 50)
The verse serves almost as a disclaimer: Product not valid in the mouth of a fool.

With its disparagement of the lame, the proverb does not comply with contemporary standards of political correctness. Some interpreters have even seen the quip as intentionally derogatory.

Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) notes:

By adding to the proverb, the Vulgate changes the point from uselessness to becoming unseemly: “As a lame man has fair legs in vain, so a parable is unseemly in the mouth of fools.” But it does preserve the connotation that the problem does not reside in the legs (= proverb) but in the person. (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 351)

T.R. Hobbs (b. 1942) contextualizes:

In ancient Israel, which treasured notions of a complete and ordered world, and which valued wholeness, physical defects were regarded as shameful (Leviticus 21:18; Deuteronomy 15:21; Malachi 1:8; cf. II Samuel 5:6-8). Lame (Hebrew pissēah) or limping people were regarded as helpless and useless (Proverbs 26:7). They were forbidden entry into holy places (Leviticus 21:18), and in both the Old Testament and New Testament were objects of pity and charity (II Samuel 4:4, 19:26; Job 29:15; Acts 3:2, 8:7, 14:8). (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 784)
Significantly, the proverb does not draw a correlation between a fool and an invalid. Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) clarifies:
“In the mouth of dolts” is not parallel to “from a cripple.” Instead, as J.A. Emerton [b. 1928] observes (1969: 211), the parallelism pertains to each image as a whole, not to their components. The proverb actually likens a proverb that is in the mouth of fools to legs that dangle from a cripple’s body. No comparison is drawn between the fool and the cripple. (Fox, Proverbs 10-31 (The Anchor Bible), 794)
Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b.1954) concur:
While not a politically correct statement for modern sensibilities, ungainly motion is the image here. The halting gait of the physically challenged who has difficult walking is compared to the fool who tries to be clever and make use of parables. Rabbi Ibn Ezra [1089-1167] applies a rhymed folk saying to explain the verse: marshal b’li seichel k’guf b’li regel, “a parable without sense is like a body without a foot.” (Kravitz and Olitzky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 255)
The emphasis is on the utility of the limbs. Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) pinpoints:
As a lame person still has legs but cannot use them for walking because they hang loosely and uncertainly from him, so a noble proverb in the mouth of a fool carries no weight (i.e., authority) and gets him nowhere. Legs (šōqayim) when used of human beings, denotes the calves, the shanks, the lower part of the leg from the knees downward in contrast to the thigh (yārē; cf. Judges 15:8). Dangle (dalyû) is used in Job 28:4 of miners who “dangle, far from people they sway (nā‘û).’ From the lame or the limping (pissēah) designates a person whose leg is disabled and unusable for locomotion...This proverb entails that it is inappropriate to educate the fool by putting proverbs in his mouth (see Proverbs 17:16). Fools are morally too dull to utter it seasonably (cf. Proverbs 25:11-12), and/or they invalidate its effect by defective character (cf. Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 4:23; Romans 2:21). The proverb’s good message in the flawed messenger falls flat on its face and makes not the slightest impact. (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 351-52)
There is some discussion as to what the lame person’s legs are doing. The King James Version reads that they “are not equal”. While the fool and wisdom are certainly on unequal footing, most translations which attempt to describe the legs’ activity, including the New King James Version, opt for “hang limp” (HCSB, NKJV, NRSV), “hang loose” (ASV) or “hang useless” (ESV, NIV, RSV).

Derek Kidner (1913-2008) considers:

The predicate in line I (a single verb, dalyû) is elusive. The verb means to draw water out of a well (cf. Proverbs 20:5), which has provoked many conjectures. Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890] takes it to suggest dangling (as of a bucket on a rope), and this approximates to most modern translations which presuppose a copyist’s error for dallû (‘hang limp’). Ronald A. Knox [1888-1957] renders the Vulgate engagingly: ‘Give a fool leave to speak, it is all fair legs and no walking.’ (Kidner, Proverbs: An Introduction & Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 162)
John Phillips (b. 1927) contends:
The expression translated “are not equal” can also be rendered “are lifted up.” Solomon’s idea was that just as clothes are lifted up to reveal lame legs, a fool expresses his folly by attempting to expound a parable. (Phillips, Exploring Proverbs, Volume 2, 353)
Christine R. Yoder (b. 1968) elucidates:
Fools cannot “move” a proverb; they do knot know when and how to use it. So it just hangs there, limp and ineffective, like the legs of a person who is lame (cf. Proverbs 26:9). (Yoder, Proverbs (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries), 255)
In the mouth of the fool, a proverb has no legs. It goes nowhere.

There is consensus as to the proverb’s general meaning. Allen P. Ross (b. 1943) surveys:

Proverbs are useless to fools. In this verse the emblem is a little unclear, but the point is not. The first line gives the simile: “Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp”...There have been various attempts to interpret dalyû, but the idea must include that the lame man’s legs are useless to him; they hang down, thus preventing him from going too far. Likewise, the fool is a “proverb-monger” (as put by Crawford H. Toy [1836-1919], 474); he handles an aphorism about as well as a lame man walks. W. Gunther Plaut [1912-2012], 267, says that learning wisdom from a fool is like learning to dance from a lame man (though, of course, a lame man could have intelligence and explain things). The fool does not understand the “proverb”...has not implemented it, and cannot use it or teach it correctly or profitably. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Proverbs–Isaiah (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 212)
Roland Murphy (1917-2002) supports:
Like Proverbs 26:9, this saying weighs the value of a proverb for a fool. Since the fool by definition is unwise and unwilling, no profit can be drawn from the proverb. Hence the comparison to the legs of a crippled person: these cannot support the weight of the body; neither can the proverb serve the fool. The latter may know the wisdom teaching theoretically, but he knows neither the right application nor the right time; neither does he have the will. (Murphy, Proverbs (Word Biblical Commentary))
The Southern parlance “that dog won’t hunt” applies to the fool’s attempt at wisdom.

An example of foolishly corrupted wisdom is the common live-for-today attitude associated with “Carpe Diem!” The expression comes from the works of Horace (65-8 BCE) where the original, prolonged wording reads “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero,” which translated reads “Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next (day/future) (Odes 1.11).” The proverb does not advise ignoring the future by recklessly throwing caution to the wind but rather to complete as much as possible today. The contemporary interpretation is a case of a “proverb in the mouth of fools” (Proverbs 26:7 NASB).

Many have connected the ineffectiveness of the proverb in a fool’s mouth with an inability to apply the wisdom in the proper context. Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) asserts:

The dolt is a verbal cripple. Proverbs become lame when he uses them. To be effective, a proverb must be spoken with skill, in the right time and way (Proverbs 15:23, 25:11). As Ben Sira says, “A proverb in the mouth of the dolt is spurned, for he does not say it at its time” (Wisdom of Sirach 20:20). (Fox, Proverbs 10-31 (The Anchor Bible), 794)
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) illustrates:
Rather than a message, this proverb speaks of a proverb in the mouth of a fool. Such a person may know the proverb, but since proverbs are only true or helpful if uttered in the right context to the right person, then its knowledge and use will prove as ineffective as the legs of a paralyzed person. For instance, one may know the proverbs expressed in Proverbs 26:4-5,but if one can’t tell which kind of fool one is speaking with, then the knowledge of those proverbs will not help the person. (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 465)
Kathleen A. Farmer (b. 1943) consents:
Simply being able to repeat a large number of proverbs does not make one wise. A proverb is useless and pointless in the mouth of a fool (Proverbs 26:7, 9). The wise are those who know how to choose and to use the right saying on the right occasion. A shrewd observer can make almost any proverb into a “true” statement by using it to comment upon the right occasion. It then becomes “a word in season” (Proverbs 15:23), expressing the truth of that particular situation in life (cf. Proverbs 25:11). (Farmer, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: Who Knows What is Good? (International Theological Commentary), 67)
J. Clinton McCann (b. 1951) applies:
Proverbs 26:7, 9 raises the problem of practical hermeneutics or interpretation. It is not enough to read and understand proverbs rightly. One must also rightly “read” life situations, persons, and events in order to use the sayings fittingly. (McCann, Introduction to Wisdom Literature, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Book of Wisdom, Sirach ( New Interpreter’s Bible), 227)
Not surprisingly the proverb has parallels. John H. Walton (b. 1952), Victor H. Matthews (b. 1951) and Mark W. Chavalas (b. 1954) document:
A proverb is only as useful as the context in which its spoke. Thus the writer of Proverbs notes that “like a lame man’s legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool” (Proverbs 26:7). This is a common saying in other wisdom literature. For instance, the Instruction of Ankhsheshonqy warns that “fools cannot tell teaching from insult,” and the Instruction of Amenemope states that one should not “take counsel with fools,” since their words “blow like a storm” and are without substance. It is clear then that proverbs were not simply phrases to be memorized that anyone could understand. Their instruction needed to be unpacked and expounded by a wise teacher. It is like a curriculum that assumes the presence of a teacher to accomplish its aims. (Walton, Matthews and Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 561)
The proverb also implies that one should disregard fools even when they relay “wisdom”. Duane A. Garrett (b. 1953) infers:
Proverbs 26:7 and Proverbs 26:9 imply that no one will (or should) take a fool’s words seriously. Even if the proverb he speaks is true, he invalidates its effects by his own character. Limp, paralyzed legs imply ineffectiveness. (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary), 212)
Above all, the proverb encourages its readers to be wise. Jeremy Schipper (b. 1975) discerns:
According to Ecclesiastes 12:9, one of the roles the sages played in the Hebrew Bible was to interpret meshalim. In fact, Proverbs 26:7 implies that a mashal is useless when spoken or interpreted by a fool: “The legs of the lame languish, so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool” (cf. Proverbs 26:9; Wisdom of Sirach 20:20). In contrast, one could demonstrate his or her wisdom by understanding meshalim or hidot properly (Proverbs 1:6; cf. I Kings 10:1; Daniel 8:23; II Chronicles 9:1; Wisdom of Solomon 8:8; Sirach 39:3, 47:17). In this sense, a speaker may tell a mashal/hidah to challenge the addressee to draw out the speaker’s intended comparison. Often, the parables within the Hebrew Bible’s prose sections serve this function. They challenge the addressee to make the proper comparison and thereby they test the addressee’s discernment. In most cases, the addressee’s discernment comes up short and a hostile judgment ensues. (Schipper, Parables and Conflict in the Hebrew Bible, 16)
A fool is simply unable to implement a proverb properly. The plan may be good but the execution is not as the fool has the words but does not know how to properly use them. It is as though the fool is privy to a powerful car but has no gasoline. As such, one should neither be a fool nor listen to one.

How would you restate this proverb (perhaps in a more politically correct manner)? Who do you know who consistently misuses words and phrases? In what instances have people unadvisedly heeded the direction of fools? Whose words do you immediately discount? When a fool says something smart does it make the smart saying sound more foolish or the foolish person sound smarter? Is there hope for the fool?

Some have applied the wisdom of Proverbs 26:7 to Scripture as a whole. Kenneth T. Aitken (b. 1947) interprets:

A proverb, says the sage with typical dry humour, is about as much use to a fool as legs to a lame man (Proverbs 26:7); that is to say, the fool does not know how to use it properly. Understanding and application belong together. It is the same with God’s word. (Aitken, Proverbs (Daily Study Bible Series), 14)
Michael A. Zigarelli (b. 1965) implements:
There’s an inherent challenge, Proverbs 26:7 tells us, when we apply Scripture, and especially short Scriptures like the proverbs: Our misinterpretation may render its wisdom as powerless as a “lame man’s legs.” (Zigarelli, Management by Proverbs: Applying Timeless Wisdom in the Workplace, 21-22)
How would you self assess your Biblical knowledge; are you wise or a fool? Do you apply Biblical principles to your daily life? Who designates the fool? When, if ever, should one listen to a fool?

“The heart of a fool is in his mouth, but the mouth of a wise man is in his heart.” - Benjamin Franklin (1706-1796)

Note: The image and title of this piece come from the artwork “Another Useless Gift” by Luke Chueh (b. 1973). You may further investigate Chueh and purchase his art here.