Folly and the Way of
The Meaning of Folly
The first part of the book of Proverbs (chapters 1-9), which could be
called its introduction, is primarily an appeal urging young men ("my son,"
"sons") to seek wisdom and shun folly. It concludes with two pleas. The
first one is from that honorable lady, Wisdom.
Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven pillars. She
has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her
table. She has sent out her maids to call from the highest places in the
town, "Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!" To him who is without
sense she says, "Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight" (Proverbs
The second plea is from another kind of woman:
A foolish woman is clamorous: she is simple, and knoweth nothing
(KJV). She sits at the door of her house, on a seat by the city highways,
calling to those who pass by, who are keeping straight on their ways
(AAT). Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: and as for him that
wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Stolen waters are sweet, and bread
eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knoweth not that the dead are there;
and that her guests are in the depths of hell (KJV) (Proverbs 9:13-18).
Folly is behavior in violation of the Lord's divine plans, and it, too,
is personified in the form of a woman. This one is a seductive temptress
offering immediate pleasure for sin to those ignorant of its deadly penalties.
One of Wisdom's benefits is that she will protect men from this evil woman
whom I call "Dame Folly."
You will be saved from the loose woman, from the adventuress with
her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the
covenant of her God; for her house sinks down to death, and her paths to
the shades; none who go to her come back nor do they regain the paths of
life (Proverbs 2:16-19; RSV).
In other places in the Bible, sin in general is characterized as adultery
against the Lord. For example, the prophet Isaiah rebuked the people of
How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of
justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has
become dross, your wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions
of thieves. Every one loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend
the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them. (Isaiah
Another example is from the prophet Jeremiah.
The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: "Have you seen
what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high
hill and under every green tree, and there played the harlot? And I thought,
'After she has done all this she will return to me'; but she did not return,
and her false sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries
of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce;
yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the
harlot. Because harlotry was so light to her, she polluted the land, committing
adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her false sister Judah did
not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, says the Lord."
(Jeremiah 3:6-10; RSV).
An even more lengthy example was given by the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel
23). In the New Testament the apostle John, in his great vision, told of,
…Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations
(Revelation 17:5; RSV).
In sum: Folly means living unfaithfully to the Lord's master plans for
the world. It is personified by the sin of adultery.
The Penalties of Folly
One-fourth of the introductory part of Proverbs consists of a warning
against adultery; not simply the sex-act, but the whole process of folly
and evil. The cost of ignoring wisdom is not merely the loss of her benefits.
There are severe penalties: distress and panic, fear and anguish, poverty
and disgrace, calamity, destruction, even death. Moreover, when the guilty
plead for mercy they will be ignored in the same way they ignored the cries
Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her
voice; on the top of the walls she cries out; at the entrance of the city
gates she speaks:
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will
scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed
to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make
my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused to listen,
have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, and you have ignored
all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at
your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you
like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and
anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their
way and be sated with their own devices. For the simple are killed by their
turning away, and the complacence of fools destroys them; but he who listens
to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil"
(Proverbs 1:20-33; RSV).
…shame shall be the promotion of fools (Proverbs 3:35; KJV).
But he that sinneth against me [wisdom] wrongeth his own soul: all
they that hate me love death (Proverbs 8:36; KJV).
…a prating fool shall fall (Proverbs 10:8; KJV).
…fools die for want of wisdom (Proverbs 10:21; KJV).
…the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart (Proverbs 11:29;
Whoso despiseth the word shall be destroyed… (Proverbs 13:13;
Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction… (Proverbs
…the correction of fools is their folly (Proverbs 16:22; ASV).
Also, that the soul be without knowledge, it is not good… (Proverbs
It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury… (Proverbs 19:10;
…he that is careless of his ways shall die (Proverbs 19:16; ASV).
Cease, my son, to hear instruction only to stray from the words of
knowledge (Proverbs 19:27; RSV).
The man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall rest
in the assembly of the dead (Proverbs 21:16; ASV).
He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer
shall be an abomination ( Proverbs 28:9; KJV).
In sum: The penalties of folly can be severe; and they include distress
and panic, fear and anguish, poverty and disgrace, calamity, destruction,
The Evolution of Folly
Wisdom in its fullest sense refers to all the ways of performing righteousness;
folly refers to all the ways of committing sin. And since adultery personifies
folly, we may, therefore, generalize the dynamics of adultery to all forms
of sin. Examining the process of adultery described by Solomon reveals
an interesting pattern of development involving what appears to be three
For any one kind of sin, the folly process begins with ignorance. It
may involve total ignorance of the sin, but often it involves only partial
ignorance; ignorance not of knowledge, but of understanding. These fools
have heard the warnings but they ignore them. They do not fully understand
the perils of the forbidden act, hence they are unconvinced. This lack
of conviction may be the result of either a temporary lapse from wisdom,
or it may reflect a chronic state of rejection. But, whether for a foolish
moment or a lifetime, when wisdom is rejected the mind becomes defenseless,
and thus, vulnerable to temptation. Dame Folly calls the simple—those without
For at the window of my house I looked through my casement, and
beheld among the simple ones, I discerned among the youths, a young man
void of understanding, passing through the street near her corner; and
he went the way to her house, in the twilight, in the evening, in the black
and dark night… (Proverbs 7:6-9; KJV).
"Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!" And to him who is without
sense she says,… (Proverbs 9:16; RSV).
Paul said that the Lord always provides a way of escape from temptation.
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man:
but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye
are able; but will with the temptation also make away to escape, that ye
may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13; KJV).
Accepting a wise father’s advice will preserve a man from grief. Solomon
And now O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of
my mouth. Let not your heart turn aside to her ways, do not stray into
her paths… (Proverbs 7:24, 25; RSV).
Solomon described how those who are victimized by Dame Folly often reflect
back to the beginning and make confession of their rebellious attitude.
And thou mourn at the last, when thy flesh and thy body are consumed,
and say, How have I hated instruction, and my heart despised reproof; and
have not obeyed the voice of my teachers, nor inclined mine ear to them
that instructed me! (Proverbs 5:11-13; KJV).
The final step in the first stage involves experiencing alluring temptations
(found wherever the spirit of Satan is active) which arouse the appetites.
Sin is said to be deceitful (see Hebrews 3:13) because it misleads its
victims. It offers an immediate reward, like bait on a hook. Thus, failure
to recognize warnings plus heightened arousal equals little resistance.
Dame Folly (the "strange woman") flatters and seduces with a variety of
smooth tactics, all designed to attract and captivate.
…[wisdom will] deliver thee from the strange woman, even from the
stranger which flattereth with her words… (Proverbs 2:16; KJV).
For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth
is smoother than oil (Proverbs 5:3; KJV).
With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk
she compels him (RSV). He goeth after her straightway, as an ox
goeth to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks…
(KJV) (Proverbs 7:21, 22).
Thus the stage is set for committing the forbidden deed; which, in turn,
opens the curtain for act two of the morbid drama. When sin is committed,
it then gives its reward—immediate pleasure—to reinforce the sin. Dame
Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant
(Proverbs 9:17; KJV).
Each time the particular sin is committed, resistance to temptation is
lowered until the behavior becomes so habitual that the man loses his power
of choice. Pleasure and appetite go together, and indulging one heightens
the other. Thus the victim no longer needs to be lured or enticed because
he has become caught in the grip of his own feelings—his cultivated appetite
has become a craving which cannot be ignored. He is trapped in a deep,
narrow "pit." His sin is now a depraved need which has become so much a
part of his body that, somehow, even its healthy physiochemical system
is violated (pierced by an arrow).
…till an arrow pierces its entrails: as a bird rushes into a snare:
he does not know that it will cost him his life (Proverbs 7:23; RSV).
The mouth of strange women is a deep pit: he that is abhorred of
the Lord shall fall therein (Proverbs 22:14; KJV).
For a whore is a deep ditch; and a strange woman is a narrow pit
(Proverbs 23:27; KJV).
The behavior is now practiced not only for the pleasure it gives, but also
to escape the pain of resistance or abstinence. The most familiar modern
example of this process may be seen in those who are addicted to various
chemical substances like alcohol, although drunkenness is an ancient addiction.
Struck me, have they? But I'm not hurt. Beaten me? I don't feel
anything. When shall I wake up?…I'11 ask for more of it (Proverbs 23:35;
Yet addiction to alcohol and/or drugs is only one of many ways a man can
fall victim to Dame Polly. Indeed, the Bible teaches that all habitual
sin will enslave. Jesus said emphatically,
Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave
to sin (John 8:34; RSV).
And Paul said,
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you
obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of
wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from
death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness.
For sin will have no dominion over you…Do you not know that if you yield
yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom
you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads
to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of
sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to
which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become
slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your
natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity
and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness
for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard
to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which
you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you
have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you
get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is
death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord
(Romans 6:12-14, 16-23; RSV).
Peter wrote a similar warning.
…those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise
authority…like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught
and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant…For, uttering
loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh
men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise
them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever
overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved (2 Peter 2:10, 12, 18, 19;
Besides adultery and drunkenness Solomon's words suggest other addictions
or compulsions not commonly considered to be such. He told, for example,
of the craving that motivates those addicted to the excitement of human
predation. He also mentioned the habitual hothead. And he spoke of the
slothful man who wants to earn a living, but, being addicted to idleness,
he loses the struggle with his body.
For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep
is taken away, unless they cause some to fall. For they eat the bread of
wickedness, and drink the wine of violence (Proverbs 4:16, 17; KJV).
A man of great wrath will pay the penalty; for if you deliver him,
you will only have to do it again (Proverbs 19:19; RSV).
The desire of the slothful killeth him; for his hands refuse to labour
(Proverbs 21:25; KJV).
The last stage in the folly process involves the cumulative consequences
of folly on the addict. Continuing with the analysis of adultery—the general
model of folly—consider Solomon's description of its tragic climax.
…in the end she [Dame Folly] is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a
two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on Sheol
(Proverbs 5:4, 5; ASV).
Lest thou give thine honour unto others, and thy years unto the cruel:
lest strangers be filled with thy wealth; and thy labours be in the house
of a stranger; and thou mourn at the last, when thy flesh and thy body
are consumed… (Proverbs 5:9-11; KJV).
A wound and dishonour shall he get; and his reproach shall not be
wiped away (Proverbs 6:33; KJV).
Folly, being a general term for diseases of the spirit, is a degenerative
process that ultimately leads to death. Speaking about Dame Folly Solomon
None that go unto her return again, neither take they hold of the
paths of life (Proverbs 2:19; KJV).
For she hath cast down many wounded: yea, all her slain are a mighty
host (ASV). Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers
of death (KJV) (Proverbs 7:26, 27).
As a process, Solomon's description of Dame Folly reminds me of the pitcher
plant; a carnivorous one that feeds on insects. It attracts them by displaying
a colorful appearance and secreting aromatic nectar at the region of its
mouth. Besides giving off an attractive aroma, the nectar serves two other
functions: it has an intoxicating effect when ingested, and it lubricates
the area making it very slippery. There are also hair projections oriented
toward the throat and stomach making entrance easy but escape difficult.
Once lured inside, the victim is drawn down by the force of gravity (accelerated
by its own activity), eventually falling into a pool of digestive fluid.
In another way, perhaps we can look upon the entire process as something
like a descending spiral or a vortex. The ignorant and foolish ride along
the edge enjoying the pleasure of flirting with its dangers. But once over
the edge, the descent begins. Each time the cycle of lust-sin-pleasure
is repeated they swirl downward, sinking deeper into the dark hole losing
control of themselves. They have flirted with folly and lost. They have
forsaken wisdom and made themselves fools—what I call regressive
There are, of course, an enormous variety of ways in which to sin. Moreover,
there are many predisposing factors and unique circumstances which can
lead a man to become enslaved to a particular sin. But the basic pattern
appears to be as follows: First, ignorance (promoted by refusing to heed
warnings) creates vulnerability to temptation which leads to sin. Then
the pleasures of sin encourage habitual indulgence, which eventually develops
into a compulsion that, in varying degrees, threatens the health and well-being
of the individual.
It appears that this process, which I call the "folly vortex," is the
common denominator underlying every way to indulge in folly; whether in
mind or in body; whether in the perversion of some natural good or in the
creation of some unnatural evil; whether in a neglect or in some excess;
even, it seems, in gaining wisdom and performing righteousness if other
important duties are neglected (See Ecclesiastes 7:16.). Whether it concerns
the way we think, reason, feel, talk; or the way we react to our body's
needs, appetites, and impulses; or the way we deal with material possessions
and people—in any aspect of our life—habitual sin enslaves.
The folly process also explains more clearly, I believe, the relationship
between personal responsibility and the disease components within many
forms of mental illness. In the past few years some health professionals
have begun to notice the addiction threat in some of the more common contemporary
vices. William R. Miller, author of The Addictive Behaviors: Treatment
of Alcoholism, drug Abuse, Smoking, & Obesity, published in 1980,
wrote about the growing awareness of "…possible commonalities among these
seemingly diverse problems." More recently, Patrick Carnes published The
Sexual Addiction, in which he makes the following statement: "First,
addiction taps into the most fundamental human process. Whether the need
is to be high, to be sexual, to eat, or even to work—the addictive process
can turn creative, life-giving energy into destructive, demoralizing compulsivity."
Nevertheless, although sin can create mental disease, the chronic sinner
who becomes helplessly addicted to his sin is no more an innocent victim
than the burglar found trapped inside the chimney of a house he was trying
to enter and rob.
Madness appears to be an extreme form of folly. Solomon said:
I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom,
and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of
foolishness and madness… (Ecclesiastes 7:25; KJV).
The beginning of the words of his mouth [the fool's] is foolishness:
and the end of his talk is mischievous madness (Ecclesiastes 10:13;
It seems in this world we are never free from the potential for madness.
Like the germs in and around our bodies, madness is ever ready to undermine
our health. Solomon said:
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad (Ecclesiastes 7:7;
…the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in
their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead (Ecclesiastes
The modern term for chronic madness is "psychosis," and the most prevalent
psychosis is schizophrenia. Perhaps many cases of schizophrenia involve
the folly vortex. For example, individuals who overindulge in careless
fantasies may become addicted to fantasizing, thereby losing control of
their thought processes.
Of course, just as in physical disease, the severity of a particular
compulsion on the man’s life will vary depending primarily upon the nature
of the behavior itself. Some addictions may be only mildly irritating bad
habits like smoking, whereas others may develop into devastating addictions
like drunkenness. Some may be obvious to all like gluttony, whereas others
may remain hidden like masturbation. Paul mentioned this, saying,
Remember that some men's sins are obvious, and are equally obviously
bringing them to judgment. The sins of other men are not apparent, but
are dogging them, nevertheless, under the surface. Similarly some virtues
are plain to see, while others, though not at all conspicuous, will eventually
become known (1 Timothy 5:24, 25; PME).
Note: Eating, drinking, satisfying our sexual appetite, etc., are not sins
unless they are done in the wrong way. Righteousness and sinfulness are
often distinguished not by what is done, but by how, when, and where it
is done. Remember Solomon said,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under
heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time
to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time
to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a
time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain
from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and
a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep
silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time
for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; RSV).
As I have shown indulging in sin leads to the development of addictions,
compulsions, and foolish habits. Overindulging in (or otherwise misapplying)
acceptable behavior can also become addictive in the same way.
One final word. Generalizing from the process of the folly vortex, perhaps
a kind of reverse dynamics are involved in developing good habits of living.
First, sound knowledge and careful discipline generates ambition for righteousness.
This cultivated motivation, guided by intelligence, enables a man to patiently
endure labor and striving. This, in turn, leads to increasing rewards of
achievement; his efforts at labor become, not only more successful, but
increasingly satisfying. His work feels more like play to him; but unlike
play it is productive.
Somehow our psychological nature appears able to be transformed in a
positive way by developing a compulsion for wise behavior. Unlike the original
mentality of our childhood, folly now seems "naturally" repulsive, while
right living seems "naturally" appealing. Indeed, a cultivated "need" to
do right motivates such a man’s behavior. Now, our spirit is bound to our
body in this life. And it is a healthy kind of bondage, for it enables
us to live in the world. Perhaps becoming motivated for righteousness could
be called a positive addiction, or "noble bondage". Speaking about these
two contrasting forms of bondage, Paul said,
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient
slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads
to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be
to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from
the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and,
having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am
speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just
as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater
iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed?
The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from
sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification
and its end, eternal life (Romans 6:16-22; RSV).
In sum: Habitual sin of any kind can become addictive. The process is
modeled after adultery, which personifies folly. It consists of three stages.
First, the potential victim fails to appreciate the dangers of the act,
which makes him vulnerable to enticement. Second, when the forbidden act
is committed it rewards him with pleasure, thus encouraging habitual indulgence.
In the last stage, the sinner becomes progressively more addicted to the
vice, and he suffers increasingly severe penalties.
Copyright 1997 by Walter
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