There is a little cartoon, perhaps you have seen it, circulating around the internet showing an anthropomorphic egg carving a pumpkin, picking apples, and admiring the autumn leaves. The caption reads, “Humpty Dumpty had a great Fall,” thus subverting the words of the classic nursery rhyme, taking some a somewhat grisly image and, through the power of a pun, making it sweet and wholesome.
That sort of thing works because one word can have multiple definitions, and words can mean very different things in different contexts. This is one reason a person who does not know either Greek or Hebrew is well advised to read from two different translations when studying the Bible, because sometimes a word can take you off guard.
One of the classic examples of this is found in 2 Timothy 2:15, where the King James Version has Paul famously telling Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God.” Unbeknownst to quite a few people is the fact that the word, “study,” has multiple meanings and, in older English, doesn’t really mean what most people think it means. “To study,” in this case, means “to diligently apply oneself to a task.” The more modern reading is, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved.” (ESV) In the context, Paul is not telling Timothy that he can gain God’s approval and favor by reading a lot of religious books; though that is what many people mistakenly assume Paul to be saying. Rather Paul is telling Timothy that he needs to be doing his very best as a preacher, to teach people what God has told them to do in His word. Paul is not talking about the acquisition of knowledge, but about the distribution.
Now, granted, before one can teach others, it is necessary to have learned what is necessary. The importance of Biblical study is well supported by many other passages including Psalm 1:2, the entirety of Ezra 7:10, and even 2 Timothy 4:13, among a multitude of others. To be pleasing to God, it is necessary to know what God has said. But, one can read a lot of books, and never actually be favored or approved by God. It is the doing of the words, not the reading of the words, that is important. (cf. James 1:22) Anyone who thinks otherwise is deceiving themselves. They are, we might say, being foolish.
Which brings us to the word foolish and the definition of the same. Throughout the Bible, but especially in Psalms and Proverbs, we encounter, “The Fool.” Psalm 14:1, for instance, famously says, “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God.” We do well to properly understand the meaning of the word, “fool,” as it is used in the Bible.
The Hebrew word translated fool (nabal), comes from a root (nabel) which means disgrace, wither or fall. Though we render the word “fool,” which is fine, there is a connotation to the Hebrew of wickedness, vileness, and immorality. It tends to mean someone who is not very religious.
We tend to correlate foolishness with ignorance, and in our academic minded society we assume ignorance comes from a lack of education. But this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of people who have studied plenty of books whom God looks upon as being both foolish and ignorant, because they have decided that they don’t believe in Him, and/or they are going to live their lives as if they don’t believe in Him.
Thus, the true fool, Biblically, is defined as one who has decided, either consciously or unconsciously, there is no God. In this ignorance and foolishness, such a person makes many harmful decisions which can do nothing but bring them grief and pain. Rather than devoting themselves to the service of God, they devote their energies to the service of self. Rather than making choices which will bring an eternal reward, they aim for short-term gain.
So, who is the wise man?
The wise man is the individual who understands the truth of what Paul told Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.” (2 Timothy 2:15a; ESV).
There is a God, and He will judge us one day, through His Son, Jesus Christ. (cf. 1 Peter 4:5) God has spoken to man, and we need to properly understand what He has told us to do. (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:15b) But we also need to be putting it into practice. Which is, again, why we are told, “Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” (James 1:22) And, as we seek to obey, we need to be diligent in our endeavor to do so. All other choices are true foolishness.
If you wish to learn how to live a life God approves of, the church of Christ invites you to study God’s word with us, and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions, including subjects you might like to see addressed, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.