The Hebrew teachings on the difference between wisdom and folly found in Old Testament book of Proverbs cannot help but remind those familiar with more modern philosophers of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Although Biblical scripture that seeks to enlighten readers and believers on the ways of the wise and the fool can be parsed and extricated from a number of book, the thematically repetitive construction of the short, pithy poetic instruction that defines the book of Proverbs carries an almost ironic similarity to the epigrammatic writing of the philosopher that infamously proclaimed that God was dead. That pronouncement is the very definition of folly, according to the Hebrew teaching in the Bible, but Nietzsche’s diligence as a producer of philosophical writing is unquestioned. This particular and very specific example points to the questions of correspondence between wisdom and diligence, folly and laziness.
The epigrammatic illustration of the nature of wisdom in the Old Testament, especially within the specifications of the book of Proverbs, is realized through the Hebrew literary device of the mashal (Hindson, 2012). At the center of the nature of mashal is the employment of parallelism which seeks to reveal the deeper meanings of its mysteries rather than explicitly stating them outright. For instance, the very nature of what is considered wisdom and what is considered folly is not a concept that is displayed in a single verse or even in the singular nature of the book of Proverbs. Instead, a more expansive version of mashal is utilized throughout the Proverbs to create the cumulative effect of transforming specific chapter and verse into a general definition of wisdom as a life based on placing belief in God at the center of your life while folly is veering off that pack and toward a self-centered interest. This cumulative effect of defining wisdom is given one of its most explicit descriptions in the proverbial instruction “For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Pr. 2:6).
If it can be accepted that folly is choosing the path set out for you by God, then how does diligence and laziness correspond to such a definition. To apply the previous subject of Nietzsche as an example, would it still be fair to say that the diligence of the philosopher disqualifies him from a life accurately termed one informed by wisdom from the perspective of the Hebrew view of wisdom and folly? The philosopher’s pronouncement that God is dead would certainly seem to be a belief that many would say leads him far away from wisdom and well into the territory of folly? The answer may well be found in another verse from Proverbs:
“He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich“ (10:4). Over the course of the works and notes of Nietzsche, references can be found to no less than sixteen of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament (Large). The suggestion that the man most famous to the world for telling them that God was dead can hardly seem to be considered lazy; indeed, the argument strongly suggests that his diligence was greater than many of those who have committed themselves to believing that God is very much alive and well.
The utilization of Nietzsche in particular is chosen to illustrate that wisdom and folly and diligence and laziness correspond in Hebrew scripture not directly as a result of the connection between belief and disbelief. Indeed, one of the most useful scriptural quotations as far as true wisdom goes must be “Every prudent man dealeth with knowledge: but a fool layeth open his folly” (Pr. 13:16). What is philosophy but the pursuit of knowledge? And what preoccupation could be less subject to laziness than the pursuit of knowledge?
What is at stake in this consideration how wisdom corresponds to diligence and folly corresponds to laziness is the simple realization that the effect of mashal is itself a demonstration of the acceptance of wisdom and the lack of laziness. To pursue any full realization of the wisdom contained in the epigrammatic enlightening of the more profound nature of Proverbs is itself an exhibition of the rejection of laziness and the embrace of diligence. The nature of ancient Hebrew reasoning is not the same as modern day deduction. The authors of Proverbs are not some Dr. John Watson recording the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes as he describes in forward fashion the conclusion he arrived at through backward induction of the facts. Truth is arrived at not by “a chain of argumentation, but by picture and analogy” (Genung).
Such is how one arrives at a conclusion as to the true nature of the correspondence between wisdom and diligence. Nothing in the connection made through the effect of mashal suggests that diligence is related to the outcome of living with God as the center of your life. Hard word does not constitute faith in God nor does laziness in itself suggest a lack of belief. Indeed, the picture that one constitutes through the analogies discovered by a diligent reading of Proverbs is that even if the hard work one does leads to an apprehension of knowledge that states that God is dead, the according to the ancient Hebrew tradition, this would be a life of wisdom.
This may well be Christianity diverges most strongly from that ancient Hebrew tradition. Evangelical Christianity has far too often in its history placed the pursuit of knowledge or wisdom on a lower plane than the opposite. The opposite being a lazy acceptance that what they have been instructed to accept is the true way to accepting Christ. If there is one lesson on diligence and laziness to take away from the Hebrew tradition, it is that diligent pursuit of knowledge reigns supreme over lazy rejection of critical thought. The folly of Christianity seems to be the belief that if you do blindly accept what the leaders of the Church tell you is true, then you are heretical. On the other hand, the diligence required to understand the enigmatic nature of writings on folly and laziness contained in Proverbs is an abject lesson in the true danger of rejecting an understanding of mashal.
Genung, J. (n.d.). The Development of Hebrew Wisdom. The Biblical World, 16-16.
Hindson, E. (2012). The Essence of the Old Testament: A survey. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H
Large, D. (2001). Nietzsche’s Use of Biblical Language. Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 22,