He Holds Them in Derision: Godly Mockery

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At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.Luke 13:30-32

There may be no aspect of Jesus Christ’s personality more jarring to readers of the Bible in our advanced modern age than His willingness to engage in direct and scornful confrontation.

The Advent of Niceness as Cardinal Virtue

We are all inheritors of a culture and the ideology it is built on. Jesus and His Kingdom gave the world the clearest and highest expressions of cornerstone virtues, among these the command to love others as one’s self, to look to the interests of others, and to show kindness to one’s neighbor – even if that neighbor is found among a despised class of social enemies.

But somewhere on the journey to follow Jesus down the Jericho road we lost the path.

The virtues of Jesus’ Kingdom – kindness, gentleness, charity, hospitality, and honor – were replaced by a counterfeit traveling under the name of niceness. Niceness, in fact, has been posited as the chief virtue of our day – and to devastating consequence.

We can speak of the virtues of love and hope (and prudence, justice, fortitude, humility and the like) that flow from faith, as Ursinus says. The Christian life is a journey. Sanctification is progressive. It is the dying of the old man and the making alive of the new. It is growing gradually into conformity into the image of Christ.

These virtues, however, are not those that dominate much contemporary Christian thinking about the Christian life. Arguably the highest virtue of our time is the virtue of niceness. The essence of niceness is getting along, being agreeable, being thought by others to be a good fellow. If you doubt the power of niceness, consider this sentence: “She is not a very nice person.” Should this judgment be uttered, should it find acceptance, one’s future in that circles is in great doubt. We have all said it. We have all thought it. We know how devastating this judgment is and yet just try to define “nice” or “niceness.” As Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, we know niceness when we see it.

If we compare niceness with the traditional virtues, however, we get a clearer picture. Niceness isn’t trust, fidelity, love, hope, prudence, temperance or any of the other virtues. It is something else.[1]

Or consider this confession from Sharon Hoddie Miller:

“Niceness” is a form of superficial kindness that’s used as a means to a selfish end. I identify it as an idol in my life because I have served it tirelessly, and it has served me well in return. My devotion to it has won me a lot of acceptance and praise, but it has also inhibited my courage, fed my self-righteousness, encouraged my inauthenticity, and produced in me a flimsy sweetness that easily gives way to disdain.

As I look beyond my own heart, I see this same phenomenon everywhere. Niceness has become a social currency in our culture, one that we value highly without ever really realizing it.[2]

Niceness, Miller continues, has thoroughly colonized Christian conceptions of a life lived for the honor of Christ.

In addition to being a false virtue, niceness radically diminishes our Christian witness. Author Randy Alcorn describes it this way: “We’ve been schooled that it’s inappropriate to say anything negative. Being a good witness once meant faithfully representing Christ, even when it meant being unpopular. Now it means ‘making people like us.’ We’ve redefined Christlike to mean ‘nice.’”

Not surprisingly, this false idol has shaped the reputation of Christians throughout the world. Alcorn goes on to say, “Many non-believers know only two kinds of Christians: those who speak truth without grace and those who are very nice but never share the truth.” In other words, niceness is one of the reasons our gospel message is uncompelling and our witness limp. Niceness is a false form of spiritual formation that has crept into the church, seduced Jesus’ followers, and taken much of the power out of our lives. It is one of our generation’s favorite idols, and it is high past time to name it.[3]

Miller concludes that this obsession with niceness puts Christians out of step with the Biblical record of who Jesus is.

After observing the fruit of this false idol in my own life, here’s what I have concluded: I cannot follow Jesus and be nice… Jesus was loving. He was gracious. He was forgiving. He was kind. But he was not nice. He was a man who would leave the 99 sheep to rescue the one, but he was also totally unafraid of offending people. Jesus understood the difference between graciousness and personal compromise, between speaking truth and needlessly alienating people. Rather than wear a shiny veneer, he became the embodiment of rugged love. This, not niceness, is what we are called to.

One of the discomforting ways that Jesus was, to borrow from Miller, ruggedly loving, was to make use of mockery. Jesus’ use of this rhetorical device is perhaps unexpected in a day when it is fashionable to see Jesus as always and only gentle and lowly.  But mockery is in Jesus’ tool belt, unavoidably.

Mockery in the Ministry of Jesus

Niceness has become such a powerful yet unacknowledged interpretive lens that Bible readers often cannot see the text of Scripture for what it says. Matthew 23 gives a clear example.  When Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that they tithe from their household spice rack yet fail on justice, mercy, and faithfulness He mocks their deeply inconsistent scrupulousness. That He goes on to describe them as the sort of folks who strain out a gnat but swallow a camel makes his point even more outlandish and, as a result, heightens the impact of His mockery. In the same chapter Jesus describes the converts won by the Pharisees as “children of hell”, escalating His scorn.

The verse that adorns the beginning of the post is perhaps the most provocative example. Upon receiving a threat ostensibly from Herod but which also represents an attempt to manipulate Him  by the Pharisees, Jesus responds with a derogatory comparison. Contemporary readers, perhaps drawing on the legacy of Aesop’s fables, will be inclined to read “fox” as indicating something like cleverness – perhaps a scheming cleverness but cleverness nonetheless.

Nick Voss has done an excellent job of demonstrating Aesop is not the background for Jesus’ comparison. You should read the whole of Voss’ work but for our purposes here is the conclusion:

Jesus was not emphasizing Antipas’s artful deviancy but was laughing off the threat.  The context seems to support my view. What’s to be afraid of?  Antipas is nothing more than a girl dog who hides in a hole in the ground. Jesus does not seem to be concerned with the risk portended by the Pharisees. Jesus knows He must die, and must die shortly.  He expects to die, and counts on dying, but not at the hand of Antipas. In spite of Herod’s threat, Jesus will cast out devils and cure the sick on that very day as well as the next. Jesus’s mission will not be thwarted by a filthy and effeminate dog. Jesus instructs the Pharisees to relay this message back to Antipas.  Jesus goes on to remind these messengers that it is Jerusalem where He will die.  And speaking of Jerusalem, mind you, this city and its temple which stands there will be left desolate. Any place that Christ leaves is abandoned by God and therefore is considered desecrated and empty  – precisely the kind of place you would find a dog.[4]

Even the idea that a respectable religious figure – let alone Jesus Himself – would draw on the image of a female dog[5] as an insult is enough to send our contemporary niceness-obsessed sensibilities to the nearest fainting couch.

But that is just what Jesus did.

Mockery in the Ministry of the Prophets

Careful readers of Scripture will not be altogether surprised by Jesus’ turn of phrase here.  They will have read his cousin and forerunner call the religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers” before mockingly asking them, “Who warned you to flee?” And they won’t be startled to remember that Jesus uses the same description (and mocking question!) for the same purpose in His own ministry.

The tradition of Godly mockery does not begin with either John the Baptist or the incarnate Son.  Perhaps the most comical example of God’s messenger making use of mockery is found in Isaiah 44:12-20.

The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

Alec Motyer, citing C.R. North, writes of this passage, “[North] points out that classical writers could be every bit as scathing as Isaiah and quotes Horace: ‘Once I used to be an oak tree, a useless stick. A craftsman, however, . . . preferred I should be a god . . .’. He notes how verses 19–20 equally expose the ‘antic stupidity’ of the idolater…”[6]

What, according to the prophetic pattern, does the “antic stupidity” of the committed idolater deserve? To be put to open scorn.  To be jeered at.  To have one of God’s servants point to them and have a deep and heart-felt laugh at their expense. That this is God’s message through Isaiah to Israel indicates there is a pedagogical purpose here, as well – observers are supposed to learn the foolishness of wicked idolatry through public scorn.

If Isaiah’s prophecy is the most comical example of Godly mockery then Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18 is the most famous.

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

There is nothing demonstrably nice about encouraging the self-destructive frenzy of the prophets of Baal. Yet that is what God’s servant does. And what language! The ESV does a nice job of sanitizing the “covering of the feet” that Elijah references as, “relieving himself” but the original hearers would have heard something much more crude than modern religious sensibilities, warped as they are by our commitment to niceness, would be comfortable receiving from a holy man. But the holy man – and messenger of The Living God – did not share our sickly scruples.

Mockery by the Apostles

Jesus’ closest followers learned from him that some offenses require sharp, stark, and confrontational replies. From Him they learned the skill of direct confrontation and the use of mockery. The most scandalous example of this is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians regarding the Judaizers pushing the Galatian congregation to embrace circumcision (5:12): I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Douglas Moo in his commentary on Galatians in the Baker Exegetical series calls this line a “powerful and sarcastic blast against the agitators.” Moo goes on to recognize that Paul’s boldness is is out of step with our modern sensibilities but is nonetheless part of the Apostolic model: “Some interpreters protest that Paul would never have indulged in such blunt sarcasm. But ancient authors frequently used language that today would be considered overbold…”

Paul is not the only Apostle who engages in this kind of barbed rhetoric. When John, often described as The Apostle of Love, says of Diotrephenes that he likes to put himself first he is exposing Diotrephenes to shame for his conduct, for his wicked nonsense. This is, like Paul’s blast, an act of mocking an opponent. Jesus’ words through John about the Nicolaitans in Revelation 2 carry a similar purpose.

The Apostles had much to say about appropriate speech and their emphasis can accurately be described as encouraging upright, noble, beautiful, and edifying speech – Ephesians 4:29 is a beloved example of this emphasis. That they found occasion where confrontational, sharp, and biting speech was necessary indicates that confrontational and even scornful speech is not necessarily contrary to edifying speech. In fact, considering the Apostle’s usage, scornful speech may be the precise kind of edifying speech called for in a given circumstance.

Mockery in Wisdom Literature

According to Scripture it is wise to mock the evildoer. Perhaps the clearest example is that Sophia, Wisdom herself, mocks the evildoer.

Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.Proverbs 1:24-27

Perhaps even more surprising in an age that values niceness as the chief Christian virtue is the reality that Wisdom mocks the wicked at the precise moment of their greatest suffering – during their calamity and terror. It is at the precise time when the destructive consequences of their rebellion visit the wicked that Wisdom opens her mouth; at the moment when the thing the unrighteous fears most falls upon them Wisdom begins deriding.

Commenting on this passage, Bruce Waltke writes[7]:

I will laugh (’eśḥāq) and its chiastic parallel I will scoff (’el‛ag), express the inward joy and disdain a mighty conqueror feels toward the defeat of his abject enemies (cf. Pss. 2:4; 37:13; 59:8). The victory is so lopsided that there is a comic aspect to the reversal of fortunes, provoking mockery over the enemy. Truth has a harsh edge, and Wisdom does not dull it. Her shock tactics aim to persuade the young to turn to her. Woman Wisdom does not claim to bash the rebellious, gullible youths. She responds to their judgment but does not initiate it. She intensifies their angst by not naming the Agent and/or agents. All they can be sure of is that their own deeds and devices will boomerang against them.

It is important here that we remember wisdom, in wisdom literature, is learned by practicing the pattern of the wise (Proverbs 4:10-12, 8:32-35). Therefore what Wisdom does is not only available as an option to those who would themselves be wise but following her pattern is, in part, how they become wise themselves.

The Mockery of God

When one considers the pattern of Scripture in regards to mockery, specifically that mockery is an instrument used by the wise and Godly – from Wisdom herself, through the Prophets, and into the ministry of The Lord Jesus Christ – it is not surprising to find that this pattern originates in the Triune God.

Psalm 2 recognizes that the powerful men of earth often (in futile foolishness and wickedness) set themselves against the purposes of the Lord. The same Psalm records the Lord’s response:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

Psalm 2 demonstrates harmony with Proverbs 3:33-34 where the Lord meets the scornful with His own scorn as an expression of Divine order and justice:

The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous. Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor. The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace.

In related fashion Psalm 37:12-13 records the Lord’s response to those who would exercise their power against His people:

The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming.

In a review of Terry Lindvall’s God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire From the Hebrew Prophets to Steven Colbert  Laura Turner aptly comments on God’s mockery as described in Proverbs and Psalms:

God’s laughter, it turns out, is not the gentle, good-natured chuckle of a friend. It is the laugh of someone who knows the whole story; someone who knows that in the end, everyone will be held to account and justice will prevail. God’s laugh is simultaneously comforting in its assurance of equanimity and also terrifying…

The Object of Godly Mockery

Seeing the established usefulness of mockery in Holy Writ naturally raises the questions of when and against whom to use mockery. The material covered above suggests three points of application.

(1) Mock Those Who Persist in Wicked Foolishness

Recall Proverbs 1:24-27Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

Wisdom indicates that mockery is deserved by those who stubbornly refused to heed to her counsel. In this sense mockery appears to be a kind of heightened judgment for those who have intentionally rejected God’s clear instruction and thereby provoked an increased accountability.

Proverbs is rich, by design, with reflection upon the behavior that marks out a fool. Obvious examples of those who have rejected Wisdom’s counsel are (i) those who say there is no God (Psalm 14), (ii) those who engage in sexual immorality (Proverbs 7), and (iii) those who refuse to receive wisdom’s instruction (Proverbs 1).

Those who engage in mockery of revealed religion, those who give themselves to fornication, and those who seek to live outside of God’s natural law are candidates for God’s mockery.

Remember, too, that it is specifically with the scornful that God is scornful (Proverbs 3:33-34); not every atheist or fornicator or cultural progressive should be assumed to be deserving of scorn. Individuals in those respective camps who belittle God’s revelation or His people’s commitment to obedience, however, are the sort for whom meeting scorn with scorn (following the Lord’s pattern) is a fit response.

Mock Those Who Would Lead God’s People Astray from Without

The Scorn of the Old Testament Prophets was aimed at those who would lead Israel into the worship of false gods.  It is the idolater that finds in the same piece of wood both fuel for his cooking and a god to bow down to that Isaiah mocks. The prophets of Baal who, in concert with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, led Israel away from the pure worship of Yahweh were the ones countered on Mount Carmel with Elijah’s famous mockery.

In a pluralistic society faithful followers of The Living God will need to keep the instrument of mockery in their tool belt as well as deploy it skillfully in like fashion. The God of the Christians is powerful to save. He hears, sees, and acts. What of these other gods? They are demonic if there is any substance to them at all. Either backed by infernal intelligence or merely the lifeless mechanisms of man’s rejection of His Creator the so-called gods of our neighbors are no gods at all. What else can a faithful follower of Christ do but have a chuckle when these “gods” of plaster and wood are set in comparison to The Lord of Hosts? Like Dagon of old the contemporary false gods find themselves facedown (and decapitated) in their own temples before the presence of God Almighty.

The false religion of secularism provides another false god to whom mockery is due. There is plenty of room to debate which particular false god sits at the heart of secularism – the exalted self, the collective will of a given people, or even the spirit of the age. Perhaps it is best to think of secularism as a polytheistic religion that is intentionally self-deceived about its own worship commitments. Nonetheless, a religion that does not see itself clearly for the religion it is and its numerous worshippers, bowing before a feeble god, who nonetheless believe themselves to have risen above religion represent just the kind of obliviousness that should provoke a strong belly laugh by those enlightened by the Spirit of God.

It is within this category that we should understand Christ’s mockery of Herod. A ruler, no matter how powerful, that believes he has final authority over The Son of God is participating in both individual and state idolatry to the most foolish degree imaginable and, as Psalm 2 indicates, is the kind of fool that The Son (and members of His Kingdom) enjoys a hardy har-har over.

Mock Those Who Would Lead God’s People Astray from Within

The harsh words of rebuke Jesus used against the Pharisees are a wonder to behold. That the lamb of God, gentle and lowly in heart (Matthew 11:25-30), who was even silent before His accusers (Isaiah 53:7, Matthew 26:63) unleashed such strong rebuke against the Pharisees either fascinates and startles readers of every generation.

And yet those strong rebukes are the Word of God.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. “Woe to you, blind guides… “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. … You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

The reason(s) for the animosity Christ held for the Pharisees is a field of analysis filled with debate. Exhausting that debate is beyond the scope of this writing but readers of Scripture can look to Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 for a significant clue. Three times Jesus says to the Pharisees that they have traded the Word of God for the tradition of the Pharisees. It is this displacement, or colonization, of God’s revealed religion by the Pharisees’ traditions that motivates Jesus’ hostility to their group and work.

It is not unreasonable to see Jesus’ own presentation of Himself as The Good Shepherd in John 10 behind Christ’s stinging rebuke of the Pharisees. God, in the days of Ezekiel, committed Himself to driving off the false shepherds of His people, shepherds who fed on the flock like wolves, and replacing them with a faithful Shepherd from the line of David.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered… Ezekiel 34

Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

“My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” Ezekiel 37

Taking these texts as clues indicates there is a corrupting, defiling type of predator that seeks to feed on God’s flock from within that Jesus, as Good Shepherd, positions Himself against in power. In the days of Christ’s earthly ministry this was often The Pharisees. They, as self-appointed religious leaders had worked from within the religious life of Israel to displace authentic worship and replace it with something foreign and contrary to the revelation of God, growing fat on the destruction of God’s flock as a result.

Following Jesus’ pattern we may conclude that corrupting elements positioning themselves within the church are to be met with energetic mockery and scorn (along with rebuke, condemnation, and every other form of opposition authorized by Scripture).

Those who would normalize sexual perversion among Christians are obvious targets for this kind of opposition. So too are those who would feed themselves by selling assaults on the Bride of Christ for the cheers of those who hate both Christ and His people are another. The currently fashionable renewal of racial animosity traveling under the name of Critical Race Theory, denying both the dignity of God’s image bearers and the reconciliation that only the gospel can accomplish while seeking to displace historic Christianity, is yet another. Those who mock God’s design for men and women or the blessing of fertility in their union from within the church are similarly to be met with scorn, mockery, and rebuke.

How to Answer a Fool

Before closing a previous note needs to be re-emphasized: Scripture’s pattern is that those who are scornful are candidates for being met with scorn:

… it is specifically with the scornful that God is scornful (Proverbs 3:33-34); not every atheist or fornicator or cultural progressive should be assumed to be deserving of scorn. Individuals in those respective camps who belittle God’s revelation or His people’s commitment to obedience, however, are the sort for whom meeting scorn with scorn (following the Lord’s pattern) is a fit response..

The Ethiopian eunuch’s honest questions about Isaiah’s prophecy deserved an honest response. Simon’s attempt to buy the blessing of God deserved a hard rebuke. Knowing that both kinds of responses are necessary in response to similar questions is wisdom but the kind rapidly disappearing in our age where the church is obsessed with superficial niceness.

The sharp contrast of Proverbs 26:4-5 has befuddled interpreters since ancient days. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

A fool has to be answered but doing so carries significant risk. Bruce Waltke captures the tension and demand well[8]:

The rationale for the admonition not to answer a fool according to his folly (4a) is to avoid the negative consequence of becoming like the fool (4b). Do not answer a fool according (ke, in agreement in kind) to his folly (i.e. “the fool’s malicious and ignorant style”). Lest you become like him, even you, which emphatically focuses the son’s attention on himself, who should stand in contrast to the fool.

The rationale for answering a fool according to his folly (5a) is to avoid the negative consequence that the fool arrogantly replaces the Lord’s heavenly wisdom with his own (5b). Answer a fool according to his folly lest he become wise in his own eyes. The wise must expose the fool’s distortions to serve his own interests at the expense of the community and must not silently accept it and thereby contribute to establishing his topsy-turvy world against the rule of God. Answer that is in agreement with the Lord’s wisdom puts the fool’s topsy-turvy world right side up and so is fitting. “Granted the discomfort and even danger of such association, someone has to speak up for wisdom.”

At the risk of being novel it may be that mockery is the key to answering a fool in his folly without answering a fool in his folly. God meets mockery with mockery. Answering a fool with a serious reply runs the risk of elevating his foolishness above its merits. Answering seriously conveys a kind of undeserved credibility. To meet the fool with mockery insulates against this danger while still providing a needed rebuke to the fool (who, in God’s grace, may thereby be helped to leave their foolishness behind) and demonstrates to any observing third parties the dangerous ridiculousness of the fool’s foolishness.

What is clear is that mockery, albeit out of fashion in the age of niceness, is an aspect of God’s wisdom and a tool to be used skillfully by the upright, neither deployed too quickly nor held in inappropriate reserve.

———————

[1] R. Scott Clark, https://heidelblog.net/2013/09/of-virtues-true-and-false-niceness-v-christian-virtue/

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/august-web-only/virtue-vice-why-niceness-weakens-our-witness.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://nickvoss.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/herod-that-fox-%E1%BC%80%CE%BB%E1%BD%BD%CF%80%CE%B7%CE%BE-alopex/

[5] Contra, for example, Bock (BECNT, Vol. 2) – the idea that Herod’s naked threat, in the mouth of Jesus’ most immediate opponents should be read as reflecting a cunning strategy is compelling on the face of it. An axe swung at a man’s head is not cunning.

[6] The Prophecy of Isaiah (Inter-Varsity).

[7] The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15 (TNICOT).

[8] The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (TNICOT); quoting Richard Clifford, Proverbs, TOTL.

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