The OTHER Proverbs 9 Woman

Four characteristics of Folly from Proverbs 9:13-18

A few weeks ago I dissected Proverbs 9:1-6 and Solomon’s personification of wisdom as a woman who plans ahead, diligently and efficiently carries out her plans, and then shares her bounty with all who are willing to follow her example.

The last part of Proverbs 9 describes her opposite, the woman Folly.

13  The woman Folly is loud; she is deluded and knows nothing.
14  She sits at the door of her house; she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,
15  calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way,
16  “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” And to him who lacks sense she says,
17  “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
18  But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.
Proverbs 9:13-18 ESV

As with the case of Wisdom, the description of Folly reveals a lot about her character that isn’t explicitly laid out in the text.

Folly Opens Her Mouth

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and
He who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
When he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
Proverbs 17:27-28

Folly is incapable of verbal restraint. She loves to tell about her adventures and conquests, the record-breaking fish that got away, and the sure-fire system she has for beating the stock market. Nevermind that she has nothing to show for all her accomplishments and schemes. She could if she wanted to…

What’s more, she believes her own nonsense. She has told her lies so many times that she has lost the line between fact and fiction. Her entire life has become “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Where the prudent keep silent, Folly speaks. Where the wise ask questions, Folly declares. Where the knowledgeable admit their ignorance, Folly unwittingly advertises hers.

Folly Takes the Easy Way

In contrast to Wisdom, who planned and built her own house, then busied herself in preparing a feast, Folly merely sits in the door of her house. We have no indication that she built it or contributed to it in any way, only that she occupies it.

And not only the door of her house, but the high places of the city. Unlike Wisdom who sends her servants (or goes herself) to the highest places (al gaphi maromi), Folly takes a seat in the high places (al kise maromi), possibly referring to places of honor in pagan temples and shrines. But wherever she goes, whether at home or the high places, Folly takes a seat.

Folly Is Disruptive

Where Wisdom called to the simple and then waited for a response, Folly seeks out people who are already on a mission, who are “going straight on their way”, in order to distract them. She yells at them, confuses them, makes them forget their purpose.

To what end?

Envy and resentment. She can’t stand that other people are accomplishing things, working hard, providing for their families and futures. She can’t see beyond her own failings, so she thinks that anyone with wealth must have stolen it. She would be wealthy too if it weren’t for all those rich people taking everything for themselves. The Haves are her enemy. So she throws a verbal stumbling block into the path of those who might otherwise be productive and pleasant neighbors, dragging them down to the floor with her. Folly loves to watch you fall.

Folly Corrupts

Once she has the attention of gullible people, she isn’t content to see them wasting time and floundering in life. Misery loves to see herself in everyone around her, and Folly is her sister. She wants to corrupt them and watch them rot.

Folly’s primary tools are jealousy and easy gain. She believes that the rich didn’t work for their luxuries, so why should she? A house without building, bread without plowing and sowing, and water without digging. Why work hard yourself when you can live off the hard work of some other sucker? She seduces the weary, the simple, and oppressed, who might otherwise be gainfully employed, to join in her sloth and theft, because they are vulnerable and easy targets. She knows that her bread and water doesn’t compare to the feast set out by Wisdom, but she also knows that, to a man with sore feet and a bent back, that morsel of bread on a doorstep now seems more appealing than a sirloin in a palace later.

Folly Is Death

What Folly has never learned and what she often prevents her victims from discovering until it is too late, is that nothing truly worth having is easy. Real wealth that enhances life rather than destroying it takes time. Houses and families and legacies aren’t built by decree. Riches gained without effort, whether through theft, gambling, or sudden inheritance, are corrupting and tend to evaporate as quickly as they came, as often as not leaving their possessors in a worse position than before.

Once you begin to eat the bread and drink the water of Folly, no matter how good it tastes today, you become mired in the quagmire that surrounds her house. The longer you remain, the more difficult it will be to escape, and eventually even the bread and water runs out.

“Who is simple? Let him turn in here.” And as for him who lacks heart, she says to him, “Stolen waters are sweet, And bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” But he does not know that the dead are there, Her guests are in the depths of She’ol.
Proverbs 9:16-18 TS2009

The Proverbs 9 Woman

Four characteristics of Wisdom from Proverbs 9:1-6

In Proverbs 9:1-6, Wisdom is personified as a woman and contrasted with Folly, which is personified as another woman in vs 13-18. (Check out this post on the literary structure of Proverbs 9!) Solomon described Wisdom as building a house, preparing a meal, and inviting guests to join her. We can learn something about wisdom from that alone–She is a builder, a provider, and a generous host–but Solomon gave us important details that add significant depth to this picture.

1  Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.
2  She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table.
3  She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town,
4  “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who lacks sense she says,
5  “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.
6  Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
Proverbs 9:1-6

Wisdom built a large and elaborate house and prepared a feast from her own livestock and probably also from her own vineyard. She had servants and sent them out to invite strangers to come and share in her great bounty and to learn from her example.

Wisdom Built Her House

Nobody builds a house in a day. They don’t come pre-assembled by mail order…at least they didn’t in 900 BC. Houses take time, resources, and a lot of hard work. Most people when the Proverbs were written built their own houses from straw, mud, or stone, and usually only large enough to protect their immediate family and a few animals from the elements at night. A corner for cooking and eating, an alcove for sleeping, and a little floor space for the ten children. Only the wealthy could afford the time and money to build anything larger and more elaborate than a few walls and a thatch roof.

The house of Wisdom is different. Her house is more than a dirt floor out of the rain. From this passage we can deduce some interesting details:

Her house is large enough to accommodate seven pillars, numerous servants, and a crowd of guests. Wisdom didn’t buy or inherit her house. She built it herself. She selected the site, drew a floorplan, purchased or collected the materials, and managed or executed the construction from start to finish personally. She had a furnished dining area and sufficient storage to hold dishes and platters for a large feast. The rest of her house was also artfully finished in detail. It wasn’t just a utilitarian space for sleeping and eating. The number seven indicates completeness, perfection. She didn’t stop building when her house was a cover for her family and a number of guests, but kept working until every detail was complete.

Wisdom Prepared a Feast

Living in modern America, there is a great distance between us and the source of our food. Most of us have no idea how our food is made or even what it is made from. Corn starch, unsulphured molasses, baking soda, salt… Oh, there’s one I can identify. I know what salt is, but what part of corn does corn starch come from? Unsulphured molasses…does that mean most molasses is sulphured!? And what exactly is molasses anyway?

Michael Pollan wrote a great book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma (affiliate link), in which he traced several meals, including one from McDonald’s, from their original sources in fields, pastures, and quarries, through factories, distributors, and kitchens, and finally to the American dining table. Our food today takes a surprisingly complicated and disturbing journey before it reaches our plates, but it wasn’t always that way. Most people throughout history ate whatever they or a neighbor grew or hunted, and that was that. Ultimately, the American pantry reveals as much about us as it does about what we eat.

Solomon’s sparse description of Wisdom’s table also reveals more than what she served.

Wisdom owned livestock, and rather than buying meat at the market, she killed and butchered her own animals for the feast. Not just one animal, but animals, plural. Whether these were small as birds or large as oxen, we can’t tell, but in either case she was expecting a significant number of diners. She purchased or grew spices and developed sufficient skill as a vintner to prepare her own mixed wine. Finally, Wisdom’s feast was prepared and ready before it was needed.

Wisdom Sent Her Servants

Even in cultures with a slave-based economy, most people aren’t slave owners. Most of the people who have lived in this world did not have servants of any kind. In Proverbs 9, Wisdom had at least two servant girls and probably many more. She had livestock, a garden, a vineyard, and a large house, so she probably also has a number of men in her employ.

The servants of Wisdom weren’t harshly used, but honored and trusted helpers. She sent them out to the city to invite guests, which required that they be courteous and pleasant. She trusted them to execute their mission with gladness, not resentment, which means that they also loved and trusted their mistress.

Wisdom sent her servant girls to the highest points in the city (or she went herself, depending on your translation) because she didn’t waste time and effort. She had no need to confront every stranger on the way because she knew that those who were ready to heed her call would hear it and respond.

Wisdom Shared Her Table

When I was a kid, my parents often invited people to join us for Sunday dinner. These weren’t just people from church, but also the elderly, the lonely, and people who were too often ignored by the world. Sometimes they even invited people to live with us while they sorted out life’s inevitable troubles. Wisdom went far beyond that, inviting a crowd of total strangers to come to her feast.

However, Wisdom’s feast wasn’t intended to fill the belly, or at least that’s not all it did. Wisdom’s food and drink was personal transformation. She invited the simple to grow wise, the foolish to learn how to live, and the lazy to learn industry. Wisdom’s table was reserved for those who wanted to become something more than they were. To eat with her was to experience the full gamut of joy and pain, because it is only through overcoming pain that we become wise and find true joy.

Four Characteristics of Wisdom

Like many great teachers, Solomon didn’t spell out every lesson. A close look at his brief description of Wisdom in Proverbs 9:1-6 reveals four distinct characteristics.

  1. Wisdom is strategic. Her plans are long term and exhaustive, clearly envisioning the detailed end results of her labors before she even begins.
  2. Wisdom is diligent. She doesn’t cease from her labors until her job is done. Her house isn’t complete until the walls are painted and the pillars and cornices are carved and fixed. She is not afraid of hard physical labor and doesn’t cut corners that might negatively impact the end result.
  3. Wisdom is efficient. She multiplies her efforts by delegating tasks to trusted servants and applies the most effort on those tasks that are likely to have the most impact.
  4. Wisdom is generous. God doesn’t grant wisdom for our personal benefit, but to enrich his kingdom on earth. Wisdom freely shares what she has received, desiring the same richness of life for everyone whose heart is ready to receive it and who is willing to devote the necessary effort.

Solomon heard Wisdom’s call and joined in her feast. He spent many hard years, making both bad and good decisions, transforming himself from a young man with a good heart into the wise king we remember from the Bible. He set a table for us in his writings–the Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes–and he continually invites us to join him. Since he prepared such a rich feast, we don’t have to make all the same mistakes he did. We have only to heed his call, sit down at his table, and set ourselves to the hard work of applying his words.

That’s not to say that studying the Scriptures will keep us from making mistakes. We have our own lives to live, our own mistakes to make, and there is no real growth without adversity. But remember that Wisdom is efficient. She learns all she can from the mistakes of those who went before. There’s no sense in replowing ground in which seeds have already been sown.

Solomon began Proverbs 9 with a description of Wisdom, but ended it with a description of Folly. Next time, I’ll take a look at vs 13-18 and some big mistakes to avoid.