There are many proverbs about fools in the Book of Proverbs, but the largest consecutive chunk of them is found in Prov. 26:1-12. It’s useful considering the first eleven verses together, and then the twelfth as a capstone:
1 Like snow in summer and like rain in harvest,
So honor is not fitting for a fool.
2 Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
So a curse without cause does not alight.
3 A whip is for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
And a rod for the back of fools.
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
5 Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.
6 He cuts off his own feet and drinks violence
Who sends a message by the hand of a fool.
7 Like the legs which are useless to the lame,
So is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
8 Like one who binds a stone in a sling,
So is he who gives honor to a fool.
9 Like a thorn which falls into the hand of a drunkard,
So is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
10 Like an archer who wounds everyone,
So is he who hires a fool or who hires those who pass by.
11 Like a dog that returns to its vomit
Is a fool who repeats his folly. (NASB)
These proverbs address different relationships one might have with fools. First, honor is “out of place” for a fool, useless or even actively harmful. A later verse returns to the question of honor for a fool by likening it to arming a sling: someone’s gonna get hurt. On the other hand, in a world of very real cursing, fools curse people without cause, but their curses do not cause actual harm (v.2).
Verse 3 seems to suggest that fools cannot be reasoned with, but must be governed like unreasoning animals, with simple force. The animal nature of fools is also presented in the last verse, which compares fools repeating their folly to dogs who come back to their vomit, and sometimes scarf it back up: they didn’t learn the last time they suffered for their mistakes.
Verses 4-5 are tricky, because the first half of each is an imperative regarding whether or not to answer fools, and the only difference in the Hebrew text is that verse 4 says not to! Perhaps this pair of proverbs is saying respond to fools appropriately to keep them in place, but do not respond to a fool in a foolish way. An alternate, and reasonably sensible, suggestion is that the only way to heed both verses is not to be around fools!
Verse 6 address the self-harm inflicted by choosing to employ a fool, liking cutting off limbs! The same point is raised in verse 10, but this time with a broader range of victims: hiring a fool is like shooting at random into a crowd. Don’t do it!
The incorrigible foolishness of fools is emphasized by verses 7 and 9, which discuss what happens if fools employ proverbs, the sayings of the wise. In the former verse, fools’ use of proverbs seems to be merely useless, while in the latter it is compared to a thorn in the hand of a drunkard: it is more likely to poke the fool than anyone else. When fools quote proverbs, they are more likely than not rebuking themselves unintentionally.
The book of Proverbs have many negative things to say about fools, but the verse following those quoted above is the climax of the section:
Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.
But aren’t we all (and especially we academics!) encouraged to consider ourselves wise, to think that we have it all figured out, that we have all the answers, and we know how the world works? Yet the inspired author says that fools – whom he has just spent eleven couplets of poetry castigating for their fatal side-effects on society! – have more hope than those who think themselves wise. Is our self-estimation of our wisdom healthy self-esteem, or dangerous self-delusion?
May God grant us humility to see ourselves rightly, and his true wisdom from above (James 3:17)!