Bite-Sized Exegesis – Proverbs 10:23
“It is like a game to a fool to do mischief, and so is wisdom for a man of understanding.”
כִּשְׂחֹוק לִכְסִיל עֲשֹׂות זִמָּה וְחָכְמָה לְאִישׁ תְּבוּנָה׃
kiśḥôq liksîl ʿăśôt zimmâ wǝḥokmâ lǝʾîš tǝbûnâ
Like a game to a fool is the doing of evil plans, and wisdom is to a man of understanding.
- The sense of this proverb is reasonably clear, but it is remarkably difficult to reproduce that sense with the same elegant brevity we see in the Hebrew. The JPS translation, however, does a valiant job of it, so it has influenced especially the second clause in my own translation. NASB is also very good in both clauses, but the JPS preserves the original Hebrew word order in the first clause.
- kiśḥôq (“like a game/joke/sport”) is operative in both clauses, and the proverb pivots on a mild ambiguity in this word. The word śǝḥôq/śǝḥōq is a noun form of the verb śāḥaq, which means “to laugh” or “to have fun.” In both cases, that idea can have a positive or a negative connotation. “Laughing” can connote joy and it can connote derision. “Having fun” can connote celebration and it can connote having fun at someone’s expense, or making fun of someone. So the moral content of śǝḥôq is dependent on the specific activity it is connected to.
- This first word means “like a sport” or “like a joke” or essentially like something that causes or expresses delight. The English word “game” encompasses these ideas and can support the ambiguous moral content, as well. So I have chosen to translate kiśḥôq as “like a game”.
- The remainder of the verse is concentric in its content: liksîl (“to the fool”) and lǝʾîš tǝbûnâ (“to a man of understanding”) are parallel and surround the inner parallel structure of ăśôt zimmâ (“the doing of bad things”) and wǝḥokmâ (“(whereas) wisdom”). So the structure of the proverb is A B C C’ B’.
- Aurally, the parallelism is different. There is some similarity between the spirantized ‘k’ sounds of the first elements in each clause, B (liksîl) and C’ (wǝḥokmâ). Likewise, the second elements in each clause, C (ăśôt zimmâ) and B’ (lǝʾîš tǝbûnâ), both share the Hebrew letter ש (albeit different versions of it) and end with –â. Moreover, first elements share in being one word, while the second elements both consist of two words.
- Therefore, the structure of this proverb is complex, being both concentric (syntactically) and parallel (phonetically).
- The fool (kǝsîl, which is the most common word for “fool” in Proverbs and throughout the Bible) delights in doing bad things (zimmâ).
- Hebrew zimmâ communicates the idea of plans, and in almost every instance these are evil plans, plots, wicked thoughts. The word can connote action by itself, but its pairing with ʿăśôt makes the fact that these plots are enacted explicit.
- The KJV translation of this word as “mischief” is actually pretty good, I think. This word in English communicates the maliciousness of zimmâ and its connection to evil plans. This is why I have adopted it into my own translation.
- Doing this mischief is like a game or a sport for the fool. The fool is the one who shoplifts as a joke, who defaces other people’s property, who mocks others for little or no reason, and who thinks getting profoundly drunk on the weekend and waking up in a bed with a stranger constitutes “a good time”. One is reminded of A Clockwork Orange.
- This is all about a perverse kind of fun at someone else’s expense. It is taking great pleasure in the destruction of other people.
- By contrast, the man of understanding or discernment delights in wisdom.
- There is a hidden contrast here between “wisdom” and “doing mischief.” “Wisdom” is internal, while “doing bad things” means the outward enacting of evil plans.
- A wise person finds wisdom delightful and fun. It is like a game. A wise person loves to learn and enjoys diversions that are constructive or educational. At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, for the wise person to take a wise saying, like a proverb, and memorize it, digest it, break it apart and analyze it – this is all like game. It’s tremendous fun!
- I also think it’s important to emphasize the outwardly expressive nature of kiśḥôq in relation to the wise person’s enjoyment of wisdom. What is depicted here is not simply a kind of quiet and passive subtle pleasure, but a passionate and active enjoyment of wisdom. The one who enjoys wisdom this way obsesses about it. He or she cannot stop talking about it. It causes laughing and clapping of hands. That’s śǝḥôq.
- This saying connects the moral and intellectual axes of the book of Proverbs primarily in the first clause. It is a fool, a kǝsîl, who enjoys doing wicked things rather than the rāšāʿ or “wicked person”. Certainly, Proverbs would tell us that a wicked person delights in wicked things, but here we are told instead that it is a fool who delights in wicked things. A fool is then, by logical deduction, a wicked person, as well.
- But this has implications for the second clause, too. Delighting oneself in wisdom, having fun becoming wise – reading smart things, watching intelligent shows, talking about wisdom with wise people – is by implication morally upright. It is a characteristic of righteousness to delight in wisdom. Certainly, a righteous person does not delight in hurting others.
- So while this Proverb is about wisdom and foolishness on its surface, righteousness and wickedness rest not far below the surface.
- In short, the message of this saying is this: Foolish and wise people do different things for fun: the fool thinks doing mean and destructive things is a joke, while the wise person actively delights in gaining wisdom.
- כִּשְׂחֹוק – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of שְׂחֹוק with prefixed preposition k. Translated “like a sport” or “like a game”
- לִכְסִיל – Noun, masculine, singular, absolute of כְּסִיל with prefixed preposition l. Translated “to a fool”
- עֲשֹׂות – Verb, G-stem, infinitive, construct of עָשָׂה. Translated “to do”
- זִמָּה – Noun, feminine, singular, absolute of זִמָּה. Translated “wicked plan” or “mischief”
- וְחָכְמָה – Noun, feminine, singular, absolute of חָכְמָה with prefixed conjunction w. Translated “and wisdom”
- לְאִישׁ – Noun, masculine, singular, construct of אִישׁ with prefixed preposition l. Translated “to a man of”
- תְּבוּנָה – Noun, feminine, singular, absolute of תְּבוּנָה. Translated “understanding”