When wisdom marries folly

If there’s ever been a mismatch, it was the union of Nabal and Abigail (1 Samuel 25). You can almost see the announcement: “Stupid, stubborn, surly skinflint marries brainy, brave, benevolent beauty”. It’s as if the characters of Folly and Wisdom stepped out of the pages of Proverbs and got hitched. Those TV advertisements with the clever wife rolling her eyes over her bumbling husband have nothing on this!

What can we learn from their ill-fated union? How can I be Wisdom rather than Folly? And what do I do if I’m Wisdom married to Folly?

Let’s start with the Fool. His name, ‘Nabal’, means fool. In case we miss the point, we’re told (by his wife, no less!) “as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him“ (25:25). His is an Isaiah 32:6 personality typing:

For the fool speaks folly,
 and his heart is busy with iniquity,
to practice ungodliness,
 to utter error concerning the LORD,
to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,
 and to deprive the thirsty of drink.

Nabal is the ridiculously wealthy owner of “three thousand sheep and a thousand goats” (1 Sam 25:2), yet he refuses David’s request to feed his 600 hungry men, even though they protected his flocks in the wilderness and it’s a time of feasting. Oblivious to the fact that David’s band of far-from-merry men are about to kill him, he stuffs his face with a “a feast in his house, like the feast of a king”, his heart “merry within him, for he was very drunk” (25:36). All the threads of evil in 1 Samuel merge in Nabal: he is ‘worthless’ like the sons of Eli (2:12), arrogant like the rich in Hannah’s song (2:3-8), and power-hungry like King Saul. He’s doomed.

What about Wisdom? She matches her actions to the demands of the moment. When her servants tell her David’s men are coming to murder the men of her household, Abigail loads some donkeys with a small snack from her pantry—“two hundred loaves and two skins of wine and five sheep … and five seahs of parched grain and a hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs”—saddles up her donkey, and gallops off (can you gallop on a donkey?). There’s a tense moment as she rides into a ravine and finds hundreds of armed, angry men descending it. Leaping off her donkey, casting herself at David’s feet, she begs him not to bring blood-guilt on himself by taking revenge on her fool of a husband. Wisdom receives its reward when she wins David’s heart.

Folly and Wisdom indeed. But it’s not just qualities like godlessness and generosity that set Nabal and Abigail apart; ultimately, it’s their attitude to David. Nabal doesn’t just feast like Saul, he thinks like Saul:

Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where? (25:10-11 cf 17:55, 22:7-8)

Nabal sees David as a nobody, a rebellious servant, and pretends to have never heard of him, although all Israel knows his name (18:16, 30). But Abigail sees beyond the desert wanderer to God’s anointed, victorious king:

For the LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD … And when the LORD has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you and has appointed you prince over Israel … then remember your servant. (25:28-31)

It’s a statement of astounding faith. Besides Samuel, only two insignificant women discern the truth about David. Hannah was the first to speak of God’s coming king (2:10); Abigail, the first to predict his ‘lasting dynasty’ (25:28 NIV). No-one else would foresee this until Nathan prophesied of King David that God would “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:13)—a promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

What about us? What do we do if, like Abigail, we are Wisdom married to Folly? For wives, there’s a time when submission to our husband must be laid aside: when it conflicts with our greater submission to God’s anointed king (Eph 5:22-33). A husband who’s violent to children, who encourages us to lie or cheat, who doesn’t pray much (so why should we?)—above all, a husband who rejects Jesus—there are times when we need the courage and wisdom of Abigail, to protect our children, to disobey when this means not sinning, to stay faithful but take a different path (1 Pet 3:1-7): to choose wisdom, not folly.

Which will we choose? Will we choose stupidity or shrewdness, cowardice or courage, greed or goodness? More importantly, what attitude will we have to God’s chosen king? Folly sees God’s anointed as a nobody, to be mocked, ignored and mistreated. Wisdom perceives in God’s anointed, the humble and crucified Christ, the very power and wisdom of God:

Where is the one who is wise? … Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:20-25 cf Ps 2, Col 2:2-3).

This is wisdom: to see in Jesus the hidden wisdom and knowledge of God (Col 2:2-3).

Editor’s note: Fixed Bible reference, thanks Claire.

16 thoughts on “When wisdom marries folly

  1. Thanks Jean. Interesting and insightful treatment of the 1 Samuel account.

    I just have two points of clarification when you get to the bit about ‘wise’ wives married to ‘foolish’ men:

    1. I take it the 1 Peter text cited should be 3:1-7 (not 1:3-7)?

    2. Also when you say that there’s ‘a time when submission to our husband must be laid aside’ I assume you mean in specific situations rather than as a blanket rule for the relationship?

  2. Hi Claire!

    Yes, you’re right, the reference is incorrect – thanks for picking that up!

    On the second point, yes, I didn’t mean that there should be a blanket non-submitting to a husband (even a foolish one!) but that in specific situations – i.e. when my husband encourages me to disobey God – I am not to submit to him. But I am still in a relationship of submission to him as my head under God, as long as we are still married, even if he is a foolish leader (aka 1 Pet 3:1-7). Obviously, this will make submission much more difficult.

    If the relationship ends – if he divorces me, or if I divorce him e.g. for unfaithfulness – then obviously I’m no longer called to submit to him, for he is no longer in a position of authority over me as my husband. I guess you could say that’s a kind of blanket non-submitting! But only when the relationship has ended.

    What do you think?

    In his grace,


  3. Some further thoughts, Claire.

    “Laid aside” was probably unhelpfully ambiguous, now I think about it! Not sure what I should have said – “temporarily laid aside”??

    Because, of course, even if I “lay aside” submission in a particular case, I am not really laying it aside at all (not even temporarily!). I am still in a relationship of submission. This means that, even if I disobey a specific command, or choose not to follow my husband’s example, I do it in a gentle and humble way which honours leadership as far as possible, not a defiant and proud way. It also means that I gladly submit to the full extent I’m able to, at this and all other times, unless and until the relationship is unavoidably broken.

    The same goes for governments, bosses, teachers – all authority relationships. I give honour and respect as much as I am able to, and the relationship of authority isn’t broken even when I have to go against authority because I’m submittint to the greater authority of God. Authority is a good and healthy thing, even though it can be misused.

    Can you think of a better way of putting it then “laid aside” or even “temporarily laid aside”?

  4. Dear Jean,

    Thanks for your thoughtful answers – I hope they weren’t really written in the early hours of this morning! Sleep is a beautiful thing.

    Perhaps the way to express this is to come at it from a different direction. So that instead of saying what a wife in such a situation stops doing, focus instead on what she is still doing…

    So something like this: All submission to earthly authorities including a wife’s submission to her husband is an expression of obedience to Christ. And this Christ-ward dimension is more apparent on those occasions where a husband’s will is at odds with the demands of godliness, as the wife’s faithful obedience to Christ will win out over the will of her husband, and she will chose not to follow her husband into sin (cf. 1 Peter 4:4) – but will rather be faithful to her spiritual husband (Eph. 5:22–24).

    Is this a better way forward?

  5. The general rule we Bible believers quote is, you must obey your husband unless he orders you to sin.

    But was Nabal ordering Abigail to sin?  I don’t think so.

    Was she disobeying?  Not actually.  She was guilty of undermining, though, and I am afraid many might, in similar situations, condemn her for that.

    This story among a few others seems to teach me that I can disobey my husband on other extreme occasions that don’t necessarily involve him ordering me to sin.

    In this case, Abigail is trying to save her own and others’ innocent lives.

    Again, the frequent Bible Believing line is, “she didn’t know what would happen.  She should have submitted in faith.  God could have protected her in other ways.”

    I don’t get that from the text, though.

    Some may think I am arguing that women should not submit to their husbands if they think they know better.  I am not willing to go that far.

    But I do think I can faithfully refuse to submit, even if I’m not being ordered to sin, in extreme circumstances.  And it appears, I say this fearfully, that I have to decide when those situations are.  That is a daunting prospect but I can’t come up with a more honest understanding of this and similar stories.

  6. Hi Claire and Marie!

    Marie, I think what struck me as I read about Nabal and Abigail is that here was a woman who was right to go against her husband (the Bible praises her for her wisdom rather than condemning her) not because he was leading her into sin, but because he was leading her household to murder and mayhem. So it seems to me that there are times when you would, for example, rightly leave a husband, or protect a child against his will, because he was harming you or your children. As you say, Marie, this is a difficult decision for extreme situations.

    Thanks, Claire. I did wake up early, I’m afraid, but because my kids woke me, not because of your question!! But my brain must have been working on it in my sleep…

    I see your point: that perhaps it’s best to emphasise our submission to Christ rather than our not-submitting. But I’d be happy to say that there are times when a wife “stops” submitting, on a particular issue and for a time, for the sake of her greater submission to Christ – as long as we make it clear that the relationship of authority doesn’t end, that authority is a good and healthy thing, and that the preference is always to submit whenever possible, because we know that God’s plan for headship and submission is good, that our trusting submission honours God, and that it shows forth the relationship between Christ and the church.

    Don’t know if that sheds any further light on it, though! I’ll give it some thought – or maybe my brain will while I’m asleep! smile


  7. And do you know, Claire, I wonder if the Christ-ward nature of our submission isn’t as clearly (and in some ways more clearly) seen when we are able to wholeheartedly and joyfully submit to our husbands’ leadership. When I submit to leadership in a difficult situation, it showcases my trust in God (1 Pet 3); but when I submit to godly leadership, it showcases the beauty of the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5). Both demonstrate my prior submission to Christ, just in different ways.

  8. Yes, I agree that obedience always points to and testifies to Christ (his rule, his work in us etc). But my point above was that it is more obvious that we are ‘choosing life’ when those around us are ‘choosing death’.

    Hope the kids don’t get you up too early!

    God bless.

  9. Hi Claire!

    Ah, I get you now. And that would certainly be true of Nabal and Abigail – that it’s his folly that shows up her wisdom more clearly. Thanks!

    And it occurs to me that here’s what I could have written in my article, which may have been less ambiguous: “For wives, there’s a time when we must obey Jesus rather than our husbands: when submission to a husband conflicts with our greater submission to God’s anointed king.” Except maybe I’d phrase it a little more gracefully, but at least it’s clearer!

    Is 5.50 early?! Although I did go back to sleep this time…

    Love Jean.

  10. Well written and thought out including this….

    “Marie, I think what struck me as I read about Nabal and Abigail is that here was a woman who was right to go against her husband (the Bible praises her for her wisdom rather than condemning her) not because he was leading her into sin, but because he was leading her household to murder and mayhem. So it seems to me that there are times when you would, for example, rightly leave a husband, or protect a child against his will, because he was harming you or your children. As you say, Marie, this is a difficult decision for extreme situations.”

    No one in Christ is ever obligated on a fleshly level to yield to what produces mayhem, sin or wounds others.  God’s truths only wound sin and the sinful nature, not people’s hearts, lives, or inner person/soul.

    Nabel was likely named “Fool” by his village, as this was normal to be nicknamed by others and have the name stick.  Abigail likely was given to this man (in an agreement to not harm others) as was the custom and so had no choice. There are many things we can put up with according to local cultures.  But we must be aware of where that line ends and needs to end.

  11. Thank you, Teri. I am especially interested in your comments on the name “Nabal”. What a name to be given!!

    I’d just like to clarify, again, that I’m not encouraging divorce. I wouldn’t want anyone to leave a marriage because they were receiving harm on some level: this could be said of all of us in sinful relationships with others. If a man is violent, I think it’s grounds for separation, prayer and hoped-for reconciliation rather than for divorce. I think the Bible allows that divorce is appropriate when the marriage is ended by the other partner (through divorce and (or?) desertion) or in cases of adultery.

    “No one in Christ is ever obligated on a fleshly level to yield to what produces mayhem, sin or wounds others.  God’s truths only wound sin and the sinful nature, not people’s hearts, lives, or inner person/soul.”

    Well, yes and no. Sometimes God calls us to suffer and die for him – to submit ourselves to “murder and mayhem” for the sake of the gospel. We’re to lay down our lives for Jesus and the kingdom. God allows and brings good out of suffering. These truths give us hope, even when faithfulness in marriage is difficult and costly. That’s why, in 1 Peter 3:1-7, Christian women married to non-Christians are called to stay faithful, love and submit to their husbands, and to trust God.

    I know these are difficult and complicated issues. I love my Christian sisters who are divorced! But this is what I think the Bible is teaching.

  12. I don’t think you need to be fearful that anyone is going to misconstrue your observations about Abigail and Nable as an approval on divorce.  Nable died and by God’s hand.  :^)

    The subject of divorce and remarriage is another ball of wax, much more convoluted than this story in history.

  13. Thanks, Teri, good to know no-one was confused.

    Online communication can be so imprecise, and I’m always so aware of how what I say can be mis-read or mis-applied!

    And I like the spelling “Nable”! smile

  14. Part of the problem with text only communication is no facial expression, or body language, hand movements (that’s big) and tone influence.  We say a lot with those things as well as our words.  Trying to narrow down our thoughts (which can have video or symbols and more) into precise words that others can understand is always a learning curve.  *o*

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