Does Proverbs 17:24 Mean That Missionaries Are Fools?

Solomon wrote that fools look to the ends of the earth. What does this mean for global missions?

“The discerning sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.” (Proverbs 17:24)

What does Proverbs 17:24 mean? Are missionaries “fools” for setting their sights on the “ends of the earth”?

The disciples of Jesus were commissioned to bear witness to Christ “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The continued mission of the church is to “bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47). We are promised that Christ has redeemed a people from throughout the world (Revelation 5:9, 7:9). And our Lord instructed us to pray for God’s kingdom to arrive globally, not just locally (Matthew 6:10). To be a biblical Christian, then, is to participate in this global plan of God.

Context, Not Contradiction

The Book of Proverbs presents us with poetic wisdom that is alive, personal, and adaptable to each circumstance of life. It does not always present inflexible, hard-and-fast laws. A good example of this is Proverbs 26:4-5, which instructs the wise reader to both “answer a fool according to his folly” and “answer not a fool according to his folly.” This apparent contradiction is resolved when one realizes that context is key—and wisdom calls for different responses according to circumstance.

In a similar way, there is a sense in which having our eyes “on the ends of the earth” is biblical, godly, and faithful to the missionary spirit of Christianity. But there is also a sense in which it can be folly. The question is: what determines which one is true for us?

Before we answer this question, however, it is important to note that the reuse of a phrase like “ends of the earth” does not necessarily carry the same meaning when it is employed by Solomon as when Luke appropriates it in the Book of Acts a millennium later. Clearly, focusing on the ends of the earth means something different for a faithful missionary than it does for the proverbial fool.

Spheres of Influence

A statement made by the Apostle Paul helps us determine whether our global mindset is godly or misguided: “But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you” (2 Corinthians 10:13). Paul is contrasting his ministry with that of the self-styled “super-apostles,” who made great boasts of their widescale impact. Unlike these prototypical celebrity preachers, Paul knew he could only claim credit for fruit in those places he had actually visited and ministered. (Of course, he gave God ultimate credit, and he was speaking from a human standpoint to make a point—see 2 Corinthians 11:1). Corinth was near to Paul’s heart after his 18 months spent there in evangelism and tentmaking (cf. Acts 18).

Paul had a realistic assessment of the limits of his sphere of influence, and of his human limitations in general. This idea is only one facet of a biblical theology of stewardship. God entrusts us with small things before we are given greater responsibility (Matthew 25:21). We should not despise the day of small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10). We are called to glorify God in the mundane as much as in the spiritual mountaintop experiences of life (1 Corinthians 10:31).

It was because Paul knew he was only one minister with a defined area of influence that he took his gospel charge so seriously. Only once he completed his ministry from Jerusalem to Illyricum did he endeavor to take the gospel to the unreached, recognizing that there was a special need for him where no one else had yet laid an evangelistic foundation (Romans 15:18-21). For Paul, a heart for God’s glory among all the nations meant having a particular burden for individual towns, churches, and people. He did not remain aloof from his surroundings or comfort himself with pretensions of global influence, despite the impact his writing would have through the ages. He wasn’t afraid to be present.

Being Everywhere But Here

How, then, are we to understand the sense of our text in Proverbs? The Pulpit Commentary offers this comment: “A fool has no one definite object in view; he pursues a hundred different things, as they happen to come in his way, but misses the most important quest of all and fritters away the powers which might have aided him to obtain wisdom.”

To reverse Jim Elliot’s maxim (“Wherever you are, be all there”), the fool is everywhere but where he is. His thoughts and affections flitter to and fro, his feet firmly planted in mid-air. Unlike David, who prayed, “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (Psalm 131:1), the fool set his sights on things that do not pertain to him and neglects the duties nearest him.

There is a vital lesson in this text for those engaged in missions on any level, whether as goers or senders. We are often told that every Christian is to be a “world Christian,” yet if this mindset is not held in balance with our responsibility to steward our area of influence, we can easily replace normal Christian duty with far-flung aspiration. Like the hypocritical Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we may find ourselves crossing land and sea to make a single convert only to make him twice as much a son of hell as we are (Matthew 23:15).

We can go on short-term missions trips but neglect our own lost family members. We can give generously to the poor but fail to disciple our own children. We can enlist as missionaries but failed to maintain daily communion with God. As wise men through the years have noted, everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to do the dishes. And as it so happens, in God’s economy, world change only comes through lots of ordinary believers doing the proverbial dishes in remote places with gospel intentionality (cf. Matthew 13:31-32, 25:34-40).

A Challenge

If you consider yourself missions-minded, which sense of looking to the ends of the earth describes you? Is your passion for missions reflective of a life of deep prayer and longing for the coming of the kingdom across the world? Are you driven by a burden for the unreached and lost? Or is your desire for cross-cultural ministry more reflective of wanderlust and the oftentimes carnal thrill of adventure? Have you been faithful with the daily, ordinary duties of the Christian life such that God is now leading you to invest in ministry abroad, or are you pursuing global missions out of a desire to escape the monotony of your daily life?

The Great Commission still demands Christians with a global mindset who aren’t afraid to pioneer on the fringes of Christ’s kingdom. We should ask for the nations (Psalm 2:8) because Jesus rules the planet (Matthew 28:18). But we cannot do this foolishly. Too many of us are afraid to simply be present. Let us pursue maturity, submitting to local church leaders and proving ourselves in local ministry before seeking to broaden our sphere of influence. And may the Lord grant that our reach in ministry would never outgrow our faithfulness to him.

Are missionaries fools for setting their sights on the ends of the earth? Hardly. Our Lord dares us to pray and labor for the day that the gospel saturates the earth (Habakkuk 2:14). But we become fools when our high ambitions rob our attention from our ordinary, daily callings. If we are to be fools, let us be fools for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s—not the worldly sort of fool.