Proverbs 26:18-19 reads (NKJV, emphasis mine):

Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death,

Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, "I was only joking!"

Does this passage condemn jokes involving deception—April Fools' jokes, for example? Are there similar passages dealing with the concept of lies in jest?

  • the last clause is the part of the sentence "the one who deceives a neighbour then says I was only joking". These are not two distinct actions separated, but one man who is a deceiver and after being found out says he was just joking or makes an excuse to justify himself.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 14:19
  • @Michael16 That makes sense. Of course, what about Adam Clarke? He wrote about verse 19: "How many hearts have been made sad, and how many reputations have been slain, by this kind of sport! 'I designed no harm by what I said;' 'It was only in jest.' Sportive as such persons may think their conduct to be, it is as ruinous as that of the madman who shoots arrows, throws firebrands, and projects in all directions instruments of death, so that some are wounded, some burnt, and some slain." In light of this, could it apply even if "such persons may think their conduct to be" sportive?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 14:35
  • Its not about joke but about deception. You shouldn't be fixated on any particular commentary. It's not about "saying" as he mentions "I designed no harm by what I said", nothing about hurting others feelings. This guy is undermining the sin of deception trickery, treacherousness as hurting feelings by words. Simply ignore it, not all commentators are right most times. Compare translations, see notes on NET, compare more commentaries to begin your study, see word meaning etc. Don't get stumped by one comment.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 14:56

3 Answers 3


Proverbs 26:18 KJV

As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death,

Proverbs 26:19 KJV

So is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?

I'm quite sure it's condemning trickery and deception, even bullying perhaps, not jokes. If a "joke" involves trickery or deception or leads to harm then it's wicked. There are clean jokes.

Ephesians 5:3 KJV

But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;

Ephesians 5:4 KJV

Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.

Foolish talking is condemned. Jesting is also commanded against. These should not be part of a saint's character. But I gather that "jesting" and making "clean jokes" are not the same thing. I take "jesting" to mean having a habitual unsober demeanor, as well as constantly making fun/sport of things, without good reason, perhaps even of people as well as serious situations. I gather those that fit the profile of Ephesians 5:4 are habitually and publicly being an unsober and levitous person, to the point where it's a part of their character and they are known for it (rather than being known for the good characteristics of Christ).

"Let it not be once named among you" basically means nobody should be able to accuse you of it, or put the label on you.

  • Thanks for your reply! I just edited my question to clarify that I'm not asking about jokes in general but rather about jokes intended to trick people, such as April Fools' jokes.
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 18:32
  • 1
    To give a potential example of what I'm asking, I acted a few years ago on April Fools' Day like my account was hacked and sent people "suspicious" links that, if clicked, would tell them they've been hacked. I let some believe they were hacked for a little while before telling them what really happened. Would conduct like this go against this verse's teaching?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 23:17
  • Thanks for sharing. I just remarked that a good way to summarize what Proverbs 26:18-19 is teaching against is "making fun/amusement/sport of someone at their expense". That's basically what I was trying to say in my original post. If your amusement costs someone some loss or harm then it should be avoided. I'm sure your action caused some some stress/worry, and that's not good. Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 16:58

A few verses earlier is another proverb, one that mentions shooting arrows. Verse 10 reads:

"Like an archer who wounds at random is he who hires a fool or any passer-by." (NIV)

Verse 18 links this would-be-joker with a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows. He is a fool who wounds at random (at best) or a fool who sets ablaze a conflagration of destruction (at worse). It's only when the destructiveness of his words and actions are felt by others that he tries to wriggle out of his responsibility by claiming it wasn't serious; it wasn't intended; it was only a joke.

Zechariah 12:6 deals with firebrands, showing the destruction they can wreak if set to sheaves of grain or hay. Combining this with Proverbs 26:18-19, it seems clear that the person here is likened to being mad. In other words, even a fool should be able to see the danger of acting so irresponsibly and should avoid it. But a madman will only try to wriggle out of the sport he hoped to enjoy at his neighbour's expense by claiming it was "only" a joke.

The old 'joke' of pulling away a chair that a person is about to sit on is a classic example. That has been done for centuries, and everybody is supposed to laugh, and the victim is expected to take it in good part. But some people have had their coxyx damaged and have spent the rest of their lives in real pain. That could serve as an example of 'sport' that does not involve actual deception. As for sport that involves lies, well, the Bible just condemns all lies, and all liars, full stop. Unrepentant liars will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Revelation 21:8). Whether this means the likes of April Fool lies (where deception is used to trick people into thinking something ridiculous actually happened on 1st April), that is doubtful. Yet why would a Christian want to do that? It's certainly humorous to see a newspaper article that day, with photos alongside a ridiculous claim, to imply this actually happened, but nobody is going to be hurt by that. The joke is not trying to get people to do anything dangerous or that will lose them money etc. It's become a bit of a tradition in many parts of the world, just for that one day.

No, I think the proverb is warning against words and actions that go beyond foolish, to being potentially dangerous, harmful or hurtful to others. Consider the person in a crowded gathering in a large building, who shouts out "Fire!" for a joke. That person is not just a fool, he or she is culpably reprehensible before God and human courts for any stampede that results in terrified people being trampled or even killed.

That, I would suggest, is the sort of thing being condemned in Proverbs 26:18-19. It would be an example at the extreme end, but because milder examples also come into this remit, the wise person would always seek to err on the side of caution by never doing or saying anything that just might harm or deceive another. "Let your yes be yes, and your no, no. Anything beyond that is from the evil one." Jesus warned (Matthew 5:27). That was about making vows, but the principle of being open and honest, meaning what you say, holds good here.

  • Thanks for your reply. A few years ago on April Fools' Day, I acted like my Facebook account was hacked and sent people "suspicious" links that, if clicked, would tell them they've been hacked. I let some believe they were hacked for a little while before telling them what really happened. In your best judgment, would such conduct go against this verse's teaching?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 23:13
  • 1
    @The Editor I make no personal comments here, for my opinion is not worth 1% as much as your conscience is. If you remain troubled by that event, or even just wondering about it, getting on your knees before the Lord in personal prayer may result in a better grasp of the Lord's view about that particular episode. Do seek him!
    – Anne
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 8:21

The key to this proverb is the verb רָמָה (ramah) which means to "beguile, deal treacherously with" (BDB).

This proverb is not condemning harmless jokes and humor - far from it. The proverb describes a double act of deception consisting of:

  • (a) an act of deception involving "corruption" (BDB), or perhaps robbery, or even character assassination, etc.
  • (b) an attempt to hide or minimize the crime by passing it off as a joke, ie, not to be taken seriously. Such an act is both very sinful and extremely galling for the victim.

Other instances of this verb in the OT include:

  • Gen 29:25 - When morning came, there was Leah! “What have you done to me?” Jacob said to Laban. “Wasn’t it for Rachel that I served you? Why have you deceived me?”
  • Num 15:30 - But the person who sins defiantly, whether a native or foreigner, blasphemes the LORD. That person shall be cut off from among his people.
  • Josh 9:22 - Then Joshua summoned the Gibeonites and said, “Why did you deceive us by telling us you live far away from us, when in fact you live among us?
  • 1 Sam 19:17 - And Saul said to Michal, “Why did you deceive me like this? You sent my enemy away and he has escaped!” Michal replied, “He said to me, ‘Help me get away, or I will kill you!’ ”
  • 1 Sam 28:12 - But when the woman saw Samuel, she cried out in a loud voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”
  • Lam 1:19 - I called out to my lovers, but they have betrayed me. My priests and elders perished in the city while they searched for food to keep themselves alive.

The other important verb here is שָׂחַק (sachaq) = to "laugh at, usually in contempt, derision" (BDB). That is, the verb is stronger that mere joking; it conveys the idea that someone is the deliberate butt of the joke with the intention of belittling or deriding the person. That is, one is humiliated in from of others. This is sinful in itself with the associated deception.

  • 1
    Thanks for replying. Before, on an April Fools' Day, I acted like my Facebook account was hacked and sent people "suspicious" links that, if clicked, would make a message saying they've been hacked. I let some believe they were hacked for a little while before telling them what really happened. In your best judgment, would such conduct fall within the scope of this verse's teaching?
    – The Editor
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 23:14
  • 1
    @TheEditor - I think the instruction in Proverbs is about malicious intent that causes people harm or loss. You will need to make a judgement about how much loss (if any) and how much the recipients were demeaned (if at all).
    – Dottard
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 23:21

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