Ecclesiastes 10: Some Worldly Wise Advice
October 13, 2022
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Having explained how wisdom, while admirable, is not “under the sun” sufficient to provide a meaningful life, he now gives examples of wisdom’s usefulness nonetheless. There are various sayings in this chapter which—though not “under the sun” providing a way to a fully meaningful life—are still examples of savvy, common sense, practical wisdom. Better to be wise than a fool—even if in either case “under the sun” life is still meaningless.
For instance, first, he notices how even a little folly in the mist of great wisdom can ruin everything:
“As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor” (10:1).
We will have seen this pattern often enough ourselves. Some live wisely for many years, and then do something really foolish. And it seems to stain everything that was done beforehand: like a fly in ointment.
Of course, it seems as if it is hard to tell what is really wise and what is really foolish—but according to the “teacher,” actually it is more obvious than we sometimes credit. You can see it at some point in how people behave:
“The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left. Even as fools walk along the road, they lack sense and show everyone how stupid they are” (10:2-3).
Then he encourages us to stick to our duty. Perhaps a boss or a supervisor becomes frustrated with you. What to do? Ecclesiastes’ advice is to keep doing your work well:
“If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great offenses to rest” (10:4).
But now he comes back to his main theme: “under the sun,” despite this possibility for some sort of wisdom, he has seen an “evil”:
“There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves” (10:5-7).
The “evil” that he mentions is also one that we have all frequently observed. However much we try to have a “meritocracy” whereby those who are capable rise to the top, the reality is that is not always the case even in the best of social systems. This “Peter Principle” (as it used to be called) means that at least, even if not quite as true as the book The Peter Principle proposed, we can find examples of people in government or in high positions of authority who are not competent. At other times we can find people who are very gifted who do not rise to prominence at all. This of course is an “evil” for many reasons, partly because it frustrates the individuals in those situations, partly because the society that is represented by incompetent leaders is not thereby maximized.
Now he comes to the strange “Murphy’s law” (as it is sometimes called) of some of our experiences of work in our fallen world:
“Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them” (10:8-9).
It is wise to at least have in mind that what can go wrong may well actually end up going wrong, and to plan accordingly!
Then the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes shows how it is wise to realize that brute strength, or working harder, is not always the solution. We need to work smarter:
“If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success” (10:10).
The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes then observes that simple hard work does not always bring a profit as such; you need to deliver the goods that have been promised (in that case a successful snake “charming”):
“If a snake bites before it is charmed, the charmer receives no fee” (10:11).
Now he comes to words; and what he observes is that as powerful as words are, they too can be misused:
“Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips. At the beginning their words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—and fools multiply words. No one knows what is coming— who can tell someone else what will happen after them? (10:12-14).
He admits that words from the mouth of the wise are gracious. But then what about words from the mouth of a fool? He imagines the endless prattle of someone who speaks for the sake of speaking rather than for the sake of imparting knowledge or wisdom. Plus, even the wise cannot tell the future, and so human words often reach for horizons over which they have no control.
Hard work is good, but, says the “teacher,” for the fool it can bring only weariness:
“The toil of fools wearies them; they do not know the way to town” (10:15).
The reason is that the work is conducted in a way that is not wise; they cannot even find their way to town, let alone figure out how to work well or efficiently or productively!
The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes then observes what happens to a country whose leaders are irresponsible:
“Woe to the land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning. Blessed is the land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time— for strength and not for drunkenness” (10:16-17).
It is “woe” for a land if its leaders “feast in the morning.” That is, they do not work hard at their jobs but simply use their position to party. Whereas, it is a blessing for a country if their princes are abstemious with their food and drink, and therefore focus on the responsibilities of their position rather than its opportunities for selfish pleasure.
Then the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes observes the devastating effects of laziness:
“Through laziness, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks” (10:18).
We find people who complain that their house leaks or their gates are falling down. Sometimes there can be good reasons for that. But often enough, it is through a lack of attention to the problem at the right time. “A stitch in time saves nine,” as one extra-biblical saying has it. But if you “let it go,” then your rafters sag.
The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes then notices how important it is that not everything is dour or serious. There is a place for laughter and, yes, for fun.
“A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything” (10:19).
The last part of this saying has shocked people: “money is the answer for everything.” Once again, it reminds us that he is looking at life “under the sun.” And in this “under the sun” (this-world, uncertain about eternity) perspective, then his statement is surely accurate. “Follow the money,” is the cry of many an investigator. “It’s about the economy, stupid,” a saying from one political campaign. Money is often the answer.
Lastly in this chapter, the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes advises us against speaking badly of those in authority over us—even when we think we cannot be heard.
“Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say” (10:20).
It is wise advice to consider what the person you are talking about would think if they heard what you were saying—and modify what you are saying based on what you would say if they were present. For often enough, people do hear what you say about them. And they tend to take as true what they heard you said about them when they were not there than what you say about them when they are there. Therefore, be careful what you say.
All this is counsel “under the sun.” Such this-world wisdom does not provide the answer to the meaning of life. But it is certainly better than folly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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