10:1 One dead fly makes the perfumer’s ointment give off a rancid stench,
so a little folly can outweigh much wisdom.

Kaiser suggests, quite reasonably, that this provides an illustration of the principle set out in the previous verse (Eccl 9:18).

To paraphrase using a different proverb: one rotten apple spoils the whole  barrel.

A little folly can outweigh much wisdom – Similarly translated in NIV.  Bartholomew, however, says that the word translated ‘outweigh’ more often refers to ‘preciousness’ than to ‘weightiness’, and he favours that interpretation here.  The statement then becomes an ironic one.  Perhaps if we understand the sense to be ‘more costly’ then we have come close to the meaning.

‘There are endless instances of prizes forfeited and good beginning marred in a single reckless moment – not only by the irresponsible, such as Esau, but by the sorely tried, such as Moses and Aaron.’ (Kidner)

Wisdom Can Be Nullified By the Caprice of Rulers

According to Wiersbe, Ecclesiastes poses the question: ‘Is life worth living?’.  Here in this chapter we have one part of the positive response to the question.  Even though life is unpredictable and death inevitable, life is worth living, when we avoid folly and live according to the wisdom of God.

10:2 A wise person’s good sense protects him,
but a fool’s lack of sense leaves him vulnerable.

NIV, literally (and more accurately): ‘The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.’  Note the perfect antithetical parallelism.

Thus translated, this verse prompts us to reflect on the overall heart-direction of our lives.  And, if the majority are facing in one direction, how do we feel about facing in another direction?  Of swimming against the tide of public opinion?  Of risking sticking out like a sore thumb?

We may regard the rest of this chapter as an elaboration of this ‘two ways’ approach.  Such an approach is also clearly enunciated in Psa 1.  In the present context, however, it applies not only to individuals, but also to institutions and nations (Bartholomew).

As Eaton remarks, the right hand often denotes that which is strong, favourable, and protective, whereas the left hand represents disfavour.  ‘To have one’s heart in the right place is to be skilful and resourceful in one’s daily life.’

As for the fool: ‘To judge from Proverbs, his fine phrases will sound incongruous (Pr. 17:7), his tactless remarks impertinent (Pr. 18:6); and when you talk to him he is not really listening (Pr. 18:2). If he has a message for you he will get it wrong, and if he comes out with a sage remark it will misfire (Pr. 26:6 f.). You can fortunately sense his approach by the efforts of all and sundry to slip away (Pr. 17:12).’ (Kidner)

We could think of this teaching as drawing attention to what (or who) is at the centre of our lives.  What (or who) is exercising the strongest gravitational pull?  Tinker invites us to consider what would happen if the sun disappeared from the centre of our Solar System, and to compare with what happens if God does not have the central place in our thinking and in our lives.  Bartholomew suggests from the book of Proverbs that what is absent in the foolish but present in the wise is ‘the fear of the Lord’.

Paul, in Rom 12:2 asks us to consider whether we are being ‘conformed’ or ‘transformed’.  ‘Paul, in line with the Teacher, is saying that we are to have a different way of thinking and that comes by having God in your mind so that his values and purposes shape and transform us. It begins with seeing things differently with God at the centre of the solar system of our affections, attitudes and words, so that the glorious, resplendent reality which is God will exercise his gravitational pull on every piece of our lives. The consequence is that they come into their proper orbit in relation to one another and stop smashing into each other and so ruining everything. It is consciously walking through life ‘under heaven’.’ (Tinker)

‘Folly is traced to a fault in the heart, the invisible inner side of man’s life contrasted with the face (Eccl 7:3), hands (Eccl 7:26) and body (Eccl 11:10), parts of our outer visible being (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7). It includes the mind, for ‘to give the heart’ to something is to study it (Eccl 1:13, 17; 8:9, 16). The nature of the heart produces the problems the Preacher wrestles with. On the one hand ‘eternity’ is set within it; we cannot be content with the limitations of the world (Eccl 3:11); yet it is an evil (Eccl 8:11; 9:3) and defective heart (Eccl 10:2). However, God may so deal with us that the heart is occupied with joy (Eccl 5:20); the heart may be ‘put right’ (Eccl 7:3); it may be ‘wise’ (Eccl 8:5).’ (Eaton)

‘Of the two paths through life described for us in Psalm 1, he has chosen the second.’ (Provan)

Murphy notes that ‘it is clear from Qoheleth’s general critical attitude that such sayings are not to be absolutized.’

10:3 Even when a fool walks along the road he lacks sense,
and shows everyone what a fool he is.
10:4 If the anger of the ruler flares up against you, do not resign from your position,
for a calm response can undo great offenses.

Cf. 1 Pet 2:18f.

Many different conditions of the body and of the mind can be identified from a person’s gait.  ‘You can identify fools just by the way they walk down the street’ (NLT).

A fool – ‘The fool loves rowdy songs (Eccl 7:5) and noisy, shallow laughter (Eccl 7:6); he is lazy (Eccl 4:5), garrulous (Eccl 5:3; 10:12), irascible (Eccl 7:9), unreceptive to advice (Eccl 9:17), morally blind (Eccl 2:14), with a fatal malady at heart (Eccl 10:2) and disapproved by God (Eccl 5:4). He may be found in any section of society, even in the temple (Eccl 5:1) or on a throne (Eccl 4:13). ‘ (Eaton)

He lacks sense – or ‘his heart is lacking’ (Eaton).

He…shows everyone what a fool he is – He cannot conceal his foolishness.  According to some, the expression bears the meaning, ‘he calls everyone else a fool’: this is frequently an implication of not perceiving your own foolishness, even it if is not the meaning of this text.  Bartholomew thinks that the expression may be intentionally ambiguous.

Wiersbe suggests that, following the general principle laid down in v3, the idea is applied to four different kinds of ‘fool’:-

  1. the foolish ruler, vv4-7
  2. foolish workers, vv8-11
  3. foolish talkers, vv12-15
  4. foolish officers, vv16-20

If the anger of the ruler flares up against you, do not resign from your position – See, similarly, Prov 16:14.

According to Provan, ‘The launching pad for this whole section was the contrast between the wise poor man and the rich and foolish “ruler” (mošel) in Eccl 9:13–18.’  Thus, in vv4-7, we focus on the ‘ruler’.  This is a person of lower authority than the king, but powerful (and dangerous) nevertheless.

If someone in authority (whether in government, school, or home) cannot control his own temper, how can he hope to control others?  See Prov 16:32; 25:28.

But the emphasis here is not on the action of the ruler, but on the reaction of the subordinate.  If a volatile temper is the mark of foolishness, then so is the response of ‘throwing your toys out of the pram’.  Foolishness is best countered with wisdom, not with more foolishness.  See Prov 16:14; 25:15.

‘The temptation when facing hostility, the ‘anger of the ruler’, is for the believer to draw up stumps and walk away out of pique. If a decision has to be made to resign from a situation, then it is never wise to do so in a fit of temper. It is far better to allow a time of quiet reflection so that a measured and mature decision can be made. But more often than not, God simply wants us to remain calm and stay where he has placed us in life to serve him.’ (Tinker)

‘We are invited to notice is that rather absurd human phenomenon, the huff. If one can recognize its symptoms, one will be saved some self-inflicted damage—for while it may feel magnificent to ‘resign your post’ (NEB), ostensibly on principle but actually in a fit of pride, it is in fact less impressive, more immature, than it feels. To be submissive to an autocratic master is not only the believer’s duty (as the New Testament has taught us, 1 Pet. 2:18 ff.), but may also be his wisdom, since the anger that can be mollified by deference (4b) has itself the symptoms of a huff; and one person in that state is better than two.’ (Kidner)

Of course, such a impulsive flinging of one’s toys out of the pram can do one a great deal of harm.  How many have lived to regret a moment of petulance?

How tempting it is, especially within the church, where so many roles are fulfilled by volunteers, to resign too easily and too quickly!

‘Managing the manager!’

A calm response can undo great offenses – ‘Rash, defensive responses typically increase the other person’s anger and reduce the likelihood of rational solutions. In such situations, the most positive results are generally obtained through quiet and soothing words delivered in the right way and at the appropriate time.’ (Curtis)

‘A victory over ourselves is more glorious than a victory over others. (Prov. 16:32)’ (Bridges)

As Jesus would later teach, ‘Blessed are the meek’ (Mt 5:5).

Keep calm!

As Eaton observes, only v4 and v20 within this entire section contain any direct command.

10:5 I have seen another misfortune on the earth:
It is an error a ruler makes.
10:6 Fools are placed in many positions of authority,
while wealthy men sit in lowly positions.
10:7 I have seen slaves on horseback
and princes walking on foot like slaves.

If v4 has the autocratic leader in mind, then this section presents what is probably worse: the weak leader who creates organisation chaos by favouring fools above the wise.

With regard to the misplaced appointments, ‘we can make our own guess at the intrigues, threats, flatteries and bribes that paved the way for them’ (Kidner)

‘It’s chaos here!’  We can easily think of our own examples of situations in which the usual order of things is turned upside down.  See Prov 30:21-23.

This section addresses a situation where incompetent individuals are placed in positions of authority.

An error a ruler makes – In many cultures, those in power are idolised as demi-gods.  But we – and they – must acknowledge their fallibility.

The ‘error’ here is probably inadvertent, rather than deliberate (Bartholomew).  It is due to incompetence, rather than malice.

Wealthy men sit in lowly positions – What is important here is not their bank balance, but their status.

‘This abhorrence of unsuitable people in power is consistent with OT sociology; actually, the scenario is a sign of the Lord’s profound judgment against his people (Isa. 3:4–5). Despicable Haman’s experience is a most graphic depiction of this injustice, where King Ahasuerus promoted the fool who expected to ride a horse with pomp (Esth. 3:1; 6:7–11).’ (Fredericks)

‘Qoheleth wants important positions in government to be filled by capable and competent people, irrespective of considerations such as social status or wealth. His complaint has to do with competent people being moved aside in favor of inept and inexperienced people who happen to have the right political or family connections.’ (Curtis)

The way of wisdom is given in Prov 11:29b; 19:10.

Recruitment and selection!

Slaves on horseback and princes walking on foot – Only the wealthy rode horses.  The prevailing social order is recognised, and not challenged.  But its weaknesses and pitfalls are noted.  Here is a picture of a society that has been turned upside-down.

These examples ‘reflect the tangled politics and sociological conditions that can produce the situations that Qoheleth envisions.’ (Murphy)

‘It was a societal reality in the ancient Near East, however (as in many societies since), that those found at the royal court, and therefore the sort of “wise men” who are here under consideration, generally also possessed wealth and influence. It is interference with this general order of things to which Qohelet objects (cf. Prov. 19:10; 30:21–23): social upheaval in which those ill-equipped for government are elevated to high positions above those with wisdom and experience.’ (Provan)

‘This nightmare situation was satirised a few years ago by Mike Judge (creator of ‘King of the Hill’) in the science fiction comedy film, ‘Idiocracy’. The film tells the story of two ordinary people from the present who take part in a top-secret military hibernation experiment, only to wake up 500 years in the future in a dystopian society full of extremely stupid people. Advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism have run rampant and dysgenic pressure has resulted in a uniformly dumbed-down society devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights. This is an upside-down society where the crass and debased are considered ‘cool’ and valuable, while the refined and noble, characterising all truly civilised societies, are mocked and attacked.’ (Tinker)

Wisdom is Needed to Avert Dangers in Everyday Life

10:8 One who digs a pit may fall into it,
and one who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
10:9 One who quarries stones may be injured by them;
one who splits logs may be endangered by them.
10:10 If an iron axhead is blunt and a workman does not sharpen its edge,
he must exert a great deal of effort;
so wisdom has the advantage of giving success.
10:11 If the snake should bite before it is charmed,
the snake charmer is in trouble.

Eaton thinks that this group of proverbs might deal with some of the problems that arise out of ‘the errors of rulers’.  This strike us as a tenuous connection.

One who digs a pit may fall into it – This may be understood in either of two ways:-

(a) If we assume that the digging of the pit is an innocent activity, then the verse is a warning about unforeseen accidents.  In various ways, we can become our own worst enemies.

‘Here an innocent person is simply engaged in his occupation, and he is accidentally injured. This is the
first of four illustrations of people who are simply doing their jobs and who fall prey to the dangers that are inherent in their occupations. Their injuries are simply accidental.’ (Longman)

Indeed, Kaiser thinks that all these proverbs have the same essential message: ‘Wise men, unlike fools, take into their calculations the possible danger, and then they guard against it.’  For, in the words of v14, ‘No-one knows what will happen.’

Curtis, however, thinks that the proverbs in v8-9 more generally ’emphasize the risk attached to many everyday activities. Accidents happen and unexpected things occur as people engage in ordinary activities of life, and wisdom cannot totally prevent such things from occurring. It does, though, compel a person to carefully evaluate risks and potential benefits before undertaking a task and also equips people to engage in activities wisely and carefully. Wisdom, while reducing the likelihood of accidents, does not totally eliminate the risks of living in the world.’

Fredericks thinks that ‘the dangers of careless labour (vv. 8–11) are more than instructions for common labourers who pursue these skills or trades (pit digger, renovator, quarry worker, charmer); they are images for the court staff who should not be careless in their conduct before an unwise king (vv. 4–7).’

‘To describe the import of these verses simply as uncertainties or anomalies of life would be missing the point of this whole unit. These images convey a moral responsibility to be careful and vigilant if one wishes to take advantage of wisdom and be successful. In this sense, these images are double entendre notes. They serve a rhetorical purpose as very practical examples, nearly parables, of how to stand before the king, comparable to Christ’s parable in Matt. 7:24 about building on rock rather than sand.’ (Fredericks)  Cf. Prov 27:12.

Wiersbe agrees that the point is not simply that ‘every job has its hazards’, but that the way of wisdom is to take proper precautions before embarking on any work.

(b) If we assume that the digging of the pit is a malicious activity, then the verse becomes an example of retribution.  We talk today about ‘digging a hole for yourself,’ and ‘hoisted on his own petard’.  We note that, in the end, ‘crime doesn’t pay’.  If the pit has been dug for hunting, then the picture is of the hunter get caught in his own trap.

Kidner thinks that ‘Qoheleth drops a hint of a parable by talking of a pit and of a serpent; for the pit that traps its maker was a proverbial picture of poetic justice, and the unnoticed serpent was the very image of lurking retribution.’

‘The maxim about digging a pit appears frequently elsewhere (Prov 26:27; Pss 7:16; 9:16–17; 35:7–8; 57:7; Sir 27:26). It is the parade example of the act-consequence view of retribution advocated by K. Koch: the evil-doer will/should fall by the very evil that is perpetrated; wrongdoing is essentially corruptive for the wrong-doer, because it comes back upon him.’ (Murphy)

Bartholomew also inclines to this second view.

One who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake – Snakes would often hide in crevices in the masonry.

As Eaton remarks in relation to this pair of proverbs, ‘vindictiveness has its own built-in penalties…Thus was Haman hanged on his own gallows (Esth. 7:9f.)’

Bartholomew, understanding this proverb to refer to the malicious act of breaking and entering, agrees that it continues the idea of retribution that he also finds in the previous proverb.

‘However, (writes Murphy) ‘it should be emphasized that there is no reason to interpret v 10 as digging a hole precisely for another to fall into (pace J. Crenshaw). What Qoheleth has in mind is an accident: one may fall into a hole that one has dug. Similarly, it is possible to be bitten by a snake while tearing down a wall. These sayings illustrate the uncertainty and the unexpected in life’s affairs. There is always the possibility of an accident, even in the most pedestrian activity.’

Enns, too regards the breaking down of the wall as a normal activity (knocking it down in order to repair it), and therefore the idea is of an accident befalling someone who is doing nothing wrong.

The next two examples emphasise that ‘everyday activities can have unforeseen results: the potential for danger is present while quarrying rock or chopping wood (cf. Deut 19:5).’ (Murphy)

One who quarries stones may be injured by them; one who splits logs may be endangered by them – Here is one of the harsh facts of life: even setting aside the (malicious?) activities of the previous verse, everyday working life still has its inherent dangers.

Because everyday life is unpredictable (an ‘enigma’ – Bartholomew) we must attend to health and safety in the workplace(!) and to risk assessment(!)

If an iron axhead is blunt and a workman does not sharpen its edge, he must exert a great deal of effort – ‘A wise man prepares his tools. Thoughtfulness brings success more than brute force.’

As Murphy says, the lesson here is: ‘Instead of increasing one’s efforts, one should be wise enough to sharpen the instrument.’

Bartholomew remarks on the practical dilemma presented by comparing v9 with v10.  If I sharpen my ax, I increase the risk of injury (v9); if don’t keep it sharp, I make the task harder for myself (v10).  The way of wisdom admits no easy answers!

Provan thinks that the ‘blunt axhead’ is a metaphor for the wise person who is not enjoying much success.

Wlson: ‘It is good to work smartly (10:10). We see in this proverb a little Solomonic understatement. That boy is trying to chop down a tree with a baseball bat. If a man stopped to sharpen the axe, he would get through the cord of wood a little faster. If he undertook a little maintenance, the car would run longer. If he thought ahead, he would not be surprised by inscrutable disasters and problems as often.’

Wright suggests the following more contemporary equivalents: ‘Sharpen your knife before carving the chicken. Or, Don’t blame the class for not listening if you haven’t sharpened your wits with proper preparation.’

Tidball: ‘People want to lead churches or evangelize the world without training first. They want to go and
live overseas without learning the language. They want to get married and have a family without saving up.’ (That’s Just the Way It Is: A Realistic View of Life from the Book of Ecclesiastes)

Don’t waste effort!  look after your tools!

So wisdom has the advantage of giving success – This sums up the entire thrust of the section.

If the snake should bite before it is charmed, the snake charmer is in trouble – or, receives ‘no profit’ (NIV).  He wanted to quickly collect his money and move on.  But due to his carelessness and impatience he has not only put his own life in danger, but he is unable to collect any money from his spectators, who will only laugh at him.  As another proverb puts it, this is to bolt the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Snake charming is an esoteric skill, but if not exercised in a timely manner it will bring no benefit (and possibly considerable harm) to the charmer.

‘He was a fool because he rushed and acted as though the snake were charmed. He wanted to collect his money in a hurry and move to another location. The more “shows” he put on, the bigger his income. Instead, he made no money at all.’ (Wiersbe)

‘The consequences of missed opportunities can be painful and expensive, and as Fox says, “No one, not even the skilled man, can undo damage after the fact.”’ (Curtis)

Fredericks links v 11 with vv12-15, with its teaching on fools and their failure to control their tongues.  The idea is that just as a snake is dangerous if uncontrolled, so is a tongue.  See Psa 58:3b-5; Mt 12:34.

However, we are inclined to think that this proverb has a wider application.  It’s about time management; about doing things in a timely manner, before a potential danger becomes an actual problem.

‘Forward planning!’

Words and Works of Wise Men and Fools

10:12 The words of a wise person win him favor,
but the words of a fool are self-destructive.
10:13 At the beginning his words are foolish
and at the end his talk is wicked madness,
10:14 yet a fool keeps on babbling.
No one knows what will happen;
who can tell him what will happen in the future?

Sooner or later, a wisdom writer will turn to the topic of the tongue.

As Fredericks remarks, ‘tongue (v. 11), mouth (vv. 12–13) and words (vv. 12–14) are proverbial images found in Proverbs repeatedly’.  See Prov 10:21; 14:3; 15:4; 16:24; 22:11.

The words of a wise person win him favourlit. ‘are grace’ (cf. NIV: ‘gracious’).  ‘Certainly this, which includes charm as well as kindness, wins favour if anything can.’ (Kidner)

‘His words are gracious in content, winsome in spirit, affectionate in appeal, and compliant and affable in tone.’ (Kaiser)

Such words embody ‘all that is gracious or kindly (cf. Ps 45:2; Prov 22:11 where the same word is used): appropriate (Prov 15:23; 25:11), helpful (Eph 4:29; Col. 3:8), likeable (Prov 25:12, 15).’ (Eaton)

The words of a fool are self-destructive – ‘Destruction from words may come by foolish promises, getting caught as a false witness, making the wrong people angry, etc. (Prov. 10:21; 17:20; 18:6–7; 19:5, 9; Jas 3:6). Furthermore, such actions are not only harmful to oneself; they are insanely evil, even criminal at times.’ (Fredericks)

Such words ‘devour’, or ‘swallow up’ (lit.).  ‘They consume the fool’s reputation (v. 3), his character (Jas 3:6), his impact for good (Eph. 4:29), and finally the man himself (Matt. 12:36f.).’ (Eaton)

At the beginning his words are foolish and at the end his talk is wicked madness – As Bartholomew remarks, folly is not static: it gets worse and worse.  What begins as foolishness ends up as madness.

‘At the heart of human existence there is a “madness” (Eccl 10:13) that leads us to value what we should not and to despise what is truly valuable. The human tragedy is that we are incapable even of enlightened self-interest, much less the disinterested love of God or neighbor. “Even the stork in the heavens knows its times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their coming” (NRSV); but human beings are, apparently, too stupid to know when the time has come to repent of idolatry, with all the damage it brings to self and society (Jer. 8:7). “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib” (NRSV), but Israel in her perversity does not know the living God (Isa. 1:3).’ (Provan)

A fool keeps on babbling – ‘There are times to keep quiet (Eccl 3:7), times to listen (Eccl 5:1–7; 7:5; 9:17). However, the fool chatters on and on about nothing.’ (Fredericks)

Some people are self-proclaimed experts on everything.  And phone-in show on the radio will demonstrate the truth of this.

No one knows what will happen – ‘Only fools talk about what is going to happen in the future, since no one can know the future (Eccl 3:22; 6:12; 8:7). James talks about the folly of predicting the future given our transitory, fleeting lives (Eccl 4:13–16; also Eccl 1:26).’ (Fredericks)

One error of the fool is to imagine that he is in control of the future.  In fact, he cannot even find his way to the nearest town (v15)!

Mark you, it is not only the fool who cannot predict the future: neither can the wise person.  Although the previous verses have warned about the consequences of foolish actions, no-one knows with any certainty whether these consequences will follow.

Foolish talk is

(a) destructive, v12 – destructive of others (James 3:5-8), certainly, and ultimately self-destructive (Prov 13:3);

(b) irrational, v13 – what is said doesn’t make sense: the longer the fool talk, the more nonsense he speaks.

(c) uncontrolled, v14a – ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (see Prov 10:19; James 3:1f; Mt 5:37);

(d) boastful, v14b,15 – speaking boldly and acting presumptuously about a future they know little about and have little control over (see Eccl 3:22; 6:12; 8:7; 9:12; Prov 27:1; James 4:14-17).  In fact, the fool ‘does not even know the way to the city’.

10:15 The toil of a stupid fool wears him out,
because he does not even know the way to the city.

The toil of a stupid fool wears him out – Fredericks thinks that it is that talk of the fool that is meant here, since that is the only toil a fool knows.

Eaton, however, thinks that the preacher has turned his attention from words to deeds.  The fool finds any kind of toil wearisome.

‘We are reminded here of passages like Ecclesiastes 2:10–24, with its extended reflections on “toil” (ʿamal, also in Eccl 3:13; 4:4, 6, 8, 9; 5:15, 18, 19; 6:7, 8:15; 9:9) as something experienced by many as profitless, yet capable of being engaged in with joy and fulfillment when a correct (wise) view is taken of the world.’ (Provan)

He does not even know the way to the city – which is, perhaps, his place of work.  The fool knows all about the future (he thinks), whereas actually he can’t even give you directions to the nearest town.

Fredericks says that the meaning is ambiguous, and could indicate knowing where to go, how to get there, when to go, of why he goes.  Fredericks inclines to the view that the fool does not even know that he should go to the city – which in times of war or famine could be a matter of life or death.

Garrett thinks that this verse should be translated: ‘“The effort of fools wearies him who does not know the way to town.” In other words, the advice of foolish counselors is so bad that they cannot even give simple directions. Their long-winded explanations only wear out the confused traveler. How much worse to take their counsel in affairs of state.’

Whatever the precise meaning of this phrase, it is clear that the fool, however clever he thinks himself to be, cannot be bothered to find out the right way to do even simple tasks.  Here is a ‘moral and intellectual laziness which leads to a stumbling (Eccle 2:14), fumbling (Eccle 10:2), crumbling (Eccle 10:18) life.’ (Eaton)

‘The picture begins to emerge of a man who makes things needlessly difficult for himself by his stupidity.’ (Kidner)

‘If he doesn’t know how to get from his place to town (10:15b), how can he be trusted when he pontificates on such topics as the hereafter?’ (Kaiser)

‘The wise person may not be able to map the universe, but he at least grasps sufficient geography for the task of living everyday life. He “knows the way to town” (cf. v. 15).’ (Provan)  See Psa 5:8; 25:9; 86:11; Prov 9:6; Jn 14:6; Acts 9:1f.

The Problem with Foolish Rulers

10:16 Woe to you, O land, when your king is childish,
and your princes feast in the morning!
10:17 Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobility,
and your princes feast at the proper time—with self-control and not in drunkenness.

For Fredericks, these verses confirm that Qoheleth’s primary audience was one of government officials.

‘Verses 16 and 17 remind us of the influence that seeps down from the men at the top, to set the tone of a whole community.’ (Kidner)

‘The point of both verses is driven home by the prophecy of social breakdown in Isaiah 3:1–5.’ (Kidner)

‘It is the pragmatics of administration that Qoheleth speaks to here, not a sociological theorem of equality. The latter he has spoken to already in Eccl 4:13. This is not elitism; it is simply the result of a well-functioning society’ (Fredericks)

Wiersbe sees in vv 16-20 a picture of foolish officers.  He notes their:-

  1. indulgence, v16f  – eating, drinking and partying instead of working and ruling;
  2. incompetence, v18 – their laziness leads to deterioration of both the organisation and its building (Prov 18:9);
  3. indifference, v19 – indifferent towards their own responsibilities and the needs of the people (see 1 Tim 6:10);
  4. indiscretion, v20 – careless in what they say about those in authority.

Eaton agrees that we have in this pair of verses a route to national disaster (v16) and a route to national blessing (v17).

Childish – lit. ‘a lad’, which can mean either a youth (cf. 1 King 3:7) or a servant.

Your princes feast in the morning – weak leadership at the top leads to indulgence and indiscipline further down the line.  See also Prov 31:4-9; Isa 5:11-13; 21:5.

‘As for decadent courtiers (16), Israel knew them well. The prophets paint faithful pictures of their day-long carousals (Is. 5:11, 22), their pampered idleness (Am. 6:4 ff.) and their descent into stupor and filth (Is. 28:7 f.). In such situations justice and truth are the nation’s first casualties, ‘fallen in the street’ (Is. 59:14, AV).’ (Kidner)

The son of nobility – lit. ‘the son of free men’, ‘one whose position in society enables him to act with an independent spirit.’

With self-control and not in drunkenness – ‘God’s wholesome gifts are good, and their proper use delightful and perfectly sufficient.’

The contrast with v16 is between ‘a mature, bold approach to life and an immature, servile manner.’ (Eaton)

As Eaton remarks, the preacher does not teach asceticism, for he has a place for enjoying the good things of life (Eccl 9:7-10).  But self-control will prompt us to eschew personal indulgence, and with promote real happiness (blessedness) rather than the pseudo-happiness that is linked with excessive eating, drinking and partying.  And, in context, this is especially applicable to national leaders.

Curtis summarises: ‘Incompetent and corrupt politicians/officials can destroy much good, and even the wisest citizen can often do little to prevent the harm that results. The king of noble birth is one who has the training, experience, and wisdom to lead his people effectively. He chooses leaders committed to the people’s well-being, and the leaders eat and drink at the right times and in the appropriate ways. The result is a nation that is genuinely fortunate or blessed.’

‘Real leaders use their authority to build the nation, while mere officeholders use the nation to build their authority. They use public funds for their own selfish purposes, throwing parties and having a good time.’ (Wiersbe)

‘Beware of princes and presidents who like fast women and cocaine.’ (Wilson)

Wilson, Douglas . Joy at the End of the Tether: The Inscrutable Wisdom of Ecclesiastes (Kindle Locations 1285-1286). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.

‘The term “elder” (Titus 1:5ff) implies maturity and experience in the Christian life, and it is wrong for a believer to be thrust into leadership too soon (1 Tim. 3:6). Age is no guarantee of maturity (1 Cor. 3:1–4; Heb. 5:11–14), and youth sometimes outstrips its elders in spiritual zeal. Oswald Chambers said, “Spiritual maturity is not reached by the passing of the years, but by obedience to the will of God.” The important thing is maturity, not just age.’ (Wiersbe)

How many of today’s great and ‘good’ waste themselves with excess of food and drink (and other things too).  See Prov 31:4f.

10:18 Because of laziness the roof caves in,
and because of idle hands the house leaks.

Some think that the reference here is to a ‘house’ as a ‘dynasty.  So UBCS: ‘Out of context, the verse would refer to an actual physical structure. In context, one wonders whether the house is a metaphor for government that is neglected because the princes are feasting instead of governing.’

We think that this proverb is applicable to both personal and national life.

‘If attention is not paid to the everyday details of life, the results become a crippling liability.’ (Eaton)

A similar lesson is taught in Prov. 6:6–11; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30–34; 26:13–16).

Because of laziness – As Kidner remarks, nothing else is needed to bring the roof down.  Decay, if effort is not expended to detect and arrest it, will do the job.

The roof – would have been flat, and covered with lime (which was prone to crack in time) and therefore liable to leak if not kept in good repair.

As Eaton remarks, ‘The sluggishness of the fool results not in flashes of divine judgment, but in the more subtle judgment of steady decay. If attention is not paid to the everyday details of life, the results become a crippling liability.’

Curtis: ‘Failure to do required maintenance or to attend to necessary tasks can cause significant damage to an important project, a well-built structure, or a political dynasty.’

Generalising somewhat, Kidner remarks: ‘In terms of the indolent officials castigated by the prophets in the passages we have noticed, their own decadence was to spread its rottenness to the very structure that sheltered them, until it collapsed over their heads.’

‘Keep your buildings in good repair!’

10:19 Feasts are made for laughter,
and wine makes life merry,
but money is the answer for everything.

V19 is difficult to interpret.  Curtis declines to decide between competing views.  Eaton thinks, on balance, that it constitutes warning.  It describes the limitations of a life circumscribed by money and what it can provide.  This is consistent with Seow’s view that the sense is that ‘money preoccupies everyone’.

Fredericks translates v19: ‘Food is prepared for laughter, and wine makes life merry, and money afflicts everyone.’  The verse then becomes a rebuke against the abuse of food, drink, and money.  See also Isa 5:11f.

‘In recent years, various developing nations have seen how easy it is for unscrupulous leaders to steal government funds in order to build their own kingdoms. Unfortunately, it has also happened recently to some religious organizations.’ (Wiersbe)

10:20 Do not curse a king even in your thoughts,
and do not curse the rich while in your bedroom;
for a bird might report what you are thinking,
or some winged creature might repeat your words.

Do not curse a king even in your thoughts – ‘Things said in the most private and secure places often get back to the person about whom they were said—sometimes in most unusual ways—and this can create unpleasant consequences. The folly of a single rash comment can destroy much good, and the only way to be sure the words will not get back to someone is not to say the things at all.’ (Curtis)

Some winged creature might repeat your words – ‘It is often a mystery how someone knows what someone else has said. So this preposterous explanation is given playfully.’ (Fredericks)  Eaton notes that the expression ‘a little bird told me’ is common in many cultures.  Or, to put the same thought differently, ‘Walls have ears’.

Today, that ‘winged creature’ might be Twitter!

Is this gossip, or a hint at the presence of spies and informants?

‘Even if we can’t respect the person in the office, we must respect the office (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17). “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Ex. 22:28). These hirelings were certainly indiscreet when they cursed the king, for they should have known that one of their number would use this event either to intimidate his friends or to ingratiate himself with the ruler.’ (Wiersbe)

Teaching the text

Curtis writes:-

‘Wisdom has been described as “lubrication for life”; it reduces the friction people experience as they live life. Examining aspects of wisdom emphasized in the chapter—the wise use of words, patience, taking appropriate risks, diligence—and exploring ways to develop and apply these skills to life constitute important teaching points for this chapter.’

Wisdom wanted

Provan writes:-

[We live in a world] ‘in which no one ever thinks to ask whether twenty-four-hour news channels are a good thing (it is thought to be obvious that they are), a world in which it is self-evident that information technology is a more important school or college subject than philosophy, a world in which “Have you heard the latest?” is a more pressing question than “Do you know the truth?”’ (Provan)

‘We all need some larger story to inhabit, with an Author who knows the beginning and the end and who controls the plot. We all need wisdom from above and from outside us—and from before us—if we are to know who we are, what it is all about, and where we are going.’

‘We will not find this Truth by watching TV chat shows (the great symbol of the modern desire to share experiences without ever having to be committed to truth that relativizes or criticizes experience). We will not find it by listening to powerful politicians, to famous actors or performers, or to people who are both (and thus illustrate just how far what is novel has overtaken in importance what has substance). We will find it only in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, who is the touchstone of all reality and the focus of all wisdom. It is in Jesus and in the great story of human history woven around him as its center that we will find the solid rock on which to stand and against which to measure the truth of all the truth claims that people make about the world—the authority that can be trusted. It is the house built on this ancient Truth that will still be found standing at the end of time, when the waters have washed all other more modern and attractive houses away’ (cf Mt 7:24-27)

‘It is as we stand on the Rock that we will learn to recognize and embrace wisdom, wherever it is found (e.g., whether in a poor man or in another, Eccl 9:16), filtering out all the noise of the culture that distracts us and distorts our values (Eccl 9:17). It is as we stand on the Rock that we will learn to value wise words over oily words (Eccl 10:1, 12), whether they come from politicians, advertisers, or indeed preachers. It is as we stand on the Rock that we will learn those necessary skills required even to survive the autocratic and corrupt state (Eccl 10:4–11).’

Let us be very careful, then, how we live (cf Eph 5:15-17).

Concluding thoughts

These are mainly prompted by Fredericks’ discussion.

The nagging question proposed by Ecclesiastes, ‘How can we live faithfully in a world that has largely turned its back on the priorities and concerns of the kingdom of God?’

In such a fallen world, we must rely on, and work with, God general revelation (to the conscience, for example), and his common grace (restraining evil and promoting a decent society).

For, ‘praise be to God, this world continues to reflect the order of the Creator (by Christ’s upholding power, Heb. 1:3), societies must establish a minimal basis for order (if for no other reason than to sustain its leaders) and individuals must comply with the common grace of their conscience (even if reluctantly).’ (Fredericks)

Much of the instruction in this chapter focuses on the workplace, where adult spend so many of their waking hours, and where so much folly is witnessed.  A well-ordered workplace is a great blessing, and a source of satisfaction and fulfilment.  But our sense of well-being (to say nothing of the quality of our work) can be blighted by the ill-tempered, the unreasonable, the incompetent, the manipulative, and so on.  Processes of hiring and firing may pass over the most skilled and qualified, affected by favouritism, nepotism, and other forms of discrimination.  Thus reckless fools may be placed in positions far above their level of competence, and cause chaos and ill-feeling.

We may not be in a position to influence greatly the attitudes and behaviours of others.  But we may be able to learn skills of coping with them and influence the organisation as a whole for good.  We will promote and adhere to good practice in relation to hiring and firing, confidentiality, safeguarding, health and safety, reporting, delegation, and so on.  We will be alert to the dangers of gossip, bad-mouthing, eavesdropping, slander, dishonesty and cheating.  We will set a good example by avoiding careless work (cf. v8-11).

In particular, we will watch over our tongues.  ‘Those who are righteous control the tongue; fools are unable or willing to do so. In the wisdom literature, a metric instrument for gauging folly is the number of words one speaks (an ominous thought for preachers, professors and commentators). James calls the tongue a boasting, inflammatory, defiling, restless, cursing, bitter and poisonous organ (Jas 3:5–11). Indeed, who could tame that? This is precisely why Proverbs and Ecclesiastes dwell on it, and it is precisely the problem with Job’s nemeses: Zophar, Bildad and Eliphaz. The mouth not only shoots out its bitter venom to afflict others; it swallows that venom to the fool’s own destruction, eating away at his soul, infecting his heart and making his next words even more vicious. Christ says that even sophisticated, honoured people like religious leaders can be guilty of this (Matt. 12:34).’

Then there are issues around squandering and wasting an organisation’s resources.  This may be through carelessness (disposing materials that should be cleaned and re-used) or by dishonesty (cheating on the expense accounts).  ‘Christians have such a wonderful opportunity to transform their culture and society through the daily, routine activities of the marketplace.’