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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Ecclesiastes 10

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Folly and Wisdom

A. The disgrace of foolishness.

1. (Ecc 10:1) Foolishness disgraces a wise man’s honor.

Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment,
And cause it to give off a foul odor;
So does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor.

a. Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment: Solomon here followed a familiar form in stating proverbs. An obvious statement is made: that deadflies spoil a fine ointment and cause it to smell.

i. “This is a metaphorical confirmation of the truth enunciated at the end of the last chapter, ‘One sinner destroyeth much good.'” (Deane)

b. So does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor: Even as small dead flies – quite little in proportion to the whole – spoil a fine ointment, so just a little folly spoils the reputation of someone regarded as wise and honorable.

i. “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)

ii. The Preacher is beginning to direct his arguments in the intended direction. To use the metaphor of a ship, he has sailed in many different directions to show us the meaninglessness of life. Now, still out of sight of land, he begins to tack his direction towards meaning and truth. Ecclesiastes 10:1 reminds us that even small things have consequences.

2. (Ecc 10:2-3) Foolishness can’t be hidden.

A wise man’s heart is at his right hand,
But a fool’s heart at his left.
Even when a fool walks along the way,
He lacks wisdom,
And he shows everyone that he is a fool.

a. A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but a fool’s heart at his left: Since the right hand was regarded as the side of strength, skill, and favor, the wise man’s heart is known and a strength to him. This is not true of the fool, whose heart is at his left.

i. ” ‘Right’ and ‘left’ are natural symbols for the strong and good, on the one hand, and for the weak and bad, on the other hand … The Latin word sinister means ‘left.'” (Wright)

ii. “To have one’s heart at his left side is to have the ‘springs of life’ (Proverbs 4:23) located in the realm of practical and spiritual incompetence.” (Eaton)

b. He shows everyone that he is a fool: The foolish man (or woman) has a way of making their folly evident. As Jesus would later say, wisdom is justified by all her children (Luke 7:25). Wisdom and folly become obvious in life.

3. (Ecc 10:4-7) Foolishness in high places.

If the spirit of the ruler rises against you,
Do not leave your post;
For conciliation pacifies great offenses.
There is an evil I have seen under the sun,
As an error proceeding from the ruler:
Folly is set in great dignity,
While the rich sit in a lowly place.
I have seen servants on horses,
While princes walk on the ground like servants.

a. If the spirit of the ruler rises against you: The idea seems to be, “Even in a difficult situation, don’t leave your post. Be faithful to your position and you will find that conciliation pacifies great offenses.”

b. Folly is set in dignity … I have seen servants on horses: The Preacher wanted to remind us that not all is fair in this life. Foolish men are promoted or accepted to positions of great leadership. Some lowly men are unwisely exalted (servants on horses) while some noblemen are humbled (princes walk on the ground like servants).

B. Evidence of folly and wisdom.

1. (Ecc 10:8-10) Foolishness in action.

He who digs a pit will fall into it,
And whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a serpent.
He who quarries stones may be hurt by them,
And he who splits wood may be endangered by it.
If the ax is dull,
And one does not sharpen the edge,
Then he must use more strength;
But wisdom brings success.

a. He who digs a pit will fall into it: Solomon listed several examples of those who did wrong or foolish things and then suffered because of it.

i. “While spoiling his neighbour’s property, he himself may come to greater mischief.” (Clarke)

ii. Alexander Maclaren made a spiritual application of the idea, whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a serpent: “Whoso pulls down the wall of temperance, a serpent will bite him. Trembling hands, broken constitutions, ruined reputations, vanished ambitions, wasted lives, poverty, shame, and enfeebled will, death – these are the serpents that bite, in many cases, the transgressor.”

b. If the ax is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength; but wisdom brings success: The fool will continue to use a dull ax, instead of being wise and sharpening the edge. The fool doesn’t wisely consider the future, and how wise use of one’s time in the present can make for a much better future.

i. F.B. Meyer made a helpful application to the Christian worker of this by analogy: “There are times with all who work for God, when they are blunt, through much usage …. At all such times let us turn to God and say, ‘Put in more strength. Let thy power be magnified in my weakness. Give more grace, so that thy work shall not suffer’ …. Surely more work is done by a blunt edge and divine power, than by a sharp edge and little power.”

2. (Ecc 10:11-14) The babbling talk of the foolish.

A serpent may bite when it is not charmed;
The babbler is no different.
The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious,
But the lips of a fool shall swallow him up;
The words of his mouth begin with foolishness,
And the end of his talk is raving madness.
A fool also multiplies words.
No man knows what is to be;
Who can tell him what will be after him?

a. A serpent may bite when it is not charmed; the babbler is no different: As dangerous as a biting serpent is the one who talks – babbles – like a fool. Though the words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious, the lips of a fool shall swallow him up.

b. A fool also multiplies words … who can tell him what will be after him? The fool is known by his many words, and by his presumption about the future – when no man knows what is to be.

i. “The word for ‘fool’ here is sakal, which implies a dense, confused thinker.” (Deane)

ii. Previously the Preacher had confidently stated that there is nothing beyond this life, and that this life should be lived with an under the sun premise. He now casts more doubt upon that premise.

3. (Ecc 10:15) The fool at work.

The labor of fools wearies them,
For they do not even know how to go to the city!

a. The labor of fools wearies them: The fool has no desire to work; or when they do they quickly become wearied. They can’t see that it is wise to work now in order to prepare for the future.

b. They do not even know how to go to the city! The Preacher continued to subtly back away from his previous under the sun premise. The fool has no sense of direction or goal. They live their life as if it were meaningless, directionless.

i. “The phrase, ‘how to go to the city,’ seems to be a kind of proverbial comparison for anything that is very plain and conspicuous.” (Maclaren)

ii. “In a fine note of sarcasm, this proverb says that a person may be so involved in arguing about the universe that he misses what the ordinary person is concerned about, namely, finding the way home.” (Wright)

iii. “To be ever learning, never arriving, as 2 Timothy 3:7 portrays some people, is to be a trifler who contrives to get lost on even the straightest way to the city. That is folly without even the excuse of ignorance.” (Kidner)

4. (Ecc 10:16-20) How foolishness corrupts a nation.

Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,
And your princes feast in the morning!
Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles,
And your princes feast at the proper time—
For strength and not for drunkenness!
Because of laziness the building decays,
And through idleness of hands the house leaks.
A feast is made for laughter,
And wine makes merry;
But money answers everything.
Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter.

a. Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child: Solomon himself felt that he was but a child when he came to the throne of Israel; therefore he wisely asked God for the wisdom to lead a great people (1 Kings 3:7-9).

i. “A nation’s first need is a mature leader. RSV is a child refers not to age but to general maturity.” (Eaton)

b. Woe to you, O land … Blessed are you, O land: The Preacher understood that a land was blessed by good, faithful leaders, but cursed under wicked and incompetent leaders.

i. Because of laziness the building decays: “Lazy rulers bring down the great house of the nation, as a lazy householder lets the beams of his house collapse so that the roof sags and lets in the rain.” (Wright)

ii. If Ecclesiastes 10:18 pictures the fall of a nation, the following lines give the reason for fall – leaders who are foolish, selfish, and concerned only for their own pleasure and good.

iii. “They do nothing in order; turn night into day, and day into night; sleep when they should wake, and wake when they should sleep; attending more to chamberings and banquetings, than to the concerns of the state.” (Clarke)

c. A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes merry; but money answers everything: Solomon here spoke in the voice of a wicked, unwise king. Along this line, he counseled his readers to not curse the king lest they be found out.

i. “Kings have long ears, heavy hands; walls also and hedges have ears.” (Trapp)

ii. ” ‘A little bird told me’ is a proverb which appears in a variety of forms and cultures, including Aristophanes’ The Birds and the Hittite Take of Elkuhirsa.” (Eaton)

iii. The thought is suggestive. A king may hear of my wrongdoing and I may suffer because of it, even though I did not know he could learn of it. The same is true of my wrongdoing before God.

©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission
[A previous revision of this page can be found here]

Study Guide for Proverbs 1 ← Prior Book
Study Guide for Song of Songs 1 Next Book →
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