Chapter ten continues the thoughts of chapter nine in that it is dealing with the results of wisdom and folly. He emphasizes the superiority of wisdom over foolishness and articulates it in a series of rather loosely connected proverbs and is reminiscent of the book of Proverbs. Some of the verses are perplexing, but we will do our best to unfold their meaning. They seem to be designed to illustrate what Solomon says in verse 18 of the previous chapter: “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” What is ‘good’, and what is ‘bad’ often conditions our reactions to life and the ways it unravels for us.
Verse 1 states: “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom honor.” The proverb is simply saying that it takes less to ruin something than it does to create it. When one commits an error in life, or a more serious sin, the world is usually ready to quickly condemn that person. To regain one’s reputation, then, often takes a number of years to restore—if ever. It is the mosquitoes, ticks and flies that sometimes give us the most discomfort.
These “flies of death” (as some call them), begin to struggle and then fall into the perfume and spoil it. Solomon puts it a little differently in his Song of Songs when he writes: “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” (2:15) The little things in ones’ life do not always lead to ruin but Solomon, here, is noting the ‘tendency’ of mankind to folly and lapses of other- wise good men that are able to multiply and emerge if not checked by ones’ conscience.
One look (David and Bathsheba), one thought (“the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked”), one act (Esau and a little bowl of lentil stew) are at times just enough to ruin ones’ life. Wisdom and folly both have moral overtones. To be wise requires one to be able to discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14) and the Psalmist who writes: “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against you” Ps. 119:11). The evil comes readily while obtaining wisdom is a lifelong endeavor.
One additional caution that is not explicitly stated in the verse but may be applied to these verses is that even though a little folly outweighs wisdom, we, as the ‘non-foolish’ crowd, tend to remember the little bit of folly of someone else more than all the wisdom they may have exhibited prior to their moment of folly. Our inclination is to accuse or criticize others because it makes us feel better about ourselves since we have not “done that”. Such pride is often worse than the sin of others whom we so easily condemn. The sin of gossip, too, may be included in greater condemnation than the folly of another. To avoid these judgments requires a lifetime of reflection on sin and our experiences of life as well as an attentive study of the word of God.
Verse 2 is an odd verse that we must not apply to a political leaning. It reads: “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.” Again, the subject and context is wisdom and folly. Where does folly come from? The verse tells us that it can be traced to the heart, the unseen portion of life. The word ‘heart’ is found about forty times in the book of Ecclesiastes. It is seldom used of the material, or physical heart in our body. Its significance is of the seat of feeling and affections or the mind, or intellect. It is the determining factor in our purposes, understanding, knowledge, insight, or our intentions etc.
The essence of the heart and the problems it causes is what Solomon is contending with. Eternity is set within it (3:11); it contains evil (8:11, 9:3); it can be joyful (5:20); wise (8:5), etc. In the Bible, the hand is associated with strength (Ps. 16:8, Isaiah 41:13); Psalm 16:2 says “I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Also Psalm 121:5 “The LORD (Yahweh) watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand…” These thoughts are not intended to insult left handed people. The French and Latin word for ‘left’ or ‘left handed’ is sinistre and sinister, and refer to those who may be suspicious, wrong, wicked, evil, tending toward disaster, unfavorable, etc.,
The gospels enforce this thought with the account of the sheep and the goats. Matthew records in 25:33 that “He (Christ) will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” In verse 41 it says: ”Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ ”. An extended passage regarding the activity of the ‘fool’ is given in Proverbs chapter seven. Chapter six contains many admonitions to the foolish.
Verse 3 reflects a small part of the teaching of Proverbs. The book is designed to help the individual to conform to the Divine, or the created order of God and chapter ten of Ecclesiastes is on the order of Proverbs in that it is designed to help one distinguish between wisdom and folly. Verse 3 states: “Even as he walks along the road, the fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is.” We have all observed these individuals and they are usually easily recognizable. It is a nonverbal declaration of his moral condition. This fool considers everyone else a fool. The Septuagint says “In every way at least when a fool is on his march his heart (moral compass) will fail him so that all which he shall devise is folly.” Very well said.
In the next few verses, we observe folly in high places. How does one confront an angry, unpredictable and uncontrollable ruler? The ASV seems to say it best on verse 4: “If the ruler’s temper rises against you, do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offenses.” One need not abandon one’s standards or resign in the face of the anger of one’s superior. The wise man will remain calm in difficult situations and attempt to reconcile any differences. Proverbs says “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Rulers are expected to promote justice and peace in a society rather than abusing power and privilege by sanctioning evil officials. Note what David did when he faced the anger of Saul—he played his harp and the music calmed his troubled soul. This may be called a social tightrope.
Verses 5 to 7 give further illustrations of rulers who are trouble making fools (history is full of them). We often think that because a man is rich, he is competent to rule over others. Politics and politicians are by nature erratic. Verses 6 and 7 are opposite situations. In one instance, “Fools (folly) are set in many exalted places while rich men sit in humble places”, then, “I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land” (verses 6 and 7). This type of governing is an illustration of chaos and incompetence in a nation. These men are strangers to the wisdom of God, and without wisdom, there will be social chaos.
The next few verses, 10-15, advise caution in the area of common sense or, the opposite, nonsense. Again, they have a pattern much like the Proverbs and involve subjects such as planning ahead, work, and speech. Wisdom and foolishness are involved in these verses. Verses 12-15 give us a portrait of a fool. The word ‘fool’ or its derivatives (foolish, foolishness, etc), are mentioned some 25 times in the book.
The verses do not require very much explanation because what they are saying is quite obvious. Noting the expressions “may be” ‘bitten by a snake’, ‘ injured’, or ‘endangered’ are precautionary words. It is like warning someone that ‘if you drive too fast, you may have a wreck’. We all understand these cautions. If one uses a dull ax, it takes more strength. Those who can make the correction and don’t, are deemed foolish, or unwise. These are everyday admonitions that may even appear to be out of place in the overall context of the book. Nevertheless, they are all just a common sense approach to life that ought to be applied to all of the previous chapters. I read a sign once that emphasized this. It simply read: “THIMK”. It was a subtle caution by its misspelling. I do not believe that we should be looking for “deeper” meanings in these verses.
Verses 12-20 illustrate the normal and personal interactions we have with people in everyday life. The theme, again, is why it is better to be a wise man than a fool and shows that wisdom is better than folly. Words are an expression of what is inside an individual. Christ tells us that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:24b). And in Proverbs 18:21 is this warning: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it (life) will eat its fruit.” The wise man knows how to be gracious with his words and they include charm and kindness, and at the bottom is a life of humility.
The fool, on the other hand, reveals himself to be the exact opposite. It reads: “But (a contrast) a fool is consumed by his own lips”. Another rendering is “but the lips of a fool will destroy him”. In verse 3, we laughed at the fool. Here, we observe his tragic and perilous side of him. He refuses to begin with God. The book of James has a great deal to say about the tongue and indicates that it is the acid test of wisdom and godliness (James 3:1-12).
Verse 13: “At the beginning, his words are folly (moral); at the end they are wicked madness—(mental).” “Madness” implies so great a departure from wisdom, that the mind, without any control, rushes on with a blind fury. The New Testament word is “mania”, maniac. (Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies page 262). This is strong language and appears to be progressive in the lives of fools. Job 5:3 states: “I myself have seen a fool taking root, but suddenly his house was cursed.” Here is the progression of a fool. A perfect example of this is Hitler—the ultimate fool, steeped in the occult and thoroughly wicked.
The following verse tells us that “the fool multiplies words.” Multiplication is stacked up addition which means that his prattle is incessant, off the top of his head, and argumentative; it has no basis in truth, logic, or wisdom. The end result is an enigma that no one can comprehend. What trouble will he ultimately cause? His inner character is dangerous and his posture is one of arrogance.
Verse 15 seems to indicate that the fool works hard at his foolishness, and, perhaps seeing no real progress or gratification, gets weary of worthless effort. His labor and toil are wearisome and painful and he ends up in dislike and disgust. Perhaps that result is the only thing that compels him to think and review his life. He gets to the point of not knowing where he is and “gets lost on an elevator”. We tend to roll our eyes and heave a sigh–hopefully, of pity—for the fool. Our modern version of this is that “he doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain.”
In verses 16-20, Solomon works some more on rulers. How are they to avoid foolish decisions? “Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose Princes feast in the morning.” The feasting in the morning indicates a ruler without dignity or wisdom. He is also apparently lazy and surrounded by decadence. The feasting also includes drinking which indicates additional irresponsibility. The servant may have been an underling (secretary) to a king, but the word also connotes a youth who does not have wisdom or experience to keep control of his kingdom.
This chapter ends with some shrewd insights concerning rulers. Verses 4-7 accent a rather negative view of rulers. The “woe” of verse 16 changes to “blessed” in verse 17. The wise man cares much about the way his country is governed, and about the way he is to rule himself and his affairs in a world that is described in the remaining verses 18-20. The contrast between verses 16 and 17 are striking. An illustration of the “land whose king was a servant” is given in I Kings 12:1-15 when Rehoboam followed Solomon as king of Israel and made his disastrous decision to follow the advice of “the young men who grew up with him”. The kingdom was irreparably split because of a fool’s decision.
With such a defective leadership, there is most often a body of dignitaries who are given over to self- serving and self-gratification, feasting during the day while ignoring their responsibilities to the citizens they purportedly rule over. The consequences are disastrous and the government resembles the retinue of a boxer approaching the ring—all hangers-on, parasites and essentially worthless.
In verse 17, the contrast is not so much the difference between young and old but between wisdom and foolishness. There are other issues also, such as self-control, laziness, indulgence and arrogance. Solomon was concerned with just such an outcome in chapter 2:18-19 where he laments: “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.” How prophetic.
The world is demanding. Verse 18 asks a question concerning laziness that would apply to much more than a house with a leaky or sagging roof. All of life demands effort—physically, mentally, socially, spiritually, economically, politically—and on and on. Without, usually valiant effort, all these things decay and the details of life become a worthless liability, for the individual and the nation. The word “leak” could be better translated “collapse” which is more in line with the thought of the verse. My observation has been that if one owns a house, everywhere you look there is something to repair. Such is life. [JIV Editor’s Note: Even the best of homes have people on staff to keep it pristine and repaired]
Verse 19 does not reflect the “drunkenness” of verse 17. This verse expresses the joyous results of a life lived in wisdom. It is a difficult verse but appears to reflect the contrasts in the chapter as a whole. Money is never to be despised because it is a neutral substance. Solomon mentions it in 2:8 noting that he “had a lot of it”; 5:10 where he admits that it did not satisfy; 7:12 where, for him, it was a shelter, or protection. Here it could be regarded as a necessity. I Timothy tells us that “money is the root of all kinds of evil”, not evil in and of itself.
The reference to the “feast made for laughter” and the “wine that makes merry” does not have the context of the prior verses (15-17). Life is to be enjoyed and pleasing “under the sun”. A merry life and laughter are not illegitimate pleasures, however, all things must be appropriate to true spirituality.
Verse 20 is a further discussion of the situations and dangers of life spoken of earlier in the chapter (8-11) digging pits, breaking down walls, quarrying stones, splitting logs and chopping wood. There is also danger in politics and the offending of those over you. Wisdom is still the solution and difference between success or failure. If it is an afterthought, one will ordinarily fail and pay a price. It does no good to lock the barn door after the horse has escaped.
Solomon is urging discretion when speaking of the ruling powers. Life, at times, becomes a social tight rope when one begins maneuvering through the problems of government and society. What does one say in difference circumstances when it may affect one’s future socially and politically? We are back again dealing with men in power. King David, in his discourse with the woman of Tekoah in II Samuel 14:4-20 asked “is not the hand of Joab with you in all this? The woman answered, ‘As surely as you live, my lord the king, no one can turn to the right or the left from anything my lord the king says’”.
The common expressions that “even the walls have ears” and “a little bird told me” reflect the idea of the verse. The “word on the street” was the ancient electronics of Solomon’s day. Survival, sometimes, is the task of the day. When the rumor mill is churning, a righteous life and an honest tongue, along with a daily habit of prayer, is the best protection from the king.