Check out this Ecclesiastes 10 Commentary!
So, in chapters 10 and 11 of this book, the Preacher is going to give us wise counsel on wisdom and folly, rulers, the unpredictability of life, speech, business, and your perspective on life.
So, in chapter 10 verses 1 through 3, the Preacher begins by contrasting wisdom and folly…
Wisdom and Folly
KJV Ecclesiastes 10:1 Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary [perfume] to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for [is weightier than] wisdom and honour.
So, what’s the relation between dead flies in perfume and folly in a wise man?
Well, think about perfume. It smells nice. That’s why it exists. That’s why people make it and buy it. It smells good.
And then think about dead flies. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever smelled the smell of dead flies. But I’ve heard it’s a pretty awful smell. And yet, flies are so small. How could something so small invade something that smells so good and exists solely to smell good and turn it into something that smells awful? The flies utterly ruin the perfume!
That’s exactly what happens when foolishness enters into a man who’s known for his wisdom and honor. It only takes a little foolishness. His reputation may be impeccable. But just let a little foolishness enter him and be displayed by him – and all of a sudden, what he was renowned for is ruined.
The discussion of wise men and fools continues in verse 2…
2 A wise man’s heart [source of direction/guidance] is at his right hand [leads him to the right – a place of protection]; but a fool’s heart at his [leads him to the] left [no such protection, he’s vulnerable].
There’s no doubt that the heart leads the body. Your desires and values and such lead the path you take in life. And, for a wise man, his desires and values lead him into safe places. Whereas the fool’s heart leads him to many vulnerable and dangerous places.
And it’s not difficult to spot a fool, is it? That’s what verse 3 tells us…
3 Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith [by demonstration] to every one that he is a fool.
So, a fool cannot hide his nature. Even when he walks around it can be apparent that he lacks wisdom. It’s as if he’s literally telling people that he’s a fool – by the way he conducts himself.
It’s kind of a humorous picture – a guy walking around telling everyone that he’s a fool. But considering the dangers of foolishness, it really is tragic.
Now, in verses 4 through 7 the Preacher moves from considering wise men and fools to considering rulers…
4 If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place [don’t immediately leave your position]; for yielding [composure/a calm response] pacifieth great offences.
So, first of all, regarding rulers and those in authority, don’t lose your cool if a ruler’s spirit or temper rises against you. I think that’s what the admonition to not “leave” your “place” is saying. So, don’t get terrified and lose your cool, but rather yield to him! If you back down and yet remain in the presence of this person, even if you really offended and angered the man, your staying and yielding will pacify him. Fleeing is the only other option – and the Preacher does not advise you to do that.
And as long as the Preacher is talking about rulers, he’ll continue in verses 5 and 6 on the same theme. But this time he wants to tell us about wisdom and folly – again – but specifically as it applies to rulers…
5 ¶ There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler [ruler’s make]:
So, whatever is to come is viewed by the Preacher as evil. It’s an error – something that shouldn’t happen. And it has something to do with rulers. So, what is it?…
6 Folly is set in great dignity [many exalted places/many positions of authority], and the rich sit in low place [humble places/lowly positions]. 7 I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.
So, foolishness is in many positions of authority. The rich sit in lowly positions. And in this case, “the rich” would need to refer to a type of person who is the opposite of foolish. He’s rich in this case because he’s not a fool and he’s living wisely and such.
And in verse 7, seeing servants where princes ought to be and vice versa is seen as an evil error. And if we take verse 7 to be parallel to verse 6 then we have to assume that the servants here are the fools and the princes are the wise rich men.
When fools are exalted and wise men are humiliated – this is an evil error in the Preacher’s mind.
And this is consistent with his outlook on situations where the thing that should happen – the thing that everyone would expect – doesn’t happen. It’s like when both evil and good men die with no distinction. We’d expect that good men will live forever – or at least a long time – and that evil men would die early. But that’s not the way it works in this sin-cursed world. And the Preacher says that this kind of reversal of the way things ought to be is evil.
And so next in verses 8 through 11 the Preacher goes from the unpredictable in regard to rulers – to the unpredictable aspects of life in general. Sometimes those rulers who should be ruling aren’t. Sometimes those who shouldn’t be ruling are. And sometimes – verses 8 and 9 …
Unpredictability of Life
8 He that diggeth a pit shall [or may] fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge [a wall], a serpent shall [or, may] bite him. 9 Whoso removeth [quaries] stones shall [or, may] be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood [splits logs] shall [or, may] be endangered thereby.
Let me just point out that we have four verbs in these two verses, and the KJV translates them as “shall”. And that gives us the idea that this will certainly happen at some point in the future. But verbs in Hebrew are a little different than in English. Hebrew can leave a little more uncertainty as to whether a verb ought to be indicative (“shall”) or what grammarians call “modal” (“may” or “might”). And this is what we ran into last lesson where I was asked why I interpreted the verb “delivered” in chapter 9 as “could have delivered”. It’s the same issue here. In Hebrew, sometimes verbs can be either indicative in English or modal. If it’s indicative then it’s stated as fact. If it’s modal, then it’s less certain and more conditional. And what happens for us as interpreters is that we need to make a decision between one or the other possibilities. And context is probably the most helpful in determining how to translate the verb.
And in this case, what is the context? Someone digging a pit and falling into it. Someone breaking through a wall and a snake biting him. Someone quarrying stones and being hurt in the process. And someone chopping wood and being endangered by the process.
So, let me ask – does the one always involve the other? Does digging a pit always eventuate in falling into it? No. It’s potential. It’s a possibility. Someone MAY fall into it. Does breaking through a wall ALWAYS eventuate in a snake biting you? No. It MAY happen. But it doesn’t always happen. And on and on. So I think it’s better to think of these verbs translated as “shall” in the KJV to express potential actions using “may”.
But, getting beyond grammar, here’s the point of the Preacher. Just like there are uncertainties in the arena of who’s ruling in a society – so too is there uncertainty in everyday life.
Digging pits, breaking down walls, quarrying stones, and chopping down trees – all of these things take a lot of effort. They’re not passive events. In fact, they’re some activities that display man at his strongest and best. But even at his strongest and best – mankind is hopelessly at the whim of the unpredictability of life.
Next, in verses 10 and 11 the Preacher tells us about the profitability or benefit of wisdom, but also even its ultimate uselessness when faced with the unpredictability of life…
10 If the iron [axe head] be blunt, and he do not whet [sharpen] the edge, then must he put to [exert] more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct [give success]. 11 Surely [If] the serpent will bite without [before] enchantment; and a babbler [then the master of the tongue – snake charmer] is no better [has no profit].
So, if your axe head is blunt then you’ll need to exert more strength to cut down a tree or split wood. Or you could be wise about it and sharpen the axe. That would be wise and by that wisdom you would gain some profit and benefit. That’s the point of verse 10.
But unfortunately, life with its unpredictability sometimes nullifies the benefits of wisdom. That’s where the snake charmer – the master of the tongue, literally – in verse 11 comes in. You can be as skilled as a snake charmer – but ultimately if that snake bites before being charmed – which is something you have no control over – there’s no benefit to your wisdom. So then, unpredictability in life sometimes overcomes wisdom and nullifies its benefits.
Now, since the Preacher just spoke of the “master of the tongue”, he moves on in verses 12 through 15 to address speech – the action that’s typically associated with the tongue. And in this section he’s contrasting the speech of the wise with the speech of fools. To start, the Preacher points to the effect that the speech of the wise and the fool has on themselves…
Contrasting Speech of the Wise and Fools
12 [And speaking of the tongue…] The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself.
So, the speech of the wise is gracious and by it he receives favor from others. But the speech of a fool destroys himself. That’s because the speech of a fool goes from bad to worse…
13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness.
And despite the fact that a fool’s speech is self-destructive and only gets worse as the words increase – he just doesn’t stop talking…
14 A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?
Who can tell you what shall be after you? Who can tell you what the future holds? Answer – certainly not a fool with all his words.
And the Preacher finishes the contrast between the speech of the wise and the fool in verse 15…
15 The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city.
In other words, who would want to listen to a fool? He doesn’t even know how to get to the city to work! You’re going to listen to him advise you on what’s to come after you in the future? He can’t even find his way to the city!
So, the Preacher has addressed the speech of the fool. Now, he wants to return to the matter of rulers and authorities once again. But this time – at least to start with – he contrasts the woe that foolish rulers brings to a land… with the blessing of wise rulers…
16 Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!
The idea here is that the king is childish or naïve or unprepared for his duties and is therefore irresponsible. And the princes that attend that king “eat in the morning”. Now, I don’t think this is condemning eating breakfast. Rather, if you contrast this statement with the one in the verse to follow, you see that eating in the morning is associated with gluttony and overindulgence and a lack of self-control.
So, it’s bad for a land to have foolish and self-indulgent rulers. On the other hand…
17 Blessed art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles [and therefore prepared for the job], and thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness [They’re self-controlled]!
It’s good to have rulers who are ready for the job. Rulers who are self-controlled and balanced.
Now, verses 18 and 19 seem to be unrelated to what we’ve just been talking about – the curse of self-indulgent rulers. But I think you’ll see that they contribute to what we’ve just been told…
18 By much slothfulness [extreme laziness] the building decayeth [roof-breams sink/rafters sag]; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through [house drips/roof leaks].
So, verse 18 I think is another instance of the great detriment that foolish rulers bring upon their country. And the picture is one of a house. And sometimes in Scripture a nation is described as a house – the “house of Jacob” represents Israel, for example. And here, a physical literal house is brought to our minds. If you’re lazy the roof-beams will sink. And if you’re idle the roof will leak. So, in both cases our attention is brought to the roof of the house. Laziness and idleness will eventuate in the roof sagging and leaking. And you don’t want that to happen to your country. You don’t want the very thing protecting you from the elements to be weakened so as to let through things that can make your life uncomfortable and that can harm you. And that’s what will literally happen when you have princes and kings that are lazy and foolish – they will let harmful elements into your society. And it won’t be good for anyone.
And then verse 19 I think is the way that these rulers tend to think and then express what’s on their mind…
19 A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things. [Or so the wrong kind of ruler thinks]
So, this verse can be sort of confusing. Because it seems pretty materialistic and self-indulgent. But that’s exactly the kind of mindset in rulers that the Preacher is warning about – self-indulgent ones.
So then, I think what we have in verse 19 is a quotation from foolish rulers. They’re concerned only with laughter and merriment. They think money will solve all their problems. But it won’t. And reality will hit hard for them and their country someday.
And yet, whether your authority is wise or foolish, the Preacher will recommend in verse 20 that you speak well of him…
20 Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
So, be so careful to not curse your king with your mouth, that you don’t even do it in your mind. Don’t even do it in your room. Because you never know how that curse might be conveyed to the very one that you’re cursing. So, just don’t do it, for your own good.