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Bible Commentaries

Mark Dunagan Commentary on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 10

Verse 1

10:1 "Dead flies make a perfumer's oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor."

'Dead flies" -"puts into a vividly unpleasant form the principle on which the previous chapter ended: that it takes far less to ruin something than to create it… .it is easier to make a stink than to create sweetness. But in this verse it is the sudden lapse or foolish impulse that is the trouble: and there are endless instances of prizes forfeited and good beginnings 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 p. 88). See Numbers 20:12.

"perfumer" -an ancient art (Exodus 30:33; 34:35).

"so" -indicating that a comparison is going to be made.

"little" -The point of the illustration is the comparative insignificance of the cause which spoils a costly substance which had been prepared with care, time and skill. A little fault or a little sin/foolishness can mar a reputation which was only acquired with tremendous effort and half a life-time. There is no such thing as a little sin (1 Corinthians 5:6; Acts 5:1ff; 2 Samuel 6:6-7). "It is a painful fact that a little folly, one foolish act, one silly manner or disposition, one hidden sin, will impair the real value of a man's wisdom and the estimation in which he was held" (P.P. Comm. 249) (Ezek. 18:24).

"weightier" -"So can a little folly make wisdom lose its worth" (NEB). A little foolishness can cancel out a great deal of wisdom. "even when a great deal of wisdom is present, things somehow get fouled up by a little folly" (Garrett p. 334). "wisdom and glory are wonderful and highly valued, but it just takes a touch of folly to spoil them" (Longman p. 239).

Points To Note:

1 This is also true in groups or congregations. One foolish member can really undo or cancel out the efforts of many. 2. A person can be extremely gifted and smart, but if they are harboring a sin in their life, then all their wisdom can become misdirected. One bad attitude, one prejudice, one area of arrogance can make us into very poor bible students.

Verse 2

10:2 "A wise man's heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man's heart directs him toward the left."

"the right" -right and left have for centuries been used as referring to good and bad. In fact we still use the expression, "my right hand man". "The heart of the wise goes in the right direction" (BAS).

Points To Note:

1 This verse immediately informs us that wisdom or folly is a heart problem. The real problem isn't a lack of education, rather, the real problem is a bad disposition or attitude. As someone noted, "thoughts determine actions, actions determine habits, habits determine character, and character determines destiny". 2. Hence the great need to guard our hearts, to make sure that we always are being honest (Proverbs 4:23; 23:7) and open to the truth (2 Thess. 2:10-12). 3. Everyday we are given the choice as to what we will contemplate and value. The wise man chooses to set his mind on spiritual realities (Philippians 4:8). The fool allows himself to dwell on the less valuable, the less good and finally the positively evil. This verse also makes it clear that wisdom and folly go in opposite directions. The fool won't end up backing his way into what is good, right and true. Without a serious change on the part of the fool, the fool will always be a fool.

Verse 3

10:3 "Even when the fool walks along the road his sense is lacking, and he demonstrates to everyone that he is a fool."

"Even …along the road" -Here is one of those places where we see that God has a sense of humor. "the fool has no way of disguising what he is, expect perhaps by total silence (Proverbs 17:28). Even then, his general bearing would probably give him away. But in fact he is too full of himself to refrain from airing his views to everyone he meets (see Proverbs 17:7; 18:2,6; 26:6; 17:12)" (Kidner p. 89). What really contributes to his folly is his insistence upon rejecting true knowledge (Prov. 9:7-9; 12:15; 14:16; 15:5; 17:10,16,24; 18:2; 23:9; 26:11; 28:26). God says that a fool can be easily seen if we will just pay a little attention to what he or she is saying.

Verse 4

10:4 "If the ruler's temper rises against you, do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offenses."

The wisest course of action when confronted with a rulers displeasure is not to leave one's post or position, i.e. not to resign. "For while it may feel magnificent to 'resign your post', ostensibly on principle but actually in a fit of pride, it is in fact less impressive, more immature, than it feels" (Kidner p. 90). 1. What is being observed here by God is the typical "human huff". It is so easy to mistake arrogance for dedication to some principle. 2. Before we quit, we need to take a good hard look at our motivation. God expects us to be in submission, even to evil kings (1 Peter 2:13). 3. Instead of resigning, God expects the believer to remain, stand his ground, avoid irrational or impulsive behavior, and fight what may be a spiritual battle in turning away the king's anger. 4. In addition, resigning under such circumstances may only tend to incriminate one further in the eyes of the king.

"composure allays great offenses" -composure can be defined as tranquillity of mind, gentleness, meekness and a relaxed mind. Keeping calm and unruffled. An angry man is often tempted to let his anger move him into the sins of insubordination, slander, treason or conspiracy. Proverbs 15:1 "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger"; 10:12; 25:15; James 5:9. Many problems could be avoided between Christians, husbands and wives, etc…, if Christians would seek to apply this verse.

Verse 5

10:5 "There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like an error which goes forth from the ruler"

An example of such an error is found in the next verse. "Even worse perhaps, than the autocrat is the weakling. With him in charge, anything can happen. The upheavals of verses 6 and 7 proceed from the ruler of verse 5, and they remind us how fragile our little hierarchies are. Yet every age gets taken by surprise" (Kidner p. 90). The word "error" can refer to a sin, but it also can mean an inadvertent mistake, something done without proper consideration. The following example illustrates what Solomon has already said (10:1), "that it takes only a small problem to wreak havoc in the world. An incidental error results in the placement of fools in positions of authority and power, thus resulting in a topsy-turvy society" (Longman p. 241).

Verse 6

10:6 "folly is set in many exalted places while rich men sit in humble places."

So much for absolute confidence in any form of government or administration! Yes, nothing has changed, even Solomon saw that many foolish men had been placed in very powerful, influential and responsible positions. The best candidate isn't always elected or selected. Other factors, such as owing someone a political favor, etc…, often enter in and cloud a leader's judgment. Rulers often make the mistake of appointing incompetent individuals to positions of power. "Appointments that went to the wrong people. We can make our own guess at the intrigues, threats, flatteries and bribes that paved the way for them" (Kidner p. 90).

"Rich" -not simply those who have wealth, but men of noble birth, men from who from a natural position would be looked upon as having leadership potential. Men who had the means to train themselves for high office, men who regarded positions of leadership, not from the motive of personal profit, but from the desire to serve the public trust. Note: There is nothing wrong with being rich, for the "rich" here are placed in contrast with fools.

Point To Note:

Many people in our society would feel that the above would be a great triumph in social justice. "If some are inclined to applaud….Solomon has no illusions about men at the top…neither does he view these upsets as triumphs of social justice" (Kidner p. 90). Lest we are tempted to idolize the poor and downtrodden, or the person who rose through the ranks after being born in a one room house, Solomon notes that among the rich there are often men of noble character and true leadership material.

Verse 7

10:7 "I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land."

"I have seen" -Solomon isn't rambling and neither is he exaggerating. All of these he has seen with his own eyes, probably even in his own administration. Even until fairly modern times, in the east to be riding on a horse was a sign of distinction and wealth. See also Proverbs 19:10; 30:22.

Verse 8

10:8 "He who digs a pit may fall into it, and a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall."

"The outlook behind these pointed remarks is not fatalism…but elementary realism…..We are urged to use our minds, and to look a little way ahead. For there are risks bound up with any vigorous action, and the person we call accident-prone has usually himself to blame, rather than his luck. He should have known; he could have taken care" (Kidner p. 91).

The verse also suggests that no matter how careful a person might be, he or she may fall into the pit they dug, and they might be surprised by a snake on the other side of the wall they are demolishing. Some suggest that this verse is teaching the idea that those who plot evil against others often have their plans backfire on them (see Psalm 7:15; 9:15; 10:2; 37:7-15; 57:6; Amos 5:18-19; Proverbs 26:27; 28:10). Hence this verse might be giving "some comfort to the just counselor who is competing for royal favor against a scheming climber" (Garrett p. 335).

Verse 9

10:9 "He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits logs may be endangered by them."

Once again we are confronted with the reality that we can't prepare for everything (9:11). "throws a dash of hard realism: even those who are engaged in legitimate activity….those who try to serve fairly and justly may see their efforts blow up in their faces" (Garrett p. 335). "One does not have to work long in a stone quarry or logging camp until the potential dangers are evident" (Kidwell p. 249). These verses may also emphasize the need for wisdom even in the most mundane things of life. "A great underground quarry lies under a part of the old city of Jerusalem---it may have been the source of stone for Solomon's Temple. The tools used in this profession are the metal chisel, baskets, wooden wedges, water to spread the wedges, the wooden rollers for the largest stones" (Zond. Ency. p. 496). A wise man is everywhere conscious of possible danger.

Verse 10

10:10 "If the axe is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength. Wisdom has the advantage of giving success."

"The axe may be symbolic of all implements used by men in the activities of their work. When wisdom is not employed the maximum benefit of all implements is lessened" (Kidwell p. 250). And yet how many of us want to jump right into a project without the proper preparation?

"the advantage of giving success" -"Wisdom teaches how to conduct matters to a successful end; for instance, it prompts the worker to sharpen his tool instead of trying to accomplish his task by an exertion of mere brute strength" (P.P. Comm. p. 252).

Points To Note:

1 One can work harder or they can work smarter. 2. Once again we are brought back to the truth found in 10:1. Without wisdom, all our efforts can be in vain. Thus wisdom prompts one to make careful plans and preparation. Wisdom not only reaches for the right tool, but makes sure that such a tool is working properly. 3. If wisdom can be beneficial in using such a common tool as an axe, how much more is wisdom needed when speaking, listening, controlling our emotions or dealing with others? (James 1:19)

Verse 11

10:11 "If the serpent bites before being charmed, there is no profit for the charmer."

"If the man is bitten before he has time to use his charm, it is no profit to him that he has the secret----the warning against 'being too late', the greatest skill is useless unless applied at the right moment or applied at all" (P.P. Comm. p. 253) Hence, wisdom not used at the opportune time (Ephesians 5:16), is useless. In a similar manner, bible knowledge that isn't used to instruct those who desperately need it, is also rather useless.

But once again, under the sun, even great wisdom or skill can be completely nullified by bad timing. "Snake charming was a mysterious occupation that needed a special and esoteric expertise, but the skill was of no use after the snake bit someone. It was too late then to charm the snake; the damage had been done…even experts fail if they do not apply their skill" (Longman p. 245).

The verse may also be teaching that there is wisdom which is completely useless in everyday life. "Basically, the skill of a snake charmer is good for shows but not practical for everyday living, where snakebites are a matter of life and death" (Longman p. 246).

Verse 12

10:12 "Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious, while the lips of a fool consume him;"

"are gracious" -The wise man in this context would include a counselor to the king (10:4). Unfortunately, modern man often tends to downplay the importance of his or her speech. Words have always been important with God, for they reveal the condition of the human heart (Matthew 15:18-20), hence one's loyalty either to God or self (James 3:13-18). "Gracious" words are those which persuade, conciliate, convince, express good will, are truthful, winning, encouraging, and edifying speech (Colossians 4:6; Proverbs 15:2; Ephesians 4:29).

"lips of a fool consume him" -Proverbs 18:7; 14:3; 10:14; 10:31-32. To swallow down, devour, a stronger expression than to ruin or destroy. "Untimely speech has ruined many a life" (P.P. Comm. p. 253).

Verse 13

10:13 "the beginning of his talking is folly, and the end of it is wicked madness."

Seen any wicked madness lately? What started with selfish, ignorant, foolish, arrogant and boastful language often ends in the fruit of insane wickedness. What the verse is saying is that if the unbeliever follows his or her unbelieving theory or logic to its natural end---he or she will end up in extreme wickedness. Many have noted that the fruits of Evolution, Hedonism or Atheism are such things as might makes right, racism, anything goes, etc…"The fool goes from bad to worse---the beginning will be foolish, silly, irrelevant-when the conclusion of their utterance is reached, it is no longer merely silly or idle-but evil" (Leupold p. 246). 'Since he begins with a foolish premise (there is no God, Psalm 14:1), his conclusion is sheer madness' (Tay). "That end, in wicked madness, may look too lurid to be true; but its two elements, moral and mental, are the final fruits of refusing the will and truth of God. If there are innumerable unbelievers whose earthly end could hardly be described as either wickedness or madness, it is only because the logic of their unbelief has not been followed through….But when a whole society goes secular, the process is far more evident and thoroughgoing" (Kidner p. 92).

Verse 14

10:14 "Yet the fool multiplies words. No man knows what will happen, and who can tell him what will come after him?"

"multiplies words" -"The fool talks on and on" (NEB) (Proverbs 14:16; 15:2; 18:2; 20:3; 12:23; 29:11; Ecc. 5:3).

"No man knows" -The fool typically boasts about the future, speaking confidently about that which no man knows (Luke 12:18-20; James 4:13). "The fool, without any consciousness of human ignorance, acts as if he knew all, and utters about all and everything a multitude of words" (Keil/Del., p. 384).

Verse 15

10:15 "The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city."

Much like our modern proverb, "He doesn't know enough to come in out of the rain". "The second line is evidently a proverbial tag about the kind of person who gets the simplest of things wrong----he would get lost, we might say today, even if you put him on an escalator…So the picture begins to emerge of a man who makes things needlessly difficult for himself by his stupidity" (Kidner pp. 92-93). "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" (Garrett p. 336).

Points To Note:

1 A popular word in our society has become the word "bashing". Any negative criticism seems to be labeled these days as something horrible and that we are bashing a certain group of people. Carefully note that God is bashing the fool. 2. There is a certain amount of humor in this verse, but lest we get carried away too far, we need to be reminded that what can make fools of all of us, is toiling for things that will never amount to anything (Matthew 16:26; Luke 12:20-21).

Verse 16

10:16 "Woe to you, O land, whose king is a lad and whose princes feast in the morning."

Points To Note:

1 "The 'child' or 'lad', of verse 16 could indeed be a man in years, who has never grown up…" (Kidner p. 94). 2. "If the king and his administrators view their power as an opportunity for self-indulgence, the nation is lost" (Garrett p. 336). 3. The feasting in the morning refers to early morning indulgence (Isaiah 5:11-13; 21:5; Acts 2:15). 4. So much for the argument that character doesn't matter in the lives of those who govern a people or nation. Or, that what one does in one's personal life doesn't have any impact on what one does in their public life. 5. While wise men are interested in the ultimate questions of life, this doesn't mean however that the wise aren't concerned about the present. The wise man does care very much about the way his country is being governed. 6. "The child in the present case (could be) a youthful, inexperienced ruler, who does not realize his responsibilities, and is the tool of evil advisors" (P.P. Comm. p. 254). (2 Chron. 13:7; 1 Kings 12:6-14).

Verse 17

10:17 "Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of nobility and whose princes eat at the appropriate time---for strength, and not for drunkenness."

The word "nobility" is not a touch of snobbery. Rather, the true idea of nobility is those individuals who have been trained and have accepted the type of training and wisdom which is needed to rule. "One who really merits the name" (Leupold p. 250). This verse also infers that eating must never become an end in itself. "whose leaders work hard before they feast and drink, and then only to strengthen themselves for the tasks ahead" (Tay). Godly individuals eat at the right time and for the right reasons. Such men view their positions as one of great responsibility and are committed to the good of the nation. Hence blessed is the nation whose rulers do not see their position as being merely for their own enrichment.

Verse 18

10:18 "Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks."

This seems to be a comment upon the previous verses. Solomon has just discussed slothful rulers. "Certainly "sloth" (18) which silently destroys a neglected house or a sluggish spirit, is as fatal to a kingdom as to a building or a person. Nothing else is needed to bring it down, and nothing is more devastating. Whatever kinds of damage can be safely overlooked, decay is not among them: time is on its side" (Kidner p. 95). Hence the house under consideration is the "state of the nation". When those in authority are more concerned with their own personal pleasures, than the welfare of the nation, the nation falls apart (Amos 6:6).

Verse 19

10:19 "Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything."

Points To Note:

Various ideas exist concerning the contextual tie-in of the above verse: 1. "The point is that at least some money is essential for enjoying life, and steps must therefore be taken to insure that the economy (be it national or personal) is sound" (Garrett pp. 336-337). 2. Others believe that the verse reveals the attitudes that lead to sloth, "It is because of the three erroneous attitudes expressed in this verse that the condition discussed in verse 18 existed" (Kidwell p. 258). Hence, "men prepare a meal for enjoyment"-instead of eating for strength (17), such men try to turn every meal into a party or an excuse to eat and drink to excess. "wine makes life merry"-the sluggard or the fool is constantly needing a drink to put them in a cheerful mood. "money is the answer to everything"-even many people in our government have bought into the philosophy that money can fix everything, resolve every problem, and the supply the answer to every human desire.

Verse 20

10:20 "Furthermore, in your bedchamber do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound, and the winged creature will make the matter known".

Points To Note:

1. Wise counsel is offered here to those who must suffer through the abuse of leaders whose character has been identified in the preceding verses. 2. Kidner notes of such corrupt rulers, "They would not have reached their dizzy heights, or stayed there, without a sixth sense for dissidents---or having their own informers" (p. 95). 3. The verse also reveals that what you think will remain a secret can easily become public, what is in the mind, or what is said in secret can easily slip out of the lips in public (Luke 6:45). 4. The reference to "a bird" in the above verse is a proverbial saying, common to all languages, "We say of secret information, 'A little bird told me'" (P.P. Comm. p. 256). 5. The verse also reveals that a ruler who is selfish, indulgent, self-absorbed and immoral, can also be very dangerous. Those who abuse their positions of power are capable of committing other crimes and sins. Those who are in love with power aren't going to let go of it without a fight.

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Bibliographical Information
Dunagan, Mark. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10". "Mark Dunagan Commentaries on the Bible". 1999-2014.