Chapter 10 Contrasts Between The Wise Man and The Unlearned and Thoughtless (The Fool) And Other Useful Sayings.
The point about these sayings is that they illustrate a point to those sensible enough to look for it. They are, of course, not always true. They illustrate wisdom and/or folly. They are the wisdom of the wise.
Sayings Comparing the Wise and the Unlearned and Thoughtless (Ecclesiastes 10:1-3).
‘Dead flies cause the ointment of the perfumer to smell and putrefy, so does a little folly outweigh wisdom and honour.’
The effect of dead flies in ointment is to ruin the ointment which had previously been so sweet smelling. In the same way the effect of folly, either his own or another’s, can destroy all of a man’s wisdom and reputation, because one example of such folly may counterbalance all he is and has done, like the fly in the ointment. It may destroy his reputation. It may cause annoyance and result in antagonism or lack of confidence, and thus prevent co-operation. Or it may ruin whatever wisdom has been presented by others. There are some things that are never forgotten, so we should be careful what we say. One piece of folly can counteract a great deal of wisdom.
‘A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but an unlearned man’s is at his left.’
The right side is the side of the sword arm and the right arm is the strongest, at least in theory (compare Psalms 16:8; Psalms 110:5; Psalms 121:5) Thus the heart at the right side is better protected. The point is that the wise man protects what is most important, and allocates his strength accordingly (compare Ecclesiastes 2:14). Also it could indicate that the wise man ensures that he uses his strength properly in order to protect what he deems is most important. His thinking means that he makes use of his stronger capacity when it is really needed. The unwise may be more careless.
‘Yes also when the fool walks by the way his understanding fails him, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.’
The point here is that a man soon reveals by his actions whether he is sensible or thoughtless in whatever he is doing. The wise man used his right hand to protect himself and his wisdom. The fool soon gives himself away. He goes out without protection. The illustration probably has in mind the need in those days to ensure readiness for trouble when using a byway. The unwise are careless and slack and are not on the alert. They travel without their weapons. Thus all know they are fools. They are unprepared.
Behaviour Connected With Superiors (Ecclesiastes 10:4-7).
‘If the spirit of the ruler rise up against you, do not leave your place, for deference will compensate for great offences.’
The picture is that of a court with courtiers standing in their allotted place. To leave his place would be a sign of a man’s rebellion and resentment. So the point is that a king’s temporary anger is best dealt with by his showing deference, and remaining in his place. Then all will be quickly forgotten.
The lesson for us is that we should not too quickly take offence or react to someone else’s anger, especially if they hold a superior position. It can result in loss of job, or future unpleasantness, or loss of favour, and often over something quite unimportant. We could put it, ‘do not resign (or do anything else foolish) over a trifle, just because you are temporarily upset’.
‘There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as it were an error that proceeds from a ruler.’
The warning here is that lack of oversight of one in charge can cause great damage. Someone with authority must take care that they carry out their responsibilities properly. Otherwise consequences can be serious. It illustrates also that we should be careful who we put in charge of something.
‘Folly is set at great heights, and the rich sit in a low place.’
Those who make themselves out to be over-important reveal their stupidity, while those who would be rich are careful to show due deference and win favour by humility. They are then more likely to become ‘the rich’ and be invited to take a higher place (compare Luke 14:10).
‘I have seen servants on horses, and princes walking as servants on the earth.’
The idea here is that some people do not know how to keep their proper place, while others are too great to worry about such details. It is only the unimportant person who has to act so as to ensure that he gets proper recognition. But the danger with such people is that they might try to set themselves higher than they should. The least they then do is make a fool of themselves. More embarrassingly they may be told to get down, or be punished for their arrogance. Servants are often more likely to insist on their proper position because position is important to them. The prince does not mind. His position is sure.
The Importance Of Acting Thoughtfully And With Great Care With Regard To The Affairs Of Life (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11).
‘He who digs a pit will fall into it, and whoever breaks through a fence a poisonous snake will bite him.’
Those who seek to do harm to others may find that their plans rebound on themselves. The schemer often finds himself trapped, or put at a disadvantage, by his own schemes. Vandalism and carelessness with other people’s things will bring trouble on the culprit. (Snakes often nest in loose stone walls).
‘He who hews out stones will be hurt by them, and he who chops wood is endangered by it.’
It is important to take proper care when doing something dangerous, for over-familiarity with a something can make us careless. But the deeper idea is that we should not play with fire if we do not want to be burned. We should consider the possible effects of what we do.
‘If the iron is blunt and one does not whet the edge (literally ‘curse before it, curse its face’), then he must put forward more strength. But wisdom is profitable for success.’
We must ensure that we use common sense in what we do. Those who maintain their tools, and keep them sharp where necessary, will find that they serve them better and are easier to use. ‘Whet the edge’ is an attempt to make sense of the Hebrew which is literally ‘curse the face’ or ‘curse before (it)’. The idea may be that he finds it blunt and curses it before proceeding to sharpen it. (The iron here was the popular metal for tools and weapons. We would use steel).
This applies to any preparation for any task. Good preparation means the task will be made easier, and not cause hardship. Thus wisdom is like sharpened metal, it accomplishes its purpose well because it is sharp and penetrating. Then it is successful.
‘If the snake bites before it is charmed, then there is no advantage in the charmer.’
This has in mind the old snake charmers who were called in to get rid of snakes by use of their enchantments. If the snake has bitten his victim then there is no point in calling the charmer. He should have been called earlier. The thought here is that we should do things while there is still a point to it, and not delay until it is too late.
But it could be translated, ‘Surely the snake will bite where there is no enchantment, and the slanderer is no better.’ The point then is that a slanderer is like a snake, which unless dealt with quickly is dangerous.
The Importance Of Wise Words (Ecclesiastes 10:12-14)..
10.l2-13 ‘The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but the lips of a fool swallow him up. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is mischievous madness.’
The wise man always speaks so as to soothe and win favour, except where admonition is necessary and justified. He makes friends and not enemies with his tongue. But the fool speaks in such a way that he brings disaster on himself. When he starts speaking he speaks foolishly, but this develops into wicked madness. He does not watch what he says. He is a fool.
‘A fool also multiplies words, a man does not know what will be. And who can tell him what will be after him?’
The fool talk a lot of nonsense about the future. But no one knows what will happen. That being so how can he tell him others what is most important for the future? How can he say what will follow for a man’s family when he is dead? In other words the fool is not the man to sort out your future with, and especially your will. Make sure that you entrust these tasks to the wise.
The Importance Of Listening To The Right Person (Ecclesiastes 10:15-17).
‘The effort of fools wearies every one of them, for he does not know how to go to the city.’
‘Them’ is those who listen to him. If we seek advice from a fool, we should not be surprised if we do not get to our destination, or achieve what we are seeking to achieve. Those who seek his advice will be worn down by his explanations and will never get anywhere. For the fool never knows the way to anything important.
‘He does not know how to go to the city.’ This was probably a well known saying indicating ignorance and incompetence.
‘Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning.’
It is sad for a land if it has an immature leader and his advisers make merry when they should be dealing with the country’s affairs.
‘Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles, and your princes feast at the right time, for strength and not for drunkenness.’
In contrast with the previous land this one has a nobler king and advisers who feast at the right time, and in order to strengthen themselves rather than in order to become drunk. The main point behind both is that the motives and behaviour of those in authority should be considered to ensure the right leaders are in power, those who will care for the country and not for themselves.
The Danger Of Sloth And Idleness (Ecclesiastes 10:18).
‘By failing to act (slothfulness) the roof sinks inwards, and through idleness of the hands the house leaks.’
This is the negative of the proverb, ‘ a stitch in time, saves nine.’ The failure to act in time often brings disaster, and often it is through laziness. The lazy person cannot be trusted to look after anything important. If we do not look after our property correctly and maintain it properly in time, then we cannot expect the roof to keep us dry.
The Value Of Silver (Ecclesiastes 10:19).
‘A feast is made for laughter, and wine gladdens the life, and silver answers all things.’
The thought here would seem to be that feasting and wine temporarily produce merriment but that a man’s wealth is the mainstay of his whole life. The wise man will therefore make sure that his wealth is preserved and will not fritter it away in feasting and drinking and fruitless activities.
Or the idea may be that while a feast and wine bring a kind of happiness, it is only silver which can be fully persuasive with regard to life.
A Warning Against Unwise Cursing Lest The Fact Reach The One Who Is Cursed (Ecclesiastes 10:20).
‘Do not curse the king, no, not in your thought. And do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom. For a bird of the air will carry the voice, and that which has wings will carry the matter.’
We are wise always to watch what we say or think, for there are always those who are willing to carry what we say to those we speak against. So the wise man curbs his tongue and is careful what he says, especially in public, but even in private. He does not speak one way in private and another way in public. He only says what he would not mind others hearing, for who knows who will spread the tale?.
The idea is based on the fact that kings and important people used to plant spies so that they knew what people were saying. But we know that God knows all that we say and are therefore to be even more careful.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
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