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Ecclesiastes 10:1. Dead flies.] Lit., “Flies of death;” because, as such, they corrupt the ointment. The apothecary.] A dealer in spices. Thus it is not the common kind, but a costly, fragrant unguent that is here intended. A little folly.] Little in proportion to the entire mass of wisdom whose properties and influence it injures.
Ecclesiastes 10:2. A wise man’s heart is at his right hand.] By the heart we are to understand the inclinations, for these influence the understanding and the judgment. The wise man’s heart is in its right place. His feelings are on the side of wisdom and truth; and therefore his whole nature. But a fool’s heart at his left.] His inclinations are averse from wisdom and truth. He has sinister aims and purposes.
Ecclesiastes 10:4. The spirit of the ruler rise up against thee.] A ruler capable of committing great offences against thee, when his spirit is stirred up in anger.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 10:1-4
THE EXCELLENCIES OF WISDOM
I. As seen in the Contrasted Qualities of the Wise Man and the Fool. The intrinsic excellencies of wisdom are clearly manifest to all who have true spiritual insight, and that sympathy which is the best interpreter of its object. But there are some broad general features of wisdom which strike conviction of their excellence into the mind of every beholder. They are seen to great advantage when we contrast the action of wisdom and folly in regard to the roots or fruits of moral conduct.
1. As to motive and aim. The fool’s motive or aim is always sinister. He has no straightforward designs and purposes, but deals in what is sly and left-handed. (Ecclesiastes 10:2.) The very centre of motion is—as it were—shifted from its true place, and the result is nothing but the utmost moral confusion and disorder. But the motives and aims of the wise man, on the other hand, are pure and right. His heart—the principal fount and spring of action—is in the right place. Hence his character is marked by simplicity, and free from guile.
2. As to self-knowledge. The fool is under a complete delusion in regard to himself. He grows exalted in the imagination that he is wise. No revelation of his true self has been vouchsafed to his mind, and in the conceit of ignorance he is both happy and hold. When a fool at length knows that he is such, he has attained to the beginning of wisdom. He has already entered into the outer courts of her temple, and may yet know her mysteries and see her glory. But while this self-knowledge is hidden from him, the worst consequences of ignorance must follow. On the slightest occasions of life, in the common ways of duty and intercourse, his want of wisdom is manifest. He may be even said to proclaim himself a fool. (Ecclesiastes 10:3.) He has not even the sense to leave his true character to be discovered by slow inference, or to be concealed by silence and caution; he must needs precipitate the conclusion. Contrast this with the character of the wise man who learns to know himself, and does not bring discredit upon his wisdom by failing to show it when the occasion demands. Such a man will use that discretion, which, if it does not altogether hide his faults, will preserve them from being prominent.
3. As to self-government. Men are often placed in circumstances of great provocation where it is difficult to calm the anger that rises in the breast. The case is here supposed where a wise man is confronted with the insolence and tyranny of authority. (Ecclesiastes 10:4.) A conflict arises within him between the high sense of justice and the proper reverence due to that authority, as such. But prudence guides the wise man; he has learned to govern his passions, and by a calm demeanour tames the fury which threatened him. But the fool lacks discretion in such trying situations. He is stubborn and unyielding; and for want of self-government, his passion breaks forth to his own injury. He has not the wisdom to wait and be calm, nor the faith to believe in the triumph of the meek.
II. As seen in the Exquisite Delicacy of the Wise Man’s Character. (Ecclesiastes 10:1.) The character of the wise man is here compared to ointment; not of the common sort, but of the perfumer—one which is prepared with rare and costly ingredients. Such a compound may be spoiled and rendered valueless by so small a thing as the decaying remains of flies. Such is the delicacy and rare preciousness of the wise man’s character that the beauty and value of it may be impaired by a few faults. Coarse and common things are not easily injured. The chiefest dangers threaten that which is most skilfully and delicately contrived. The risks of such moral disasters arise from the very excellence of the wise man’s character.
1. In such, small blemishes are more conspicuous. Small blemishes in the character of the fool, standing as they do in the thick multitude of graver faults, easily escape notice. But in the character of the wise man, these are soon detected, as a black spot upon white ground. Men have a keen eye for the occasional weaknesses and indiscretions of human virtue.
2. In such, small blemishes are more ruinous. The wise man has an influence for good, and that influence is sensibly abated by even the appearance of shortcomings and moral deformities. He that is in reputation for wisdom and honour may, by retaining but a few faults, greatly fail to benefit mankind to that extent which is warranted by his strong virtues. The fragrance of a good man’s life may be injured, yea, almost changed into a baneful influence, by the admixture of but a few faults and follies.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 10:1. Those vibrations and disturbances which would not interfere with the proper action of some rude machinery would, in the instruments of the astronomer, be a source of disadvantage and error. The spirit of the wise man is trained to the finest issues, and may be injuriously affected by an apparently small cause.
The imperfection of human nature is such that even the wisdom of the wisest is seldom found unmixed with baser matter.
The wise are a standing rebuke to others, therefore men are prone to exaggerate their faults.
A certain grace and attractiveness of behaviour is necessary to give full effect and influence to the finest assemblage of virtues. In addition to the greatest excellencies, we must have “whatsoever things are lovely.”
A man’s character is the expression of his true self; in fact, the express image of the invisible things in him. His reputation depends upon the manner in which he is imaged and represented to the eye of society. Hence while the real character of the wise man may not be seriously affected, his reputation may suffer loss.
The principle is especially applicable to a Christian profession; and the best use we can make of it is to exemplify it in some of those flaws and failings which destroy the attraction and impressiveness of men truly devout and God-fearing. Our instances must be taken almost at random; for, like their Egyptian prototypes, these flies are too many to be counted.
3. Selfishness. The subject is uninviting, and time would fail did we speak of the parsimony, the indolence, the egotism, the want of intelligence, the want of taste, by which many excellent characters are marred, and by which the glory of the Gospel is often compromised [Dr. J. Hamilton].
Ecclesiastes 10:2. Right desires and inclinations are as necessary to the character of the wise man as nobility and strength of mind. They place him in the position of the best advantage for all good and true work.
Fools have no dexterity in duty. They can, at best, but awkwardly imitate the virtues of the wise.
1. A wise man minds his own proper business; whereas the fool neglects what belongs to himself, and is exceedingly officious, intermeddling, and full of sagacious counsel, in every one’s concerns but his own. Any wisdom he has is “at his left hand,” it is applied in the wrong place.
2. The understanding of the wise man is at all times ready for his immediate direction—“at his right hand.” So that, being steadily applied to its proper business, it is prepared to meet times of emergency. The fool, on the contrary, is ever uncertain, ever at a loss, all hesitation and perplexity. His wisdom is always to seek.
3. That which the wise man does, his wisdom enables him to do well—with skill and dexterity. The fool, when he does anything at all, does it with his left hand; not only applying any little fragments of wisdom he may possess in a wrong direction, but bungling, blundering, and failing, even in that which he attempts [Wardlaw].
Ecclesiastes 10:3. A fool is mischievous without art, as he is a hypocrite without deceiving. A man must have some understanding to conceal the want of it.
The fool does not need, as the Pharisees did, to sound a trumpet before him. He is his own herald.
That quality of fools by which they quickly reveal themselves, even in the most ordinary intercourse of life, may be reckoned as one of the wise compensations of Providence; for thus wicked men are often prevented from doing the utmost mischief.
Not that he intends to convey this impression, but that, in point of fact, he does convey it. So long, indeed, as he “holdeth his peace,” even “a fool may be counted wise” (Proverbs 17:28). But he has only to open his lips in order to let out the secret, and to show what he really is. His ignorance, his petulance, his indiscretion, his self-complacency and presumption, let all who meet him know that he is a fool. He talks loudly and confidently on subjects regarding which wiser men hardly venture to give an opinion. The wise are like deep rivers, which flow quietly. The fool is like the shallow stream, which brawls and makes a noise [Buchanan].
The fool, having no true self-knowledge, is puffed up with conceit and vanity; therefore he fails rightly to interpret the effects of his own folly upon others. He is the last to detect the derision and contempt which he himself has excited.
Ecclesiastes 10:4. The wise man when oppressed by the powerful does not allow himself to be driven by passion into acts of rebellion. He stands firmly at the post of duty, and is content to wait till the indignation be overpast, and audience be given to the still small voice of reason and truth.
Where the obligation of duty is clear, we should not be moved from our steady purpose of obedience by the sudden outburst of unrighteous anger.
There are times when a wise man may abstain from insisting upon his own proper rights. In the conflict with human authority, swayed by fierce passions, he learns meekly to endure, knowing that what is right and true is more likely to have due recognition when those passions have subsided.
If we meet anger with anger, we wage a conflict in which nothing can be gained, and everything may be lost.
There is a wonderful power in the arts of conciliation. A soft answer turneth away wrath; and what is better still, when a man’s ways please God, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him. Esther and Mordecai succeeded in getting the persecuting edict of Ahasuerus recalled, by committing their way unto the Lord, and by waiting for the fitting moment to speak. And well it were, for the interests of peace and love, if, in less conspicuous spheres of life, the same prudent course were always followed. How often are lasting enmities and divisions caused simply for want of a little of that yielding, whose power to pacify even great offences Solomon so justly celebrates [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 10:5. As an error which proceedeth from the ruler.] Not a mere error, as such, but one which is manifest by its consequences—caprices of despotism like those described in Ecclesiastes 10:6-7.
Ecclesiastes 10:6. Folly.] To be understood, in the concrete form, of mean and ignoble persons, having no title to dignity and advancement. The rich.] Men of noble birth and bearing, inheriting an honourable name and patrimony, and qualified to fill exalted positions in the state. This unnatural inversion of the orders of society was not infrequent under the despotism of Eastern monarchs.
Ecclesiastes 10:7. Servants.] Not merely in condition, but servile in character, destitute of all noble aims and purposes. Princes.] Both in regard of outward rank, and having a corresponding elevation of character and bearing. They are princely minded.
Ecclesiastes 10:8. He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it.] It was the custom, where lions and other wild animals abounded, to dig pits overlaid with branches of trees, in order to entrap them. Hence a man might unwittingly fall into a pit which he had himself digged (Psalms 7:15; Psalms 57:6; Proverbs 26:27). And whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.] Serpents and other reptiles were often found hiding in old walls. Hence he who broke through them ran the risk of being bitten (Amos 5:19).
Ecclesiastes 10:9. Removeth stones … cleaveth wood, shall be endangered thereby.] As such employments required violent exertion, they were the more dangerous.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 10:5-10
THE PROMOTION OF FOOLS
The excellencies of wisdom, and the practical uses of it, are evident to all who can feel the force of moral reasoning. Yet the wise often fail of attaining their true place in the world, or having attained it, they are thrust out, and fools set up in their stead. He who is conscious of superior gifts, and rectitude of purpose, is condemned to witness the promotion of men, contemptibly poor in mind and morals, to places of authority and power. How does this perverse disposition of things arise, and wherewith shall good men console themselves in this disappointment?
I. It arises from the Interference of Human Caprice with the Proper Tendencies of Social Forces. The setting up of folly in great dignity, and casting down the wise and noble from their seats, is here ascribed “to an error which proceedeth from the ruler.” (Ecclesiastes 10:5.) Such an unnatural inversion can only proceed from the caprice of some arbitrary authority. It is only possible through those accidents of history when folly and wickedness gain a temporary advantage. That wisdom which is made up of justice, goodness, and practical sagacity in human affairs, is a social force which has a known direction. But it may be turned aside from this direction by some disturbing causes. The fitness of things, their true tendencies and results, must be acknowledged, though they may be interrupted for a while by some disorder.
1. It is fitting that the wisest and best should rule. Such ought to have the highest social influence and power—the chiefest authority in the state. Nations can only maintain their place in the world’s history by means of their noblest and wisest men. Their natural decay sets in when these are displaced, and the sovereignty given to fools. There are conditions of national stability that must not be violated, and it is impossible to preserve the social pyramid poised upon its apex.
2. The most sacred rights of man may be held in abeyance. Wisdom and goodness ought to secure their proper results, and enjoy with dignity their quiet triumphs. But the existence of moral evil introduces a source of complication. It is a disquieting factor in our reckoning of human things. Hence, in this world, what is right does not always prevail. It is the property of evil to hold continual warfare against all order—to rebel against all just dignities—to undo the work of goodness in the world. Thus the progress of humanity towards perfection is retarded.
II. It is an Unstable Condition of Things. The wise man may be consoled when he reflects that such social disorder cannot last long. There are certain fundamental principles of national prosperity, and these cannot be long violated with impunity. Retribution comes at length, and the true order returns. There are certain chemical preparations which are said to be unstable, because they are held together by a slender bond, and the slightest force is sufficient to decompose them. In like manner, there are conditions of society brought about by the irrational caprice of wilful men; but such conditions are unstable. They are always upon the point of rupture. Providence, which permits so much, has yet reserves of force by which these evils find correction. In the disorders of human government, fools may be suddenly raised to rank and authority; but they must at length fall to their true level. They can but, as it were, snatch at greatness: they cannot retain it in their grasp. No power can give their unnatural assumption any fixity or permanence.
1. The devices which procure their promotion may be turned against themselves. (Ecclesiastes 10:8-9.) They were raised to their dignities by flattery, intrigue—by a ruthless trampling upon the rights of others. They employed dangerous weapons which may, at any moment, be snatched from their hands and used against themselves. He who breaks through the boundaries of truth and right runs the risk of arousing indignant justice. The breakers of old walls—moral, social—shall be avenged by the startled serpent’s sting.
2. Human caprice is not to be trusted. When men are not governed by great principles, but by passion and folly, they are ever unsteady. You cannot reckon upon them, for nothing can be trusted that does not rest upon the sure foundations of truth and right. The fools which the wilful monarch promotes to power may soon excite his disgust, and give place to other fools who are likely to meet with the same capricious fate.
3. They lack that fitness which alone can give dignity and efficiency to office. Wisdom imparts an intellectual and a moral fitness for every duty and trust; and without it, no man can fulfil the highest offices in the community.
(1.) He cannot maintain the dignity proper to them. Men hold in admiration those who possess wisdom and knowledge. Even the most ignorant learn to regard, with a feeling akin to adoration, those who are more knowing and wiser than they. Men may pay court to the outward splendour of the fool; they may adore the greatness which is thrust upon him, but they despise himself. The pomp and glory of outward circumstance cannot impart true dignity where the solid endowments of moral worth and wisdom are not found.
(2.) He cannot maintain the efficiency of it. (Ecclesiastes 10:10.) Physical strength, or the power of authority, may accomplish much, but wisdom is necessary for the finest and most ingenious work—for the framing of all purposes that are far-reaching, and the richest in their consequences to man. Human destiny cannot be shaped to the noblest issues by rough tools, though they be wielded with savage strength. There must be the cunning hand—the skilful device—the sharp edge. These are the gifts of wisdom to man, without which he cannot accomplish any work of enduring worth. The power of office and authority is impotent and vain where the highest faculties are blunt.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 10:5. St. Cyril observeth that in the law whereas if others did sin, God appointed a sacrifice and remedy for them, whether they sinned through ignorance or else with knowledge. In the sin of the High Priest there is not appointed any sacrifice for him if that he sinned by ignorance, “as if by no means there were to be admitted in them that do rule ignorance, or defect of that wisdom required for their position.” Besides there had need to be a great care in the ruler that shall choose others to rule and command, because it is a hard thing to discharge it. Nazianzene saith, “It is a hard thing for a man to rule, a most hard thing to instruct and teach men. It seemeth to me to be an art of arts, a science of sciences, to rule man, who is of all creatures most various and changeable” [Jermin].
It is hard for ordinary men to conceive of the full nature and strength of those temptations which beset one who is invested with absolute rule. There are positions in which it is hard for ordinary virtue to stand upright. It is no wonder, therefore, that such monarchs have erred.
The most exalted station and complete investiture of authority cannot confer infallibility.
We must not allow errors to pass unheeded because they are connected with great names.
The errors of the mightiest are the most destructive. There is an “energy of position” in things moral and social, as well as in the region of matter. When power is wrongly directed, the disaster is proportioned to its magnitude.
Ecclesiastes 10:6. There is no function belonging to rulers which they are bound to exercise with greater impartiality, prudence, and caution, than that of selecting men who are to fill the great offices of the state. These men have oftentimes the destinies of a nation in their hands.… To place, out of mere favouritism or caprice, or even from a want of sufficient care and enquiry, an unrighteous or incompetent judge in the seat of justice; an ignorant or dishonest administration in charge of the revenues of a country; a cruel or rapacious governor at the head of the province of the kingdom; an unskilful or inexperienced leader in the command of an army;—for rulers to do such things is to trifle with interests of the greatest magnitude, and to betray a trust of the most solemn and responsible kind [Buchanan].
The highest honours and dignities must sit ungainly upon those who are not prepared for them by sufficient training and capacity. In the obscurest station, folly is a disadvantage, a noticeable evil; but in the most exalted station, it becomes conspicuous and most fully exposed to the eye of ridicule.
When a fool is set in dignity, it is as when a handful of hay is set up to give light, which with smoke and smell offendeth all that are near it. When the worthy sit in a low place, it is as when a goodly candle, that on a table would give a comfortable and comely light, is put under a bushel [Jermin].
When men of true nobility of mind and character are pushed from their seats, they still adorn the lowliest place where they are constrained to sit. They suffer most who cast them down.
Ecclesiastes 10:7. No change of outward condition can alter what is essential in the character. The servile mind is not destroyed by the elevation from poverty to grandeur, nor do royal minds cease to be such when they are stripped of all outward marks of greatness.
It was far from being a very uncommon case, under the despotic government of the East; slaves of the palace being not unfrequently, from caprice, partiality, or secret selfishness, advanced to the highest ranks, to look down in haughty superciliousness on their natural and deserving superiors [Wardlaw].
Ecclesiastes 10:8. He who seeks prosperity and distinction by treacherous ways, or by breaking through the bounds of moral restraint, tempts the vengeance of Heaven.
He who frames designs for the destruction of others is working on the utmost edge of danger.
There are proper boundaries to knowledge as well as to the courses of conduct. He who by needless curiosity adventures to break through them, only prepares misery for himself—the anguish of a restless and unsatisfied mind.
When ambitious heads break through hedges to get to high places, there is a serpent lurking secretly, which bites them by the heel and either stops them from going on, or else bringeth by it some great mischief upon them. Or else the serpent that biteth these ambitious subtle workers is some other more subtle than they, by whom they are undermined in their plots. Indeed, when ambition is set upon it, no hedge, no wall is able to hold it, but it breaks through, and leaps over all. What hedges did Athaliah break, killing all the royal progeny that herself might reign? What hedges did Abimelech break, killing seventy of his brethren that himself might rule? What hedges did Absalom break that he might be king in Israel? But did not the serpent bite them all? [Jermin.]
Ecclesiastes 10:9. The man who sets himself to pull down or to alter the fabric of the constitution of a country, undertakes a work of no light or trifling difficulty, and a work always of hazard to himself, and very often of fearfully doubtful benefit to others. It is a vast deal easier to find fault than to mend; to complain of what is wrong, than to substitute what is right [Wardlaw].
Most men have penetration enough to discover the faults in things that are established, but the knowledge of the deep principles upon which they rest, and by which they are held together, is the possession of only a few. He who attempts the work of a reformer, without sufficient knowledge and prudence, is likely to meet with ill-success and to bring trouble upon himself.
There are times when the corruptions of existing things have grown so great as to demand violent measures for their reformation. But the zeal thus aroused is a dangerous weapon in the hands of frail man.
Ecclesiastes 10:10. A little skill expended in sharpening the edge, will save a great deal of strength in wielding the hatchet. But, just as the unskilful labourer who cannot handle the whetstone must belabour the tree with a blunt instrument, and after inflaming his palms and racking his sinews, achieves less result than his neighbour whose knowledge and whose knack avail instead of brute force, so the servant who does not know the right way to do his work, after all his fatigue and fluster will give less satisfaction than one who has learned the best and easiest methods; and the householder who knows nothing of the mechanic arts, or who knows not what to do when sickness or emergencies occur, must compensate by the depth of his purse, or by the strength of his arm, for the defects of his skill. A blunt axe implies heavy blows and an aching arm; coarse work with a blistered hand. But “wisdom is profitable to direct.” Intelligence is as good as strength, and a little skill will save both time and materials, money and temper [Dr. J. Hamilton].
Even in the most righteous cause, great strength and determination of character will lead a man into many evils unless he has skill and prudence to guide him.
Mere force is blind, and must be directed to proper ends and uses by those who have the power to see.
The triumphs of man over the fierceness and strength of the brute creation, and over all the difficulties which nature places in his way, are the triumphs of mind.
Wisdom gives that fine edge to effort by which many difficulties, that otherwise offer a complete resistance, are easily cleft through.
Wisdom is the director of all forces which can be brought under the control of man. Without intelligent guidance, they cannot become effective for the best ends.
Ecclesiastes 10:11. A babbler is no better.] Lit., “The master of the tongue.” One who is of ready utterance, capable of producing great effects by the power of speech, yet lacking energy and promptness in action.
Ecclesiastes 10:12. Gracious.] His words have the power of winning favour. They have a calm and grateful influence. All his actions are suitable and well-timed, not like those of the unwary serpent-charmer.
Ecclesiastes 10:14. A fool also is full of words.] Not only given to endless talk, but even boldly announcing his plans and purposes, as if he could certainly reckon upon the future. The latter part of the verse condemns the folly of such presumption.
Ecclesiastes 10:15. Wearieth every one of them.] Though full of words, they are indolent, and soon grow weary in any useful toil. He knoweth not how to go to the city.] He cannot make sure that he shall carry out even so ordinary a purpose and action. Probably St. James (chap. Ecclesiastes 4:13) refers to this passage when censuring the boldness which presumes upon a future which no man can certainly know or command.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 10:11-15
THE VANITY OF SPEECH
Human wisdom has been shown to be, in some cases, unavailing, through the sudden advantage that may be gained by folly. So many are the instances of apparent failure that a reflecting mind, in certain sad moods of thought, may be tempted to imagine that this landed possession is but another of the many vanities of human life. In particular, speech itself, which professes to manifest the inmost glory of wisdom, may be regarded as, after all, but a splendid vanity.
I. The Essential Value of Speech must be Admitted. There are many instances in which the wisest speech seems to fail. This faculty, however, must be regarded as, in itself, a good gift.
1. Speech rightly employed wins favour. (Ecclesiastes 10:12.) By the graciousness of speech, a wise man wins his way to favour, and conquers the minds and hearts of others. The gift of graceful speech is a splendid talent, though it may be degraded to serve the worst purposes. Hence the tongue is called “an ornament of iniquity.” (James 3:6.) It is capable of presenting error with seductive charms, and making the worst appear the better reason. Still, the gift of speech may be employed to enhance the attractions of wisdom, and graciously subdue men’s hearts to the love of her.
2. Speech rightly employed is powerful. (Ecclesiastes 10:11.) The enchanter has the power of controlling the serpent so that it forgets to sting. While the strange spell lasts, the venomous reptile is rendered harmless. The tongue, in like manner, can perform the office of a magician, and so persuade and charm men as to calm their most boisterous passions and render them harmless and obedient to the charmer’s will. In some critical juncture, the speech of a wise man may bring relief to a nation’s perplexity, and save it from ruin. The uttered word of man has proved mightier than the sword. It is the most powerful and lasting of all influences. Good and wise words are seeds, most tenacious of vitality, reproducing themselves from age to age in noble and heroic deeds. Speech, inasmuch as it is the vehicle of mind, must have the chief place among the instruments which man uses for carrying on his work in the world. But in some of those sad moods of reflection, into which the mind will sometimes fall, there is much to tempt a man to account even this brilliant gift a vanity.
II. Even in the Hands of the Wise, this Gift requires the Greatest Dexterity. On the supposition that wise men were always wise, we might well suppose that their speech would, at all times, be seasonable and full of grace. But the actual state, even of the best, falls below this ideal. The wisest and the meekest man on earth is in danger of speaking unadvisedly with his lips. The most devoted saint must take heed that he sin not with his tongue. Hence he who can so control his speech as not to offend at all has well nigh reached perfection. In order to manage the gift of speech rightly, it is necessary that we have something more than an ample store of wisdom’s gatherings and the faculty of graceful utterance.
1. There must be vigilance. The wisest man may fail through want of vigilance in certain crises of danger, and thus bring himself under the charge and the penalties of folly. The charmer possesses the art of rendering the serpent harmless, but if he stumbles upon it unawares, he shall be bitten like an ordinary man. So if the wise man is unwatchful, or does not speak at the right time; if he misses his opportunity or is wanting in discretion, notwithstanding his ability to represent the wealth of thought and feeling in words of power, he too must smart, as the veriest fool, under the grief and penalties of failure. There are certain junctures in human affairs which may nonplus unwatchful Wisdom
2. There must be prompt action. The richest gifts of wisdom must be accompanied by practical ability; or they may fail of success. A wise man may lack the power of grappling with emergencies, and may become so stunned by some sudden perplexity as to be totally unfit for the proper action of the time. There are so many sudden and unexpected changes in the course of human affairs, that unless the wise man, though gifted with the most persuasive speech, has the ability promptly to adapt himself to the occasion, he may be vanquished as though he were not wise.
III. This Gift is often the Instrument and Revealer of Folly. (Ecclesiastes 10:13-15.) The mind and heart—the nature of the man within—may be regarded as the fountain of speech. As that fountain is sweet or bitter, troubled or clear, live-giving or pestilential, so are the streams which flow from it. Speech is the instrument by which the mind conveys and distributes its wisdom or folly. Hence the fool soon reveals himself; for when he ventures to speak, his folly is sure of instant recognition. Some of the characteristics of the speech of such are noted here.
1. It shows no tendency towards improvement. (Ecclesiastes 10:13.) The speech of the fool does not follow the method of creation, where confusion and disorder improved into harmony and beauty. It shows no tendency to assume a higher state, no power to work itself clear. The disorder which marked his first utterance becomes more observable as he proceeds, so that by the time he has made an end of speaking he has outraged reason itself. He grows loquacious. There is scarcely any pause in his insipid and tiresome twaddle. (Ecclesiastes 10:14.) He does but win fresh titles of folly every time he speaks, and his last utterance is the most extravagant of all.
2. The effects of it are destructive. Foolish speech, though incapable of deceiving those who have discernment, is likely to affect others injuriously, and to grow into a source of mischief. (Ecclesiastes 10:13.) It is a stream which, gathering foulness as it proceeds, poisons the air. There is a kind of moral contagion in the words of a fool; and considering how many minds are predisposed to it, the mischief is immense. But the fool’s speech is more especially destructive to himself. (Ecclesiastes 10:12.) He may be said to commit moral suicide—himself the gulf which swallows up his reputation.
3. It is concerned with subjects in which a discreet silence should be observed. (Ecclesiastes 10:14-15.) The fool is apt to talk confidently about the future, as if he could command it and make it sure. He rushes boldly into matters concerning which he knows least. This has a most injurious effect upon himself. It consumes his energies in useless toil. (Ecclesiastes 10:15.) Such a confident way of dealing with future things shows an unwarrantable presumption. No man can know those things which are hidden in the dark recesses of futurity, where they lie open to the eye of God alone. To speak of the future as if we could command it, and know what lies hid in it, is manifest presumption. Even the most common facts and events of the future are so concealed from man that he cannot, in the conduct of his affairs, reckon upon them. He may purpose such an ordinary act as that of going to the city at such and such a time, but he cannot be sure that he shall accomplish this. (Ecclesiastes 10:15.) In the front of this awful fact of human ignorance, all daring presumption in speech and conduct must be contemptible and vain. It is an abuse of the divine gift of language when it is thus made the instrument of arrogance and folly, and the multitude of such abuses in the world may cause even a wise man, in some gloomy season of the soul, to reckon this boasted faculty with the sum total of human vanity.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 10:11. In the East, there have always been persons who, by means of music and legerdemain, exert great influence over some species of serpents, so that whilst under their spell the deadly cobra may be handled, as if he were utterly harmless. But if the charmer tread on the snake unawares, or be bitten when off his guard, he will be poisoned like another man. And to certain minds there has been given an ascendancy over other minds, like the influence of the serpent charmer. Sagacious and eloquent, they are able to soothe the fury of fierce tempers, and mould rancorous natures to their will. Like David’s transforming harp, as the strain advances, it looks as if a new possession had entered the exercised frame, and a seraph smiled out at those windows where a demon was frowning before. But alas for the harper, if Saul should snatch the javelin before David has time to touch the strings! Alas for the wise charmer, and also for the good cause, if the tyrant’s passion towers up, or the decree of the despot goes forth before a friendly counsellor has time to interfere [Dr. J. Hamilton].
“The master of the tongue”—the man of ready and wise speech—may fail in matters of ordinary life through want of the power of quickly adapting himself to the occasion. To ensure success in a world like this, where so many hidden dangers lie ready to spring upon us, we must have tact as well as talent.
While under the power of the eloquent tongue, fierce natures may be wielded at will; but when the charm is dissolved their virulence returns.
He who gives to his tongue an unrestrained license, and is guided in the use of it neither by principle nor by prudence, is a man that requires to be managed with peculiar caution. Contradiction and violence may only irritate, and make the venom of his tongue the more virulent and deadly. He must be charmed [Wardlaw].
Ecclesiastes 10:12. “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious.”
1. They win the favour of the hearers. It is pleasant to listen to them—to be near the fountains of Wisdom
2. They minister good to the hearers. They convey those treasures of the mind and heart which are the impulse of all goodness in life, and the most enduring possession of man.
The words of wise men have a gentle, yet all-prevailing force. In morals, this is a pleasing constraint, a drawing of the affections. It corresponds to attraction in the physical universe.
The gracious words of Christ, who was incarnate wisdom, are still powerful in drawing the nations to Himself.
The fool is the sepulchre of his own reputation; for as long as he was silent, you were willing to give him credit for the usual share of intelligence, but no sooner does he blurt out some astounding blunder—no sooner does he begin to prattle forth his egotism and vanity, than your respect is exchanged for contempt or compassion [Dr. J. Hamilton].
As the Psalmist says when speaking of such men as he, “They make their own tongue to fall upon themselves” (Psalms 64:8). It was the folly of Herod that made him utter the rash promise, which stained his soul with the crime of murder. It was the folly of another Herod that prompted the profane and self-glorying oration, which drew down upon him the vengeance of the Almighty [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 10:13. The speech of the fool shows no tendency towards improvement as he proceeds. It is sure to degenerate into unmeaning rant, and to arouse passions which are hurtful to himself and to others.
There is a ridiculous disproportion between the passionate language of a fool and the insignificant causes which excite it.
There is as much difference between the chastised fervour of the wise man’s words, and the impudent rage of fools, as there is between the warmth and glow of health and the burning of a fever.
We have here the serpent, the babbler spoken of in Ecclesiastes 10:11, wreathed into a circle, his two ends, head and tail, meeting together. And as at the one end he is a serpent having his sting in his head, so at the other end he is a scorpion having his sting in his tail [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 10:14. A fool vainly imagines that mere words are knowledge and wisdom. Hence he easily lends himself to a flattering delusion to conceal the poverty of his mind.
Wisdom is content with few words. The most important truths have been condensed into the smallest compass. The precious things of the mind are thus rendered portable.
He is like the empty drum that sounds at the lightest touch. His self-conceit persuades him that he is competent to decide, off-hand, matters on which deeper, more thoughtful, more conscientious minds are slow to say anything at all. “A man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?” These are difficulties which wiser men feel and acknowledge.… The wise man waits for more light. The ease is not ripe for judgment—he can as yet neither approve nor disapprove; he can neither acquit nor condemn; and accordingly he refrains his lips. Not so the fool. He is the first, the longest, and the loudest in every discussion [Buchanan].
Fools are always most confident concerning the unknown and inscrutable.
That balanced condition of the mind, in which it is content to remain released from belief, is so uncommon that we have no word in our language to represent it. Every ignorant and foolish man has a stiff opinion upon those subjects in which his knowledge is least.
Ecclesiastes 10:15. Folly makes a man both a weariness to himself and to his neighbours. They grow impatient of his blunders and busy zeal of fruitless labour.
The fool is most confident in that wherein he ought to show the greatest modesty and reserve. He speaks of the accomplishment of his plans for the future with the same assurance as if he had read them distinctly in the Book of Fate.
The fool he has in view is a culpable fool—is one whose folly has much more of the moral than of the intellectual, in the defect which it indicates and implies. He is one whose heart is much further wrong than his head. The tongue of a mere imbecile cannot bite like a serpent.… In the highest and truest sense of the word, all wicked men are fools. There is a city—a mighty city—a glorious city—to which not one of them knows how to go; and that is the New Jerusalem, the city of the living God [Buchanan].
Fools (in the moral signification of the term), when they stand before some great conviction, waken up to the discovery that what they thought was knowledge was only words, resting upon no realities. They learn, like Job, the language of penitence and submission (Job 42:5-6).
Ecclesiastes 10:16. When thy king is a child.] Not in age, but in understanding—wanting in all the qualities of a vigorous manhood. And thy princes eat in the morning.] They employ in self-indulgence the time which ought to be devoted to serious business.
Ecclesiastes 10:18. By much slothfulness the building decayeth.] The “building” is the edifice of the state, which is brought to ruin by the indolence of the rulers.
Ecclesiastes 10:20. The rich.] Those of high rank and station, such as the nobles and princes—the counsellors of the king. A bird of the air shall carry thy voice.] In some unknown manner the secret will come out, as if suddenly picked up and borne off by a bird.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 10:16-20
THE TRUE LIFE OF THE STATE
As in individuals, so in states, there is a certain standard of health. There are conditions of vigour and decay. They cannot long hold any life or prosperity which is not founded upon moral goodness. The true life of the state may be considered,
I. As to the Sources by which it is Nourished: All life must draw support, and materials for repair and development, from something beyond itself. No creature can live upon its own blood. Nations can only maintain their true life and prosperity by due supplies of the proper nourishment of that life. It is especially necessary that those who govern should possess the highest excellencies—moral—intellectual—social.
1. They should have superior endowments of mind and heart. (Ecclesiastes 10:17.) They should be “sons of nobles,” not only by derivation and rank, but nobles in reality; men who are distinguished by that elevation of mind, those qualities of heart and temper, and that dignified bearing by which they are fitted for the difficult and responsible work of government.
2. They should be diligent in duty. Rulers have certain duties arising from the relations in which they stand to those over whom they are placed. Hence they need not only ability, but also zeal and diligence in their calling. They should be distinguished by industry, two main channels of which are indicated here.
(1) They should maintain the efficiency of what is good. The edifice of state, like a house, is exposed to constant wear, and the slow decays of time. The beauty and use of it must be preserved by repair and renovation. The inherent goodness of institutions will not save them from destruction. They must be maintained in efficiency by constant diligence and care. (Ecclesiastes 10:18.)
(2) Necessary improvements and reforms should be made. Time reveals what is weak, or no longer potent. Hence wise legislators will study the peculiar necessities of the age; and upon a wider basis of facts and experience, will endeavour to carry the science of government to greater perfection. All human institutions need reform. They have no natural immortality, and only maintain their potency by renewal of life.
(3) They should exercise moral control. (Ecclesiastes 10:16-17.) It is necessary in those who presume to lead mankind that the faculty of reason should be strong and clear, the judgment ready to decide with firmness whatever that reason approves. But this excellence of mind cannot be attained except by the mastery of the appetites and passions. When princes begin the day in rioting and excess, the animal surmounts the rational, justice and judgment fail, and the land fares ill. When moral control is exercised by those who rule, when they eat “for strength, and not for drunkenness,” their powers and energies of mind and heart are most effective for their high duties. Such men renew the life of the state. They are fitted to receive and exercise that wisdom which is profitable to direct, alike in the most retired as well as in the most public ways of life.
II. The Causes of its Decline. There are several forms of folly which, in the course of time, must wear out the life of states and bring them to the condition of dead empires.
1. Intellectual and moral imbecility in their rulers. (Ecclesiastes 10:16.) When the king is a “child” in mind and in character, inexperienced and thoughtless, having no manly vigour, no stable virtue, the nation he rules over is exposed to the worst fate. The more absolute the authority, the greater the ills which follow when those who wield it have not reached maturity of wisdom and skill. There are child-like qualities, beautiful in their own order and circumstance, but beyond these, intolerable and disastrous. A child must not hold the helm of the state.
2. Habits of luxury and dissipation. (Ecclesiastes 10:7; Ecclesiastes 10:19.) When kings give way to gluttony and intemperance, their moral influence must decline, they are rendered insensible to the real evils around them, and powerless to contend against those dangers by which the State is threatened. The contagion of their example is likely to spread rapidly through their subjects, and, as history has often witnessed, the nation unconquerable by the foe has become weakened by luxury, and rendered an easy prey to the invader. But such habits in rulers are marked by a deeper shade of guilt when they are defended by a shameless boldness and bravado. Evil men, on the seat of authority, are not ashamed to avow a vicious code of duty, to utter some miserable dictum with the vain conceit of appearing smart. Such an attempt to justify excess and riot is described in Ecclesiastes 10:19.
(1) They plead the abundant provisions of nature for self-indulgence. There is the feast—why should they not carouse, and enjoy to the full? There is the wine—why should they not be merry? Were not these things made for the use of man, and do they not confer with appetite to urge him to the highest enjoyment? Thus far can folly render men insensible to the delicacies and moralities of speech.
(2) They assert the omnipotence of gold. “Money answereth all things.” They are insensible to the noblest influences and powers, and imagine that money can achieve every purpose, and satisfy every desire; that gold is an apology for every crime, and answers all charges. Thus folly attains to the bad eminence of the utmost heights of impertinence.
III. The Cautions which even Wise Men must Observe who Desire its Welfare. The moral and intellectual faculties of such men are not impaired by vicious indulgence, but enhanced by careful culture and soberness of life. By their talents and virtue they contribute to the strength and preservation of the State. They are an influence for good, a standing rebuke to evil, the promoters of wise reforms. Such men might be tempted to impatience under the evils depicted here, and in the greatness of their zeal for the cause of justice, commit themselves to violent measures for reformation. Therefore prudence is necessary.
1. They must avoid too hasty an expression of feeling. (Ecclesiastes 10:20.) The king, and the councillors who are associated with him in the government, may be corrupt in their administration. This is a sore trial for men of delicate moral sense and high convictions of justice. Yet the wise man must restrain his feelings, and forbear to curse such rulers, even in his thought. The sense of indignation, though justly roused, might lead such to hasty action, and cause a righteous struggle to end in defeat.
2. They have to consider that the injudicious promotion of a good cause may lead to serious evils. It is not expedient to speak out every conviction of the mind. The wise will learn to maintain a judicious reserve. Mere fragments of speech may be taken up by tale-bearers, and so combined and distributed as greatly to distort and misrepresent what was spoken. Hence, in a world like this, prudence in every course of conduct is necessary; for without it, virtue itself is but a weak and insufficient defence.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 10:16. Read in the light of this contrast, child must obviously mean a child in capacity—a silly Absalom, or a self-willed Rehoboam—a man destitute of the gravity, and intelligence, and experience, and still more destitute of the high sense of responsibility and duty, which true wisdom inspires; a man more taken up about his own amusements and pleasures than with the affairs and interests of his kingdom. In such hands everything must speedily fall into inevitable disorder. The courtiers would be sure, with their customary servility, to copy the idleness and loose living of the king. It is this, no doubt, that is pointed at by the “princes eating”—that is, feasting—“in the morning.” The morning in all countries, and especially in the East, was devoted by princes to public affairs. Then it was that, as judges, they sat in the gate, to hear and determine the causes and questions which the people might have to bring before them; or that they assembled in the council chambers to deliberate on the great matters of the state [Buchanan].
Ill fares the land when the king is intellectually weak, luxurious, and depraved. His administration is likely to be defective, and even vicious; his exalted position renders his example the more dangerous.
Good and wise institutions cannot preserve a nation from destruction, unless they are administered by good and wise men.
Illustrious names should be supported by illustrious virtues and capacities.
Ecclesiastes 10:17. A king, the son of nobles, is one possessing true nobility of mind. To be merely of high lineage would, of itself, be no security for the possession of those qualities of which Solomon here evidently intends to speak. Neither virtue nor wisdom is the necessary accompaniment of high birth. In all periods of the world’s history, from Solomon’s time until now, it has been a thing only too common to find far-descended princes who had nothing else but their pedigree of which to boast—whose personal qualities were as low and base as their ancestry was illustrious and exalted. Wisdom is not hereditary—it does not run in the blood—as Solomon’s own son sufficiently proved [Buchanan].
The senses and appetites, when they are under the control of wisdom, may be made the servants of virtue.
When the indulgence of appetites, lawful in themselves, is carried to excess, or pursued for its own sake, it is a proof that the animal man sinks both the rational and the spiritual. Nations must “seek those things which are above,” if they would prosper.
Ecclesiastes 10:18. A house requires not only to be built, but to be kept up. If a man, from laziness, after having got his habitation reared, will not be at the trouble of necessary repairs, a damage that is at first trifling will imperceptibly increase, and will be followed by others till the building comes to be in danger: Day after day, as the time for purposed or half-purposed exertion comes round, the sluggard yawns out to himself the same convenient assurance, that a few hours can make no difference, till by daily procrastination the repair becomes impracticable, and the decayed and shattered tenement “falls through” [Wardlaw].
There are three great fellowships of men, the Family, the State, the Church, which are so many buildings of God. In each of these, slothfulness is an evil fraught with the utmost danger.
No institution can live merely upon the history of the past. The skill and activity of the living present must constantly repair the wrongs of time. It does not suffice even for Christianity itself that it has a firm historical basis. It needs also a living and ever-active Director.
Slothfulness, whether in the things of man or God, is the forerunner of a gradual, yet sure decay.
Ecclesiastes 10:19. Men’s lusts are very expensive, they will not get their slothfulness and excess maintained without much money; the consideration whereof should make them more sober and diligent. For their words import that sensual rulers must have money, and may be looked upon as including an argument to dissuade them from laziness and excess taken from the effect thereof, which is the poverty of the people, who must give to them that “money which answereth all things” [Nisbet].
As men yield to the allurements of evil, the power and delicacy of the mind and conscience become impaired. Such are satisfied and lulled by the meanest excuses.
When we consider the power and influence which are secured by gold, we do not wonder that it has turned the heads of some. They have accepted the worship of it as a religion—a sure refuge from every evil—a means of justification.
Ecclesiastes 10:20. A righteous man may be so provoked by existing evils, that he cannot prevent the sense of indignation from rising in his breast. Yet the duty of restraining his feelings by a sober and calculating prudence is laid upon him by the constitution of society, and it is part of his trial here.
There is a respect due to office and authority, as such, independently of their moral character. Every ordinance of God may become corrupt by human vices, yet the fact of their Divine appointment remains.
When once thought is uttered in speech, it is often like a stone flung from the hand; we have no further power over it, and know not where it will light or with what results.
This is a strong proverbial form of speech, expressive of the strange and unaccountable way in which such matters are frequently detected. They come to light—nobody knows how. The course they have followed leaves no traces by which it can be searched out. It is as if “a bird of the air had carried the voice.” You are as much at a loss as the Syrian monarch was, when Elisha the prophet “told the king of Israel the words that he spoke in his bed-chamber” [Wardlaw].
The earth is not a place of secrecy. It is scarcely in the power of earthly frailty to keep anything secret and concealed. Wherefore St. Paul was taken up to the third heaven, when he heard things that might not be uttered: according as St. Ambrose noteth upon it, who saith, “Paul heard some secrets of wisdom which he was forbidden to make known to others, and therefore he was taken up into Paradise” [Jermin].
There is a Heavenly King who has immediate note of the most secret suggestions of the mind, and to whose ears are borne even the whispers of rebellion.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29