Wisdom Really Works

He who digs a pit will fall into it,
    and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall.
He who quarries stones is hurt by them,
    and he who splits logs is endangered by them.
10 If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge,
    he must use more strength,
    but wisdom helps one to succeed.
11 If the serpent bites before it is charmed,
    there is no advantage to the charmer.

12 The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,
    but the lips of a fool consume him.
13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness,
    and the end of his talk is evil madness.
14 A fool multiplies words,
    though no man knows what is to be,
    and who can tell him what will be after him?
15 The toil of a fool wearies him,
    for he does not know the way to the city.

16 Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,
    and your princes feast in the morning!
17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility,
    and your princes feast at the proper time,
    for strength, and not for drunkenness!
18 Through sloth the roof sinks in,
    and through indolence the house leaks.
19 Bread is made for laughter,
    and wine gladdens life,
    and money answers everything.
20 Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king,
    nor in your bedroom curse the rich,
for a bird of the air will carry your voice,
    or some winged creature tell the matter. Ecclesiastes 10:8-20 ESV

Solomon continues his discussion about wisdom that he began in the opening verses of this chapter, but now, he does so in a more proverbial form. In verses 8-10, he outlines the positive influence of wisdom. It helps one to succeed. Yet, he also describes several scenarios where wisdom won’t necessarily prove to be an asset. It may help, but it cannot prevent the unforeseen or unexpected.

For instance, if someone is in the process of digging a pit, they face the very real risk of falling into the hole they have dug. Wisdom can cause a man to be cautious, but it can’t completely eliminate an accident from occurring.

When doing demolition work on an old wall, and removing the rocks or bricks by hand, there’s always the chance you might get bitten by a snake. Again, wisdom advises discernment and caution, but it can’t control the actions of a snake.

Working in a quarry can be a profitable and potentially harmful occupation. The very stones you seek to gather can end up crushing you. And while the wise will work carefully and cautiously, they may still find themselves in harm’s way, because they can’t control nature. The same thing could be true for someone who splits logs. It’s a potentially dangerous occupation that can end up harming even the wisest of men.

But Solomon’s point seems to be that if wisdom is not used in and applied to the everyday affairs of life, things could turn out even worse. Solomon gives the example of a log-splitter who attempts to do his job with an unsharpened ax. He will find himself expending more energy than necessary, creating undue exhaustion, and increasing the chances of harming himself. But wisdom, when applied properly to life, can help one succeed. It can also help protect against unnecessary risk. But it is not a cure-all or preventative for any and all dangers associated with everyday life lived under the sun.

The sad reality is that there are situations and scenarios in life that cannot be prevented by wisdom. A snake charmer who gets bitten by a snake before he has had the opportunity to train it is the victim of bad timing. His fate has little to do with his abilities as a snake charmer but speaks volumes about the risk associated with his profession. Snake bites are a common hazard for those who attempt to charm snakes. It comes with the territory.

While verses 8-11 deal with wisdom as it pertains to man’s occupation or work life, verses 12-15 take on the tongue, or how wisdom can influence our speech.

Wise words bring approval,
    but fools are destroyed by their own words. – Ecclesiastes 10:12 NLT

The words of a wise man can earn the favor of others. They positively impact his life because they leave a good impression on all those around him. But a foolish man tends to say things that do more harm than good. And he is the one who suffers the most because he speaks self-destructive words that elicit rejection and animosity from others. From the minute a thought comes into his head to the moment he expresses it, the fool’s fate is sealed.

Fools base their thoughts on foolish assumptions,
    so their conclusions will be wicked madness;
    they chatter on and on. – Ecclesiastes 10:13-14 NLT

Their speech is foolish because their thinking is foolish. And as Solomon wrote in one of his proverbs, the real issue is the heart.

Guard your heart above all else,
    for it determines the course of your life.

Avoid all perverse talk;
    stay away from corrupt speech. – Proverbs 4:23-24 NLT

And it was Jesus who said, “whatever is in your heart determines what you say” (Matthew 12:34 NLT). A foolish heart produces foolish words. It’s unavoidable and inevitable. And fools tend to speak of things they don’t know, droning on and on about matters beyond their level of comprehension or regarding the future, of which they have no knowledge.

No one really knows what is going to happen;
    no one can predict the future. – Ecclesiastes 10:14 NLT

They speak because they can, not because they should. And Solomon reasons that it is silly to listen to the words of someone predicting the future who can’t even find his way into town. Their self-professed wisdom is of no practical value. It can’t even prevent them from getting lost. But the sad truth is that our world is filled with foolish individuals who constantly spout their opinions and spew their foolish rhetoric for all to hear. And far too often, the world listens. Social media has provided a platform for fools to spout their opinions on anything and everything. Rock stars and celebrities use their fame as justification for sharing their thoughts on virtually any and every topic under the sun. And the world gathers around them like they’re listening to the Oracle of Delphi. We treat them as if they’re sages or some kind of prescient diviners of all truth. But in reality, they are nothing more than fools, and fools have a bad habit of attracting more of their own kind. As the old saying goes: Birds of a feather flock together. And because that statement is true, you end up with the sad scene that Jesus once described as the blind leading the blind. And the end result of that little parade is never positive.

In verses 16-19, Solomon now turns his attention to wisdom as it relates to leadership. He starts out by describing a nation ruled by a child-king and a collection of princes who lack self-control.

What sorrow for the land ruled by a servant,
    the land whose leaders feast in the morning. – Ecclesiastes 10:16 NLT

In Proverbs 22:15, Solomon makes the observation: “A youngster’s heart is filled with foolishness.” Children make lousy leaders because they lack wisdom. And if you gather a group of children together, you multiply the foolishness exponentially. Young, inexperienced princes who love to feast in the morning will end up making bad decisions all day long.

Of course, Solomon may be speaking of a king who simply acts like a child. We all know what that looks like. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul made a personal statement regarding his attitude toward maturity and spiritual growth: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11 NLT). Adults are to act like adults. But sadly, far too many grownups still behave like children, lacking self-control and exhibiting simplistic thinking that can destroy marriages, families, cities, and nations.

But when a leader approaches his responsibilities wisely and nobly, those under his leadership prosper. They find themselves joyful and at peace because they have someone leading them effectively and justly.

Happy is the land whose king is a noble leader
    and whose leaders feast at the proper time
    to gain strength for their work, not to get drunk. – Ecclesiastes 10:17 NLT

Leaders who feast in order to gain strength are dramatically different than those who feast to get drunk. Wise leaders understand the seriousness of their role and do everything with forethought and careful consideration as to how their actions will influence the well-being of those under their care. But young, foolish leaders end up making unwise decisions. In some cases, they put off making decisions at all, procrastinating, or simply postponing their responsibilities. And Solomon compares this kind of leadership to the slothful individual who puts off fixing his roof, only to watch it leak and eventually cave in on him.

You can put off your responsibilities, but not the consequences for doing so. Wisdom is what helps us make use of the gifts God has given to us. Bread is of great value and can produce much joy and laughter when used wisely. Wine is a wonderful gift from God and can make life more enjoyable but only when accompanied by wisdom. Money can be a powerful tool to solve all kinds of problems but it requires wisdom and discernment.

All of these gifts can be abused and misused. A fool can take what God has given and use it to self-destruct. He can over-indulge. He can drink to excess. And he can make money his god. And a fool, sitting in the privacy of his own home, may think it is safe for him to speak ill of the king, but what he doesn’t realize is that even words spoken in private have a way of going public. His foolish criticism of those in authority over him will eventually come back to haunt him.

Wisdom really does work. When used appropriately, as God intended, it can have far-reaching benefits that bring added value to life. Wisdom is not a cure-all that guarantees a problem-free life. It is a God-given resource for making the most out of life – including the good and the bad. Wisdom provides discernment and self-discipline. It promotes diligence and discourages laziness. It produces a life of meaning and significance, marked by a reverence for God and a reliance upon His grace and goodness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

 

A Little Folly Goes a Long Way

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench;
    so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right,
    but a fool’s heart to the left.
Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves. Ecclesiastes 10:1-7 ESV

There is little doubt that Solomon was a big fan of wisdom. He knew first-hand the value that wisdom could afford a man. But he also knew that wisdom has its limits. In the world in which he lived, there was no one who possessed perfect wisdom. Even he, the wisest man who ever lived, had made foolish mistakes. Despite the vast amount of God-given wisdom he possessed, he had ended up violating the commands of God. During his long life, he had made many unwise decisions that had left an indelible mark on his life and his reign as king.

That seems to be his point in verse 1, where he uses the metaphor of a fly in the ointment. The ointment Solomon had in mind was most likely olive oil, which was used as both a perfume and a healing agent. Like wisdom, the ointment was intended to have a positive effect, acting as a sweet-smelling perfume or a health-inducing medicine. But one dead fly could turn the positive properties of ointment into a diseased-filled, stench-producing product that was of no good to anyone. In the same way, one foolish act can destroy years of wise decision-making. The damaging effects of even a modicum of foolish behavior are immeasurable. It doesn’t take much. And Paul used a similar metaphor when he warned against the impact of false teaching on the church.

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! – Galatians 5:9 NLT

There are two ways we can look at Ecclesiastes 10:1. The first is that a wise person can destroy their reputation for wisdom by making one foolish decision. It can become like a fly in the ointment, quickly nullifying the years of beneficial value established by living a life of wisdom. But it can also refer to the impact one fool can have on a family, community, or nation. All it takes is a single individual making one foolish decision to destroy years of wise counsel and leadership. And interestingly enough, Solomon’s own foolish decisions would eventually reap devastating consequences for the nation of Israel. The kingdom his father David had established would end up divided in half and would never regain its former glory. The book of 1 Kings provides a description of Solomon’s fly-in-the-ointment failure that led to God’s removal of him as king and the division of the Davidic Kingdom.

The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. But for the sake of your father, David, I will not do this while you are still alive. I will take the kingdom away from your son. And even so, I will not take away the entire kingdom; I will let him be king of one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, my chosen city.” – 1 Kings 11:9-13 NLT

And perhaps it was because Solomon had seen the error of his ways, even if a bit too late, that he spoke so often and so highly of wisdom. He knew that godly wisdom was a deterrent to poor decision-making because it led its adherents down the right path.

But the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light,
growing brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like gloomy darkness;
they do not know what they stumble over. – Proverbs 4:18-19 NLT

Solomon knew that a fool, devoid of godly wisdom, would allow his deceived heart to lead him down the wrong path. And it’s not difficult to spot a fool, because the course of his life gives ample proof that his decision-making is godless and unrighteous.

Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool. – Ecclesiastes 10:3 ESV

He’s unable to hide his foolishness because his life choices provide glaring evidence of his lack of wisdom. And Solomon provides a real-life example that contrasts the actions of a fool with those of a wise man.

If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest. – Ecclesiastes 10:4 ESV

If you find that someone in authority is angry with you, don’t act like a fool and impulsively quit. Instead, respond with wisdom, remaining calm and allowing your superior time to cool off. Use self-control. Don’t allow foolish pride to dictate your response and determine your fate.

This is not a guarantee that the ruler will calm down. It doesn’t mean that your wise response will necessarily produce the right reaction from the one who is angry and acting unjustly. But a wise person will not allow the foolish behavior of another to infect and affect their own behavior.

The truth is, there are sometimes fools sitting in places of authority who wield great power. That seems to be Solomon’s point when he writes, “folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place” (Ecclesiastes 10:6 ESV). The sad reality is that the undeserving and unqualified are sometimes rewarded with positions of power where they rule over those with greater skills and proven track records of success. Solomon refers to them as “rich”, but the Hebrew word can refer to someone who is honorable and noble. In other words, they are someone of worth and character who finds themselves placed in an inferior position and having to submit to the authority of a fool. Solomon describes this sad state of affairs as an evil under the sun. But it’s just a reality of life.

Like Solomon, we live in a world that is sometimes topsy-turvy, where everything appears to be just the opposite of what it should be. In his day, he put this incongruity in visual terms, describing the disturbing sight of “slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves” (Ecclesiastes 10:7 ESV).

This was just further proof of the injustice and inequities that abound in this life. And we see the same thing in our day. How many times have we witnessed the promotion of a less-qualified individual for a position of prominence in our company? How often have we seen the undeserving fast-tracked to promotion while the more gifted and talented are overlooked? We have experienced this kind of injustice ourselves. But the fact that it happens doesn’t disqualify the value of wisdom over folly. It’s simply proof of the pervasive presence of sin in the world. 

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a glimpse into the mindset that permeates our fallen world.

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

What an apt description of the world in which we live. And it was true in Solomon’s day as well. It is the nature of life in a world where godlessness has produced a pandemic of foolishness. And while wisdom is essential and to be desired above all else, wisdom alone cannot rectify the problem we face in this world. As Solomon so aptly put it in Proverbs 1:7: “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

Without a knowledge of God and a reverence for who He is, humanity lacks the ability to understand right from wrong, truth from falsehood, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness. Without God, mankind invariably turns to human wisdom, which always proves insufficient and incapable of providing reliable help in navigating through life. The apostle Paul gives us a wonderful description of the difference between worldly wisdom and that which comes from God.

Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say,

“He traps the wise
    in the snare of their own cleverness.”

And again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise;
    he knows they are worthless.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 NLT

Surviving in this world requires wisdom, but it must be wisdom that is founded on a relationship with God Almighty. The wisdom we need must be based on who He is and what He desires. Without Him, our wisdom becomes folly. Apart from God, man’s wisdom always proves insufficient and inadequate to comprehend the dangers of a fallen world and a foolish heart.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson