FOR JULY 14, 1013
This week, we return to our series of messages from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is written by a wise man—a former king of Israel who has spent his life using his wisdom to investigate and analyze virtually every area of life. As we move into chapter ten today, there is not one specific theme that ties these 11 verses together. These verses are a set of inspired reflections or truths on wisdom and folly—on sages and fools. Because this text is about wisdom and folly, we need to spend a moment explaining what the Bible means by those terms. What is a fool, Biblically-defined and how does he live? This clarification is important because these terms are understood differently in the Bible than the way we use them in common parlance today. Today, we tend to think of wisdom as “common sense” and of fools as people who behave in ridiculous ways. That’s simply not accurate. When the Bible speaks of the wise and fools, those are fundamentally spiritual categories, not intellectual or mental classifications.
Psalm 14:1 tells us, “1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” The fool, Biblically- defined, is a godless person. Fools either refuse to believe there is a God or (as is more often the case)--they live as if God doesn’t exist. Because God has no place in shaping their worldview or behavior, their lives are marked by corruption and characterized by abominable deeds. Ultimately, a fool is someone who lives exclusively (or almost exclusively) for himself—as if he was the lord of his universe. And that describes many people we know. When we look at wisdom from a Biblical perspective, its spiritual nature comes to light. Proverbs 9:10, among other texts tell us, “10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” At the heart of wisdom is fearing God—being duly reverent of him and living in the light of his holiness. Biblical wisdom is lived out on this spiritual plane.
That’s not to say that those who don’t know God can’t possess a certain level of “wisdom” that comes from their life experience and/or is manifest in their capacity to understand life and make remarkably good judgments in many areas. The fact that certain ungodly people display these characteristics is testimony to the fact that they are created in God’s image and in their case; this is one way in which his image is clearly seen in their lives--just as others more clearly image God through their musical talent or artistic creativity. You don’t have to be a follower of Christ to create beautiful music or art. But this kind of “wisdom” is not Biblical wisdom if it doesn’t begin with fearing God—relating to him properly.
Jesus is consistent with this Biblical understanding of the wise and the fool as he gives application to his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter seven. As he concludes this glorious teaching he says, 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Jesus understands the wise man as someone who hears and out of his love and fear of God does his word whereas the fool hears God’s words but doesn’t do them. This is sobering because it teaches that it’s possible to know the Word of God very well and remain a fool if you don’t put what you know into practice.
Now let’s get into the text. The first truth pertaining to wisdom and folly is in verses one through three. The author, who calls himself Qohelet or the Preacher writes, “1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. 2 A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left. 3 Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.” These verses speak of: The Powerful and Transparent Nature of Folly. Folly—the fruit of a fool’s life can be powerful in its capacity to destroy or undo much good. This is the same truth we looked at last time in the end of chapter 10. “18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” This is the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” It only takes one fool to spoil years of work done by many wise people.
In 10:1 the image is graphic. A perfumer mixes various exotic ingredients to create a perfume for cosmetic use or for use in temple worship. The smell attracts some flies that get stuck and die in the perfume. Their rotting carcasses give off an odor that overpowers the perfume and transforms what was a pleasing aroma into a disgusting stench. A few little flies can ruin a container of very expensive perfume just as making one foolish remark can forever create a person’s negative opinion of you. One miscalculation by a pilot in a 3000 mile journey can cause a horrible plane crash. Better examples of this kind of folly include—the three godless judges on the Supreme Court in 1973 who made a foolish ruling and 40 years later, more than 55 million unborn children have been killed. One man—a German high school drop-out who couldn’t get into art school was largely responsible for the deaths of over 125 million people including six million Jews. Folly can be frighteningly powerful.
Folly has power in another way. Verse two says, “2 A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left.” The reference to the right and left is not intended to offend southpaws. In the ancient world, the right side became symbolic of virtue while the left represented evil. Jesus is at the right hand of God. In the final judgment, Jesus says in Matthew 25 that the sheep will be on the right side of his throne, the goats will be on his left. If you don’t know the difference between your right hand and your left--as God said to Jonah about the people of Nineveh--that meant you don’t know the difference between right…and wrong. The Latin word we translate “sinister” literally means “left hand.” “The wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left…” One reason folly can be so powerful is that it emanates from the heart of a person. Folly and wisdom are not simply bad habits that can easily be unlearned—they emanate from the very essence of a person. For a fool to become wise, she needs a heart transplant through the gospel because her folly is not a shallow behavior pattern, it’s at the core of her being.
Not only is folly powerful, it’s also transparent. That is—in most cases, it’s impossible for a fool to conceal his folly for long. Verse three, “3 Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.” The only question here is--in what manner does the fool so clearly make known his folly? In many ways. Proverbs 13:16 says, “16 In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.” Fools tend to wear their folly on their sleeves—flaunting it as it were something to be proud of. Today, all sorts of fools who desperately need the truth of the gospel flaunt their folly by publically declaring any number of foolish things. They state them firmly convinced that their godless positions are highly enlightened. “Of course, homosexuals have the right to express their love for one another in marriage.” It’s fascinating that what was very unclear in the thinking of even liberal thinkers just two years ago has suddenly become a patently obvious fact that only cultural Neanderthals would question.
Proverbs 12:23 says, “23 A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.” The difference between the Biblical culture of Qohelet and ours is—an increasing number of people today are completely dismissing God--are godless and that means they—as Biblically-defined fools, will more frequently express foolish attitudes. Paul describes it this way in Romans chapter one. “21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”
These people need the gospel—the light of truth to saturate and transform their sin-darkened minds. Most of the time, you don’t have to speak for very long with a Biblically-defined fool to know you are talking to a person who’s at war with God and his truth. It’s pretty transparent most of the time. We know there are times when Satan appears as an angel of light, but much of the time, especially in a truth-bereft culture, foolishness is placed right out in the open. Fools are generally transparent.
A second truth about fools and folly is in verses four through seven. The main truth here is: The Disastrous Consequences of a Fool with Power or Authority. People have always complained about the foolishness of their leaders. Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” When a fool—as Biblically-defined is given authority—whether on a local, state or national level, the fruit that produces is both rotten and enduring. The first reference to “ruler” is in verse four where it says, “If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.” Given the context we can probably infer that ruler is a fool. Earlier in 7:9, the Preacher says, “9 Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.”
As we saw in chapter eight, sometimes it’s best to run from the presence of a loud and presumably angry ruler but here the Preacher tells us to stay and listen to his rant but remain calm. That’s really the best way to deal with anyone who is angry. You can cower in intimidation. You can return their anger or you can walk away, but the best thing in most cases is to remain in the presence of the angry person and speak in measured, calm tones. That has a way of bringing the temperature down in the room and promoting a reasonable discussion. “1 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” In verse five, the Preacher is more explicit about fools who rule. “5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.”
The truth here is that it is evil when errors proceed from foolish rulers—“folly set on high places.” That is—it’s not hidden or removed as is appropriate, it’s brazenly placed on display. On the other hand, when a ruler who is a Biblically-defined fool assumes power the Preacher says that truths and institutions that have formerly marked the culture—have even served as supporting pillars of society—are depreciated. He gives three examples of this as he applies it to his Ancient Near Eastern culture. First, “…the rich sit in low places.” In that culture, the rich were typically considered wise and sat at the best places in the city gate where they could help other people. They had resources and influence that they could use (hopefully) for the public good.
When a fool becomes the ruler, this order is reversed and the rich—those considered wise--are displaced and put in places where their resources can’t be put to good use. A second example is similar. “I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.” It’s clear that Qohelet is speaking from personal experience here—he has seen the rotten fruit of foolish rulers. Horses were typically associated with power, wealth and authority. Slaves didn’t ride on horses, princes did. Princes didn’t walk on the ground, slaves did. The point is that foolish rulers turn wisdom on its head to the great detriment of the culture.
It’s difficult to give specific examples here without very quickly turning this into a political address. That’s not my charge. What we can say is that in a representative republic, we dare not think our vote or influence in society is unimportant. If Christ’s church sits out of the political process, fools will be elected and when fools become rulers, the culture gets turned upside-down. What was once considered right becomes wrong. What was once considered unimpeachably true is rejected as archaic thinking. What once engendered shame is shouted from the housetops. We must think through a Biblical grid to find the truth on the issues of our day and determine whether what God says is closer to the popular conservative or liberal position or is somewhere in between. And we must vote and work for candidates who represent Biblical truth. It’s easy to be cynical and assume our vote doesn’t make any difference. The truth is—when fools rule the nation or state or city, that translates into cultural upheaval and changes that bring dishonor to God and that makes our vote very important.
As we’ve seen before, when the Preacher proclaims the virtues of wisdom or the pain brought by fools, he often balances that by helping us see the limitations of wisdom. One of the limitations is that not all things fit neatly into the categories of wisdom and folly. Some bad things happen to wise people and he gives four illustrations of this beginning with verse eight. “8 He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. 9 He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them.” This text speaks to: The Limitations of Wisdom. All these situations describe potential dangers associated with living life that are unrelated to wisdom or folly. If a hunter digs a pit in which to trap an animal and then camouflages it with a covering of some sort, his proximity to the trap increases the chances he will fall into it. Likewise, if you’re tearing down a stone wall like those still seen in the Middle East, snakes are known to hide between the stones. When you tear the wall down, your proximity to it makes you vulnerable to snake bites. When you’re quarrying stone, you’re hammering into a wall of rock. If you hit an unstable spot, you could find yourself unexpectedly under a large pile of rubble. All sorts of things can happen to a log-splitter with an axe and splinters and flying wood chips and Ancient Near Eastern log splitters weren’t equipped with goggles or other safety equipment.
These “accidents” are often unrelated to wisdom or folly. Wisdom doesn’t insulate you from bad things happening to you. Bad things happen to wise men and women just as they do to fools. Wisdom is not the answer to every problem and every problem is not explainable by the presence of folly. Things just happen sometimes. We know they’re superintended by the providence of God—he works in the midst of even what we would call “accidents” to accomplish his purposes—often in ways we cannot understand. In that sense, there are no genuine accidents or purely random occurrences. God is sovereign over all things—they’re NOT out of his control and we can take comfort in that. But not all the things that happen to us can be explained within the context of wisdom and folly. To put it another way--not everything is a moral issue.
This is important to remember because it’s easy for us to make moral judgments about non-moral things. A man falls out of his deer stand and sadly, dies. It’s easy to assume that’s a moral issue—“Yeah, he was probably up half the night drinking and couldn’t control himself.” In other words, he’s dead because he’s a fool. Sober people fall out of deer stands too. A man in his 40’s has a stroke or heart attack. This becomes an issue of morality for some people. “Yeah, he must have been a couch potato who ate like a pig.” I know one family where only one of several men in the family lived past 45 because they all had terrible heart disease. They could have lived very healthy lives and still died young. They didn’t die because they were unwise—didn’t fear God. The Bible calls us to makes charitable judgment in these cases. This is where Matthew seven applies. “1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Ken Sande does a good job of summarizing Jesus’ message here. He says, “What he is warning us about is our inclination to make critical judgments in the negative sense, which involves looking for others’ faults and, without valid and sufficient reason, forming unfavorable opinions of their qualities, words, actions, or motives. In simple terms, it means looking for the worst in others.” When we do that, we aren’t loving people and we wouldn’t appreciate others ascribing moral failure to us when no moral component is involved. Jesus also says that if we make these graceless judgments, he will judge us that way—without grace and no sane person wants that.
A final reflection on wisdom and folly points to: Why we need wisdom. Verse 10 says, “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.” A person who fears God and is rightly related to him will be able to discern more clearly the appropriate response to different situations. Qohelet describes two situations here that demand very different responses and the implication is that wisdom enables us to apply the proper response to each challenge. The first situation is one many here can relate to. If you’re chopping wood with a dull axe, you exert far more energy than when you use a sharp one. A quote that is often mistakenly attributed to Abraham Lincoln is—“If I had six hours to chop wood, I would spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.” There’s no record of Lincoln ever saying that, but it’s still a wise statement.
The point is—when approaching a task, adequate preparation is wise and often brings success. “…Wisdom helps one succeed” is how the Preacher puts it in verse 10. The second situation he cites speaks to a person who responds too slowly. A snake charmer is bitten by the snake before he can get it charmed. Cutting wood without taking the time to adequately prepare will make for more work—meticulous preparation of the blade is wise. But when you are handling a snake, it’s not about being meticulous; it’s about quickly getting the snake calmed before it strikes out at you. Two different situations require two very different approaches in order to have success. Knowing the difference between one and the other requires Spirit-led wisdom.
This is especially the case as we interact with very different kinds of people. Some people are motivated by the Army drill sergeant approach. They work well under high structure, high pressure situations. Others shrivel under that. They require more affirmation—a gentler touch. If they receive that, they’ll work as hard as the people under pressure, but you have to know who you are dealing with and know what approach to use. Any good parent knows that what works well with one of their children can be an absolute train wreck with another. Knowing the difference requires Spirit-led wisdom. We must pray for wisdom as James tells us so that we will give appropriate responses in a life that’s not—one-size-fits-all. We must let wisdom, not the natural bent of our personality determine what is the best course of action.
As we close,
there is one issue about which possessing wisdom is infinitely more important than any other and we’ve already
seen it in Matthew chapter seven. At
the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says in this one area the difference between a wise response and a foolish
response carries eternal consequences. Those
who hear the words of Jesus and by God’s grace do them are given eternal life. Those
who hear them, but do not obey are building on sinking sand that will leave them in hell. The
fundamental command of Christ is in John 6:28-29. The
Jews ask Jesus, “28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Have
you trusted in Christ? Have
you seen your own sin and been mortified by it? Have
you looked to the cross where Jesus took the punishment I deserved upon himself as God’s infinitely wise solution
to my sin problem. The
wisest thing a person can do is to stop trusting in his/her own efforts to be good enough for God—that’s spiritual
in Christ and his saving work on the cross to bring you forgiveness and cleansing and acceptance by God. How utterly foolish it is to reject
Christ and his offer of salvation and end up in eternal torment. If
your life hasn’t been transformed by Christ, come to him in faith today. And
for those who regularly hear the words of Jesus but do not do them, remember the words of Jesus in Luke 6:26. “46“Why
do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” Knowing
the words of Jesus is not enough. Submitting
to his Lordship—one of the reasons he saved us—involves believing in him and by his grace from that heart of faith--doing
May God give us
the grace to live wise lives before him for his glory and our joy.
 Kidner, Derek, Ecclesiastes, BST. 1976, p. 89.
 As quoted in Ryken, Philip, Ecclesiastes, PTW, Crossway, 2010, p. 235.
 Ryken, Ecclesiastes, 235.
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