Folly and Authority – Ecclesiastes 10

Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 10

Effects of Folly (10:1–7)

As he had done in Eccl. 7, so here in Eccl. 10 Solomon uses a writing style similar to that of the book of Proverbs, as each verse contains a wisdom teaching that may or may not be related to the surrounding verses. In Eccl. 10:1–2 Solomon writes about the effects of folly upon the world, as he likens foolishness to the stench of a dead fly in perfume. Indeed, even “a little folly” (Eccl. 10:1) in the life of someone otherwise known as wise is offensive. In Eccl. 10:2 Solomon teaches that a wise man’s heart is on the directional right side and a foolish man’s heart is on the left. This is meant to exalt wisdom, for in biblical metaphors the directional right side is the side of power. Next, Solomon observes that fools cannot help but display their foolishness (cf. Eccl. 10:3), for we reveal who we are. Finally, in Eccl. 10:4, as he had done earlier (cf. Prov. 15:1; 25:15), Solomon teaches that calmness can pacify offenses.

Earlier, at Eccl. 5:13–14 and 6:1–2, Solomon used the phrase, “There is an evil I have seen under the sun.” The evil he describes at Eccl. 5:13 is “riches kept for their owner to his own hurt.” The evil in view at Eccl. 6:1–2 is God giving a man great riches, yet the owner lacking power in order to enjoy his wealth. For the third and final time in this book, at Eccl. 10:5 Solomon again writes about, “An evil I have seen under the sun.” Here he identifies the evil, writing, “Folly is set in great dignity, while the rich sit in a lowly place” (Eccl. 10:6). Observe that all three of these great evils are related to wealth, as Eccl. 5:13–14 refers to misused wealth, Eccl. 6:1–2 cites unenjoyed wealth, and Eccl. 10:5–6 mentions unrecognized wealth. As Solomon has taught in this book, wealth is to be enjoyed under the sun; however, it ought never to be worshiped, for it cannot satisfy.

Results of Foolishness (10:8–15)

Numerous times in this book, Solomon has noted the vanity of life under the sun, as he has written that the duration of life is brief, the meaning of life is futile, and the actions of life are repetitive. Furthermore, in his investigation Solomon has noted that sometimes the unrighteous flourish, the righteous are persecuted, and justice is delayed. However, more often than not, wisdom will make one’s path smooth, while foolishness will create chaos. In Eccl. 10:8–9 Solomon reiterates this idea, as he observes the reflexive nature of foolishness, as oftentimes poor choices impact a fool the most. Examples that Solomon cites here include digging a pit, breaking a wall, quarrying a stone, and splitting a log. Playing off his example of cutting wood Solomon notes, “If the ax is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength, but wisdom brings success” (Eccl. 10:10).

In Eccl. 10:11–15 Solomon continues to describe the results of foolishness, as he focuses here upon the words spoken by a fool. By way of contrast, at Eccl. 10:12a Solomon teaches, “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious.” This is an important teaching, for it can serve as a diagnostic tool to help discern between a wise man and a foolish man. Note that every verse in Eccl. 10:11–15, except for Eccl. 10:12a, relates to a fool. Here we learn: (1) the words of a fool bite (cf. Eccl. 10:11), (2) the words of a fool cause him self-harm (cf. Eccl. 10:12b), (3) the words of a fool start with foolishness (cf. Eccl. 10:13a), (4) the words of a fool result in madness (cf. Eccl. 10:13b), (5) the words of a fool are many (cf. Eccl. 10:14a), (6) the words of a fool presume upon the future (cf. Eccl. 10:14b), and (7) the actions of a fool are tiresome and unreliable (cf. Eccl. 10:15).

Value of Authority (10:16–20)

Recall that in Eccl. 8:2–9 Solomon had written about the importance of obeying one’s authorities. Here in Eccl. 10:16–20 Solomon returns to the theme of wisdom and authority. In Eccl. 10:16–17 Solomon notes that whereas foolish and morally corrupt authorities bring about woe, wise and morally upright authorities will bring blessings. Next, in Eccl. 10:18–19, implicitly writing about authorities, Solomon observes that laziness and idleness result in decay, even of buildings. Furthermore, leaders who engage in improper feasting and drinking are poor leaders. Eccl. 10:20 may seem to be separate from the preceding verses; however, in this verse Solomon gives a related principle about wise interaction with authorities—that is, do not curse the king or the wealthy, for such curses will inevitably find their way to the ears of those about whom they are spoken.

Application Questions:

  1. If the results of wisdom and foolishness are universally evident, why do some people repeatedly ignore wisdom and embrace foolishness?
  2. Have you ever witnessed, or practiced, the principle of “calmness pacifying great offenses” (Eccl. 10:4)?
  3. In what ways does “wisdom bring success” (Eccl. 10:10)? In what areas of your life have you experienced the benefits of wise actions?
  4. How can we discern between wise and foolish advice? Have your ever mistaken foolishness for wisdom?
  5. Do you find it difficult to refrain from speaking out against authorities who are either foolish or incompetent? When is it okay to criticize an authority?

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David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.