Real Life

1As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.

2The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left. 3Even as he walks along the road, the fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is.

4If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest.

5There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: 6Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. 7I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves.

8Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. 9Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them. 10If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success. 11If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer.

As Solomon approaches the end of his writings in Ecclesiastes, he gives us in this chapter some words of wisdom concerning real life. And though, in this book, Solomon uncovered the shortcomings of worldly wisdom, nowhere does he advocate folly. On the contrary, Solomon well knew the dangers of folly. He begins: "As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor" (vs. 1). This carries on from the last thought in the previous chapter, where Solomon pointed out: "Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good" (Eccl. 9:18). Solomon’s observation is that it is far easier to be destructive than constructive, that it takes far less effort to ruin something than to create it. This, in fact, is a physical law in the universe (the Second Law of Thermodynamics), as well as a behavioral one. A sin can destroy much good; a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. Knowing this, we must guard our behavior very carefully, especially as Christians. How many times have you heard someone denigrate a Christian, saying something like, "Oh, he claims to be a Christian, but I saw him doing thus and so…"? It is important that we follow even the smallest of God’s laws, because any violation that is witnessed by others harms our reputation. "A little folly is enough to produce immense mischief. The unguarded moment—the hasty word—the irritable temper—the rudeness of manner—the occasional slip—the supposed harmless eccentricities—all tend to spoil the fragrance of the ointment. The minor morals of the Christian code require strict attention" [Bridges, 234]. Note also that the better the ointment, the more liable it is to be spoiled by "dead flies". Solomon’s ointment was perfume, so the "dead flies" were especially harmful. "The more excellent is the ointment, the sadder it is that so little a thing as dead flies should be allowed to spoil it… The more delicate the perfume, the more easily spoiled is the ointment. Common oil is not so liable to injury. So the higher a man’s religious character is, the more hurt is caused by a sinful folly in him" [JFB, 537].

Solomon continues his observations on wisdom and folly: "The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left" (vss. 2). In that culture, the "left" represented the sinister, and so here, Solomon is telling us that the wise tend to do good, while the foolish tend to do evil. Moreover, a fool’s stupidity is evident and can be discerned from afar: "Even as he walks along the road, the fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is" (vs. 3).

Next, Solomon warns against foolish behavior in the presence of authority: "If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest" (vs. 4). Solomon argues for using self-control, rather than storming off in a sort of righteous huff. Such righteous huffs have at their root usually more pride than righteousness. Self-control, or as Solomon puts it, "calmness" in the presence of a ruler’s anger is a wise alternative to storming out in a righteous huff. "Calmness can lay great errors to rest." The ruler may be in error or yes, you yourself may be in error. In any case, self-control and calmness are called for, so that the error may be put to rest.

This last verse speaking of rulers and errors must have brought to mind another type of injustice that Solomon had seen rulers commit: "There is an evil I have seen under the sun, the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy the low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves" (vs. 5–7). Solomon, in the book of Ecclesiastes, has much to say about the wisdom and folly of rulers. He understood the importance of wise rulers on this earth. Our well-being on earth, our prosperity and comfort have much to do with how wise our rulers are. Here, Solomon speaks of foolish favoritism shown by some rulers in choosing who to put in positions of leadership. Not always are the best choices made, and some rulers show their folly by putting "fools…in many high positions." Not many of us are put in the position of being the ruler of a country, but many of us are put in positions of leadership at our church or workplace. At our workplace, we must resist the temptation to advance others for reasons of foolish favoritism, rather than true ability. And then, "the evil is greatly increased, when the high stations of the Church are bestowed upon unworthy men, passing by men of God, sound in doctrine, and upright in heart." [Bridges, 242].

Next, Solomon has some words of wisdom concerning the hazards of everyday occupations: "Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them. If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success. If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer" (vss. 8–11). In everyday life, wisdom is especially important at work, because others depend on, and even pay for, your wisdom and skill at work. Wisdom is also important at work because, as Solomon points out, many occupations are hazardous. In fact, nearly all occupations have hazards to one extent or another, some more than others. Solomon is pointing out the hazards of work, not to discourage you to work, but to underscore the need for wisdom in everyday life.

The hazards enumerated by Solomon can all be avoided by being wise and careful. If one constructs a "pit" wisely, and digs it with care, he will not "fall into it." In the middle east, snakes could be anywhere. If one who had to break a wall down did so with care, aware that a snake may be in the wall, he could avoid being bitten by the snake. There is a proper way to quarry stones and split logs, so as not to be injured by them. Those who are "accident-prone" usually only have themselves to blame. Most accidents, through proper preparation, with wisdom, can be avoided.

One should also take the time to be properly prepared for work. If you are going to need your ax, make sure it is properly sharpened before you begin work. It takes wise planning to be properly prepared for work. The lazy man skirts planning; the wise man is always prepared for probable eventualities. It takes more time up front to be properly prepared for work, but proper preparation saves more time than it takes. And if the wise man should fall into a situation where he must use a dull ax, he realizes that "more strength is needed" and that "skill will bring success."

In verse 11, Solomon warns against not having the patience to do a job properly: "If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer" (vs. 11). If the snake-charmer is too impatient, such that he fails to properly charm the snake, the on-lookers will not put money in his jar. It is nearly always better to allocate time to plan ahead before beginning work, so that a job will be done properly the first time. To rush into a job, without planning first, is to invite failure.

Needless to say, not many of us are snake-charmers or quarrymen or ditch-diggers or log-splitters. Nevertheless, by analogy, we can apply these words of Solomon to our own occupations. I leave meditation upon this as an exercise for the reader.

Home | Previous Article | Next Article | Back Issues | Contents | Complete Index | Mailing List

To contact us:

ssper@aol.com