TEXT: Ecclesiastes 10
THEME: A Meditation on the Nature of Foolishness
No one wants to be known as a fool. Even clowns want to be taken seriously in their art of fooling around!
A fool is a fool because he lacks, or because he despises wisdom and instruction. Worse still, he cannot see that what he is doing is foolish. Why is that ?
Solomon says in his Proverbs 1:7 - “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” At the heart of all foolish behaviour is basically an absence of the fear of the LORD! It is an unwillingness to listen to His wise counsel for life. Children are by nature foolish: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child…” (Prov. 22:15), and so their parents are called to train them up in the way they should go, in the knowledge that when they grow up they will not depart from the way (Prov. 22:6).
The main focus of our text is however on the adult person who is a fool. This is no joke! It is an extremely serious spiritual and moral condition , which if not addressed, will not only lead such a person to do harm to themselves in this life, but which will also cut them off from eternal life. Their foolish lives are a contradiction of the life that God has designed for them.
With that in mind we consider the 10th chapter of Ecclesiastes. We find something here that we have already seen in Ch. 7:1- 13 - a set of seemingly disconnected Proverbs! Upon closer inspection there is, however, a common theme running through the chapter: what it means to be a fool ! It is an exposé of the character of the fool. This is, of course no new theme in Solomon’s sermon. From the outset his purpose has been to know and expose the heart of wisdom and folly (1:17). So here is what we learn…
1. A little folly may cause a lot of problems!
V.1 Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. In English the Proverb “one bad apple ruins the whole basket” has a similar connotation. Would you eat a soup in which you find a dead fly? A small thing such a dead fly and one small apple can spoil their environment. Solomon makes the application….” so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” A small mistake, small actions, a small omission may have big consequences.
You may have heard this Proverb before:
“For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
We can add more stories illustrating the fact that big doors do turn on small hinges!
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when she broke apart 73 seconds into flight, leading to the deaths of her seven crew members. This happened because an O- ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff.
On June 4, 1996 an unmanned Ariane 5 rocket launched by the European Space Agency exploded just forty seconds after its lift-off from Kourou, French Guiana. The rocket was on its first voyage, after a decade of development, costing $7 billion! The destroyed rocket and its cargo were valued at $500 million. A board of inquiry found that the cause of the failure was software error!
World war I (in which over 40 million lives were lost) began on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was assassinated by a Serbian named Gavrilo Princip. As a result of this killing Austria declared war on Serbia. Because of Austria's alliance with Germany, Serbia try to get help from Russia. Russia gained support from France. Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1, 1914, in response to Russia’s mobilization. Two days later Germany declared war on France. The German Army swept into Belgium on its way to France. The invasion of Belgium caused Britain in turn to declare war on Germany...
A horseshoe nail… led to the loss of a kingdom ; An O-ring … a software error … led to the loss of lives , and rockets and billions of dollars ; One assassination led to the loss of over 40 million lives , and many more injured and devastated people !
Everything mentioned here started as a comparatively small thing , but see what huge effects it had! Not all our follies thankfully, have such far reaching consequences. But the fact remains that big trouble usually starts with small folly. Big doors turn on small hinges! This is Solomon’s first point in this section. From here he continues to work out a pathology of folly.
2. Foolishness is a problem of the heart !
V. 2 A wise man's heart inclines him to the right, but a fool's heart to the left. This Proverb is not intended to make political judgments ! Nor does it discriminate against people with a left dominance! It simply makes an observation concerning the tendencies of the heart. Wisdom leads us onto the right path and foolishness leads us on the wrong path. This is a primary observation and from this follows, I believe the rest of his observations on the nature of foolishness in Chapter 10 : 2-20, where he says at least 7 things about the nature of foolishness:
(i) Both wisdom and foolishness begin in the heart of man. Each heart has a direction: a right direction or a wrong direction! Where is your heart is leading you? Modern Christians tend to think of the heart as the seat of our emotions (feelings), but biblically speaking the heart is the seat of our will. From the heart are the issues of life.Therefore you must guard your heart (Prov. 4:23). The wise man’s heart, (his will), should be guarded by the Word of God. This will ensure that he will be led in the right way. The fool’s heart is unprincipled. His will is self- directed, and therefore his heart will ultimately lead him astray. In the NT the foolish man builds his house on sand (Matt 7:26); Foolish virgins failed to provide oil for the lamps and so they missed the bridegroom’s coming (Matt 25:2ff); In the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:13-21) Jesus illustrates that a man who was trying to make himself believe in his heart (soul) that the amassing of riches would bring him peace and contentment, that he was going in the wrong direction. God’s direction for him said: ‘this night your soul is required of you…’; The Galatians were foolish for having abandoned the gospel (Gal 3:1ff). All these are matters of the heart, and as you think in your heart , so your direction will be: death or life!
(ii) A fool’s character shows, even when he is walking on a road. “Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.” (v.3). You can tell a fool by his actions. He lacks sense . You see it when a foolish man gets drunk and stands in the middle of the road to challenge oncoming trucks!
(iii) Foolishness is found in high places. 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. (vv. 5-7) Foolishness is found at every level of society. And those who ought to be wise, are often the worst of fools. Solomon says that it is a tragedy when kings, presidents, leaders in high places and in very powerful positions , are foolish, while you find people in a country who have resources and skills, who are wise and hard working , but no one is listening to them. It is sad when fools begin to rule in high places . It was a sad day when a corporal with unrefined and outright dangerous idealism became the Führer of Germany. It is sad when so many of our African countries are led by people who had never been carefully prepared to lead their nations with wisdom.
(iv) Foolishness has consequences- therefore know what you are doing : “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. If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.” (Vv. 8-11) In this section Solomon illustrates a simple fact , namely that through lack of skills and forethought you can injure yourself . He has four examples here (a) digging a pit - “He who digs a pit may fall into it,” (b) Breaking through a wall- “and a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall. “ (c) Quarrying stones - “He who quarries stones may be hurt by them” (d) Splitting Logs - “and he who splits logs may be endangered by them.” There are dangers inherent in each of these occupations . Recently our newspapers reported how a few men were digging a deep hole when the soil collapsed and buried them alive . That was foolish of them, and they paid with their lives. A fool , because of his unteachable nature does a job, but finds that he gets hurt in the process. He essentially becomes his own worst enemy. Wisdom must be applied skillfully. Work smart . Use the right tools. If you are into snake charming , then you better know the snake that you are playing with. I understand that snakes have no ears like we do . They pick up sound waves primarily through the bone structure of the head. More than the music played by the charmer, it is the man’s disciplined actions (swaying and staring) that hold the snake’s attention and keep the serpent under control. It is indeed an art, and you don’t mess with a cobra ! Fools walk where angels fear to tread!
(v) Foolishness shows it itself in our words. The words of a wise man's mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness. A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him? (Vv. 12-14) : The fool is most easily discerned in the way he speaks . The epistle of James (3:1-12) has a profound section on the danger of the uncontrolled use of the tongue . The Proverbs of Solomon make many references to the foolish abuse of our tongue. ‘So our lips can consume us’, says Solomon. Many , if not all of us had to swallow our words which we had hastily uttered ; or advice hastily and foolishly given. Foolish talk, he says in v. 14 is babbling – multiplying of words. Jesus warns against this (Matt 6:7). It flows from an inner character deficiency.
(vi) Foolishness shows itself in unproductive ways of working ; The toil of a fool wearies him, for he does not know the way to the city. V.15 Everybody knows how to get into the city, but the fool forgets how to get there, because of his unstructured and haphazard thinking he has spent all his energy in one area , and now he is so exhausted and incapacitated that he doesn’t know how to get back home into the city.
(vii) Foolishness and happiness in political circles: “Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! 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! Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 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. Vv. 16-20. The quality of leadership makes all the difference Michael Eaton says: “Another criterion of national wisdom is self-control. Drinking in the early hours of the day marked a dissolute, slothful approach to life, with emphasis on luxury and personal indulgence. As we have frequently seen personal enjoyment had a place for the Preacher and the antithesis to indulgence here is not asceticism, but self-control. The mark of such pleasure is that it is to be enjoyed in a state of strength, not in a state of drunkenness. The enjoyment of life’s pleasures as the outworking of a position of wisdom-strength is a mark of national bliss; the pseudo-enjoyment of self-centered indulgence is a mark of national danger.”
· Be aware that a little foolishness may have large consequences.
· The difference between wisdom and foolishness lies in the direction our lives take .
· Foolishness is senselessness.v.3
· Do not expect wisdom always in high places; expect fools to sometimes be on the throne of your country (v.16); Conversely do not be a fool in the way you deal with the political rulers of your country (10:4, 20)
· Know how to use your tools wisely! Only fools play with snakes! (10 :8-11)
· Watch your tendency towards foolish words !(10:12-14)
The message of Ecclesiastes 10 is also the message of Proverbs. You shall see it in conclusion of Solomon’s sermon. True wisdom begins, not with trusting in our own wisdom (for that is foolishness) but in trusting God and in His promises through Jesus Christ . Amen !