The twenty verses of Ecclesiastes chapter 10 are proverbial statements that urge the reader to exercise common sense when navigating the challenges of life. While each proverb can potentially stand on its own merit, I find it somewhat helpful to see them in an organized fashion. These groupings help the individual statements by rounding out a more complete thought.
IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH! (Ecclesiastes 10:1-3)
As dead flies cause even a bottle of perfume to stink,
so a little foolishness spoils great wisdom and honor.
A wise person chooses the right road;
a fool takes the wrong one.
You can identify fools
just by the way they walk down the street!
The focus of these three verses is that even thought one has great wisdom, it doesn’t take much for foolishness to be disruptive and destructive. It takes far less to ruin something than to create it.
LEADERS CAN BE INSECURE (Ecclesiastes 10:4-7)
If your boss is angry at you, don’t quit!
A quiet spirit can overcome even great mistakes.
There is another evil I have seen under the sun. Kings and rulers make a grave mistake when they give great authority to foolish people and low positions to people of proven worth. I have even seen servants riding horseback like princes—and princes walking like servants!
Once again Qoheleth comments on the ironies that surround those who hold leadership positions. It seems foolish that a wise king would surround himself with unqualified and incompetent people. But we must consider their insecurity. After all, the only way to make sure that you are the smartest, wisest, most put together person in the room is to surround yourself with people who will guarantee your success. The only suggestion for working with an insecure leader is to appease them whenever they become upset.
PRACTICAL ADVICE (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11)
When you dig a well,
you might fall in.
When you demolish an old wall,
you could be bitten by a snake.
When you work in a quarry,
stones might fall and crush you.
When you chop wood,
there is danger with each stroke of your ax.
Using a dull ax requires great strength,
so sharpen the blade.
That’s the value of wisdom;
it helps you succeed.
If a snake bites before you charm it,
what’s the use of being a snake charmer?
These verses summarize the practical reality that everything we do involves some risk, even the risk of self injury. Yes, life can be dangerous, and sometimes the greater the venture the greater the risk. So the writer wants us to know that we should acknowledge the risk and give it consideration before undertaking any venture. Just because chopping wood is dangerous doesn’t mean that we can minimize the danger by not sharpening the axe. Wisdom takes into account John Maxwell’s statement, “If you can take the worst, take the risk.”
FOOLISH SPEECH (Ecclesiastes 10:12-15)
Wise words bring approval,
but fools are destroyed by their own words.
Fools base their thoughts on foolish assumptions,
so their conclusions will be wicked madness;
they chatter on and on.
No one really knows what is going to happen;
no one can predict the future.
Fools are so exhausted by a little work
that they can’t even find their way home.
Old Testament wisdom writers love to talk about words and the use of them in speech. Unfortunately, we often are best able to evaluate the quality of our speech in the negative versus the positive. Like the original premise of the first three verses, it doesn’t take much to bring ruin and devastation to oneself and to others. Qoheleth offers two characteristics of foolish speech in this section. First, foolish words are spoken in ignorance. Not knowing what they are talking about, they continue to speak without a breath, presumably so that the quantity of their words will somehow mask the lack of quality of their words. Second, they speak with certainty toward the future. When you hear a person use too many words that are too certain about the future, you should see that as the indication that you are listening to a fool.
MORE WISDOM REGARDING LEADERSHIP (Ecclesiastes 10:15-20)
What sorrow for the land ruled by a servant,
the land whose leaders feast in the morning.
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.
Laziness leads to a sagging roof;
idleness leads to a leaky house.
A party gives laughter,
wine gives happiness,
and money gives everything!
Never make light of the king, even in your thoughts.
And don’t make fun of the powerful, even in your own bedroom.
For a little bird might deliver your message
and tell them what you said.
Leadership, like words, is a common theme among wisdom writers. Ecclesiastes has certainly devoted much of its content to the subject already. The writer points out the balance that wise leaders maintain between life’s ultimate questions and life’s present burdens. The world is simultaneously demanding, delightful, and dangerous. Good leaders possess maturity, integrity and a disciplined work ethic which ultimately serves the people and the organizations they lead.
Though they aren’t perfect, good leaders will cultivate respect, which eliminates (or at least reduces) the satire and the mockery that unfortunately is so prevalent in today’s culture. Qoheleth recommends that if you don’t love your leaders, respect them. And if you can’t respect them, keep your mouth shut. The old saying, “A little bird told me” is taken from the twentieth verse, and in my experience, it is ALWAYS true. If you’re in a small organization or part of a social circle such as a church, be careful what you say about your leaders. It ALWAYS gets back to the person you’re talking about. If you think your friend or colleague can keep a secret or a confidence, well they usually can’t and they probably won’t. So if you have something to say, just say it to their face, which is what Jesus said we should do anyway.