As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left.
3 Even as fools walk along the road,
they lack sense
and show everyone how stupid they are.
The thought that is in Ecclesiastes 9:18 is continued. It is very easy to ruin good things. Flies can ruin perfume. In the same way, a small foolish act can ruin a good work.
Instead of the expected sweet smell of perfume you get the smell of dead flies! That would be a disappointment. It would also be a disappointment to expect wisdom from the mouth of someone you know to be wise and instead they churn out foolish words.
Just as we would throw out an entire bottle of perfume because of a dead fly in it, so people often reject a prominent man because of one mistake or character flaw.
The Hebrew words say that people’s hearts lead them to the right or to the left. A common interpretation is that ‘heart’ means ‘mind’ or ‘thought’. ‘To go to the right’ means to live in an honourable way. It also means to do right things and skilful things. ‘To go to the left’ means to do wrong things.
“Right … left”: This proverb is based on the fact that, commonly, the right hand is more skilful than the left.
The right side of the body has always symbolized the spiritual side of mankind. The left hand speaks of his earthly nature. A wise man will let his spirit control him, and not his flesh.
For example, Jesus sits at the right hand of God; Sheep to the right and goats to the left.
The fool lacks awareness and does not know how to behave or carry himself. It is evident to others that he is very foolish. He talks too much (Ecclesiastes 5:3) and he laughs in a noisy way (Ecclesiastes 7:6). He is lazy, and he gets angry very quickly with little reason (Ecclesiastes 4:5; 7:9). A fool wants people to know his opinion (Proverbs 18:2). But he will not be trusted (Proverbs 26:6).
In my arrogance I think I am not a fool and better than most people. Smarter or more in tune, understanding things that others don’t understand, yet the way I have lived makes me the classic Biblical fool !! It’s important for me to remember this. The amazing thing is that God loves and saves fools too…however there then ensues a process of undoing foolery.
4 If a ruler’s anger rises against you,
do not leave your post;
calmness can lay great offenses to rest.
5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun,
the sort of error that arises from a ruler:
6 Fools are put in many high positions,
while the rich occupy the low ones.
7 I have seen slaves on horseback,
while princes go on foot like slaves.
The Teacher advises the reader not to stand up to the anger of someone in authority. It’s not known whether he is implying that the punishment is deserved or not. It seems appropriate to stay calm and respect the ruler either way. Then the ruler’s anger will not last. In the New Testament, Peter advises slaves who have a severe master. Slaves should respect their masters, even when the masters are not fair to them (1 Peter 2:18-20).
A weak ruler may appoint the wrong people to do important jobs. ‘Rich’ is a bit of an awkward translation and does not mean financially rich but rather influential or skilled. But the ruler may not recognise that. So he gives them a job that is not important. And everyone suffers.
The teacher observes that the ruler is not always right. He makes errors, too. He is human. He may overlook good people and misjudge them, he may put wrong people in positions of authority.
When leaders make bad judgments it can cause great and far reaching suffering.
Sometimes, a ruler will choose the wrong person for very high office. He may choose them for the wrong reasons. Maybe they will choose a friend or a relative or someone they know will always say “yes” to him, maybe they will misread the situation they want to put them in charge of and choose someone that will tackle a symptom of a problem that they see rather than the heart of the problem. They might choose someone to get a quick result rather than a long term change which would be healthier, They may not have the courage to make a controversial decision that needs to made. There can be many reasons for a bad decision.
Verse 7 is a bit obscure but the two most common interpretations of this verse put forward are:
Only kings and other important people rode on horses. Slaves had no power. The Teacher saw the usual rules and ideas change in the society. Slaves were enjoying authority and power as they rode on horses. But princes must walk like humble people with no power. The Teacher does not say how this happened. But it showed that the order in society is not permanent.
It is quite possible that the teacher was addressing a situation where there were people being honoured, who should not have been, and there were others who should have been honoured, who were working as servants.
Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;
whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
9 Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them;
whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.
10 If the axe is dull
and its edge unsharpened,
more strength is needed,
but skill will bring success.
11 If a snake bites before it is charmed,
the charmer receives no fee.
Digging a deep hole in this context is most likely a metaphorical use of the idea of animal traps. The metaphor means that one person wants to cause trouble for another person. Jeremiah spoke about his enemies who were ‘digging a deep hole’ for him (Jeremiah 18:22). They were trying to stop Jeremiah’s work. King David said that his enemies had ‘dug a deep hole’ for him. So he prayed that they would fall into their own ‘hole’ (Psalm 35:7-8). His enemies had caused David to suffer. So he wanted them to suffer God’s judgement.
A snake might hide in a wall. If someone pulls stones out of the wall, the snake might bite them. Amos used this same idea to represent God’s judgement. He wanted to emphasise that the Israelites would not be able to avoid God’s punishment (Amos 5:18-20). The illustration is that it would take them by surprise.
There is also a “reap what you sow” element to this.
The hazardous work of breaking rocks is mentioned. Accidents happen life is unpredictable. One of my school friends was killed aged 20 by an inadequately secured load on a truck sliding through the cabin and crushing him to death. A school teachers husband was killed in a hang gliding accident, a dinner ladies husband died in a house fire. Chris, a drummer in one of my bands was killed in a road accident. Life is short and not to be taken for granted. Death is certain. The timing is not.
The axe mentioned in verse 10 is perhaps another metaphor. It is better to use a sharp axe. It is much more difficult to use a blunt axe. A wise person will think about his tools before he needs to use them. He will prepare his tools, so that he can work well in any kind of work. In the same way, he will prepare his words so that he can use them for maximum impact.
Wisdom helps us find better ways of doing things. Wisdom helps in practical living. It, also, helps in our spiritual life.
A little wisdom will ease the efforts of life. Even though life’s experiences often don’t turn out the way we hope, wise living usually produces a good outcome.
In Morocco I watched some snake charmers (pic attached) and came quite close to them. They told me to crouch down because I was making the snake nervous. A snake can bite without provocation. The same is true of a person who uses his words to charm or flatter people.
I was a charmer and I have also been the victim of a charmer or two in my time. The snake charmers in Marrakech demanded money from me after they cautioned me and I took the picture. I gave them what I considered a reasonable sum of a couple of quid and they became angry.
Don’t get too close to snakes. They bite without provocation.
12 Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious,
but fools are consumed by their own lips.
13 At the beginning their words are folly;
at the end they are wicked madness—
14 and fools multiply words.
No one knows what is coming—
who can tell someone else what will happen after them?
15 The toil of fools wearies them;
they do not know the way to town.
A wise man’s words are very different from the words of a fool. The wise man’s words are relational and connecting with other people. They build trust and respect.
A fool talks too much. He expresses knowledge about everything and barely listens to anything. A fool is full of himself.
A fool will assert his future plans as though they were assured.
James warned Christians that they should not be too confident about their plans. A Christian response would be something like this: ‘We can do only what God allows us to do. If he allows us to live, we will do this or that’ (James 4:13-15).
A wise man is careful what he says, and how he says it. His speech is full of grace. His tongue is used to build people up, instead of to tear them down.
A fool talks loud, and says things that he has not considered. He destroys others with his speech, and in turn destroys himself. Foolish words bring about unfavourable outcomes
Verse 15 is comical. The fool pretends he knows the way to the city, when in fact, he does not. If he does not know the way to the city, he definitely does not know what is to come.
The stereotypical male reluctant to ask directions springs to mind.
16 Woe to the land whose king was a servant
and whose princes feast in the morning.
17 Blessed is the land whose king is of noble birth
and whose princes eat at a proper time—
for strength and not for drunkenness.
18 Through laziness, the rafters sag;
because of idle hands, the house leaks.
19 A feast is made for laughter,
wine makes life merry,
and money is the answer for everything.
20 Do not revile the king even in your thoughts,
or curse the rich in your bedroom,
because a bird in the sky may carry your words,
and a bird on the wing may report what you say.
A foolish king and leaders who do not control their desires can cause great trouble for a country. But a wise ruler and other responsible leaders will help the nation to be safe and happy.
King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, was a foolish king. He refused to listen to the wise words of his counsellors and those around him. Rehoboam decided to do what his young foolish friends suggested. The result was that his country divided into two parts (1 Kings 12:1-11, 16-19).
Isaiah also described foolish rulers. They got up early and they started to drink wine (Isaiah 5:11). The result of course being impaired judgment. And they were too selfish to care about it. They did not think about the nation that they were leading (Isaiah 5:22-23).
To be King or any kind of leader by necessity demands fair and wise leadership. It takes discipline and the right attitude.
A lazy man may neglect to repair his roof. Then the beams will fall and the rain will come into the house. And the rain will in time destroy the whole house. In a similar way, this can happen to a country that has foolish rulers. If they are too lazy, they neglect their duties. And when they neglect their duties, they are eroding their nation.
A wise person can enjoy their pleasures. Wise people may like a good meal or they may like to drink a little wine. They will use those things in the right way. They will not be like the foolish leaders in verse 16. Amos spoke about rich people who loved luxury. And they were lazy. (See Amos 6:4-6.)
The partying king of verse 18 thinks he can fix all the disasters of his inept reign by raising taxes. This is speaking of kings, who have neglected their office. for the sake of indulgence. Money is the answer to everything in this context but also for the basic survival on earth. Money is the currency we have created to be our sustaining mechanism. It’s an exchange system that is easily abused.
Verse 20 offers practical advice. It is prudent to be cautious with words. Anger towards badly behaving leaders may be real, but it is not wise to use accusatory words. Careless words have a way of being discovered by those in authority and your safety could be compromised. Whilst it may be difficult to trust corrupt or wayward leaders, we can trust God who holds all power and influence under his sovereignty. This is not a call to abandon authenticity but rather a call to be innocent as doves but shrewd as snakes.
There’s so much in this passage that resonates and connects with my own waywardness. It feels good to be in my right mind but I know every day I am only one or two bad decisions away for chaos and destruction. Leadership is something that I abused for my own indulgence. It’s easily done and begins with the most subtle of manipulative reasoning and justification in my own head. So subtle that it’s hard to detect.