Wisdom for Everyday Life
Passage: Ecclesiastes 10:1-11
If you’ve been tracking with us in this study, then you’ve probably picked up on the fact that a major emphasis in Ecclesiastes is the brokenness of this world. Life is short, it’s frustrating, and it’s hard to understand. In other words, “All is vanity.” The question is, how do I respond to the vanity of life? We’ve seen that godly contentment is a big part of that. Also important is doing right and trusting God. And all of that is wrapped up in this concept of wisdom, which has as its basis the fear of the LORD. So once again, the theme today is wisdom–in fact, chapter 10 sounds more like Proverbs than any other chapter in the book. And so today’s lesson is about practical wisdom for life. It doesn’t matter who you are, this lesson applies to you. So let’s read it and get started.
[Read Ecclesiastes 10:1-11.]
How to be wise? #1: don’t play with folly. As the father of a couple little girls, I often find myself warning them about one thing or another. I might tell Felicity not to go past the end of the driveway. Or I might tell Anaya not to touch the stove. I remember my dad warning me as a boy that if anyone ever offered me drugs, not to try it, and telling me how dangerous drugs are. Can you think of any other examples of things that are so harmful, we know not to go near them? We warn our kids to stay completely away from these sorts of things, because we don’t want them to get hurt. I think Solomon is doing something very similar in vv. 1-3. He’s warning us to stay away from folly. Solomon gives three reasons not to play with folly.
Don’t Play with Folly.
Because Even a Little Folly Can Ruin Your Reputation (v. 1)
The metaphor in this verse is quite vivid. So tell me, what’s going on here? What’s the story in v. 1? (You’ve got some sweet-smelling perfume; but somehow, flies have gotten into it. They landed on the perfume, probably died because of the fumes, and now they’re just sort of floating on the surface. The perfume itself is good, but the flies have ruined it. Now, it smells bad rather than good.)
So what’s the point? How does this story relate to wisdom and folly? We could say it this way: an ounce of folly can nullify a pound of wisdom. I’ll go back to another little kid illustration. Have you ever tried to build a tower out of blocks with toddlers around? What happens? You spend all this time and effort setting it up perfectly, and then with one violent jerk, that little boy or girl knocks the whole thing down! We could change the metaphor and talk about the effect of one drop of arsenic in the goblet, one roach in the Big Mac, or one bed bug on that comfy hotel mattress. The results would all be the same: that one little thing, whatever it is, ruins the whole effect. Folly is just like that drop of arsenic, that roach, or that bed bug.
This verse goes right along with the last phrase in 9:18–“one sinner destroys much good.” However, one difference between the two verses is that in 10:1, Solomon seems to use the metaphor of odor in order to focus specifically on the way that a little bit of folly can ruin a person’s reputation. We’ve all known people who have built for themselves reputations for wisdom and honor, only to destroy a lifetime of effort with one foolish choice.
The scary thing is, that could happen to me. It could happen to you it could happen to any of us. If you’re still breathing, then you’re reputation is still in jeopardy. That’s why Solomon says in 7:1, “A good name is better than precious ointment, AND THE DAY OF DEATH THAN THE DAY OF ONE’S BIRTH.” Seen in this light, the death of a wise man or woman is actually a great victory! He’s made it to the finish line, and avoided the kind of fall that could ruin his reputation.
Now, all this is NOT to say that you cannot REBUILD your reputation. You may be sitting here thinking, “I’ve already blown it!” All is not lost! You can rebuild your reputation. And God will forgive you. However, at the same time, there is an element of permanence to the effects of our choices. If you do something foolish, that is going to change the way people view you for a very long time. That’s just reality. So don’t play with folly!
Before we move on, I want to point out that a little folly is so serious because a little sin is serious. When we talk to people about their sin, they tend to want to minimize it. But James 2:10 says, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” One sin is enough to keep a person out of heaven. You say, “Pastor Kris, that sounds unfair.” It’s not. The reason sin is so serious is that when we sin, we do so against an infinitely worthy God, and the worth of the person I sin against determines the extent of my judgment. That’s why we need Christ.
Because Folly Will Take You in a Bad Direction (v. 2)
I actually like the way that the NASB translates this better. It says, “The wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left.” The ESV and NIV are very similar. In this particular proverb, the right stands for the way of righteousness, and also stability (since most people are right-handed). The left refers to the way of wickedness, which leads to instability and ultimately to destruction. (No political jokes here, please.)
You say, “Well pastor Kris, that seems pretty obvious. A wise man goes the right way; a fool goes the wrong way.” What’s the point? I think one of the points is that when a person makes a choice, whether wise or foolish, that choice is not an island unto itself. He is headed in a direction. It’s like we’re driving down a road, and every choice is an intersection. Will I go right or left? Or should I keep going straight? Or make a U-turn? Every one of those choices is going to affect my destination! It can’t help doing so! If every time I get to an intersection, I take a right, what’s going to happen? (I’ll go in circles.) If I always go straight, I might travel a large distance, but I may also run into obstacles. So every choice matters. Every choice counts.
How does this relate to the overall warning not to play with folly? It just reminds us that folly has consequences. If you get to stop light and your GPS tells you to turn right, but you decide to turn left instead because you think that way looks more appealing, you may end up adding a few minutes to your trip. You may have to backtrack to get to where you’re supposed to be. Or, you may be turning into oncoming traffic! So don’t make any foolish choices.
But there’s also more to learn from this verse. Why does the foolish man go toward the left? He’s just following his heart! Isn’t it frustrating when you get a cart at the grocery store that pulls to one side? You get an arm workout just trying to go straight down the aisles! Why? Because the wheels are out of alignment. The foolish man makes bad choices because his heart is out of alignment. Do you see the depth of that? The problem is not ultimately nature OR nurture, it’s his sinful heart. In the Bible, the heart is the seat of the mind, the will, and the emotions; and the heart determines behavior. That’s why Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all diligence, For out of it spring the issues of life.” So let me ask you a question: which direction is your heart inclined? Toward the right or toward the left?
Because Folly Affects All Your Decisions, which Means It Cannot Be Hidden (v. 3)
Have you ever met someone, and you knew right away where that person was from? Maybe he says, “How’d you know I was from New York City!?” And you’re like, “I mean, it’s pretty obvious… your accent, the way you strut around, your personality, the Yankees hat on your head… it’s just obvious! Solomon says that the same is true of fools. Just by the way that they walk along the street, you can tell that they’re fools! Why? Because foolishness affects every aspect of their lives. It affects how fast they drive. It affects whether or not they follow the traffic signs. It affects how they treat other people on the road. It affects all sorts of things, so that it’s relatively simple, even with just a little observation, to determine who are the fools and who are the wise people!
Is this verse teaching us to be critical of others? We ought to be discerning, but I don’t think that’s the main point. What this verse teaching us? Who are we supposed to be critical of? (ourselves) We’re supposed to go, “Wait a second. If it is so patently obvious who’s wise and who’s foolish, what do people think about me?” No one wants to walk around with everyone else thinking he’s a fool! So we’ve got to stay away from folly! This verse also teaches us that when you’re a fool, there’s no place to hide! Everybody is going to know it! You see, we often think that we can compartmentalize, and make these little private foolish choices that nobody else has to know about and that won’t affect the way anyone views us or anything else about our lives. But that’s just not the case! Solomon says, “No, if you’re a fool, that affects everything about how you live; and people are GOING to know.” You won’t be able to hide it for long. So don’t tolerate even one ounce of foolishness in your life.
Point #2: respond wisely to foolish rulers. You know, if everyone in my life was a wise person, being wise would be a whole lot easier, wouldn’t it? It’s easy to think, “I’d be wise, if it wasn’t for all those MORONS out there who keep making me angry!” If you’ve ever had that thought before, then the next four verses are for you (vv. 4-7).
Respond Wisely to Foolish Rulers.
Stay Calm when They’re Angry (v. 4).
One of the places you tend to find foolish people is in the government. Mark Twain once said, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” I’m not trying to be cynical about the government; but if we were to be honest, we’d have to admit that there are lots of fools in high places. How do respond to a fool in the government? How do you respond to a fool who’s your boss?
First, stay calm if they get mad at you. Don’t respond rashly. Have you ever been tempted to quit your job because your boss blew up at you? Solomon says, “Don’t do that! Your boss isn’t thinking clearly right now, but once he settles down, things will be alright. So keep your composure and hang in there. Don’t quit.” The companion verse to v. 4 is Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” These verses are important because it’s easy to respond to anger in kind. We think to ourselves, “I don’t have to take this!” And then we either fight back or give up and walk away. But Solomon doesn’t recommend either of those courses. Now, certainly this proverb isn’t meant to be applied to every SINGLE situation. There ARE times in which fighting back or walking away is the best course of action. But even then, a wise man will keep his cool and act rationally rather than emotionally.
Get Used to Unwise Hiring and Promotion (vv. 5-7).
What did Solomon observe under the sun, according to these verses? (fools being promoted and honored, while rich people are ignored and passed over for a promotion) And what does Solomon call this? (an “evil,” or a misfortune) What’s so bad about the rich man being overlooked for a promotion? The rich man in these verses represents a person who is wise and capable, someone who is truly qualified for the job, whatever that job may be. (Notice that the contrast in v. 6 is between the foolish man and the rich man, which suggests that the rich man, at least in this case, is also wise.) So the qualified man is passed over, and the fool is given the job. Have you ever seen this happen? Have you seen it happen in your workplace? Have you seen in happen in elections? Have you seen it happen in various government appointments? Sure you have! It happens in all three contexts!
So how do we respond to this, Solomon? Well first, if you’re a boss, make sure that you don’t you’re objective and that you don’t show favoritism. It is very easy to allow personal connections to color ones choices, but to do so is unwise. But I don’t actually think that’s the main point of the text, and here’s why. Where does the evil we’ve been talking about proceed from, according to verse 5? (from the ruler) Do you think the majority of Solomon’s readers were rulers, or were they common people? (I think we would have to assume that most of them were common people.) So why talk to common people about the sins of their leaders? I believe the answer has to do with expectations. So much of life has to do with expectations, doesn’t it? I’m going to be doing some premarital counseling soon, and one of things you’re trying to accomplish in premarital counseling is to set realistic expectations. For instance, if the bride thinks that the rest of her life is just going to be a fairy tale without any conflict or difficulty, the couple is going to have problems. And the same goes for us when we expect too much from the government. The fact is that favoritism is just a fact of life, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we see it. Once again, that doesn’t mean that we sit on our hands and do nothing to fix these problems; but sometimes, there’s nothing we CAN do except to just accept it and trust God.
That brings us to our third and final point: work wisely. Work is another common theme in Ecclesiastes. Solomon has a lot to say about work. And I love the advice he gives here because it’s so practical!
Don’t Work Mischief (v. 8).
Some people take digging a pit in v. 10 as a harmless, innocent activity. However, when this illustration shows up elsewhere in Scripture, it is a metaphor for mischief. To dig a pit is to set a trap for someone. Psalm 26:27 says, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, And he who rolls a stone will have it roll back on him.” Sometimes this is referred to as “boomerang justice.” You throw the boomerang at someone, and it ends up coming back and hitting you in the face instead. It’s also referred to in literature as “poetic justice.” How many of you have heard that term before? Poetic justice is when the reader is satisfied with what happens to the wicked person, because his punishment seems very fitting. Isn’t it fitting that the guy who sets a trap for someone else ends up stepping in it himself? Isn’t it fitting that in the process of vandalizing somebody’s wall, the guy gets bitten by a snake? Can you think of any examples of poetic justice in the Bible? (Haman’s gallows)
Before we move on, there are a couple of things I want you to notice about mischief and poetic justice. First, mischief-making is actually hard work. Digging a pit is not easy or fun! I’ve been working on digging a decorative river bed through my front yard recently. It’s REALLY hard work! Breaking down a wall is not easy! If you don’t believe me, pick up a sledge hammer and go try it! It’s not easy! And so Solomon is making the point that some people actually work hard JUST TO MAKE LIFE MISERABLE FOR OTHERS! Think of the people who make computer viruses or the ones who make graffiti and vandalize. On a more serious level, think of the people who plan and carry out terrorist attacks. It’s all hard work, and it’s all down out of just plain meanness. By the way, if you ever work hard in order to make life miserable for others, just stop it. That kind of behavior is despicable, and when it occurs among believers, it’s a disgrace to the name of Christ. Also, parents, don’t put up with this kind of thing among our children. Little boys are famous for coming up with ways to make life miserable, most often for their sisters. Don’t let your kids do that. Teach them to be kind to one another. But second, I want you to recognize that God will judge mischief-makers. Who is responsible for bringing about “boomerang justice” or “poetic justice”? Is it fate? No, it’s God! God is the one who orchestrates outcomes so that the wicked receive their just rewards, and the fact that we LONG for that outcome is proof that we are made in God’s image.
So we’ve seen that working mischief can have adverse consequences. But so can honest work!
Recognize that All Work Involves Risk (vv. 9).
It’s hard to see how quarrying stones or splitting wood could possibly be negative behaviors. That’s because they’re not negative behaviors. It’s GOOD to split wood and quarry stone. However, even honest work involves risk. If you invest in the stock market, you’re going to lose money. But you’ll also make money. So the answer isn’t NOT to invest, it’s just to invest wisely and to be well-aware of the risks. If you’ve ever worked a job, you’ve probably taken risks on the job. We shouldn’t take unnecessary risks or violate company procedures; but the fact is that no matter how safety-conscious our society gets, work will always involve risk, and the reason for that is that there is sin in the world, which means that bad things happen. So how do we apply this?
There are two types of people when it comes to this kind of thing. Some people are overly cautious and avoid working because they are afraid of taking risks. That’s my tendency. Others are overly optimistic (maybe even naïve), and they fail to expect or plan for potential negative consequences. We ought to avoid both errors. If you’re afraid to try something because you might fail, I’ll tell you what I heard a wise person once say: “If you never fail at anything, you probably weren’t trying”–and that’s not a good thing. So stop sitting on your hands, quit worrying, and try something! I recently read a book on the making of the Panama Canal. It was absolutely fascinating, and very instructive when it comes to various leadership and management styles and how they work. In Panama, there were very good leaders and very bad leaders over the years. One of the better leaders said this to his staff. He said, “If you do something, you won’t get fired. If you do nothing, you WILL get fired. If you do something and make a mistake, that can be fixed. But you can’t fix nothing.” And that’s actually pretty wise advice for someone who’s prone tempted to do nothing. But what should be said to the opposite person, who just sort of naively expects everything to work out? Once again, it’s all about expectations. You need to expect and plan for risk, and that leads to our next point.
Be Strategic, but Don’t Miss Your Opportunity (vv. 10-11).
Once again, these verses address two different types of people: this time we’ll call them doers and thinkers. How many of you when it comes to work would say, “I’m more of a doer?” How many would say, “I’m more of a thinker?” Neither one is bad, and in order for society to function, we need both types. And yet there are tendencies that each type of person must be careful to avoid. The doer must be careful to avoid wasting precious time and energy. How does the guy in v. 10 waste energy? He doesn’t stop to sharpen his axe! That’s so typical for a doer! He says, “I’m going to get this job done no matter what it takes!” And he rolls up his sleeves, and he chops even harder! Meanwhile, the thinker says, “You know what, I bet this job would go a lot quicker if you would just sharpen your axe.” This kind of thinking runs in my family. My grandpa was an industrial engineer, and he owned his own consulting business for a while. People would hire him to observe their plants or assembly lines and then tell them how to rearrange the furniture and reassign the jobs in order to avoid wasted effort. That’s called wisdom. Maybe there’s a task in your life right now that you feel like you are throwing all of your energy at, and yet you’re still not making any progress. Perhaps the answer is not, “Try harder,” but “Sharpen your axe.”
But thinkers can really get on doers’ nerves sometimes, can’t they? Why is that? It’s because doers sort of instinctively understand the truth that is being communicated in v. 11, which is that sometimes, time is of the essence (v. 11). Again, I like the NASB translation of this verse better. It says, “If the serpent bites before being charmed, there is no profit for the charmer,” and the ESV and NIV say something very similar. The snake charmer can be very skilled, but if he doesn’t act quick, the snake will bite, and all of his skill will be wasted. There may be some thinkers out there who’ve been given an opportunity or a responsibility, and your tendency is to hesitate, but you just need to act before it’s too late and the snake bites.
Finally, I think it’s important that I remind you to apply these verses to Great Commission work. We saw that risk is inherent to work. Does Great Commission work involve risk? You better believe it! Take the gospel to the ends of the earth? We need to constantly remind ourselves, that doesn’t just mean the safe places on the earth. It means ALL places on the earth. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of us have to go to Saudi Arabia, but somebody should go; and he may get hurt trying, but that’s okay. If you share the gospel with people, someone is going to reject you. You’re going to say the wrong thing from time to time. You may make a relationship awkward. But that’s okay; because something is going get accomplished, and that’s a hundred times better than doing nothing! Also, when it comes to making disciples, time is of the essence. No relationship lasts for forever. Your opportunity to impact the people around you for Christ has an expiration date. Your neighbor is going to move, or you’re going to move! That child is going to grow up and move out. Your relative is going to pass away. So we’ve got to seize the precious moments that we have to make disciples. However, sometimes the best way to increase productivity in disciple-making is not to chop harder, but to sharpen the axe. To get some more training. To evaluate what’s working and what’s not. To re-strategize and to try a different method. These are all the types of topics that Pastor Kit is going to be hitting on tonight and in coming Sunday nights throughout the year as we address this year’s theme. And this is way we must think as a church if we are going to reach our world for Christ.
So, the next time someone tells you the Bible isn’t practical… just take them to Ecclesiastes. Be wise. Work smart. And don’t let even an ounce of folly creep in.