In Ecclesiastes chapter 10 the Preacher says ‘I pity the fool!’
In pity for the fool he offers five warnings against foolishness. These warnings against foolishness come hot on the heels of the proclamation that wisdom is better towards the end of chapter 9 (9:13-18). In an attempt to call his audience to living a life of wisdom the Preacher then offers five warnings against foolishness.
These are those warnings:
1.) Fools start small
This is stated most explicitly in verse 1 – ‘Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour’. The point is, just as a few small flies ruin the perfume, so a little folly ruins wisdom and honour.
The Preacher wants his audience to realise that fools start small.
We may think that we are doing ok, that our lives aren’t perfect but at least their better than his or hers. But, the Preacher corrects that thinking by reminding us that even a little bit of foolishness ruins wisdom and honour. We don’t become fools overnight, rather it is a gradual process and it always starts small.
2.) Fools take unwarranted position
Verse 7 paints the starkest picture of this warning – ‘I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves’. This would have been a shocking image for the original audience. Horses were expensive to both buy and keep; only royalty had horses and often they were only ever used for war.
For us it would be something akin to watching a homeless man drive an Aston Martin up to his park bench for the night, while on the other side of town a highly rated barrister in his nice suit, black robes and white wig cycled a rusty, squeaky bicycle up to the automatic gates of his mansion.
It is a somewhat comical image, but there is nothing funny about the point it makes.
If fools take unwarranted position we must be careful who we offer positions to. For the church this requires us to think carefully about the people we invite to become elders, deacons and ministry leaders. For the individual this means we need to think carefully about who we ask to be trusted friends, future spouses and those who give advice to us.
However, it also means we need to look at ourselves and examine whether or not we are seeking an unwarranted position in work, at church or in someone’s life.
3.) Fools bring about their own downfall
The Preacher states this explicitly in verse 10 – ‘If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed’. The picture is of the fool swinging continually and with more force each time, rather than stopping and sharpening his axe (as the wise man would do).
Fools bring about their own downfall because they fail to prepare adequately – they rush into things.
Again, we ask ourselves; do I seek a position of leadership without training first? Do I seek marriage without maturing first? Do I seek to start a family without proper preparation? Do I rush into things?
However, the Preacher also wants us to note that fools sometimes bring about their own downfall by being too slow. In verse 11 the snake charmer is too slow to charm the snake and so the snake bites a passerby. Being too slow to act is just as bad as rushing into things without adequately preparing.
4.) Fools talk too much
This is favoured territory when it comes to the wisdom writers – and that is because the mouth is important, either winning favour or consuming the talker (v12). In verse 14 the Preacher puts it simply – ‘A fool multiplies words’.
We must guard our mouths because they can very easily make us out to be fools. As Lisa Simpson once said ‘It is better to remain silent and be though a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt’.
This is legitimately a warning against gossipers. However, it is much more than that. It is a warning against saying too much, who we say it to and how exactly we say it. The Preacher even says that we must be careful in private about how much is said (v20).
Fools talk too much – too many words to too many people.
5.) Fools bring ruin
Verse 18 offers the most damning picture of this final warning – ‘Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks’. Instead of being industrious and doing things the fool sits about his house until the roof falls in on him.
Fools soon bring ruin. Therefore, it is important for us to read portions of Scripture like Ecclesiastes 10 and consider ‘are any of these features present in my life?’
If fools start small then we must weed out all foolishness immediately before it takes root and grows.
If we want to see what it looks like to take stock of these five warnings against foolishness then we must look at the life of Jesus for he is our example is this. In Matthew 12:42 Jesus, speaking of himself, says ‘behold, something greater than Solomon [the Preacher] is here’. Not only did Jesus teach with more wisdom than Solomon but he always lived with more wisdom than Solomon.
However, he is more than our example and he needs to be more than our example.
While we live on this earth we will never be able to eradicate all foolishness from our lives. We will constantly have to wrestle with it. Periodically though, we will stumble in it, we will indulge in it and we will revel in the lifestyle of a fool. Therefore, it is of great encouragement to know that through Jesus we may be ‘wise in Christ’ (1 Cor. 4:10). That is because of Jesus wise life, his perfect life, he could die in the fools place taking the fools punishment. The fool then can live in Christ’s place, having Christ’s reward.
Even so, this does not mean we can live as fools! Rather, being wise in Christ means that we seek to live as wise people. As Jesus ended his sermon on the mount he said ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man…’ (Mt. 7:24).
So too with the Preacher’s words.