1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odor; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of a fool to the left.
3 Even when fools walk on the road, they lack sense, and show to everyone that they are fools.
4 If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your post, for calmness will undo great offenses.
5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as great an error as if it proceeded from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves.
8 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a snake.
9 Whoever quarries stones will be hurt by them; and whoever splits logs will be endangered by them.
10 If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed.
11 If the snake bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage in a charmer.
12 Words spoken by the wise bring them favor, but the lips of fools consume them.
13 The words of their mouths begin in foolishness, and their talk ends in wicked madness;
14 yet fools talk on and on. No one knows what is to happen, and who can tell anyone what the future holds?
15 The toil of fools wears them out, for they do not even know the way to town.
16 Alas for you, O land, when your king is a servant, and your princes feast in the morning!
17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is a nobleman, and your princes feast at the proper time– for strength, and not for drunkenness!
18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.
19 Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.
20 Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.
Wisdom is not the exclusive property of the wealthy or nobility as we heard at the end of the previous chapter when the author related the parable of the wise poor man who saved (or might have saved) a town. Yet, even knowing that those who rule are not necessarily wise or diligent, Ecclesiastes is deeply troubled by the thought of the ‘powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up’ as Mary can sing in Luke 1: 52. The teacher in Ecclesiastes still ultimately believes that ‘a king is for a plowed field’ (Ecclesiastes 5: 9) even with all the oppression that can happen under the sun. Ecclesiastes version of wisdom seeks an ordered world, not necessarily a fair one, but one in which the wise person can learn to live and can make peace with their position within that world. Many other voices in the scriptures will attempt to challenge those in power, particularly the prophets. Ecclesiastes attempts to find a place for wisdom in the midst of all the folly and absurdity that are a part of life.
One bad apple can spoil the batch and a little folly can undo years of working wisely. Wisdom seems to be for Ecclesiastes a way of walking and thinking and acting that are continually cultivated. There is a sharp delineation between the walk of a foolish person and the walk of the wise. Wisdom may be the road less taken and it is a road that requires accountability but eventually the toil of the foolish wears them out.
The proverb in verse four about calmness in the face of the anger of the ruler reminds me of a time when I was a young lieutenant in the army. My unit had been assigned funeral duty, in a time before the omnipresence of cell phones, and we had been on this duty for many weeks. I had sat at home many weekends while my girlfriend at the time was 200 miles away. We would wait for a call to come in to tell us if we had any funerals on Saturday or Sunday but we were expected to remain close to Ft. Polk where I was stationed. One weekend I waited until late Friday, but no call came so I drove to spend the remainder of the weekend with my girlfriend in Texas. Saturday morning a request for a funeral came in and I was not reachable. I returned on Sunday to a couple messages on my phone. As hard as it was I first called my commander, then everyone else involved and apologized and was willing to accept whatever punishment was to come. Later I learned that my willingness to call and be open and honest about my mistake and willingness to accept the consequences earned me a lot of respect in the unit, but that day I was only trying to do what was right after I had made a mistake.
Ecclesiastes has already shown that it is well aware of how nobility and position do not automatically ensure wisdom. Foolish rulers and crooked officials were a part of the experience of the people of Israel. Unlike some other cultures that enshrined their elite with almost godlike status the Hebrew Scriptures have a skeptical view of kings and their motives. Even Solomon who is lifted up for his wisdom often ruled in ways, especially later in his life, that the texts considered unwise and ultimately led to the fracturing of the Davidic kingdom and monarchy. Yet, Ecclesiastes still holds onto the belief that the nobility and the king are ultimately a positive thing and anything that upsets that order or the appearance of that order (like slaves on horseback while a prince walks) upsets the ordered world of the teacher in Ecclesiastes.
One’s wise actions may not prevent the chances of life from coming about, but they still may prevent self-injury. If one refrains from digging a pit one also refrains from falling into it for example. The wise are measured in their speech and know when to remain silent but the foolish in contrast talk on and on. Blessed in the one, in Ecclesiastes view, who lives with the gift of good government and wise rulers who work during the day and celebrate only once the work is done. Laziness in rule and in life can destroy much and a little folly can outweigh wisdom and honor in a person’s home and in a kingdom. Yet, wisdom is not an ascetic’s life. The wise person can enjoy feasts and wine and wealth.
Finally, the chapter closes with a proverb similar to our own times saying that, ‘the walls have ears.’ Cursing those in power over you or complaining about them can make it back to their ears. There will always be people who will use our words to their advantage. Perhaps this also can evoke stories like the story of Esther where Haman’s words and plots become unraveled because he unknowingly plotted against Esther and Mordecai who could in their own way appeal to the king. Words matter to the wise, speech matters and actions matter. Many things are beyond the control of the wise person but one’s speech, calmness, walk and how one lives are within one’s control.