Soundings

WISDOM AND FOLLY

Jan 2005    

PART 16 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’

Ecclesiastes 10:1-15

THE theme of wisdom (and folly) seems to recur rather frequently in the meditations of the Preacher, and here, in chapter 10, it appears yet again. Indeed in 10:1 to 11:6, the Preacher assumes the role of the typical wisdom teacher of Israel, stringing one proverb to the next. Although one looks in vain to find a theme that connects everything which is said in these verses, they generally seem to deal with wisdom, sometimes comparing it starkly with foolishness. The proverb in verse 1 is a case in point: “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.”

Folly, in other words, is dangerous: only but a little of it can be so insidious as to cause the ruin of a person. Just like a “harmless” little spot of rust can destroy an entire vessel, so a little folly can have grave consequences. A half-truth, a white lie, an indiscretion can undermine the moral fibre of an individual and destroy his or her integrity.

In verse 2, we read: “The heart of the wise man inclines to the right, and the heart of the fool to the left.” This must not be taken as the biblical instruction on how to vote in the next election! In many languages, right signifies success and left failure. Also most people naturally use their right hand and not their left. Readers who are naturally left-handed must not think that I am being discrimi-natory (I happen to be right-handed), but this is how language has developed through the ages.

The Latin word for right hand, for instance, is the basis for the English word “dexterity”, which means cleverness or skill. “Sinis- ter”, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word for the left hand. Thus, what the Preacher appears to be saying here is that the attitude of the wise man would lead to success, while that of the fool would result in failure or trouble.

The Good News Bible therefore may have the clearest translation of this verse:

“It is natural for the wise man to do the right thing, and for a fool to do the wrong thing.” The Preacher wants to present the sharpest contrast between the wise man and the fool in these verses.

This passage contains a set of proverbs that exposes the actions of a fool (8-11, 15) and another which does the same for the words he speaks (12-14). The modern reader will surely be baffled by these proverbs because their intent and meaning are tied to a context that is remote and alien to ours. “Whoever digs a pit may fall into it” (v 8).

The imagery of digging a pit denotes an act which is both malicious and vindic-tive, an act which is intended to inflict harm upon another person (usually one’s en-emies). The meaning of this proverb is therefore that such malicious endeavours may backfire on their perpetrator. The efforts made to harm others may some-times, by some ironical twist of events, harm oneself.

MALICIOUS ENDEAVOURS

Whoever digs a pit may fall into it (Ecclesiastes 10: 8). The imagery of digging a pit denotes an act which is both malicious and vindictive, an act which is intended to inflict harm upon another person (usually one’s enemies). The meaning of this proverb is therefore that such malicious endeavours may backfire on their perpetrator. The efforts made to harm others may sometimes, by some ironical twist of events, harm oneself.

A clear example from the Bible would be Haman, who was hanged on his own gallows (Est 7:9f). The same point is brought out by the next series of proverbs (8b-9): “Whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake, etc.” The Preacher tries to paint a picture of poetic justice that will meet the foolish and the wicked, the divine retribution that renders them as victims of their own evil devices.

Verse 15 offers a comical picture of the fool: “A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town.” Although there are descriptions of slothful fools in the wisdom literature of Israel, this is a descrip-tion of one who is actually quite industri-ous. But here is the picture of someone who is so wrongheaded in his ways that all his efforts are in the end futile. He has the tendency to get lost in the details and the uncanny ability of making the simplest tasks difficult. He generates much activity but achieves very little. In the end, he simply tires from it all.

The second part of the proverb is even more tragic. Here is someone who appears quite incapable of doing anything right at all. As Derek Kidner has put it so sharply, here is someone who would get lost “even if you put him on an escalator”! Because of his arrogance and folly, the fool (even a fairly industrious one) would end up living a stumbling and fumbling life.

The wisdom writings of Israel almost always emphasise the revelatory nature of the tongue, for one’s talk is the acid test for one’s wisdom or folly. Words, as the first half of the proverb in verse 12 states, can reveal the wisdom of their speaker. The words of the wise man are full of grace; that is, they are filled with charm, kind-ness and humility. The words of a wise man bring out his character, and invite appreciation and re-spect. But the words of a fool – which also reveal the character of their speaker – bring ruin.

Verse 13 stresses that the source of the fool’s talk is his in-ner character. Because the fool is both superficial and wrongheaded, his talk provides evidence of this from beginning to end. There is something tragic about the por-trayal of the fool in this passage. The fool is so full of himself that he actually has a highly inflated

view of himself, and thinks that he is capable of culture and sophistication. He talks incessantly, believing that he is making a big impression.

Unfortunately, not known to him, the fool’s verbosity only makes his mental and moral dullness truly transparent. Ignorance, this passage seems to be saying, is the chatter of fools!

Dr Roland Chia, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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