Ecclesiastes 10:1-20

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Probably to show how easily a good reputation can be ruined, Koheleth introduced the proverbial saying, “Dead flies cause the perfumer’s ointment to stink, to bubble up [yábia].” (10:1)

The literal reading “flies of death” suggests that the flies cause death or are poisonous, which is the thought the rendering of the Septuagint conveys (“deadly flies” or “death-dealing flies”). It appears preferable, however, to regard the Hebrew as meaning “dead flies,” as this agrees better with the words about ruining the oil or the ointment. When a fly lands on the perfumer’s fragrant mixture, it is unable to free itself and soon dies. As the dead fly decays, the ointment begins to stink. (10:1)

There is a measure of uncertainty about the word yábia that appears in the Hebrew text. Commonly considered to be a form of navá‘, the word would basically denote to “gush forth,” “flow,” or “bubble up.” This could refer to the formation of bubbles on the surface of the ointment — an evidence of the fermentation process. The translator of the Septuagint, though, used a word drawn from skeuós (“vessel”) and which term apparently means the “preparation [in a vessel].” Possibly the rendering arose when the translator took the initial letter of the Hebrew word to be gimel (G), not yod (Y), which would have changed the meaning of the Hebrew word to “cup.” (10:1)

Koheleth continued, “weightier than wisdom, than honor — a little foolishness.” The Hebrew term yaqár, which means “rare,” “precious,” or “costly,” is probably drawn from a root that signifies “to be heavy.” According to the root meaning of the term, this would denote that a little foolishness is “weightier” or “outweighs” wisdom and honor. This is the case because a little foolishness (a violent outburst of wrath, a serious indiscretion in conduct with the opposite sex, overindulgence in drink, or any other moral impropriety) can undo or ruin the reputation of a wise person who has been highly respected, esteemed or honored. (10:1)

There is a possibility, though, that the meaning of “precious” can be preserved. The reference would then be to the bad effect of a little foolishness, for it outstrips the value of wisdom and honor. From the standpoint of diminishing the preciousness of wisdom and honor, senselessness could be spoken of as being more “precious.” “A little folly can make wisdom lose its worth.” (REB) The Septuagint reading reflects the meaning “precious” but expresses a thought that differs from the Hebrew text. “A little wisdom is more precious than the splendor [from] great senselessness.” (10:1)

Whether the Hebrew word is understood as signifying “to outweigh” or “to be rare, precious, or costly,” the basic sense of the proverbial saying remains the same. Just as a little dead fly can ruin an ointment mixture, wisdom and honor cannot escape the damaging effect of a little foolishness or a moral wrong. Just one serious moral slip can wreck a reputation for wisdom and deprive a person of honor or dignity. (10:1)

Koheleth’s words may also be understood to mean that folly can outweigh or overrule wisdom. Foolishness may be given a hearing ear, resulting in the rejection of wise guidance. King Rehoboam, for example, foolishly turned a deaf ear to the wise counsel of older, experienced men, preferring to follow the senseless advice of younger men. (1 Kings 12:3-16) While a little foolishness can undo what has been achieved or could be accomplished by the wise, it is more likely (in view of the previous words about the ointment) that the main thought is that a wise person can ruin his good reputation by engaging in a little foolishness. (10:1)

Drawing a contrast between the wise person and the fool, Koheleth observed, “The wise one’s heart [is] at his right, and the fool’s heart [is] at his left.” In the case of the wise person, the “heart” or the faculty for understanding, reasoning, and motivation occupies the proper place (the right side) and, therefore, inclines the individual to follow a course of moral rectitude. The fool, however, does not have his “heart” in the right place, the “left” being representative of what is wrong, unacceptable, or defective. This signifies that the fool’s understanding, reasoning, moral sense, and motivation depart from what is upright. In attitude, word, and action, he is inclined to pursue a path that is morally wrong. (10:2)

Regarding the fool, Koheleth continued, “And also, in the way that the fool treads, his heart is lacking, and he says to all, he [is] a fool.” Because the fool’s course is reckless, contrary to sound judgment and moral uprightness, he is described as having no heart. In this case, “heart” likely denotes “understanding,” particularly with reference to moral perception. By his conduct, he reveals to all that he is a fool, a person with a serious moral defect. A number of translations make this explicit. “Everyone remarks, ‘How silly he is!’” (NJB) “The fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is.” (NIV) “The fool shows no sense and reveals to everyone how foolish he is.” (REB) “And he lets everybody know he is a fool.” (10:3, Tanakh)

There is a possibility, though, that Koheleth’s words signify that the fool calls all others foolish. “About everyone else he has said, He is stupid.” (er von jedem andern gesagt hat: Er ist dumm. [German, Einheitsübersetzung]) The fool may regard the serious, sensible view of life that others have as preventing what he imagines to be enjoyment. Determined to follow his irresponsible, reckless, and corrupt way of life, he would be quick to label as a fool anyone who would attempt to correct him. (10:3)

Since the Hebrew word for “all” (kol) can denote either “everyone” or “everything,” the thought could also relate to how the fool, from his distorted perspective, regards things. “In his lack of understanding he calls everything foolish.” (10:3, NAB)

Earlier, Koheleth provided admonition regarding submission to a monarch (8:2-6). He returned to this subject, giving the following advice when one has angered a person in authority: “If the spirit of the ruler is aroused against you, do not leave your place, for calmness [marpé’] quiets great offenses.” (10:4)

In this case, the Hebrew term rúach (“spirit”) denotes “temper” and is often rendered “anger” (NAB, NIV, NJB, NRSV, REB) or “wrath” (Tanakh). Koheleth recommended that one avoid being hasty in relinquishing a position or post on account of a superior’s displeasure. Even when facing what appears to be unjustified wrath, there is a better way to deal with the situation than to give up one’s place. By maintaining a calm spirit, the individual may find that the ruler’s anger will subside. As Koheleth noted, “calmness quiets great offenses.” The Hebrew word marpé’ conveys the sense of “calmness,” “gentleness,” or “soothing.” When a subject manifests a calm, submissive spirit, the ruler may not inflict the severest penalty for what he considers to be great offenses. This is because calmness does not fuel anger but has a quieting effect on the wrathful person. Thus the great offenses are not magnified and do not lead to the kind of punishment that would customarily be meted out if the ruler’s anger had continued or intensified. (10:4)

In governmental administration, Koheleth observed that persons selected for responsible posts may be seriously lacking in the essential qualifications. He spoke of this as an “evil” he had “seen” or observed “under the sun” (on earth in the realm of human affairs). It is an evil because it works to the injury of the ruler’s subjects and contributes to dissatisfaction with his administration of governmental affairs. Koheleth also referred to the “evil” as a mistake coming from the ruler’s “presence” (literally, “face”) and, hence, an error for which the person exercising authority is responsible. (10:5)

Pointing to the specific mistake, Koheleth continued, “Foolishness is given many high [positions], and the rich sit in low [position].” Persons lacking the ability to administer affairs righteously, impartially, and wisely are entrusted with authority. Foolishness is exalted. The “rich” evidently are not to be understood as meaning all wealthy persons. Among the rich may also be found morally corrupt persons who lack good judgment. Therefore, the “rich” apparently are noble persons who have demonstrated ability to manage affairs wisely. Their way of life gives evidence that they are capable of handling governing responsibilities. Because incompetent persons are exalted to high office, the noble ones find themselves disrespected and having a low standing. (10:6)

Further emphasizing the contrast, Koheleth continued, “I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the earth like slaves.” It was viewed as disrespectful for a slave to ride on any animal while the master was walking. He would dismount when encountering the master who happened to be on foot. (Compare Genesis 24:63-65.) The exalting of slaves would, therefore, have been a serious attack on the existing social order. Hence, Koheleth’s reference to “slaves” apparently is to be understood as meaning persons who had the spirit of slaves (in the negative sense of the expression). Owned, not granted the opportunity to make important choices, and forced to work in the accomplishment of laborious, unpleasant tasks, slaves did not acquire experience in governing others or managing affairs. The institution of slavery also had a demoralizing effect on many. Hence, to elevate persons with a slavelike disposition, seating them on horses, would have meant entrusting high offices to persons who were the least qualified. (10:7)

“Princes,” on the other hand, designated noble persons with the needed qualifications and experience to govern. Though deserving of high office, they were not accorded dignity or respect but found themselves walking on the ground as if they were slaves. (10:7)

Incompetent persons, however, are in a precarious situation. Their poor judgment, coupled with abuse of authority, may become so obvious that it leads to their downfall, perhaps even a swift removal by the very one who exalted them. Koheleth next introduced a number of proverbial sayings that call attention to inherent hazards, and these sayings may serve to illustrate the dangerous situation of high officials who are unqualified for their position. If, though, the sayings are to be linked to the earlier admonition about dealing with a ruler’s anger, they may be understood as cautions and warnings about rising up against the established order.

“One who digs a pit will fall into it.” An open pit constitutes a serious hazard. According to the Mosaic law, the person who, after excavating it, left the pit uncovered was held liable for the death of any domestic animal that might fall into it. (Exodus 21:33, 34). By leaving the pit open and then failing to exercise due caution, the one who dug the pit could also fall into it. Similarly, the individual who tries to trap others, plotting against them as if digging a pit for them, may actually get caught by his own scheme. (10:8)

“He who breaks through a wall ― a serpent will bite him.” This kind of “wall” likely was one built of rough field stones and served as a protective fence. It would not be uncommon for snakes to slither between the stones of such a wall. Accordingly, the person (likely a thief) who broke through a stone wall could get bitten by a serpent. (10:8)

“He who quarries stones will be hurt by them; he who splits wood will be endangered by [it].” Quarrying and chopping are attended by a measure of risk. The implement used and the result from the activities can endanger life and limb, requiring the exercise of caution to avoid injury. (10:9)

The next proverbial saying emphasizes the importance of using good sense. “If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edges [literally, ‘faces’], then one must put forth [more] strength, and wisdom [is] an advantage for bringing success.” The “iron” evidently refers to an ax used for chopping. A dull ax will require the woodchopper to exert much greater effort than would have been needed for chopping with a sharp tool. What could be done easily by using good sense (whetting the cutting edges or sharpening the ax) is done the hard way ― ineffectively and inefficiently. Wisdom, common sense, or skill (manifest in preparing the implement for the job to be done) is revealed to be advantageous. Applied knowledge and skill lead to the successful outcome of an undertaking. (10:10)

The mere possession of knowledge or skill, however, does not guarantee success. Koheleth said, “If the serpent bites without [any] charming, then no advantage [exists] for the owner of the tongue.” There is no benefit in a person’s knowing how to charm a serpent if he is bitten before he is able to use his ability. The expression “owner of the tongue” apparently designates the charmer, the person who has a tongue capable of charming. (10:11)

Contrasting the words of a wise person and those of a fool, Koheleth noted, “The words of a sage’s mouth [are] gracious, and the lips of a fool swallow him.” The Hebrew term (chen), rendered “gracious,” conveys the sense of “agreeable,” “pleasing,” or “gaining favor.” A wise man’s expressions are pleasurable, because his manner of speaking is pleasant and his words impart thoughts of real value. What proceeds from his mouth may rightly be described as “gracious,” “agreeable,” or “pleasing.” Moreover, unlike the worthless sayings of a fool, a wise person’s words would usually gain a favorable response. A number of modern translations convey this sense in their renderings. “Words from the wise man’s mouth win favor.” (NAB) “A wise man’s talk brings him favor.” (10:12, Tanakh)

Whatever passes the lips of a fool, a person having a serious moral flaw, is neither gracious nor pleasing. The manner is repulsive, and the content is worthless or destructive. Stemming from the corrupt inner self, the words of the fool are really his undoing, exposing him for what he is and finding an unfavorable response. The “lips,” or the words that are a product of the lips, “swallow,” “consume,” or destroy the fool, making him the object of reproach. According to the Septuagint, the fool’s lips “sink” or “drown” him as if he were plunged into the sea. (10:12)

Focusing on the words of the fool, Koheleth continued, “The start of the words of his mouth [is] foolishness, and the end of his mouth [is] evil madness.” Right from the beginning of his speaking, the words of a fool are senseless, imparting nothing of value. As the morally corrupt person keeps on talking, his expressions progressively deteriorate. In the end, what comes out of his mouth is sheer “madness.” The expressions made are irrational, comparable to the rambling or raving of a person devoid of his senses. But the nonsensical words of the fool are not harmless chatter. The end or finish of what comes out of his mouth is “evil madness.” This may be understood to mean that it is “malicious,” “wicked,” “injurious,” “mischief run mad” (REB), or “treacherous folly” (NJB). It may also be that “evil madness” denotes senselessness that leads to calamity or disaster for the fool (“disastrous madness,” Tanakh). The “stupid chatter ends with disaster.” (10:13, CEV)

The fool simply does not know when to stop speaking. Though morally flawed and devoid of discernment, he keeps on talking. As Koheleth observed, “and the fool multiplies words.” Without giving any consideration to the possible and probable consequences of his words, he recklessly and thoughtlessly rambles on and on, spewing out utter nonsense. Although knowing nothing and having a twisted view of what is fitting and upright, he is an authority on everything. (10:14)

The fool is completely and deliberately blind as respects his limitations. This appears to be the implied thought behind Koheleth’s next words, “No man knows what is to be. And what will be after him, who can tell him?” No human knows exactly what will come to be or will take place in the future. Among mortals, no one can authoritatively and accurately say what shall come to be “after” a man, either after him in time or after a man’s death. By implication, the fool, however, believes that he can do what no human can. His many words and his recklessly ignoring dangers and warnings reveal this all-knowing attitude. (10:14)

Even in his toiling, the fool does not use common sense. Koheleth observed, “The labor of the fool wearies him, inasmuch as he does not know [how] to go to the city.” Imagining that he knows best, the fool stubbornly disregards the good suggestions, advice, and example of others. He persists in doing things ineffectively and inefficiently, exhausting himself in toil that could be accomplished with greater ease and less expenditure of effort. His manner of laboring to the point of weariness is comparable to a person’s vainly trying to get to a city by roads other than the right one. Accordingly, the fool is described as one who does not know or recognize the way to the city, which would be to follow the main thoroughfare that leads to it. He misses the obvious, wearing himself out needlessly. (10:15)

When persons lacking sound judgment occupy the highest offices, this leads to the ruin of the entire country. Regarding this, Koheleth noted, “Woe to you, O land, when your king is a boy and your princes eat in the morning.” (10:16)

The rendering “woe” (as expressing how disastrous it is) has the support of the Septuagint (ouaí) and is found in most translations. In Hebrew, however, the word ’ey could denote “why?” or “to what purpose?” If this, rather than “woe” is meant, Koheleth would be posing the question, as to what or how it will be for a land with the kind of king and princes that are described. The implication would be that the situation is too distressing to contemplate. (10:16)

For the king to be a “boy” would mean that he reflected the inexperience and poor judgment commonly associated with youth. He would have lacked the stature and ability to be a desirable, qualified ruler. The other high officials would make matters worse. Instead of providing sound advice and being diligent in the proper administration of the affairs of state, they would begin eating in the morning. This inappropriate eating would be self-indulgent feasting. An incompetent king surrounded by inept, pleasure-seeking princes and counselors would soon lead a country into economic ruin, if not also tremendous loss of life and devastation of the land from involvement in senseless warring. (10:16)

Focusing on good government, Koheleth observed, “Fortunate [are] you, O land, when your king [is] a son of nobles, and your princes eat at the proper time, for strength and not for drinking.” A land or country blessed with wise rulers enjoys stability, security, and prosperity. Rightly, Koheleth pronounced a land “fortunate” or in a state of well-being when its king and princes conducted themselves as befitted their high station. (10:17)

Instead of having the limited discernment and experience of a mere youth, the king would have the appropriate bearing and sound judgment. Being a “son of nobles,” the monarch would himself be noble, the possessor of dignity by reason of his just and wise handling of the weighty matters of state. (10:17)

The princes or officials and counselors in the realm would be genuinely interested in fulfilling their important duties. They would not indulge their appetites in feasting when it was time to care for their responsibilities. They would recognize when it was “time” to eat. The Hebrew word for “time” (‘eth), in this case, denotes a “fit,” “appropriate,” or “proper” time. When it is the proper time for eating, they would do so in moderation, taking in sufficient sustenance to restore their energies. They would eat “for strength,” that is, to have the needed energy to fulfill their governmental responsibilities. The princes would not give themselves up to self-indulgent revelry. Koheleth specifically noted that the “eating” is “not for drinking.” They would not allow their senses to be dulled by excesses in food and drink. The Septuagint makes no reference to drinking in the case of the princes, but says, “They will not be ashamed.” (10:17)

Having highlighted the advantage of a country’s having good rulers, Koheleth introduced a proverbial saying about the problems resulting from the neglect of essential work or duties. “Through slothfulness, the roofing sinks; and through lowering of the hands, the house leaks.” (10:18)

The Hebrew term conveying the idea of “slothfulness,” “laziness,” or “indolence” is a dual form of ‘atsláh. It can, therefore, be understood to mean “great,” “extreme,” or “excessive” laziness. (10:18)

When essential maintenance and repair are neglected, a house will soon come to be in a dilapidated state. The flat roofs of ancient homes were supported by an arrangement of beams and rafters. Beams extended from one wall to the other, and rafters were positioned across the beams. Next came a layer of reeds and branches that was covered with soil. A thick plaster of clay or clay and lime completed the roof. Without upkeep, such a roof would being to “sink” or “sag.” (10:18)

The Hebrew word meqaréh, often rendered “roof” or “rafter,” can designate the “beam work.” Likely, however, the expression refers to the “roofing.” Rather than the beams, the roofing, on account of the owner’ “great laziness,” would sink or sag from lack of maintenance. (10:18)

To accomplish something, the hands must be raised and not dropped to the sides of the body. Lowered hands are idle hands. Before the commencement of the autumn rains, roofs needed to be repaired and rolled smooth. For one to neglect this, leaving the hands idle, would mean having a house that lets in the rain. (10:18)

The next proverbial saying also appears to emphasize the importance of industriousness. Koheleth continued, “For laughter, they make bread, and wine cheers life, and silver answers everything.” (10:19)

As the basic staple, “bread” is synonymous with food. The making of bread, appears to denote the preparing of a meal. Since partaking of food can be enjoyable or pleasurable, Koheleth spoke of preparing “bread” or food for “laughter” or enjoyment. “The table has its pleasures.” (REB) “Eating and drinking make you feel happy.” (10:19, CEV)

Because of linking the expression “they make bread” with the self-indulgent princes (verse 16), the Tanakh renders the phrase, “They make a banquet for revelry.” Taking the expression “they make bread” in a general sense, however, appears to be preferable, as there is no clear reference to the princes in the words themselves. (10:19)

Though Koheleth’s observation that “wine cheers life” has also been regarded as applying to the drinking of the princes, it seems more likely that the effect of wine on the one drinking is meant. Alcohol affects the central nervous system and can put the individual in a cheerful mood. So the reference appears to be to the temporary pleasurable sensation from drinking wine in moderation. A similar thought is found in Psalm 104:15, “Wine to cheer man’s heart.” (10:19)

Silver was the common medium of exchange. Before money was coined, the individual, when making a purchase, would weigh out the agreed-upon amount of silver. It could be said that the self-indulgent princes had the needed silver to obtain food and drink. Silver “answered” their desires for pleasure. (10:19)

The entire proverbial saying, though, appears to be expressed in more general terms. “Silver” answered every need or desire that required the payment of a price, making it possible to obtain necessities and luxuries. The implied thought may be that the industrious worker will have enough silver to procure food, wine, and whatever else contributes to the enjoyment of life. (10:19)

Having specifically addressed the matter of poor rulership, Koheleth concluded with a caution about voicing complaint about persons in high station. “Also do not curse a king in your thought. And do not curse the rich in your bedrooms, for a bird of the heavens will carry the voice, and a winged creature may tell the matter.” (10:20)

The Hebrew word qalál, translated “curse,” literally means “to be light,” that is, not heavy. It refers to speaking evil or ill of someone, in the sense that the individual is made light of (“do not speak ill” [REB], “do not make light of” [NAB], and “do not revile” [NIV]). (10:20)

Regarding the Hebrew expression appearing in the Hebrew text, (bemadda‘aka [be, “in,” and maddá‘, “thought”]), a footnote in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia presents bematstsa‘aka as what is intended. The Hebrew word matstsá‘, defined as “bed” or “couch,” is apparently drawn from the root yatsá‘, meaning “to spread out.” Accordingly, the expression bematstsa‘aka could denote “in the place for spreading out to sleep,” that is, in the bedroom. Most translations, however, do not adopt the emended Hebrew reading. An exception is the Revised English Bible, which reads, “when you are at rest.” (10:20)

Both the Septuagint and the Vulgate support the rendering “thought.” The Septuagint employs syneídesis (“conscience” or “consciousness”) and the Vulgate, cogitatio (“thought”). When a person does not allow himself to speak ill of a ruler even in thought, he is far less likely to make light of that one in a place where he could be overheard. (10:20)

The “rich man” designates a member of the ruling class. This is evident from the use of the expression in parallel with the words about the king. (10:20)

In Hebrew, the word for “room” (chédher) designates an innermost room, as does the Greek term tamieíon found in the Septuagint. The kind of innermost room is further described by the expression mishkáv, which may be defined as a “lying down” or “bed.” Accordingly, Koheleth advised against calling down evil on a ruler even in private bedrooms or bedchambers, where one would not think about the possibility of ever being overheard. (10:20)

As Koheleth observed, the matter could become known in a most unusual or unexpected way, as if a flying creature (‘ohph, “bird” [also, “insect”]) picked up the words and carried them where one would never want them to be heard. Though voiced in private, the injudicious grumbling or complaining would result in bringing untold trouble on oneself. Even in modern times, persons living under dictatorial rule have experienced great suffering and even death for failing to exercise such extreme care in speaking. To their sorrow, many have found that the “walls have ears.” (10:20)