Solomon, the collector, spent a great deal of his time collecting sayings about becoming successful in life. He discovered a few, and most of them turned out to be warnings about not doing stupid things. In chapter 10 of Ecclesiastes, he shared a few of his success tips.
1 Dead flies make even fragrant oil stink, in the same way, a little stupidity is weightier than wisdom and honour. 2 A wise person’s heart goes this way, but the stupid person’s heart goes that way. 3 Even when the stupid one walks along the road his heart is deficient, and it tells his stupidity to everyone.
Solomon learned a lot about stupidity. He saw it as a kind of infestation, that spoils everything it touches. He compared it to the dead flies that get into perfumed oil and turn it into a stinking mess. He said you can tell stupid people by how they walk, always taking the wrong path. And the trouble is, stupidity and wisdom do not balance out. Just a little stupidity weighs more than the same amount of wisdom. Those who aspire to live their lives the right way – the wise way – need to be extra careful that they don’t spoil it all with just one wrong turn, one stupid move.
4 If the ruler’s spirit turns against you, do not change your position, because calmness can overcome big mistakes. 5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like a mistake made by that ruler — 6 stupidity is set up in many high places while worthy men sit in humble places. 7 I have seen slaves on horses and princes walking like slaves in the land.
I love the honesty that Solomon expresses here. Gone are the bull feather expressions that are so common today, especially among the religious. He does not say that you can count on things working out OK all the time. Instead, he joins hands with Murphy and warns his sons that unfair stuff is going to happen. The ruler is going to get angry at you, so stay put and work it out. Worthy people are going to not get elected, but stupid ones are.
In a world where Murphy rules, you need wisdom and faithfulness to succeed. You need to trust God for justice to come eventually, because it is not always going to work out that way in the here and now. You need faith.
8 A person digging a pit may end up falling into it, and a snake might bite someone who breaks through a wall. 9 Someone cutting out stones may get hurt by them, and someone splitting logs may be harmed by them. 10 If someone’s axe is blunt and he cannot sharpen it, then he must keep trying harder. Wisdom has the advantage of helping someone succeed.
Solomon has established the truth that things do not always work out the way you might expect. Now, he tells us not to throw up our hands and give up, but to keep sharpening our axes, so that we can increase our chances of success at whatever we do. Wisdom is the axe sharpener. It helps a person work smarter, not harder. Stupidity says “I’ll take a shortcut.” Wisdom says “I’ll do it right the first time, so I will not have to do it again, or explain my failure.”
The gospel is wisdom applied to a person’s eternal destiny. There are billions who keep wailing away with blunt axes when it comes to their relationship with God. The harder they try, the worse it gets. They cannot get to God, because he has ordained only one way: Jesus.
11 If the snake bites before being charmed, the charmer loses out on his profit. 12 Words from the mouth of a wise person exude grace, but the lips of a stupid person consume him; 13 he starts out talking stupid, and ends up with wicked insanity. 14 Yet the stupid one multiplies words. No man knows what will happen, so who can tell him what will come after him?
Solomon had warned his readers of the danger of getting trapped by the charm of an adulteress,1 or getting ensnared by an evil time, and dying young.2 Now, he points out another dangerous trap: the multiplied words of a stupid person who thinks he knows the future. Solomon’s point is that all this talk about what is going to happen is snake charming, and since nobody knows the future, it is easy to fall for it. It would be better for us if the snake would immediately bite. So, Solomon’s warning for the wise is to beware of those who are so confident about the future. There is some stupid snake charming going on. Truly successful people avoid that.
15 The work of stupid people gets him so tired that he does not know how to walk into town. 16 Disaster will come to you, O land, when your king is a novice and when your princes feast first thing in the morning. 17 Blessed are you, O land, when your king is a son of noble ones and when your princes eat at the appropriate time– for strength, and not as an excuse to get drunk.
Solomon learned about wisdom the same way we all do – by experience. One detects a good deal of confession wrapped up in his wisdom observations. He looks back on when he was a fresh prince, a novice king who had been placed in charge long before he had learned the ropes. He remembered how lenient he had been on his own sons – letting them party any time they felt like it, not building any discipline into their lives. He just let them do what their instinct told them. Now he knows that his neglect was their downfall.
You do not have to learn by bad experiences. You can follow in the footsteps of those who have proven themselves good leaders. That is what it means to be a son of noble ones. By imitating good leadership, you bless your land. By following your instinct, you curse it. Success does not come to those who just do it. It comes to those who do it right.
18 Going soft makes the roof sag, and due to idle hands the house springs leaks. 19 People make bread for laughing times, and wine to gladden lives, and making money keeps us singing about everything. 20 And another thing: even in your bedroom do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a prominent man, because a bird from the sky will carry the sound, a winged creature will report the word.
Solomon identifies two symptoms of the same malady here. First, he warns against the tendency to withdraw and give your life over to laziness and idleness. He compares such a life to a house which starts to fall apart due to neglect.
Secondly, he warns against grumbling and complaining about “the king” – because such talk has a way of getting tweeted to the authorities, and no good can come from it.
For the person tempted to give up on working hard, and just party all the time, Solomon has an important thing to say. He tried it, and it is not as satisfying as it seems. Feasting and drinking and laughing and singing have their place, but they are best enjoyed as a result of earning them through diligence and hard work. Sitting on your bottom and blaming the politicians will only get you in trouble. Stay diligent, and you just might succeed.
Maybe you are wondering why God put a chapter like this in the Bible. Perhaps someone taught you that the goal in life is “pie in the sky when you die” – and you don’t see that here. I have news for you: God cares about your life right now. He’s not sitting on his throne anxiously waiting for you to pop off so that his eternal plan for you can start. No, he cares about whether you argued with your wife this morning. He cares about how well you get on with your boss, and whether you are working toward a promotion or an unemployment letter. He cares about your relationship with your kids and grandkids. Your true success is important to God. That is why he gave us – not just one, but several books in the Bible – which tell us how best to live these days that we have under the sun. God does have an eternal plan for your life, but it has already started. Your relationship with God matters, and so does your relationship with your neighbour, and your boss. We can thank Solomon, the collector, for reminding us of that fact.