Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
The second half of Ecclesiastes 10:1 could possibly be translated as: ″A little folly is more valuable than wisdom and honour.″ The Teacher's point is that sometimes people believe they are choosing a wise and honourable course when in reality they are committing themselves to folly.
Wisdom is often ignored or undermined (see Ecclesiastes 9:13-18), not least because some people are skilled at passing off bad ideas as good ones. This is the point of the first half of 10:1, which can be translated as: ″A man stinks with flies of death; he gushes forth scented oil″. Some people can ″gush forth″ words so persuasively that they convince others that black is white, that garbage smells like roses.9
But this is a recipe for disaster, for the wise person and the fool are going in opposite directions, one towards blessing, the other towards ruin (v. 2). Anyone with any sense can see that the fool is on the wrong road-but not the fool himself and those he has persuaded to follow him (v. 3). Such behaviour, multiplied across human societies and infecting national leadership, is the source of much evil in the world: wars, misguided economic policies, unjust and discriminatory laws, and so on.
The Teacher now directly addresses the issue of national leadership. Ecclesiastes 10:4-11 can be read as ″teaching for courtiers″ (government advisors) on how to conduct yourself in the royal court, and in particular how to handle the king (see also 8:1-9). Ecclesiastes 10:4-7 addresses the topic in plain language, 10:8-11 does so using a series of telling metaphors.
Ecclesiastes 10:4-7 sets out the problem: rulers who cannot tolerate disagreement and leaders who make bad appointments, such that the wrong people have power and wealth. Under such a regime the courtier's role is a thankless one. His attempts to guide the ruler wisely may backfire and cost him dearly. His task is like digging pits, dismantling snake-infested walls, quarrying stones and splitting logs (vv. 8-9): hard and potentially dangerous work, but also necessary. Like someone using a blunt axe, he cannot achieve nearly as much as he would like, but with persistence and wisdom he can accomplish something (v. 10; see also 8:5). He has to become skilled in charming the ″snake″, exerting subtle influence on the king, learning how to placate his wrath when necessary.
Folly can do great harm, but we are not utterly helpless. A wise person, particularly one in a position of influence, can sometimes avert evil, even in this flawed and unsatisfactory world.
9On the translation and interpretation of 10:1, see Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs, 193-194.
″Forewarned is forearmed.″ How does today's passage illustrate this proverb?
Perhaps your circle of Christian friends includes a government minister or civil servant. Have you talked to them about what their position involves? Have you asked them how you may pray for them?