Posted On August 7, 2018

Dead Flies, Snake Bites, and Bird Spies

by | Aug 7, 2018 | Ecclesiastes, Featured

Imagine with me that you’re watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster action movie. An action flick set in ancient times. Huge marching armies. Warpaint. Spears, shields, and swords. Here’s the scene: the camera pans out to a wide lens view, and we see this massive army marching over a hill and down a valley, row after row, there is seemingly no end of soldiers crossing over the hill. Leading all of this is a great and powerful king who has conquered many cities, and he’s ready for war. Then we see his target…this little city right off in near distance. This looks like a huge mismatch. The great king simply has too much military power and resources at his fingertips. And this king isn’t in the mood for mercy today, so he calls out his engineers, and they start building siegeworks around the city walls of this small city. These will soon become towers higher than the city walls that will allow the king’s archers to shoot directly into the city. Against this king’s fully mobilized and powerful war machine, this little city will not last long, in fact, they don’t even have many trained soldiers prepared to defend and fight. Defeat seems inevitable, but then the camera turns and focuses on one man. One man. You’ve seen this story before right? I mean it’s Hollywood. The ominous dark music suddenly changes to something anthem-like and heroic. This one man is going to be the hero that saves this city from hordes of enemies. He’s jacked up and decked out with all sorts of weaponry, ready to mow down hundreds of lesser warriors. Except that’s not what happens this time, and this one man is not your typical Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone action hero. Rather, he looks frail, an unassuming poor man dressed in rags. Instead of strength, skills, and swordplay. He’s known for his wisdom. And somehow (we’re not told how), this man’s great wisdom thwarts the great kings plans to conquer his little city and everyone is saved! Not what we were expecting right? Now you’re intrigued, “wait how in the world did that happen?”

This is how Qohelet talks about wisdom in chapters 9 and 10 of this book. He calls this a great example of wisdom that he had seen under the sun. As a king, he would have been well studied in war, and he remembers this story of the poor wise man that saved his little city from a great king and his armies using not military might but…wisdom. He says clearly and plainly that wisdom is better than might. And that’s what he will then focus on for the rest of the passage, how wisdom is better than folly in several areas of life.

But like just about every virtue mentioned in this book, the Preacher never allows it to get too much spotlight and glory. He immediately even in this story strikes a somber but realistic note. We find out that poor wise man, the one that somehow overcame death-defying odds for him and his entire town was never recognized. He was not remembered by his people but forgotten and cast off as an insignificant poor man. Him and his wise words were despised by his own people that owed him their very lives. This is what folly looks like! In fact, as we shall see in the rest of the passage, there is so much folly in this world. It shows up in all the work and toil we do in this world, in all the talking that we do, and also how we respond to our governing authorities.

Wherever there is wisdom, there is always folly close at hand. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about wisdom. Qohelet heavily emphasizes that wisdom is better! We see it three times in 3 verses from v.16 to v.18. Here in this passage, the Preacher commends us to wisdom and the use of it, especially with all the foolishness in the world, we had better get wisdom! He first shows us the relationship between wisdom and folly in Ecclesiastes 9:17-10:3 and then he applies that in Proverb-like statements in three main areas: work, speech, and our relationship with leadership authorities. Let’s look at wisdom and folly.

Wisdom and Folly:

Throughout this book, there has been an ongoing discussion about wisdom from the Teacher of this book; it’s actually confusing at times. Back in chapter 1 and 2, Qohelet talked about the vanity of wisdom. He realized in chapter 1 that there are so many things that cannot be changed or made right even with much wisdom and also how it brings much vexation and anxiety. In chapter two he talks about how there is more gain in wisdom than folly but just soon as he says that he shrugs and says, “what’s the point?” Both the wise and the fool will experience death. In chapter 7 he contrasts wisdom and folly and clearly wisdom is better but then he goes right back to the vanity of it when he runs into the limits of our wisdom compared to God, that we simply don’t know, we can’t find out God’s ways (chap. 7-8). But now here, he returns back to being positive about wisdom in our passage today, which seems to contrast with the previous verses about the unpredictability of life where he says, “again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecc. 9:11). So before we go ahead with this passage, what exactly is his deal when it comes to wisdom? Is it good or not? My best answer to that for this book is that there is gain and value to wisdom in this life as Solomon is about to get into but we should also be aware of the vanity and limits of wisdom. It’s vanity because like everything else in this world, it’s subjected to frustration and death and we, being as limited and finite as we are, cannot understanding the meaning of life or this world on our own even with the best of wisdom.

Dead Flies (9:18-10:3):

But now we are in a section where the Preacher does want to teach us wisdom. He says it is better (v.16-18). So to show our need for wisdom, he makes us aware of two things that work against wisdom.
1) Wisdom is often ignored, despised and rejected. You will not be  heard and may even be forgotten. (9:15-16)
2) “Dead flies” He compares folly to a dead fly in an expensive ointment. This is probably where the saying, “fly in the ointment” comes from. You can have the most expensive ointment that money can buy, but if a fly lands dead in this bottle of ointment, it will ruin the rest of the ointment in the bottle and cause it to stink. It’s interesting how all the things that are called folly, things that can mess up what’s good, are described as little critters…snakes, birds, and flies. All it takes one sinner, one dead fly, one little critter, to ruin everything good that took so much time and wisdom to build. Think about important relationships in your life that have taken so much time and work to develop…All it takes sometimes is just one rash word, one angry outburst, one momentary lapse in judgment, to completely ruin things.

He continues on and says, “a wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left.” No… as tempting as it may be for some of us…. this is not about picking your political party, that would be misusing the Bible, but it’s about where wisdom will take you. Will you choose wisdom and be lead in the right way? Or will you succumb to foolishness and wickedness by veering off track?

So there’s folly and foolishness and much of it in our lives and this world. Wisdom can be so rare, often ignored and despised, and easily ruined. Solomon’s own life is exhibit A of a wise man that fell into folly right? But despite of that, it doesn’t mean we should cast off wisdom, actually, that should be even more reason why we need wisdom because it is better! So let’s look at how wisdom is better than folly in several areas of life.

Christ as our Wisdom:

But before we do, I’d like to make one very important comment about the place of wisdom in our lives. If we are going to spiritually benefit and profit from these wise sayings, there needs to be recognition that there needs to be a whole lot more going on than going out and simply trying to do these things. We need to remember that we are spiritual beings that needed God to save us from our spiritual blindness. In 1 Cor. 1:26-30, Paul talks about how the Corinthians were not wise according to the world’s standards, in fact, they were considered by others to be weak, foolish, low and despised to shame the world so that only God would get the glory, and they would not be able to boast. But rather he says that because of God they are now in Christ Jesus, who became to them wisdom from God. Our chief problem was not the lack of earthly wisdom although like Dave Ramsey says, ‘debt is dumb’ and there are certain best practices in managing your money and investing that will give you a better life but managing your debt is not going to save your soul and make you right with God. So we need to start here, that as Christians, the gospel is divine wisdom in which we all as sinful fools have been saved by Christ who is called wisdom from God, and now as those who have trusted in Christ, we desire to know how to walk in God’s ways which we see in these passages. This is also the grace of God, as Pastor Mike Bullmore said about this, “Jesus didn’t save us from the sea to leave us stranded on the shore,”[1] rather there is wisdom here in how to live.

Wise and Foolish Work (10:8-11):

In V.8-11 we see wisdom and folly in the area of work. There are at least 4 occupational hazards that can happen to the wise or the fool. These can result in great harm or death but as he said before, the fool “lacks sense” so to abandon wisdom is to invite harm in your work. These hazards include falling into a hole that you dug, getting bit by a serpent while breaking down walls (v.8), getting smashed by rocks as you’re trying to mine in a cave, or getting hurt while try to chop trees or logs of wood.

Just think of your work, there’s always some kind of occupational risk in what you do right? Here the key verse is v.10 where someone is working with an ax, but he fails to sharpen it before trying to chop. What’s going to happen? He’ll end up using more strength and tiring himself out, taking a much longer time than necessary to get the same work done, and maybe even risk getting hit by a flying ax head if it breaks from repeated ineffectively blows. You know what you call someone that keeps doing that? A fool! In contrast to that, the Preacher says to apply wisdom to your work is to go sharpen the edge of your ax so you will be able to chop more wood with less strength. Wisdom helps us succeed in our work.

The other example here is of a snake charmer; you want to charm the snake first so that it won’t bite you when you do your snake performance. If not, the snake might bite you first, and the show’s over even before it starts because now you’re on your way to the hospital!

So we have to ask ourselves, “what does it mean for us to use wisdom in our work? Or how can wisdom help us to have success and not to hurt yourself? What would it mean to proverbially sharpen our axes before going to work? Or to charm the snake before it bites us?”

Wise and Foolish Speech (v.12-15):

Next, the Preacher focuses on wisdom and folly in the area of speech. Another very practical area of our lives! Just like all of us work in some shape or fashion, we all talk and use words every day. I remember reading somewhere that an average person speaks about 16,000-20,000 words per day! This section starts out with saying the “words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,” and after that, it’s all about what the fool does when he talks. We’re told, “the lips of a fool consume him.” It’s his downfall. It’s more than just saying stupid things, look at v.13 with me. “The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness.” Notice that the fool’s words start in foolishness and by the end, it’s now evil madness. There’s a moral quality to how we use our speech. Continue speaking as a fool and leaving your mouth unchecked by mouth and don’t be surprised what comes out in the end. And then in v.14, the fool “multiplies words” and talks about things he knows nothing about and in v.15 the fool wears himself out with all his blabbering that he didn’t bother getting directions to the city. This is exactly what Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Or as the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle says, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”

So we see that for the fool his speech is his downfall, to neglect wisdom in our speech is to continue in a spiral of sin, and often that is seen in how much we talk. This along with all that it says about speech in Proverbs and James 3 is particularly convicting for me, as someone who is in ministry, because a lot of what we do gets done through speaking and communication. I can think of insensitive and foolish things I’ve said to friends in the last week or two that I wish I could take back. Here we have to stop and ask ourselves, “what comes out of our mouths? Is it wise or foolish words?” Things we’ve said to our children? Our spouse? Significant other, friends, parents, coworkers? Better yet, maybe we should ask what goes on in our minds and hearts that leads to what comes out of our mouths… As the foolishness comes to mind, let’s repent of those words, ask that person for forgiveness and apply wisdom so that we would speak wisely.

Wisdom and Folly in Authority (10:4-7 and 16-20):

The third topic that Qohelet applies wisdom too is relating to our authorities; here it’s mostly governing authorities: kings, rulers, and princes. There are two sections of this, first in 10:4-7 and then 10:16-20. Both times, Qohelet talks about the folly that is often seen in our leadership. Looks like 2017 in America is not the only time that people had foolish people in their government! In 10:5, the Preacher talks about this evil, this evil where the unqualified are in power and leading the people, while the more competent and qualified people are stuck at the bottom. He gets this again in v.16 when he says “Woe to you when your king is a child” instead of being a son of nobility (v.17).” He rebukes them for being indulgent and lazy. Foolish leaders feast at the wrong times, getting drunk and fat on food when they should actually use food and drink for having strength to lead. The roof caves in and leaks because of their laziness (v.18). So it’s inevitable that there will be folly in high places and because of that, the people in that land will suffer for it. V.19 is difficult to translate, but there is both a positive view or a negative one of this passage. The negative view is that this verse is about the indulgence that the bad kings and princes indulge in. The positive one is that the food and drink are enjoyed rightly, and money provides for everything (in contrast to the laziness and disrepair in v.18)[2]. If I had to pick a view, I personally think it’s the latter where it offers the positive contrast to the laziness of the kings in v.19.

Folly will happen in high places Qohelet says, but even then we shouldn’t respond with our own folly. Don’t fight stupidity with stupidity he says. In 10:4 where the king is angry, respond not in anger or leave town, but instead respond soberly, with a clear and calm mind. Or as Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

And then again in v.20, Qohelet urges wisdom in how we speak about the authorities even in private. Ever heard of “A little bird told me…?” Or like the bird spies in the movie Hunger Games called the jabberjays, that spy on people for the government.

One particular area we could apply this to is our use of social media[3]. Twitter (get it? Birds? Twitter birds?), Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. We ought to be careful of what we write or tweet. We should guard our hearts, close our mouths…even in the privacy of our own homes. You have to remember it is a public thing, once it’s out there, it’s out there for all to see. Just think about how many stories that have come out just this past year of politicians, business leaders, employees, have met their career downfall simply from saying stupid things on social media.

Jesus said the same thing in Luke 12:2-3: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” So the privacy of our own homes does not give us free license to say whatever we want or make slanderous comments, careful… a little bird just might take your words to the king…

So what I want to say is that we as Christians shouldn’t be known as cowardly keyboard warriors with inflammatory rhetoric, talking behind people’s backs, venomous attacks, and gossip but rather we are to set an example with our speech with what we say and what we don’t say, in kindness, respect, not foolish and irrational but calm and gentle. It should be as like what Colossians 4:5-6 says: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”


So to conclude, we’ve seen just how much folly there is in this world and where it plays out in our work, relationships, and even in places of higher authority. Even though wisdom is often despised and ignored, we are called here not to ignore or despise it but to use it! Let us continue to turn to Christ and His Word for wisdom in how to live our lives to glorify Him practically in every area of our lives. This is a faith issue. Do we really believe that God has spoken to us and told us how to live? Do we believe that His Word is sufficient for all of life and godliness? Has He left stranded at shore or does He pick us up and show us how to walk with Him the rest of the way?

So let’s turn to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith admitting that we are sinful, weak and foolish and pray, “Lord, I have been foolish! I’ve neglected wisdom. Please teach me this, help me believe this, work out this wisdom in my life everywhere, in whatever I encounter and face, however, I’m feeling today, and even when it seems like the world doesn’t care. You have taught me that wisdom is good and that it absolutely matters how I live before You and others. It matters because I was made for You. I was made this way. To live for You and to do your will. To worship and glorify You!”

[1] Quote I heard from Pastor Mike Bullmore at a Charles Simeon Trust Workshop on Ecclesiastes hosted at his church CrossWay Community Church in Bristol, WI in Feb. 2017.

[2] Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998), 250-251.

[3] Reading p. 190-191 of O’Donnell’s commentary gave me this idea. Douglas Sean O’Donnell. Ecclesiastes. Reformed Expository Commentary. (Phillipsburg, P&R, 2014).

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