I’ve spent quite a bit of time working through the book of Ecclesiastes, and this passage remains one of the most puzzling to me. Maybe you’ve had some better luck understanding how 10:12–20 fits into the overall structure of the book. I hope so. At any rate, this passage is a series of proverbial sayings that the author plops down near the end of his treatise, and we’ll try to work through their meaning and application to the Christian life today.
First, though, let’s think a bit about the purpose of proverbs. Of course, we know they are not promises, but rather they are general principles for how to live best and for what should happen in a rightly ordered world. But we know from the rest of Ecclesiastes that this world is not rightly ordered—the sin of humans has set things askew, marking them with the injustice of “Abel-ness” (ESV “vanity”). Proverbs also are meant to be pondered; they are short, pithy sayings that make for easy memorization. That also means we can roll them around in our minds as we go on about life, thinking through how and when they might apply. With that in mind, let’s dive into some of these sayings
Words, Wisdom, and Folly
Verses 12–15 compare and contrast wisdom and folly, particularly through the lens of how each uses words.
The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,
but the lips of a fool consume him.
The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness,
and the end of his talk is evil madness.
A fool multiplies words,
though no man knows what is to be,
and who can tell him what will be after him?
The toil of a fool wearies him,
for he does not know the way to the city.
These first three of these proverbs offer the same basic message: the words of the wise are good for him. That is, his or her words are both right and delivered in such a way that they will be regarded well—they will “win him favor.” The key issue here is that we should strive for words that both are true and that are spoken in the right way. And we must also remember—proverbs are meant to be rolled over again and again in our minds and applied to the right situation.
That’s the positive aspect of speech. Ecclesiastes spends quite a bit more time discussing the speech of fools and pointing out its dangers. Namely, foolish words “consume” us and are “evil madness,” and a fool “multiples words.” Words are powerful, and just like a fire (the metaphor James uses), they can do significant and lasting damage, not least to the person who speaks them. Further, and important for us in the age of social media, fools talk a lot. Honestly, this is the aspect of speech I struggle with the most. I distinctly remember my mom putting her hand over my mouth because I wouldn’t stop talking. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut a bit more as I’ve gotten older, but I still have difficulty just being quiet.
Right Times and Right Actions
The next two verses address appropriateness in a few different situations:
Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,
and your princes feast in the morning!
Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility,
and your princes feast at the proper time,
for strength, and not for drunkenness!
According to Ecclesiastes, it’s right for a king to be a noble and for leaders to feast for “strength, and not for drunkenness.” The primary issue in these verses seems to be that the right people are in the right positions and do the right things at the right time. This hearkens back to the first part of Ecclesiastes, where the author discusses the times for various activities.
Verses 16–17 are a bit more opaque for modern Western readers, with our emphasis on equality and meritocracy. However, it remains true that there is an appropriate time for feasting and an appropriate person to lead. What matters, ultimately, is that we and those we elect (in the United States) to lead us to do so with wisdom and integrity.
Verse 18 illustrates a clear principle that any homeowner has experienced: “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through insolence the house leaks.” This metaphor, taken from daily life, has wide-ranging applications. Again, the purpose of proverbs is to cause us to ponder them, so we would do well to think often on which aspects of our lives (and our homes!) are suffering because of our laziness and disregard. A proper life requires diligence.
Verse 18 is quite enigmatic, as it tells us that “money answers everything.” Here especially we must remember that these sayings are meant to be meditated upon. In what way is “bread . . . made for laughter”? And when is it appropriate that “wine gladdens life”? (Never if, like me, you’re a Southern Baptist!) And in what situations does “money answer everything”? Ecclesiastes doesn’t tell us, instead it invites us to think, to ponder, to wonder, and to apply the proper piece of wisdom to the proper situation.
Finally, verse 20 warns readers not to curse the powerful, for someone may tell them about our words. It’s hard to tell if Ecclesiastes is simply offering advice about the best way to protect one’s hide or if it is subtly critiquing a system of power that issues draconian punishments. Based on the rest of the book’s context, I think it may be a little of both. Again, (and this is the last time I’ll say it!) the point of the proverbial genre is not to offer ironclad promises applicable to every situation in life; the point is to offer readers a bit of advice they can ponder and apply to the right situation at the right time.
This series of proverbs offers important insight into our words and actions, and the right times for each. They also offer a helpful rest stop in the book of Ecclesiastes, a place where readers can put up their feet for a while after their long, weary trek through the Abel-ness (ESV, “vanity”) of life and think through various situations in which they may find themselves. Now, millennia later, we would do well to slow down, relax on the porch, and meditate upon the teacher’s words and pray for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in applying them to our own lives.
Russell L. Meek (PhD Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a speaker, writer, and professor who specializes in the Old Testament and its intersection with the Christian life. You can visit him online at RussMeek.com.