Toward the end of my matric year at high school, all graduating students were required to submit a favourite quote to be immortalised alongside our teenage glamour shot in the high school yearbook. I immediately knew that my quote would be Ecclesiastes 10:1—from the King James Version of the Bible, of course: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”
I was partly motivated by the admittedly humorous language of the KJV, but was nonetheless persuaded that the verse made an important point. My teacher was less impressed and, figuring that I was in some way being irreverent with Scripture, refused to allow that to be printed alongside my photo. In the end, I was forced to go with something far more generic.
Twenty-five years later, I remain persuaded that the lesson from this verse, and the verses that follow, are profoundly important for us. While Solomon’s thoughts appear to be all over the map in this section, the basic theme that runs through chapter 10 is that of folly. Having highlighted the necessity of wisdom in chapter 9, Solomon now turns to the dangers of folly in chapter 10. In the opening eleven verses, he highlights at least five things about folly.
The Power of Folly
He begins by highlighting the immense power of folly. “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour” (v. 1). (Doesn’t the KJV sound so much better?) The specific illustration he uses may seem somewhat archaic to us, but his point is clear: One small moment of indiscretion has power to ruin a reputation.
I must stress, as I have stressed elsewhere, that folly in biblical wisdom literature is more an ethical than an intellectual category. Folly has less to do with your IQ than it has to do with your submission to God’s word. If we carelessly live, speak, act, or think as if there is no God, it can have devastating and long-lasting effects. Though such carelessness shows itself in very practical settings.
After an illustrious career as one of Australia’s foremost batsmen, Dean Jones emerged as a leading cricket commentator. On 7 August 2006, Jones was commentating on a match between Australia and South Africa. After Hashim Amla, who is Muslim by faith, took a catch to capture an Australian wicket, the Australian broadcast went to a commercial break. Not realising that the South African broadcast was continuing, Jones commented, “The terrorist gets another wicket.” One unguarded moment of folly resulted in the termination of his contract with Australia’s 10 Sport.
Justine Sacco was a PR executive at American holding company InterActiveCorp. In 2013, shortly before boarding a flight to her vacation in South Africa, she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She had only 170 followers, but her tweet exploded and, by the time her plane landed, she had a slew of messages awaiting her, including a note from her manager informing her that she had been fired. One unguarded moment of folly ruined everything she had so successfully built to that point.
Believer, do you understand the enormous and destructive power of folly? One small indiscretion has power to taint a lifetime of faithfulness. Be on guard against folly. A single unthinking word can destroy a relationship. One moment of unbridled lust can destroy a marriage. One careless post on social media can ruin a career. Folly has great, destructive power.
Realising the same truth, be careful of toying with folly in the lives of others. One spiteful half-truth or unsubstantiated rumour uttered about someone else can destroy their life. One moment of bitterness can result in a lifetime of heartache for a brother or sister in Christ. It is profoundly dangerous to toy with folly.
The Deception of Folly
Second, Solomon highlights folly’s deceptiveness, which makes it even deadlier. He writes, “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left. Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool” (10:2–3).
We learn here that wisdom and folly lead down diametrically opposed paths. The wise man and the fool are not travelling the same path with differing opinions on life. The wise man is travelling the path to God (“to the right”); the fool heads in a very different direction (“to the left”).
Sadly, however, the fool is too deeply enmeshed in his folly to even realise it. As he makes his way through life, “he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.” There are two possible ways to interpret this verse.
On the one hand, Solomon could be saying that the fool is so blind to his folly that he doesn’t even realise he is a fool when it is obvious to everyone else. In that scheme, his lack of sense says to everyone around him that he himself is a fool.
On the other hand, Solomon could be saying that the fool is so blind to his folly that, while he is the fool himself, he goes about accusing everyone else of folly. In his senseless estimation, everyone who does not agree with him is the fool while he is the one who has sense.
Either interpretation could be correct, and both would have support from elsewhere in Scripture. I tend to think that the second interpretation fits the context better. People who reject God’s authority and pursue their own way in life frequently insist that they are right and that those who walk in true wisdom are the fools. If you stand for God’s truth in matters of life and death and sexuality and marriage, don’t be surprised when fools who reject God’s truth accuse you of folly. In their self-deception, they believe themselves to be right and nobody can tell them otherwise.
The Results of Folly
Third, Solomon addresses some of the sad results of folly.
If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offences to rest.
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.
He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them.
He highlights three negative results of folly that he has witnessed.
First, folly results in impetuous behaviour (v. 4). In his example, a ruler’s anger arises against one of his subjects and the subject must immediately jump to defend himself. The fool gives no space for the anger of the ruler to subside so that a reasonable conversation can be entered into. The fool is so persuaded that he is right that he must immediately defend himself, angering the ruler even more. In the end, he makes the situation worse than it was to begin with.
Does this sound familiar? Do we not live in a world in which everybody immediately jumps to defend themselves and nobody wants to listen to each other? Do we not see a world in which people all around us foolishly make matters worse rather than seeking to calmly engage to resolve matters in a godly fashion? In tense situations, folly makes things worse. Wisdom seeks to calmly diffuse the heightened emotions before answering. When someone gets agitated at you, don’t jump in right away and only heighten the tension. Give space for tempers to cool before addressing it.
Second, folly results in an upside-down society (vv. 5–7). Under ordinary circumstances, the rich would rise above the foolish and slaves should walk on the ground before their masters’ horses. But folly reverses the entire course of life. It results in a world that makes no sense.
Does this not again describe the world in which we live? Do we not live in a world that seems so topsy turvy? A world in which parents can be stripped of their parental rights because they will not affirm their six-year-old’s request for hormone altering drugs because the little boy thinks he is a girl? A world in which a young person can be stripped of their hard-earned law degree because the college at which they studied affirms a traditional Christian definition of marriage? A world in which billions of dollars are annually thrust into the search for extra-terrestrial life when millions of terrestrial lives are lost every year to hunger, poverty, and preventable disease?
Third, folly results in a dangerous environment (vv. 8–9).
Here, Solomon again draws on a series of practical illustrations to make a particular point. His point is simply this: If we are not cognisant of the destructive power of folly, and not careful to avoid its pitfalls, we place ourselves in a very dangerous position. When you dig a pit, you take precautions to ensure that you don’t fall into it. When you break through a wall, you first carefully investigate to ensure that you are not putting yourself in unnecessary danger. (You first, for example, ensure that you are not breaking into a den of snakes!) When you quarry stones, you carefully take the necessary precautions to prevent yourself from injury. When you split logs, you don the necessary protective eyewear to ensure that you don’t face injury.
Here’s the point: You can’t simply go through life heedless of the dangers you face. As you head into a world that is opposed to the truth of God, be aware of the dangers you face. Realise that you are heading into a world that is opposed to gospel truth and prepare yourself to spot it so that you are not injured by it.
I am vocationally employed as an associate pastor in my local church. When I go to the office on Tuesday, I don’t expect to encounter colleagues whose worldview is opposed to gospel truth. I don’t expect to frequently encounter philosophies from the staff at my office that I must carefully and thoughtfully evaluate in light of gospel truth. But, in that sense, I do not live where 99% of my own congregation lives.
Most members of my church head every Monday into a workplace where they will be assaulted on every side by worldviews opposed to gospel truth. Most reading this probably live in that same space. You need to be on guard. You need to understand the world into which you are walking and know how to spot the dangers that will assault your soul.
This is one of the reasons we so highly value Christian exposure to the truth. Do you understand the immense privilege that you have every day to begin your day by reading or listening to the Bible? That is a privilege that, until the invention of the printing press in the 1500s, most Christians around the world completely lacked. They needed the word read to them, usually in the context of weekly corporate worship; you can read it yourself before you even get out of bed in the morning!
In the digital age in which we live, we have so much exposure to the truth. We also have so much exposure to junk. What are you filling your mind with? We can read Scripture. We can listen to preaching or podcasts that fill our minds with truth. We can watch truth-promoting content on YouTube and other streaming services. We can read a plethora of truth-filled books. Are we taking advantage of these opportunities to help us spot the dangers of the world in which we live?
I am not suggesting that it is necessarily wrong to watch Hollywood films or read non-Christian fiction. In fact, you will probably gain clearer insight into the culture in which you live through modern entertainment than through most other mediums. But if you do not at the same time expose yourself to God’s truth, you will not know how to discern truth from error. Before you know it, you will have fallen into your own pit. You will have been bitten by that snake hiding in the wall. You will have been hurt by the very stones you are quarrying and the very logs you are splitting. Be on guard. Be aware. Don’t let folly catch you in its snare unawares.
The Antidote to Folly
Fourth, Solomon touches on the antidote to folly. “If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer” (10:10–11).
Once more, Solomon draws on two images, this time to present a two-pronged antidote to the destructive power of folly.
In reality, Solomon is continuing the same overarching point he made in vv. 8–9: Be prepared. Don’t begin to chop wood until you have sharpened your blade. Don’t try your snake-charming act before you have trained the snake. You’re only going to get yourself into trouble if you haven’t properly prepared.
There does, however, appear to be a subtle difference in the two illustrations, which highlights the need to avoid two opposite extremes of ill-preparedness.
“If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed” (v. 10). Here, the caution appears to be against acting too hastily. It is foolish to rush into something without properly preparing. Take however long you need to sharpen the axe before beginning to cut the wood because a blunt blade will only lead to frustration and ineffectiveness.
Several years ago, at the Rez Conference in Randburg, a question-and-answers session was arranged with keynote speaker Voddie Baucham. During the session, a young, very zealous man expressed his frustration that he had not yet found something of real significance to do with his life for the Lord. He wanted to get out there and make a difference and asked Voddie for counsel. Voddie thought for a moment and then said, “Do nothing.” He paused for a moment before explaining. He exhorted the young man that the best thing he could do at that time was to patiently involve himself in typical local church ministry. Sit at the feet of more seasoned Christians and take time to learn. In time, God may use him, but he would be ill-advised to rush into significant ministry without careful, deliberate preparation. He needed, in other words, to take as much time as necessary to sharpen his axe before swinging it. It was sage advice. Solomon would have approved.
But then consider the second illustration: “If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.” Here, he seems to be suggesting that the charmer should get to it as soon as possible. Don’t wait and think that you will get to training the snake later; it may bite you before you get around to it and you will find yourself in trouble.
Don’t rush into things, advises Solomon, but also don’t wait around doing nothing. Before long, your gap year will become two gap years, then three, and, before you know it, you may find your greatest aspiration to be a guild leader in your favourite online roleplaying game.
Folly is displayed both in rushing into things without proper preparation and by inaction due to lack of any preparation. As Russian Poet Ovid once said, “At times it is folly to hasten, at other times, to delay. The wise do everything in its proper time.”
The Challenge of Folly
All of this leaves a tremendous challenge before us: How exactly do we discern the difference between wisdom and folly? How do we know when it is too soon? How do we know when it is too late? How do we pursue the right kind of wisdom so as to avoid the destructive power of folly?
Jesus once told a parable relating to this:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
The difference between wisdom and folly is how we respond to the words of Jesus. He is the true measure of wisdom and folly. He not only lived wisely but teaches us how to live wisely ourselves. As we obey his teachings—beginning with the instruction to repent of our sins and trust in the crucified and risen Christ for our eternal salvation, and then pursuing a life of hearing and doing his words—we will find ourselves steadily building a life of wisdom. Afford yourself exposure to Jesus Christ, and obey his teachings. That is the key to embracing wisdom and defeating folly.