Wisdom Trumps Folly Every Time (Ecclesiastes 10:1-3)

In the last few chapters of Ecclesiastes we’ve seen the Preacher scratch his head in bewilderment over the fact that being righteous or having wisdom, though obviously good in themselves, do not always pay off.  No matter how much we might prepare and forecast, life is unpredictable.  It is good to plan, but we must hold those plans loosely.  We must learn to trust God’s sovereign purpose even when it leads us in places we’d rather not go—into sickness, failure, financial problems, relational difficulties, even to death.

But even though wisdom cannot save us from every misfortune, it is still better to be wise than foolish.  That is the way Solomon starts off Ecclesiastes 10:

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. 2 A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left. 3 Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool. 

Throughout this chapter Solomon gives us a series of maxims concerning wisdom and foolishness, similar to his book of Proverbs.

The main motif is yet another survey of observations about life under the sun.  The general import of the proverbs is hinted in verse 10: “wisdom helps one to succeed.”  Some specific topics include the following: brief snapshots of folly (vv. 1–3); observations about power structures and rulers (vv. 4–7); satiric snapshots of people who do not use their head or take adequate precautions, accompanied by latent humor (vv. 8–11); the importance of words (vv. 12–15); political observations (vv. 16–17); laziness made vivid (v. 18); a cynical observation about living high on the hog (v. 19); not criticizing one’s superior (v. 20). (Literary Study Bible)

The first proverb is “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”

In this proverb “the perfumer’s ointment” and “wisdom and honor” are good things, things to be desired.  However, “a little folly,” just like little dead flies, can turn something good into something undesirable.

Although there was nothing wrong with the perfume, it had attracted a swarm of flies and the stench of their carcasses had turned the perfume rancid.  Just like “one sinner destroys much good” (Eccl. 9:18) and a “little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9) so a few flies turn the perfume bad.  Likewise, just “a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”

This is the metaphorical confirmation of the truth at the end of chapter 9.  One sinner destroys much good.  One sin can destroy much good.

All it takes is one rash word, one rude remark, one hasty decision, one foolish pleasure, or one angry outburst to spoil everything.  As Derek Kidner observes, “It is easier to make a stink than to create sweetness.”  Another way of viewing it is that it takes a lot of effort to build up a reputation for wisdom, but it only takes one bad decision to ruin it.

The unguarded moment–the hasty word–the irritable temper–the rudeness of manner–the occasional slip–the supposed harmless eccentricities–all tend to spoil the fragrance of the ointment.  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 234)

Jay Adams remarks: “Some stupid remarks or some foolish actions can destroy what ought to be a delightful family or church gathering.  It doesn’t take much to destroy a relationship that was months in the building.  Some complaint, some argument, some thoughtlessness or wickedness–that’s all it takes.  Just a few flies!  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 101)

Pay attention:  Little things, single moments, have great impact on our lives and the lives of others.

So Derek Kidner comments: “There are endless instances of prizes forfeited and good beginning marred in a single reckless moment – not only by the irresponsible, such as Esau, but by the sorely tried, such as Moses and Aaron.”

The Wesleyan commentator Adam Clarke says: “Alas!  Alas!  In an unguarded moment how many have tarnished the reputation which they were many years in acquiring!  Hence, no man can be said to be safe, till he is taken to the Paradise of God.”

The power of a Spirit-filled life cannot be overestimated.  But every Christian must also be aware of the tremendous danger of compromising with sin.  A little too much self-confidence, a small yielding to the flesh, and our testimony can be lost.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 126-27)

Solomon had already compared a good name to good perfume (Eccl. 7:1), so here he is showing how quickly that reputation can be ruined, by a little folly.

It is vital to know the difference between wisdom and folly.  Most Christians can distinguish good from evil.  Our conscience tells us that some things are morally right, while others are morally wrong.

This kind of thinking is fine, as far as it goes.  The trouble, however, is that some of the most important choices in life are not between good and evil but between wisdom and folly.  Or, to put it another way, sometimes we have a whole range of choices we could legitimately make as far as following God’s moral guidelines—so which one do we choose?

Sometimes folly and wickedness are partners in crime.  The Preacher put them together just a few chapters earlier: “Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool” (Ecclesiastes 7:17; cf. Jeremiah 4:22).  However, one can do something foolish that it not necessarily wicked.  Wickedness has to do with actions that are deliberately malicious and harmful.  Foolish decisions, however, may just be impulsive and rash, not thought through and hurtful and generally doesn’t regard God.  That’s bad enough, but not wicked.

The Preacher has told us many things about the fool already.  He is lazy (Ecclesiastes 4:5), ill-tempered (7:9), and morally blind (2:14).  He refuses to take advice (9:17).  His life is not pleasing to God (5:4).

Here the Preacher adds that the fool is directionally-challenged: “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left” (10:2).

By the way, Solomon is not talking about politics here.  He is not necessarily recommended conservative over liberal political stances.

The “right hand” is often associated with strength and blessing in the OT (e.g., Ex. 15:6, 12Ps. 16:11; 17:7Isa. 41:10, etc.), and the Preacher is either referring to the “left hand” with a correspondingly negative connotation (Gen. 48:14Judg. 3:15).  By the way, did you know that the Latin word for left hand is sinistera, from which we get “sinister.”

With apologies to left-handers, the Bible generally treats the right side as the good side: “The right hand was associated with a strength which saves, supports and protects” (Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 133).

In addition, the right hand was used to convey blessing, such as the time that Jacob crossed his arms to place his right hand on Ephraim’s head and thus give him the greater blessing (Genesis 48:13–20; cf. Proverbs 3:16).  The right hand was also associated with authority, which is why Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father (e.g., Colossians 3:1).  Given this background, it is not surprising that at the final judgment, the sheep will be on the right, but the goats will be on the left (Matthew 25:31–33).

When the Preacher says that the fool is on the left, therefore, he is telling us that the man is going the wrong direction in life.  There are plenty of examples in the Bible. Think of the contrast between Abraham and his cousin Lot.  When the two men divided the land of promise (see Genesis 13), Abraham was content with what God provided. Lot, on the other hand, chose the better territory for himself (or so he thought).  Foolishly, he moved to Sodom, an evil city that was later destroyed by God.

There is a similar contrast between Ruth, who remained faithful to Naomi and the people of the one true God, and her sister-in-law Orpah, who abandoned Naomi and went back to the worship of pagan idols (Ruth 1:6–18).

So it could be that Solomon is simply stating that wisdom and foolishness invariably reveal themselves in one’s behavior (cf. Eccles. 10:3; see also the note on 8:1), in opposite behaviors.

Perhaps this contrast is captured best in the Jerusalem Bible: “The wise man’s heart leads him aright, the fool’s heart leads him astray.”

Someone has noted that when a rocket is launched, if it’s path is off one degree it can miss its target.

In 1979 a passenger jet carrying 257 people left New Zealand for a sightseeing flight to Antarctica and back.  Unknown to the pilots, however, there was a minor 2 degree error in the flight coordinates.  This placed the aircraft 28 miles to the east of where the pilots thought they were.  As they approached Antarctica, the pilots descended to a lower altitude to give the passengers a better look at the landscape.  Although both were experienced pilots, neither had made this particular flight before.  They had no way of knowing that the incorrect coordinates had placed them directly in the path of Mount Erebus, an active volcano that rises from the frozen landscape to a height of more than 12,000 feet (3,700 m).  Sadly, the plane crashed into the side of the volcano, killing everyone on board.  It was a tragedy brought on by a minor error—a matter of only a few degrees.

Experts in air navigation have a rule of thumb known as the 1 in 60 rule.  It states that for every 1 degree a plane veers off its course, it misses its target destination by 1 mile for every 60 miles you fly.  This means that the further you travel, the further you are from your destination.

If you’re off course by just one degree, after one foot, you’ll miss your target by 0.2 inches. Trivial, right? But…

  • After 100 yards, you’ll be off by 5.2 feet. Not huge, but noticeable.
  • After a mile, you’ll be off by 92.2 feet. One degree is starting to make a difference.
  • If you veer off course by 1 degree flying around the equator, you’ll land almost 500 miles off target!

If you only live a few days, one mistake won’t make that much difference.  But over the course of a lifetime, little sins can ruin a life, taking it places no one would want to go.

Which direction are you going in life?  Are you moving toward temptation or away from evil?  Are you moving the right way in discipleship or falling away spiritually?  Are you drawing closer to the people of God or going off by yourself?  Only a fool would go the wrong direction in life.

Eugene Peterson called discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.”  The direction you choose is important and wisdom helps you make the right choice.

Why does the fool move in the wrong direction?  Because his heart is already leaning in that direction.  In Scripture, the heart is the central command center of our being.  The heart has desires and affection, thoughts and reflections, and makes decisions.  Everything in life follows the heart.

The wise man goes the right way because his heart leans the right way, but the wicked man’s heart leans in the opposite direction, which is where he ends up going.  Wisdom and folly are inclinations of the heart.

Solomon connected the heart with the way one lives in Proverbs 4:23, encouraging his son: “Keep [guard, watch over] your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”  It all starts with the heart.  Or, as an old mentor used to say, “the battle is fought at the thought.”  Guard your heart and your control your behavior.  Guarding the heart is an active, vigilant process.  We want to fill our heart with God’s wisdom, not the world’s foolishness, or the world’s wisdom. 

That is why Solomon spent so much of his time in Proverbs teaching his son to value and love wisdom.  In Proverbs 4 we read:

1 Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, 2 for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching. 3 When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, 4 he taught me and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. 5 Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. 6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. 7 The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. 8 Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her.

In Proverbs 3 Solomon said:

13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, 14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. 

Solomon encouraged his charge to give utmost effort to gaining wisdom in Proverbs 2:1-4:

1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures,

So, if we want to be blessed, we will seek wisdom from God’s Word, represented here by a parent’s teaching.

The fool is on the wrong road completely, but sadly, he does not even realize it.  According to verse 3, “Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.”  This is part of the definition of a fool: he seems to be the only person who does not know that he is a fool!

There are at least two ways to take the second half of verse 3 (“he says to everyone that he is a fool”).  One is to take it literally, in which case the fool is always busy telling other people that they are fools.  He is not saying that he himself is a fool, but rather that everyone else is foolish.  This certainly is what fools usually believe — that they alone are wise and that everyone else is a fool (which, of course, is a very foolish thing to think!).  A fool is always “right in his own eyes” (Prov. 12:15).

It is also possible that verse 3 should be taken metaphorically.  The fool does not literally “say” that he is a fool, yet this is exactly what his words and his actions communicate.  He (or she) has such an obvious lack of spiritual good sense that his (or her) folly is evident to everyone.  Fools have a way of refusing to listen to good advice (see Proverbs 12:15; 18:2; 23:9) or of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (see Proverbs 18:6) or of doing something else that shouts, “Look at me, I’m a fool!”  As it says in the book of Proverbs, “a fool flaunts his folly” (Proverbs 13:16; cf. 12:23).

Dan Allender says it well: the fool “will follow a path that seems to be right, even when the blacktop gives way to gravel and gravel to dirt and dirt to rocks and debris. Almost nothing will stop the fool from plunging ahead into peril” (Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Bold Love (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992), p. 263).

A fool’s actions speak for themselves, but the fool doesn’t hear.  He is unaware.

Walking is a common metaphor for living a life.  Our Christian walk is a lifestyle, the way we live our lives.

Verse 3 pictures the ordinary lifestyle of a stupid person.  It is not necessary for him to do anything extraordinary to proclaim his stupidity.  Everything he says and does as he walks through life, makes the fact abundantly clear.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 102)

Even when the foolish tries to keep in the middle of the road, his encounters with normal people show him up for what he is (v. 3).  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1185)

The application of these verses is simple: Don’t be a fool!  One of the reasons why the Bible defines the difference between wisdom and folly is so we can choose well how to live.  Do not be the kind of person who refuses to listen to constructive criticism or ignores what godly people are trying to say or erupts with disproportionate anger every time something goes wrong.  Instead turn your heart toward God and ask him for the grace to go the right way rather than the wrong way — his way rather than your own way.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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