A Foolish Ruler (Ecclesiastes 10:4-7)

If there is anyone who needs wisdom, it is the ruler of a nation.  There are not only a multiplicity of problems to deal with, but those problems can be extremely complex.  When God asked Solomon what gift he especially wanted, the king asked for wisdom (1 Kings 3:3-28).  Lyndon B. Johnson said, “A president’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.”  That takes wisdom!

Unfortunately, wisdom isn’t a given in leaders.  Sometimes leaders can be and act very foolishly.  Verses 4-7 give us practical advice on how to deal with foolish bosses and leaders.

4 If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offenses to rest. 5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.

The kings of Israel and Judah were not immune to leading poorly.  Neither are we.  Zack Eswine reminds us: “God does not remove foolish leaders from our lives.  Nor does he give us immunity from becoming foolish in our leadership.  Just because we follow God, this does not mean that we aren’t capable of folly” (Recovering Eden, p. 94).

This ruler could be in a position of government, or possibly a boss in the marketplace.  As for foolish government leaders, we can appreciate Mark Twain’s humorous comment: “Suppose you were an idiot.  And suppose you were a member of congress.  But I repeat myself.”  That Solomon has political rulers in mind seems the case from the context, but verse 4 can be applied in a variety of situations.

Fools are known for giving vent to their anger and rulers are not exempt (Prov. 12:16; 29:11).  Earlier Solomon had said, “anger lodges in the bosom of fools” (Eccl. 7:9).  In this case, the leader’s anger makes the workplace miserable.  In other words, you might “work for a jerk.”

Some of us have known what it’s like to work for a jerk—someone who is critical and nitpicky, someone who is cruel in their criticisms and just looks for something to nail you on.  It is hard to work in that kind of environment; it wears you down.

What should you do?  The temptation is to want to quit.  That is the easy thing to do, and it might be the right thing to do.  But Solomon recommends another option: “do not leave your place.”  Don’t quit.  Don’t run away just because it is difficult.

Not only should we not run away from this problem, but we should, on the positive side, interact with calmness.  The preacher recommends a calm and quiet response that turns away wrath.

In the words of one commentator, “The anger of a ruler must be soothed with a calm forbearance that neither panics in fear nor deserts in bitterness” (Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , p. 134).

The wise man does not quit his job when his boss gets angry with him.  He maintains his composure and so gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, that his boss did not need to be angry.

The Preacher is not condoning verbal abuse.  Nor is he saying there is never a time for people in authority to put down a tyrant or for someone to walk away from a fight.  In fact, back in Ecclesiastes 8:3 he seemed to indicate that on certain occasions we should walk away.  But here the Preacher is saying that ordinarily the best response to anger is to stay, not to run away, and to remain calm, not to get angry.

Getting angry would only make things worse, for as Derek Kidner explains, “it is better to have only one angry person than to have two!” (Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , p. 90).

This is good counsel for workers with an angry boss, for students with an angry teacher, for parents with an angry child, and for wives with an angry husband (or vice versa).  It is good counsel for all the situations in life when someone else is suddenly provoked to anger and it makes us mad that he or she is angry.  Just because someone else gets upset does not mean that we have the right to walk away from a relationship, especially if that relationship is ordained by God and is sealed with a promise (the way marriage is, for example).  The way to deal with foolish anger is not to be intimidated by it or to respond in kind but to keep calm, which we can only do by the power of the Holy Spirit.

James recommends that we be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19).  It seems that this verse is saying that if we can slow down our response time and not just blurt out whatever comes to mind, we can curb our anger.

Then, when we do speak, Solomon tells us in Proverbs 15:1 to speak with a “soft answer” that turns away wrath.  Usually, as Solomon said back in Ecclesiastes 9:17 that the ruler may be “shouting.”  You can de-escalate the situation by just calming down and using “soft” words.

In Proverbs 25:15 Solomon says, “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.”

When someone is shouting at us in anger, we generally opt for one of two responses: fight or flight.  We either respond back and vent our anger verbally or physically, or we walk away and slam the door on our way out.

Neither of these responses help resolve the problem.  When someone gets angry towards us, it is quite tempting to say, “I’m not going to take this anymore!”  And while there are times when walking out is appropriate, it doesn’t necessarily resolve the problem.  Depending on the relationship (marriage for example), we have a covenant commitment to that person.  In those cases we need to stay and act calmly and help the person with their anger.

Staying calm is part of God’s winning strategy for dealing with foolish anger.  Stay faithful to your commitments and work towards a peaceful resolution.

In the famous children’s book The Wind and the Willows, by Scottish author Kenneth Grahame, Toad is portrayed as a great fool, whose friends (Badger, Rat and Mole) try to rescue him from his follies.  Toad tires easily of good activities and is lazy and prone to wanderlust and self-aggrandizement. He easily loses “all fear of obvious consequences” and gives “animals a bad name … by [his] furious driving and [his] smashes and [his] rows with the police.” The wise Badger tells him, “Independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit; and that limit you’ve reached.”

And that is what we often have to do with fools.  We have to confront them with reality, but in a calm, sensitive way.

Sometimes we don’t even have to speak up.  We can transform a situation just be our calm and consistent actions.  Peter commended a life of quiet gentleness.  He told Christians to submit to the governing authorities, even when they were persecuting the church, because by doing good deeds, the suffering church would “put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:13–15).  He told servants to respect their masters, even if they were unjust, for it is a gracious thing to endure injustice (1 Peter 2:18–19).  He told wives to submit to their husbands, even if they were unbelievers, so that by pure and respectful conduct they might win their husband’s heart for Christ (1 Peter 3:1–2).

If we doubt the wisdom of Peter’s counsel — or if we think that it is impossible for us to follow — then we should remember the example that Peter gives.  Why should we keep serving people who make us suffer?  Peter said, “Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Jesus Christ didn’t open His mouth (1 Peter 2:23).  But in quietness and calmness sacrificed his life for us.

There may be a time for you to leave.  There may also be a time when your own anger (hopefully truly righteous indignation) will move you to address the issue.  But don’t just allow your anger to explode.  It is always good to remain cool and calm.  Never let another person’s action determine your reaction.  You choose to act according to God’s directions.

David Hubbard says, “”The lesson is that the self-controlled person who has less rank is really more powerful than the out-of-control supposed superior.”  Solomon would agree.  He said, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32).

Verses 5-7 are less clear in what they mean.

5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun” clues us in that this is not an ideal situation.  He seems to be saying that in these topsy-turvy conditions in which social order is not observed is the responsibility of a ruler who is not doing his job.  The fool should not be exalted, the slave should not be treated as a ruler.

According to verses 6 and 7, the ruler’s error was putting the wrong people in important positions, and the damage resulting from inept people in responsible positions can be immense.

Of course, this does not reflect the modern rhetoric of class warfare; his concerns are focused upon a person’s competence for the task.  Qoheleth believes that important positions in government run better when filled with capable and competent people, irrespective of considerations such as social status or wealth.  His complaint has to do with competent people being moved aside in favor of inept and inexperienced people who happen to have the right political or family connections.

Of course, this may not be totally the fault of the rulers.  Solomon has shown how even the best preparations don’t always lead to the expected conclusions.  Despite wisdom, sometimes things don’t turn out as expected.

Warren Wiersbe calls this man a pliable ruler.  I’m not sure that’s his problem.  Being flexible is a good trait for leaders.  Ken Blanchard, for years, has talked about being a situational leader, the kind of leader that people need.  He talks about a person’s performance readiness.  A person may be able, confident and willing to do a task, or he or she may be able but insecure or unwilling.  They might also be unable, but confident or willing to take up a task, or they might be unable and insecure and unwilling.  Each of these four needs a different kind of leadership and direction from the top.

But the problem with this man is that he just didn’t seem to be able to keep things in order.  He let people do what they wanted to do.  He didn’t put people in the right roles for them or for the organization.  Leadership guru Jim Collins calls this “getting the right people on the bus.”

In particular, putting fools in charge always leads to our hurt.  “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool” (Prov. 26:1).  “Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence” (Prov. 26:6).  “Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard” (Prov. 26:10).

Why does it hurt people when folly gets promoted?  “Because foolish people have their wires crossed.  They exalt themselves and deem wise only those things which will do the same.  Wisdom gets viewed as folly.  The wise are overlooked and passed over” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 196).

A male butterfly will pass by a living female of his own species in favor of a painted cardboard one, if the cardboard one is larger than himself and larger than her.  While the living female butterfly opens and closes her wings in vain, her life and theirs together seem small.  The male has eyes for larger things.  He gives his time and attention to the cardboard. (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 18).

So Eswine concludes: “Folly leads us to overlook what is small and what would bless us in order to chase after what is large and what in the end will leave us barren.  This is why foolish leaders hurt people.  They overlook what they ought not in order to honor what they most want for themselves.  For this reason, just like a bully who looks for someone who values his bullying to join him, so a foolish leader looks to promote those who value his folly.  Overlooked, then, are the wise” (Recovering Eden, pp. 196-197).

Another factor that may be in play here is called the Peter principle—when you get promoted to a level you cannot handle.  The Peterprinciple is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence”: employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.  It is uncanny to see the number of people who are promoted to a level above their competency.

It is clear that the upheaval of verses 6 and 7 arise from the inadequate leadership of the ruler of verse 5.  He is putting the wrong people in the wrong places.

Some of us are offended by this poetry.  We root for the underdog.  We want social leveling in which the slave finds freedom and the rich are humbled.  But this is not the way Solomon understood them.

It is true that the wisdom literature sometimes points out the folly of riches.  But at other times the Sage presents riches as a blessing (Prov. 10:4; 28:20).

Also, notice that Solomon does not contrast the rich “in a low place” with the “poor” but instead puts folly “in many high places.”  In this case, the “rich” is in antithesis with a “fool” and therefore what Solomon is doing is presenting the “rich” person not so much as having material possessions in abundance, but having the true, steady and faithful character (or integrity) from which a measure of wealth generally comes in the Scriptures.

“The Preacher’s point is that an erring leader overlooks this kind of faithful character and places impatient, wandering, slothful, get-rich-quick schemers tragically in charge” (Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 198).

Similarly, “slave” is not contrasted in this analogy to freed people, but with “princes.”  As in Prov. 19:10, the Preacher is setting up a contrast to show the impropriety of this appointment.  “It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury, much less a slave to rule over princes” (Prov. 19:10).

This has nothing to do with the shameful American enslavement of colored people.  In the Scriptures “slaves” would be those who were criminals, or debtors, or prisoners of war.  It had nothing to do with the color of the skin.

In historical context, what Solomon is saying is that it would be unwise to put criminals, or debtors, or prisoners of war, in places of governmental leadership.

Finally, the language of Solomon is proverbial, which always states something that is normative, but not ultimate or final, or something that is always true.

We all have stories, personal or in history, of people who rose out of humble circumstances and became wonderful leaders.  Of course, that happens.  But what Solomon is referring to is normal life, what would normally happen.

Sin in the world corrupts any community or organization.  People who ought to be leaders shy away from leadership.  People who shouldn’t become leaders grab for power.  And those who have unfairly grabbed the reigns of power tend to reward those who practice the same underhanded strategy.

In conclusion, Derek Kidner remarks: “If some are inclined to applaud (this seeming social leveling of vv. 6-7), Qoheleth will not exactly quarrel with them—for his aim, throughout, is to shake our pathetic faith in the permanence of affairs; and in any case he has no illusions about the men at the top.  But neither does he view these upsets as triumphs of social justice.  The examples he has witnessed have been either turns of the wheel of fortune (v. 7) or else appointments that went to the wrong people (folly…set up in many high places, 6).  We can make our own guess at the intrigues, threats, flatteries and bribes that paved the way for them” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 90).

Understanding how sin invades any group of people should lead us to expect less from those organizations and to trust more in our Lord.  He is always wise and just and rewards righteous efforts, even those deeds done in secret.

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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