Foolish Workers (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11)

Our passage today is Ecclesiastes 10:8-11.

8 He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. 9 He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them. 10 If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. 11 If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer. 

So what is Solomon trying to communicate in this graphic section of this chapter?  Is he merely saying that “anything can happen,” and we need to accept accidents?  Or is Solomon encouraging us that there is no advancement without risks involved? 

Tom Constable believes that vv. 8-11 merely show the problem of bad timing.  He says, “Improper timing can also nullify wisdom.  Four different situations illustrate the fact that though wisdom is valuable in a variety of everyday tasks (vv. 8-10), one can lose its advantage if the timing is not right (v. 11).

Or is Solomon continuing the idea that we won’t succeed without wisdom?  The German commentator Franz Delitzsch explains: “The sum of these four clauses [in vv. 8-9] is certainly not merely that he who undertakes a dangerous matter exposes himself to danger; the author means to say, in this series of proverbs which treat of the distinction between wisdom and folly, that the wise man is everywhere conscious of his danger, and guards against it” (p. 379)

So far Solomon has been weaving together both themes (unforeseen risks and wisdom), seemingly to say that we need wisdom, but we also need to trust God with the outcome and with the process.

Since this section ends with “but wisdom helps one to succeed” (v. 10) then Solomon is probably telling us that these people needed to use more wisdom in their work.  Also, since Solomon holds a high view of work throughout Ecclesiastes, to argue that working exposes us to too many accidents would seem to discourage people from working.  We already have enough excuses for not working, don’t we?

Solomon’s first example is “he who digs a pit will fall into it.”  David Hubbard argues that this should be understand as possibilities rather than predictions.  A person who digs a pit may fall into it.

Unlike the evil person who receive just retribution for their malicious intent in digging a pit, this man was likely digging a well or a place for storing or winnowing grain, and then he fell into it.

Pit digging can be an act of treacherous, malicious violence.  On occasion the psalmist complained that someone had “dug a pit” to capture him and kill him (e.g., Psalm 35:7).

In this case, however, the foolish (and possibly evil) man fell into his own pit!  This was not an accident of misfortune but an act of poetic and presumably divine justice.

David talked about a similar incident in Psalm 7: “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends” (vv. 15–16).

But Solomon also speaks to the likelihood of unintentional accidents in life.  In Proverbs 26:27 he says…

Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.

Warren Wiersbe believes that he “lacked wisdom and failed to take proper precautions.”  In other words, just pay attention to what you are doing.

It reminds me of the time I was helping put a new roof on my father-in-law’s house.  I was backing up, unrolling tar paper, when I stepped right off the roof.  Fortunately, there was a porch roof about three feet below me that I fell down upon, instead of falling 12-15 feet.  That was simply a matter of not watching what I was doing and being inexperienced.

The next scenario Solomon brings up is the man who “breaks through a wall” and has a snake bite him.

Why might a man break through a wall?  Well, he might be tearing down a wall that separates properties in order to gain more property.  Or he might be simply remodeling a house.  Or he might be trying to break in.

Jay Adams believes it is the latter, saying “instead of pulling off the intending theft, the breaking and entering leads to the thief himself becoming the victim…of a snake bite.”  In this case, the risk comes from doing evil.  Wisdom realizes that there is danger in doing evil.

Folly can be deadly. In the words of Charles Bridges, “Evil shall fall upon the heads of its own authors.”

For every folly, there is an equal and opposite self-destruction.  The addict seeks the calm of the drink or the thrill of the hit but ends up wasting away.  The lusty sinner wants sexual pleasure but by gratifying desire outside the holy bonds of matrimony ends up spiritually unsatisfied.  The selfish husband or wife wants to have things his or her own way but in trying to get it ruins the relationship and loses everything.  The angry father or mother wants more control, but angry emotions set everyone on edge, which only leads to more chaos, more anger, and ultimately less control.  These are some of the pitfalls of folly.  Dig the pit, and you will fall in.  Break down the wall, and the snake of sin will come back to bite you. (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes—Why Everything Matters)

On the other hand, it may be that Solomon is simply saying that there “is always the possibility of an accident, even in the most pedestrian activity. These sayings fit well with 9:11–12 and 10:14 about the “evil time” and “human ignorance” (R. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 102).  The man should have been more careful, but was overconfident and did not look carefully at what he was doing.

Verse 9 take us to the quarry and the forest.

9 He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them.

Here there is no suggestion of evil intent, but rather the simple fact that workplace injuries do happen.

Derek Kidner reminds us: “The outlook behind these pointed remarks is not fatalism, as verses 8 and 9 might suggest on their own, but elementary realism.  The blinding glimpse of the obvious in verse 10, backed up by the dry humour in the next verse, dispels any doubt.  We are being urged to use our minds, and to look a little way ahead.  For there are risks bound up with any vigorous action, and the person we call accident-prone has usually himself to blame, rather than his luck.  He should have known; he could have taken care.

Quarrying stones and splitting logs is normal business.  But what Solomon wants us to recognize is that in normal, everyday action there are unforeseen and unseen risks.  Wisdom helps us prepare for them, even if wisdom cannot protect us from every accident.

There is a wiser and safer way to live, but it will take some patience.  The Preacher shows this by drawing a couple of analogies, one from a blacksmith and one from a snake charmer: “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” (Ecclesiastes 10:10–11).

Verse 10 compares wisdom to a sharpened blade.  It takes more strength to wield an axe or a sword when the blade is dull, and to cut something in two, a man has to keep hacking away at it.  The them of verse 10 is “work smarter, not harder.”

This picture of a dull blade reminds me of a joke.

A man goes to a tool store to buy a chainsaw.  The server sells him the top-of-the-line model, saying that it will cut through over 100 trees in one day.

The man takes the chainsaw home and begins working on the trees but after working for over three hours he only cuts down two trees.

“How can I cut for hours and hours and only finish two trees?” he asks himself.

The next morning he gets up early in the morning and works until nighttime, but still only manages to cut down five trees.

The very next day the man brings the chainsaw back to the store and says it doesn’t work properly.

“Hmm, it looks okay,” says the server, and starts the chainsaw.

The man jumps back in shock and cries, “What’s that noise?”

Well, in this case the man didn’t know how to use his tool.  In Ecclesiastes, the problem is more that the man doesn’t keep his tool in the right condition for using it.  He didn’t spend enough time preparing his tools for achieving maximum output.

Back in the 1800’s a young man was looking for a job and went to the local logging company to apply for a job.  The foreman asked him if he could cut a tree down with an ax.  The young man said yes, and proceeded to take his ax, walk over to a tree and drop it like an old pro.

The foreman was impressed and hired him.  On Monday, the young man outperformed everyone else on the crew.  But, each day after that, he got slower and slower and by Friday, he barely managed to cut down one tree.

He worked just as hard; swinging his ax, hitting the tree over and over again, but it just didn’t work as well as it did on Monday.  Finally, the young man who was nearly exhausted laid down his ax, and sat down.

At this point the foreman came over and told the young man he knew what the problem was.  He explained to the young man that he had been so busy cutting trees down that he had forgotten to sharpen his ax.  Consequently, it had become dull and was essentially useless since it had not been kept in good condition.

And Lewis Sperry Chafer reinforces this.  He said:

One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest.  The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break.  The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day.  At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had.

“I don’t get it,” he said.  “Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.”  “But you didn’t notice,” said the winning woodsman, “that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest.”

Maybe you need to take some time away, slow down and sharpen your tools.

Stanley Lobel of Lobel’s butcher shop in New York explains that a sharp knife means you have to make fewer cuts.  A dull knife makes you work harder; several cuts are required where one or two would do.

It’s really a simple law of averages: fewer cuts means fewer chances of cutting yourself over the long run.  More cuts, and the risk goes up.  A sharp knife will also cut more cleanly and precisely than a dull knife, and with much less chance of slippage.

All these stories show just how important it is to take the time to prepare.  J. Vernon McGee illustrated how important this is for ministry by telling this story:

“A young man told me the other day that God had called him to preach, and he wanted to take a short course to prepare himself.  I said, ‘Young man, don’t do that.  Sharpen your hoe.  Sharpen your sword.  Don’t go out untrained.  Take the time for sharpening.'”

Think about the men that God used mightily.  Abraham waited 25 years for God’s promise of a son to be fulfilled.  Joseph was sold into slavery at age 17 and spent thirteen years serving Potiphar or in prison.  David spent 12-13 years on the run from Saul before becoming king.  Paul spent three years on the back side of the desert before starting his ministry.  Jesus didn’t have a public ministry until he was 30.

God was preparing them, sharpening them so that he could use them.

The skilled craftsman makes sure that the axe he uses is sharp before he begins his work.   It is easy to see when it is put like that, but perhaps not so easy to recognize in our lives.   Don’t we often go rushing into things, barging ahead, justifying ourselves that we are busy, that we are doing something, without first stopping to think whether this is really the right way to handle this situation or deal with that person?  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 73)

Wisdom tells us to take time to sharpen our tools.  What tools has God given to you?  Your mind, your heart, your hands?  Your relationships?  Your ministry?  Your job?  Whatever tools God has given to you, take time to sharpen them.

This principle applies to education.  Be sure to get the best training, sharpening skills for effective service in the kingdom of God.  It applies to relationships: a prudent courtship is far more likely to lead to a more successful marriage than a whirlwind romance.  I have read that the more sessions of pre-marital counseling that a couple gets, the more likely they will be satisfied with their marriage.

How sharp is your blade?  Are you hacking away at life like a fool or staying on the sharp edge of wisdom?  Living wisely may take more time at the beginning, but it saves time in the long run.  Make sure you have the right tools for the job God has given you to do, and then take the time to prepare them well.

Zack Eswine points out: “The fool believes he has no time to sharpen his worn-out blade.  He believes that rest exposes either weakness or loss.  Fatigue in persons or instruments is not permitted.  People and instruments are made for our use. He will use them and will not slow down because they are worn nor will we take the time necessary to nourish, daily tune up, or recover their strength” (Recovering Eden, p. 201).

Verse 11 is more difficult to interpret, but it seems to make nearly the opposite point.

If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.

Here the danger seems to lie in acting too slowly: “one who is able to handle a difficult matter (a charmer) fails for lack of promptitude (the serpent bites . . . before charmed).”  The point of this saying is that even experts fail if they do not apply their skill.  In this case, wisdom says to act before something bad happens.  The advantage lies in exercising one’s abilities.

Wayne Schmidt sees this as another advocacy for preparation.  He says, “Don’t take your show on the road until you have charmed the snake.”  In other words, don’t go public until you’ve worked out all the kinks.

But on the other hand, this doesn’t mean not to act.  There are many areas of life that we know what to do, we’re just not doing it.  We have all the right answers in our head, but they don’t work themselves out into daily behaviors.

You have to use your wisdom, otherwise it’s just knowledge.

Taken together, verses 10–11 show us why we need wisdom from God.  Sometimes it is important to take more time to prepare.  Other times we need to act before it is too late.  Wisdom comes in knowing the difference.

Ovid, the famous Roman poet, is reported to have said, “At times it is folly to hasten, at other times, to delay.  The wise do everything in its proper time.”  Solomon had said back in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1).  Thus, the wise person is never early and never late but always right on time.

If there is one thing we should not delay on, it is getting right with God.  If you do not know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, I encourage you to act today.  Admit that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness from God, then accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as God’s way of forgiving you for your sins.  Trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.

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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