Throughout Ecclesiastes 10 Solomon has been contrasting wise living with foolish living. None of us are as wise as we think we are. The pursuit of wisdom, especially “wisdom from above” must be a lifelong pursuit. And if we want to get any wiser, we need to start by humbly admitting our folly.
The Preacher has been showing us the difference between wisdom and folly in daily life, helping us in the many practical situations where wisdom is required. At the end of chapter 10 he continues in the same vein, teaching us about the wise employment of words (vv. 12–14, 20), the wise exercise of leadership (vv. 16–17), and the wise expenditure of effort (vv. 18–19).
Today let’s look at the mouth of a fool.
12 The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him. 13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness. 14 A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?
This passage, and many others, show us that God takes words seriously. We should too. Some anonymous poet has written:
A careless word may kindle strife.
A cruel word may wreck a life,
A bitter word may hate instill;
A brutal word may smite and kill,
A gracious word may smooth the way;
A joyous word may light the day.
A timely word may lessen stress;
A loving word may heal and bless.
Eventually every wise teacher has something to say about what we say, because the way we use our words is “the acid test of wisdom.”
If the mouth only speaks what is in the heart, then every time we say something, we reveal the wisdom or the folly inside. If our heart is wise, we will speak wise words. Conversely, if our hearts are foolish, we will speak foolish words.
The Preacher begins by saying, “The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor” (Ecclesiastes 10:12).
This may simply mean that someone who speaks wisdom will gain a good reputation. No one knew this better than Solomon, who became world-famous for his royal wisdom.
Yet perhaps we should take the verse more literally. The word “favor” is really the Hebrew word for “grace” (hen), favor that is undeserved. The verse is literally, “The words of a wise man’s mouth favor.” They result in favor, blessing to others.
A wise person’s words show this kind of grace to other people — they are messages of blessing. The point of the verse, then, is not that wise speech will get us something from other people (namely, their favor) but that they will enable us to give something to other people (namely, the gracious love of God): “Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious” (Ecclesiastes 10:12, NASB). The NIV says, “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious.”
This is the point of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Gracious words “build up” the other person. Instead of putting them down with our words, we use words and tones which build up.
It is said that Winston Churchill and Lady Astor were champions of the insulting barbs.
Churchill is supposed to have told Lady Astor that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom, to which she retorted, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.” Lady Astor is also said to have responded to a question from Churchill about what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball by saying, “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?” In another recounted exchange, Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it!”
My all-time favourite is this aspersion: Bessie Braddock to Churchill “Winston, your drunk!” Churchill: “Bessie, you are ugly, and tomorrow morning I shall be sober.”
Although these may be funny, or meant in fun, they do not fit the category of giving grace.
Many of us, foolishly, use our words to make ourselves look smart or hip or “in the know” or connected or powerful.
We use them to get a laugh, or to get attention, or to get someone to do something for us. We use our words to get a job or to get a girl (or a guy, as the case may be). We use our words to build ourselves up and tear other people down.
What are some ways that we can show grace through our words?
First, we might speak slowly. Instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to us, slow down your response and think about what you should say. Sometimes it is best not to say anything. Wisdom knows when to speak and when to be silent. Wisdom guides our responses so that when we speak we can speak in a way that builds up the other person.
The wise person realizes that ultimately he or she will have to give account for every word spoken. Jesus said: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
Second, we speak words of praise and appreciation, both to God and to people. We acknowledge that we owe something to others for the ways they have benefitted us through their words or actions.
Third, we encourage rather than criticize. Some people are master critics, they can always find something to harp on. Usually, the way to bring out the best in other people is not by finding fault but by finding something we can praise them for. Look for the good in others.
Fourthly, we can speak the truth to others. We are to “speak the truth in love” according to Paul in Ephesians 4:15. Sometimes, the most gracious, loving thing we can do for something is to tell them the truth.
Fifth, speak with gentleness. Wisdom waits until emotions are under better control. Then whatever words we speak can offer genuine grace. According to Proverbs, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (15:28). Also, Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Sixth, wisdom also knows when to ask for forgiveness and seek out reconciliation. When a relationship has been broken and a person wounded, wisdom knows to ask for forgiveness.
Since it is “out of the abundance of the heart” that “the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34), wise speech requires a heart overflowing with the love of God. Remember what the Preacher said at the beginning of this chapter: a wise heart inclines us to do the right thing (Ecclesiastes 10:2). Therefore, wise speech can only come from a wise heart, and this is a gift from God, whose Son lives in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:17).
If ever a man uttered words of wisdom, it was Jesus Christ. The Bible says that when Jesus spoke, people “marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). This was in keeping with the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 45:2 — that God would pour grace on the Savior’s lips.
The words of the fool, however, are not so wise. To reinforce the danger of foolish speech and to help us see how often our speech is so foolish, Solomon gives us several illustrations.
The Apostle James said, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man” (James 3:2). But that is so hard, isn’t it?
First of all, the “lips of a fool consume him.” Literally, his words eat him up. A fool’s mouth destroys him. He opens his mouth to speak and his mouth turns around and gobbles him down.
He says things that destroy his reputation, his relationships, his opportunities, his testimony.
There are many ways that words can destroy. Sometimes a fool says something that gets him into trouble. His rash words make someone else angry, and that person destroys him. Sometimes a fool says something that ruins a relationship. She carelessly reveals something that would be better left unsaid, but once it is said, the damage is done. There are thousands of ways for foolish words to destroy the person who utters them.
Not only can a fool’s words destroy him and others, but they can become evil. Verse 13 says…
13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness.
The fool’s talk starts out bad enough, as foolishness, but it ends up being “evil madness.” It goes from bad to worse. “Evil madness” indicates that his speech expresses both moral depravity and mental disability.
And part of the reason is goes from bad to worse is that the fool can’t stop talking. He “multiplies words.” As Proverbs 19:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.”
Linking back to the end of verse 11 where the “babbler” is as dangerous as the uncharmed serpent, ready to strike and kill, this fool’s lips are ready in the moment to destroy him and all he holds dear.
Adonijah’s self-willed proclamation was to his own ruin (1 Kgs 1:5, 2:25). Rehoboam’s foolishness–giving grievous instead of gracious words to his people–made “his own tongue to fall upon himself” (1 Kgs 12:1-19 comp. Ps 64:8). Wisdom guides the nearest way to our own security (Prv 10:9)–folly the surest road to our own ruin. (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 250)
Koheleth draws our attention to another mark of the fool. A fool, he says, “multiplies words” (v. 14). He does not know when to keep quiet. He goes on and on spouting nonsense (cf. Prov. 15:2) quite oblivious to the fact that it is nonsense. The trouble is that he believes what he says. The more he talks, the more he convinces himself that he knows. He has got all the answers. He has eliminated the unknown from his vocabulary. Any sense of bowing humbly before the mystery of life has gone. It takes a wise man to know when to say, “I don’t know.” (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 74)
The fools mouth babbles on constantly, “multiplying words” without making any sense. We use to call them “chatterboxes.” Have you ever found yourself trying to talk your way out of a bad situation—like you’ve been caught in a lie and you just dig yourself in deeper and deeper?
The word for “fool” here is sakal, which implies a dense, confused thinker.
I once found a bumper sticker that I put upon the bedroom door of my little sister which said, “Start brain before engaging mouth.” It was a reminder to think before speaking. Fools don’t do that.
Nor are the fool’s lips only a curse to himself. They become a pest to all around him–from beginning to end. The beginning of his words is foolishness. But he goes from bad to worse–often as if he was worked up to a frenzy. If his oracular voice does not command attention, he is all on fire–all is a blaze and smoke–till his anger becomes a sort of mischievous madness. Thus this combustible talker spreads mischief wherever he goes–in his family–in society, stirring round about him “envy and strife, confusion, and every evil work.” (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 250-51)
Sooner or later what we say to one person will get repeated to another person, with varying degrees of accuracy. Once the words leave our mouths, we lose control over where they go. If the wrong word reaches the ear of the wrong person, there may be serious repercussions. How easy it is to send a quick electronic message, but how difficult it is to undo the damage done by words that are personally insulting or sexually inappropriate. It would be wiser not even to think such things, let alone say them, especially because God knows all our thoughts (e.g., Ps 139:4). (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 245)
There is yet another problem with the words of a fool: they are presumptuous. In other words, fools make arrogant and boastful claims about what they know and about what they will do, but they are unable to back up their words with knowledge or action. So, the Preacher says, “A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?” (Ecclesiastes 10:14).
The fool continues to talk even though neither he nor anyone else can tell what the future holds. The picture here seems to be of the fool making dogmatic statements about the future. The fool also does not even perceive what is most obvious.
In Proverbs 18:2 Solomon said: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” He loves the sound of his own voice.
He has no knowledge of the present, let alone the future. Nor can any man give him any knowledge of the future. Yet he speaks with conviction on such things. (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 136)
It’s easy to pontificate about the future—because it isn’t here yet and no one can verify it…yet. But sooner or later the fool’s version of the future is revealed for the sham it was…just words.
If we are wise, we will follow the counsel of James, who sounds as if he must have been familiar with Ecclesiastes:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15)
Words devoid of content–how characteristic of our time! There never was such a day in which people were bombarded with so many words, so much literature, so much spouting of words through the media. Yet much of it is thoroughly empty, unsatisfying, and misleading in the extreme. (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 154)
Plato said: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” They just feel compelled to open their mouths. They don’t think about what they are going to say, they just say it.
Fools don’t tend to think before they speak; or, if they do, their words betray the corruption of their hearts. The more they talk like fools, the more they act like them. Folly is a cancer that fills the soul and spreads to every area of life. It has to be cut out and controlled or it will destroy a man. The wise man, on the other hand, finds favor with his words, because they enlighten and edify those with whom he speaks. (T.M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, July 15, 2011)
Winning the war of words involves choosing our words carefully. It is not just about the words we say, but also about the words we choose not to say. Winning the war is about being prepared to say the right thing at the right moment [in the right way], exercising self-control. It is refusing to let our talk be driven by passion and personal desire but communicating instead with God’s purposes in view. It is exercising the faith necessary to be part of what God is doing at that moment. (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 246)
Koheleth, like the wise teachers of Proverbs, knew that his students were headed for positions of responsibility, whether in government service or business. As persons of prominence they had to watch their language. Success or failure would be determined, in some measure at least, by the winsomeness, accuracy, and frugality of their speech. Like the snake charmer (v. 11), they had to be “masters of the tongue.” (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 216)
Are you the master of your own tongue? Is your heart filled with wisdom and a love for God and others that leads you to speak in ways that minister grace and build up others?