Foolish Leaders (Ecclesiastes 10:16-20)

In order for nations, churches, even families to function well, leadership is vital.  Everything comes down to leadership.  When there is no good leader to direct a team, a department, or an organization, then the following scenarios are inevitable: delayed decisions, conflicts, low morale, reduced productivity, and success is difficult.

Good national leaders exhibit a personal independence, maturity, wisdom, and self-control. Selfish, arrogant, and pleasure-seeking leaders bring trouble to any nation.

Solomon speaks to this issue of faulty leadership in Ecclesiastes 10, verses 16 to 20:

16 Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! 17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!  18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. 19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 20 Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

To this point, the Preacher has been talking about the way we employ our words.  In verse 16 he turns to consider another area where spiritual wisdom is badly needed but is usually in short supply — the exercise of political leadership. 

Leadership, or government, has been a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes.  Here Solomon says wise leadership is a blessing, while foolish leadership is a curse.

Derek Kidner reminds us that “The wise man cares very much about the way his country is governed, and about the way to rule himself and his affairs, in a world that is at once demanding (v. 18), delightful (v. 19) and dangerous (v. 20)” (Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 93-94).

These verses tell the story of a national disaster, with someone completely incompetent in charge.  The word “child” may indicate that the ruler is a youngster, like a boy king.  

On rare occasions this can turn out to be a blessing.  A notable example is King Josiah, who ascended to the throne of Judah at the tender age of eight.  The Bible says that when he was only sixteen, Josiah “began to seek the God of David his father” (2 Chronicles 34:3).  Josiah must be the exception that proves the rule, however, because more often than not, inexperienced leaders cause all kinds of trouble.

The word “child” (na’ar) is not limited to people under a certain age, however.  It could well refer, especially in a political context, to someone older in age but who is still immature.  King Solomon used the word this way when he first took the throne of Israel. “I am but a little child,” he said, acknowledging his lack of experience before asking God for the wisdom to rule (1 Kings 3:7).

Solomon’s son Rehoboam was not nearly as wise.  Although he was forty-one when he began to reign (2 Chronicles 12:13), Rehoboam had no idea what he was doing.  His court was corrupt, his judgment was unsound, and soon his kingdom was fell apart.

Little did King Solomon know that after his death his own son Rehoboam would “reject the advice the elders gave him and consult the young men who had grown up with him” (1 Kgs 12:8).  So, Solomon’s words proved prophetic, although he did not mean them that way.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 110)

“Verses 16 and 17 remind us of the influence the seeps down from the men at the top, to set the tone of the whole community….The first picture shows a ruler without dignity or wisdom, surrounded by decadence; the second, a leader who is readily accepted, surrounded by responsible men. (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 94).

To show how much trouble a country can get into when it lacks mature leadership, Qoheleth describes a kingly court where gluttonous princes feast every morning.  The Preacher is not talking about having a hearty breakfast but about a royal banquet that includes enough alcohol to get wasted.  Instead of getting up in the morning to improve and defend their country, these princes lie about in a drunken stupor.

Drinking at an early hour is a sign of debauchery (Isa 5:11) and a breakdown in leadership (cf. Isa 5:22–23).  Drinking in the early hours of the day marked a dissolute, slothful approach to life, with emphasis on luxury and personal indulgence.

Solomon is picturing a leader who uses his office to pander to his own desires rather than leading for the good of his people.  This is a self-indulgent leader.

A notable example from European history is Charles XII, who became the king of Sweden when he was only a teenager.  The wild behavior of Charles and his friends included riding on horseback through his grandmother’s apartment, knocking people to the ground in the city streets, and practicing firearms by shooting out the windows of the palace.  In response, the leading preachers of Stockholm all agreed to preach from Ecclesiastes 10:16 on the same Sunday, pronouncing woe on a land with a child for a king and princes that feasted in the morning.  (The story of young Charles XII is recounted by Dale Ralph Davis in The Wisdom and the Folly: An Exposition of the Book of First Kings (Fearn, Ross–Shire: Christian Focus, 2002), p. 188)

The point of both verses is driven home by the prophecy of social breakdown in Isaiah 3:1-5, where the men of weight in the community were to be ousted,

1 For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water; 2 the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, 3 the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor and the skillful magician and the expert in charms. 4 And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. 5 And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable. 

The Preacher is not saying there is anything wrong with a proper feast at the proper time and for the proper purpose.  Verse 17 praises the courtiers who sit down to a good dinner and gain strength for their kingdom work.  After all, the king’s table is supposed to be set with a royal feast, which Solomon knew as well as anyone.  But the Bible everywhere condemns the kind of bad behavior that is described in verse 16: excessive feasting, especially in the morning (e.g., Isaiah 5:11), and drunkenness on any occasion (e.g., Proverbs 23:20).  It also condemns people who use their position of privilege for selfish pleasure.

The real contrast between v. 16 and v. 17 is not so much the age of the leader, but the behavior.

The beatitude (v. 17) is the only glimmer of light in a gloomy scene.  It pictures the way the court functions if the body politic is to maintain its health: (1) the “king” is born and bred to the manner (for “nobles” or “free men,” see Neh 2:16; 4:14, 19; 5:7; 13:17) and therefore trained to cope with the high demand and wide range of royal responsibilities; (2) the political and military leaders (see “princes” at 10:7) engage in their festivities “at the proper time” (in the evening not the “morning”, v. 16) and for the right reason–“strength” (Heb. frequently has martial overtones,  “Strength to fight,” 9:16) not carousing (“drunkenness” is lit. “drinking” whose aim is not merely to slake thirst).  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 218-19)

So notice that the same activity is undertaken—eating—but done at the proper time and in the proper amount for the purpose not of enjoyment but of strength.  This not only empowered the leaders but would be imitated by the people, to their benefit.

Ray Stedman tells us that “In Hebrew culture the morning was to be used to judge the needs and problems of the people.  Late afternoon and evening were the times for feasting.  But here were men who indulged themselves all through the day; thereby neglecting their duties” (Is This All There is to Life?, p. 159).

The words of the Preacher call us to wise government.  We can apply his words to nations and kingdoms.  Politicians who rule for personal advantage bring disaster to the people they lead.  Woe to any nation characterized by sinful entertainment, lazy self-indulgence, and the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs, especially among its national leaders.

We can also apply the same principles at the personal level.  There is a time and a place for feasting and celebrating in the Christian life.  But there is also a danger of wasting our lives by living for our pleasures.

“So the picture begins to emerge,” writes Derek Kidner, “of a man who makes things needlessly difficult for himself by his stupidity.”

Although vv. 18-19 speak to the issue of work, the context seems to apply this primarily to the bad rulers.

18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. 19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 

Kidner says, “It seems likely that the proverbs of verses 18 and 19 were placed here especially for their bearing on the ways of the powerful: their rule and misrule, their use and abuse of God’s gifts, as seen in the previous verses” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 94-95).

Certainly the “sloth” (v. 18), which silently destroys a neglected house, is as fatal to a kingdom (or a business) as to a building.  Nothing else is needed to bring it down, and nothing is more devastating.  Whatever kinds of damage can be safely overlooked, decay is not among them: time is on its side.

In Eaton’s words, “If attention is not paid to the everyday details of life, the results become a crippling liability.”

In Proverbs 18:9 Solomon had said: “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.”  In other words, the end result is the same whether one actively tears something down or passively neglects it.  Ultimately it is ruined.

The rulers and princes, given to sensual indulgences, will slumber in the affairs of state.  The nation will fall from lack of attention and effort.  The damage, small at first, increases rapidly through neglect.

We often focus on the sins of commission, but the sins of omission can be just as damaging and we must take them seriously, especially those of us in leadership.

J. Oswald Sanders, in his Christian classic book Spiritual Leadership points out that the way a leader uses his time, in particular his leisure time, is what makes the biggest difference.

The way we employ the surplus hours after provision has been made for work, meals, and sleep will determine if we develop into mediocre or powerful people.  Leisure is a glorious opportunity and a subtle danger.  Each moment of the day is a gift from God that deserves care, for by any measure, our time is short and the work is great.

Minutes and hours wisely used translate into an abundant life.  On one occasion when Michelangelo was pressing himself to finish a work on deadline, someone warned him, “This may cost your life!”  He replied, “What else is life for?”

Hours and days will surely pass, but we can direct them purposefully and productively.  Philosopher William James affirmed that the best use of one’s life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.  Life’s value is not its duration but its donation–not how long we live, but how fully and how well.  (J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, pp. 93-4)

Some believe that verse 19 comes from the mouths of the foolish leader and his princes.  Given to self-indulgence, their aim is laughter and good feelings.  They believe that “money answers everything.”  Their aims are selfish and they will ultimately be let down.

Others believe that this speaks to the fact that foolish leaders are money hungry.  Warren Wiersbe points out: “In recent years, various developing nations have seen how easy it is for unscrupulous leaders to steal government funds in order to build their own kingdoms.  Unfortunately, it has also happened recently in religious organizations” (The Wiersbe Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1140).

Others believe that the point of verse 19 is not that every man has his price, but that every gift has its use.  Bread, wine and money are good gifts and can be used for good…or bad.  God’s wholesome gifts are good, and their proper gifts are delightful and perfectly sufficient.

In contrast to a lazy fool, a hard-working individual has everything that he or she needs.

Bill Barrick notes: The opposite of laziness is diligence.  The lazy will suffer loss, but the diligent will enjoy the fruits of their labors.  They enjoy food enough, drink enough, and money enough to take care of every need (v. 19).  This positive interpretation of the verse depends upon associating it with the appropriate behavior of wise rulers in verse 17, rather than connecting it with the irresponsible feasting of foolish officials in verse 16.

According to Garrett, “The point is that at least some money is essential for enjoying life, and steps must therefore be taken to insure that the economy (be it national or personal) is sound.”

Money does have its limitations, of course, which is why the Bible often warns us not to trust it (e.g., Hebrews 13:5) or worship it (e.g., Matthew 6:24).  But from the practical standpoint, what the Preacher says remains true: if we have enough money, we can buy anything else we need.  Bread is a daily necessity.  Fine wine is a delicious pleasure.  But if we have the money, we can buy both bread and wine, plus anything else that we need or want. 

Generally, that comes from being industrious in our work, the opposite of what we see of the leaders in verse 16.  They do nothing but party and everything falls apart.

Now, if we find ourselves under the reign of such a foolish government, what is the wise thing to do? Shouldn’t we curse the king and his cronies? If that is what we think, then we might not like Solomon’s suggestion. In fact, we might be ready to write him off when it comes to his political advice. “Stick with the pithy proverbs,” we might say to Solomon the sage, “and let someone else handle political affairs.” For in Ecclesiastes 10:20 we read,

20 Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

Cursing a ruler comprises a violation of the Mosaic law (Exodus 22:28).  Paul instructed Timothy to pray for “kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1–2).  “Cursing” a ruler is wrong because we should respect the position that he or she holds, even if we cannot trust them because of their decisions or behaviors.  We should respect the position.

As the old sayings go, “Even the walls have ears.”  Long before bugs could be planted in offices to listen to private conversations, leaders had spies or supporters who would “rat out” those who spoke against them.  Thus, Solomon is urging restraint in our tongues, even in our thoughts.

Our American way seems to have just enough patience to give a President 100 days to change the nation to our liking and spend the remainder of his four years complaining that he can’t change anything.  All in all, that complaining does nothing except make us more angry.

This doesn’t mean that we should never speak out against injustices.  It is possible that Solomon has in view situations in which the possibility of speaking out would effect no change for the better, only get one in trouble.

Solomon seems to be saying, when you live in a bad government, to survive is the first step, though by no means the last.  Solomon will continue to help us apply wisdom to our situation.

Eaton says, “Everything that has been said about wisdom and folly points again to the main lesson of Ecclesiastes: the need to face life as it really is, and take our life day by day from the hand of a sovereign God.”

“This also concludes the second part of his discourse.  He has reviewed the four arguments presented in chapters 1 and 2, and has decided that life was really worth living after all.  The best thing we can do is to trust God, do our work, accept what God sends us, and enjoy each day of our lives to the glory of God (3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10).  All that remains for the Preacher is to conclude his discourse with a practical application, and this he does in chapters 11 and 12.  He will bring together all the various strands of truth that he has woven into his sermon and he will show us what God expects us to do if we are to be satisfied” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1141).

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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