What is wisdom? In the previous post, we started a five-part series on Ecclesiastes 9:11-10:20, in which the Teacher (the writer of Ecclesiastes) gives us a series of proverbs about how to live wisely. In that post, the Teacher described a bit of what wisdom does not do, or what it does not look like. But what is wisdom? What does wisdom do, especially when the world is falling apart around us?
Let’s keep following the Teacher’s logic, seeing if we can discern more proverbs about wisdom. Here’s how my Old Testament seminary professor Dave Dorsey translates Ecclesiastes 9:18b through 10:3.
“9:18b One wrong person can destroy much good. 10:1 Just as one dead fly can spoil a whole container of expensive perfume, so a little folly can spoil much wisdom. 2 The mind of the wise person prefers what is right, and the mind of the foolish person prefers what is wrong. 3 A fool reveals that he lacks wisdom wherever he goes; he declares to everyone that he is a fool.”
Did you uncover any proverbs about wisdom in this group of verses? I think there are at least three: First, “Folly can spoil much wisdom.” Second, “The mind of the wise prefers what is right, while the mind of the foolish prefers what is wrong.” Finally, “Fools make it abundantly clear how foolish they are.” In other words, “Want to know what foolishness looks like?” the Teacher asks, “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Jump on YouTube and you can easily find videos of people doing foolish things. Just search on “epic fails”. There are whole series of videos of stupid criminals, or lots of videos of people driving or riding motorcycles doing foolishness. It is just so easy to find. And frankly, we love it. Did you ever notice how much it gives us pleasure to delight in others’ foolishness? Those videos are hilarious.
But at some point, the laughing should stop and we need to remind ourselves, “That is foolish. That is serious. Foolishness at its core is not funny.” Especially when we consider how the Teacher contrasts wisdom with foolishness in verse 2. In the Hebrew the Teacher literally says “the wise prefer the right, and the fools prefer the left.” You can imagine how political conservatives, which are called The Right, have used this verse to caricature political liberals or progressives, which are called The Left. That’s not what the Teacher is saying, though. There was no conservative or religious Right in his day, and there was no liberal or progressive Left.
The Teacher is simply using the two sides of the body, the right side and the left side, to illustrate that the wise prefer right, and fools prefer wrong. He is saying they are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Foolishness and Wisdom are obviously quite different. The kind of foolishness that the Teacher is describing, though, is not just taking dangerous physical risks. The kind of foolishness that has the Teacher concerned is “that which is wrong.” What he is talking about is the opposite of wisdom. Wisdom prefers “that which is right.” This really helps us understand wisdom. To pursue wisdom is to pursue the right option. The right tone. The right choice. The right attitude.
This is why the writer of Proverbs says that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” By using the word “fear,” he is referring to a posture of awe and respect before God, such that a person wants to follow the way of the Lord, to live their lives like Jesus lived, to choose to be his disciple and do what he did. That is wisdom. Of course, then, the ramification of this proverb is that in order to be wise you need to know the ways of the Lord, you need to know his heart and actively be his disciple. Wisdom, therefore, is not head knowledge, or intellectual capability, but the application of God’s way to our lives, so that what we believe is clearly demonstrated by the actions and choices of our lives.
So now that we have a clearer sense of wisdom, the Teacher is going to help us understand and identify foolishness. Look at 10:4, and again, this is Dorsey’s translation:
“4 If a ruler’s temper is aroused against you, do not leave your post; for calmness can allay great offenses. 5 I have observed something foolish that rulers in this world often do. 6 They place fools in high positions, and put men of substance in low positions. 7 I have seen slaves riding along on horseback, while princes walk on foot like slaves.”
The Teacher has foolish rulers in the cross-hairs, doesn’t he? It would be very tempting to read these passages and think, “I wish this or that politician would read this passage.” And by the way, as I write this in 2020, considering the bonkers things that each of the major party candidates said from time to time during their campaigns, or over the years, they could each do well by following the Teacher’s wisdom. The reality is that we ALL could do well to follow the Teacher’s wisdom here, because all of us have been guilty of doing foolish things, such as what the Teacher describes: letting our temper get the best of us or making backwards decisions.
It is important to note that the Teacher is not promoting slavery in verse 7. He is simply describing what was in keeping with societal mores of his day: evidence of a backwards decision from a foolish leader would be to have slaves ride horses and princes walk on foot. Why? Because slaves did not have the education or experience to lead like princes did. The Teacher is describing a situation where a foolish king is essentially running his kingdom into the ground through bad decision-making, bad governance.
We can do the same in the various responsibilities we have. From parenting, to our jobs, to our marriage, to how we care for ourselves, to our use of time and money.
What leadership responsibilities do you have in your life? I’m thinking about any kind of leadership responsibility. Even those of you who are teenagers. You might have a younger sibling who looks up to you. You might have responsibilities at school, at work, on a sports team, or among your friends.
The Teacher is not suggesting that to be leaders we must have people following us, or doing what we say. Nothing like that. The Teacher is, however, saying that we should pursue wisdom and rightness in any relationship or situation in which we have influence. To do that, the fear and awe of the Lord, and who he is, and who he says we are, need to be in the forefront of our hearts and our minds. Why? Because as I mentioned above, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; the fear of the Lord is the source of wisdom. May wisdom be your passion as you lead.