How do you identify a fool? It sure would be nice if fools and foolishness had their own costume, like the court jester in the picture above. Unfortunately fools and foolishness most often look normal. Worse yet, people can have sharply divided views on what is foolish.
Thankfully, the Teacher (the writer of Ecclesiastes) writes more proverbs that illustrate folly and wisdom in day to day life. In this week’s series of blog posts on Ecclesiastes 9:11-10:20, we’re discovering that the Teacher has many such proverbs to help us live with wisdom in our complex world. You can read the previous two posts here and here. Now on to today’s post. My Old Testament seminary professor Dave Dorsey translates the next few verses, Ecclesiastes 10:8-11, as follows:
“8 But whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. 9 Whoever quarries stone may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be hurt by them. 10 If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, the one who wields it must use more strength; but wisdom can help a person succeed. 11 If a snake bites its trainer because it has not been properly trained, the trainer will have done all his work in vain.”
It seems like the Teacher is really into digging, wood chopping, and snakes! When I read this, I thought about what life must have been like when the Teacher lived. His society and culture was quite different from ours, as evidenced by these three topics he focuses on. Then I realized, I actually experienced all these things this year. Digging in my yard to plant flowers and uproot old bushes. Lots of splitting wood, as we use wood as our primary heat source. And while I didn’t interact with a snake, when we went on vacation this summer to a state park, there were lots of warnings about rattlesnakes. Of the three, the one I most identify with is splitting wood. I have been hurt by split logs many times, just as the Teacher describes, when the force of the axe causes the split log to go flying back into my shins. As I search for the proverb in this section, I see a repetition of what he said in the first post this of this week’s blog series: “Misfortune surprises us all, but wisdom can help us succeed. So get wisdom.” If your axe is dull sharpen it. Or get a pneumatic log-splitter to do the work for you! The Teacher would agree with the phrase, “work smarter, not harder!”
The Teacher has even more descriptions of wisdom and foolishness. Hear how Dorsey translates the next few verses, Ecclesiastes 10:12-15:
“12 The words of a wise man bring him approval, but a fool destroys himself by what he says. 13 What a fools says, from beginning to end, is foolish and full of nonsense, 14 yet he talks on and on. 15 A fool tires of his work, but he does not know the way back to town.”
This passage is mostly about how to identify a fool. But the Teacher does give a proverb about how to identify a wise man, “You’ll know a wise man by the approval his words bring.” Of course, that is a proverb that is not always true, because a foolish person can also receive approval, usually from other fools. What can be so difficult about identifying foolishness and wisdom is that generally the foolish ones view themselves as wise, and they declare that the wise ones are fools. They can do so very boldly, to the point where the wise, because the wise tend to be self-reflective, can start to second-guess whether or not they are actually wise. The wise can think, Maybe the foolish are the wise ones, and the wise have got it wrong all along? Why else would so many people look to the foolish person with approval? In the end though, the tell-tale signs of foolishness are there, and the truth comes out.
What tell-tale signs? The Teacher lays them out: the foolish person destroys himself. The foolish person talks nonsense. When the foolish person talks, they drone on and on and on. The fool gets tired of working. The fool doesn’t know his way home. In the end, the Teacher tells us, a fool will make himself known. So wait, watch, and it will almost always happen. The fool will implode. From the vantage point of history, which almost always reveals the truth, it will become obvious that the fool was foolish.