Does a leader’s character matter? Just about everyone would say, “Yes,” but what if their character is sketchy, and maybe their personality and tone really rubs you the wrong way, but you agree with their policies, or at least some of their policies? Is it okay, then, to overlook their character? These are difficult questions to answer. And thankfully, in today’s post, we have some help.
This week we’ve been searching for proverbs that The Teacher (the writer of Ecclesiastes) gives us about the difference between wisdom and foolishness. Once again, here is my seminary Old Testament professor David Dorsey’s translation of Ecclesiastes 10:16-17:
“16 How unfortunate are you, O land whose king is immature and whose princes feast in the morning. 17 How fortunate are you, O land whose king is noble and whose princes feast at appropriate times—and in dignity rather than shamefully.”
The Teacher really wants us to think about leadership doesn’t he? He’s at it again, talking about the difference between a wise and foolish king. The NIV describes the foolish king as a “servant” or a “lad.” This Hebrew word is used a variety of ways in the Old Testament, all of which point to someone who has no business being king because of their immaturity. It is why in the USA a person has to be at least 35 years old to be a presidential candidate. So notice above in Dorsey’s translation, how the Teacher calls the foolish king immature, and he calls the wise king noble. In the context of the ancient near east, the Teacher is referring to something very similar to what he said earlier in verses 6-7, when he wrote about slaves riding horses while princes were walking. In his world, the Teacher is saying that servants and children shouldn’t be kings and only nobility should be. Dorsey catches the gist of the passage very well. It is not wise to have leaders who are immature or haven’t learned how to lead a country.
This proverb becomes very clear in how the Teacher refers to the Land. In the Old Testament, the Land was a common way to talk about Israel. It was the Promised Land. God gave the people a land. While it was a geographical region on a map, it carried a greater significance than that. The land was a dwelling place of protection and provision. The land could be blessed, and the land could be cursed. The land, therefore, took on a life and character somewhat of its own.
In this proverb the land is either fortunate or unfortunate based on the character and actions of its leaders. If the leader is immature, the land becomes unfortunate, which is quite similar to the idea of being cursed. But if the leader is noble, the land is fortunate, and the land is in a position of blessing.
The Teacher is saying that leadership matters, and even more precisely, the Teacher is saying that the maturity and character of the leader matters. In fact, the Teacher is saying that the maturity of the leader can have far-reaching implications for the land. Gardeners, you have seen that right? It is unwise to let weeds and disorganization take over the land. There is wisdom in how you care for things; how you tend the garden has repercussions on the actual land. My mind also goes to Genesis where we are told we will have dominion over the land. How we care for the earth matters. There are wise ways and foolish ways to care for the land and they will both have significant impact.
How do we know, though, if a leader is mature or immature? Notice the word the Teacher uses as the contrast to immature: noble. That means maturity and nobleness are connected. It also means that immaturity and lack of nobleness are connected. If you want to know if a leader is mature or not, one way to discern is to look at their lives for evidence of nobleness or lack of nobleness. Also look at how the Teacher describes the noble leader, with dignity, rather than shamefully. How a person carries themselves and how they treat others can be with dignity or with shamefulness, and that is one way know if they are mature or immature. Dictionaries define noble character as “someone who has high morals and ideas – someone who is honest and charitable. Being of great courage, generosity and honorable.”
But again, these are proverbs that are generally true. If you look hard enough, you’ll find an exception. Clearly there are men and women of noble birth, who have had education and training for leadership, but who are foolish, and they should not be leading, no matter what family they came from or where they went to college.
We should actively pursue putting mature leaders in positions of leadership. Their lives, actions and choices will tell us if they are mature. They are noble, living and speaking with dignity, and thus have no or little shame, and they will lead toward fortune and blessing to the land. If we see people attempting to become leaders who live a lifestyle of ignobility, of indignity, who are shameful, we should not support them, as they will lead toward misfortune and cursing of the land.
This means we should examine our leaders. I am not just referring to political leaders here. Given the events in the news, of course that is where our minds naturally go. Political leaders are precisely who the Teacher in Ecclesiastes is talking about. But the wisdom in his proverbs applies to all kinds of leaders. The leaders of our community. The coaches on our sports team. Church leaders. Pastors!
Look closely at their lives. How they treat their families and their coworkers. Examine how they live their lives. Their actions will reveal their character, and when it comes to leadership, the Teacher clearly tells us, character matters. It is indispensable. Remember the story of the poor man with wisdom? His wisdom bested the loud-mouthed king with the military force. He is telling us that we should search out wise leadership.
Whether it is a national leader or a local leader, whether it is a coach of a major league sports team or of a little league team, whether it is a CEO of an international corporation or a pastor of a community church, we should seek leaders who have demonstrated wisdom by the choices in their lives. As Jesus once taught, “By their fruits you will know them.”
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