Ecclesiastes 10 (Part 2)

Click here to open the passage in a new window. Be sure to read the Bible text and not only my comment on it.

Today we continue through Chapter 10, looking at the themes of (1) upside-down societal structures, and (2) laziness and work. (The other themes of this chapter were explored yesterday, so if you missed that post you could go back and read that too.)

In 10:5-7, Qohelet begins discussing an ‘evil’ he has observed, which comes about by an unintentional error of a ruler. It is the elevation of a fool to a high post, while the rich man sits in a low estate; he gives the example of slaves on horses while princes walk. This is upheaval of the social order. The theme returns in 10:16-17, where he pronounces woe on a nation whose king is only a young man, and feasting happens in the morning (which would result in drunkenness, and therefore sloth, for the rest of the day). He prefers a blue-blood king, and feasting ‘in its time’ for strength.

We already mentioned about the fool yesterday, but didn’t discuss Qohelet’s preference for wealth and nobility. As an Australian, famous for our ‘flat’ society, this grates on me. I want social upheaval! The Bible overall generally roots for the underdog too, and the elevation of those who are normally at the bottom of society (cf 1 Sam 2:8; Luke 1:52-53). But in contrast, my father remembers with pain what happened in Hungary in the 1940s and 50s, when the soviets intentionally turned society upside-down; the monarchy was abolished, his wealthy family was made to learn manual trades, and people with no education were suddenly elevated. The same thing happened thirty years later in Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the cities, with mostly an educated population, to become forced rural labour, and particularly targeted professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers for cruelty. Which is the greater social evil: to keep slaves in their low place, or to intentionally destroy a society by up-ending it?

The theme of laziness flows on from 10:16-17, noting the princes who get drunk in the morning and therefore are fit for nothing for the rest of the day. But it is spelled out more explicitly in 10:18. As a fool is tired out by working and therefore he doesn’t know how to get to the city (to buy food? to work?, cf 4:5), so also a house is destroyed by laziness. It is only through toil that money can be earned to buy bread and wine, which brings laughter and joy. (The ‘but’ in some English versions of 10:19 is not helpful here, and is better translated as ‘and’.)

However, toil is not always smooth. 10:8-9 list a number of ways that a worker can be injured. It could be that 10:11 is also part of this list of laborers, but it fits better, structurally and linguistically, with 10:10. As the woodcutter must sharpen his axe for better success, so also the snake-charmer must use his tongue before he is bitten. The point of this section is that a worker should use wisdom in their toil.

We can learn from this chapter that work is good and important, but that it must be done sensibly and in the right way for greatest success. This is true at both an individual and a social level. Laziness will lead to hunger and your house – literally and metaphorically – falling down.

Prayer: God, help me to work hard and to work smart. Protect me from sloth and from silly accidents.

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