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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Ecclesiastes 10 (Part 1)

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

In our chapter today we have a diverse collection of proverbs with no single discernible unifying theme or structure. However, there are some overlapping ideas that keep cropping up: wisdom versus folly; relating to rulers; societal structures; work, laziness, and accidents. I will attempt to cover these topics thematically (rather than going verse by verse) over today and tomorrow.

10:1 relates back to what we just read in 9:18 (and actually belongs there better, instead of starting a new chapter). The idea is that a lot of what is good – perfume or wisdom and honor – can be destroyed by something small. We have seen that happen in the lives of individuals, churches and nations. Qohelet is not giving advice here, simply stating a reality.

He goes on to comparing the wise with fools (10:2). Although foolishness is easily observed (10:3), still a fool can be appointed to a high position (10:6). I have tried not to show overt political opinions in this blog but I can’t help thinking of a certain (ex-)world leader who demonstrates this sad truth, and also 10:12b-14. It is impossible for me not to think of him as I read about speech that begins with folly and ends with evil madness, multiplying words so that no one knows what’s coming or where it will end, which eventually consume him.

The same person comes quickly to mind when I read 10:4, although this is not the import of the verse. Here Qohelet is again giving advice to officials who work in the royal court (cf 8:2-4). When your boss gets angry with you (literally, ‘the spirit of the ruler rises up against you’), don’t leave. The second half of 10:4 literally says, ‘healing puts to rest great sins’. It is difficult to know exactly what Qohelet had in mind, but it seems to me that he is recommending conciliation in the face of offensive behavior by a ruler towards his subordinates. In other words, play cool in any aggravated situation; keep the peace rather than fighting back or quitting in the moment.

In the last verse (10:20), he instructs the reader – I think still keeping the court official in mind, but it could be more general – not to curse the king (or the wealthy), even in thinking or in private, in case the matter gets back to the ruler. This is a tough rebuke to me. I often find myself, in private, disparaging or despising leaders who affect my life, whether politically, or organizationally. Perhaps I am not literally cursing them, but a better attitude would be to pray for those in authority over me.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to take this advice to heart as I relate to those in authority over me. Give me patience and coolness, give me love and an understanding heart. Let not my foolish words or sinfulness destroy what good my community is trying to do.

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