Overcoming Futility—a sermon series on Ecclesiastes
“Folly” &Ecclesiastes 10 -Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Jesus makes a strong statement in His Sermon on the Mount; He warns, “Anyone who calls someone a fool is in danger of the fire of hell” (5:22). This was, in our Lord’s day, an especially vile curse; today we use this “four-letter word” casually. Words can change meaning over time. In Jesus’ day, calling someone a “fool” meant that you were judging that person as wicked and unfit to live. Today we use the word to indicate someone who’s simple-minded or unwise.
Solomon devotes chapter 10 to a proverbial description of folly. The wickedness of folly comes from rejecting wisdom. If we reject God, we can fall for anything, and believe any popular lie. When we see the world through the lens of Scripture, we stop being gullible. We grow up and understand why we’re here.
Yesterday our family visited the Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston. On the side of a hill is a classical temple façade called “Folly”, defined as a “useless structure with no function other than to grab one’s attention.” The key word is “useless”. Folly is useless thoughts and actions.
I don’t have a clever outline for this chapter; instead, I’d like us to consider Solomon’s counsel, one topic at a time…
WORDS…According to verse one, costly perfume can be corrupted. It doesn’t take much foolishness to ruin a person; like a polluting fly in the ointment, folly mars our ability to see clearly and live rightly. This fly-metaphor refers to deceitful speech, the foul-smelling words of death. Here’s a good prayer: “Lord, please put Your arm around my shoulder and Your hand over my mouth.” We have to choose our words wisely because it’s hard to withdraw them once they’re spoken.
CHOICES…In verses 2-3, Solomon isn’t talking about political leanings, but I’m sure pundits could make much of this verse! He’s referring to the choices people make in life. There’s plenty of light for those who want to see, and enough darkness for those who desire darkness. Foolish people walk in a perilous direction; they exercise poor judgment, with little regard for the consequences of their faulty thinking. “The right” is a Jewish expression for the right hand, considered the hand of justice and protection. The “left” is the road to ruin. Jesus said that, “wisdom is vindicated by its deeds” (Mt 11:19). It’s not just what we say but how we walk that shows whether we’ve embraced wisdom.
REACTIONS…In verse 4 we learn that we’re not responsible for how those in authority treat us; we’re only responsible for how we react. We can’t let their lack of control justify an outburst on our part. We need to maintain our composure and remain dialogical. I know what it’s like to be chewed out by a Brigade Commander for no good reason, but that doesn’t justify hasty action. We don’t abandon our post or resign; we calmly appeal to those in authority and try to stay on good terms. This is true in marriage as well; sensible husbands and wives don’t “throw in the towel” over disagreements; they negotiate; they work toward resolution and reconciliation, keeping in mind that they’re both on the same team.
WORK…Have you known any “fools in high positions”? Verses 5-7 sounds like the “Peter Principle” which claims that employees rise to their level of incompetence. Some employees will deliberately leave room for improvement by starting out at less than peak effectiveness to keep expectations from being set too high, and only ramping up to full productivity later. Incompetent workers are eventually moved to where they can do the least amount of damage.
Why is the prince walking? Maybe he wanted exercise? Whatever the reason, life is full of irony. The issue here I think isn’t social class but competence. You want the prince leading the battle, not his servant or a foot soldier.
RISK…We see in verses 8-9 how life is full of risk. The wise take precautions; fools simply blunder forth. Progress involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first. Wisdom marks the difference between success and failure. The Darwin Awards chronicle people who’ve been seriously injured or killed by foolish accidents. For example: On a winter day, a man dropped his cell phone while walking over a bridge onto a frozen lake. The phone didn’t break, so he went out onto the ice. The ice, however did break, since it was thin, and the man was much heavier than his cellphone.
PREVENTION…According to verse 10, when you’re chopping firewood with a dull blade, what do you do? Work harder, or smarter? Today we might say that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We need to think things through.
PREPARATION…Verse 11 advises animal handlers need to train animals before working with them. You wouldn’t try to saddle and ride an unbroken, wild horse. Fools want to by-pass any preparation. I’m reminded of the truism: “When all else fails, read the directions.” Thanks to technology, there is no shortage of information today…but what do we need more, information or wisdom?
BABBLE…Verses 12-14 are about foolish talk. Someone noted, “It’s easy to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say, then say the opposite.” Wisdom is the reward we get for listening when we’d prefer to talk. We know of people who can speak several languages but can’t say anything sensible in any of them. Solomon advises us to speak with restraint and choose our words carefully.
COMMON SENSE…Verse 15 is about “common sense”; it’s another way of saying that “Some people don’t know enough to come in out of the rain.”
LEADERSHIP…Solomon discusses leadership in verses 16-17. Leaders are developed through education and life experience. Israel had its share of immature and irresponsible leaders who rejected wisdom and hurt their nation. Nations are blessed to have leaders who are equipped to cope with the demands of their high office and responsibilities.
PLANNING…According to verse 18, a lack of preventive maintenance spells trouble. Disasters can be averted by proper planning. Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Whether its patching a roof, getting regular automotive oil changes or contributing to an IRA, we have to consider the consequences of our decisions (or lack thereof).
RESPONSIBILITY…Verse 19 contains sober words for less-than-sober people—if we spend our time partying, we end up poor. I think of college students who waste their education by partying when they ought to be studying. This also means spending money foolishly when there are significant bills to pay. The average American is dangerously in debt due to credit abuse. We want to have nice things now, rather than save up for them. In our consumer culture, we don’t want to have to live a simpler lifestyle when our friends all have flat-screen High-Definition TVs. Fools live above their means.
RESPECT…Finally, verse 20—Much energy is spent reviling the king. Last week I had to listen to a store clerk angrily rant about the President. When she was done, I suggested, “Perhaps we need to pray more for our leaders.” In the military, soldiers can be reprimanded for publicly criticizing those in their chain-of-command. Such talk is inappropriate and disrespectful to leaders who’ve been put in their positions of authority by God. Romans 13 tells us to submit to governing authorities because they are established by God. We need to be careful how we express our political views.
CONCLUSION…Solomon cautions in Proverbs 3:21-23, “Do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion…then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.”
Wisdom is seeing life from God’s perspective; knowing how we fit into God’s world. Not all folly is sin, but all sin is folly (Plantinga). When we go God’s way, we walk the path of wisdom. It’s possible to live a lifetime "under the sun", believing you’re right, only to be missing the mark by miles. To walk any other way than God’s way is to walk a path of ruin. Food for thought.