What Did the Wise Man Mean?
Even a Little Foolishness Can Be Damaging
Just one foolish act may be enough to tarnish a man’s reputation. Wise King Solomon wrote: “Dead flies are what cause the oil of the ointment maker to stink, to bubble forth. So a little foolishness does to one who is precious for wisdom and glory.” (Eccl. 10:1) A good name or reputation is comparable to a sweet-smelling oil that can easily be ruined by something as insignificant as dead flies. The putrefaction of these insects will cause the oil to stink and to ferment, “to bubble forth.” Likewise, a man may lose a good reputation as a wise and honorable person through some indiscretion, “a little foolishness.”
This is because people expect far more of one who is noted for his wisdom. He must, therefore, be very careful about his speech and actions. His fine reputation can be sullied by such things as one violent outburst of anger, one serious slip by the immoderate use of alcoholic beverages or one unchaste act with the opposite sex.
Where the Heart Should Be
To avoid succumbing to folly, a person needs a rightly motivated heart. The wise man noted: “The heart of the wise is at his right hand, but the heart of the stupid at his left hand. And also in whatever way the foolish one is walking, his own heart is lacking, and he certainly says to everybody that he is foolish.”—Eccl. 10:2, 3.
In Biblical usage, the “right hand” often stands for a position of favor. (Compare Matthew 25:33.) The wise person’s heart being at his right hand would, therefore, indicate that it inclines him toward a good, favorable course. The stupid one, however, is motivated toward a wrong path, his heart being at the “left hand.” He is much like a right-handed person who, if he could not use his right hand, might be clumsy with his left hand, unable to do well what must be done. Lacking good motive, “heart” at his right hand, the fool is easily recognized for what he is. It is as if he were ‘saying to everybody that he is foolish.’ Because of not wanting correction and counsel, such a person is also quick to speak of those trying to help him as ‘fools.’
A Serious Mistake
When a ruler makes a serious mistake in choosing men for high office, much damage is done. Wise King Solomon referred to such a mistake as a calamity. He wrote: “There exists something calamitous that I have seen under the sun, as when there is a mistake going forth on account of the one in power: Foolishness has been put in many high positions, but the rich ones [“noble,” New Berkeley Version] themselves keep dwelling merely in a low condition. I have seen servants on horses but princes walking on the earth just like servants.”—Eccl. 10:5-7.
Solomon speaks of those who qualify for the high position as the “rich.” We should not understand this to mean that he favored a plutocracy, exclusive rulership by the wealthy. Solomon evidently had in mind persons who use good judgment and manage their affairs well. Such men certainly give indication of having greater governing ability than those who have squandered or mismanaged their resources.
Because of poor judgment on the part of the one in authority, princely or noble men may not be granted the dignity they deserve and may be treated as slaves. Far less qualified men, mere servants, however, may end up riding on horses like the nobility. This situation makes matters hard for the subjects who are forced to submit to officials who are not really qualified. Truly Solomon’s words drive home the importance of choosing qualified persons to care for vital work.
Incapable Persons Who Gain Position Not to Be Envied
Incompetence may at first not be recognized. Certain men have the ability to impress others with what appears to be keen insight. They may be selected to handle responsibilities, whereas men of real wisdom are overlooked. When unqualified persons are in a position of trust, others may be inclined to envy them. But, really, incompetent people are not to be envied. They are in constant danger of losing what they may have attained. Lacking the needed wisdom, they may in time be shown up for what they are and experience a terrible crash, to their hurt and disgrace.
Evidently Solomon was illustrating that incompetence is inherently dangerous when pointing to other things that are fraught with danger. He wrote: “He that is digging a pit will himself fall right into it [because an open pit presents an ever-present danger]; and he that is breaking through a stone wall, a serpent [which makes its home in old walls] will bite him. He that is quarrying out stones will hurt himself with them. He that is splitting logs will have to be careful with them.” (Eccl. 10:8, 9) Both quarrying and chopping operations can endanger life and limb and, therefore, should be carried out with due caution.
Surely, the person who is competent is in a far better situation than one who may have ability but lacks the wisdom to use it properly. Illustrating this point, Solomon states: “If an iron tool has become blunt and someone has not whetted its edge, then he will exert his own vital energies.” It would be foolish to use a dull ax for chopping, needlessly exerting oneself and still not being able to do a good job. “So,” King Solomon continues, “the using of wisdom to success means advantage.” (Eccl. 10:10) Yes, applied wisdom is what counts. A person may have knowledge. But of what value would that knowledge be if he did not know how to use it? Solomon puts it this way: “If the serpent bites when no charming results, then there is no advantage to the one indulging in the tongue.” (Eccl. 10:11) Ability to charm a serpent is useless when the one having such ability is bitten before the charming takes effect. The Septuagint Version reads: “If a serpent biteth at an interval of charming, there is no advantage in him who charmeth.” So a person must speak with effect.
Hence, instead of being envious of incompetent people who gain places of authority, a person should appreciate the precarious position the others are in and, in his own case, strive to make wise use of his knowledge and abilities. In the long run, the wise person, even when his good judgment is at first not recognized, is still better off than the exalted but incapable one.