Foolishness

12Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips. 13At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness— 14and the fool multiplies words. No one knows what is coming—who can tell him what will happen after him? 15A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town.

16Woe to you, O land, whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning. 17Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness. 18If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks. 19A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything.

20Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.

Solomon continues his words of wisdom concerning real life, as he works his way to the conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes. In this section, he speaks of foolish speech, and of foolish rulers. First, concerning foolish speech: "Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips. At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—and the fool multiplies words. No one knows what is coming—who can tell him what will happen after him? A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town" (vss. 12–15). Since the main subject of Ecclesiastes is wisdom, it is appropriate that Solomon speak concerning the tongue, for the tongue is the instrument of both wisdom and folly. The speech coming from the tongue is often the primary gauge to prove wisdom or folly.

Solomon begins by comparing the words of the wise to the words of the foolish man: "Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips." The wise man’s words, being "gracious", benefit those around him. The wise man heeds Paul’s words: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Eph. 4:29). "How valuable then is the art of enchanting our tongues; bringing them under wholesome discipline, so that they may pacify and instruct, instead of bringing the serpent’s sting!" [Bridges, 249].

In contrast to the wise man’s words, the foolish man’s words not only do not benefit others, they are destructive to the fool himself: "…a fool is consumed by his own lips." Solomon documents the process of the fool’s self-destruction: "At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—and the fool multiplies words. No one knows what is coming—who can tell him what will happen after him? A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town" (vss. 13–14). At first, a fool’s speech is relatively harmless, maybe even cute, mere "folly". But if the fool remains in his foolish ways, his words become "wicked madness." The fool then aggravates the situation by "multiplying" his words.

Solomon gives an example of the fool’s lack of wisdom: "No one knows what is coming—who can tell him what will happen after him?" The fool is most self-destructive concerning his ultimate destiny. Solomon’s example here reflects the foolishness of agnosticism: "We can’t know what will happen, so why try?" The agnostic fool erroneously believes that, if there is a God, we cannot know Him or His will. The agnostic fool rejects the Word of God in the Bible, even though there are many proofs of its authenticity.

In the end, the foolish man’s words carry over into all aspects of his life: "A fool’s work wearies him; he does not know the way to town" (vs. 15). Fools make easy things difficult, largely through the attitude they take in doing anything. To the fool, everything is an unreasonable chore. Rather than being edified and strengthened by his work, rather than using his work as an opportunity to grow and become a better person, "a fool’s work wearies him." In the end, he cannot do even the easiest things: "He does not know the way to town."

Next, again, Solomon comments on the wisdom and folly of rulers: "Woe to you, O land, whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning. Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness" (vss. 16–17). The importance of good leadership is again noted by Solomon. The land whose king behaves like a "servant" is full of woe; the land whose king has a noble bearing is blessed. And then, the woe or blessing (as the case may be) will continue on, for the traits of the kings are passed on to the princes. Moreover, the damage done to a land by poor rulers is lasting: "If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks" (vs. 18). Still further, the character of the ruler affects the moral values of the land: "A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything" (vs. 19). A foolish, immoral leader and the government he installs will lead to a climate where only material things are important, where joy only comes from feasting and merrymaking; and "money is the answer for everything."

Clearly, given these things, wise, godly leadership is a valuable thing to have. For those of us who live in countries where we can choose our leaders, the onus is upon us to educate ourselves concerning those who are running for election, and to choose wise, godly leaders.

Solomon ends this section with words of wisdom concerning our response to foolish leaders: "Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say" (vs. 20). Even though we may see our leaders as foolish and destructive, wisdom dictates that we should be careful what we say about them. Private matters have a way of coming to light, many times mysteriously: "A bird of the air may carry your words." Is there is any value to be gained from criticizing our rulers? Praying for our rulers is a much more constructive thing to do. God can change the heart of our rulers, and give them wisdom.

These last words concerning criticism of the king should be applied to anyone in authority over us. For instance, at our workplace, we should not speak ill of our bosses. This is never a constructive thing to do, and such talk behind the boss’s back can poison a job site, and make work miserable for everyone. Your words would be put to much better use by praying for your boss.

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