From:  Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life               Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2012




[Page 119]






Chapter Eight:

The Paradox of Wisdom in Rulers:

Ideal in Theory but Hard to Find in Practice





            In this section Qohelet zeroes in on the importance of wisdom to those who occupy positions of governance such as himself.  Easy as it is for him to stress its significance, the real difficulty is separating the wheat from the chaff in actual practice.  No ruler was likely to question its usefulness—not even the most arbitrary one.  What he would find far harder to do was to take the time to determine what was the most wise/ideal policy and be willing to reverse himself when it proved not to be such.





Flow of the Argument


A.   Wisdom is not determined by who speaks it (9:13-18)

B.   To have wisdom is not necessarily to practice it (10:1)

C.   Having or lacking wisdom will be seen by actual behavior (10:2-4)

D.  Regardless of motive, when rulers substitute folly for wisdom they will suffer for it (10:5-10)

E.   Wise counsel is not determined by how lengthy it is (10:11-15)

F.   Since there is no guarantee of having wise rulers, be cautious in what you say (10:16-20)




[Page 120]


A.  Wisdom Is Not Determined by

Who Speaks It (9:13-18)



            Solomon provides the illustration of a small town with few men to defend it who are facing a far more powerful besieger (9:14).[1]  Due to the wisdom of a poor but wise citizen they overcome the siege through either a brilliant military counterstroke or astute diplomatic negotiations[2] (which way it was is not stated[3] and is not essential to the story itself)—but once the danger is past they forget how much they owe him and relegate him back into the ranks of the anonymous (and often despised) poor (9:15). 

            Some consider it a hypothetical situation where the potential for rescue never bore fruit and translate the verse with the wording that he “could have rescued the city by his wisdom”[4] but that their class prejudice made it impossible.  This is defended on the grounds that the Hebrew wording permits the reading and that the hero being ignored makes no sense if he had accomplished the salvation of the community.[5]  Furthermore, verse 16 speaks of the poor man’s wisdom being ignored.[6]  But is that before or after the crisis is over and he is no longer of benefit to the city’s power brokers?  (Furthermore, if the man’s advice had not been heeded, how did Qohelet know it would have saved the city?) 

Unfortunately, in real life people possess an incredible ability to forget how much they owe to others:  not long ago I saw a preacher with over a quarter century of service with a single congregation nearly fired from his post for views he had held for a number of years—without any past grievance from the members.  All his hard work and modest remuneration was unimportant.  Two or three new and “important” individuals had decided he had to “go.”  Every one of a certain age has surely found such cases of ingratitude; intentional “forgetfulness” is all too common. 

If one wishes a political illustration:  Winston Churchill, after leading Britain through a long and hard war in Europe (1939-1945), was defeated in the general election before the Pacific War was even completed.  He had, quite improbably and against great odds, literally saved his nation; but with peace on the horizon a new set of priorities were deemed important and he lost his post.

            Perhaps we go on for too great a length, but Qohelet’s rebuke of “forgetfulness” is so true of the human species that we forget it at our own peril.

The absurdity in this neglect of the poor man in Solomon’s day was far more profound:  it is presented as if occurring immediately.  Not even a decent interval passed.  On a philosophical or theoretical level it made sense to say that “wisdom is better than [brute] strength.”  Yet if that wisdom comes from the wrong individual, [Page 121]    the poor person, the wrong gender, the wrong age, the wrong nation, it will be “despised” (9:16), even though the merits are fully on that person’s side.

            Nor is this the only mistake in judging the validity of policy decisions and appreciation for perceptive ones.  People also often confuse wisdom with loudness in expressing one’s views (9:17).  Vigor of expression becomes a substitute for soundness of reasoning.  If you get ten thousand demonstrators out, you “must” be right even though a hundred thousand local onlookers via radio and television think you are stark raving mad.

            “Wisdom is better than weapons of war” because unless you have it, needless wars will occur and those who have to fight will be mismanaged and there will be unneeded deaths among your own people (9:18).  Indeed, “one sinner” in the seat of power can destroy the “good” laid by his predecessors (9:18).  “Sinner” here should be taken in a political sense:   he sins against his own people by entrapping them in conflicts that his wise predecessors avoided.  He commits the ultimate secular sacrilege:  getting the young people of his land killed without accomplishing anything for it.                      

            Solomon’s illustration of the small town may come from some story he had heard or it may have become a proverbial illustration among those encouraging insightful thinking.  On the other hand, it could equally well have come from looking at the wealthy courtiers in his court and how they reacted to advice.  Coming from the wrong quarter (poor, female, or foreigner) it would likely get short shrift while the same idea coming from some one else would be warmly embraced.

            We see such things in daily life, even our religious life.  I recall when I was in my early twenties and ventured a certain interpretation of a text in our adult Bible class one Sunday.  It was totally dismissed.  A few years later (well, it may have been as much as a decade) a prestigious evangelist was visiting with us and gave the same interpretation and, oh, how it impressed every one!  I wasn’t bitter over it but, like Qohelet in a political context, I could not but look at it and regard the double standard as “absurd.”  Unfortunately only as absurd as real life is.

            If we look into the political realm today we find the same phenomena.  But here it is likely the movie star whose ill-informed opinions get the publicity while hard-working amateur and professional students of the subject will be lucky to be mentioned.  Wealth and prestige pushes out those who actually know something about the subject.  Again, absurdity.  Qohelet would have felt right at home.

            When the regal cynic speaks of people heeding loudly voiced opinions rather than good judgment, the evaluation likely came from his personal observation as well.  One might call it the “hell fire and damnation school of political advocacy.”  If you can’t win by evidence or argument, you win by loudness and venom.  Since many people will back down rather than take them on, they think they have “won,” when all they’ve done is steam-rolled others into silence. 

An astute ruler was needed to tell the difference between the two types of silence.  Not all could.

            The same phenomena we find in church affairs, where the “loudest voice” is often permitted to dominate.  As in business matters, politics, and most other areas of life.     

[Page 122]          Finally there are the consequences of the ruler yielding to the loudest (and wrong) advice and he mentions war in particular and the capacity of war to destroy the good previous rulers had accomplished (9:18).  Qohelet is not so naïve as to deny that war sometimes has to be fought.  Indeed, historically speaking, one only mildly exaggerates in asserting that warfare is the natural state of the human species; after all few major nations seem to be able to escape it for more than a few decades at a time. 

Yet however “inevitable” war in the abstract is, many specific wars can be avoided by the application of “wisdom” and prudence.  And the inevitable human and economic cost of armed conflict, surely made Solomon opt for avoiding the danger (i.e., by “wisdom” being expressed in astute diplomacy and other means) rather than permit things to degenerate into open conflict. 

            Applying that insight is never easy.  If Hitler had been willing to go no further than his seizure of parts of Czechoslovakia, then Chamberlain’s deal with the Nazi dictator would have been regarded, historically, as astute and praiseworthy.  But his blindness (along with that of the French) to the psychological inability of Hitler to stop at anything short of European domination, doomed Chamberlain to be looked upon as foolish at best and a fool at worst.  It was a case where long-term peace was simply not going to be possible. 

            When we move on to contemporary potential conflicts, the difficulty in applying the principle becomes even more difficult.  We know, because of what happened next, that Chamberlain made a fatal blunder.  Seeing into the minds and intents and limitations of current international troublemakers is something else. 

We function with only partial information and every single argument in one direction can, at least partly, be “balanced” by reasoning in the opposite direction (and the quotation marks are to indicate that the argument may be distorted in order to accomplish it).  Hence, even in keeping peace, astute practical “wisdom” in the evaluation of motive, behavior, and intention of other nations remains just as essential as in the ancient days of Qohelet.





B.  To Have Wisdom Is Not Necessarily

to Practice It (10:1)



            A little “folly” (demonstrated bad judgment) makes even an honorable and astute ruler fall into a bad odor/reputation among his people.  The reason, of course, is that we expect the perceptive ruler to stay that way.  The blunders come as an embarrassing shock.

            Solomon knew this as a principle but one wonders whether he had the courage to recognize his own blunders?  Could all those marriages of his with polytheistic spouses have avoided compromising at least some of his reputation?  [Page 123]    Since it was an era of prosperity, perhaps that encouraged most to overlook it.  But all?  Especially those who took the Torah seriously? 

Or did he tend to avoid their presence when he could?  People can’t disturb your peace of mind if they aren’t allowed close enough to do it!

            If we link the verse with what went before, the thought would be that a ruler who needlessly stumbles his people into a war loses his reputation among them.  And this error, Solomon certainly avoided.  His reign was conspicuously marked by an absence of conflict--major conflicts at least.





C.  Having or Lacking Wisdom Will Be

Seen by Actual Behavior (10:2-4)



            The imagery of the right side being preferable to the left (the right hand seat being that of most honor, for example) is used here of the relative value of wisdom and folly.  The wise person’s “heart is at his right hand” while that of the foolhardy is at the left (10:2).  There are fools and then there are worse fools.  The full-bodied one (if that term can be used in this context) is the one who learns nothing at all by his “walk” through life and his behavior manifests to one and all his lack of insight (10:3). 

The wording is ambiguous, suggests R. N. Whybray.  The point could be “either that the fool calls every one else a fool, or that by his words and actions he proclaims that he himself is a fool (cf. Proverbs 13:16).”[7]  The end result is the same:  he is publicly self-branded.  Not that all “fools” are this blatant; rather, the author uses the most extreme example to illustrate the folly of the entire category.

            Next he illustrates the difference between a foolish person and a wise one by the way he reacts to a crisis:  If you happen to be a subordinate and the ruler expresses his anger, it is easy to go into a panic—especially if the anger is well deserved because of your “great offenses”  (10:4).  Indeed, it is tempting to even “leave your post,” i.e., flee the country since ancient rulers could do pretty much what they wanted and your legal protections existed solely at his discretion. 

Instead, the wise person seeks “conciliation” for even if the accusations are legitimate such a course provides the opportunity to resolve the breach (10:4).  This principle of seeking settlement and mutual peace is one applicable to all areas of life and not just in the relationship of a position holder to a superior (for example, Proverbs 25:15; Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).

            As ruler,[8] he would have observed how people reacted to criticism of their actions.  He would have seen the entire gauntlet from minor alleged infractions to major and ominous ones.  The quality of the subordinates would be proved by how they reacted to their mistakes.  Would they be willing to “eat crow” (if the charges were legitimate) and admit their error?  If so, there was potential for them to be salvaged and become more worthy of their post.

[Page 124]          We see the same in all areas of life:  The quality of mind and personal integrity is most exhibited under crisis.  No one enjoys them, of course, but they certainly demonstrate one’s acuteness of thought and ability to adapt.  Without such, loss of respect becomes permanent and the loss of position inevitable.

            This is one of several texts describing the relationship of a subject and the king (8:2-5; 10:4; 10:20)—and in verse 4 he clearly has in mind some one with an on-going administrative or other relationship with the ruler.  As Tomas Frydrych observes, he is not describing[9]


how to exploit one’s position at the court to one’s benefit.  Instead what Qoheleth offers are simple guidelines on how to survive (our emphasis, rw) being a courtier.  The key to this is unquestionable loyalty; the kings Qoheleth knew tolerated no dissent.  Such a loyalty needed to be accompanied by shrewdness, understanding what would be acceptable at any given moment (which is just a variant on the basic concept of wisdom as skill and timing).  But even the loyal and shrewd courtier could not obviously avoid the king’s anger; those who wished to stay alive needed to be able to face the king calmly and appease the royal rage.





D.   Regardless of Motive, when Rulers

Substitute Folly For Wisdom

They Will Suffer for It (10:5-10)



            Another “evil” he perceives (10:6) is when “folly” is manifested in the king’s behavior and actions while the rich are relegated to a “lowly place” (10:6-7).  Mere servants of the king take pride of place by riding on horseback while others must walk (10:7).  The king’s servants are just that, servants.  The only power they have are as extensions of the ruler, enabling him to do (through them) what he has neither time nor inclination to do himself.  Yet that reliance can easily breed an elevating of them above those who have direct claims to importance in the kingdom, “the rich” (10:6) and “princes” (10:7). 

Needless disorder and societal tension has been interjected into the very seat of power by such misjudgments and it is not the fault of external pressure but of the monarch’s own flawed judgment in deciding whom to select to implement his policies.[10]  One did not have to have a special reverence for the governing class to recognize that their arbitrary replacement by less respected, less educated, and less trained personnel was hardly likely to produce betterment for society at large.  The instability at the court could then easily have a destabilizing effect on attitudes and actions throughout the nation.[11] 

[Page 125]         We have in Qohelet’s analysis an astute recognition of how, in a monarchy, the king’s de facto preferences rearrange the power structure even when no formal action is taken.  The text could be introduced as evidence of the non-monarchical origin of the author and the words as an expression of an outsider’s annoyance at how a king overlooks the more “deserving” outsiders by preferring his personal staff.  Yet the same abhorrence could easily arise in a monarch sensitive to the nature of political power and its exercise.

            To give a more modern understanding of the basic point:  It has been said, with considerable justice, that many secretaries exercise more power than their bosses do in the formal chain of command of a corporation.  That is quite natural.  They know his or her preferences, is likely to have access to data that discretion or fear is kept away from him, and to have access to a thoroughly different (or broader) set of information sources than the boss is actually utilizing. 

Drafting the decisions, she puts her own imprint, spin, interpretation and even subtle alterations upon them.  If she is good, loyal, and astute, the kind of changes he himself would have included if he had thought of them.

            The negative side of the phenomena, is when her place as the boss’ executor is displaced by a self-serving role of self-promoter and arbiter in “his” name, but actually acting to elevate her own authority and importance.  The latter is the kind of shift that Qohelet has in mind, but made worse because he lived in the kind of system that allowed it to be more visible and tangible than usually possible in the modern world. 

(Though not completely impossible, of course.  I’m reminded of the secretary at a certain corporation who has “her” parking space and woe be to the person who is in it even if it is in the middle of the night!)

            The royal analyst attempts to convey by a series of analogies the folly of transferring power from those who are supposed to have it—and are, usually, best qualified to exercise it--to those who exercise it only by a mistake of regal sufferance.  It’s like digging a pit and not recognizing the danger of falling into it (10:8) or breaking through a hollow wall without remembering that there may be snakes in the hollow (10:8; cf. Amos 5:19).  (Depending who is doing it and the motive, either of these acts could have the intent to hurt others [the pit] or to rob [breaking through the wall][12] or be mere accidents befalling a totally innocent man going about his business.[13])

It’s like quarrying stone and forgetting that the fragments might hit you or splitting wood and forgetting how dangerous the axe can be (10:9).  Building on the implied axe reference in the previous verse, in 10:10, he notes that if it isn’t kept sharp the one who suffers is you, because you have to use even more strength than needed (10:10).  “But wisdom brings success” (10:10) by keeping you from committing such mistakes.  Make them, however, and, as in the various illustrations, they will come back and harm you as well.



[Page 126]


E.   Wise Counsel Is Not Determined by

How Lengthy It Is (10:11-15)



            The words of the “babbler” will ultimately bite the receptive listener just the way a snake does (10:11).  Indeed, the words are like a pit dug in front of the person himself, one into which he will ultimately fall (10:12)--and you along with him if you are not careful.   The beguiling words of such a person will get no better by the time he ends:  he begins “with foolishness” and ends with “raving madness” (10:13). 

If Solomon is talking in terms of how the person reasons (rather than elaborately saying that nothing the person says is to be trusted), then the modern analogy would be:  if you begin with false premises you end up with a false conclusion.  The premises may, actually, sound modest but, once granted, lead you incredibly far astray from reality in the ultimate deductions made from them.

            Such a person substitutes length of speech for insight (10:14).  In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of those who confused lengthy prayers with spirituality (Matthew 7:5-7)—the same basic idea.

            In a final poke at such people’s pride, Qohelet argues that their work is so tiresome because “they do not even know how to go to the city!” (10:15).  Hence anything is going to be strenuous work—especially thinking!

            As monarch, he had the opportunity to hear many people make their case for some regal permission, intervention, or assistance.  One can easily imagine some particular individual being the prototype for his critique.  But what an embarrassing way to go down in history—as an anonymous stereotype for emptiness and bombast!

          Some find an Egyptian parallel to 10:12-15 in the Instruction of Ptahhotep,[14]


As for the fool who does not hearken, he cannot do anything.  He regards knowledge as ignorance and profit as loss.  He does everything blameworthy, so that one finds fault with him every day.  He lives on that through which he should die, and guilt is his food.  His character therefore is told as something known to         the officials:  dying while alive every day. . . .



            Pinning the parallel down to this section (verse 15 in particular is suggested)[15] seems an exaggeration; what is not an exaggeration is that perceptive writers (regardless of nationality or even religion) could see in the unthought out actions of their contemporaries dangerous self-destructiveness.  This occurred because they were blinded by their own ignorance and lack of perception.  They might be economically well off, they might even enjoy societal prestige and governmental position.  But to every one else, these things did not remove the fact that, at heart, the person was nothing but “a fool.” 



[Page 127]


F.  Since There Is no Guarantee of

Having Wise Rulers,

Be Cautious in What You Say




            A kingdom is in trouble when a mere child rules (10:16):  the real power is obviously in someone else’s hands.  In our world children don’t rule countries, companies and churches.  Emotional children, however, often do—individuals whose egos and self-control are about on that level.  The result is equally disastrous.  When faced with such a situation it is time to “batten down the hatches” (to use a naval expression) and attempt to survive the high and dangerous seas.

Likewise the kingdom has problems when “princes feast in the morning” (10:16) rather than waiting till the normal hour in the evening, after all the day’s work is done.  The early morning feasting argues that all they care for is pleasure and the spending of their wealth rather than caring for the needs of the kingdom.

            In contrast, a kingdom is “blessed” when a full grown “son of nobles” is on the throne and the princes confine their feasting to “the proper time” (10:17)--i.e., in the evenings and on special occasions, and when the feasting becomes an occasion for good eating and building “strength” rather than getting drunk (10:17).[16]  (Note how he is under no illusion as to how unlimited funds and power can lead to dissipation.)  

In our egalitarian society, the preference for the upper class is repulsive—though oh so widely practiced!—but in the ancient society the “nobles” were the best bet for an educated class of individuals.  And, if not formally educated, with the greatest commitment to make sure government worked effectively, since they would loose the most if it did not.

            Regardless of economic background, when a person in a “ruling” position prefers luxury to the duties of their position, vital affairs are being neglected.  They become like the lazy man who does not do maintenance upon his home and, as the result, causes the roof to leak when he could have prevented the problem (10:18). 

Furthermore, in excessive partying there is inherent waste, but if you hold onto that money, instead, it “answers everything” you will need (10:19).  Michael A. Eaton stresses the down-to-earth realism of this and other Ecclesiastes’ texts:  “despite the Bible’s warnings (Deuteronomy 8:13f.; Mark 10:23ff; 1 Timothy 6:10), money is never despised.  The four references to it in Ecclesiastes reveal one who knew what it was to be wealthy (2:8), that money did not entirely satisfy (5:10), yet found it a protection (7:12) and (if we take the passage this way), a practical necessity.”[17]     

            The monarch is rebuking the folly of unwise rulership whether at the top level or on the secondary level of rich citizens and princes.  Of all people, he all too well recognizes that things don’t always work out the desired way in actual practice.  [Page 128]    Rulers are quite capable of acting like fools.  The leadership class can, all too easily, waste its opportunity for making the country better through self-indulgence. 

How should one react in such a case?  Carefully, is his astute advice, “Do not curse the king, even in your thought; do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, and a bird in flight may tell the matter” (10:20).  People who despoil their position are going to resent even justified criticism.  Stifle it before it brings you to the attention (and retribution) of those who hold power. 

“Cursing” here probably includes not only open vulgarity, but also biting criticism and even humor poking mockery at their foibles and failures.[18]  Such things won’t be taken any more kindly than stringent rebuke.

            You can’t keep certain things secret.  Word of child rulers and profligacy by the secondary leadership--probably taking advantage of the fact that there is no ruler old enough to keep them in line--would spread far and wide.  For that matter, Solomon could have learned at least part of this (the abuse by secondary princes), by reports about the behavior of local officials and their supporters.

            The wisdom about prudence in speech surely came from personal experiences as well.  For one thing, servants heard secrets; often one did not even notice their presence.  They were part of the background “scenery” but, unfortunately for secrets, they were “living scenery.” 

And being human, they would “talk.”  And wherever one was on the societal totem pole, there would be talk, and rumor, and innuendo there as well.  

Solomon didn’t have to have a very highly developed intelligence network (or whatever its equivalent would have been called in his day) for him to gain an immense amount of data (both wanted and unwanted) on what was happening and being said among his people.  In the hands of a vindictive ruler, unwise words could be disastrous.  Because Solomon would (usually) exercise restraint was no guarantee that others would.






[1] Eaton, 131, provides a survey of historical events that might have served as the root of the illustration.  Of course, our knowledge is, in many ways, extremely limited and he could easily have had a different one in mind entirely—one “insignificant” enough to have escaped historical recording (not to mention that the vast bulk of historical records have simply not survived into the modern world!).  Less likely, it may be simply an invented illustration based upon the mind frame that he had seen around him.


[2] Schultz, 595, opts for diplomacy.


[3] Kidner, 85.


[Page 129]   [4] Frydrych, 49.  For grammatical arguments that the text requires that he was successful, see Fox, Qohelet, 263.


[5] Frydrych, n. 44, p. 49.


[6] Crenshaw, 167, and Kamano, 210.


[7] Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 151.


[8] For a detailed argument that the king under consideration in the context is God rather than earthly rulers, see Leupold, 235-236.


[9] Frydrych, 198-199.


[10] Bergant, 281, and Longman, 242.


[11] Bergant, 281.


[12] Eaton, 135, believes that these two examples are illustrations of intentionally “malicious endeavours” that backfire on the perpetrators.  Kidwell, 249, makes the wall/snake allusion refer to an effort at breaking and entering to steal possessions or property.


[13] Longman, 244.


[14] As suggested and quoted by Goldberg, 30.


[15] Goldberg, 30.


[16] The Targum of Ecclesiastes identifies Jeroboam as the ruler in verse 16 and Hezekiah as the one in verse 17 (Longman, n. 50, p. 249.


[17] Eaton, 138.


[18] Cf. Leupold, 252-253.