A Lesson on Wisdom and Folly: An Ecclesiastes Meditation, Part I

A Lesson on Wisdom and Folly: An Ecclesiastes Meditation, Part I

Written by Samuel G. Parkison |
Thursday, April 6, 2023

As a rule of thumb, if you are not sure if a conversation is verging into gossip, err on the side of caution and assume it is, and then be the awkward person and confess and steer the conversation away. Turn the lights on. Pump the breaks. “I’m sorry for any way I’ve fed into this, but it seems like our conversation is verging into gossip and I think we should stop talking about it.”

It is no secret that Ecclesiastes occupies a place in the biblical genre group we call wisdom literature. So, in some sense, we know what to do with this book. We go to it in order to find wisdom. But this does not mean that its instructions are straightforward. Often, it takes wisdom to get the wisdom contained in Ecclesiastes.

One of my favorite chapters in this book (and one which encapsulates this enigmatic nature of its wisdom) is chapter 10. In it we see that one of the key distinctions between worldly wisdom and heavenly wisdom comes down to this central concept: pride vs. humility. This distinction is hinted at all throughout the Proverbs when we learn how the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The one who fears the Lord does not fear others. The one who worships the Lord does not worship the praise of others, the strength of arms, or the prestige of wisdom, wealth, and pleasure. The one who fears the Lord isn’t frantically acting out of a reactionary and prideful sense of self-advancement or self-protection. The one who fears the Lord is content with being forgotten by man, so long as he is remembered by God. The path out of folly and into wisdom, then, is a true and God-given humility. Solomon illustrates this in Ecclesiastes both positively, and negatively. That is, not only does he commend humble wisdom, he also calls attention to the tragedy of prideful folly.

The Self-Destruction of Foolish Actions

“He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them. If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer” (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11)

Here, Solomon paints a vivid picture of the self-destructive nature of folly. Picture the stubborn and prideful person who despises instruction and recklessly acts to his own hurt. This is the person who digs a pit carelessly, for someone else, and then falls into it himself (a favorite illustration for Solomon). This is the guy doing demolition on a snake-infested wall heedless of the words of caution given by the owner. This is the guy who recklessly quarries stones and splits logs without using the proper protection or protocol. This is the guy who is working away with all his might, trying to cut down a tree with a dull axe, unwilling to heed the counsel of another who instructs him to sharpen the blade first. He can’t be bothered with the counsel of others because he is so pridefully self-assured that he knows what he’s doing.

We can certainly think of other examples. One classic example used to be the husband who refused to ask for directions. And while GPS and smartphones have rendered this particular illustration irrelevant, the problem of folly is not resolved by technology. How many relational bridges have been burned because men and women are too pridefully stubborn to humble themselves and apologize? Think of the husband who refuses to call the electrician because he’s so confident he can fix the problem himself. Think of the wife who stubbornly refuses to heed the counsel of her husband on how to discipline the kids because she is so confident she knows what’s right. Think of the child who refuses to let his mom show him how to tie his shoe, tries to do it himself, and trips a few minutes later. The thing we really need to recognize here is that this kind of stubborn pride is not a personality quirk. It is folly.

And this is as good a place as any to remind my fellow parents of this central responsibility: we are to discipline and disciple the folly out of our children. They are born fools, and we are called to make them wise. The two-year-old’s inability to say “sorry” (or its equivalent) and practice self-control may not seem so bad right now, but when he’s a thirty-two-year-old, it can wreck a home and destroy lives.

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