Ecclesiastes 10 helps us appreciate the importance, as well as the potential danger, of very small things. Whether it is a dead fly, the human heart, a small slip of the tongue, a momentary lapse in judgment, or anything else that normally seems insignificant, Solomon wants to impress upon his readers that small things can have disastrous effects on our lives. James writes in James 3:3-6 that the tongue, though it is a very little part of the body, has great bearing on our course. A forest fire starts with an ember, a ship is directed by a rudder, and a powerful horse can be turned in any direction with a bit in his mouth.
Very Small Things That Lead Us Astray
“Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor” (10:1). “Perfumer” here could also mean “apothecary” or “confectioner,” a person who specialized in producing sweet smells, scented oils, lotions, balms, and even medicines (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. III, 766). In the dry, scorching heat of some parts of Palestine, and especially further south in places like Egypt, such oils were essential. Such perfumes were used for religious customs, hygiene, and as aphrodisiacs. Proverbs 27:9 states, “Oils and perfume make the heart glad.” But what a rotten sight it is to find a dead fly in a vile of oil! Such a discovery would soil the entire container and nullify its cleansing properties. It is the same way today: if one was to find a dead fly in a bowl of soup, said soup would be rejected. This verse just shows how a very small thing can ruin everything around it. Thus is the way of foolishness; just a touch of it can soil and degrade even a normally righteous man (Ezekiel 3:20).
“A wise man’s heart directs him to the right” (10:2). The right is traditionally the side of favor and honor. Those who would direct themselves to the right would be choosing righteousness. “But the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left.” Foolishness chooses the way of laziness, unrighteousness, waste, lust, and bad company. When given the choice between the high road and the low, easy road, fools choose the easy road. Notice also that both of these conditions come from within the heart. Nobody forces us to choose either way, for good or bad. Rather, it is up to each of us to make the right decision (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).
“Even when the fool walks along the road his sense is lacking, and he demonstrates to everyone that he is a fool” (10:3). Every time a fool steps out of his front door and begins to interact with the world, he exhibits his folly. No matter what he tries to do, he messes it up, bungles it, or breaks it. The fool is basically bumbling his way through life, and everybody can see it. The writer of Proverbs was able to pick out the man lacking sense quite easily, as he writes, “For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice, and I saw among the naïve , I discerned among the youths, a young man lacking sense” (Proverbs 7:6-7).
Very Small Things That Can Help
“If the ruler’s temper rises against you, do not abandon your post, because composure allays great offenses” (Ecclesiastes 10:4). It is unclear whether or not the ruler’s anger is justified in this case. Was it something the soldier did that incurred this frustration, or is the ruler simply looking for a punching bag? In any case, keeping calm is the best thing to do. If we have done something wrong, or made an error in judgment, we must accept the responsibility for our actions and take our punishment with dignity and humility. A ruler is much more apt to show mercy to a person who admits his mistakes than a blubbering fool who either begs for mercy or refuses to admit his fault in a matter. This is a very small deed that we can do that will go a long way in repairing damaged reputations! All of the big, fancy, elaborate lies in the world cannot carry the weight of the simple, honest truth.
The next verses include various proverbs which express the benefit of prudence and caution, and the dangers of folly. They describe ironies in life that can only be explained by a lack of preparation or an inadequate sense of care. Truly, if we do not take the time for very small tasks in preparation for a larger task, we will make life much more difficult for ourselves! A very small amount of effort now will always be more favorable than a large amount of repair work later – especially in spiritual matters. “He who digs a pit may fall into it” (10:8). The pit, in this case, is one meant for trapping animals. The term finds parallels in Proverbs 26:27 and Psalm 7:15-16. Here, the irony is that a man who seeks evil and folly will eventually find himself beaten that very same thing. Murderers are often murdered. Thieves are often stolen from. Liars cannot rust anybody. Sinners, in general, will find their evil deeds recompensed to them on the last day. “And a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall.” The removal of this wall is meant to be legal, but even a legitimate demolisher must take special care not to injure himself. Poisonous snakes often find their homes in the crevices of walls or hedges, and will normally keep to themselves. If said wall is disturbed, however, the snake will not hesitate to bite! The lesson for us to show caution when we know there is danger before us. In any undertaking, there is risk – but it is only the foolish person who walks into any situation with his eyes closed to the possible hazard.
“He who quarries stones may be hurt by them” (10:9). The removal of large stones from a cliff face is a dangerous one, and falling rocks or debris can kill the worker who is not keenly aware of his surroundings. Even today, the work of a quarryman is dangerous – explosives, dark caves and tunnels, and debris make for a bad combination.
“He who splits a log may be endangered by them. If the axe is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength. Wisdom has the advantage of giving success” (10:10). What is the result if a person does not sharpen his axe before splitting wood? He must exert more strength. But where is the wisdom in that? A wise man would realize that the small amount of effort needed to sharpen the iron easily outweighs the great amount of exertion in chopping wood with an inadequate tool. This is the marvelous advantage to wisdom; in every facet of life, wisdom seeks to make us more efficient, more fluent, more aware, more cautious, more focused, and ultimately more prepared for any outcome, expected or not. The person who seeks good wisdom, the wisdom of God, will never be disappointed in what it does for his life (Proverbs 8:12-21).
“If the serpent bites before being charmed, there is no profit for the charmer” (10:11). Obviously there is no profit to the charmer because he would be dead! “If one handles a serpent without due precaution or without knowing the secret of charming it, one will suffer for it. The taming and charming of poisonous snakes is still. . . practiced in Egypt and the East” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. IX, Deane, 253). The point of this proverb is to teach us that we must seize things at the right time. A presumptuous snake charmer will be killed for his ineptitude and impatience. A snake charmer who waits too long may find that his window of opportunity has passed. Thus it is with all things in life! Many people gamble with time, thinking that they will wait for the biggest payout. Life, however, is not a gamble because time is both previous and fleeting. We must learn to take advantage of opportunity when it arrives, and never be too quick to jump at false hope and suspicious promises.
Very Small Things That Are Really Not So Small
“There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like an error which goes forth from the ruler – folly is set in many exalted places while rich men sit in humble places. I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land” (10:5-7). Some have taken the words of this section to be literal, that is, Solomon himself was witness to foolish men in high places in his kingdom, while good, honorable men of noble birth are overlooked in the appointment of prestigious positions. Beyond that, slaves are sitting upon horses as a result, again, of poor appointment, while men who have a legitimate claim to royalty are kept on the ground (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. IX, W.J. Deane, 251). It is also possible, and more likely, that this is all figurative of the moral and ethical depravity of many rulers. Men who are slaves to sin and foolish in spirit are often the ones in power, while people who are rich in spirit and princes in the eyes of God are abused. But in this sense, some of the best people in the world are the small people. I do not mean that there are people who are more or less important than others in the eyes of God, but there are certainly smaller people who do more for the world than famous or “important” people. There are poor people, as this verse seems to teach, who live like kings because of the good choices they make – in spite of physical conditions, they lead others with their moral character and honesty. It reminds me of Proverbs 13:7, “There is one who pretends to be rich, but has nothing; another pretends to be poor, but has great wealth.” In the end, “small” people by the world’s standards – certainly not celebrities, politicians, human “rights” activists, or Johnny Protesters – can accomplish such big tasks!
Very Small Things That Escalate
“Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious, while the lips of a fool consume him” (10:12). While wise words are giving, sharing, and kind, foolish words are selfish and only seek to consume (Proverbs 3:27-31). Consider Proverbs 5:3-6. The lips of an adulteress do nothing but consume her victims, and there is only eternal death for both of them at the end of this life. “The beginning of his talking is folly, and the end of it is wicked madness” (10:13).”As soon as he opens his mouth, he utters folly, unwisdom, silliness. But he does not stop there. . . By the time he has finished, he has committed himself so statements that are worse than silly, that are presumptuous, frenzied, indicative of mental and moral depravity” (Deane , 253). Fools may start their words with only small statements of stupidity, but lunacy is the outcome.
“Yet the fool multiplies words. No man knows what happens, and who can tell him what will come after him?” (10:14) In spite of his lack of sense, a fool will keep talking. He may especially talk about the future with a great degree of certainty, assuming things that may never happen. Herein lies the foolishness of his talk; if nobody can know exactly what the future will bring, then it is senseless to try and predict it or talk endlessly about it. “The fool, without any consciousness of human ignorance, acts as if he knows all, and utters about all and everything a multitude of words; for he uselessly fatigues himself with his ignorance, which remains far behind the knowledge that is possible for man” (Commentary On The Old Testament, Vol. 6, Keil-Delitzsch, 385). “The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city” (10:15). The phrase “not even know how to go to a city” is probably a proverbial saying indicative of gross ignorance about very obvious things. If one does not even know how to get to the city, he is incapable of many things!
“Woe to you, O land, whose king is a lad and whose princes feast in the morning” (10:16). There are two conditions in this verse that make a land wearisome and weak: 1) a young king, for most youthful monarchs lack enough sense to govern an entire land, and 2) a core group of leaders who do not show decency and self-restraint. It seems so bad, in fact, that these princes will begin their carousing and drunkenness in the morning, which leads only to fruitless, wasted days. Without wisdom and discretion at the helm, no nation can survive for very long! There is a lesson here for us, too. We must be careful not to put too much faith in young rulers, because we can see their imprudence exemplified so clearly in the scriptures. Perhaps youth is not always the first quality to look for in a leader. As Proverbs 20:29 puts it, young men have glory and physical stamina, but old men have honor.
“Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of nobility and whose princes eat at the appropriate time – for strength, and not for drunkenness” (10:17). It is better, perhaps, to be a little older but to have wisdom under the belt, then to be young, vigorous, and foolish. Also, a land is blessed when its leaders show self-control in their eating and drinking habits. It is clear from this verse that eating and drinking can either be an aid or a hindrance to us in life. When we eat at the appropriate times, in moderation, it can help renew our bodies and give us strength. On the other hand, when we eat for gluttony and only pleasure, it leads to wastefulness and idiocy.
“Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks” (10:18). When we neglect our duties, especially in home preservation, the results quickly become obvious. A house will only fall apart when it is poorly maintained, and that is a result of laziness. This sounds very much like the sluggard of Proverbs 24:30-34, in which the state of a lazy man’s property is assessed. His place was overgrown with weeds and his stone fence is broken, all because he is too slack and lazy to put the proper amount of work into it.
“Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything” (10:19). This verse is obviously not a statement of truth, because money is not the answer to everything. Perhaps what the preacher is saying is that this is the attitude that fools have – the same fools discussed in the previous verses. A gluttonous person, like the young ruler or the wasteful princes in verses 16 and 17, only eats for enjoyment, never because of sustenance or necessity. He takes food for granted. As for wine, any person who needs it to make life merry does not have a mature understanding of true happiness. Life should be joyful and glad even without wine, and many people look to alcohol for an escape from life’s troubles. And money is far from the answer-all. Can money answer family problems, spiritual ailments, terminal illness, estrangement from relatives, or any other social-emotional problem? If anything, money only causes more troubles in life (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
“Furthermore, in your bedchamber do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound, and the winged creatures will make the matter know” (10:20). Again, very small things that end up bringing us great trouble! A small word or two, spoken around the office water cooler, or a tiny rumor that is started at school – small words of pettiness and discontent will often turn into huge problems and escalate (most often) to the point of termination, scolding, disappointment of friends and family, and the loss of everybody else’s trust. Solomon does not mean that birds will literally relay the secret curses of your bedroom, but this is a common saying even today. It simply means that secrets have a way with becoming public if we dwell on them. If we indulge our angry fantasies and contemplate on our disgust, it may quickly become public knowledge. It is best, then, to simply accept the rule of even cruel or gluttonous kings, for all these men have been placed in their positions of authority by God (Romans 13:1). Consider also the words of God in Exodus 22:28, specifically warning against decrying an earthly ruler.We have seen in this chapter that very small things can often have a greater effect on us than we sometimes think. Small things like little rumors, a dead fly, a dose of humility every now and then, a word of kindness, a word of foolishness – these are all, in reality, very big things. There is a very small thing that we can all do for our souls that will have eternal implications – it is obedience to the Word of God. When I say that it is small, I do not mean to diminish its importance, but to put it in perspective. Compared to what God does for us every day, the very least that we can do is read the Bible and do what it says. Compared to the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ, the paltry complaints of unhappy Christians do not measure up! Compared to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, our death, burial, and resurrection is easy (Romans 6:3-5)! Christ died so that we would not have to, and His only requirement is belief, confession, repentance, baptism, and a lifetime of faith! It is a very small thing that so many people never do. Will you?