Admonition to Carefulness (9:10-11:6) (contd)

continued from previous page

10:8 He who digs a pit may fall into it, and he who breaks through a wall--a snake may bite him. 10:9 He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits logs may be endangered by them. 10:10 If the iron (tool) is blunt, and he does not sharpen the edge, he must exert more strength. But the advantage of wisdom is success. 10:11 If the snake bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.

Having given counsel to court officials to make the most of their privileged position, Qoheleth applies it to occupations in general. He reminds us that in every line of work there are “occupational hazards” (verses 8-9). Therefore we need to be careful at all times. Otherwise we may not be able to fulfill our vocation. Then he reaffirms that wisdom is better than might and has the advantage of giving success in what we are called to do. He uses the illustration that if our tool is sharp (working wisely) we need less effort to do the work. But if we are complacent and careless we may be like the snake charmer who got bitten by an uncharmed snake. His charming skills gave him no advantage over the rest of us who do not have them. So we need to be careful and prudent in doing our work so as to decrease the possibility of tragedy and to increase the possibility of success. In doing this we are heeding the admonition to make the most of our abilities and the opportunities we still have (9:10).

Since Qoheleth is talking about carefulness and prudence in what we consider “non-moral” aspects of life, it may not be obvious that he is actually reaffirming the value of sound proverbial wisdom. Biblical proverbial wisdom, which is based on the Ten Commandments, enables us to avoid violating the created order, which affects not only the moral and social but also the physical dimensions of life (note the Sabbath commandment). This means biblical wisdom covers not only how we relate to one another but also how we relate to our occupation. For instance in Proverbs, the shepherd is admonished to “know well the condition of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds” because “riches do not last forever” (Prov 27:23). In other words, if the shepherd is not careful and prudent in his work, his wealth will soon be depleted.

10:12 The words of the mouth of the wise bring favor, but the lips of a fool devour him. 10:13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is folly, and the end of what he says is harmful madness. 10:14 Yet the fool multiplies words. No man knows what will come to be, so who can tell him what will come to be after him? 10:15 The toil of a fool wearies him, because he does not know the way to the city.

In line with his reaffirmation of sound proverbial wisdom, Qoheleth now reassures us that words of wisdom do bring about a favorable outcome. He did qualify that there are no guarantees (9:11-12). But he did also imply that with carefulness and prudence unfavorable outcomes can be minimized (10:8-11). It simply means that we are to use, not worship, wisdom. To emphasize the usefulness of wisdom Qoheleth highlights the harmfulness of folly. Though the words of a fool are from beginning to end harmful and have an unfavorable effect on (“devour”) him, he “multiplies words,” apparently oblivious to the foolishness of his folly.

In verse 14b Qoheleth reiterates the sub-theme that no one “knows what will come to be” in order to contend (“so who can tell him ...?”) that the fool could not have known “what will come to be [in this world] after him,” that is, after his leaving this world (cf. 6:12). For the fool multiplies words as if he knew about the distant future (Delitzsch 1872: 384)! Qoheleth has warned that we do not really know what is indeed good for us to do in our lifetime since we do not know what is going to happen in this world after we are gone (6:12). It is foolish to talk as if we did. So perhaps the fool here keeps on asserting that what he is doing is good (even when it violates sound proverbial wisdom), as fools are wont to do. As we saw in our exposition of 6:10-12, “God so works,” which includes not letting us know about the future, whether within or beyond our lifetime, so “that man should fear Him” (3:14). And 7:1-14 demonstrates the usefulness of sound proverbial wisdom in facing an unknown and uncertain future. But a fool, who by definition does not see the need to fear God and be careful to respect God's created order by observing sound proverbial wisdom (Ps 14:1), is prone to live as if he knew about the future. In fact some foolish people, especially those who happen to be in power, behave as if they were even in control of the future!

Because a fool cannot outsmart the created order, his toil “wearies him”--he toils long and hard but there is little result (in terms of what can really be considered good in the long run). For he works with an “iron tool [that] is blunt” because he does not “sharpen the edge” (10:10). He does not even realize he is working with a blunt tool! Qoheleth likens him to a child, who “does not know the way to the city,” which is an idiom for basic incompetence (Seow 1997: 320). For a fool is basically incompetent when it comes to observing sound proverbial wisdom.

10:16 Woe to you, O Land, whose king is a child, and whose princes feast in the morning! 10:17 Blessed are you, O Land, whose king is of nobility, and whose princes eat at the proper time--for strength, and not for drunkenness! 10:18 Through slothfulness the roof sags, and through slackness of hands the house leaks. 10:19 Food is prepared for merriment while wine cheers up life, and money answers to both. 10:20 Even in your bedchamber, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or a winged creature may report the matter.

Qoheleth now looks at the economic consequence of an imprudent and incompetent government. To set the tone, he laments over (“woe to”) a nation whose king is immature and incompetent (“a child”) and whose princes lack discretion (“feast in the morning”); and congratulates (“blessed are”) a nation whose king (or prime minster) is noble and whose princes (or cabinet ministers) are prudent. People who are not rich can expect economic hardship when the government is complacent and careless. Qoheleth uses the imageries of a sagging roof and a leaking house to recreate the irksome experience. Money is needed to buy (“answers to”) food and wine. A lack of it means a lack of access to even the basic pleasures of life. It is natural then to “curse the king” out of anger for the misfortune he has caused, as well as “curse the rich,” perhaps out of envy for their continued access to much food and wine. Prudence dictates that we should be careful with our words even in the privacy of our homes, as we would say today, “Walls have ears.”

11:1 Send forth your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.11:2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may come upon the land. 11:3 If the clouds are full, they pour rain on the earth; and whether a tree falls in the south or in the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will be. 11:4 He who watches the wind will not sow, and he who looks at the clouds will not reap. 11:5 Just as you do not know the path of the wind or how bones develop in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the work of God who does all things. 11:6 In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not let your hand be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, this or that, or whether both of them are equally good.

Good and bad governments come and go. And there are also other causes of economic uncertainties. Hence Qoheleth admonishes economic prudence on the part of his audience. His advice on sending forth “bread” (perhaps, here means commodity) upon the waters probably refers to overseas investment. And since misfortune may happen we had better factor it into our economic planning. The wisdom in dividing the portion “to seven, or even to eight” is similar to the contemporary saying, “Do not put all your eggs into the same basket” (Gordis 1968: 330). This piece of advice has wider application than in Qoheleth’s day, especially within the economic realm (think of the different ways one can invest money today). Whether these two verses actually refer to overseas investment or not, the basic message is that, in light of the uncertainties of life, we need to be prudent in planning for the future, and to minimize the risks involved. But unless one fears God and restrains his greed, he may become so careless (read foolish) that he loses all his savings (cf. 5:14).

And since we cannot avoid taking risks, Qoheleth uses imageries related to farming to illustrate the need to do so. When the clouds are full, the rain will fall; but we do not know when they will become full. And we do not know where a tree will fall until it has fallen, for we do not know which direction that blast of wind which uproots it will blow. So even when clouds which have become full are in sight we cannot tell where the wind will blow them (cf. Seow 1997: 345). Therefore a farmer cannot determine the perfect time for sowing (when rain is needed) or reaping (when rain is to be avoided) by watching the wind or looking at the clouds. He who does this will neither sow nor reap (nor eat). We need to go ahead to do “what our hand finds to do” even though we may not have the certainty that we will succeed. This should drive us to observe sound proverbial wisdom.

Besides ignorance about the path of the wind, Qoheleth also uses ignorance about how bones develop in the womb to reiterate again the sub-theme that we “do not know the work of God,” that is, we cannot discover what is going to happen (8:17). So Qoheleth admonishes sowing seed “in the morning” and “in the evening,” as one does not know which time of sowing will succeed. Since these words are used as imageries to convey how we are to work in general, a farmer is not to take them literally. Qoheleth is basically saying, since we have to act without knowing what actually works, we need to be prudent and try different approaches, if not concurrently then consecutively.

It is significant that we are here called to accept human responsibility (“Send forth your bread ... sow your seed...”) in the very context that explicitly affirms divine sovereignty (“... God, who does all things”). Hence to Qoheleth, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are definitely not incompatible. In fact, they are inseparable in the experience of those who fear God, and are thus able to be carefree and careful at the same time. For in fearing God they acknowledge His sovereignty and become carefree through recognizing divine providence (see exposition on 3:10-15). And because they fear God they accept the responsibility to observe sound proverbial wisdom and so keep His commandments. In this way they are being careful through exercising human prudence in the face of the uncertainties of life.

By now it is clear that we need to be both carefree and careful to make the most of life and to live sensibly. This means, in order to adequately make sense of human experience, we need to accept Qoheleth’s paradoxical assumption that God is sovereign over human actions and yet human beings are responsible for what they choose to do.


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