Matters of Authority; Proceed With Caution
Here we read the second part of the second subsection of the last major section of the book. It starts with Ecclesiastes 10:4 giving counsel on choosing the right course for those in a particular difficult situation—of dealing with a ruler or one in authority becoming upset with them. Recall that Ecclesiastes 8:2-9 concerned not running afoul of government. Ecclesiastes 10:4 now concerns what to do when there is some point of offense. We should also note a warning at the end of the chapter about exercising great caution to not offend authorities (verse 20). It seems that these verses form the brackets of an inclusio— especially given that there are other verses about problems with human government between them. While there are some verses in this segment of the subsection (that is, in verses 4-20) that do not seem exclusive to that topic, they could still apply to it. Thus these verses constitute our current reading.
Regarding the upset ruler here in verse 4, who is perhaps flying off the handle, it’s important to maintain composure and, if in the ruler’s service, not desert one’s post—and to be careful in responding, recognizing that “conciliation pacifies great offenses” (same verse). Proverbs 16:14 gives us a parallel: “As messengers of death is the king’s wrath, but a wise man will appease it.” And Proverbs 15:1 tells us that “a soft answer turns away wrath.” As noted earlier in regard to Ecclesiastes 8:3 about not being hasty to go from the ruler’s presence, those who are distraught or incensed at the way they are being treated should not just storm off. And the book earlier warned against being quick to get angry as foolish (Ecclesiastes 7:9). Derek Kidner writes in The Message of Ecclesiastes regarding 10:4: “What we are invited to notice is that rather absurd human phenomenon, the huff. If one can recognize its symptoms, one will be saved some self-inflicted damage—for while it may feel magnificent to ‘resign your post’ (NEB), ostensibly on principle but actually in a fit of pride, it is in fact less impressive, more immature, than it feels. To be submissive to an autocratic master is not only the believer’s duty (as the New Testament has taught us, I Pet[er] 2:18 ff.), but may also be his wisdom, since the anger that can be mollified by deference ([Ecclesiastes 10:]4b) has itself the symptoms of a huff; and one person in that state is better than two” (p. 90). As 1 Peter 2:18-19, cited here, says: “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully.”
Of course, maybe the person the ruler comes down on is in the wrong to start with—at least in some way. Note again that Ecclesiastes 10:4 mentions pacifying great offenses, though perhaps this means pacifying even great offenses—so that the counsel applies whether one is at fault or not. Expositor’s states: “We should rather take an objective look at ourselves, and maybe we will find that we should apologize. Unwise people, however, lose their temper and suffer accordingly” (Wright, note on verse 4). Even if we are in the right and are suffering injustice, remember that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). And He urged being compliant in cases of maltreatment by authorities—to “turn the other cheek” (see verse 39). Paul echoed, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). This is not to say there would not come a point to necessarily flee the situation. Ecclesiastes 8:3 said not to be hasty to go; it did not say to never go. One must be prudent and cautious. Consider Solomon’s father David with Saul. David stayed until it was no longer safe.
The words of Ecclesiastes 10:4 are good counsel not just for the courtiers of a king—but for all of us in dealing with various relationships—with civil authority, with a boss at work, with parents, with one’s spouse. This does not mean that we should tolerate serious abuse, but if someone gets angry with us, even unjustly, it’s best not to cut loose. It’s better to stay calm, remaining committed to the relationship unless it becomes an unbearable situation (though of course that could happen rather quickly depending on the circumstances). Again, wisdom is valuable in helping us to avoid some problems in this life and to keep from making some problems worse.
Solomon next interjects within his series of proverbs a relevant observation about a failing he’s witnessed in human governance (verses 5-7). Clearly those at the top are not always right, and people are often not where they should be in regard to their appropriate station—whether in government or life generally. We see here rulers exalting foolish people while the nobles or the rich and princes—referring to those more suited by upbringing and training and experience for responsibility—are passed by (verses 5-6). Only dignitaries rode on horses, and yet here we see servants or slaves in this role, with princes walking on the ground as menials (verse 7). This is a picture of society turned upside down—not in the sense of societal justice, with rulers and aristocrats getting just desserts for abuses of power, but in a bad way of unqualified people being promoted while qualified people are rejected or ignored. Recognizing the propriety of princes serving in high positions is not an argument for nepotism—exalting people mainly because they are family or friends—as that can result in the very problem lamented of those in leadership positions being out of their depth or even bad people. Rather, as The New American Commentary (Garrett) notes about verses 6-7, “‘fools/slaves’ and ‘rich/princes’ describe not actual social status (cf. 9:13-16) but moral character: the ‘fools’ and ‘slaves’ are those unworthy of advancement, and the ‘rich’ and ‘princes’ are people of noble character”—and who, we should add, are capable of what is required. Consider Luke 12:21 about being “rich toward God”—and that the word noble can also mean virtuous. Solomon’s father David was a great king though he did not come from royalty—yet he did end up with much military and court experience before assuming the throne, and he was a man who followed God.
It’s worth pointing out that certain Egyptian texts present the exaltation of unworthy characters as a sign that society is falling apart. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible relates: “As Ecclesiastes complains of slaves on horseback, so the ‘Complaints of Khakheperresonb’ declares, ‘He who used to give commands is (now) one to whom commands are given.’ The Admonitions of Ipu-wer similarly complains, ‘Indeed, princes are hungry and perish, / Servants are served.’ These Egyptian texts are not in all respects the same as Ecclesiastes; they tend to focus on the general lawlessness in society during times of political instability in Egypt, whereas Ecclesiastes is concerned more universally with the absurdities of human life. Still, both reflect a common way of describing a world gone wrong [or in disarray]” (note on Ecclesiastes 10:7).
Moving on to the next segment, how exactly the proverbs of verses 8-15 are meant to fit in context is not completely clear. We can see that verses 16-17, which follow these, return to the folly in verses 5-7 of having the wrong people in positions of responsibility. So verses 8-15, in between, may have been placed here to further highlight why this inaptness is a problem—that wisdom, with the strategies and cautions it provides, is required in various endeavors that leaders need to engage in (and thus having unwise people in managerial roles is dangerous and inefficient). Or perhaps these intervening verses concern how we as individuals react to the inequity of inappropriate leadership—pointing out that we ourselves need to be very careful, not doing things that would add to our difficulties or bring us harm (fitting with the inclusio theme beginning in verse 4 and ending in verse 20 about dealing cautiously with rulers). Either way there needs to be an awareness of risks. And beyond the enclosing verses about leadership problems, verses 8-15 also appear to illustrate the main subject of the current subsection of the book—living boldly with wisdom and diligence. Even though life is risky, we shouldn’t let that stop us from living. But we should be wary and take precautions.
Some commentators take the digging of a pit and breaking through a wall in verse 8 as doing something against other people—laying a trap or breaking into a home or establishment—and having this backfire (falling into the pit or getting bitten by a snake). That is the sense in what David wrote in Psalm 7: “Behold, the wicked brings forth iniquity; yes, he conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood. He made a pit and dug it out, and has fallen into the ditch which he made. His trouble shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down on his crown” (verses 14-16; compare Ecclesiastes 9:15; Ecclesiastes 35:7). We see an even closer parallel to Ecclesiastes 10:8 in Proverbs 26:27: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and he who rolls a stone will have it roll back on him.” This is likewise often taken to refer to acting against others. However, other commentators understand Ecclesiastes 10:8 in the context of verse 9, which points out the danger of different kinds of labor generally—here giving examples involving stones and wood. The word typically translated “quarrying” in verse 9 could indeed mean quarrying, although it might mean merely uprooting or removing—as a farmer clearing stones from his field, and injuries could result from that as well as from quarrying work (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, note on verse 9). (It’s possible that the rolling of a stone in Proverbs 26:27 is also associated with quarrying or removing stones, though the reference there seems to be an act against others.) Still other commentators see both ideas in Ecclesiastes 10:8-9—that acts against others can backfire (verse 8) and regular work can be dangerous (verse 9). The New American Commentary states: “Verse 8 draws on the familiar axiom that those who plot evil against others often have their plans backfire on them…. But v[erse] 9 throws in a dash of hard realism: even those who are engaged in legitimate activity, such as quarrying or wood cutting, can be hurt in the process. The significance is that those who try to serve fairly and justly may see their efforts blow up in their faces” (note on verses 8-11). This might seem a bit disjointed, but remember that the verses here are a series of poetic proverbs that could stand alone—placed together but without any narrative explanation.
We should also note again that verses 8-9 could apply to those in leadership positions—with verse 8 possibly pointing to warfare measures against enemies and verse 9 referring to major building projects. In that case, the idea would seem to be that prudent leaders are needed—and the fact that capable and careful people are not in places in leadership will spell disaster, as described here. On the other hand, these verses could apply to anyone trying to act against others (perhaps reacting to the problem leadership situation) or conducting normal, everyday labor—in which case the point would be that whatever is done involves risks, so we all have to use wisdom and be cautious.
In verse 10 we see the need for wisdom in working smarter, not just harder—which is necessary for leaders in directing the work of others, and for all of us individually in whatever it is we need to accomplish. (Included in this is taking proper precautions against the dangers of the previous verses.) If an iron implement is supposed to be sharp but is blunt, it’s going to take a lot more work to use it. The implement here is not necessarily an ax, as in the NKJV. The Hebrew word here just means “iron,” as in the earlier King James Version. It’s often thought to refer to an ax here because the previous verse mentions splitting wood. But, as already pointed out, these are a series of possibly standalone proverbs that have been placed together. The iron implement in verse 10 may not involve chopping wood and could just as well be a sword, chisel, saw, scythe or something else. The Easy-to-Read Version says the problem is trying “to cut with a dull knife.” The Voice translation is less specific: “If a tool is dull and no one sharpens its edge, the work will be harder….” Failure to use wisdom in using blunted tools results in wasted effort—and exertion toward exhausting one’s own strength. Part of the problem here is not realizing what is most needed or valuable for the task at hand—in this case a sharpened implement. The problem also seems to involve failing to check to see if what is to be used is in the condition it needs to be in—not enough due assessment of the situation and of the means for tackling it. And yet another part of the problem would seem to involve being too hasty in acting, failing to take the needed time to prepare for the task—in this case, sharpening the tool. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail. As the verse concludes, properly exercising wisdom is profitable for succeeding in an endeavor (and that includes helping to manage risks such as those mentioned in the preceding verses).
Verse 11 has been interpreted in quite different ways. A literal rendering would be something like: “If the snake bites without whispering [or being charmed], there’s no profit for a master of the tongue” (compare Young’s Literal Translation, Green’s Literal Translation and Interlinear, Strong’s and Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicons). The master of the tongue here is often taken to be the one whispering—a snake charmer. The NIV renders this as: “If a snake bites before it is charmed, the charmer receives no fee”— that is, he doesn’t get paid. Yet profit could be meant more generally—as to merely say there is no benefit or it does no good to have a snake charmer if he doesn’t charm the snake before it strikes, as in other versions. This is thought to illustrate the danger of acting too slowly—in contrast to the opposite problem in verse 10 of acting too quickly without preparing. We have today the expression “He who hesitates is lost.” Just so, here would be someone who has taken the time to prepare in learning the skill of snake charming but doesn’t use it when needed. (It should be noted that this is not speaking of mystical enchantment but a method of holding a snake’s focus—mostly through movements.) The Preaching the Word commentary follows this interpretation, stating: “Taken together, verses 10-11 show us why we need wisdom from God. Sometimes it is important to take more time to prepare. Other times we need to act before it is too late. Wisdom comes in knowing the difference. Ovid, the famous Roman poet, is reported to have said, ‘At times it is folly to hasten, at other times, to delay. The wise do everything in its proper time’” (Ryken, p. 239).
Certainly it’s true that we should act when needed and not dawdle or linger, and Ecclesiastes 11:3-6 will tell us as much. But it’s not clear that Ecclesiastes 10:11 really intends a warning against delay. Indeed it could, like verse 10, actually warn against being hasty—in this case in terms of speech (compare Proverbs 29:20). The King James Version presents the serpent biting in verse 11 of Ecclesiastes 10, but instead of saying there is no good for a charmer in that, it says “the babbler is no better”—the latter word “better” being used instead of “profit” or “advantage” in the other interpretation. The NKJV interprets the KJV in saying “the babbler is no different.” This is saying that a person just talking and talking is no better than a snake not being charmed. The Ferrar Fenton Translation renders the verse similarly: “The serpent stings without a charme, and an unbridled tongue is the same”—the problem being uncontrolled speech. However, these renderings leave out the conditional “if” at the beginning and the term “master of the tongue”—which seems opposite to a babbler or unbridled tongue. But these versions may be accurately paraphrasing. Consider an untamed tongue being compared to a slithering uncharmed snake. James 3:8 makes a similar comparison, telling us that “no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” So how does the phrase “master of the tongue” fit in such an interpretation of Ecclesiastes 10:11? This terminology would not designate a snake charmer but just someone who is able to speak well—and who is being analogized here to a snake charmer. The verse could read this way: “If a snake bites when not charmed (or tamed), even so there is no benefit in being a master of the tongue [if he does not tame his poisonous snake-like tongue and allows it to bite].” A person can be a trained orator yet still lash out foolishly in what he says. The point here would be to guard against hastily or carelessly saying something harmful. Rather, one should always think before speaking, as we’ll see more about in a moment. This is vital for people in positions of leadership and for all of us. And knowing that no man can truly tame the tongue, we should all pray as David did, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).
Again, by the first interpretation of Ecclesiastes 10:11 given here of having skill but not using it Beyond Today Bible Reading Program August 2018 65 when needed—thus warning against delaying—the verse would be serving as a counterpoint to verse 10, which concerns failing to prepare and acting too quickly. But by the second interpretation of verse 11, warning against being too hasty in speech, the verse would be giving another example of acting too quickly without proper forethought and preparation as in verse 10—and we should note that this is also the point of the next few verses, 12-14, so that verse 11 might well be grouped with these thematically.
Where verse 12 says that a wise man’s words are gracious, this could also be translated to say that they bring grace or favor on the wise man himself—in contrast to the self-destruction a fool’s words bring in the second part of the verse, his own lips swallowing him up. Or the contrast could just be between a wise man’s words being kind or helpful generally and a fool’s words being harmful, ultimately of self. Verse 13 says that a fool’s words may seem merely silly at first but then, unbridled, become extreme in, effectively, raving madness. And verse 14 shows the fool talking more and more, even when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, including acting like he knows how various matters will shake out, despite what we’ve seen about life’s unpredictability. The Holman Old Testament Commentary points out: “A fool commits two errors. He tends to speak rashly (Prov[erbs] 12:18) and to say too much. Both can have disastrous consequences. It is better to hold one’s tongue and wait for the best time to speak. A wise person knows when to be quiet (Eccl[esiastes] 3:7; Ja[me]s 1:19-20) . . . Another error that the fool makes is that he thinks he can figure out the future” (Moore, note on Ecclesiastes 10:14). So he’s presumptuous. He thinks he knows more than he does. And the fool’s “verbosity arises from too high a regard for his own opinions. The wise counselor, however, knows that he cannot predict the future (v. 14b,c) and thus tempers his remarks with restraint and humility” (NAC, note on verses 12-15). As earlier pointed out in regard to life’s uncertainties in Ecclesiastes 9:11-12, James 4:13-15 says we should not declare as matter of fact how our lives or those of others will proceed since we don’t know what will happen—we need to remember that it’s ultimately up to God. It was earlier stated in Ecclesiastes 5:3 that a fool’s voice is known by his many words. In parallel, Proverbs 15:28 says that “the heart of the righteous studies [or ponders] how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil.” And Proverbs 15:2 says, “The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness” (see also Ecclesiastes 12:23). Again, this applies to those in leadership and all of us, particularly in our interaction with governing authorities. We need to think before we speak.
Continuing in Ecclesiastes 10, verse 15 speaks of fools’ labor or work. It seems to say that whatever it is they have to do wearies them because they don’t know how to go about it—not even the simplest thing like going to town. That could tie back to verse 10 about the need to work smarter with needed preparation lest the work be harder, and to the current subsection’s theme of giving it one’s all with wisdom and diligence—the fool failing on these counts and making things more difficult for himself. Or perhaps, as the Preaching the Word commentary contends (pp. 249-250), the fool is worn out by work because he’s fooling around when he should be working, leaving him exhausted from guilt over lack of productivity and from realization of so much work left to do that he should have done already. Conversely, the wise man is energized by work and accomplishment—doing it all with his might and enjoying good in his labor, as we see in the book’s refrains. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary gives yet another alternative in explaining the fool’s wearying work and not knowing how to get to town: “In the context ‘work’ may relate to the many arguments of v[erse] 14 (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:12). In a fine note of sarcasm, this proverb says that a person may be so involved in arguing about the universe [or lofty matters] that he misses what the ordinary person is concerned about, namely, finding the way home” (Wright, note on Ecclesiastes 10:15). Not knowing the way could tie back to verse 3, where a fool is known for how he walks along the way. Then again, still another explanation is given by The New American Commentary, which says fools are here wearying others rather than themselves, stating: “Verse 15 should be [alternatively] translated, ‘The effort of fools wearies him who does not know the way to town.’ In other words, the advice of foolish counselors is so bad that they cannot even give simple directions. Their longwinded explanations only wear out the confused traveler. How much worse to take their counsel in affairs of state” (note on verses 12-15). This rendering would fit with Jesus’ warning that “if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14; compare Luke 6:39). While the verse doesn’t carry all these various meanings, of course, they all seem plausible as they represent true ideas in any case.
The next two verses in Ecclesiastes 10, verses 16-17, concern two divergent national destinies—woe or blessing—based on the kind of rulers a land has. And verses 18-19 appear to continue the discussion of this matter, as we’ll see. These verses return to the evil or disaster Solomon saw in verses 5-7 of the wrong people, the foolish and unqualified, being in positions of responsibility—and come near the end of an apparent literary inclusio (verses 4-20), as earlier mentioned.
The woe or disaster in verse 16 comes when the king is a “child” or “youth” (NKJV, YLT) or, as in other versions, a “servant” or “slave” (NIV, NEB), with princes feasting in the morning. This seems to denote an inexperienced or immature ruler with other subordinate leaders who are immature in self indulgence. According to the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, the Hebrew na‘ar, translated “child,” here “refers not to age but to general maturity. The term often means ‘servant’…. In 1 Kings 3:7 Solomon considers himself ‘a child’ and recognizes his immaturity as a disadvantage to be remedied only by God-given wisdom” (Eaton, note on verse 16). It could in Ecclesiastes 10:16 refer to “a king who acts like a child” (Tommy Nelson, p. 168).
Yet the word could alternatively refer to a servant or slave, as noted, in parallel to the servants exalted on horses in verse 7 as part of the upside-down problem of the wrong people in the wrong positions (though a clearer word for servants or slaves, abadim, is used there). And this would be a direct contrast to the blessing in verse 17 of having a king who is the son of “nobles” or, literally, of “freemen” (YLT). A footnote in the Easy-to-Read Version says, “This is a person who was never a slave and whose parents were not slaves.” The New American Commentary says that, as in verses 5-7, “once again ‘servant’ (v. 16) and ‘noble’ (v. 17) refer to the moral character of the king more than to his genealogy” (note on verses 16-17). Expositor’s comments that a meaning of servant or slave for the king in verse 16 would “indicate that the king is someone who has suddenly come to the top by others and who keeps his power by letting his deputies do what they want,” while a meaning of child or lad would “indicate that the real power is that of the deputies. In any event, those under the influence of such leaders get no benefit from them” (note on verse 16). The king in verse 17 who brings blessing to the land is not led around by self-serving lower officials. Tyndale comments: “The son of free men is one whose position in society enables him to act with an independent spirit. The contrast, therefore, is not so much between young and old as between a mature, bold approach to life and an immature, servile manner” (note on verse 17). Perhaps there is a contrast here between being a servant or slave to foolish ways, as is too often the case, versus the free man who is not confined to this predicament.
The same commentary states that “another criterion of national wisdom is self-control”—the lack of which is seen in verse 16 with the profligate deputy rulers feasting in the morning. This is not speaking of merely having a big breakfast, for a contrast is drawn with the blessing in verse 17 of princes who “feast at the proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness.” That shows the errant feasting in verse 16 to be for the opposite—drunkenness and not for strength. This can be taken to mean either that the indulgent princes get up and “party before they have done their work” (Nelson, pp. 168-169) or that they “spend their nights banqueting into the early morning” (NKJV Study Bible, note on verse 16). Isaiah 5:11 pronounces woe on both: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine” (NIV). Participation in winebibbing and gluttony is of course wrong (Proverbs 23:20). “Drinking in the early hours of the day marked a dissolute, slothful approach to life, with emphasis on personal indulgence” (Tyndale, note on Ecclesiastes 10:17). Indeed, it’s surely no coincidence that laziness and idleness are condemned immediately after in verse 18. And not only are the deplorable leaders of verse 16 taking advantage of the nation’s wealth, it seems they are appallingly flaunting their ability to do so. The “strength” sought in proper feasting in verse 17 includes bodily nourishment but also the promotion of a strong nation through healthy leaders and proper provision for others as well as elevated camaraderie and morale and connectedness within and with allies. Think state dinners, religious festivals, national celebrations and other special occasions—not foolishly draining state resources in drunken revelry.
As stated, verses 18-19, which are two proverbs, appear to have been placed here as further comment on the preceding verses about national mismanagement through profligate leaders in positions they aren’t suited for—although there is certainly application to the average person as well, especially if these proverbs are taken as standalone aphorisms, as they could have been used outside the present context. The problem in verse 18 is laziness or idleness, which, as noted above, ties in with the nation’s leaders wallowing in drunken feasting and evidently not getting needed work done. This results in the building decaying and the house leaking. While these could be literal problems caused by the avoidance of needed work, they are probably also metaphorical of problems in the ruling administration and in the nation as a whole, both compared to a building or house—consider the references in Scripture to the house of David and to the house of Israel and house of Judah. Of course, in a broader context this is a problem that affects all people. “The proverb of v[erse] 18 can obviously apply equally well to the administration of the whole state and the private economy of one’s household” (NAC, note on verses 18-20). Recall that idleness among individuals was earlier decried in Ecclesiastes 4:5. Letting down, not remaining vigilant and diligent, will result in the breakdown of our literal homes as well as our households or families and our lives in general. And the need to counter this tendency is the major theme of the current subsection of the book—working with all one’s might, giving it our all with wisdom and diligence.
The next verse here, Ecclesiastes 10:19, states, “A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes merry; but money answers everything.” This saying, by its placement here, also appears to comment on the feasting and drinking by those in charge of the national wealth in verses 16-17. But what exactly does it mean? As the Tyndale commentary notes on verse 19, “It is difficult to decide how to take this verse.” Some, it points out, see in verses 16, 17, 18 and 19 a “woe…bliss…woe…bliss” sequence, so that the laziness and breakdown in verse 18 is “concerned with the woeful results of the foolish life,” while verse 19 refers to “the happy results of the wise life” (ibid.). This would mean the feasting for laughter, the wine making merry and money answering everything (addressing all needs and wants perhaps) is viewed as a positive—corresponding to their proper use by wise leaders in verse 17. Of course, these all do have positive application in Ecclesiastes, as we’ve repeatedly seen—even money as a defense (Ecclesiastes 7:12). Others, however—including the Tyndale commentary itself—disagree with this interpretation, taking verse 19 as instead a negative commentary on the licentious life of verses 16 and 18: “The failure of the slothful life is seen here: bread…wine…money is the limit of its horizon.” That is, these are the height of what immature, self-indulgent people have to live for. The Holman Old Testament Commentary agrees, stating: “Although verse 19 is somewhat enigmatic, it does seem to point to the fact that the fool believes that earthly things are the way to achieve the good life” (Moore, note on verses 16-20).
Yet there are a few other ways to view verse 19 that make sense in context. The New American Commentary sees it addressing the foolish life of indulgence and lack of industriousness of verses 16 and 18 in these terms: “Verse 19 should be rendered, ‘People prepare food for pleasure, and wine makes joyful, but money pays for both.’ The point is that at least some money is essential for enjoying life, and steps must therefore be taken to insure that the economy (be it national or personal) is sound” (note on verses 18-20). Or maybe the proverb here just means that feasting and wine make for a good time, but all this has to be paid for. This would be a warning not to squander one’s resources—which would of course apply to the national wealth as well as personal income. And this would tie in to verse 18 quite well, as it’s not just idleness that causes the house to decay, but resources going to feasting instead of being used to meet vital needs. Or yet another possibility is that verse 19 could mean that money is what allows us to feast and enjoy life—it “pays for both,” to borrow the wording proposed above—so we must work to earn to continue to experience this enjoyment, not be idle, in line with the section theme of working wisely and diligently. This, too, would apply individually and nationally.
Verse 20 apparently ends the inclusio beginning in verse 4 concerning dealing with ruling authorities. Verse 4, we earlier saw, encouraged the wise course of sticking to one’s duty and conciliatory efforts in the face of an upset or offended leader. Then serious problems with ruling officials were highlighted—being unfit for their positions and licentiously indulging in feasting and drunkenness while failing to address needs, leading to national decay and vulnerability (verses 5-7, 16-19). This could obviously lead one to curse or speak evil of such rulers. So the proverb of verse 20 again gives the wise course to follow—don’t succumb to the temptation to do that. It states, “Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts.” This might be better put: Don’t curse the king—don’t even think about doing it (compare CEV). It doesn’t mean you can’t think in your thoughts that a ruler is an awful person. But don’t think of going ahead and cursing him, with thoughts leading to actions. This is in line with God’s law, which states, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28; compare Acts 23:5). Speaking evil of rulers, even bad ones, can promote personal arrogance and hardening against authority in general, and it leads eventually to further societal breakdown, as others are influenced to despise and disregard not just the occupants of offices but the offices themselves and even the nation’s laws. Don’t let foolish leadership provoke you into disrespecting offices of authority and lashing out. It’s personally detrimental, and you’ll actually be contributing to society’s decline. It can also pose an imminent danger.
The proverb further says not to curse the wealthy and powerful more generally, not even with assumed privacy (“even in your bedroom”), as it may get back to them, leading to serious consequences. The picture here of a bird telling the matter is a metaphor of something being overheard and passed on— and, with flight, getting around fast. It’s not meant literally, although it could be based on the fact that a number of birds can mimic human speech and repeat what people say. Since Solomon had ships that brought animals from afar, and he had great interest in animals, including birds (1 Kings 4:33; 1 Kings 10:22), it’s quite possible that he himself had talking birds—perhaps even in his royal bedroom at times. The earliest record of such a bird, possibly a parakeet, is from the Greek physician and historian Ctesias of the 5th century B.C. (“Talking Bird,” Wikipedia). And the metaphor was around then and before that. “Stories of ‘little birds’ who told [or were aware of] secrets are found in Aristophanes’ The Birds, a classical Greek comedy [of 414 B.C.], and the Hittite Tale of Elkuhirsa [before Solomon’s time]. The Words of Ahiqar [Assyrian, ca. 700 B.C.] assert that a word is like a bird and that one who releases it lacks sense” (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, note on Ecclesiastes 10:20). It’s also been suggested that the imagery here could fit with someone overhearing another and sending a written message about that by carrier pigeon. However, it’s not known if this method of communication was used in Solomon’s time. It was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans and is thought to be as old as the ancient Persians (“Pigeon Post,” Wikipedia). Yet it could be even older. Whatever the case, the image is still merely figurative of the private denigration of powerful people being eventually found out. Those initially passing it on may not even intend ill in doing so. It may be passed to one who says it to another, and that person to another— until it’s heard on a level that could bring retaliation. The course of wisdom is to not take the chance of putting oneself in jeopardy this way. Recall that one recurrent message of Ecclesiastes is that, while lamenting the frustration of this life, we should make wise decisions to avoid increasing the frustration.