Observations calling for discernment (Ecclesiastes 10:18-20)

Previous article in this series: July 2019, p. 428.
Ecclesiastes 10:18-20

Chapter 10 concludes with three further observations or warnings that we are called to ponder. They belong to the reality of life in a fallen world under the sun. They draw on the way of the fool in his walk and talk (Eccl. 10:12-15), that folly illustrated in the rulers among men (Eccl. 10:5, 6, 16, 17), and the inclination to folly rooted in the flesh (Eccl. 10:1, 2). These observations serve to summarize elements of the chapter and its lessons, call us to a certain measure of discernment over against folly and lead into the next chapter concerning our labor under God’s providence and the way of wisdom.

By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. (Eccl. 10:18)

The text draws a familiar picture of a building decaying and falling through. The rafters sag, the roof leaks, and the structure begins to fold in on itself. The old house or barn in the country, left and neglected, is such a building. Old buildings in the city are no different. The temple itself would need to be maintained and repaired in the course of its history. The reality in a fallen world is that moth and rust corrupt, so that all the works of men decline and decay.

The figure must first of all be taken in its plain sense. It is a calling to diligence in our earthly labor and toil, in the vanity of this world. Labor is required if the house is to be kept and maintained. The fool who strives against God’s will ignores such warnings and folds his hands in idleness. Much slothfulness here is a pattern of indolence that will not lift the hands to the task and work. This is, spiritually, a striving with the curse of God upon a fallen creation. It is the walk of one who expects to prosper without work, seeks temporary plea­sure as an end in itself in self-indulgence, and is devoid of discernment. Such a one runs on heedless of the ruin he brings upon himself and his house. The familiar judgment of God, in the curse upon the ground (Gen. 3:17-19), makes this life of indolent self-indulgence an unsustainable folly.

At the same time, the picture is also a figure that has broader implications. As it is with a building that must be maintained by much labor while much sloth­fulness destroys it, so also the life of the home, of marriage, of one’s daily business, all require diligence. As the building decays, so does a household, a kingdom, and also the church. The kingdom, whose princes eat in the morning for drunkenness (Eccl. 10:16, 17), is a kingdom in decline, the house of that the kingdom will fall through. Where the keys of the kingdom are not faithfully exercised, the church will not prosper. Where spiritual diligence in the believer is not found in his spir­itual life and the covenant home, he and his house will suffer from neglect.

All of the things to which the figure may apply in­volve the use of means, whether of grace or earthly tools. The use of these means is not automatic. They require care and attention of thought: study, labor, ex­ertion and toil under the sun. They require diligence, whether it be putting a roof on a house, maintaining discipline in the home, order in the civil state, or pre­serving the heritage of the gospel unto the next gen­eration in the church. The temptation of sin leads to the deceitful notion when things go well that we have arrived and can now let go and indulge ourselves. The Lord Himself, His judgment and providence, does not allow man to walk in idleness. Our calling is to labor while it is day, the more so as we know that we are stewards in every aspect of life, and that the Lord will come again (Matt. 24:42-51).

A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh mer­ry: but money answereth all things. (Eccl. 10:19)

Labor and toil do not mean there is no place for rejoicing. Solomon has pointed out that we are to rejoice in our own works (Eccl. 3:22), to take our portion from the labor of the day with thanksgiving and to eat and drink of it (Eccl. 5:18-20), to do so also with merry heart (Eccl. 8:15). The purpose of a feast is laughter and wine makes merry. God made it so. The use of these activities and things in their proper order with thanksgiving before God is itself a gift of God to the believer (Eccl. 5:19). They come by diligent labor under the sun.

Sin, however, corrupts the life of man so what is transitory or temporary, of feasting and rejoicing after labor, becomes a curse to him. Seeking feasting and wine as an end in themselves is destructive. The world lives for partying, for food and drink, for the pleasures of the moment. These become the goal of a man’s life, like that of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-19), who would possess himself in idleness and pleasure. The idleness of rulers who eat and drink for drunkenness in the morn­ing works the ruin of house of the kingdom. Seeking to dwell in the house of laughter is the folly of sin. “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). Sin corrupts the good gifts of God, the use of them is not the problem, but the man who uses them in the service of sin.

Discernment in our labor and calling keeps these gifts of God in their proper place. They are the fruit of diligent labor and a transitory blessing. This is put in perspective in the latter part of the verse, “but money answereth all things.” The contrast is between a feast and the money or the silver. The one is a fleeting thing, the other is an answer, a response, to all things, that is to all the things needful. Under the sun the fruit of our labor and increase, the resulting money, corresponds to all the needs of life. It is the means to meet those pres­ent needs.

The point has been made that covetousness, the heap­ing and gathering of riches, is bondage. The fool heaps and gathers, hoards his silver, without understanding its purpose or his own end. This has already been termed vanity. The love of money has been warned against (Eccl. 5:10). But it is the necessary fruit of labor and diligence. In its proper place, as a means to serve the needs of our earthly life under the sun, it is an answer to all those things. It is not the answer to life itself, for that is the fear of God. But it is a necessary servant that comes by way of hard work and toil.

The Scriptures promote neither idleness nor covet­ousness. All of our activity finds its central reference point in the service of God and thanksgiving for His gifts and the means of life under His providence. But that requires walking by faith under God’s care: “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall pros­per, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good” (Eccl. 11:6).

The Preacher has said, “for wisdom is a defence and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it (Eccl. 7:12). Money is a present defense, answering the needs of life under the sun. It cannot give life. Only grace in Christ, the knowledge of God by faith, does that. But money is a defense under the sun, addressing our present passing needs. It is a servant and not to be a master. It comes by way of diligent labor and toil in the things of this life, in our work and calling.

Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter. (Eccl. 10:19, 20)

The thought of verse 19 is still rooted in the design and government of God over all things. It is He who sets a king in power and gives riches unto men. It is God who ordains “the powers that be” (Rom. 13:1). At the same time, the text draws on the speech of the fool in contrast to the words of the wise (Eccl. 10:12, 13). Discontent with God’s way with us and covetousness leads to a spirit of rebellion and anger, with God’s disposition in the affairs of life. That wicked men rule, that the rich oppress the poor (Eccl. 5:5), that there is evil among “the powers that be” (Eccl.10:4-7), has already been addressed.

We have been warned, “Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken: lest thou hear thy servant curse thee: for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou hast cursed others” (Eccl. 7:21, 22). In the mouth of the fool, “the beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk mischievous madness” (Eccl. 10:13). We are warned not only to heed not all that is spoken but to guard our own thoughts and tongue. To curse men in enmity is a striving with God’s providence.

There is a holy anger with sin, which is to be given over to God, that the sun go not down upon it (Eph. 4:26). God says “vengeance is mine: I will repay” (Rom. 12:19). But the curse in view here in Ecclesiastes 10:19 must be understood of a primarily sinful anger and its imprudent expression in both thought and word. The warning concerns yielding ourselves to such anger and its curse of others in private thought or uttering it in what we deem secret, the bedchamber.

The warning not to yield to this sinful impulse is needed. One’s attitude reflects his thought, and it works its way out. The world around us is full of the raging speech of wicked and rebellious men, who curse their neighbor, their boss, the rulers and the rich. A curse is a word of power, a verdict. When God utters the curse, it works judgment. Man’s word is that of a creature. To curse thus is to usurp a divine prerogative, unless it be in the service of God which condemns what God condemns as anathema.

The text describes the imprudence of such a curse from its consequences, under God’s government “a bird of the air shall [or may] carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter” (Eccl. 10:20). Such cursing is not harmless venting. It is a foolish yielding to a sinful impulse. Given what has been said before, “for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou hast cursed others” (Eccl. 7:22), it is a sobering admonition.

We live in a world where men curse in their rage against one another, lie about their neighbor, and slan­der one another. The point of the text is that it will come back upon their own head. The way of wisdom is to flee from it. The bedchamber today is as much an email, or some other social media, as it is venting to one’s self when seemingly alone. Discernment guards us from the inherent folly of our own sinful tongue, and pulls us back from it. While present with us in our sinful flesh, our tongue is not to have dominion over us. This in part brings us again to the beginning of the chapter. “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apoth­ecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour” (Eccl. 10:1).

The way of wisdom is to walk under God’s govern­ment, under His sovereign disposition in the affairs of men, and leave the rendering of judgment in God’s hands where it belongs:

For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (I Pet. 2:21-24).

This involves humbling ourselves in repentance be­fore God, seeking and putting away the impulses of the flesh and walking in newness of life.