Earlier in chapter 10 we read, Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith to everyone that he is a fool (Eccl. 10:3). The walk of the fool has been found among rulers. That walk is also found by ignoring God’s ordering of things under the sun. It is with that in view that the text now turns to the speech of the fool and his tongue: he saith to everyone that he is a fool.
This consideration begins by pointing out another thing that belongs also to the ordering of things. Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better (Eccl. 10:11). The figure drawn is of a swaying serpent, rising up and moving its head and body to strike. The charmer by the swing of his body, and often with his swaying reed instrument, charms or masters the snake, semi-hypnotizing it, holding it under control. Such a scene would not have been uncommon at the time in the Middle East, as it is still found in parts of Asia.
The figure is applied to a “babbler” or, more literally and clearly, the tongue and its master. The tongue is like a swaying serpent, full of poison. To master it requires the powers of a snake charmer. The owner of the tongue has no advantage, and is no better than the serpent and the snake charmer. In James 3 the point is made using other figures for the tongue and its influence. James there speaks of the tongue, For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil full of deadly poison (James 3:7–8).
A believing child of God, with the spiritual gift of wisdom, understands this infirmity of his flesh and struggles with it, seeking by the grace of God to tame his tongue. Hence, the contrast now introduced, The words of the wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of the fool will swallow up himself (Eccl. 10:12). By gracious words is meant more than pleasant or beautiful. They are words spoken soberly in truth, rooted in the truth of God, and therefore just. And yet they are beautiful for they edify and build up the hearer in the fear of God. Thus Jesus’ words are described when He was in the synagogue in Nazareth, in Luke 4:22, And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, though their response was one of unbelief.
The fool in his speech, which is the focus here in the text, swallows up himself, that is, he works his own self-destruction by his words. He saith to every one that he is a fool (Eccl. 10:3). His speech is that of a poisonous serpent—evil, dissembling, full of arrogant folly. His mouth is an untamed serpent. The result is: The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness (Eccl. 10:13). The text describes both the beginning of the words and the end of the speech of the fool, and in doing so includes all the content in-between; his entire speech. It is characterized by the folly of sin, by that which is evil or mischievous, which works evil. It is the madness of sin that strives with God, with His word and with His providence.
The text implies a warning to discern our own speech, as the folly of sin cleaves to us according to the flesh. It also calls us to consider what we hear and to whom we give much ear. The speech of the fool is poisonous; it leads one to further folly. It has the character of being arrogant, proud, and boastful, so that the speaker is full of himself: his will, his plans, his profane language.
James speaks of this as something inconsistent and sinful in the life of a believer, who should have wisdom:
Out of the same mouth proceeded blessing and cursing.
My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom (James 3:10–13).
In like manner, Solomon points us to the way of wisdom in godly speech that also flees the speech of the unbelieving fool of this world and seeks not its company or imitation.
This is further illustrated: A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him? (Eccl. 10:14). The idea of the text is the reality that a man cannot determine what shall be, the immediate future, nor can he tell or predict what shall come to pass after he dies. The future is simply unknown to man, both for tomorrow and into the distant future. God alone, who has ordained the end from the beginning, can tell us what shall be. But man cannot find it out by his own reasoning. His plans are subject to God’s sovereign will.
Yet the fool is full of words, that is, in this connection, his plans and expectations. In his pride the fool speaks not only endlessly of himself but of what he will do and what he will accomplish. He speaks as if the future is in his own hand, under the government of his will and thought. His trust is in his own prowess. Such is the speech of the world we hear on a daily basis, both regarding the immediate future and its long-term expectations. The wise man speaks of these things in the consciousness, even if not always expressed, that the future is in the hands of the Lord and that we ourselves do not determine this or that, but as the Lord wills.
James, who may have much of this section of Ecclesiastes in mind in James 3 and 4, says:
Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live and do this or that. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil (James 4:13–16).
It is that self-confident boasting and rejoicing (James 4:16) which applies particularly here. This forms the multitude of the fool’s words. He trusts in himself. He is like the fool in the parable of the rich fool who will build bigger barns but regards not God (Luke 12:15–21).
The result of both his walk and words (Eccl. 10:3) is that he fails. He pursues what is vain as an end in itself. The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city (Eccl. 10:15). The fool spends his life and strength in vanity, driven by the lust of his own flesh, heedless of God and his government, and boasting in himself. He accomplishes nothing of value under the sun, but wearies himself. He lacks spiritual common sense. He knoweth not how to go to the city. That is, he lacks the basic sense of direction and purpose in his life and labor. He cannot read the sign posts in the world around him, which would direct him in the way. Of the Word of God he wants nothing, and even the ordinary boundaries of life, which God has ordained, he sets aside in his pride. He will dig a pit and not fall into it. And his tongue boasts thereof, particularly when for a season it may seem as if he gets away with his folly and that consequences do not immediately befall him. Instead of not knowing how to go to the city, we would probably say of the fool that he does not know enough to come out of the rain and, rather, gets soaked. From beginning to end he is a fool and that folly is in his heart; therefore, it is “because” he does not know how to go to the city that he wearies himself. The cause lies in his heart.
To His people God shows the way in His word, which is gracious, and gives wisdom in the walk of life, and to guard our speech in the way. He also shows us the way to an eternal city that He has built in Christ.