Wisdom and folly in national life


Ecclesiastes 10:16-20

IN THE final verses of chapter 10, the Preacher turns his attention to politics and national life while still reflecting on the theme of wisdom and folly. He has something to say to both people in the government (in this case the king and his princes) and also the general populace, and the practical wisdom that he offers can be variously applied to national life even in the modern world.

Turning first to those in authority, the Preacher declares, “Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning” (16). The Revised Standard Version probably is closer to the original mean-ing when it renders “servant” as “child”. So rendered, the statement immediately becomes clear: good political leadership can come only from a leader (be he king, prime minister or president) who is mature.

As Roland Murphy states in his commentary on this passage, the Preacher here is saying that a “young king is unequal to the responsibilities of his office”. Of course in a totalitarian monarchy to which the Preacher is subjected, there is simply no choice. But in a democracy, it would not only be foolish but national suicide to elect an immature national leader.

Verse 17 spells out the consequences of immature leadership by the use of a strong imagery: “the princes feast in the morning”. The imagery of feasting in the morning refers not just to the preference for luxury and self-indulgence, but primarily to the absolute lack of self-control. The early hours of the morning are not the time for feasting, which of course includes revelry and drinking. Those who are engaged in such activities at that time of the day show themselves to be totally void of a sense of propriety and order. In a word, they are without self-control.

Readers familiar with the Preacher’s philosophy of life would know that he is not averse to enjoying life – to feasting and drinking. It is the lack of discipline that he attacks here. Notice also that for the Preacher, the opposite of self-indulgence is not asceticism but self-control. There is a proper time for everything, and pleasure must always be enjoyed in a state of strength, not drunkenness.

As Michael Eaton puts it in his commentary, eating and drinking freely at this time of the day “marked a disso-lute, slothful approach to life”, and national leaders who display such an attitude would only lead their country into ruin.

Thus sloth becomes the subject of verse 18, where the Preacher compares the house with the kingdom or the nation. The nation led by slothful leaders would be silently destroyed just as the house of a lazy man will slowly disinte-grate through sheer negligence. The point that the Preacher wishes to empha-sise is a provocative one – nothing else is needed to ensure the destruction of a nation than the sloth of its leaders, and nothing is more devastating.

The warning that began in verse 16 is brought to its head in verse 19, where the Preacher identifies frivolity and the love of money as the insidious failings of those in power, and the causes of their downfall. Woe is the nation, the Preacher is here saying, whose leaders regard pleasure, sloth, frivolity and money as the limit of their horizon. Such a nation is on the road to destruction.

In verse 20, the Preacher offers some advice to people who are subjected to such irresponsible rulers. The Preacher warns his readers against disparaging leaders even with their thoughts, or cursing the wealthy (people who exert influence on the king because of their wealth) even in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Thus he warns them against expressing their anger and frustration indiscriminately because it is dangerous to do so. The “bird of the air” in the latter half of the verse is proverbial (similar to the “a little bird told me so” in our modern parlance), and refers to the spies or informants who may be lurking in the background without the speaker’s knowledge. Their report would compel the king to punish the speaker, his family and friends.

We must remind ourselves that the Preacher wrote from a very different political context than ours in which the king exercised totalitarian power over his subjects. In such a context, it is wise to refrain from foolish anger, and to continue to be submissive to the author-ity of the king. The wisdom of restraint is especially more pertinent in this case, where the rulers, being given to frivolity, are not likely to respond with moral integrity.

This approach is relevant even in the context of democracy. Of course our modern context offers more recourse for justice than that of the Preacher. There are appropriate avenues by which concerns and grievances can be brought to those in government, just as there are more instruments to bring about political and social changes. But the Preacher’s counsel to be wise and cautious remains relevant.

The interests of society and the country are not served when people use the political instruments available merely to vent their foolish anger on the government. In fact, as history has repeatedly shown, such adolescent responses can cause great harm because of their imperviousness

with regard to broader and deeper issues. If in verse 20 the Preacher is emphasising circumspection, restraint and wisdom, then its application surely is not limited to his particular political context. It is surely profoundly relevant in ours as well.

Dr Roland Chia, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


‘The Preacher identifies frivolity and the love of money as the insidious failings of those in power, and the causes of their downfall. Woe is the nation, the Preacher is here saying, whose leaders regard pleasure, sloth, frivolity and money as the limit of their horizon. Such a nation is on the road to destruction.’