This chapter, as well as those that follow, differs from those before in dropping almost entirely the language of personal experience, save the close of chap. 12 which fittingly recurs to it as a conclusion of the book. In the rest we have aphoristic remarks confirming the argument of the book: caution against the indulgence of folly even in the smallest thing; and commendations of wisdom in practical affairs, and for every class, subjects or rulers, in public as in private life, in word as well as deed.
"Dead flies cause the ointment (or conserve) of the apothecary to stink [and] putrefy: [so] a little folly him that is valued for wisdom and honour. The heart of a wise one is at his right hand, but a fool's heart at his left. Yea, also, when the fool walketh by the way, his heart faileth, and he saith to (or of) every one he is a fool" (vers. 1-3).
Men who stand out from their fellows for reputed wisdom are peculiarly exposed to the censoriousness of others far inferior in weight or worth, who cultivate the cheap ability of spying out a flaw to their disparagement. It is therefore of moment to cut off occasion from such as. seek occasion. For as literally the heart is at the left hand by nature, wisdom gives it figuratively a quite different place for prompt effective action as it is called for. The fool is slow to apprehend the bearing of a principle, and his measures are awkward and vain. More than that, even in the ordinary walk of the day, he never discerns the right thing at the right time, but blurts out his folly at every opening of his mouth to each companion or passer-by.
"If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yieldingness pacifieth great offences. There is an evil I have seen under the sun, as an error that proceedeth from the ruler: folly is set in great heights, and the rich sit in low place. I have seen slaves upon horses, and princes walking as slaves upon the earth" (vers. 4-7).
This is an application of wisdom, and an exemplification of folly. The ruler's towering spirit naturally provokes; but wisdom strengthens propriety to keep the subject place, and, if an answer be called for, to give a soft one. Mere right never rectifies wrong, but the grace that gives up self and serves. And what the great king saw is not an uncommon sight in all ages, and trying enough even to the wise and meek, the error proceeding from the ruler, that exalts the unworthy and that abases the worthy. But wisdom can bow and wait without contention, which would not remedy the evil but add another.
"He that diggeth a pit falleth into it, and whoso breaketh through a fence, a serpent biteth him. Whoso moveth stones is hurt therewith; he that cleaveth wood is endangered (or wounded) thereby. If the iron be blunt, and one do not whet the edge, then must he apply more strength; but wisdom is profitable for success. If the serpent bite without enchantment, then the master of the tongue (or charmer) hath no profit. The words of a wise man's mouth [are] gracious, but the lips of a fool swallow him up. The beginning of his mouth's words is foolishness, and the end of his mouth mischievous madness. But a fool multiplieth words. Man knoweth not what shall be; and what shall be after, who telleth him? The toil of the foolish wearieth him (i.e. each one), for he knoweth not how to go to the city" (vers. 8-15).
The folly of the ruler is apt to awaken reactionary folly among the ruled. Wisdom is not given to change: and here the preacher presents the result which so often ensues on either side. The dug pit, the broken hedge, the removing of stones, and the cleaving of wood, especially with indifferent tools, are all dangerous enterprises, not for others only, but for those that essay them more particularly; none more so than breaking down a landmark whence issues a biting serpent. As wisdom is of profit to direct, so is it to enchant and escape the deadly. As a fool's lips are peculiarly destructive to himself, wise words are grace and minister it to others; instead of being like the words of a fool's mouth, folly at the beginning, and mischievous madness at the end. Nor is there a more frequent sign of a fool than multiplying talk, and resolving to have the last word. For man knows not what shall be even in his own time, still less what is to be after him. The toil of fools is but labour for nought save weariness; they cannot, for very heedlessness, tell the road into the city, though it would be hard to find anything that needs less intelligence.
Then we have an animated address of woe contrasted with blessing: woe, where a land has for its king a youth in character as well as years, and princes who live for self- indulgence instead of devotedness to their duty; blessing, where the king is bred in noble associations, and his companions cherish aims in accordance with their place. The view is generalised a little; and the danger of petulant speech pressed in closing.
"Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning! Happy art thou, O land, when thy king is the son of nobles, and thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness! By slothfulness the roof sinketh in; and through idleness of the hands the house leaketh. A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh glad the life; and money answereth all things. 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" (vers. 16-20).