Stupidity Stinks
(Ecclesiastes 10)

By David Feddes

As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. (Ecclesiastes 10:1)

Winston Churchill was an amazing man. He had such strong ideas that many people in Great Britain didn’t like him or want him to be their leader. They preferred a mushy-minded “moderate” named Neville Chamberlain. But when Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler helped the Nazis to overrun most of Europe, the British people saw that Churchill was right, and they made him their prime minister. Against all odds, Churchill’s wisdom and courage rallied his nation through the dark days of World War II. And what happened afterward? They voted Churchill back out of office!

That’s not the only time something like that has happened. Ecclesiastes told of something similar already thousands of years earlier. The author wrote:

I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded (9:13-16).

What a bunch of ingrates! You’d expect them to be thankful, you’d expect them to praise the one who saved them and listen to him and have a celebration in his honor, but giving thanks was the last thing on their minds. Even if there were a public holiday commemorating their deliverance, these people wouldn’t make it a time of genuine thanksgiving. They’d use the holiday to stuff their faces, have a good time, do their own thing, and forget the one who made their freedom and prosperity possible.

If the value of wisdom is measured only by how much praise and thanksgiving it gets, then it may look as though wisdom isn’t worth much. A wise person might save a city or an entire nation and yet be forgotten or despised. High intelligence often has a low profile and a low popularity rating.

Isn’t it true that in public life, image often wins over substance? Instead of careful, respectful discussion that helps people understand what’s really involved, politicians often resort to sound bites and 30-second spots and loud propaganda. It degrades the politicians and their supporters, but hey, it works! A savvy pollster and a slick promoter will beat sound character and seasoned wisdom almost every time.

Even so, wisdom is the way to go. Be thankful for the wisdom of those who are truly wise, and seek to be wise yourself. After all, even when stupidity seems to succeed, it is still stupidity! Ecclesiastes 9:17 says, “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.” Wisdom may not be the noisiest, it may be drowned out by slogans and sound bites, opinion polls and peer pressure, but it’s still better to be wise than to follow whatever fool happens to be making the most noise.

If you’re foolish, you evaluate something by how much publicity it’s getting or by how many people are doing it. You figure, “Well, it must be the thing to do.” But if you’re wise, you don’t just ask, “Is it the thing to do?” You ask, “Is it the right thing to do?” The answer to that question often comes in a still, small voice.

Wisdom is often quiet and low-key, but it has a tremendous power all its own, and it is positive power. Sinful stupidity has a certain kind of power, too, but it is negative power, power to destroy. As Ecclesiastes 9:18 puts it, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” Wisdom seldom gets credit for the good it does, but at least it does some good. Stupidity just makes matters worse for everyone.

Just One Mistake

The last part of Ecclesiastes 9 makes that clear, and when we get to Ecclesiastes 10, the message is even more pungent. We could summarize all of Ecclesiastes 10 in just two words: STUPIDITY STINKS! In fact, that’s exactly how the chapter begins: “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor” (10:1). Stupidity stinks! One stupid blunder can foul up everything.

When you hear the name Richard Nixon, what’s the first thing you think of? Watergate. Nixon won the biggest landslide in U.S. history; he was a brilliant strategist and a public figure for decades; but what most of us remember about Nixon is Watergate. When you hear the phrase “television evangelist,” what comes to mind? Scandal. Most ministers, including many who preach through the media, are people of integrity, but the actions of a few soil the reputation of all. “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”

One stupid mistake can ruin a reputation, and one mistake can explode the grandest of projects. Think of the space shuttle Challenger. Thousands of parts were in perfect condition.  There was just one little problem with some O-rings. But that one little problem destroyed the shuttle and everyone in it.

One mistake! That’s all it takes. Just one sexual mistake can result in shame, an unwanted pregnancy, or even AIDS. Just one cigarette—just one stupid, stinking cigarette that you tried just because it was the thing to do—and years later you find yourself still hooked on a deadly habit. Just one moment of getting drunk or getting high or getting angry, and you can do something that lands you in prison for years. One mistake! A little folly equals a big mess. Now, if even one mistake, if even a brief moment of stupidity, can do so much damage, then it would be absolutely crazy to devote your whole life to being stupid.

Ecclesiastes 10 talks about stupidity and how it shows up in different areas of life. It starts by making the point that the things we do, whether wise or stupid, come from inside. Our outward actions rise out of our inward inclinations. Verse 2 says, “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.” This doesn’t mean that right-handers are wiser than lefties, or that people who prefer right-wing politics are always wiser than those on the political left. It simply means that wise people have hearts that lean one way, and stupid people have hearts that lean the opposite way. If your heart, your inner self, is stupid, it’s bound to come out. Verse 3 says, “Even as he walks along the road, the fool lacks sense and shows everyone how stupid he is.”

How does happen? How does stupidity show itself? Ecclesiastes 10 explores a number of areas where stupidity stinks: in the chain of command, in the work we do, in the things we say, in public life and in private life.

Chain of Command Stupidity

Verses 4-7 give us a whiff of stupidity in the chain of command. One problem is that some bigshots are hotheads. They make a big stink over the littlest thing. But that’s no excuse for you to add to the stink by reacting in a stupid, shortsighted way. “If a ruler’s anger rises against you,” says verse 4, “do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest.” In other words, if your boss loses his temper, don’t you lose your temper and quit on the spot. That would just add to the stupidity. Instead, keep your cool and try to clear the air. Give calmness a chance to overcome foolishness.

Another stupid thing that sometimes happens in the chain of command is that top positions go to bungling losers, while smart, capable people end up in the bottom spots, getting ordered around by people who shouldn’t be giving orders at all. “There is an evil I have seen under the sun,” says Ecclesiastes, “the sort of error that arises from a ruler: Fools are put in many high positions, while the rich occupy low ones. I have seen slaves on horseback, while princes go on foot like slaves” (10:5-7). Those who are rich in wisdom, who are princes in character, get treated like slaves, while those who barely qualify for the lowest jobs end up getting promoted and riding high in the saddle. Doesn’t it stink when that happens? Several years ago, a Canadian politician won an election and appointed several of his cronies to high positions, even though they didn’t appear to be qualified. When asked about the appointments, he retorted, “You dance with the lady that brought you.” Wisdom says to put the best, most qualified people in charge, but all too often, in politics and business, we end up with a bunch of stiffs whose only qualification is that they happen to be buddies of the boss.

Work-Related Stupidity

After describing stupidity in the chain of command, Ecclesiastes talks about stupidity in the work we do. There are at least four types of stupidity that can spoil our efforts: nastiness, carelessness, brainlessness, and hastiness.

Verse 8 deals with nastiness: “Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.” You can work hard digging a pit and making a trap for someone you don’t like, only to fall into the trap yourself. You can bully and smash your way into places you don’t belong, only to get bitten by something you didn’t see coming. The Bible tells about Haman, a nasty fool who somehow got himself appointed to a top political position where he didn’t belong. Haman hated a man named Mordecai simply because Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him. Haman schemed and worked to get rid of Mordecai. He even had a giant gallows built on which he planned to hang Mordecai. But on the very day he was going to get the king’s permission to hang Mordecai, Haman’s plot unraveled, and Haman was hanged on his own gallows. That’s the trouble with nastiness: it tends to backfire.

Let’s look at another kind of work-related stupidity: carelessness. Verse 9 says, “Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.” Carelessness on the job can cost you. Carpenters with mechanical saws, farmers with corn pickers and combines, factory workers with powerful equipment, truckers and miners—there are all sorts of dangers on the job, and if you ignore the danger and get careless, it can cost you an arm or a leg or even your life. Even if you have a fairly tame office job, you can’t afford to get careless driving back and forth to work. All it takes is just a little stupidity, just a brief moment of carelessness, to do awful, even permanent damage. So don’t get careless!

Still another on-the-job problem is brainlessness: using your muscles but not your mind. Ecclesiastes 10:10 says, “If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success.” The duller the ax, the harder you have to swing it to accomplish anything—unless you resort to skill instead of brute strength. Why keep swinging the ax harder and harder, when you can just take a break and sharpen the ax and then accomplish twice as much with less effort? Don’t just work harder; work smarter. Use your brain. It’s stupid to get so busy working that you never think about a better way of doing it.

One more example of stupidity in the workplace: hastiness. Don’t be in too big a hurry to get your pay; first make sure you complete your task. You know the old sayings: “Haste makes waste” and “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Well, verse 11 says much the same thing in a more striking way: “If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer.” Picture yourself as a snake charmer, playing your little tune, swaying back and forth in front of a cobra. But you’re in a hurry to get money from the onlookers, so you suddenly stop playing and reach for the cash. Wham! That old cobra strikes. If he bites the customer, you’re obviously not going to get paid, and if he bites you, the money won’t do you much good.

Now, you’re probably not a snake charmer. But if your work involves any kind of marketing or deal-making, some of the people you try to charm may seem a bit like cobras! If you don’t know when to back off and take your time, if you’re in too big a hurry to close a deal with someone who still isn’t convinced, your hastiness can ruin the deal.

Another case of hastiness, of wanting to have something before you’ve done the job to get it, is buying on credit. To spend money you don’t have—that’s foolish and poisonous for a lot of people. Credit and cobras have a lot in common: both are dangerous, and both will bite you if you’re in such a hurry to get something that you grab for it before you’ve done the work to earn it.

So, then, nastiness, carelessness, brainlessness, and hastiness are examples of how stupidity stinks in the work we do.

Stupid Words

After making that clear, Ecclesiastes 10 moves on to deal with stupidity in the way we talk. Listen to verses 12-15. “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips. At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness—and the fool multiplies words.” A big mouth and a small brain go together. The fool is so busy giving people a piece of his mind that he doesn’t have much of a mind left. He talks too harshly, and he talks too much.

The first step in mouth control is learning to keep it shut. One reason we talk a lot is to show people how smart we are, but that’s often precisely when we put our stupidity on display.  Better to remain silent and have people think you’re a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt. “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent” says the Bible (Proverbs 17:28).

A second aspect of mouth control is choosing words that build up rather than tear down. “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious,” says Ecclesiastes. In another place the Bible says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24). So keep your words soft and sweet. Some day you may have to eat them.

If you don’t know how to say anything positive, then don’t say anything. Have you ever had to listen to a chronic complainer? He drones on and on about how his wife is impossible to live with, his kids are scoundrels and ingrates, his boss is a moron, his neighbors are a nightmare, and his church (if he has one) is full of dolts and idiots. He talks like he’s a genius surrounded by a cast of fools, but the more he talks, the more obvious it becomes who the real fool is. “A fool is consumed by his own lips.”

A third aspect of mouth control is knowing what you’re talking about and being able to carry through on it. It is stupid to use big words and fancy talk to make people think you know more than you do. Most folks can see right through that. It’s especially stupid to talk about the future as though you’ve got it all figured out. Verse 14 says, “No one knows what is coming—who can tell him what will happen after him.” In spite of that, a fool goes right on talking about his great insights and his grand plans, but he’s all blow and no go. He talks big, but he never really accomplishes anything. “A fool’s work wearies him,” says verse 15; “he does not know the way to town.” What a guy! To hear him talk, you’d think he had the energy of Superman and the intellect of Einstein. But when it’s actually time to do some work, he’s got no energy, and the moment he actually has to figure something out, he’s stumped—he can hardly find his way to town.

Now, there are always going to be people who don’t have mouth control, who talk too much and too harshly and say all kinds of things that they don’t have the ambition or the brains to back up. Just make sure you’re not one of them. When it comes to words and conversation, stupidity stinks.

The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So far he’s given us a whiff of stupidity in the chain of command, in the work we do, and in the words we say. Then, in the last few verse of Ecclesiastes 10, he closes with a flurry, saying that stupidity stinks in public life, and it stinks in private life.

Stupidity in Public and Private Life

He speaks of public life in verses 16 and 17: “Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning. Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time—for strength and not for drunkenness.” Pity the country where leaders use their authority only to indulge their own appetites and not for the good of the people. Those in public life must see it as a noble calling and put their energy into doing good; only then will their leadership be a blessing to their people. This applies not only to political leaders but also to teachers, pastors, and parents. The wisdom or stupidity of people in leadership has a huge impact on others.

It’s devastating when leaders are lazy and greedy, and it’s also disastrous when that’s the attitude of ordinary people: wanting to do as little work as possible, yet eager to have as much fun as possible. It’s the entitlement mentality: I’m entitled to all the fun and money I want, and I shouldn’t have to work for it. Once I start to think that way, I’m 50% couch potato, 50% party animal, and 100% stupid.

Ecclesiastes slams that combination of laziness and greediness. Verse 18 says, “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks.” In other words, you snooze, you lose! If you’re too lazy to work on things that need attention, your house starts to fall apart, and not only that, your family and marriage start to fall apart. If you’re wise, you pay attention to small problems and you take care of them while they’re still small. If you’re foolish, you say, “It’s no big deal. I’ll get around to it some time later.” And before you know it, things are sagging and leaking and collapsing all around you.

Laziness stinks, and so does greediness. Verse 19 gives us the motto of the greedy, self-indulgent fool. “A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything.” More parties, more laughs, more booze, more fun, and the key to it all: more money. If that’s your philosophy, then there’s no nice way to say it—you are a stinking fool. If even a little stupidity stinks, then devoting your entire life to such a stupid philosophy stinks to high heaven.

The last verse of Ecclesiastes 10 seems anticlimactic, but it’s the type of hard-headed, no-nonsense advice we’d expect from Ecclesiastes. Verse 20 says, “Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.” Don’t say anything about your boss that you wouldn’t want to say directly to him—because no matter how carefully and privately you say it, words have this amazing ability to find their way to the ears of the person you’re talking about. If you ask how he could possibly have found out, he might say, “A little bird told me.” Even if your superior has done something stupid, don’t you be stupid by gossiping about it, or it will come back to haunt you.

Well, by now I trust it’s clear that no matter what form it takes, no matter where you find it, stupidity stinks. Part of becoming a wise person is being able to recognize stupidity when you smell it. Some very foolish things are often surrounded by noise and publicity, but no matter how appealing it’s made to sound, you need to be able to sniff out stupidity and be nauseated by the smell and avoid getting caught up in it.

Who is Missing?

So far in this message, I’ve haven’t mentioned the word “God” at all. Isn’t that a bit strange for a preacher talking about a passage from the Bible? Why no mention of God? Well, the passage from Ecclesiastes 9 and 10 that we’ve been studying doesn’t mention God, either—not in the entire 26 verses. And maybe that’s no accident.

You see, stupidity isn’t just a matter of what’s present, but of what’s missing—or of Who is missing. God is missing. The stink of stupidity is partly a matter of the smelly stuff that’s there, but it’s also a matter of what isn’t there: the sweet aroma of God’s nearness and blessing. Ultimately, stupidity stinks because it is the odor of something rotting away without the wisdom and life of God.

If even a little folly makes a big mess, if even a little stupidity stinks, then the monstrous stupidity of rejecting God can only mean utter and absolute disaster. The only way out is to turn back to God. The Bible says, “Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction … Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them, he rescued them from the grave” (Psalm 107:17, 19-20). Sinful stupidity lands us in trouble, but even then, we can pray to God and trust him to save us and make us wiser.

A well-known statement in the Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In light of Ecclesiastes, we could also say: the fear of the Lord is the end of stupidity.

And now back to where we started: the story of a poor, wise man who does what’s necessary to save people from a terrible predicament, but who is then ignored by people who don’t want to listen to him or give him thanks. One of the poorest, and certainly the wisest of men, was Jesus of Nazareth.

This poor, wise man is the Savior not just of one city but of the world. Jesus came to teach us God’s wisdom; he died and rose again to free us from our sinful stupidity. Jesus is God’s great antidote to stupidity, the only one who can save us from sin and Satan and hell, the one who leads us in a life of wisdom. So don’t leave Jesus out of your life.

All too often, the world he came to save would rather ignore the only wise God and Savior. In spite of all that, however, in spite of being despised and rejected by men, the Savior continues to call, not with loud shouts but in the still, small voice of wisdom, the voice of the Holy Spirit. That gentle voice keeps calling us out of our stinking stupidity and into the sweetness of his truth and love. Listen to his voice, trust in him, and let your entire life be an offering of thanksgiving to the poor, wise man who is also God—Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.