A Fool and His Folly

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
9. A Fool and His Folly (Ecclesiastes 9:11-11:6)
  • Can we find meaning in life through collecting power, cheerful activity, and common destiny?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • We do not know what life will bring or when it will end. (Ecclesiastes 9:11 & 12)
  • The way of foolishness, which is life without God, leads to nowhere but folly. (Ecclesiastes 9:18b; 10:3, 12 & 13)
  • Live each day, morning to evening, trusting that God will accomplish His purposes. (Ecclesiastes 11:6)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • Is life simply about time and chance without meaning and direction?
  • Why should one life the way of wisdom instead of the way of the fool?
  • How can one live each day not knowing how everything will turn out?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • What good is it in the end to be swift, strong, wise, rich, intelligent or full of knowledge? (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
  • Why is wisdom better than folly?
  • Does it matter if your wisdom applied in life goes unacknowledged or unappreciated? Why or why not?
  • Make a list of the advantages of wise living and the disadvantages of foolish living. Which way do you pick?
  • How does the wise person live in the face of possible negative outcomes?
  • What are the words of the wise person like as compared to the fool?
  • What are the advantages of a wise leader in terms of outcome of his or her leading?
  • Why does it make sense to live in light of God's being in control of everything?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • What part do time and chance play in life, or do they play no part?
  • How can you life a life of wisdom in the face of a world full of folly?
  • How should you react if and when your life of wisdom is not appreciated?
  • What are the advantages to you personally in living the life of wisdom?
  • What should your daily life look like in a practical sense if you follow the way of wisdom?
  • How can you tell if a person is living the life of folly (i.e., the life of a fool)?
  • What should be your approach to and attitude towards those in authority, toward your leaders?
  • How should you, in wisdom, approach your relationships, your handling of money, your work, and your words?
  • What do you see as the application(s) to you in your daily life of the verses covered in these Notes? What changes do you have to make to lead a life of wisdom more faithfully? Ask God to help you make those changes.
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
In chapter 9, verse 10, we were left with the Preacher saying that despite not knowing or understanding the meaning of life, one should not only live life while one has the opportunity, as it is God’s gift, but live it with zest as if at a celebratory party, enjoying work, food and drink, family and even clothing, and live it with God’s full approval, as the opportunity will be gone when one dies. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10) But once again in verse 11, the up and down nature of the Preacher’s presentation shows up and he provides the counterpoint to what he had just said. Specifically, the Preacher says that life is unpredictable and even unfair, and success is not guaranteed even in living life with wisdom, as “time and chance happen” and things change suddenly at “an evil time.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11 & 12) In other words, one simply does not know what will come. As an example, the preachers cites the circumstance of a city under attack that was delivered by a poor, but wise man, and yet no one remembered the poor man or his wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:13-15) Yet, the Preacher’s underlying theme is that one should nevertheless live in one’s daily circumstances with wisdom, as wisdom is still better than the alternative (foolishness), even if the outcome is not assured, and even when the loud-mouth ends up undoing the good results. (Ecclesiastes 9:13, 16-18) In short, in life, wisdom trumps folly.

In the remaining verses covered in these Notes, chapter 10:1 through 11:6, the Preacher underscores the conclusion that “wisdom trumps folly” by using a series of proverbs that show the outcomes of folly as opposed to those of wisdom. In chapter 10 verse 1, the Preacher says that even a little folly can spoil wisdom, the implication being that one should be careful even in exercising wisdom. Verses 2 and 3 say that the wise one follows the good (“to the right”) whereas the fool heads towards the bad (“to the left”) and demonstrates his foolishness even as he walks along an apparent middle path. The wise one uses care with authorities (Ecclesiastes 10:4), even if wisdom does not lead to success (Ecclesiastes 10:5 & 6); he makes preparations in life even, and especially, in the things that can cause damage (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11). The wise one is also careful in speech (Ecclesiastes 10:12-14). In the matter of speech, the words of a fool go nowhere and accomplish nothing, and they are particularly meaningless in light of the reality that those words are spoken with no knowledge of the future. One thinks of the “talking heads” of today’s radio, television and other broadcast media, in which are individuals who speak about things as if they know what will happen and what outcomes will prevail, when in reality they no nothing of the future. Inevitably, such “talking heads” are proven wrong, as that concerning which they speak with such confidence simply does not come to pass. The work of a fool thus wearies even the fool and gets him nowhere. (Ecclesiastes 10:15)

When it comes to leaders and authorities, those who are fools lead accordingly. Such foolish leadership allows underlings to play when they should work (Ecclesiastes 10:16), opens the door to bad consequences as a result of sloth and inattentiveness (Ecclesiastes 10:18), prefers merriment over responsibility (Ecclesiastes 10:19), and thinks that money solves everything (Ecclesiastes 10:19). The wise leader, on the other hand, leads by example and works when appropriate, and uses food not for merriment but for strength (Ecclesiastes 10:17). The wise one who is not a leader respects authority, whether good or bad, and recognizes that because all one’s words will somehow be found out, criticism and curses concerning such authority is to be avoided (Ecclesiastes 10:20). Wisdom thus recognizes that “a bird of the air” will carry one’s voice, and the wise one will thus be circumspect in speaking.

Life is unpredictable, says the preacher; complete understanding cannot be gained nor can all knowledge be discerned. Yet the wise person will live each day as best as possible in all situations, taking into account what can be understood and known. And in fact, the ways of the wise, as opposed to the ways of folly, apply to every day, practical things, as the Preacher points out in chapter 11, verses 1 through 6. Indeed, the Preacher speaks of wisdom as applied to investing, to agriculture and trade, and to having children, all of which certainly deal with real life. Verses 1 and 2 essentially say that the wise person will go ahead and invest (“cast your bread upon the waters”) and there will be return (“you will find it after many days”), and in so doing, will spread the investments around (“give a portion to seven, or even to eight”). These two proverbs seem to be the foundation for two more current sayings: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained;” and “Don't put all your eggs in one basket.” Good, practical advice indeed! In agriculture, conditions will seldom be perfect, so one shouldn't wait to proceed, whether planting or harvesting. (Ecclesiastes 11:3a, 4) In trade, one doesn't know where the competition will arrive, and what the outcome will be no matter the planning, and thus what comes will come. The wise person, however, will proceed notwithstanding. (Ecclesiastes 11:3) How babies grow in the womb is not understood (of course, that process is better understood now than it was when Ecclesiastes was written, though there is yet mystery in it), but people still have babies. (Ecclesiastes 11:5) One simply cannot know God's plan and how He works, nor fathom His ways. Yet the wise person will continue to live, sowing seed in the morning and evening, essentially leaving things in God's hands, and such living will be in the moment, in the now, in full reliance on God since He is the One “who makes everything.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5b, 6)

In all the foregoing, we have further confirmation of the Preacher's conclusion, namely that while a person may not be able to understand life, with all its inequities, paradoxes, uncertainties and mysteries, one can and should still live a life in light of God's existence and His will, a life that in following the way of wisdom, as opposed to folly, will accomplish God's purposes in some way. Thus, the Preacher ends this section with the admonition, “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand ...” (Ecclesiastes 11:6) In other words, live life every day from start to finish and allow God to work His way. The wise person will do well to heed this admonition. One wonders if these words at least partially formed the backdrop for Jesus' words to His audience as he taught on the mountainside one day,

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25, 33)

Fortunately, today we have these words from Jesus and many more that inform how we should live life in relationship with God, seeking to accomplish His purposes, knowing now that those purposes are wholly wrapped up in Jesus. The Apostle Paul puts it thusly:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:1 & 2)

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)

Life is not meaningless after all. Even while we do not understand everything or how God works, we know that He has provided life for us in Christ, delivered from “the domain of darkness” and transferred into “the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin.” (Colossians 1:13 & 14) Praise God that He has given us meaning and purpose!