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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:Wisdom Is Often Overpowered by Folly
Text:Ecclesiastes 10:1-20 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 7 - From All that Dwells Below the Skies
Psalter 129 - The Universal Sovereignty of Christ
Psalter 156 - Wickedness and Retribution
TH 134 - God Will Take Care of You

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

We often expect people with status to be wise - like teachers should be respectable or politicians should be without blemish. But the very moment there’s something - they lose their temper or are involved in scandal - we change our opinion very quickly. Think of Ravi Zacharias. Sometimes whole institutions can be brought down by someone’s folly. Barings Bank was a very old financial institution - founded in England in 1762. But in 1995, one of its traders in Singapore, Nick Leeson, lost most of its money through bad trades. A 200 year old institution brought down by one man. Last week we saw what Jay Adams said - “it takes only one person doing wrong to destroy the good work of many. One foolish, vindictive woman on a telephone for a week can ruin a church that took many years to build. One foolish successor can destroy the company built up by several wise businessmen.”

Why? Because folly is more powerful than wisdom. We see this every day. It takes so much effort to clean a kitchen - but if you spill a small container of oil, it takes a long time to clean up. It takes time to grow a fruit tree - to prune and fertilize it, but too much fertilizer or too much pruning will kill it. It takes years to have a good reputation, but the mere hint of impropriety - whether true or not - can destroy a man’s life. Wisdom and goodness are overpowered by folly. Even a tiny bit destroys. When nitroglycerin or dynamite was first invented, its inventor warned that it was 10 times stronger than gunpowder. A small amount can destroy a lot. But you can’t tell! It was an innocent looking white powder. And guess who invented it? Alfred Nobel - as in the Nobel peace prize. Ironic right? But this is exactly what Solomon is dealing with here - while there’s wisdom, folly exists. Actually, on earth, folly is more powerful than wisdom. Now, Solomon sounds like a broken record. And the reason he’s doing this is to lead up to the climax in chapter 12. But here, Solomon explores this folly in 2 very useful assertions - firstly, wisdom is vulnerable to folly, and secondly, the characteristics of folly are dangerous.

Firstly, wisdom is vulnerable to folly. As we’ve seen in Ecclesiastes, Solomon has been talking about wisdom. Sometimes he speaks about wisdom as in skill, intelligence, and being capable. Other times, he speaks about wisdom in terms of real godly wisdom. He’s said that both are good. But in this world, both can be overcome by folly. Last week, we saw how intelligence can be overpowered by people’s foolishness. We saw how a poor man saved his city from a rich king because he was smart. Unfortunately, he was not recognized. He did not receive credit, because he was poor. Today, we see how even godly wisdom can be overcome by folly. The wisdom described here is not just the ability to do things, but with godliness. Solomon is moving beyond just technical know how to moral know how. How do we know? Verse 2 - “A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.” In many cultures, the right hand symbolizes goodness and moral ability. The word “dexterity” meaning “good ability” comes from the Latin word for right hand, but “sinister” meaning “evil” is Latin for left hand. So right and left are symbols of good and evil. Like how Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats when he comes. The sheep will be at his right hand; and the goats on his left.

So Solomon is comparing godly wisdom and ungodly foolishness. Ultimately, wisdom is not a skill issue, it’s a worship issue. As Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning or root of wisdom.” To God, true wisdom (not just being smart) is related to godliness. But ungodliness is related to foolishness - immorality. So Solomon’s point here is this - on earth, godliness can be overpowered by ungodliness; godliness is vulnerable to ungodliness. This sermon could rightly be entitled, godliness is often overpowered by ungodliness. Verse 1 gives an illustration - “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.” The preacher speaks about high grade perfume oil. There are different grades of perfume. Eau de cologne is nice - but the smell dissipates because it’s weak. Eau de toilette is stronger - it stays on longer. Eau de parfum is even stronger. But the strongest is parfum or perfume. You put that on, and it stays with you the whole day, whole night, and whole week. Before people see you, they smell you. Now, perfume oil may be strong, fragrant, and powerful, but if flies gets in, it turns rancid. The noun in Hebrew for fly is singular; but the verb to stink is plural. It means that even one tiny fly can destroy much good.

And that’s life. Godliness is good. The godly do prosper, because they use money in a godly and prudent way; they control their speech and can submit themselves wisely to authority. But the world is broken! No matter how godly we may be, sin and sinful people are at work. Folly and ungodliness, even in small amounts can overpower godliness. Like that fly. Or one stick of dynamite. And one ungodly person can destroy a lot of good. We saw this last week. Ecclesiastes 9:18 - “Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.” This is a sad fact of life under the sun. A strong marriage is ruined by one foolish act of adultery. A flourishing business is bankrupt by one foolish act of embezzlement. A church family is ripped apart by an unforgiving or overzealous member. A fool destroys much good. 

But thankfully, the fool is not hard to identify. There’s overpowering evidence of his folly. And that’s a relief. It helps us identify him. Verse 3 says - “Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith to every one that he is a fool.” He won’t be able to keep his folly and ungodliness a secret. They will manifest. We’ve already seen some. Ecclesiastes 7:5-6 says he talks a lot; 4:5 says he doesn’t do much. 7:9 says he gets angry easily when no one hears him. Ecclesiastes 5:3 says he hears no one else but himself. Do you know people like this? Sounds like us right? Folly’s in us. No matter how wise we are, we’re vulnerable. You may be wise and holy or have a wonderful reputation. But just one slip - maybe lose your cool, do something morally foolish, or refuse to listen to godly counsel; or one false accusation by another can undo much. Wisdom is vulnerable to folly. Why? 

Because it’s dangerous. That’s the second assertion - folly is not just powerful, but dangerous. It can be unpredictable. Ungodliness can suddenly come upon us. Verses 8-9 give several examples of normal things people did during Solomon’s time. A hunter digs a pit to trap animals. A construction worker renovates a house - he hacks down a wall. A stone mason removes bricks or cuts bricks out of rock. Or someone is simply chopping wood - maybe to get a fire going to cook the evening meal. These are things that people do in their lives. But all of a sudden, problems come. The hunter who digs a hole? He might fall into it. The construction worker who hacks down a wall? A snake hiding behind it bites him. Or he may be removing bricks and the bricks fall on him. Or the woodcutter is hurt by falling branches. Solomon uses these examples to show how unpredictable ungodliness can be. You can be pursuing godliness, living carefully, but you kena ungodliness.

For example, Asher’s Bakery in Northern Ireland and other bakeries in the world were prosecuted for discriminating against the homosexual agenda. They were baking and selling their cakes, not discriminating against anyone - and then suddenly, they were sued for discrimination because they wouldn’t do something against conscience. One day their business was booming, and the next day; they were defending themselves. In the end they were exonerated. But their defense cost £250,000. The cake was only £35. Christians in Pakistan often face a specific charge from neighbors or acquaintances unhappy with them - blasphemy against Islam. The mere accusation is enough. No due process. Accusation is enough. This was Europe during the Inquisition, or China during the Cultural Revolution. In the face of this, some Christians may just decide it isn’t worth pursuing godliness. Just keep quiet about your Christianity. Just bake the cake. Don’t speak for Christ. But as verse 10 advises - continue to do good and pursue godly wisdom. “If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct.” Do what’s right in God’s eyes. Yes, ungodliness may overpower godliness in this life, but not always. Let’s sharpen the axe, to be godly and wise; godly wisdom can prevail. In the case of the Asher’s Bakery - they were exonerated 4 years later.

But it’ll be hard. Why? Ungodliness is unpredictable and relentless. When the godly are confronted with a problem they will be discreet in speech. Verse 4 says, “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.” In other words, if your boss is angry, don’t react in anger and quit. Instead, have a quiet spirit. That’s wisdom. A quiet answer turns away wrath. But the ungodly are not so. They don’t keep quiet. They’re relentless. Let me read verses 12-14 in a newer translation - “Wise words bring approval, but fools are destroyed by their own words. Fools base their thoughts on foolish assumptions, so their conclusions will be wicked madness; they chatter on and on. No one really knows what is going to happen; no one can predict the future.” That’s the characteristic of ungodliness. Even though the speech of the fool gets him in trouble, and even though the source of his speech is foolish and his conclusions are crazy, yet he won’t stop. And we’ve all experienced this - the more we talk, the worse it becomes. And despite the fact that his words are consuming him, he’s absolutely committed to making it worse. According to one writer (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes) - “He does not know when to keep quiet. He goes on and on spouting nonsense quite oblivious to the fact that it is nonsense. The trouble is that he believes what he says. The more he talks, the more he convinces himself that he knows. He has got all the answers. The last thing a fool can do is to recognize his own limitations.” When you are dealing with a person like this, it’s very difficult. Your life is made hell on earth. We are exhorted not to be like this because it’s self-destructive.

You see, such ungodly speech doesn’t stay hidden because it’s so relentless. Verse 20 - “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.” What you say, others will hear. A little bird told me. We think it’s bad to have to eat our own words - but how much worse when our words eat us. It’s amazing isn’t it? Despite knowing these things, the folly in us and others can be relentless. And that’s dangerous, as verse 11 says. It’s like a snake that cannot be charmed - the ungodly go around biting people. It’s their heart inclination. And nothing can change the inclination of the sinner’s heart. Proverbs 27:22 tells us that even though you grind a fool in a mortar with a pestle, you can’t grind away his foolishness. Nothing under the sun can change a person - only the Son of God can change a person’s heart. This is what we are, but by the grace of God. 

And this is why, foolishness is in everyone because we’re all sinners. Foolishness is indiscriminate. It affects everyone. We may expect that education can change people - but it can’t - it just makes a person sin more sophisticatedly. The village thug robs the bank, but the greedy financier devises a ponzi scheme. Everyone is affected by folly - the educated, uneducated, rich and poor, rulers and citizens. It’s found in people of high estate. In one sense, you would expect kings and governors to be wise - but they aren’t always. Verse 5 - “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler.” In other words, leaders are not necessarily godly and wise. Mark Twain once said, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” They can make grave mistakes. And what mistake is that? Verse 16 laments that some rulers are very young. Verses 6-7 tell us that they give great authority to foolish people and low positions to people of proven worth. We see this in the Scriptures. In Esther, Ahasuerus exalted Haman, who in his folly almost destroyed the Jews. We see how the ungodly Mrs Potiphar got the godly Joseph thrown in jail. Foolishness has the power to hurt people, families, nations, communities. We see this in ordinary situations - verse 18 describes how homeowners have decaying homes. While eating and drinking and work are good things God has given to mankind, fools misuse the gifts of God - through not working, through feasting in the morning, getting drunk. And even through these things, they cause much problem.

You know, as we look at this, we wonder - what is the purpose and the goodness of being godly? Foolishness and ungodliness seem to overcome everything anyway. And we’ll be looking at this more next week. But some people ask - what’s the point in being moral when you rugi? But dearly beloved, this is where we must remember one thing. Being wise and godly is not for the purpose of getting ahead! Being wise and godly are the inclinations of our redeemed heart. Christ has saved a people for himself. We’re godly because we love Christ. We remember that God chose Mary to bear his son. She was highly favored. And Joseph - he didn’t want to make a scene; he wanted to put her away quietly. But instead, he raised God’s son as his own. That’s godliness. Christ healed the sick and he spoke words of life. Godliness. But the Pharisees foolishly and zealously blamed him for healing on the Sabbath; they falsely accused him - relentlessly. He drank with his disciples and reached out to publicans; they spread news he was a drunk and a friend of sinners. Pilate said he was innocent; but he was powerless against the foolishness of the crowd. They shouted “crucify him!” and he was. And all through this, Christ remained silent. The folly of sinners seemed to be more powerful than the wisdom of God. 

But no. His death at their hands was the very means to purchase the salvation of his enemies. Press on in godliness, despite folly in the world, because we are God’s people. Dearly beloved, how do we apply this sermon when it’s been so negative? There are several areas we can overpower folly by godliness.

Firstly, personally. We will encounter the ungodly. They are relentlessness and unpredictable. You will be tempted to react foolishly. You will be tempted to fight back in an ungodly way. But dearly beloved, it doesn’t pay to give in to ungodliness. Let us focus on manifesting Christ, his wisdom, and his righteousness. Paul says to let your moderation or sweet reasonableness be known to all men. If we are not careful, one act or word of folly can lead to much grief. And some of us have grief and regret don’t we? There are things others have done and you have done that have led to grief. So let Christ reign in our hearts that we not destroy ourselves and others. But similarly, we should expect folly in the world to come to us. It shouldn’t surprise us. People are cutthroat. When injustice comes, let us remember Christ’s example. Stand your moral ground, be godly, use wise and godly words, but know that you may never be able to overcome sins of others. You may rugi. You will si; you will su. In this life under the sun.

But as we come to our 40th anniversary next year, and as we come to a time when people are celebrating peace on earth, good will to all men - let me address us corporately. There are many things that can destroy the good work of a church. The devil is always looking for ways to harm Christ’s bride. In every age, there will be opposition from without. How? Christ said, put away the sword. But there will also be foolishness from within the church -  bad things like zeal without knowledge, apathy toward God, sin in the camp, self-righteousness; and even good things done foolishly. The devil is active to destroy Christ’s church and he often does it through foolishness in the church, or through foolish zeal, foolish words, foolish thoughts, foolish ways, foolish haste.

On this earth, folly and ungodliness can overpower godliness and wisdom. But we remember one thing - that God allows such folly to happen. For it was the ungodliness of man that brought about the sacrifice of a wise savior, to save fools like us; that we may no longer live foolishly as we once did. But once again, we’re confronted with the reality of life under the sun. And we’re comforted knowing we’re going to a place under the Son, where no sun shines - because the glory of the lamb is the only light there. This is the inheritance that is ours through the gospel - which is the power of God; and through Christ - who is the wisdom of God.

Sermon Outline:

1. Wisdom Is Vulnerable to Folly

    A. Wisdom is godly, folly is ungodly

    B. Folly can overpower wisdom

    C. The overpowering evidence of folly

2. The Characteristics of Folly Are Dangerous

    A. It is unpredictable

    B. It is relentless

    C. It is indiscriminate

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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