Butter Knife Logging: Ecclesiastes 10:8-11:6
Once someone reaches a pinnacle of success in their career we expect them to write a book. This is true of politicians, athletes, and business leaders. We want to know how their mind works, how they organized their life, and how they overcame obstacles and adversity. The result is a never ending parade of leadership, management, self help, and biographical books.
The trend is not new. In fact, roughly 3000 years ago the most intelligent, successful, and rich man in the world sat down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write his own memoir. That man is King Solomon. That book is Ecclesiastes.
In 10:8-11:6 his style is much like another book he contributed to called Proverbs. These fortune-cookie-like, pithy statements are the equivalent of ancient posts on social media – brief, penetrating, insightful, and memorable. Each of them provides good advice. The storyline of the Bible is the good news of the work of Jesus Christ. But, along the way the Bible also provides some good advice for God’s people.
The reason for this is simple. God not only cares about your life in heaven, he also cares about your life on earth. Not only does want you to have a great eternal life after you die, he wants you to begin experiencing that eternal life before you die.
The only way this is possible is by wisdom. Wisdom is practical and helps us make decisions in life that save us from harm, and promote life and health for us. Wisdom is more about principles than methods – getting to the heart of a matter and trusting the Holy Spirit to help us apply a principle to our life. For this reason, wisdom applies to the very things that tend to cause us the most pain – relationships, finances, family, leadership, work, money, intimacy, and our emotional life.
Principles #1 – Consider the Downside
Ecclesiastes 10:8 When you dig a well, you might fall in. When you demolish an old wall, you could be bitten by a snake. 9 When you work in a quarry, stones might fall and crush you. When you chop wood, there is danger with each stroke of your ax.
Echoing 10:8, in our culture we have a similar statement, “that might come back to bite you.” The point is simple – every activity comes with an inherent danger. So, when making a decision, especially an important one, we have to consider the downside. What is the unintended negative consequences that could occur? How could this backfire? What have we missed? These are the kind of questions leaders in the home, business, and church need to consider.
Principle #2 – Sharpen Your Ax
10:10 Using a dull ax requires great strength, so sharpen the blade. That’s the value of wisdom; it helps you succeed.
I grew up in the Northwest with a lot of trees and loggers. Loggers have particular tools for chopping down giant trees. The butter knife is not among those tools. Why? Not because it is sinful to log with a butter knife. No one ever went to hell because they were logging with a butter knife. Butter knife logging is not sinful, it’s just foolish. Some people are like butter knife loggers. They are doing a good thing in an unproductive way. They waste lots of time and energy only to get minimal results. How can you make your life more efficient? That is the question Solomon is driving at. The answers need to be very personal and practical. Do you need to organize your home, workspace, calendar, or technology? Do you need to spend time in the Bible and prayer? Do you need to get to sleep earlier at night so you can be rested? Do you need to get new technology or tools that are more efficient?
Principle #3: Act Before It’s Too Late
10:11 If a snake bites before you charm it, what’s the use of being a snake charmer?
While not a real popular career path in our day, snake charming was common in the ancient world. The entire goal of a snake charmer was to get the snake to obey them. But, sometimes before the snake charmer could tame the snake, the snake bit them and killed them. The point is simple, you may have a difficult or even dangerous task before you, and unless you act quickly it will be too late and you will be harmed or killed. Some things in life are urgent. The key is to know what is urgent and what is not urgent. It is important not to allow those things that are not urgent to overtake those things that are urgent. Practically speaking, this requires not just a long to do list, but a priorities list that helps us do the first things first.
Principle #4: Watch Your Words
10:12 Wise words bring approval, but fools are destroyed by their own words.13 Fools base their thoughts on foolish assumptions, so their conclusions will be wicked madness; 14 they chatter on and on. No one really knows what is going to happen; no one can predict the future.
Who is the most influential person in your life? You are. No one speaks to you more than you do. So the question begs, what do you say to yourself? Are you giving yourself wise counsel? It is important to realize that we cannot always trust ourselves. You can talk yourself into most anything. You can even make craziness sound plausible and promise a future no one knows. Often, we have limited insight and are not in the most objective place to view our own lives. So, we need to not always trust ourselves, but instead invite others in to give counsel to us.
Who else do you seek for counsel? If you want to sin, you can find an expert with a degree anywhere to endorse it, so you need to specifically seek wise counsel. This also means emotional and impetuous decisions are prone to folly.
Principle #5: Make a Plan
10:15 Fools are so exhausted by a little work that they can’t even find their way home.
When it comes to life, a wise person has a destination and directions to get there. Conversely, a fool does not have a clear picture of where they are going or a plan of how to get there. This is the difference between a wish and a goal – a goal has a plan with steps but a wish doesn’t. Without direction or plans, we are like people out for a walk not knowing where we are trying to go. Eventually, we waste a lot of time and energy making no progress. Do you have a clear picture of what you want for your life or a plan on how to get there?
Principle #6: Celebrate After the Game
10:16 What sorrow for the land ruled by a servant, the land whose leaders feast in the morning. 17 Happy is the land whose king is a noble leader and whose leaders feast at the proper time to gain strength for their work, not to get drunk.
Fools are irresponsible. A foolish person starts their day with play. As a result, they are too distracted, drunk, hung over, and tied up with shenanigans to be very productive. They miss deadlines, are forgetful, disorganized, and cannot be depended upon for things that matter, so their work is never done. In this way a foolish person is like an athlete who celebrates so much before the game they don’t even make it onto the field.
A wise person is responsible. A wise person starts their day with productivity. A wise person is not opposed to taking a day off, going out for a night of fun with friends, or having a good time. But, a wise person knows that those things are a reward and celebration after the work is done. In this way, a wise person is like an athlete who celebrates after the game is won. Are you prone to get the most important and hardest things out of the way first thing each day, or procrastinate and do fun things rather than first things?
Principle #7: Get It Done
10:18 Laziness leads to a sagging roof; idleness leads to a leaky house.
If you’ve ever gone out looking for a house to buy or rent it can get discouraging quickly. So many residences are so poorly maintained that it’s hard to believe the conditions some people live in, and what they tolerate to be undone in their own dwelling. Any wise homeowner will tell you that home maintenance is critical, especially the roof. Even one small leak in a roof can destroy an entire home. For this reason, you can tell a lot about a person by seeing their personal space. How do they keep their home, car, dorm room, etc.? If it is not well kept, the problem might be laziness where they are so busy wasting their time on unimportant things that they are risking everything. Is your personal life in order? Is your physical environment in order? Are you someone who is lazy and letting important things go in your life?
Principle #8: Stack Up Cash
10:19 A party gives laughter, wine gives happiness, and money gives everything!
There’s nothing wrong with going to parties and having a glass of wine. Jesus did this very thing. But, even better is having extra cash. The wise person does all they can to stack up some cash so that when a need, crisis, or opportunity arises they can respond quickly. Are you someone who lives within your means and stacks up some cash on the side?
Principle #9: Don’t Undermine Authority
10:20 Never make light of the king, even in your thoughts. And don’t make fun of the powerful, even in your own bedroom. For a little bird might deliver your message and tell them what you said.
This verse echoes a statement we have in our own culture, “a little birdie told me.” Twitter? The point is that those who are under authority are inevitably going to be frustrated with and ready to rant about those in authority. This can be kids with their parents, a wife with her husband, an employee with their boss, a citizen with their president, or a Christian with their pastor. But, what we say seems to often have a way of coming back to haunt us. Word eventually gets back around to those who we have made fun of, criticized, or ranted against, which only hurts both us and them – there’s no winner. Who are you most prone to vent, leak, joke, or rant about?
Principle #10: Be Generous
11:1 Send your grain across the seas, and in time, profits will flow back to you.
Some translations will say we should cast our bread upon the waters. In that day, bread was more like a wafer cracker and would float for a while before it sank. Imagine for a moment, someone sitting on the shore tossing crackers out to ducks and birds to enjoy, and you will get this word picture. The big idea here is that people who are in need are well served by generous people who help them up when they are down. Also, you never know when there may come a day when you are down, and in return some of them help you up. Who has been generous to you? Who do you need to be generous with?
Principle #11: Have A Financial Life Raft
11:2 But divide your investments among many places, for you do not know what risks might lie ahead.
We have a similar statement in our day to this one, “do not put all your eggs in one basket”. The point is to diversify your investments. A foolish person puts all of their financial security in one place, whereas a wise person spreads their wealth and investments around. Why? Because if one thing fails and the others do not, we are financially hurting but not financially dying. Have you wisely invested your wealth?
Principle #12: Bad Things Just Happen
11:3 When clouds are heavy, the rains come down. Whether a tree falls north or south, it stays where it falls.
There are things that are out of your control. Some of these things you can predict, such as seeing a rain storm roll in. Some things you cannot predict, such as a tree suddenly falling unexpectedly. The point is that you have to have margin in your plan – this includes your budget, your schedule, and your energy. Bad things just happen in this fallen world and we cannot always account for them. This is why every builder knows to put a percentage of margin in every project they bid out, for example. If we do not accept the inevitable fact that some bad things are coming our way, we are quickly overextended and frustrated. Sometimes we could have been wiser with our predictions and preparations.
Principle #13: Eventually You Gotta Jump
11:4 Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.
The only sure thing is that there’s no sure thing. If you are a person who is waiting for the perfect mate you will remain single. If you are a person who is waiting for the perfect job you will remain unemployed. If you are a person waiting for the perfect timing you will never act. Like a kid on a cliff peering down at the water below, at some point you just need to jump off and see what happens.
Principle #14: Don’t Spiritualize Everything
11:5 Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things.
No one really understands what God is doing. When Paul asks the question “who has known the mind of the Lord?” he is not expecting any of us to raise our hand. Wisdom dictates that every day we make the best decisions we can with the information we have. We should do our homework and prepare for whatever is next as best we can, but the truth is we don’t know what tomorrow holds or what God is doing. So, we need not pretend we do or spiritualize everything. Maybe something that happened was God’s will, or just a befuddling awful mystery we do not yet understand. Life is very practical, and sometimes the best thing is to be wise and not pretend to be more spiritual than we really are.
Principle #15: Keep Busy While You Wait
11:6 Plant your seed in the morning and keep busy all afternoon, for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another—or maybe both.
Using a farming metaphor, Solomon says that we should plant a lot of seed to see what takes root. And, while we wait to see what takes root we should keep ourselves busy. For the single guy, this means respectfully meeting women to see if one might make a good wife. For the unemployed woman, this means sending out a lot of resumes and seeing if one or more jobs become opportunities. For the investor, this means trying a few options and seeing which one yields the best return on investment. The worst thing is to wait for things to come together and just sit around idly. There is always something in life to be doing and working on. What things are out of your control and you are awaiting resolution on? How can you stay busy in the meantime?
The wisdom literature in general (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Job, Psalms, James), and this section in particular, is like a conversation with a wise parent or grandparent who loves you. God is a loving Father and when he talks to you about the practical stuff of life, it is his way of helping you flourish and have a good life. This is because God is a good Father, and like every good father he knows where his kids tend to get into trouble. He’s always there to put a hand on your back, look you in the eye, and lovingly help you navigate the trials of life.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 10:8-11:6
- In what areas of your life would you say you are wise in making decisions?
- In what areas of your life would you say that you are more foolish in making decisions?
- Of the 15 principles Solomon shares, which 2 or 3 are most important for you to learn? Why?
- Who is the wisest person you know? Why did you choose them?
- What is the wisest counsel anyone has ever given you?
- Do you struggle to see God as a loving Father who genuinely cares about the practical aspects of your life? Why or why not?
I grew up in the Northwest with a lot of trees and loggers. Loggers have particular tools for chopping down giant trees. The butter knife is not among those tools. Why? Not because it is sinful to log with a butter knife. No one ever went to hell because they were logging with a butter knife. Butter knife logging is not sinful, it’s just foolish. Some people are like butter knife loggers. They are doing a good thing in an unproductive way. They waste lots of time and energy only to get minimal results. How can you make your life more efficient? That is the question Solomon is driving at.