by the Rev. Martin Emmrich
8He who digs a pit will fall into it,
and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall.
9He who quarries stones is hurt by them,
and he who splits logs is endangered by them.
10If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge,
he must use more strength,
but wisdom helps one to succeed.
11If the serpent bites before it is charmed,
there is no advantage to the charmer.
What we have here is wisdom of a more traditional kind, not as a panacea for life, but wisdom that makes observations about the way things are. Ecclesiastes is thus not only a polemic against conventional wisdom; the writer is more flexible than many are willing to admit.
10:8-9 illustrate the uncertainty in life's affairs. There is always the possibility of the unforeseen, the potential for an accident. This notion fits well with what we read in 9:11-12. Bad things do happen, and evil in our lives is not always the consequence of sin.
But while there is potential for danger in just about any activity, and more so in certain ones (cutting wood, hewing stones, tearing down walls), there are things that we can do to succeed. The two "if-sayings" of 10:10-11 tell us that you have got to use what skill and wisdom you have, you have got to use your expertise. Rather than exerting yourself (which would also increase the risk of injury), you should be wise enough to take the time and prepare your tool, as in sharpening an axe when you chop wood. Size and strength do not matter that much when you use skill and understanding, and the work will be easier.
I could see myself attempting to install a fish pond in my yard without taking the time to read up on it and without assembling the proper tools. Under these circumstances, it is likely that I will spend twice as much time and effort with less gratifying results (frustration and anger included) than if I make proper preparations.
10:11 also calls for technical skill, namely snake-charming. Even if you are an expert, your skill won't do you any good, if you neglect to use it. Slackness may nullify inherent skill, even the ability to handle a difficult matter.
When we put things this way, several applications offer themselves to us. I know we would all like to believe that advancement in Christian virtues and spirituality simply happens. Our generation is suspicious of discipline and particularly any kind of ritual in religion. The transcendent is to be unmediated and intuitive. But the principle of using skill and proper timing in everyday matters applies as well to spiritual matters. We will always need the wisdom of adapting means to their corresponding ends. We need to use the means and gifts that God has given us, and we need to use them in their appropriate time. If the cobra bites or if the axe is dull, the fault usually lies in our own lack of preparation, and in our laziness.
We have to be intentional about how we go about our Christian lives. "No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops" (2 Tim. 2:4-6). Paul here is talking about the use of wisdom in making our calling and election sure. The pay-off is in spiritual "currency." In fact, as the crown he mentions intimates, the exercise of spiritual discernment and consistent application of the means of grace is your way of laying up treasure in heaven. To fail or to be negligent in this is not merely to miss out on a few blessings; it entails great risk, the risk of deceiving oneself.
Living the Christian life without the proper commitment and thoughtful use of the means of grace will actually diminish our joy, and the yoke of Christ will become heavier than it was meant to be—just like work will be when it is done with blunt tools and you exert yourself before it is done.
The author of these devotionals, the Rev. Martin Emmrich, is an ordained OPC minister (Westminster OPC, Corvallis, Oregon) as well as the author of Pneumatological Concepts in the Epistle to the Hebrews, a book on the teaching of Hebrews on the Holy Spirit. We are happy to make these devotionals on Ecclesiastes and other passages of Scripture available to you.