Right and Left

“A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left” (Ecclesiastes 10:2, NASB).

Not long ago I heard someone cite this verse tongue-in-cheek as proof that God wants us all to be political con­servatives (on the right, get it?). Being generally conserva­tive myself, I thought that was pretty clever.

Of course, it wasn’t until the French Revolution that people began using “right” and “left” to describe politi­cal views. Such language certainly wasn’t in vogue in Solomon’s day. So clearly the inspired king means something else here. But what?

To answer that, just dwell on the fact that the vast majority of people — more than 90% of us — are right-handed. It has been so throughout human history. Drawing on this fact, the Hebrews often used the right hand to symbolize such qualities as strength, skill, pro­tection, honor, and authority.

Scripture provides dozens of examples. Jacob hon­ored his young­est son with the name Benjamin — “son of the right hand” (Genesis 35:18). (Ironically, the tribe of Benjamin produced an exceptional number of highly skilled left-handers; see Judges 3:15; 20:16; 1 Chroni­cles 12:2). After the deli­verance from Egypt, Moses and Israel sang, “Your right hand, O Lord, is majestic in power; Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy” (Exodus 15:6). Similar lan­guage is common in the Psalms and the prophets (cf. Psalm 16:8,11; Isaiah 41:10,13; Lamentations 2:3-4).

On another level, right and left might also be used to symbolize right and wrong. In such symbolism, “that which lies to the right, as that lying at a man’s right hand, is that to which his calling and duty point him,” while the left denotes “to turn oneself to the wrong side” (Keil and Delitzsch, Old Testament Commentary, 6:767). It’s inter­esting, then, that in Jesus’ portrait of the judgment in Matthew 25, he describes the sheep (the righteous) as being on his right and the goats (the lost) on his left (verses 31-46).

All this can help us understand how Solomon uses right and left in the passage at hand. In the words of Adam Clarke, the verse shows “the command which the wise man has over his own mind, feelings, passions, etc., and the prudence with which he acts.” And it shows “the want of prudence and management in the fool, who has no re­straint on his passions, and no rule or guard upon his tongue” (Clarke’s Commentary, 3:831). Or, as W. J. Deane put it:

The wise man’s heart, his understanding and sentiments, lead him to what is right and proper and straightforward: the fool’s heart leads him astray, in the wrong direction. The for­mer is active and skillful, the latter is slow and awk­ward…The wise man’s mind shows him how to escape dan­gers and direct his course safely; the fool’s mind helps him not to any good pur­pose, causes him to err and miss his best object (Pulpit Com­mentary: Ecclesiastes, 250).