“If the ax is dull, and one does not sharpen the edge, then he must use more strength, but wisdom brings success” (Ecclesiastes 10:10 NKJV).
I recently watched a man in South Asia cut down a mahogany tree with a hatchet. The tree was probably 20 inches or so in diameter, with a fairly full top, and he climbed up near the top then began trimming branches. When he had it trimmed down to the main trunk only, then he came to the ground and cut it at the roots. Some of the work he did with a crosscut saw, but most was with a hand ax. If you have never tried it, take it from me, that is a hard job. This man did it well, and it did not take a very long time.
One secret to his ease and quickness was that before he started, he took several minutes to use his hone and sharpen the blade of his ax. Dull axes don’t cut well. A sharp edge will make any cutting job easier and faster, and it will produce a much better overall result.
The Preacher of ancient Israel (also known as the author of Ecclesiastes) understood this principle. One can expend energy and time in preparing properly for a task, or one can spend extra energy and time in trying to complete a task for which he lacks tools, skills, or proper planning. To an inexperienced person, time spent sharpening an ax may seem like time that is wasted. The truth is one often saves much time in the long run by using a little to prepare well before the job is begun.
Notice the last line of the text quoted above. “But wisdom brings success.” In this case, it was wise to sharpen the axe. Experience teaches us and one is wise who learns those lessons. Folly is to neglect one’s tools and so make his work more difficult.
There are other applications of this simple saying. First one must recognize that the ax is dull. Not everyone knows how to do that. Not everyone thinks to do it. But those who correctly evaluate the situation avoid problems from the very beginning. To do a job efficiently one must acquire the proper tools and skills, and enlist sufficient help. Or in other words, make good preparation.
Finally this saying illustrates that when one uses his mind he may often spare his back. Thinking to sharpen the ax meant that he did not have to use as much strength. Wisdom helps us in many ways, not least to avoid unnecessary and unproductive effort.
The proverb presented by the Preacher is not primarily intended as a guide to forestry or cutting trees. He placed it at the end of a brief paragraph about work (Ecclesiastes 10:8-10). In the previous verses he stated that one may suffer as a result of well-meant efforts. For example one who works in a stone-quarry may have one fall on him. One who cuts wood may be injured in his labor. That is the nature of certain tasks – they are dangerous. But he is not suggesting that his readers refuse any work that includes risks. Rather he is advising that the worker be aware of the risk and take appropriate precautions.
That is a fair and accurate appraisal of life. We will face hardship. Whatever we do may endanger us. But if we prepare well, and take heed of the dangers, we have a good opportunity for success. That is true both physically and spiritually. In the Preacher’s experience, if one sharpens his ax and works carefully he will be blessed in life.