The Fly In The Ointment

Ecc 10:1 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.(KJV)

We are nearing the end of our series of blog entries on Ecclesiastes. Chapter 10 contains some great pithy sayings as well as good old-fashioned common sense. As I mentioned earlier, one of the great appeals of wisdom literature is the universal application of these principles. We can read the words of Solomon and they resonate with us, because we are just like him. Well, maybe not in the sense that we’re the wisest people of our day, or that we’re royalty. But we’re like Solomon in the sense that we are all human beings with common interests and conflicts. Paul says that there is no temptation that we face except that which is “common to man”. Solomon says basically the same thing with the phrase “there is no new thing under the sun.” So let’s begin a brief look at chapter 10.

The Preacher begins with a parable about the fly in the ointment. It only takes one dead fly to ruin costly and precious perfume. Similarly, it only takes one blemish or moral failure to undo a lifetime of work. Sadly, many wonderful Christian men and women will be remembered only for their mistakes. There is a saying that goes something like this: “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. In the end, our gifts, talents, and abilities won’t be what we will be remembered most for. Instead, we will be known for our character. No doubt Solomon did some wonderful things. He built a temple for God, wrote many proverbs, possessed great wisdom. Unfortunately some of the things we remember most about him deal with his multiple wives, worship of other gods, and over-the-top lavish lifestyle.

In verses 2 & 3 Solomon extols the value of wisdom. Those who are wise value wisdom at the “right hand”- a place of dignity, honor, power, and authority. Consequently, foolish people don’t put a premium on wisdom, and publish their folly for the whole world to see. It is difficult to hide foolishness. One might be able to hide it for a while if they remain silent, but eventually the truth becomes evident. In verse 4, we are given some great advice on how to deal with angry superiors. We are told to “yield” and “leave not thy place”. There is a verse in Proverbs that tells us that a soft answer turns away wrath. A similar thought is conveyed here, but with even more specifics. Whereas the exhortation to give a soft answer applies to everyone, here Solomon gives advice on how to deal with those who are over you. There are times when our superiors become displeased with us (sometimes deservedly so, perhaps other times not so). The temptation is to “leave our place”. Many quit and throw in the proverbial towel at the first sign of discomfort or displeasure. Most relationships in life survive not because of an absence of conflict, but because of the ability to find compromise.

In verses 5 through 7 Solomon observes how the world is sometimes “upside down” from the way it should be. Often folly or foolishness is set in high places of authority and renown, while wisdom is not regarded and treated with contempt. Verses 8 & 9 are admonitions to respect the feelings and property of others. We can be sure that if we seek to harm our neighbor without provocation, we will reap the same calamity that we have sown, if not worse!

Verse 10 is a call to “sharpen the axe”. We sometimes confuse frantic activity with productivity. There is an old parable about two men who were in the woods cutting down trees- a young man, and an older gentleman. The younger man was much stronger, faster, and vibrant. Yet at the end of the day, the older man had cut down many more trees than the young man. Puzzled by the day’s results, the young man asked the old man what was his secret. The old man smiled and replied:

“You were working very hard today. In fact, I watched you and you never once took a break. But here we are at the end of the day, and I’ve cut down many more trees than you did. You want to know my secret? While you were frantically working, I would sit down and sharpen my axe. I took several breaks throughout the day and sharpened the axe while I sat.. It took much less effort for me to fell the trees because my blade was razor sharp. You worked very hard, but cut down little because you were swinging a dull axe!”

Verses 11 through 14 deal with the tongue. The babbler is compared to a serpent. The bible has much to say about the topic of the tongue so I won’t go into great detail here. Foolish men are easy to spot because they are the ones who are always talking. In particular, Solomon seems to be admonishing those who love to make great predictions about everything (know anyone like that?). We might call such a person a “know-it-all”. But the Preacher reminds us that only God truly knows the future.

In verses 16 & 17 we get a lesson about priorities and maturity. He says “woe to thee O land when thy king is a child”. Now at first glance, we might interrupt with “but wasn’t Solomon a child when he began to reign?”. The Jewish historian Josephus records that Solomon was 12 years old when he began to rule. So obviously Solomon isn’t speaking chronologically. Instead, he’s speaking of maturity. We probably all know someone who is biologically an adult, but a child in terms of maturity. This is confirmed because (as Solomon states in this passage) the immature princes “eat in the morning”. In contrast with this- the mature ruler does his business in the morning and eats in the evening- and even then- not for drunkenness (10:17b).

Verse 18 is a command against sloth and laziness. Solomon uses the analogy of a decaying building or a house that drops through. What caused this display of depreciation? Simply doing nothing! Many of us think that it takes some really willful act of disobedience to bring about spiritual ruin. But the truth is, spiritual destruction can take place if we simply do nothing. This is exactly the moral of the parable of the talents. The wicked man with one talent is not condemned for being a fornicator, a drunkard, and idolater, or anything like that. What was his sin? He simply did nothing!!!

The chapter ends with a warning not to curse the king- even in your thoughts. The powers that be are ordained of God. When we resist and curse them, we are actually holding God’s ways in contempt. Again, this does not mean that every policy or ideology held by a government is sanctioned by Divine authority. But government and order are both products of the will of God.

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