Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking smell: so does a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)Ecclesiastes 10:1. Dead flies, &c. — Solomon seems in these words to be prosecuting what he had said in the last clause of the preceding chapter; showing how much good one foolish action may destroy, what evil may result from it, and how a man, otherwise famed for wisdom, may thereby lose his reputation. So most interpreters understand the verse. “The wiser or better,” says Bishop Patrick, “any man is, so much the more cautious ought he to be in all his words and actions, if he mean to preserve that credit, esteem, and authority in the world, which give him great advantages for doing good. For, as dead flies, though very small creatures, falling into a pot of ointment,” and abiding and being putrified in it, “corrupt that precious composition, and turn the perfume into a stink; so doth a small error or miscarriage blemish him who was highly valued for his discretion and virtue.” And this comes to pass, partly, because all the actions, and consequently the follies of such men are most diligently observed, whereas the actions and follies of persons known to be ignorant and weak are generally disregarded; and, partly, because of that envious and malicious disposition which is in the minds of too many, and makes them quick- sighted to discover, and glad to hear, and forward to declare, the faults of such as, by their greater eminence, outshone and obscured them.Ecclesiastes 9:18 that the selection of it for the beginning of a new chapter seems unfortunate.
Apothecary - Rather: a dealer in spices and perfumes (compare Exodus 30:25). The swarms of flies in the East very soon corrupt and destroy any moist unguent or mixture left uncovered, and pollute a dish of food in a few minutes.
1. Following up Ec 9:18.
him that is in reputation—for example, David (2Sa 12:14); Solomon (1Ki 11:1-43); Jehoshaphat (2Ch 18:1-34; 19:2); Josiah (2Ch 35:22). The more delicate the perfume, the more easily spoiled is the ointment. Common oil is not so liable to injury. So the higher a man's religious character is, the more hurt is caused by a sinful folly in him. Bad savor is endurable in oil, but not in what professes to be, and is compounded by the perfumer ("apothecary") for, fragrance. "Flies" answer to "a little folly" (sin), appropriately, being small (1Co 5:6); also, "Beelzebub" means prince of flies. "Ointment" answers to "reputation" (Ec 7:1; Ge 34:30). The verbs are singular, the noun plural, implying that each of the flies causes the stinking savor.Observations on wisdom and folly, Ecclesiastes 10:1-3. Of rulers, Ecclesiastes 10:4-7. Of wrong and injustice, Ecclesiastes 10:8-10. Of talkativeness, imprudence, and its mischiefs, Ecclesiastes 10:11-15. Kings hurtful and desirable, Ecclesiastes 10:16,17. Of sloth, Ecclesiastes 10:18. Feasts, Ecclesiastes 10:19. The king must not be cursed, Ecclesiastes 10:20.
so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour; a good name is like precious ointment, valuable and fragrant; sin, which is folly, is like a dead fly; not only light and mean, and base and worthless, but hurtful and pernicious, deadly, and the cause of death; and what may seem little, a peccadillo, or, however, one single act of sin, may injure the character of a wise and honourable man, and greatly expose him to shame and contempt, and cause him to stink in the nostrils of men, Genesis 36:20; and to be reproached by men, and religion and government to be reproached for his sake. Thus the affair of Bathsheba and Uriah, what a slur did it bring on the character of David, so famous for wisdom and honour, for religion and piety? and the idolatry of Solomon, the wisest of men; Jehoshaphat, that good king, entering into affinity with Ahab; and pious Josiah going to war with the king of Egypt, contrary to the word of the Lord; with many other instances. This teaches how careful men eminent for gifts and grace should be of their words and actions; since the least thing amiss in them is easily discerned, and soon taken notice of, as the least speck in a diamond, or spot in fine linen, clean and white; and there are wicked and envious persons enough watching for their halting, glad to have an occasion against them, and improve everything to the uttermost: this is a caution to wise magistrates, honourable ministers of the word, and eminent professors more especially. The Targum is,
"evil concupiscence, which dwells at the gates of the heart, is as a fly, and is the cause of death in the world; and corrupts a good name, which was before like to anointing oil, perfumed with spices:''
and to the same purpose the Midrash. One of the names of Satan is Beelzebub, the lord of a fly; who, by his temptations, solicits to sin and folly, which produce the effect here mentioned, and therefore to be shunned as a deadly fly in the ointment, Matthew 12:24. Gussetius (n) renders it,
"that which is precious and worthy of honour "proceeds" from wisdom; and folly "comes" from glory, "worldly glory", in a little time.''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.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)1. Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary] The division of the chapters obscures the connexion. The maxim now before us is but the figurative expression of the fact stated, without a parable, in the last verse of ch. 9. The “dead flies” are, in the Hebrew, “flies of death,” probably, i.e. poisonous, or stinging flies of the dung-fly, or carrion-fly type. Such insects, finding their way into a vase of precious ointment, would turn its fragrance into a fœtid odour. The work of an “apothecary” or manufacturer of unguents was one held in honour in Jerusalem, and the guilds to which they belonged had a special street or bazaar. Few similitudes could describe more vividly the tainting influence of folly, moral or intellectual. It is to the full as expressive as “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” of 1 Corinthians 5:6. The experience of every day shews us, how little sins mar the nobleness of a great character; procrastination, talkativeness, indecision, over-sensitiveness to praise or blame, undue levity or undue despondency, want of self-control over appetites or passions, these turn the fragrance of a good name (ch. Ecclesiastes 7:1) into the “ill savour” which stinks in the nostrils of mankind.
so doth a little folly] The completeness of the proverb in the English is obtained by the insertion of the words “so doth.” This is, however, a somewhat over-bold manipulation of the text, and it remains to see whether we can get an adequate meaning without it. The true rendering seems to be as follows, More prevailing (this takes the place of “him that is in reputation,” the primary meaning of the root being that of weight) than wisdom and honour is a little folly. This gives substantially the same meaning as the present English text, though in a different manner. The “little folly” outweighs the wisdom, and diminishes both its actual value and the estimate men form of it. Looking to the language of ch. Ecclesiastes 7:1, the effect of a little folly on the reputation of the wise would seem to be the prominent thought. By some commentators the English meaning of the word is retained even with this construction “More highly prized (i. e. in the opinion of the unthinking) is a little folly than wisdom and honour,” but this destroys the parallelism with the first clause. The writer does not here speak of the undue honour paid to folly, but of its really destructive power even when matched against wisdom. The saying ascribed to the Chancellor Oxenstiern comes to one’s mind, “Quantulâ sapientiâ regatur mundus!” One foolish prince, or favourite, or orator prevails against many wise. One element of folly in the character prevails over many excellencies.Verses 1-3. - Section 11. A little folly mars the effect of wisdom, and is sure to make itself conspicuous. Verse 1. - Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor. This is a metaphorical confirmation of the truth enunciated at the end of the last chapter, "One sinner destroyeth much good." It is like the apostle's warning to his converts, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6). The Hebrew expression is literally, "flies of death," which may mean either "dead flies," as in our version and the Vulgate (muses morientes), or "deadly, poisonous flies," as in the Septuagint (μυῖαι θανατοῦσαι). The latter rendering seems preferable, if we regard the use of similar compound phrases, e.g., "instruments of death" (Psalm 7:14: ); "snares of death" (Psalm 18:5); and in New Testament Greek, ἡ πληγὴ τοῦ θανάτου, "the death-stroke" (Revelation 13:3, 12). The flies meant are such as are poisonous in their bite, or carry infection with them. Such insects corrupt anything which they touch - food, ointment, whether they perish where they alight or not. They, as the Hebrew says, make to stink, make to ferment, the oil of the perfumer. The singular verb is here used with the plural subject to express the unity of the individuals, "flies" forming one complete idea. The Septuagint rendering omits one of the verbs: Σαμπιοῦσι σκευασίαν ἐλαίου ἡδύσματος, "Corrupt a preparation of sweet ointment." The point, of course, is the comparative insignificance of the cause which spoils a costly substance compounded with care and skill. Thus little faults mar great characters and reputations. "A good name is better than precious ointment" (Ecclesiastes 7:1), but a good name is ruined by follies, and then it stinks in men's nostrils. The term, "ointment of the apothecary," is used by Moses (Exodus 30:25, etc.) in describing the holy chrism which was reserved for special occasions. So doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor. The meaning of the Authorized Version is tolerably correct, but the actual rendering will hardly stand, and one wants some verb to govern "him that," etc. The other versions vary. Septuagint, "A little wisdom is more precious (τίμιον) than great glory of folly;" Vulgate, "More precious are wisdom and glory than small and short-lived folly;" Jerome, "Precious above wisdom and glory is a little folly." This last interpretation proceeds upon the idea that such "folly" is at any rate free from pride, and has few glaring faults. "Dulce est desipere in loco," says Horace ('Carm.,' 4:12. 28). But the original is best translated thus: "More weighty than wisdom, than honor, is a little folly." It is a painful fact that a little folly, one foolish act, one silly peculiarity of manner or disposition, will suffice to impair the real value of a matt's wisdom and the estimation in which he was held. The little clement of foolishness, like the little insect in the ointment, obscures the real excellence of the man, and deprives him of the honor that is really his due. And in religion we know that one fault unchecked, one Secret sin cherished, poisons the whole character, makes a man lose the grace of God. (For the same effect from another cause, see Ezekiel 3:20; Ezekiel 33:13.) Jerome sees in the "dead flies" wicked thoughts put into the Christian's mind by Beelzebub, "the lord of flies." Ecclesiastes 7:27). There is no reason thus to break up the sentence which introduces the following experience. Zoh is connected with hhochmah, but not as Luther renders it: "I have also seen this wisdom," which would have required the words הח זאת, but, as Jerome does: Hanc quoque sub sole vidi sapeintiam; this, however, since ־מג, as at Ecclesiastes 5:15, cf. Ecclesiastes 9:18, is attractionally related to hhochmah as its pred., is equals "also in this I saw wisdom," as the lxx translates, or as Zckl.: "also this have I seen - come to find out as wisdom," - also this, viz., the following incident narrated, in which wisdom of exceeding greatness presented itself to me. As Mordecai is called "great among the Jews," Esther 10:3, so here Koheleth says that the wisdom which came to light therein appeared to him great (אלי, as elsewhere בּעיני or לפני).
Now follows an experience, which, however, has not merely a light side, but also a dark side; for wisdom, which accomplished so great a matter, reaped only ingratitude:
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