Ecclesiastes 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.
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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.

10:1-3 Those especially who make a profession of religion, should keep from all appearances of evil. A wise man has great advantage over a fool, who is always at a loss when he has anything to do. Sin is the reproach of sinners, wherever they go, and shows their folly.This verse is by its meaning so closely connected with 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.

So doth ... - literally, more weighty than wisdom, than honor, is a little folly.


Ec 10:1-20.

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.

Dead flies falling into it, and abiding and being putrefied in it, especially in those countries, where there were more filthy and venomous flies, and where the ointments were more pure, and where the air was more hot, than in these parts.

So doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour; which comes to pass, partly because all the actions, and consequently the follies, of such men are most diligently observed, and soonest discerned, and tossed about in the mouths of men, whereas fools and all their carriages are generally disregarded; and partly because of that envious and malicious disposition of men’s minds, which makes them quick-sighted to discover, and glad to hear and forward to declare, the faults of such as by their greater eminency did outshine and obscure them.

Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour,.... Such, as Jarchi observes, are in the winter season, which are weak and near to death, and get into precious ointment, prepared after the best manner, where they die, and corrupt and spoil it: or, "flies of deaths" (m); deadly ones, which have something in their nature poisonous and pernicious; which, when they light upon the most sweet and savoury ointment, give it an ill smell;

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.''

(m) "muscae mortis", Montanus, Vatablus, Drusius, Amama, Cocceius, Rambachius. (n) Ebr. Comment. p. 344.

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.
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: [13]); "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 10:1The second half of the foregoing double proverb introduces what now follows: "Poisonous flies make to stink, make to ferment the oil of the preparer of ointment; heavier than wisdom, than honour, weighs a little folly." We do not need to change מות זבוּבי, on account of the foll. sing. of the pred., either into זבוגי ם (as possible by Hitz.) or זב ימוּתי (Luzz.); both are inadmissible, for the style of Koheleth is not adorned with archaisms such as Chirek compaginis; and also such an attrib. clause as זבוב ימות, a fly which dies," is for him too refined; but both are also unnecessary, for a plur. of the subj., in which the plurality of the individuals comes less into view than the oneness of their character, is frequently enough followed by the sing. of the pred., e.g., Genesis 39:22; Joel 1:20; Isaiah 59:12, etc. It is a question, however, whether by זבובי מות, death-bringing, i.e., poisonous flies (lxx, Targ., Luther)

(Note: The Targ. interprets, as the Talm. and Mid. do, deadly flies as a figure of the prava concupiscentia. Similarly Wangemann: a mind buried in the world.)

or dead flies (Symm., Syr., Jerome) is meant. We decide in favour of the former; for (1) זבובי מות for זבוּבים מתים (Ecclesiastes 9:4; Isaiah 37:36), "death-flies" for "dead flies," would be an affected poetic expression without analogy; while, on the contrary, "death-flies" for "deadly flies" is a genit. connection, such as מות כּלי instruments of death, i.e., deadly instruments and the like; Bttcher understands dung-flies; but the expression can scarcely extend to the designation of flies which are found on dead bodies. Meanwhile, it is very possible that by the expression זב ם, such flies are thought of as carry death from dead bodies to those that are living; the Assyr. syllabare show how closely the Semites distinguished manifold kinds of זבובים (Assyr. zumbi equals zubbi). (2) In favour of "dead flies," it has been remarked that that influence on the contents of a pot of ointment is effected not merely by poison-flies, but, generally, by flies that have fallen into it.

But since the oil mixed with perfumes may also be of the kind which, instead of being changed by a dead body, much rather embalms it; so it does not surprise us that the exciter of fermentation is thus drastically described by μυῖαι θανατοῦσαι (lxx); it happens, besides, also on this account, because "a little folly" corresponds as a contrasted figure to the little destructive carcase, - wisdom בע תּח ("giveth life," Ecclesiastes 7:2), a little folly is thus like little deadly flies. The sequence of ideas יב יבּ (maketh the ointment stink) is natural. The corrupting body communicates its foul savour to the ointment, makes it boil up, i.e., puts it into a state of fermentation, in consequence of which it foams and raises up small blisters, אבעבועות (Rashi). To the asyndeton יב יבּ, there corresponds, in 1b, the asyndeton מח מ כּ; the Targ., Syr., and Jerome,

(Note: The lxx entirely remodels Ecclesiastes 10:1: τίμιον κ.τ.λ ("a little wisdom is more honour than the great glory of folly"), i.e., יקר מעט חכמה סכלות רב (כבוד in the sense of "great multitude"). Van der Palm (1784) regards this as the original form of the text.)

who translate by "and," are therefore not witnesses for the phrase וּמך, but the Venet. (καὶ τῆς δόχης) had this certainly before it; it is, in relation to the other, inferior in point of evidence.

(Note: מכּבוד; thus in the Biblia rabb. 1525, 1615, Genoa 1618, Plantin 1582, Jablonski 1699, and also v. d. Hooght and Norzi. In the Ven. 1515, 1521, 1615, וּמכּבוד is found with the copulat. vav, a form which is adopted by Michaelis. Thus also the Concord. cites, and thus, originally, it stood in J., but has been corrected to מכּבוד. F., however, has מכּבוד, with the marginal remark: מכבוד כן קבלתי מני שמשון (Simson ha-Nakdam, to whom the writer of the Frankf. Cod. 1294 here refers for the reading מך, without the copul. vav, is often called by him his voucher). This is also the correct Masoretic reading; for if וּמך were to be read, then the word would be in the catalogue of words of which three begin with their initial letter, and a fourth has introduced a vav before it (Mas. fin. f. 26, Ochla veochla, Nr. 15).)

In general, it is evident that the point of comparison is the hurtfulness, widely extending itself, of a matter which in appearance is insignificant. Therefore the meaning of Ecclesiastes 10:1 cannot be that a little folly is more weighty than wisdom, than honour, viz., in the eyes of the blinded crowd (Zckl., Dchsel). This limitation the author ought to have expressed, for without it the sentence is an untruth. Jerome, following the Targ. and Midrash, explains: Pretiosa est super sapientiam et gloriam stultitia parva, understanding by wisdom and honour the self-elation therewith connected; besides, this thought, which Luther limits by the introduction of zuweilen ["folly is sometimes better than wisdom, etc."], is in harmony neither with that which goes before nor with that which follows.

Luzz., as already Aben Ezra, Grotius, Geiger, Hengst., and the more recent English expositors, transfer the verbs of Ecclesiastes 10:1 zeugmatically to Ecclesiastes 10:1: similiter pretiosum nomine sapientiae et gloriae virum foetidum facit stolidtias parva. But יביע forbids this transference, and, besides, מן יקר, "honoured on account of," is an improbable expression; also מך יקר presents a tautology, which Luzz. seeks to remove by glossing מך, as the Targ. does, by ונכסים עושר מרוב. Already Rashi has rightly explained by taking יקר (Syr. jaḳîr, Arab. waḳur, waḳûr), in its primary meaning, as synon. of כּבד: more weighty, i.e., heavier and weighing more than wisdom, than honour, is a little folly; and he reminds us that a single foolish act can at once change into their contrary the wisdom and the honour of a man, destroying both, making it as if they had never been, cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6. The sentence is true both in an intellectual and in a moral reference. Wisdom and honour are swept away by a little quantum of folly; it places both in the shade, it outweighs them in the scale; it stamps the man, notwithstanding the wisdom and dignity which otherwise belong to him, as a fool. The expressive רקח שׁמן is purposely used here; the dealer in ointments (pigmentarius) can now do nothing with the corrupted perfume, - thus the wisdom which a man possesses, the honour which he has hitherto enjoyed, avail him no longer; the proportionally small portion of folly which has become an ingredient in his personality gives him the character of a fool, and operates to his dishonour. Knobel construes rightly; but his explanation (also of Heiligst., Elst., Ginsb.): "a little folly frequently shows itself more efficacious and fruitful than the wisdom of an honoured wise man," helps itself with a "frequently" inserted, and weakens מך to a subordinated idea, and is opposed to the figure, which requires a personality.

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