Online Bible Commentary
The Fly in the Ointment
Ecclesiastes 10:1 Dead flies putrefy the perfumer's ointment, And cause it to give off a foul odor; So does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor. 2 A wise man's heart is at his right hand, But a fool's heart at his left. 3 Even when a fool walks along the way, He lacks wisdom, And he shows everyone that he is a fool. 4 If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, Do not leave your post; For conciliation pacifies great offenses. 5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, As an error proceeding from the ruler: 6 Folly is set in great dignity, While the rich sit in a lowly place. 7 I have seen servants on horses, While princes walk on the ground like servants. (NKJV)
The book of Ecclesiastes is classified as wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is especially concerned with helping us to deal with the issues of life. It is believed that Solomon wrote this book late in his life.
When Solomon became the king of Israel in 970 B.C. the first thing he asked of God was to be wise. God answered his prayer and made him the wisest man ever to live, at the age of nineteen (1 Kings 3:12).
In this passage, Solomon is writing of the difference between wisdom and folly, or foolishness. He begins with an example of foolishness. It is like “dead flies” in ointment, perfume (v. 1a). After awhile the dead flies ruin the effectiveness of the perfume (v. 1b). In the same way, foolishness can ruin the effectiveness of an otherwise wise person (v. 1c). His respect and good reputation can easily be ruined by poorly chosen words or actions.
In the ancient world, the right hand was considered to be the capable hand while the left hand was considered to be clumsy. Solomon uses this example as an analogy of the wise man and the fool (v. 2). The fool shows his ignorance just by his everyday actions as he clumsily handles the activities of life (v. 3a). “He shows everyone that he is a fool” (v. 3b).
In contrast, by his words and actions, the wise man shows everyone that he is wise. Solomon uses an example of one who is being disciplined by an angry superior (v. 4a). The fool will get angry and leave his “post” (v. 4b). In today’s workplace that would be the person who quits his job and storms out without having another job waiting for him.
The wise man, on the other hand, will remain calm and conciliatory, realizing that his superior is just venting. The wise man will pacify his superior so that his failure does not become more, such as the loss of a job (v. 4c).
Solomon then closes this passage by citing an “evil” he has seen first hand in the world (v. 5a). This evil was an “error” in judgment by a “ruler” (v. 5b). This error is that a ruler has put a fool in a position of honor, while a wise man is given a “lowly” position (v. 6). These kinds of errors result in fools being rewarded while wise men are treated poorly (v. 7).
This is an inequality in life that Solomon refers to as evil, a sin. But what is the sin that has been committed? The sin is one of playing favorites. The sin was breaking the golden rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
In God’s economy good is to be rewarded. When we play favorites and give a job to someone who is not deserving while passing over someone who is deserving this is a sin. The deserving person is not rewarded for the good he has done. The wrong person is rewarded, perhaps because they are younger or more attractive.
The result of this sin is the same result as all sin. Sin is destructive. It destroys good. In this case, playing favorites would result in a less effective company. The less deserving person would be less effective in their job than the deserving person would have been.
This act of foolishness soon ruins the effectiveness of the superior, the person once thought to be wise. He gave in to folly instead of taking the wise action. His foolish action was “the fly in the ointment” that caused his own downfall.