A Study of 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.” (Ecclesiastes 10.1)
As we review this text there seems to be an obvious division; the first part being the results of dead flies in the ointment of the apothecary, and the second part being the application, the folly of him in reputation for wisdom and honour. Accordingly, we shall, by the blessing of God, approach the subject with those divisions in mind, observing the matter of flies, ointment, apothecaries, folly, and reputations.
Remarkably, there are but few references to flies in the Scriptures. The first is found in Exodus 8:20-32. Here, the LORD had sent Moses to Pharaoh with instructions to let His people go from their bondage, and if Pharaoh failed to respond, God would send swarms of flies on all His people, their homes and their ground. The exception to this calamity would be the land of Goshen wherein the children of Israel resided, “…to the end thou mayest know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth. And I will put a division between my people and thy people: to morrow shall this sign be.” (verses 22, 23) The protection, as well as the distinction, of the families of Israel was assured.
Even so, the LORD sent the swarms of flies and corrupted the whole land with the filthy creatures. Pharaoh then partially relented and suffered the Israelites to go three days journey into the wilderness to sacrifice unto the LORD as He commanded them, and subsequently the LORD removed the swarms of flies so that “there remained not one.” (verse 31) Look where they may, the flies were gone, just as they came. All of them, millions, probably billions of flies, were sent of the LORD, and to the last one, the LORD removed them, to the last fly.
It is worth mention that flies were held in great reverence by many in the Orient, especially the Philistines, who had a god of the flies called Baalzebub, II Kings 1:2-4, and in the New Testament called Beelzebub. It was this god of the flies’ that Jesus was accused of casting out devils by. See Matthew 10.25; Mark 3.22; Luke 11:15-17. Little good this god did the Egyptians, however. The God of all power and might raised up flies when it pleased Him, and He removed them as it pleased Him. We would suggest in passing that what God did in sending swarms of flies on Egypt was right and holy, simply because God did it. It worked for much evil upon those heathens, but was a part of the eternal purpose of God to deliver His little children from their bondage. Conditionalists may deny this, but let them rave on! God did it, and it was right, and some few of us rejoice in it.
There are only two other mentions of the fly in the Bible, other than our text in Ecclesiastes, and the account of Exodus 8. Both mentions are found in the Book of Psalms and are references to those swarms of flies God sent on Pharaoh and his citizens. They are Psalm 78.45 and Psalm 105.31, and in both instances the swarms are described as “divers sorts of flies” meaning various or different sorts. According to the World Book Encyclopedia there are about 100,000 kinds of flies, which is indeed “various.” Besides the common house fly, some of the better known are the blow flies, deer flies, fruit flies, gnats, horse flies, midges, mosquitoes, sand flies, and the tsetse flies which carry the dreaded sleeping sickness disease. It can readily be seen that when the LORD sent divers sorts of flies on the Egyptians it was a calamity of major proportions. But our text deals with the fly in a much different manner, for the flies in the ointment of the apothecary were dead flies, not swarms of living flies.
Dead flies! Our mind is made to ask, what is the significance of the flies being dead, and just why did an accumulation of flies die in this ointment?
Many varieties of flies thrive in areas of putrification and decay. We have often seen the larvae of flies, commonly called maggots, working about in the carcass of a dead possum or some other deceased creature. The dung pile and garbage can is also a place of frequent sightings. The fly will lay their eggs in such convenient places which will hatch in a matter of a few hours, thus becoming larvae. Several days later the maggot becomes a pupa, and within 3 to 7 more days the fly appears. But, in the case of the flies in the ointment of the apothecary, rather than observing their normal life cycle, they died instead. If the LORD wills, we hope to show why as we continue.
THE OINTMENT OF THE APOTHECARY
Just as with the fly, the first mention of the ointment in the Scriptures is found in the book of Exodus. During the time Moses was in the mount receiving instructions for the preparation and construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 24:12 – 31:18) the LORD told Moses to take principal spices in very specific quantities; pure myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia, and olive oil; five in all. Their purpose was as follows: “And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.”(Exodus 30:25) It can readily be seen by the use of the word holy two times that this was to be a substance for consecration of high order. In fact, the word translated ointment is used only here and means, a consecratory gift. Elsewhere it carries a more ordinary meaning. The use of the ointment was also of a very specific nature. “And thou shalt anoint the tabernacle of the congregation therewith, and the ark of the testimony.” (Exodus 30:26) Additionally, the table, vessels, candlestick, altar of incense, altar of burnt-offerings, and layer were anointed, “And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy.” (Exodus 30:29) And too, Aaron and his sons were to be consecrated by this ointment that they might minister unto God in the priest’s office, (verse 30). Surely sanctity of the utmost was involved in all that pertained to this ointment.
As might be expected, there were prohibitions involved. “Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, shall even be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:33) We hope to explain the significance of this in due order, but will observe here that whatever all this involved, it was exclusively the property of the children of Israel; God’s chosen ones.
There was a second series of instructions in this chapter for an holy composition as well. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense; of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy.” (Exodus 30:34-35) It is noteworthy to find that the word, apothecary, in Ecclesiastes 10:1 actually means, to perfume; thus again a connection with this account in Exodus. This confection was to be put before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation where God would meet with them: it was to be unto them most holy (verse 36). We suggest it was a source of good news to the Hebrew when his senses detected the sweet smelling fragrance of this confection, or perfume, for it was an indication he stood where the LORD would meet with him.
Again, a prohibition was included. “And as for the perfume which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the LORD. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:37-38) Surely this was serious business. Under no circumstances was an ointment or perfume to be compounded like the one the Lord gave, no matter how much the offender may want to “smell thereto.” It would be folly of the worst sort to counterfeit the ointment of the apothecary, and would bring certain ruin to the transgressor. We would add as well that even if the transgressor used the same compounds and quantities, without the specific direction of God to make the compound, it would be, if we may say, another gospel. And any deviation from the precise prescription God gave Moses would bring equally disastrous results.
“And he made the holy anointing oil, and the pure incense of sweet spices, according to the work of the apothecary.” (Exodus 37:29) Thus the holy anointing oil was confected as the LORD had instructed. But we must inquire as to who was the “he” that is spoken of in this text, for therein we shall discover several leading points that shall assist us in the disclosure of the person of folly in Ecclesiastes 10:1. It is necessary as well to examine the time frame in Exodus to determine with certainty the importance of this work of an apothecary.
If we follow the Scriptures from the prohibition given in Exodus 30:38 regarding the making a likeness to the perfume, or compound, it shall lead us to the answer in the beginning of the next chapter. “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Ur, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 31:1-3) Thus the chief artificer of the tabernacle, Bezaleel, called by name of God, was a direct descendant of Judah through his son, Pharez. For a full accounting of this notable family the reader may desire to read further in I Chronicles 2:3-20. The major point we desire to make is that Bezaleel, though from a prominent family, the family from which came Jesus of Nazareth, was but an ordinary man until God filled him with His Spirit in wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and all manner of workmanship. Put plainly, God crafted this man for his craftsmanship. Put even plainer, Bezaleel was to perform certain deeds pertaining to the service of God by calling, not by self will or determination. His duties were also to be very specific; no adding to or taking away from the pattern shown in the mount. From verse 4 of Exodus 31 through verse 11 those specific duties of Bezaleel were outlined, concluding with “And the anointing oil, and sweet incense for the holy place: according to all that I have commanded thee shall they do.” All this instruction God gave Moses when he was on the mount the first time. The actual work had not yet begun.
After the LORD gave Moses instructions for the sabbath he came down from the mountain. Exodus chapters 32-34 cover the transgression of Israel with the molten calf, the advocacy of Moses in their behalf, and the resumption of their journey. Moses returned to the mount once again with the second tables of stone and came again to the camp of the Israelites. In Exodus 35, Moses then gave the twelve tribes the will of God regarding the great work, as follows: “And Moses said unto the children of Israel, See, the LORD hath called by name Bezaleel the son of Un, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judab; And he hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 35:30-31) The exposition of Moses here is nearly word for word that which the LORD had given him on the mount, as we have quoted from Exodus 31:1-3 previously. Exactness was essential.
“Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiab, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom and understanding to know how to work all manner of work for the service of the sanctuary, according to all that the LORD had commanded. And Moses called Bezaleel and Aholiab, and every wise hearted man, in whose heart the LORD had put wisdom, even every one whose heart stirred him up to come unto the work to do it.” (Exodus 36:1-2) While it may appear tedious to cover all these Scriptures concerning Bezaleel, and the others God raised up to the work, it is needful. It is imperative that we see the extensive manner the LORD took to establish that these individuals named to do the business of the tabernacle, including the work of the apothecary in compounding the confections and perfumes, were called and equipped by God Himself! These were not simply men of reputation. They were not men of folly or abandon. They were men designated by the mouth of God Himself.
“Then wrought Bezaleel.” At the appointed time, and with special God-conferred capabilities, Bezaleel began the work of constructing and appointing the tabernacle, not the least of which was the work of the apothecary. “And he [Bezaleel] made the holy anointing oil, and the pure incense of sweet spices, according to the work of the apothecary.” (Exodus 37:29)
Having now laid some foundation for an exposition of our text in Ecclesiastes 10:1 we return to its contents.
“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.” There is little doubt in our mind that there were many persons engaged in the work of an apothecary as a trade in that day. Many salves, lotions, potions, ointments, creams and compounds were concocted for the purpose of gain to the tradesman. Of all these probable merchandisers, however, we have no present concern. Surely, the wise man Solomon wrote of matters far greater in importance than the trafficking of merchants in general. We inquire rather of those matters that speak to the saints of God in their relation to Him.
We have here an ointment of the apothecary that sent forth, not that sweet fragrance of perfume, as related in Exodus by Moses, but rather a stinking savour, meaning odor, smell, or scent. This odor, or foul smell, was the result of an accumulation of flies that had gathered to the ointment and died therein. As we have observed earlier, flies are generally attracted to that which is corrupted. There they lay their eggs and perpetuate their own kind. Here, they were attracted to the ointment, but rather than prospering, they died. We might say, good riddance, but for the fact that they had stunk up the ointment. However, in viewing the situation from a spiritual perspective, we might see again all things working for good to them that love God, for we think that the flies died as a result of attempting to propagate in a contaminated area. And – contamination is a source of danger to the children of God as well as flies.
As we have already shown, the ointments of the apothecary were to be confected precisely; nothing might be added, nor anything left out of the prescription of God. No matter how close the ointment might be to the real thing, if it was not exactly as prescribed in Exodus 30:33, it was, at best, like it, but nevertheless counterfeit. Differences in substance or measure, no matter how slight, rendered the ointment as bogus. It would be but folly to attempt to concoct a generic or facsimile of the holy ointment. This, we believe, is what caused the demise of flies in the ointment and rendered it noxious.
FOLLY AND REPUTATION
“…So doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.” That little word, “so” connects the first half of this verse to the second half. It is more than just an illustration of similarities. It is a linking of cause and effect. Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour. So does the little folly of one in reputation for wisdom and honour cause a stinking savour. What is this little folly of this fool who was held in reputation for wisdom and honour? We believe the text, and as well the context, explains.
As we noted above, the man was a fool. We say he was a fool because he acted in folly. “Every prudent man dealeth with knowledge: but a fool layeth open his folly.” (Proverbs 13:16) Fools thus act in folly, and this foolish apothecary was no exception. This fool had a reputation, no doubt as an apothecary of some wisdom and honour. He compounded a confection like the one detailed on the mount by God, but his concoction was not the real thing. In his folly he would get reasonably close to the real confection, for it otherwise would be quickly discovered to be a fake. As he was a man of reputation, there were no doubt some that thought he was a great apothecary and had set forth a sweet smelling savour. Applause and praise would follow, for this fool had, as some must have believed, wrought a great work for the LORD.
Alas! Alas! It was but a work of folly. Several things suddenly became apparent. Flies would be attracted to the ointment of this apothecary. None but a man of folly would allow flies anywhere near a genuine confection to be used in the service of the LORD. But where the barriers are removed, and reputation is relied on rather than the instruction of the LORD, the flies are not restricted. Those flies, unlike the flies in Egypt, could swoop in on the ointment, for the ointment was not a true Israelite confection. The ointment was as fair game as if it were of Egyptian origin. Flies, though attracted to the ointment, could not survive on this counterfeit fare. The ointment contained enough of the true prescription from the mount to prevent the flies continuance and reproduction; thus the flies died. The ointment was defiled, both from within and from without. It could be no savour of life unto life; only a savour of death unto death. A true Israelite would have to exclaim of this ointment, as did those of old, “O thou man of God, there is death in the pot.” (II Kings 4:40) The foolish man of reputation had, like one of the sons of the prophets, committed an act of folly akin to the shredding of wild gourds in the seething pottage. Like the folly of Achan, this fool had brought in an accursed thing to the camp of Israel (Joshua 7:13).
The man of folly had not only concocted a phony ointment, he had confected it in such a way that it would disrupt the life cycle of the flies, though they were attracted to this confection. He also in his folly rendered the ointment certain to putrefy into a stinking savour. As such it was also unfit for the humble Israelites. Surely, “…one sinner destroyeth much good” (Ecclesiastes 9.18). Paul instructed the Corinthians in a similar vein that, “…a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (I Corinthians 5.6). The apothecary had a reputation for wisdom and honour, but his folly resulted in ruin.
To come to a consistent and Biblical understanding of the meaning of our text requires a brief review of the terms involved. The flies are mentioned only here and in connection with the plagues on Egypt; thus we determine that they are in some way a judgment from God. The ointment of the apothecary was a confection or perfume to be used in the anointing of the tabernacle and those things that pertained to it. It was to be compounded in strict accordance to the instruction of God. The man of folly was reputed to have wisdom and honour, but his concoction of ointment was defiled and stank. Solomon, the penman of our text, was writing of things under the sun, or how things were from a natural perspective. These are the terms involved.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (II Timothy 3:16-17)
Ecclesiastes 10:1 is surely included in the scope of what Paul wrote Timothy, and the saints of God at large. We believe the doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness contained in our text is fully applicable to those that gather, or are gathered, unto the greater Tabernacle than that foreshadowed in the wilderness. The reader will recall that it was the tabernacle and its appointments for which the fragrant ointment was confected.
There are a number of texts in the Bible dealing with the sweet smelling savour, but we shall confine ourselves to only two for a witness to the truth. “Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee” (Song of Solomon 1:3). Those who have found this book to be a delightful reference to the love and union of Christ and His bride treasure this to be a beautiful reference to the coming of Him who is their sweet smelling fragrance, fitted by the approval of God the Father to anoint them for eternal nuptials with their Husband, Head, and Guide. His ointment was good. (There is none good but one, that is God.) There was no defilements found therein. No savour of death to attract the flies of judgment and bring on a stinking savour. Surely, the ointment was good. “And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour” (Ephesians 5:2). If ever a text answered to an Old Testament type, this one surely does, for Christ is the only sweetsmelling savour in the New Testament. We determine, then, that any ointment of an apothecary that attracted flies of judgment would be the same as false doctrine, another gospel, salt that had lost is savour, or the adding to and taking away from the Word of God as denounced in Revelation 22:18-19. As it is written, “…. If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18). God would add unto them plagues, like plagues of flies!
We look briefly now at the man of reputation. He was acclaimed to possess wisdom and honour. But behind that facade he was poisoned with folly. He paid public reverence to the sweetsmelling fragrance, being a concoctor of such himself. Like Hophni and Phinehas, the wicked sons of Eli, (I Samuel 2:12-17) who desecrated the offered sacrifices, this man of reputation was self-willed. Even more like Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, who mixed incense and fire in their censures and offered strange fire before the Lord, this man of reputation had no regard for the will of God. We find the greatest compliment to this fool in the New Testament. It came to pass on a day, after the Lord had commissioned His disciples and ascended to heaven that Peter and the others were hailed before the high priest for the awful crime of preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. Peter faithfully proclaimed the doctrine of God our Saviour and that sweet doctrine cut the hearers to the heart. The following then took place: “Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space” (Acts 5:34). Gamaliel was a Pharisee, a doctor, and had in reputation. His recommendation was to leave these disciples alone and let the matter fall out in due course. Now, there are some that would still like to hold this old Pharisee in reputation and contend in his behalf by observing that he recognized that God might be in the matter. No, brethren, it was folly! The proof? “And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (Acts 5:40). There was no love of God for truth as it is in Jesus in this doctor’s heart. He could consent to the truth of the counsel of God with an if, (verse 37, 38) but he was a legalist yet. Despite his reputation, he was a man of folly.
Thus we conclude that our text presents an illustration of doctrinal tampering in the gospel era. Nothing but ointments prepared by God-called apothecaries can be free of the contaminants of the dead flies of judgmental plagues. Reputations mean nothing. Jesus made Himself of no reputation, Philippians 2:6-8, and we are persuaded He deprives His called servants of reputations also. Those of reputation are false prophets, and their folly of tampering with the prescription from the mount exposes them. The saints of the Living God rejoice in the sweetsmelling ointments with which they are anointed, and all others are but a stinking savour, no matter how close to the true ointment they appear.
There is far more contained in our text than the limits of this article will allow. By any standard we have barely touched the subject. We trust what we have written has had its aim at the edification of the saints.
J. F. Poole – 1995