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  • Writer's pictureElpidio Pezzella

A Fly in the Perfume

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.

(Ecclesiastes 10:1 NKJV)

The book of Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet) is a wisdom monologue that may leave the reader puzzled, favoring the simplistic conclusion that it contains ideas that are too profound. The book does not seem to contain encouragement for a life faithful to God, but a legacy of cynicism: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2); "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind" (1:14). It is, however, a different but not conflicting voice in the scriptural polyphony. The Bible gives us pause for thought, and Ecclesiastes is a beautiful example. Indeed, it teaches us that even in crisis, in the very silence of God, one can paradoxically hide His presence, His revealing word, as in the case of the saying chosen for this brief reflection.

"Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment." In perfume making in ancient times, the process was slow. It took months and even years to create. In the verse, the perfumer had let the essence sit in a jar for a long time, but did not notice a small fly that had entered the jar and then died in the perfume. The man had become distracted and all his work was lost without his noticing. Only when he picked up the prepared perfume cruet again after a while did he make the sad discovery. What a lesson that verse taught: the smallest can ruin the greatest. An insignificant thing can lose great things. An ox, a horse and even a dead dog attract attention. But who cares about a fly, all the more dead? Dead flies go unnoticed in our eyes. Yet when alive they are annoying. We must be careful how we talk and how we act. It only takes one rash action such as an outburst or a single incident where we go too far to ruin the reputation of a respected person.

Ecclesiastes uses this real-life example to warn us about foolishness, a bit of folly that can ruin the merit of wisdom. In Hebrew, foolishness is also folly, meaning "foolishness." It is wise, on the other hand, to know how to be foolish in time, the proverb says. This ruling could be made explicit in two ways. The first is that a little foolishness, used in time, is to be preferred to rigid wisdom, and glory, from which serious disasters may arise: it is better sometimes to make oneself foolish, than to make a show of his wisdom, and glory. Just like David who pretended to be mad in the court of King Achis, and dodged the danger of death. The second is that small wisdom, which to men seems foolishness, is worth much more than the wisdom of the age glorious and honored with men, which with God is foolishness (1 Corinthians 3:18). If any of you seem to be wise in this age become foolish, to the end that you may be wise, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.

A snake tamer had received as a gift a snake the size of a finger. He bred and tamed it for years to use in his performances. The snake, which had grown enormously, wrapped itself around the tamer and, on his command, promptly obeyed and let go. One day something went wrong: the snake did not obey the man, who, tightened in its grip, began to have difficulty breathing. The snake squeezed, squeezed, until the sound of breaking bones was heard... The great danger is playing with what you know is harmful to your life! To think that at any moment you can stop, that everything is under control. The man in the story had the opportunity to kill the snake while it was still on his fingers. But he didn't, he fed it, he played with it. We could say he fed a little foolishness over time. In the end, it was killed. At no time does the Bible command us to flee, except in regard to our old nature: "Flee from prostitution," "flee from uncleanness," "flee from the passions of youth."

The mention of the perfumer brings to mind the episode of the woman who broke at Jesus' feet an alabaster jar filled with precious spikenard perfume (Mark 14:3; John 12:3). An act of worship, foreshadowing our existence at the feet of the Lord. Our life is like a precious perfume not only to be treasured for the great occasion, but to be spread every day. "Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma." (Ephesians 5:2). An insignificant "fly" could ruin it at the slightest distraction. Don't put years of honored Christian service at risk. Small trifles can endanger what has been laboriously produced or accumulated. Remember that a jar of perfume cannot make a dead fly fragrant, but a dead fly can corrupt all perfume.


Weekly Bible Reading Plan #28

July 03 Job 25-27; Acts 12

July 04, Job 28-29; Acts 13:1-25

July 05, Job 30-31; Acts 13:26-52

July 06, Job 32-33; Acts 14

July 07, Job 34-35; Acts 15:1-21

July 08, Job 36-37; Acts 15:22-41

July 09, Job 38-40; Acts 16:1-21

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