In the preceding verses the difference between wisdom and strength was set forth. Wisdom is the better portion, for it has a greater strength than earthly might. But now the text sets forth a contrast: one sinner destroys much good. Sin is destructive. It is folly. It works the corruption of that which is profitable under the sun as well as moral evil. It destroys that which is wrought with wisdom.
Yet man is a sinner who walks in the way of sin by nature. Man by nature is a fool because of sin that dwells in him, a fool who seeks his own way and will not have God in his thoughts. Psalm 14:1 draws the connection: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doth good.” Sin and its folly cleave also to one who is a believer. Rooted in his flesh by nature, sin works not only guilt before God but also the sorrowful consequences of sin in this life. Yet Solomon does not simply say sin destroys much good, but one sinner destroys much good. It is the person he would have us to see, not merely his activity.
This is our problem, for we are sinners. This was Solomon’s problem. For all his wisdom he was still a sinner, as would be the one after him who inherited all his works. Solomon, in the folly of his old age with his heathen wives and idolatry, would sow the very destruction and decline of the kingdom. In the days of his son the kingdom would be divided. This leads to the sober reflection in the next verse.
“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” (Eccl. 10:1).
This observation is a warning and at the same time an indirect confession on the part of Solomon of his own downfall in sin and folly. The picture is that of a fragrant ointment compounded by the apothecary or perfumer. This ointment is like wisdom and honor that form the reputation of a person. Such were the gifts of wisdom and attendant honor compounded like an ointment in Solomon’s life. They were like a fragrant smell in the life of the church and in the world. He was one lifted up to high estate in glory and honor.
Yet, he was also a sinner with the root of folly in his flesh. Age did not eliminate that presence of indwelling sin. His long honor and majesty in the world bore the fruit of pride in his old age. He uses the figure of dead flies or flies of death corrupting the ointment. The idea is not simply that of the bodies of fallen insects but of the effect flies have on something exposed to their presence. They carry disease, pollution, and corruption. Where they land, walk around and also die, they work contamination so that the ointment in the figure sends forth a stench instead of a sweet smell. Hence the warning: so does a “little folly” in the life and walk of one held in honor for wisdom and dignity.
Rather than a direct personal confession, for that is not the purpose, Solomon sets this figure before us as a warning. He has in view the instruction of the young starting out on the path of life. His personal history and experience confirms that warning and its seriousness. “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12). We are of like flesh and blood, sinners and by nature foolish. Sin, like the flies in the ointment, works corruption in our lives. Sin seems a small matter, a little thing, when we start down its pathway. But it contaminates and works through when given place. It brings one to shame and reproach.
So it was with Solomon and his heathen wives. He did not marry them all at once. It took place over time, as did his catering to their desire for temples to the idol (I Kings 11). What was a “little folly” in the beginning, out of a desire to please his wives, became great folly, which sowed the seeds of idolatry in the kingdom. It is for good reason, therefore, that we are taught to pray at the end of Psalm 119, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments” (Ps. 119:176).
Setting that warning before us, the text turns again to the nature of folly and of the unbelieving fool to underscore it. He has said before in Ecclesiastes 2:13, 14, “Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness.” Now he uses a similar figure: “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but the fool’s heart at his left” (Eccl. 10:2).
The contrast draws perhaps on the fact that, physically, one covers his heart with his right hand. The heart is the spiritual center of man’s life, while the hand, particularly the right hand, is the normal instrument of the body for human activity. The point of the fool’s heart being “at his left” is that the fool is backward, spiritually, in his heart and activity, backward because he is turned from God in sin and folly and, therefore, from the way of wisdom under the sun. He is a fool within his heart, blind and in darkness, without understanding and the fruit of his hand is the folly of sin.
Sin is both a striving with God and His law, a moral evil, but it is also a striving with the boundaries of life that God has set and maintains in the creation. Man is a fallen, rational-moral creature. He can think and make choices, but he does so out of the folly of sin. Striving against God’s holy law, he also strives with the order of things under the sun. Sin in that sense is unreality, a striving with God’s imposed limitations on man’s natural life under the sun.
The Canons of Dordt summarizes this fact:
There remain, however, in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God” (III/IV, Art. 4).
Considering the person of the fool, the folly of his heart and activity, the text would have us take warning by having us to see this folly in his walk and speech. The corrupt tree brings forth corrupt fruit while out of the abundance of his folly, in his heart, the fool also speaks.
“Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith to everyone that he is a fool” (Eccl. 10:3).
This is the effect of folly in the heart. His wisdom—more literally, his heart—fails or is lacking. It is devoid of understanding spiritually and in large measure, practically. His walk is the pathway of his life. His heart being full of himself and estranged from God, he walks the broad way to destruction. Thus, as Solomon has pointed out, the fool heaps and gathers to himself earthly riches, without asking whose things these shall be, for he shall die. This characteristic has been illustrated in this and other forms over the course of the book. The fool is a sinner that destroys much good (Eccl. 9:18).
His speech also reveals what lives in his heart. This is so whether it be the hard speeches of ungodly men against God and His law, or the foolish talking and mockery of men. Man proclaims himself to be as God and walks with his tongue through the earth. He makes transparent excuses for his folly and justifies his sin. He seeks to change times and laws and seasons. He will even claim the right to determine his own gender, as if the boundaries of life are in his hand. The vain notions of his heart come out of his mouth and he declares to everyone that he is a fool. Other fools will follow because they too are at enmity with God.
This warning the text would underscore so that we see it and flee from the foolishness of sin that also cleaves to us as children of God. The Word of God has a multitude of examples of children of God who stumbled in sin and pride and fell into folly to their sorrow. The spirit of an unbelieving world around us affects our discernment too, for we have the same root of folly in our own sinful flesh. We are not untouched by the propaganda of a sinful world that says right is wrong and good, evil, of a world that daily justifies its depravity.
The way of wisdom is one of daily conversion. That way of daily conversion is one of daily repentance and turning to God in prayer and humility. To underscore this need to take heed the text turns in much of the rest of the chapter to illustrate both folly and its fruit.