In Old Testament times, perfume was often used in religious ceremonies but was also used for personal enjoyment. Oils were applied to the skin and to garments and pieces of furniture such as beds. The perfumes, created mainly from spices imported from Arabia, were helpful in the hot climate where smells could easily become
offensive. Because they could be quite costly, no one wanted flies to destroy this treasure.
As he neared the end of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher began to share wise bits of advice in the style of proverbs. Rich imagery fills this chapter. These images, culturally significant in that time and place, helped show his listeners what wisdom looks and acts like. Verse 1 begins with those dead flies in perfume. The insects turn what should be beautiful into something repulsive. They illustrate the destructive power of foolish words and actions. A dull ax and snake charmers are examples of mouths and lips illustrating the key point: wisdom is of great value.
As he said earlier in the book, leaders are not always wise and life is not necessarily fair. The world we live in is filled with injustice and risk, and people will experience the results of the fallen nature in this lifetime. Foolish leaders would feast “in the morning” when the day’s work had not yet been done (v. 16). Wisdom, however, has its rewards: when leaders are wise, the entire country benefits.
Practical advice for a life well-lived is illustrated in the second half of the chapter. A wise person controls his tongue. It is better to speak carefully than to speak in haste. It is better to be industrious than lazy or idle. When we speak of people behind their backs, our unkind words might be found out. Solomon’s sage advice comes from his experience as king.