Everyday Expressions found in the Bible -
"A Fly in the Ointment"
#1 in a New Series by Timothy Cross
We use the expression ‘a fly in the ointment’ to refer to an unintended flaw or impairment in something which is otherwise good. We might enjoy participating in sport, for instance – but the sport we love always has the risk of injury. We plan a short holiday away – but our travel plans are disrupted. Our train is cancelled and we arrive late. Then we are smitten by a slight illness which, whilst not cancelling our holiday completely, nevertheless makes it less than ideal. ‘A fly in the ointment.’
Consider also the various divine ordinances ordained for our benefit. The family is one such ordinance – yet when more than one person lives in close proximity under one roof, there is a danger of friction. Work is another divine ordinance, not to mention a practical necessity for most. Yet few people know what it is like to earn a living without experiencing stresses and strains as they do so. Everything on earth always seems to have ‘a fly in the ointment.’
The term ‘a fly in the ointment’ has its origin in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes 10:1 we read ‘Dead flies make the perfumers ointment give off an evil odour; so also a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour’ (RSV). The ‘Preacher’ is saying here that something pleasant – such as fragrant ointment – can be marred by something as small as a fly who, somewhat foolishly flutters into the perfume and suffocates itself . He also is saying that good and honourable men can ruin their reputation by just one lapse into folly and sin. Our daily papers thrive on the latter.
The book of Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, some 900 years BC, at the end of his long and colourful life. Its twelve chapters consist of his observations on the mysteries, perplexities and apparent irrationalities of our earthly existence ‘under the sun.’ ‘‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has a man from all his labour in which he toils under the sun?’’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2,3). Almost everything on earth seems so absurd, frustrating, futile and nonsensical when you analyse it – muses Solomon with exasperation... The book of Ecclesiastes can be a bit depressing to read. Solomon reinforces what we all find out by harsh experience – that life does not always make sense. But we are not to read Ecclesiastes in isolation. The book is not to be read apart from reference to the revelation we have in the whole Bible. The Bible reveals that there is a God Who understands all things, and this God loves His children with an everlasting love. Whatever our present difficulties and discouragements ‘it will be well with those who fear God’ (Ecclesiastes 8:12).
‘A fly in the ointment ... ‘Dead flies make the perfumers ointment give off an evil odour ...’ The Bible is reminding us here that we live in a fallen, imperfect world, and that we are not to seek our ultimate satisfaction in the fragile, temporary things of earth, but in the eternal God revealed supremely in the Lord Jesus Christ. The best things of earth have a built in capacity and capability of failing and disappointing. But God never fails or disappoints. Being made in the image of God, it is in the God of the Bible that we find our ultimate fulfilment and satisfaction.
What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever (Shorter Catechism).
The Bible frequently reminds and warns the Christian of the temporary and fragile nature of life on earth. ‘The form of this world is passing away’ (1 Corinthians 7:31). ‘For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:18). Hence the Bible enjoins the Christian to ‘Seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth’ (Colossians 3:1,2). Yet how often do we get overly entangled with the pleasures and responsibilities of earth – ‘the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things ...’ (Mark 4:19). When we do, God in His wisdom and mercy sends us ‘a fly in the ointment’ – something to mar our pleasure. Such weans us off the temporal and gets us back on the eternal. Such takes our attention and affection off the ‘vain’ things of earth and realigns us to those ‘solid joys and lasting treasures which none but Zion’s children know.’
As this world is not our eternal home, we must expect that we will often experience ‘a fly in the ointment’ as we journey through it. We will experience disillusionments. Our God sends them so that we do not get unduly settled and comfortable here, and tempted to think that our stay here is for ever.
The good news is that in the flawless life that is to come for the believer, there will be no more ‘flies in the ointment.’ They will be both eradicated and unnecessary. There our full joy and satisfaction will be in God Himself, free from all distractions and temptations without and within. It is written of the eternal kingdom of heaven that ‘God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:3,4). For the Christian, perfection will never be enjoyed in this life, but only in the life to come.
The following hymn summarises much of what we have considered about there being ‘a fly in the ointment’ here on earth – living in a world which, whilst often pleasurable, is also characterised by being precarious, fragile and flawed as well:-
My God I thank Thee who hast made
The earth so bright
So full of splendour and of joy
Beauty and light
So many glorious things are here
Noble and right
I thank Thee too that Thou hast made
Joy to abound
So many gentle thoughts and deeds
Circling us round
That in the darkest spot of earth
Some love is found
I thank Thee more that all our joy
Is touched by pain
That shadows fall on brightest hours
That thorns remain
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide
And not our chain
For Thou who knowest Lord how soon
Our weak heart clings
Hast given us joys tender and true
Yet all with wings
So that we see gleaming on high
I thank The Lord that Thou hast kept
The best in store:
We have enough but not too much
To long for more
A yearning for a deeper peace
Not known before
I thank Thee Lord that here our souls
Though amply blest
Can never find although they seek
A perfect rest
Nor ever shall until they lean
On Jesus’ breast
(Adelaide Anne Procter 1825-64).Last Update: 2016-09-01 12:11