Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.1 Corinthians 13:1-3. Though, &c. — The apostle having observed in the last verse of the preceding chapter, (with which this chapter is closely connected,) that he would show them a more excellent way, that is, a way more wise, holy, and useful, than that of striving to excel each other in miraculous gifts, now proceeds to do this, directing them to pursue the divine grace of love to God and man, as of the highest excellence, and of absolute necessity. Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels — That is, all the languages which are spoken upon earth, and with the eloquence of an angel; and have not charity — Αγαπην, love; namely, the love of God shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Ghost given to me, and the love of all mankind for his sake; I am become — Γεγονα, I am, or have been, before God; as sounding brass — No better than the sounding instruments of brass used in the worship of some of the heathen gods; or a tinkling cymbal — This was made of two pieces of hollow brass, which being struck together made a tinkling, but with very little variety of sound. Some have thought that the apostle mentions the tongues of angels, because in he patriarchal ages angels often spake with men. But as they then spake in the language of men, their tongues, thus understood, are the same with the tongues of men. And therefore by the tongues of angels, the apostle doubtless meant the methods, whatever they are, by which angels communicate their thoughts to each other, and which must be a much more excellent language than any that is spoken by men. And though I have the gift of prophecy — Of foretelling future events; and understand all mysteries — Both of God’s word and providence; and all knowledge — Of things human and divine, that ever any mortal attained to; and have all faith — The highest degree of miracle-working faith; so that I could remove mountains — From their bases, and transport them from one part of the earth to another, and thus change the whole face of nature with a word; and have not charity — Αγαπην δε μη εχω, but have not love, I am nothing — In the sight of God with respect to piety: I not only have not true religion enough, but in reality I have none at all. And — To go further; though I bestow — Εαν ψωμιζω, though I distribute deliberately, piece by piece, with the greatest prudence and care; all my goods to feed the poor: and though I give my body to be burned — Rather than renounce my religion, or any truth or duty of the gospel; and have not the love, hereafter described, it profiteth me nothing — With respect to life eternal. It neither proves my title to it, nor prepares me for the enjoyment of it. Without love, whatever I speak, whatever I have, whatever I know, whatever I do, whatever I suffer, is nothing.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,1 Corinthians 13:4-5. Love suffereth long — Here the apostle attributes to love the qualities and actions of a person, in order to render his account of that divine grace the more lively and affecting. The love of God, and of our neighbour for God’s sake, is patient toward all men. It suffers all the weakness, ignorance, errors, and infirmities of the children of God; and all the malice and wickedness of the children of the world; and all this not only for a time, but to the end; and in every step toward overcoming evil with good, it is kind — Mild, gentle, benign; inspiring the sufferer at once with the most amiable sweetness, and the most fervent and tender affection. Love envieth not — The advantages, gifts, or graces, which others possess, but rather takes pleasure in them, and by friendly participation makes them its own. Love vaunteth not itself — Greek, ου περπερευεται, acteth not rashly, as the expression is translated by many critics, following Phavorinus. Indeed, to render it as our translators do, is to make it signify the same thing with the next clause. The lover of God and mankind does not hastily condemn any one; never passes a severe sentence on a slight or sudden view of things. Nor does he act or behave in a violent, headstrong, or precipitate manner. Is not puffed up — With pride or self-conceit on account of any endowments or qualifications, mental or corporal, natural or acquired, civil or religious. On the contrary, love to God, whereby we esteem him as the greatest and best of beings, desire him as our chief good, delight in him as our portion and treasure in time and in eternity, cannot but humble us in the dust before him, while we contrast our various weaknesses, imperfections, and sins, with his infinite excellences and matchless glories, and compare his superlative goodness with our great unworthiness. And the love of our neighbour, naturally leading us to dwell on his virtues, and overlook his defects, must also, though in a lower degree, produce the same effect, and cause us to prefer others to ourselves in a variety of respects. Doth not behave itself unseemly — Or indecently, as ουκ ασχημονει properly signifies; that is, it is not rude or willingly offensive to any one, but renders to all their dues, suitable to time, place, person, and all other circumstances. Seeketh not her own — Ease, pleasure, honour, or temporal advantage. Nay, sometimes the lover of God and of mankind seeketh not, in some sense, even his own spiritual advantage; does not think of himself, so long as a zeal for the glory of God and the souls of men swallows him up. But though he is all on fire for these ends, yet he is not provoked, (the word easily is not in the original,) to sharpness or unkindness toward any one. Outward provocations indeed will frequently occur, but he triumphs over them. Thinketh no evil — The loving man indeed cannot but see and hear evil things, and know that they are so; but he does not willingly think evil of any, neither infer evil where none appears. The love in his heart prevents his imagining that of which he has no proof, and casts out all jealousies, evil surmises, readiness to believe evil, and induces him to put the kindest constructions upon the actions of others, and on the principles from whence they proceed, which the nature of circumstances will by any means allow.
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;1 Corinthians 13:6-7. Love rejoiceth not in iniquity — Takes no pleasure to see an adversary fall into an error or sin, by which his reputation should be blasted, and his interest ruined. On the contrary, the man influenced by this love, is truly sorry for either the sin or folly of even an enemy; takes no pleasure in hearing or in repeating it, but desires it may be forgotten for ever. But rejoiceth in the truth — Good in general is its glory and joy, wherever diffused through the world; while it brings forth its proper fruit, holiness of heart and life, with constancy and perseverance. Beareth — Or rather covereth all things, as παντα στεγει ought undoubtedly to be here rendered: because the common translation, beareth all things, is not different in sense from endureth all things, in the last clause of the verse. The lover of mankind conceals, as far as may be, the failings and faults of others; whatever evil he sees, hears, or knows of any one, he mentions it to none; it never goes out of his lips, unless where absolute duty constrains to speak. Believeth all things — Puts the most favourable construction on every thing, and is ever ready to believe whatever may tend to the advantage of any one’s character. And when it can no longer believe well, it hopes whatever may excuse or extenuate the fault which cannot be denied. Where it cannot even excuse, it hopes God will at length give repentance unto life. Meantime it endureth all things — Whatever the injustice, malice, or cruelty of men can inflict. And as it is long-suffering with regard to human provocations, so it bears with patience whatever afflictions come immediately from the hand of God, acquiescing in his will, trusting in his care, and rejoicing if its own sufferings may be a means of consolation and edification to others. By this description of love, it evidently appears to be that divine grace, which renders men most like to God, and which is the best preparation of them for admission into heaven: the golden key, (says Milton, in his Comus,) which opes the palace of eternity. Nor does it cease to exist, when it has introduced us into the eternal kingdom of our heavenly Father. For,
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.1 Corinthians 13:8-10. Love never faileth — It accompanies us to, prepares us for, and adorns us in eternity; nay, it is the very felicity of heaven. In these respects it materially differs from, and has an apparent advantage over, many of those gifts which some are so ready to emulate and pursue, to the neglect and injury of this love. For whether there be prophecies, they shall fail — When all things foretold are accomplished, and God is all in all. Whether there be tongues, they shall cease — For one language shall prevail among all the inhabitants of heaven, and all the low and imperfect languages of earth shall be forgotten. Whether there be knowledge — Such as we now pursue with the greatest eagerness, the knowledge of the fleeting, transitory things of earth, and affairs of men, conducive as it is to our present usefulness; it shall vanish away — As starlight is lost in that of the mid-day sun, so our present knowledge in the light of eternity. For we know in part, we prophesy in part — The wisest of men have here but short, narrow, and imperfect conceptions, even of the things round about them, and much more of the deep things of God. And even the prophecies which men deliver from God are far from taking in the whole of future events, or of that wisdom and knowledge of God which is treasured up in the Scripture revelation. But when that which is perfect is come — As in the heavenly state it shall; then that which is only in part shall be done away — Both that poor, low, imperfect, glimmering light, which is all the knowledge we now can attain to, and these slow and unsatisfactory methods of attaining it, as well as of imparting it to others.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.1 Corinthians 13:11-12. When I was a child, &c. — The difference between our present and future conceptions of spiritual things may be illustrated by the knowledge of a child compared to that of a man. For in our present state, we are mere infants in knowledge, in comparison of what we shall be hereafter. I spake as a child — Would naturally do, words hardly intelligible, and often unmeaning; I understood — Or was affected, as εφρονουν may be rendered; as a child — That is, thrown into transports of joy or grief on trifling occasions, which manly reason soon taught me to despise. I thought — Ελογιζομην, I reasoned; as a child — In a weak, inconclusive, and sometimes ridiculous manner. But when I became a man — My faculties being ripened; I put away childish things — Of my own accord, willingly, without trouble; and entertained sentiments, and engaged in pursuits, correspondent to such advancements of age and reason. Such shall be the improvements of the heavenly state, in comparison with those which the most eminent Christians can attain on earth. For now we see — Even the things that surround us; through a glass — The expression, δι’ εσοπτρου, thus rendered, Dr. Pearce thinks, “signifies any of those transparent substances which the ancients used in their windows, such as thin plates of horn, transparent stone, and the like, through which they saw the objects without obscurely. But others are of opinion that the word denotes a brazen mirror, like those of which Moses made the laver, Exodus 38:8; and that the apostle’s meaning is, that we see things as it were by images reflected from a mirror. But this does not accord with seeing things obscurely. Darkly — Εν αινιγματι, literally, in an enigma, or riddle. A riddle being a discourse in which one thing is put for another, which is in some respects like it, we are said to see things at present in a riddle, because in the revelations of God, invisible things are represented by visible, and spiritual things by natural, and eternal things by such as are temporal.” But then — We shall see, not a faint reflection, or an obscure resemblance, but the objects themselves, in a clear and distinct manner; face to face — As men see each other, when they behold each the other’s face. Now I know in part — Even when God himself reveals things to me, a great part of them is still kept under the veil; but then shall I know even as also I am known — In a clear, full, comprehensive manner; in some measure like God, who penetrates the centre of every object, and sees at one glance through my soul and all things. It is justly observed by Dr. Macknight here, “that the darkness in which things at present are involved, is in some respects necessary; for as in childhood our knowledge and conception of things are wisely made imperfect, that we may the more easily submit to the exercises and discipline which are proper to our childish state; so in the present life, which in relation to the whole of our existence may be called childhood, our knowledge of invisible things is appointed to be imperfect, that we may employ ourselves with pleasure in the occupations of the present life. But when the season of childhood is over, and the grand scenes of the heavenly world open upon us, we shall no more see spiritual things darkly as in a riddle, but we shall see them clearly, and shall fully know even as we ourselves are fully known of superior beings, or of our most familiar friends. In short, we shall leave off all those imperfect methods of acquiring knowledge which we made use of on earth.”
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.1 Corinthians 13:13. And now — In the present world; abideth — In the hearts of holy persons, and influencing their lives, even all their tempers, words, and works; faith, hope, love, these three — The principal and radical saving graces, of most frequent use in the Christian life, and productive of all the others. 1st, Faith, whereby we receive as infallibly true, and infinitely important, the testimony of God, contained in his word concerning things past, present, and to come; especially all the truths of his holy gospel; whereby being penitent, and believing on Jesus with our heart unto righteousness, we are persuaded of God’s love to us in Christ, rely on his promises, and stand in awe of his threatenings; faith, ελεγχος ου βλεπομενων, the evidence, conviction, or persuasion of things not seen; ελπιζομενων υποστασις, the confidence, namely, of receiving, (so the latter word is rendered Hebrews 3:14,) or the anticipation, of things hoped for; giving them a present subsistence, as the word also signifies, in the heart. 2d, Hope, namely, of eternal life, Titus 1:2; of an incorruptible inheritance, 1 Peter 1:3; an exceeding great and eternal weight of glory, 2 Corinthians 4:17; hope, founded on our being heirs of these blessings, in consequence of our being children of God by adoption and regeneration, John 1:12-13; Romans 8:17 : hope, productive of gratitude, joy, patience, purity, and all good works: see 1 Peter 1:3; Romans 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 John 3:3; 1 Corinthians 15:58. 3d, Love, namely, to God and man, described in this chapter. It is justly observed by Dr. Macknight here, that “the clause, now abideth, &c., implies, that the graces spoken of are not always to abide; at least the graces of faith and hope.” For faith, by which we walk, that is, are directed and governed, while we are at home in the body and absent from the Lord, is (2 Corinthians 5:7) opposed to sight, by which we shall walk, when, being present with him, we shall see him as he is; (Matthew 5:8; 1 John 3:2;) and as it is a confidence, or persuasion, of receiving things hoped for, when those things are actually seen and received, it must cease of course. Hope, likewise, that is seen, as the apostle observes, or the hope of blessings already possessed, is not hope: therefore, when the eternal life, the heavenly inheritance, &c., which were the objects of our hope, (the true and only Christian hope,) are enjoyed by us, the hope we entertained of them can have place in us no more, its object being attained. It is, however, far otherwise with love. The objects of this grace exist in the greatest perfection in heaven, and will exist there to all eternity, in a degree of fervour and purity of which we can now form no adequate idea.
“Thus constant faith and holy hope shall die, One lost in certainty, and one in joy:
While thou, more happy power, fair charity,
Triumphant sister, greatest of the three,
Thy office and thy nature still the same,
Lasting thy lamp, and unconsumed thy flame,
Shalt still survive;
Shalt stand before the host of heaven confess’d,
For ever blessing, and for ever blest.” — PRIOR.
The greatest of these, therefore, is love — The greatest, because the most durable, and also for divers other reasons: as, 1st, Faith and hope are graces chiefly suited to our fallen state, and intended to raise us from our fall: love was in man in his state of innocence and perfection, and was then his chief excellence, as it now is, and ever has been, the chief excellence of angels. 2d, Faith and hope are only means of salvation: love is the end to which these means are intended to bring us. 3d, Faith and hope may be termed selfish graces; particularly the latter is such, having our own interest in view: love is generous, disinterested, noble, and carries us out beyond ourselves. 4th, Faith and hope are human: love is divine; it exists, always has existed, and ever will exist, in God himself, in whom the former graces can have no place, and is in him his highest glory.