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.
Verses 1-13. - The supremely excellent way of Christian love. This chapter has been in all ages the object of the special admiration of the Church. Would that it had received in all ages the loftier and more valuable admiration which would have been expressed by an acceptance of its lessons! Tertullian says that it is uttered "with all the force of the Spirit" (totis Spiritus viribus). It is a glorious hymn or paean in honour of Christian love, in which St. Paul rises on the wings of inspiration to the most sunlit heights of Christian eloquence. Like the forty-fifth psalm, it may be entitled "A Psalm of Love." Valcknaer says that the "oratorical figures which illuminate the chapter have been born spontaneously in an heroic soul, burning with the love of Christ, and placing all things lower than this Divine love." In vers. 1-3 he shows the absolute necessity for love; in vers. 4-7 its characteristics; in vers. 8-12 its eternal permanence; in ver. 13 its absolute supremacy. Verse 1. - Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels. The case is merely supposed. The tongues of men are human languages, including, perhaps, the peculiar utterance of ecstatic inspiration with which he is now dealing. It is, perhaps, with reference to this latter result of spiritual exultation, at any rate in its purest and loftiest developments, that he adds the words, "and of angels." It is unlikely that he is referring to the rabbinic notion that the angels only understood Hebrew, and not Aramaic or other languages. The words are meant to express the greatest possible climax. The most supreme powers of utterance, even of angelic utterance - if any of the Corinthians had or imagined that they had attained to such utterance - are nothing in comparison with the universally possible attainment of Christian love. It is remarkable that here again he places "tongues," even in their grandest conceivable development, on the lowest step in his climax. And have not charity. It is deeply to be regretted that the translators of the Authorized Version here introduced from the Vulgate a new translation for the sacred word "love," which dominates the whole New Testament as its Divine keynote. Greek possesses two words for "love." One of these, eros, implying as it did the love which springs from sensual passion, was dyed too deeply in pagan associations to be capable of redemption into holier usage. It is characteristic of the difference between paganism and Christianity, that Plato's eulogy in the 'Symposium' is in honour of eros, not of anything resembling agape. The apostles, therefore, were compelled to describe the ideal of the gospel life by another word, which expressed the love of esteem and reverence and sacred tenderness - the word agape. This word was not indeed classical. No heathen writer had used it. But the verb agapao, corresponding to the Latin diligo, and bring reserved for this loftier kind of love, suggested at once the substantive agape, which, together with the similar substantive agapesis (Jeremiah 31:3, etc.), had already been adopted by the LXX. and by Philo and in Wisd. 3:9. The word is thus, as Archbishop Trench says, "born in the bosom of revealed religion" ('New Testament Synonyms,' p. 41). The Vulgate chose caritas (whence our "charity") to express this love of reason and affection, the dearness which reigns between human beings, and between man and God. This word, like agape, is absolutely unstained with any evil association. If "charity" had been exclusively used for agape, no objection need have arisen, although "love" is English while "charity" is Latin. But it was an Unmixed evil that, by the use of two different words for the same Greek word, English readers should have been prevented from recognizing the unity of thought on this subject which prevails among all the books of the New Testament (Matthew 22:37-40; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:14; 1 John 4:7, 8, etc.). To argue that the word "love" in English is not unmingled with unhallowed uses is absurd, because those uses of the word have never been supposed for a single moment to intrude into multitudes of other passages where love is used to render agape. Who has ever dreamed of objecting on such grounds to the favourite hymn? -
"Faith and Hope and Love we see
Joining hand in hand agree;
But the greatest of the three
And the best is Love." It is true that Lord Bacon admired "the discretion and tenderness of the Rhenish Version" in using the word "charitie," "because of the indifferencies and equivocation of the word [love] with impure love." But that objection, if it ever existed, has now been done away with by the use of "love" in such a multitude of other pure and lofty passages of Holy Writ. It is, therefore, a great gain that the Revised Version restored to this passage the word "love," which had been used by Tyndale, Cranmer, and the Geneva Bible. For in modern English usage the word "charity" is almost confined to "almsgiving," and that of a kind which is often made an excuse for shirking all real self denial, and for not acting up to the true spirit of love. Christian love is always and infinitely blessed, but the almsgiving which has usurped the name of "charity" often does more harm than good. I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal; more literally, I have become booming brass, or clanging cymbal. My "tongues" without "love" become a mere discordant, obtrusive, unintelligible dissonance. The Greek word for "clanging" (alalazon) is an onomatopoeia, like the Hebrew name for cymbals, tseltselim (Psalm 150:5).
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.
Verse 2. - Prophecy. The power of lofty utterance belonged to Balaam and Caiaphas; yet it availed them nothing without love. "Lord, Lord," exclaim the troubled souls at the left hand, "have we not prophesied in thy Name?" Yet he answers them," I never knew you." All mysteries. Though I can speak of the secrets of God once hidden but now revealed (Matthew 13:11; Romans 16:27; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 3:3, etc.). And all knowledge. Insight into the deeper meanings of Scripture, etc. All faith. Not here meaning "justifying faith," or "saving faith," which can no more exist without showing itself in works than light can exist without heat; but fides miraculosa, reliance on the power to work wonders. Judas, for instance, must have possessed this kind of faith, and it was exercised by "many" who will yet be rejected because they also work iniquity (Matthew 7:21-23). So that I could remove mountains. It has been supposed that this must be a reference to Matthew 17:20; Matthew 21:21. It is, however, much more probable that, if St. Paul derived the words from our Lord, they came to him by oral tradition. And the inference must in any case be precarious, for the phrase was so common among the rabbis that "remover of mountains" was one of their admiring titles for a great teacher. I am nothing. No expression could 'involve a more forcible rebuke to intellectual and spiritual pride.
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.
Verse 3. - And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor. The five words, "bestow to feed the poor," represent the one Greek word psomiso, and after all do not give its force. It is derived from psomion, a mouthful, and so means "give away by mouthfuls," i.e. "dole away." It occurs in Romans 12:20 for "feed." Attention to this verse might have served as a warning against the often useless and sometimes even pernicious doles of mediaeval monasteries. Much of the "charity" of these days is even more uncharitable than this, and shows the most complete absence of true charity; as for instance the dropping of pennies to professional beggars, and so putting a premium on vice and imposture. To be burned. The reading is extremely uncertain. The change of a letter gives the reading, that I may glory (καυχήσωμαι for καυθήσωμαι). Perhaps the scribes thought that "death by burning" was as yet (A.D. 57) an unheard of form of martyrdom, though it became but too familiar ten or twelve years later in the Neronian persecution. St. Paul was, however, probably referring, not, as some have supposed, to branding, which would bare been expressed differently, but to the case of the "three children," in Daniel 3:23, where the LXX. has, "They gave their bodies into the fire;" or to the various tortures and deaths by fire in 2 Macc. 7. At the burning of Ridley and Latimer, Dr. Smith chose this verse for his text. Its applicability is on a par with millions of other instances in which Scripture has been grossly abused by employing its letter to murder its spirit, and by taking it from the God of love to give it to the devil of religious hatred. The burning of a saint was a singular specimen of the Church's "love." It profiteth me nothing; literally, I am nothing benefited. A consideration of this verse might have shown the Christians of the early centuries that there was nothing intrinsically redemptive in the martyrdom into which they often thrust themselves.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Verses 4-7. - The attributes of love. Verse 4. Suffereth long, and is kind. Passively it endures; actively it does good. It endures evils; it confers blessings. Envieth not. Its negative characteristics are part of its positive perfection. Envy - "one shape of many names" - includes malice, grudge, jealousy, pique, an evil eye, etc., with all their base and numerous manifestations. Vaunteth not itself. The meaning would probably be most nearly expressed by the colloquialism, does not show off. It does not, for instance, "do its alms before men to be seen of them" (Matthew 6:1). The Latin perperus, which is from the same root as this word, means "a braggart," or "swaggerer." Cicero, speaking of a grand oratorical display of his own before Pompey, says to Atticus, "Good heavens! how I showed myself off (ἐνεπερπερευσάμην) before my new hearer, Pompeius!" ('Ad. Art.,' 1:14). Is not puffed up. Has no purse proud or inflated arrogance." Love, therefore, is free from the characteristic vice of the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 4:6, 18, 19; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 8:1).
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Verse 5. - Doth not behave itself unseemly (see 1 Corinthians 12:23; 1 Corinthians 14:40). Vulgar indecorum is alien from love, as having its root in selfishness and want of sympathy. "Noble manners" are ever the fruit of "noble minds." "Be courteous" (1 Peter 3:8). Seeketh not her own. Self seeking is the root of All evil (1 Corinthians 10:24, 33; Philippians 2:4; Romans 15:1, 2). Is not easily provoked. The word "easily" is here a gloss. The corresponding substantive (paroxusmos, whence our "paroxysm") is used of the sharp contention between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39). Love, when it is perfected, rises superior to all temptations to growing exasperated, although it may often be justly indignant. But, as St. Chrysostom says, "As a spark which falls into the sea hurts not the sea, but is itself extinguished, so an evil thing befalling a loving soul will be extinguished without disquietude." Thinketh no evil; literally, doth not reckon (or, impute) the evil. The phrase seems to be a very comprehensive one, implying that love is neither suspicious, nor implacable, nor retentive in her memory of evil done. Love writes our personal wrongs in ashes or in water.
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Verse 6. - Rejoiceth not in iniquity; rather, at unrighteousness. The rejoicing at sin, the taking pleasure in them that commit sin, the exultation over the fall of others into sin, are among the worst forms of malignity (Romans 1:32; 2 Thessalonians 2:12). The Greeks had a word, ἐπιχαιρεκακία, to describe "rejoicing at the evil" (whether sin or misfortune) of others (Proverbs 24:17); Schadenfreude, "malignant joy" (Arist., 'Eth.,' 2:7, 15). It is the detestable feeling indicated by the remark of La Rochefoucald, "that there is something not altogether disagreeable to us in the misfortunes of our best friends." Rejoiceth in the truth; rather, with the truth. There are many who "resist the truth" (2 Timothy 3:8); or who "hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18); but love accepts it, keeps it pure, exults in all its triumphs (Acts 11:23 2John 4).
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Verse 7. - Beareth all things (see on 1 Corinthians 9:12). Endures wrongs and evils, and covers them with a beautiful reticence. Thus love "covereth all sins" (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8). Believeth all things. Takes the best and kindest views of all men and all circumstances, as long as it is possible to do so. It is the opposite to the common spirit, which drags everything in deteriorem partem, paints it in the darkest colours, and makes the worst of it. Love is entirely alien from the spirit of the cynic, the pessimist, the ecclesiastical rival, the anonymous slanderer, the secret detractor. Hopeth all things. Christians seem to have lost sight altogether of the truth that hope is something more than the result of a sanguine temperament, that it is a gift and a grace. Hope is averse to sourness and gloom. It takes sunny and cheerful views of man, of the world, and of God, because it is a sister of love. Endureth all things. Whether the "seventy times seven" offences of a brother (Luke 17:4), or the wrongs of patient merit (2 Timothy 2:24), or the sufferings and self. denials and persecutions of the life spent in doing good (2 Timothy 2:10). The reader need hardly he reminded that in these verses he has a picture of the life and character of Christ.
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.
Verses 8-13. - The eternal permanence of love. Verse 8. - Never faileth. The word "faileth" (ἐκπίπτει) has two technical meanings between which it is not easy to decide.
1. It means, technically, "is never hissed off the stage like a bad actor," i.e. it has its part to play even on the stage of eternity. This is its meaning in classic Greek.
2. it means "falls away" like the petals of a withered flower (as in James 1:11; comp. Isaiah 28:4). Here, perhaps, the meaning is not technical, but general, as in Romans 9:6 and in the LXX. (Job 21:43). But the reading may be simply πίπτει (falleth), as in א, A,B,C. They shall fail. This is not the same word as the one on which we have been commenting; it means "shall be annulled" or "done away;" and is the same verb as that rendered in the next clauses by "vanish away," "be done away" (ver. 10), and "put away" (ver. 11). Thus in two verses we have the same word rendered by four different phrases. No doubt the effect of the change sounds beautifully to ears accustomed to the "old familiar strain;" but it is the obvious duty of translators to represent, not to improve upon, the language of their author. In the Revised Version the stone word is rightly kept for the four recurrences of the verb. Tongues. Special charisms are enumerated to show the transcendence of love. Knowledge. This shall be only annulled in the sense of earthly knowledge, which shall be a star disappearing in the light of that heavenly knowledge which shall gradually broaden into the perfect day.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
Verse 9. - We know in part. The expression applies directly to religious knowledge, and should be a rebuke to the pretence to infallibility and completeness which is sometimes usurped by religious men.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
Verse 10. - That which is in part shall be done away. It will be lost in perfectness when we have at last attained to "the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 3:14).
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.
Verse 11. - I understood as a child, I thought as a child; I felt as a child, I reasoned as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things; now that I am become a man, I have done away with childish things. No specific time at which he put away childish things is alluded to, but he means that "manhood" is a state in which childishness should have become impossible.
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.
Verse 12. - Through a glass; rather, through (or, by means of) a mirror. Our "glasses" were unknown in that age. The mirrors were of silver or some polished metal, giving, of course, a far dimmer image than "glasses" do. The rabbis said that "all the prophets saw through a dark mirror, but Moses through a bright one." St. Paul says that no human eye can see God at all except as an image seen as it were behind the mirror. Darkly; rather, in a riddle. God is said to have spoken to Moses "by means of riddles" (Numbers 12:8; Authorized Version, "in dark speeches"), Human language, dealing with Divine facts, can only represent them indirectly, metaphorically, enigmatically, under human images, and as illustrated by visible phenomena. God can only be represented under the phrases of anthropomorphism and anthropopathy; and such phrases can only have a relative, not an absolute, truth. Then; i.e. "when the perfect is come." Face to face. Like the "mouth to mouth" of the Hebrew and the LXX. in Numbers 12:8. This is the beatific vision. "We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). "Now we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). Then shall I know even as also I am known; rather, then shall I fully know even as also I was fully known, viz. when Christ took knowledge of me at my conversion. Now, we do not so much "know" God, but "rather are known of God" (comp. 1 Corinthians 8:3).
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Verse 13. - And now. The "now" is not temporal (as opposed to the "then" of the previous verse), but logical. It sums up the paragraph. Abideth. These three graces are fundamental and permanent; not transient, like the charisms, on which the Corinthians were priding themselves, but which should all be "annulled." Faith, hope, charity. It might be difficult to see how "hope" should be permanent. But if the future state be progressive throughout eternity and infinitude, hope will never quite be lost in fruition. Even "within the veil," it will still remain as "an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast" (Hebrews 6:19). The greatest of these is charity; more literally, greater than these is love. St. Paul does not explain why love is the greatest and best of the three. Various reasons may be given.
1. Love is the greatest, because it is the root of the other two; "we believe only in that which we love; we hope only for that which we love.
2. And love is the greatest because love is for our neighbours; faith and hope mainly for ourselves.
3. And love is the greatest because faith and hope are human, but God is love.
4. And love is the greatest because faith and hope can only work by love, and only show themselves by love. Thus love is as the undivided perfection of sevenfold light. Faith and hope are precious stones of one colour, as a ruby and a sapphire; but love, as he has been showing us throughout the chapter, is a diamond of many facets.