I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What does it?
If you were asked who had sat for the portrait of a madman, you would be disposed to look out for some monster, some scourge of our race, in whom vast powers had been at the disposal of ungoverned passions, and who had covered a country with weeping and with desolate families; and at first we might be readily tempted to conclude that Solomon employed somewhat exaggerated terms when he identified laughter with madness. Neither need we suppose that all laughter is indiscriminately condemned; as though gloom marked a sane person, and cheerfulness an insane. "Rejoice evermore" is a scriptural direction, and blithe-heartedness ought to be both felt and displayed by those who know that they have God for their Guardian, and Christ for their Surety. But it is the laughter of the world which the wise man calls madness; and there will be no difficulty in showing you, in two or three instances, how close is the parallel between the maniac and the man by whom this laughter is excited. We would first point out to you how that conflict, of which this creation is the scene, and the leading antagonists in which are Satan and God, is a conflict between falsehood and truth. The entrance of evil was effected through a lie; and when Christ promised the descent of the Holy Ghost, whose special office it was to be to regenerate human kind, to restore their lost purity, and therewith their lost happiness, He promised it under the character of the Spirit of truth; as though truth were all that was needed to the making of this earth once more a paradise. And it is in accordance with this representation of that great struggle, which fixes the regards of higher orders of intelligence, as being a struggle between falsehood and truth, that so much criminality is everywhere in Scripture attached to a lie, and that those on whom a lie may be charged, are represented as thereby more especially obnoxious to the anger of God. "A lying tongue," says the wise man, "is but for a moment": as though sudden vengeance might be expected to descend upon the liar, and sweep him away ere he could reiterate the falsehood. And if there be thus, as it were, a kind of awful majesty in truth, so that the swerving from it is emphatically treason against God and the soul, it follows that whatever is calculated to diminish reverence for truth, or to palliate falsehood, is likely to work as wide mischief as may well be imagined. You are all ready without hesitation to admit that nothing would go further towards loosening the bonds of society than the destroying the shame which now attaches to a lie; and accordingly you would rise up as by one common impulse to withstand any man or any authority which should propose to shield the liar, or to make his offence comparatively unimportant. But whilst the bold and direct falsehood thus gains for itself the general execration, mainly perhaps because felt to militate against the general interest, there is a ready indulgence in the more sportive falsehood, which is rather the playing with truth than the making a lie. Here it is that we shall find laughter which is madness, and identify with a madman him by whom the laughter is raised. There is very frequently a departure from truth in that mirthful discourse to which Solomon refers. In amusing a table, and causing light-heartedness and gaiety to go round the company, men may be teaching others to view with less abhorrence a lie, or diminishing in them that sanctity of truth which is at once an admirable virtue and essential to the existence of any other. I do not fear the influence of one whom the world denounces as a liar; but I do of one whom it applauds as a wit. I fear it in regard of reverence for truth — a reverence which, if it do not of itself make a great character, must be strong wheresoever the character is great. The man who passes off a clever fiction, or amusingly distorts an occurrence, or dextrously misrepresents a fact, may say that he only means to be amusing, and that nothing is further from his thoughts than the doing an injury; but nevertheless, forasmuch as it can hardly fail but that he will lower the majesty of truth in the eyes of his neighbour, there may be equally ample reason for assenting to the wise man's decision — "I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?" But we have not yet given the worst case of that laughter which may be identified with madness. It is very true, that whatever tends to diminish men's abhorrence of a lie, tends equally to the spreading confusion and wretchedness, and may therefore be justly classed amongst things which resemble the actings of a maniac. It is also true that this tendency exists in much of that admired conversation whose excellence virtually lies in its falseness; so that the correspondence is clear between the wit and the madman. But it is not perhaps till the laughter is turned upon sacred things that we have before us the madness in all its wildness and in all its injuriousness. The man who in any way exercises his wit upon the Bible conveys undoubtedly an impression, whether he intend it or not, that he is not a believer in the inspiration of the Bible; for it is altogether insupposable that a man who really recognized in the Bible the Word of the living God, who felt that its pages had been traced by the very hand which spread out the firmament, should select from it passages to parody, or expressions which might be thrown into a ludicrous form. It may be true that he does this only in joke, and with no evil design; he never meant, he may tell you, when he introduced Scripture ridiculously, or amused his companions by sarcastic allusions to the peculiarities of the pious — he never meant to recommend a contempt for religion, or to insinuate a disbelief in the Bible, and perhaps he never did; but nevertheless, even if you acquit him of harmful intention, and suppose him utterly unconscious that he is working a moral injury, he who frames jokes on sacred things, or points his wit with scriptural allusions, may do far more mischief to the souls of his fellow-men than if he engaged openly in assaulting the great truths of Christianity. If you have heard a text quoted in a ridiculous sense, or applied to some laughable occurrence, you will hardly be able to separate the text from that occurrence; the association will be permanent; and when you hear the text again, though it may be in the house of God, or under circumstances which make you wish for the most thorough concentration of thought on the most awful things, yet will there come back upon you- all the joke and all the parody, so that the mind will be dissipated and the very sanctuary profaned. And hence the justice of identifying with madness the laughter excited by reference to sacred things. Now, the upshot of the whole matter is, that we ought to set a watch upon our tongues, to pray God to keep the door of our lips. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Of all the gifts with which we have been entrusted, the gift of speech is perhaps that through which we may work most of evil or of good, and nevertheless it is that of whose right exercise we seem to make least account. It appears to us a hard saying, that for every idle word which they speak men shall give an account at the last, and we scarcely discern any proportion between a few syllables uttered without thought and those retributive judgments which must be looked for hereafter; but if you observe how we have been able to vindicate the correctness of the assertion of our text, though it be only the idle talker whose laughter is declared to be madness, effecting the same results, and producing the same evils as the fury of the uncontrolled maniac, you will see that a word may be no insignificant thing — that its consequences may be widely disastrous, and certainly the speaker is answerable for the consequences which may possibly ensue, however God may prevent their actual occurrence. The fiction may not make a liar, and the jest may not make an infidel, but since it is the tendency of the fiction to make liars, and the tendency of the jest to make infidels, he who invents the one, or utters the other, is as criminal as though the result had been the same as the tendency.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?