And they said to Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?…
There was much, as we have seen, to excuse the terror of Israel; but there is one thing not so easy to excuse, and that is the sarcastic, unjust spirit in which these terrified Israelites treat their visible leader. Formerly (Exodus 5:21) they had turned on him with bitter reproaches; but their conduct then was the effect of ignorance and hasty expectations, and their language, however strong, was simply the language of reproach. But now to reproach they add sarcasm; they speak so as to set Moses in a ridiculous as well as a painful position. We may suppose that when the question was asked, "Whatever can we have been brought here for?" some of the wits of Israel would reply, "There is no room in Egypt to bury us, and so we are brought to be buried here." Then this sharp speech, quickly flying from lip to lip, as clever things usually do, would in no long time become the well-nigh universal thought. We have then here to consider the evils of sarcastic speech. That such speech may do good sometimes, and sometimes be necessary, need not be denied. But inasmuch as the temptation is almost entirely the other way, we may dismiss as needless the work of considering what benefits there may be in sarcastic speech. The ills of sarcasm have so far outweighed the good, that we had better set ourselves earnestly to consider them. Is it not to be presumed that fewer such sayings would fall from our lips, if only we habitually considered all the ill effects that may flow from such a way of speaking?
I. CONSIDER THE PAIN INFLICTED BY SARCASTIC SPEECH. There may be a great deal of pain inflicted where no sense of pain is expressed. Moses does not here take any notice of this bitter, clever, far-echoing word about the graves; but thereby, he only gives another illustration of his characteristic natural meekness. He may have felt, and felt deeply, even though he did not speak. If, indeed, he reckoned nothing of these words, we should hardly think so well of him. To be what is called thick-skinned is not good, if it is meant thereby that one has no perception of the insolent, inconsiderate language of others. Lack of sensibility to pain means a corresponding lack of sensibility to pleasure. We can no more avoid feeling pain when a harsh word is spoken, than when we receive a cut or a blow. No doubt it is pleasant to say sharp, clever things; but the pleasure is a momentary one, an entirely selfish one; it will not bear thinking about; and it may inflict a durable pain. Sharp words may be like barbed arrows that not all the lapse of years can work out of the memory. Assuredly we must not shrink from inflicting pain, if duty, affection, and prudence point that way; but we had need to be very sure of the indications. To inflict bodily pain for our own pleasure is admittedly an unchristian thing; and yet what a monstrous inconsistency is revealed in the fact that persons who would not tread on a worm, are constantly found inflicting the intensest pain by the words they speak. Knock a man down, and you might do him less harm than by the few words that pass so lightly, easily, and pleasantly between your lips. Less harm is done by the fist than by the tongue.
II. CONSIDER THE INJUSTICE DONE BY IT. Sarcastic speeches never can be true speeches. If they were true, it would be no justification of them, but in the very nature of things they cannot be true. They must have about them, more or less, elements of the false and exaggerated. If a thing is to be sharp at all, there is an irresistible temptation to make it as sharp and striking as possible; and truth cannot but suffer in the process. Epigrams are always to be distrusted. How clearly the injustice of sharp sayings comes out in the illustration before us! The speech about these graves was a witty, clever one, but how unjust! As it happened, Moses was under no responsibility whatever for bringing the Israelites to this particular place. lie had not been left to use his own judgment and discretion, but was as much under the guidance of the cloudy pillar as all the rest. Hence from this illustration we receive a slight warning that we may not only be inflicting pain, Which is much, but injustice, which is a great deal more. You who would not steal the least fragment of a man's property, be equally careful to speak no word which may do hurt to his reputation. Speak that you may inflict no pain; speak also that you may do no injustice.
III. CONSIDER THE PERIL TO THE SPEAKER HIMSELF. Cleverness is a perilous, and not unfrequently a fatal gift. To be sharper than our neighbours may prove in the end a dangerous thing for our own interests. Some who are admired, courted, widely spoken about, for their powers of mimicry, find in the end that it might have been far more for their comfort and permanent well-being, if they had been of only commonplace abilities. To be admired is a poor satisfaction, mere dust and ashes, if it has to stand instead of being loved. Make fun of other people, seize without mercy on their weaknesses, their follies and their natural defects, and the chances are that you will find yourself exposed, in turn, to like treatment. Those who attack with sharp speeches are just the men who deserve - if they always got their deserts, and it were expedient to retaliate - equally sharp speeches in return. What about these Israelites here? Did they not by talking in this fashion show clearly what a mean, miserable company they were? They hurt themselves far more than they hurt Moses. There is hardly one who takes pride in what he calls his plain speaking, but might be pilloried himself, and greeted with sarcastic speeches as severe as any he had uttered, and probably more charged with truth. And the worst of all is, that in the end those habituated to evil-speaking may find themselves forsaken in their own great need. We need friends, and, if we would have them, we must show ourselves friendly. If we go through the world constantly replenishing our sarcastic quiver with arrows, and stretching the bow on every slight provocation, then we must expect people to give us a wide berth; and when at last we come to be stricken ourselves, it will be no matter of just complaint if we are left well-nigh alone.
IV. CONSIDER HOW MUCH GOOD IS THWARTED AND NEUTRALISED BY THIS WAY OF SPEAKING. We may flatter ourselves that there is good to be gained in making folly ridiculous, and so there may be; but it can only be when the speaker is one of great wisdom, goodness, and habitual elevation of life. Certainly we find in the Scriptures the language of solemn irony from God himself; but his words are above our criticism, and we are not at liberty to speak as he speaks. We are all upon the same level of sin, ignorance, and partial views, and must speak as remembering this level. To affect authority and superior station will be ruinous to all good effects from any remonstrance of ours. Whatever truth is revealed to us, and put upon our consciences to speak, must be spoken in love, in humility, and in the very best season we can find. If it is really our desire to win others to better, wiser and manlier courses, we had better not begin with sharp speeches. True it may be that the world is mostly made up of fools, and perhaps there is no occasion when we do more to prove our own place in the large company than when, in our contempt and impatience, we call other people fools. We are not then behaving as fishers of men. We are not then becoming all things to all men in order to save some. Many a Christian has had to sorrow for his imperfect control over the gift of intellectual quickness. Before his conversion, he used his gift of wit, repartee, and ludicrous conception with careless freedom and delight, not staying to consider whom he hurt, whom he hindered. Then when such a one submits at last to the true lord of the intellect, he finds it hard, in this matter in particular, to bring his thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ.
V. GOD'S PEOPLE MUST THEMSELVES PREPARE TO BE SARCASTICALLY AND BITTERLY SPOKEN OF. Only let each one of us consider his own temptation to say hard things, and then we shall cease to wonder that hard things are said of us. We cannot expect to receive from others, but as we give to them. Anyway we must be ready for hard things, ready in particular for hard speeches. Where Christ went, his people must go; and he went in a path where he was called a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. If he was sneered at on the very Cross, it is babyish on our part to complain because the world sneers at us in the comparatively easy paths we have to tread. Our strength, our joy, and our serenity must not depend on the world's opinion. Moses was getting a hint even thus early that he must not expect consideration from his brethren, with respect to his feelings and difficulties. The joys of Moses were to be got from quite another direction, even from the assiduous tenderness of Jehovah himself.
VI. CULTIVATE A HABIT OF PITIFUL CONSIDERATION TOWARDS THE MEN OF SARCASTIC SPEECH. Remember that they are not happy men. How can a man be happy whose eye is for ever lighting on the blots and loathsome ulcers of human nature; who seems to have a morbid acuteness of vision with respect to them, but to become purblind when noble and Divinely-produced elements of character appear? Such a man is to be pitied with Christ's own gentle pity. Do not meet his sarcasm with sarcasm, but here emphatically return good for evil. Force him to see that there is a great deal more in the world, if only he will look for it, than duplicity, selfishness, and stupidity. Show him how to discern, even in the jostling and wrangling crowd, men who have in them the mind which was in Christ. - Y.
Parallel VersesKJV: And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt?