Matthew Poole's Commentary
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 All gifts, how excellent soever, without charity are
1 Corinthians 13:4-12 The praises of charity,
1 Corinthians 13:13 and its preference to faith and hope.
The apostle had promised, in the close of the former chapter, to show them a more excellent thing than gifts, or a more excellent course than that they were so hotly pursuing, in their emulation of the best gifts; he now cometh to show them that way, that course: the way was that of love; the course was the study and pursuing methods how to show their love to God and to one another. For (saith the apostle)
though I speak, that is, if I could speak, or admit I did speak, with the tongues used in all the nations of the world, and with the tongues of angels; by which some understand the best and most excellent ways of expressing ourselves. Angels have no tongues, nor make any articulate audible sounds, by which they understand one another; but yet there is certainly a society or intercourse among angels, which could not be upheld without some way amongst them to communicate their minds and wills each to other. How this is we cannot tell: some of the schoolmen say, it is by way of impression: that way God, indeed, communicates his mind sometimes to his people, making secret impressions of his will upon their minds and understandings; but whether angels can do the like, or what their way is of communicating their minds each to other, is a great secret, and we ought to be willingly ignorant of what God hath not pleased, in any part of his revealed will, to tell us. Neither do I judge it a question proper to this place, where the tongues of angels unquestionably signify the best and most excellent ways of expressing and communicating ourselves to others; as manna is called angels’ food, Psalm 78:25, that is, the most excellent food, for angels, being spiritual substances, need no food, have no mouths to eat, nor bellies to fill; and this the apostle meaneth. Though I could express myself, or communicate my mind to others, in the most excellent way, or in the greatest variety of expression, yet if I have not agaphn, which we translate,
charity, but possibly might be better translated love, because we usually by charity (in common speech) understand that indication of brotherly love, which is in act of bounty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving to those that are in want; which it is possible that men do out of mere humanity, or a superstitious opinion of meriting thereby, without any true root of love to our neighbour, which is never true if it doth not grow out of a love to God. If I want love, (saith the apostle), a true root of love to men, flowing from a true love to God, and out of obedience to his precept, I am but
as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal, that is, I only make a noise, but it will conduce nothing to my salvation, it will be of no use to me; but if I have this true root of love, then it will be of avail to me. And thus the apostle proveth, that the habit of love to God and man in the heart, is far more excellent than the gift of tongues, which many of the Corinthians had, or coveted, or boasted in, despising those who had it not.
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 have the gift of prophecy: it hath been before showed, that the gift of prophecy, signifieth an extraordinary power or faculty, by which men in those primitive times were enabled to reveal the mind and will of God, either as to future contingencies, or things which should afterwards come to pass in the world, or by further explication or application of the mind and will of God already revealed in holy writ.
And understand all mysteries, and all knowledge: though, saith the apostle, I have a vast knowledge, and could in any notion comprehend the most sublime and hidden things, whether Divine or human.
And though I have all faith (except that which is saving and justifying).
So that I could remove mountains: he further opens what faith he meant, viz. faith of miracles, a firm persuasion that God would upon my prayer work things beyond the power, and contrary to the course, of nature: the apostle alludeth to the words of our Saviour, Matthew 17:20.
And have not charity, I am nothing; yet, saith he, if I have not love, that true love to God and men, by which that faith which is profitable to salvation worketh and showeth itself, it will all signify nothing, be of no profit nor avail unto me in order to my eternal salvation; I may perish for ever, notwithstanding such gifts.
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.The apostle proceedeth from common gifts, powers, and habits, to actions, and instanceth in two; the first of which might be a great service to men; the latter, an appearance of a great service to God.
Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor; though, saith he, I feed the poor with my goods, and that not sparingly, but liberally, so as I spend all my estate in that way, and make myself as poor as they:
and though I give my body to be burned; though I die in the cause of Christ, for the testimony of his gospel, or for owning of his ways; and that by the sharpest and most cruel sort of death, burning; and be not dragged to the stake, but freely give up myself to that cruel kind of death:
and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing; yet if I have not a root and principle of love to God in my heart, that carrieth me out to these actions and these sufferings, they all will signify nothing to me, as to my eternal salvation and happiness. From whence we may observe, that:
1. The highest acts of beneficence or bounty towards men, (which we usually call good works), are not meritorious at the hand of God, and may be separated from a true root of saving grace in the soul.
2. That the greatest sufferings for and in the cause of religion, may be separated from a true root and principle of saving grace.
3. That no actions, no sufferings, are sufficient to entitle any soul to heaven, further than they proceed from a principle of true love to God, and a desire to obey and to please him in what we do.
Faith and love must be the roots and principles of all those works which are truly good, and acceptable to God, and which will be of any profit or avail to us with reference to our eternal happiness.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,Lest the Corinthians should say to the apostle: What is this love you discourse of? Or how shall we know if we have it? The apostle here gives thirteen notes of a charitable person.
Charity suffereth long: by love or charity he either meaneth a charitable person, a soul possessed of that love, which he had been commending; or if we take the term plainly, to signify the habit itself, the meaning is, it is a habit or power in the soul, enabling and inclining it to do these things: to suffer long, not to be too quick and tetchy with brethren that may offend or displease us; the charitable man will withhold and restrain his wrath, not be rash in the expressions of it, and hasty to revenge.
And is kind; it disposeth a man to desire to deserve well of all, and to do good to all, as he hath occasion and opportunity; so as it is impossible there should be in a man any thing more opposite to this grace, than a currish, churlish temper, with a study and desire to do others mischief.
Charity envieth not; though a charitable person seeth others in a higher and more prosperous condition than himself, yet it doth not trouble him, but he is glad at the preferment, good, and prosperity of other men, however it fareth with himself. Every envious man, that is displeased and angry at another’s faring well, is an uncharitable man, there is no true root of love to God or to his neighbour in his heart.
Vaunteth not itself; he doth not prefer himself before others, ambitiously glorytug or boasting, and acting rashly to promote his own glory, and satisfy his own intemperate desires or lusts. He
is not puffed up, proudly lifting up himself above others, and swelling with high conceits of himself.
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;Doth not behave itself unseemly; he doth not behave himself towards any in an uncomely or unbeseeming manner, and will do nothing towards his brother, which in the opinion of men shall be a filthy or indecent action.
Seeketh not her own; he doth not seek what is his own, that is, what is for his own profit or advantage only; he hath an eye to the good and advantage of his brother, as well as his own profit and advantage. Such a man
is not easily provoked; he is not without his passions, but he is not governed by his passions, and overruled by them to fly out extravagantly against his brother upon every light and trivial occasion; he knows how to bear injuries, and is willing rather to bear lesser wrongs, losses, and injuries, than to do any thing in revenge of himself, or to the more remarkable prejudice of his neighbour. He
thinketh no evil, that is, no mischief, nothing that may be hurtful and prejudicial to his neighbour. Or else, he doth not rashly suspect his neighbour for doing evil (which possibly may be the better interpretation); and so it teacheth us, that lightly to take up evil reports of our neighbours, is a violation of charity; for the man that hath a true love to his brother, though he may believe evil of his brother, and charge him with evil, when it evidently appears to him that he is guilty; yet before that be evident to him, he will not suspect, nor think any such things of him.
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;He doth not rejoice in the sinful falls of others, but he rejoiceth in all truth, and the success and prospering of truth in the world; or in the manifestation of any person’s truth, or innocency, and righteousness.
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.The charitable man beareth all injuries with patience; he
believeth all things that are good of his brother, so far is he from being credulous to his prejudice;
endureth all things that a good man ought to endure, that is, any evils done to himself. In the same sense Solomon saith, Proverbs 10:12: Love covereth all sins.
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.The apostle, from another argument, commendeth the grace of love, viz. its never failing; it shall go with us into another world, and have its use and exercise there, where there will be no prophesying, no speaking with divers tongues, but there the saints shall love God. And this maketh it evident, that by charity, or love, (before mentioned), the apostle doth not singly mean bounty or beneficence to those that stand in need of those good things of this life, in which we can help them.
Whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away: by knowledge, here, some understand the communicating of knowledge to the church by preaching: others, the means we now have by meditating in and study of the Scriptures: others, better, of the imperfect degrees of our knowledge, or the way of our procuring it: the following verses would incline us to interpret it of the former, though it be true also of the latter.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.For we know in part; it was truly said, as to things human, that the greatest part of those things that we know, is the least part of those things which we are ignorant of. A great measure of Divine things is also unknown to us, and the knowledge of them reserved for thr resurrection and day of judgment, John 14:20.
And we prophesy in part; nor can the communication of our knowledge to that, be larger than what we by prophecy communicate; we having ourselves but a short and imperfect communication of Divine things, we can communicate but an imperfect degree of knowledge to others.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.But when we come to heaven, we shall be in such a state, as nothing shall or can be added to us; then our partial and imperfect knowledge shall be swallowed up in a knowledge perfect and complete.
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.The apostle compareth the state of believers in this life, compared with their state in another life, to the state of a child, compared to that of a man. Look, as one, when he is a child, knoweth things imperfectly, and discourseth of them in the style and according to the knowledge of a child; but when he is grown up, he discourseth of them at another rate, according to the degree of knowledge which he hath acquired by instruction of others, or his own experience and observation: so it is with all of us; in this life we, like children, have a poor, low, imperfect knowledge of spiritual things, and accordingly discourse of them; but when we come to heaven, we shall know them and discourse of them in a more perfect manner.
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.The apostle pursues his former theme, comparing the imperfect state of believers, as to knowledge in this life, with what shall be in the life that is to come. In this life it is as in a looking glass, (where we only see the images and imperfect representations of things), and darkly, in a riddle; it is but a little knowledge that we have, and what we have we get with a great deal of difficulty; but in heaven we shall have such knowledge as two men have who see one another face to face, and shall know God fully, in some measure, though not in the same degree, of the fulness and perfections wherein God knoweth us.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.Take us according to our state in this life, we have, and shall have, the exercise of three graces: faith, to evidence unto us those things which we do not see, either by the eye of sense or reason;
hope, by which we wait for the receiving of them; and
love, by which we delight ourselves in God, and show obedience to the will of God. But of all these, love is
the greatest, either in respect of its use and profitableness unto men, or in respect of its duration and abiding (which last the apostle seemeth chiefly to intend).
Faith shall cease when we come to the vision of God; and hope, when we come to the fruition of God in glory; love also will cease, as to some acts, but never as to a pleasure and a delighting in God; that will be to eternity.