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Title: Wit and Humor of the Bible - A Literary Study
Author: Shutter, Marion D. (Marion Daniel), 1853-1939
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  "Bibles laid open; millions of surprises."--_Herbert._

  Arena Publishing Company,

  COPYRIGHT, 1892,

  _All rights reserved._




While "many have taken in hand to set forth in order" the pathos and
sublimity of the Bible, those literary elements comprised under the title
of this book have rarely been mentioned. Feeling that here was a field
untraversed, the author of this little volume began an investigation whose
results were originally embodied in an article published some years ago in
an Eastern review. That article is given in "Poole's Index" as the only
one extant upon the subject. Since its publication, additional study has
brought to light other examples of the use of Wit and Humor by the writers
of the Bible. These later results were embodied in a course of lectures
delivered last winter before the students of Lombard University,
Galesburg, Ill. They are now given to the public in the present volume. It
would be presumptuous to claim that these few pages exhaust the subject.
Such a claim the author does not wish to make. Further research would no
doubt bring to light instances that have escaped him. It is hoped,
however, that these studies may be sufficiently complete to awaken
interest in a long-neglected side of our sacred literature.


  Minneapolis, Minn., Dec. 24, 1892.
    First Universalist Church.


"There is still one question before us. If humor be what we have claimed
for it, not a mere farce, but the depicting of the whole of human life,
then we should expect that the highest literature should be found to
contain it. We should expect to find it everywhere; that it should satisfy
all that desire which a reading in theology, or philosophy, or science, or
history, or a study in art, has created in man. Are there, then, any great
books, or still more any great forces in human life which seem devoid of
it? Is there any humor in the gospels? This is a dilemma that must be
faced; for if humor be life itself, how can human life in its highest
development dispense with it?"--_Shorthouse._


    "Even St. Paul could invent and enjoy a humorous pun; the proof of
    which see Galatians V:12, in the original; so there is high authority
    for jesting."--_Kirke._

The title of this book will no doubt affect many persons unpleasantly at
first. "Flat blasphemy!" I can hear some one exclaim, "We have already had
the authority of the Bible undermined by critics, and here is a flippant
rogue who goes still farther, and assures us that it is nothing more than
a jest-book! This is the very climax and culmination of godless folly."

The author makes haste, therefore, to disclaim any intention of
irreverence. To cheapen or degrade sacred things, to "depreciate the moral
currency," is at the farthest remove from his intention. It is easy enough
to take the language of Scripture and use it for coarse and vulgar
purposes, and such use deserves the severest censure. It is not to be
tolerated. Passages that have been light and guidance to multitudes, that
have brought strength to the tempted, certainty to the doubting and
consolation to the bereaved; that have been bread of life to those who
have hungered for righteousness, inspiration to the purposeless and help
to the needy,--have been turned into sources of merriment to freshen
exhausted wit, and season the insipid discourse of stupidity. Persons
whose brains are barren of pleasant conceits find no difficulty in so
perverting a Scriptural expression as to make the "groundlings" laugh. In
no such motives has this volume originated. The title has been chosen and
the work which it covers has been done in the spirit of one who loves the
Great Book, and who would secure for it an additional claim upon human
affection. The studies of the writer have led him into fresh fields and
pastures green, where he has gathered many things out of the ordinary that
have given the Bible a larger place in his own heart.

No; the Bible is not a collection of jests; nor do we characterize it as a
jest-book when we say that it contains Wit and Humor. These elements are
in the Bible, and with good reason. They are not introduced to amuse. They
are not intended to dissipate the weariness of an idle hour. They are not
designed to produce convulsions of laughter. They are subsidiary to the
main theme. They are incidental to the development of religious history
and religious thought. They help reveal in their true light the characters
who from time to time appear; they show the absurdity of the opposing
error and sharpen the arrows with which folly is transfixed. They enhance
in many ways the value and power of our Sacred Book.


The Scripture documents may be viewed from several
standpoints;--historical, exegetical, theological and literary. One may,
for example, study the book of Job to find out the actual basis of fact
that underlies it, or for the purpose of ascertaining and systematizing
its doctrines, or he may read it as a great dramatic poem, and criticize
it by the rules that would apply to any other dramatic poem. He may go
through the Apocalypse, grammar and lexicon in hand, or he may study its
flashing imagery as he would that of any other magnificent work of genius.
He may read the Psalms as he would the odes of Horace. In these pages the
Scriptures are considered simply as Literature. The question of
inspiration or authority does not enter. Doctrinal inquiries are set
aside. "To understand," says Matthew Arnold, "that the language of the
Bible is fluid, passing, literary, is the first step towards a right
understanding of the Bible."

The literary character of the Bible is admirably set forth in the
following paragraph from a recent critic:

    "As a particular book, the Bible is an unequaled source of literary
    inspiration. As a book of religious truth, it is supreme; but
    religious truth, without any impairment of its value or obscurity of
    its meaning, may be studied from the literary standpoint; in fact, in
    the light of literary criticism, or tested by the usual canons of the
    scholar, it will appear more sacred, more beautiful, more divine.
    Never forgetting that it is our manual of religion, it is also the
    vehicle of the most wonderful literature in human annals, and precedes
    in importance all others. There is no book so composite in character
    and yet so harmonious in plan, so multiplex in styles and yet so
    educational in rhetoric and logic, so varied in contents and yet so
    progressive in its philosophy and religion, as the Bible. Taken as a
    whole, it is massive, comprehensive, a revelation of the Infinite.
    Studied in its parts, it stimulates single faculties while it
    ministers nourishment to the whole frame. Its histories are more
    compact than those of Herodotus, Gibbon or Macaulay; its poetry, whose
    key is a mystery, quiets Homer, Shakespeare and Tennyson; its
    prophecies are unique climaxes of wisdom, both in drapery and
    substance; its biographies excel those of Plutarch, Irving, Carlyle
    and Boswell; its chronicles of wars are superior to those of Julius
    Cæsar, Wellington, Napoleon, and Ulysses Grant; its epistles eclipse
    those of Pliny, Madame Sevigne and Francis Bacon; its laws, in their
    ethical and spiritual import, are quite beyond Justinian, Blackstone
    and the English Parliament. Every phasis of literature, every norm of
    wisdom, is in the Bible. It ministers to all tastes and arouses the
    slumbering intellects of all who can comprehend the difference between
    reality and fiction, and who incline to virtue rather than vice.
    Ruskin confesses his indebtedness to the Bible, Homer and Sir Walter
    Scott, for his mental discipline; Charles Reade pronounces the
    characters in Scripture a literary marvel. Matthew Arnold daily read
    the New Testament in Greek for its style; Milton could not have
    written Paradise Lost without Genesis; Renan's witchery of style is
    traceable to the New Testament. Job has taught the poets the art of
    construction, and David has sung an undying melody into the ears of
    the race. The Book of Ruth is the model idyl, and the Books of Esther
    and Daniel abound in incomparable dramatic elements; Isaiah has plumed
    the statesman for oratorical flights; Jeremiah has opened the
    fountains of pathos and sentiment in pathetic souls; Ezekiel has
    furnished a usable style of judicial denunciation for the criminal
    lawyer. Of all books, whether rhetoric, logic, vocabulary, poetry,
    philosophy, history, or whatever be the end, the Bible should be first
    and most carefully studied, its literary spirit and form should be
    closely traced and discerned, and its truth should be reverently
    incorporated into the daily speech, thought and life."

But in this summary there is no mention made of the literary qualities
which it is here proposed to consider. They are as completely ignored as
if the very suggestion of their presence were profanation.


The presumption is that in such a book, or rather collection of books as
the Bible, the elements of Wit and Humor would be found. We have here the
best historical, poetical, and moral works of a whole people. These
documents cover in time more than a millennium and a half. It is more than
probable that during that time amusing incidents occurred, even in
connection with the religious trend of the history, some of which would be
reported; that grotesque and odd characters existed, some of whom would be
described, and their sayings and doings noted; that among the moral
teachers of the people, there were some at least, who would point their
precepts with wit and edge their rebukes with sarcasm. We should expect to
find all these things, as we should expect to find pathos or sublimity.
The humorous is just as legitimate in literature and quite as much an
element of influence. It glows in all the other great books which have
shaped the life and thought of mankind; and it is only fair to presume
that we shall find its light shining from those pages that have been most
potent of all.

But is not "the volume of this book" a serious one? Is it not profoundly
in earnest? Are not its themes most solemn? Is not its purpose the highest
under heaven, the most important to the inhabitants of earth? The
conclusion, however, that the questioner has in mind is by no means
inevitable. It is a mistake to suppose that humor is incompatible with
seriousness, earnestness and solemnity. "As in one of my lectures," says
Henry Reed, "I spoke of attempting to draw too precise a line around
sacred literature, making it too much a thing apart, so in regard to the
literature of wit and humor. I shall be very sorry, if such a title as
that which I have been obliged to use, led any one to think of it as of a
more distinctive existence than is the case, instead of regarding those
faculties as pervading the literature in various degrees, and thus forming
some of the elements of its life. I shall have occasion to trace these
elements in close connection with elements of tragedy, and to show how the
processes we generalize under the names of wit and humor are kindred with
the most intense passion and the deepest feeling."

In human nature, the sources of laughter and tears lie close together, and
the highest literature must express that nature in its entirety. "It is
an understood fact," says Whipple, "that mirth is as innate in the mind as
any other original faculty. The absence of it in individuals or
communities is a defect." "He who laughs," says the mother of Goethe, "can
commit no deadly sin." If it be true as Whipple says, that the absence of
mirth in individuals or communities is a defect, then is the absence of it
in literature likewise a defect. It is a defect because the literature
which omits it fails to set forth all that there is in man. It leaves an
important territory unexplored.

On the other hand, the literature which is designed to move and mold men
must be addressed to human nature in its completeness. Freighted with
destiny, charged with eternity as are the messages of the Bible, they are
yet intended to impress men; they are addressed to human faculties in
human speech. Whatever the capacities of language for touching the heart
and operating upon the will, they may all be employed, though the theme
soar to heaven or take hold on hell. The Bible is not an instrument of a
single string; it gives forth a thousand harmonies. It is attuned to every
note in human nature.


Thus far we have simply dealt with the presumption. The considerations
advanced show us what we might expect to find. When we proceed from
presumption to actual investigation, our conjectures are verified. There
are certainly passages in the Bible which in any other writings we should
call Wit and Humor. Since this is the case, our discussion is legitimate,
however repugnant the very suggestion may be to the feelings with which we
are accustomed to regard the Bible.

Let us take some examples. If we found in any other book such a saying as
this, "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a
stinking savor, so doth a little folly him that is in great reputation for
wisdom and honor," should we not call it witty? Is it not witty as the
Russian proverb "A spoonful of tar in a barrel of honey?"

Or consider such sentences as the following: "All the labor of a man is
for his mouth, and yet his appetite is not filled." "As he that taketh
away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that
singeth songs to a heavy heart." "Bread of deceit is sweet to a man, but
afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel." "He that answereth a
matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him." "A man of
great wrath shall suffer punishment; for if thou deliver him, yet must
thou do it again." In other words, a man of violent temper is always
getting into difficulties; you have no sooner helped him out of one than
he madly plunges into another. Like the irascible person in the old
nursery rhyme, who jumped into a bramble bush and scratched out both his
eyes, he is no sooner extricated, than "with all his might and main, he
jumps into another bush and puts them out again." "Can a man take fire in
his bosom and his clothes not be burned? Can he go upon hot coals and his
feet not be burned?" "Wealth makes many friends, but the poor is
separated from his neighbor." "He that passeth by and meddleth with strife
belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears." If we
came upon such sentences in Johnson or Goldsmith, we should say in a
moment that they were instances of genuine wit. Let us not hesitate to
carry the same frankness of literary judgment to the Bible. When Isaiah
characterizes certain ones as "mighty to drink wine and men of strength to
mingle strong drink," does he not use essentially the same reproach that
Prince Hal fastened upon Falstaff, "Wherein is he good but to taste sack
and drink it?" Who shall say that the earlier satire did not suggest the
later? Much has been written about Shakespeare's indebtedness to the

Here is a passage of biting sarcasm from Job. We should surely call it
sarcasm if we found it in the pages of Robert South. Job is expressing his
scorn for those who affect to look down upon him in his adversities: "But
now they that are younger than I have me in derision, whose fathers I
would have disdained to set with the dogs of my flock." They are "the
children of fools, yea, children of base men; they were viler than the
earth." (We have an equivalent expression in "meaner than dirt.") They are
members of the long-eared fraternity. He does not say so in the bluntest
form of expression that can be used, and that any one less skillful would
have used. Job puts it much more effectively: "Among the bushes they
_brayed_; under the _nettles_ they were gathered together." "If that is
not wit," says one, "there is no such thing as wit. And yet the
commentators do not see it, or will not see it. They are perfectly wooden
when they come to any such gleam of humor."

There is a bit of ridicule in Jeremiah that we should be quick to call
ridicule, if we came upon it elsewhere. He is describing the disasters
that fell upon the allies of the King of Egypt. "Why are the strong ones
swept away? They stood not because the Lord did thrust them down. He made
them to stumble, yea they fell one upon another; and they said, Arise, and
let us go again to our own people, and to the land of our nativity, from
the oppressing sword." They are defeated in spite of all the promises of
the King of Egypt. He does not seem to avail them. His boasts are
ineffectual. His disgusted allies depart, flinging at him the withering
reproach, "_Pharoah, King of Egypt, is but a noise_; he hath let the
appointed time pass by." That is to say, according to one paraphrase,
"Pharoah is of no account now, he has had his chance and lost it; he has
outlived his influence; his day is over; he is not a sovereign any longer;
he is only a noise." Or as Matthew Henry puts it, "Pharoah can hector and
talk big; but that is all; all his promises vanish into smoke." In the
same spirit, Queen Catherine says of the dead Wolsey,

    "His promise was as he then was, mighty;
    But his performance, as he now is, nothing."

If we found a little sketch like the following in Thackeray, we should,
beyond doubt, pronounce it humorous: "All the brethren of the poor do hate
him; how much more do his friends go far from him. He pursueth them with
words, yet are they wanting to him." The words of a poor man can not
travel fast enough to overtake his rich friends and neighbors. Indeed,
Thackeray has drawn such a picture in his more elaborate description of
Harry Warrington in the sponging-house, making vain appeals for help to
his rich relatives and friends. "He pursued them with words, yet were they
wanting to him." His aunt,--"a member of the great and always established
Church of the Pharisees, sent him her blessing,--and a tract!"

If we found, in any modern literature, a sketch of the ruling deacon in a
church, like John's description of Diotrephus, we should say it was tinged
with satire. "I wrote unto the Church, but Diotrephus, _who loveth to have
the pre-eminence among them_, receiveth us not. Wherefore if I come, I
will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious
words; and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the
brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, _and casteth them out of the
Church_." Evidently there was a deacon in one of the apostolic churches,
who always had to be consulted. Everything must go as he dictated. He did
not even stand in awe of an accredited apostle. The minister must preach
according to his views of theology, or signify his willingness to accept a
call to a new field. Those members of the church who upheld a minister
whom Diotrephus did not like, found their connection with the body severed
without the formality of asking their consent. In the matter of having a
Diotrephus within their borders, some churches to-day find themselves in
the direct line of apostolic succession.

In the book of Acts, there is an account of Paul's reception at Athens.
"And they took him and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know
what this new doctrine is, whereof thou speakest? For thou bringest
certain strange things to our ears; we would know, therefore, what these
things mean." In the comment which follows this account, the writer
indulges in a touch of ridicule upon the Athenian gossips and curiosity
mongers. We should say it was a touch of ridicule if we found it in
Addison. "For all the Athenians and strangers which were there, _spent
their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new
thing_." Indeed there is a sketch in Addison of which this might easily
have been the ground-work. "There is no humor of my countrymen which I am
more inclined to wonder at than _their general thirst after news_. A
victory or defeat is equally agreeable to them. The shutting of a
cardinal's mouth pleaseth them one post, and the opening of it another.
They are delighted to hear the French Court is removed to Marli, and are
afterwards as much delighted with its return to Versailles. They read the
advertisements with the same curiosity as the articles of public news; and
are as pleased to hear of a pye-bald horse that is strayed out of a field
near Islington, as of a whole troop that has been engaged in any foreign
adventure. In short, _they have a relish for anything that is news_, let
the matter of it be what it will. _They are men of a voracious appetite._"
Is not the comment of the Scriptural writer upon the Athenians in the
same vein with Addison's comment upon the English?

Isaiah rebukes those "who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness
for light and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet and sweet for
bitter,"--thus confusing moral distinctions. This is the same sort of
sophistry that Addison exposes, in his gentle way, by proposing the
following form of agreement: "We whose names are hereunto subscribed, do
solemnly declare that we do in our consciences believe that two and two
make four; and that we shall adjudge any man whatever to be our enemy who
endeavors to persuade us to the contrary. We are likewise ready to
maintain, with the hazard of all that is near and dear to us, that six is
less than seven in all times and at all places; and that ten will not be
more three years hence than it is at present. We do also firmly declare
that it is our resolution as long as we live to call Black black and White
white. _And we shall upon all occasions oppose such persons that upon any
day of the year shall call Black white or White black, with the utmost of
our lives and fortunes._" The rebuke, in both cases, is the same.


What do these illustrations show? "That the Bible is, on the whole, a
humorous book? Far from it. That religion is a humorous subject? that we
are to throw all the wit we can into the treatment of it? No. But they
show that the sense of the ludicrous is put into man by his Maker; that it
has its uses; that we are not to be ashamed of it;" that we are not to be
horrified at the mention of it in connection with things we deem most
sacred. They show that the literature of the Bible contains the same
elements that in any other literature we call Wit and Humor. They show us,
also, that wit and humor do not of necessity produce hearty laughter or
boisterous mirth; not always do they manifest themselves in "gibes and
gambols and flashes of merriment that set the table in a roar." Those,
therefore, who may expect something in these chapters that will shake
one's sides with jollity, or make him "laugh till his face be like a wet
cloak ill laid up," will doubtless be disappointed. Wit and humor often
lie too deep for laughter, as pathos often lies too deep for tears.

No attempt is here made at exact definition of the two words that are
prominent in the general title of this book. Perhaps after they have
passed through their final analysis we shall not be any wiser than before
we cast them into the alembic. Barrow says of Humor: "It is a thing so
versatile and multiform that it seems no less hard to settle a clear and
certain notion thereof, than to make a portrait of Proteus or to define
the figure of the fleeting air." We usually include under the general term
all forms of pleasantry, grotesqueness, drollery, sarcasm, irony,
ridicule. Our common acceptation shall serve us in these studies.

"There are many things," says Prof. Matthews, "that definition helps us to
understand, but there are other things that we understand better than we
can any possible definition of them; among these are the cold, sparkling,
mercurial thing we call wit, and that genial, juicy, unconscious thing we
call humor."

With these preliminary observations, we proceed to examine the subject in

    "Are there not two points in the adventure of the diver?
    One when a beggar he prepares to plunge;
    The other when a prince he rises with his pearl?
    Festus, I plunge."


    "----Now, by two-headed Janus,
    Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time;
    Some that will evermore peep through their eyes,
    And laugh like parrots at a bag-piper;
    And other of such vinegar aspect,
    That they'll not show their teeth by way of smile,
    Tho' Nestor swore the jest were laughable."--
                                        _Merchant of Venice._


    "With what prudence does the Son of Sirach caution us in the choice of
    our friends. And with what strokes of Nature, (I could almost say of
    Humour,) has he described the behavior of a treacherous and
    self-interested friend!"--_Addison._

"The history of the ancient Hebrews," says George Eliot, "gives the idea
of a people who went about their business and their pleasures as gravely
as a society of beavers; the smile and laugh are often mentioned
metaphorically; but the smile is one of complacency, the laugh of scorn."

Against the authority of so illustrious a name, the writer of these pages
confesses a somewhat different impression. It is difficult to believe that
such sentiments as the following could have arisen among a people whose
only smile was that of complacency, whose only laughter that of scorn:

"He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast."

"A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance."

"A merry heart doeth good like a medicine."

"Go thy way; eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry

"The voice of mirth," "the voice of gladness" are phrases of frequent
occurrence. The ancient Hebrews believed that there was a "time to laugh"
as well as a "time to weep." Grave and serious as they were, there must
have been in them, after all, something sunny and pleasant. They did not
find the heavens forever black and the earth forever cheerless.

When we turn to the historical and biographical portions of Scripture, we
find here and there a bit of quaintness and drollery in pictures of life
and delineations of character that must have brought to the faces of those
who read them or heard them smiles other than those of complacency; that
must have been enjoyed with laughter other than that of scorn.

Mr. Shorthouse says, "Nature and humor do not lie far apart; the source
and spring of humor is human life." "The essence of humor," Carlyle
remarks, "is sensibility; warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of
existence." "The man of humor," writes another distinguished critic,
"seeing at one glance the majestic and the mean, the serious and the
laughable; indeed, interpreting what is little or ridiculous by light
derived from its opposite idea, delineates character as he finds it in
life, without any impertinent intrusion of his own indignation or

The writers of the Bible sketched manners and traits as they found them.
Their pencils were faithful to nature. They reported what they saw. The
features which provoke the smile, as well as those which move us to
admire, condemn or weep, are pictured on their canvas. They had an eye for
the ludicrous side of life, as well as for its more sober aspects. So,
genial is much of their--often unconscious--humor, so far removed from
bitterness or scorn, that it should seem as if Addison and Irving might
have drawn some of their inspiration from these old Hebrews.

In this chapter we shall give some illustrations from their sketches of


In the time of the Judges the unprincipled Abimelech contrived to have
himself proclaimed king in Shechem. Knowing his unfitness for the throne,
and vexed at his successful machinations, Jotham, a man of ready wit,
ridicules the pretensions of the monarch and the folly of the people, in
an admirable fable. Addison says: "Fables were the first pieces of wit
that made their appearance in the world, and have been still highly
valued, not only in times of the greatest simplicity, but among the most
polite ages of mankind. Jotham's fable of the Trees is the oldest that is
extant, and as beautiful as any that have been made since that time."

Perching himself upon the top of a hill, that his parable may not be
brought to an untimely end, he speaks to the multitude: "The Trees went
forth on a time to anoint a king over them. And they said to the Olive
Tree, Reign thou over us. But the Olive Tree said unto them, Should I
leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and men, and go to be
promoted over the Trees? Then said the Trees unto the Fig Tree, Come thou
and reign over us. But the Fig Tree said unto them, Should I forsake my
sweetness and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the Trees? Then
said the Trees unto the Vine, Come thou and reign over us. And the Vine
said unto them, Should I leave my wine which cheereth God and Man, and go
to be promoted over the Trees?" Thus far the Trees have been unsuccessful.
They have found among their fellows of the forest no available candidate
whose character and record are good. They anticipated a difficulty of more
modern times. But they are becoming desperate. They are determined to have
a king. In this extremity what step do they take? "Then said all the Trees
unto the _Bramble_, Come thou and reign over us." The Bramble cannot plead
business. It cannot say, as do the Olive and Fig and Vine, "I am of some
better use." There is no reason, so far as any beneficent occupation is
concerned, why it should not be king. The offer is eagerly accepted, and
the pompous bush delivers itself of this high and mighty coronation
address: "If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your
trust in my shadow; and if not, let fire come out of the Bramble and
destroy the cedars of Lebanon!"

This Bramble, Jotham explains, represents Abimelech, while the misguided
trees are the men of Shechem. Having made this application, Jotham became
convinced that his mission was ended, and abandoned Mount Gerezim for a
place of greater security. "And Jotham ran away and fled, and went to Beer
and dwelt there for fear of Abimelech his brother." He did not wait to see
what impression he had made. He was willing to let his story, moral and
all, take care of itself; for in that day, as in every subsequent age,
there was no room for a satirist in the kingdom of an incompetent ruler.


Farther on in the book of Judges, we have the portrait of Samson. How
quaintly is the character drawn! A great lubberly, good-natured giant, but
now and then bursting out into fits of unreasoning and uncontrolled
anger,--not unlike Ajax in the play. He is constantly making himself
ridiculous in his love affairs.

In _Love's Labor Lost_, the following dialogue occurs:--

    "ARMADO.--Comfort me, boy. What great men have been in love?

    "MOTH.--Hercules, Master.

    "ARM.--Most sweet Hercules! More authority dear boy, name more; and
    sweet my child, let them be men of good repute and carriage.

    "MOTH.--Samson, Master; he was a man of good carriage, for he raised
    the town gates on his back like a porter; and he was in love."

He tries to joke in clumsy riddles: "Out of the eater came forth meat, out
of the strong came forth sweetness." But his jokes were usually of a more
practical and even more disastrous kind. L'Estrange, in his _History of
Humor_, says: "The first character in the records of antiquity that seems
to have had anything quaint or droll about it is that of Samson. Standing
out amid the confusion of legendary times, he gives us good specimens of
the fierce, wild kind of merriment relished in ancient days; and was very
fond of making very sanguinary sport for the Philistines. He was an
exaggeration of a not very uncommon type of man in which brute strength is
joined to loose morals and whimsical fancy. People were more inclined to
laugh at sufferings formerly than now, because they were not keenly
sensitive to pain, and also had less feeling and consideration for others.
That Samson found some malicious kind of pleasure and diversion in his
reprisals on his enemies and made his misfortunes minister to his
amusement, is evident from the strange character of his exploits. 'He
caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail,
and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails, and when he had set
the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the
Philistines, and burned up both the shocks and also the standing corn of
the Philistines, with the vineyards and olives.' On another occasion, he
allowed himself to be bound with cords and thus apparently delivered
powerless into the hands of his enemies; he then broke his bonds 'like
flax that was burnt with fire,' and taking the jawbone of an ass which he
found, slew a thousand men with it. His account of this massacre shows
that he regarded it in a humorous light: 'With the jawbone of an ass,
heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of an ass, I have slain a thousand
men.' We might also refer to his carrying away the gates of Gaza to the
top of a hill that is before Hebron, and to his duping Delilah about the
seven green withes. * * * Samson was evidently regarded as a droll fellow
in his day."

What a touch of human nature there is in the scene between Samson and his
wife, when she asks for the solution of that wretched riddle! "Thou dost
but hate me," is her reproach, "and lovest me not; thou hast put forth a
riddle unto the children of my people, and hast not told it to me." What!
is there a domestic storm already brewing? There is something of a
thunderclap in the angry retort of the husband: "Behold, I have not told
it to my father and my mother," (as if that would make any difference to
her!) "and shall I tell it to thee?" Comparisons of this sort are but
little noted for their conciliatory tendencies, and so we are fully
prepared for what follows: "_And she wept before him_ the seven days while
the feast lasted." Poor Samson is not proof against woman's tears. He
could rend the lion as a kid, and carry off the gates of Gaza as easily as
a shepherd could bear a lamb upon his shoulders, but his superhuman
strength is of no avail against "women's weapons, water-drops." We are not
surprised to find that "it came to pass on the seventh day _he told her_."
Thus did conjugal quarrels end in the time of the Judges.

But if Samson was worsted in the encounter with his wife, he scored a
victory against the Philistines who had frightened her into telling them
the answer to the riddle. When they came with an air of insolent triumph
and said: "What is sweeter than honey? and what is stronger than a lion?"
he rather impolitely retorted,--traces of gall and wormwood at his recent
humiliation by his wife still rankling in his mind,--"If ye had not
ploughed with my heifer, ye had not found out my riddle." But he paid the
debt of honor he owed them, the wager he had lost. "He went down to
Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil and gave
changes of raiment unto them which expounded the riddle." Thersites would
have said of him as he did of Achilles, "His wit was his sinew." Samson
had wonderful muscular power of repartee.

On another occasion Samson amused himself by telling monstrous lies about
the secret of his strength: "If they bind me with seven green withes that
were never dried, then shall I be weak and be as another man;" "if they
bind me fast with new ropes;" "if thou weavest the seven locks of my head
with the web;" and so on. As Prince Hal said of the stories of his boon
companion, "These lies are like the father that begets them; gross as a
mountain, open, palpable." Delilah, wearied with these practical jokes,
exclaims at last, "How canst thou say 'I love thee,' when thine heart is
not with me? Thou hast mocked me these three times, and hast not told me
wherein thy great strength lieth." Then she began a course of teasing and
entreaty that finally proved successful. "It came to pass when she pressed
him daily with her words, _so that his soul was vexed unto death_, that he
told her all his heart." Samson was great physically, but so weak mentally
and morally that he is continually reducing himself to an absurd
spectacle. He could not resist Delilah's persistent importunities, nor had
he sufficient resolution to betake himself from the presence of
temptation. He had, no doubt, laughed loud and long at the victims of his
huge falsehoods, but he is finally harassed by a woman whose reproaches
and entreaties are like "a continual dropping on a rainy day," into
telling the fatal truth. Upon the whole, as we look upon the portrait of
Samson, we find it impossible to respect him. We can only smile at his
folly. The one flash of genuine nobility comes at the last. "Nothing in
his life became him like the leaving it." After all, that heroic death
more than half redeems the vacillating career it closes.


There is quite a different character in the first book of Samuel. His name
is Nabal. The word itself means "fool;" and the man's wife, Abigail,
volunteered the opinion that it was a very accurate description of her
husband: "_As his name is, so is he: Nabal is his name and folly is with
him_." He is self-satisfied, hard-headed, irritable, obstinate. We are
told that he was "churlish and evil in his doings." He is blunt in speech,
rude, and even boorish in manners. He stands out of the story like an old,
gnarled tree. It would not be a matter of marvel if he suggested to
Fielding the character of Squire Western. They have many points in common.
The servants of Nabal are afraid of him: "He is such a son of Belial that
a man cannot speak to him!" He is fond of wine, and sometimes falls
asleep over his cups. When David asks a favor of him, he exclaims: "Who is
David? and who is the son of Jesse? There be many servants now-a-days that
break away, every man from his own master!" As much as to say, "The
country is full of runaways and tramps, and how do I know but this David
is one of them?" Then he goes on--"Shall I take my bread and my water, and
my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men whom I
know not whence they be?" Let this David look out for himself; it is all
that I can do to provide for my own family and servants! How exactly in
the Squire Western vein: "It's well for un I could not get at un; I'd
spoiled his caterwauling; I'd a taught un to meddle with meat for his
master. He shan't ever have a morsel of meat of mine, or a varden to buy
it with!" Just the man, after he has stormed his life away, to die of
apoplexy! And Nabal _did_ die suddenly, a few days after he had been "very


There are some elements of genuine humor in the story of Jonah. Whatever
may be thought of the miraculous portions of the narrative, the character
of the shirking and whimpering prophet is faithfully drawn. He first tries
to escape the command of the Lord by fleeing to Tarshish, but finds that
he who runs away from duty runs into danger. Thoroughly alarmed by the
disastrous outcome of his attempt to get away from responsibility, he
finally goes to Nineveh, but is not reconciled to his task. He did not go
because he was anxious to serve the Ninevites, but because he wished to
avert further danger from himself. He is in just the mood to complain of
everything, to snatch at any straw of justification for his former
conduct. Contrary to his expectations, and even, it must be confessed, to
his secret wishes, the Ninevites were moved to repentance by his
half-hearted preaching, with its undertone of grumbling, and God forgave
them and turned away the threatened destruction of their city. But when
the forty days expire, and the city does not fall, Jonah is angry, and he
insists that he does well to be angry. He has been obliged to trudge
through the streets of the city day after day shouting his predictions of
doom, and now he is denied the poor satisfaction of seeing the bolts fall
from heaven in vengeance. He has even gone so far as to prepare for
himself a booth in a safe place, under whose shadow he might sit and enjoy
the spectacle,--"where he might see what would become of the city." And
now there is nothing to come of it all! "It displeased Jonah exceedingly
and he was very angry." Surely the Lord is not considerate of the feelings
of his prophet. Jonah's pent-up displeasure breaks forth: "I pray thee, O
Lord, was not this my saying while I was yet in mine own country?" Did I
not tell you so? Did I not say then and there how this whole affair would
turn out? "Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish." Why should I blister
under the sun of Nineveh, when I might take mine ease in Tarshish? "For I
knew that Thou art a gracious God, slow to anger and of great kindness
and repentest thee of the evil,"--too good-natured to do this thing! And
now that I have come, my prophecy has failed and my mission is a farce.
These wretches are spared and the prophet of God is a laughing-stock! "I
do well to be angry, even unto death!" He goes farther: "I beseech thee,
take away my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live."
It is better to die than to be made ridiculous. Nothing could reconcile
Jonah, just then, to the thought of further existence. Like Mr. Mantilini,
he was determined to become a "body."


We must not pass by that exquisite likeness of the demagogue in Second
Samuel. "Absalom rose up early and stood beside the way of the gate; and
it was so that when any man that had a controversy came to the king for
judgment, then Absalom called unto him and said, Of what city art thou?
and he said, Thy servant is one of the tribes of Israel. And Absalom said
unto him, See, thy matters are good and right, but there is no one deputed
of the king to hear thee." Things are getting very loose in the
government; the country is going to the dogs. The present administration
has been so long in power, that it has grown careless of the interests of
the people. Absalom said, moreover, "O that I were made Judge in the land;
that any man which hath any suit or any cause might come unto me, and I
would do him justice!" We need a change. Put our party in power and see
whether the rights of the people will not be better regarded; see whether
there will not be reform in all departments of the government, and better
times in the nation. "And it was so that when any man came to him to do
him obeisance, he put forth his hand and took him and kissed him." Really,
here we have the origin of the hand shaking candidate of to-day. Here are
the beginnings of that cajolery of the "poor laboring man," "the honest
farmer," "the oppressed people," which the modern aspirant to office so
earnestly affects. "And in this manner did Absalom to all Israel that
came unto the King for judgment; so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of
Israel." In one point the comparison between Absalom and his later
imitators fails. Absalom, it will be remembered, closed his career by
getting hung upon a tree. It is greatly to be regretted that many of our
modern demagogues do not complete the parallel.


If Absalom is a type of the demagogue, Shimei surely is a type of the
sycophant. While David was in power, Shimei was devoted. When David was
supplanted by the scheming Absalom and went forth heart-broken and weary
from the city where he had reigned, Shimei basely deserts him to become
the tool of Absalom, and heaps insults upon the head of the fallen
monarch. Here is a specimen of his conduct and language: "He cast stones
at David and at the servants of King David. * * * And thus said Shimei
when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man and thou man of
Belial: the Lord hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of
Saul in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the Lord hath delivered the
kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son; and behold thou art taken in thy
mischief because thou art a bloody man." This exhibition of meanness
rouses the just wrath of Abishai, who wishes to put an effectual stop to
the miserable proceeding: "Why should this dead dog curse my lord, the
King? Let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head." But David
forbids, and Shimei secure in the continued possession of his head
followed after David and his men and "cursed as he went, and threw stones
at him and cast dust." But the scene changes. Absalom lies dead under a
heap of stones in the forest. David is returning to Jerusalem as king. A
boat has carried him across the Jordan. Who is this that meets him as he
lands and fawns upon him? The wretch who stoned and cursed him the other
day. It is Shimei who forsook him and pelted him when he was unfortunate,
but who returns to offer, "in a bondman's key," his humble services when
David is restored to power. "Let not my Lord impute iniquity unto me,
neither do thou remember that which thy servant did, the day that my lord
the king went out of Jerusalem, that the king should take it to heart." Do
not grieve over it, do not take it too sorely. I admit that it was rather
hasty and ill-advised. "For thy servant doth know that I have sinned." To
be sure I threw some stones, and kicked up a little dust, and swore a few
oaths,--very inconsiderate it seems now; but I am willing to forget the
whole affair. And see what splendid atonement I offer! "_Behold, I am come
first this day of all the house of Joseph, to go down to meet my Lord, the
King._" Think of that! Ah, it is "my lord, the king" to-day; no longer a
"man of Belial." My lord the king can grant favors. Any little trifle of
an office for which he may want an incumbent would be considered.
Remember, "_I am come this day, the first of all the house of Joseph to go
down to meet my lord the king_."

Sterne says: "The wheel turns round once more; Absalom is cast down, and
David returns in peace. Shimei suits his behavior to the occasion, and is
the first man also who hastens to greet him; and had the wheel turned
round a hundred times, Shimei, I dare say, in every period of its rotation
would have been uppermost." Then he adds: "O Shimei, would to heaven when
thou wast slain, that all thy family had been slain with thee and not one
of thy resemblance left. But ye have multiplied exceedingly and
replenished the earth; and if I prophesy rightly, ye will in the end
subdue it. Go where you will, in every quarter, in every profession, you
see a Shimei following the wheels of the fortunate through thick mire and

It is not claimed that the writers of the Bible drew these portraits for
the purpose of making ludicrous those whom they painted, but the features
were in the originals, and they who wrote were simply faithful to nature.
They portrayed what they saw. They did not blind themselves to facts; and
now worthless usurper, weak-willed giant, churlish country squire of
Palestine, grumbling prophet, scheming demagogue and oily sycophant live
forever on their canvas. "Now, by two-headed Janus, Nature _hath_ framed
strange fellows in her time;" and some of those "strange fellows" lived in
Judea thousands of years ago.


"The ludicrous has its place in the Universe; it is not a human invention,
but one of the Divine ideas, illustrated in the practical jokes of kittens
and monkeys, long before Aristophanes or Shakespeare."--HOLMES.


    "To explain the nature of laughter and tears is to account for the
    condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of these
    two. It is tragedy or comedy, sad or merry, as it happens."--HAZLITT.

"One touch of nature," says Shakespeare, "makes the whole world kin;" but
the great dramatist did not define exactly what he meant by "touch of
nature," and the critics of many generations have been at war over the
question. Perhaps he could not have told us, even if he had tried,--any
more than the critics can tell us. When Democritus was asked his
definition of a man, his only reply was, "A man is that which we all see
and know." Further than this the philosopher could not proceed. But while
Shakespeare has not given us a definition, he has given us an

    "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,--
    That all, with one consent, praise new-born gauds,
    Tho' they are made and moulded of things past;
    And give to dust that is a little gilt
    More laud than gilt o'erdusted."

The whole world is kin in this, that all with one consent inexcusably
forget the substantial past and praise the present folly, if that folly be
well tricked out. Humanity proves its oneness by its foibles as well as by
its virtues. "Foolery, sir, doth walk about the orb; like the sun it
shineth everywhere." Things deserving of laughter and things intended to
provoke it have always been happening; and the faculties by which men
perceive the foolish and ludicrous have always existed in human nature.

    "Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,
    Nods and becks and wreathed smiles,
    Sport that wrinkled care derides,
    And laughter holding both his sides,"--

all these were in the past as well as in the present. They are "touches of
nature" that "make the whole world kin."

The statement was made in the preceding chapter that the writers of the
Bible, especially of the historical books, drew faithfully from real life,
and sketched manners and traits as they found them. They neither smoothed
over nor concealed anything. They were absolutely frank. This fidelity to
nature made it inevitable that the writers should now and then depict the
ludicrous side of life and character, describe grotesque situations and
paint amusing scenes. These are not uproariously funny, they will not
provoke boisterous merriment, any more than will a page of Addison; but
they are none the less specimens of genuine humor. Indeed, Carlyle reminds
us that "true humor springs not more from the head than from the heart; it
issues not in laughter, but in smiles that lie far deeper."

We may be sure that all life from the very beginning has had its humorous
no less than its serious side. If any record had been kept, we should no
doubt find that Adam and Eve had their jokes about the apples--it is
universally assumed that they _were_ apples--on that forbidden tree, and
that they were quite as good as any jokes that have been made about those
same apples in more recent years. The masons and bricklayers on the tower
of Babel no doubt poked their thumbs into each other's ribs and slapped
each other on the back to emphasize their rude jokes about the late "wet
spell," and wondered how long it would take to get to Heaven with their
building. And we imagine that even during the flood itself there were
sanguine souls who took the whole matter philosophically, declaring that
'it never rained long when the clouds looked _that_ way and the wind was
in _that_ direction.' The Israelites, we suspect, lightened their bondage
in Egypt by mimicking the pompous manners of their hated taskmasters and
ridiculing the fools who thought that bricks could be made without straw.
And the grimmest Egyptian mummy that now graces a museum or helps to
fertilize the wheat-fields of the West once wore a smile or grin upon his
leathern face as he related to a brother mummy how Pharoah made sport of
the Israelites by promising to "let them go," and then when they were all
on tip-toe with expectation, countermanding the order. Then they would
both shake their heads and chuckle with delight over the pleasant humor of
their monarch and declare that 'Pharoah was in high spirits to-day.' Thus
the world has rolled and chirruped and cackled on since the time when man
emerged from the animal. And Holmes suggests, in our motto, that the sense
of humor was in the animal before man.


Sometimes the humor of the Bible lies in the thing described,--the odd or
awkward or absurd thing said or done.

"The Iliad," says Sidney Smith, "would never have come down to these
times, if Agamemnon had given Achilles a box on the ear. We should have
trembled for the Æneid, if some Trojan nobleman had kicked the pious Æneas
in the fourth book. Æneas, may have deserved it, but he never could have
founded the Roman Empire after so distressing an accident." And yet
accidents quite as distressing, if not of precisely the same nature, have
happened in the best families that ever lived upon this planet. The
writers of the Bible have not hesitated to give us a very frank account of
some of them.

Imagine the vacant look of the terrified Aaron, as he gave his imbecile
explanation of the golden calf! Moses and Joshua are coming down from the
mountain. "And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted,
he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. And Moses
answered, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is
it the voice of them that cry for being overcome; but the noise of them
that sing do I hear." Soon they draw near the camp and see "the calf and
the dancing." Then does the anger of Moses wax hot. In his rage he flings
down and shatters the "tables of stone." Like a whirlwind he descends upon
the camp, hurls the miserable calf into the fire, and demands an
explanation of his recreant brother. "What did this people unto thee that
thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?" Aaron quails beneath the
wrath of Moses and stammers: "Thou knowest the people that they are set on
mischief. For they said unto me, Make us gods which shall go before us:
for as for this Moses"--think of that, _this Moses_--"that brought us up
out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him." You see
they are set on mischief; they were disrespectful even unto you--_this
Moses_. Something had to be done. "And I said unto them, Whosoever hath
any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it to me, and I cast it into
the fire, and"--what do you suppose happened?--"_there came out this
calf_!" I was as much surprised as you are, but no one is responsible--_it
did itself_!

In quaint fashion did Saul make honest confession when smitten with
remorse on account of his persecution of David: "Behold I have played the
fool!" The regret of Prince Hal also--"Thus do we play the fools with
time, while the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us."

What an odd--almost laughable--spectacle is the bombastic Nebuchadnezzar,
one moment proudly striding along the battlements of his palace, "Is not
this great Babylon which I have builded?"--the next eating grass like the
beasts of the field! As Carlyle says: "A purple Nebuchadnezzar rejoices to
feel himself now veritably emperor of this great Babylon which he has
builded; and _is_ a nondescript, biped-quadruped, on the eve of a seven
years' course of grazing."

There is a scene in the life of David in which that worthy is represented
as cutting fantastic capers before high heaven. At one time, in order to
keep out of Saul's way, David went down to Gath. The servants of King
Achish recognize him, and tell their royal master that this is the famous
David over whose exploits the daughters of Israel sang. "Is not this
David, the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in
dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten
thousands?" But David does not wish his identity known and with
characteristic shrewdness he feigns insanity. "He feigned himself mad, and
scrabbled on the doors of the gate and let his spittle fall down upon his
beard,"--a sorry looking hero! So thinks the king Achish. What, this the
man that slew the giant? this drivelling lunatic the victor that Israel's
daughters praised? His disgust knows no bounds. He is almost as grotesque
in his anger as is David in his appearance and conduct. He turns upon his
courtiers in offended dignity and cries, "Lo, ye see the man is mad;
wherefore have ye brought him to me? _Have I need of madmen_, (are not ye
my own servants sufficient?) that ye have brought this fellow to play the
madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?" "Fool me no
fools," says King Achish. When King Achish asked, "Have I need of madmen?"
he evidently thought of his own servants and courtiers as did Christian
I., of Denmark, in modern times, of those who graced _his_ Court. He
sharply remarked, on a presentation to him of several court fools, that
"he was not in want of such things, and if he were, he had only to give
license to his courtiers, who, to his certain knowledge, were capable of
exhibiting themselves as the greatest fools in Europe!"

In Nehemiah's account of building the walls of Jerusalem, he shows how
sorely the Jews took the clumsy jibes of their foes and gives us a
specimen of Samaritan joking in that early day. Sanballat mocked the Jews
and said, "What do these feeble Jews? Will they fortify themselves? Will
they sacrifice? Will they make an end in a day? Will they revive the
stones out of the heaps of rubbish which are burned?" Tobiah, the Amorite,
was yet more caustic: "Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he will
even break down their stone wall." This ridicule, although the jests do
not seem very formidable to us, was harder to bear than attacks with sword
and spear. It is so to-day. We can stand anything but laughter. One would
rather be made to appear infamous than ridiculous. The only answer the
builders could make was to pray for the destruction of their sarcastic
persecutors. They wished that heaven's bolts of lightning might answer
these bolts of wit.


Sometimes the humor lies in the description itself rather than in the
thing described. Dr. Barrow, in his famous essay, says of facetiousness,
"Sometimes it is wrapped up in a dress of humorous expression."

An excellent example is furnished in the account of the mob at Ephesus:
"Some, therefore, cried one thing and some another; for the assembly was
confused; _and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together_."

When Sidney Smith speaks of "distressing accidents," we are reminded that
an exceedingly "distressing accident" happened in the very first family of
which we have any record--the family that started in Eden. Aside from any
question as to the literal truth of the story, nothing can exceed the
simplicity and naturalness with which the writer has described the
culprits and their excuses. The first thing they did after their
transgression was to hide. The supreme and perpetual folly of guilt is to
imagine that it can be hid when the voice of the Lord God is heard in the
garden. "And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art
thou?" The culprit creeps forth from his hiding-place and stammers, "I
heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I
hid myself." "Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the
tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?" Now the guilty
secret is out and Adam pleads in extenuation, "The woman that thou gavest
to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat." It was no fault of
mine. That _woman_ was to blame--the woman, O Lord, remember, that _thou_
gavest to be with me. Is not a little of the responsibility thine also, O
Lord? A touch of nature! "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever
shall be!" But Eve will not bear all the blame. She also is ready with her
excuse: "The serpent beguiled me and I did eat." Another remove in the
location of the responsibility. If we can forget all that theology has put
into this story and look on it simply as a bit of literature, it is a
charming description of the way in which we mortals disclaim
accountability for our deeds.

    "And oftentimes excusing of a fault,
    Doth make the fault worse by the excuse;
    As patches set upon a little breach,
    Discredit more in hiding of the fault,
    Then did the fault before it was so patched."

Job has expressed his contempt for Adam's conduct in Eden by invoking upon
himself even greater ills than he was then suffering, if he followed that
disgraceful example,--"If I covered my transgression as Adam, by hiding my
iniquity in my bosom." In magnificent scorn of Adam's hiding from the Lord
and laying his guilt upon another, Job exclaims, "Behold, my desire is
that the Almighty _would_ answer me!" and avows that "he would declare
unto him the number of his steps, and as a prince would go near unto
him,"--not skulk away from his presence among trees and bushes. The low
estimation in which Job holds Adam suggests that the old Hebrew who wrote
the story in Genesis, may have intended to hold up that primal man in a
humorous light.

Whether the story of Balaam is literally correct in its details is one of
the questions this little volume is not intended to discuss. The writer of
that story tells his tale as naïvely as if conversations between men and
animals were of everyday occurrence. If we read it as we would any similar
piece, any other fable in which men and beasts speak to each other, we
should say that there were some elements of the ludicrous in the picture
of the prophet rebuked by his ass. "And the ass saw the angel of the Lord
standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned
aside out of the way and went into the field. And Balaam smote the ass to
turn her into the way." Just what any one would do to a "shying" animal,
upon impulse. "But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards,
a wall being on this side and a wall on that side. And when the ass saw
the angel of the Lord, she thrust herself unto the wall and crushed
Balaam's foot against the wall; and he smote her again." Naturally enough!
"And the angel of the Lord went further and stood in a narrow place where
there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when
the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam; and
Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff." The rising
wrath of the prophet can no longer be controlled. The turning from the
way, the crushing of his foot against the wall, and finally the falling
down under him and refusing to proceed further,--these indignities on the
part of the ass at length exasperate the prophet beyond all measure, and
he right lustily lays on the cudgel. "What have I done unto thee that thou
hast smitten me these three times?" meekly inquires the belabored ass.
"Because thou hast mocked me, I would that there were a sword in my hand,
for now I would kill thee," roars Balaam. Thou hast mocked me; thou hast
played tricks upon thy master, the prophet of God. Thou hast done this on
purpose to vex me and put me to shame. Thou hast made a sorry spectacle of
me with thy pranks, and thou hast crushed my foot in the bargain. "Am I
not thine ass upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this
day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee?" Should you not have known there
was something unusual? These are touches of nature in a story which might
illustrate the saying of Isaiah in which he attributes higher wisdom to
brutes than to men: "The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master's
crib, but Israel doth not know, my people will not consider." Was it this
saying that Shakespeare had in mind when he said, through the lips of
Mark Antony:

    "O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
    And men have lost their reason."

At one time the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon and other cities,
and put them into the cities of Samaria to take the places of the children
of Israel; but the new inhabitants did not fear the Lord, so the writer
tells us that the Lord sent lions among them and slew them. Some one spoke
to the king of Assyria, saying, "The nations which thou hast moved and
placed in the cities of Samaria know not the manner of the God of the
land." They are not acquainted with his habits and methods, and have
gotten themselves into great trouble. The God of the land has sent lions
among them. The king, hearing this, is in great dismay. It will never
do--the ravages of those lions must be stopped. He evidently thought, as
did Nick Bottom, "There is no more fearful wild-fowl than your lion
living, and we ought to look to it." "Then the king of Assyria commanded,
saying, Carry thither one of the priests whom ye brought from thence, and
let him go there and dwell and teach them the manner of the God of the
land." The priest went and taught the uninitiated people not to provoke a
God who could let hungry lions loose upon them at any moment. The people
listened in terror. The result of the instruction was that "the people
_feared_ the Lord,"--with a side glance at the lions. They tried to
refrain from what would make him angry enough to order out the lions but
after all--and there must have been a twinkle in the eye of the scribe as
he recorded it--"_they served their own gods_."

When Queen Vashti refused to come into the presence of King Ahasuerus and
his drunken lords, she did something that was wholly unprecedented.
Nothing of the kind had ever before been heard of in the whole history of
the empire. The revellers are shocked sober. Consternation reigns supreme.
When did a queen ever refuse to do the bidding of a king? a wife the
bidding of a husband? Are all our ancient notions of propriety to be
overturned? What will be the effect of Vashti's rebellion? The feelings of
the king are outraged because the queen declines to unveil her beauty
before his roistering courtiers. Enraged, he demands, "What shall be done
unto Queen Vashti because she hath not performed the commandment of the
King Ahasuerus?" It is a grave question. The lords themselves have a stake
in this matter. They fear the result of this strong-minded example. The
contagion of disobedience may spread. If it should, whose authority as
husband is safe? And Memucan answered, "Vashti, the queen, hath not done
wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people
that are in the province of the King Ahasuerus. For this deed of Queen
Vashti's shall come abroad to all women, to make their husbands
contemptible in their eyes, when it shall be reported that the King
Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, _but she
came not_. And this day shall all the princesses of Persia and Media which
have heard of the deed of the queen, say the like unto all the king's
princes. So shall there arise too much contempt and wrath." Such a thought
could not be entertained. As Dogberry would put it, "It is most tolerable
and not to be endured." Memucan, therefore, advises: "If it please the
king let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written
among the laws of the Persians and Medes, that it be not altered, that
Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal
estate unto another that is better than she." The penalty is severe, but
the case is one that demands heroic treatment. "And when the king's decree
which he shall make, shall be published throughout all his empire, _all
the wives shall give to their husbands honor, both great and small_." The
advice is accepted. "The saying pleased the king and the princes; and the
king did according to the word of Memucan; for he sent letters into all
the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing
thereof, to every people after their language, that _every man should bear
rule in his own house_." Thus perished the first recorded movement in the
direction of woman's rights!


The humor of the Biblical writers is often shown in the way they pierce
through outward actions and penetrate to the hidden motives of men. Before
their keen vision external disguises are vain.

Let us turn to the account of sending the demons from the maniac into the
swine. Let us take the account that speaks of but one maniac. "Then they
that fed the swine fled and told it in the city and in the country. And
they went out to see what it was that was done. And they came to Jesus and
see him that was possessed of the devil and had the legion, sitting
clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid." It must have seemed
absurd to the evangelist that these Gadarenes should have been afraid of
the insane man after he had been restored. But the swineherds have not yet
told all their story. "And when they that saw it told them how it befell
to him that was possessed with the devils and _also concerning the
swine_--" "Aye, there's the rub!" "when they heard _that, they began to
pray him to depart out of their coasts_." A man has been restored, but a
herd of swine has been lost. This new prophet will ruin us all, if he
stays here. Let him begone. Though he saved men, they prayed him to depart
because he let the swine be drowned. Jesus himself said once that "every
man was of more value than many sparrows;" but these Gadarenes seemed to
think that no man was worth "two thousand swine."

In the preceding section of this chapter, Paul's description of a mob is
noted. It will be interesting to understand the occasion of that mob. When
Paul preached at Ephesus, there was a marked decline in the demand for
images and silver shrines of Diana. The market became weak. One of the
principal manufacturers, Demetrius, called together all who were in the
same business and said: "Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our
wealth. Moreover, ye see and hear that not alone in Ephesus, but almost
throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much
people, saying that there be no gods which are made with hands: so that
not only _this our craft is in danger to be set at naught_, but that the
temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised and her magnificence
should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth!" Demetrius,
the unctuous hypocrite, seems to throw the real consideration into the
background, and to be actuated mainly by concern for the honor of his
goddess. Ah, Demetrius, Demetrius, little do you, little do your fellow
craftsmen care for Diana and her worship, except as you get your gain
through her devotees. But make the people think you are full of zeal for
religion, and under the mantle of this falsehood cloak your motives, as
you rush through the streets crying, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!"
Rouse the populace, always ripe for mischief, and always more furious than
ever when they think that religion, something of which they do not
understand the first letter, and of which they are absolutely destitute,
is in danger. Rouse the people, make a pious demonstration, O Demetrius,
but know that he who recorded it all for future ages, wrote down your
inmost secret--"_By this craft we have our wealth!_"

Another instance of hypocrisy similar to that of Demetrius, occurred at
Philippi. Paul and his comrades had spoiled the business of certain ones
who had in charge a damsel who uttered prophecies and told fortunes, by
casting out her "spirit of divination." "_And when her masters saw that
the hope of their gains was gone_, they caught Paul and Silas and drew
them into the market-place unto the rulers, and brought them to the
magistrate, saying, These men being Jews do exceeding trouble our city,
and teach customs which are not lawful for us to observe, being Romans."
It is patriotism that furnishes the cloak in this case. No allusion to
their loss of money--surely not; what matters that? "He who steals my
purse steals trash." But we must do our duty by our fellow-citizens. We
must not let these Jewish notions corrupt our civilization. We are loyal
Romans, let all the world know! Is there not something in this incident
to suggest the truthfulness of Dr. Johnson's remark, "Patriotism is the
last refuge of a scoundrel?"

The result of the uproar was that the apostles were beaten and cast into
prison. Somehow it was soon discovered that they themselves were Roman
citizens, "and when it was day, the magistrates sent the sergeants,
saying, Let these men go. And the keeper of the prison told this saying to
Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go; now, therefore, depart and
go in peace." It is now Paul's turn to be indignant, and he is not the man
to let the opportunity slip. Paul insisted, as he had a right to do, upon
his dignity as a Roman citizen. He tartly replied, "They have taken us
openly, uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and do
they now thrust us out privily? Nay, verily; but _let them come themselves
and fetch us_." A touch of nature there! "And they came (meekly enough
now, those pompous magistrates) _and brought them out_."

A man who never lacked courage was Paul. It had been told him that there
were certain ones among the Corinthians who had respect for his letters,
but something bordering on contempt for his person. "For his letters, they
say, are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak and his
speech contemptible." This is his answer: "Let such an one think this,
that such as we are in word by letters, when we are absent, such will we
be also in deed, when we are present." Let those scoffers look to

In lighter and almost playful vein, is his remark about the church at
Corinth, in his second letter: "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought
among you in all patience, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds." And yet
there was one point in which the Corinthian church was inferior to others:
"For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, _except it be
that I myself was not burdensome unto you_?" Paul had allowed the other
churches with which he labored to support him, but to the Corinthian
church he had not accorded the same privilege. He had favored it with no
opportunity for benevolence. "_Forgive me_," he exclaims, "_this wrong_."

Paul relates that on one occasion he had a dispute with Peter at Antioch,
in which he "withstood Peter to the face, because Peter was to blame." It
is to be doubted whether Peter ever quite forgot this dispute. The memory
of it may have lingered and been particularly active when he referred in
one of his own letters to "our beloved brother Paul who, according to the
wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles
speaking of these things; _in which are some things hard to be understood,
which they that are unstable and unlearned do wrest_, as they do also the
other Scriptures, (pray do not think that I am making brother Paul's
writings an exception) _to their own destruction_."

There is another phase of this general subject that is reserved for
separate treatment in the following chapter. We pause here to say that the
people of Bible times have been removed from the people of to-day by a
chasm too wide and deep. We have been accustomed to look upon them as
belonging to another race--almost to another world. It is difficult to
believe that they were "men of like passions with ourselves." It seems
almost like sacrilege to intimate that they had their follies and
weaknesses; that they did things absurd and laughable, and sometimes went
farther and did things that were mean and wicked. There was a vast deal of
human nature in those sublime characters. Gail Hamilton sums them up as
follows: "Adam had dominion over the earth, but he attempted to shield
himself from the divine displeasure by laying the blame upon his wife,
which no gentleman would ever do. Noah was a 'just man and perfect in his
generation,' if you do not mind an occasional fit of drunkenness. Abraham
was a fine old sheik, a truly heroic figure, brave, generous, courteous,
hospitable, magnanimous; no wonder the haughty Jews loved to remember and
repeat that they were Abraham's children. But Abraham had his weaknesses
and fell before his temptations; and Isaac followed in his footsteps. Of
Jacob perhaps the least said the better, though he maintained his position
as head of his family with unrelenting vigor, calling no man master,
either son or king. There may have been other men whose life was 'without
fear and without reproach'; but their history is unknown to us; their
portrait is hardly more than a name."


"When a child, with child-like apprehensions that dived not beneath the
surface of the matter, I read those parables--not guessing the involved
wisdom--I had more yearnings toward that simple architect that built his
house upon the sand, than I entertained for his more cautious neighbor; I
grudged at the harsh censure pronounced upon the quiet soul that kept his
talent; and prizing their simplicity beyond the more provident, and to my
apprehension, somewhat _unfeminine_ wariness of their competitors, I felt
a kindness that amounted almost to a _tendre_ for those thoughtless
virgins. I have never made an acquaintance since that lasted, or a
friendship that answered, with any that had not some tincture of the
absurd in their characters."--_Charles Lamb._


    "Amid the sorrow, disappointment, agony, and anguish of the
    world,--our dark thoughts and tempestuous passions, the gloomy
    exaggerations of self will, the enfeebling illusions of
    melancholy,--wit and humor, light and lightning, shed their soft
    radiance and dart their electric flash."--_Whipple._

"How curious it is," says the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, "that we
always consider solemnity, and the absence of all gay surprises and
encounters of wits, as essential to the idea of the future life of those
whom we thus deprive of half their faculties and then call _blessed_!
There are not a few who, even in this life, seem to be preparing
themselves for that smileless eternity by banishing all gayety from their
hearts and all joyousness from their countenances." Rather than believe in
the "smileless eternity" of such as these, we should accept the conjecture
of Soame Jennings, that "a portion of the happiness of seraphim and just
men made perfect would be derived from an exquisite perception of the

To that school of melancholy teachers who frown upon all pleasantry, and
buttress their gloomy position with the assertion that "Jesus wept but
never smiled," the title of this chapter will be particularly offensive.
It will strike them as downright blasphemy to intimate that Jesus
possessed and used the sense of humor so common to mankind. We assuredly
appreciate the delicacy of the position, and shall endeavor to avoid, in
our treatment of this subject, anything that might wound the most
sensitive soul.

There are several considerations that will pave the way. We take it for
granted that Jesus was a complete human being, and that as such a being he
must have had all the human attributes and faculties,--the faculty of
mirthfulness among them. He was a man, and lacked nothing that pertains to
men. Then, too, had he been without the sense of humor, much in the lives
and characters of those with whom he had to deal, he never could have
understood and reached. The full success of his mission depended upon his
knowing all that there is in man, and upon being able to gain access to
him through every avenue of his nature.

Nor were the circumstances of his life unfavorable to the development of
this particular attribute. Theology and Art have conspired to produce upon
the world the impression that Jesus was an exceptionally wretched and
suffering man. They have taken one or two expressions in Isaiah, such as,
"his countenance was marred," "he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with
grief," expressions which they misunderstood and misapplied, and with them
have laid the foundations of their house of woe. They have seized upon a
few of the sadder incidents of his career, and have exaggerated them into
undue prominence,--have given them undue proportions. Especially have they
made much of his agony in the garden and his death upon the cross. These
events have been magnified into such mountains that all the rest of his
life seems to lie hidden beneath their shadows. It appears never to have
entered the mind of either preacher or painter that the physical anguish
of his death must have been even less than that which many martyrs at the
stake or martyrs upon sickbeds have borne; and that before death came, he
had lived a life with many bright days and many happy experiences. His
existence upon earth was not a protracted sorrow, a monumental grief. Many
a rose had blossomed at his feet before the thorns were twisted into a
crown for his brow.

What shall we say of the thirty peaceful years under his father's roof,
with his brothers and sisters? Did he not in boyhood have the amusements
of other children? Is there not a memento of his youthful sports in what
he says of the games of the children in the marketplace, when they were
playing at weddings and funerals? Did he not, when a young man, delight in
his home and in his companions? Can we imagine that he moved among those
who were nearest and dearest to him, with a face to which a smile was as
much a stranger as a tropic flower to the frozen zone?

When, as a mature man, he entered upon his public ministry, although he
was exposed to frequent attacks from the representatives of the
established religion, yet he was never without friends; never without a
place of refuge from the heat of battle. There were many homes in which a
welcome always awaited him, and whose hospitality he gladly accepted. Is
it probable that he was accustomed to sit in these homes--to use
Shakespeare's phrase--"like his grandsire cut in alabaster?"

More than once we are directly told that "he rejoiced in spirit;" more
than once he spoke of his "joy" to his disciples. There is much evidence
that Jesus was not a wretched but a happy man. Did this happiness never
express itself in words or countenance?

There are other considerations that go far to refute the dismal assertion
that "Jesus wept but never smiled." Tired mothers brought their children
to him and he rebuked the supercilious disciples who interfered. Can we
think that on this occasion he had a woe-begone look? We read of him often
at feasts; would he have been invited if he had been accustomed to sit at
the table like the skeleton at an Egyptian banquet? Did he not by his
frequent attendance upon festive occasions incur the odium of being a
wine-bibber and a glutton? He was also a favorite with the common people.
They heard him gladly. But there must have been something attractive in
his presence and manner, as well as in his words, and the words themselves
must have appealed to the shrewd, homely, common sense of his hearers. If
he had been the sad spirit he has been pictured, would the people have
followed him and listened to him as they did?

When we leave the outward circumstances and the presumption they furnish,
and examine the fragments of his speech that have been preserved for us,
many of them certainly contain the element of humor. We should undoubtedly
call it humor if it came from any other lips than those of Jesus; if we
found it in any other book than the New Testament.

The purpose of this chapter will be grossly misapprehended, however, if
any one shall suppose that we are trying to degrade Jesus to the level of
a professional joker. Nothing is further from our intention. The very
thought is repulsive. One may have and use the sense of humor without
putting on the cap and bells. He may use it with the highest motives and
for the noblest ends. It was said of Hosea Ballou, that "it was no
uncommon thing for him when preaching to excite a smile; but usually it
was done by some ingenious argument that would electrify every one
present." His biographer adds: "It is not known that any person ever
listened to one of his sermons who was not so impressed with his
sincerity, dignity and earnestness, that the recollection of his
occasional humorous sayings was held subsidiary and helpful to his main
serious purpose. His mother-wit was sanctified. It served a divine mission
in diffusing cheerfulness and health." We must always remember that wit
and humor do not mean buffoonery.

It is difficult to understand how any one can read many of the parables
and other sayings of Jesus, and still believe the doleful tale that he
"wept but never smiled." He saw the dancing lights as well as the deep
shadows, the more genial and even ludicrous aspects of life, as well as
its various phases of sorrow and sin, and all these furnished subjects for
his discourse as well as illustrations for his teaching.

Let us now consider some of the ways in which the sense of humor in Jesus
manifested itself.


The sense of humor often tempered his rebukes. There was often sunshine on
the cloud.

There were times, indeed, as we shall see, when he spoke with unmeasured
severity, when his words fell like fiery hail, beating and burning the
heads of offenders; but anon he spoke half smiling, half pitying, as if
disposed to laugh at the very inconsistencies he censured. In this respect
his spirit has been caught by Addison and Goldsmith, by Irving and
Dickens. Richter says that "no one has a right to laugh at men but he who
most heartily loves them." Taine says of Dickens, "Before reading him we
did not know there was so much pity in the heart." Jesus loved men, he
pitied them, even while his eye detected and his words exposed their
faults and foibles.

He had looked with pleasure (remembering his own childhood), upon the
games of the boys and girls in the streets of Jerusalem; he thought of
their whimsical complaints, as they played at weddings and funerals in the
market-place. On one occasion, his severity mitigated by his sense of the
ludicrous, he exclaimed, "Whereunto shall I liken this generation? and to
what are they like? They are like unto children sitting in the
market-places and calling to one another and saying, We have piped unto
you and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you and ye have not
lamented." Everything had gone wrong. The others would not play fair. They
would not dance when we wanted to play wedding; they would not be mourners
when we wanted to play funeral. We have done all we could to please them,
but they are "too mean for anything." To the mind of Jesus, the people of
that generation appeared to be making the same complaint. They were
childishly dissatisfied with every divine messenger,--none could please
them. "For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking
wine,"--solemn, gloomy, austere; but they would have none of him. He
mourned unto them, but they would not lament. They would not "play at
funeral" with him. They turned away and said, "He hath a devil." Then came
the Son of Man, bright and cheerful, "eating and drinking," but they would
not dance to his piping. They pointed at him and said, "Behold a
gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!" It
was impossible to please that generation.

If we place this passage side by side with the following from Goldsmith,
we shall see at once that if there be humor in the latter, there must also
be humor in the former. The subject is the reception accorded the Chinese
philosopher who tried to please his friends by his demeanor upon the death
of an English sovereign: "I thought it at least my duty to appear
sorrowful; to put on a melancholy aspect, or to set my face by that of the
people. The first company I came amongst after the news became general was
a set of jolly companions who were drinking prosperity to the ensuing
reign. I entered the room with looks of despair, and even expected
applause for the superlative misery of my countenance. Instead of that, I
was universally condemned by the company and desired to take away my
penitential phiz to some other quarter. I now corrected my former mistake,
and with the most sprightly air imaginable entered a company where they
were talking over the ceremonies of the approaching funeral. Here I sat
for some time with an air of pert vivacity, when one of the chief mourners
immediately observing my good humor desired me, if I pleased, to go and
grin somewhere else; they wanted no disaffected scoundrels there. Fum,
thou son of Fo, what sort of people am I amongst?" _Whereunto shall I
liken this generation?_

There was a certain time when multitudes followed Jesus, not knowing what
they were about, but simply swept along by the enthusiasm of the moment.
He saw that they understood not, so he turned and gave them this gentle
caution: "Which of you intending to build a tower sitteth not down first
and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest,
haply, after he hath laid the foundation and is not able to finish, all
that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build and was
not able to finish." Whoever comes after me and does not count upon
bearing his cross, is in the predicament of this foolish tower-builder,--a
ludicrous spectacle as he sits beside the unfinished structure, his
materials exhausted, while all his neighbors, as they pass by, wag the
head and point the finger. Such a spectacle as that will each one of you
be who does not count the cost of discipleship. With such gentle strokes
of humor did Jesus stay the thoughtless multitudes who imagined that their
empty zeal was genuine loyalty. He set forth their conduct in terms that
would most effectually impress upon them its folly,--in terms that
appealed to their sense of the ridiculous.

In a sarcastic paragraph of his _French Revolution_, Carlyle speaks of the
work of the National Convention thus: "In fact, what can be more
unprofitable than the sight of six hundred and forty-nine ingenious men
struggling with their whole force and industry, for a long course of
weeks, to do at bottom this; to stretch out the old Formula and Law
phraseology, so that it may cover the new, contradictory, entirely
uncoverable thing? Whereby the poor formula does but _crack_ and one's
honesty along with it. The thing that is palpably _hot_, burning, wilt
thou prove it by a syllogism to be a freezing mixture? This of stretching
out formulas till they crack is, especially in times of swift change, one
of the sorrowfullest tasks poor humanity has." Was it not this very
formula-stretching that Jesus satirized in more playful vein,--this
formula-stretching that existed in old times and that still exists,--when
he said: "No man putteth a piece of new garment upon an old; if otherwise,
then, both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the
new agreeth not with the old"? You can not patch up old terms with new
meanings. The new meaning agreeth not with the old term. "And no man
putteth new wine into old wine-skins; else the new wine will burst the
wine-skins and be spilled, and the wine-skins shall perish. But new wine
must be put into new wine-skins, and both are preserved." The man who
tries to put new senses into old words, new ideas into old formulas, is
like a man who cuts up a new garment to mend an old; like one who puts
wine not yet done fermenting into a skin whose capacity admits no further
strain. He spoils his new coat and he loses his new wine.

With such illustrations as these, illustrations embodying a figure or
comparison or situation essentially amusing, was Jesus wont to temper his


The sense of humor in Jesus enabled him to detect pretension, imposture,
hypocrisy, and expose them to the derision of mankind.

If we should find in Dickens or Thackeray such pictures as Jesus has given
of the Scribes and Pharisees, they would strike us at once as the very
quintessence of humor. "They go arrayed in long clothing, they love the
uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues." They are
always posturing to attract attention. "They love greetings in the
market-places, to be called of men Rabbi, Rabbi." In their way, they are
as much given to "deportment" as Mr. Turveydrop, when he says, "I suppose
I must now go and show myself about town; it will be expected of me." When
they pray, they do it standing in the synagogues or at the corners of the
streets that all may see how pious they are; when they perform their deeds
of righteousness, a trumpet is sounded before them, to make solemn
proclamation; as who should say, "Will the public please take notice; I am
about to drop a mite into this poor widow's hand." When they fast they put
on "a sad countenance and disfigure their faces" with fictitious woe and
weeping, "that they may appear unto men to fast." "See how I lay the dust
with my tears," says Launce. Everything they did was done for effect;
nothing came from the heart. Their religion was the veriest sham. They had
well-nigh reached the measure of South's ideal hypocrite, "who never opens
his mouth in earnest, but when he eats or breathes." Well might Jesus say,
"The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat; _all things, therefore,
whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do ye not
according to their works; for they say and do not_." Does not this remind
us of Pecksniff, "who was a most exemplary man, fuller of virtuous
precepts than a copy-book; but some people likened him to a direction-post
which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there."


Not only did the sense of humor in Jesus enable him to unmask pretentious
hypocrites, but also to expose the absurdities that the multitudes
commonly practiced in the name of religion.

There are those, for example, who in prayer use "vain repetitions,"
thinking that they shall be heard for their "much speaking." They
estimate the efficacy of prayer by its quantity and not by its quality.
They think that if they only keep at it long enough, if they only use
multitudes of words, they will surely attract attention on high.

There are others who think that religion consists in the "washing of pots
and cups and such like things" and they "lay aside the commandment of
God." One of their representatives in modern literature is Dolly Winthrop,
who tells Silas Marner about the letters "I.H.S." pricked upon the
Christmas cakes: "I can't read 'em myself, and there's nobody, not Mr.
Macey himself, rightly knows what they mean; but they've a good meaning,
for they're the same as is on the pulpit-cloth at Church; an' if there's
any good, we've need of it in this world."

It is curious how the superstition of externalism has affected many, even
noble minds. Dr. Johnson once said of John Campbell, a political and
philosophical writer, "Campbell is a good man, a pious man; I'm afraid he
has not been inside of a church for a good many years, but he never passes
a church without pulling off his hat. This shows he has good principles."


Jesus perceived the blunders of the well-meaning, but ignorant and
ambitious,--such as the man who went to the wedding party without suitable
garments, and was unceremoniously shown to the door; such as the obtuse
people who, invited to a feast, always took the seats of honor and were as
often courteously escorted to seats further down the table. When the "more
honorable man" came, the host would say, "Give this man place," and the
other would "begin with shame to take the lowest seat." Jesus saw these
blunders, and we cannot believe that he was blind to their comical side.
He must have felt that the mistake was a ludicrous one, even when he
advised the stupid people who made it, "When thou art bidden, go and sit
down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say,
Friend, go up higher; and then thou shalt have worship in the presence of
them that sit at meat with thee."


The sense of humor in Jesus is still further shown by his selection of
characters for his parables and illustrations. How many of them are what
we should call "odd sticks" to-day!

Could any one devoid of humor, or opposed to its use, have described such
odd or eccentric people as the fool who thought that sand was as good a
foundation for his house as rock; or the drowsy friend roused at midnight
to lend his neighbor bread and scolding furiously at the annoyance? Then
we have the shepherd's coward hireling who ran away from his flock when he
saw the wolf coming; the foolish rich man; the unscrupulous steward who
provided for himself by cheating his master; the three fellows who made
such puerile excuses for absenting themselves from the king's
banquet,--one was interested in a real estate transaction, another was
dealing in stock, while the third had just "married a wife." Perhaps the
characterization of all these excuses as puerile, may be too sweeping.
This last case may be an exception. Having just entered the holy estate of
matrimony, any plans this man might have formed before that event were of
course subject to revision. Let us not be too hard upon him. It may be
that he rests under too heavy a load of censure. He may even be deserving
of sympathy. He said--was there a suggestion of desperation in his
words?--"I have married a wife and therefore I _can not_ come." The king
ought very likely to have exempted this man from his wrath; for he seems
to say, "I should like to come, but--!"

Then there was the servant who, in his lord's absence, got above his
business, assumed the master, became drunken in the company of roisterers,
and beat his fellow-servants; but was at last put to shame by the sudden
and unexpected arrival of his master. This servant was a veritable Jaques
who, in the old play, assumed to be his master, the Duke, and who was
likewise brought to grief by his master's return: "I must appear
important; big as a country pedagogue when he enters the school-room with
a-hem, and terrifies the apple-munching urchins with the creaking of his
shoes. I'll swell like a shirt bleaching in a high wind; and look as
burly as a Sunday beadle when he has kicked down the unhallowed stall of a
profane old apple-woman. Bring my chair of state!"

There are other characters, such as the shrewd laborer who, digging in a
field, finds a hidden treasure and secreting it goes and buys the field;
the unjust judge who finally, completely tired out, gives way in no very
amiable mood to the widow's unceasing petitions for justice; the timid
soul, who, fearing to use his talent, hid it in a napkin and buried it in
the earth; the self-righteous Pharisee who recounts his good deeds before
the Lord of the Temple and complacently congratulates himself that he is
not as other men! "God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men,
extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice
in the week; I give tithes of all that I get!" Mr. Pecksniff once
more!--so satisfied with himself, "so radiant with ingenuous honesty that
Mrs. Lupin almost wondered not to see a stained-glass glory, such as the
saint wore in the church, shining about his head!"


In the introduction, reference was made to the words of Mr. Shorthouse
which suggested this investigation. This seems a fitting place to present
the only example in which Mr. Shorthouse has carried out his own
suggestion,--the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

"But is it trite that there is no humor in the gospels? 'What strokes of
nature, if not of humor,' to use Mr. Addison's words again, may we find in
the story, let us say, of the Prodigal Son? What, in the light of the
modern conception of humor, will come out of this?

Here, surely, there is no want of real life, of low life, even. Here is a
wild young scamp, as like Tom Jones as heart could wish. Here is
ingratitude, forgetfulness of parents, riotous living, taverns, harlots,
what not? Then beggary, and feeding swine, and living upon husks. Then
when evil living is found not to answer, penitence--like Tom Jones again.

And 'when he was yet a great way off his father saw him,' along the stony
road beneath the vine-clad hills. Who can tell how often the father's eyes
had gazed longingly down the road since his son's figure, gay, reckless of
the benefits just bestowed, accompanied by servants, eager for the
pleasures of the world, had vanished from his sight? Now, at last, after
so long waiting and looking, he sees in the far distance, a very different
sight. He sees a solitary figure, worn and bent down, in rags, dragging on
its weary steps; how could the old man's gaze expect such a sight as this?
Nevertheless, his father knew him, 'and ran and fell on his neck.' He did
not wait for any accents of repentance, nor did he enforce any moral
precepts which might advantage posterity. 'He fell on his neck and kissed
him.' Foolish old father!

Tom Jones is brought in. He goes to the bath. The familiar feeling of
luxury comes over him once more. He is clothed in fine linen, and has a
gold ring placed on his finger, the past seems an evil dream. Then the
fatted calf is killed. The banquet is spread and there is festivity,
music, and dancing-girls.

But suddenly, in the midst of his delight, some trouble passes over the
old man's face; his eldest son is not in his place, and they bring him
word that he is without and refuses to come in. Some perception of a
neglected truth passes through the father's mind, and he rises and goes
out. 'Therefore came his father out and entreated him.'

The eldest son has been out all day working in the vineyards; all his life
had been one long performance of duty, taken for granted, and therefore
unpraised and unrecognized. In how many households will silent witness be
borne that this is real life--the gentle and obedient service
overlooked--nay, more than this, the cross word or hasty temper where
there is no fear that it will be returned.

'All these years have I served thee * * * and yet thou never gavest me a
kid that I might make merry with my friends.' I am a man like others,
gayety and feasting are pleasant to me, as to them.

A look of perplexed, but growing insight comes into the father's face.
'Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.'

This is all very well, still he is conscious that there is something to be
said for the eldest son, too. But his lost son--his wayward, and therefore
loved son, is come again.

'It is meet that we should make merry and be glad, for this thy brother
was dead and is alive again.' We can see the pitiful, pleading look in the
old man's eyes,--'thy brother was dead.'

Yes, Addison must be right. Nature and humor cannot be far apart. The
source and spring of humor is human life. Its charm consists, not merely
in laughter or even in joy, but in the stirring of those sympathies and
associations which exist invariably in the race; for we inherit a
world-life and a religion, the earth-springs of whose realities lie,
perchance, too deep for laughter, but not, Heaven be praised, too deep for

Surely the examples given suggest an eye for the humorous in him who saw
and described them. These illustrations were, indeed, used to convey moral
truths, but they show how wide was the acquaintance of Jesus with all
sorts of characters, and how he loved to use such as were out of the
ordinary; such as, to-day, we should at least call "peculiar." A
recognition of this fact will help us better to appreciate and more
thoroughly to enjoy those simple, yet wonderful parables, out of which the
heavy hand of a severely literal criticism would crush all "touches of


"Proverbs, must not be passed over in our enumeration,--proverbs, the
philosophy of the common people; short, pithy, homely sayings that embody
the concentrated essence of the common people's wisdom. It has been
difficult to give a perfect definition of a proverb, so crowded is it with
the life of shrewdness and experience; yet so easy and negligent is it,
and saucy as it were. Its characteristic excellences are shortness, sense
and salt. It is the wit of one man, the wisdom of thousands."--_Macbeth._


    "The proverbialists occupy themselves with life in all its aspects.
    Sometimes they simply catch the expression of men, good or bad, or
    photograph their actions or thoughts; more generally they pass a
    verdict upon them and exhort or instruct men in regard to them. * * *
    Some of the proverbs have a certain flavor of humor."--_Davidson._

"The wise men of old," says Whipple, "have sent most of their morality
down the stream of time in the light skiff of apothegm or epigram: and the
proverbs of nations which embody the common sense of nations, have the
brisk concussion of the most sparkling wit. Almost every sensible remark
on folly is a witty remark. Wit is thus often but the natural language of
wisdom, viewing life with a piercing and passionless eye." The object of
the present study is to consider those proverbs and other epigrammatic
sayings which distinctly contain the element of wit in some form or other,
and which are so liberally scattered over the pages of the Bible.


In such an investigation, we naturally turn, first of all, to that great
collection of proverbs, with which the name of Solomon has become
identified. They do not, however, represent his genius alone, although we
shall frequently use his name as representative of the whole class of
philosophers. They are the productions of many wise men through many
generations. They are, indeed, the outcome of the life of a whole people,
put into definite shape by those who had insight sufficiently keen and
power of expression sufficiently terse to formulate the lessons of human
experience. "The wise men," says Canon Driver, "took for granted the main
postulates of Israel's creed, and applied themselves rather to the
observation of human nature as such, seeking to analyze character,
studying action in its consequences, and establishing morality upon the
basis of principles common to humanity at large. On account of their
prevailing disregard of national points of view, and their tendency to
characterize and estimate human nature under its most general aspects,
they have been termed, not inappropriately, the _Humanists_ of Israel.
Their teaching had a practical aim; not only do they formulate maxims of
conduct, but they appear also as moral advisers, and as interested in the
education of the young."

The Book of Proverbs is a perfect mine of cunning and glittering
sentences, many of which are witty as well as wise, and none the less wise
because they are witty. There are swords that pierce the hidden motives of
men, and whips that lacerate the backs of their open follies and sins.

_1. The Fool._

There is a personage, or more exactly, an assemblage of certain qualities,
constantly held up to ridicule under the general title of _The Fool_.
Ruskin says that "folly and sin are to some extent synonymous." The Fool
in the Book of Proverbs is one who combines mental stupidity with moral
obtuseness. He has a hard time of it at the hands of the proverbialists.
"He that begetteth a fool doeth so to his sorrow; the father of a fool
hath no joy."

Foolish persons have always been noted for parading their folly, and
sounding a trumpet to proclaim their lack of understanding. So Solomon
says: "A fool's mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of
his soul." "The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright; but the mouth
of fools poureth out foolishness." "When he that is a fool walketh in the
way, his wisdom faileth him, and he saith to every one that he is a
fool,"--his scanty supply of sense is not enough to last him to the end of
his journey. There is a modern proverb to the same effect: "He has not wit
enough to last him over night." Everything the fool undertakes comes to
grief. "He that sendeth a message by the hand of a fool cutteth off the
feet and drinketh damage." "The labor of the fool wearieth every one,
because he knoweth not how to go to the city." "The simple believeth every
word, but the prudent man looketh well to his going." "Let a bear robbed
of her whelps meet a man, rather than a fool in his folly." No discipline
can be too severe for the fool. "Judgments are prepared for scorners and
stripes for the back of fools." "A whip for the horse, a bridle for the
ass, and a rod for the fool's back." But Solomon is not sanguine that the
most rigorous course will produce extraordinary results. "A reproof
entereth more into a wise man than a hundred stripes into a fool." "Wisdom
is before him that hath understanding; but the eyes of a fool are in the
ends of the earth." "Wherefore is there a price in the hand of a fool to
get wisdom, seeing he hath no heart to it?" One can almost see that
picture--the fool wandering about the city with money in his hand,
inquiring where a person in need of it might purchase a commodity of good
common sense. "Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar among wheat
with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him." In many
other proverbs is the fool gibbeted. "As snow in summer, and as rain in
harvest, so honor is not seemly for a fool." "The legs of the lame are not
equal; so is a parable in the mouth of fools." "As he that bindeth a stone
in a sling, making a dangerous weapon, so is he that giveth honor to a
fool." "As a thorn goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable
in the mouth of fools." "It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than
for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under
a pot, so is the laughter of the fool." In one chapter Solomon describes a
group of foolish persons. "For three things the earth is disquieted and
for four which it can not bear; for a servant when he reigneth"--the
modern instance is the "beggar on horseback,"--"and a fool when he is
filled with meat; for an odious woman when she is married; and a handmaid
that is heir to her mistress." These four characters "play such fantastic
tricks before high heaven," that whether the "angels weep" or not, the
earth groans and is "disquieted." And yet Solomon seems to have found a
more grotesque and incorrigible character than the fool: "Seest thou a man
wise in his own conceit? There is more hope of a fool than of him." The
contempt of the proverbialists for the class of persons here described was
quite as strong as that of Dr. Samuel Johnson. When some one hoped that
the good doctor might meet in heaven a certain person whose conduct had
aroused his ire, he retorted with some warmth, "Madam, I am not fond of
meeting fools anywhere."

_2. The Idler._

How these writers love to castigate laziness! They toss the sluggard on
all manner of sharp-pointed epigrams. "He that gathereth in summer is a
wise son; he that sleepeth in harvest is a son that causeth shame." "The
way of a slothful man is as a hedge of thorns,"--he walks as slowly and
painfully as if avoiding thorns on either hand. "As vinegar to the teeth
and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him." "The
slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting." "The sluggard
will not plough by reason of the cold, therefore he shall beg in harvest
and have nothing." "Drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags." "He that
tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread; but he that followeth vain
persons"--those who teach him that there is any other way to success than
honest industry,--"is void of understanding." "The slothful man says,
There is a lion without; I shall be slain in the streets." "As the door
turneth upon its hinges, so doth the slothful upon his bed." "The slothful
hideth his hand in his bosom; it grieveth him to bring it again to his
mouth." Too lazy to eat! This is the very acme of indolence.

_3. The Babbler._

These wise men recommend, in pithy terms, the judicious control of the
tongue. They commend the value of silence. "Whoso keepeth his mouth and
his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles." "The beginning of strife is as
when one letteth out water; therefore leave off contention before it be
meddled with." "It is an honor to a man to cease from strife, but every
fool will be meddling." "Even a fool when he holdeth his peace is
accounted wise; and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of
understanding." This is the same idea which we find, in more elaborate
form, in Shakespeare:

    "There are a sort of men, whose visages
    Do cream and mantle like a standing pond;
    And do a wilful stillness entertain,
    With purpose to be drest in an opinion
    Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit;
    As who should say, 'I am Sir Oracle,
    And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark!'
    Oh, my Antonio, I do know of these,
    That therefore only _are reputed wise
    For saying nothing_: Who, I am very sure,
    If they should speak, would almost damn these ears,
    Which, hearing them, would call their brothers fools."

In point of condensation, the wit of the proverb has the advantage.
Coleridge relates an incident which illustrates that "even a fool when he
holdeth his peace is accounted wise, and he that shutteth his lips is
esteemed a man of understanding." He once saw, at a dinner table, "a
dignified man with a face as wise as the moon's." The awful charm of his
manner was not broken until the muffins appeared, and then the imp of
gluttony forced from him the exclamation--"Them's the jockeys for me!"

There is a passage concerning the tongue in the Book of James, full of
sayings quite as terse and striking as any in the Book of Proverbs. "If
any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to
bridle the whole body." "The tongue is a little member and boasteth great
things; behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth." "Every kind of
beasts and birds and serpents is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind;
but the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly
poison. * * * Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. * * *
Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?"

This passage from James may be placed side by side with the familiar story
of Æsop. His master, Xanthus, sent him to market to procure the best
things it afforded. When the dinner hour arrived, Xanthus discovered that
nothing but tongues had been provided. "What," he exclaimed in a rage,
"did I not tell you to procure the best things the market afforded?" "And
have I not obeyed your orders? Is there anything better than a tongue? Is
it not the bond of civil society, the organ of truth and reason, the
instrument of our praise and adoration of the gods?" The next day Æsop was
directed to go to the market and purchase the worst things it afforded. He
did so and again purchased nothing but tongues. "What!" cried Xanthus,
"tongues again?" "Certainly; for the tongue is surely the worst thing in
the world; it is the instrument of all strife and contention, the inventor
of law-suits, and the source of all division and wars; it is the organ of
errors, of lies, of calumnies, and blasphemies."

"Therewith bless we the Lord and Father, and therewith curse we men who
are made after the likeness of God; out of the same mouth cometh forth
cursing and blessing."

_4. The Scold._

To return to the proverbs. Solomon had some unhappy domestic experiences,
and such proverbs as these may have been the outcome: "As a jewel of gold
in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman without discretion." "A continual
dropping in a very rainy day, and a contentious woman are alike. Whosoever
hideth her, hideth the wind." "It is better to dwell in the wilderness
than with a contentious and angry woman." "Better is a dinner of herbs
where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith." "It is better to
dwell in the corner of a house top than with a brawling woman in a large

_5. The Power of Money._

The proverbialists had been close observers of human nature, and of the
ways of the world. "Hell and destruction are never full, so the eyes of a
man are never satisfied." "A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh
merry; but money answereth all things." "The rich ruleth over the poor,
and the borrower is servant to the lender." These wise men had seen much
to justify the sharp arrows they shot at those "who crook the pregnant
hinges of the knee where thrift may follow fawning." "The poor is hated
even of his own neighbor, but the rich hath many friends." "Many will
entreat the favor of a prince, and every man is a friend to him that
giveth gifts." "A man's gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before
great men." There is an incident in the second Book of Kings, that
exemplifies, with touches of humor, the truth of these proverbs. "And the
king of Assyria found conspiracy in Hoshea, (king of Israel,) for he had
sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and _brought no present to the king
of Assyria_, as he had done year by year." The king of Assyria is greatly
shocked at this sign of disrespect. His feelings are outraged and wounded
at receiving no present. It is suspicious, very suspicious! Let this
Hoshea be looked to. The man who fails to bring the usual present is fit
for "treasons, stratagems and spoils." There is no telling what evil he
may be plotting. Surely there is "conspiracy in him." "Therefore, the king
of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison." Solomon was right--"A
man's gift bringeth him before great men," but the absence of it bringeth
him into prison as a traitor!

_6. Miscellaneous._

Many other examples of wit and wisdom might be given. Let us add a few
miscellaneous ones. Solomon advises against making long calls. Busy men
would do well to hang this motto up in their offices: "Withdraw thy foot
from thy neighbor's house, lest he weary of thee and so hate thee." In
Solomon's wide and varied experiences, there had evidently been occasional
encounters with "bores."

It may sometimes be well to present a stern front to the slanderer: "The
North wind driveth away rain, so doth an angry countenance a back-biting

Excellent advice this for those who indorse other people's notes: "Be not
one of them that strike hands, or one of them that are sureties for debts;
if thou hast nothing to pay, why should he take away thy bed from under
thee?" "He that hateth suretyship is sure."

There were those in that day, as well as in our own, who tried to beat
down the price of an article by depreciating its quality: "It is naught,
it is naught, saith the buyer; but when he hath gone his way, then he
boasteth." Donald G. Mitchell, in his charming book, _My Farm at
Edgewood_, has a chapter on "Dickering" which is, in effect, an
elaboration of the proverb last quoted. "Sometime or other, if a man enter
upon farm life--and it holds in almost every kind of life--there will come
to him a necessity for bargaining. It is a part of the curse, I think,
entailed upon mankind at the expulsion from Eden, that they should sweat
at a bargain. * * * If I were to take the opinions of my excellent
friends, the purchasers, for truth, I should be painfully conscious of
having possessed the most mangy hogs, the most aged cows, the scrubbiest
veal, and the most diseased and stunted growth of chestnuts and oaks with
which a country-liver was ever afflicted. For a time, in the early period
of my novitiate, I was not a little disturbed by these damaging
statements; but have been relieved by learning on further experience that
the urgence of such lively falsehoods is only an ingenious mercenary
device for the sharpening of a bargain."


The epigrammatic sayings of the Bible are not confined, as we have already
seen, to the Book of Proverbs. We find them elsewhere. Hosea says of
idolaters, "They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind."
Micah declared of the mercenary prophets, "He that putteth not into their
mouth, they even declare war against him." At the same time princes and
judges are so corrupt, that "the best of them is as a briar; the most
upright is sharper than a thorn hedge."

Jeremiah charges against the people, "As a cage is full of birds, so are
their houses of deceit." "Can the Ethiopian," he asks, "change his skin,
or the leopard his spots?" and adds, "Then can ye also do right who are
accustomed to do evil." This is equivalent to the proverb of another
people: "Though you feed milk to a young snake, will it leave off its
habit of creeping under the hedge?"

"Can a maid forget her ornaments or a bride her attire?" asks Jeremiah;
"yet my people have forgotten me days without number." "Yea, the stork in
the heavens knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and
the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the
judgment of the Lord." "As the partridge sitteth on eggs and hatcheth them
not; so he that getteth riches and not by right, shall leave them in the
middle of his days, and at the end shall be a fool."

Isaiah admonishes the people, "Lo, thou trustest in the staff of this
broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand and
pierce it; so is Pharoah, king of Egypt, to all who trust in him,"--a
saying which calls to mind the message Jesus sent to Herod, "Go, tell that
fox." To those who trusted in the prowess of the Egyptians, Isaiah
declares, "Now, the Egyptians are men and not God; and their horses are
flesh and not spirit." He assures the people that the time will come when
names shall be used with greater discrimination--"The vile person shall no
more be called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful."

Job says: "For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild
ass's colt." And it is Job who has given us the common expression, "I am
escaped with the skin of my teeth."

David says of the hypocrite:--"The words of his mouth were smoother than
butter, but war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, but they
were drawn swords." "Man that is in honor and understandeth not, is like
the beasts which perish." "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no
God." Of the wicked the psalmist exclaims: "Their poison is like the
poison of a serpent; they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;
which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so
wisely." Recalling an incident of Israel's journey through the wilderness,
he gives his opinion of the transaction Aaron tried to disclaim: "They
made a calf in Horeb and worshipped the molten image. Thus they changed
their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass!" "Fools,
because of their transgressions and because of their iniquities are
afflicted." He says of those who gave him pain,--the "ploughers who
ploughed upon his back and made long their furrows,"--"They shall be as
the grass upon the house-tops which withereth before it groweth up;
wherewith the mower filleth not his hand, nor he that bindeth sheaves his

Paul speaks of those "whose God is their belly, and whose glory is their
shame;" and also of certain ones who "speak lies in hypocrisy, having
their conscience seared with a red-hot iron." "Rulers," he says, "are not
a terror to good works, but to evil." "If a man thinketh himself to be
something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself."

The Book of James has already been quoted in this chapter; but there is
another passage of the proverbial or epigrammatic character that must not
be omitted: "Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your
own selves. For if any man be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is
like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass; for he beholdeth
himself and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man
he was." The Veman proverb is very like this: "Whatever he devoid of
understanding may be reading, his virtue continues only so long as he is
reading; even as a frog is dignified only so long as it is seated on a
lotus leaf."

One of the best examples of the kind of wit we are now discussing is found
in the account of King Asa's sickness and death. The writer of the Book of
Chronicles says: "Yet in his disease he sought not unto the Lord, but to
the Physicians;" and then adds with imperturbable gravity, "And Asa slept
with his fathers." Referring to this passage, Professor Matthews
says:--"It looks like a sarcasm on the medical practitioners of
Palestine." There is something similar to this in Ecclesiastes: "Wisdom is
good--with an inheritance," an ancient instance of "the old flag--and an


To this chapter belong many of the sayings of Jesus. He spoke in proverbs
as well as in parables.

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a
rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."

"Many are called, but few are chosen."

"The first shall be last, and the last first."

"A prophet is not without honor save in his own country and among his

"He that humbleth himself shall be exalted; he that exalteth himself shall
be abased."

"Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

"Physician, heal thyself."

"Ye are the light of the world; a city that is set on an hill can not be
hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a
candlestick and it giveth light unto all that are in the house."

"Let the dead bury their dead."

"No man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the
kingdom of God."

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but
considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" There are several
proverbs in other literatures very like this. The Russian:--"A pig came up
to a horse and said, Your feet are crooked, and your hair is worth
nothing." The Bengal:--"The sieve said to the needle, You have a hole in
your tail." The Chinese:--"Let every one sweep the snow before his own
door, and not busy himself with the frost on his neighbor's tiles."

"Ye can not serve God and Mammon."

"A house divided against itself can not stand."

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but
inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know, them by their fruits. Do
men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?"

"For unto every one that hath to him shall be given and he shall have
abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which
he hath."

"Wheresoever the carcass is, there are the vultures gathered together."

"Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls
before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn again and rend
you." Similar proverbs may be gathered from other sources. The Persian
says, "It is folly to give comfits to a cow;" the Veman, "Though you
anoint an ass all over with perfumes, it feels not your fondness, but
will turn again and kick you;" the Telugu asks, "What can a pig do with a
rose-bottle?" the Tamul says, "Like reading a portion of the Veda to a cow
about to gore you;" and again, "Though religious instruction be whispered
into the ear of an ass, nothing will come of it but the accustomed

"They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." Such
sayings of Jesus are true proverbs and instances of genuine wit.

Archbishop Trench says, "Any one who by after investigation, has sought to
discover how much our rustic hearers carry away even from sermons to which
they have attentively listened, will find it is hardly ever the course or
tenor of the argument, supposing the discourse to have contained such; but
if anything is uttered, as it used so often to be by the best Puritan
preachers, tersely, pointedly and epigrammatically, this will have stayed
by them while all the rest has passed away. Great preachers to the people,
such as have ever found their way to the universal heart of their
fellows, have ever been great employers of proverbs." This principle helps
to explain why, in the case of Jesus, "the common people heard him


"He that can define, he that can answer a question so as to admit of no
further answer, is the best man. Jesus spent his life conversing with
humble people on life and duty, in giving wise answers, showing that he
saw at a larger angle of vision, and at least silencing those who were not
generous enough to accept his thoughts."--_Emerson._


    "And no one was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from
    that day forth ask him any more questions."--_Matthew._

The present chapter brings us to the subject of Repartee. Of this form of
wit, Professor Matthews says, "Nothing is more admirable, nothing more
quickly enlists our sympathies, than this perfect command and quick,
instantaneous concentration of the faculties, when a man is taken at a
disadvantage and has to repel an insinuation or an insult at a moment's
warning. That felicity of instantaneous analysis which we call readiness,
has saved thousands of men from mortification or contempt. The dextrous
leap of thought by which the mind escapes from a seemingly hopeless
dilemma is worth more than all the logic and learning of the world." "The
impromptu reply," says Moliere, "is precisely the touchstone of wit."

The pages of the Bible are sometimes enlivened by sharp repartees. The men
of old time, the men of the Hebrew nation, understood the power of the
quick and flashing answer, as well as more modern generations. Johnson and
Foote and Sheridan might have found it by no means easy to hold their own
in Judea. It is very likely that their powers would have been put to the
severest test.


Turning to the pages of the old Testament, we find many striking examples.

Ben-hadad sends word to the king of Israel, threatening to destroy his
army. The king of Israel replies, "Tell him, Let not him that girdeth on
his harness, boast himself as he that putteth it off."

Amaziah desired war with Jehoash. He sends to him saying, "Come, let us
look one another in the face." Jehoash simply responds to the presumptuous
challenge, "The thistle that was in Lebanon sent to the cedar that was in
Lebanon, saying, Give thy daughter to my son to wife. And there passed by
a wild beast that was in Lebanon and trod down the thistle."

Job retorts upon Zophar, after a wearisome recital of dreary commonplaces
intended for comfort, "No doubt but ye are _the_ people, and wisdom will
die with you. But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior
to you; yea, who knoweth not such things as these?" To the speech
introduced by these words, Eliphaz sharply replies, "Art thou the first
man that was born? or wast thou made before the hills? Hast thou heard the
secret of God, and dost thou restrain wisdom to thyself? What knowest thou
that we know not? What understandest thou which is not in us? With us are
both the gray-headed and very aged men, much elder than thy father." Upon
this latter sentiment Elihu expresses himself when he finds opportunity to
put in a word; "Great men are not always wise, neither do the aged
understand judgment."

Indeed the Book of Job abounds in sharp speeches and replies as cutting as
the speeches they answer. The sufferer obstinately refuses to accept
their theory of his affliction or to adopt the remedies his friends
propose. "Ye are forgers of lies," he exclaims, "ye are physicians of no
value. O that ye would altogether hold your peace, and it should be your
wisdom." In response to this appeal, Eliphaz becoming piqued proceeds to
administer consolation with the lash: "Shall a wise man utter vain
knowledge, and fill his belly with the east wind? Should he reason with
unprofitable talk or with speeches wherewith he can do no good?" "I have
heard many such things," cries the wretched Job, "miserable comforters are
ye all. If your soul were in my soul's stead, I could heap up words
against you, and shake mine head at you; but I would strengthen you with
my mouth, and the moving of my lips should assuage your grief."

There were some word-battles between Sanballat and Nehemiah while the
latter was trying to build the walls of Jerusalem, and the former was
doing his best to hinder the enterprise. "Come," says Sanballat, "let us
meet together in one of the villages in the plain of Ono,"--let us be
friendly, let us have a pleasant visit together,--"but he thought to do me
mischief." The crafty Sanballat did not take the builder of Jerusalem
napping. Nehemiah replies, "I am doing a great work so that I can not come
down; why should the work cease whilst I leave it to come down to you?"
Are your wishes of such mighty importance, O Sanballat that I should leave
the Lord's work? Must the building cease that I may gratify your whim? Go
to, Sanballat, go to; I can not come down. My work is great and noble;
thou art a trifler and hypocrite! In precisely this vein was Spurgeon's
reply to the pious bore who sent up word, "Tell him a servant of the Lord
wishes to see him." It was Saturday afternoon, and Spurgeon replied, "Tell
him I am busy with his Master!"

Sanballat will have at him again: "It is reported among the heathen, and
Gashmu said it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel; for which cause
thou buildest the wall that thou mayest be their king, according to these
words. And thou hast appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem,
saying, There is a king in Judah; and now shall it be reported to the king
according to these words. Come now, therefore, and let us take counsel
together." To this tissue of falsehoods manufactured by the mendacious
Gashmu, Nehemiah flashes back with indignation, "There are no such things
as thou sayest, but thou feignest it out of thine own heart." Nehemiah
comes very near giving what Touchstone would call the "lie direct," and he
gives it without the qualifying "If."

Robert Collyer has the following comment upon Gashmu, who was quoted by
Sanballat as authority for the charge that Nehemiah was going to set up
for a king: "This only, this one thing is left: A good man was doing a
good work with all his might, and bad men tried to hinder him. They tried
to hurt his person. Gashmu was above that. He was none of your common
rowdies. Sanballat and Tobiah might do that, but not Gashmu; yet Gashmu
will sit there and nurse his dislike, and be glad to hear the petty
stories that float like thistledown through the neighborhood against the
innocent man; words are twisted and turned to meanings Nehemiah never
thought of, and Gashmu hopes they are true; he wishes they were true; the
wish is father to the thought, and he believes them. * * * So Gashmu has
permitted his prejudices to grow into a lie. Gashmu is to live thousands
of years for one purely false assertion, and to be the representative man
of unprincipled gossips and narrow bigots as long as the world stands."

Another illustration. When the woman, in time of famine, appealed to the
King of Israel as he passed by, "Help, my lord, O King," he turned upon
her with the somewhat grim rejoinder, "If the Lord do not help thee,
whence shall I help thee?" Her case was hopeless, if the Lord could do

Although the resemblance is not very strong, this incident suggests a
story of Michael Angelo. It calls to mind the way in which he took revenge
upon Biagio di Cesena. This courtier ventured to criticise his Last
Judgment. With a swift stroke he turned the Minos of the fresco into a
likeness of his critic. Biagio complained to the Pope. "Where has he
placed you?" inquired the Pontiff. "In Hell," said Biagio. "I am sorry,"
replied the Pope; "If it had been in Purgatory, something might have been
done, but in Hell I have no jurisdiction."


Examples of prompt and keen retort are not confined to the Old Testament.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find additional illustrations.

When Paul was making his defence before the Council, he said, "Men and
brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day."
This declaration of innocence offended the High Priest Ananias, and he
commanded those who stood by, to smite the speaker on the mouth. This
raised the indignation of Paul, and with the swiftness of an arrow he
transfixed the Priest, "God shall smite thee, thou whited wall; for
sittest thou to judge me after the law and commandest me to be smitten
contrary to the law?" This was understood as a bolt of invective by those
who heard it, for they asked in alarm, "Revilest thou God's High Priest?"
The answer of Paul was a still more subtle sarcasm: "_I wist not,
brethren, that he was the High Priest_." There was nothing in the conduct
of the man to betoken the dignity of his office. God's High Priest must
surely be fair and impartial. God's High Priest would never counsel
violence. The mistake, Paul would imply, was perfectly natural and

There is a story of John Randolph not unlike this. Indeed, the sarcasm is
the same in spirit and purpose. Paul admitted that "one must not revile
God's High Priest," but _he did not perceive that the High Priest was
present_. The coarse, loud, ill-tempered person who commanded to smite him
on the mouth could not be High Priest! The following was the occasion of
Randolph's sarcasm: During the winter of 1834 a member of the House, to
whom he was much attached, died. His place was taken by a young man, vain
and ambitious, who began his career by making a bitter attack on Mr.
Randolph. No reply was made by the latter. Several days passed, when a
question came up in which he was deeply interested, and he delivered a
very earnest and impressive speech. As he closed, he said, "I should not,
Mr. Speaker, have returned to press this matter with so much earnestness,
had not my views possessed the sanction and concurrence of my late
departed friend, _whose seat, I lament, is now unhappily vacant_."

How skillfully, in the story of the young man who had been healed of his
blindness, does the subject of the cure parry the thrusts of the synagogue
authorities! "Give God the praise," they exhort, "we know that this man is
a sinner!" "Whether he be a sinner or no," says the young man, "I can not
tell; one thing I know that whereas I was blind, now I see." Thus
repulsed, they begin again. "What did he to thee? How opened he thine
eyes?" He replies, "I have told you already, and ye did not hear;
wherefore would ye hear it again? Will ye also be his disciples?" Stung to
the quick, they revile him, "Thou art his disciple, but we are Moses'
disciples. We know that God spake unto Moses, but as for this fellow we
know not from whence he is!" Thoroughly aroused, the young man sends home
to them a final thrust: "Why herein is a marvelous thing that ye know not
from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes? Now we know that God
heareth not sinners; but if any man be a worshipper of God and doeth his
will, him he heareth. Since the world began, was it not heard that any man
opened the eyes of one born blind. If this man were not of God, he could
do nothing!" Abuse and excision alone remain to the rulers of the
synagogue. "Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us?"
And they cast him out. Excommunication is the sole answer of priest-craft
and bigotry to reason.


To many readers it may seem impious to say that under the head of Repartee
we must classify many of those words of Jesus with which he cuts through
the sophistry of opponents and disentangles himself from the webs that are
woven about him. Let it be remembered, however, that we are dealing with
his utterances simply as literature; with their religious significance, we
are not now concerned. We are discussing the sayings of Jesus as we would
the sayings of Johnson or Goldsmith.

One of the most striking instances is found in the controversy over
exorcism. When the scribes who came down from Jerusalem charged, "He hath
Beelzebub and by the prince of the devils casts he out devils," he quickly
reduced the accusation to an absurdity: "How can Satan cast out Satan? If
he rise up against himself and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an
end." He goes further--"If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your
children cast them out?"

There was one occasion, however, when Jesus himself seems to have been
vanquished by a swift rejoinder. When the Syro-Phenician woman came to him
in behalf of her daughter, in order to test her faith he said,--"Let the
children first be filled, for it is not meet to take the children's bread
and to cast it unto the dogs." "Yes, Lord," she answered, "yet the dogs
under the table eat of the children's crumbs." These words came from a
bright intellect as well as from a trusting heart. Jesus appreciated the
keenness of the reply no less than the confidence it expressed. "_For this
saying_ go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter." "For once,"
says Macbeth, "Jesus was refuted and that by his own figure; and he wished
to be refuted."

How we enjoy such a dilemma as the one in which he placed the chief
priests and the scribes and the elders! They asked him, "By what authority
doest thou these things? And who gave thee authority to do these things?"
"I will also ask of you one question," says Jesus, "and answer me, and I
will tell you by what authority I do these things--the baptism of John,
was it from heaven, or of men? answer me." "And they reasoned with
themselves, saying, If we shall say from heaven, he will say, Why then did
ye not believe him? But if we shall say of men,--they feared the people;
for all men counted John that he was a prophet, indeed. And they answered
and said unto Jesus, We can not tell." "And Jesus answered and said unto
them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things."

Another time "came to Jesus Scribes and Pharisees which were of Jerusalem,
saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the Elders? for
they wash not their hands when they eat bread?" How quick and effective
the reply: "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your
tradition?" Nothing could be said in response. The question was absolutely
closed. The disciples violate your tradition? Very good; but what does
your tradition violate? Can we not see his opponents, falling back beaten,
knitting their brows, taking counsel together, planning some overwhelming
defeat for this impudent young heretic? What Thersites said of Ajax would
well apply to them: "He bites his lips with a politic regard, as who
should say, There were wit in this head an' 'twould out; and so there is,
but it lies as coldly in him as fire in a flint, which will not show
without knocking."

When the woman poured the spikenard on the head of Jesus, Judas, the
virtuous Judas, forsooth! made objection. "Why was not this ointment sold
for three hundred pence _and given to the poor_?" Why not, indeed,--for
Judas is custodian of the poor fund. "Judas," returns his Master,--and
there was pathos as well as rebuke in the words,--"Judas, the poor ye have
with you always, and whenever ye will, ye may do them good." This was the
first time Judas had ever manifested any solicitude for the poor. "But me,
ye have not always." Judas was silenced; but he began to brood revenge.
Soon he stole out and went to the chief priests. He had not secured the
price of the spikenard, but he would indemnify himself by selling his

With what relish do we read the trenchant replies of Jesus to the Scribes
and Pharisees and Herodians who had leagued to "entangle him in his talk."
Easily as Samson broke the green withes, did he break the verbal fetters
they forged. "In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in
marriage!" "Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and unto God
the things that are God's." What can be more admirable viewed simply as
repartee,--as illustrations of the "dexterous leap of thought by which the
mind escapes from a seemingly hopeless dilemma?" If one were to read such
fragments of Gospel history for the first time, without the idea that he
must attach a solemn and awful meaning to every word, how would he delight
in these intellectual contests and hail the genius of the victor!

After the besiegers, in the preceding incident, had exhausted their
fruitless ingenuity, Jesus turns upon them with the question, "What think
ye of Christ? Whose Son is he?" "The Son of David," they feebly mutter.
"How then doth David call him Lord? If David call him Lord, how is he his
son?" That ended the controversy. The combined forces of theology and
politics retired in confusion, evidently looking, as Dickens said of the
portraits of the Dedlock family, "as if they did not know what to make of
it." They had lost the battle. One can imagine the evangelist who
afterwards wrote the account, almost chuckling with inward satisfaction,
as he recalled the scene and recorded the result: "And no man was able to
answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day ask him any more

VII. Wit and Logic.

"Who would say that truth ought to stand disarmed against falsehood, or
that the enemies of the faith shall be at liberty to frighten the faithful
with hard words or jeer at them with lively sallies of wit, while the
Christians ought never to write except with a coldness of style enough to
set the reader asleep?"--_Augustine._


    "I was not gone far before I heard the sound of trumpets and alarms,
    which seemed to proclaim the march of an Enemy; and as I afterwards
    found was in reality what I apprehended it. There appeared at a great
    distance a very shining light, and in the midst of it a person of most
    beautiful aspect; her name was _Truth_. On her right hand, there
    marched a male deity, who bore several quivers on his shoulders, and
    grasped several arrows in his hand. His name was Wit."--_Addison._

In her essay on Heine, George Eliot writes: "Every one who has had the
opportunity of making the comparison, will remember that the effect
produced on him by some witticisms is closely akin to the effect produced
on him by subtle reasoning which lays open a fallacy or absurdity; and
there are persons whose delight in such reasoning always manifests itself
in laughter. This affinity of wit with ratiocination is the more obvious
in proportion as the species of wit is higher and deals less with words
and with superficialities than with the essential qualities of things.
Some of Dr. Johnson's most admirable witticisms consist in the suggestion
of an analogy which immediately exposes the absurdity of an action or
proposition; and it is only their ingenuity, condensation and
instantaneousness which lift them from reasoning into wit." The opinion of
George Eliot has been shared by others. Pitt declared that "all wit is
true reasoning," and Rogers says that "wit is truth." A French writer has
observed that "reason needs to be armed with the terrible epigram." And
even solemn John Milton writes of Plato's dialogues, "There is scarce one
of them, especially wherein some notable sophister lies sweating and
turmoiling under the inevitable and merciless dilemmas of Socrates, but he
that reads, were it Saturn himself, would be robbed of more than a smile."

There are in literature abundant examples of the condensed logic of
wit,--the logic that exposes a fallacy, answers an objection and
demolishes an argument, without resorting to major and minor premise and
formal conclusion. One or two of these may pave the way to the main
purpose of this chapter. "Where was your Protestant Church before Luther?"
asked a Catholic of Wilkes. "Did you wash your face this morning?" said
Wilkes. "I did, sir." "Where was your face before you washed it?" The
logic of wit as employed by Dr. Johnson, is referred to by George Eliot.
On one occasion it was debated whether a clergyman who had five years
before been guilty of some grave sin should be reinstated. Johnson
inquired whether the man had repented. It was admitted that he had.
"Then," said Johnson, "if he has repented, is he not good enough to go to
heaven?" "Certainly." "Why, sir, then there is no objection. A man who is
good enough to go to heaven is good enough to be a clergyman." Johnson
denounced Lord Bolingbroke in the following immortal analogy: "Sir, he was
a scoundrel and a coward; a scoundrel for charging a blunderbuss against
religion and morality, a coward because he had not resolution enough to
fire it off himself, but left half-a-crown to a beggarly Scotchman to draw
the trigger after his death."

A certain clergyman who had been addicted to bawling and roaring in the
pulpit said, "I once thought it was the thunder that killed, and know now
that it is the lightning that does the execution. I mean to thunder less
and lighten more." Sir Thomas Overbury punctures certain pretensions thus:
"The man who has not anything to boast of but his illustrious ancestors,
is like a potato--the only good belonging to him is underground."
Thompson, of the _Westminster Review_, defended the Radicals against the
attacks of the Whigs in this manner: "Noah was a Radical when, hearing the
world was to be drowned, he went about such a commonsense proceeding as
making for himself a ship to swim in. An antediluvian Whig would have laid
together half-a-dozen sticks for an ark and called it a 'virtual

The principle that underlies these instances is obvious. The form may vary
but in every case there is an analogy that serves all the purposes of
formal logic,--"an analogy which immediately exposes the absurdity of an
action or proposition." The writers of the Bible understood and employed
the same principle.


One of the best examples of its use is found in Nathan's parable. He goes
to David and tells him: "There were two men in our city; the one rich, the
other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; but the poor
man had nothing save one little ewe lamb, which he had brought and
nourished up; and it grew up together with him and with his children; and
it did eat of his own meat and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom,
and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich
man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd to dress
it for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's
lamb and dressed it for the man that was come unto him." Such an action is
so atrocious that it kindles David's wrath. He little suspects the purpose
of the wily prophet. "As the Lord liveth," he cries, "the man that hath
done this thing shall surely die! And he shall restore the lamb four-fold
because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." Beware, David,
beware! This Nestor-prophet, this Nathan of the subtle wit and keen-edged
tongue hath digged a pit for thee and thou hast fallen into it. Swiftly
the prophet smites the bewildered king with the conclusion, "_Thou art the
man!_" Could a volume of reasoning have so impressed David with the
enormity of his crime as this simple "analogy" of Nathan?

A similar instance is found in the first book of Kings. Ahab the king of
Israel had allowed the Syrian general, Ben-hadad, to escape. One of the
prophets, determined to rebuke him, disguised himself and sat by the
wayside, waiting until the king should pass by. "And as the king passed
by, he cried unto the king and said: Thy servant went out into the midst
of the battle, and behold a man turned aside and brought a man unto me and
said, Keep this man; if by any means he be missing, then shall thy life be
for his life or else thou shalt pay a talent of silver. And as thy
servant was busy here and there he was gone." Ahab does not suspect the
snare of the prophet. What would my lord, the king, decide? Shall thy
servant pay the forfeit? "And the king of Israel said unto him, So shall
thy judgment be; thyself hath decided it." And he made haste, removed his
disguise, and said to the king: "Thus saith the Lord: _Because thou hast
let go out of thine hand a man whom I had appointed to utter destruction,
therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people_."
Ahab has judged himself. No wonder he was vexed. "And the king of Israel
went to the house heavy and displeased." Nothing so disconcerts one as the
recoil of his own logic.

Let us place side by side with these illustrations one or two pieces of
the same kind of reasoning from Shakespeare. The Court Fool endeavors to
show Lear his own pitiful lack of wisdom in giving away his kingdom to his

    "FOOL.--Nuncle, give me an egg, and I'll give thee two crowns.

    "LEAR.--What two crowns shall they be?

    "FOOL.--Why, after I have clove the egg i' the middle and eat up the
    meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i' the
    middle and gavest away both parts, thou borest thine ass on thy back
    o'er the dirt; thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou
    gavest thy golden one away."

Upon another occasion the following dialogue occurs:--

    "FOOL.--Canst thou tell how an oyster makes his shell?


    "FOOL.--Nor I neither; but I can tell why a snail has a house.


    "FOOL.--Why to put his head in; not to give it away to his daughters
    and leave his horns without a case."

Lear is so stung with the sense of his folly by these "analogies" of his
jester that he exclaims in rage and bitterness, "I shall forget my
nature!" It is the argument of Nathan, "Thou art the man."

Upon the same principle, but in a different way, the Psalmist reasons with
those who "slay the widow and the stranger and murder the fatherless," and
who say, "The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard
it." Thus he argues: "Understand, ye brutish among the people; and ye
fools, when will ye be wise? _He that planted the ear, shall he not hear?
he that formed the eye, shall he not see?_"

Under this head must we also place the judgment of Solomon, when the two
women came before him, each claiming the living child. "Then said the
king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth and thy son is dead; and
the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead and mine is the living one.
And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the
king. And the king said, Divide the living child in two and give half to
one and half to the other. Then spoke the woman whose the living child was
unto the king, for her heart yearned upon her son, and she said, O my
Lord, give her the living child and in no wise slay it. But the other
said, Let it be neither thine nor mine, but divide it. Then the king
answered and said, Give her (the first) the living child, and in no wise
slay it; she is the mother thereof." Solomon had to use a sharp argument,
but he settled the controversy.


The "suggestion of an analogy that immediately exposes the absurdity of an
action or proposition," was the favorite method of argument with Jesus.

He spun no metaphysical cobwebs, he used no long chains of linked
propositions; it is no irreverence to say that his quick wit was his main
reliance. In a sentence or two, with a simple, homely figure, he reduced
to an absurdity the conduct he censured and the proposition he opposed.

On one occasion he was asked, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?"
"What man shall there be among you," he answered, "that shall have one
sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold
on it and bring it out? _How much more, then, is a man better than a
sheep?_ Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath day."

At another time the same subject came up. Because Jesus had healed on the
Sabbath day, the ruler of the synagogue was filled with indignation and
made a very grotesque spectacle of himself. He stormed, scolded, and
roared to the people, "There are six days in which men ought to work; in
them therefore come and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day." Jesus
answered: "Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the Sabbath loose
his ox or his ass from the stall and lead him away to watering? And ought
not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo,
these eighteen years, _be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day_?" The
indignant ruler had to smother his wrath. "And when he (Jesus) had said
these things, all his adversaries were ashamed." The people enjoyed their
confusion, and evidently applauded the sharp-witted young prophet who had
silenced the fault-finding tongues of the rulers. "All the people rejoiced
for the glorious things that were done by him!"

The Scribes and Pharisees were once murmuring and complaining that he
mingled with publicans and sinners, and even condescended to eat with
them. "And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a
physician, but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but
sinners to repentance!"

When the Pharisees and Sadducees desired that he would show them a sign
from heaven, he answered and said unto them, "When it is evening, ye say
that it will be fair weather for the sky is red. And in the morning, It
will be foul weather to-day; for the sky is red and lowering. O, ye
hypocrites, _ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern
the signs of the times?_" He uses essentially the same argument for a
similar request: "When ye see a cloud rise out of the West, straightway ye
say, There cometh a shower, and so it is. And when ye see the South wind
blow, ye say, There will be heat, and it cometh to pass. Ye hypocrites,
_ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that
ye do not discern this time?_" Says Geike, "With biting irony, he turned
on them in a few brief, incisive sentences. * * * An evil and adulterous
generation seeks after a sign of the approach of the Kingdom of God, while
it is blind to the signs around that the Messiah must come, if the nation
is not to perish."

In a similar manner he shows how ridiculous are the doubts of those who
fear that God will not answer prayer. "If a son ask bread of any of you
that is a father, will ye give him a stone?" How this must have arrested
the attention of his auditors; how they began to listen, curious to know
what was coming next. "Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a
serpent?" Now they exchange glances as much as to say, "No, no; surely we
would not do that!" But only for a moment. The expectant faces are again
turned upon the Great Teacher. "Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer
him a scorpion?" "No, no!" and now they are eager for the conclusion: "_If
ye then being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how
much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask
him?_" It is the climax of absurdity for you to think that you are better
than God, and will do more for your children than the Great Father will do
for his children!

The disciples of Jesus came to tell him that the Pharisees are offended at
some of his sayings. His only reply is, "Let them alone; they be blind
leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall
into the ditch."

When he charges the Pharisees with tithing mint, anise, and cummin, while
neglecting judgment, mercy and faith, he stamps their conduct with an
"analogy" that makes them ludicrous forever, "Ye blind guides _which
strain out a gnat and swallow a camel_."

At dinner, he was rebuked by his host for permitting a penitent woman to
wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with the hairs of her head.
"Simon," calmly returned the guest, "I have somewhat to say to thee."
"Master, Say on." Jesus then proceeds to impale him upon the following
question: "There was a certain creditor which had two debtors; the one
owed him five hundred pence, the other fifty. And when they had nothing to
pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will
love him most?" Simon understands whither the question tends, and slowly
and reluctantly comes his answer: "I--suppose--that--he--to--whom--he--
forgave most." "Thou hast rightly judged." Yes, Simon, but thou hast
condemned thyself and justified the woman.

The story of the vineyard and its application are similar to Nathan's
parable. "There was a certain householder which planted a vineyard, and
hedged it round about and digged a wine-press in it, and built a tower,
and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country. And when the
time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that
they might receive the fruits of it. And the husbandmen took his servants,
and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other
servants, more than the first; and they did unto them likewise. But last
of all, he sent unto them his Son; saying, They will reverence my Son. But
when the husbandmen saw the Son, they said among themselves, This is the
heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on the inheritance. And they
caught him and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him."

This is the story. Jesus turns to the Pharisees: "When the Lord,
therefore, of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto these husbandmen?"
Priests and Pharisees are moved with indignation. This is horrible; it
almost exceeds belief. Those husbandmen were monsters of ingratitude and
wickedness! The Pharisees answer: "He will miserably destroy those wicked
men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall
render him the fruits in their seasons."

Fatal answer for you, O Scribes and Pharisees! "Therefore I say unto you,
_the Kingdom of God shall be taken from_ YOU, and given to a nation
bringing forth the fruits thereof." There is a touch of humor in Matthew's
description of the manner in which the real object of this story dawned
upon the minds of the hearers. "And when the Pharisees had heard his
parable, _they perceived that he spake of them_." Are we not irresistibly
reminded of Falstaff, when the fairies in the forest turned out to be
flesh and blood, "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass?" Do we not
feel about many of these condensed arguments of Jesus, as Milton did
about the "sophist sweating and turmoiling under the inevitable and
merciless dilemmas of Socrates," that "he who reads, were it Saturn
himself, would be robbed of more than a smile?"

Let us add by way of comparison, a passage from the Athenian Master. Here
is a fragment of dialogue upon the enslaving power of money.

"Come, now, and let us reason with the unjust who is not intentionally in
error. 'Sweet sir,' we will say to him, 'what think you of things esteemed
noble and ignoble? Is not the noble that which subjects the beast to the
man, or rather to the god in man? and the ignoble that which subjects the
man to the beast?' He can hardly avoid saying Yes,--can he now?"

"Not if he has any regard for my opinion."

"But if he admit this, we may ask him another question,--How would a man
profit if he received gold and silver on condition that he was to enslave
the noblest part of him to the worst? Who can imagine that a man who sold
his son or daughter into slavery for money, especially if he sold them
into the hands of fierce and evil men, would be the gainer, however large
might be the sum which he received? And will any one say that he is not a
miserable caitiff who sells his own divine being to that which is most
atheistical and detestable, and has no pity?"

This selection will enable us to see that the method commonly used by
Socrates was essentially the method that Jesus so frequently employed.


When we pass on to other portions of the New Testament, we find examples
of the same kind of reasoning in James and Paul.

Most admirably does James show the futility of faith without works. "What
shall it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and hath not
works? Can faith save him? If a brother and sister be naked and destitute
of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed
and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are
needful to the body, what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not
works, is dead, being alone."

The class of people referred to by James are aptly described by Fielding
in the character of Peter Pounce. "Sir," said Adams, "my definition of
charity is a generous disposition to relieve the distressed." "There is
something in that definition," answered Peter, "which I like well enough;
it is, as you say, a disposition to do it, and does not so much consist in
the act as in the disposition to do it. But, alas! Mr. Adams, who are
meant by the distressed? Believe me, the distresses of mankind are mostly
imaginary, and it would be rather folly than goodness to relieve them."
"Sure, sir," replied Adams, "hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and
other distresses which attend the poor, can never be said to be imaginary
evils." "How can any man complain of hunger," said Peter, "in a country
where such excellent salads are to be gathered in almost every field? or
of thirst, where every river and stream produce such delicious potations?
And as for cold and nakedness, they are evils introduced by luxury and
custom. A man naturally wants clothes no more than a horse or any other
animal; and there are whole nations who go without them." Peter Pounce
would have said to the "brother or sister naked and destitute of daily
food," "_Depart in peace; be ye warmed and filled._"

The declaration of James that "faith without works is dead," is
illustrated in the sayings of others also:

    "Sweet words, empty hands."--_Telugu._

    "Kindness, but no milk."--_Urdu._

    "Though they are brothers, their pockets are not sisters."--_Turk._

    "It is not by saying Honey, Honey, that sweetness comes into the

    "His words leap over forts, his feet do not cross the

    "If you do not ask me for food and raiment, I will care for you as my
    own child."--_Ib._

Equally admirable is that comparison of Paul in which he likens the Church
to the human body and shows the folly of jealousy and schism: "If the foot
shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it
therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the
hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?"

Very pleasantly, but very effectually, does he remind those who professed
to "speak with tongues" a sort of supernatural language, in the early
Christian assemblies, that it was "better to speak five words with the
understanding than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue." An
illustration serves his purpose. "Even things without life, giving sound,
whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in sound, how shall
it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain
sound, who shall prepare himself for battle? So likewise ye, except ye
utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known
what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air."

Paul maintains the right of those who establish and teach churches, to be
supported by those churches. It was a right upon which he did not always
insist in his own case; but he fought for it as a great principle. "Mine
answer to them that do examine me is this: Have we not the power (the
right) to eat and drink?" The objector would admit this. Very well! "Who
goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard and
eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of
the milk of the flock? * * * If we have sown unto you in spiritual things,
is it a great thing if we shall reap of your carnal things? * * * Do ye
not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of
the temple? They which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?
Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should
live of the gospel." There is no gainsaying this argument. The "analogy"
is unanswerable.

Already once or twice in this chapter, reference has been made to Socrates
and his method. Much of the following passage would apply equally well to
Jesus or James or Paul: "He generally begins with some question,
apparently so simple, so stupidly simple, and at such a distance from the
field of discussion, that his opponent often hesitates whether most to
admire the docility or wonder at the stupidity of the querist, and with a
complacent smile, half of pity, half of contempt, promptly replies. Other
questions succeed faster and faster, more and more difficult, and
gradually approaching, in one long spiral of interrogations, the central
position in which the unhappy sophist's argument stands. He now finds it
impossible to escape, and confounded, perplexed and irritated, discovers
that he is compelled to admit some palpable contradiction to his original
assertions, and this too by means of those simple and innocent premises
which he had so unsuspectingly granted. He feels himself within the coils
of a great logical boa-constrictor who binds his folds together tighter
and tighter till the poor sophist is absolutely strangled."


"Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets; she crieth
in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates; in the city
she uttereth her words, saying, How long ye simple ones will ye love
simplicity? And the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate
knowledge? Turn you at my reproof!"--_Solomon._


    "The oldest jibe in literature is the ridicule of false

    "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall hold them
    in derision."--_Psalms._

In the Bible, the elements of wit and humor are effectively employed in
dealing with the sins of men. Evil doing, in its various motives and
manifestations, is denounced, rendered repulsive, made ghastly and
terrible, and when everything else has been done, it is exhibited as
grotesque and ludicrous. Sin is the great absurdity of the universe. Were
it not so tragic, it would shake the very heavens with laughter.

One of the old English poets has these lines:--

    "He who does not tremble at the sword,
    Who quails not with his head upon the block,
    Turn but a jest against him, loses heart;
    The shafts of wit slip thro' the stoutest mail.
    There is no man alive that can live down
    The inextinguishable laughter of mankind."

With this fact the writers of the Bible were quite as well acquainted as
are the writers of modern times. They took advantage of it for the same

"Of this we may be sure," says Hazlitt, "that ridicule fastens on the
vulnerable points of a cause, and finds out the weak sides of an argument;
if those who resort to it sometimes rely too much on its success, those
who are chiefly annoyed by it almost always are so with reason, and can
not be too much upon their guard against deserving it."

Into hearts impervious to all else, the writers of the Bible drove the
javelins of ridicule.

_The Sluggard._

If anything could make a lazy man feel uncomfortable, it would be such
thorns as those Solomon has planted in his pillow:--

    "I went by the field of the slothful,
    And by the vineyard of the man void of understanding;
    And lo! it was all grown over with thorns,
    The face thereof was covered with nettles,
    And the stone wall thereof was broken down.
    Then I beheld and considered well,
    I saw and received instruction:
    'A little sleep, a little slumber,
    A little folding of the hands to sleep.'
    So shall thy poverty come as a robber,
    And thy want as an armed man.

      *       *       *       *       *

    How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard,
    When wilt thou rouse thee out of thy sleep?"

_The Unfaithful Friend._

If anything could make an unfaithful and deceitful friend, one who
professes much in times of prosperity and performs nothing in times of
need, ashamed of himself, it would be such a comparison as we find in the
book of Job:--

    "My brethren are deceitful, like the brook
    As the channel of brooks that pass away,
    They become turbid from ice,
    The snow hides itself in them.
    At the time they are poured off, they fail;
    When it is hot they are consumed from their place.
    The caravans along their way turn aside;
    They go up into the wastes and perish.
    The caravans of Tema looked,
    The companies of Sheba hoped for them;
    They were ashamed that they had trusted,
    They came thither and were confounded."

The friends of Job were like streams in the early spring, when melting ice
and snow filled their channels, and the waters were not needed; but in
the heat of summer, when fainting caravans looked for refreshment, dry and

_The Drunkard._

If anything could move a drunkard to forswear his cups and lead a sober
life, it would be such a sarcastic description of him as that which

    "Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? Who hath contention?
    Who hath complaining? Who hath wounds without cause?
    Who hath redness of eyes?
    They that tarry long at the wine,
    They that go to try mixed wine.

      *       *       *       *       *

    Thine eyes shall behold strange things,
    And thy heart shall utter froward things,
    Yea thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea,
    Or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast."

The poem closes with a terrible thrust. After the folly of the drunkard
has been described, his physical and mental condition pointed out--the red
eyes, the strange things seen in delirium, the incoherent babbling, the
unsteady gait, the surrounding perils,--the devotee of strong drink is
made to exclaim, "_When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again!_" Knowing
its effects, suffering in mind and body from his potations, such is the
incorrigible stupidity of the wine-bibber that he no sooner wakens from
his drunken slumber than he goes forth to seek again the source of his

_The Idolater._

Nowhere is the use of ridicule by the writers of the Old Testament
displayed to better advantage than in their treatment of idolatry. Against
this sin they brought to bear the most potent weapons of their wit. None
of the resources of expression were left untried. Witness the withering
irony with which Elijah mocked the frantic priests of Baal: "And it came
to pass that at noon Elijah mocked them and said, Cry aloud, for he is a
god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or
peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked." No finer bit of irony can
be found in any literature. Indeed, we may regard it as the most perfect
specimen extant of this species of wit.

Jeremiah exclaims, "As the thief is ashamed when he is found, so is the
house of Israel ashamed; they, their kings, their princes and their
priests, and their prophets, _saying to a stock, Thou art my father, and
to a stone, Thou hast brought me forth_."

The Psalmist thus speaks of the gods of the heathen:

    "They have mouths, but they speak not;
    Eyes have they, but they see not;
    Noses have they, but they smell not;
    They have hands, but they handle not;
    Feet have they, but they walk not;
    Neither speak they thro' their throat."

Having thus described the senselessness and impotence of the gods of the
heathen, he adds:

    "They that make them are like unto them,
    So is everyone that trusteth in them."

In a similar vein Jeremiah ridicules the idols: "For the customs of the
people are vain; for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the
hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with
gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers that it move not. They
are upright as the palm tree, but speak not; they must needs be borne,
because they can not go. _Be not afraid of them; for they can not do evil,
neither also is it in them to do good._ * * * The stock is a doctrine of

Isaiah satirizes the idolaters in this fashion: "They shall be turned
back, they shall be greatly ashamed that trust in graven images, they that
say to the molten images, Ye are our gods. Hear ye deaf, and look ye blind
that ye may see. Who is blind but my servant? or deaf as my messenger that
I sent? Who is blind as he that is perfect (in his own estimation), and
blind as is the Lord's servant? Seeing many things, but thou observest
not; opening the ears, but he heareth not. * * * Who among you will give
ear to this and hearken and hear for time to come?"

Ezekiel declares that, on account of their idolatries, the people have
become as worthless as a withered vine. Nothing useful can be made out of
it. It is only fit for the fire. "What is the vine tree more than any
tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Shall wood
be taken thereof to do any work? or will men take a pin of it to hang any
vessel thereon? Behold it is cast into the fire for fuel; the fire
devoureth both the ends of it, and the midst of it is burned. Is it meet
for any work? Behold, when it was whole, it was meet for no work; how much
less shall it be meet yet for any work, when the fire hath devoured it,
and it is burned? Therefore, thus saith the Lord God: As the vine tree
among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so
will I give the inhabitants of Jerusalem."

There is an elaborate piece of sarcasm in the forty-fourth chapter of
Isaiah: "He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the cypress and the oak
which he strengtheneth for himself among the trees of the forest; he
planteth an ash and the rain doth nourish it. Then shall it be for a man
to burn; for he will take thereof and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it
and baketh bread." The tree which this idolater takes has grown up as any
other tree, and after it is cut down, it is devoted to the same ordinary
uses. Yet out of that very tree, "he maketh a god and worshippeth it; he
maketh a graven image, and falleth down thereto."

The prophet repeats and amplifies, "He burneth part thereof in the fire;
with part thereof he eateth flesh, he roasteth roast and is satisfied;
yea, he warmeth himself and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire;
and the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth
down unto it and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it and saith, Deliver
me, for thou art my God."

Then he concludes: "And none considereth in his heart, neither is there
knowledge nor understanding to say, _I have burned part of it in the fire;
yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh
and eaten it; and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? Shall I
fall down to the stock of a tree?_" The idolater does not see, does not
"consider" what an abject simpleton he is to make a god out of the same
material with which he bakes bread and roasts meat. It is as if the
prophet should say, "What sort of a god is that, O Israel, with which you
do your broiling and baking?"

Robert South comments on this passage: "With one part he furnishes his
chimney, with the other his chapel. A strange thing that the fire must
consume this part and burn incense to that! As if there were more divinity
in one end of the stick than in the other; or as if it could be painted
and graven omnipotent, or the nails and hammer could give it an

The fatalistic excuse which the people make for their idolatries and other
sins, is thus disposed of by Jeremiah: "Behold ye trust in lying words
that can not profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear
falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye
know not; and come and stand before me in this house which is called by my
name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? Is this
house which is called by my name become a den of robbers in your eyes?"

_Refuges of Lies._

Isaiah charges the rulers of the people with forsaking the word of the
Lord, and substituting for his truth false maxims and iniquitous precepts.
They refuse to obey the divine commands, and lead their subjects also into
rebellion. They have adopted other rules of life than those delivered by
the prophets of Jehovah,--other national policy than that promulgated from
above. In their overweening pride and self-confidence, they look with
disdain upon the requirements of God. Isaiah represents them as saying,
"We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement;
when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto
us; for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid
ourselves." But the prophet warns them that their fancied security shall
be broken up. "Judgment also will I lay to the line and righteousness to
the plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the
waters shall overflow the hiding-place. And your covenant with death
shall be disannuled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand. When
the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down
by it." He pauses a moment, after this strain of invective, and then
sarcastically describes the insufficiency of their refuges by another
figure, ludicrous enough, that of a man trying to stretch himself upon too
short a bed, and to cover himself with too narrow a blanket. "For the bed
is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it; and the covering
narrower than that he can wrap himself in it."

_False Prophets._

Ezekiel tells us that the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "Son of
Man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say unto
them that prophesy out of their own hearts, Hear ye the word of the Lord.
Thus saith the Lord God: Woe unto the foolish prophets that follow their
own spirit and have seen nothing. O Israel, thy prophets are like the
foxes in the desert. * * * They have seen vanity and lying divination,
saying, The Lord saith; and the Lord hath not sent them." These prophets
were endeavoring to soothe the people, to cover up their sins, to
dissipate their fears of retribution. "They have seduced my people,
saying, peace, when there is no peace." Then Ezekiel describes their work.
They are like foolish masons who build a wall with mortar that will not
hold the stones together,--"untempered mortar!" Can such work last? Can
such a structure stand? "Say unto them which daub it with untempered
mortar that it shall fall. There shall be an overflowing shower; and ye, O
great hail-stones, shall fall; and a stormy wind shall rend it. Lo! when
the wall is fallen, shall it not be said unto you, Where is the daubing
wherewith ye have daubed it?" Did ye not boast of your mortar? Did ye not
promise the people that it would hold? Alas for you, O prophets! Alas for
your work! "The wall is no more, neither they that daubed it; to wit, the
prophets of Israel which prophesy concerning Jerusalem, and which see
visions of peace for her, and there is no peace, saith the Lord."

Most contemptuously does Isaiah speak of the false prophets: "The Lord
will cut off from Israel, head and tail, branch and root, in one day. The
ancient and honorable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies,
_he is the tail_."

_The King of Assyria._

Isaiah ridicules the high and mighty pretensions of the King of Assyria.
That monarch boasts of his achievements. He takes the credit of all to
himself. He wears the glory alone. "By the strength of my own hand, I have
done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent; and I have removed the bounds
of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and I have put down the
inhabitants like a valiant man." Falstaff could not proclaim his own
prowess, in more bombastic style. "I am a rogue, if I were not at
half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together. I have 'scaped by
miracle: I am eight times thrust through the doublet; four through the
hose; my buckler cut through and through; my sword hacked like a handsaw.
I never dealt better since I was a man." Now let the Assyrian resume his
parable: "And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the people; and
as one gathereth eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth; and
there was none that moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or peeped."
Falstaff will match him again: "There is not a dangerous action can peep
out his head, but I am thrust upon it. Well, I can not last for ever; but
it was always yet the trick of our English nation, if they have a good
thing, to make it too common. * * * I would to God my name were not so
terrible to the enemy as it is!"

The prophet, after allowing the Assyrian to sound his brazen trumpet,
turns upon him, and sarcastically reminds him that he is simply a tool, a
rod, a staff, in the hands of the Lord, and that he has of himself
accomplished nothing: "_Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth
therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?_
as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if
the staff should lift itself up as if it were no wood!"

_The King of Babylon._

One of the most powerful passages of invective in any literature is that
in which Isaiah pictures the fall of the King of Babylon.

He begins--"How hath the oppressor ceased!" Then he sets forth the joy of
the earth itself over the discomfiture of him who "smote the people in
wrath with a continual stroke." All creation is glad. "The whole earth is
at rest and is quiet; they break forth into singing. Yea, the fir-trees
rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid
down, no feller is come up against us." This is the state of things on

There is commotion in the lower world, there is mockery of the humiliated
monarch as he descends among the shades. "Hell from beneath is moved for
thee to meet thee at thy coming; it stirreth up the dead for thee, even
all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all
the kings of the nations."

The shadowy, ghostly company gather about the fallen potentate and taunt
him: "Art thou also become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us? Thy
pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols; the worm is
spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from
heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground
which did weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will
ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will
be like the Most High! Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the
sides of the pit. They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee and
consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble,
that did shake kingdoms, that made the world as a wilderness, and
destroyed the cities thereof?"

Then the prophet concludes: "All the kings of the nations, even all of
them, lie in glory, every one in his own house. But thou art cast out of
thy grave like an abominable branch, and as the raiment of those that are
slain, thrust through with a sword, that go down to the stones of the pit,
as a carcass trodden under feet!"

It is truthfully remarked that "keen thrusts and tingling ironies will
rouse the slumbering, startle the stolid, shame the profligate, and set
the thoughtless to thinking. While it is true that ridicule is not the
test of truth, it is equally certain that it is only by ridicule that many
dull-witted and sin-steeped persons can be made to see and feel the truth.
It would be well for mankind in general, if all could be made to feel that
wickedness is as contemptible as it is hateful. There is a stupidity in
sin, a thick, rhinoceros skin of insensibility, which only the
feather-winged arrows of wit can pierce. Iniquity has a pachydermatous
hide, and can feel only when coals of fiery ridicule are laid upon its
back, and blown by the breath of laughter."


"If our Savior himself never laughed, it is difficult to believe that the
bystanders did not laugh, or at least smile, when he tore the mask from
the hypocritical pharisees who laid heavy burdens on men's shoulders which
they themselves would not move with their fingers, and devoured widows'
houses, even while for a pretence they made long prayers."--_Matthews._


    "Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith."--_Paul._

The writers of the Old Testament who used the glittering lances of wit
against the foes of truth and righteousness, had worthy successors in
evangelists and apostles, and in Jesus himself. These men were indignant
at hypocrisy and wrong-doing; they looked with scorn upon the swelling
pretensions of the religious leaders; they expostulated with affectionate
earnestness and severity with their own brethren who suffered themselves
to be led astray. Indignation is not necessarily wrong or unchristian. The
faculty of indignation is an essential part of human nature, and when
aroused against evil its operations are beneficent. It in no wise
diminishes the reverence we feel for Jesus, that he made a scourge of
cords and lashed the traders and money-changers from the temple!

Ruskin says, "There is no black horse in the chariot of the soul. One of
the driver's worst faults is starving his horses; another is not breaking
them early enough; but they are all good. Take, for example, one usually
thought of as wholly evil--that of anger, leading to vengeance. I believe
it to be quite one of the crowning wickednesses of this age, that we have
starved and chilled our faculty of indignation, and neither desire nor
dare to punish crimes justly."

This faculty of righteous wrath when it takes shape in irony, ridicule,
sarcasm, invective, is the mightiest foe of vanity, hypocrisy, pretension,
corruption, and vice. By its sword do they perish. The teachers and
writers of New Testament times, did not disdain to use in their work every
instrument of power known to the human mind. From their own stand-point,
at least, they had many false notions and customs to combat; they had the
ignorant, prejudiced, officious and fault-finding to deal with; they were
harrassed by narrow and persistent opponents; they had to do battle at
every step. They might have exclaimed with a modern writer, "Let us be
thankful that we have in wit a power before which the pride of wealth, and
the insolence of office are abased; which can transfix bigotry and tyranny
with arrows of lightning; which can strike its object over thousands of
miles of space, across thousands of years of time; and which through its
sway over an universal weakness of man, is an everlasting instrument to
make the bad tremble and the foolish wince."

_The Choice of the Jews._

There is an excellent piece of quiet sarcasm in John's account of the
trial of Jesus. He first gives us Pilate's conclusion in these words: "And
when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews and saith: I find
no fault in him at all; but ye have a custom that I release unto you one
at the passover; will ye therefore that I release unto you the king of the
Jews?" Pilate is willing; he pronounces Jesus innocent; but the crowd
clamor and refuse. "Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but
Barabbas." John closes the account with an inoffensive looking sentence,
but one so full of bitter satire, that we can not help thinking of the
time when he wished to call down fire from heaven. Jesus is an innocent
man--so pronounced by the governor--but the Jews cry out for his blood.
They want Barabbas released. And who is Barabbas? Who is this popular
idol? Who is the man that the people prefer to Jesus the upright and
spotless? With a rapier-like thrust, John pierces the heart of that
iniquitous choice, "_Now Barabbas was a robber_." It is a stroke worthy
the "Son of thunder."

_The Weakness of Pilate._

But think not, O Pilate, that thou shalt escape. The same hand that cast
the first javelin, will also send one to pierce thy heart. In the next
chapter, John tells us how, up to a certain point, Pilate sought to
release Jesus. He was convinced of his innocence, and did not wish him put
to death. But there is a weak spot in Pilate's nature, and John points it
out with infallible precision. Pilate is not the man to stand for the
right at personal sacrifice. When his own interests are at stake, he will
permit injustice and cruel wrong to others. Why does he deliver Jesus to
the cross? John is determined that all the world shall know. "The Jews
cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Cæsar's friend;
whosoever maketh himself a king, speaketh against Cæsar." My lord Pilate
is not proof against this insinuation. He can not face the possibility of
losing his office. "_When Pilate, therefore, heard that saying, he brought
Jesus forth._ * * * Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be
crucified." John has stamped Pilate as a weak, vacillating and selfish
ruler; and his portrait, marked with these features, has been transmitted
to all ages.

_Paul and his Detractors._

Perhaps none of the great characters of New Testament times were so beset
by foes of all kinds as was Paul. He has himself assured us that he was
often in perils from his own countrymen, and in perils from false
brethren. He was denounced by priests and scribes, and opposed by upstarts
in the very churches he had founded. In replying to arguments and meeting
objections he sometimes showed his mastery of more than one form of
wit,--although the form he most frequently used was irony.

By many his preaching was characterized as "foolishness." There was
nothing in it to commend it to the Jews who "required a sign," or to the
Greeks, "who sought after wisdom." "Very well," is his reply, "foolish it
may be, but after all it has accomplished more than either Jew or Greek
has been able to do for the world. 'Where is the wise? Where is the
scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the
wisdom of this world?' What has it achieved? Where are its monuments? 'For
after that the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the
foolishness of (just such) preaching (as mine) to save them that believe.'
This foolishness has lifted men from vile and sinful lives into
righteousness and honor. Have your own way about it, O Greeks and Jews; I
will be accounted a fool if you will, and am willing to let my words be
stigmatized as folly; but you will find that 'God hath chosen the foolish
things of the world to confound the wise; God hath chosen the weak things
of the world to confound the things that are mighty; and base things of
the world, and things that are despised hath God chosen; yea, and things
that are not, to bring to nought things that are.' I accept the low
estimate you put upon me and my work, but I triumph over you and your
work, however exalted. Results shall determine. This is glorious folly!"

In writing to the Corinthians, he says of certain members of the church
who thought that in spiritual things they were superior to himself, "Now
some are puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to
you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, _not the speech of them
which are puffed up, but the power_."

To those thus puffed up, he addresses himself in the following ironical
strain: "Now ye are full, now ye are rich; ye have reigned as kings
without us; and I would that ye did reign, that we also might reign with
you. For I think that God has set forth us the apostles last. * * * We are
fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye
are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised."

He denounces certain teachers who were sowing the seeds of discord among
his churches, as "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming
themselves into apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is
transformed into an angel of light. Therefore, it is no great thing if his
ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end
shall be according to their works." Such teachers as these pronounced Paul
a fool and did everything to bring his work into contempt. "Very good,"
says Paul to the Corinthians, "receive me then as a fool," and then
proceeding, with his favorite irony, "For ye suffer fools gladly, _seeing
ye yourselves are wise_!"

How scathing is his rebuke to those who misrepresented his doctrine: "We
be slanderously reported, and some affirm that we say, Let us do evil
that good may come!--whose condemnation is just." This is his only answer
to evil tongues.

It is conceded by the best authorities that Paul did not write the Epistle
to the Hebrews, but there is a passage in that letter not unlike him,--the
rebuke to those who ought to be strong, manly and intelligent Christians,
but who have not yet gotten out of their swaddling clothes: "For when for
the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again
which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such
as have need of milk and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk
is unskillful in the word of righteousness; for he is but a babe. But
_strong meat belongeth to those that are of full age_, even those who by
reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."

Similar to this is Paul's treatment of the Corinthians when they were
divided in their allegiance, some claiming to belong to one teacher and
some to another. First Paul himself had been there and taught among them
in that broad and liberal spirit which always characterized him. He made
very little of forms and ceremonies, and very much of charity and
brotherhood. Then came Peter who was always more narrow than Paul, but
very intense. Paul was a broad river, Peter a mountain torrent. Peter
never completely freed himself from the bondage of the Jewish system, and
he insisted upon some of the things that Paul discarded. Soon a party was
formed. Some thought, no doubt, that Paul was too far away from the Jewish
creed, that he was not strict enough, that it was perhaps safer to take
Peter as a guide; so while some said, "I am of Paul," others said, "I am
of Cephas." Then came Apollos who is described as being "very eloquent."
When he stood up to speak, many said, "He beats both Paul and Peter; I am
of Apollos." So there were "envyings and strifes and divisions." Paul
ridicules the Corinthians for these childish quarrels, and says that he
must still speak to them as to "babes." "I have fed you with milk and not
with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, _neither yet now are
ye able_!"

_Examples from other Apostles._

The epistle of James that has furnished illustrations for some of the
preceding chapters, shall yield one for this, in its notice of a grave
abuse that existed in the early churches, and that has not entirely died
out of modern churches.

"My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of
glory, in respect of persons. For if there come into your assembly, a man
with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in
vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing,
and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place (Take this high-priced and
fashionable pew, where you can listen to the gospel in luxurious ease, and
at the same time dazzle the eyes of those in neighboring pews with the
latest fashions), but say to the poor, Stand thou here, or sit here under
my foot-stool (or go up in the gallery), are ye not then partial in
yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?"

Peter silences certain ones who complained of persecution, by saying, "If
ye are reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye (that is nothing to
complain of), but let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or
as an evil-doer, or as a busy-body in other men's matters (if any one of
you suffers in such a character, he deserves the lash)." In either case,
there is nothing to justify your outcry.

He also denounces certain ones who have forsaken the right way and gone
astray as "wells without water, clouds without rain that are carried of a
tempest." They "speak great swelling words of vanity, promising liberty
while they are themselves the slaves of corruption." And then he fastens
the reproach of their apostasy upon them with what Falstaff would call a
"most unsavory simile,"--"It is happened to them according to the true
proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again, and the sow that was
washed to her wallowing in the mire." Such are those who turn back to
error from the paths of truth.

In much the same strain does Jude write to the same class: "These are
spots in your feasts of charity; clouds without water, carried about of
the winds; trees whose fruit withereth without fruit, twice dead, plucked
up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame;
wandering stars to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever!"

John wrote to the Laodiceans: "I know thy works that thou art neither cold
nor hot; so then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I
will spew thee out of my mouth. Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with
goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched
and miserable and poor and blind and naked!"

The Laodiceans needed the familiar prayer of Burns:

    "O wad some power the giftie gie us,
      To see oursel's as ithers see us;
    It would frae mony a blunder free us,
      And foolish notion!"

They needed a look into the glass of Lao, which revealed the blemishes of
the soul, how fair soever the exterior.

_Christ's Use of Invective._

Even more severe than his apostles in his use of denunciation, was the
Great Master himself. In his controversies with the recognized religious
leaders of his day, he heaped coals of fire upon their claims and
teachings and practices.

"Ye leave the commandment of God and hold fast to the tradition of men,"
he says to the Scribes and Pharisees; and then adds, with terrible irony,
"Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your
tradition." Surely, when the commandments of God were placed side by side
with rabbinical glosses, they were in an extremely cruel position!

No passage of invective, in any literature, is more crushing than this:
"Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the
kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither
suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, Scribes and
Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte,
and when he is made, ye make him two-fold more the child of hell than
yourselves. * * * Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye
devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers; therefore ye
shall receive the greater damnation. * * * Woe unto you, Scribes and
Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and
platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Blind
Pharisees! cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that
the outside of them may be clean also! Woe unto you, Scribes and
Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers which,
indeed, appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men's bones
and all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men,
but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. * * * Woe unto you,
Scribes and Pharisees, for ye are as graves which appear not, and men walk
over them and are not aware of them."

But not only the leaders, but the people also, fall under his lash. "The
men of Nineveh shall rise up in judgment with this generation and shall
condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold a
greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the South shall rise up in the
judgment with this generation and shall condemn it; for she came from the
uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold a
greater than Solomon is here! When the unclean spirit is gone out of a
man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest and findeth none. Then he
saith, I will return to my house from whence I came out; and when he is
come, he findeth it empty, swept and garnished. Then goeth he and taketh
with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in
and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation!"

Upon another occasion, he upbraided the cities in which he had wrought and
preached. "Woe unto thee, Chorazin; woe unto thee Bethsaida; for if the
mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in
you, they had a great while ago repented sitting in sackcloth and ashes.
But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for
you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust
down to hell!"

Does it seem strange that such language should have come from the lips of
Jesus? Should we not rather have expected it from the stern Baptist, his
forerunner, who denounced the "brood of vipers" that came to his baptism?
Is it inconsistent with that spirit of love which we believe to have been
the distinguishing characteristic of Christ? But love is not mere
invertebral amiability or moon-faced complacency. By as much as love is
strong and true, by so much does it seek, at any cost and by any means, to
remove the faults and follies of its object. If the lash be needed, the
lash it will take. "He who has never experienced the affectionate
bitterness of love," says F. W. Robertson, "who has never known how
_earnest_ irony and passionate sarcasm may be the very language of love in
its deepest, saddest moods is utterly incapable of even judging this

       *       *       *       *       *

Here the writer's task ends. The subject may be capable of much more
elaborate treatment; it would be claiming too much to suppose that these
chapters exhaust it. The writer trusts, however, that he may have
suggested a line of study to others, as it was first suggested to him. The
poetry, the dramatic portions, the oratory of the Scriptures, are
unsurpassed. Viewed simply as a literary work, the Bible is the most
interesting in the whole realm of letters. It becomes increasingly
interesting, as its great human elements are recognized. Over history,
biography, and most serious discourse, play the soft gleams of healthful
humor and the lightning-like bolts of sarcasm and wit. The book touches
human nature at all points. The more we view it as "literature," the less
as "dogma," the firmer will become its hold upon the heart of man.

That these fragmentary studies may help some one to appreciate his Bible
better and enjoy it more, is the writer's wish. He may also express, in
closing, the hope that whoever has taken the trouble to read these pages
may have found them free from that which he disclaimed at the
outset--irreverence; as he believes them to be free from the other
extreme, superstition.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Wit and Humor of the Bible - A Literary Study" ***

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