Written by, Matthew Henry
Excerpts taken and adapted from,
“A Discourse on Meekness and Quietness of Spirit.”
Meekness, in the school of the philosophers,is a virtue consisting in an average between the extremes of rash excessive anger on the one hand, and a defect of anger on the other; a mean which Aristotle confesses it very hard exactly to gain.
There is MEEKNESS TOWARDS OUR BRETHREN, towards “all men.” Tit. 3:2. Meekness is especially conversant about the disposition of anger: not to entirely destroy and erase from the soul the holy indignation of which the Scriptures speak, for that were to quench a coal which sometimes there is occasion for, even at God’s altar, and to blunt the edge even of the spiritual weapons with which we are to carry on our spiritual warfare; but its office is to direct and govern this affection, that we may be angry and not sin. Eph. 4:26.
Meekness, in the school of Christ…
…is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Gal. 5:22, 23. It is a grace wrought by the Holy Spirit both as a sanctifier and as a comforter in the hearts of all true believers, teaching and enabling them at all times to keep their passions under the conduct and government of religion and right reason. I observe that it is worked in the hearts of all true believers, because, though there are some whose natural temper is unhappily sour and harsh, yet wherever there is true grace, there is a disposition to strive against, and strength in some measure to conquer such a disposition. And though in this, as in other graces, an absolute sinless perfection cannot be expected in this present state, yet we are to labor after it, and press towards it.
More particularly, the work and office of meekness is to enable us to prudently govern our own anger when at any time we are provoked, and to patiently bear the anger of others, that it may not provoke us. The former is its office especially in superiors, the latter in inferiors, and both in equals.
Meekness teaches us prudently to govern our own anger whenever anything occurs that is provoking.
As it is the work of temperance to moderate our natural appetites in things that are pleasing to sense, so it is the work of meekness to moderate our natural passions against those things that are displeasing to sense, and to guide and govern our resentments. Anger in the soul is like mettle in a horse, good if it is well-managed. Now meekness is the bridle, as wisdom is the hand that gives law to it, puts it into the right way, and keeps it in an even, steady, and regular pace; reducing it when it turns aside, preserving it in a due decorum, and restraining it and giving it restraint when at any time it grows headstrong and outrageous, and threatens mischief to ourselves or others. It must thus be held in, like the horse and mule, with bit and bridle, lest it break the hedge, run over those that stand in its way, or throw the rider himself headlong. It is true of anger, as we say of fire, that it is a good servant but a “bad master;” it is good on the hearth, but bad in the hangings. Meekness keeps it in its place, sets banks to this sea, and says, This far you shall come, and no further; here shall your proud waves stop.
1. To consider the circumstances of that which we perceive to be a provocation, so as at no time to express our displeasure except upon due mature deliberation. The office of meekness is to keep reason upon the throne in the soul as it ought to be; to preserve the understanding clear and unclouded, the judgment untainted and unbiased in the midst of the greatest provocations, so as to be able to set every thing in its true light, and to see it in its own color, and to determine accordingly; as also to keep silence in the court, that the “still small voice” in which the Lord is, as He was with Elijah at mount Horeb, may not be drowned by the noise of the tumult of the passions.
A meek man will never be angry at a child, at a servant, at a friend, until he has first seriously weighed the cause in just and even balances, while a steady and impartial hand holds the scales, and a free and unprejudiced thought judges it necessary. It is said of our Lord Jesus, John 11:33, He troubled Himself; which denotes it to be a considerate act, and what He saw reason for. Things go right in the soul, when no resentments are admitted into the affections but what have first undergone the scrutiny of the understanding, and thence received their pass. That passion which does not come in by this door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber, against which we should guard. In a time of war—and such a time it is in every sanctified soul, in a constant war between grace and corruption—due care must be taken to examine all travelers, especially those that come armed: where they came from, where they go, whom they are for, and what they would have. Thus should it be in the well-governed, well-disciplined soul. Let meekness stand sentinel; and upon the advance of a provocation, let us examine who it is that we are about to be angry with, and for what. What are the merits of the cause; where does the offense lie; what was the nature and tendency of it? What are likely to be the consequences of our resentments; and what harm will it be if we stifle them, and let them go no further? Such as these are the questions which meekness would put to the soul; and in answer to them it would remove all which passion is apt to suggest, and hear reason only as it becomes rational creatures to do.
Three great dictates of meekness we find put together in one scripture: “Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath;” which some observe to be couched in three proper names of Ishmael’s sons, Gen. 25:14; 1 Chr. 1:30—which Bishop Prideaux, in the beginning of the wars, recommended to a gentleman that had been his pupil, as the summary of his advice—Mishma, Dumah, Massa; the signification of which is, hear, keep silence, bear. Hear reason, keep passion silent, and then you will not find it difficult to bear the provocation.
We read of the “meekness of wisdom;” for where there is not wisdom—that wisdom which is profitable to direct, that wisdom of the prudent which is to understand his way—meekness will not long be preserved. It is our rashness and inconsideration that betray us to all the mischiefs of an ungoverned passion, on the neck of which the reins are laid which should be kept in the hand of reason, and so we are hurried upon a thousand precipices. Nehemiah is a remarkable instance of prudence presiding in just resentments: he owns, “I was very angry when I heard their cry;” but that anger did not at all transgress the laws of meekness, for it follows, “then I consulted with myself,” or as the Hebrew has it, my heart consulted in me. Before he expressed his displeasure he retired into his own bosom, took time for sober thought upon the case, and then he rebuked the nobles in a very solid, rational discourse, and the success was good. In every cause when passion demands immediate judgment, meekness moves for further time, and will have the matter fairly argued, and counsel heard on both sides.
When Job had any quarrel with his servants, he was willing to admit a rational debate of the matter, and to hear what they had to say for themselves; for he says, “What shall I do when God rises up?” And withal, “Did not He that made me in the womb, make him?” When our hearts are at any time hot within us, we should do well to put that question to ourselves which God put to Cain, Gen. 4:6. Why am I angry? Why am I angry at all? Why so soon angry? Why so very angry? Why so far transported and dispossessed of myself by my anger? What reason is there for all this? Do I well to be angry for a gourd, that came up in a night and perished in a night? Jonah 4:9. Should I be touched to the quick by such a sudden and transient provocation? Will not my cooler thoughts correct these hasty resentments, and therefore were it not better to check them now? Such are the reasonings of the meekness of wisdom.
The work of meekness is to calm the spirit, so as that the inward peace may not be disturbed by any outward provocation.
No doubt a man may express his displeasure against the miscarriages of another, as much as at any time there is occasion for, without suffering his resentments to recoil upon himself, and throw his own soul into a fury. What need is there for a man to tear himself—his soul, as it is in the Hebrew—in his anger? Job 18:4. Cannot we charge home upon our enemy camp without the willful disordering of our own troops? Surely we may, if meekness has the command; for that is a grace which keeps a man master of himself while he contends to be master of another, and fortifies the heart against the assaults of provocation that do us no great harm while they do not rob us of our peace, nor disturb the rest of our souls. As patience in case of sorrow, so meekness in case of anger keeps possession of the soul, as the expression is in Luke 21:19, that we be not dispossessed of that freehold. The drift of Christ’s farewell sermon to his disciples we have in the first words of it, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” John 14:1. It is the duty and interest of all good people, whatever happens, to keep trouble from their hearts, and to have them even and sedate, though the eye, as Job expresses it, should “continue” unavoidably “in the provocation” of this world. “The wicked”—the turbulent and unquiet, as the world primarily signifies—”are like the troubled sea when it cannot rest;” but that peace of God which passes all understanding, keeps the hearts and minds of all the meek of the earth. Meekness preserves the mind from being ruffled and discomposed, and the spirit from being unhinged by the vanities and vexations of this lower world. It stills the noise of the sea, the noise of her waves, and the tumult of the soul; it permits not the passions to crowd out in a disorderly manner, like a confused, ungoverned rabble, but draws them out like the trained bands, every one in his own order, as wisdom and grace give the word of command.
Meekness will curb the tongue, and “keep the mouth as with a bridle” when the heart is hot.
Even when there may be occasion for a keenness of expression, and we are called to rebuke sharply—cuttingly, Titus 1:13—yet meekness forbids all fury and indecency of language, and every thing that sounds like clamor and evil-speaking. The meekness of Moses was not at hand when he spoke that unadvised word “rebels,” for which he was shut out of Canaan, though rebels they were, and at that time very provoking. Men in a passion are apt to give reviling language, to call names, and those most senseless and ridiculous—to take the blessed name of God in vain, and so profane it. It is a wretched way by which the children of hell vent their passion at their beasts, their servants, any person, or any thing that provokes them, to swear at them. Men in a passion are apt to reveal secrets, to make rash vows and resolutions, which afterwards prove a snare, and sometimes to slander and belie their brethren, and bring railing accusations, and so do the devil’s work; and to speak that “in their haste” concerning others, Psalm 116:11, of which they afterwards see cause to repent. How brutishly did Saul in his passion call his own son, the heir-apparent to the crown, the “son of the perverse rebellious woman.” “Racca” and “you fool” are specified by our Savior as breaches of the law of the sixth commandment; and the passion in the heart is so far from excusing such opprobrious speeches—for which purpose it is commonly alleged—that really it is that which gives them their malignity: they are the smoke from that fire, the gall and wormwood springing from that root of bitterness; and if for “every idle word that men speak,” much more for such wicked words as these, must they give an account at the day of judgment. And as it is a reflection upon God to kill, so it is to curse men that are made after the image of God, though ever so much our inferiors; that is, to speak ill of them, or to wish ill to them. This is the disease which meekness prevents, and is in the tongue a “law of kindness.” It is to the tongue as the helm is to the ship, Jas. 3:4, not to silence it, but to guide it, to steer it wisely, especially when the wind is high. If at any time we have conceived passion and thought evil, meekness will lay the hand upon the mouth—as the wise man’s advice is, Prov. 30:32—to keep that evil thought from venting itself in any evil word reflecting upon God or our brother. It will reason a disputed point without noise, give a reproof without a reproach, convince a man of his folly without calling him a fool, will teach superiors either to forbear threatening, Eph. 6:9, or, as the margin reads it, to moderate it; and will look diligently lest any root of bitterness, springing up, trouble us, and thereby we and many others become defiled.
Meekness will cool the heat of passion quickly, and not allow it to continue.
As it keeps us from being soon angry, so it teaches us when we are angry to be soon pacified. The anger of a meek man is like fire struck out of steel—hard to get out; and when it is, soon gone. The wisdom that is from above, as it is “gentle,” and so not apt to provoke, so it is “easy to be entreated” when any provocation is given, and has the ear always open to the first proposals and overtures of satisfaction, submission, and reconciliation; and thus the anger is turned away. He that is of a meek spirit will be quick to forgive injuries and affronts, and has some excuse or other ready with which to extenuate and qualify the provocation, which an angry man, for the exasperating and justifying of his own resentments, will industriously aggravate. It is but to say, “There is no great harm done; or if there is, there was none intended; and peradventure it was an oversight;” and so the offense, being looked at through that end of the perspective which diminishes, is easily passed by, and the distemper being taken in time, goes off quickly, the fire is quenched before it gets head, and by a speedy intervention the plague is stopped. While the world is so full of the sparks of provocation, and there is so much tinder in the hearts of the best, no marvel if anger come sometimes into the bosom of a wise man; but it rests only in the bosom of fools. Eccl. 7:9. Angry thoughts as other vain thoughts may crowd into the heart upon a sudden surprise, but meekness will not suffer them to lodge there, nor let the sun go down upon the wrath, Eph. 4:26; for if it does, there is danger lest it rise bloody the next morning. Anger concocted becomes malice; it is the wisdom of meekness, by proper applications, to disperse the humor before it comes to a head. One would have thought, when David so deeply resented Nabal’s abuse, that nothing less than the blood of Nabal and all his house could have quenched his rage; but it was done at a cheaper rate; and he showed his meekness by yielding to the diversion that Abigail’s present and speech gave him, and that with satisfaction and thankfulness. He was not only soon pacified, but blessed her, and blessed God for her that pacified him. God does not contend forever, neither is He always angry; “His anger endures but a moment.” How unlike Him are those whose sword devours forever, and whose anger burns like the coals of juniper! But the grace of meekness, if it fail of keeping the peace of the soul from being broken, yet fails not to recover it presently, and make up the breach; and upon the least transport, brings help in time of need, restores the soul, puts it in frame again, and no great harm is done. Such as these are the achievements of meekness in governing our own anger.
Meekness teaches and enables us patiently to bear the anger of others, which property of meekness we have especially occasion for in reference to our superiors and equals. Commonly that which provokes anger is anger, as fire kindles fire; now meekness prevents that violent collision which forces out these sparks, and softens at least one side, and so puts a stop to a great deal of mischief; for it is the second blow that makes the quarrel. Our first concern should be to prevent the anger of others by giving no offense to any, but becoming all things to all men, everyone studying to please his neighbor for good to edification, Rom. 15:2, and endeavoring as much as lies in us to accommodate ourselves to the temper of all with whom we have to do, and to make ourselves acceptable and agreeable to them. How easy and comfortable should we make every relation and all our dealings if we were but better acquainted with this are of obliging. Naphtali’s tribe, that was famous for giving goodly words, Gen. 49:21, had the happiness of being satisfied with favor, Deut. 33:23; for “every man shall kiss his lips that gives a right answer.” In the conjugal relation it is taken for granted that the care of the husband is to please his wife, and the care of the wife is to please her husband, 1 Cor. 7:33, 34; and where there is that mutual care, enjoyment cannot be lacking. Some people love to be unkind, and take a pleasure in displeasing, and especially contrive to provoke those they find passionate and easily provoked, that—as he that gives his neighbor drink, and puts his bottle to him, Hab. 2:15, 16—they may look upon his shame, to which, in his passion, he exposes himself; and so they make a mock at sin, and become like the madman that casts firebrands, arrows, and death, and says, “Am not I in sport?” But the law of Christ forbids us to provoke one another, unless it is “to love and good works;” and enjoins us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” But because they must rise early who will please everybody, and carry their cup even indeed who will give no offense, our next concern must be to behave ourselves in such a way that when others are angry, that we may not make bad worse. And this is one principal thing in which the younger must submit themselves to the elder; no, in which all of us must be “subject one to another,” as our rule is in 1 Pet. 5:5. And here meekness is of use, either to enjoin silence or indite a soft answer.
To enjoin silence. It is prescribed to servants to please their masters well in all things, “not answering again,” for that is displeasing: better say nothing than say that which is provoking. When our hearts are hot within us, it is good for us to keep silence, and hold our peace: so David did; and when he did speak, it was in prayer to God, and not in reply to the wicked that were before him. If the heart is angry, angry words will inflame it the more, as wheels are heated by a rapid motion. One reflection and repartee begets another, and the beginning of the debate is like the letting forth of water, which is with difficulty stopped when the least breach is made in the bank; and therefore meekness says, “By all means keep silence, and leave it off before it is meddled with.” When a fire is begun, it is good, if possible, to smother it, and so prevent its spreading. Let us deal wisely, and stifle it in the birth, lest afterwards it prove too strong to be dealt with. Anger in the heart is like the books stowed in cellars in the conflagration of London, which, though they were extremely heated, never took fire until they took air many days after, which giving vent to the heat, put them into a flame. When the spirits are in a ferment, though it may be some present pain to check and suppress them, and the headstrong passions hardly admit the bridle, yet afterwards it will be no grief of heart to us.
Those who find themselves wronged and aggrieved, think they may have permission to speak; but it is better to be silent than to speak amiss, and make work for repentance. At such a time he that holds his tongue holds his peace; and if we soberly reflect, we shall find we have been often the worse for our speaking, but seldom the worse for our silence. This must be especially remembered and observed by as many as are under the yoke, who will certainly have most comfort in meekness and patience and silent submission, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. It is good in such cases to remember our place, and if the spirit of a ruler rise up against us, not to leave it, that is, not to do any thing unbecoming; for yielding pacifies great offenses. Eccl. 10:4. We have a common proverb that teaches us this: “When you are the hammer, knock your fill; but when you are the anvil, lie still;” for it is the posture you are cut out for, and which best becomes you.
If others are angry with us without cause, and we have ever so much reason on our side, yet often it is best to delay our own vindication, though we think it necessary, until the passion is over; for there is nothing said or done in passion, but it may be better said and better done afterwards. When we are calm, we shall be likely to say it and do it in a better manner; and when our brother is calm, we shall be likely to say it and do it to a better purpose. A needful truth spoken in anger may do more hurt than good, and offend rather than satisfy. The prophet himself forbore even a message from God when he saw Amaziah in a passion. Sometimes it may be advisable to get some one else to say that for us which is to be said, rather than say it ourselves. However, we have a righteous God, to whom, if in a meek silence we allow ourselves to be injured, we may commit our cause, and having his promise that He will “bring forth our righteousness as the light, and our judgment as the noonday,” we had better leave it in His hands than undertake to manage it ourselves, lest that which we call clearing ourselves, God should call quarreling with our brethren. David was greatly provoked by those that sought his hurt, and spoke mischievous things against him; and yet says he, “I, as a deaf man, heard not; I was as a dumb man, that opens not his mouth.” And why so? It was not because he had nothing to say, or knew not how to say it, but because “in You, O Lord, do I hope: You will hear, O Lord my God.” If God hear, what need have I to hear? His concerning Himself in the matter supersedes ours, and He is not only engaged in justice to own every righteous cause that is injured, but He is further engaged in honor to appear for those who, in obedience to the law of meekness, commit their cause to Him. If any vindication or avenging is necessary—which infinite Wisdom is the best judge of—He can do it better than we can; therefore “give place unto wrath,” that is, to the judgment of God, which is according to truth and equity; make room for Him to take the seat, and do not step in before Him. It is fit that our wrath should stand by to give way to his, for the wrath of man engages not the righteousness of God for him. Even just appeals made to Him, if they are made in passion, are not admitted into the court of heaven, being not duly presented; that one thing, error, is sufficient to overrule them. Let not therefore those that do well and suffer for it, spoil their own vindication by mistiming and mismanaging it; but tread in the steps of the Lord Jesus, who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but was as a lamb dumb before the shearers, and so committed Himself to Him that judges righteously. It is indeed a principal part of self-denial to be silent when we have enough to say, and provocation to say it; but if we do thus control our tongues out of a pure regard to peace and love, it will turn to a good account, and will be an evidence for us that we are Christ’s disciples, having learned to deny ourselves. It is better by silence to yield to our brother who is, or has been, or may be our friend, than by angry speaking to yield to the devil, who has been, and is, and ever will be our sworn enemy.
To give a soft answer. This Solomon commends as a proper expedient to turn away wrath, while grievous words do but stir up anger. When any speak angrily to us, we must pause a while and study an answer, which, both for the matter and manner of it, may be mild and gentle. This brings water, while peevishness and provocation would but bring oil to the flame. Thus is death and life in the power of the tongue; it is either healing or killing, an antidote or a poison, according as it is used. When the waves of the sea beat on a rock, they batter and make a noise, but a soft sand receives them silently, and returns them without damage. A soft tongue is a wonderful specific, and has a very strange virtue in it. Solomon says, “It breaks the bone,” that is, it qualifies those that were provoked, and makes them pliable; it “heaps coals of fire upon the head” of an enemy, not to burn him, but to melt him. “Hard words,” we say, “break no bones;” but it seems soft ones do, and yet do no harm, as they calm an angry spirit and prevent its progress. A stone that falls on a wool-pack rests there, and rebounds not to do any further mischief; such is a meek answer to an angry question.
The good effects of a soft answer, and the bad consequences of a peevish one, are observable in the stories of Gideon and Jephthah: both of them, in the day of their triumphs over the enemies of Israel, were quarreled with by the Ephraimites, when the danger was past and the victory won, because they had not been called upon to engage in the battle. Gideon pacified them with a soft answer: “What have I done now in comparison to you?” magnifying their achievements and lessening his own, speaking honorably of them and meanly of himself: “Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer?” In which reply it is hard to say whether there was more of wit or wisdom; and the effect was very good: the Ephraimites were pleased, their anger turned away, a civil war prevented, and nobody could think the worse of Gideon for his mildness and self-denial. On the contrary, he won more true honor by his victory over his own passion, than he did by his victory over all the host of Midian; for he that has rule over his own spirit is better than the mighty. The angel of the Lord has pronounced him a “mighty man of valor;” and this his tame submission did not at all derogate from that part of his character. But Jephthah, who by many instances appears to be a man of a rough and hasty spirit, though enrolled among the eminent believers, Heb. 11:32—for all good people are not alike happy in their temper—when the Ephraimites in like manner quarrel with him, rallies them, rebukes them for their cowardice, boasts of his own courage, and challenges them to make good their cause. Judg. 12:2. They retort a scurrilous reflection upon Jephthah’s country, as it is usual with passion to taunt and jeer: “You Gileadites are fugitives.” From words they go to blows, and so great a matter does this little fire kindle, that there goes no less to quench the flame than the blood of forty-two thousand Ephraimites. All which had been happily prevented, if Jephthah had had but half as much meekness in his heart as he had reason on his side.
A soft answer is the dictate and dialect of that wisdom which is from above, which is peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated; and to recommend it to us, we have the pattern of good men, as that of Jacob’s conduct to Esau. Though none is so hard to be won as a brother offended, yet, as he had prevailed with God by faith and prayer, so he prevailed with his brother by meekness and humility. We have also the pattern of angels, who, even when a rebuke was needful, dared not turn it into a railing accusation, dared not give any reviling language, not to the devil himself, but referred the matter to God: “The Lord rebuke you;” as that passage in Jude 9 is commonly understood. More so, we have the pattern of a good God, who, though He could plead against us with His great power, yet gives soft answers: witness His dealing with Cain when he was wroth and his countenance fallen, reasoning the case with him: “Why are you angry? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” With Jonah likewise when he was so discontented: “Is it right for you to be angry?” This is represented, in the parable of the prodigal son, by the conduct of the father towards the elder brother, who was so angry that he would not come in. The father did not say, “Let him stay out then;” but he came himself and entreated him, when he might have interposed his authority and commanded him, saying, “Son, you are ever with me.” When a passionate contest is begun, there is a plague broke out: the meek man, like Aaron, takes his censer with the incense of a soft answer, steps in seasonably, and stays it.
This soft answer, in case we have committed a fault, though perhaps not culpable to the degree that we are charged with, must be penitent, humble, and submissive; and we must be ready to acknowledge our error, and not stand in it, or insist upon our own vindication; but rather aggravate than excuse it, rather condemn than justify ourselves.
It will be a good evidence of our repentance towards God, to humble ourselves to our brethren whom we have offended, as it will be also a good evidence of our being forgiven of God, if we are ready to forgive those that have offended us; and such yielding pacifies great offenses. Meekness teaches us, as often as we trespass against our brother, to “turn again and say, I repent.” An acknowledgment, in case of a willful affront, is perhaps as necessary to pardon, as, we commonly say, restitution is in case of wrong.