By Pastor Glenn Pease
A neurologist was flattered when a patient in a mental hospital said to him, "We like you better than any other doctor we have ever had." "But why?" asked the doctor, with a smile, showing his delight. "Because," replied the inmate, "You are more like one of us." Sometimes flattery can be a flop. Even if it is sincere, it can come out wrong. Like the woman who said to her pastor, "That message was like water to a drowning man." He thought she meant it as a compliment, but he could never be sure. Flattery can be used to deceive people in so many ways that it usually has a negative meaning. The Jewish Talmud says, "A community where flattery prevails will end in exile."
Almost every reference to flattery in the Bible shows it to be a tool of evil. Paul wrote in I Thess. 2:5, "We never used words of flattery..." When Paul said he was all things to all men, he did not mean he was even a flatterer. Paul considered this to be deceitful and not an acceptable tool in evangelism. It could be so used, however, for we all like to think well of ourselves, and we are always delighted with anyone else who can perceive our good points. So we are all susceptible to flattery. Benjamin Franklin said,
A flatterer never seems absurd:
The flattered always takes his word.
In the realm of romance flattery is a dangerous weapon, for it is possible to so love the nice things that are said that one soon believes he, or she, loves the sayer of them. The sayer is even himself deceived, and many people get married, not because they love each other, but because they love themselves, and enjoy being told how wonderful they are. Flattery can be used to deliberately deceive for the sake of immoral gratification as well, and many a foolish girl lets sweet talk her life sour.
Shakespeare said, "You play the Spaniel and think with waging of your tongue to win me." A dogs waging tail is an honest expression of love, but a waging tongue of flattery is more often a tool of deceit. David portraying a society which is totally corrupt says in Psalms 12:2, "Everyone utters lies to his neighbor with flattering lips and a double heart they speak." Lying and flattery are like partners, as we see in Prov. 26:28, "A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin."
Groucho Marx was an expert as using flattery in a negative way. He was leaving a party he felt was exceedingly dull. He said to the hostess, "I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." Sometimes the truth does need to be told subtly. Samuel Johnson said to an author, after reading his book, "Your manuscript was both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." That is telling it like it is, and is not really a negative use of flattery. The person to be wary of is the person who agrees with everything you say and do. Such flattery will hinder, rather than help.
How can we reconcile the negatives of flattery with the positives of compliments and honest appreciation? If I tell a person they look sharp, am I guilty of flattery, and using my tongue for evil? If I see value, talents, and gifts in people, must I keep silent because of the danger of flattery? Definitely not. The Song of Solomon is filled with constant compliments coming from the mouths of lovers. They flatter each other, as most lovers do, as being the two most beautiful people on the planet. The complimentary language of lovers is essential to their love. Without beautiful words they would have a hard time expressing their love. Yet, they may use all the same words that are used by the flatterer. What is the difference?
The difference between good and evil in so many areas of life is in love. Love makes the difference. If I have the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I am sounding brass and a clanging symbol. All the evil of flattery is a matter of nice words without love. When hate and deceit speak, they may use the best words for their evil ends. Evil needs good words to get anywhere. The evil of flattery could not exist without the use of good words, and so evil uses the very vocabulary of love.
When love speaks, it looks for the best in everyone. It looks for a way of being constructive and encouraging. Jesus was a master at the art of complimenting. Instead of blasting sinners with words of condemnation, He said, "Go and sin no more," expressing confidence in their ability to do so. He even said to the Gentile Centurion, "A greater faith have I not seen in Israel." Jesus even complimented His enemies. He knew the Pharisees were good students of the law. He taught that what they said was good, even if they didn't follow it, so He said to do what they say, but not what they do. He complimented sinners by eating with them, and He did the same with the Pharisees. Jesus could find good points in all people. Jesus was not opposed to any man, or any group, but only to the falsehoods that corrupted them.
A legend is told about Jesus walking through the gates of Jerusalem. He saw a crowd gathered around a dead dog. The Scribes passing by kicked it with contempt, but Jesus stopped and said, "Behold the pearly whiteness of its teeth." Jesus could find something to compliment even in a dead dog. The reason He could is because He loved all men, and all creatures. Love makes the difference.
Lust, however, uses the same words. In Prov. 7:21-22 we read of how the harlot ensnares a man. "With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter..." We see that smooth talkers can be female as well as male. When words are an expression of true feeling, they are beautiful and positive. When they are used as a method of getting our own way, they are negative and ugly.
Someone said there is really nothing remarkable about love at first sight. It is after people have looked at each other for years that love is really remarkable. True love goes on giving appreciation of the one loved. Therefore, compliments and praise are a perpetual aspect of the lover's language. When lovers cease to compliment one another, they are losing their admiration, and taking each other for granted. Healthy love never stops singing the praises of the lover.
In the Song Of Solomon we have a song of lover's praise. The Shepherd and Shepherdess are constantly complimenting one another on their beauty. We also have the flattery of King Solomon, however, who tries by sweet talk to persuade the Shulemite girl to forsake her lover and become his.
In verses 9-11, many feel we have an example of the kings flattery. It does differ from the language of the Shepherd lover. Solomon's flattery revolves around the externals and deals with the man made adornments of beauty. Solomon compares her to a mare of Pharaoh's chariots, and speaks much of jewelry. The compliments of the Shepherd and the Shepherdess to each other all revolve around natural beauty. The contrast is between the beauty of the kings palace, and all the man made objects, and the beauty of nature so precious to these two country lovers.
These two have no love for the adornments of the city. Their hearts are filled with the pleasant realities of God's creation. In verse 12 she tells of the context she is in: The king is on his couch. A couch of fancy gold embroidery, no doubt, but she dreams only of the green grass of the field, so precious to the sheep, and so beautiful for the Shepherd lover, who rests on it under the shade of a tree. The couch is green for them, and not gold, like that of the palace. It is green and natural, and to them this is far superior. In verse 16 the Shulamite girl says to her lover, "Our couch is green." In verse 17 she says, "The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters are pine." Again, she imagines looking up from the grass at the trees around them, and she longs for that kind of roof over her head, rather than the fancy roof of Solomon's palace. God's natural roof was her delight.
The contrast in this song between the natural and the manufactured is one that men struggle with constantly. It is always a danger for men to become so enamored with the products of their own cleverness that they live in an artificial world, and love only the handiwork of their own creation rather than that of the Author of all natural beauty. If we truly love Jesus Christ, we will love His handiwork, and enjoy with Him that which He has designed for our pleasure, as well as His own. Those who get so involved with the creations of man are allowing themselves to be flattered away from full devotion to the Creator. If a Christian gets so taken up with jewels, furs, clothes, and all of the externals of man's inventions, he will tend to let the internal beauty of the soul slide, and become a conformer to the world.
This was the temptation of the Shulamite girl, but she had no ear for the flattery of the world. She longed only for union with her true love. In 2:16 we see the theme of her song:
"My beloved is mine and I am his, he pastures his
flocks among the lilies." The poet puts it:
Yes, He is mine! And nought of earthly things,
Not all the charms of pleasure, wealth, or power,
The fame of heroes, or the pomp of kings,
Could tempt me to forgo His love an hour.
Go, worthless world, I cry, with all that's Thine!
Go, I my Savior's am, and He is mine.
This is the theme running through the whole song as we see love's compliments win out over enticing flattery. In verse 7 the Shulamite girl refers to her Shepherd as you whom my soul loves. She loves him internally and intensely, and her flame burns for Him alone, and that is why she so desperately longs to be out of the palace, and in His presence. To us it may not sound very romantic to forsake a palace for the environment of a flock of sheep, but true love desires the presence of the lover whatever the environment.
Our Shepherd lover is preparing a palace for His bride that where He is we may be also, but it is the person and not the place that is primary. The Shulamite girl dreamed of the flocks, tents, grassy fields, and open forest, because that is where her true love was. Where your treasure is there will your heart be also. Most girls would feel obligated to yield to the king in such a setting. He was offering her everything that wealth could buy. He tells her in verse 11, he will make her beautiful jewelry with gold studded with silver. It seems almost rude to turn down such an offer. What good is the grass and trees and flowers? They fade away, but jewels are lasting, and diamonds are supposedly a girl's best friend.
The Shulamite, however, chooses to be rude and sings nothing of the joys of jewelry. She has no praise for the palace, but longs only for her true love, the Shepherd. She does not indulge in any flattery of Solomon and his offer, but rejects it by rude neglect. Andre Maurois, the French writer who has much to say about love, says that a true lover must often be rude to be wise. He tells of a young man who was invited to an estate in Normandy, and the daughter of the house showed an obvious liking for him. He could tell that the parents hoped he would marry her, but he did not find her beautiful, and had no desire to be tied to her for life.
One evening as the stars were shining, and the apple blossoms were in bloom, he expressed a wish to take a moonlight stroll. "What a lovely idea," said the hostess, "Marie will go with you." He was half-trapped already, but as they walked though the orchard she stumbled, and instinctively he caught her. She was in his arms and their lips were close. "Ah," she said, "I always knew you loved me." To undeceive her he needed to be ruthlessly rude, but he could not. Their lips closed in the fatal kiss. When they went in they were engaged, and he spent the rest of his life with a woman he did not really love. Maurios says, when it comes to love, whenever you think it necessary, be savagely rude.
It is folly to become enamored with one you do not love. The Shulamite girl was too wise for that, and did not let the wealth and flattery of Solomon sway her from her true love. So the Christian must sometimes be rude to the appeals of the world. All that offers to win our love and loyalty is vanity of vanities. The world can be an enticing lover, but those who really love the Lord Jesus, and have set their affections on things above, will not be flattered into its arms.
What is the world with all its store?
'Tis but a bitter sweet;
When I attempt to pluck the rose,
A pricking thorn I meet.
Here perfect bliss can ne'er be found,
The honeys' mix'd with gall:
Midst changing scenes and dying friends,
Be Thou my all in all.
The Shulamite girl ignores the kings offer of precious jewels, and she sings the praises of her Shepherd lover in verse 13, and says, "A bundle of myrrh is my well beloved unto me." Myrrh was carried by women of the East in little bags on their bosom to perfume themselves. It made them feel good and smell fragrant. Right below their own nose they were ever conscious of its presence, and the Shulamite girl says that her Shepherd lover was just like her bag of myrrh to her. What a compliment: To be ever in the mind of your lover. Myrrh was a very precious perfume. It was one of the gifts given to Christ at His birth, and was symbolic of His own preciousness.
In verse 14 the Shulamite says her beloved is to her a cluster of camphire, or henna blossoms, as other versions have it. These were clusters of beautiful white and yellow flowers that women used to adorn their homes and their own persons. This girl paid her lover the highest compliment she could in the language of her culture. Her lover was everything pleasant and precious to her. Whenever we sing a song in which we praise God for what He is to us, we are joining the Shulamite girl and turning her solo into a chorus of spiritual flattery, which we call praise. Praise is positive because it is flattery from a heart of love. It is an expression of true feeling. Those who truly love Christ and feel loved by Him will be people of praise. You cannot love Christ and not praise Him.
C. C. Colton adds another perspective when he says, "Imitation is the sincerest flattery." If we truly feel that our Shepherd lover is the fairest of 10,000, we will strive to be like him, and imitate him. We will want the beauty of Jesus to be seen in us. It is only flattery if we sing of His glory, and then continue to walk in darkness. It is like saying to someone, "I just love your new suit," and then turning to another and saying, "I wouldn't be caught dead in that." What we really think is beautiful, we strive to imitate. True love for Christ does not just praise Him for what He is, it strives to become what He is. Lovers long to be alike. William Kirkpatrick put the true lovers desire in poetry, and it fits so well the conflict of the Shulamite girl.
Oh, to be like Thee! Blessed Redeemer,
This is my constant longing and prayer.
Gladly I'll forfeit all of earth's treasures,
Jesus, Thy perfect likeness to wear.
Oh, to be like Thee! Oh, to be like Thee!
Blessed Redeemer, pure as Thou art!
Come in Thy sweetness, come in Thy fullness,
Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart.
May God help each of us to resist the false, but subtle, flattery of the world, and to offer up to our wonderful Lord the true praise of love.