"And round about they dug a trench full deep,
And wide and large, and round it fixed their stakes."
--Homer, Iliad, vii. 441.
A sharp-pointed stake of this kind was often used as a means of torture in the punishment known as impaling, and the two Greek words for "impaling" and "crucifying" were indeed almost interchangeable (Herod. i. 128; ix. 18). So in Euripides (Iphig. in Tauris. 1430)--
"Say, shall we hurl them down from lofty rock,
Or fix their bodies on the stake?"
It is significant that men like Celsus and Lucian, writing against the faith of Christians, used the term "stake" instead of "cross," as more ignominious, and spoke of Jesus as having been "impaled" instead of "crucified" (Origen, c. Cels. ii.; Lucian, De morte Peregr., p. 762). So Chrysostom used the word "impaled" of St. Peter's crucifixion. On the other hand, medical writers, such as Dioscorides and Artemidorus, by whose use of the word, as possibly coming to him through St. Luke, St. Paul was likely to be influenced, apply the term to what we call a "splinter" getting into the flesh and causing acute inflammation (Diosc. ii. 29; iv. 176). Dioscorides, it may be noted, was a native of Anazarba in Cilicia, and probably a contemporary of St. Paul's. The word used figuratively, therefore, comes to bring with it the sense of some acute form of suffering, something, to use a word of like history and significance, excruciating in its character. So used, it might, as far as the word itself is concerned, be applied to any sharp agony, either of mind or body.
The history of the interpretations which have been given to this mysterious term is not without interest as a psychological study. Men have clearly been influenced, to a large extent, by their subjective tendencies. They have measured the sufferings of St. Paul by their own experience, and thinking that he must have felt as they felt, have seen in his "thorn in the flesh" that which they felt to be their own sharpest trial. Some of these conjectures may be dismissed very briefly. It cannot be, as some have thought, the remembrance of his own guilt in persecuting the disciples of Christ, for that would not have been described as a "thorn in the flesh" nor could he well have prayed that it should depart from him. For a like reason, it could not have been, as some Protestant commentators have imagined, any doubt as to the certainty of his own salvation, or of his being included in God's pardoning love. We may safely set aside, again, the view that he refers to his struggle with heathen enemies, like Demetrius, or Judaising rivals, for these had been included in his list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:22-23, and here he is clearly speaking of something generically new. There remain two hypotheses. (1) That he speaks of the conflict with sensual passion; and (2), that he refers to some chronic infirmity of body that brought with it constantly recurring attacks of acute pain. For each of these a strong case may be made out. In favour of (1) it may be urged that the language of St. Paul in not a few places implies the existence of such a struggle with temptation. He sees a law in his members warring against the law of his mind (Romans 7:23). Sin wrought in him all manner of concupiscence (Romans 7:8). He found it necessary to keep under his body, and bring it into subjection (1 Corinthians 9:27). What has been said as to the question, "Who is offended, and I burn not?" suggests a special sympathy with that form of struggle against evil; and in the "fire-tipt darts of the wicked one" of Ephesians 6:16 (where we have the participle of the same verb), we may, perhaps, trace an allusive reference to impulses of this nature. It is clear that with some temperaments temptations such as this, besides the moral pain which they bring with them, may inflict a bodily suffering little less than excruciating, and the words that speak of the "flesh" as the seat of suffering, and of its being a "messenger of Satan," at least fall in with the view thus presented. Nor is it enough to say, on the other hand, that St. Paul's character made such temptations impossible. The long line of patristic, and mediaeval, and modern Romish interpreters who have taken this view, though of little weight as an authority, is, at least, evidence that they knew the bitterness of such temptations, and though their thoughts may have been coloured by the experiences of the monastic life and enforced celibacy, as in the story of the temptations of St. Antony, we may fairly read in their testimony the fact that sensual temptation may assail men who are aiming at a high ascetic standard of holiness. Experience seems, indeed, to show that the ecstatic temperament, with its high-wrought emotional excitement, is more than most others liable to the attacks of this form of evil. So the daily evening hymn of St. Ambrose includes the prayer, "ne polluantur corpora." So Augustine bewails the recurrence in dreams of the old sensuous temptations to which he had yielded in his youth (Confess. x. 30); and Jerome is not ashamed to tell the history of such temptations, alternating here also with ecstatic visions of divine glories, to the female friend whom he exhorts to persevere in her vow of chastity (Epist. ad Eustochium, c. 7). It may be added that this view falls in with the tone in which St. Paul approaches "the thorn in the flesh" as the crown of all his infirmities. No self-humiliation could go beyond this disclosure of what most men hide. As in the confessions of Augustine and Jerome, just referred to, the last veil is withdrawn, and men are told that the man who has had visions of God is one of like passions with themselves, subject, as they are, to the strongest temptations of his sensuous nature. As in the triumphs of the Emperors of Rome, a slave rode in the same chariot with the conqueror, and bade him ever and anon remember that he also was a man, so here there was a continual reminder that he too might become as others were. If there was any danger of being exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, nothing could more easily bring a man down from that ideal height than the consciousness that this was his besetting temptation.
On the other hand, there are some serious considerations that militate against this theory. There is no trace of any sins of this nature in any of St. Paul's retrospects (as in Acts 22:3; Acts 23:1; Acts 26:4; Philippians 3:4; Philippians 3:6) of his state before his conversion. His tone in Romans 7:25 is that of one who has fought and overcome in the struggle with "the flesh"; and it is clear from the whole context, that with St. Paul the "fleshly mind" does not necessarily involve sensual sin. The language of 1 Corinthians 7:7 ("I would that all men were even as I myself"), which is the nearest approach to a direct statement on the subject, is scarcely compatible with the thought that, instead of the calmness of habitual self-control, the man who so spoke was all along fighting against impulses which were so strong us to bring with them actual torment. It may be added, as almost decisive, that St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, would use language that they could understand, and that there is not a jot or tittle of evidence that the word for "thorn" was ever used by any Greek writer of the sting of sensuous impulse. It was not likely, indeed, that they, accustomed to a licentious indulgence in this matter, would see in such an impulse any cause of pain and anguish. If the Apostle had meant this it would have been necessary for him to express his meaning far more plainly. On the other hand, there is, as we have seen (Notes on 2 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 4:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:2-4), abundant evidence that St. Paul did suffer from some acute form of bodily disease. The very word "stake," or "thorn," or "splinter," would suggest to the Corinthian readers of the Epistle the idea of corporeal rather than mental suffering. The "large letter" of his signature (Galatians 6:11), the characteristic "steadfast gaze" (see Note on Acts 13:9), the wish of the Galatians, if it had been possible, to have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him (Galatians 4:15), all point to brows and eyes as being the seat of suffering. The very word to "buffet" (see Note on Matthew 26:67) suggests the same conclusion. Nor need we be surprised that this infirmity--neuralgia of the head and face, or inflammation of the eyes, perhaps, in some measure, the after consequences of the blindness at Damascus--should be described as "a messenger of Satan." That was, in fact, the dominant Jewish thought as to the causation of disease. The sores and boils of Job (Job 2:7), the spirit of infirmity of the woman whom Satan had bound (Luke xiii 16), St. Paul's own reference to Satan as hindering his journeys (1 Thessalonians 2:18), his delivering men to Satan for the destruction of their flesh and the salvation of their souls (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20), St. Peter's description of our Lord as healing all that are oppressed of the devil (Acts 10:38)--these are enough to prove, that while men referred special forms of suffering of mind and body, chiefly the former, to the agency of demons, they were prepared to recognise the agency of Satan in almost every form of bodily calamity.
On these grounds, then, it is believed the balance turns in favour of the latter of the two hypotheses. A more complete solution of the problem may, perhaps, be found in accepting it as, in some measure, supplemented by the former. I venture to think, however, that all or most of the facts urged on behalf of that view, may legitimately come under the words "lest I should be exalted above measure." The man who is so exalted is in danger of sensual passions. The ecstatic is on the border-land of the orgiastic. He needs a check of some kind. If this were so with St. Paul, as with Luther and Augustine (and the language of Romans 7:8 must be admitted to point to some past struggles), what more effective check could there be than the sharp pain of body, crucifying the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:24), with which we have seen reason to identify the "thorn" of which St. Paul speaks? One who thus lived as in "the body of this death" could thank God who, even in this way, gave him the victory over the law of sin (Romans 7:24). His sufferings were to him, as has been well pointed out by Dean Stanley (in a Note on this verse), what the mysterious agony that used at times to seize on Alfred in the midst of feast and revel, had been to the saintly and heroic king, a discipline working for his perfection.
through the abundance of the revelations; for he had not only one or two, or a few, but an abundance of them; and which, as everything does but grace, tended to lift up his mind, to stir up the pride of his heart, and to entertain too high and exalted thoughts of himself. Pride is naturally in every man's heart; converted persons are not without it; knowledge, gifts, and revelations are apt to puff up with spiritual pride, unless counterbalanced and over poised by the grace of God. This great apostle was not out of danger by them, for he was not already perfect; wherefore to prevent an excess of pride and vanity in him on account of them, he says,
there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me; many have been the thoughts and conjectures of men about what is here meant by the apostle. This ought to be allowed and taken for granted, that the thorn in the flesh, and the messenger of Satan, design one and the same thing; the former is a figurative expression, the latter a literal one, and explanative of the former. Some have thought that corporeal afflictions are here designed, which may be compared to thorns: see Hosea 2:6, and which are not joyous, but grievous to the flesh, and come not by chance, but are by divine appointment, and are designed and made use of, to hide pride from men; and sometimes, by divine permission, Satan has an hand in inflicting them, as in the case of Job: whilst such a general sense is kept to, it is not to be despised, without entering into the particular bodily disorder with which the apostle was afflicted, as some do; some saying it was the choleic, others the gout, others a pain in the ear, and others the headache; which latter it is said he was much troubled with; but these are mere conjectures: others think that the corruptions of nature are intended which in regenerate persons are left, as the Canaanites were in the land, to be "thorns" in the eyes and sides of the Israelites, Joshua 23:13. These, to be sure, were felt by the apostle, and were very grievous and humbling to him, and were no doubt sometimes stirred up by Satan, which made him complain bitterly, and groan earnestly; and it may be observed, to strengthen this sense, that it was usual with the Jews to call concupiscence, or the vitiosity of nature, Satan; for so they (a) often say, , "Satan, he is the evil imagination", or corruption of nature; and particularly they call the lust of uncleanness by this name; and it is said (b) of a young man of Israel, being tempted by a young woman of Midian, through the counsel of Balaam, that , "Satan burned in him", and he turned aside after her; and that the evil imagination is the old serpent; yea, they call this "the messenger of hell", a phrase very much like what is here used.
"R. Hona (c), as he was preaching to the children of men to take warning, said unto them, children, beware "of the messenger of hell"; but who is this? the evil imagination, or concupiscence, is that which is "the messenger of hell";''
and this sense is agreeable, provided the particular corruption the apostle was harassed with is not pretended to, as is by some, who pitch upon the lust of uncleanness, and spare not to mention the person by name, one Tecla, who, they say, travelled with him, and was a snare to him; but this is to do injury to the character of so holy an apostle, and to represent him as exposing himself to the false apostles, against whom he was guarding: others think that a variety of afflictions, reproaches, and persecutions, for Christ's sake and the Gospel, are here meant, which were as pricking briers and grieving thorns to him; see Ezekiel 28:24, and which were given and ordered by divine appointment for his good; this sense, 2 Corinthians 12:9, lead unto, and seem to confirm: others are of opinion that the temptations of Satan are designed, which, as they are called "fiery darts", which the archers of Satan, and his principalities and powers, shoot thick and fast at the saints, to their great annoyance; so may be here called, especially some very particular, eminent, and sore temptation, a "thorn in the flesh", very pungent, and giving a great deal of pain and uneasiness; others suppose that some particular emissary of Satan, either some one of the false apostles and teachers, who greatly opposed him, as Alexander the coppersmith, who did him much harm; or such an one as Hymenaeus or Philetus, that blasphemed and spoke evil of him; or some violent persecutor of him is intended. But, after all, I see not but that the devil himself may be meant; for, as before observed, the phrase "a thorn in the flesh" is metaphorical, and the other, a "messenger of Satan", is literal, and explains it; and the whole may be read thus, "there was given to me a thorn in the flesh", namely, "the angel Satan to buffet me"; so that Satan, who was once an angel of light, now of darkness, is the "thorn in the flesh"; and might be suffered to appear visibly to him from time to time, in a very terrible manner, and which was very grievous to be borne; he might by permission have great power over his body, as he had over Job's, to use it ill, to beat and buffet it; for this also may be taken literally: and he might likewise in other ways greatly distress him by stirring up the corruptions of his heart; by following him with his satanical injections, suggestions, and temptations; by raising violent persecutions, and instigating many of his emissaries against him; and this sense is the rather to be chosen, because it includes all others that have any show of truth. The Jews (d) sometimes make mention of the angel or messenger of Satan mocking at the righteous, and buffeting them; so God is by them said (e) to deliver Nebuchadnezzar , "to a messenger of Satan". This sore exercise befell the apostle for his good, to keep down the pride of his nature;
lest, adds he again,
I should be exalted above measure; for such ends and purposes does the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, deal with his people. The (f) Jews have a notion that this was one reason of God's tempting or trying Abraham with the sacrifice of his Son, to depress that pride that was likely to arise in him because of his greatness.
"This temptation (they say) was necessary at that time, because above, the grandeur of Abraham is declared how great it was before his enemies made peace with him; and Abimelech, king of the Philistines, and Phichol, the chief captain of his host, were obliged to enter into a covenant with him, and asked him to show favour to them, and to the land in which he sojourned; and perhaps hereby , "his heart was lifted up", in the ways of God; "and his eyes were lofty"; when he saw himself blessed with riches, and with children, and with grandeur and glory, as the glory of kings; wherefore God was "willing to try him": with a wall of iron, (this great difficulty) to see if there was any dross left in him.''
(a) T. Bab. Bava Bathra, fol. 16. 1. Tzeror Hammor, fol. 6. 2. 3. s. 3. 10. 4. 13. 3. 20. 2. 50. 3. 58. 3. 72. 4. 73. 2. 86. 1. 87. 2. 93. 1. 96. 1. 99. 4. 100. 4. 101. 42. 113. 1. & 133. 2. & 141. 3. &; 149. 2. & 152. 3. Raya Mehimna in Zohar in Lev. fol. 7. 2.((b) Bemidbar Rabba, sect. 20. fol. 229. 1.((c) Midrash Hannelam in Zohar in Gen. fol. 67. 4. (d) R. Eliezer Katon de Scientia Animae, l. 10. apud Gaffarell. Cod. Cabal. Misc. pic. Mirandal. Index p. 23. ad calcem Wolf. Heb. Bibliothec. (e) Shemot Rabba, sect. 20. fol. 105. 4. (f) Tzeror Hammor, fol. 22. 1.