Men Are Four
By S M Chen, posted Aug. 12, 2015
Author’s note: While this reminder may be unnecessary, any reference to the masculine in this piece is intended to be gender neutral and inclusive of the feminine.
Of the several advantages to having multiple older siblings, one was what I learned.
When I was quite young, my eldest brother came home one day and recited this Arabic apothegm:
Men Are Four
He who knows not, and knows not he knows not—he is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not, and knows he knows not—he is simple; teach him.
He who knows, and knows not he knows—he is asleep; waken him.
He who knows, and knows he knows—he is a wise man; follow him.
But we must be careful of knowledge, which sits somewhere between information and wisdom.
T. S. Eliot wrote these cautionary lines, in ‘The Rock”:
‘Where is the wisdom we lost in (the pursuit of) knowledge? Where is the knowledge we lost in (the pursuit of) information?’ [Parentheses and words contained therein are mine.]
How does the above aphorism relate to matters of ultimate concern?
I might paraphrase it thusly:
Men Are Four
He who is evil, and remains evil—he is a fool; shun him.
He who is evil, and becomes good—he has accepted grace; rejoice for him.
He who is good, and becomes evil—he has lost his way; pity him.
He who is good, and remains good—he is a wise man; follow him.
Holy Writ provides ample examples of each.
Cain, many if not most of the evil kings of Judah and Israel, almost the entire population of earth before the Great Deluge, most of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—these fit in the first category.
The last group is comparatively small. Enoch, Elijah and Moses fit here. Doubtless countless unnamed others, such as those resurrected at the time of Christ’s ascension from earth. And Christian martyrs, including most of the disciples of Jesus.
The third group is one about which I have some hesitation, for to generate a list (even small) requires a certain amount of judgment, something at which I am not accomplished. Begging your indulgence, I will proffer a few names.
Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, started off with great promise. Whether his later life will be ultimately considered good or evil, or somewhere in between, we are told that, due to his many wives and concubines, his allegiance to Yahweh weakened as he advanced in years.
Judas may well fall into this category, as may Ananias and Sapphira. And perhaps Gehazi, servant of Elisha. Uzzah, Achan, Korah, Dathan and Abiram? Who knows? Even Miriam and Aaron, at least for a time.
The group that interests me the most, however, is the second.
Virtue and its lack are more elusive than knowledge and ignorance. Knowledge, or at least information, once gained, is generally retained (for purposes of simplification, I deliberately omit the effect of aging and dementia).
Whereas the battle for men’s souls is incessant, and the pendulum may swing between positive and negative, light and darkness, good and evil daily, even moment by moment. And we choose constantly; make decisions about what to think, say, and do. And what goes on inside (our motives) counts for more than what is apparent on the outside (our actions).
Those who at one point chose something other than the Almighty (as did Lucifer, our first parents, and the vast majority of this planet’s denizens), but who, through grace, realized how fruitless it is to attempt to gratify self; it is those whose stories move me.
Joseph’s brothers, the thief on the cross, Mary Magdalene, the prodigal son, many with deathbed confessions/conversions. Rahab. Saul, who was to become Paul.
When I recently read the account of the life of Manasseh, despite having read it before, I was taken aback.
Here was the son of a good king, Hezekiah, who ascended the throne at age 12 and co-reigned for 10 years, at which time his father died. Manasseh lived in a time of prosperity and spiritual vitality. He had a godly father, who must have told him of the miraculous prolongation of his own life by 15 years in response to supplication.
Yet ‘he did evil in the sight of the Lord.’ More iniquitous was he than even surrounding heathen nations. His heinous acts are detailed in II Kings 21 and II Chronicles 33. Not only did he lead Judah in idolatry, he offered his own children as burnt sacrifices. One of the most wicked kings of Judah, he shed much innocent blood; it was likely he who was responsible for the death of the prophet Isaiah who, upon threats to his life, hid in the trunk of an oak tree, only to be discovered and subsequently sawn in half.
It would have been easy to understand God’s rejection of Manasseh. But, instead, He related to Manasseh in a manner similar to the way He interacts with us.
First, He spoke quietly. When Manasseh didn’t listen, God, with greater clarity and insistence, reminded Manasseh, through the prophets, of promises—of blessing if Manasseh obeyed, of judgment if he did not.
Manasseh was hard-headed. Willful, obstinate, and entrenched in wickedness.
So the Assyrians attacked Judah and took Manasseh captive. With a ring/hook in his nose and in chains, he went from the glory of king to the ignominy of prisoner within a short time period.
And it was there, in captivity, that he finally had an epiphany and besought the Lord.
His entreaties to the Almighty were heard.
A part of me wants to stop reading and protest, ‘But Manasseh rejected You. Time and again. Why would You listen to and succor him now?’
How much greater is God’s mercy than mine.
God did rescue Manasseh, and he was restored to his former position as king of Judah. And the latter part of his life, following his captivity and release, was exemplary. He undid much of the evil he had perpetrated during his earlier years of rule. (But he couldn’t undo some of it. The lives of his sacrificed children and Isaiah he couldn’t bring back).
He reigned for a total of 55 years—the longest recorded rule of any king of Israel or Judah.
The story of Manasseh gives me hope. And makes me more empathetic toward my fellow humans, each of whom has his own struggles.
I cannot but marvel at the forbearance, compassion, and grace of the One whose ways are past understanding and whose modus operandi has always been love.