Amos Tutuola (1920 – 1997) was a largely self-taught Nigerian writer who became internationally praised for books based in part on Yoruba folktales, especially the phantasmagorical classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952). Welsh poet Dylan Thomas called the novel “thronged, grisly and bewitching,” bringing it even more attention. From the perspective of weird fiction aficionados the book is as amazing an accomplishment as anything in the canon, made unique by taking different cultural referents as its entry point into the weird. Writers like Jeffrey Ford have been huge admirers of Tutuola, Ford telling WFR:
I think that reading Tutuola, coming from a solely English language background makes the horror of something like Bush of Ghosts effectively lurid, just like I thought that Stoker’s language, all that theatrical melodrama, was effective as far as enhancing the horror in Dracula. This is just my own cockeyed theory, though. The Tutuola books were powerful experiences and also very liberating because you could see this guy who had grown up with these stories and he just cut loose with them. There’s undeniable energy to his work.
Geoff Wisner writes in a forthcoming book:
Steeped in Yoruba storytelling traditions but peppered with modern-day references, crowded with strange monsters and improbable events told with perfect sincerity, and enlivened with psychologically charged imagery that would make even a non-Freudian sit up and take notice, this tale violates dozens of grammatical rules and novelistic conventions yet provides in abundance the one indispensable quality of literature: it is alive.
We’re pleased to offer an excerpt from the novel here on WFR.com this week. I also was fortunate enough to be able to conduct a long, exclusive interview via email with Amos Tutuola’s son Yinka Tutuola, an engineer in Nigeria who represents the estate of Amos Tutuola…
Weirdfictionreview.com: What do you remember about your father growing up?
Yinka Tutuola: He was a very simple, humble and hard working gentleman. He loved his family, people and community. He was always interested in helping people. He was passionate.
But he was always busy writing his stories. Whenever he was not having visitors or doing some kind of domestic work, he would be at his table writing or typing till as late as two, even three in the morning. He was never tired of writing and typing.
Whenever he was on annual leave (before he retired from government work) he would travel to his village with an old Pye reel-to-reel tape recorder; we used to go with him if we are on holidays, and there he collected stories of all kinds. At nights in the village, he would buy palm wine to entertain his guests who would be competing to tell the best stories they could. He would record these stories still very late in the night. This is what he did every time he was on annual leave. He enjoyed being in the village so much. I think if he was not working with the government he would rather have preferred to live there among the village people – probably because of their simple ways of life.
But he used very few of these stories in his books, for he himself could develop a story from just about anything, any event. But he loved recording these stories anyway. When he returned from the village he would play them back to entertain himself and his visitors. His life was just intertwined with stories– collecting, forming, writing or telling them. I could remember when I was in primary school, I was busy with myself, but if he wanted to tell me a story and I was not in the mood for stories, he was very angry with me. This happened to almost everybody in the family. He was always looking for audience. Stories gave him so much joy that he lacked interest in many other things, like going to social parties; in fact I never saw my father dancing. He loved songs, but they are folk songs again, with stories in them. So everything about him is story, story and story. He would just look at you or an event and turn it into a story.
When reel-to-reel tape recorders got out of fashion and were replaced with more compact cassette recorders, there was a problem. He couldn’t transfer all his stories, for they were too many. He lost a great part of his collection. He was able to transfer only a few. He seemed to me to have lived two kinds of lives. While one was real, factual physical life, the other was fictional, folkloric and mythological. However, there was no doubt that it was the mythological one that gave him the greater joy.
WFR: Did he have a sense of humor? Was he an introvert or very outgoing? And did he give public readings? Do you remember those?
Tutuola: Anyone who had the opportunity of meeting him when he was alive would quite agree that he was far from been an introvert. He had a very good sense of humor. In fact ‘humor’ could be said to be his language or way of expression. He never liked being too serious about issues. He believed life should be handled with a sense of humor at all times; he believed this makes the challenges of life less intimidating and helps keep one better focused on what lines of action to take. At home and at work he was a man of humor. He taught, advised, entertained and corrected with humor. All his novels are written demonstrations and extensions of his sense of humor, for he saw and believed himself to be an entertainer (as a storyteller) rather than a writer. Actually it was for lack of audience at his workplace that made him turn to writing out the stories on paper. Humor was not peculiar to him alone; rather it is a Yoruba character –a way of talking, passing messages, teaching morals, warning, and so on.
I could well remember a time (many years ago) when he believed I spent too much on music and drinks. Instead of saying so directly, he asked me if I had any money with me right there and then. I told him I had and he asked me to bring out a note – any denomination. I brought one out and the next question was ”Who owns it?” To this I said “I, of course!” He asked me to prove it since my name was not on it. I didn’t know how to prove it, so I asked “Who owns it then?” He said “Nobody!” I knew then that he wanted to teach me something in his usual humorous way, so I asked him “Explain how money I brought out of my pocket isn’t mine!” After a rather long pause (he always liked being dramatic) he said “Know from today that money by itself is a long-winged bird that flies away whenever it wills, to wherever it wills; it is an illusion until it is spent on valuable things, and as such it only belongs to someone who ties it down by using it to get tangible, worthy assets having commercial value. Know that it is what you do with ‘money’ that is money!” I never forget the lesson!
But he was far more humorous with children and teenagers (they were his best friends and he had many, because they always listened with rapt attention) than older people. He was always happy telling them folktales, and giving them funny nicknames from stories. At times he would buy them refreshments. They loved him so much and always liked to be with him. Adults joined them at times to enjoy themselves, too. He was like a village-chief living in a city. He was always accessible and approachable.
But he was not outgoing that much – in the real sense of the word. In this regard he was kind of choosy. He disliked meetings that are strictly formal and with all kinds of rules, etc. He disliked being in places where you cannot express yourself the way you think is appropriate, especially when you need to dress formally, follow rigid protocols, like in board meetings, etc. This I believed was why he had academics as friends, for they care less about formalities. So he was always willing to attend their parties, lectures, discussions and so on. He seldom traveled, especially if it would mean spending days there. This was on many occasions not his will, for throughout his adult life he suffered from very severe duodenal ulcer and as such he lived on very special diets. For this reason he always avoided places where it would not be possible or convenient for him to get his kind of food. However, he accepted some local and foreign invitations, to give public readings, to lecture on Yoruba customs and traditions, to tell stories, and so on. He traveled to the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom. But he rejected more invitations than he accepted.
WFR: Do you remember reading his works when you were a child? If so, what did you think of it?
Tutuola: When I was in school we read both English and African literatures in English. I enjoyed reading all the books (both English, like “The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn” and the African, like “The Drummer Boy”, etc). But it was the African ones that I was able to identify with. However, my father’s books were unique, both to me and my friends who read them. Like in Alice in Wonderland, we were always trying to figure out the odyssey of the heroes in his books. We imagined ourselves facing the rigours, ordeals and dilemma the heroes faced. I enjoyed all my father’s books and I used to discuss them with him. I also asked questions. But as small as I was then I could easily pick on his grammar and at times I would make suggestions. Looking behind some years later I discovered that he preferred direct translation of the Yoruba words, thoughts and usage into English word-for-word, rather than using their English equivalents or expressing them the way an Englishman would do. This according to him added “flavor to my stories.” For example, the word ‘second’ (a unit of time) is expressed as ‘a twinkle of an eye’ by the Yoruba people and this is exactly how he used it in his books. There are many examples of words like this which many thought he coined or which they attributed to his ignorance of the rules of grammar, but these kinds of expressions are the real day-to-day Yoruba way of expressing such words, thoughts, or actions. Professor Ogundipe-Leslie noted this well when she pointed out that he “has simply and boldly (or perhaps innocently) carried across into his English prose the linguistic pattern and literary habits of his Yoruba language, using English words as counters. He is basically speaking Yoruba but using English words.” This, I think, is one of those things that made him unique among African writers. He believed folk stories, by all means, should be told choosing words that would ultimately express the original local meaning or thought, even at the expense of good grammar. This is where some went against him. But he stood his ground and many loved him for it.
WFR: Do you think Tutuola was surprised by the initial reaction to his work in England and elsewhere?
Tutuola: He was surprised quite alright! In fact to say surprised was an understatement. I think it is more appropriate to say he was shocked. It was a big, far dream that became a reality. He had always wanted to entertain as many people as possible, for as much as applause, and all of a sudden he got an unexpected and, perhaps at that time, unprecedented foreign attention, praise and pay from no less a country than the United Kingdom. It was a dream come true. He was more than surprised! And when he was published again in the United States…! But his joy was almost doused by some of his academic kinsmen from West Africa, from Nigeria in particular. They took it upon themselves to defend the English language more than the English and the Americans combined, and refused to see anything good in the efforts of a semi-illiterate writer (by Western standards) but an undeniable professional raconteur (by Yoruba standards). To them anything, everything, must be judged, evaluated, and recommended only if they passed Western tests and standards. And that was a time when they were fighting Western colonialism, imperialism, culture, influence, you name it, through the writings of their novels, poem, etc. These West Africans were surprised, too! But thanks to those who stood by him and encouraged him. Many at the University of Ibadan, and later Ife, being nearby (geographically), were always encouraging him to move on and write more. He was always invited to their campuses for storytelling, public readings, discussions and parties. But many others outside West Africa were encouraging too. In the United States people like Professor Bernth Lindfors and the late Professor Robert Wren were at the forefront, always in contact, while researching his works, and they criticised with encouragement.
WFR: Was his work known in Nigeria before it was published in England, and if so, how did the reaction to it differ?
Tutuola: His work was not known in Nigeria until The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published in 1952 in England by Faber and Faber. It was in England that he was first acknowledged and admired, for originality. However, knowledge of his work quickly (almost simultaneously) spread to Nigeria in particular, and Africa as a whole.
WFR: What are your thoughts about the claim that some of the positive early Western reactions to Tutuola’s work were, in a way, racist?
Tutuola: I absolutely disagree that there was any element of racism in either the publication or the positive reactions The Palm-Wine Drinkard enjoyed at any time. I believe we all like to read (at least, occasionally) something unique, odd, exotic or “… thronged, grisly and bewitching …” as Dylan Thomas described it in his review of the work in 1952 (the first ever, by anybody). I believe the Palm-Wine Drinkard only evoked the interest (no matter how curious) of the non-African literary world. The reactions were genuine. Otherwise, the work, immediately after publication, would have been trashed if the initial reactions were aimed to discriminate against African literary standards in any way, or to just ‘push’ the book into the market.
Apart, the work ought to have died out after the publications of many books written by many African (especially Nigerian) writers who are by now almost too numerous to mention by name. But, instead, it soared in sales and praise in Europe and the United States alongside later works by African intellectuals. In addition, it has been translated into (at least) twelve European and non-European languages. All these mean genuine interest and acceptance to me. So, I cannot see any racism in the positive reactions to The Palm-Wine Drinkard or later works by my father. Eldred Jones, in an article in the Bulletin of the Association for African Literature in English, 4(1966), 24 – 30, wrote “Many West Africans could not share the general enthusiasm because they feared that Tutuola’s language would be taken as being representative of West African English,and also because recognizing, as they no doubt did, the folk stories which Tutuola so grotesquely embroidered, they gave his imagination less credit than would someone who came fresh to these fantastic adventures.”
So, what the work suffered, initially, was what I will call academic intimidation or discrimination from some West Africans, especially Nigerians.
Some even believed the days for folktales were over. In this group of Nigerians was Adeagbo Akinjogbin (he was much later a professor of History, now late). He wrote from Durham to West Africa, a magazine (June 5, 1954 edition):
Most Englishmen, and perhaps Frenchmen, are pleased to believe all sorts of fantastic tales about Africa, a continent of which they are profoundly ignorant. The “extraordinary books” of Mr. Tutuola (which must undoubtedly contain some of the unbelievable things in our folklores) will just suit the temper of his European readers as they seem to confirm their concepts of Africa. No wonder then that they are being read not only in English, but in French as well. And once this harm (I call it harm) is done, it can hardly be undone again. Mr. Tutuola will get his money and his world-wide fame all right, but the sufferers will be the unfortunate ones who have cause to come to England or Europe. I am not being unduely anxious.
It is then clear that there were some people who preferred “our folklores” to be swept under the carpet of history. What kind of historian would like to keep the culture and tradition of his people hidden or unknown? Please note that Akinjogbin was not against the use of English in the book but the writing of “some of the unbelievable things in our folklores.” It is good to note, however, that most of these West Africans were not writers or teachers of literature. To such people who believed that the positive reactions to The Palm-Wine Drinkard (especially) and other books by Tutuola were European mockery of African literature, I think the history of the The Palm-Wine Drinkard (now sixty years old) has proved them wrong. In addition, Chinweizu and others have written in strong terms against such “eurocentric critics” of African literature:
The prejudice against the oral form manifests itself most strongly in the claim that whatever there was in the African narrative tradition has had a negative influence on the African novel by contaminating the African novel with the “deficiencies” of the oral medium. This prejudice is inculcated and employed by eurocentric critics to shore up the eminence and authority they would like permanently to confer upon European literature over the minds of Africans. The schema of their argument is as follows: oral is bad, written is good. African narrative is oral, therefore bad; European narrative is written, therefore good. If Africans desire to progress from bad to good they must ape European narrative. Furthermore, they must not allow their apery of European narrative to be marred by influences from African narrative which, being oral, is of course indelibly bad, or beyond redemption. As examples of what they consider characteristically faulty in oral narrative, these idolators of Europeana allege that African oral narratives have thin plots, thin narrative textures, and undeveloped characters. –Chinweizu,et al, Toward The Decolonization of African Literature, Vol. 1,1980. Fourth Dimension Publishers.
To conclude, I think it is appropriate here to quote Taban Lo Liyon in “Tutuola, son of Zinjanthropus” from Critical Perspectives on Amos Tutuola edited by Bernth Lindfors,Three Continents Press, 1975.
Now, in all that he has done, Amos Tutuola is not sui generis. Is he ungrammatical? Yes. But James Joyce is more ungrammatical than Tutuola. Ezekiel Mphahlele has often said and written that African writers are doing violence to English. Violence? Has Joyce not done more violence to the English Language? Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is written in seven dialects, he tells us. It is acknowledged a classic. We accept it, forget that it has no “grammar”, and go ahead to learn his ‘grammar’ and what he has to tell us. Let Tutuola write “no grammar” and the hyenas and jackals whine and growl. Let Gabriel Okara write a “no grammar” Okolo. They are mum. Why? Education drives out of the mind superstition, daydreaming, building of castles in the air, cultivation of yarns, and replaces them with a rational practical mind, almost devoid of imagination. Some of these minds having failed to write imaginative stories, turn to that aristocratic type of criticism which magnifies trivialities beyond their real size. They fail to touch other virtues in a work because they do not have the imagination to perceive these mysteries. Art is arbitrary. Anybody can begin his own style. Having begun it arbitrarily, if he persists to produce in that particular mode, he can enlarge and elevate it to something permanent, to something other artists will come to learn and copy, to something the critics will catch up with and appreciate.
WFR: How different is Tutuola’s reputation now in Nigeria in contrast to in the 1950s and 1960s?
Tutuola: Though in literary circles criticism of any particular work that is still relevant will never end, his reputation has clearly differs now to that of the period between 1950 and 1960 in terms of better understanding and placement of his works. Through calmer reassessments the virtues in these works are emerging and are being recognized and praised. Among people who later appraised or reappraised his works (particularly The Palm-Wine Drinkard) is Professor Wole Soyinka who wrote in ‘From a Common Backcloth: A Reassessment of the African Literary Image’, in The American Scholar, Vol. 32, N0. 3 (Summer 1963), p360:
Of all his novels, The Palm-Wine Drinkard remains his best and the least impeachable. This book, apart from the work of D.O. Fagunwa who writes in Yoruba, is the earliest instance of the new Nigerian writer gathering multifarious experience under, if you like, the two cultures, and exploiting them in one extravagant, confident whole.
Professor Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, in her own reassessment “The Palm-Wine Drinkard: A Reassessment of Amos Tutuola,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, N0. 9 (1970), p48-56, wrote:
What commands acclaim is Tutuola’s use of his materials, chosen from all and sundry, and minted to make something beautiful, new and undeniably his own. He has handled his material with all of the skill of the good story teller and he has been able to endow it with the qualities of a ‘well-told-tale’. His denigrators who think it devastating to name him a mere folktale-teller must realize that not all folktale-tellers are necessarily good. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Tutuola has infused the life of his hybrid with the energies of a well-wrought tale. There is the urgency in the telling, the rapidity, indispensable to the Quest-motif, with which life unrolls itself; the fertility of incidents; the successful maintenance of our interest through the varying scenes. And the good-story teller is ever present in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, speaking to us in warm human tones, genial, good-natured and unpretentious.
O.R. Dathorne in “Amos Tutuola: The Nightmare of the Tribe” (from Introduction to Nigerian Literature, edited by Bruce King, p66) also said:
Tutuola deserves to be considered seriously because his work represents an intentional attempt to fuse folklore with modern life. In this way he is unique, not only in Africa, where the sophisticated African writer is incapable of this tenuous and yet controlled connection, but in Europe as well, where this kind of writing is impossible.
J.P. Sartre, contrasting poetry in French by Frenchmen and Africans, had this to say:
It is almost impossible for our poets to realign themselves with popular tradition. Ten centuries of erudite poetry separate them from it. And, further, the folkloric inspiration is dried up: at most we could merely contrive a sterile facsimile.
The more Westernized African is placed in the same position. When he does introduce folklore into his writing it is more in the nature of a gloss; in Tutuola it is intrinsic.
WFR: With regard to The Palm-Wine Drinkard, how much influence is there from folktale, and how much is from Tutuola’s imagination?
Tutuola: With regard to The Palm-Wine Drinkard, to start with, there is nobody like the hero ‘the drinkard’ in the traditional folktales. This character is wholly his creation. Like the ‘drinkard’ he also created other characters, and it is in the lives and journey of these characters that the folktales always, straight or refashioned, manifest. Without the creation of the ‘drinkard’ and other characters there would be no central figures to ‘live’ the folktale-life. So, he weaved folktales into his imagination, or vice versa; and it is very difficult to separate Tutuola from the folktales, or to separate the folktales from Tutuola. Eustace Palmer said this much in The Growth of the African Novel (Heinemann, 1979): “Taking his stories direct from his people’s traditional lore, he uses his inexhaustible imagination and inventive power to embellish them, to add to them or alter them, and generally transform them into his own stories conveying his own image.”
Also, Alastair Niven, in an article “Obituary: Amos Tutuola” in the Independent (London) of June 16, 1997, wrote: “Tutuola was a born story-teller, taking traditional oral material and re-imagining it inimitably. In this way he was, though very different in method and craft, the Grimm or Perrault of Nigerian story-telling, refashioning old tales in a unique way which made them speak across cultures.” This is very true of all his works, not justThe Palm-Wine Drinkard. In his work, it is therefore very difficult to separate folktales from Tutuola, or to separate Tutuola from the folktales.
WFR: In what sense is there autobiography in Amos Tutuola’s fiction?
Tutuola: There is basically no autobiography in his works for they are mainly based on Yoruba folktales. Except to say that like the heroes in his works, he passed through many ordeals in life. His education and literary ordeals are well known, but there were personal ones like ulcer, which strongly deprived him of enjoying many kinds of food and drinks throughout his adult life. It was when he went for an award in Italy that his publishers took him to the hospital there and he was greatly relieved. Generally, he did not write himself into his books.
WFR: To what extent have Nigerian writers been influenced by Tutuola?
Tutuola: “Although his first book came off the press in 1952, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead’s Town continues to excite readers and inspire literary scholars today close to a half century later. The nine novels (counting The Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts) and two collections of short stories he published in the course of his controversial but commendable and courageous career place him among the most productive of African writers, and one can argue that, like the intrepid Ogun, he cleared the path for later literary stalwarts like Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, and Wole Soyinka.” – Professor Oyekan Owomoyela, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in “Amos Tutuola: A Man of His Times“
WFR: What do you think Tutuola’s legacy is — in Nigeria, in Africa more generally, and in the world?
Tutuola: “Amos Tutuola passed away in June of 1997 at the age of seventy-seven. Whatever else may be said about his work, it undeniably is part of the foundation of African writing– that part which is sunk most deeply in the substratum and psyche of African culture and imagination. However high and wide the African literary edifice grows, we’ll keep coming back to Tutuola, not just as an historically important entity, but as a necessary counterpoint to other developments. Tutuola has become, and as time passes, will continue to become, less exotic and more inevitable as a contributor to the realm of African lit/orature. While we mourn his death, let us celebrate the life of his writings.” –Robert Elliot Fox, “Tutuola and the Commitment to Tradition. (Amos Tutuola). Vol.29,Research in African Literature, 09-22-1998, pp203(6).
AMOS TUTUOLA: Selected Honors and Bibliography (provided by the estate)
Honours, Awards & Membership:
*Mbari Club – Co-founder.
*Visitig Research Fellow, University of Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Nigeria, 1979.
*Honorary Citizen of New Orleans (USA), 1983.
*Honorary Fellow of International Writing Program, University of Iowa, (USA), 1983.
*Winner of Grimzane and Cavour Award, Italy, 1989.
*Honorary Fellow of the Modern Language Association of America, (the third African ever to be granted this honor).
*Noble Patron of the Arts, Pan-African Writers Association, Ghana.
*Meridian Award, Odu Themes, Nigeria,1995.
*Special Fellowship Award, National League of Veteran Journalists, Nigeria, 1996.
– The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead’s Town, Faber, 1952, Grove, 1953.
– My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Grove, 1954,reprinted, Faber, 1978.
– Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle, Faber, 1955.
– The Brave African Huntress, Grove, 1958.
– The Feather Woman of the Jungle, Faber, 1962.
– Ajaiyi and His Inherited Poverty, Faber, 1967.
– (Contributor) –Winds of Change: Modern Short Stories from Black Africa, Longman, 1977.
– The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, Faber, 1981.
– The Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts (facsimile of manuscript), edited with an introduction and a postscript by Bernth Lindfors, Three Continents Press, 1982, second edition, 1989.
– (Compiler and translator) – Yoruba Folktales, Ibadan University Press, 1986.
– Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer, Faber, 1987.
– The Village Witch Doctor and Other stories, Faber, 1990.
– and many short stories
Christ’s Testimony Of John
We have here the high encomium which our Lord Jesus gave of John the Baptist; not only to revive his honour, but to revive his work. Some of Christ’s disciples might perhaps take occasion from the question John sent, to reflect upon him, as weak and wavering, and inconsistent with himself, to prevent which Christ gives him this character. Note, It is our duty to consult the reputation of our brethren, and not only to remove, but to obviate and prevent, jealousies and ill thoughts of them; and we must take all occasions, especially such as discover anything of infirmity, to speak well of those who are praiseworthy, and to give them that fruit of their hands. John the Baptist, when he was upon the stage, and Christ in privacy and retirement, bore testimony to Christ; and now that Christ appeared publicly, and John was under a cloud, he bore testimony to John. Note, They who have a confirmed interest themselves, should improve it for the helping of the credit and reputation of others, whose character claims it, but whose temper or present circumstances put them out of the way of it. This is giving honour to whom honour is due. John had abased himself to honour Christ (John 3:20,30; Matt 3:11), had made himself nothing, that Christ might be All, and now Christ dignifies him with this character. Note, They who humble themselves shall be exalted, and those that honour Christ he will honour; those that confess him before men, he will confess, and sometimes before men too, even in this world. John had now finished his testimony, and now Christ commends him. Note, Christ reserves honour for his servants when they have done their work, John 12:26.
Now concerning this commendation of John, observe,
I. That Christ spoke thus honourably of John, not in the hearing of John’s disciples, but as they departed, just after they were gone, Luke 7:24. He would not so much as seem to flatter John, nor have these praises of him reported to him. Note, Though we must be forward to give to all their due praise for their encouragement, yet we must avoid every thing that looks like flattery, or may be in danger of puffing them up. They who in other things are mortified to the world, yet cannot well bear their own praise. Pride is a corrupt humour, which we must not feed either in others or in ourselves.
II. That what Christ said concerning John, was intended not only for his praise, but for the people’s profit, to revive the remembrance of John’s ministry, which had been well attended, but which was now (as other such things used to be) strangely forgotten: they did for a season, and but for a season, rejoice in his light, John 5:35. “Now, consider, what went ye out into the wilderness to see? Put this question to yourselves.”
1. John preached in the wilderness, and thither people flocked in crowds to him, though in a remote place, and an inconvenient one. If teachers be removed into corners, it is better to go after them than to be without them. Now if his preaching was worth taking so much pains to hear it, surely it was worth taking some care to recollect it. The greater the difficulties we have broken through to hear the word, the more we are concerned to profit by it.
2. They went out to him to see him; rather to feed their eyes with the unusual appearance of his person, than to feed their souls with his wholesome instructions; rather for curiosity than for conscience. Note, Many that attend on the word come rather to see and be seen, than to learn and be taught, to have something to talk of, than to be made wise to salvation. Christ puts it to them, what went ye out to see? Note, They who attend on the word will be called to an account, what their intentions and what their improvements were. We think when the sermon is done, the care is over; no, then the greatest of the care begins. It will shortly be asked, “What business had you such a time at such an ordinance? What brought you thither? Was it custom or company, or was it a desire to honour God and get good? What have you brought thence? What knowledge, and grace, and comfort? What went you to see?” Note, When we go to read and hear the word, we should see that we aim right in what we do.
III. Let us see what the commendation of John was. They know not what answer to make to Christ’s question; well, says Christ, “I will tell you what a man John the Baptist was.”
1. “He was a firm, resolute man, and not a reed shaken with the wind; you have been so in your thoughts of him, but he was not so. He was not wavering in his principles, nor uneven in his conversation; but was remarkable for his steadiness and constant consistency with himself.” They who are weak as reeds will be shaken as reeds; but John was strong in spirit, Eph 4:14. When the wind of popular applause on the one hand blew fresh and fair, when the storm of Herod’s rage on the other hand grew fierce and blustering, John was still the same, the same in all weathers. The testimony he had borne to Christ was not the testimony of a reed, of a man who was of one mind to-day, and of another to-morrow; it was not a weather-cock testimony; no, his constancy in it is intimated (John 1:20); he confessed and denied not, but confessed, and stood to it afterwards, John 3:28. And therefore this question sent by his disciples was not to be construed into any suspicion of the truth of what he had formerly said: therefore the people flocked to him, because he was not as a reed. Note, There is nothing lost in the long run by an unshaken resolution to go on with our work, neither courting the smiles, nor fearing the frowns of men.
2. He was a self-denying man, and mortified to this world. “Was he a man clothed in soft raiment? If so, you would not have gone into the wilderness to see him, but to the court. You went to see one that had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; his mien and habit showed that he was dead to all the pomps of the world and the pleasures of sense; his clothing agreed with the wilderness he lived in, and the doctrine he preached there, that of repentance. Now you cannot think that he who was such a stranger to the pleasures of a court, should be brought to change his mind by the terrors of a prison, and now to question whether Jesus be the Messiah or not!” Note, they who have lived a life of mortification, are least likely to be driven off from their religion by persecution. He was not a man clothed in soft raiment; such there are, but they are in kings’ houses. Note, It becomes people in all their appearances to be consistent with their character and their situation. They who are preachers must not affect to look like courtiers; nor must they whose lot is cast in common dwellings, be ambitious of the soft clothing which they wear who are in kings’ houses. Prudence teaches us to be of a piece. John appeared rough and unpleasant, yet they flocked after him. Note, The remembrance of our former zeal in attending on the word of God, should quicken us to, and in, our present work: let it not be said that we have done and suffered so many things in vain, have run in vain and laboured in vain.
3. His greatest commendation of all was his office and ministry, which was more his honour than any personal endowments or qualifications could be; and therefore this is most enlarged upon in a full encomium.
(1.) He was a prophet, yea, and more than a prophet (v. 9); so he said of him who was the great Prophet, to whom all the prophets bear witness. John said of himself, he was not that prophet, that great prophet, the Messiah himself; and now Christ (a very competent Judge) says of him, that he was more than a prophet. He owned himself inferior to Christ, and Christ owned him superior to all other prophets. Observe, The forerunner of Christ was not a king, but a prophet, lest it should seem that the kingdom of the Messiah had been laid in earthly power; but his immediate forerunner was, as such, a transcendent prophet, more than an Old-Testament prophet; they all did virtuously, but John excelled them all; they saw Christ’s day at a distance, and their vision was yet for a great while to come; but John saw the day dawn, he saw the sun rise, and told the people of the Messiah, as one that stood among them. They spake of Christ, but he pointed to him; they said, A virgin shall conceive: he said, Behold the Lamb of God!
(2.) He was the same that was predicted to be Christ’s forerunner (v. 10); This is he of whom it is written. He was prophesied of by the other prophets, and therefore was greater than they. Malachi prophesied concerning John, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face. Herein some of Christ’s honour was put upon him, that the Old-Testament prophets spake and wrote of him; and this honour have all the saints, that their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. It was great preferment to John above all the prophets, that he was Christ’s harbinger. He was a messenger sent on a great errand; a messenger, one among a thousand, deriving his honour from his whose messenger he was: he is my messenger sent of God. His business was to prepare Christ’s way, to dispose people to receive the Saviour, by discovering to them their sin and misery, and their need of a Saviour. This he had said of himself (John 1:23) and now Christ said it of him; intending hereby not only to put an honour upon John’s ministry, but to revive people’s regard to it, as making way for the Messiah. Note, Much of the beauty of God’s dispensations lies in their mutual connection and coherence, and the reference they have one to another. That which advanced John above the Old-Testament prophets was, that he went immediately before Christ. Note, The nearer any are to Christ, the more truly honourable they are.
(3.) There was not a greater born of women than John the Baptist, v. 11. Christ knew how to value persons according to the degrees of their worth, and he prefers John before all that went before him, before all that were born of women by ordinary generation. Of all that God had raised up and called to any service in his church, John is the most eminent, even beyond Moses himself; for he began to preach the gospel doctrine of remission of sins to those who are truly penitent; and he had more signal revelations from heaven than any of them had; for he saw heaven opened, and the Holy Ghost descend. He also had great success in his ministry; almost the whole nation flocked to him: none rose on so great a design, or came on so noble an errand, as John did, or had such claims to a welcome reception. Many had been born of women that made a great figure in the world, but Christ prefers John before them. Note, Greatness is not to be measured by appearances and outward splendour, but they are the greatest men who are the greatest saints, and the greatest blessings, who are, as John was, great in the sight of the Lord, Luke 1:15.
Yet this high encomium of John has a surprising limitation, notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
[1.] In the kingdom of glory. John was a great and good man, but he was yet in a state of infirmity and imperfection, and therefore came short of glorified saints, and the spirits of just men made perfect. Note, First, There are degrees of glory in heaven, some that are less than others there; though every vessel is alike full, all are not alike large and capacious. Secondly, The least saint in heaven is greater, and knows more, and loves more, and does more in praising God, and receives more from him, than the greatest in this world. The saints on earth are excellent ones (Ps 16:3), but those in heaven are much more excellent; the best in this world are lower than the angels (Ps 8:5), the least there are equal with the angels, which should make us long for that blessed state, where the weak shall be as David, Zech 12:8.
[2.] By the kingdom of heaven here, is rather to be understood the kingdom of grace, the gospel dispensation in the perfection of its power and purity; and ho mikroteros – he that is less in that is greater than John. Some understand it of Christ himself, who was younger than John, and, in the opinion of some, less than John, who always spoke diminishingly of himself; I am a worm, and no man, yet greater than John; so it agrees with what John the Baptist said (John 1:15), He that cometh after me is preferred before me. But it is rather to be understood of the apostles and ministers of the New Testament, the evangelical prophets; and the comparison between them and John is not with respect to their personal sanctity, but to their office; John preached Christ coming, but they preached Christ not only come, but crucified and glorified. John came to the dawning of the gospel-day, and therein excelled the foregoing prophets, but he was taken off before the noon of that day, before the rending of the veil, before Christ’s death and resurrection, and the pouring out of the Spirit; so that the least of the apostles and evangelists, having greater discoveries made to them, and being employed in a greater embassy, is greater than John. John did no miracles; the apostles wrought many. The ground of this preference is laid in the preference of the New – Testament dispensation to that of the Old Testament. Ministers of the New Testament therefore excel, because their ministration does so, 2 Cor 3:6, etc. John was a maximum quod sic-the greatest of his order; he went to the utmost that the dispensation he was under would allow; but minimum maximi est majus maximo minimi-the least of the highest order is superior to the first of the lowest; a dwarf upon a mountain sees further than a giant in the valley. Note, All the true greatness of men is derived from, and denominated by, the gracious manifestation of Christ to them. The best men are no better than he is pleased to make them. What reason have we to be thankful that our lot is cast in the days of the kingdom of heaven, under such advantages of light and love! And the greater the advantages, the greater will the account be, if we receive the grace of God in vain.
(4.) The great commendation of John the Baptist was, that God owned his ministry, and made it wonderfully successful for the breaking of the ice, and the preparing of people for the kingdom of heaven. From the days of the first appearing of John the Baptist, until now (which was not much above two years), a great deal of good was done; so quick was the motion when it came near to Christ the Centre; The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence – biazetai – vim patitur, like the violence of an army taking a city by storm, or of a crowd bursting into a house, so the violent take it by force. The meaning of this we have in the parallel place, Luke 16:16. Since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. Multitudes are wrought upon by the ministry of John, and become his disciples. And it is
[1.] An improbable multitude. Those strove for a place in this kingdom, that one would think had no right nor title to it, and so seemed to be intruders, and to make a tortuous entry, as our law calls it, a wrongful and forcible one. When the children of the kingdom are excluded out of it, and many come into it from the east and the west, then it suffers violence. Compare this with Matt 21:31-32. The publicans and harlots believed John, whom the scribes and Pharisees rejected, and so went into the kingdom of God before them, took it over their heads, while they trifled. Note, It is no breach of good manners to go to heaven before our betters: and it is a great commendation of the gospel from the days of its infancy, that it has brought many to holiness that were very unlikely.
[2.] An importunate multitude. This violence denotes a strength, and vigour, and earnestness of desire and endeavour, in those who followed John’s ministry, else they would not have come so far to attend upon it. It shows us also, what fervency and zeal are required of all those who design to make heaven of their religion. Note, They who would enter into the kingdom of heaven must strive to enter; that kingdom suffers a holy violence; self must be denied, the bent and bias, the frame and temper, of the mind must be altered; there are hard sufferings to be undergone, a force to be put upon the corrupt nature; we must run, and wrestle, and fight, and be in an agony, and all little enough to win such a prize, and to get over such opposition from without and from within. The violent take it by force. They who will have an interest in the great salvation are carried out towards it with a strong desire, will have it upon any terms, and not think them hard, nor quit their hold without a blessing, Gen 32:26. They who will make their calling and election sure must give diligence. The kingdom of heaven was never intended to indulge the ease of triflers, but to be the rest of them that labour. It is a blessed sight; Oh that we could see a greater number, not with an angry contention thrusting others out of the kingdom of heaven, but with a holy contention thrusting themselves into it!
(5.) The ministry of John was the beginning of the gospel, as it is reckoned, Mark 1:1; Acts 1:22. This is shown here in two things:
[1.] In John the Old Testament dispensation began to die, v. 13. So long that ministration continued in full force and virtue, but then it began to decline. Though the obligation of the law of Moses was not removed till Christ’s death, yet the discoveries of the Old Testament began to be superseded by the more clear manifestation of the kingdom of heaven as at hand. Because the light of the gospel (as that of nature) was to precede and make way for its law, therefore the prophecies of the Old Testament came to an end (finis perficiens, not interficiens-an end of completion, not of duration), before the precepts of it; so that when Christ says, all the prophets and the law prophesied until John, he shows us, First, How the light of the Old Testament was set up; it was set up in the law and the prophets, who spoke, though darkly, of Christ and his kingdom. Observe, The law is said to prophesy, as well as the prophets, concerning him that was to come.
Christ began at Moses (Luke 24:27); Christ was foretold by the dumb signs of the Mosaic work, as well as by the more articulate voices of the prophets, and was exhibited, not only in the verbal predictions, but in the personal and real types. Blessed be God that we have both the New-Testament doctrine to explain the Old-Testament prophecies, and the Old-Testament prophecies to confirm and illustrate the New-Testament doctrine (Heb 1:1); like the two cherubim, they look at each other. The law was given by Moses long ago, and there had been no prophets for three hundred years before John, and yet they are both said to prophecy until John, because the law was still observed, and Moses and the prophets still read. Note, The scripture is teaching to this day, though the penmen of it are gone. Moses and the prophets are dead; the apostles and evangelists are dead (Zech 1:5), but the word of the Lord endures for ever (1 Peter 1:25); the scripture is speaking expressly, though the writers are silent in the dust. Secondly, How this light was laid aside: when he says, they prophesied until John, he intimates, that their glory was eclipsed by the glory which excelled; their predictions superseded by John’s testimony, Behold the Lamb of God! Even before the sun rises, the morning light makes candles to shine dim. Their prophecies of a Christ to come became out of date, when John said, He is come.
[2.] In him the New-Testament day began to dawn; for (v. 14) This is Elias, that was for to come. John was as the loop that coupled the two Testaments; as Noah was Fibula utriusque mundi-the link connecting both worlds, so was he utriusque Testamenti-the link connecting both Testaments. The concluding prophecy of the Old Testament was, Behold, I will send you Elijah, Mal 4:5-6. Those words prophesied until John, and then, being turned into a history, they ceased to prophecy. First, Christ speaks of it as a great truth, that John the Baptist is the Elias of the New Testament; not Elias in propria persona-in his own person, as the carnal Jews expected; he denied that (John 1:21), but one that should come in the spirit and power of Elias (Luke 1:17), like him in temper and conversation, that should press repentance with terrors, and especially as it is in the prophecy, that should turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. Secondly, He speaks of it as a truth, which would not be easily apprehended by those whose expectations fastened upon the temporal kingdom of the Messiah, and introductions to it agreeable. Christ suspects the welcome of it, if ye will receive it. Not but that it was true, whether they would receive it or not, but he upbraids them with their prejudices, that they were backward to receive the greatest truths that were opposed to their sentiments, though never so favourable to their interests. Or, “If you will receive him, or if you will receive the ministry of John as that of the promised Elias, he will be an Elias to you, to turn you and prepare you for the Lord,” Note, Gospel truths are as they are received, a savour of life or death. Christ is a Saviour, and John an Elias, to those who will receive the truth concerning them.
Lastly, Our Lord Jesus closes this discourse with a solemn demand of attention (v. 15): He that hath ears to hear, let him hear; which intimates, that those things were dark and hard to be understood, and therefore needed attention, but of great concern and consequence, and therefore well deserved it. “Let all people take notice of this, if John be the Elias prophesied of, then certainly here is a great revolution on foot, the Messiah’s kingdom is at the door, and the world will shortly be surprised into a happy change. These are things which require your serious consideration, and therefore you are all concerned to hearken to what I say.” Note, The things of God are of great and common concern: every one that has ears to hear any thing, is concerned to hear this. It intimates, that God requires no more from us but the right use and improvement of the faculties he has already given us. He requires those to hear that have ears, those to use their reason that have reason. Therefore people are ignorant, not because they want power, but because they want will; therefore they do not hear, because, like the deaf adder, they stop their ears.
(from Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1991 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.)