‘A Sounding Brass or a Clashing Cymbal’
Who wants to be just a big noise? “If I . . . do not have love,” says the apostle Paul, “I have become a sounding piece of brass or a clashing cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1) Paul had just emphasized the need for using special gifts received through God’s spirit for the benefit of the whole Christian congregation. If love was lacking, pride and arrogance could cause a Christian to be like a loud, jarring, deafening noise that repelled rather than attracted others.—See 1 Corinthians 12:4-9, 19-26.
We easily understand the idea of a cymbal clashing near us, but what about Paul’s other illustration, “a sounding piece of brass”? (Greek, khal·kosʹ e·khonʹ) Some have rendered this “noisy gong” (Today’s English Version) and “resounding gong” (New International Version). William Harris, writing in the Biblical Archaeology Review, points out that e·khonʹ comes from the same root as the English word “echo,” hence the idea of echoing or resounding. However, he also says: “The noun chalkos is used to describe a wide variety of objects cast from the copper-tin alloy called bronze or brass—armor, knives, cauldrons, mirrors, money, even tablets. But there is no proof of the word being used for a musical instrument.” What suggestion, then, does he have?
He refers to a book by Vitruvius, an architect who lived in the first century B.C.E. Vitruvius wrote about the problem of projecting voices in theaters constructed of material like marble and said that special echoing devices called e·kheiʹa were used. These were sounding vases made from bronze that were arranged at the back of an amphitheater to help to amplify and project the sound. Some of these were brought to Rome from a sacked theater in Corinth about one hundred years before Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthian congregation.
Plato, we are told, spoke of a bronze vase as echoing on and on, as did certain empty-headed speakers. This agrees with Shakespeare’s expression that “the empty vessel makes the greatest sound.” Paul could have had a similar idea in mind when he spoke of those who made much of their special gifts but who lacked the greatest gift of all—love. They echoed loudly but had no real substance. They were like a harsh, discordant noise rather than an attractive, appealing sound. How about you? Are your actions and speech motivated by love, or are you ‘a sounding brass or a clashing cymbal’?