Paul in Malta: Page 3 of 6 (series: Lessons on Acts)
by John Lowe
"This man is a murderer." Why they thought he was a murderer is not revealed. It might be that murder was one of the most terrible crimes that one could commit and they simply assumed he had done something really bad. It might be that they assumed that justice would punish one in like manner as the type of crime they had committed. Or, seeing that murder is often committed with the hand, and as the viper had fastened to the hand, they inferred that he was guilty of taking a life (with that very hand). It was supposed by the ancients that persons were often punished in the part of the body which had been the instrument of the sin.
They supposed that vengeance and justice would eventually catch up with the guilty; that, though he might escape one form of punishment, yet he would be exposed to another. And this, to a certain extent, is true. These barbarians reasoned from great original principles, written on the hearts of all people by nature, that there is a God of justice, and that the guilty will be punished. They reasoned incorrectly, as many do, only because they supposed that every calamity is a judgment for some particular sin. People often draw this conclusion, and suppose that suffering is to be traced to some particular crime, and to be regarded as a direct judgment from heaven. Jesus refuted this line of reasoning in John 9:1-3: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The general proposition that all sin will be punished at some time is true, but we are not qualified to insist that particular calamities are always direct judgments for sin; though in some cases they may be. In the case of the drunkard, the gambler, and the drug user, we cannot doubt that the loss of property, health, and reputation is the direct result of specific sins. In the ordinary calamities of life, however, it requires a more profound acquaintance with the principles of divine government than we possess to assert of each instance of suffering that it is a particular judgment for some wrongdoing.
“Whom, though he hath escaped the sea.” They say of Paul that “he hath escaped the sea” meaning that he was not drown, when shipwrecked.
“Yet vengeance suffereth not to live.”The Greek word "Dice" rendered "vengeance," is the name of a goddess worshipped by Heathens, who is said to be the daughter of Jupiter and Themis. She is represented as sitting by her father Jupiter; and when anyone asks a question of another, she informs him of it. She is pictured as sorrowful, and with a sloping forehead, a serious expression, and a rough appearance in order to strike terror in unrighteous persons, and give confidence to righteous ones; her name, which signifies "justice" is fitting. The barbarians supposed this deity pursued Paul; and though she let him escape the sea, she will not allow him to live any longer; for they thought the viper's deadly bite was caused by her for the purpose of causing him immediate death. They supposed the effect of the bite of the viper would be so certainly fatal that they might speak of him as already, as good as dead.
When the Romans took away from the Jews the right to exact capital punishment, the Jews observed that those that deserved to die for their crimes were punished by God in a way equivalent to their crime. For instance, if a man committed a crime for which he deserved to be burnt, either he fell into the fire, "a serpent bit him"; or if he deserved to be strangled, either he was drowned in a river, or died of a 4quinsy.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
“And he shook off the beast into the fire.” Paul immediately shakes off the creature (a natural reaction) and goes about his business as the snake is devoured by the fire. It doesn’t say, but perhaps he made the mistake of holding it a while as if he had mastered it and was not afraid, though this may provoke it to give him a deadly bite. This remarkably fulfilled the promise of the Savior: “They will pick up snakes with their hands . . .” (Mark 16:18, NIV). The idea conveyed is that Paul kept his composure, and that the beast did not give him any cause for alarm.
“And felt (suffered) no harm.”Some say this is circumstantial evidence that the viper did not bite the Apostle; it merely wrapped itself around his hand, but had no power to injure him or infect him with its poison
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
“Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly.”The citizens of Melita when they witnessed the snake bite Paul, expected that he would have swollen from the bite. The poison of the viper acts rapidly, and they expected that he would soon die. The word rendered “swollen” means “to burn; to be inflamed,” and then “to be swollen from inflammation.” This was what they expected to happen to the Apostle.
Swelling is one of the symptoms following the venomous bite of this creature; and if the bite does not cause the victim’s death, the inflamed swelling continues for some time. The symptoms following the bite of a viper are said to be acute pain in the area of the bite; swelling, first red, afterwards livid, spreading by degrees; great faintness; a quick, low, and sometimes interrupted pulse; sick at the stomach; intense convulsions: vomiting; cold sweats; sometimes pains about the navel; and death itself, if the vitality of the patient, or the insignificance of the bite, do not overcome it: if he does overcome it, the swelling continues inflamed for some time; and as the symptoms are abating, a streaming fluid runs from the wound, little pustules are raised around it, and the color of the skin is as if the patient were jaundiced; or had the jaundice. These are the usual effects of the viper’s bite, and they become apparent in a very short time.
Another notable affect is that the victim might “suddenly fall down dead” when the bite is in a vital part. The force of this creature's poison does not always, and in all places, and in all persons operate alike; some die within a few hours, and others live for days.
“But after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him.” The people had seen cases of viper-bite before, and they had no doubt about what was going to happen. “But after they had looked a great while”upon the Apostle, perhaps an hour or two, to observe whether any inflammation or swelling occurred, or death ensued, as they expected; “and saw no harm come to him”; that he was neither inflamed, nor swollen, nor dead; that it had no effect upon him, and no evil punishment was imposed on him from which they could conclude that he was guilty of any notorious crime.While the natives are waiting for Paul to drop dead at any moment, nothing is happening. Not only was there no swelling or inflammation, but also nothing at all was happening. The poison of the viper acts very quickly, in fact, the venom works so quickly that the antidotes they had could seldom be applied in time. Yet remember that Jesus had promised His apostles protection from such things (Mark 16:18).
“They changed their minds, and said that he was a god.” Before this, they took him to be a murderer, and now they even ascribe deity to him, which was a common reaction by the Gentiles, when anything extraordinary was performed by men. Here they saw Paul bitten by a viper, but he went on about his business as if nothing had happened.
He had been taken for a god at Lystra—the Lystrians took Paul for Mercury, and Barnabas for Jupiter when the apostle cured the cripple of Acts 14:11—but later on in the same place he was stoned by the Jews (Acts 14:11-19). Now we have the opposite reaction. But the truth was at neither extreme (Paul is neither a murderer nor a god). Instead of being drowned or poisoned by “justice,” Paul had actually been protected from both fates by Jesus.
There can be no doubt that the inhabitants of Melita were idolaters; but it is not known which gods they worshipped, and conjecture would be useless. However, one commentator has suggested that Hercules was one of the gods of the Phoenicians, and was worshipped in Melita under the nickname of “the dispeller of evil.” They probably thought that Paul was Hercules because Hercules was famous for having destroyed, in his youth, two serpents that attacked him in his cradle. It was natural that they should attribute such protection to the presence of a divinity.
These Maltese might know the case of Orestes, who had killed his mother, and was bit by a serpent, and died. The Jews also have a record in the Gemara, that when Simeon found a manslayer, but had no witness to convict him, he prayed thus, “May he who knows the thoughts of men punish thee; and presently a serpent bit him and he died.”