On an occasion in the early first century, Jewish leaders, seeking to end the influence of Jesus Christ upon the people, sent certain Pharisees and supporters of the Roman government to see if Jesus would say anything that they might bring against Him in a court of law. However, they did not forthrightly ask Him questions on this occasion—they were beginning to learn that Jesus’ ability to reason from the Scriptures would put them to shame. They did not simply wait for Jesus to make a claim of His Deity or forthcoming kingdom; although Jesus was able to say at His trial, “I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:20). The method these men chose on this occasion was deceit through flattery:
And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? (Mark 12:13-14, emph. LM).
Before the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they were certain to try to “butter Him up.” This is a prime example of flattery.
There exists a tendency to think of flattery as a good thing. If a woman wears clothing which is becoming, she may be said to wear a “flattering outfit.”
However, the definition of flattery according to The Oxford American College Dictionary is “excessive and insincere praise, especially that given to further one’s own interests.” Flattery is not a good thing, and does not deserve a place in the life of a Christian. Proverbs 26:28 warns, “A flattering mouth worketh ruin.”
There is a difference between flattery and a compliment. A compliment is defined as “a polite expression of praise or admiration.” When someone does something worthy of praise, he or she should be complimented and encouraged (Rom. 13:7). But when praise exceeds that which the recipient deserves, and the giver of praise knows it, it may well be crossing the line into flattery; and has most certainly crossed that line if the giver is trying to gain something by offering the praise. Elihu, Job’s self-appointed and misguided advisor, at least understood something regarding flattery: “Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person, neither let me give flattering titles unto man. For I know not to give flattering titles; in so doing my maker would soon take me away” (Job 32:21-22).
Christians need not flatter—Flattery is contrary to the honest nature they possess (2 Cor. 8:21; Phil. 4:8; John 8:44). Flattery can even be true, as it was in the case of the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ praise of Jesus. Christ was certainly “true,” He was not a respecter of persons, and He taught “the way of God in truth.” However, the Pharisees and Herodians were not seeking to encourage Him; they were seeking to cause Him to let down His guard that they might take advantage of Him. Flattery is insincere, and insincerity has no place in the life of a Christian (Josh. 24:14; 2 Cor. 2:17).
Christians must beware of flatterers—Just as flattery was used in an attempt to sway Christ, likewise many will attempt the same today with His followers. Christ warned of “false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15)—this is the same approach of a flatterer. Charles Spurgeon stated,
The flatterer is the most dangerous enemy we can have. Raleigh, himself a courtier, and therefore initiated into the whole art of flattery, who discovered in his own career and fate its dangerous and deceptive power, its deep artifice and deeper falsehood, says, “A flatterer is said to be a beast that biteth smiling. But it is hard to know them from friends—they are so obsequious and full of protestations; for, as a wolf resembles a dog, so doth a flatterer a friend.”
How can one guard against flattery? By using the all-sufficient word of God: “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life: To keep thee from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman” (Prov. 6:23-24).
It can be easy for one to be swayed by another who seems to be showing him favor, but God’s word provides a firm foundation on which to stand. Because of his focus upon things heavenly, Abraham was not overwhelmed by the prospect of receiving the favor of the king of wicked Sodom (Gen. 14:21-24).
One must beware of flattery, both in that which he says and in that which others say to him. Flattery will continue to exist, but it does not have to exist in the life of a Christian. No praise one will give or receive in this life could ever compare with “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”