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Jamieson, Fausset & Brown :: Commentary on Matthew 23

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The Gospel According to Matthew

Commentary by DAVID BROWN

CHAPTER 23

Mat 23:1-39. DENUNCIATION OF THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES--LAMENTATION OVER JERUSALEM, AND FAREWELL TO THE TEMPLE. ( = Mar 12:38-40 Luk 20:45-47 ).

      For this long and terrible discourse we are indebted, with the exception of a few verses in Mark and Luke, to Matthew alone. But as it is only an extended repetition of denunciations uttered not long before at the table of a Pharisee, and recorded by Luke ( Luk 11:37-54 ), we may take both together in the exposition.

      Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees ( Mat 23:1-36 ).

      The first twelve verses were addressed more immediately to the disciples, the rest to the scribes and Pharisees.

      1. Then spake Jesus to the multitude--to the multitudes, "and to his disciples."

      2. Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit--The Jewish teachers stood to read, but sat to expound the Scriptures, as will be seen by comparing Luk 4:16.
      in Moses' seat--that is, as interpreters of the law given by Moses.

      3. All therefore--that is, all which, as sitting in that seat and teaching out of that law.
      they bid you observe, that observe and do--The word "therefore" is thus, it will be seen, of great importance, as limiting those injunctions which He would have them obey to what they fetched from the law itself. In requiring implicit obedience to such injunctions, He would have them to recognize the authority with which they taught over and above the obligations of the law itself--an important principle truly; but He who denounced the traditions of such teachers ( Mat 15:3 ) cannot have meant here to throw His shield over these. It is remarked by WEBSTER and WILKINSON that the warning to beware of the scribes is given by Mark and Luke ( Mar 12:38 Luk 20:46 ) without any qualification: the charge to respect and obey them being reported by Matthew alone, indicating for whom this Gospel was especially written, and the writer's desire to conciliate the Jews.

      4. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them--"touch them not" ( Luk 11:46 ).
      with one of their fingers--referring not so much to the irksomeness of the legal rites, though they were irksome enough ( Act 15:10 ), as to the heartless rigor with which they were enforced, and by men of shameless inconsistency.

      5. But all their works they do for to be seen of men--Whatever good they do, or zeal they show, has but one motive--human applause.
      they make broad their phylacteries--strips of parchment with Scripture--texts on them, worn on the forehead, arm, and side, in time of prayer.
      and enlarge the borders of their garments--fringes of their upper garments ( Num 15:37-40 ).

      6. And love the uppermost rooms at feasts--The word "room" is now obsolete in the sense here intended. It should be "the uppermost place," that is, the place of highest honor.
      and the chief seats in the synagogues. See on JF & B for Lu 14:7, 8.

      7. And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi--It is the spirit rather than the letter of this that must be pressed; though the violation of the letter, springing from spiritual pride, has done incalculable evil in the Church of Christ. The reiteration of the word "Rabbi" shows how it tickled the ear and fed the spiritual pride of those ecclesiastics.

      8. But be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your Master--your Guide, your Teacher.

      9. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven, &c.--To construe these injunctions into a condemnation of every title by which Church rulers may be distinguished from the flock which they rule, is virtually to condemn that rule itself; and accordingly the same persons do both--but against the whole strain of the New Testament and sound Christian judgment. But when we have guarded ourselves against these extremes, let us see to it that we retain the full spirit of this warning against that itch for ecclesiastical superiority which has been the bane and the scandal of Christ's ministers in every age. (On the use of the word "Christ" here, see on JF & B for Mt 1:1).

      11. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant--This plainly means, "shall show that he is so by becoming your servant"; as in Mat 20:27, compared with Mar 10:44.

      12. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased--See on JF & B for Lu 18:14. What follows was addressed more immediately to the scribes and Pharisees.

      13. But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men--Here they are charged with shutting heaven against men: in Luk 11:52 they are charged with what was worse, taking away the key--"the key of knowledge"--which means, not the key to open knowledge, but knowledge as the only key to open heaven. A right knowledge of God's revealed word is eternal life, as our Lord says ( Jhn 17:3 5:39 ); but this they took away from the people, substituting for it their wretched traditions.

      14. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, &c.--Taking advantage of the helpless condition and confiding character of "widows," they contrived to obtain possession of their property, while by their "long prayers" they made them believe they were raised far above "filthy lucre." So much "the greater damnation" awaits them. What a lifelike description of the Romish clergy, the true successors of those scribes!

      15. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte--from heathenism. We have evidence of this in JOSEPHUS.
      and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves--condemned, for the hypocrisy he would learn to practice, both by the religion he left and that he embraced.

      16. Woe unto you, ye blind guides--Striking expression this of the ruinous effects of erroneous teaching. Our Lord, here and in some following verses, condemns the subtle distinctions they made as to the sanctity of oaths--distinctions invented only to promote their own avaricious purposes.
      which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing--He has incurred no debt.
      but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple--meaning not the gold that adorned the temple itself, but the Corban, set apart for sacred uses (see on JF & B for Mt 15:5).
      he is a debtor!--that is, it is no longer his own, even though the necessities of the parent might require it. We know who the successors of these men are.
      but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty--It should have been rendered, "he is a debtor," as in Mat 23:16.

      19. Ye fools, and blind! for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?--(See Exd 29:37 ).

      20-22. Whose therefore shall swear by the altar, &c.--See on JF & B for Mt 5:33-37.

      23. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise--rather, "dill," as in Margin.
      and cummin--In Luke ( Luk 11:42 ) it is "and rue, and all manner of herbs." They grounded this practice on Lev 27:30, which they interpreted rigidly. Our Lord purposely names the most trifling products of the earth as examples of what they punctiliously exacted the tenth of.
      and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith--In Luke ( Luk 11:42 ) it is "judgment, mercy, and the love of God"--the expression being probably varied by our Lord Himself on the two different occasions. In both His reference is to Mic 6:6-8, where the prophet makes all acceptable religion to consist of three elements--"doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God"; which third element presupposes and comprehends both the "faith" of Matthew and the "love" of Luke. See on JF & B for Mr 12:29; JF & B for Mr 12:32, 33. The same tendency to merge greater duties in less besets even the children of God; but it is the characteristic of hypocrites.
      these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone--There is no need for one set of duties to jostle out another; but it is to be carefully noted that of the greater duties our Lord says, "Ye ought to have done" them, while of the lesser He merely says, "Ye ought not to leave them undone."

      24. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat--The proper rendering--as in the older English translations, and perhaps our own as it came from the translators' hands--evidently is, "strain out." It was the custom, says TRENCH, of the stricter Jews to strain their wine, vinegar, and other potables through linen or gauze, lest unawares they should drink down some little unclean insect therein and thus transgress ( Lev 11:20, 23, 41, 42 ) --just as the Buddhists do now in Ceylon and Hindustan--and to this custom of theirs our Lord here refers.
      and swallow a camel--the largest animal the Jews knew, as the "gnat" was the smallest; both were by the law unclean.

      25. within they are full of extortion--In Luke ( Luk 11:39 ) the same word is rendered "ravening," that is, "rapacity."

      26. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also--In Luke ( Luk 11:40 ) it is, "Ye fools, did not He that made that which is without make that which is within also?"--"He to whom belongs the outer life, and of right demands its subjection to Himself, is the inner man less His?" A remarkable example this of our Lord's power of drawing the most striking illustrations of great truths from the most familiar objects and incidents in life. To these words, recorded by Luke, He adds the following, involving a principle of immense value: "But rather give alms of such things as ye have, and behold, all things are clean unto you" ( Luk 11:41 ). As the greed of these hypocrites was one of the most prominent features of their character ( Luk 16:14 ), our Lord bids them exemplify the opposite character, and then their outside, ruled by this, would be beautiful in the eye of God, and their meals would be eaten with clean hands, though much fouled with the business of this everyday world. (See Ecc 9:7 ).

      27. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like whited sepulchres--or, whitewashed sepulchres. (Compare Act 23:3 ). The process of whitewashing the sepulchres, as LIGHTFOOT says, was performed on a certain day every year, not for ceremonial cleansing, but., as the following words seem rather to imply, to beautify them.
      which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness--What a powerful way of conveying the charge, that with all their fair show their hearts were full of corruption! (Compare Psa 5:9 Rom 3:13 ). But our Lord, stripping off the figure, next holds up their iniquity in naked colors.
      Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets--that is "ye be witnesses that ye have inherited, and voluntarily served yourselves heirs to, the truth-hating, prophet-killing, spirit of your fathers." Out of pretended respect and honor, they repaired and beautified the sepulchres of the prophets, and with whining hypocrisy said, "If we had been in their days, how differently should we have treated these prophets?" While all the time they were witnesses to themselves that they were the children of them that killed the prophets, convicting themselves daily of as exact a resemblance in spirit and character to the very classes over whose deeds they pretended to mourn, as child to parent. In Luk 11:44 our Lord gives another turn to this figure of a grave: "Ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them." As one might unconsciously walk over a grave concealed from view, and thus contract ceremonial defilement, so the plausible exterior of the Pharisees kept people from perceiving the pollution they contracted frown coming in contact with such corrupt characters.

      33. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?--In thus, at the end of His ministry, recalling the words of the Baptist at the outset of his, our Lord would seem to intimate that the only difference between their condemnation now and then was, that now they were ripe for their doom, which they were not then.

      34. Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes--The I here is emphatic: "I am sending," that is, "am about to send." In Luk 11:49 the variation is remarkable: "Therefore also, said the wisdom of God, I will send them," &c. What precisely is meant by "the wisdom of God" here, is somewhat difficult to determine. To us it appears to be simply an announcement of a purpose of the Divine Wisdom, in the high style of ancient prophecy, to send a last set of messengers whom the people would reject, and rejecting, would fill up the cup of their iniquity. But, whereas in Luke it is "I, the Wisdom of God, will send them," in Matthew it is "I, Jesus, am sending them"; language only befitting the one sender of all the prophets, the Lord God of Israel now in the flesh. They are evidently evangelical messengers, but called by the familiar Jewish names of "prophets, wise men, and scribes," whose counterparts were the inspired and gifted servants of the Lord Jesus; for in Luke ( Luk 11:49 ) it is "prophets and apostles."
      unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar--As there is no record of any fresh murder answering to this description, probably the allusion is not to any recent murder, but to 2Ch 24:20-22, as the last recorded and most suitable case for illustration. And as Zacharias' last words were, "The Lord require it," so they are here warned that of that generation it should be required.

      36. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation--As it was only in the last generation of them that "the iniquity of the Amorites was full" ( Gen 15:16 ), and then the abominations of ages were at once completely and awfully avenged, so the iniquity of Israel was allowed to accumulate from age to age till in that generation it came to the full, and the whole collected vengeance of heaven broke at once over its devoted head. In the first French Revolution the same awful principle was exemplified, and Christendom has not done with it yet.

      Lamentation over Jerusalem and Farewell to the Temple ( Mat 23:37-39 ).

      37. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, &c.--How ineffably grand and melting is this apostrophe! It is the very heart of God pouring itself forth through human flesh and speech. It is this incarnation of the innermost life and love of Deity, pleading with men, bleeding for them, and ascending only to open His arms to them and win them back by the power of this story of matchless love, that has conquered the world, that will yet "draw all men unto Him," and beautify and ennoble Humanity itself! "Jerusalem" here does not mean the mere city or its inhabitants; nor is it to be viewed merely as the metropolis of the nation, but as the center of their religious life--"the city of their solemnities, whither the tribes went up, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord"; and at this moment it was full of them. It is the whole family of God, then, which is here apostrophized by a name dear to every Jew, recalling to him all that was distinctive and precious in his religion. The intense feeling that sought vent in this utterance comes out first in the redoubling of the opening word--"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!" but, next, in the picture of it which He draws--"that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee!"--not content with spurning God's messages of mercy, that canst not suffer even the messengers to live! When He adds, "How often would I have gathered thee!" He refers surely to something beyond the six or seven times that He visited and taught in Jerusalem while on earth. No doubt it points to "the prophets," whom they "killed," to "them that were sent unto her," whom they "stoned." But whom would He have gathered so often? "Thee," truth-hating, mercy-spurning, prophet-killing Jerusalem--how often would I have gathered thee! Compare with this that affecting clause in the great ministerial commission, "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem!" ( Luk 24:47 ). What encouragement to the heartbroken at their own long-continued and obstinate rebellion! But we have not yet got at the whole heart of this outburst. I would have gathered thee, He says, "even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings." Was ever imagery so homely invested with such grace and such sublimity as this, at our Lord's touch? And yet how exquisite the figure itself--of protection, rest, warmth, and all manner of conscious well-being in those poor, defenseless, dependent little creatures, as they creep under and feel themselves overshadowed by the capacious and kindly wing of the mother bird! If, wandering beyond hearing of her peculiar call, they are overtaken by a storm or attacked by an enemy, what can they do but in the one case droop and die, and in the other submit to be torn in pieces? But if they can reach in time their place of safety, under the mother's wing, in vain will any enemy try to drag them thence. For rising into strength, kindling into fury, and forgetting herself entirely in her young, she will let the last drop of her blood be shed out and perish in defense of her precious charge, rather than yield them to an enemy's talons. How significant all this of what Jesus is and does for men! Under His great Mediatorial wing would He have "gathered" Israel. For the figure, see Deu 32:10-12 Rth 2:12 Psa 17:8 36:7 61:4 63:7 91:4 Isa 31:5 Mal 4:2. The ancient rabbins had a beautiful expression for proselytes from the heathen--that they had "come under the wings of the Shekinah." For this last word, see on JF & B for Mt 23:38. But what was the result of all this tender and mighty love? The answer is, "And ye would not." O mysterious word! mysterious the resistance of such patient Love-mysterious the liberty of self-undoing! The awful dignity of the will, as here expressed, might make the ears to tingle.

      38. Behold, your house--the temple, beyond all doubt; but their house now, not the Lord's. See on JF & B for Mt 22:7.
      is left unto you desolate--deserted, that is, of its Divine Inhabitant. But who is that? Hear the next words:

      39. For I say unto you--and these were His last words to the impenitent nation, see on JF & B for Mr 13:1, opening remarks.
      Ye shall not see me henceforth--What? Does Jesus mean that He was Himself the Lord of the temple, and that it became "deserted" when HE finally left it? It is even so. Now is thy fate sealed, O Jerusalem, for the glory is departed from thee! That glory, once visible in the holy of holies, over the mercy seat, when on the day of atonement the blood of typical expiation was sprinkled on it and in front of it--called by the Jews the Shekinah, or the Dwelling, as being the visible pavilion of Jehovah--that glory, which Isaiah ( Isa 6:1-13 ) saw in vision, the beloved disciple says was the glory of Christ ( Jhn 12:41 ). Though it was never visible in the second temple, Haggai foretold that "the glory of that latter house should be greater than of the former" ( Hag 2:9 ) because "the Lord whom they sought was suddenly to come to His temple" ( Mal 3:1 ), not in a mere bright cloud, but enshrined in living humanity! Yet brief as well as "sudden" was the manifestation to be: for the words He was now uttering were to be HIS VERY LAST within its precincts.
      till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord--that is, till those "Hosannas to the Son of David" with which the multitude had welcomed Him into the city--instead of "sore displeasing the chief priests and scribes" ( Mat 21:15 ) --should break forth from the whole nation, as their glad acclaim to their once pierced, but now acknowledged, Messiah. That such a time will come is clear from Zec 12:10 Rom 11:26 2Cr 3:15, 16, &c. In what sense they shall then "see Him" may be gathered from Zec 2:10-13 Eze 37:23-28 39:28, 29, &c.

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