Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentMatthew 23
PHARISAISM EXPOSED AND DENOUNCED BY JESUS; THE SEVEN WOES; JUDGMENT UPON JERUSALEM AND THE TEMPLE
Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat: all things therefore whatsoever they, bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say and do not.
Christ recognized that the scribes and Pharisees were successors to some of the dignity and authority of Moses, not in the sense of really possessing such authority, but in the sense of being responsible for teaching Moses' word and faithfully interpreting it to the people. They were the custodial heirs and terminal beneficiaries of the system which God gave through his servant Moses.
The Pharisees did not practice what they taught, but their failure was no excuse for disobedience by those who knew God's will. The authority of God's word does not derive from the righteous life of the teacher but from the prior authority of God himself; although, of course, the righteous life of the teacher is always a strong encouragement to obedience. The evil and inconsistent life of the scribes and Pharisees was a strong deterrent to the acceptance of God's will in that day; and similar evil on the part of Christian teachers in all ages has the same hindering results.
Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.
The Pharisees always took the strictest and most legalistic view of every religious duty and always applied the law in such a way as to make it as onerous as possible - that is, FOR OTHERS! They themselves? Ah, that was something else again. They did not observe their own strict rules, and their personal laxity was an open scandal. Why? Christ immediately gave the answer in the most vituperative and scathing language ever to fall from his blessed lips.
But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments ...
In Exo. 13:16; Deut. 6:8 and
Deut. 11:18, it was said to Israel
concerning the teachings of the law,
that they should be bound, "for a
token upon thy head, and for frontlets
between thine eyes." In the
interbiblical period, we find the Jews
converting this figure into outward
fact. They took four passages
adjacent to the thrice repeated
injunction, namely, Exo. 13:2-10;
Exo. 13:11-17; Deut. 6:4-9;
and Deut. 11:13-22, and writing
them on strips of parchment, encased
the folded strips in minute leather
boxes. These four boxes were set on
edge and fastened upon one leather
base, which was placed in the middle
of the forehead, and held there by a
string tied round the head with
peculiar knots which had a mystical
Naturally, the bigger the phylactery the more attention the device would get for its wearer. If this seems strange to anyone today, it ought to be remembered that the making of a figurative statement to become a literal statement is an error that certainly was not confined to ancient Jews. The doctrine of transubstantiation is a similar error, resulting from exactly the same kind of mistake, and just as illogical.
Borders of the garments were considered sacred by the Jews, and the enlargement of the border was another device for ostentation and gratification of the pride of its wearer.
And love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues. And the salutations in the market places, and to be called of men, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your teacher, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father on the earth: for one is your Father, even he who is in heaven.
They were little men, puffed up with their supposed learning, parading like peacocks before the admiring eyes of their followers, and inwardly gloating over titles of honor and deference. Such empty superficiality blinded the Pharisees and will also blind all others in all places in all times who become infected with the deadly virus of human pride.
Christ assuredly condemned the employment of religious titles denoting any kind of authority. The acceptance of title, no less than its bestowal, was forbidden by Christ. "Be not ye called ... Call no man ..." In the teaching here, Christ struck at one of the great failings of mankind, the reliance upon human authorities for the settlement of religious truth. In apostolic times, the living teachers were called "rabbis" and the ones who formerly lived were called "fathers." (The latter term even crept into the speech of Stephen, Acts 7:2). But Christ taught there is just one authority in religion, namely, God, and that which God has revealed in Christ through the apostles. Plummer expressed it: "They were to abandon the practice of appealing to `the fathers,' which had done so much evil in perpetuating misleading traditions." F2 The sense of Christ's teaching recorded in this place is always violated when men are willing to accept the authority of "Doctor So and So" instead of the teachings of the word of God.
Call no man your father on earth
... At least the Jews are consistent who, rejecting Christ, reject also what he said about "rabbi"; but it appears unbelievable that so large a part of Christendom should be so blind to Christ's commandment as to flaunt the title "father" as the just inheritance of all their priests and to bestow upon their sovereign the near-blasphemous title, "Most Holy Father"! Such reminds one of the custom of Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany, the kaiser of World War I, who allowed it to be printed in the court circular, on the occasion of Wilhelm's going to church, that "This morning, The All-Highest paid His respects to the Highest"! F3
Wherever the title "father" is received and allowed, there is also a sinful implication of the authority of such persons and of the deference due their opinions regarding religious questions. It is precisely there that the damage is done. Positively no Father, Rabbi, Reverend, Doctor, or other religious title-holder has any authority at all to legislate, absolve, bind, loose, require, or demand, in any religious sense, anything whatsoever, upon anyone whomsoever! The principal heresy of the ages has been and continues to be the human failing in this very area. Humanity confers upon itself, in the person of those whom it denominates "fathers," "rabbis," etc., prerogatives which pertain and can only pertain to God. As for the titles themselves, they are forbidden to all who honor the word of Christ. Let any person who uses such a title in a religious sense beware of the consequences. Titles, apart from their religious implications, are not necessarily condemned by Christ; the distinction is seen in the fact that one may refer to his earthly parent as his father without violating the prohibition taught by Christ; but if the very same title, or any other, should be applied in a religious sense and in order to confer dignity and authority upon the conferee, then Christ's law is violated. The consent of long centuries of men to disobey Christ's law on these matters does not change it.
The word "reverend" may be used of a man if it should be used in the sense that one is revered, respected, or God-fearing, and if not at the same time intended as a title of religious authority or distinction. Psa. 111:9 reads, "Holy and reverend is his name." The words HOLY and REVEREND are applied to God in that passage, or rather to God's name; but it is not true that all words so applied are therefore forbidden to be used as applicable to men. The word HOLY, for example, is applied to people, even by the apostles (Hebrews 3:1; 1 Peter 3:5,; 3:5, ); and it would be hard to find authority for any dogma to the effect that there are no reverend men, or that it would be wrong thus to describe them. But both those words (holy and reverend) violate Christ's plain word the moment one is made a title or symbol of religious authority to which other men are expected to give obedience, allegiance, submission, or deference. All titles that seek to elevate one man above another in the solemn business of the faith in Christ are wrong. Some of the arguments brethren use to maintain this truth may sometimes be described as illogical, but the truth is overwhelmingly plain and undeniable. Christ condemned religious titles of preferment and authority because all of them are founded upon a false premise: that one man, more than another, has the right to interpret God's word.
Needless to say, such terms as Brother, Evangelist, Elder, Minister, Bishop, Deacon, Cardinal, Pope, Metropolitan, Monsignor, etc., etc., violate Christ's law when such are used as food for vanity of the designate or for procuring the acceptance of his views by others. How far the race has drifted in this matter might be realized by the imposition of some modern terminology upon an ancient incident. Could we say, for example, that His Eminence, Prince of the Apostles, and Vicar of Christ, His Holiness Simon Peter, the Pope of all Christendom, was once withstood to his face by the Right Reverend Monsignor Paul, Metropolitan and Bishop of Ephesus! This writer has no delusion that these words on this subject will be much noted or long remembered; but to the devout, who believe in Jesus, we dare to suggest that they are true. It is prayerfully hoped that Christ's warning against the virus of seats (the chief ones, of course) will be heeded by those who truly desire to follow him.
Neither be ye called masters: for one is your master, even the Christ.
Christ paid his respects to three titles in the passage before us, namely, Rabbi, Father, and Master; but the principle certainly applies to all titles that might be used in such a manner, that is, to elicit religious respect and acceptance. Even the use of "Brother" as the exclusive property of the preacher serves to take it away from others equally entitled to it; and therefore it should be used for all and not parlayed into a title which, for all practical purposes, takes the place of "Reverend"!
Moffatt's translation makes this verse read, "Nor must you be called `leaders,' for One is your leader, even the Christ."
Verses 11, 12
But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Thus, Christ climaxed his teaching on the basic moral failure of the Pharisees. It was their love of preference, desire for social or worldly acclaim, delight in popularity, affinity for pompous titles, and their constant jostling each other for positions of eminence - these were the outward symptoms of their deadly pride within, which blinded their eyes to the Lord of glory and shut the gates of light against themselves. Humility is the indispensable virtue. All the Pharisees' excellence, all their strict attention to observe details of the law, all their visible identity with religion could not save them without humility.
Humility is that low sweet root
From which all the heavenly virtues shoot!
Lack of humility is at the bottom of practically all the trouble that ever came into the church. Proud, arrogant men, striving against each other for some type of advantage, stand squarely in the center of every division that ever occurred among the followers of Christ. Through pride, Satan fell; through pride, he holds countless souls in captivity to do the will of the devil! Having thus laid bare before all the true source of guile and wickedness in the Pharisees and scribes, namely pride, Christ then proceeded to pronounce a number of "woes" upon them.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye shut the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye enter not in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering in to enter.
THE FIRST WOE
The Pharisees should have accepted Christ and set an example for all to follow by receiving and honoring him; but instead they rejected him, hated him, and tried to turn the popular mind away from him, thus, in a figure, standing in the gate and virtually shutting it in the face of all who were trying to do God's will. Those who enter God's kingdom will cause others to do the same thing; and those who refuse to enter will also prevent others from being saved. Thus, every man is either for Christ or against him.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is become so, ye make him twofold more a son of hell than yourselves.
THE SECOND WOE
Just prior to this verse, some authorities insert Matt. 23:14, which reads thus: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, even while for a pretense ye make long prayers: therefore ye shall receive greater condemnation" (see the margin of the ASV). To say the least, such is in complete harmony with all else that Christ said of the Pharisees and scribes.
Matt. 23:15 does not condemn the making of proselytes, far from it. It condemns the making of a proselyte to human opinion rather than to God's word. This was the guilt of the scribes and Pharisees. Had they made converts to the true Jewish faith, that would have been all right; but, instead, they made converts to THEIR PARTY. Boles said, "They exalted the opinions of men above the word of God, which rendered them worthy of such condemnation." F4 Plummer understood this passage in the same way, saying, "The main point here seems to be that the Pharisees, while professing a great zeal for the spread of the true religion, were chiefly bent on winning another adherent to their party." F5
There were two classes of proselytes: (1) proselytes of the gate, who were not circumcised, and who accepted only portions of Judaism, and (2) proselytes of righteousness, who became true converts. Some of the noblest names of the New Testament were found among such proselytes. The centurion of Matthew 8:5 is an example. F6
Proselytes, however, often become a problem, sometimes coming to represent all that is worst, both in their old religion and in their new one. This is nearly always the case where one is proselyted to a "system" rather than to Christ and him crucified. Proselytes to error frequently become even more zealous and diligent purveyors of the new doctrine than persons brought up in it. Clare Booth Luce and her diligence for Catholicism show a good example of this.
The son of hell,
as Christ used it, refers to the final overthrow of the wicked, and is equivalent to a "son of the devil."
Woe unto you, ye blind guides, that say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor. Ye fools and blind: for which is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gift that is upon it, he is debtor. Ye blind: for which is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? He therefore that sweareth by, the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And he that sweareth by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that sweareth by the heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.
THE THIRD WOE
The Pharisees' punctilious preoccupation with trifles appears in all its ridiculous pettiness in this passage. What was so wrong with the practices Christ pointed out? Plummer hit the nail on the head when he said,
It is grievous enough that men should
be encouraged to think that there are
two kinds of TRUTH, one of which is
important, and the other not; namely,
that which is sworn to, and that which
is stated without an oath. That leads
men to think that unless they take an
oath, they may tell lies with little
or no blame. But to tell men that,
even when they have sworn, they are
not bound to tell the truth or abide
by the promise, UNLESS THEIR OATH IS
TAKEN IN A CERTAIN WAY, is far worse,
and far more destructive of men's
sense of honor and love of
Intervening centuries have not diminished the amazement one feels when considering the hair-splitting nonsense of those blind and foolish hypocrites, glorying in all those minuscule distinctions and disputations concerning the super-fine points of religion.
The big point in the whole passage is that the whole is greater than any of its parts, and that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. In spite of truth so plain as to be considered axiomatic, the scribes and Pharisees had become champions of small distinctions such as those regarding oaths. Their thinking on such matters was foolish.
Theology today is just as foolish, for example, in allowing that a man may tell a lie if he is doing it (or thinks he is) for the good of the person deceived. During the great religious wars of the sixteenth century, many a "safe conduct" was violated, even by the highest ranking prelates, by just such a devious intellectual device as that so severely condemned by Christ. See under Matt. 5:33-37.
Verses 23, 24
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone. Ye blind guides that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!
THE FOURTH WOE
In the fourth woe also, the Pharisee was presented as a specialist in trifles. To be sure, there was nothing wrong with tithing mint, dill (see the margin of the RSV), and cummin. Christ admitted that such was a duty, "These ought ye to have done!" The trouble was that such petty little deeds of scrupulosity were the PRINCIPAL concern of the scribes and Pharisees. They could murder the Son of God but would not think of neglecting to tithe a sprig of dill on the back doorstep. It was precisely in such a tradition that they finally appeared before Pilate to extort a death sentence for the Master, while refusing at the same time to enter the governor's court lest they be defiled! Jesus contrasted justice, mercy, and faith with small things like tithing herbs, and then laid down the proposition that some things ARE more important than others in God's kingdom. Furthermore, the BIG END of all obligation is in the ethical and moral realm, rather than in ceremonial and external observances. Without wishing to appear as a judge of others, we may nevertheless urge upon all brethren everywhere the fact that such questions as HOW orphans should be cared for, whether from the church treasury or by individuals, is just such a proposition as some of those so dear to the Pharisees and so repulsive to Jesus. The "weightier matter" as far as orphans are concerned, and as far as Christ is concerned, is that they shall be properly and affectionately cared for, and not "how" it is done.
Blind guides ... the gnat ... the camel ...
In Christ's day, any small impurity in a glass of milk or water would have been filtered out. Jesus contrasted this straining of such a thing as a gnat out of a glass of water with swallowing a camel! This is hyperbole at its best and a perfect picture of the unbalanced thinking of those unfortunate men. For example, they literally stoned Stephen to death with their own hands, but scrupulously avoided stepping on an old grave, neglecting to tithe a sprig of dill, or putting foot inside a Gentile's house. The figure of the gnat and the camel emphasizes the difference in the culture of that day and ours. Today, any good housekeeper would throw a glass of milk in the garbage if it had a gnat in it; but in those days, such things as germs were unknown. Therefore, the gnat was strained out! Presumably this may still go on wherever there is such poverty as to require it or such ignorance as to allow it. Of course, Christ did not endorse that type of sanitation, or lack of it, but was merely drawing an illustration from the customs of the day.
Verses 25, 26
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye cleanse the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the platter, that the outside thereof may become clean also.
THE FIFTH WOE
In this woe also, another remarkable imbalance in the thinking of the Pharisees was pinpointed by Jesus. All of the dishes they used were subjected to the ceremonial washing to avoid legal defilement; but Christ made it clear that cleanliness of another kind had been neglected. It was far more important that food be "clean" in the sense of its not having been obtained through extortion, and that gluttony or excess could occur in spite of all ceremonial cleanliness. Of course, extortion and excess were two of the Pharisees' commonest sins. They robbed widows and orphans, dealt deceitfully, defrauded in money-changing, and violated wholesale the great moral precepts of the Law; in a genuine moral sense, therefore, their food was contaminated with extortion and excess. That was the real uncleanness which should have concerned them but did not. On the other hand, they never forgot the ceremonial washings! Christ did not condemn outward cleanliness, nor even the washing of cups and platters, but made such things secondary. And how did Christ teach that the INSIDE of the cup and platter should be cleansed? That was to be done through no outward ceremonial but was to be accomplished by honesty, industry, thrift, temperance, truthfulness, fairness, regard for the needs of others, and, in short, by living righteous lives.
Verses 27, 28
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but inwardly ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
THE SIXTH WOE
Here is another figure drawn from the customs of the day and the practice of the scribes and Pharisees, who customarily whitewashed graves in order to make them more easily visible and to prevent one's stepping on one of them accidentally or unknowingly. Such graves were a fair figure of the Pharisees, who were outwardly clean and beautiful, but inwardly were full of wickedness. The implications in such a comparison by the Lord are profound. The Pharisees, with all their pomp and glamour, earthly glory and prestige, outward beauty and ostentation, were, for all that, actually dead in the eyes of Jesus. They were dead spiritually and morally. Although their inward decay was concealed with an attractive veneer of political and social respectability, it was not hidden from the penetrating knowledge and vision of the Son of God, who knew their hearts.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and garnish the tombs of the righteous.
THE SEVENTH WOE
In this seventh woe, Christ began to pronounce sentence upon those religious leaders and the nation they had so basely led and betrayed. In this seventh woe, Christ suddenly revealed himself as the Judge of those evil people and dramatically assumed the prerogatives of judgment and gave sentence against those who had the vanity to suppose they were judging him!
The time of pleading, persuading, and reasoning with them had passed. Without hesitation, in the clearest and most powerful language, in the presence of his disciples and all the people, Christ uttered the judgment of God upon the flower of Israel's religious hierarchy, condemning, along with the nation which, alas, had blindly followed them, and consigning them to the judgment and punishment of hell.
The seventh woe, as all the others, dealt with hypocrisy, the sin reiterated over and over. In the seventh case, they were making a fine "to do" over the tombs of the prophets, building beautiful sepulchres, and decorating their graves, and at the same time declaiming their superiority over their ancestors who had slain the prophets. In this woe, Christ exposed the Pharisees as true sons of their evil fathers.
And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we should not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
Loud professions of moral rectitude on the part of the Pharisees did not conceal their moral leprosy from Jesus. At that very moment, they were plotting to kill him; and, before the week ended, they would commit a crime against the Lord of Life in a manner so revolting and hateful that all succeeding generations would hold it to be the crime of the ages. Whereas others had slain God's messengers, they would slay his SON!
Verses 31, 32
Wherefore ye witness to yourselves, that ye are sons of them that slew the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell?
Not merely were those men the physical descendants of those who persecuted and slew the prophets, they were also their moral and spiritual sons as well, full of fraud and deceit, fit architects for fashioning a cross for the Beloved.
Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
This is irony. They had passed the point of no return; and like Balaam of old, they could not have gone back if they had tried at this point, although there was no possibility of their even trying. As the angel said to Balaam, "Go with the men!" so Jesus here commanded them to do the thing they had already purposed to do, and from which there was now no longer any possibility of drawing back. Evil hearts had already committed the foul murder which their external actions would only confirm before the week ended.
There is a stark contrast between the wickedness of the men who killed Christ and that of Balaam (Numbers 22:34). Balaam tried to abort his evil mission but could not. These men did not even try to abort theirs. Over against Balaam, an angel with a drawn sword gave the summary command, "Go with the men!" How that must have chilled his heart with fear and dread. In every evil course, there is a point where the sinful soul becomes apprehensive and would draw back but cannot. There is a threshold which, when crossed, admits of no complete spiritual returning. What a terrible moment for the sinful that must be! It is an evil hour, fraught with the pangs of conscience and the fear of hell, but void of any place for repentance even though sought bitterly with tears, as in the case of Esau. Yet such an awareness of the horrors of evil seems never to have come to the Pharisees. They were already dead spiritually. The very Christ of God stood before them in an amazing drama of outraged innocence and thundered the sentence: "Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers!" There was no evidence that they heard him. Spiritual "rigor mortis" had already set in!
... Much of Jesus' language was metaphorical, but this was one of the strongest ever used. Herod was called a fox; the opponents of the gospel were called "wolves" in sheep's clothing; but the Pharisees were compared to the most detestable of all creatures, serpents, and poisonous ones at that, VIPERS! The judgment of hell was a reference to the final overthrow of the wicked in the lake of fire (see the margin of the ASV). The question, "how shall ye escape" ... is actually an affirmation that they shall not escape.
Verses 33, 34
Therefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: some of them shall ye kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city.
Behold, I send!
These words surely imply Christ's identity with the Father, God himself. It is Christ who would send forth the apostles, prophets, and wise men; it was God who sent the prophets of the Old Covenant, but the two are one. How naturally did those words fall from the lips of our Lord. Such an outflashing of His Godhead was lost on the Pharisees, but the disciples of all ages would note and remember it, nor ever cease to marvel at it.
The treatment which God's messengers sent by Christ were to receive was accurately foretold. The stoning of Stephen, the imprisonment of the apostles, the persecutions of Paul and others from city to city, even the crucifixion of Christ - all such things in time demonstrated the accuracy of our Lord's predictions to the Pharisees. The mention of "crucify" among the things the Pharisees would do to those sent by Christ showed that Jesus himself was among those "sent." Thus, in this strange and exciting paragraph, Christ appeared both as the Sender and as One sent, both as God and as man. This deduction follows upon the fact that Christ alone was crucified by the Pharisees.
That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the righteous unto the blood of Zachariah son of Barachiah, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar.
Commentators profess to find difficulty with this verse. Alford would reject the words "son of Barachiah." F8 McGarvey supposed that it refers to the circumstances of the death of the prophet Zachariah, although admitting that no record of such an occurrence may be found in the Bible. F9 Broadus found here "a well known difficulty." F10 Why should there be a difficulty? It is obvious that Christ here referred to some secret murder perpetrated, not by the ancestors of those men, but "by them. Whom ye slew!" This could not be an indictment of their ancestors but plainly refers to a murder those wicked men had committed themselves. Christ tried with that one last lightning stroke of truth to get through to them, but even that failed. That no such murder was recorded in either the Old Testament or the New Testament, and that there was no general knowledge of it in the days of Christ, and that no traditions were developed with reference to it - these things present no difficulty at all, but point squarely at the Pharisees and show their effectiveness in covering up their evil deeds and hiding them from popular view. (It was precisely this ability they relied upon when they decided to make away with Jesus See Matthew 26:1-4). It is further evidence of their depravity that none of them ever confessed it, even after he who knew their thoughts revealed it publicly! Their guilty secret went to the grave with them, except for this ray of light from the lips of Christ who made it known on the occasion of their being sentenced to hell for their wickedness. This is a revealing glance at the judgment to come, when the secrets of men's hearts shall be revealed. Commentators ought not to marvel that this judgment scene revealed a crime hitherto unknown; the great judgment will reveal innumerable others!
One of the very significant things from that judgment of the Pharisees and Israel is that nations, no less than individuals, are accountable to God. The Pharisees were made the terminal heirs of the total Jewish history of rebellion against God. Plumptre's words are appropriate:
Men make the guilt of past ages their
own, reproduce its atrocities,
identify themselves with it; and so,
what seems at first an arbitrary
decree, visiting on the children the
sins of their fathers, becomes in such
cases a righteous judgment. If they
repent, they cut off the terrible
entail of sin and punishment; but, if
they harden themselves in their evil,
they inherit the delayed punishment of
their fathers' sins as well as their
Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.
The Jewish nation itself was laid under sentence by those words. Before that generation expired, the armies of Vespasian and Titus moved against the stricken city with ruthless destruction. God's patience, exhausted at last, became God's wrath!
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her! how often would I have gathered the children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Morgan's comment on this chapter has this passage:
Here, indeed, if ever, we have
thoughts that breathe and burn. One
can almost feel the withering force of
his strong and mighty indignation -
indignation directed, not against the
people, but against their false
guides. And yet behind it all is his
heart; and the woes merge into a wail
of agony, the cry of a mother over her
lost child. F12
This lament over the doomed city occurred at a most appropriate time: upon the occasion of the Lord's sentencing her to destruction. One who has ever attended a courtroom in which the judge announced a death sentence and has observed the heart-breaking scenes that inevitably follow can appreciate the sorrow that overwhelmed the Saviour in that tragic hour when the glory and power of Jerusalem, the city of the great King, as Jesus himself called it, were consigned to the torch and the sword, the heel of the invader, the pestilence and the siege, the brutality of plunder, and the dashing of the heads of her infants against the stones! "Sin when it is finished bringeth forth death" (James 1:15,; 1:15, ). Sin for Jerusalem was finished by the rejection of Christ, and it brought forth death. A cry of pity and of sorrow went up from her Saviour, but not even that could spare Jerusalem.
Ye would not!
Man's freedom of the will makes it possible for him to reject even his God; but when he does so, he cannot avoid the consequences.
The reference to a hen and chickens is one of the tenderest, commonest, and most appealing figures Jesus ever used. The common barnyard fowl was to be used again by our Lord in the incident of Peter's denial. The commonest and most ordinary things on the planet grew luminous at the touch of Jesus and sprang into glorious significance.
As for the particular time when the above lament was spoken, Matthew's including it at this juncture might not be chronological. F. W. Farrar placed it on the day of the Triumphal Entry and treated it as occurring as Christ approached the city along the southern route from Bethany on Palm Sunday. F13 We believe Farrar was following Luke's account which certainly places it on that day (Luke 19:41), but Luke also gives a second weeping over the city (Luke 13:34), and it is reasonable to suppose there may have been a third one, in which case Matthew's account might very well be a chronological record of it. Certainly, the sheer logic of Jesus' weeping upon the very occasion of sentencing the city to its doom lends support to such a consideration.
Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
Scholars omit the word "desolate" (see the ASV margin). Whether or not the word is in the original, the meaning surely is. "Behold your house is left unto you!" This was a seven-word summary of the seven woes just pronounced by the Lord. No longer would the city be disturbed by the teaching of her Saviour. His last public discourse was ended. The Holy City was then left to those vain captains of their sinking ship, unaware of their doom, even when the last lifeboat had departed and no means of escape remained. Plummer expressed it thus:
These sorrowful words of warning are
the Messiah's farewell to his people.
He never again taught in public, and
perhaps he never again entered the
temple. It was perhaps only a few
hours after uttering these woes upon
the teachers, and this lamentation
over the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
that the Sanhedrin met to consider how
they might destroy him who had uttered
them. That was their answer to his
condemnation of their past and his
warnings respecting their future. F14
Note that Christ refers to the temple as "your house," meaning that the most sacred institutions have genuine value only so long as they are blessed with the presence of the Lord. It was, after Christ's rejection, no longer God's house, but theirs!
For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Some believe that this verse refers to the ultimate acceptance of Christ as the Messiah on the part of the Jews of some subsequent age, basing it upon Paul's words in Romans 11; but, although such a possibility might be allowed, it is the view here that no such prophecy was intended in this place. On the other hand, the exact opposite seems indicated by this emphatic declaration. See notes on Matthew 18:34. But even if passing ages should reveal an ultimate acceptance of their King on the part of some Jews of some future generation, the emphatic declaration here would still be true enough as applicable to the millennia intervening.
This verse is, in fact, a challenge to all men. None shall see the King until they are willing to forsake worldly pride, fall upon their knees in repentance, and say, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."
Footnotes for Matthew 23
1: John A. Broadus, American Commentary on the New Testament (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 465.
2: Alfred Plummer, Commentary on Matthew (London: Elliot Stock, 1909), p. 315.
3: Edmond Taylor, The Fall of the Dynasties (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1963), p. 149.
4: H. Leo Boles, Commentary on Matthew (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1936), p. 447.
5: Alfred Plummer, op. cit., p. 318.
6: H. Leo Boles, op. cit., p. 447.
7: Alfred Plummer, op. cit., p. 318.
8: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight, Arkansas: The Gospel Light Publishing Co., 1875), p. 202.
10: John A. Broadus, op. cit., p. 476.
12: G. Campbell Morgan, An Exposition of the Whole Bible (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1959), p. 420.
13: F. W. Farrar, The Life of Christ (New York: A. L. Burt Company), p. 378.
14: Alfred Plummer, op. cit., p. 326.
15: Emphatic Diaglott.
16: Goodspeed, New Testament in Modern Speech.
17: Williams, The New Testament.
18: Moffatt, The New Testament.
19: Paul Blanchard, American Freedom and Catholic Power (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press), pp. 138-139.
20: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 16.
21: Ibid., p. 16.
22: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons, Volume 5 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company), p. 20.
23: Robert Milligan, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: World Vision Publishing Company), pp. 73-74.