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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 6

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-34


The Sermon on the Mount (continued)

1. God's approval, not man's, to be sought in all our actions. Jesus does not say that we are to do good expecting no reward of any kind, but that we are to look for our reward to God alone: see on Matthew 6:4. That ye do not your alms] RV 'your righteousness.' The same Heb. word (tsedakah) means both righteousness in general and almsgiving in particular. Our Lord probably used it in the former sense in Matthew 6:1, and in the latter sense in Matthew 6:2 hence the evangelist translates it differently.

2-4. Ostentation in almsgiving reproved.

2. A trumpet] There was a trumpet in every synagogue, which was sounded on various occasions (e.g. at the beginning of the sabbath and at excommunications), not, however, so far as we know, at the collection of alms. The expression is, therefore, probably a metaphor for 'ostentation.' Hypocrites] In classical Gk. the word means 'an actor.' In the Bible it generally means one who acts a false part in life, i.e. one who pretends to be religious and is not, as here. But sometimes it simply means a wicked person without any idea of hypocrisy, e.g. Matthew 24:51, and several times in OT., e.g. Job 34:30. In the synagogues and in the streets] In a Jewish community alms were given publicly in three ways. (1) Every day three men went round with a basket collecting alms for 'the poor of the world,' i.e. Jews and Gentiles alike. (2) Two synagogue officials went from house to house collecting alms for 'the poor man's chest.' This was for Jews alone. (3) On the sabbath day alms were collected in the synagogue itself: cp. 1 Corinthians 16:2. The abuse which our Lord here attacks is probably that of publishing the amounts given, which would naturally lead to ostentatious rivalry. They have their reward] in the praise of men.

3. Let not thy left hand] A metaphor for secrecy. Yet alms need not on all occasions be secret (cp. Matthew 5:16, 'Let your light so shine before men,' etc.), provided that ostentation be avoided. The best Jewish thought strongly approved of alms done in secret. In the Temple was 'the treasury of the silent' for the support of poor children, to which religious men brought their alms in silence and privacy, and it was strikingly said by one of the rabbis that 'he that doeth alms in secret is greater than our master Moses himself.'

4. Reward thee openly] RV omits openly. The reward will take place at the Day of Judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed. Yet even in this life there is the reward of a good conscience, and of God's approval.

5-15. Maxims for prayer, and the Lord's Prayer. Perhaps the most significant v. of this section is Matthew 6:8, 'Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.' Christians, therefore, are not to pray mainly with the object of bringing their needs before God who knows them already, but because they love Him and delight to be in His presence, and to open their hearts to Him, and to receive from Him those holy inspirations and aspirations which He gives to those who pray aright. Those who thns understand what prayer is, will not pray like the hypocrites (Matthew 6:5), or like the heathen (Matthew 6:7). They will pray in secret, as well as in public, from the mere delight of praying. The section coneludes with the Lord's Prayer, which is given is the perfect model of all prayer.

5. To pray standing] Standing was the usual Jewish attitude in prayer, as kneeling is with us. In prayer a Jew usually (1) stood, (2) turned towards Jerusalem, (3) covered his head, (4) fixed his eyes downwards. The ancient Church prayed standing on Sundays and festivals, but kneeling on fast-days, and the Eastern Church still observes this rule.

In the synagogues and in the corners of the streets] During the synagogue services those who wished to be thought devout did not follow the public prayers, but said private self-righteous prayers of their own, loud enough to be heard and to attract the attention of the congregation. In the streets the same people would sometimes stand for three hours at a time in the attitude of prayer. The prayers of the phylacteries (see on Matthew 23:5) were required to be said at a fixed time with great parade and ceremony. When the time came, the workman put down his tools, the rider descended from his ass, the teacher suspended his lecture, to say them. The ostentatious were careful to be overtaken by the prayer-hour in a public place, and to remain longer praying than any one else.

6. Into thy closet] RV 'into thine inner chamber': cp. Isaiah 26:20; 2 Kings 4:33. There is no disparagement here of public worship, which our Lord elsewhere emphatically commends by precept and practice. But private prayer affords a test of sincerity which public worship does not. Shall reward thee openly] RV 'shall recompense thee.'

7. Use not vain repetitions] Our Lord reproves not repetitions, but vain repetitions. In the agony in the garden He Himself prayed three times in the same words. Vain repetition reaches its culminating point in Thibet, where there are mechanical prayer-wheels worked by the wind to spread out written petitions before the Almighty. Good examples of heathen repetitions are found in 1 Kings 18:26 and in Acts 19:34. The idea that prayers prevail by their number rather than by their earnestness is pagan, and whenever it appears in Christianity is a corruption.

8. Prayer is not to inform God of our needs, as the heathen think, but that we may have conscious communion with Him as His children.

9. After this manner therefore pray ye] Our Lord is not giving simply an illustration of the manner in which Christians ought to pray, but a set form of words to be learnt by heart and habitually used. This is clear from Luke 11:1, 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.' Every Jew was required to recite daily eighteen set prayers of considerable length, or, if hindered by press of business, a summary of them. The rabbis also taught their pupils an additional form of prayer composed by themselves, to be added to these eighteen prayers. Our Lord's disciples would therefore understand that they were to recite the Lord's Prayer every day at the end of their ordinary prayers. That this was done there can be little doubt, for 'The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,' which probably dates from the 1st cent. a.d., directs the Lord's Prayer to be said three times a day by all Christians.

Our Lord's followers would further regard the prayer as a badge of discipleship, something intended to distinguish the disciples of Jesus from all other men. For this reason among others it has always been regarded as the prayer of the Church, not of the world. So jealously was its secrecy guarded in early times, that, like the Creed, it was only taught to catechumens just before their baptism, and was never used in those portions of public worship to which the heathen were admitted. It was always used at Holy Communion, where it formed the conclusion of the canon or prayer of consecration.

The Doxology ('for thine is the kingdom,' etc.), which is based on Jewish models, is no original part of the prayer. It was added as early as the 1st cent, in the Public Liturgy, and thence passed into the text of St. Matthew's Gospel, where it is found in many MSS.

The prayer is given by St. Luke (Luke 11:2-4) in a shorter form (the petitions 'thy will be done' and 'deliver us from evil' being omitted, see RV) and in a different historical connexion. Many account for this by supposing that the prayer was given twice, once complete and once abridged, but it is more probable that it was given only once, viz. on the occasion mentioned by St. Luke, and that St. Matthew has purposely placed it earlier, inserting it in our Lord's first recorded sermon in order to set before the reader at once a comprehensive view of His teaching about prayer. As to the form of the prayer, St. Matthew's version is, without doubt, to be preferred. It is not only fuller, but contains distinct marks of greater closeness to the original Aramaic.

The originality of the Lord's Prayer has sometimes been called in question, but without reason. The parallels adduced from rabbinical prayers are for the most part superficial, and prove no more than that our Lord availed Himself of current Jewish forms of expression.

The Lord's Prayer is generally divided into seven petitions, by some, however, into only six, the last two being reckoned as one. It falls into two distinct portions. The first portion, i.e. the first three petitions, is concerned chiefly with the glory of God; the second portion, i.e. the four latter petitions, with our own needs. Even those needs are mainly of a spiritual character. Bodily wants are mentioned in only one petition, and even that has been generally interpreted of spiritual as well as bodily needs.

9. Our Fatherwhich artinheaven] Christians are taught to say 'Our Father' not 'My Father' because they are brethren, and may not selfishly pray for themselves without praying for others. Every time they use this prayer they are reminded that they are a brotherhood, a society, a Holy Church, a family, of which the members are mutually responsible for one another's welfare, and cannot say, as Cain, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' This was also, though in a lower way, a principle of Judaism. The rabbis said, 'He that prays ought always, when he prays, to join with the Church' (i.e. to say 'we' instead of 'I'). God is never addressed as Father in the OT., and references to His Fatherhood are rare. Where they occur (Deuteronomy 32:6; Isaiah 63:16, etc.) He is spoken of as the Father of the nation, not of individual men. In the Apocrypha individuals begin to speak of God as their Father (Wisdom of Solomon 2:16; Wisdom of Solomon 14:3; Sirach 23:1, Sirach 23:4; Sirach 51:10), and 'Our Father' becomes a fairly common form of address in later rabbinical prayers. Jesus first made the fatherhood of God the basis of religion, and gave it its full meaning. Since the Lord's Prayer is a distinctively Christian prayer, the prayer of the Church, not of humanity, 'Our Father' must be understood in its full Christian sense. In a certain sense God is the Father of all men. He is their Father because He created them, and because, in spite of sin, they are spiritually like Him, being made in His image. But He is the Father of Christians in an altogether new sense. They are His sons by adoption, reconciled to Him by the death of Christ; and, as a continual testimony that they are sons, He sends forth the Spirit of His Son into their hearts, crying, 'Abba,' i.e. 'Father.' Hence none but a Christian, i.e. one who by baptism 'has put on Christ,' and become 'a member of Christ, the child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven,' can rightly use the Lord's Prayer.

Which art in heaven] lit. 'in the heavens.' We are reminded that He who is called Father on earth, is also called Father in the heavens, by the hosts of angels who worship before His throne, and by the spirits of just men made perfect. Heaven is generally plural in NT. (as always in OT.) to indicate that there are various states of glory and blessedness assigned to different persons or to different celestial natures. The expression 'Our Father which art in heaven' is found in Jewish prayers.

Hallowed be thy name] i.e. let Thy Name be regarded as holy by all creatures both in heaven and earth. God's name is His revealed nature, i.e. practically God Himself. Observe that the glory of God, not human needs, is here put first. 'Hallowed be Thy Name' is a prayer that God may be rightly worshipped, and its utterance is in itself an act of worship.

The prayer begins with worship, because worship is the highest spiritual activity of man. It is higher than petition. An unspiritual man can ask for benefits, but no one can worship who does not in his inmost soul apprehend what God is. To worship is to give God His due, to be penetrated with a sense of His perfections, His infinity, His majesty, His holiness, His love, and to prostrate body and soul before Him. In the worship of God is included also due reverence towards all that is God's, or comes from God. We 'hallow His Name, 'when we reverence His holy Word, His day, His Sacraments, His Church, His ministers, His saints, and the revelation which He makes to us outwardly through nature, and inwardly in our own souls through the voice of reason and conscience.

10. Thy kingdom come] A glorious prayer of infinite scope, known also, yet not in its full sense, to the Jews, who held it for a maxim that 'That prayer, wherein is not mentioned the kingdom of God is no prayer at all.' 'Thy kingdom come' means, May justice triumph over injustice, truth over error, kindness over cruelty, purity over lust, peace over enmity. It is a prayer for the peace and unity of the Church, for the growth in grace of its members, and for the conversion of the world. But chiefly it is a prayer 'that it may please Thee, of Thy gracious goodness, shortly to accomplish the number of Thine elect, and to hasten Thy kingdom; that we, with all those who are departed in the true faith of Thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in Thy eternal and everlasting glory.'

Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven] RV 'as in heaven so on earth.' (Lk in RV omits the whole petition.) The nearest Jewish parallel is, 'Do Thy will in heaven, and give quietness of spirit to those who dwell beneath.' 'Thy will be done' is a prayer for grace to conform our wills to the will of God, and for diligence to carry out that will in action. It is also a prayer for the grace of patience. Sometimes God wills that we should suffer pain and sorrow, therefore we pray that we may suffer patiently. In the words 'as in heaven so on earth,' our Lord sets before us the example of the holy angels, who in heaven do God's will perfectly.

11. Give us this day our daily bread] We are not taught to pray for bread for many days, but for one day, God thereby reminding us of our continual dependence upon Him. Nor are we taught to pray for luxuries, but for bread, i.e. for necessary food, shelter, clothing, and health. We pray also for bread for our souls, i.e. the grace to confess our sins and to receive God's pardon, and to persevere, and to know God. But chiefly we pray that we may feed daily by faith on Jesus Christ, who is our true daily bread, and may be worthy partakers of the bread of blessing which makes us one with Him, and Him one with us, and which was to the first Christians literally their daily bread (Acts 2:46).

The Gk. word here translated 'daily' occurs nowhere else in Gk. literature, and its meaning is entirely unknown. The most likely meanings are, (1) daily bread, (2) tomorrow's bread, (3) heavenly bread. Probably the second is the true one, because the ancient Hebrew gospel of the Ebionites so understood it, perhaps preserving the original Heb. word used by Christ (Mahar).

12. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors] RV 'as we also have forgiven our debtors.' No one who has not forgiven his enemies can pray the Lord's Prayer, which is another proof that it is meant for Christians alone. To forgive one's enemies is the act of a Christian, and the very opposite of the way of the world. Even for Christians it is so hard that our Lord thinks it needful to remind us of its urgent necessity every day when we say our prayers. Unless we forgive, we cannot be forgiven; unless we put away all malice and bitterness and hatred and revengeful feeling from our hearts, we are yet in our sins. Sin is here called a debt, i.e. it is regarded as 'an act by which we have robbed God of His rights, and incurred an obligation, or debt which we cannot satisfy, and in regard to which we can only appeal to the divine pity.' For debts St. Luke substitutes 'sins.' St. Matthew's expression, being the more difficult, is the nearer to the original.

This petition, occurring as it does in a prayer intended for Christians only, is conclusive proof that our Lord did not expect His followers to attain sinless perfection in this life. The belief that a converted Christian lives a perfectly sinless life, is directly contrary to the NT.: see 1 John 1:8.

13. And lead (RV 'bring') us not into temptation] God does not Himself tempt (James 1:13), but He allows us to be tempted, and what God permits is often spoken of in Scripture as His act. The temptations here spoken of are not only the direct assaults of the evil one, but the trials and sorrows of life by which our souls are purified and refined, as gold and silver are purged from their dross in a furnace. We pray here that we may not be tempted 'above that we are able,' but that with the temptation God may also make 'a way to escape,' that we may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

But deliver us from evil] RV 'from the evil one' (omitted by Lk in RV). This is a prayer that God may keep us 'from all sin and wickedness, and from our ghostly enemy, and from everlasting death.' The translation 'evil one' in this passage is adopted by nearly all modern commentators: cp. Matthew 13:19, Matthew 13:38; John 17:15; Ephesians 6:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:3 (RV), especially 1 John 2:13-14; 1 John 3:12; 1 John 5:18, 1 John 5:19.

For thine is the kingdom] RV rightly omits the Doxology, which is a liturgical addition, dating, however, from an early age, for it is found in 'The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles' (cirMatthew 80-160 a.d., but probably before 100). It is Jewish in origin. In the Temple services the people did not respond 'Amen' to the prayers as they did in the synagogues, but 'Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever.'

14, 15. Repeated in Mark 11:25 : cp. Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13. One of the weightiest precepts and warnings of the Christian religion, and one of the most neglected.

16-18. Precepts for private fasts (not in St. Luke). Our Lord says nothing of public fasts, because when every one else is fasting there is little temptation to vainglory. In our Lord's time there were not more than five (or six) public fasts (see below), but the strict Jews, especially the Pharisees, were accustomed to fast also on Thursday (the day when Moses ascended Mount Sinai), and on Monday (the day when he came down): see Luke 18:12. Vainglorious persons fasted more frequently even than this, and were careful to advertise the fact. A faster did not wash, or bathe, or anoint the body, or shave the head, or wear sandals, but placed ashes on his head, thereby 'disfiguring his face.' It was said of a certain Rabbi Joshua, that 'all the days of his life his face was black by reason of his fastings.' Christians are directed by our Lord when fasting privately, to conceal the fact, lest they should be guilty of ostentation. This command does not apply to public fasts ordered by lawful authority. On such occasions Christians should fast publicly, both as an outward expression of obedience, and for the encouragement of others who are afraid of ridicule. All excessive fasting which would injure the body or interfere with the due discharge of social duties is contrary to Christianity. People who are strictly abstemious or temperate can fast very little with regard to the quantity of food, but it is open to them to fast with regard to its quality. To fast is also to abstain from usual and lawful indulgences and amusements, so far as can be done in charity and without attracting undue attention. The time saved can be given to prayer, meditation, visiting the sick, etc. Money saved by fasting should of course be spent in charity. The object of Christian fasting is, (1) to subdue the flesh to the spirit, and (2) to fit the mind for devotion. A fast which is not joined with prayer and devotion is no Christian fast. See further Luke 9:14-17; Acts 13:2; Acts 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 2 Corinthians 11:27.

What fasts were observed in our Lord's time is not quite certain. Only one fast (the Day of Atonement) was prescribed in the Law. During the exile arose the custom of observing four yearly fasts to commemorate the calamities of Jerusalem. That of the fourth month commemorated the capture of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52:6.), that of the fifth the destruction of the city and Temple (Jeremiah 52:12), that of the seventh the murder of Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41:1), that of the tenth the beginning of the siege (Jeremiah 52:4). Of much later origin was the fast on the 13th of Adar, supposed to commemorate the advice of Haman to massacre the Jews. To what extent, if at all, these fasts were observed in Palestine in our Lord's time, is a disputed question.

16. Disfigure their faces] viz. with ashes, or perhaps, 'conceal their faces with a veil': see 2 Samuel 15:30; Esther 6:12.

17. Anoint] This may mean 'Anoint thy head as for a banquet,' but anointing was a common practice at all times.

18. Shall reward thee openly] RV 'shall recompense thee.'

19-34. These vv. are not very closely connected, but they form a kind of unity, and are printed as a single paragraph in RV. They deal with excessive care for earthly things: (a) wealth, Matthew 6:19-24; (b) food and raiment, Matthew 6:25-34. For purposes of exposition they maybe conveniently divided into three sections.

9-21. The earthly treasure and the heavenly treasure. When do we lay up 'treasure in heaven'? Whenever we give alms (Matthew 6:2), or pray (Matthew 6:5), or fast (Matthew 6:16), to please God rather than man. But these three examples are only introduced to prepare the way for the wider principle that in every action of our lives, and not only in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, it is possible to lay up treasure in heaven. Not only by the right use of wealth, but by the right use of any faculty, talent, or opportunity with which God has entrusted us, heavenly treasure is laid up. Even when we are doing nothing actively for God, but are only patiently suffering what He wills that we should bear, we are laying up treasure in heaven. Every act, however small, which is done purely for the glory of God, and for no lower motive, will receive its reward.

19. Moth and rust] Wealth in Eastern lands is largely stored and hoarded. Much of it consists of costly changes of raiment, which are liable to the attacks of moths. Breakthrough] lit. 'dig through,' viz. the wall of the house, which was often only built of clay.

21. For where your treasure is, etc.] see Luke 12:34. The heavenly treasure is the approval of our heavenly Father, which is represented as wealth stored up in heaven, ready to be enjoyed hereafter. The earthly treasure is not only wealth (though that is its most striking exemplification), but everything lower than God Himself on which men set their hearts,—honour, fame, pleasure, ease, power, excitement, luxury, animal enjoyment.

22-24. Singlemindedness in God's service, and how it is to be attained (Luke 11:34; Luke 16:13). The connexion of thought is—How can we be sure that we are laying up treasure in heaven, and acting simply and purely for the glory of God? Our Lord replies: By paying attention to our consciences, and keeping them in a healthy state. We are too much inclined to believe that our consciences are sure to lead us right, forgetting that the conscience itself may be darkened by sin. Conscience is like the eye. When the eye is in a healthy state the whole body is full of light (Matthew 6:22). Every object is seen in its true colours, true proportions, and accurate position. But if there is a cataract in the eye, or malformation of the lens, or colour-blindness, then the whole body is full of darkness, or distorted light (Matthew 6:23). So it may be with conscience, and therefore we are warned against blindly trusting our consciences, which may, through past sin or from lack of moral education, be seeing things in a false light, or may even be thoroughly corrupt, giving us moral darkness instead of light. We are to put our consciences to school with Jesus Christ, and to be quite sure before we trust them, that they give the same moral judgments and are as sensitive as those of the best Christians. When our consciences are sound, and our souls are full of light, we shall be able to discern whether we are serving God. or mammon. If our consciences are unsound, we may go on serving mammon all our lives without knowing it.

22. The light] RV 'the lamp.' The body] In the parable the 'body' stands for the soul of man. Thine eye] i.e. thy conscience.

Single] i.e. seeing things in their true light.

24. Two masters] It is a common idea that virtue shades off into vice by imperceptible gradations, and that the majority of men are neither bad nor good. Our Lord pronounces absolutely that in the last resort there are only two classes of men, those who are serving God, and those who are serving the world. Mammon] RV 'mammon.' Not a proper name as readers of Milton would naturally suppose, but an Aramaic word for 'riches' (Luke 16:9, Luke 16:11) Here it stands for 'worldliness,' which finds its chief expression in the love of money.

25-34. The Christian's freedom from care and anxiety (Luke 12:22-34). The worldly man is oppressed with care. He is always in fear that his deep-laid plans for the future will miscarry, that some object that he loves will be torn from his grasp, that his wealth will vanish, or that his health will fail so that he can enjoy life no longer. The actual failure of his earthly prospects makes him the most miserable of men, for those prospects were his all, and however little he may confess it to himself, he in truth loves nothing else. He seemed, perhaps, to be serving God much, and mammon a little, but he was in reality serving mammon with undivided devotion.

The Christian also pays attention to worldly things. He is diligent in his trade or profession. He makes all reasonable provision for the future. Often he prospers in business just because he is a Christian, and does honest work where a less scrupulous man would not. But his heart is not set on these things, nor is he anxious about them. He does his best, and leaves the issue to God: cp. Psalms 37:25. Observe that the promise of sufficient maintenance is made not to the idle, the improvident, and the vicious, but to the righteous, who seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Those who do this can never be idle or improvident: cp. 1 Timothy 5:8.

25. Take no thought] RV 'be not anxious': cp. 1 Peter 5:7.

26. They sow not] God provides for the birds without labour on their part, because labour is not natural to birds. But labour is natural to men, therefore God provides for men by blessing their labour. There is a close rabbinical parallel to this saying: 'Have you ever seen beast or fowl that had a workshop? and yet they are fed without trouble of mind.'

27. By taking thought] RV 'by being anxious.' One cubit unto his stature] Since no one would literally desire to have a cubit (a foot and a half) added to his stature, and the word translated 'stature' generally means 'age' (see RM), it is better to translate, 'Which of you.. can add one span to his age?'

28. Take ye thought] RV 'are ye anxious.'

30. Into the oven] Dried grass is used in the East for heating the baking ovens, which are holes in the ground rather more than 3 ft. deep and 2½ ft. wide, shaped like a jar. The walls are cemented to resist the action of fire. Grass is burnt in the ovens, until they are thoroughly hot. Then dough rolled out into thin sheets is spread on the sides of the oven, where it is baked in a few minutes, and is taken out in the form of wafer-cakes.

34. Take no thought] RV 'Be not anxious.' Our Lord regarded cheerfulness and joy, and the absence of care and anxiety, as the mark of a true Christian who puts his trust in God. Similarly the rabbis said, 'There is enough of trouble in the very moment.'

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 6:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/matthew-6.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, August 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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