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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Hebrews 1

 

 

Other Authors
Introduction

(1-14) He in whom God has at last revealed Himself to man is Son of God, exalted above all angels.


Verse 1

(1) God, who at sundry times. . . .—The fine arrangement of the words in the Authorised version fails, it must be confessed, to convey the emphasis which is designed in the original. The writer’s object is to place the former revelation over against that which has now been given; and the remarkable words with which the chapter opens (and which might not inaptly serve as the motto of the whole Epistle) strike the first note of contrast. If we may imitate the artistic arrangement of the Greek, the verse will run thus, “In many portions and in many ways God having of old spoken unto the fathers in the prophets.” To the fathers of the Jewish people (comp. Romans 9:5) God’s word was given part by part, and in divers manners. It came in the revelations of the patriarchal age, in the successive portions of Holy Writ: various truths were successively unveiled through the varying ministry of law, and of prophecy, and of promise ever growing clearer through the teaching of experience and history. At one time the word came in direct precept, at another in typical ordinance or act, at another in parable or psalm. The word thus dealt out in fragments and variously imparted was God’s word, for the revealing Spirit of God was “in the prophets” (2 Corinthians 13:3). We must not unduly limit the application of “prophet”; besides those to whom the name is directly given, there were many who were representatives of God to His people, and interpreters of His will. (Comp. Numbers 11:26; Numbers 11:29; Psalms 105:15.)


Verse 1-2

Progressive Revelation

God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son.—Hebrews 1:1-2.

No one can read this Epistle without perceiving that the writer belongs to the Pauline school; in other words, that he has more sympathy with the new age which is coming than with the old age which is going. Yet, if we look more closely, we shall find that there is a conservative element amidst his sympathies. His heart is with the future, but the future which claims his heart is one which will absorb rather than divorce the past. He sees clearly that the forms of Judaism were in their very nature transitory and perishable, and that no conjunction of circumstances could ever have made them permanent. But he sees not less clearly that they typified that which could not perish; that they were not illusions, much less delusions, but the shadows of things to come, whose glory all along had been the forecast of the substance which they prefigured. He is prepared to see them fade, but not to fade into nothingness. When that which is perfect is come, that which is in part is done away; yet all the parts exist in the completed whole. So to the eye of this writer the shadows of Judaism only fade in that light which gave them birth, and yield their borrowed glory to the coming substance which they foreshadowed. He repudiates the notion that he is proclaiming a new system of the universe; he will not even admit that a new voice is speaking. He maintains that from the beginning there has been a continuity of Divine revelation: “God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us.” The voice has never been broken; the accents have never been interrupted; there has simply been a change in tone and modulation, as the ear of the listener developed from the organ of a child into the organ of a mature man.

But, having conceded so much to the spirit of Judaism, the writer of this Epistle proceeds to exhibit the vast advance which the last stage of the revelation has made upon its earlier stages. He goes on to enumerate the different points in which the Divine voice in Christianity is distinguished from the Divine voice in Judaism, and in every one of these points he finds the advantage on the side of the former.

Let us notice:—

I. The One Authentic Voice.

II. The Two Dispensations.

III. The Culmination in Christ

I

The One Authentic Voice

1. The first truth which the author of this Epistle emphasizes is that God has spoken. God has been speaking to our world. Human nature has suffered many degradations, but it has never utterly lost the capacity for seeing the presence and hearing the voice of the Father in heaven. And to that capacity—abused, degraded, but never quite destroyed—God has ever been making His appeal. Now He has flashed forth His glory in the pomp of the sunset, and made the majesty of silent stars to speak His greatness. Now He has called forth, from a solitude which none could penetrate, a holy man into whose very spirit He has inwrought His mind and heart, and has set him to utter His thought and manifest His name. And now He has wrought in the very eyes of the people, vindicating the right and crushing the wrong, making paths through trackless wastes and solid walls of mobile waters, lifting a veil here and speaking a tone there. But everywhere and at all times and in all ways it has been the same God, revealing His life, declaring His will, manifesting His glory, calling to His children. The light was ever adapted to the eye, the revelation to the capacity, the ideal to the spirit. Bit by bit the veil has been lifted, the disclosure made, the glory flashed out, that men might be prepared for the complete vision, the final discovery, the full manifestation.

I think I ought to tell you that of late the consciousness of the necessity and reliability of revelation has greatly deepened within me. I hardly know how best to convey to others what I mean. Perhaps the best way of putting it would be to say that, although one has always believed in revelation, as every Christian must, it is only comparatively recently that the realization of its outstanding importance has broken upon my mind. You all know how, as children, we take home for granted, as it were; we observe that our elders come and go, possess a certain authority over us, and appear to be concerned with matters too great for our young apprehension; but, being children, we do not realize that the home itself is maintained by what is brought into it from an outside world by the labours and sacrifices of the breadwinner. We may know it, may often have been told it, may be very grateful for it at special times when it takes forms exceptionally agreeable to our childish intelligence; but it is only as we grow older that we really come to understand it. To some the knowledge comes gradually and simply; to others suddenly and painfully. But, in whatever way it comes, it changes one’s whole perspective of life in greater or less degree. Of course, I am not suggesting that my religious experience has been as profoundly affected as this by the realization to which I refer; it has not; but you will all readily admit that to see an essential thing plainly, which before you took for granted, but only saw dimly, must make considerable difference to the way in which you visualize your experience. What I see, then, is this: that at intervals throughout all human history God has been disclosing Himself to His children in exceptional ways over and above all that unaided human faculty could discover for itself; that flashes and intimations have come through to the natural from the supernatural world, to the temporal from the eternal; and that in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ especially we have a Divine self-impartation to man such as cannot be explained in terms of our earthly knowledge, and yet is the most precious thing we possess. This does not sound much to say, but there is more in it than appears. Once admit it and it will carry you far. There is no greater question before us at the present hour than the question of the nature, limits, and trustworthiness of Divine Revelation 1 [Note: R. J. Campbell, in The Christian Commonwealth, April 9, 1913, p. 489.]

2. The voice of God is its own witness. There is something in the voice of God which, to an uncorrupt mind, in proportion as it is uncorrupt, is unmistakable. The words of Amos evidently express the main reason why the voices of God in the Bible demand belief and submission. “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? the Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” If a man’s heart be not hardened, the word of God, the voice of God will bespeak the awful Being from whom it proceeds, just as our voices may betray our characters, or as the lion’s roar bespeaks a mighty force. Dryden has, to some extent, expressed this in the following lines:—

Majestic and Divine,

It speaks no less than God in every line,

Commanding words, whose force is still the same

As the first fiat that produced our frame.

Some time ago I was one of a small party which was engaged in exploring some curious winding caves under the guidance of a person well acquainted with their formation. Each of us carried a candle, which was the only light we had, and at some points during our subterranean progress the illumination produced by the reflection of the rays of our candles from the rock crystals and stalactites above and around us was strikingly beautiful. All at once I noticed another party some distance ahead of us and coming toward us, and as the persons composing it passed one by one under a certain spot we could see their faces plainly. A full, soft light fell upon them from somewhere above. It was a light quite different from that of the candles they carried, and if I had never seen the upper world before, if I had known nothing about it except by hearsay, I should instantly have felt convinced there was such a place because of that light, for it was the light of the sun itself. In like manner I feel convinced that the spiritual, the eternal, the Divine, the home of our souls, is at least what I have described because of the light which breaks through from it, the light that is other and brighter than the candle of reason, the light that never was on sea or land, but which we can see shining on the faces of the saints.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]

3. God’s voice is ever the same although it has not always been heard with the same distinctness. The Old Testament is a record of religious evolution—not of the whole of it, but of a particular section of it, a section of it which is of peculiar and exceptional importance to the world for two reasons. It is a history of the process by which a certain little Syrian tribe with a primitive religion, originally not very different from that of surrounding tribes, gradually came to see in their tribal Deity Jehovah the Creator and Ruler of heaven and earth, the one only true God, a God perfectly righteous, and delighting in righteousness. And that is a process absolutely unique in the history of the world. Isolated thinkers elsewhere had glimpses of the truth, but the Jews were the first great monotheistic people. That fact alone must for ever give to the Old Testament a unique and imperishable predominance among the religious literatures of the ancient world for all who believe in God, though we shall do well at the same time to insist very strongly on the fact that it is the ultimate result of the development, rather than its earliest stages, that differentiates it so strongly from other collections of sacred books.

Every part of the universe interlocks by subtle and delicate links with every other part. You cannot disturb the balance anywhere without sending a shock of disturbance through the whole system. Just as in some majestic Gothic minster the same idea repeats itself in bolder or slighter forms, so do the same great thoughts recur in tree and flower, in molecule and planet, in diatom and man. And all this because, if you penetrate to Nature’s heart, you meet God. “Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things.” “There are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.” The unity that pervades Nature’s temple is the result of its having originated from one mind, and having been effected by one hand—the mind and hand of God. This holds true of Scripture. What else could have led mankind to look upon these sixty-six tractlets as being so unmistakably related to each other, that they must be bound up together under a common cover? There has been something so unique in these books that they have always stood and fallen together. To disintegrate one had been to loose them all. Belief in one has led to belief in all. Their hands are linked and locked so tightly that where one goes all must follow. And though wise and clever men have tried their best, they have never been able to produce a single treatise containing that undefinable quality which gives these their mysterious oneness; and to lack which is fatal to the claims of any book to be included with them, or to demand the special veneration and homage of mankind.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer, The Way into the Holiest, 10.]

Do I value the locket less because I know it is a human handiwork? It is not the locket I care for. It is the picture of the beloved that is in the locket. It is not the frame and form and structure of the book, but it is the God who dwells in the book that makes it dear to me—dwelling in Moses, in David, in Isaiah, manifesting Himself through their lives, in fragmentary ways, imperfect in conduct, imperfect in experience, imperfect in expression; at last to show Himself in Jesus Christ our Lord, the only perfect Life, the only perfect Teacher, the only perfect manifestation of God, in either word or deed. He that did speak in fragmentary forms and utterances through the prophets hath spoken in these last days by His Son. Christ in the Bible makes the Bible sacred.1 [Note: L. Abbott, Signs of Promise, 271.]

II

The Two Dispensations

This nameless Apostle is addressing men who have been expecting the visible triumph of Christ as the long-looked-for Messiah, and who now find that they are suddenly called upon instead to sacrifice many of the traditions from which they and their country had drawn the best that was in them. The Scriptures which they had loved and studied, the cherished worship of the Temple, the ancient priesthood, the glorious ritual, the institutions which they could not but feel to have been divinely appointed—all these they were now for ever to resign; and who can wonder if some of them seemed to falter at this terrible breach with their past life? But here begins the consolation of the Epistle. The past revelation, the writer tells them, was imperfect; it grew and varied in its fulness, but it never reached perfection; now it was made perfect in Christ. Christ had superseded the past because all that was good in it was also, with much else, to be found in Him. Indeed, the highest value of that past as viewed from the standpoint of the present, lay in the fact that it had been the introduction to a new order of things. In Judaism every institution—the priesthood, the ritual, the Psalms, the Temple—had been rooted in an unfulfilled Christianity: in Judaism the day had been slowly dawning; in Christ it had come. The day-star had risen in men’s hearts, and those many night-stars of varying brightness were needed no longer.

1. A contrast is drawn between the fragmentariness of the Old Testament dispensation, and the full-orbed revelation of the New. “By divers portions.” The single word that is rendered “at sundry times” properly means “in numerous parts” or “parcels,” which, however, were no doubt given at “sundry times”; so that the rendering in the Authorized Version, though imperfect, is legitimate. The idea is that God did not at once open up the fulness of His mind, and unfold to view the treasures of His grace. His plan proceeded on the principle of “here a little” and “there a little.” His revelation was given piecemeal. It came bit by bit, as the fathers might be able to receive it.

Mahometanism has but a single prophet. Its sacred book is the work of one man. Its doctrines were all proclaimed at one time. Its theology was built up from beginning to end in the course of a single life. It had no period of preparation. It came into the world as an adult system; at least its maturity was reached so rapidly that it might be described as adult. I am not of course speaking of Mahometanism as a historical phenomenon. Historically it has its antecedents, and those antecedents can be explained and traced; but as a prophet Mahomet had no precursors. He brought his own credentials; he delivered his own message; he left that message in a form which he intended to be final, and to need no supplementing by others. In all these respects the faith of Christ and that of Mahomet stand in marked contrast. Mahomet, indeed, had Christianity and Judaism to build upon, or he would never have reached the height that he did. He himself to some extent recognized his obligations. But when we think of Mahometanism, we think of a religion promulgated once for all as a whole. And the difference when we turn to our own Bibles helps us to realize what is meant by “divers portions.”1 [Note: W. Sanday, The Oracles of God, 2.]

2. A second contrast is drawn between the diversity of means used for disclosing truth in old times and the one majestic disclosure that eclipsed them all. The old revelation was not only “in numerous parts,” or “portions”; it was given “in divers manners.” The reference is to the various forms which the subject-matter of the communications was made to assume, as it passed on through the prophets to the people at large. There were commandments. There were promises. There was history. There were exhortations, expostulations, invitations, warnings, pleadings, threatenings. There were predictions and types, parables and proverbs, psalms and songs. God spoke, as Cardinal Cajetan observes, “to the intellect, to the imagination, to the senses.” He addressed at one time the principle of hope, at another the principle of gratitude, at another still the principle of competition and rivalry, then perhaps the principle of fear, or the nobler principle of conscience, and of the consciousness of a certain Divine imperative speaking in authoritative tones within the conscience. Thus, “in manifold fashion,” did God reveal His mind to “the fathers.”

God is at work in all history and in the life of every man. It is He who gives to each his daily bread; He leadeth men by ways they know not. But from most of them His activity is hidden as by thick veils, so that they see only the human part in all that happens, whilst in the Old Testament we have history with the veils removed, history meditated and brooded over until it has given up its secret, and God’s part is seen. It would be a great calamity if we consented to regard that older story as a Divine exception, floating vaguely in high heaven, in strong contrast to the laws and possibilities of our life to-day. “These things were written for our learning,” says St. Paul, and we cannot learn from what is of a different kind from our own. What is written about Israel corresponds to the view which faith takes of the life of any man to-day; however blank and common that may seem to those who see it from outside, it is a life beset by Divine kindness, appealed to and shepherded by God, and some day becoming aware of God. To faith it is clear that every blessing which reaches us, the light of the sun, and the sweet airs, and all that quickens life in men, comes because God means it so. There is nothing insignificant, and if we understood life better we should feel its wonder more; for to watch the movement of events, to see the grace that follows and encompasses men, and offers itself, and continually is rejected—that brings us near to adoration of the miracle of God’s patience.1 [Note: W. M. Macgregor, Some of God’s Ministries, 237.]

3. There is a further contrast between “the prophets” and “the Son.” The author says nothing about rites, institutions, dispensations, and laws. The reason apparently is that he wishes to compare with the revelation in Christ the highest, purest, and fullest revelation given before; and the most complete revelation vouchsafed to men, before the Son came to declare the Father, is to be found, not in sacrifices but in the words of promise, not in the institutions but in holy men, who were sent, time after time, to quicken the institutions into new life or to preach new truths. The prophets were seers and poets. Nature’s highest gift is imagination, whether it “makes” a world that transcends nature or “sees” what in nature is hidden from the eyes of ordinary men. This faculty of the true poet, elevated, purified, taken possession of by God’s Holy Spirit, became the best instrument of revelation, until the word of prophecy was made more sure through the still better gift of the Son.

A glance at the Maréchale’s well-used Bible suffices to prove that for her the heart of the Old Testament is in Hosea, the prophet of love, and Isaiah, the prophet of atonement; while the heart of the New Testament is in the story of the returning prodigal or the penitent Magdalene. If there were parts of the much-loved Book from which she could not preach, she was here, too, guided by her instincts. One day she was reading to her youngest children the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. All went well till she came to the words, “And the king commanded, and they brought those men which had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of the lions, them, their children and their wives; and the lions had the mastery over them, and brake all their bones in pieces.” At this point Evelyn, a blue-eyed maid of six, whose face had suddenly become very grave, said, “C’est assez; ferme le livre!” (That’s enough; shut the book!) Her Christian instinct would not accept the death of innocent women and children. Sir Walter Scott’s little friend, Pet Marjorie, commented on a similar passage in the Book of Esther, “But Jesus was not then come to teach us to be merciful.” It is written: “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”1 [Note: J. Strahan, The Maréchale (1913), 267.]

There is something to us very striking in Arthur Hallam’s words, “Revelation is a voluntary approximation of the Infinite Being to the ways and thoughts of finite humanity.” This states the case with an accuracy and a distinctness not at all common among either the opponents or the apologists of revealed religion in the ordinary sense of the expression. In one sense God is for ever revealing Himself. His heavens are for ever telling His glory, and the firmament showing His handiwork; day unto day is uttering speech, and night unto night is showing knowledge concerning Him. But in the word of the truth of the gospel, God draws near to His creatures; He bows His heavens, and comes down:

That glorious form, that light unsufferable,

And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,

He lays aside. The Word dwelt with men. “Come then, let us reason together;”—“Waiting to be gracious;”—“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man open to me, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me.” It is the father seeing his son while yet a great way off, and having compassion, and running to him and falling on his neck and kissing him; for “it was meet for us to rejoice, for this my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”1 [Note: Dr. John Brown, Horœ Subsecivœ, ii. 469.]

III

The Culmination in Christ

1. In the fulness of time God has spoken in His Son. The long, painful discipline is ended. The revelation in types and symbols, here in this manner and there in that part, has been consummated. The pale stars that jewelled and relieved the night have been quenched in the overmastering glory of the mid-day sun. The whole life of Jesus, so exquisite in beauty, so sovereign in power, is a strong accent of the voice of God. He is the final and absolute revelation, at once the tenderest and the most authentic appeal of the Lord. All others who had spoken in His name and declared His will were but messengers who by preliminary disciplines should prepare men’s hearts for this final revelation. Jesus is the unveiling of the Father’s full glory, the manifestation of His high and holy name, the laying bare of the opulent love of His heart. He who in an intimacy of mind and heart which was complete dwelt in the excellent glory of God, came forth into the world to unveil before the eyes of men the purity and pity, the solicitude and sympathy, the love and the sacrifice of God. That is the fine glory of Jesus. All the scattered rays of light are focussed in Him. They shine as they reflect His glory. He is the world’s Sun, lighting every man that ever came into the world, but in these last days standing out in acknowledged and radiant glory, the unique and lonely Revealer of the Father. The very voice of the Lord God hath spoken unto us in Jesus our Saviour.

Prophets and seers had caught flashes of light that penetrated the darkness. Poets and singers had imprisoned strains of lovely music which had been heard by their souls. Lofty and pure spirits had seen tracings of His thought, suggestions of the work of an unseen Mind. Men had stood in reverent awe before what they felt was the movement of His hand and arm. Bit by bit, like the piecing together of a beautiful mosaic, they had reverently striven to put together their different parts, and to complete the picture of the Most High God. That is the pathos of man’s quest, that the deeper pathos of all early history. But at the last He came, the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His Person. Forth from the bosom of God and in infinite glory of heaven, He stepped into our world. He gathered together every ray of light, every touch of beauty, every suggestion of the infinite which had ever visited man and set them all in their proper place. By word and deed and life He unveiled the mystery, interpreted the character, manifested the name. And as men gazed at the completed picture, behold! it was the face of a Father.

What and who is Jesus Christ? In reverence and humility let us give our answer. He is the meeting of the Divine and human—the presence of God in humanity, the perfection of humanity in God; the Divine made human, the human shown to be capable of union with the Divine; the utterance, therefore, of the nearness and the love of God, and of the possibility of man. Once in the ages came the wondrous life, once in the stretch of history the face of Jesus shone in Palestine, and His feet left their blessed impress upon earth; but what that life made manifest had been for ever true. Its truth was timeless, the truth of all eternity. The love of God, the possibility of man,—these two which made the Christhood,—these two, not two but one, had been the element in which all life was lived, all knowledge known, all growth attained. Oh, how little men have made it, and how great it is! Around all life which ever has been lived there has been poured for ever the life of the loving Deity and the ideal humanity. All partial excellence, all learning, all brotherhood, all hope, has been bosomed on this changeless, this unchanging Being which has stretched from the forgotten beginning to the unguessed end.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks: Memories of His Life, 481.]

2. God in Christ still speaks to us. While criticism has been raging round the letter of the gospel narrative, the voice of the Son of God has been calmly speaking in that narrative, in unearthly tones, with supernatural and supreme authority, and has been extorting from human thoughts and consciences the old exclamation, “Truly this was the Son of God!” His words provoke allegiance and obedience by their own inherent force; they too, by His gracious condescension, are supported by all the mass of past miracle and present fulfilment of prophecy and manifest grace which here have an overwhelming corroboration. He has put His seal on all the utterances of God in the past, has reaffirmed all the great revelations they declare, has shown us His Father, and has brought the Father home to us by word and deed; and in His word we are brought into direct communication with His Father and our Father, with His God and our God, and so our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

You never get to the end of Christ’s words. There is something always behind. They pass into proverbs, they pass into laws, they pass into doctrine, they pass into consolation; but they never pass away, and after all the use that is made of them, they are still not exhausted.2 [Note: Dean Stanley.]

At first one’s conceptions of Christ are abstract to a great extent; they ought to become more and more concrete. To find ourselves any nearer the belief that we have an High Priest, once a man, now passed into the heavens, and whom the heavens will contain till the restitution of all things, ought to be a glad thought. We feel His workings, His efficacies. I thought to-day, when I was weary, of His saying, “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but in me ye shall have peace.” We feel it. Say not in thine heart, “Who shall ascend into heaven, that is, to bring Christ down from above? Behold, the word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart.” This to me has always been a marvellous explication of the mystery of faith—the incarnate Word, the truth, the life, the syllable, and the essence.

Whate’er we hope, by faith we have

Future and past subsisting now.

But as experience advances we ought to get nearer to the realization of “Whom, not having seen, we love; and in whom, though now we see him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Should we not be able to speak of Him, and feel towards Him something as certainly as of a living friend whom we knew to be in the next room?1 [Note: Letters of James Smetham, 85.]

Progressive Revelation

Literature

Abbott (L.), Signs of Promise, 256.

Alexander (S. A.), The Mind of Christ, 148.

Allon (H.), The Indwelling Christ, 301.

Austin (G. B.), The Beauty of Goodness, 194.

Bellars (W.), Our Inheritance in the Old Testament, 33.

Calthrop (G.), The Future Life, 26.

Cope (F. L.), A North Country Preacher, 51.

Dale (R. W.), The Jewish Temple and the Christian Church, 11.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, vi. 247.

Driver (S. R.), Sermons on the Old Testament, 119.

Hort (F. J. A.), Village Sermons, i. 128.

Hunt (A. N.), Sermons for the Christian Year, 32.

Meyer (F. B.), The Way into the Holiest, 9.

New (C.), Sermons Preached in Hastings, 258.

Paget (F.), Studies in the Christian Character, 112.

Rashdall (H.), Christus in Ecclesia, 233.

Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, ii. 136.

Sanday (W.), The Oracles of God, 1.

Thackeray (F. St. John), Sermons Preached in Eton College Chapel, 47.

Vaughan (C. J.), Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, 459.

Weir (J. F.), The Way: The Nature and the Means of Revelation, 63, 175.

Westcott (B. F.), The Incarnation and Common Life, 277.

Christian Commonwealth, xxxiii. (1913) 489 (R. J. Campbell).

Christian World Pulpit, xxxviii. 170 (P. M‘Adam Muir); lvi. 203 (E. J. Hardy); lviii. 140 (H. Wace); lxiv. 74 (J. S. Banks).

Church Pulpit Year Book, 1914, p. 273.

Churchman’s Pulpit: Christmas Day, ii. 147 (T. H. Stokoe).

Expositor, 1st Ser., i. 60 (J. Morison); x. 275 (G. Matheson).


Verse 2

(2) Hath in these last days . . .—Better, at the end of these days spake unto us in a Son. The thought common to the two verses is “God hath spoken to man”; in all other respects the past and the present stand contrasted. The manifold successive partial disclosures of God’s will have given place to one revelation, complete and final; for He who spake in the prophets hath now spoken “in a Son.” The whole stress lies on these last words. The rendering “a Son” may at first cause surprise, but it is absolutely needed; not, “Who is the Revealer?” but, “What is He?” is the question answered in these words. The writer does not speak of a Son in the sense of one out of many; the very contrast with the prophets (who in the lower sense were amongst God’s sons) would be sufficient to prove this, but the words which follow, and the whole contents of this chapter, are designed to show the supreme dignity of Him who is God’s latest Representative on earth. The prophet’s commission extended no farther than the special message of his words and life; “a Son” spoke with His Father’s authority, with complete knowledge of His will and purpose. It is impossible to read these first lines (in which the whole argument of the Epistle is enfolded) without recalling the prologue of the fourth Gospel. The name “Word” is not mentioned here, and the highest level of St. John’s teaching is not reached; but the idea which “the Word” expresses, and the thought of the Only Begotten as declaring and interpreting the Father (John 1:18; also John 14:10; John 14:24) are present throughout. There is something unusual in the words, “at the end of these days.” St. Peter speaks of the manifestation of Christ “at the end of the times” (1 Peter 1:20); and both in the Old Testament and in the New we not unfrequently read “at the end (or, in the last) of the days.” (See 2 Peter 3:3; Jude 1:18; Numbers 24:14; Daniel 10:14, &c.) The peculiarity of the expression here lies in “these days.” The ages preceding and following the appearance of Messiah are in Jewish writers known as “this world” (or, age) and the “coming world” (or, age); the “days of Messiah” seem to have been classed sometimes with the former, sometimes with the latter period; but “the end of these days” would be understood by every Jewish reader to denote the time of His appearing.

Whom he hath appointed.—Better, whom He appointed: in the divine counsels He was constituted “Heir of all things.” The clauses which follow describe the successive steps in the accomplishment of this purpose. The words have often been understood as referring to the Son’s essential Lordship: as Eternal Son He is and must be Heir of all. But this explanation is less consistent with the word “appointed,” with the strict significance of “Heir,” and with the development of the thought in the following verses; and it is on all grounds more probable that in these words is expressed the great theme of the Epistle, the consummation of all things in the Christ.

By whom.—Rather, through whom. So in John 1:3 we read that all things came into being through the Word; and in Colossians 1:16, “All things have been created through Him.” In this manner Philo repeatedly describes the creative work of the Logos. Here, however, “this mediatorial function has entirely changed its character. To the Alexandrian Jew it was the work of a passive tool or instrument; but to the Christian Apostle it represented a co-operating agent” (Lightfoot on Colossians 1:16).

The worlds.—A word of very common occurrence in the New Testament as a designation of time occurs in two passages of this Epistle (here and in Hebrews 11:3) where the context shows more than “age” to be intended. Under time is included the work that is done in time, so that “the ages” here must be (to quote Delitzsch’s words) “the immeasurable content of immeasurable time.” “Also” may seem an unnecessary addition, but (almost in the sense accordingly) it points to creation as the first step towards the fulfilment of the design expressed in the preceding clause.


Verse 3

(3) Who being the brightness . . .—Who being the effulgence of His glory and the exact image of His substance. The first figure is familiar to us in the words of the Nicene Creed (themselves derived from this verse and a commentary upon it), “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.” Again striking parallels to the language present themselves in Philo, who speaks of the spirit breathed into man at his creation as an “effulgence of the Blessed and Thrice-blessed Nature”; and in the well-known passage of the Book of Wisdom, “She (Wisdom) is the effulgence of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of His goodness” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:26). In the Old Testament the token of the divine presence is the Shechinah, the “cloud of glory” (called “the glory” in Romans 9:4; comp. Hebrews 9:5 in this Epistle); here it is the divine nature itself that is denoted by the “glory.” Of the relation between this word and that which follows (“substance”) it is difficult to speak, as the conceptions necessarily transcend human language; but we may perhaps say (remembering that all such terms are but figurative) that the latter word is internal and the former external,—the latter the essence in itself, the former its manifestation. Thus the “Son” in His relation to “God” is represented here by light beaming forth from light, and by exact impress—the perfect image produced by stamp or seal. These designations, relating to the essential nature of the Son, have no limitation to time; the participle “being” must be understood (comp. Philippians 2:6; John 1:1) of eternal, continuous existence. The word “person” is an unfortunate mistranslation in this place. Most of the earlier English versions have “substance,” person being first introduced in the Genevan Testament in deference to Beza.

By the word.—The thought seems suggested by Genesis 1. (Psalms 33:9); the spoken word was the expression of His power. What is said above of “being” applies to “upholding,” except that the latter implies a previous creative act.

When he had by himself purged our sins.—The older MSS. omit “by Himself” and “our,” so that the words must be rendered, when He had made purification of sins. At first the change may seem a loss; but it is easily seen that the simpler statement is more majestic, and also more suitable in this place; the more complete explanation of the truth belongs to a later stage (Hebrews 9). To “make purification of sins” is an unusual phrase (comp. Matthew 8:3, “his leprosy was cleansed”), meaning, to make purification by the removal of sins (John 1:29; 1 John 3:5; 2 Peter 1:9).

Sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.—See Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 12:2; Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; also Hebrews 1:13, and Hebrews 10:12. This figure, which we meet with more than twenty times in the New Testament, is throughout derived from the first words of Psalms 110, which are descriptive of the exaltation of the Messiah. Jehovah’s investiture of the Son of Man with unlimited dominion (Daniel 7:14) and supreme dignity (Ephesians 1:20-21); the Saviour’s rest after the accomplishment of His work on earth (Hebrews 8:1); His waiting for the complete and final subjection of His enemies, are the ideas signified. On the Psalm see below (Hebrews 1:13).


Verse 4

(4) Being made.—Better, having become. These words must be closely joined with the last clause of Hebrews 1:3; they speak, not of the glory which was ever His, but of that which became His after He had “made purification of sins.”

Better.—That is, greater. We may discern a twofold reason for the comparison; having become “greater than the angels,” our Lord is exalted above the highest of created beings (see Ephesians 1:21; Philippians 2:9), and above those through whom God had in former time declared His law (Hebrews 2:2).

Name.—The verses which follow show that we are to understand by this all the dignity and glory contained in the name SON OF GOD. Not that this name first belonged to Him as exalted Mediator; but the glory which “became” His (Hebrews 1:3-4) is proportionate to and consonant with the name which is His by essential right (Hebrews 1:2).

That this name and dignity belong to Jesus Christ (as yet unnamed, but confessedly the subject of the preceding verses) is now to be established by the testimony of Scripture. Two important questions have been asked:—(1) Does the writer adduce these quotations as strictly demonstrative? (2) If so, on what assumption does their relevancy rest? It is evident that the whole argument is addressed to men who believed that the Christ had appeared in the person of Jesus. Of the passages here cited some were already, by universal consent, applied to the Messiah. As to the others, it was sufficient if the trained and thoughtful reader could recognise the accuracy of such an application when once suggested. That in no case is there mere “accommodation” or illustration will, it is hoped, be made clear. On the other hand, the writer’s object is less to convince his readers of some new truth than to draw attention to what the well-known passages really contain and express.


Verse 5

(5) For unto which of the angels . . . . “God has spoken of the Messiah as His Son, a title which no angel ever receives from Him.” That the appellation “sons of God” may be used in an inferior sense, and that thus angels may be so designated (Job 1:6; Job 38:7), does not affect this argument; for every reader must perceive that in these quotations “Son” is used of One, and in a sense that is unique The two quotations are taken from Psalms 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14. It seems probable that the second Psalm was written by David during the troublous times of 2 Samuel 8-10, in the fresh recollection of the promises of which we read in 2 Samuel 7. In the midst of the rebellious conspiracies of kings and nations is heard Jehovah’s word, “Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Zion” (Psalms 2:6). In Hebrews 1:7 the Anointed King declares the divine decree, “The Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten Thee;” and the following verses describe the kingly dominion of the Son. The clearest comments on Hebrews 1:7 are supplied by 2 Samuel 7:12-14, and especially by Psalms 89:27 of the last-named Psalm, “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth,” shows plainly that in their first meaning—that which relates to the royal rule of David or David’s son—the words “I have this day begotten thee” signify “I have this day established thee as my chosen king, and thus constituted thee my son;” for to the firstborn belongs natural, though derived, rule over the kingdom of his father. At what period the people in general, guided by prophetic teaching and the discipline of history (see below), learnt in how secondary a sense such words could be used of any human king, we do not know; but we have clear evidence, both from the New Testament (Hebrews 5:5; Acts 4:25-27; Acts 13:33; Revelation 2:27) and from Jewish tradition, that the second Psalm was understood to be a distinct prophecy of the Messiah; indeed, this very name “Messiah” and the appellation “Son of God” (see John 1:34; John 1:49) may be traced to this Psalm. The declarations of Hebrews 1:6-7, are typical of the enthronement of the Messiah. St. Paul (Acts 13:33) refers the words here quoted to the period of the Resurrection. With this the language used above (Hebrews 1:4) perfectly agrees. As, however, in that verse the exaltation of the Christ is declared to correspond to that essential dignity which lay in the name Son, a name which in this very context bears its highest sense (Hebrews 1:1-3), we are constrained to regard the “day” of the Resurrection as itself typical, and to believe that “this day” also pointed to the “eternal Now”—to what Origen (on John 1:1) speaks of as “the day which is co-extensive with the unbegotten and everlasting life of God.”

The second passage, which seems to have been the basis of the words we have just considered, occurs in the course of the divine promise that David’s seed shall be established in his kingdom, and that David’s throne shall be established for ever: the seed of David shall be received as God’s Son. With the words here quoted are closely joined others which plainly prove that Hebrews 1:14 is not a simple and direct prophecy of Christ, but in the first instance belonged to an earthly ruler. Through the teaching of successive disappointments, each “son of David” failing to realise the hopes excited by the promise, the nation was led to look to the future King, and at once to remove from the prophecy the purely earthly limitations and to discern a higher meaning in the promise of divine sonship.


Verse 6

(6) And again.—There seems little doubt that the true translation is, And when He again leadeth (literally, shall have led) the Firstborn into the world He saith. The position of “again” (in the Greek) shows that it does not indicate a new step in the argument, but must be joined with “leadeth.” The speaker (“He saith”) is God, speaking in the word of Scripture; in this Epistle quotations from the Old Testament are usually thus introduced. The quotation involves some difficulty. It cannot be directly taken from Psalms 97:7, “worship Him, all His angels;” for the citations from the Greek Bible in this Epistle are usually so exact that we cannot believe the writer would have so altered the form of the sentence now before us. In Deuteronomy 32:43, however, we find words identical with those of the text in most copies of the LXX.; but there is nothing answering to them in the Hebrew, and there is no sufficient reason for supposing that the clause has dropped out of the Hebrew text. There are similarities (both of subject and of diction) between the Psalm and the last section of the Song of Moses, which make it easy to see how the words could find their way into the Song. The Psalm belongs to a cycle (Psalms 93, 95-99) whose theme is the triumphant announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom, by which was denoted (as the readers of the Epistle knew) the kingdom of Christ. In the divine plan the predicted Theophany was coincident with the fulfilment of the Messianic hope. In both Psalm and Song we read of the judgment exercised and the vengeance inflicted by the enthroned King. (Comp. Psalms 2:9.) This agreement in tone and subject renders less important the question whether the Hebrew original of the Song really contained the words. The thought was familiar from Scripture, and in this very connection. When the Messiah, reigning as the Firstborn of God (see Hebrews 1:5), shall appear for judgment—that is, when God leadeth a second time His Firstborn into “the world of men” (see Hebrews 2:5), that He may receive full possession of His inheritance—He saith, And let all angels of God worship Him. The word here rendered “leadeth in” is in frequent use for the introduction of Israel (typically God’s “firstborn,” Exodus 4:22) into the land of Canaan. It should, perhaps, be noted that, though in Psalms 97:7 “angels” may not be perfectly exact as a rendering of the Hebrew Elohim, the verse so distinctly expresses the homage done to the King by superhuman powers, that its fitness for the argument here is obvious.


Verse 7

(7) Spirits.—Better, winds. It is very difficult to assign any clear meaning to the ordinary rendering,—unless, indeed, we were to adopt the very strange opinion of many of the earlier commentators, that the stress is laid on “maketh” in the sense of “createth.” The parallelism in these two lines of Hebrew poetry is complete, “angels” answering to “ministers,” “winds” to “a flame of fire.” The meaning appears to be that God, employing His messengers for His varied purposes, sends them forth in what manner He may please, clothing them with the appearance of the resistless wind or the devouring fire. (We may contrast 1 Kings 19:11-12.) The force of the passage lies in the vividness with which it presents the thought of the Most High served by angels who “at His bidding speed,” untiring as the wind, subtle as the fire. We feel much more distinctly than we can put into words the infinite contrast between such ministers and the Son seated at the right hand of God. The quotation is taken from Psalms 104:4, without any variation in the Greek. Whether this translation faithfully represents the original is a question that has been warmly discussed. Not that there is any doubt that such a rendering of the Hebrew is in itself natural; but it is often alleged that the context requires an inversion of the words, Who maketh winds His messengers, flaming fire His ministers. The point cannot be examined here; we will only express a decided opinion that the translation defended above not only expresses the meaning of the Hebrew, but perfectly accords with the context of the Psalm.


Verse 8

(8) Unto.—Rather, of. The connection with Hebrews 1:7 is so close (“Whereas of the angels He saith . . . of the Son He saith”), that we must not vary the rendering of the preposition. The passage which follows is taken from Psalms 45:6-7. As the words stand in the ordinary Greek text, they agree exactly with the LXX.; but certain alterations of reading are required by the best evidence. After the words “for ever and ever” and must be restored, and in the following clause the and a must change places. The latter change is of moment only as it affects the former. Were the words in all other respects cited with perfect exactness, the introduction of and would probably indicate that the writer intended to split up the quotation into two parts, each significant for his purpose. (Comp. Hebrews 2:13.) As, however, we note other minor changes, the insertion of the connecting word is probably accidental. A third reading is of much greater importance. At the close of the verse the two oldest of our Greek MSS. agree in reading “His kingdom:” to this we will return afterwards.

We have every reason to believe that the application of Psalms 45 which is here made was fully received by the ancient Jews; thus in the Targum on the Psalm Hebrews 1:7 is taken as a direct address to the King Messiah. Hence the readers of this Epistle would at once recognise the argument which the words contain. It is strongly maintained by some that the Psalm (like Psalms 110, see below, on Hebrews 1:13) is altogether prophetic, the promised Messiah alone being in the Psalmist’s thought. There appear to be insuperable objections to this view, from particular expressions used (in the later verses especially), and from the general structure and colouring of the Psalm. It is in every way more probable that the second Psalm (see Note on Hebrews 1:5), rather than Psalms 110, represents the class to which Psalms 45 belongs. Originally writing in celebration of the marriage of a king of David’s line (we know not whom, but many of the arguments urged against the possible reference to Solomon have no great weight), the inspired Psalmist uses words which bear their full meaning only when applied to that Son of David of whose kingdom there shall be no end. The promises made to David (2 Samuel 7) are before the writer’s mind in the first verses of the Psalm. The king appointed by God is His representative to God’s people; his cause is that of truth and righteousness; his dominion will continually advance. It is at this moment that, with the promise of a divine sonship (Psalms 2) in his thought, he suddenly addresses the sing as Elohim (Hebrews 1:7), a divine king who receives from God the reward of righteousness (Hebrews 1:8). There are in the Old Testament examples of the use of Elohim which diminish the difficulty of its application to an earthly king (such as Psalms 82:1; Psalms 95:3; 1 Samuel 28:13; Exodus 7:1); but it must still be acknowledged that the passage stands alone. This difficulty, however, relates only to the primary application. As the higher and true reference of the words became revealed, all earthly limitations disappeared; the Christian readers of the Psalm recognised in the Messiah of whom it speaks a King who is God.

The reading “His kingdom” has seemed to require a different rendering of the words in the first part of the verse: God is Thy throne for ever and ever. This rendering, however, will suit either reading of the Greek, and is equally admissible as a rendering of the Hebrew. Nor is it really inconsistent with the position in which the verse here stands: in contrast with the ministry of angels is set, on this view, not indeed a direct address to the Son as God, but the sovereign rule which the Son receives from God. The objections raised against it are: (1) such an expression as “God is Thy throne” is contrary to the analogy of Scripture language; (2) the ordinary rendering has the support of almost all ancient authority, Jewish writers and ancient versions being apparently united in its favour. The former argument is not very strong in face of Psalms 90:1, and similar passages; but the latter is so weighty that we hesitate to accept the change, helpful as it would be in making clear the original and typical reference of Hebrews 1:7. It should be said that the reading “His kingdom” is not inconsistent with the ordinary translation of the preceding words; for a sudden transition from “Thy throne, O God” to “His kingdom” is in full accordance with the usage of Hebrew poetry. (See Psalms 43:4; Psalms 67:5-6; Psalms 104:4-6, et al.) There are other renderings which would require discussion if we were concerned with the Hebrew text of the Psalm: the two given above are the only possible translations of the Greek.

A sceptre . . .—Rather, the sceptre of uprightness is a sceptre of Thy (or, His) kingdom. Righteousness itself (so to speak, the very ideal of righteous government) bears sway in Thy kingdom.


Verse 9

(9) The King by divine election has been exalted by divine reward. (Comp. Hebrews 2:9, and Philippians 2:9-10.)

Therefore God.—It is possible, but not probable, that the words, both here and in the Psalm, should be rendered, Therefore, O God, Thy God hath anointed Thee.

Thy fellows.—In the first application, probably, these words point to other earthly kings. (Comp. Psalms 89:27.) Hence Ephesians 1:21 will be the best commentary upon them in their higher meaning.


Verse 10

(10) And.—Hebrews 1:10-12 are by this word linked with Hebrews 1:8, as presenting the second part of the contrast between angels and the Son. As there we read of a divine sovereignty, so here of the work of creation, the power to change all created things, the divine attribute of changeless existence. This quotation from Psalms 102:25-27 agrees almost exactly with the text of the LXX. as we have it in the Alexandrian MS., except that the words “as a garment” (not found in the Psalm) must here (Hebrews 1:12) be added, according to our best authorities. The only point of any difficulty in these verses is that the writer discovers a testimony to the supremacy of the Son in words which, as they stand in the Psalm, would appear to be directly addressed to God as Creator. If, however, the Psalm be examined, it will be found (see Hebrews 1:13-14) to contain the expression of hopes which in reality were inseparably united with the fulfilment of the Messianic promise. “The Lord shall appear to build up Zion:” this is the Psalmist’s theme, and it is to the same Lord that he addresses the words which are quoted here. As in Jesus the Christian Jew saw Him who fulfilled all these promises of God to His people, the application of the words of adoration to the same Lord would at once be recognised as true.


Verse 11

(11) And they all . . .—Both the earth and the heavens: see Isaiah 34:4, “The heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll;” and Isaiah 51:6, “The earth shall wax old like a garment.”


Verse 12

(12) And as a vesture . . .—Rather (see Hebrews 1:10), And as a mantle shalt Thou roll them up; as a garment shall they also be changed. The course of thought is easily traced: as the garment which has grown old is rolled up and changed, so the former heavens and earth shall give place to the new heavens and the new earth.


Verse 13

(13) But to which of the angels.—The final appeal is made to that Psalm which more frequently than any other is quoted in reference to Christ, and which we have already seen to be the source of all the New Testament references to the Saviour’s session at the right hand of God. It is not necessary to say much here respecting Psalms 110, to which so many allusions will be made in the course of this Epistle. That it was regularly understood by the Jews of our Lord’s time to be a Messianic Psalm is clear both from Matthew 22:43-44, and from the independent notices which we possess. Most probably, it stands alone amongst the Psalms as being simply prophetic: the words of Hebrews 1:1 have never been addressed either to angels or to an earthly king. On the special words of the quotation see Hebrews 1:3.

Said he at any time.—Better, hath He ever said.

Until I make . . .—Literally, until I shall have made Thine enemies a footstool of Thy feet.


Verse 14

(14) Are they not all ministering spirits?—In this verse and the preceding is repeated the contrast of Hebrews 1:7-9, in reversed order. The words “ministering spirits” at once recall the “ministers” and “winds” (expressed in Greek and Hebrew by the same word as “spirits”) spoken of in Hebrews 1:7. In the LXX. this word “minister” is usually applied to those who stood before God in His earthly sanctuary: so here it is fitly used of the nobler offices of the unseen world. To the English reader it may seem that those who in Hebrews 1:7 are God’s ministers are here represented as servants of man. It is not really so, for the words properly mean, . . . sent forth (that is, continually sent forth) to do service (to God), for the sake of them who are to inherit salvation. “Inherit” is a prelude of Hebrews 2:10. The last word, “salvation,” expresses the divine purpose indicated by all the prophecies that have passed under review. The chapter has been occupied with promises of the Christ: the last word brings before us Jesus, the Saviour.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Hebrews 1:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/hebrews-1.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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