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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Hebrews 11



Other Authors


This chapter is very closely connected with the last verses of Hebrews 10. Those verses have taught the necessity of faith for the attainment of the promise. Here we read of men to whom, through their faith, the promise has been made sure.

Verse 1

(1) We have seen how the writer approached the subject which is the chief theme of this last division of this Epistle. The coming of the Lord, for judgment upon His adversaries, for salvation to His people, draws nigh. In the midst of dangers and judgments God’s righteous servant shall live, and the ground, of his life is his steadfast faith—if he shrink back, destruction will overtake him. “Our principle of action” (the writer says to his Hebrew readers) “is not shrinking back, but faith. And faith is this. . . .” It has been debated whether that which follows is a definition of what faith is, or in reality a description of what faith does. It is not a complete definition, in the sense of including all the moments of thought which are present in the word as used in the last chapter (Hebrews 11:38) or in this. The “things hoped for” are not mere figments of the imagination; their basis is the word of God. If we keep this in mind, the words, still remaining general in their form, agree with all that has led up to them and with all that follows; and whether they be called definition or description will be of little consequence.

The exact meaning of the special terms here used it is not easy to ascertain. The word rendered “substance” has already occurred twice in the Epistle. In Hebrews 1:3 this was its true meaning—the essence which, so to speak, underlies, “stands under,” the qualities possessed. In Hebrews 3:14 the same metaphor of standing under is applied to steadfastness, confidence (see the Note). The former of these renderings the Authorised version.—in this instance deserting the earlier translations (which for the most part have “sure confidence” or “ground”) to follow the Rhemish in its rendering of the Latin. substantia—has made familiar in the present passage. The sense which it presents, however, is not very clean; and the symmetry of the verse almost compels us here to make choice of some word which denotes an act, or at all events an attitude, of the mind. Most commentators of our own day accept the second meaning explained above, “confidence” or “assurance in regard to things hoped for.” To adopt Dr. Vaughan’s clear explanation, “Faith is that principle, that exercise of mind and soul, which has for its object things not seen but hoped for, and which, instead of sinking under them as too ponderous, whether from their difficulty or from their uncertainty, stands firm under them—supports and sustains their pressure—in other words, is assured of, confides in and relies on them.” This interpretation yields an excellent sense, and has the advantage of assigning to the Greek word a meaning which it certainly bears in an earlier chapter, and in two places of St. Paul’s Epistles. On the other hand, the analogy of the second member of the verse, and a peculiarity in the Greek construction which we cannot here discuss, seem to be in favour of a third rendering of the words: “Faith is the giving substance to things hoped for.” It has indeed been said that by such a translation the things hoped for are represented as being without substance. But this difficulty is only apparent; for in regard to ourselves these objects of our hope do not yet exist, since they still belong to the future (Romans 8:24-25). In the second clause the word “evidence” is likely to mislead; very probably, indeed, it now fails to convey the sense intended by our translators, who hero followed the rendering of the Genevan Bible (suggested by Calvin’s “evidentia”). The Greek word denotes putting to the test, examining for the purpose of proof, bringing to conviction. Under this aspect faith appears as neither blindly rejecting nor blindly accepting whatever may be said about things unseen, but boldly dealing with them as if with things seen, and then unflinchingly accepting that which has stood the proof. One peculiarity of the Greek yet remains to be noticed. In the second clause the word “things” is expressed in the Greek (as in Hebrews 6:18), but not in the first; we are by this means reminded of the reality of that which is thus spoken of as unseen. The whole verse, then, may be rendered “Now faith is the giving substance to what is hoped for, the testing of things not seen.” And now passing away from the general aspect of the words to that in which they are presented by the context, we have as the meaning: Faith, holding to God’s word, gives substance to what that word promises, investing the future blessings with a present existence, treating them as if already objects of sight rather than of hope. Through faith, guided by the same word, the things unseen are brought to the proof; what that word teaches, though future, or though belonging to a world beyond human sight, is received with full conviction. Thus “every genuine act of faith is the act of the whole man, not of his understanding alone, not of his affections alone, not of his will alone, but of all three in their central, aboriginal unity.” And thus faith becomes “the faculty in man through which the spiritual world exercises its sway over him, and thereby enables him to overcome the world of sin and death.” (Hare, Victory of Faith.)

Verse 2

(2) For by it.—Better, For therein the elders had witness borne to them. The connection seems to be this: Faith truly accomplishes all this; for it was in the exercise of such a faith that the elders gained the witness which the Scripture bears (see Hebrews 11:4-5; Hebrews 11:39) to them and to their noble deeds. This verse, then, is added to confirm the first.

Verse 3

(3) Through faith.—Rather, By faith, as in the following verses. The first place is not given to “the elders,” for the writer’s object is to set forth the achievements of faith. With these, he would say, the Scripture record is filled. Even where there is no mention of this principle we must trace it in the lives of God’s servants; even where there is no history of men, there is a necessity for the exercise of faith by ourselves, and the first words of Scripture teach this lesson.

That the worlds were framed.—Literally, that the ages have been prepared. The remarkable expression which was used in Hebrews 1:2 is here repeated. The complete preparation of all that the successive periods of time contain is the idea which the words present. The narrative of the first chapter of Genesis ascribes the whole creation of “the heaven and the earth” to God; and associates with “a word of God” every stage in the preparation and furnishing of the earth. (See Note on Hebrews 1:2.) This is the first lesson of that record. But it does not stand alone, as is taught more plainly still by the next clause.

So that things which are seen.—A slight alteration in the Greek is necessary here—“the thing seen” (or “what is seen”) being the true reading. A more important point is a change in the aspect of the whole clause, which the Greek seems to require. As the English words stand, they point out the significance of the statement of Scripture respecting the creative act: we believe the writer intended rather to state the divine purpose in relation to that first creation and all subsequent acts that are included in the “preparing of the ages.” “In order that what is seen should not have come into being out of things which appear.” This is probably the true meaning of the clause. In the narrative of the first chapter of Genesis God would have us learn a lesson for the whole course of human history and development. As the visible universe did not take its being out of what was apparent, so what from time to time is seen does not arise of itself out of what is manifest to man’s natural perceptions. Not only is the eternity of matter denied, but from the beginning a warning has been given against a materialistic philosophy. The first page of Scripture is designed to teach the constant presence and work of the Creator. This lesson we learn and apply by faith; and the result of its application is seen in many points of the history which follows. In that history the operation of faith is twofold. The writer’s most obvious design is to call attention to the faith possessed by “the elders,” and its wonderful triumphs; but it is in many cases by the same faith that we interpret the Scripture record so as to discover this to have been their guiding principle. But seldom does the Old Testament directly speak of faith, and hence the importance of this verse (which some have thought incongruous, since it retards the exhibition of the elders’ faith) as throwing light on our interpretation of the teaching of God’s word.

Verse 4

(4) A more excellent.—The Greek literally means that Abel’s sacrifice was “more than” Cain’s (comp. Hebrews 3:3, “more glory”; Matthew 6:25; Luke 11:32, et al.). The word “sacrifice” (which, as is the case with very many words in this chapter, is taken directly from the LXX.) has not its special sense (see Note on Hebrews 10:5) in the narrative of Genesis 4; for the offerings of the two brothers are there designated by the same name, both in the Hebrew (“offering”) and in the Greek (“sacrifice”). Hence, apart from the first words, “by faith,” there is nothing here said to explain the superiority of Abel’s offering; though one who believes sacrifice to have been of Divine institution, and who notes the close connection between God’s word and the actions of the men whose faith is here recorded, may hold it probable that Abel’s obedience was manifested in his mode of approaching God.

By which he obtained witness.—Probably, “through which faith,” but the Greek may also mean through which sacrifice. The witness (Hebrews 11:2) is that borne by God in His acceptance of the offering (shown by some visible sign); we might also add that such a testimony to Abel is implied in the reproof of Cain (Genesis 4:7), but the following words, “God bearing witness over” (or in regard to) “his gifts,” show what was chiefly in the writer’s thought. Such acceptance implied Abel’s righteousness and thus testified to his “faith.” It is remarkable that in three out of the four places in which Abel is mentioned in the New Testament this epithet is used (Matthew 23:35; 1 John 3:12). In the later Jewish tradition (contained in the Targum of Jerusalem) the brothers are represented as types of faith and unbelief; and in Hebrews 11:10, “thy brother’s blood” (Hebrew, “bloods”) is expanded into “the blood of the multitude of the righteous who were to arise from thy brother.” In this clause the authorities for the Greek text are much divided. One reading, “he testifying over his gifts to God,” has the support of the three oldest MSS., but can hardly be correct.

And by it.—Better, and through it (his faith). The reference is to Genesis 4:10, “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (see Hebrews 12:24); hence, as Calvin remarks, “he was plainly numbered among God’s saints, whose death is precious in His sight.”

Verse 5

(5) See death.—See Luke 2:26; Psalms 89:48 (John 8:51).

And was not found . . . translated him.—An exact quotation from the LXX. (Genesis 5:24). The word rendered “translated” is a very simple one, denoting merely change of place; but nothing can equal the simplicity of the Hebrew, “he was not. for God took him.”

He had this testimony.—Better, he hath had witness borne to him (Hebrews 11:2; Hebrews 11:4) that he hath been well pleasing to God. The form of the expression shows that the writer is again speaking of the ever present word of Scripture (Hebrews 4:9, &c.) That word does not record the translation of Enoch until it “hath” borne witness to him that he pleased God. The words “walked with God” are rendered in the LXX. “was well pleasing to God,” and it is this rendering that is quoted here and in the next verse. The writer himself supplies the comment in the next verse, which has a very close connection with this.

Verse 6

(6) But without faith.—Better, and apart from faith it is impossible to be “well pleasing” (unto Him); for he that draweth near (Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 10:1; Hebrews 10:22) to God must believe . . . Thus the very statement that Enoch pleased God is an assertion that in him faith was found. No one can be the habitual worshipper of God (this is what the phrase implies) if his faith does not grasp these two truths. “Is a rewarder”—literally, becometh a recompenser (Hebrews 2:2; Hebrews 10:35); the future recompense is present to the eye of faith.

Verse 7

(7) Being warned of God.—(See Hebrews 8:5.)

Moved with fear.—The marginal rendering “being wary” (or better, taking forethought) is preferred by some, and agrees very well with the proper meaning of the word; but it is more probable that the writer-has in view that devout godly fear which the words akin to this regularly denote in the New Testament. (See the Notes on Hebrews 5:7; Hebrews 12:28.) Noah’s obedience to the divine warning was an evidence at once of his fear of God and of the faith which gave substance and present reality to “the things not seen as yet.”

By the which.—As before (Hebrews 11:4), the words “through which” are slightly ambiguous, for they may relate either to the ark or to the faith. The latter reference is more probable. His faith, shown in the building of the ark, exposed the unbelief of “the world,” which would not listen to his warnings, and thereby incurred the divine condemnation. Our Lord uses “condemn” in the same sense in Matthew 12:41-42. By the same faith Noah “became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” Noah is the first to receive in Scripture the name “righteous” (Genesis 6:9). See also Ezekiel 14:14; Ezekiel 14:20; and 2 Peter 2:5, “Noah, a preacher of righteousness.” This righteousness is looked on as an inheritance, received by all who manifest the faith. In this place the righteousness is connected with faith, as in the writings of St. Paul, but with a change of figure. It is not looked on as arising out of faith (Romans 10:6), or as resting on the condition of faith (Philippians 3:9), or as obtained by means of faith (Romans 3:22), but as corresponding with faith, or answering to it. There is no important difference of thought, but the idea of a continuous inheritance answering to continuous faith is very strikingly presented here.

Verse 8

(8) When he was called to go out.—Our older versions are here better than the Authorised, bringing in the word “obeyed” after “called”—“obeyed to go out into,” &c.

Which he should after receive.—The English rendering may seem to imply that when “called” Abraham received the promise that the land to which he would be directed should in the future be his inheritance. It is not so (Acts 7:5); for this promise is not found in Genesis 12:1-3, but was bestowed when he had obeyed (Genesis 12:7). The meaning here is, “unto a place which he was to receive.”

Verse 9

(9) The land of promise—More correctly, according to the true reading, a land of the promise: into a land which the promise (Genesis 12:7) made his own he came as a sojourner, and sojourned in it as in a land belonging to others, making his settled abode there in tents. The words of which this is a paraphrase are very expressive, especially those of the last clause. Abraham there “made his home once for all, well aware that it was to be his home—expecting no change in this respect all his life long—in tents,” movable, shifting abodes—here to-day, there to-morrow—with (as did also in their turn) “Isaac and Jacob,” the “heirs with him of the same promise.” (Dr. Vaughan.)

Verse 10

(10) A city which hath foundations.—Rather, the city which hath the foundations. The general thought is that which we find expressed in Hebrews 11:14-16. There, the strangers and pilgrims are seeking for a country of their own; here, the dweller in tents is waiting for the city that hath the foundations. All these verses clearly teach that the promise as apprehended by the patriarchs was not bounded by the gift of Canaan. Of what nature their expectations of the future life may have been we cannot tell; but this they knew, that their fellowship with God and their interest in His promises would not cease with this transient life. What they saw of earthly blessing was but the earnest of some greater gift still future, and yet present through the power of their faith. The shifting tent might be Abraham’s home now, but he waited for that city which should never know change—of which alone it could be said that it hath “the foundations,” and whose Architect and Maker is God. (Comp. Psalms 87:1; Revelation 21)

Verse 11

(11) Through faith also Sara herself.—Rather, By faith Sarah herself also, or, even Sarah herself. This emphatic introduction of the name of Sarah may point to the unbelief which for a brief while she displayed (Genesis 18:12); but the words may simply mean, “Sarah also, on her part”—the joint recipient with Abraham of the divine promise, a promise in which it might at first seem that she had no part. (Comp. Genesis 16:1-2.) The words “was delivered of a child” are absent from the best authorities; so that we must read, “even when she was past age.” With the last words of the verse compare Hebrews 10:23.

Verse 12

(12) The stars of the sky.—Better, the stars of the heaven. (See Genesis 15:5; Genesis 22:17.)

And as the sand.—“And as the sand by the seashore, which is innumerable” (Genesis 22:17). With the first words of the verse compare Romans 4:19.

Verse 13

(13) These all died in faith.—We must not change the order of the original. Seven verses up to this point have begun with the emphatic words “by faith.” There is a change here, but not in the emphasis of this thought. We should not expect to read “By faith these died;” what is said is, “In accordance with faith all these died;” faith had been the support and guide of their life, and their death was in accordance with the same principle. That is, they (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah) did not die in possession of what had been promised (Hebrews 11:39), but saw at a distance the blessings of which God had spoken (Hebrews 11:1).

And were persuaded of them.—These words do not belong to the true text; and the word “embraced” should be rendered “greeted,” or “saluted.” We read, therefore: “Not having received the promises, but having seen and greeted them from far” (Genesis 49:18), “and having confessed that they were strangers and sojourners upon the earth” (Genesis 47:9; Genesis 23:4). (Comp. 1 Chronicles 29:15; Psalms 39:12; Psalms 119:19; Psalms 119:54; also 1 Peter 1:1; 1 Peter 2:11. The verses which follow are a comment on this. For the last words, “on the earth.” see Hebrews 11:16.

Verse 14

(14) Such things.—“I am a stranger and a sojourner with you” (Genesis 23:4). “The days of the years of my pilgrimage. . . . the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage” (Genesis 47:9).

Declare plainly that they seek a country.—Rather, make it plain that they are seeking a home, or fatherland.

Verse 15

(15) They might have had.—Rather, they would have had opportunity to return. All their life long they would have been able to claim again their earlier fatherland, by returning whence they came.

Verse 16

(16) They confess themselves but sojourners (Hebrews 11:13), and thus make it plain that they are still seeking their true home (14); and yet, if. they had sought nothing more than an earthly home, there is one already, which was once theirs, and to which they might return (15); hence it is no earthly but a heavenly-country that they desire. This is the general current of thought in these verses, presenting a very close analogy to the argument of Hebrews 3:7 to Hebrews 4:11; here, as there, words which otherwise might appear to have but an earthly reference are seen to have a higher and a spiritual import. In Hebrews 11:8-9 we have before us only the land of inheritance, but in Hebrews 11:10 the heavenly rest; and in Hebrews 11:13 words which as read in Genesis might seem to refer to a wandering life in the land of Canaan are taken as a confession of sojourning upon earth. It is not necessary to suppose that the desires and yearnings of “the fathers” expressed themselves in the definite forms which later revelation has made familiar; in all that is essential the hope existed, whilst the mode of the fulfilment was unknown. Through faith the patriarchs were willing to connect their whole life and that of their children with waiting at God’s bidding for the fulfilment of a promise—wandering and sojourning until God’s own time should come when He would grant a home in a country of their own. And yet each of these servants of God recognised that relation to God in which lay the foundation of the promise to him to be personal and abiding. If these two thoughts be united, it will be easy to see how each one for himself would be led to regard the state of wandering in which he spent his life as an emblem of a state of earthly waiting for an enduring home; the sojourning in the land was a constant symbol of the sojourning upon earth. Hence (see the passages quoted in Hebrews 11:13) the same language is used from age to age after Canaan is received as an inheritance. (Comp. Hebrews 4:9; and see Exodus 3:15, and Matthew 22:31-32.)

But now.—See Hebrews 8:6; the meaning is not “at this present time,” but “as the case stands in truth.”

Wherefore God is not ashamed.—Rather, Wherefore God is not ashamed of them (compare Hebrews 2:11). Because of this lofty desire, or rather, because of the faith and love towards Him in which the desire was founded, and of which therefore the longing for a heavenly country was the expression, God is not ashamed of them, to be called (literally surnamed) their God (Genesis 17:7; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 28:13; Exodus 3:6; et al.). That He is not ashamed of them He has shown, “for He prepared for them a city.” Before the desire existed the home had been provided. (Comp. Matthew 25:34.)

Verse 17

(17) The patriarchs displayed their faith in the attitude of their whole life, and in their death. This has been the thought of the preceding verses; the writer now passes to the lessons taught by particular actions and events.

Tried.—Genesis 22:1 : “God did tempt Abraham.” The following word is in the Greek “hath offered up Isaac,” and several other examples of a similar peculiarity will present themselves in this chapter. As in former cases (Hebrews 4:9; Hebrews 7:11; Hebrews 10:9) the reference is to the permanent record of Scripture, in which the fact related is ever present. Abraham stands before us there as having offered his son. It will be seen that the offering is spoken of as if consummated. As regards faith the sacrifice was indeed complete; the perfect surrender of will had been made, and the hand was stretched out for the deed.

And he that had received the promises offered up.—Rather, and he that had welcomed (gladly accepted) the promises was offering up. From the figurative accomplishment of the deed the writer passes to the historical narrative; hence we read, “he . . . was (in the act of) offering.” This clause and Hebrews 11:18 set forth the greatness of the sacrifice (compare Genesis 22:2, in the literal rendering, “Take now thy son, thine only one, whom thou lovest, Isaac”); Hebrews 11:19 explains the operation of his faith.

Verse 18

(18) Of whom.—That is, Isaac. But the Greek words should perhaps be rendered to whom (Abraham): “Even he to whom it was said.” On this quotation from Genesis 21:12 see the Note on Romans 9:7.

Verse 19

(19) That God was able.—These words are better taken as the expression of a general truth—“Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead.’ The faith which tests and brings conviction of the things not seen made this reasoning possible, and gave power to act upon it even when Isaac must be slain.

From whence also.—Better, from whence he did in a figure (literally, a parable) receive him. As in a figure the offering was completely carried out (Hebrews 11:17), so also in figure he received his son back from the dead.

Verse 20

(20) Concerning things to come.—It is probable, though not certain, that the word “even” should be inserted before “concerning”; on these words, then, the emphasis will rest. Not having regard to things present only, or things almost at hand, but looking far into the future, through the divine revelation which opened to him the meaning of the promises received by Abraham, he gave to each son the blessing designed by God (Genesis 27:27-29; Genesis 27:39-40). Isaac’s confidence in the divine guidance of his words is especially seen in Hebrews 11:33 of the chapter.

Verse 21

(21) Both the sons.—Rather, each of the sons. The separate character of the two blessings is thus brought out (Genesis 48:14-19). (See the last Note.) In the case of the two events mentioned in this verse the order of time is reversed, probably that the blessing of Jacob may immediately follow the similar record of Hebrews 11:20.

And worshipped.—The incident referred to will be found in Genesis 47:31. After receiving from Joseph a promise, confirmed by oath, that he shall be buried with his fathers, “Israel bowed himself upon” (or, worshipped towards) “the bed’s head.” In the LXX. and in the Targums the words are understood as denoting an act of worship. The Greek translators have taken the last word of the Hebrew verse to denote “staff” (Genesis 32:10), not “bed,” the words which bear these different meanings differing very slightly in form. The whole clause is given here as it stands in the LXX., the difference between the renderings being immaterial for the purpose which the writer had in view. The quotation of the familiar words serves to recall the scene, and brings before us Israel’s thankful and devout satisfaction when assured that he should rest with his fathers in the land of Canaan; by this, at the point of death, he expressed his faith in the promise by which Abraham and his seed received Canaan as their inheritance.

Verse 22

(22) When he died.—Literally, drawing to his end. The word is taken from Genesis 50:26; and the mention of the departure (literally, the Exodus) of the children of Israel is found in Hebrews 11:24-25. This example of faith in the promise and clinging to the hope which it held forth needs no comment. For the fulfilment of Joseph’s dying request see Exodus 13:19, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” out of Egypt; and Joshua 24:32, “And the bones of Joseph buried they in Shechem.”

Verse 23

(23) Because they saw he was a proper child.—“Proper” has its now obsolete sense of handsome, comely, a meaning not uncommon in Shakespeare. The word used in the Greek translation of Exodus 2:2 is preserved both in Acts 7:20 (see the Note) and in this place. It would seem that the remarkable beauty of the infant was understood by his parents as a divine sign given for the guidance of their conduct. The next clause should probably be closely connected with this—“because they saw . . . and were not afraid of the king’s commandment” (Exodus 1:16). Their reliance on the protection of God enabled them to brave the anger of the king.

Verse 24

(24) Come to years—i.e., grown up, “when he was full forty years old” (Acts 7:23). The words here used are taken from the Greek translation of Exodus 2:11, where we first read of Moses as openly Associating himself with his oppressed people. When Moses slew the Egyptian who was “smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren,” he in act “refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter,” and chose “to suffer Affliction with the people of God.” (See Exodus 2:15.)

Verses 24-26

The Choice of Moses

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to be evil entreated with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; accounting the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt: for he looked unto the recompense of reward.—Hebrews 11:24-26.

“When I turn,” says Dr. J. H. Jowett, “to this great Epistle to the Hebrews, I feel as though I were in the inspiring spaces of some great cathedral, as though I were moving about Westminster Abbey; in fact, I have ventured to call the Epistle to the Hebrews the Westminster Abbey of the Bible. There are some beautiful little side chapels, where a weary soul can bend in quiet and reverent prayer and praise; some most winsome light breaks through quite unexpected windows, as you move about in the august place; again and again you hear the sound of an anthem raising melodious songs of praise to the great God; and you are never allowed to get far away from Calvary and the cross. When I come to chapter 11, I always feel as though I were turning into the nave of the great cathedral, and I find it is occupied by monuments which have been erected to commemorate saintly men and women who were distinguished by their faith—a monument to Abraham, a monument to Isaac and Jacob, a monument to Sarah, one to Rahab. I stand now before a monument which commemorates an old patriarch statesman, and I ask why this man is commemorated in the abbey? What did Moses do to entitle him to a place in the nave?”

The answer to Dr. Jowett’s question is the whole life of Moses. But that which determined the life of Moses was the choice which he made when he reached manhood. That choice is our subject. We have it brought before us in the text in some fulness. We shall speak first of the Choice itself; next of the Faith which prompted it; and then of the Motive which inspired it.


The Choice

Viewing his situation from the outside, we might declare no one so unlikely as Moses to be confronted with a crucial decision. Egypt at that day boasted of an advanced civilization; and all its luxury, all its culture, were poured into his cup. He had been trained, they say, in the most famous college in the land, and had proved himself already a statesman and a soldier. His foot was on the step of the loftiest throne on earth; in the judgment of his peers there lay open before him a career of the most enviable brilliance. It seemed as if one success had but to follow another: to-morrow would be as yesterday, and much more abundant. And then came God—God, who had a plan of loving wisdom for this man, and was but biding His time.

The choice involved two things—a refusal and an acceptance.

i. The Refusal

One of the chief features of Moses’ character is here put before us: “Moses refused.” That implies a strong temptation, impelling him to accept—influences operating in such a way that it was by no means easy to the natural man to refuse. God was testing him, and by that test preparing him for higher service. Moses, by God’s grace, stood the test. His mind seems to have been thoroughly made up. He refused the prospect of princely magnificence—he rose superior to the temptation, and this, we are told, because he acted by faith.

1. The act of renunciation was itself an act of unusual keenness of perception, for there was so much that might have been urged on the other side. It is generally not difficult to find specious reasons for doing something which we very much want to do. It so often happens that the intellect is the slave of the will, and we can make out an excellent case for following the bent of our desires. And in the case of Moses the arguments against the course he adopted were really cogent. There was the general principle that it is usually best to stay where Providence has placed us. No doubt it often happens that this principle may be overruled by a higher, that there are exceptions which warrant a departure from this course. But in the case of Moses it might well have been argued that this was pre-eminently one of those cases where the rule held good. For what, it might plausibly have been urged, had Providence given him such a position except that he might use it? And to the plea that he was making the renunciation for the sake of his people, how very effective the reply would be: “If you wish to help your people, stay where you are. You have the opportunity, as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, to do much in alleviating their lot and in making their life more tolerable; whereas by flinging away your position, you bring yourself down to their level and lose all power of effective assistance. Why sacrifice a fulcrum which gives you such a leverage and try to raise your people by a dead life?”

There is a general principle that we are bound to be more careful when the course of action we think of adopting is one that conduces to our own pleasure or advantage. We do not readily acknowledge these things to ourselves, and indeed it is very easy for us to be the victims of unconscious bias. No doubt it often happens that the right course of conduct is also the more agreeable, but in view of the peril I have mentioned we must take special precaution to be sure of our ground.1 [Note: A. S. Peake, The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, 104.]

Felicitas was a rich widow who with her seven sons was well known in Roman society. In a time of calamity certain pagan priests represented to the emperor that this woman by her deeds of Christian piety had brought down the anger of the gods upon the people; and by imperial command the prefect, Publius, was required to see that she and her sons sacrificed to the gods. The prefect endeavoured to persuade her to make the sacrifices; but she, declaring that the Holy Spirit would strengthen her against the evil one, said: “I am assured that while I live I shall be the victor in my contest with you, and if you cause me to be put to death I shall be still more a conqueror.” Publius replied: “Unhappy one, if it is pleasant for you to die, at least let your sons live.” “My sons,” said Felicitas, “will surely live if they do not consent to sacrifice to idols. But if they commit this crime of sacrificing they will die eternally.” The first attempt of the magistrate failed, and a public trial was ordered. At this trial, when urged to have pity on her sons, Felicitas addressed them saying: “Look up to heaven, where Christ with His saints is waiting for you, fight the good fight for your souls, and show yourselves faithful in the love of Christ.” The young men were questioned one by one. Januarius, the eldest, who was offered a rich reward if he sacrificed, and scourging if he refused, made answer: “The wisdom of the Lord will support me and enable me to endure all.” He was ordered to be scourged, and was led away. The second son also refused to sacrifice, saying: “We adore one God to whom we offer the sacrifice of prayers: never suppose that you will separate me or my brothers from the love of the Lord Jesus Christ; our faith will never be overcome or be changed by any of your threats.” The other brothers were no less faithful in their confessions, and at last, when the emperor had read the report of the trial, he ordered the accused to be executed. Felicitas and three of the sons were beheaded; three of the others were beaten to death with whips; the last was thrown down from a height that he might be killed.1 [Note: J. Herkless, The Early Christian Martyrs, 46.]

2. It was necessary for Moses to make up his mind what he would do in those cases where loyalty to Israel was incompatible with loyalty to Egypt. His position was a very delicate one, and he was bound to be exceptionally careful. He might so easily be discredited by a false step, the cry might so readily be raised that he was traitorously sacrificing the interests entrusted to his care. And if he had tried to hold the balance even, he would have quickly learned that it is the fate of the moderate man to be stoned by the extremists on both sides. Moreover, as time went on his generous enthusiasms were likely to fade. The idealist would have degenerated into the practical man, and the official palliations of abuses and tyranny would have come glibly from his lips. It was better for Moses himself, better, too, we may be sure, for the cause he had at heart, that he should make a definite break with his past and devote himself whole-heartedly to his people. And that he saw this so clearly and steadily, that his judgment was not swayed by self-interest or led astray by sophistries, justifies the author of the Epistle when he finds in his renunciation the proof of his faith.

What did he refuse? Away out from the king’s palace on the plain there was a poor, downtrodden, oppressed, ill-used race, and this man, who was akin to them and belonged to them, was afraid lest, getting into the softness of retirement, the surroundings of leisure, the woolly softness might stop his ears, the very king’s palace become as it were a palace of wool, shutting out the wail of the oppressed, causing him to be indifferent to the cry of the downtrodden. He was afraid lest, if he got into the king’s palace, sat down at the feast of plenty, and had all the allurements of the king’s house, in leisure, ease, retirement, he should lose touch with his fellow-men, be benumbed and paralysed by the ease which lay within his choice. He refused leisure, and he refused pleasure.

What answers to this refusal for us? Our own conscience alone can make reply; but it may be one of many things. Perhaps there is a friendship on which we have set our heart, a friendship at war with loyalty to Christ. We must change its inner tone, or say farewell to it, if we are to choose the better part. Or it is possibly a means of gain as to which we have had gathering doubts, until now we know that unless it is renounced it will bar us out from the Kingdom of God. Or it may be some secret evil habit, sweet for the passing moment, but shameful in memory; if we do not cut the strands, and cast it off, something tells us that it will one day drag us down headlong into the pit. And yet do not let us ward off the thrust which, it may be, this passage is making at our heart by pleading that “the pleasures of sin” can refer only to gross self-indulgence and taking comfort in the thought that nothing of that kind is chargeable on us. What these pleasures meant for Moses was no base sensuality—he lived above all that—but a stage for his ambition, the intoxicating draught of personal influence and power. And many a man who would scorn to stoop to coarse wrongdoing finds, often to his own intense surprise, that the pursuit of the common ideals of success can rob him of eternal life quite as effectively.

This moment’s thine, thou never more may’st hear

The clarion-summons-call thus loud and clear;

What now thou buyest cheap may yet prove dear.

Part with thine all, spare not the needed cost;

That which thou partest with were better lost,

Thy selfish worldly schemes more wisely crossed.

Thy loss infinitesimal, thy gain

Endless, immense; thy momentary pain

The single step the boundless to attain.

These idol loves that gender loveless lust—

Weighed in the balances, whose scales are just,

With the bright hopes thou spurn’st—are breath-borne dust!

Eye hath not seen, man’s ear hath never heard,

Nor heart conceived—save some faint image blurred—

The bliss of those who keep the Christly word—-

Let go; my soul, let go!1 [Note: William Hall.]

3. In another respect the faith of Moses is shown to be eminent in that he realized that the pleasures of sin could not last. If he enjoyed them, it could be but for a season. Now this brings before us the magic of sin. It is not easy for a man before he commits a sin to look at it from the point of view which he will adopt towards it after he has committed it. The illusion of sin is what gives it its fatal power. It casts a glamour over the eyes of the tempted, so that they cannot penetrate through the radiant appearance to the hideous and loathsome reality. It captures and inflames the imagination, muffles the conscience, and paralyses the will; it makes itself seem the most desirable of all things, the one beatitude needed to crown and complete the life. It is the man of faith whose vision strikes through all disguises to the truth. He is too sane to deny that the pleasures of sin are real; but he knows, nevertheless, that they bring no permanent satisfaction—indeed, he knows quite well that sweet gratification turns quickly to bitter remorse. And Moses had just that faculty steadily to look at the sin beforehand from the standpoint of the experienced gratification, and understand that the pleasure could not last. He knew quite well that, while he could reach the goal on which his ambition was set, and the advantages and enjoyments it would procure for him would be real and substantial, his pleasure in them would always be poisoned by the thought that a higher call had come to him, and he had made the great and irretrievable refusal.

It is only a poor sort of happiness that could ever come by caring very much about our own narrow pleasures. We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being a great man, by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves; and this sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it is good.1 [Note: George Eliot, Romola.]

ii. The Acceptance

1. What did Moses prefer? He “chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God.” He chose the side of weakness and oppression against the side of unscrupulous might; a weak minority against an outrageous majority. He was willing to be one of the weak plus their pain, rather than be on the side of majestic and magnificent vice. There is no more splendid spectacle than this, the sight of a man who, if he likes, can have ease, leisure, pleasure, treasure, putting off his slippers, putting on his heavy boots, going out into the stormy night, battling with wind and rain because he has heard the cry of pain and servitude. Happily, the Christian centuries abound in men and women who have left ease, delight, luxurious home and wealth in the interest of the weak and oppressed.

If young women want to know what a woman can be, read Josephine Butler’s life of her husband and see how she mingles with it as one of, shall I say, the knight-errants of the Lord Christ? Josephine Butler, living in the ease and seclusion of a snug deanery, heard the cry of awfully oppressed womanhood. It shook her heart with pain and fear. She at once made up her mind to go out into the night, if she might be the means of lifting the burden from the oppressed womanhood of our realm. She knew what it meant—the contempt of the aristocracy, the loss of much social esteem and regard; she counted the cost. She made the confession to her husband: God had created the husband as splendid as the wife; he was willing that the sacrifice should be made. She tells how she made her purpose known to her husband: “I went to him one evening when he was alone, all the household having gone to rest, and I recollect the painful thoughts that seemed to throng that passage from my room to his study. I hesitated. I leaned my cheek against the closed door, and as I leaned I prayed. Then I went in, and I gave him something that I had written, and I left him. I did not see him until the next day. He looked very pale”—he had been in Gethsemane through that night—“and very troubled, and for some days he was very silent. And then I spoke to my husband of all that had passed in my mind, and I said: ‘I feel as if I must go out into the streets and cry aloud, or my heart will break,’ and that good and noble man, foreseeing what it meant both for me and for himself, never said, ‘What will the world say?’ He had pondered the matter, and looking straight”—I like that phrase—“as was his wont, he saw only a great wrong, and a woman who wanted to redress the wrong, and in loving and reverent response he said, ‘Go, and God be with you.’” Out into the night she went; she chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than dwell in the luxurious seclusion of a deanery, and I tell you that if the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews were to return, and were to enlarge his nave, and wanted to erect a memorial to some distinguished woman, Josephine Butler would find a place.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]

2. “He esteemed the reproach of Christ”—put that in one hand: “greater than the treasures of Egypt”—put that in the other hand. He esteemed reproach, contumely, contempt, derision plus right, more than all the treasures of Egypt plus unrighteousness. He did not mind a scar; some scars are ornaments. Is there a more splendid word in all the supremely splendid Epistles of St. Paul than “I bear about in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus”? “Do you see that?” he said; “I was stoned there”; and I think he pulled up his sleeve and said, “Do you see that? It is the mark of the scourge. If you could only see my back; I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus”; he exhibited them as some men parade their degrees. His scars were his crown. So Moses refused, he turned his back upon majesty; he chose, he preferred oppression and weakness.

It is difficult for us to realize how daring such a faith was, for we look back across the intervening millenniums and see with what unique lustre Israel has shone, and how singularly it has justified Moses’ estimate. We think of all the splendid galaxy of saints and prophets, of sages and psalmists, who so gloriously vindicated Israel’s right to the title. But all this still lay in the future to Moses. He knew nothing of the lofty spiritual achievements which awaited his race. It was rather a mere horde of slaves, with all that this implies. For we know what slavery does for men, how it takes the pith out of their manhood and grinds them into abject submission, how it creates a degraded slave-morality of its own, underhand and obsequious.

There was a man called Benjamin Waugh who was enjoying the delights of some secluded ministry, all the enjoyment that comes to the studious life. He heard the wail of a little child, and he left his study and his books, went out into the night, and encountered the tempest, antagonisms on every side. He only wanted to protect the ill-used child against the heavy, brutal hand of oppression, but he was opposed and antagonized, confronted on every hand by opposition. The police, especially the chief constables of the country, ranged themselves in opposition to him. He had to fight and fight and fight; and now to-day we have a great and popular society for the protection of ill-used little children, which must be traced to the majestic outgoing of a man who said: “I will despise ease, leisure, pleasure, treasure: I choose to be one with the ill-used children rather than to enjoy the pleasures of luxurious seclusion, even for a season.”1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,

Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;

Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,

Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,

And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

Count me o’er earth’s chosen heroes,—they were souls that stood alone,

While the men they agonized for hurled the contumelious stone,

Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden beam incline

To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their faith divine,

By one man’s plain truth to manhood and to God’s supreme design.2 [Note: James Russell Lowell, The Present Crisis.]


The Power

“By faith.”—While the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says but little of the faith displayed by Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, he has much more to say concerning the faith of Moses. And this was natural. No patriotic Hebrew who looked back with love and pride on the early history of his race could fail to accord a pre-eminent place to Moses. To him, across the intervening centuries, a grateful nation looked back as the founder of its political existence and the revealer of its law. But the author includes Moses in his list, not merely because he was too great a man to be omitted, but because his career was so singularly marked by the quality of religious insight and lofty self-renouncing heroism.

1. God had chosen Moses, but now the time had come when Moses must choose God. We are not told how the crisis came about; we know only the outcome, and that the power that enabled him to act was faith. Faith in his mother’s God, for Jochebed must have taught her boy of Him in whom she trusted. A faith that came from calm and quiet consideration, for we are told he “looked unto the recompense of the reward”; literally “he looked beyond,” or “away from that which was before his eyes.” He was brought to consider his position in the light of eternity, and to make a choice as to whether he would live for the present or for future gain.

2. “Now faith is the giving substance to things hoped for, the test of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, R.V., margin). Faith puts to the proof the statements of God by acting upon them, and in the acting finds their substance and reality. Faith tests the unseen things, and translates them into real experience. This was strikingly true in the case of Moses. By faith he looked beyond the things before his eyes, he deliberately chose to refuse all the “pleasures” and “treasures” of the present, and faith tested, proved, or gave substance to his hopes. He was led step by step away from things seen, into a fellowship and communion with the unseen God, of which he had no conception when he made his choice in Egypt.

3. The faith that is the “proving of things not seen” demands direct communication with God. Souls have often been shipwrecked here. They have rested their faith upon the written word spoken by others, rather than upon God Himself in His Word. The “faith” that can act as Moses did must have the word of the Living God as its basis—the word of the Living God in His written Word, but by the Holy Spirit applied as His direct word to the soul. When God speaks, His commands are His enablings. By the faith wrought in us by God, and the assurance of the reward of knowing Him “face to face,” we too can refuse to be of the world, and declare plainly that we seek a better country, that is, a heavenly; we too can refuse the pleasures of sin and self-pleasing, and choose the way of the cross: we too can hold lightly the “treasures” that others clasp to their breasts, and account reproach with Christ as greater riches than them all.

4. “Faith” is the key to all the treasuries of God. The gospel is practically God’s statement of what is in the spiritual world. Faith is simply believing God’s word, however contrary it may appear to the things of sense and sight. Faith in God’s statement to us is proved by action. We act according to what is told us by God, which we believe, and must of necessity obey. Living faith involves action; without action it may be said to be dead, for a mental assent to the truths of God will never give them substance in our lives. If we do believe God’s word, we shall act according to that word.

He who walks by sight only walks in a blind alley. He who does not know the freedom and joy of reverent, loving speculation wastes his life in a gloomy cell of the mouldiest of prisons. Even in matters that are not distinctively religious faith will be found to be the inspiration and strength of the most useful life. It is faith that does the great work of the world. It is faith that sends men in search of unknown coasts. It is faith that re-trims the lamp of inquiry when sight is weary of the flame. It is faith that unfastens the cable and gives men the liberty of the seas. It is faith that inspires the greatest works in civilization. So we cannot get rid of religion unless we first get rid of faith, and when we get rid of faith we give up our birthright and go into slavery for ever.1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]

O God! the scholar and the sage

Into Thy mysteries peer,

And strive by Reason’s subtle art

To make their meaning clear.

But my bewildered heart rejects

The puzzling paths they lay,

And seeks to gain the Eternal Heart

By some directer way.

Lord, draw me as the sun in spring

Draws the awakening vine,

And up some lattice of Thy love

Bid my affections twine!

So when my grasp on Reason fails,

Faith-led, I still may go,

And all the mystery shall melt

As melts the April snow.


The Motive

What was the motive which inspired the choice of Moses? In other words, What form did his faith take? How did it express itself? The answer is, “He looked unto the recompense of reward.”

1. When the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Moses “looked unto the recompense of reward,” he seems to spoil what has gone before. Our impulse is at once to retort, “Oh, then, Moses was self-seeking after all, only he made much cleverer calculations than other people would have done. Faith was just the cooler, keener insight which enabled him to make a better bargain than his fellows. He was good because it paid him better.” The writer does not, it is true, tell us precisely what he had in mind, but we can, at any rate, rest assured that we should wrong Moses himself by such a criticism. For what we may call the higher doctrine of the future life emerged in the religion of Israel at a comparatively late period, and therefore the founder of the religion may reasonably be regarded as untouched by this as regards motive. So far as he was concerned he did his duty and made his sacrifice without thought of reward in that sense. If, then, we give to the author’s words a meaning which shall harmonize with history, we shall speak of Moses as contemplating a reward only in the sense in which we speak of virtue as its own reward. He had peace of conscience and the assurance that, at all costs, he had followed the path of duty. He had the privilege of knowing that his sacrifice had meant the redemption of his people. Above all, he was happy in the sense of God’s approval. We may all desire that our own actions may be prompted by such disinterested anticipations of reward.

To labour in a righteous cause with the assurance that some day the right will be justified is to manifest the disposition of faith. Is it not a beautiful word in the Psalmist: “He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light”? A man said to me last week in Birmingham, only a working man, “We don’t seem to make much headway there in the slums; it is like trying to clean them with a spoon, but I am doing my best, and I am trusting God.” It came to me to quote “thy righteousness”—only like a little candle in a dark place, but if thou art faithful to it—“He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light,” and even when thou art working, as with a candle amidst surrounding blackness, work thou as a child of the noon. Oh, that is the meaning; when we are working in the twilight, when the darkness envelops and oppresses us, to work as children of the noon. Is that not what our Master meant when He said, “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive”?1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]

2. And yet it was possible for Moses to see a definite though distant reward. We read of the Saviour Himself: “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.” What do those words mean? They mean far more than we can comprehend. They, however, at least teach us that the salvation of those for whom He died will be His recompense. His reward will be the satisfaction which the presence of the redeemed, which no man can number, will give to the love that brought Him from His heaven to die for them. Such a reward in a humbler measure and in a different sense was the reward of Moses.

(1) First of all, with regard to the very people to whom he was to become deliverer, his reward consisted in being permitted, though not to enter Canaan itself, to stand on the summit of the mountain and see the land they would so soon enter. The recompense of his toil, the reward of all his suffering, was to b permitted to know that they were not in vain, but that the people for whom he in his best hours was prepared to die were finally delivered from bondage and placed in possession of the Promised Land.

(2) But that is only a type of the deeper and more spiritual joy which fell to the lot of Moses, namely, the recompense of the reward in finding that every self-denial could be made sweet, and every cross could be converted into a crown. The greatest recompense we can have for any self-denying service is to lose the sense of the self-denial in the ecstasy of the joy and privilege of it; to feel that though we may have to suffer, the suffering itself becomes a channel of joy to us in that we are permitted to suffer for the Master’s sake. The recompense of the reward is to be so transformed and transfigured by the service we render to Christ and for humanity that we shall become like our Lord, and find our greatest joy in being permitted to bless those who need our help.

In Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau Browning gives a striking picture of the inadequacy of the judgments that are passed from an imperfect seizure of the facts of the case. It will serve to illustrate the inadequacy of the world’s judgments of things that are outside of its province.

An artist in Rome covered all the accessories in the Laocoön group, leaving exposed only the central figure of the father, “with neither sons nor serpents to denote the purpose of his gesture.” Then he stood by to hear the people’s comments. What would they make of the tremendous energy of those legs and arms, and of the eyeballs starting from their sockets? With one exception the uninitiated multitude decided that it was “a yawn of sheer fatigue subsiding to repose,” and the subject of the statue must surely be “Somnolency”! Only one spectator seized upon the truth—

I think the gesture strives

Against some obstacle we cannot see!

When Moses gave up his bright prospects at the Egyptian court and set out for the wilderness, there were many that thought him mad. But they did not see all the elements of the group; they did not see what Moses saw. They failed to take into account his devotion to his God and to his people, and his grounds for faith in the promises that were his people’s heritage. And did he not choose wisely? As one of a line of Pharaohs he could not have failed of having his name and his fame written down on some of the clay tablets of his period, and we might have been digging them up to-day. But as the Leader of Israel and as the Schoolmaster of Christendom, his name and his fame are written in golden letters in the language of almost every people and nation and tribe under heaven.1 [Note: J. B. Maclean, The Secret of the Stream, 162.]

Beloved, yield thy time to God, for He

Will make eternity thy recompense;

Give all thy substance for His love, and be

Beatified past earth’s experience.

Serve Him in bonds, until He set thee free;

Serve Him in dust, until He lift thee thence;

Till death be swallowed up in victory

When the great trumpet sounds to bid thee hence.

Shall setting day win day that will not set?

Poor price wert thou to spend thyself for Christ,

Had not His wealth thy poverty sufficed:

Yet since He makes His garden of thy clod,

Water thy lily, rose, or violet,

And offer up thy sweetness unto God.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poetical Works, 17.]

The Choice of Moses


Banks (L. A.), On the Trail of Moses, 12.

Bell (C. D.), The Roll-Call of Faith, 178.

Brandt (J. L.), Soul-Saving, 219.

Brown (C.), The Birth of a Nation, 95.

Brown (J.), Sermons with Memoir, 159.

Carroll (B. H.), Sermons, 126.

Chadwick (G. A.), The Book of Exodus , 34.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, v. 365.

Dewey (O.), Works, 716.

Hopkins (E. H.), Hidden yet Possessed, 53, 60.

Mackintosh (H. R.), Life on God’s Plan, 15.

Meyer (F. B.), Moses the Servant of God, 17.

Neville (W. G.), Sermons, 290.

Norton (J. N.), Golden Truths, 341.

Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, ii. 133.

Peake (A. S.), The Heroes and Martyrs of Faith, 99.

Penn-Lewis (Mrs.), Face to Face, 25.

Plumptre (E. H.), Theology and Life, 147.

Punshon (W. M.), Sermons, ii. 42.

Ramsey (D. M.), in The Southern Baptist Pulpit, 314.

Rawlinson (G.), Moses: His Life and Times, 51.

Ryle (J. C), Faith’s Choice, 1.

Selby (T. G.), The God of the Patriarchs, 163.

Smith (J.), The Permanent Message of the Exodus , 16.

Whitehead (H.), Sermons, 73.

Cambridge Review, ix. Supplement No. 216 (E. H. Bickersteth).

Christian World Pulpit, xxxix. 225 (F. W. Farrar).

Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., vi. 309 (F. W. Farrar).

Homiletic Review, xlvi. 33 (J. H. Jowett); lvi. 229 (G. E. Reed).

Verse 25

(25) Choosing.—Better, having chosen. His act was an expression of his deliberate choice. He joined his people because it was “the people of God.” To stand aloof for the sake of ease and pleasure would for him have been apostasy from God (“sin,” comp. Hebrews 10:26). The faith of Moses had brought “conviction of the things not seen,” which “are eternal *; hence he looked not at “the things seen” which are “for a season” (2 Corinthians 4:18, where the same word is used).

Verse 26

(26) The reproach of Christ.—Better, The reproach of the Christ. Many explanations have been proposed of this remarkable phrase, some of which—as “reproach for Christ,” “reproach similar to that which Christ endured”—cannot possibly give the true meaning. The first point to be noted is that the words are almost exactly a quotation from one of the chief of the Messianic Psalms (Psalms 89:50-51)—“Remember, Lord, the reproach of Thy servants; how I do bear in my bosom the reproach of many peoples: wherewith Thine enemies have reproached, O Lord; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of Thine Anointed.” Here the writer in effect speaks of himself as bearing “the reproach of the Anointed” of the Lord; pleading in his name and identifying himself with his cause. “The Anointed” is the king who (see the Note on Hebrews 1:5) was the type of the promised Christ. Throughout the whole of their history the people of Israel were the people of the Christ. Their national existence originated in the promise to Abraham, which was a promise of the Christ; and till the fulness of time should come their mission was to prepare the way for Him. The reproach which Moses accepted by joining the people of the promise was, therefore, “the reproach of the Christ,” the type of that “reproach” which in later days His people will share with Him (Hebrews 13:13). He who was to appear in the last days as the Messiah was already in the midst of Israel (John 1:10). (See Psalms 69:9; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 1:11; and the Note on 2 Corinthians 1:5. Philippians 3:7-11 furnishes a noble illustration of this whole record.)

For he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.—Rather, for he looked unto the recompence (Hebrews 10:35). He habitually “looked away” from the treasures in Egypt, and fixed his eye on the heavenly reward.

Verse 27

(27) By faith he forsook Egypt.—It is a matter of great difficulty to decide whether these words refer to the flight into Midian (Exodus 2:15), or to the Exodus. The former view, which seems to be taken by all ancient writers and by most in modern times, is supported by the following arguments:—(1) The institution of the Passover is mentioned later in this chapter (Hebrews 11:28); (2) the second departure was made at Pharaoh’s urgent request (Exodus 12:31); (3) “he forsook” is too personal an expression to be used of the general Exodus. On the other side it is urged with great force: (1) that, although the actual departure from Egypt followed the institution of the Passover, the “forsaking” really commenced in the demand of Hebrews 5:1-3, persevered in until the anger of the king was powerfully excited (Hebrews 10:28); (2) that, as might have been certainly foreseen, the wrath of both king and people was aroused as soon as the people had departed (Exodus 14:5); (3) that the flight to Midian was directly caused by fear (Exodus 2:14-15); (4) that the following words, “he endured, &c.,” are much more applicable to the determined persistency of Moses and his repeated disappointments (Exodus 5-12) than to the inaction of his years of exile. On the whole the latter interpretation seems preferable. If the former be adopted, we must distinguish between the apprehension which led him (4) to seek safety in flight and the courage which enabled him to give up Egypt.

He endured.—In the presence of Pharaoh (or in the weariness of exile) he was strong and patient, as seeing the invisible King and Leader of His people.

Verse 28

(28) Through faith he kept.—Rather, By faith he hath kept (see Hebrews 11:17). The celebration of the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood were acts of obedience, having reference to a danger as yet un seen, but present in God’s word (Exodus 12:12).

Lest he that destroyed.—Better, that the destroyer of the first-born may not touch them. (See Exodus 12:21-22; Exodus 12:28-29.)

Verse 29

(29) Which the Egyptians assaying to do.—Literally, Of which the Egyptians making trial were swallowed up (Exodus 14, 15). In the same “trial,” but with the support of the word of God, had consisted Israel’s faith. The word land is not in the ordinary Greek text (and hence stands in italics), but is found in the best MSS. It is with this word that the following clause (“of which . . .”) connects itself.

Verse 30

(30) Seven days.—It is the persistence of Israel’s obedience (in the midst, we cannot doubt, of the unmeasured contempt and ridicule of their foes) during the seven days of almost total inaction (Joshua 6) that is here brought into relief.

Verse 31

(31) That believed not.—Bather, that were disobedient (see Hebrews 3:18; Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 4:11). To her and to her countrymen alike had come the knowledge of what the Lord had done for Israel (Joshua 2:10). She recognised from these signs, and acknowledged, the supremacy of Jehovah (Hebrews 11:11), and she cast in her lot with His servants; the men of Jericho continued in their disobedience, and perished (Joshua 6:21). Through faith, therefore, a despised heathen woman became united with the people of God. With such an example these more detailed histories may fitly close.

Verse 32

(32) The sacred writer has lingered over the life and deeds of the greatest of the patriarchs and of Moses the legislator of the nation: two examples only—differing in kind from those which have preceded, and peculiarly suggestive and important—have been taken from the history of the people after the death of Moses. Enough has now been said to guide all who are willing to search the Scriptures for themselves. With a brief mention of names which would call up before the minds of his readers achievements almost as wonderful as those on which he has been dwelling, he passes from the elders who received witness from God by their faith, and (Hebrews 11:33-38) speaks in general terms, but all the more distinctly, of the triumphs which faith has won.

The time would fail me.—The slight changes of text required by our best evidence give increased vividness: For the time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah. To the exploits of Barak (Judges 4, 5), Gideon (Judges 6-8), Samson (Judges 13-16), Jephthah (Judges 11, 12), there is manifest reference in the words of later verses (Hebrews 11:33-34). There seems to be no design in this arrangement of the names. In the following clause also, “of David and Samuel and the prophets,” there is a similar departure from the order of time.

Verse 33

(33) Subdued kingdoms.—Better, overcame kingdoms. To all the deliverers of Israel of whom we have read in Hebrews 11:32 (and especially to David, 2 Samuel 8, 10, 11) these words will apply. They also “wrought righteousness,” as each judge or king or prophet “executed judgment and justice unto all his people” (2 Samuel 8:15).

Obtained promises.—Do these words mean that these men of faith won promises of future blessing (such as were vouchsafed to David and the prophets), or that promises of deliverance were fulfilled to them? There seems no reason for doubting that the writer’s language may include both thoughts. The words which follow (though illustrated in the history of Samson and of David) clearly point to Daniel (Hebrews 6).

Verse 34

(34) The violence.—Rather, the power (Daniel 3.).

Escaped the edge of the sword.—Though it would not be difficult to trace the application of this and the following clauses to the heroes of Israel celebrated in the Old Testament history (the perils of David and Elijah and the “weakness” of Samson and Hezekiah will occur to the mind of all), it seems likely that the writer’s thought is resting mainly on the history of the Maccabæan times. That the following verse relates to narratives contained in the Second Book of Maccabees is generally acknowledged; and no words could more truly characterise the general contents of the First Book than those of the present verse.

Verse 35

(35) Raised to life again.—Literally, by a resurrection. (See 1 Kings 17:22-23; 2 Kings 4:35-37.) At this point the character of the record is changed; hitherto we have heard of the victories of faith in action, now it is of the triumph of faith over suffering that the writer speaks. Those who “escaped the edge of the sword” (Hebrews 11:34) and those who “were slain with the sword” alike exemplified the power of faith.

Others were tortured.—See the account of the aged Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6:30), martyred because he would not pollute himself with swine’s flesh and the “flesh taken from the sacrifice commanded by the king.” The following chapter records the martyrdom of seven brethren, who for their adherence to their law were put to death with cruel tortures. (See especially Hebrews 11:9; Hebrews 11:14; Hebrews 11:23; Hebrews 11:29; Hebrews 11:36.)

Not accepting deliverance.—Literally, not accepting the redemption, i.e., the deliverance offered, which must be purchased at the price of their constancy.

A better resurrection.—Better than that return to the present life which is spoken of in the first words of the verse.

Verse 36

(36) The language becomes more general, but still chiefly refers to the same troublous times.

Yea, moreover of bonds.—Lasting and cruel captivity, a worse fate even than “mockings and scourgings.”

Verse 37

(37) They were stoned.—As Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:20-22), and—according to a Jewish tradition mentioned by Tertullian and others—Jeremiah. (See Matthew 23:35; Matthew 23:37.)

They were sawn asunder.—An ancient tradition, mentioned both by Jewish and by early Christian writers, relates that Isaiah was thus put to death by order of Manasseh. The following words, “they were tempted,” are very remarkable in such a position; and many conjectures have been hazarded on the supposition that a mistake of transcription has occurred. If the text is correct, the writer is speaking of the promises and allurements by which the persecutors sought to overcome the constancy of God’s servants.

Slain with the sword.—See 1 Kings 19:1; 1 Kings 19:10; Jeremiah 26:23.

They wandered about.—Rather, they went about, as outcasts; compelled to live the life of wanderers and exiles.

Tormented.—Rather, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and the holes of the earth. Once more the Maccabæan persecutions seem to be chiefly in view. (See 1 Maccabees 2:28-29; 2 Maccabees 5:27; 2 Maccabees 6:11. Comp. also 1 Samuel 22:1; 1 Kings 18:4.)

Verse 39

(39) Having obtained a good report.—Now that the history is concluded the word of Hebrews 11:2 is resumed. That in such a faith as was described in Hebrews 11:1 “the elders” received their witness from God, the records themselves have shown; yet “these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise,” i.e., the promised blessing. There are three passages of the Epistle which must be kept together—Hebrews 6:15, “And so, having patiently waited, he (Abraham) obtained the promise;” Hebrews 10:36, “Ye have need of endurance, that having done the will of God ye may receive the promise;” and the present versa. To the saints of the Old Testament the promised blessing was future; they obtained it, but not within the limits of this present life. To us the promised blessing is present, revealed to us in its true nature, obtained for us once for all; for we know that eternal redemption has been won through Christ’s entering for us once for all into the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:12), and to us the “perfection” has come, in that through Him we “draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:11; Hebrews 7:19). That (1) the full personal appropriation of the gift is for every one of us still future, and (2) the full revelation belongs to another state of being, is true, but not inconsistent with what has been said.

Verse 40

(40) For us.—Rather, concerning us, that without (or, apart from) us they should not be made perfect. “Some better thing”—better than they had received (Matthew 13:17; 1 Peter 1:10-11). The design of God was that they and we may be perfected together; first in the joint reception of mature knowledge and privilege through the High-priestly work of the Lord Jesus (comp. Ephesians 3:10; 1 Peter 1:12); and then that we with them may, when the end shall come, “have our perfect consummation and bliss both in body and soul, in the eternal and everlasting glory of God.” See further the Note on Hebrews 12:23.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Hebrews 11:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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Sunday, January 26th, 2020
the Third Sunday after Epiphany
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