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Matthew 12:1-40.12.8. The account contained in these verses is also recorded in Mark 2:23-41.2.28, and Luke 6:1-42.6.5.
At that time - Luke Luke 6:1 fixes the time more particularly. He says that it was “the second Sabbath after the first.” To understand this, it is proper to remark that the “Passover” was observed during the month “Abib,” or Nisan, answering to the latter part of March and the first of April. The feast was held seven days, commencing on the fourteenth day of the month Exodus 12:1-2.12.28; Exodus 23:15, on the “second” day of the paschal week. The law required that a sheaf of “barley” should be offered up as the first-fruits of the harvest, Leviticus 23:10-3.23.11. From this day was reckoned seven weeks to the feast of “Pentecost” Leviticus 23:15-3.23.16, called also the feast of weeks Deuteronomy 16:10, and the feast of the harvest, Exodus 23:16. This second day in the feast of the Passover, or of unleavened bread, was the beginning, therefore, from which they reckoned toward the Pentecost. The Sabbath in the week following would be the “second Sabbath” after this first one in the reckoning, and this was doubtless the time mentioned when Christ went through the fields. It should be further mentioned, that in Judea the barley harvest commences about the beginning of May, and both that and the wheat harvest are over by the twentieth. Barley is in full ear in the beginning of April. There is no improbability, therefore, in this narrative on account of the season of the year. This feast was always held at Jerusalem.
Through the corn - Through the “barley,” or “wheat.” The word “corn,” as used in our translation of the Bible, has no reference to “maize,” or “Indian corn,” as it has with us. Indian corn was unknown until the discovery of America, and it is scarcely probable that the translators knew anything about it. The word “corn” was applied, as it is still in England, to wheat, rye, oats, and barley. This explains the circumstance that they “rubbed it in their hands” Luke 6:1 to separate the grain from the chaff.
Upon the Sabbath day - The Pharisees, doubtless desirous of finding fault with Christ, said that in plucking the grain on the “Sabbath day” they had violated the commandment. Moses had commanded the Hebrews to abstain from all servile work on the Sabbath, Exodus 20:10; Exodus 35:2-2.35.3; Numbers 15:32-4.15.36. On any other day this would have been clearly lawful, for it was permitted, Deuteronomy 23:25.
But he said unto them ... - To vindicate his disciples, he referred them to a similar case, recorded in the Old Testament, and therefore one with which they ought to have been acquainted. This was the case of David. The law commanded that twelve loaves of bread should be laid on the table in the holy place in the tabernacle, to remain a week, and then to be eaten by the “priests only.” Their place was then supplied by fresh “bread.” This was called the “showbread,” Leviticus 24:5-3.24.9. David, fleeing before Saul, weary and hungry, had come to Ahimelech the priest; had found only this bread; had asked it of him, and had eaten it contrary to the “letter” of the law, 1 Samuel 21:1-9.21.7. David, among the Jews, had high authority. This act had passed uncondemned. It proved that in “cases of necessity the laws did not bind a man” - a principle which all laws admit. So the “necessity” of the disciples justified them in doing on the Sabbath what would have been otherwise unlawful.
How he entered into the house of God - That is, the “tabernacle,” the temple not being then built.
Have ye not read in the law? - In the law, or in the books of Moses.
Profane the Sabbath - He referred them to the conduct of the priests also. On the Sabbath days they were engaged, as well as on other days, in killing beasts for sacrifice, Numbers 28:9-4.28.10. Two lambs were killed on the Sabbath, in addition to the daily sacrifice. The priests must be engaged in killing them, and making fires to burn them in sacrifice, whereas to kindle a fire was expressly forbidden the Jews on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:3. They did that which, for other persons to do, would have been “profaning” the Sabbath. Yet they were blameless. They did what was necessary and commanded. This was done in the very temple, too, the place of holiness, where the law should be most strictly observed.
One greater than the temple - Here the Saviour refers to himself, and to his own dignity and power. “I have power over the laws; I can grant to my disciples a dispensation from those laws. An act which I command or permit them to do is therefore right.” This proves that he was divine. None but God can authorize people to do a thing contrary to the divine laws. He refers them again Matthew 12:7 to a passage he had before quoted (See the notes at Matthew 9:13), showing that God preferred acts of righteousness, rather than a precise observance of a ceremonial law.
Mark adds Mark 2:27 “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” That is, the Sabbath was intended for the welfare of man; it was designed to promote his happiness, and not to produce misery by harsh, unfeeling requirements. It is not to be so interpreted as to produce suffering by making the necessary supply of wants unlawful. Man was not made for the Sabbath. Man was created first, and then the Sabbath was appointed for his happiness, Genesis 2:1-1.2.3. His necessities, his real comforts and needs, are not to be made to bend to that which was made “for him.” The laws are to be interpreted favorably to his real wants and comforts. This authorizes works only of real necessity, not of imaginary wants, or amusements, or common business and worldly employments.
For the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath day - To crown all, Christ says that he was Lord of the Sabbath. He had a right to direct the manner of its observance - undoubted proof that he is divine.
The account contained in these verses is recorded also in Mark 3:1-41.3.5, and Luke 6:6-42.6.10.
A man which had his hand withered - This was probably one form of the palsy. See Barnes Mt 4:24.
Mark and Luke have mentioned some circumstances omitted by Matthew. They say that Jesus addressed the man, and told him to stand forth in the midst. He then addressed the people. He asked them if it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath day? This was admitted by all their teachers, and it could not be denied. They were therefore silent. He then appealed to them, and drew an argument from their own conduct. A man that had a sheep that should fall into a pit on the Sabbath day would exercise the common offices of humanity, and draw it out. If a man would save the life of a sheep, was it not proper to save the life of a man ? By a reference to their own conduct, he silenced them. Mark adds, that he looked on them with anger; that is, with strong disapprobation of their conduct. Their envy and malignity excited feelings of holy indignation. See Barnes Mr 3:5.
How much, then, is a man better than a sheep? - Of more consequence or value.
If you would show an act of kindness to a brute beast on the Sabbath, how much more important is it to evince similar kindness to one made in the image of God!
It is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days - This was universally allowed by the Jews in the abstract; and Jesus only showed them that the principle on which they acted in other things applied with more force to the case before him, and that the act which he was about to perform was, by their own confession, lawful.
Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand - This was a remarkable commandment.
The man might have said that he had no strength - that it was a thing which he could not do. Yet, “being commanded,” it was his duty to obey. He did so, and was healed. So the sinner. It is his duty to obey whatever God commands. He will give strength to those who endeavor to do his will. It is not right to plead, when God commands us to do a thing, that we have no strength. He will give us strength, if there is a disposition to obey. At the same time, however, this passage should not be applied to the sinner as if it proved that he has no more strength or ability than the man who had the withered hand. It proves no such thing: it has no reference to any such case. It may be used to prove that man should instantly obey the commands of God, without pausing to examine the question about his ability, and especially without saying “that he can do nothing.” What would the Saviour have said to this man if he had objected that he could not stretch out his hand?
It was restored whole - Christ had before claimed divine authority and power Matthew 12:6-40.12.9, he now showed that he possessed it. By his “own power” he healed him, thus evincing by a miracle that his claim of being Lord of the Sabbath was well founded.
These two cases determine what may be done on the Sabbath. The one was a case of “necessity,” the other of “mercy.” The example of the Saviour, and his explanations, show that these are a part of the proper duties of that holy day. Beyond an “honest” and “conscientious” discharge of these two duties, people may not devote the Sabbath to any secular purpose. If they do, they do it at their peril. They go beyond what His authority authorizes them to do. They do what he claimed the special right of doing, as being Lord of the Sabbath. They usurp His place, and act and legislate where God only has a right to act land legislate. People may as well trample down any other law of the Bible as that respecting the Sabbath.
This account is found also in Mark 3:6-41.3.12.
The Pharisees ... held a council ... - Mark adds that the Herodians also took a part in this plot. They were probably a “political” party attached firmly to Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, tetrarch of Galilee. He was the same man who had imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist, and to whom the Saviour, when arraigned, was sent by Pilate. See the notes at Luke 3:1. He was under Roman authority, and was a strong advocate of Roman power. All the friends of the family of Herod were opposed to Christ, and ever ready to join any plot against his life. They remembered, doubtless, the attempts of Herod the Great against him when he was the babe of Bethlehem, and they were stung with the memory of the escape of Jesus from his bloody hands. The attempt against him now, on the part of the Pharisees, was the effect of “envy.” They hated his popularity, they were losing their influence, and they therefore resolved to take him out of the way.
But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself ... - He knew of the plot which they had formed against his life; but his hour was not yet come, and he therefore sought security.
By remaining, his presence would only have provoked them further and endangered his own life. He acted, therefore, the part of prudence and withdrew. Compare the notes at Matthew 10:23.
Mark adds that he withdrew “to the sea;” that is, to the Sea of Galilee. or Tiberias. He states also Matthew 3:7-40.3.8 that “a great multitude from Galilee followed him, and from Judea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and from beyond Jordan; and they about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they heard what great things he did, came unto him.” As some of these places were without the limits of Judea or inhabited by “Gentiles,” this statement of Mark throws light on the passage quoted by Matthew Matthew 12:21, “In his name shall the Gentiles trust.”
Pressed by the crowd Mark 3:9, Jesus went aboard a “small vessel,” or “boat,” called by Mark a “ship.” This he did for the convenience of being separated from them and more easily addressing them. We are to suppose the lake still and calm; the multitudes, most of whom were sick and diseased, on the shore and pressing to the water’s edge; and Jesus thus healing their diseases, and preaching to them the good news of salvation. No scene could be more sublime than this.
And he charged them ... - He was “at this time” desirous of concealment.
He wished to avoid their plots and to save his life.
That it might be fulfilled ... - Matthew here quotes a passage from Isaiah 42:1-23.42.4, to show the “reason why he thus retired from his enemies and sought concealment.” The Jews, and the disciples also at first, expected that the Messiah would be a conqueror, and vindicate himself from all his enemies. When they saw him retiring before them, and, instead of subduing them by force, seeking a place of concealment, it was contrary to all their previous notions of the Messiah. Matthew by this quotation shows that “their” conceptions of him had been wrong. Instead of a warrior and an earthly conqueror, he was “predicted” under a totally different character. Instead of shouting for battle, lifting up his voice in the streets, oppressing the feeble - “breaking bruised reeds and quenching smoking flax, as a conqueror” - he would be peaceful, retiring; would strengthen the feeble, and would cherish the faintest desires of holiness. This appears to be the general meaning of this quotation here. Compare the notes at Isaiah 42:1-23.42.4.
My servant - That is, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus; called a servant from his taking the “form” of a “servant,” or his being born in a humble condition Philippians 2:7, and from his obeying or “serving” God. See Hebrews 10:9.
Shall show judgment to the Gentiles - The word “judgment” means, in the Hebrew, law, “commands, etc.,” Psalms 19:9; Psalms 119:29-19.119.30. It means the “whole system of truth;” the law of God in general; the purpose, plan, or “judgment” of God about human duty and conduct. Here it means, evidently, the system of “gospel truth,” the Christian scheme.
Gentiles - All who were not Jews. This prophecy was fulfilled by the multitudes coming to him from Idumea and beyond Jordan, and from Tyre and Sidon, as recorded by Mark 3:7-41.3.8.
He shall not strive ... - He shall not shout as a warrior.
He shall be meek, retiring, and peaceful. Streets were places of concourse. The meaning is, that he should not seek publicity and popularity.
A bruised reed ... - The reed is an emblem of feebleness, as well as of fickleness or want of stability, Matthew 11:7. A bruised, broken reed is an emblem of the poor and oppressed. It means that he would not oppress the feeble and poor, as victorious warriors and conquerors did. It is also an expressive emblem of the soul broken and contrite on account of sin; weeping and mourning for transgression. He will not break it; that is, he will not be severe, unforgiving, and cruel. He will heal it, pardon it, and give it strength.
Smoking flax - This refers to the wick of a lamp when the oil is exhausted - the dying, flickering flame and smoke that hang over it. It is an emblem, also, of feebleness and infirmity. He would not further oppress those who had a little strength; he would not put out hope and life when it seemed to be almost extinct. He would not be like the Pharisees, proud and overbearing, and trampling down the poor. It is expressive, also, of the languishing graces of the people of God. He will not treat them harshly or unkindly, but will cherish the feeble flame, minister the “oil” of grace, and kindle it into a blaze.
Till he send forth judgment unto victory - “Judgment” here means truth - the truth of God, the gospel. It shall be victorious - it shall not be vanquished. Though the Messiah is not “such” a conqueror as the Jews expected, yet he “shall” conquer. Though mild and retiring, yet he will be victorious.
And in his name ... - The Hebrew in Isaiah is, “And the isles shall wait for his law.” The idea is, however, the same.
The “isles” denote the Gentiles, or a part of the Gentiles - those out of Judea. The meaning is, that the gospel should be preached to the Gentiles, and that they should receive it. See the notes at Isaiah 41:1 for an explanation of the word “islands,” as it is used in the Bible.
Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil - See the notes at Matthew 4:24. The same account, substantially, is found in Mark 3:22-41.3.27, and Luke 11:14-42.11.26.
Is not this the Son of David? - That is, Is not this the promised “descendant” of David, the Messiah? They were acquainted with the prophecy in Isaiah 35:5, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped,” and they inferred that he must be the promised Messiah who was able to do this. This inference was drawn by the common people, and not by the proud and haughty Pharisees. It is not uncommon that people of plain common sense, though unlearned, see the true meaning of the Bible, while those who are filled with pride and science, falsely so called, are blinded.
But when the Pharisees heard it ... - It was necessary for the Pharisees, who had determined to reject Jesus of Nazareth, to account in “some” way for the miracles he had performed.
Here was a manifest miracle, an exertion of power unquestionably superior to what people could put forth. The common people were fast drawing the proper inference from it, and coming into the belief that this was the Messiah. The authority and power of the Pharisees were declining. Unless, therefore, some way should be devised of accounting for these facts, their influence would be at an end. Whatever way of accounting for them was adopted, it was necessary that they should acknowledge that there was “superhuman power.” The people were fully persuaded of this, and no man could deny it. They therefore ascribed it to the prince of the devils - to Beelzebub. In this they had two objects:
- To concede to the people that here was a “miracle,” or a work above mere human power.
- To throw all possible contempt on Jesus. Beelzebub, or Beelzebul, as it is in the Greek, and correctly rendered in the margin, was an opprobrious name given to the leader of the devils as an expression of supreme contempt. See the notes at Matthew 10:25.
Matthew 12:25, Matthew 12:26
And Jesus knew their thoughts ... - To know the thoughts of the heart belongs only to God, Psalms 139:2; Jeremiah 17:10.
Every kingdom ... - Their subtle and cunning device was completely foiled, and Jesus made their argument recoil on their own heads. A kingdom or a family can prosper only by living in harmony. The different parts and members must unite in promoting the same objects. If divided - if one part undoes what the other does - it must fall. So with the kingdom of Satan. It is your doctrine that Satan has “possessed” these whom I have cured. It is also your doctrine that he has helped me to cure them. If so, then he has helped me to undo what he had done. He has aided me to cast himself out - that is, to oppose and discomfit himself. At this rate, how can there be any stability in his kingdom? It must fall, and Satan must have less than human prudence.
By whom do your children cast them out? - Your disciples; your followers.
See the notes at Matthew 1:1. Christ was not satisfied by showing them the intrinsic absurdity of their argument. He showed them that it might as well be applied to them as to him. your disciples, taught by you and encouraged by you, pretend to cast out devils. If your argument be true that a man who casts out devils must be in league with the devil, then “your disciples” have made a covenant with him also. You must therefore either give up this argument, or admit that the working of miracles is proof of the assistance of God.
Therefore they shall be your judges - They condemn you and your argument. They are conclusive witnesses against the force of your reasoning.
But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God ... - The Spirit of God, here, means the “power” of God - in Luke, by the “finger” of God.
Compare Exodus 8:19; Psalms 8:3. If this work is not by the aid of Satan, then it is by the aid of God. Then his kingdom, or “reign,” is come, Matthew 3:2. The reign of Satan over people, and the reign of God are in opposition. If God expels Satan from his dominion over people, then his reign has come.
Or else ... - The Saviour makes use of a new illustration to confute the Pharisees, drawn from breaking into a house.
A man could not break into the house of a strong man and take his property unless he had rendered the man himself helpless. If he had taken his goods, it would therefore be sufficient proof that he had bound the man. So I, says he, have taken this “property - this possessed person” - from the dominion of Satan. It is clear proof that I have subdued “Satan himself,” the “strong” being that had him in possession. The words “or else” mean “or how:” “How, or in what way, can one, etc.”
Spoil his goods - The word “spoil” commonly means, now, to corrupt, injure, or destroy. Here it means “to plunder,” to take with violence, as it commonly does in the Bible. See Colossians 2:8, Colossians 2:15; Exodus 3:22.
He that is not with me ... - In addition to his other arguments, Jesus urges this general principle, that there can be but two parties in the universe.
If anyone did not act with him, he was against him. If he gathered not with him, he scattered. This is taken from the practice of persons in harvest. He that did not gather with him, or “aid” him, scattered abroad, or opposed him. The application of this was, “As I have not united with Satan, but opposed him, there can be no league between us.” The charge, therefore, is a false one.
In this place, and in Mark 3:28-41.3.30, Jesus states the awful nature of the sin of which they had been guilty. That sin was the sin against the Holy Spirit. It consisted in charging him with being in league with the devil, or accusing him of working his miracles, not by the “spirit” or “power” of God, but by the aid of the prince of the devils. It was therefore a direct insult, abuse, or evil speaking against the Holy Spirit - the spirit by which Jesus worked his miracles. That this was what he intended by this sin, at that time, is clear from Mark 3:30, “because they said he had an unclean spirit.” All other sins - all speaking against the Saviour himself - might be remitted. But this sin was clearly against the Holy One; it was alleging that the highest displays of God’s mercy and power were the work of the devil; and it argued, therefore, the deepest depravity of mind. The sin of which he speaks is therefore clearly stated. It was accusing him of working miracles by the aid of the devil, thus dishonoring the Holy Spirit.
All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven - That is, only on condition that people repent and believe. If they continue in this sin they cannot be forgiven, Mark 16:16; Romans 2:6-45.2.9.
Blasphemy - Injurious or evil speaking of God. See the notes at Matthew 9:3.
A word against the Son of man - The Jews were offended at the humble life and appearance of the Saviour. They reproached him as being a Nazarene - sprung from Nazareth, a place from which no good was expected to proceed; with being a Galilean, from Galilee, a place from which no prophet came, John 7:52. Jesus says that reproaches of this kind could be pardoned. Reflections on his poverty, on his humble birth, and on the lowliness of his human nature might be forgiven; but for those which affected his divine nature, accusing him of being in league with the devil, denying his divinity, and attributing the power which manifestly implied divinity to the prince of fallen spirits, there could be no pardon. This sin was a very different thing from what is now often supposed to be the sin against the Holy Spirit. It was a wanton and blasphemous attack on the divine power and nature of Christ. Such a sin God would not forgive.
Speaketh against the Holy Ghost - The word “ghost” means “spirit,” and probably refers here to the “divine nature” of Christ - the power by which he performed his miracles. There is no evidence that it refers to the third person of the Trinity; and the meaning of the whole passage may be: “He that speaks against me as a man of Nazareth - that speaks contemptuously of my humble birth, etc., may be pardoned; but he that reproaches my divine nature, charging me with being in league with Satan, and blaspheming the power of God manifestly displayed “by me,” can never obtain forgiveness.”
Neither in this world, nor in that which is to come - That is, as Mark expresses it, “hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” This fixes the meaning of the phrase. It means, then, not the future age or dispensation, known among the Jews as the world to come, but it means that the guilt will be unpardoned forever; that such is the purpose of God that he will not forgive a sin so direct, presumptuous, and awful. It cannot be inferred from this that any sins will be forgiven in hell. The Saviour meant simply to say that there were “no possible circumstances” in which the offender could obtain forgiveness. He certainly did “not” say that any sin unpardoned here would be pardoned hereafter.
Either make ... - The fact asserted in this verse is, that a tree is known, not by its leaves, or bark, or form, but by its fruit. The application to the argument is this: “You are to judge of man’s being in league with Satan by his works. If my doctrines and works be properly the works of Satan, then I am corrupt; if not, then your charge is blasphemy. So, on the other hand, if, notwithstanding your professions, your works are the works of the devil, and your doctrines are such as he would teach, it would prove respecting you that which you charge on me.” In this indirect but powerful manner he advances to the charge against them, which he urges in the following verses.
O generation of vipers! - Christ here applies the argument which he had suggested in the previous verse. They were a wicked race; like poisonous reptiles, with a corrupt and evil nature. They could not be expected to speak good things - that is, to speak favorably of him and his works. As the bad fruit of a tree was the proper effect of its “nature,” so were their words about him and his works the proper effect of their nature. The “abundance” or fullness of the “heart” produced the words of the lips. “Vipers” are a poisonous kind of serpents, not often a yard long, and about an inch thick, having a flat head. The males have two large teeth, through which a most deadly poison is thrown into the wound made by the bite. They are an emblem of malignity and mischief. These were strong expressions to be used by the meek and lowly Jesus; but they were not the effect of anger and malice; they were a declaration of the true character of the people with whom he was conversing - a declaration most justly deserved. See the notes at Matthew 3:7.
But I say unto you ... - Christ closes this address to his malignant and wicked hearers by a solemn declaration that for these things God would bring them into judgment. Therefore. They who had spoken so malignantly against him, could not escape.
Idle word - This literally means a vain, thoughtless, useless word; a word that accomplishes no good. Here it means, evidently, “wicked, injurious, false, malicious, for such” were the words which they had spoken.
By thy words thou shalt be justified ... - That is, “words” are the indication of the true principles of the heart; by “words” the heart shall be known, as the tree is by its fruit. If they are true, proper, chaste, instructive, pious, they will prove that the heart is right. If false, envious, malignant, and impious, they will prove that the heart is wrong, and will therefore be among the causes of condemnation. It is not meant that words will be the only thing that will condemn man, but that they will be an important part of the things for which he shall be condemned. See James 3:3-59.3.12.
We would see a sign from thee - See Luke 11:16, Luke 11:29-42.11.32. A “sign” commonly signifies a miracle - that is, a sign that God was with the person or had sent him. Compare the notes at Isaiah 7:11. Luke adds that this was done “tempting him;” that is, trying him, doubting if he had the power to do it. If these persons had been present with him for any considerable time, they had already seen sufficient proofs that he was what he claimed to be. They might have been, however, those who had recently come, and then the emphasis must be laid on “we” - we, as well as the others, would see a proof that thou art the Christ. In either case it was a temptation. If they had not seen him work a miracle, yet they should have believed it by testimony. Compare John 20:29. Perhaps, however, the emphasis is to be laid on the words “from heaven.” They might profess not to doubt that his miracles were real, but they were not quite satisfactory. They were desirous of seeing something, therefore, that should clear up their doubts - where there could be no opportunity for dispute. A comet, or lightning, or thunder, or sudden darkness, or the gift of food raining upon them, they supposed would be decisive. Possibly they referred in this to Moses. He had been with God amid thunders and lightnings, and he had given them manna - “bread from heaven” to eat. They wished Jesus to show some miracle equally undoubted.
An evil and adulterous generation - The relation of the Jews to God was often represented as a marriage contract - God as the husband, and the Jewish people as the wife.
See Isaiah 57:3; Hosea 3:1; Ezekiel 16:15. Hence, their apostasy and idolatry are often represented as adultery. This is the meaning, probably, here. They were evil, and unfaithful to the covenant or to the commandments of God - an apostate and corrupt people. There is, however, evidence that they were literally an adulterous people.
There shall no sign be given to it ... - They sought some direct miracle “from heavens.” Jesus replied that no “such” miracle should be given. He did not mean to say that he would work no more miracles, or give no more evidence that he was the Christ, but he would give “no such miracle” as they required. “He would give one that ought to be as satisfactory evidence to them that he was from God, as the miraculous preservation of Jonah was to the Ninevites that he was divinely commissioned.” As Jonah was preserved three days by miracle and then restored alive, so he would be raised from the dead after three days. As on the ground of this preservation the Ninevites believed Jonah and repented, so, on the ground of his resurrection, the people of an adulterous and wicked generation ought to repent, and believe that he was from God. “The sign of the prophet Jonas” means the “sign” or “evidence” which was given to the people of Nineveh that he was from God - to wit, that he had been miraculously preserved, and was therefore divinely commissioned. The word “Jonas” is the Greek way of writing the Hebrew word “Jonah,” as “Elias” is for “Elijah.”
For as Jonas was three days ... - See Jonah 1:17
This event took place in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere between Joppa and Tarshish, when he was fleeing from Nineveh. It is said that the “whale” seldom passes into that sea, and that its throat is too small to admit a man. It is probable, therefore, that a fish of the “shark kind” is intended. Sharks have been known often to swallow a man entire. The fish in the book of Jonah is described merely as a “great fish,” without specifying the kind. It is well known that the Greek word translated whale, in the New Testament, does not of necessity mean a whale, but may denote a large fish or sea-monster of any kind. - Robinson, Lexicon.
Three days and three nights - It will be seen in the account of the resurrection of Christ that he was in the grave but two nights and a part of three days. See Matthew 18:6. This computation is, however, strictly in accordance with the Jewish mode of reckoning. If it had “not” been, the Jews would have understood it, and would have charged our Saviour as being a false prophet, for it was well known to them that he had spoken this prophecy, Matthew 27:63. Such a charge, however, was never made; and it is plain, therefore, that what was “meant” by the prediction was accomplished. It was a maxim, also, among the Jews, in computing time, that a part of a day was to be received as the whole. Many instances of this kind occur in both sacred and profane history. See 2 Chronicles 10:5, 2 Chronicles 10:12; Genesis 42:17-1.42.18. Compare Esther 4:16 with Esther 5:1.
In the heart of the earth - The Jews used the word “heart” to denote the “interior” of a thing, or to speak of being in a thing. It means, here, to be in the grave or sepulchre.
The men of Nineveh - Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire.
It was founded by Asshur, Genesis 10:11. It was situated on the banks of the River Tigris, to the northeast of Babylon. It was a city of vast extent, and of corresponding wickedness. It was 48 miles in circuit; its walls were 100 feet high and 10 thick, and were defended by fifteen hundred towers, each 200 feet in height. It contained in the time of Jonah, it is supposed, six hundred thousand inhabitants. The destruction of Nineveh, threatened by Jonah in forty days, was suspended, by their repentance, two hundred years. It was then overthrown by the Babylonians about six hundred years before Christ. During the siege a mighty inundation of the river Tigris took place, which threw down a part of the walls, through which the enemy entered, and sacked and destroyed the city. This destruction had been foretold one hundred and fifteen years before by Nahum Nahum 1:8; “But with an overwhelming flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof:” and Nahum 2:6; “The gates of the river shall be opened, and the palace shall be dissolved.” Its ruins have been lately discovered by Layard, and have contributed much to the establishment of the truth of Scripture history. Those remains are on the east side of the river Tigris, nearly opposite to the city of Mosul.
Shall condemn it - That is, their conduct, in repenting under the preaching of Jonah, shall condemn this generation. They, ignorant and wicked pagan, repented when threatened with “temporal” judgment by a mere man - Jonah; you, Jews, professing to be enlightened, though threatened for your great wickedness with eternal punishment “by the Son of God” - a far greater being than Jonah - repent not, and must therefore meet with a far heavier condemnation.
The queen of the south - That, is, the Queen of Sheba, 1 Kings 10:1
Sheba was probably a city of Arabia, situated to the south of Judea. Compare the notes at Isaiah 60:6.
From the uttermost parts of the earth - This means simply from the most distant parts of the habitable world “then known.” See a similar expression in Deuteronomy 28:49. As the knowledge of geography was limited, the place was, “in fact,” by no means in the extreme parts of the earth. It means that she came from a remote country; and she would condemn that generation, for she came “a great distance” to hear the wisdom of Solomon, but the Jews of that age would not listen to the wisdom of one “much greater” than Solomon, though present with them.
When the unclean spirit ... - The “general sentiment” which our Saviour here teaches is much more easily understood than the illustration which he uses. The Jews had asked a sign from heaven that should decisively prove that he was the Messiah, and satisfy their unbelief. He replies that, though he should give them such a sign a proof conclusive and satisfactory, and though for a time they should profess to believe and apparently reform, yet such was the obstinacy of their unbelief and wickedness, that they would soon return to their former course. and become worse and worse. Infidelity and wickedness, like an evil spirit in a possessed man, were appropriately at “home” in them. If driven out, they would find no other place so comfortable and undisturbed as their bosoms. Everywhere they would be, comparatively, like an evil spirit going through deserts and lonely places, and finding no place of rest. They would return, therefore, and dwell with them.
He walketh through dry places - That is, through deserts - regions of country unwatered, sandy, barren, desolate. That our Saviour here speaks according to the ancient belief of the Jews that evil spirits had their abodes in those desolate, uninhabited regions, there can be no doubt; nor can there be any doubt that the Bible gives countenance to the opinion. Thus Revelation 18:2; “Babylon - is become the habitation of “devils” and the hold of “every foul spirit;” that is, has become “desolate - a place where evil spirits appropriately dwell. So Isaiah 13:21; “And satyrs shall dance there:” “i. e.” according to the ancient Greek translation, “devils or demons shall dance there.” See also Jeremiah 50:39. Compare the Isaiah 34:4 note; Deuteronomy 32:17 note.
Seeking rest, and findeth none - These desolate and dry regions are represented as uncomfortable habitations; so much so, that the dissatisfied spirit, better pleased with a dwelling in the bosoms of people, as affording an opportunity of doing evil, seeks a return there.
Then he saith, I will return into my house ... - The man is called his house, because the spirit had dwelt in him.
He findeth it empty ... - There is here a continuance of the reference to the dwelling of the spirit in people.
The man was called his “house.” By the absence of the evil spirit the house is represented as unoccupied, or “empty, swept,” and “garnished;” that is, while the evil spirit was away, the man was restored to his right mind, or was freed from the influence of the evil spirit.
Garnished - Adorned, put in order, furnished. Applied to the “man,” it means that his mind was sane and regular when the evil spirit was gone, or he had a “lucid interval.”
Then goeth he ... - Seeing the state of the man; dissatisfied with a lonely dwelling in the desert where he could do no evil; envious of the happiness of the individual, and supremely bent on wickedness, he resolved to increase his power of malignant influences and to return.
He is therefore represented as taking seven other spirits still worse than himself, and returning to his former habitation. Seven denotes a large but indefinite number. It was a favorite number with the Jews, and was used to denote “completeness” or “perfection,” or any “finished” or “complete” number. See 1 Samuel 2:5. Compare Revelation 1:4. Here it means a sufficient number completely to occupy and harass his soul.
Even so shall it be with this generations - This shows the scope and design of this illustration. The state of that man was a representation of that generation of people. Much might be done to cure their unbelief, much to reform them externally; but such was the firm hold which the principles of infidelity and wickedness had taken of their minds “as their proper habitation,” that they would return, after all the means used to reform them, and they would be worse and worse. And this was literally accomplished. After all the instructions and miracles of the Saviour and his apostles; after all that had been done for them by holy people and prophets, and by the judgments and mercies of God; and after all their external temporary reformations - like the temporary departure of an evil spirit from a man possessed - yet such was their love of wickedness that the nation became worse and worse. They increased in crime, like the seven-fold misery and wretchedness of the man into whose bosom the seven additional evil spirits came. They rejected God’s messengers, abused his mercies, crucified his Son, and God gave their temple, and capital, and nation into the hands of the Romans. and thousands of the people to destruction.
It is not “proved” by this passage that evil spirits actually “dwell” in deserts It is proved only that such was the opinion of the Jews; that that opinion was drawn from some expressions in the Bible; and that “such expressions were sufficiently clear to justify the Saviour in drawing an argument from them to confound those who firmly believed that such was the case.” Nor is there any absurdity in the opinion; for,
- There are evil spirits. See the notes at Matthew 8:33.
- They must exist in “some place.”
- There is as much propriety that they should be located about our earth as anywhere.
- The clear doctrine of the Bible is, that many of them have much to do with our world.
- It is as reasonable that they should dwell commonly in desolate and uninhabited regions as anywhere else.
See also Mark 3:31-41.3.35; Luke 8:19-42.8.21.
His brethren - There has been some difference of opinion about the persons who are referred to here, some supposing that they were children of Mary his mother, others that they were the children of Mary, the wife of Cleophas or Alpheus, his “cousins,” and called “brethren” according to the customs of the Jews. The natural and obvious meaning is, however, that they were the children of Mary his mother. See also Mark 6:3. To this opinion, moreover, there can be no valid objection.
Who is my mother? ... - There was no want of affection or respect in Jesus toward his mother, as is proved by his whole life.
See especially Luke 2:51, and John 19:25-43.19.27. This question was asked merely to “fix the attention” of the hearers and to prepare them for the answer - that is, to show them who sustained toward him the nearest and most tender relation. To do this he pointed to his disciples. Dear and tender as were the ties which bound him to his mother and brethren, yet those which bound him to his disciples were more tender and sacred. How great was his love for his disciples, when it was more than even that for his mother! And what a bright illustration of his own doctrine, that we ought to forsake father, and mother and friends, and houses, and lands, to be his followers!
1. Our Saviour has taught us the right use of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:1-40.12.13. His conduct was an explanation of the meaning of the fourth commandment. By his example we may learn what may be done. He himself performed only those works on the Sabbath which were strictly necessary for life, and those which tended to benefit the poor, the afflicted, and needy. Whatever work is done on the Sabbath that is not for these ends must be wrong. All labor that can as well be done on another day all which is not for the support of life, or to aid the ignorant, poor, and sick. must be wrong. This example justifies teaching the ignorant, supplying the wants of the poor, instructing children in the precepts of religion, teaching those to read in Sunday schools who have no other opportunity for learning, and visiting the sick, when we go not for formality, or “to save time on some other day,” but to do them good.
2. The Sabbath is of vast service to mankind. It was made for man - not for man to violate or profane, or to be a day of mere idleness, but to improve to his spiritual and eternal good. Where people are employed through “six” days in worldly occupations, it is kind toward them to give them one day particularly to prepare for eternity. Where there is no Sabbath there is no religion. This truth, from the history of the world, will bear to be recorded in letters of gold - “that true religion will exist among men only when they strictly observe the Sabbath.” They, therefore, who do most to promote the observance of the Sabbath, are doing most for religion and the welfare of man. In this respect Sunday school teachers may do more, perhaps, than all the world besides for the best interests of the world.
3. In the conduct of Christ Matthew 12:14-40.12.15 we have an illustration of the nature of Christian prudence. He did not throw himself needlessly into danger. He did not remain to provoke opposition. He felt that his time was not come, and that his life, by a prudent course, should be preserved. He therefore withdrew. Religion requires us to sacrifice our lives rather than deny the Saviour. To throw our lives away when, with good conscience, they might be preserved, is self-murder.
4. The rejection of the gospel in one place is often the occasion of its being received elsewhere, Matthew 12:15. People may reject it to their own destruction; but somewhere it “will” be preached, and will be the power of God unto salvation. The wicked cannot drive it out of the world. They only secure their own ruin, and, against their will, benefit and save others. To reject it is like turning a beautiful and fertilizing stream from a man’s own land. He does not, he cannot dry it up. “It will flow somewhere else.” He injures himself and perhaps benefits multitudes. People never commit so great foolishness and wickedness, and so completely fail in what they aim at, as in rejecting the gospel. A man, hating the light of the sun, might get into a cave or dungeon, and be in total darkness; but the sun will continue to shine, and millions, in spite of him, will be benefited by it. So it is with the gospel.
5. Christ was mild, quiet, retiring not clamorous or noisy, Matthew 12:19. So is all religion. There is no piety in noise; if there was, then thunder and artillery would be piety. Confusion and discord are not religion. Loud words and shouting are not religion. Religion is love, reverence, fear, holiness, a deep and awful regard for the presence of God, profound apprehensions of the solemnities of eternity, imitation of the Saviour. It is still. It is full of awe - an awe too great to strive, or cry, or lift up the voice in the streets. If people ever should be overawed and filled with emotions “repressing” noise and clamor, it should be when they approach “the great God.”
6. The feeble may trust to Jesus, Matthew 12:20. A child of any age, an ignorant person, the poorest man, may come, and he shall in nowise be east out. It is a sense of our weakness that Jesus seeks. Where that is “he” will strengthen us, and we shall not fail.
7. Grace will not be extinguished, Matthew 12:20. Jesus, where he finds it in the feeblest degree, will not destroy it. He will cherish it. He will kindle it to a flame. It will burn brighter and brighter, until it “glows like that of the pure spirits above.”
8. People are greatly prone to ascribe all religion to the devil, Matthew 12:24. Anything that is unusual, anything that confounds them, anything that troubles their consciences, they ascribe to fanaticism, overheated zeal, and Satan. It has always been so. It is sometimes an easy way to stifle their own convictions, and to bring religion into contempt. “Somehow or other,” like the Pharisees, infidels must account for revivals of religion, for striking instances of conversion, and for the great and undeniable effects which the gospel produces. How easy to say that it is “delusions,” and that it is the work of the devil! How easy to show at once the terrible opposition of their own hearts to God, and to boast themselves in their own wisdom, in having found a cause so simple for all the effects which religion produces in the world! How much pains, also, men will take to secure their own perdition, rather than to admit it to be possible that Christianity is true!
9. We see the danger of blasphemy - the danger of trifling with the influences of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 12:31-40.12.32. Even if we do not commit the unpardonable sin, yet we see that all trifling with the Holy Spirit is a sin very near to God, and attended with infinite danger. He that “laughs away” the thoughts of death and eternity; he that seeks the society of the frivolous and trifling, or of the sensual and profane, for the express purpose of driving away these thoughts; and he that struggles directly against his convictions, and is resolved that he will not submit to God, may be, for aught he knows, making his damnation sure. Why should God “ever” return when a man has “once” rejected the gospel? Who would be to blame if the sinner is then lost? Assuredly not God. None but himself. Children sometimes do this. Then is the time, the very time, when they should begin to love God and Jesus Christ. Then the Spirit also strives. Many “have then” given their hearts to him and become Christians. Many more might have done so, if they had not grieved away the Spirit of God.
10. We see the danger of rejecting Christ, Matthew 12:38-40.12.42. All past ages, all the wicked and the good, the foolish and the wise, will rise up in the day of judgment, and condemn us, if we do not believe the gospel. No people, heretofore, have seen so much light as we do in this age. And no people can be so awfully condemned as those who, in a land of light, of Sundays and Sunday schools, reject Christ and go to hell. Among the 120,000 children of Nineveh Jonah 4:11 there was not one single Sunday school. There was no one to tell them of God and the Saviour. They have died and gone to judgment. Children now living will die also, and go to meet them in the day of judgment. How will they condemn the children of this age, if they do not love the Lord Jesus Christ!
11. Sinners, when awakened, if they grieve away the Spirit of God, become worse than before, Matthew 12:43-40.12.45. They are never as they were before. Their hearts are harder, their consciences are more seared, they have a more bitter hatred of religious people, and they plunge deeper and deeper into sin. Seven devils often dwell where one did, and God gives the man over to blindness of mind and hardness of heart. This shows, also, the great guilt and danger of grieving the Holy Spirit.
12. We see the love of Christ for his followers, Matthew 12:46-40.12.50. Much as he loved his mother, yet he loved his disciples more. He still loves them. He will always love them. His heart is full of affection for them. And though poor, and despised, and unknown to the rich and mighty, yet to Jesus they are dearer than mother, and sisters, and brothers.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany