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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 23

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Verse 1

Matthew 23:1.Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes. This warning was highly useful, that, amidst contentions and the noise of combats, amidst the trouble and confusion of public affairs, amidst the destruction of proper and lawful order, the authority of the word of God might remain entire. The design of Christ was, that the people might not, in consequence of being offended at the vices of the scribes, (88) throw away reverence for the Law. For we know how prone the minds of men are to entertain dislike of the Law; and more especially when the life of their pastors is dissolute, and does not correspond to their words, almost all grow wanton through their example, as if they had received permission to sin with impunity. The same thing happens — and something worse — when contentions arise; for the greater part of men, having thrown off the yoke, give utterance to their wicked desires, and break out into extreme contempt.

At that time the scribes burned with covetousness and swelled with ambition; their extortions were notorious; their cruelty was formidable; and such was their corruption of manners, that one would think they had conspired for the destruction of the Law. Besides, they had perverted by their false opinions the pure and natural meaning of the Law, so that Christ was constrained to enter into a sharp conflict with them; because their amazing rage hurried them on to extinguish the light of truth. So then, because there was danger that many persons, partly on account of such abuses, and partly on account of the din of controversies, would come to despise all religion, Christ seasonably meets them, and declares that it would be unreasonable if, on account of the vices of men, true religion were to perish, or reverence for the Law to be in any degree diminished. As the scribes were obstinate and inveterate enemies, and as they held the Church oppressed through their tyranny, Christ was compelled to expose their wickedness; for if good and simple men had not been withdrawn from bondage to them, the door would have been shut against the Gospel. There was also another reason; for the common people think themselves at liberty to do whatever they see done by their rulers, whose corrupt manners they form into a law.

But that no man might put a different interpretation on what he was about to say, he begins by stating, that whatever sort of men the teachers were it was altogether unreasonable, either that on account of their filth the word of God should receive any stain, or that on account of their wicked examples men should hold themselves at liberty to commit sin. And this wisdom ought to be carefully observed; for many persons, having no other object in view than to bring hatred and detestation on the wicked and ungodly, mix and confound every thing through their inconsiderate zeal. All discipline is despised, and shame is trampled under foot; in short, there remains no respect for what is honorable, and, what is more, many are emboldened by it, and intentionally blazon the sins of priests, that they may have a pretext for sinning with less restraint. But in attacking the scribes, Christ proceeds in such a manner, that he first vindicates the Law of God from contempt. We must attend to this caution also if we desire that our reproofs should be of any service. But, on the other hand, we ought to observe, that no dread of giving offense prevented Christ from exposing ungodly teachers as they deserved; only he preserved such moderation, that the doctrine of God might not come to be despised on account of the wickedness of men.

To inform us that he spoke publicly about their vices, not to raise envy against their persons, but to prevent the contagion from spreading more widely, Mark expressly states that he spoke to them in his doctrine; by which words he means that the hearers were profitably warned to beware of them. Now, though Luke appears to restrict it to the disciples, yet it is probable that the discourse was addressed indiscriminately to the whole multitude; which appears more clearly from Matthew, and, indeed, the subject itself required that Christ should have his eye on all without exception.

(88)Offensé et scandalizé des vices qu’on voyoit és scribes;” — “offended and scandalized at the vices which they saw in the scribes.”

Verse 2

2.In the chair of Moses. Reasons were not wanting for inserting here what Luke relates at a different place. Besides that the doctrine is the same, I have no doubt that Luke, after having said that the scribes were sharply and severely reproved by our Lord, added also the other reproofs which Matthew delayed till the proper place; for already we have frequently seen that the Evangelists, as occasion required, collected into one place various discourses of Christ. But as the narrative of Matthew is more full, I choose rather to take his words as the subject of exposition.

Our Lord gives a general exhortation to believers to beware of conforming their life to the wicked conduct of the scribes, but, on the contrary, to regulate it by the rule of the Law which they hear from the mouth of the scribes; for it was necessary (as I have lately hinted) that he should reprove many abuses in them, that the whole people might not be infected. Lest, through their crimes, the doctrine of which they were the ministers and heralds should be injured, he enjoins believers to attend to their words, and not to their actions; as if he had said, that there is no reason why the bad examples of pastors should hinder the children of God from holiness of life. That the word scribes, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, denotes the teachers or expounders of the Law, is well known; and it is certain that Luke calls the same persons lawyers (89)

Now our Lord refers peculiarly to the Pharisees, who belonged to the number of the scribes, because at that time this sect held the highest rank in the government of the Church, and in the exposition of Scripture. For we have formerly mentioned that, while the Sadducees and Essenes preferred the literal interpretation of Scripture, the Pharisees followed a different manner of teaching, which had been handed down, as it were, to them by their ancestors, which was, to make subtle inquiries into the mystical meaning of Scripture. This was also the reason why they received their name; for they are called Pherusim, that is, expounders. (90) And though they had debased the whole of Scripture by their false opinions, yet, as they plumed themselves on that popular method of instruction, their authority was highly esteemed in explaining the worship of God and the rule of holy life. The phrase ought, therefore, to be thus interpreted: “The Pharisees and other scribes, or, the scribes, among whom the Pharisees are the most highly esteemed, when they speak to you, are good teachers of a holy life, but by their works they give you very bad instructions; and therefore attend to their lips rather than to their hands.”

It may now be asked, Ought we to submit to all the instructions of teachers without exception? For it is plain enough, that the scribes of that age had wickedly and basely corrupted the Law by false inventions, had burdened wretched souls by unjust laws, and had corrupted the worship of God by many superstitions; but Christ wishes their doctrine to be observed, as if it had been unlawful to oppose their tyranny. The answer is easy. He does not absolutely compare any kind of doctrine with the life, but the design of Christ was, to distinguish the holy Law of God from their profane works. For to sit in the chair of Moses is nothing else than to teach, according to the Law of God, how we ought to live. And though I am not quite certain whence the phrase is derived, yet there is probability in the conjecture of those who refer it to the pulpit which Ezra erected, from which the Law was read aloud, (Nehemiah 8:4.) Certainly, when the Rabbis expounded Scripture, those who were about to speak rose up in succession; but it was perhaps the custom that the Law itself should be proclaimed from a more elevated spot. That man, therefore, sits in the chair of Moses who teaches, not from himself, or at his own suggestion, but according to the authority and word of God. But it denotes, at the same time, a lawful calling; for Christ commands that the scribes should be heard, because they were the public teachers of the, Church.

The Papists reckon it enough, that those who issue laws should possess the title and occupy the station; for in this way they torture the words of Christ to mean, that we are bound to receive obediently whatever the ordinary prelates of the Church enjoin. But this calumny is abundantly refuted by another injunction of Christ, when he bids them beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, (Matthew 16:6.)

If Christ pronounces it to be not only lawful, but even proper, to reject whatever of their own the scribes mingle with the pure doctrine of the Law, certainly we are not bound to embrace, without discrimination or the exercise of judgment, whatever they are pleased to enjoin. Besides, if Christ had intended here to bind the consciences of his followers to the commandments of men, there would have been no good ground for what he said in another passage, that it is in vain to worship God by the commandments of men, (Matthew 15:9.)

Hence it is evident, that Christ exhorts the people to obey the scribes, only so far as they adhere to the pure and simple exposition of the Law. For the exposition of, Augustine is accurate, and in accordance with Christ’s meaning, that, “the scribes taught the Law of God while they sat in the chair of Moses; and, therefore, that the sheep ought to hear the voice of the Shepherd by them, as by hirelings.” To which words he immediately adds: “God therefore teaches by them; but if they wish to teach any thing of their own, refuse to hear, refuse to do them.” With this sentiment accords what the same writer says in his Fourth Book of Christian Doctrine: “Because good believers do not obediently listen to any sort of man, but to God himself; therefore we may profitably listen even to those whose lives are not profitable.” It was, therefore, not the chair of the scribes, but the chair of Moses, that constrained them to teach what was good, even when they did not do what was good. For what they did in their life was their own; but the chair of another man did not permit them to teach what was their own.

(89)Docteurs de la loy;” — “teachers,” or “doctors of the law.” Harmony, vol. 1, p. 281.

(90) Harmony, vol 1, p. 281.

Verse 4

4.For they bind heavy and intolerable burdens. He does not charge the scribes with oppressing and tyrannizing over souls by harsh and unjust laws; for, though they had introduced many superfluous ceremonies — as is evident from other passages — yet Christ does not at present refer to that vice, because his design is, to compare right doctrine with a wicked and dissolute life. That the Law of God should be called a heavy and intolerable burden is not wonderful, and more especially in reference to our weakness. But though the scribes required nothing but what God had enjoined, yet Christ reproves the stern and rigid manner of teaching which was usually followed by those proud hypocrites, who authoritatively demand from others what they owe to God, and are rigorous in enforcing duties, and yet indolently dispense with the performance of what they so strictly enjoin on others, and allow themselves to do whatever they please. In this sense Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34:4) reproaches them for ruling with sternness and rigor. For those who truly fear God, though they sincerely and earnestly endeavor to bring their disciples to obey Him, yet as they are more severe towards themselves than towards others, they are not so rigid in exacting obedience, and, being conscious of their own weakness, kindly forgive the weak. But it is impossible to imagine any thing that can exceed the insolence in commanding, or the cruelty, of stupid despisers of God, because they give themselves no concern about the difficulty of doing those things from which they relieve themselves; and therefore no man will exercise moderation in commanding others, unless he shall first become his own teacher. (91)

(91)Si premierement il ne se regle luy-mesme, et s’assul jetit aux mesmes choses qu’il commande;” — “if he do not first rule himself, and submit to the same things which he commands.”

Verse 5

5.And all their works they do that they may be seen by men. He had lately said that the scribes live very differently from what they teach; but now he adds that, if they have any thing which is apparently good, it is hypocritical and worthless, because they have no other design than to please men, and to vaunt themselves. And here zeal for piety and a holy life is contrasted with the mask of those works which serve no purpose but for ostentation; for an upright worshipper of God will never give himself up to that empty parade by which hypocrites are puffed up. Thus not only is the ambition of the scribes and Pharisees reproved, but our Lord, after having condemned the transgression and contempt of the Law of God in their whole life, that they might not shield themselves by their pretended holiness, anticipates them by replying, that those things of which they boast are absolute trifles, and of no value whatever, because they spring from mere ostentation. He afterwards produces a single instance, by which that ambition was easily perceived, which was, that by the fringes of their robes they held themselves out to the eyes of men as good observers of the Law.

And make their phylacteries broad, and enlarge the fringes of their robes. For why were their fringes made broader, and their phylacteries more magnificent, than what was customary, except for idle display? The Lord had commanded the Jews to wear, both on their forehead and on their raiment, some remarkable passages selected out of the Law, (Deuteronomy 6:8.) As forgetfulness of the Law easily creeps upon the flesh, the Lord intended in this manner to keep it constantly in the remembrance of his people; for they were likewise enjoined to inscribe such sentences

on the posts of their houses, (Deuteronomy 6:9,)

that, wherever they turned their eyes, some godly warning might immediately meet them. But what did the scribes do? In order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the people, they carried about with them the commandments of God more magnificently inscribed on their garments; and in this boasting there was displayed an offensive ambition.

Let us also learn from this, how ingenious men are in mixing up vain deception, in order to conceal their vices under some pretext and cloak of virtues, by turning to the purposes of their own hypocrisy those exercises of piety which God has enjoined. Nothing was more profitable than to exercise all their senses in the contemplation of the Law, and it was not without good reason that this was enjoined by the Lord. But so far were they from profiting by these simple instructions, that, by making perfect righteousness to consist in the adorning of robes, they despised the Law throughout their whole life. For it was impossible to treat the Law of God with greater contempt, than when they imagined that they kept it by pompous dress, or pronounced masks contrived for enacting a play to be a keeping of the Law.

What Mark and Luke say about the robes relates to the same subject. We know that the inhabitants of Eastern countries commonly used long robes, — a custom which they retain to this day. But it is evident from Zechariah (Zechariah 13:4) that the prophets were distinguished from the rest of the people by a particular form of a cloak. And, indeed, it was highly reasonable that the teachers should dress in this manner, that there might be a higher degree of gravity and modesty in their dress than in that of the common people; but the scribes had made an improper use of it by turning it into luxury and display. Their example has been followed by the Popish priests, among whom robes are manifestly nothing more than the badges of proud tyranny.

Verse 6

6And love the first places at entertainments.. He proves, by evident signs, that no zeal for piety exists in the scribes, but that they are wholly devoted to ambition. For to seek the first places and the first seats belongs only to those who choose rather to exalt themselves among men, than to enjoy the approbation of God. But above all, Christ condemns them for desiring to be called masters; for, though the name Rabbi in itself denotes excellence, yet at that time the prevailing practice among the Jews was, to give this name to the masters and teachers of the Law. But Christ asserts that this honor does not belong to any except himself; from which it follows that it cannot, without doing injury to him, be applied to men. But there is an appearance of excessive harshness, and even of absurdity, in this, since Christ does not now teach us in his own person, but appoints and ordains masters for us. Now it is absurd to take away the title from those on whom he bestows the office, and more especially since, while he was on earth, he appointed apostles to discharge the office of teaching in his name.

If the question be about the title, Paul certainly did not intend to do any injury to Christ by sacrilegious usurpation or boasting, when he declared that. he was

a master and teacher of the Gentiles, (1 Timothy 2:7.)

But as Christ had no other design than to bring all, from the least to the greatest, to obey him, so as to preserve his own authority unimpaired, we need not give ourselves much trouble about the word. Christ therefore does not attach importance to the title bestowed on those who discharge the office of teaching, but restrains them within proper limits, that they may not rule over the kith of brethren. We must always attend to the distinction, that Christ alone ought to be obeyed, because concerning him alone was the voice of the Father heard aloud from heaven, Hear him, (Matthew 17:5;) and that teachers are his ministers in such a manner that he ought to be heard in them, and that they are masters under him, so far as they represent his person. The general meaning is, that his authority must remain entire, and that no mortal man ought to claim the smallest portion of it. Thus he is the only Pastor; but yet he admits many pastors under him, provided that he hold the preeminence over them all, and that by them he alone govern the Church.

And you are all brethren. This opposite clause must be observed. For, since we are brethren, he maintains that no man has a right to hold the place of a master over others; and hence it follows, that he does not condemn that authority of masters which does not violate brotherly intercourse among the godly. In short, nothing else is here enjoined than that all should depend on the mouth of Christ alone. Nearly to the same purpose does Paul argue, when he says that we have no right to judge one another, for all are brethren, and

all must stand before the judgment seat of Christ,
(Romans 14:10.)

Verse 9

9.And call no man on earth your Father. He claims for God alone the honor of Father, in nearly the same sense as he lately asserted that he himself is the only Master; for this name was not assumed by men for themselves, but was given to them by God. And therefore it is not only lawful to call men on earth fathers, but it would be wicked to deprive them of that honor. Nor is there any importance in the distinction which some have brought forward, that men, by whom children have been begotten, are fathers according to the flesh, but that God alone is the Father of spirits. I readily acknowledge that in this manner God is sometimes distinguished from men, as in Hebrews 12:5, but as Paul more than once calls himself a spiritual father, (1 Corinthians 4:15,) we must see how this agrees with the words of Christ. The true meaning therefore is, that the honor of a father is falsely ascribed to men, when it obscures the glory of God. Now this is done, whenever a mortal man, viewed apart from God, is accounted a father, since all the degrees of relationship depend on God alone through Christ, and are held together in such a manner that, strictly speaking, God alone is the Father of all.

Verse 10

10.For one is your Master, even Christ. He repeats a second time the former statement about Christ’s office as Master, in order to inform us that the lawful order is, that God alone rule over us, and possess the power and authority of a Father, and that Christ subject all to his doctrine, and have them as disciples; as it is elsewhere said, that Christ is the only

head of the whole Church, (Ephesians 1:22)

because the whole body ought to be subject to him and obey him.

Verse 11

11.He who is greatest among you. By this conclusion he shows that he did not, after the manner of the sophists, dispute about words, but, on the contrary, looked to the fact, that no man, through forgetfulness of his rank, might claim more than was proper. He therefore declares that the highest honor in the Church is not government, but service. Whoever keeps himself within this limit, whatever may be the title which he bears, takes nothing away either from God or from Christ; as, on the other hand, it serves no good purpose to take the name of a servant for the purpose of cloaking that power which diminishes the authority of Christ as a Master. For of what avail is it that the Pope, when he is about to oppress wretched souls by tyrannical laws, begins with styling himself the servant of servants of God, but to insult God openly, and to practice shameful mockery on men? Now while Christ does not insist on words, he strictly forbids his followers to aspire or desire to rise any higher than to enjoy brotherly intercourse on an equal footing under the heavenly Father, and charges those who occupy places of honor to conduct themselves as the servants of others. He adds that remarkable statement which has been formerly explained, (92) he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

(92) Harmony, vol. 2, p. 165.

Verse 13

Matthew 23:13.You shut up the kingdom of heaven. Christ pronounces a curse on them, because they pervert their office to the general destruction of the whole people; for since the government of the Church was in their hands, they ought to have been, as it were, porters for the kingdom of heaven. What purpose is served by religion and holy doctrine but to open heaven to us? For we know that all mankind are banished from God, and excluded from the inheritance of eternal salvation. Now the doctrine of religion may be said to be the door by which we enter into life, and therefore Scripture says metaphorically, that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are given to pastors, as I have explained more fully under Matthew 16:19. And we ought to abide by this definition, which appears still more strongly from the words of Luke, in which Christ reproaches the lawyers with having taken away the key of knowledge, which means that, though they were the guardians of the Law of God, they deprived the people of the true understanding of it. As, therefore, in the present day, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed to the custody of pastors, that they may admit believers into eternal life, and exclude unbelievers from all expectation of it, so the priests and scribes anciently under the Law held the same office.

From the word knowledge we infer how absurdly the Papists forge false keys, as if they possessed some magical power apart from the word of God; for Christ declares that none but those who are ministers of doctrine have the use of keys. If it be objected, that the Pharisees, though they were perverse expounders of the Law still held the keys, I reply: Though, in respect of their office, the keys were entrusted to them, yet they were suppressed by malice and deceit, so that they no longer retained the use of them. And therefore Christ says, that they took away, or stole that key of knowledge, by which they ought to have opened the gate of heaven. In like manner, heaven is shut by Popery against the wretched people, while the very pastors—or, at least, those who hold that office—prevent them by their tyranny from being opened. If we are not excessively indifferent, we will not willingly enter into a league with wicked tyrants, who cruelly shut against us the entrance into life.

Verse 14

14.For you devour widows’ houses. He now proceeds farther, for he not only accuses them of open crimes which demand hatred and detestation, but even tears away the disguises of virtues, by which they deceived the common people. If it be objected, that there was no need of reproving those things which could do no harm by their example, we ought to recollect that it was impossible to promote the salvation of those who were held bound by the errors of the scribes, unless they turned away entirely from such persons. This reason, therefore, constrained Christ to expose the vain appearance of virtues, which nourishes superstitions.

And that under the pretense of a long prayer. He says in general that, even when they appear to do what is right, they wickedly abuse the pretense of religion. Long prayers contained some evidence of remarkable piety; for the more holy a man is, the more eminently is he devoted to prayer. But Christ says that the Pharisees and scribes were so impure, that even the chief part of the worship of God was not used by them without committing sin, because constancy in prayer was with them, trap for base gain. For they sold their prayers in exactly the same manner as hirelings dispose of their daily labor. (97) Hence also we infer that our Lord does not exactly reprove long prayers, as if in itself it were an impropriety—particularly since pastors ought to be eminently devoted to prayer —but to condemn this abuse, because a thing laudable in itself was turned to a wicked purpose. For when men aim at gain by means of hired prayers, the more fervent the appearance of what they call devotion becomes, the more is the name of God profaned. And as this false conviction had been long and deeply seated in the minds of the common people, on this account Christ employs harsher threatenings; for the pollution of so sacred a thing was no light offense. That it was chiefly widows that were imposed on need not excite surprise, because silly women are more prone to superstition, and therefore it has always been customary for base men to make gain of. them. Thus Paul brings a charge against the false teachers of his age, that they

lead captive silly women laden with sins, (2 Timothy 3:6.)

(97)Que les mercenaires et ouvriers ont accoustumé de vendre leur labeur, et se loer à la journee;” — “as hirelings and laborers are wont to sell their labor, and to hire themselves out for the day.”

Verse 15

15.For you compass sea and land. The scribes had also acquired celebrity by their zeal in laboring to bring over to the Jewish religion the strangers and uncircumcised. And so, if they had gained any one by their false appearances, or by any other stratagem, they gloried wonderfully over it as an increase of the Church. On this account also they received great applause from the common people, that by their diligence and ability they brought strangers into the Church of God. Christ declares, on the contrary, that so far is this zeal from deserving applause, that they more and more provoke the vengeance of God, because they bring under heavier condemnation those who devote themselves to their sect. We ought to observe how corrupt their condition at that time was, and what confusion existed in religion; for as it was a holy and excellent work to gain disciples to God, so to allure the Gentiles to the Jewish worship—which was at that time degenerate, and was even full of wicked profanation — was nothing else than to hurry them from Scylla to Charybdis. (98) Besides, by a sacrilegious abuse of the name of God, they drew down upon themselves a heavier condemnation, because their religion allowed them grosser licentiousness of crime. An instance of the same kind may be seen at the present day among the monks; for they are diligent in culling proselytes from every quarter, but those proselytes, from being lascivious and debauched persons, they render altogether devils: for such is the filthiness of those puddles, within which they carry on their reveling, that it would corrupt even the heavenly angels. (99) Yet the monk’s habit is a very suitable mantle for concealing enormities of every description.

(98)Ce n’estoit autre chose que de les oster d’un danger, pour les precipiter en un plus grand;” — “it was nothing else than to rescue them from one danger to plunge them into a greater.” The allusion in the text is to Scylla a rocky promontory on the Italian side of the Strait of Messina, and to Charybdis, a whirlpool opposite to it, on the coast of Sicily. Either of them singly would have rendered the navigation formidable, but their vicinity to ly aggravated the danger; for the very exertions which kept the mariner at a distance from the one unavoidably brought him nearer to the other. This appalling scene meets us frequently in the ancient mythology, in the allusions of poets and orators, and on many other occasions. He who, by avoiding one evil, fell into one still greater, was proverbially said to have avoided Scylla and fallen into Charybdis. — Ed.

(99)Les anges de Paradis;” — “the angels of Paradise.”

Verse 16

Matthew 23:16.Woe to you, blind guides, As ambition is almost always connected with hypocrisy, so the superstitions of the people are usually encouraged by the covetousness and rapacity of pastors. The world has, indeed, a natural propensity to errors, and even draws down upon itself, as if on purpose, every kind of deceit and imposture; but improper modes of worship come to gain a footing only when they are confirmed by the rulers (100) themselves. And it generally happens, that those who possess authority not only, by their connivance, fawn upon errors, because they perceive that they are a source of gain to them, but even assist in fanning the flame. Thus we see that the superstitions of Popery were heightened by innumerable expedients, while the priests opened their mouths for the prey; and even now they daily contrive many things by which they delude still more the foolish multitude. And when minds have once fallen under the darkening influence of the enchantments of Satan, nothing is so absurd or monstrous as not to be eagerly swallowed.

It was on this account that the Jews had more reverence for the gold of the temple, and for the sacred offerings, than for the temple and the altar. But the sacredness of the offerings depended on the temple and the altar, and was only something inferior and accessory. It may readily be believed that this dream proceeded from the scribes and priests, because it was a scheme well fitted for collecting prey. And this was not only a foolish but a highly dangerous error, because it led the people into ridiculous fancies. There is nothing to which men are more prone than to fall away from the pure worship of God: and therefore, under the covering of this veil, it was easy for Satan to withdraw from the contemplation of God those who were too strongly inclined to foolish imaginations. This is the reason why Christ so severely chastises that error. And yet the Papists were not ashamed to prostitute the sacred name of God to a mockery still more detestable; for they reckon it of more importance to touch a morsel of a stinking carcass, than to peruse the sacred volume of the Old and New Testaments, or even to raise their hands towards heaven. And in this way arises a carnal worship of God, by which the proper fear of God is gradually obliterated.

It is nothing. By this phrase he does not mean that they entirely took away the honor of the temple, but he speaks comparatively. For when they represented in extravagant terms the sacredness of offerings, the common people were led to entertain such veneration for them, that the majesty of the temple and of the altar was undervalued, and they reckoned it a less heinous crime to violate it by perjuries than to swear by the sacred offerings with too little reverence.

(100)Quand les prelates les conferment;” — “when the prelates confirm them.”

Verse 18

18.And whosoever shall swear by the altar. Here our Lord does what ought to be done in correcting errors; for he leads us up to the source, and shows, by the very nature of an oath, that the temple is far more valuable than the gifts which are offered in it. He accordingly assumes this principle, that it is not lawful to swear but by the name of God alone. Hence it follows that, whatever forms men may employ in swearing, they must give to God the honor which is due to him; and hence also it follows in what manner and to what extent we are at liberty to swear by the temple, namely, because it is the residence or sanctuary of God; and by heaven, because there the glory of God shines. God permits himself to be called as a witness and judge, by means of such symbols of his presence, provided that he retain his authority unimpaired; for to ascribe any Divinity to heaven would be detestable idolatry. Now so far as God holds out to us a brighter mirror of his glory in the temple than in offerings, so much the greater reverence and sacredness is due to the name of the temple. We now perceive, therefore, in what sense Christ says that we swear by him who inhabits heaven, when we swear by heaven itself. His design is, to direct all forms of swearing to their lawful end and object.

Verse 23

Matthew 23:23.The former you ought to have done. This is intended to anticipate their calumny; for they might have put an unfavorable interpretation on his discourse, and charged him with setting no value on what the Law of God had enjoined. He therefore acknowledges that whatever God has enjoined ought to be performed, and that no part of it ought to be omitted, but maintains that zeal for the whole Law is no reason why we ought not to insist chiefly on the principal points. Hence he infers that they overturn the natural order who employ themselves in the smallest matters, when they ought rather to have begun with the principal points; for tithes were only a kind of appendage. Christ therefore affirms that he has no intention to lessen the authority even of the smallest commandments, though he recommends and demands due order in keeping the Law. It is therefore our duty to preserve entire the whole Law, which cannot be violated in any part without contempt for its Author; for He who has forbidden us to commit adultery, and to kill, and to steal, has likewise condemned all impure desire. Hence we conclude that all the commandments are so interwoven with each other, that we have no right to detach one of them from the rest. Wherefore it is also written,

Cursed is every one that performeth not all things that are written, (Deuteronomy 27:26; Galatians 3:10;)

by which words the righteousness of the whole Law, without exception, is enforced. But this reverence, as we have said, does not take away the distinction between the commandments, or the true design of the Law, to which those who truly observe it direct their mind, that they may not merely amuse themselves on the surface.

Verse 24

24.Blind guides. This is s proverbial saying, by which he beautifully describes the affected scrupulousness of hypocrites about trifling matters; for they utterly shrink from very small faults, as if a single transgression appeared to them more revolting than a hundred deaths, and yet they freely permit themselves and others to commit the most heinous crimes. They act as absurdly as if a man were to strain out a small crumb of bread, and to swallow a whole loaf.

Straining out (101) a gnat, and swallowing a camel. We know that a gnat is a very small animal, and that a camel is a huge beast. Nothing therefore could be more ridiculous than to strain out the wine or the water, so as not to hurt the jaws by swallowing a gnat, and yet carelessly to gulp down a camel. (102) But it is evident that hypocrites amuse themselves with such distinctions; for while they pass by judgment, mercy, and faith, and even tear in pieces the whole Law, they are excessively rigid and severe in matters that are of no great importance; and while in this way they pretend to kiss the feet of God, they proudly spit in his face.

(101) In rendering the words, οἱ διυλιζοντες τὸυ κύνωπα, Campbell resorts to a circumlocution, who strain your liquor, to avoid swallowing a gnat; and he adds the following note:— E.T. Who strain at a gnat. I do not understand the import of this expression. Some have thought that it has sprung originally from a mere typographical error of some printer, who has made it strain at, instead of strain out.” — The conjecture mentioned by Campbell is strongly confirmed by the earlier English versions. “Blinde leders; clensenge a gnat, but swolowynge a camel.” — (Wyclif, 1380.) “Ye blinde gydes, which strayne out a gnat, and swalowe a cammyll.” — (Tyndale, 1534.) “Ye blynde gydes, which strayne out a gnat, and swalowe a camell.” — (Cranmer, 1539.) “Ye blynde gydes, which strayne out a gnate, and swalow a cammel.” — (Geneva, 1557.) “Blinde guides, that strain a gnat, and swallow a camel.” — (Rheims, 1582.) The coincidence of those versions in supporting the true reading is very remarkable, and the substitution of at for out is more likely to have been the effect of accident than of design. — Ed.

(102)Et cependant ne faire point de difficulté d’engloutir un chameau tout entier;” — “and yet make no difficulty about swallowing a whole camel.”

Verse 25

25.For you cleanse the outer part. Our Lord follows out the same statement, and employs a figure for reproaching the scribes with being eagerly bent on this single object of making a brilliant appearance before men. For by the outer part of the dish he metaphorically expresses the outward appearance; as if he had said, “You give yourselves no concern about any cleanness but what appears outwardly, which is quite as if one were carefully to wash off the filth of the dish without, but to leave it filthy within.” That the expression is metaphorical is evident from the second clause, in which the uncleanness within is condemned, because within they are full of intemperance and extortion. He therefore reproves their hypocrisy, in not endeavoring to regulate their life, except before the eyes of men, in order to procure for themselves an empty reputation for holiness. Thus he recalls them to the pure and sincere desire of a holy life. Cleanse first, he says, that which is within; for it would be ridiculous to feast your eyes with outward splendor, and yet to drink out of a cup full of dregs, or in other respects filthy. (103)

(103)Plene de lie et de bourbe, ou autrement orde et sale;”—full of dregs and of mud, or otherwise nasty and filthy.”

Verse 27

27You are like whitened sepulchers. This is a different metaphor, but the meaning is the same; for he compares them to sepulchers, which the men of the world ambitiously construct with great beauty and splendor. As a painting or engraving on sepulchers draws the eyes of men upon them, while inwardly they contain stinking carcasses; so Christ says that hypocrites deceive by their outward appearance, because they are full of deceit and iniquity. The words of Luke are somewhat different, that they deceive the eyes of men, like sepulchers, which frequently are not perceived by those who walk over them; but it amounts to the same meaning, that, under the garb of pretended holiness, there lurks hidden filth which they cherish in their hearts, like a marble sepulcher; for it wears the aspect of what is beautiful and lovely, but covers a stinking carcass, so as not to be offensive to those who pass by. Hence we infer what I have formerly said, that Christ, with a view to the advantage of the simple and ignorant, tore off the deceitful mask which the scribes held wrapped around them in empty hypocrisy; for this warning was advantageous to simple persons, that they might quickly withdraw from the jaws of wolves. Yet this passage contains a general doctrine, that the children of God ought to desire to be pure rather than to appear so.

Verse 29

Matthew 23:29.For you build the sepulchers of the prophets. An unfounded opinion is entertained by some, that the scribes are here reproved for superstition, in foolishly honoring the deceased prophets by splendid sepulchers, as the Papists now transfer the honor of God to departed saints, and even are so perverse as to adore their images. They had not yet arrived at such a pitch of blindness and madness, and therefore the design of Christ was different. The scribes endeavored to gain the favor of the ignorant multitude, and indeed of all the Jews, by this additional hypocrisy, that they cherished with reverence the memory of the prophets; for while in this manner they pretended to maintain their doctrine, any one would have supposed that they were faithful imitators of them, and very keen zealots for the worship of God. It was a proposal, therefore, which was likely to prove highly acceptable, to erect monuments for the prophets, because in this way religion might be said to be drawn out of darkness, that it might receive the honor which it deserved. And yet nothing was farther from their design than to restore doctrine, which might appear to have been extinguished by the death of the prophets. But though they were not only averse to the doctrine of the prophets, but most inveterate enemies to it, yet they honored them—when dead—with sepulchers, as if they had made common cause with them.

It is customary, indeed, with hypocrites thus to honor, after their death, good teachers and holy ministers of God, whom they cannot endure while they are alive. Nor does this arise merely from the common fault, which Horace thus describes: “We hate virtue while it is in safety, but when it has been removed from our eyes, we seek it with envy;” (107) but as the ashes of the dead no longer give annoyance by harsh and severe reproofs, they who are driven to madness by the living voices of those men are not unwilling, by adoring them, to make an empty display of religion. It is a hypocrisy which costs little to profess warm regard for those who are now silent. (108) Thus each of the prophets, in his own age, was contemptuously rejected, and wickedly tormented, by the Jews, and, in many instances, cruelly put to death; while posterity, though not a whit better than their fathers, pretended to venerate their memory, instead of embracing their doctrine; for they too were actuated by equal hostility towards their own teachers. (109) As the world—not venturing altogether to despise God, or at least to rise openly against him—contrives this stratagem of adoring the shadow of God instead of God, so a similar game is played in reference to the prophets.

A proof of this—far too striking—may be seen in Popery. Not satisfied with paying just veneration to Apostles and Martyrs, they render to them divine worship, and think that they cannot go too far in the honors which they heap upon them; and yet, by their rage against believers, they show what sort of respect they would have manifested towards Apostles and Martyrs, if they had been still alive to discharge the same office which they anciently held. For why are they inflamed with such rage against us, but because we desire that doctrine to be received, and to be successful, which the Apostles and Martyrs sealed with their blood? While the holy servants of God valued that doctrine more highly than their own life, would their life have been spared by those who so outrageously persecute the doctrine? Let them adorn the images of the saints as they may think fit, by perfumes, candles, flowers, and every sort of gaudy ornament. If Peter were now alive, they would tear him in pieces; they would stone Paul; and if Christ himself were still in the world, they would burn him with a slow fire.

Our Lord, perceiving that the scribes and priests of his age were eager to obtain the applause of the people, on the ground of their being devout worshippers of the prophets, reproves them for deceit and mockery, because they not only reject, but even cruelly persecute, the prophets that are now present, (110) and whom God has sent to them. But it is a display of base hypocrisy, and shameful impudence, to desire to be thought religious on account of worshipping the dead, while they endeavor to murder the living.

(107) Virtutem incolumm odimus,
Sublatam ex oculis quærimus invidi

[Lib. III. Carm. XXIV. ]

(108)Qui ne peuvent plus cier contre les vices;” — “who can no longer exclaim against vices.”

(109)Car aussi ils ne traittoyent pas mieux ceux qui les enseignoient fidelement que leurs peres avoyent fait aux autres;” — “for they too acted no better towards those who taught them faithfully than their fathers had done to others.”

(110)Et lesquels ils voyen devan leurs yeux tous les jours;” — “and whom they see before their eyes every day.”

Verse 30

30.If we had been in the days of our fathers. Not without good reason did Christ introduce this sentiment; for though he does not blame them for the conduct of their fathers, and does not make it the chief ground of accusation that they are the children of murderers: yet he takes a passing glance of their foolish boasting, in being accustomed to glory in their ancestors, while they were descended from the bloody enemies of God. The appeal may be thus stated: “You look upon the veneration which you pay to the deceased prophets as some sort of expiation for the wickedness of your fathers. Now then I have this to urge, that it is in vain for you to boast of a sacred ancestry, since you are descended from wicked and ungodly parents. Go now, and screen your crimes by the piety of those whose hands, you acknowledge, were stained with innocent blood. But it is an additional and far more heinous crime, that the sacrilegious fury of the fathers, which you condemn by raising sepulchers for the dead, is imitated by you in the murder of the living.”

Verse 32

32.Do you then fill up the measure of your fathers. He at length concludes that they are not, in this respect, degenerate from their fathers; as if he had said, “It is not now that your nation begins to treat with cruelty the prophets of God; for this is the ancient discipline, this is the custom handed down from the fathers, and, in short, this way of acting is almost natural to you.” And yet he does not bid them do what they are doing, to put to death holy teachers, but states figuratively that they have a hereditary right to rise against the servants of God, and that they must be permitted to oppose religion, because in this way they fill up what is wanting in the crimes of their fathers, and finish the web which they had begun. By these words he not only pronounces themselves to be desperate, and incapable of being brought to a sound mind, but warns simple people that there is no reason to wonder, if the prophets of God are ill-treated by the children of murderers.

Verse 33

33.Offspring of vipers. After having demonstrated that the scribes are not only base enemies of sound doctrine, and wicked corrupters of the worship of God, but likewise deadly plagues of the Church, Christ, being about to close his discourse, kindles into more vehement indignation against them; as it is necessary to shake off by violence the flatteries in which hypocrites indulge, and to drag them, as it were, to the judgment seat of God, that they may be filled with alarm. And yet Christ did not keep them alone in his eye, but intended to strike terror into the whole people, that all might guard against a similar destruction. How harsh and intolerable this roughness of language must have been to these reverend instructors may easily be inferred from the long period during which they had held a peaceful dominion, so that no one dared to mutter against them. And there can be no doubt that many were displeased with the great freedom and sharpness which Christ used, and, above all, that he was looked upon as immoderate and outrageous in venturing to apply such reproachful epithets to the order of the scribes; as many fastidious persons of the present day cannot endure any harsh word to be spoken against the Popish clergy. But as Christ had to deal with the worst of hypocrites, who not only were swelled with proud contempt of God, and intoxicated with careless security, but had captivated the multitude by their enchantments, he found it necessary to exclaim against them with vehemence. He calls them serpents both in nature and in habits, and then threatens them with a punishment, which it will be in vain for them to attempt to escape, if they do not speedily repent.

Verse 34

34.Therefore, lo, I send to you. Luke introduces it in a still more emphatic manner, Wherefore also the Wisdom of God hath said; which some commentators explain thus: “I, who am the eternal Wisdom of God, declare this concerning you.” But I am more inclined to believe that, according to the ordinary custom of Scripture, God is here represented as speaking in the person of his Wisdom; so that the meaning is, “God foretold long ago, by the prophetic Spirit, what would happen with regard to you.” This sentence, I acknowledge, is nowhere to be found literally: but as God denounces the incorrigible obstinacy of that people in many places of Scripture, Christ draws up a kind of summary of them, and by this personification (111) expresses more clearly what was the judgment of God as to the incurable wickedness of that nation. For if those teachers would have no success, it might have appeared strange that Christ should have desired them to weary themselves to no purpose. Men argue thus: “God labors in vain, when he sends his word to the reprobate, who, he knows, will continue obstinate.” And hypocrites, as if it were sufficient of itself to have preachers of the heavenly doctrine continually with them, though they show themselves to be disobedient, entertain the conviction that God is reconciled and favorable to them, provided that the outward word be heard amongst them.

Thus the Jews fiercely boasted that, in comparison of other nations, they had always enjoyed the best prophets and teachers, and, as if they had deserved so great an honor, they considered this to be an undoubted proof of their own excellence. (112) To put down this foolish boasting, Christ not only affirms that they do not excel other nations on the ground of having received from God distinguished prophets and expounders of his Wisdom, but maintains that this ilk requited favor is a greater reproach, and will bring upon them a heavier condemnation, because the purpose of God was different from what they supposed, namely, to render them more inexcusable, and to bring their wicked malice to the highest pitch; as if he had said, “Though prophets have been appointed to you by heaven in close succession, it is idly and foolishly that you claim this as an honor; for God had quite a different object in his secret judgment, which was, to lay open, by an uninterrupted succession of gracious invitations, your wicked obstinacy, and, on your being convicted of it, to involve the children in the same condemnation with the fathers.”

With regard to the words, the discourse as related by Matthew is defective, but its meaning must be supplied from the words of Luke. The mention of scribes and wise men along with prophets tends to magnify the grace of God; by which their ingratitude becomes more apparent, since, though God left nothing undone for their instruction, they made no proficiency. Instead of wise men and scribes, Luke mentions apostles, but the meaning is the same. This passage shows that God does not always bestow salvation on men when he sends his word to them, but that he sometimes intends to have it proclaimed to the reprobate, who, he knows, will continue obstinate, that it may be to them

the savior of death unto death, (2 Corinthians 2:16.)

The word of God, indeed, in itself and by its own nature, brings salvation, and invites all men indiscriminately to the hope of eternal life; but as all are not inwardly drawn, and as God does not pierce the ears of ally—in short, as they are not renewed to repentance or bent to obedience, those who reject the word of God render it, by their unbelief, deadly and destructive.

While God foresees that this will be the result, he purposely sends his prophets to them, that he may involve the reprobate in severer condemnation, as is more fully explained by Isaiah, (Isaiah 6:10.) This, I acknowledge, is very far from being agreeable to the reason of the flesh, as we see that unholy despisers of God seize on it as a plausible excuse for barking, that God, like some cruel tyrant, takes pleasure in inflicting more severe punishment on men whom, without any expectation of advantage, he knowingly and willingly hardens more and more. But by such examples God exercises the modesty of believers. Let us maintain such sobriety as to tremble and adore what exceeds our senses. Those who say, that God’s foreknowledge does not hinder unbelievers from being saved, foolishly make use of an idle defense for excusing God. I admit that the reprobate, in bringing death upon themselves, have no intention of doing what God foresaw would happen, and therefore that the fault of their perishing cannot be ascribed to His foreknowledge; but I assert that it is improper to employ this sophistry in defending the justice of God, because it may be immediately objected that it lies with God to make them repent, for the gift of faith and repentance is in his power.

We shall next be met by this objection, What is the reason why God, by a fixed and deliberate purpose, appoints the light of his word to blind men? When they have been devoted to eternal death, why is he not satisfied with their simple ruin? and why does he wish that they should perish twice or three times? There is nothing left for us but to ascribe glory to the judgments of God, by exclaiming with Paul, that they are a deep and unfathomable abyss, (Romans 11:33.) But it is asked, How does he declare that the prophecies will turn to the destruction of the Jews, while his adoption still continued to be in force towards that nation? I reply, As but a small portion embraced the word by faith for salvation, this passage relates to the greater number or the whole body; as Isaiah, after having predicted the general destruction of the nation, is commanded

to seal the law of God among the disciples, (Isaiah 8:16.)

Let us know then that, wherever the Scripture denounces eternal death against the Jews, it excepts a remnant, (Isaiah 1:9; Romans 11:5;) that is, those in whom the Lord preserves some seed on account of his free election

(111)En introduisant la Sapience de Dieu parlant;” — “by introducing the Wisdom of God as speaking.”

(112)Comme un certain tesmoignage qu’ils estoyent gens de bien;” — “as an undoubted proof that they were good people.”

Verse 35

35.That upon you may come. He not only takes away from them their false boasting, but shows that they had received prophets for a totally different purpose, that no age might be free from the criminality of wicked rebellion; for the pronoun you embraces generally the whole nation from its very commencement. If it be objected, that it is not consistent with the judgment of God that punishment should be inflicted on the children for the sins of the parents, the answer is easy. Since they are all involved in a wicked conspiracy, we ought not to think it strange if God, in punishing all without reserve, make the punishment due to the fathers to fall upon the children. Justly then is the whole nation — in whatever age individuals may have lived — called to account, and likewise punished, for this unceasing contempt. For as God, by an uninterrupted course of patience, has unceasingly contended with the malice of the whole people, so the whole people is justly held guilty of the inflexible obstinacy which continued to the very last; and as every age had conspired to put to death its own prophets, so it is right that a general sentence should be pronounced upon them, and that all the murders, which have been perpetrated with one consent, should be avenged on all.

From the blood of Abel. Though Abel (Genesis 4:8) was not slain by the Jews, yet the murder of Abel is imputed to them by Christ, because there is an affinity of wickedness between them and Cain; otherwise there would have been no propriety in saying that righteous blood had been shed by that nation from the beginning of the world. Cain is therefore declared to be the head, and leader, and instigator of the Jewish people, because, ever since they began to slay prophets, they succeeded in the room of him whose imitators they were.

To the blood of Zechariah. He does not speak of Zechariah as the latest martyr; for the Jews did not then put an end to the murder of the prophets, but, on the contrary, their insolence and madness increased from that period; and posterity, who followed them, satiated themselves with the blood which their fathers only tasted. Nor is it because his death was better known, though it is recorded in Scripture. But there is another reason, which, though it deserves attention, has escaped the notice of commentators; in consequence of which they have not only fallen into a mistake, but have likewise involved their readers in a troublesome question. We might suppose it to have arisen from forgetfulness on the part of Christ, that, while he mentions one ancient murder, he passes by a prodigious slaughter which afterwards took place under Manasseh. For until the Jews were carried to Babylon, their wicked persecutions of holy men did not cease; and even while they were still under affliction, we know with what cruelty and rage they pursued Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 32:2.) But our Lord on purpose abstains from reproaching them with recent murders, and selects this murder, which was more ancient—which was also the commencement and source of base licentiousness, and afterwards led them to break out into unbounded cruelty—because it was more suitable to his design. For I have lately explained, that his leading object was to show that this nation, as it did not desist from impiety, must be held guilty of all the murders which had been perpetrated during a long period. Not only, therefore, does he denounce the punishment of their present cruelty, but says that they must be called to account for the murder of Zechariah, as if their own hands had been imbrued in his blood.

There is no probability in the opinion of those who refer this passage to that Zechariah who exhorted the people, after their return from the Babylonish captivity, to build the temple, (Zechariah 8:9,) and whose prophecies are still in existence. For though the title of the book informs us that he was the son of Barachiah, (Zechariah 1:1,) yet we nowhere read that he was slain; and it is, forced exposition to say, that he was slain during the period that intervened between the building of the altar and of the temple. But as to the other Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, the sacred history relates what agrees perfectly with this passage; that when true religion had fallen into decay, after the death of his father, through the wicked revolt of the king and of the people, the Spirit of God came upon him, to reprove severely the public idolatry, and that on this account he was stoned in the porch of the temple, (2 Chronicles 24:20.) There is no absurdity in supposing that his father Jehoiada received, in token of respect, the surname of Barachiah, because, having throughout his whole life defended the true worship, he might justly be pronounced to be the Blessed of God. But whether Jehoiada had two names, or whether (as Jerome thinks) there is a mistake in the word, there can be no doubt as to the fact, that Christ refers to that impious stoning of Zechariah which is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:21

Whom you slew between the temple and the altar. The crime is rendered still more heinous by the circumstance of the place, since they did not revere the sacredness of the temple. Here the temple is put for the outer court, as in other passages. Near it was the altar of burnt offerings, (1 Kings 8:64,) so that the priest offered the sacrifices in presence of the people. It is evident, therefore, that there must have been furious rage, when the sight of the altar and of the temple could not restrain the Jews from profaning that sacred place by a detestable murder.

Verse 37

37.Jerusalem, Jerusalem. By these words, Christ shows more clearly what good reason he had for indignation, that Jerusalem, which God had chosen to be his sacred, and — as we might say — heavenly abode, not only had shown itself to be unworthy of so great an honor, but, as if it had been a den of robbers, (Jeremiah 7:11,) had been long accustomed to suck the blood of the prophets. Christ therefore utters a pathetic exclamation at a sight so monstrous, as that the holy city of God should have arrived at such a pitch of madness, that it had long endeavored to extinguish the saving doctrine of God by shedding the blood of the prophets. This is also implied in the repetition of the name, because impiety so monstrous and incredible deserves no ordinary detestation.

Thou who killest the prophets. Christ does not reproach them with merely one or another murder, but says that this custom was so deeply rooted, that the city did not care to slay every one of the prophets that were sent to it. For the participle, (ἀποκτείνουσα τοὺς προφήτας), (killing the prophets,) is put for an epithet; as if Christ had said, “Thou who oughtest to have been a faithful guardian of the word of God, a teacher of heavenly wisdom, the light of the world, the fountain of sound doctrine, the seat of divine worship, a pattern of faith and obedience, art a murderer of the prophets, so that thou hast acquired a certain habit of sucking their blood.” (113) Hence it is evident, that they who had so basely profaned the sanctuary of God deserved every kind of reproaches. Yet Christ had likewise the intention to obviate the scandal which soon after arose, that believers, when they saw him basely put to death at Jerusalem, might not be confounded by the novelty of such an exhibition. For by these words they were already warned that it was not wonderful if a city, which had been accustomed to strangle or stone the prophets, should cruelly put to death its own Redeemer. This shows us what value we should attach to places. There never certainly was a city in the world on which God bestowed such magnificent titles, or such distinguished honor; and yet we see how deeply it was sunk by its ingratitude.

Let the Pope now compare the abode of his robbery with that holy city; what will he find worthy of equal honor? His hired flatterers boast to us that the faith flourished there in ancient times. But admitting this to be true, if it is evident that it has now, by wicked rebellion, revolted from Christ, and is full of innumerable deeds of sacrilege, what folly is it in them to maintain that the honor of primacy belongs to it? Let us, on the contrary, learn from this memorable example, that when any place has been exalted by uncommon instances of the favor of God, and thus has been removed from the ordinary rank, if it degenerate, it will not only be stripped of its ornaments, but will become so much the more hateful and detestable, because it has basely profaned the glow of God by staining the beauty of his favors.

How often would I have gathered together thy children. This is expressive of indignation rather than of compassion. The city itself, indeed, over which he had lately wept, (Luke 19:41,) is still an object of his compassion; but towards the scribes, who were the authors of its destruction, he uses harshness and severity, as they deserved. And yet he does not spare the rest, who were all guilty of approving and partaking of the same crime, but, including all in the same condemnation, he inveighs chiefly against the leaders themselves, who were the cause of all the evils. We must now observe the vehemence of the discourse. If in Jerusalem the grace of God had been merely rejected, there would have been inexcusable ingratitude; but since God attempted to draw the Jews to himself by mild and gentle methods, and gained nothing by such kindness, the criminality of such haughty disdain was far more aggravated. There was likewise added unconquerable obstinacy; for not once and again did God wish to gather them together, but, by constant and uninterrupted advances, he sent to them the prophets, one after another, almost all of whom were rejected by the great body of the people.

As a hen collecteth her brood under her wings. We now perceive the reason why Christ, speaking in the person of God, compares himself to a hen. It is to inflict deeper disgrace on this wicked nation, which had treated with disdain invitations so gentle, and proceeding from more than maternal kindness. It is an amazing and unparalleled instance of love, that he did not disdain to stoop to those blandishments, by which he might tame rebels into subjection. A reproof nearly similar is employed by Moses, that God, like

an eagle with outspread wings, (Deuteronomy 32:11,)

embraced that people. And though in more than one way God spread out his wings to cherish that people, yet this form of expression is applied by Christ, in a peculiar manner, to one class, namely, that prophets were sent to gather together the wandering and dispersed into the bosom of God. By this he means that, whenever the word of God is exhibited to us, he opens his bosom to us with maternal kindness, and, not satisfied with this, condescends to the humble affection of a hen watching over her chickens. Hence it follows, that our obstinacy is truly monstrous, if we do not permit him to gather us together. And, indeed, if we consider, on the one hand, the dreadful majesty of God, and, on the other, our mean and low condition, we cannot but be ashamed and astonished at such amazing goodness. For what object can God have in view in abasing himself so low on our account? When he compares himself to a mother, he descends very far below his glory; how much more when he takes the form of a hen, and deigns to treat us as his chickens?

Besides, if this charge was justly brought against the ancient people, who lived under the Law, it is far more applicable to us. For though the statement—which I quoted a little ago from Moses—was always true, and though the complaints which we find in Isaiah are just, that

in vain did God spread out his hands every day to embrace a hard-hearted and rebellious people, (Isaiah 65:2)

that, though he rose up early, (Jeremiah 7:13) he gained nothing by his incessant care of them; yet now, with far greater familiarity and kindness, he invites us to himself by his Son. And, therefore, whenever he exhibits to us the doctrine of the Gospel, dreadful vengeance awaits us, if we do not quietly hide ourselves under his wings, by which he is ready to receive and shelter us. Christ teaches us, at the same time, that all enjoy safety and rest who, by the obedience of faith, are gathered together to God; because under his wings they have an impregnable refuge. (114)

We must attend likewise to the other part of this accusation, that God, notwithstanding the obstinate rebellion of his ancient people, was not all at once so much offended by it, as to lay aside a father’s love and a mother’s anxiety, since he did not cease to send prophets after prophets in uninterrupted succession; as in our own day, though he has experienced a marvelous depravity in the world, he still continues to dispense his grace. But these words contain still deeper instruction, namely, that the Jews, as soon as the Lord gathered them together, immediately left him. Hence came dispersions so frequent, that they scarcely remained at rest for a single moment under the wings of God, as we see in the present day a certain wildness in the world, which has indeed existed in all ages; and, therefore, it is necessary that God should recall to himself those who are wandering and going astray. But this is the crowning point of desperate and final depravity, when men obstinately reject the goodness of God, and refuse to come under his wings.

I said formerly that Christ speaks here in the person of God, and my meaning is, that this discourse belongs properly to his eternal Godhead; for he does not now speak of what he began to do since he was manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16,) but of the care which he exercised about the salvation of his people from the beginning. Now we know that the Church was governed by God in such a manner that Christ, as the Eternal Wisdom of God, presided over it. In this sense Paul says, not that God the Father was tempted in the wilderness, but that Christ himself was tempted, (115) (1 Corinthians 10:9.)

Again, when the sophists seize on this passage, to prove free will, and to set aside the secret predestination of God, the answer is easy. “God wills to gather all men,” say they; “and therefore all are at liberty to come, and their will does not depend on the election of God.” I reply: The will of God, which is here mentioned, must be judged from the result. For since by his word he calls all men indiscriminately to salvation, and since the end of preaching is, that all should betake themselves to his guardianship and protection, it may justly be said that he wills to gather all to himself. It is not, therefore, the secret purpose of God, but his will, which is manifested by the nature of the word, that is here described; for, undoubtedly, whomsoever he efficaciously wills to gather, he inwardly draws by his Spirit, and does not merely invite by the outward voice of man.

If it be objected, that it is absurd to suppose the existence of two wills in God, I reply, we fully believe that his will is simple and one; but as our minds do not fathom the deep abyss of secret election, in accommodation to the capacity of our weakness, the will of God is exhibited to us in two ways. And I am astonished at the obstinacy of some people, who, when in many passages of Scripture they meet with that figure of speech (116) (ἀνθρωποπάθεια) which attributes to God human feelings, take no offense, but in this case alone refuse to admit it. But as I have elsewhere treated this subject fully, that I may not be unnecessarily tedious, I only state briefly that, whenever the doctrine, which is the standard of union, (117) is brought forward, God wills to gather all, that all who do not come may be inexcusable.

And you would not. This may be supposed to refer to the whole nation, as well as to the scribes; but I rather interpret it in reference to the latter, by whom the gathering together, (118) was chiefly prevented. For it was against them that Christ inveighed throughout the whole of the passage; and now, after having addressed Jerusalem in the singular number, it appears not without reason that he immediately used the plural number. There is an emphatic contrast between God’s willing and their not willing; (119) for it expresses the diabolical rage of men, who do not hesitate to contradict God.

(113) "En sorte que tu est toute accoustoumee a humer leur sang, sans en faire conscience;" — "so that thou art quite accustomed to suck their blood, without any scruple of conscience."

(114)Un refuge quine peut faillir, et contre lequel il n’y a point de puissance qui ait lieu;” — “a refuge which cannot fail, and against which no power can succeed.”

(115)Mais que Christ luy-mesme a esté tenté au desert par le peuple deliveré d’Egypte;” — “but that Christ himself was tempted in the wildrness by the people that had been delivered from Egypt.”

(116)Anthropopathie; c’est, quand Dieu s’attribue des affections semblables à celles des hommes, comme quand il dit (Genesis 6:6) qu’il s’est repenti d’avoir fait l’homme; et semblables passages.” — “Anthropopathy; that is, when God ascribes to himself feelings similar to those of men, as when he says (Genesis 6:6) that he repented of having made man; and similar passages.”

(117)De vraye union;” — “of true union.”

(118)Ce rassemblement et ceste reunion;” — “this gathering together and this union.”

(119)Quand ildit, Dieu a voulu, vous ne l’avez point voulu ; ” — “when he says, God would, you would not.

Verse 38

38Lo, your house is left to you desolate. He threatens the destruction of the temple, and the dissolution of the whole frame of civil government. Though they were disfigured by irreligion, crimes, and every kind of infamy, yet they were so blinded by a foolish confidence in the temple, and its outward service, that they thought that God was bound to them; and this was the shield which they had always at hand: “What? Could God depart from that place which he has chosen to be his only habitation in the world? And since he dwells in the midst of us, we must one day be restored.” In short, they looked upon the temple as their invincible fortress, as if they dwelt in the bosom of God. But Christ maintains that it is in vain for them to boast of the presence of God, whom they had driven away by their crimes, and, by calling it their house, (lo, your house is left to you,) he indirectly intimates to them that it is no longer the house of God. The temple had indeed been built on the condition, that at the coming of Christ it would cease to be the abode and residence of Deity; but it would have remained as a remarkable demonstration of the continued grace of God, if its destruction had not been occasioned by the wickedness of the people. It was therefore a dreadful vengeance of God, that the place which Himself had so magnificently adorned was not only forsaken by Him, and ordered to be razed to the foundation, but consigned to the lowest infamy to the end of the world. Let the Romanists now go, and let them proceed, in opposition to the will of God, to build their Tower of Babylon, while they see that the temple of God, which had been built by his authority and at his command, was laid low on account of the crimes of the people.

Verse 39

39.For I tell you. He confirms what he had said about the approaching vengeance of God, by saying that the only method of avoiding destruction will be taken from them. For that was the accepted time, the day of salvation, (Isaiah 49:8; 2 Corinthians 6:2,) so long as that very person who had come to be their Redeemer, attested and proclaimed the redemption which he had brought. But at his departure, as at the setting of the sun, the light of life vanished; and therefore this dreadful calamity, which he threatens, must of necessity fall upon them.

Until you say. We come now to inquire what period is denoted by this phrase. Some restrict it to the last day of judgment. Others think that it is a prediction, which was soon afterwards fulfilled, when some of the Jews humbly adored Christ. But I do not approve of either of these interpretations. And I am certainly astonished that learned men should have stumbled at so small an obstacle, by taking great pains to inquire how unbelievers can say concerning Christ, Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord; for he does not declare what they will be, but what he himself will do. And even the adverb until extends no farther than to the time which goes before. Joseph did not know his wife until she brought forth Christ, (Matthew 1:25.) By these words Scripture does not mean, that after Christ had been born they lived together as husband and wife, but only shows that Mary, before the birth of her son, was a virgin that had not known man.

So then the true meaning of the present passage, in nay opinion, is this: “Hitherto I have lived among you in humility and kindness, and have discharged the office of a teacher; and no having finished the course of my calling, I shall depart, and it will not be possible for you any longer to enjoy my presence, but him whom you now despise as a Redeemer and a minister of salvation, you will find to be your Judge.” In this manner the passage agrees with the words of Zechariah, They shall look on him whom they pierced, (Zechariah 12:10; John 19:37.) But Christ appears also to make an indirect allusion to their vain hypocrisy, because, as if they ardently longed for the promised salvation, they sung daily the words of the psalm,

Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord,
(Psalms 118:26;)

while they treated with scorn the Redeemer that was offered to them. In short, he declares that he will not come to them until, trembling at the sight of his dreadful majesty, they shall exclaim—when it is too late—that truly he is the Son of God. And this threatening is addressed to all despisers of the Gospel, more especially to those who falsely profess his name, while they reject his doctrine; for they will one day acknowledge that they cannot escape the hands of him whom they now mock by their hypocritical pretensions. For the same song is now sung by the Papists, who, after all, care nothing about Christ, until, armed with vengeance, he ascends his tribunal. We are also reminded, that so long as Christ exhibits himself to us in the name of the Father as the herald of salvation and Mediator, we ought not only to honor him with our lips, but sincerely to wish that he would make us and the whole world subject to himself.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/matthew-23.html. 1840-57.
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