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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges

Hebrews 4

Verses 1-99

Ch. 4. Continued exhortation to embrace the yet open offer of God’s rest (1 14). Exhortation founded on the High Priesthood of Christ (14 16)

1 . Let us therefore fear ] The fear to which we are exhorted is not any uncertainty of hope, but solicitude against careless indifference. It is a wholesome fear taught by wisdom (Philippians 2:12 ).

lest ] Lit. lest haply .

being left us ] It is better to omit the word “ us ,” It means “since a promise still remains unrealised.” The promise has not been exhausted by any previous fulfilment.

any ] Rather, “any one.” See note on 3:12.

of you ] He cannot say “of us,” because he proceeds to describe the case of hardened and defiant apostates.

should seem to come short of it ] Rather, “should seem to have failed in attaining it .” The Greek might also mean “should think that he has come too late for it;” but the writer’s object is to stimulate the negligent, not to encourage the despondent. The word “seem” is an instance of the figure called litotes , in which a milder term is designedly used to express one which is much stronger. The author of this Epistle, abounding as he does in passages of uncompromising sternness, would not be likely to use any merely euphuistic phrase. The dignity of his expressions adds to their intensity. For a similar delicate yet forcible use of “seem” see 1 Corinthians 11:16 . The verb “to fail” or “come short” occurs in 12:15, together with a terrible example of the thing itself in 12:17.

2. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them ] We should have expected rather “For unto them , as well as unto us,” if this had been the right translation. The better version however is “For indeed we too, just as they, have had a Gospel preached unto us.” The “Gospel” in this instance means the glad tidings of a future rest.

the word preached ] Lit. “the word of hearing.” The function of the hearer is no less necessary than that of the preacher , if the spoken word is to be profitable.

not being mixed with faith in them that heard it ] There is an extraordinary diversity in the MS. readings here. The best supported seems to be “because they were not united (lit. ‘tempered together’) by faith with them that heard (i.e. effectually listened to) it.” This would mean that the good news of rest produced no benefit to the rebellious Israelites, because they were not blended with Caleb and Joshua in their faith. They heard , but only with the ears, not with the heart. But there is probably some ancient corruption of the text. Perhaps instead of “with them that heard,” the true reading may have been “with the things heard .” The reading of our A. V. gives an excellent sense, if it were but well supported. The verb “to mingle” or “temper” occurs in 1 Corinthians 12:24 .

3 . For we which have believed do enter into rest ] Rather, “For we who believed” (i.e. we who have accepted the word of hearing) “are entering into that rest.”

if they shall enter ] This ought to have been rendered as in 3:11, “ they shall not enter ” The argument of the verse is (1) God promised a rest to the Israelites. (2) Many of them failed to enter in. (3) Yet this rest of God began on the first sabbath of God, and some men were evidently meant to enter into it. (4) Since then the original recipients of the promise had failed to enjoy it through disbelief, the promise was renewed ages afterwards, in Psalms 95:0 by the word “To-day.” The immense stress of meaning laid on incidental Scriptural expressions was one of the features of Rabbinic as well as of Alexandrian exegesis.

from the foundation of the world ] God’s rest had begun since the Creation.

4 . he spake in a certain place ] Rather, “He hath said somewhere .” By the indefinite “He” is meant “God,” a form of citation not used in the same way by St Paul, but common in Philo and the Rabbis. The “somewhere” of the original is here expressed in the A.V. by “in a certain place,” see note on 2:6. The reference is to Genesis 2:2 ; Exodus 20:11 , Exodus 31:17 . The writer always regards the Old Testament not as a dead letter, but as a living voice.

5 . If they shall ] i.e. “they shall not.”

6 . it remaineth ] The promise is still left open, is unexhausted.

because of unbelief ] Rather, “because of disobedience ” ( apeitheian ). It was not the Israelites of the wilderness, but their descendants, who came to Shiloh, and so enjoyed a sort of earthly type of the heavenly rest (Joshua 18:1 ).

7 . again he limiteth a certain day … ] There is no reason whatever for the parenthesis in the A. V., of which the reading, rendering, and punctuation are here alike infelicitous to an extent which destroys for ordinary readers the meaning of the passage. It should be rendered (putting only a comma at the end of ver. 6), “ Again, he fixes a day, To-day, saying in David, so long afterwards, even as has been said before, To-day if ye will hear ,” &c. In the stress laid upon the word “to-day” we find a resemblance to Philo, who defines “to-day” as “the infinite and interminable aeon,” and says “Till to-day, that is for ever” ( Leg. Allegg. iii. 8; De Profug. 11). The argument is that “David” (a general name for the “Psalmist”) had, nearly five centuries after the time of Moses, and three millenniums after the Creation, still spoken of God’s rest as an offer open to mankind. If we regard this as a mere verbal argument, turning on the attribution of deep mystic senses to the words “rest” and “to-day,” and on the trains of inference which are made to depend on these words, we must remember that such a method of dealing with Scripture phraseology was at this period universally current among the Jews. But if we stop at this point all sorts of difficulties arise; for if the “rest” referred to in Psalms 95:0 was primarily the land of Canaan (as in Deuteronomy 1:34-36 , Deuteronomy 1:12 :9, &c.), the oath of God, “they shall not enter into my rest” only applied to the generation of the wandering, and He had said “Your little ones … them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised,” Numbers 14:31 . If, on the other hand, “the rest” meant heaven, it would be against all Scripture analogy to assume that all the Israelites who died in the wilderness were excluded from future happiness. And there are many other difficulties which will at once suggest themselves. The better and simpler way of looking at this, and similar trains of reasoning, is to regard them as particular modes of expressing blessed and eternal truths, and to look on the Scripture language applied to them in the light rather of illustration than of Scriptural proof. Quite apart from this Alexandrian method of finding recondite and mystic senses in the history and language of the Bible, we see the deep and glorious truths that God’s offer of “Rest” in the highest sense of participation in His own rest is left open to His people in the eternal today of merciful opportunity. The Scripture illustration must be regarded as quite subordinate to the essential truth, and not the essential truth made to depend on the Scripture phraseology. When God says “They shall not enter my rest,” the writer reading as it were between the lines with the eyes of Christian enlightenment reads the promise “but others shall enter into my rest,” which was most true.

saying in David ] A common abbreviated form of quotation like “saying in Elijah” for “in the part of Scripture about Elijah” (Romans 9:2 ). The quotation may mean no more than “in the Book of Psalms.” The 95th Psalm is indeed attributed to David in the LXX; but the superscriptions of the LXX, like those of our A. V., are wholly without authority, and are in some instances entirely erroneous. The date of the Psalm is more probably the close of the Exile. We may here notice the fondness of the writer for the Psalms, of which he quotes no less than eleven in this Epistle (Psalms 2:8 , 22, 40, 45, 95, 102, 104, 105, 118, 135).

8 . Jesus ] i.e. Joshua. The needless adoption of the Greek form of the name by the A. V. is here most unfortunately perplexing to uninstructed readers, as also in Acts 7:45 .

had given them rest ] He did, indeed, give them a rest and, in some sense (Deuteronomy 12:9 ), the rest partially and primarily intended (Josh, 23:1); but only a dim shadow of the true and final rest offered by Christ (Matthew 11:28 ; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-6 ; Revelation 14:13 ).

then would he not afterward have spoken ] The “He” is here Jehovah. More literally, “He would not have been speaking .” The phrases applied to Scripture by the writer always imply his sense of its living power and ideal continuity. The words are as though they had just been uttered (“He hath said,” ver. 4) or were still being uttered (as here, and throughout). There is a similar mode of argument in 7:11, 8:4, 7, 11:15.

9 . There remaineth therefore a rest ] Since the word used for “rest” is here a different word ( sabbatismos ) from that which has been used through the earlier part of the argument ( katapausis ), it is a pity that King Jameses translators, who indulge in so many needless variations, did not here introduce a necessary change of rendering. The word means “ a Sabbath rest ,” and supplies an important link in the argument by pointing to the fact that “the rest” which the Author has in view is God’s rest, a far higher conception of rest than any of which Canaan could be an adequate type. The Sabbath, which in 2 Mace. 15:1 is called “the Day of Rest” ( katapausis ), is a nearer type of Heaven than Canaan. Dr Kay supposes that there is an allusion to Joshua’s first Sabbatic year, when “the land had rest from war” (Joshua 14:15 ), and adds that Psalms 92 104 have a Sabbatic character, and that Psalms 92:0 is headed “a song for the sabbath day.”

10 . For he that is entered into his rest ] This is not a special reference to Christ, but to any faithful Christian who rests from his labours. The verse is merely an explanation of the newly-introduced term “Sabbath-rest.”

11 . Let us labour ] Lit., “let us be zealous,” or “give diligence” (2 Peter 1:10 , 2 Peter 1:11 ; Philippians 3:14 ).

lest any man ] See note on 4:1.

of unbelief ] Rather, “of disobedience.”

12 . For the word of God is quick ] “Quick” is an old English expression for “living;” hence St Stephen speaks of Scripture as “the living oracles” (Acts 7:38 ). The “word of God” is not here the personal Logos; a phrase not distinctly and demonstrably adopted by any of the sacred writers except St John, who in the prologue to his Gospel calls Christ “the Word,” and in the Apocalypse “the Word of God.” The reference is to the written and spoken word of God, of the force and almost personality of which the writer shews so strong a sense. To him it is no dead utterance of the past, but a living power for ever. At the same time the expressions of this verse could hardly have been used by any one who was not familiar with the personification of the Logos, and St Clemens of Rome applies the words “a searcher of the thoughts and desires” to God. The passage closely resembles several which are found in Philo, though it applies the expressions in a different manner (see Introduction).

powerful ] Lit., effective, energetic. The vital power shews itself in acts.

sharper than any twoedged sword ] The same comparison is used by Isaiah (49:2) and St Paul (Ephesians 6:17 ) and St john (Revelation 2:16 , Revelation 19:15 ). See too Wisdom 18:15, 16, “Thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven … and brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword.” Philo compares the Logos to the flaming sword of Eden (Genesis 3:24 ) and “the fire and knife” ( μἁχαιραν ) of Genesis 22:6 .

piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow ] The meaning is not that the word of God divides the soul (the “natural” soul) by which we live from the spirit by which we reason and apprehend; but that it pierces not only the natural soul, but even to the Divine Spirit of man, and even to the joints and marrow (i.e. to the inmost depths) of these. Thus Euripides ( Hippol. 527) speaks of the “marrow of the soul.” It is obvious that the writer does not mean anything very specific by each term of the enumeration, which produces its effect by the rhetorical fulness of the expressions. The ψυχὴ or animal soul is the sphere of that life which makes a man ψυχικὸς , i.e. carnal, unspiritual; he possesses this element of life ( anima ) in common with the beasts. It is only by virtue of his spirit ( πνεῦμα ) that he has affinity with God.

a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart ] These words are a practical explanation of those which have preceded. The phraseology is an evident reminiscence of Philo. Philo compares the Word to the flaming sword of Paradise; and calls the Word “the cutter of all things,” and says that “when whetted to the utmost sharpness it is incessantly dividing all sensuous things” (see Quis Rer. Div. Haeres & § 27; Opp. ed. Mangey i. 491, 503, 506). By enthumēseis is meant (strictly) our moral imaginations and desires; by ennoiai our intellectual thoughts: but the distinction of meaning is hardly kept (Matthew 9:4 , &c).

13 . in his sight ] i.e. in the Sight of God, not of “the Word of God.” “He seeth all man’s goings,” Job 34:21 . “Thou hast set … our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance,” Psalms 90:8 ; comp. Psalms 139:1-12 .

opened ] The Greek word τετραχηλισμένα must have some such meaning, but it is uncertain what is the exact force of the metaphor from which it is derived. It comes from τράχηλος , “the neck,” and has been explained to mean: (1) “seized by the throat and thrown on the back”; or (2) “with the neck forced back like that of a malefactor compelled to shew his face” (Sueton. Vitell. 17); or (3) “with the neck held back like that of animals in order that the Priest may cut their throats”; or (4) “flayed”; or (5) “anatomised” (comp. Leviticus 1:6 , Leviticus 1:9 ). This anatomic examination of victims by the Priests was called momoskopia since it was necessary that every victim should be “without blemish” ( amomos ), and Maimonides says that there were no less than 73 kinds of blemishes. Hence Polycarp (ad Phil , iv.) says that “all things are rigidly examined ( πάντα μωμοσκοπεῖται ) by God.” The usage of Philo, however, decisively shews that the word means “ laid prostrate .” For the truth suggested see Proverbs 15:11 ; “I try the reins,” Jeremiah 17:10 ; Psalms 51:6 ; Proverbs 20:27 , “the candle of the Lord searching all the inner parts of the belly.”

unto the eyes ] “The Son of God, who hath His eyes like unto a flame of fire.” Revelation 2:18 .

with whom we have to do ] This might be rendered, “to whom our account must be given.” Thus in Luke 16:2 , “render thy account” ( τὸν λόγον ). Perhaps, however, our A. V. correctly represents it “Him with whom our concern is.” Comp. 1 Kings 2:14 ; 2 Kings 9:5 (LXX.), where a similar phrase occurs in this sense.

14 16. Exhortation founded on Christ’s High Priesthood

14 . Seeing then that we have a great high priest ] These verses refer back to 2:17, 3:1, and form the transition to the long proof and illustration of Christ’s superiority to the Levitic Priesthood which occupies the Epistle to 10:18. The writer here reverts to his central thought, to which he has already twice alluded (2:17, 3:1). He had proved that Christ is superior to Angels the ministers, and to Moses the servant of the old Dispensation, and (quite incidentally) to Joshua. He has now to prove that He is like Aaron in all that made Aaron’s priesthood precious, but infinitely superior to him and his successors, and a pledge to us of the grace by which the true rest can be obtained. Christ is not only a High Priest, but “a great High Priest,” an expression also found in Philo (Opp. i. 654).

that is passed into the heavens ] Rather, “who hath passed through the heavens” the heavens being here the lower heavens, regarded as a curtain which separates us from the presence of God. Christ has passed not only into but above the heavens (7:26). Transiit, non modo intravit, caelos. Bengel.

Jesus the Son of God ] The title combines His earthly and human name with his divine dignity, and thus describes the two natures which make His Priesthood eternally necessary.

our profession ] Rather, “our confession,” as in 3:1.

15 . For ] He gives the reason for holding fast our confession; [we may do so with confidence], for Christ can sympathise with us in our weaknesses, since He has suffered with us ( συμπάσχειν ). Romans 8:17 ; 1 Corinthians 12:26 .

with the feeling of our infirmities ] Even the heathen could feel the force and beauty of this appeal, for they intensely admired the famous line of Terence,

“I am a man; I feel an interest in everything which is human;” at the utterance of which, when the play was first acted, it is said that the whole of the audience rose to their feet; and the exquisite words which Virgil puts into the mouth of Dido,

Haud ignara mali, miseris succerrere disco .”

tempted ] “Tempted” ( πεπειρασμένον ) is the best-supported reading, not πεπειραμένον , “having made trial of,” “experienced in.” It refers alike to the trials of life, which are in themselves indirect temptations sometimes to sin, always to murmuring and discontent; and to the direct temptations to sin which are life’s severest trials. From both of these our Lord suffered (John 11:33-35 ; “ye are they who have continued with me in my temptationsLuke 22:28 , Luke 22:4 :2, &c).

like as we are ] Lit. “after the likeness;” a stronger way of expressing the resemblance of Christ’s “temptations” to ours than if an adverb had been used.

yet without sin ] Lit. “apart from sin.” Philo had already spoken of the Logos as sinless ( De Profug. 20; Opp. i. 562). His words are “the High Priest is not Man but the Divine Word, free from all share, not only in willing but even in involuntary wrongdoing.” Christ’s sinlessness is one of the irrefragable proofs of His divinity. It was both asserted by Himself (John 14:30 ) and by the Apostles (2 Corinthians 5:21 ; 1 Peter 2:22 ; 1 John 3:5 , &c). Being tempted, Christ could sympathize with us; being sinless, he could plead for us.

16 . Let us therefore come boldly ] Rather, “let us then approach with confidence.” The notion of “approach” to God ( προσέρχεσθαι ) in the Levitical service (Leviticus 21:17 , Leviticus 22:3 ) is prominent in this Epistle (7:25, 10:1, 22, 11:6, 12:18 22). In St Paul it only occurs once (1 Timothy 6:13 ), and then in a different sense. His ideal of the Christian life is not “access to God” (though he does also allude to this in one Epistle, Ephesians 2:18 , Ephesians 3:12 ) but “oneness with Christ” “Boldly,” literally, “with confidence” (3:6).

throne of grace ] Comp. 8:1. This throne was typified in the mercy-seat above the Ark (Exodus 25:21 ), over which the Shechinah shone between the wings of the cherubim.

obtain mercy, and find grace ] Mercy in our wretchedness, and free favour, though it is undeserved.

to help in time of need ] Lit. “for a seasonable succour.” Seasonable because “it is still called to-day” (3:17), and because the help is so deeply needed (2:18),

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"Commentary on Hebrews 4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.