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Thursday, July 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 23

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

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Verses 1-39

Denunciation of the Pharisees

1-36. Final denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees. The other synoptists insert in this place a brief utterance directed against the scribes (Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47), but the discourse as it stands is peculiar to St. Matthew. A portion of it, however, is inserted by St. Luke at an earlier period, on the occasion of a dinner at a Pharisee’s house (Luke 11:37-52) and this suggests that we have here a collection of sayings against the scribes and Pharisees really spoken on various occasions. The scene is the Temple. In the foreground are Jesus and His disciples; a little farther off the multitudes; in the background are the discomfited Pharisees, who, instead of attacking, are now attacked. Christ addresses first the multitudes (Matthew 23:1-7), then the disciples (Matthew 23:8-12), finally the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-36).

2. Sit in Moses’ seat] The scribes (who were ordained with the laying-on of hands) claimed to have received their authority through an unbroken succession from Moses. The ’sitting’ refers to the judicial power, and the authority to teach, which all scribes or rabbis possessed, and which was centred in the Great Sanhedrin. In rabbinical writings one who succeeds a rabbi at the head of his school is described as ’sitting on his seat,’ because the rabbis taught sitting on a raised seat. Sit] or, ’sat,’ i.e. succeeded to Moses’ authority.

3. All therefore whatsoever] In spite of the wickedness and hypocrisy of the scribes, they were to be obeyed and respected on account of their office, to which they had a legitimate right, until their place was taken by the Apostles. Similarly a duly ordained Christian minister, however much he may deserve to be despised as a man, is yet to be tolerated as Christ’s representative till he be deposed by lawful authority.

4. Luke 11:46. Bind heavy burdens] a metaphor from overloading a beast of burden. The ’burdens,’ which they ’bind into bundles,’ are the intricate and troublesome observances which the scribes had added to the written Law, and had declared to be more binding than the Law itself: see on Matthew 15:2. The one good point about the Sadducees was that they rejected these human traditions. Will not move them (Lk ’touch them’) with one of their fingers] much less bear them upon their shoulders. They require their disciples to keep onerous rules, which they themselves will not observe, or (as others interpret it) they will not stretch out a finger to adjust these legal burdens to the backs of others, so that they may comfortably bear them.

5. Make broad their phylacteries] Every male Jew above the age of thirteen was required to say both morning and evening, except on sabbaths and feasts, when the synagogue services took their place, ’the prayers of the phylacteries.’ The phylacteries themselves were cubical boxes (size from ½ in. to 1½ in.), made of the skin of a clean animal, and attached to a broad strip of material, by which they were bound to the body at prayer-time. Two were worn. The head-phylactery was so fastened to the brow that the prayer-box came between the eyes. This was the one which the Pharisees made broad, i.e. as large and conspicuous as possible. The arm-phylactery was tied round the left arm on the inside, so as to be near the heart, and during use was invisible, being covered by the sleeve. The head-phylactery was divided into four compartments, containing on little rolls these four portions of scripture: Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 4:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The arm-phylactery contained the same passages written on a single roll. The rabbis held these phylacteries, or tephillin, in the highest veneration. They were to be kissed when put on or off, they were holier than the frontal of the high priest’s mitre, they were a preservative against demons, whence their name phylacteries, i.e. amulets (from a Gk. word meaning ’to guard’). They were sworn by, by touching them. God Himself was said to wear them, and to swear by them when He swore by ’His holy arm.’ Orthodox Jews find the wearing of the phylacteries commanded in the Law (Exodus 13:9-16; Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18), but the Karaite Jews dispute the interpretation and do not wear them. The phylacterial prayers being said at stated times, the Pharisees would arrange to be seen saying them in public, at the ’corners of the streets’: see on Matthew 6:5. The borders] or, rather, ’holy tassels’: see on Matthew 9:20. In our Lord’s time they were worn publicly on the four corners of the outer garment. Modern Jews wear them secretly on an under garment called a tallith, for fear of ridicule. In the synagogue a second and larger tallith is worn during the prayers to cover the head and neck. This tallith, or prayer-veil, was perhaps in use in our Lord’s time.

6. Luke 11:48; Mark 12:38. The chief seats in the synagogues were the semicircular bench round the ark facing the congregation. See further on Matthew 20:28; Mark 12:39; Luke 14:7.

7. Rabbi] (Aramaic) lit. ’my master,’ a title of respect applied to a scribe duly ordained in Palestine (cp. our ’Reverend’). Our Lord, though unordained, received the title by courtesy.

9. Father (Aramaic abba) and masters (Matthew 23:10) are also titles of the scribes, the former being chiefly used as a prefix to the name, e.g. Abba Shaul. Some Christians take these prohibitions literally, and say that it is antichristian to use such titles of respect as ’Reverend,’ ’Father in God,’ ’Venerable,’ and the like, which correspond to the titles of the scribes. But what Jesus condemned was not the titles themselves, so much as the presumptuous claims which the titles implied. The rabbis really did put themselves in the place of God, and almost on an equality with Him. Their traditions were more binding than the Law, and were regarded as in a sense binding upon God. One rabbi went the length of being buried in white garments to show that he was worthy to appear before his Maker. Another is said to have been summoned to heaven by God to settle a point of the law of ceremonial purification: see on Matthew 15:2.

13-36. The Seven Woes on the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, knowing that His death was at hand, and that the conversion of His enemies was hopeless, poured upon them a torrent of righteous indignation, in the manner of the prophets of old. These woes apply equally to the ministers of the gospel, who having the cure of souls, abuse it as did the Scribes.

13. Luke 11:52. Shut up, etc.] i.e. prevent the nation from being converted. The Kingdom of Heaven is here the Church.

14. The omission of this v:, which has been wrongly inserted from Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47, reduces the eight woes to seven: see on Mk.

15. To make one proselyte] The Ethiopie version has the interesting reading ’to baptise one proselyte.’ As, however, there is no evidence that the Pharisees were particularly anxious to make proselytes to Judaism, it is perhaps more probable that our Lord alludes to their zeal in making proselytes from among the Jews to their own sect.

Child of hell] lit. ’a son of Gehenna,’ i.e. one fit to go thither: see on Matthew 5:22. Why two-fold more? Because the vices of teachers appear in an accentuated form, and without any redeeming features, in scholars. Others say, ’Because out of a bad heathen they made a worse Jew.’ Others suggest a different translation altogether, viz. ’You make him a more deceitful child of hell than yourselves.’

16-22. On dishonest casuistry. The lax moralists of that time invented ways of evading the obligation of truthfulness, by saying that certain forms of swearing were binding and others not. Thus an oath by the Temple or the altar might be broken without sin, but not an oath by the gold of the Temple, or by the gift on the altar. Such refinements were a direct encouragement to dishonesty and untruthfulness, and our Lord denounced them with terrible severity, declaring that a man’s word or oath, in whatever words expressed, is absolutely binding. The lesson here taught is truthfulness and honesty in general, as well as the sanctity of oaths. Christ’s teaching here is not inconsistent with Matthew 5:34, where from a higher ideal standpoint He forbids oaths altogether.

16. It is nothing] i.e. it is not binding. The gold of the temple] J. Lightfoot is probably right in regarding this gold, together with the ’gift on the altar’ (Matthew 23:18), as dedicated to God, i.e. as Corban. An oath in which the word Corban was mentioned was held to be specially binding: see on Matthew 15:5, Matthew 15:6. A debtor] i.e. bound by his oath.

23. Luke 11:42. J. Lightfoot remarks, ’The tithing of herbs is from the rabbins. This tithing was added by the scribes, and yet approved of by our Saviour, when He saith, “Ye ought not to leave these undone.” The more scrupulous rabbis tithed not only the seeds but the leaves and stalks of these herbs.

Cummin] used in cooking as a condiment.

The weightier matters] Alluding to bat not adopting the rabbinical distinction between the ’heavy’ and ’light’ precepts of the Law. Among the ’heavy’ precepts were the sabbath, circumcision, and the prohibition to profane the Divine Name. Hillel and Shammai differed somewhat in their classification of the 613 precepts which the Law was supposed to contain. Judgment] stands here, by a Hebraism, for ’righteousness.’. Faith] honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness. These ought ye] i.e. Ye ought to have observed judgment, mercy and faith, and also to have tithed mint, anise and cummin.

24. A proverb meaning that the scribes scrupulously avoid insignificant breaches of the Law, while continually breaking its great commandments. Strain at a gnat] RV ’strain out a gnat,’ viz. out of the wine that you are about to drink. The ’gnat’ here is probably a minute animal bred from the fermentation of wine, and regarded by the rabbis as unclean. The camel was also unclean (Leviticus 11:4).

25. Luke 11:39. Ye make clean] see Mark 7:4; But within they] (i.e. the cups and dishes) are full of food and drink which has been obtained by extortion and excess.

26. Cleanse first that] i.e. first earn your meat and drink by honest labour, not by extortion, then your cups and dishes will be clean in God’s sight.

27. Whited sepulchres] Contact with sepulchres defiled, so that the Jews smeared them with limewash yearly on the 15th day of Adar lest travellers touching them unawares should be made unclean. In Luke 11:44; Jesus compares the Pharisees to unmarked, here to marked, sepulchres, because they defiled those who came into close contact with them

28. Alexander Jannæus, the Maccabean king of the Jews (Matthew 104-78 b.c.), gave utterance to a very similar sentiment. On his deathbed he warned his wife to ’take heed of painted men, pretending to be Pharisees, whose works are the works of Zimri, and yet they expect the reward of Phineas.’ ’Painted men’ are explained to mean ’men whose outward show doth not answer to their nature.’

29-31. Luke 11:47, Luke 11:48.

29. Tombs of the prophets, etc.] It is natural to suppose that Jesus alluded to some actual building operations then going on, or recently completed near Jerusalem. Herod the Great appears to have built or adorned the tombs and cenotaphs of many Jewish worthies. Calvin well remarks, ’It is customary with hypocrites thus to honour after their death good teachers and holy ministers of God, whom they cannot endure while they are alive. It is a hypocrisy which costs little to profess a warm regard for those who are now silent.’

31. Unto yourselves] or, ’against yourselves.’ The v. is an ironical commentary on the statement of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:30), ’If we had been in the days of our fathers,’ etc. Jesus retorts, ’You witness to yourselves by your words that you are the literal sons of those who killed the prophets. You witness against yourselves by your actions that you are also their sons spiritually, for you, like them, reject the words of the prophets who are among you, viz. the Baptist and Myself.’

32. Fill ye up then] i.e. ’Carry out your wickedness to the full, as your fathers did, by putting Me to death. You desire to do so, and I shall not hinder you.’

33. See Matthew 3:7; Matthew 12:34.

34-36. Luke 11:49-51;

34. I send unto you] The parallel in St. Luke (which see) has ’Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send unto them prophets,’ etc. The prophets, etc., are the apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, and other ministers of the Apostolic Church. Observe that here, as in Matthew 13:52, our Lord speaks of Christian ministers under Jewish titles as ’wise men’ (i.e. rabbis) and scribes.

35. That upon you] ’The scribes and Pharisees are regarded as the representatives of the people, for whom, as their leaders, they are held responsible’ (Meyer). The righteous blood] i.e. the penalty for. shedding it.

Zacharias son of Barachias] Jesus probably said ’Zachariah,’ as in St. Luke, without mentioning the father’s name, but the evangelist or one of the earliest copyists, who thought it necessary to distinguish among the twentynine Zachariahs of the OT., and understood the canonical prophet to be meant, added the words ’son of Barachias.’ There can be no real doubt that the person meant is Zechariah, son of Jehoiada (see 2 Chronicles 24:21), concerning whom there was a Jewish tradition, that his blood could not be removed by washing, but remained bubbling on the ground where it had been shed. In the Jewish arrangement of the books of the sacred Canon, Chronicles stands last, so that Jesus chose His examples from the first and last books of the Jewish Bible.

37-39. Pathetic lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13:34-35). St. Luke places these words in another, and much less suitable connexion. As they occur in St. Matthew they form a worthy close to our Lord’s ministry in Jerusalem.

37. How often] ’It is fair to assume that Christ’s exclamation over Jerusalem presupposes that the capital had repeatedly been the scene of His ministrations, which coincides with the visits on festival occasions recorded by John: cp. Acts 10:39;’ (Meyer). Under her wings] see 2 Esdras 1:30.

38. Your house] i.e. either, (1) the city itself, (2) the Temple, or, (3) the Jewish dispensation.

39. Till ye shall say, Blessed is He, etc.] i.e. either, (1) till the Second Advent, when they will see Christ as judge, and will unwillingly say ’Blessed is He that cometh,’ or, (2) till the conversion of Israel (see Romans 11), when true believers will see Christ by faith and willingly say,’ ’Blessed is He that cometh,’ etc.

Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcb/matthew-23.html. 1909.
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