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PRELIMINARY NOTE ON CHAPTERS 40-48.
These closing chapters of Ezekiel form one continuous prophecy of a distinctly marked character. They present a vision of the Temple in minute detail, with careful measurements of its parts; various ordinances for the Temple, for the Levites, and the priests, and for the prince; a new and remarkable division of the land; and the vision of the life-giving waters issuing from the sanctuary. The whole passage differs too much from anything in the past to allow for a moment the supposition that it is historical in character; and uttered, as it was, at a time when the Temple lay in ashes, and the land desolate, it is equally clear that it cannot describe the present. It must, therefore, have been prophetic; but this fact alone will not decide whether it looked to a literal fulfilment, or was ideal in its character; although the à priori presumption must be in favour of the latter, since all was seen “in the visions of God” (Ezekiel 40:2)—an expression which Ezekiel always applies to a symbolic representation rather than to an actual image of things. Certainly the Temple was afterwards rebuilt, and the nation re-established in Palestine; but the second Temple was quite unlike the one described by Ezekiel, and no attempt was ever made to carry out his division of the land. The few interpreters who have supposed that he meant to foretell literally the sanctuary and the state of the restoration have been compelled to suppose that the returning exiles found themselves too feeble to carry out their designs, and hence that this prophecy remains as a monument of magnificent purposes which were never accomplished. If this were the correct view, it is inconceivable that there should be no allusion to the language of Ezekiel in the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the prophecies of Haggai, which all relate to this period, and describe the return and settlement in the land, and the rebuilding of the Temple, with no reference to this prophecy, nor any trace of a desire to conform their work to its directions. Other objections to this view will be mentioned presently.
At the same time, it is to be remembered that a remnant of the people were restored to their land, and their Temple was rebuilt upon Mount Zion; it is but reasonable to suppose that these events, so often foretold, were present to the prophet’s mind, and that he looked out from them upon a more distant future, in the same way that near and typical events often with the other prophets form the basis of their foreshadowing of the future.
The only other way in which this prophecy can be literally understood is by supposing that its fulfilment is still in the future. In general, it is difficult to say that any state of things may not be realised in the future; but in this case there are features of the prophecy, and those not of a secondary or incidental character, but forming a part of its main delineations, which enable us to say unhesitatingly that their literal fulfilment would be in plain contradiction to the Divine revelation. For it is impossible to conceive, in view of the whole relations between the old and the new dispensations, as set forth in Scripture, that animal sacrifices can ever again be restored by Divine command, and find acceptance with God. And it may be added that it is equally impossible to conceive that the Church of the future, progressing in the liberty wherewith Christ has made it free, should ever return again to “the weak and beggarly elements” of Jewish bondage here set forth. But besides these obvious reasons, there are several indications in the detail of the prophecy that show it was never intended to be literally understood. These cannot all be seen without a careful examination of the details, but a few points may be presented which will make the fact sufficiently clear.
In the first place, the connection between the Temple and the city of Jerusalem is so deeply laid in all the sacred literature of the subject, as well as in the thought of every pious Israelite, that a prophecy incidentally separating them, without any distinct statement of the fact, or assignment of a reason for so doing, is scarcely conceivable. Yet in this portion of Ezekiel the Temple is described as at a distance of nearly nine and a half miles from the utmost bound of the city, or about fourteen and a quarter miles from its centre. This holds true, however the tribe portions of the land and the “oblation” be located (see the map in the Notes to Ezekiel 48:0); for the priests’ portion of the “oblation” (Ezekiel 48:10), in the midst of which the sanctuary is placed, is 10,000 reeds, or about nineteen miles broad; to the south of this (Ezekiel 48:15-17) is a strip of land of half the width, in which the city with its “suburbs” is situated. occupying its whole width.
A Temple in any other locality than Mount Moriah would hardly be the Temple of Jewish hope and association; but Ezekiel’s Temple, with its precincts, is a mile square, larger than the whole ancient city of Jerusalem. It is hardly possible that the precincts of any actual Temple could be intended to embrace such a variety of hill and valley as the country presents. However this may be, the prophet describes it as situated many miles north of the city, and the city itself as several miles north of the site of Jerusalem. This would place the Temple well on the road to Samaria.
But, still further, the description of the oblation itself is physically impossible. The boundaries of the land are the Jordan on the one side and the Mediterranean on the other (Ezekiel 47:15-21). The “oblation” could not have reached so far south as the mouth of the Jordan; but even at that point the whole breadth of the country is but fifty-five miles. Now measuring forty-seven and one-third miles north (the width of the oblation) a point is reached where the distance between the river and the sea is barely forty miles. It is impossible, therefore, that the oblation itself should be included between them, and the description requires that there should also be room left for the prince’s portion at either end.
Again, while the city of the vision is nowhere expressly said to be Jerusalem, it is yet described as the great city of the restored theocracy. It cannot, as already said, be placed geographically upon the site of Jerusalem. Either, then, this city must be understood ideally, or else a multitude of other prophecies, and notably many in Ezekiel which speak of the future of Zion and of Jerusalem, must be so interpreted. There is no good reason why both should not be interpreted figuratively, but it is impossible to understand both literally; for some of these prophecies make statements in regard to the future quite as literal in form as these of Ezekiel, and yet in direct conflict with them. To select a single instance from a prophecy not much noticed: Obadiah, who was probably a contemporary of Ezekiel, foretells (Ezekiel 39:19-20) that at the restoration “Benjamin shall possess Gilead;” but, according to Ezekiel, Gilead is not in the land of the restoration at all, and Benjamin’s territory is to be immediately south of the “oblation.” Again, Obadiah says, “The captivity of Jerusalem” (which, in distinction from “the captivity of the host of the children of Israel,” must refer to the two tribes) “shall possess the cities of the south;” but, according to Ezekiel, Judah and Benjamin are to adjoin the central “oblation,” and on the south four of the other tribes are to have their portion. Such instances might be multiplied if necessary.
The division of the land among the twelve tribes; the entire change in assigning to the priests and to the Levites large landed estates, and to the former as much as to the latter; the enormous size of the Temple precincts and of the city, with the comparatively small allotment of land for its support, are all so singular, and so entirely without historical precedent, that only the clearest evidence would justify the assumption that these things were intended to be literally carried out. No regard is paid to the differing numbers of the various tribes, but an equal strip of land is assigned to each of them; and, the trans-Jordanic territory being excluded and about one-fifth of the whole land set apart as an “oblation,” the portion remaining allows to each of the tribes but about two-thirds as much territory as, on the average, they had formerly possessed. The geographical order of the tribes is extremely singular: Judah and Benjamin are, indeed, placed on the two sides of the consecrated land, and the two eldest, Reuben and Simeon, are placed next to them, and Dan is put at the extreme north, where a part of the tribe had formerly lived; but the classification extends no further, and the remaining tribes are arranged neither in order of seniority nor of maternity, nor yet of ancient position. Moreover, nearly the whole territory assigned to Zebulon and Gad is habitable only by nomads, except on the supposition of physical changes in the land.
Another consequence of this division of the land is important: the Levites, being now provided for in the “oblation,” no longer have their cities among the tribes. But it had been expressly provided that the “cities of refuge” (which must be distributed through the land in order to fulfil their purpose) should be Levitical cities (Numbers 35:9-15). With this change, therefore, the provision for cities of refuge ceases, and a profound alteration is made in the whole Mosaic law in regard to manslaughter and murder.
The ordinances for the sacrifices and feasts, as given in Ezekiel 45, 46, differ greatly from those of the Mosaic law, as will be pointed out in the commentary. For the variation in the amount of the “meat offering,” and of the number and character of the victims on various occasions, it is difficult to assign any other reason than that they were intended as indications that the prophet’s scheme was not to be taken literally; it is certain that no attempt was made at the restoration thus to modify the Mosaic ritual, although this could have been done without difficulty if it had been understood that it was intended. The ample provision for the prince, and the regulations for his conduct, were politically wise and useful additions to the Mosaic economy, if literally understood, but which no attempt was ever made to carry out in practice. But in the ordering of the great cycle of feasts and fasts, the modification of the Mosaic system is so profound as quite to change its symbolic value. The “feast of weeks” and the great day of atonement are altogether omitted; and also the “new moons,” except that of the first month, which is enhanced in value. The fact that the men who received these teachings from Ezekiel’s own lips and had charge of the ordering of the services in the restored Temple, paid no attention to these changes, is strong evidence that they did not consider them as meant to be literally carried out.
 This prophecy was given in the twenty-fifth year of the captivity, and was, therefore, forty-five years before the restoration. The elderly men of the restoration must have been of full age to appreciate this prophecy at the time it was uttered, and in the immediately subsequent years of its perusal and discussion. There can be no reasonable doubt, also, that the prophecies of Ezekiel were carried back to Judæa by the returning exiles, and from their very nature they must have been made generally known to those who were in the captivity.
In connection with the omission of the day of atonement, all mention of the high priest is carefully left out. That this is not accidental is shown by the fact that the laws of marriage and of mourning for all the priests are made more strict than in the legislation of Moses (Ezekiel 44:22-27), evidently as a sort of compensation for the omitted legislation in regard to the high priest. But the Levitical system without a high priest becomes a different institution in itself, and is also greatly changed in its symbolism.
It may be remarked in passing that the system here set forth is not at all of the nature of an intermediate or transitional ritual between that which we know existed under the monarchy, and that which is set forth in the Levitical law, and therefore affords no basis for the theory that the Levitical system was the outgrowth of the captivity. The absence of the high priest, so prominent both in the law and in the history, is alone a sufficient proof of this; and to this may be added the full regulations for the prince in Ezekiel, of which there is no trace in either the earlier or the subsequent history.
A further difficulty with the literal interpretation may be found in the description of the waters which issued from under the eastern threshold of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). These waters run to the “east country,” and go down “to the sea,” which can only be the Dead Sea; but such a course would be physically impossible without changes in the surface of the earth, since the location of the Temple of the vision is on the west of the watershed of the country. They had, moreover, the effect of “healing” the waters of the sea, an effect which could not be produced naturally without providing an outlet from the sea; no supply of fresh water could remove the saltness while this water was all disposed of by evaporation, and Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 47:11) excludes the idea of an outlet. But, above all, the character of the waters themselves is impossible without a perpetual miracle. Setting aside the difficulty of a spring of this magnitude upon the top of “a very high mountain” (Ezekiel 40:2) in this locality, at the distance of 1,000 cubits from their source, the waters have greatly increased in volume; and so with each successive 1,000 cubits, until at the end of 4,000 cubits (about a mile and a half) they have become a river no longer fordable, or, in other words, comparable to the Jordan. Such an increase, without accessory streams, is clearly not natural. But, beyond all this, the description of the waters themselves clearly marks them as ideal. They are life-giving and healing; trees of perennial foliage and fruit grow upon their banks, the leaves being for “medicine,” and the fruit, although for food, never wasting. The reader cannot fail to be reminded of “the pure river of water of life” in Revelation 22:1-2, “on either side” of which was “the tree of life” with “its twelve manner of fruits,” and its leaves “for the healing of the nations.” The author of the Apocalypse evidently had this passage in mind; and just as he has adopted the description of Gog and Magog as an ideal description, and applied it to the events of the future, so he has treated this as an ideal prophecy, and applied it to the Church triumphant.
It is to be remembered that this whole vision is essentially one, and that it would be unreasonable to give a literal interpretation to one part of it and a figurative to another. All the objections, therefore, which lie against the supposition of the restoration of animal sacrifices hold also against the supposition of the general restoration of the Jewish Temple and polity. This was felt at an early day, and such Christian commentators as Ephrem Syrus, Theodoret, and Jerome adopted throughout a symbolic or typical explanation. The changes in the Mosaic law are indeed great, but still are only of detail, and leave it open to the Apostolic description as a “bondage” to which we cannot suppose the providence of God would ever lead back the Church Christ has redeemed at the cost of the sacrifice of Himself. Either the whole argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews is a mistake, not to speak of those to the Romans and Galatians, nor of our Lord’s own discourses (as with the woman of Samaria), or else the Holy Spirit could not have intended a literal realisation in the future of this vision of Ezekiel.
We thus come to regard this prophecy as an ideal one on every ground, not looking for any literal and material fulfilment. If it should be asked, Why then is it given with such a wealth of minute material detail? the answer is obvious, that this is thoroughly characteristic of Ezekiel. The tendency, strongly marked in every part of his book, merely culminates in this closing vision. The two previous chapters, especially, have abounded in concrete and definite details of the attack of a great host upon the land of Israel, while yet these very details have given evidence upon examination that they could not have been meant to be literally understood, and that the whole prophecy was intended to shadow forth the great and final spiritual conflict, prolonged through ages, between the power of the world and the kingdom of God. So here, the prophet, wishing to set forth the glory, the purity, and the beneficent influence of the Church of the future, clothes his description in those terms of the past with which his hearers were familiar. The use of such terms was a necessity in making himself intelligible to his contemporaries, just as to the very close of the inspired volume it is still necessary to set forth the glory and joy of the Church triumphant under the figures of earthly and familiar things, while no one is misled thereby to imagine that the heavenly Jerusalem will be surrounded with a literal wall of jasper, “twelve thousand furlongs” = 1,500 miles (Revelation 21:16; Revelation 21:18), or that its twelve gates shall be each of an actual pearl. It is remarkable that in two instances, that of Gog and that of the river of life, the imagery is the same in Ezekiel and in Revelation. At the same time Ezekiel is careful to introduce among his details so many points that were impossible, or, at least, the literal fulfilment of which would have been strangely inconsistent with his main teaching, as to show that his description must be ideal, and that its realisation is to be sought for beneath the types and shadows in which it was clothed. It may be as impossible to find the symbolical meaning of each separate detail as it is to tell the typical meaning of the sockets for the boards of the tabernacle, although the tabernacle as a whole is expressly said to have been a type. This is the case with every vision, and parable, and type, and every form of setting forth truth by imagery; there must necessarily be much which has no independent signification, but is merely subsidiary to the main point. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that these subsidiary details should be elaborated with the utmost minuteness. His purpose was understood by his contemporaries, and by the generation immediately succeeding, so that they never made any attempt to carry out his descriptions in the rebuilding of the Temple and reconstitution of the State. The idea of a literal interpretation of his words was reserved for generations long distant from his time, from the forms of the Church under which he lived, and from the circumstances and habits of expression with which he was familiar, and under the influence of which he wrote.
This chapter describes what is not only new in this vision, but also unknown in either the former or the later Temple. Ezekiel 42:1-14 are occupied with the account of certain chambers for the priests adjoining the inner court, but actually within the area of the outer. From Ezekiel 42:14 it is plain that these chambers, although thus situated in the outer court, were considered for ecclesiastical purposes as belonging to the inner. Ezekiel 42:15-20 describe a very large area enclosing the Temple and its courts as an additional safeguard to its sanctity.
(1) Utter court.—Outer court (see Note on 40:31). The “into” of the next clause should be “unto”; so also in Ezekiel 46:19.
Before the building.—The preposition is the same as that translated just before, and also twice in Ezekiel 42:3, “over against.” The length of this chamber, or series of chambers, was 100 cubits (Ezekiel 42:2), and as it appears from Ezekiel 46:19 that it did not reach to the western wall, it must have extended the whole remaining length of the building to the west of the separate place, across the separate place itself, and probably also across the chambers at the west end of the Temple (see Plan II., H, H [Ezekiel 40:44-49]). The chamber on the north is particularly described in Ezekiel 42:1-9, and in Ezekiel 42:10-12 mention is made more briefly of a corresponding one on the south.
(2) Before the length.—This verse is still a part of the same sentence, and means, “he brought me before the long side of 100 cubits with the door toward the north, and the breadth 50 cubits.” The entrance being on the north was necessarily in the outer court, and the whole description requires that the long way of the building should be east and west. The width therefore of 50 cubits projected into the court just as far as the gateways of the inner court. The measurements of this “chamber” are external, since the prophet did not enter it.
(3) Over against the twenty.—See under Ezekiel 42:1. This was the space of twenty cubits (I [Ezekiel 40:44-49]) to the west of the western Temple chambers.
The pavement.—There is but one pavement mentioned in the outer court, that which ran along the inside of the wall. The chamber in question was opposite to the pavement on the north side, as it was opposite to the separate place, &c., on the south—i.e., its length was parallel to both, or east and west. “Utter” again means outer.
Gallery against gallery.—The expression is a difficult one in the original. “Against” is literally, unto the face of, or in front of, and stories is altogether wanting. The meaning seems to be that in each chamber building, on the north and on the south, there was a gallery in the third storey, so placed on the south side of the north building and the north side of the south building that they faced each other.
(4) A walk of ten cubits breadth inward.—The meaning of this clause depends upon that of the next, “a way of one cubit.” There is every reason to suppose here an error of the text, and that one cubit should be one hundred, as it reads in the Greek. The change requires only a transposition of the first letters in one word, and a consequent alteration of one letter in the other. Exactly the same transposition has occurred in Ezekiel 42:16, where it is corrected in the margin of the Hebrew, and properly translated “five hundred” instead of “five cubits.” One cannot conceive of a walk or an entrance of one cubit (twenty inches) serving any useful purpose. Assuming this change, the meaning will be that a walk (see Plan II., K [Ezekiel 40:44-49]) of 10 cubits wide and 100 long led to the entrance of the chambers. That this was on the north is plain from its being expressly said that the door was on the north. It may seem surprising that this should have been in the outer court, but a glance at the plan in connection with what is said below will explain the reason of the arrangement. The length of the walk, 100 cubits, just reaches to the steps of the north gate of the inner court. It will be remembered that in Ezekiel 40:39-43 this was described as the place for killing and preparing the sacrifices. Now, only the fat and kidneys of the sin and trespass and peace offerings were burnt upon the altar; the whole of the former (ordinarily) and the priests’ portion of the latter were to be carried to this chamber (Ezekiel 42:13). The walk was therefore placed in the best possible situation.
(5) For the galleries were higher than these.—Translate this verse, And the upper chambers were shortened, because the galleries took off from them (literally, eat of them) in comparison with the lower and the middle [chambers] of the building. The building was in three storeys (Ezekiel 42:6), like the chambers round the Temple, but the gallery is mentioned only in connection with the third (Ezekiel 42:3). As it must have been taken out of the width of the chambers, it made those of the third storey narrower.
(6) As the pillars of the courts.—This statement is introduced to show that as there was no external support for the galleries, they must have been taken from the width of the chambers; but it gives incidentally the interesting information that there were pillars in the courts. These could not have been the ornamental pillars at the entrance of the various porches, for the connection implies that they supported something. It is quite likely, therefore, that there were cloisters around the inside of the wall of the courts (on the pavement), as in the later Temple.
(7) The wall that was without.—We have two indications of what wall is here meant. In the first place, the word itself is neither of those which have been hitherto used, but one signifying a fence-wall, and is translated in Ezekiel 13:5; Ezekiel 22:30, hedge; and in Numbers 22:24, a vineyard wall. Its length is also said to be fifty cubits (the breadth of the chamber). It must, therefore, have been a screen wall at one end of the chambers, and it could not have been at the western end, as that was otherwise occupied (Ezekiel 46:19-20). It was then at the eastern end, and was doubtless for the purpose of screening the windows at that end from the outer court while the priests were changing their garments. The word here translated over against is not the one used in Ezekiel 42:1; Ezekiel 42:3, and may equally well be rendered parallel to.
(8) The length of the chambers.—We should say the breadth, since a longer measurement the other way immediately follows; but the word is used in connection with, and as a reason for, the length of the wall mentioned in Ezekiel 42:7, as if it were said, “The wall was fifty cubits long, because this side of the building was fifty cubits long.” To prevent any possible misunderstanding it is immediately added, “Before (literally, upon the face of) the Temple an hundred cubits;” i.e., the length east and west was 100 cubits.
(9) From under these chambers.—This verse as it stands in our version is scarcely intelligible. Translate: And from underneath it (i.e., the wall just spoken of) these chambers. The wall screened the lower part of the chambers so that to one looking from the east they appeared to rise out of it. Then a new clause begins: “The entrance was from the east, as one goeth to them from the outer court.” It is perfectly clear that this does not refer to any entrance from the inner court, because it expressly says “as one goeth from the outer court.” The object of the statement is probably to show that the access to the chambers was from the outer court by means of the walk already described, leading from the east, from the porch of the gate to the inner court.
Ezekiel 42:10-12 describe briefly another chamber-building at the south of the “separate place,” exactly like the one already described at the north. There is only need to notice some required changes in the translation. Thus read Ezekiel 42:10, On the breadth of the wall of the court going toward the east, over against the separate place and over against the building were the chambers. The wall is here the same word as in Ezekiel 42:7, and means therefore not the wall of a building, but a fence-wall; it is here defined, however, as “the wall of the court,” and must be understood of the division wall between the inner and outer courts. Along this, as it stretched to the east, the building was situated. Some writers, by a slight alteration of the text, would change east into south, so that for “going toward the east” we should read on the south. This makes the sense clearer, but is not necessary.
(11) “And a way in front of them like the chambers which were towards the north; as long as these and as broad as these, and [like] all their goings out, and their arrangements, and their doors.”
(12) “So were the doors of the chambers which were toward the south, a door at the head of the way, the way over against the corresponding (?) wall, the way as one enters from the east.” The word here translated corresponding occurs only in this place, and is of doubtful signification; but the word for wall is the same as in Ezekiel 42:7, and there can be no doubt that it refers to the screen-wall to the east of the chambers. The way from the porch of the gate to the inner court was directly “over against” the passage between this wall and the chambers, and in fact joined it at right angles.
This closes the somewhat obscure and difficult description of these chambers, where we do not have, as in the other cases, any similar construction in the ancient Temple to guide the interpreter. It would seem altogether probable that there must have been an additional entrance to these chambers from the space at the side of or behind the Temple, for the convenience of the priests in changing their garments. Perhaps there was such an entrance to the second storey, which must have been about on the same level with the Temple court, but is not mentioned because only the plan of the lower storey is described.
(13) Shall eat the most holy things.—In the next clause it is said, “There shall they lay the most holy things,” both clauses referring to the priests’ portion of the sacrifices. We cannot think of their laying the uncooked flesh of the sacrifice in the same room where they ate (the cooking was done in another room west of this, Ezekiel 46:19-20); but the great size of this building—166 ft. long and half as broad—allowed of its division into several separate rooms. It is noticeable that there is no mention of the peace offerings, for it was not required in the law that they should be eaten in a holy place. For the others, see Leviticus 6:16; Leviticus 6:26; Leviticus 7:6. The “meat offering” is the unbloody oblation usually accompanying the animal sacrifices.
(14) There they shall lay their garments.—It was apparently the requirement of the law that the priests should wear their official garments only when engaged in priestly duties within the tabernacle; this is not expressly stated in general terms, but it is said that they were to wear them when engaged in such duty (Exodus 28:43), and in some particular cases that they were to put them off when they went out of the tabernacle (Leviticus 6:10-11; Leviticus 16:23). It seems probable, therefore, that Ezekiel here recognises the ancient custom.
(15) The inner house.—This expression is here evidently used neither of the Holy of Holies, nor of the whole Temple building exclusively, but of all that had been measured, all that was included within the wall of the outer court. The prophet is led out from this by the eastern gate to measure a much larger space around it. It is not said in what part of this space the Temple with its courts was situated; but, for the reason given in Ezekiel 42:20, it is to be supposed that it was in the centre.
(16) With the measuring reed.—According to Ezekiel 40:5 the reed was six cubits long; 500 reeds therefore, the measure of each side of the square, was 3,000 cubits, or about 5,000 feet = nearly a mile. Of course such a space, quite as large as was ever enclosed by the walls of ancient Jerusalem, would have been impossible upon the hill of Moriah, and various efforts have been made by some of the commentators to reduce the size; but the use of the reed as the unit of measurement is decisive. The objection to the size is without value, as Keil well says, “for the simple reason that in Ezekiel 45, 48 there follow still further statements concerning the separation of the sanctuary from the rest of the land, which are in perfect harmony with this, and show most indisputably that the Temple seen by Ezekiel was not to have its seat in the ancient Jerusalem;” nor, it may be added, in any other earthly locality. It is a vision not designed to have a material realisation.
(20) It had a wall.—Around this vast enclosure on all sides was a wall, not of the slight character of that in Ezekiel 42:7; but the same word is used as in Ezekiel 40:5, of the massive wall surrounding the outer court. The object of this enclosure was to protect the sanctity of the Temple and its courts, “to make a separation between the sanctuary and the profane place.”
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 42". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany