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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Hebrews 1

Introduction

(1-14) He in whom God has at last revealed Himself to man is Son of God, exalted above all angels.

Verse 1

(1) God, who at sundry times. . . .—The fine arrangement of the words in the Authorised version fails, it must be confessed, to convey the emphasis which is designed in the original. The writer’s object is to place the former revelation over against that which has now been given; and the remarkable words with which the chapter opens (and which might not inaptly serve as the motto of the whole Epistle) strike the first note of contrast. If we may imitate the artistic arrangement of the Greek, the verse will run thus, “In many portions and in many ways God having of old spoken unto the fathers in the prophets.” To the fathers of the Jewish people (comp. Romans 9:5) God’s word was given part by part, and in divers manners. It came in the revelations of the patriarchal age, in the successive portions of Holy Writ: various truths were successively unveiled through the varying ministry of law, and of prophecy, and of promise ever growing clearer through the teaching of experience and history. At one time the word came in direct precept, at another in typical ordinance or act, at another in parable or psalm. The word thus dealt out in fragments and variously imparted was God’s word, for the revealing Spirit of God was “in the prophets” (2 Corinthians 13:3). We must not unduly limit the application of “prophet”; besides those to whom the name is directly given, there were many who were representatives of God to His people, and interpreters of His will. (Comp. Numbers 11:26; Numbers 11:29; Psalms 105:15.)

Verse 2

(2) Hath in these last days . . .—Better, at the end of these days spake unto us in a Son. The thought common to the two verses is “God hath spoken to man”; in all other respects the past and the present stand contrasted. The manifold successive partial disclosures of God’s will have given place to one revelation, complete and final; for He who spake in the prophets hath now spoken “in a Son.” The whole stress lies on these last words. The rendering “a Son” may at first cause surprise, but it is absolutely needed; not, “Who is the Revealer?” but, “What is He?” is the question answered in these words. The writer does not speak of a Son in the sense of one out of many; the very contrast with the prophets (who in the lower sense were amongst God’s sons) would be sufficient to prove this, but the words which follow, and the whole contents of this chapter, are designed to show the supreme dignity of Him who is God’s latest Representative on earth. The prophet’s commission extended no farther than the special message of his words and life; “a Son” spoke with His Father’s authority, with complete knowledge of His will and purpose. It is impossible to read these first lines (in which the whole argument of the Epistle is enfolded) without recalling the prologue of the fourth Gospel. The name “Word” is not mentioned here, and the highest level of St. John’s teaching is not reached; but the idea which “the Word” expresses, and the thought of the Only Begotten as declaring and interpreting the Father (John 1:18; also John 14:10; John 14:24) are present throughout. There is something unusual in the words, “at the end of these days.” St. Peter speaks of the manifestation of Christ “at the end of the times” (1 Peter 1:20); and both in the Old Testament and in the New we not unfrequently read “at the end (or, in the last) of the days.” (See 2 Peter 3:3; Jude 1:18; Numbers 24:14; Daniel 10:14, &c.) The peculiarity of the expression here lies in “these days.” The ages preceding and following the appearance of Messiah are in Jewish writers known as “this world” (or, age) and the “coming world” (or, age); the “days of Messiah” seem to have been classed sometimes with the former, sometimes with the latter period; but “the end of these days” would be understood by every Jewish reader to denote the time of His appearing.

Whom he hath appointed.—Better, whom He appointed: in the divine counsels He was constituted “Heir of all things.” The clauses which follow describe the successive steps in the accomplishment of this purpose. The words have often been understood as referring to the Son’s essential Lordship: as Eternal Son He is and must be Heir of all. But this explanation is less consistent with the word “appointed,” with the strict significance of “Heir,” and with the development of the thought in the following verses; and it is on all grounds more probable that in these words is expressed the great theme of the Epistle, the consummation of all things in the Christ.

By whom.—Rather, through whom. So in John 1:3 we read that all things came into being through the Word; and in Colossians 1:16, “All things have been created through Him.” In this manner Philo repeatedly describes the creative work of the Logos. Here, however, “this mediatorial function has entirely changed its character. To the Alexandrian Jew it was the work of a passive tool or instrument; but to the Christian Apostle it represented a co-operating agent” (Lightfoot on Colossians 1:16).

The worlds.—A word of very common occurrence in the New Testament as a designation of time occurs in two passages of this Epistle (here and in Hebrews 11:3) where the context shows more than “age” to be intended. Under time is included the work that is done in time, so that “the ages” here must be (to quote Delitzsch’s words) “the immeasurable content of immeasurable time.” “Also” may seem an unnecessary addition, but (almost in the sense accordingly) it points to creation as the first step towards the fulfilment of the design expressed in the preceding clause.

Verse 3

(3) Who being the brightness . . .Who being the effulgence of His glory and the exact image of His substance. The first figure is familiar to us in the words of the Nicene Creed (themselves derived from this verse and a commentary upon it), “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.” Again striking parallels to the language present themselves in Philo, who speaks of the spirit breathed into man at his creation as an “effulgence of the Blessed and Thrice-blessed Nature”; and in the well-known passage of the Book of Wisdom, “She (Wisdom) is the effulgence of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of His goodness” (Wis. 7:26). In the Old Testament the token of the divine presence is the Shechinah, the “cloud of glory” (called “the glory” in Romans 9:4; comp. Hebrews 9:5 in this Epistle); here it is the divine nature itself that is denoted by the “glory.” Of the relation between this word and that which follows (“substance”) it is difficult to speak, as the conceptions necessarily transcend human language; but we may perhaps say (remembering that all such terms are but figurative) that the latter word is internal and the former external,—the latter the essence in itself, the former its manifestation. Thus the “Son” in His relation to “God” is represented here by light beaming forth from light, and by exact impress—the perfect image produced by stamp or seal. These designations, relating to the essential nature of the Son, have no limitation to time; the participle “being” must be understood (comp. Philippians 2:6; John 1:1) of eternal, continuous existence. The word “person” is an unfortunate mistranslation in this place. Most of the earlier English versions have “substance,” person being first introduced in the Genevan Testament in deference to Beza.

By the word.—The thought seems suggested by Genesis 1:0. (Psalms 33:9); the spoken word was the expression of His power. What is said above of “being” applies to “upholding,” except that the latter implies a previous creative act.

When he had by himself purged our sins.—The older MSS. omit “by Himself” and “our,” so that the words must be rendered, when He had made purification of sins. At first the change may seem a loss; but it is easily seen that the simpler statement is more majestic, and also more suitable in this place; the more complete explanation of the truth belongs to a later stage (Hebrews 9:0). To “make purification of sins” is an unusual phrase (comp. Matthew 8:3, “his leprosy was cleansed”), meaning, to make purification by the removal of sins (John 1:29; 1 John 3:5; 2 Peter 1:9).

Sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.—See Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 12:2; Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; also Hebrews 1:13, and Hebrews 10:12. This figure, which we meet with more than twenty times in the New Testament, is throughout derived from the first words of Psalms 110:0, which are descriptive of the exaltation of the Messiah. Jehovah’s investiture of the Son of Man with unlimited dominion (Daniel 7:14) and supreme dignity (Ephesians 1:20-21); the Saviour’s rest after the accomplishment of His work on earth (Hebrews 8:1); His waiting for the complete and final subjection of His enemies, are the ideas signified. On the Psalm see below (Hebrews 1:13).

Verse 4

(4) Being made.—Better, having become. These words must be closely joined with the last clause of Hebrews 1:3; they speak, not of the glory which was ever His, but of that which became His after He had “made purification of sins.”

Better.—That is, greater. We may discern a twofold reason for the comparison; having become “greater than the angels,” our Lord is exalted above the highest of created beings (see Ephesians 1:21; Philippians 2:9), and above those through whom God had in former time declared His law (Hebrews 2:2).

Name.—The verses which follow show that we are to understand by this all the dignity and glory contained in the name SON OF GOD. Not that this name first belonged to Him as exalted Mediator; but the glory which “became” His (Hebrews 1:3-4) is proportionate to and consonant with the name which is His by essential right (Hebrews 1:2).

That this name and dignity belong to Jesus Christ (as yet unnamed, but confessedly the subject of the preceding verses) is now to be established by the testimony of Scripture. Two important questions have been asked:—(1) Does the writer adduce these quotations as strictly demonstrative? (2) If so, on what assumption does their relevancy rest? It is evident that the whole argument is addressed to men who believed that the Christ had appeared in the person of Jesus. Of the passages here cited some were already, by universal consent, applied to the Messiah. As to the others, it was sufficient if the trained and thoughtful reader could recognise the accuracy of such an application when once suggested. That in no case is there mere “accommodation” or illustration will, it is hoped, be made clear. On the other hand, the writer’s object is less to convince his readers of some new truth than to draw attention to what the well-known passages really contain and express.

Verse 5

(5) For unto which of the angels . . . . “God has spoken of the Messiah as His Son, a title which no angel ever receives from Him.” That the appellation “sons of God” may be used in an inferior sense, and that thus angels may be so designated (Job 1:6; Job 38:7), does not affect this argument; for every reader must perceive that in these quotations “Son” is used of One, and in a sense that is unique The two quotations are taken from Psalms 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14. It seems probable that the second Psalm was written by David during the troublous times of 2 Samuel 8-10, in the fresh recollection of the promises of which we read in 2 Samuel 7:0. In the midst of the rebellious conspiracies of kings and nations is heard Jehovah’s word, “Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Zion” (Psalms 2:6). In Hebrews 1:7 the Anointed King declares the divine decree, “The Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten Thee;” and the following verses describe the kingly dominion of the Son. The clearest comments on Hebrews 1:7 are supplied by 2 Samuel 7:12-14, and especially by Psalms 89:27 of the last-named Psalm, “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth,” shows plainly that in their first meaning—that which relates to the royal rule of David or David’s son—the words “I have this day begotten thee” signify “I have this day established thee as my chosen king, and thus constituted thee my son;” for to the firstborn belongs natural, though derived, rule over the kingdom of his father. At what period the people in general, guided by prophetic teaching and the discipline of history (see below), learnt in how secondary a sense such words could be used of any human king, we do not know; but we have clear evidence, both from the New Testament (Hebrews 5:5; Acts 4:25-27; Acts 13:33; Revelation 2:27) and from Jewish tradition, that the second Psalm was understood to be a distinct prophecy of the Messiah; indeed, this very name “Messiah” and the appellation “Son of God” (see John 1:34; John 1:49) may be traced to this Psalm. The declarations of Hebrews 1:6-7, are typical of the enthronement of the Messiah. St. Paul (Acts 13:33) refers the words here quoted to the period of the Resurrection. With this the language used above (Hebrews 1:4) perfectly agrees. As, however, in that verse the exaltation of the Christ is declared to correspond to that essential dignity which lay in the name Son, a name which in this very context bears its highest sense (Hebrews 1:1-3), we are constrained to regard the “day” of the Resurrection as itself typical, and to believe that “this day” also pointed to the “eternal Now”—to what Origen (on John 1:1) speaks of as “the day which is co-extensive with the unbegotten and everlasting life of God.”

The second passage, which seems to have been the basis of the words we have just considered, occurs in the course of the divine promise that David’s seed shall be established in his kingdom, and that David’s throne shall be established for ever: the seed of David shall be received as God’s Son. With the words here quoted are closely joined others which plainly prove that Hebrews 1:14 is not a simple and direct prophecy of Christ, but in the first instance belonged to an earthly ruler. Through the teaching of successive disappointments, each “son of David” failing to realise the hopes excited by the promise, the nation was led to look to the future King, and at once to remove from the prophecy the purely earthly limitations and to discern a higher meaning in the promise of divine sonship.

Verse 6

(6) And again.—There seems little doubt that the true translation is, And when He again leadeth (literally, shall have led) the Firstborn into the world He saith. The position of “again” (in the Greek) shows that it does not indicate a new step in the argument, but must be joined with “leadeth.” The speaker (“He saith”) is God, speaking in the word of Scripture; in this Epistle quotations from the Old Testament are usually thus introduced. The quotation involves some difficulty. It cannot be directly taken from Psalms 97:7, “worship Him, all His angels;” for the citations from the Greek Bible in this Epistle are usually so exact that we cannot believe the writer would have so altered the form of the sentence now before us. In Deuteronomy 32:43, however, we find words identical with those of the text in most copies of the LXX.; but there is nothing answering to them in the Hebrew, and there is no sufficient reason for supposing that the clause has dropped out of the Hebrew text. There are similarities (both of subject and of diction) between the Psalm and the last section of the Song of Moses, which make it easy to see how the words could find their way into the Song. The Psalm belongs to a cycle (Psalms 93, 95-99) whose theme is the triumphant announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom, by which was denoted (as the readers of the Epistle knew) the kingdom of Christ. In the divine plan the predicted Theophany was coincident with the fulfilment of the Messianic hope. In both Psalm and Song we read of the judgment exercised and the vengeance inflicted by the enthroned King. (Comp. Psalms 2:9.) This agreement in tone and subject renders less important the question whether the Hebrew original of the Song really contained the words. The thought was familiar from Scripture, and in this very connection. When the Messiah, reigning as the Firstborn of God (see Hebrews 1:5), shall appear for judgment—that is, when God leadeth a second time His Firstborn into “the world of men” (see Hebrews 2:5), that He may receive full possession of His inheritance—He saith, And let all angels of God worship Him. The word here rendered “leadeth in” is in frequent use for the introduction of Israel (typically God’s “firstborn,” Exodus 4:22) into the land of Canaan. It should, perhaps, be noted that, though in Psalms 97:7 “angels” may not be perfectly exact as a rendering of the Hebrew Elohim, the verse so distinctly expresses the homage done to the King by superhuman powers, that its fitness for the argument here is obvious.

Verse 7

(7) Spirits.—Better, winds. It is very difficult to assign any clear meaning to the ordinary rendering,—unless, indeed, we were to adopt the very strange opinion of many of the earlier commentators, that the stress is laid on “maketh” in the sense of “createth.” The parallelism in these two lines of Hebrew poetry is complete, “angels” answering to “ministers,” “winds” to “a flame of fire.” The meaning appears to be that God, employing His messengers for His varied purposes, sends them forth in what manner He may please, clothing them with the appearance of the resistless wind or the devouring fire. (We may contrast 1 Kings 19:11-12.) The force of the passage lies in the vividness with which it presents the thought of the Most High served by angels who “at His bidding speed,” untiring as the wind, subtle as the fire. We feel much more distinctly than we can put into words the infinite contrast between such ministers and the Son seated at the right hand of God. The quotation is taken from Psalms 104:4, without any variation in the Greek. Whether this translation faithfully represents the original is a question that has been warmly discussed. Not that there is any doubt that such a rendering of the Hebrew is in itself natural; but it is often alleged that the context requires an inversion of the words, Who maketh winds His messengers, flaming fire His ministers. The point cannot be examined here; we will only express a decided opinion that the translation defended above not only expresses the meaning of the Hebrew, but perfectly accords with the context of the Psalm.

Verse 8

(8) Unto.—Rather, of. The connection with Hebrews 1:7 is so close (“Whereas of the angels He saith . . . of the Son He saith”), that we must not vary the rendering of the preposition. The passage which follows is taken from Psalms 45:6-7. As the words stand in the ordinary Greek text, they agree exactly with the LXX.; but certain alterations of reading are required by the best evidence. After the words “for ever and ever” and must be restored, and in the following clause the and a must change places. The latter change is of moment only as it affects the former. Were the words in all other respects cited with perfect exactness, the introduction of and would probably indicate that the writer intended to split up the quotation into two parts, each significant for his purpose. (Comp. Hebrews 2:13.) As, however, we note other minor changes, the insertion of the connecting word is probably accidental. A third reading is of much greater importance. At the close of the verse the two oldest of our Greek MSS. agree in reading “His kingdom:” to this we will return afterwards.

We have every reason to believe that the application of Psalms 45:0 which is here made was fully received by the ancient Jews; thus in the Targum on the Psalm Hebrews 1:7 is taken as a direct address to the King Messiah. Hence the readers of this Epistle would at once recognise the argument which the words contain. It is strongly maintained by some that the Psalm (like Psalms 110:0, see below, on Hebrews 1:13) is altogether prophetic, the promised Messiah alone being in the Psalmist’s thought. There appear to be insuperable objections to this view, from particular expressions used (in the later verses especially), and from the general structure and colouring of the Psalm. It is in every way more probable that the second Psalm (see Note on Hebrews 1:5), rather than Psalms 110:0, represents the class to which Psalms 45:0 belongs. Originally writing in celebration of the marriage of a king of David’s line (we know not whom, but many of the arguments urged against the possible reference to Solomon have no great weight), the inspired Psalmist uses words which bear their full meaning only when applied to that Son of David of whose kingdom there shall be no end. The promises made to David (2 Samuel 7:0) are before the writer’s mind in the first verses of the Psalm. The king appointed by God is His representative to God’s people; his cause is that of truth and righteousness; his dominion will continually advance. It is at this moment that, with the promise of a divine sonship (Psalms 2:0) in his thought, he suddenly addresses the sing as Elohim (Hebrews 1:7), a divine king who receives from God the reward of righteousness (Hebrews 1:8). There are in the Old Testament examples of the use of Elohim which diminish the difficulty of its application to an earthly king (such as Psalms 82:1; Psalms 95:3; 1 Samuel 28:13; Exodus 7:1); but it must still be acknowledged that the passage stands alone. This difficulty, however, relates only to the primary application. As the higher and true reference of the words became revealed, all earthly limitations disappeared; the Christian readers of the Psalm recognised in the Messiah of whom it speaks a King who is God.

The reading “His kingdom” has seemed to require a different rendering of the words in the first part of the verse: God is Thy throne for ever and ever. This rendering, however, will suit either reading of the Greek, and is equally admissible as a rendering of the Hebrew. Nor is it really inconsistent with the position in which the verse here stands: in contrast with the ministry of angels is set, on this view, not indeed a direct address to the Son as God, but the sovereign rule which the Son receives from God. The objections raised against it are: (1) such an expression as “God is Thy throne” is contrary to the analogy of Scripture language; (2) the ordinary rendering has the support of almost all ancient authority, Jewish writers and ancient versions being apparently united in its favour. The former argument is not very strong in face of Psalms 90:1, and similar passages; but the latter is so weighty that we hesitate to accept the change, helpful as it would be in making clear the original and typical reference of Hebrews 1:7. It should be said that the reading “His kingdom” is not inconsistent with the ordinary translation of the preceding words; for a sudden transition from “Thy throne, O God” to “His kingdom” is in full accordance with the usage of Hebrew poetry. (See Psalms 43:4; Psalms 67:5-6; Psalms 104:4-6, et al.) There are other renderings which would require discussion if we were concerned with the Hebrew text of the Psalm: the two given above are the only possible translations of the Greek.

A sceptre . . .—Rather, the sceptre of uprightness is a sceptre of Thy (or, His) kingdom. Righteousness itself (so to speak, the very ideal of righteous government) bears sway in Thy kingdom.

Verse 9

(9) The King by divine election has been exalted by divine reward. (Comp. Hebrews 2:9, and Philippians 2:9-10.)

Therefore God.—It is possible, but not probable, that the words, both here and in the Psalm, should be rendered, Therefore, O God, Thy God hath anointed Thee.

Thy fellows.—In the first application, probably, these words point to other earthly kings. (Comp. Psalms 89:27.) Hence Ephesians 1:21 will be the best commentary upon them in their higher meaning.

Verse 10

(10) And.Hebrews 1:10-12 are by this word linked with Hebrews 1:8, as presenting the second part of the contrast between angels and the Son. As there we read of a divine sovereignty, so here of the work of creation, the power to change all created things, the divine attribute of changeless existence. This quotation from Psalms 102:25-27 agrees almost exactly with the text of the LXX. as we have it in the Alexandrian MS., except that the words “as a garment” (not found in the Psalm) must here (Hebrews 1:12) be added, according to our best authorities. The only point of any difficulty in these verses is that the writer discovers a testimony to the supremacy of the Son in words which, as they stand in the Psalm, would appear to be directly addressed to God as Creator. If, however, the Psalm be examined, it will be found (see Hebrews 1:13-14) to contain the expression of hopes which in reality were inseparably united with the fulfilment of the Messianic promise. “The Lord shall appear to build up Zion:” this is the Psalmist’s theme, and it is to the same Lord that he addresses the words which are quoted here. As in Jesus the Christian Jew saw Him who fulfilled all these promises of God to His people, the application of the words of adoration to the same Lord would at once be recognised as true.

Verse 11

(11) And they all . . .—Both the earth and the heavens: see Isaiah 34:4, “The heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll;” and Isaiah 51:6, “The earth shall wax old like a garment.”

Verse 12

(12) And as a vesture . . .—Rather (see Hebrews 1:10), And as a mantle shalt Thou roll them up; as a garment shall they also be changed. The course of thought is easily traced: as the garment which has grown old is rolled up and changed, so the former heavens and earth shall give place to the new heavens and the new earth.

Verse 13

(13) But to which of the angels.—The final appeal is made to that Psalm which more frequently than any other is quoted in reference to Christ, and which we have already seen to be the source of all the New Testament references to the Saviour’s session at the right hand of God. It is not necessary to say much here respecting Psalms 110:0, to which so many allusions will be made in the course of this Epistle. That it was regularly understood by the Jews of our Lord’s time to be a Messianic Psalm is clear both from Matthew 22:43-44, and from the independent notices which we possess. Most probably, it stands alone amongst the Psalms as being simply prophetic: the words of Hebrews 1:1 have never been addressed either to angels or to an earthly king. On the special words of the quotation see Hebrews 1:3.

Said he at any time.—Better, hath He ever said.

Until I make . . .—Literally, until I shall have made Thine enemies a footstool of Thy feet.

Verse 14

(14) Are they not all ministering spirits?—In this verse and the preceding is repeated the contrast of Hebrews 1:7-9, in reversed order. The words “ministering spirits” at once recall the “ministers” and “winds” (expressed in Greek and Hebrew by the same word as “spirits”) spoken of in Hebrews 1:7. In the LXX. this word “minister” is usually applied to those who stood before God in His earthly sanctuary: so here it is fitly used of the nobler offices of the unseen world. To the English reader it may seem that those who in Hebrews 1:7 are God’s ministers are here represented as servants of man. It is not really so, for the words properly mean, . . . sent forth (that is, continually sent forth) to do service (to God), for the sake of them who are to inherit salvation. “Inherit” is a prelude of Hebrews 2:10. The last word, “salvation,” expresses the divine purpose indicated by all the prophecies that have passed under review. The chapter has been occupied with promises of the Christ: the last word brings before us Jesus, the Saviour.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Hebrews 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/hebrews-1.html. 1905.