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(1) He departed thence—i.e., from the place from which He had sent forth the Twelve. Where this was St. Matthew does not tell us, but Matthew 9:36 makes it probable that it was not in Capernaum nor any other city, but from some spot in the open country where He had rested with them. Their return is narrated, or at least implied, in Matthew 11:25, and hence we must infer that the messengers of the Baptist arrived while He was carrying on His work without them. Their cities might seem grammatically to point to the towns where the Twelve had been, or to which they belonged; but it is probable that it was used here vaguely for the cities of Galilee in general.
(2) When John had heard in the prison.—The position of the Baptist was so far that of a prisoner treated with respect. Herod himself observed him, and heard him gladly. Herodias had not yet found an occasion of revenge. His disciples came and went freely. Some of these we have seen (Matthew 9:14) as present when our Lord was teaching, and certain to hear of such wonders as those narrated in Matthew 8:9. He himself, in the prison of Machærus, was languishing with the sickness of hope deferred for the Messianic kingdom, which he had proclaimed. His disciples brought back word of what they had seen and heard (Luke 7:18), and yet all things continued as before, and there was no deliverance either for himself or Israel. Under the influence of this disappointment, he sent his two disciples with the question which the next verse records.
(3) Art thou he that should come?—There are no adequate grounds for assuming, as some have done, that the Baptist sent the disciples only to remove heir doubts. The question comes from him; the answer is sent to him. No difficulty in conceiving how the doubt which the question seems to imply could enter into the mind of the Baptist after the testimony which he had borne and that which he had heard, can warrant us in doing violence to what would seem to be the plain meaning of the history. And the meaning of the question is not far to seek. The sickness of deferred hope turns the full assurance of faith into something like despair. So of old Jeremiah had complained, in the bitterness of his spirit, that Jehovah had deceived him (Jeremiah 20:7). So now the Baptist, as week after week passed without the appearance of the kingdom as he expected it to appear, felt as if the King was deserting the forerunner and herald of His kingdom. The very wonders of which he heard made the feeling more grievous, for they seemed to give proof of the power, and to leave him to the conclusion that the will was wanting. And so he sends his disciples with the question, which is one of impatience rather than doubt, “Art Thou the coming One of whom the prophets spoke” (Psalms 40:7; Psalms 118:26; Malachi 3:1)? but if so, why tarry the wheels of Thy chariot? Are we still to look for another and a different Christ?”
(4) Go and shew John again.—There is no Greek adverb answering to the last word. St. Luke (Luke 7:21) adds that “in that same hour Jesus cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits,” and they were therefore to carry back their report as eyewitnesses.
(5) The blind receive their sight.—Apparently no facts were stated which might not have already come to the ears of the Baptist. At least one instance of each class of miracle has already been recorded by St. Matthew, the blind (Matthew 9:27), the lame (Matthew 9:6), the leper (Matthew 8:2), the dead (Matthew 9:25). The raising of the widow’s son at Nain, which in St. Luke follows closely upon the healing of the centurion’s servant, must also have preceded what is here narrated. What the Baptist needed was, not the knowledge of fresh facts, but a different way of looking at those he already knew. Where these works were done, there were tokens that the coming One had indeed come. But above all signs and wonders, there was another spiritual note of the kingdom, which our Lord reserves as the last and greatest: Poor men have the good news proclaimed to them. They are invited to the kingdom, and told of peace and pardon. It is as though our Lord knew that the Baptist, whose heart was with the poor, would feel that One who thus united power and tenderness could be none other than the expected King.
(6) Blessed is he.—The words at once confirm the view that the question which the messengers had brought came from the Baptist himself, and show how tenderly our Lord dealt with the impatience which it implied. A warning was needed, but it was given in the form of a beatitude which it was still open to him to claim and make his own. Not to find a stumbling-block in the manner in which the Christ had actually come, that was the condition of entering fully into the blessedness of His kingdom.
(7) As they departed.—There was an obvious risk that those who heard the question of the Baptist, and our Lord’s answer, might be led to think with undue harshness, perhaps even with contempt, of one who had so far failed in steadfastness. As if to meet that risk, Jesus turns, before the messengers were out of hearing, to bear His testimony to the work and character of John. But a little while before, almost as his last public utterance, the forerunner had borne his witness to the King (John 3:23-36), and now He, in His turn, recognises to the full all the greatness of the work which that forerunner had accomplished.
What went ye out . . .?—The tense points to the time when the first proclamation of the Baptist, as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, drew out crowds to listen to him. Jesus, by His question, bids them recall the impression which had then been made upon them. Had they gone out to see “a reed shaken by the wind?” The imagery was, of course, drawn from the rushes that grew upon the banks of the Jordan, but the use of the singular shows that it was meant to be understood symbolically. Had they gone out to see one who was swayed this way and that by every blast of popular feeling? No, not that; something quite other than that was what they had then beheld.
(8) A man clothed in soft raiment?-Had they seen, then, one who shared in the luxury, and courted the favour of princes? No, not so, again. They that wear soft clothing, or, as in St. Luke’s report, “they that are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately,” are in kings’ houses. The words had a more pointed reference than at first sight appears. Jewish historians (Jost, Gesch. Jud. I. 259.) record how in the early days of Herod the Great a section of the scribes had attached themselves to his policy and party, and in doing so had laid aside the sombre garments of their order, and had appeared in the gorgeous raiment worn by Herod’s other courtiers. The Herodians of the Gospel history were obviously the successors of these men in policy, and probably also in habits and demeanour; and the reference to “kings’ houses” admits of no other application than to the palace of Antipas. We may trace, with very little hesitation, a vindictive retaliation for these very words in the “gorgeous robe” with which Herod arrayed Him in mockery when the Tetrarch and the Christ stood for one brief hour face to face with each other (Luke 23:11).
(9) What went ye out for to see? A prophet?—The words again throw the hearers back upon the impressions made on them when they first saw and heard the Baptist. They then went out to see a prophet, and they were not, disappointed. Nothing that they had seen or heard since was to lead them to think less worthily of him now. He was indeed a prophet, taught by the Spirit of Jehovah, predicting the glory of the kingdom; but he was also something more than this—a worker in the fulfilment of what he thus proclaimed.
(10) This is he, of whom it is written.—The words in the Greek are not taken from the LXX. version of Malachi 3:1, but are a free translation from the Hebrew. In the original it is Jehovah Himself who speaks of His own coming: “Behold, I will send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me.” In the Evangelist’s paraphrase it is Jehovah who speaks to the Christ—“shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” The reference to the prophecy of Malachi in the song of Zacharias (Luke 1:76) had from the first connected it with the Baptist’s work, and our Lord in thus adopting that reference, stamps the whole chapter with the character of a Messianic prophecy.
(11) There hath not risen a greater.—The greatness of men is measured by a divine not a human standard. The prophet, who was more than a prophet, the herald or the forerunner of the kingdom, was greater in his work, his holiness, his intuition of the truth, than the far-off patriarchs, than David or Solomon, and, à fortiori, than the conquerors and the destroyers, such as Alexander, Pompey, Herod, on whom the world bestowed the title of “the great” ones.
He that is least in the kingdom of heaven.—The Greek gives the comparative, not the superlative—he whose relative position in the kingdom of heaven is less than that of John. Very many commentators have thought, strangely enough, that our Lord referred in these words to Himself. He in the eyes of men was esteemed less than the Baptist, and yet was really greater. But this is surely not the meaning of the words. (1) It would be but a poor truism to have declared that the King was greater than the herald; and (2) there is no example of our Lord’s so speaking of Himself elsewhere. On the other hand, He does speak of His disciples as the “little ones” who believe on Him (Matthew 10:42), and as applied to them the words have a meaning at once natural and adequate. The least of His disciples, rejoicing in His presence, in communion with Him, in His revelation of the Father, though less than John in fame, work, the rigour of ascetic holiness, was yet above him in the knowledge of the truth, and therefore in blessedness and joy.
(12) The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence.—The Greek verb may be either in the middle voice, “forces its way violently,” or passive, as in the English version, but there is little doubt that the latter is the right rendering. The words describe the eager rush of the crowds of Galilee and Judæa, first to the preaching of the Baptist, and then to that of Jesus. It was, as it were, a city attacked on all sides by those who were eager to take possession of it.
The violent take it by force.—The Greek noun is without the article, “men who are violent or use force.” The meaning is determined by the preceding clause. The “violent” are men of eager, impetuous zeal, who grasp the kingdom of heaven—i.e., its peace, and pardon, and blessedness—with as much eagerness as men would snatch and carry off as their own the spoil of a conquered city. Their new life is, in the prophet’s language, “given them as a prey” (Jeremiah 21:9; Jeremiah 45:5). There is no thought of hostile purpose in the words.
(13) All the prophets and the law.—The usual order is inverted, because stress is laid on the prophetic rather than the legislative aspect of previous revelation. They did their work pointing to the kingdom of heaven in the far-off future of the latter days, but John saw it close at hand, and proclaimed its actual appearance.
(14) This is Elias.—The words of Malachi (Malachi 4:5) had led men to expect the reappearance of the great Tishbite in person as the immediate precursor of the Christ. It was the teaching of the scribes then (Matthew 17:10; John 1:21); it has lingered as a tradition of Judaism down to our own time. A vacant chair is placed for Elijah at all great solemnities. Even Christian interpreters have cherished the belief that Elijah will appear in person before the second Advent of the Lord. The true meaning of the words of Malachi had, however, been suggested in the words of the angel in Luke 1:17, “He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias,” and is here distinctly confirmed. The words “if ye will (i.e., are willing to) receive it” imply the consciousness that our Lord was setting aside a popular and strongly-fixed belief: “If you are willing and able to receive the truth that John was in very deed doing the work of Elijah, you need look for no other in the future.”
(15) He that hath ears to hear.—The formula, which meets us here for the first time, is one which our Lord seems to have used habitually after any teaching, in parable or otherwise (Matthew 13:9; Mark 4:9), which required more than ordinary powers of thought to comprehend. To take in the new aspect of the coming of Elijah required an insight like that which men needed to take in, without an interpreter, the meaning of the parable of the Sower.
(16) It is like unto children sitting in the markets.—The comparison is drawn from one of the common amusements of the children of an Eastern city. They form themselves into companies, and get up a dramatic representation of wedding festivities and funeral pomp. They play their pipes, and expect others to dance; they beat their breasts in lamentation, and expect others to weep. They complain if others do not comply with their demands. To such a company our Lord likens the evil generation in which He and the Baptist lived. They were loud in their complaints of the Baptist because he would not share their self-indulgent mirth; they were bitter against Jesus because He would not live according to the rules of their hypocritical austerity. Thus interpreted, the whole passage is coherent. The more common explanation inverts the comparison, and sees in our Lord and the Baptist those who invite to mourning and to mirth respectively, and are repelled by their sullen playmates. This would in itself give an adequate meaning, but it does not fall in with our Lord’s language, which specifically identifies the children who invite the others (this rather than “their fellows,” is the true reading) with the “generation” which He condemns. The verses that follow, giving the language in which the same generation vented its anger and scorn against the two forms of holiness, agree better with the interpretation here adopted.
(18) He hath a devil.—The phrase was a common one, asserting at once the fact of insanity, and ascribing it to demoniacal possession as its cause. (Comp. John 7:20; John 8:48.) This was the explanation which the scribes gave of John’s austerities. The locusts and wild honey were to them the diet of a madman.
(19) Eating and drinking—i.e., as in the feast in Matthew’s house, or at the marriage-feast of Cana, sharing in the common life of man. The words point almost specifically to the two instances just named, and the very form and phrase recall the question which the Pharisees had asked of the disciples, “Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” (Luke 5:30).
Wisdom is justified of her children.—Literally, was justified. This is our Lord’s answer for Himself and the Baptist to the contradictory calumnies of the Jews. Men might accuse wisdom, true heavenly wisdom, on this ground or that, but she would be, or rather (the tense implying a generalised fact) is evermore acquitted, justified, acknowledged as righteous, alike in her severer or more joyous forms, by all who are indeed her children, i.e., by all who seek and love her as the mother of their peace and joy. Like so many of our Lord’s other sayings, the parable stretches far and wide through the ages. The evil world rejects all who seek to overcome its evil, some on one pretext, some on another; but true seekers after wisdom will welcome holiness in whatever form it may appear, cheerful or ascetic, Protestant or Romish, Puritan or liberal, so long as it is real and true.
(20) Then began he to upbraid.—The rebuke is inserted by St. Luke in our Lord’s charge to the Seventy (Luke 10:13-15). As in the case of the passages common to both Evangelists in Matthew 10:0 and Luke 10:0, we need not assume that the former has compiled a discourse from fragments collected separately. It is far more natural and probable to believe that our Lord in this case, as in others, used at different times the same, or nearly the same, forms of speech.
(21) Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida!—It is singular enough that no miracles are recorded in the Gospels as wrought at either of these cities. The latter was indeed nigh unto the scene of the feeding of the five thousand, but that comes later on in the Gospel narrative. The former is only known to us through this passage and the parallel words of Luke 10:12-16. We may at least infer from the absence of any such record the genuineness of the words reported and the truthful aim of the Evangelists. The words were not an after-thought dove-tailed into the narrative. The narrative was not expanded or modified in order to explain the words. In St. Luke the “woes” are connected with the mission of the Seventy. They may well have been uttered, as has been said above, more than once.
The position of Chorazin is described by Jerome as being on the shore of the lake, about two miles from Capernaum.
The Bethsaida here spoken of was probably that on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The name in Aramaic signifies “House of Fish;” and it was therefore, we may believe, on the shore, and not far from the two cities with which it is here grouped.
Tyre and Sidon.—The two cities are chosen as being, next to Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15, and Matthew 11:24), the great representative instances of the evil of the heathen world, and of the utter overthrow to which that evil was destined (Ezekiel 27:28). Over and above their immediate import the words are full of meaning as throwing light on the ultimate law of God’s dealings with the heathen world. Men are judged not only according to what they have done, but according to what they might or would have done under other circumstances and conditions of life. In other words, they are judged according to their opportunities. The whole teaching of St. Paul in Romans 2:0, all the wider hopes of later times as to the future of mankind, are but the development of the truth partly declared and partly suggested here.
(23) And thou, Capernaum.—This city had already witnessed more of our Lord’s recorded wonders than any other. That of the nobleman’s son (John 4:46-54), of the demoniac (Mark 1:21-28), the man sick of the palsy (Matthew 9:1-8), of Peter’s wife’s mother and the many works that followed (Matthew 8:1-14), of the woman with the issue of blood, and of Jairus’s daughter (Matthew 9:18-26), of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), had all been wrought there, besides the unrecorded “signs” implied in Luke 4:23. In this sense, and not in any outward prosperity, had Capernaum been “exalted unto heaven.” All this, however, had been in vain, and therefore the sentence was passed on it that it should be “brought down to hell,” i.e., to Hades, the grave, not Gehenna. The words point, as the next verse shows, to the ultimate abasement of the guilty city in the day of judgment, but the words have had an almost literal fulfilment. A few ruins conjecturally identified mark the site of Capernaum. Not one stone is left upon the other in Chorazin and Bethsaida.
(25) Answered and said.—The phrase is more or less a Hebraism, implying that the words rose out of some unrecorded occasion. St. Luke connects them (Luke 10:17-24) with the return of the Seventy; but as their mission is not recorded by St. Matthew, it seems reasonable to connect them, as here recorded, with the return of the Twelve, and their report of their work (Mark 6:30; Luke 9:10). Their presence, it may be noted, is implied in the narrative with which the next chapter opens. The words, however, were probably repeated as analogous occasions called for them.
I thank thee.—Literally, I confess unto Thee—i.e., “acknowledge with praise and thanksgiving.” The abruptness with which the words come in points to the fragmentary character of the record which St. Matthew incorporates with his Gospel. The context in St. Luke implies a reference to the truths of the kingdom which the disciples had proclaimed, and makes special mention of the joy which thus expressed itself. The two grounds of that joy are inseparably linked together. The “wise and prudent” (comp. the union of the same words in 1 Corinthians 1:19) were the scribes and Pharisees, wise in their conceit, seeking men’s praise rather than truth as truth, and therefore shut out from the knowledge that requires above all things sincerity of purpose. The “babes” were the disciples who had received the kingdom in the spirit of a little child, child-like, and sometimes even childish, in their thoughts of it, but who, being in earnest and simple-hearted, were brought under the training which was to make them as true scribes for the kingdom of heaven. He, their Lord, taught them as they were able to bear it, giving (to use St. Paul’s familiar image) the milk that belonged to babes (1 Corinthians 3:2); but beyond His personal teaching there were the flashes of intuition by which (as, conspicuously, in the case of Peter’s confession, Matthew 16:17) new truths were suddenly disclosed to them, or old truths seen with increasing clearness.
(26) For so it seemed good.—Literally, Yea, Father, [I thank Thee] that thus it was Thy good pleasure. The words recall those that had been spoken at our Lord’s baptism (“in whom I am well pleased,” Matthew 3:17), and the song of the heavenly host on the night of the Nativity (“good will among men,” Luke 2:14). The two verses are remarkable as the only record outside St. John’s Gospel of a prayer like that which we find in John 17:0. For the most part, we may believe, those prayers were offered apart on the lonely hill-side, in the darkness of night; or, it may be, the disciples shrank in their reverence, or perhaps in the consciousness of their want of capacity, from attempting to record what was so unspeakably sacred. But it is noteworthy that in this exceptional instance we find, both in the prayer and the teaching that follows it in St. Matthew and St. Luke, turns of thought and phrase almost absolutely identical with what is most characteristic of St. John. It is as though the isolated fragment of a higher teaching had been preserved by them as a witness that there was a region upon which they scarcely dared to enter, but into which men were to be led afterwards by the beloved disciple, to whom the Spirit gave power to recall what had been above the reach of the other reporters of his Master’s teaching.
(27) All things are delivered.—Literally, were delivered, as looking back on the moment of the gift. The “all things,” though not limited by the context, are shown by it to refer specially to the mysteries of the kingdom implied in the word “reveal.” The wider meaning of the words appears more clearly in Matthew 28:18, and in both passages we may trace a formal denial of the claim of the Tempter resting on the assertion that the power and glory of the world had been committed to him (Luke 4:6).
Neither knoweth any man the Father.—The Greek implies full and complete knowledge, and in that sense it was true that no one knew the Son as such in all the ineffable mystery of His being and His work but the Father; that no one fully entered into the Fatherhood of God but He whose relation to Him had been from eternity one of Sonship. To those only who knew God in Christ was the Fatherhood of which Jews and Gentiles had had partial glimpses revealed in all its completeness.
To whomsoever the Son will reveal him.—The Greek gives more than the mere future—is willing to reveal.
(28) Come unto me.—As in the consciousness of this plenitude of power, the Son of Man turns with infinite compassion to those whose weakness and weariness He has shared, and offers them the rest which none other can give them.
Labour and are heavy laden.—The words arc wide enough to cover every form of human sin and sorrow, but the thought that was most prominent in them at the time was that of the burdens grievous to be borne, the yoke of traditions and ordinances which the Pharisees and scribes had imposed on the consciences of men. (Comp. Matthew 23:4, Acts 15:10.) The first of the two words gives prominence to the active, the latter to the passive, aspect of human suffering, by whatever cause produced.
I will give you rest.—The I is emphasized in the Greek. He gives what no one else can give—rest from the burden of sin, from the weariness of fruitless toil.
(29) Take my yoke upon you.—As the teaching of the Pharisees was a yoke too grievous to be borne, so the yoke of Christ is His teaching, His rule of life, and so is explained by the “learn of Me” that follows. (Comp. Sir. 51:26.)
I am meek and lowly in heart.—The stress lies upon the last words. Others might be lowly with the lowliness which is ambition’s ladder, but pride and self-assertion were reigning in their hearts. The Christ, in His infinite sympathy with men of all classes and conditions, could boldly incur the risk of seeming to boast of His humility, in order that He might win men to come and prove by experience that He was able and willing to give them rest, to hear the tale of their sorrows, and to turn from none with scorn.
Ye shall find rest unto your souls.—Here, as often elsewhere in our Lord’s teaching, we have a direct quotation from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 6:16).
(30) Easy.—The Greek has a wider range of meaning—good, helpful, kind, profitable.
My burden is light.—The “burden” of Christ was the commandment that most characterised His teaching—the new commandment that men should love one another; and those who obeyed that commandment would find all to which it bound them light and easy.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 11". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17