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Wednesday, June 19th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 12

Watson's Exposition on Matthew, Mark, Luke & RomansWatson's Expositions

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Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

1 Christ reproveth the blindness of the Pharisees concerning the breach of the Sabbath,

3 by Scriptures,

9 by reason,

13 and by a miracle.

22 He healeth the man possessed that was blind and dumb.

31 Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall never be forgiven.

36 Account shall be made of idle words.

38 He rebuketh the unfaithful, who seek after a sign:

49 and showeth who is his brother, sister, and mother.

Verses 1-2

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

On the Sabbath day through the corn, &c.— The plural σαββασι is used for the singular; so in the LXX. שׁ?בת is rendered both σαββατον , and σαββατα . Through the corn, δια των σποριμων , through the corn fields, which often had public paths along or through them. The action itself of plucking the ears of corn was lawful, as appears from Deuteronomy 23:25: “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighhour’s standing corn.” The question then simply was, whether this action of the disciples was lawful on the Sabbath, which the Pharisees denied. They regarded plucking, as it would appear from Maimonides, as a kind of reaping, w hich, being servile work, was utterly prohibited on the Sabbath. — Very numerous and oppressive indeed were the regulations as to the observance of the Sabbath which the Jewish teachers had superstitiously grafted upon the original law; and our Saviour takes frequent occasion to show his disregard of them, in order to place the duty of observing the Sabbath upon its true ground, and thus the more forcibly to commend it to the convictions of reason and the regards of a true piety. As it stood in the decalogue, he came “not to destroy but to fulfil it;” but the other regulations respecting it, which the political laws of Moses contained, passed away with the Jewish polity itself; and as to those additions which were founded on mere human traditions, Christ by his own example has taught us that the Sabbath of the Lord, which is “a delight and honourable,” is not to be converted into “a yoke of superstitious bondage.”

But, on the other hand, it is to be remarked, that the example of Christ guards with equal care the true limit of Christian liberty. It is not liberty to apply the Sabbath to secular purposes, or to spend it. in sloth or pleasure. He himself devoted it to religion by teaching in the synagogues on the Sabbath, and was probably on this occasion travelling from synagogue to synagogue with his disciples, when they, from mere hunger, plucked the ears of corn. Thus he has taught us to apply the leisure of the Sabbath to its sacred end, the worship of God, and attendance upon public instruction. Nor is there any instance of his giving the slightest sanction to worldly labour or listless recreation on that sacred day. — Works of NECESSITY, such as supplying the demand of hunger, and drawing a beast out of a pit, are the only examples of exception to which he refers for the justification of his own conduct; and works of MERCY, such as healing the sick, when actually present before him, are the only instances in which he suffered his own example to be pleaded for any seeming departure from its strict observance, — instances which only confirm the sanction of its hallowed character and universal obligation.

Verses 3-4

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

What David did when he was a hungered. — The example to which our Lord here refers in order to silence the Pharisees shows that the case of the disciples was one of real hunger, not to be sustained without faintness and being unfitted for duty, as was that of David and his companions; and the argument is, that the law, rightly understood, never did exclude the consideration of such instances of necessity, and was therefore to be interpreted according to the intention of the Legislator. “The shew-bread” taken by David and his followers, consisted of twelve cakes, which were placed upon the altar of shewbread every Sabbath, the old cakes being at the same time removed and eaten by the priests “in the holy place.”

Verse 5

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless. — This was another argument from necessity as connected both with piety and charity. Had the law of the Sabbath been interpreted as rigidly as the Pharisees would have it understood; if “doing no manner of work,” which evidently means work for secular advantage, was to be taken to signify an almost absolute cessation from bodily exertion; then the temple service must have been interrupted; the shewbread could not have been “set in order;” and the regular sacrifices, which were doubled on the Sabbath, could not have been offered. This was an argument which the Pharisees could not resist; for, first, our Lord appeals to the law, “Have ye not read in the law” that sacrifices are commanded to be offered on the Sabbath by the priests? Who must therefore profane the Sabbath; that is, do that which but for this authority, and in respect of the end for which it was done, would have been a profanation; and yet, for those reasons, are blameless. And, second, as they no doubt held the opinion of their more recent doctors, that “the servile works which are done about holy things are not servile;” and that, as Maimonides expresses it, “there is no sabbatism at all in the temple;” so upon their own principles it followed that every work done on the Sabbath was not unlawful. The natural objection which the Pharisees would raise to this argument as intended to justify the disciples, would be, that the priests were exempted from the rest of the Sabbath in the temple, under the authority of Him who was greater than the temple, even God; for they esteemed nothing more holy and venerable than the temple, save God himself. This objection our Lord evidently anticipates in the next verse.

Verse 6

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

In this place is one greater than the temple. — Some MSS. read μειζον instead of μειζων , which makes the answer of our Lord to be, “a greater work” than the work of the temple is that in which my disciples are employed; and they are therefore entitled to be exempted, as well as the priests, from a strict sabbatical observance. This makes a plausible sense; but the MSS. in which the reading occurs are not of the first authority, and it does not accord with the context. The common reading is therefore to be preferred, and is established indeed by what follows, — “for the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath day.” Taking these passages together, they amount to a declaration, that Christ, being greater than the temple, was the Lord of the temple; and therefore God; and, as such, was the “Lord of the Sabbath day,” having authority to institute it, to prescribe the rules of its observance; and to limit and relax them according to his sovereign pleasure. This conclusive argument, therefore, fully exhibited, is, that as you, the Pharisees, acknowledge that only he who is greater than the temple could relax the sabbatical law as to the service of the temple, and on this ground justify the servile works of the priests; I am “greater than the temple,” and, as the “Lord of the Sabbath,” have the right to permit my disciples to pluck the ears of corn and eat them on the Sabbath day; and they, as acting under my authority, like the priests of the temple, are “blameless.” So explicitly does our Lord assert his Divinity! It is, however, to be observed, that our Lord argues here on the concession that the disciples had violated the strict rule of the Sabbath, as charged upon them by the Pharisees. Granting even that, he pronounces them “guiltless,” as acting under his authority as “the Lord of the Sabbath,” the Lawgiver himself; and he seems to have chosen thus to put the argument to give him an opportunity of asserting, in the midst of his lowliness and humility, the glory of his Divine Majesty: but the fact was, that, rightly interpreted, they had not violated the law at all, as he shows by justifying them on the principle, first, of necessity from the example of David, and then of mercy, by his quotation from Hosea 6:6, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice;” so that on either ground he defended them from the inculpation.

Verse 7

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

I will have mercy, and not sacrifice. — That is, when the claims of the one come into competition with those of the other. The last argument was peculiarly reproving to the Pharisees, who shamefully relaxed the laws of morality by their subtle interpretations, and set themselves at liberty to commit acts of rapacity and cruelty under the colour of sanctity and zeal, while they gave a proportionably rigid interpretation to every rule which respected external and ceremonial observances. This is a hypocrisy in which they have been often followed; for many in all Churches and in all ages have been found zealous for forms just in proportion as they have been regardless of practical holiness. Such are “the refuges of lies” into which the wilfully deluded consciences of men often fly for shelter; but from all which they must sooner or later be dragged by the “light which makes all things manifest.” See notes on Mark 2:23-28.

Verse 10

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day? — This was a question debated among the Jews; and many distinctions were set up as to the cases in which medicine might be lawfully prescribed, and those in which it would involve a breach of the Sabbath. The more rigid of the school of Shammai utterly forbade any attentions being paid to the sick on the Sabbath. The general opinion probably was, that to administer medicine was unlawful, except in imminent danger of life. This debated question, therefore, respecting the lawfulness of healing on the Sabbath, was put to our Lord in the synagogue, with the desire of obtaining matter of accusation against him; for as it arose out of the circumstance of a man being present in the synagogue who had a “withered” or paralytic hand here was a case in which there was no immediate danger of life, and should he heal him he might be proceeded against in their courts as a Sabbath- breaker.

Verse 12

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

How much better is a man than a sheep? &c. — It was held lawful to save their cattle from injury or destruction on the Sabbath: by how much, therefore, a man is better than a sheep, argues our Lord, so much more was it a duty to relieve a human being from pain and infirmity.

Wherefore it is lawful to do well, καλως ποιειν , to confer benefits, on the Sabbath days, evidently meaning on the sick and infirm; and thus our Lord attacked a heartless superstition, by determining the lawfulness of healing or administering medicine to the sick, and paying them all attentions necessary to the alleviation of their case, on the Sabbath. In confirmation of his decision he healed the man with the withered hand, in the presence of all who were present in the synagogue, although he was in no immediate danger of life: he might be in pain, he was at least oppressed by an infirmity; and that was a sufficient reason for giving him instant relief.

Verse 14

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Held a council how they might destroy him. — Συμβουλιον ελαβον , they took counsel, or consulted together, when they had left the synagogue. They might probably advise how they might found a charge of blasphemy upon his having declared himself “greater than the temple,” and “the Lord of the Sabbath day;” but as the violator of the Sabbath was equally liable as the blasphemer to be punished with death, they would also endeavour to interpret the act of healing, in a case where no immediate danger of life was manifest, into this capital offence. That our Lord felt himself in danger from them, is plain from his departure to another place. There also, however, multitudes, still unperverted by the scribes and Pharisees, followed him; and he healed them all, that is, all the sick they brought out to him. See the notes on Mark 3:1-6.

Verse 16

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And charged them, that they should not make him known. — That is, that they should not declare him to be the person who had healed them; that they should not, as others had done, fill the country with his fame, and excite greater attention to him; but should quietly retire home, giving thanks indeed to God, but being silent before men. This was not enjoined either to disarm the rage of the Pharisees, as some have supposed, or, as others, to prevent their adding to their sins by avoiding all excitements to these renewed efforts to persecute and destroy him; but, as the application of the following prophecy shows, out of pure dislike to that clamorous and tumultuous popularity which everywhere followed him, and which he took every means, consistent with his public usefulness, to repress.

Verse 17

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

That it might be fulfilled, &c. — On the authority of the inspired evangelist we are taught that this prophecy had a direct reference to the Messiah, and was truly fulfilled in our Lord. From it we learn that the Messiah was God’s chosen servant; his beloved, in whom he is well pleased; that he was anointed of the Holy Ghost, I will put my Spirit upon him; that he should show judgment, that is, make a revelation of truth, for the word signifies a body of doctrine, not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles; and that in his name the Gentiles should trust, should rely upon him for salvation, and find it in him. Now it was necessary that some marks should be exhibited by which the great personage who was appointed to confer such benefits should be known when he appeared upon earth, and these the prophecy distinctly sets forth. The first is the humble and unostentatious manner in which he should fulfil his great ministry: “He shall not strive, nor cry” in vehement contention with his opposers in support of his claims; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets, in loud and boastful proclamation of them. The second mark is his tender condescension to the weak, the afflicted, and the lowly: A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench. To these particulars, inserted in the prophecy on purpose to make the Messiah manifest to the attentive observer when he should in fact appear, our Lord’s conduct so strikingly corresponded, and in so natural and unaffected a manner that this agreement proves that he was the person intended in the prophecy. A dignified humility, an entire deadness to human applause, and the meekest submission to his whole appointed course of reproach and calumny, are among the most obvious traits of his character as a public teacher; and whether we take the beautiful figures which are employed by the prophet to illustrate his tenderness, as representations of the bodily or mental infirmities and afflictions of men, the application is equally convincing. Their first application to the corporal infirmities and almost expiring life of those our Lord healed, is obvious; but still more emphatically, the bruised reed is the emblem of the sorrow under which the spirit bows, as a reed which when bruised can no longer stand erect; hence, “to hang down the head like a bulrush,” or reed, has become proverbial.

The smoking expiring wick of the lamp, requiring a fresh supply of oil, represents the almost expiring state of the light of the truth in the minds of the Jewish people, approaching utter extinction, and calling for immediate attention to excite the flickering dying flame: both the figures too are taken from mean and common things, to indicate that the persons represented were precisely those whom the Jewish teachers most despised, the poor and humble. How many such characters came to Jesus during his sojourn on earth for help and deliverance! and which of them ever applied in vain? Bruised spirits, bent down by a sense of sin, or a weight of bodily suffering, and often both, were the objects of his special compassion; and innumerable were the monuments which he left throughout the land of his prompt and effectual pity. Nor with less sympathy did he regard the ignorance of a neglected people, in danger of having the last ray of truth extinguished in their minds from the want of proper instructers.

In every docile and inquiring mind he trimmed the lamp of the understanding; and amid all the fogs and vapours of prejudices, which rendered the communication of truth difficult in itself, and trying to the patience of the teacher, as the kindling of a lamp where the wick is faulty and the atmosphere foul, he kindled that light which “guided their feet into the way of peace,” and rendered many of them the guides of their nation and the world into the way of salvation. To our blessed Lord alone these characters belong, and they prove that the whole prophecy had respect to him. To apply it, as some have done, to Cyrus, or to the nation of Israel, has not the slightest plausibility; for of neither can any one of its particulars be affirmed, even in a primary and inferior sense. The Chaldee paraphrast and several of the Jewish writers regard it as spoken wholly to the Messiah; and “to no other person whatever,” says Bishop Lowth, “can it with any justice or propriety be applied.” St. Matthew’s quotation differs from the Septuagint, but agrees with the Hebrew, in all but two clauses. “Till he have set forth judgment in the earth,” is, in the evangelist, till he send forth judgment unto victory. The sense is, however, the same; for to SET or establish judgment in the earth, and to bring forth or lead on judgment to victory, each obviously refers to the triumphs of his doctrine, משׁ?פשׂ? , the truth he reveals; for in the Old Testament it is used for the laws of God, his Divine laws and institutions, which should PREVAIL at length over all nations, through that very compassion and tenderness which brought under their influence so many of his own people, and trained them up to instruct others. And in his name shall the Gentiles trust, is, in Isaiah, “And the isles shall wait for his law.” The evangelist here agrees with the Septuagint, which takes the isles, in an extensive sense, for any Gentiles, however distant; and to wait for, in the sense of to hope or trust, which the Hebrew word justifies. Thus the difference is only apparent, and arises from translation only.

Verse 22

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Blind and dumb. — This instance of possession being accompanied both with blindness and the loss of speech, induced in consequence, probably, of the terrible power exerted by the devil upon the whole frame, rendered the sudden healing of this unfortunate man, by the expulsion of Satan, exceedingly remarkable; and as it produced great amazement among the people, so that they said, “Is not this the son of David?” and showed a disposition to acknowledge our Lord to be the Messiah in a tumultuary manner, so it excited the Pharisees to endeavour to countervail this impression, by spreading among the people the blasphemous theory they had adopted to account for his miracles, “This man doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils.”

Verses 25-29

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And Jesus knew their thoughts, &c. — As the Pharisees “said” this blasphemy, and that probably very openly, in order to prevent the people from acknowledging Christ, by their thoughts w e must here understand their INTENTIONS. He knew that their purpose in devising this blasphemy was to prevent the people from forming a right judgment on the case, and he therefore calmly and convincingly refutes it. His first argument is drawn from the very policy of Satan. As a kingdom divided against itself, where one part seeks the destruction of another, cannot stand, so, if Satan cast out Satan, if one devil counteract another in his designs and acts of mischief, the Satanic kingdom is divided; its order and subordination, both of which it has, as being “a kingdom,” managed on a regular system to a common end, to delude and to destroy, would be at once subverted, and by such intestine divisions it must fall. The second argument is from their own practice. By whom do your children cast them out? The children are the disciples of the Jewish teachers; for the terms “father” and “son” were often given by the Jews to master and scholar. Both before and after the time of Christ the Jewish exorcists cast out, or attempted to cast out devils, by “the authority of the great and fearful name.” Whether or not, in some cases, God interposed in his mercy, and gave affect to their attempts, we know not; and the argument is equally strong on either supposition. They never attempted to cast out Satan by Satan, but by the name and power of the true God. They therefore acted upon the principle, that a kingdom could not be divided against itself; and they consequently relied upon a superior power, and that, the power of the Spirit of God. Either, therefore, the Pharisees must confess that their disciples were in league with Satan, to cast out devils, or they could not sustain their absurd charge against Christ, and must confess that if their children cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then that he also cast them out by the same Spirit. The force of this conclusion appears in the following verses.

Verse 28

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then, &c. — This was the certain proof that he had set up a KINGDOM among them, more powerful than the kingdom of Satan; or else, he adds, how can one enter into a strong man’s house and spoil his goods, unless he first bind the strong man? by which he shows his superior power. Thus our Lord declares, both that his kingdom is hostile to that of Satan, and that it is more mighty, since he was able at pleasure to bind the very head and ruler of this dark monarchy, and cast him out. This illustration sufficiently shows that when our Lord cast out devils, he exerted this power over Satan to indicate the spiritual conquests which he was to attain over the dominion of Satan in the hearts of men, and in the institutions of society. The ejection of devils from the possessed was the visible sign that “the kingdom of God was come unto them;” that kingdom which, by claiming redeemed men for its subjects, delivers them from the polluting and destructive tyranny of the devil, and restores them to spiritual health and liberty. Hence the guilt of the Pharisees was heightened. They contended, not merely against Christ, but against the kingdom of God itself, and all those glorious attestations of its establishment which resulted from the seal set upon it by the miraculous operations of the Holy Spirit. In such a contest between the powers of light and darkness, between the mercy of God and the malice of Satan, even neutrality was a crime. He that is not for me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. How much more guilty then must be the enemies and opposers of this kingdom! and most of all those who, like the Pharisees, not merely opposed, but blasphemed the Holy Spirit himself, by ascribing those works by which he attested the mission of Christ, and the establishment of God’s kingdom, to the agency of Satan! This leads our Lord to that awful declaration of the unpardonableness of this offence which is contained in the ensuing verses. See note on Luke 11:14; Luke 11:21.

Verses 31-32

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

All manner of sin and blasphemy, &c. — The importance of a right understanding of this passage renders the most careful consideration of it necessary. Sin is the transgression of the law; blasphemy, when applied to men, is injurious and calumnious speaking; and when considered as a crime against the Divine Majesty, it consists in reproachful speeches uttered against God, or in a denial to him of those attributes and excellences which, according to the revelation he has been pleased to make of himself, he is known to possess; and thus in both cases includes in it the idea of wilful and rebellious enmity. For all such blasphemy there is, however, forgiveness upon repentance; but for that particular blasphemy which consists, as expressed in the next verse, in speaking against the Holy Ghost, — that is, saying, in opposition to all evidence, and against reasonable conviction, that the “Spirit of God,” by which our Lord cast out devils, was the unclean and evil spirit, Satan himself, and doing this from enmity to the kingdom and truth of God which by these miracles the Holy Spirit attested and established, — there is no forgiveness. Nothing can be more clear than that this is the unpardonable blasphemy of which our Lord speaks, and that these are the circumstances under which it was committed.

Blasphemy, or speaking against the Son of man, was remissible; such as denying his Messiahship, calling him a winebibber and gluttonous, &c.; all which, though high and dangerous crimes, yet were not excluded from the Divine mercy. But when, after the Pharisees had always admitted, according to the faith of their nation, that devils could not be cast out but by the Spirit of God, and had seen how intimately connected all the works of Christ were with a holy doctrine and a holy life, they were so far influenced by their wicked passions as to resist that evidence of a Divine power in his case which they admitted in other cases, the cases of their own children or disciples, to be conclusive; and when they audaciously attributed that power exerted by Christ to Satan himself, of which they had sufficient proof, even upon their own principles, that it could only proceed from the Spirit of God, and yet, after all, wilfully and most wickedly, said of the power of the Holy Spirit, “This is the working of Beelzebub himself,” this fatal offence was committed. Our Lord had thrown a veil around him by his humility, which often hid the glory of his majesty, so that men might for a time question who he might be. Not so the Holy Spirit: he fully revealed himself in the works of Christ; so that had they been performed by the meanest of their prophets, the Pharisees would have acknowledged in them the finger of God, which now they denied; and therefore they sinned directly and wilfully against the Holy Ghost.

This was their blasphemy and their crime, and our Lord solemnly declares that those who had been guilty of it should not be forgiven, neither in this life, nor in the world to come. This phrase is equivalent to, “Shall never at any future time be forgiven;” hence Mark expresses it, “Is in danger of eternal damnation.” There is no reference in this expression to the notions of the Jews, that some sins would be forgiven to the seed of Abraham after death: for it is not probable that our Lord would seem to sanction so unscriptural an opinion by even an allusion: nor is “the world,” or age “to come,” to be understood, with others, of the age of the Messiah; for that had already commenced. The expression, as appears from similar phrases in the later Jewish writers, was proverbial for never; or, if there was in it any reference to a future state, it signifies that, as in this life that sin could not be forgiven, so, at the day of judgment, there could be no declaration of its having been forgiven, though the forgiveness of sins of every other description will then be made manifest and publicly proclaimed. So, clearly is the nature of this sin marked, that it is somewhat surprising that there should have been so much difference of opinion respecting it. One of the least defensible notions is that which refers it forward to the rejection of the Gospel after the Holy Ghost had been shed forth in his miraculous gifts; whereas, the very occasion on which our Lord uses the words, and the particular character of the crime itself, which consisted in attributing the casting out of devils by the Spirit of God to the agency of Satan, proves indubitably that the sin might not only at that time be committed, but was actually so. The chief differences of opinion have, however, arisen, not from any difficulty in ascertaining in what the original crime consisted, but from the questions, how far others beside the Pharisees could be guilty of it; and from what its irremissibility arose.

As to the first, it is difficult to say whether those Jews who might see the miracles of the Holy Spirit wrought by the apostles, and ascribe them to Satan, did not also commit precisely the same offence. They probably did; but still we have no authority for saying that this sin could be committed by any but the eye-witnesses of the miracles themselves, or at least by those who fully admitted them as FACTS. We are likewise to recollect that there are blasphemies often committed against the Holy Ghost, of a deeply aggravated and dangerous nature, by infidels, and scoffers, and apostates, which are not THE blasphemy against the Holy Ghost; and these are not to be confounded with it, though awfully criminal. As to the second question, in what the irremissibility of this sin consisted, perhaps it is best for us at once to confess our ignorance. Certain it is, that the pretended solution of those who make it merely a consequence of the nature of the offence, cannot be admitted, because in that respect it stands on the same ground as many other offences. The Pharisees, they tell us, by resisting the strongest evidence, put themselves beyond the possibility of being convinced of the truth, because no higher evidence could be given them: but this was equally true of all obstinate unbelievers then, though many of them were not charged with this particular offence; and it is also equally true of all unbelievers now, who have received all the evidence which God intends to afford. The only satisfactory conclusion on this awful subject is, that God was pleased to make this exception from the mercies of his Gospel as a warning to all mankind, who, if not capable of committing that precise sin, may all make dangerous approaches to it.

It was designed to exhibit the evil of spiritual pride and bigotry; to show that there are sins of the INTELLECT and WILL, as well as of the senses, most hateful to God because leading to a malignant opposition to his holy truth; and that a state of heart is attainable by perseverance in sin, from which the insulted Holy Spirit, after much patience, takes his everlasting flight, and leaves the sinner incapable of repentance. Still, while it operates as a warning, by showing how awful a degree of depravity man is capable of, there is no just ground for any apprehensions to be entertained by pious and scrupulous minds; for, not to urge that the fears of such persons are a sufficient proof that they have not committed this greatest of all offences, it may be confidently concluded that as those only are charged with the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost who saw the miracles of Christ performed, and yet attributed them to Satan, so no one in these later times can be guilty of this particular crime; and no one is, therefore, on that account, excluded from forgiveness. We have no right to enlarge an EXCEPTION from the mercies of the Gospel, beyond its strict LETTER. If any exception to a general rule demands a severely rigid interpretation, it is this which stands in direct opposition to the general character of the covenant of grace.

Verse 33

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Either make the tree good, &c. — The connection of these words with the Pharisees appears to lie in their being an exhortation to them to put off the guise of hypocrisy , and to appear to be what they were in reality. As you have uttered blasphemy against God, pretend no more to sanctity and reverence for sacred things: either retract your blasphemies, or show that you are open mockers and contemners of God; for that you are so in reality, your conduct in reviling the Holy Spirit, rather than acknowledge a doctrine attested by him, sufficiently proves; for the tree is known by his fruit.

Verse 34

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

O generation of vipers, &c. — He compares them to the εχιδναι , the most deadly of the serpent brood, because of the malignity of their dispositions, and the fatal venom of their tongues. “The poison of asps” was truly “under their lips.” And how many were infected by their slanders against Christ, and by that wicked hypothesis which destroyed the force of the evidence of the miracles of Christ, by accounting for them on the principle of Satanic agency, the increasing unsuccessfulness of his ministry was the awful proof. A ministry which commenced by making so general and favourable an impression upon vast multitudes, gradually seemed to excite little but prejudiced and malignant objections; except that now and then the people in some places, for a time, and but for a time, manifested somewhat of a more docile spirit. Yet were the scribes and Pharisees always at hand to wither every appearance of good. The poison of deadly serpents was not more fatal to life, than their blasphemies to the souls of men; and our Lord therefore adds, carrying on this allusion to their blasphemous slanders, How can ye, being evil, wholly evil, having evil substantiated in your whole nature, speak good things? for out of the abundance, εκ του περισσευματος , out of the exuberance, the overflowing abundance, of the heart, the mouth speaketh; that is, when the heart is so fully charged that it can no longer restrain, the mouth will declare the quality of the principles and passions by which it is so powerfully actuated; and thus, by the blasphemies uttered by the Pharisees, their true character was unveiled, and the full charged wickedness of their hearts wholly laid open.

Verse 35

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The good treasure of his heart, &c. — Της καρδιας is wanting in so many MSS. and versions, that it was probably a marginal addition from St. Luke, where it occurs, Luke 6:45. But the sense is not altered by omitting or retaining it. The treasure, or rather the treasury, is the heart; but the treasury is put metaphorically for what is contained in it. In the case of a good man there are laid up in the heart wisdom, holy principles, and all the benevolent affections; the heart of an evil man is a treasury, a receptacle charged with error, prejudice, sensuality, irreligion, envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness. The word θησαυρος , does not necessarily convey the idea of value: that depends upon the quality of the articles collected and deposited. These may be “gold, silver, precious stones,” “corn, wine, and oil,” or “fire-brands, arrows, and death;” the heart being often a magazine of all hurtful and deadly tempers and emotions, like that of the Pharisees here so strongly reproved. These our Lord calls evil treasures.

Verse 36

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Every idle word that men shall speak, &c — The words here referred to are not those trifling and unprofitable words which are not meant to injure others, or to convey falsehood; for, however blamable these are, and often endangering to men’s spiritual interests, and therefore to their souls, our Lord has still reference to the blasphemous slanders of the Pharisees, and to that state of the heart which renders it impossible for those he describes as being evil to speak good things, as the context shows. The primitive sense of αργος is idle or useless, from α , negative, and εργος , work. It is, however, itself a vague term, the sense of which must be determined by the context. Origen says that αργος λογος , in the language of logicians, was used to express a sophism or false reasoning employed with a view to deceive. The meaning of our Lord appears to be, that, as for every calumnious word, the malice of which consisted in the design to make a false impression, which men may speak, they shall be condemned at the last day, so did the Pharisees render themselves liable to the just judgment of God by those blasphemous slanders in which they had indulged with the design of making him odious to the people. From this particular case he, however, according to his custom, deduces a great general truth. Words, as well as actions, are to be the subjects of solemn account at the last day; and the abuse of speech not less than the abuse of any other faculty shall subject men to condemnation. What account then will mere triflers give, men who spend life in useless talking and “foolish jesting,” in singing vain songs, and framing vain witticisms? But still more severe will be the punishment of the censorious, of “lying lips,” and especially of those whose tongues have been employed in uttering corrupt doctrines, misleading and destructive to the souls of men!

Verse 37

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

For by thy words thou shalt be justified, &c. — Words as well as actions shall be exhibited as proofs of character, and be evidence in that day for or against every man; by them too, as far as words are the matter of judicial decision, he shall be acquitted or condemned.

Verses 38-39

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

We would see a sign from thee, &c. — They probably meant, as they expressed it on other occasions, “a sign FROM HEAVEN.” Perhaps they urge this as their apology for not being convinced by his miracles, as though greater power was required to produce some preternatural appearance in the atmosphere, than to raise the dead, or cast out devils, and to heal the sick by a word or touch; or, as though upon their own theory, as wicked as absurd, that Christ was in league with Satan, that mighty spirit could not as easily produce a portent in the heavens as any other miraculous work which they pretended to ascribe to him, Their fellow infidels, in all ages, have demanded different evidence from that which God has been pleased to give, and with the same insincerity. He who is unconvinced by proofs so stupendous as those on which Christianity rests, is an unbeliever, not for want of evidence, but from some evil bias upon his judgment and will, which no additional demonstration could remedy. Thus our Lord here traces the unbelief of the scribes and Pharisees to its true source: an evil and adulterous generation, pretending not to be convinced by miracles which have made manifest “the finger of God,” still seeketh after a sign, and that in the same unbelieving spirit. The reason of this was, that they were evil and adulterous, as their polygamy, frequent divorces, and other sensualities, so general among them though covered by their hypocrisy, or defended by their immoral casuistry, sufficiently proved. Where such deep immoralities prevailed, immersing men in the very dregs of sensuality, unbelief was sufficiently accounted for, as well as their fierce hatred of the pure and self-denying doctrines taught by Christ.

Verse 40

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

As Jonas was three days and three nights, &c. — That the Prophet Jonah was a type of Christ is not to be deduced from these words. He was now, on this occasion, made by our Lord “a sign:” and the reason was, that our Lord, who now for the first time lays down his resurrection from the dead as the grand SIGN and DEMONSTRATIVE evidence of the truth of all his claims, chose, for obvious reasons, to speak of this event enigmatically, and to fix upon that part of the history of Jonah, his being three days and three nights in the belly of the fish which had swallowed him, so that his meaning might not be fully explained until after the event.

The whale’s belly. — This is an unfortunate translation, both because neither the Hebrew nor the Greek term necessarily signifies a whale, but only a great fish, or sea monster; and because, in fact, whales are not found in the Mediterranean Sea, into which the disobedient prophet was cast, The shark, or the lamia, or canis carcharius, might be the fish employed on this miraculous occasion.

Three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. — The heart of the earth is beneath its surface, as Jonah was said to be in “the heart” of the sea, though not in its middle or centre. A similar mode of speaking occurs in Ezekiel 28:2: “Tyre, in the heart of the sea,” because nearly surrounded by it, though not far from the land. The Jewish mode of computing time will explain the phrase three days and three nights, which according to our modes of reckoning far exceeds the time during which our Lord lay in the grave. With them, a day and a night was the same portion of time as a day; for, like us, they had no one word, says Bishop Pearce, by which to express a day of twenty-four hours, or a νυχθημερον , as the Greeks called it; that is a night-day. They sometimes called it a day, as we do; but at other times a day and a night, or a night and a day; so that we are to understand by the expression three days and three nights, three days as we should express it, reckoning inclusively the first and the last for two days, though only parts of days, and counting those parts of days for whole days. “A part,” say the rabbins, “of an onah or Jewish day is as the whole.” Thus in computing the circumcision of eight days, if the child is born all hour before the evening, when the day began, that hour of the day is reckoned as one whole day. Thus as to our Lord’s remaining in the grave, Friday is reckoned one day, Saturday the second, Sunday the third; Saturday commencing on the evening of the Friday. He was laid in the grave a little before sunset on the Friday or the sixth day, which space being part of the day was reckoned as the whole; he continued there the night and day following, which was the seventh day; and rose again early on the first day, during a part of which therefore he was also in the grave, and this part according to the Jewish mode was considered as the whole; so that to say he was three days and three nights in the grave, was very easy to be understood, and created no difficulty with the Jews, or St. Matthew, writing after the resurrection, would doubtless have added some explanation.

Verse 41

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The men of Nineveh, &c. — The mention of Jonah gave occasion to our Lord to contrast the obduracy of the Jews with the repentance of the men of Nineveh. — They believed the prophet’s testimony, though a stranger and alone; and though he wrought no miracle, they repented; while the body of the Jewish people, greatly perverted in their judgment, and hardened against the evidence of truth, no doubt by the active opposition and influence of the Pharisees, repented not, although the Messenger sent was greater than Jonas, both in person and office; and the most stupendous miracles had been wrought in their sight; and, finally, though the message was at once a gracious offer of salvation, and a warning against severer judgments than those denounced against Nineveh. The Ninevites, though sinners, were, it seems, conscious that they were so; and the denunciation of Divine vengeance, therefore, made at once an effectual appeal to their fears: the Jews too were sinners; but “they trusted within themselves that they were righteous.”

Rise up in judgment, &c. — This alludes to the custom of witnesses rising up from their seats, and standing in court to give their testimony: the men of Nineveh should condemn that generation of Jews at the general judgment, not as judges, but as witnesses; their obedience to the call of God under inferior religious privileges serving the more strongly to mark the aggravated guilt of a people among whom the Son of God himself had appeared.

Verse 42

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The queen of the south, &c. — She is called the queen of Sheba 1 Kings 10:1. Sheba is placed by some in Arabia, by others in Ethiopia. Josephus says that Sheba was the name of the city of Meroe, and that it was thence that the queen here mentioned came. The Abyssinians have for ages, both before and after the Christian era, maintained that this princess was of their country, and that her posterity long reigned there; and many circumstances serve to give a strong probability to their claim, and especially the existence in that country, in ancient times, of a form of Judaism, which was in all probability introduced under the authority of some person of rank and influence; and none is more likely than the celebrated queen, who, travelling to so great a distance to hear the wisdom of Solomon, showed herself to be a woman of wisdom and literary taste, and would probably take back with her copies of the sacred books. She is here commended by our Lord for her love of wisdom, of moral wisdom for in that the philosophy of those ancient times chiefly consisted; and her example condemned the Jews, both because they not only had no desire after true wisdom, but were utterly averse to it; and because she received with docility instruction from the lips of a mere man, who, though great and wise, was inferior to Him whose ministry they proudly and malignantly slighted. That our Lord intimates under the modest phrase, πλειον Σολομωντος , that he was superior in nature to Solomon, as to the dignity of his person, cannot be reasonably doubted; for though the neuter gender be used, there can be no question, but the comparison is of persons, not of things.

Verses 43-45

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

When the unclean spirit, &c. — This parable, founded upon the fact of demoniacal possessions, has been variously interpreted, and, for want of attention to the context, often either misunderstood or allegorized beyond all bounds of sobriety. — As it relates to the mysterious influence and habits of a class of supernatural beings, it partakes of the obscurity of the subject; but is, nevertheless, sufficiently obvious, in its general import to convey the most solemn instruction. That some unhappy demoniacs were possessed with one evil spirit, others with more, as Mary Magdalene, who had seven, and the man near Gadara, of whom a legion had taken possession, are facts which appear in the Gospel history: and that it was not an uncommon case that a man who had been delivered from one demon, might after be possessed by many, is probable; because this is the basis, and constitutes the point, of the parable. This parable, separate, from its application to the Jews, which shall presently be noticed, teaches us,

1. That these evil spirits are necessarily wretched: they “seek rest and find none,” but carry with them their own hell.

2. “That the only alleviation they know is the occupation of their attention by projects of mischief, which yet, as it heightens their guilt, must ultimately increase their misery. This is strongly represented, by the clause, “he walketh through dry places,” δι’ ανυδρων τοπων , meaning deserts and parts of the wilderness which, as being without water, were not inhabited. Such solitudes afforded no opportunities for tempting men, and left the wandering, wretched spirit wholly to his own tormenting thoughts; he therefore is pictured as hastening back to the habitations of human society, in quest of objects on which to exercise his malignant power. His first effort is made upon the individual from whom he had been dispossessed; and the heart of this man being fitly compared to a house, empty, swept, and garnished, and thus fitted to receive inhabitants, he taketh others with him, who enter and dwell there. “This indicates

3. That though in some cases possession might be a mere calamity independent of any particular turpitude in the unfortunate subject; yet that such repossessions at least were occasioned by a relapse into sin, a submission to the dominion of bad principles and passions, which had vexed the Holy Spirit and obliged him to depart, and had left the man in a state as prepared to fall again under the power of Satan, as a house empty of an inhabitant, yet swept and garnished or furnished, was fitted to receive occupiers; so that the devil, as one quaintly observes, “takes possession only of ready furnished lodgings.”

4. That the consequence of such a moral relapse was, that the former evil was increased sevenfold, and the last state of that man made worse than the first. Thus, in that day God sometimes punished sin by surrendering the offender more fully to the visible power of Satan.

The application of this parable, for such it is, though founded on what appears occasionally, in that age, to have occurred to the Jewish people, is now to be considered. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation. The parable, as supposing a previous better state, represented by the first ejection of the demon, can scarcely be confined to the scribes and Pharisees, though they might and probably did grow rapidly worse. Still they never appear before us but as the enemies of our Lord; and even as early as when they went to John’s baptism they were called by him “a generation of vipers;” the very term just used respecting them by our Lord. It is, therefore probable that the condition of the man in the parable, when the devil was dispossessed for a time, refers to that hopeful state of mind to which great multitudes of the Jews had been brought by the awakening preaching of John the Baptist, and the powerful early ministrations of our Lord; and from such beginnings, how different a result might have been expected! But the opposition and slanders of their teachers, operating upon the worldliness of the body of the people who were looking still for a secular Messiah, and upon their prejudices, had caused them generally to relapse into a state of enmity and opposition to truth; and they were thus prepared for a still deeper corruption of principles and passions, and were indeed rapidly sinking into it; — a moral state of obduracy, malignity, and wickedness, which might well be compared with that of a man possessed with seven evil spirits; and the history of the body of the Jewish people who from this time went on increasing in wickedness, down to the destruction of Jerusalem, before which indeed “they filled up the measure of their iniquities,” is an awful but most legible comment upon the prediction of our Lord, So shall it be also unto this generation.

This is the primary sense of the parable; but there are great general truths contained in it applicable far beyond the first design. It is a solemn admonition to all who relapse into sin after the turning of their hearts to God. Those evils from which they have been wholly or at least partially saved, if suffered to resume their influence and dominion, through unwatchfulness, worldliness, the neglect of duty, and the alienation of the heart from communion with God, come back with sevenfold force, and take possession of a heart thus empty of God, swept and garnished to receive evil, like a legion of evil spirits. Thus often every thing within “increases to more ungodliness:” blindness, insensibility, sensuality, pride, unbelief, fierce and fiery tempers, and all other evils — some of the old residents of the heart, and others new and introduced ones — assert their polluted and uncontrolled empire; the Holy Spirit is withdrawn; and the man, now under the full spiritual power of Satan, proves that his last state is worse than the first. “Watch and pray,” says our Lord, even to his disciples, “lest YE fall into temptation.”

Verse 46

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

His mother and his brethren. — Some think that the persons here called brethren were the sons of Joseph by a former wife; others, that they were the sons of Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and sister of the mother of Christ; for cousins and other relatives were often, by the Jews, called brethren: but there is no sufficient reason for not considering them as the younger sons of Joseph and Mary; for the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is a figment. Who they were, is not a point of any importance: they were near relatives; and upon this the observation of our Lord turns. None are so near to him, none have so great a share in his kind affections, as those who do the will of his Father. Their intimate relationship to him he acknowledges now, and will finally proclaim it before an assembled world.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 12". "Watson's Exposition on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Romans". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rwc/matthew-12.html.
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