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Bible Commentaries
Galatians 4

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

Galatians 4:1. But what I would say if this, that to long as the heir is an infant (a minor), he differeth nothing from a slave, though he is lord of all, owner of the whole patrimony or inheritance by right and prospectively, but not in actual possession. In human relations the taking possession of the inheritance is conditioned by the death of the parent, or at all events by a corresponding loss; while God gives to his children at the appointed time all the blessings of salvation without losing anything, since He is the living fountain and preserver of all. But in both cases the majority of the heir is presupposed. The heir in his nonage represents the Jewish people and the state of the world before Christ.

Verses 1-11

The State of Adoption contrasted with the State of Slavery under the Law.

The Apostle proceeds to give a fuller exposition of the divine sonship and heirship, ch. Galatians 3:29, and shows that the believers under the old dispensation, though sons and heirs in principle and prospect, were yet actually in a state of pupilage, and hence had no more freedom than a slave; while now with the coming of Christ the time of majority has arrived. Then he gives utterance to his painful surprise at the relapse of the Galatians to their former state of pupilage and slavery.

Verse 2

Galatians 4:2. Under guardians (including the tutor or pedagogue) and stewards, who control the person and the property of the minor till he becomes of age, which the Hebrew law fixed at thirteen years and one day, the Roman law at the twenty-fifth year.

Until the day pre-appointed, or day fixed beforehand. A legal term (one word in Greek, prothesmia) signifying the time allowed to elapse before bringing an action, the time fixed by the statute of limitations ( Tag der Verjäh-rung); then any pre-appointed time or day; here the time when the office of the guardian terminates.

By the father. Among the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, the period of pupilage or nonage was fixed by law, and not dependent upon the arbitrary will of the parent. But this makes no difference in the argument, the divine will being the fountain of all law, and having foreordained from eternity the time of Christ’s coming. Paul speaks ‘theologically rather than juridically.’ It is not necessary therefore to suppose that he referred to the Keltic custom, which gave the father a more unlimited power over his children.

Verse 3

Galatians 4:3. So we also, when we were minors, the Jewish Christians before their conversion, comp. Galatians 3:23. In a wider sense the words are applicable to the heathen Christians also, whose former religion was still more childish, though not divinely appointed as a preparatory school.

Enslaved under the elements (or rudiments) of the world. Comp. Galatians 4:9. This is understood by the church fathers in a physical, by most modern interpreters in an ethical sense.

(1.) The elementary substances of the external world or physical universe (so 2 Peter 3:10; 2 Peter 3:12), as earth, fire, and especially the heavenly bodies. (a) The Jewish festivals (sabbaths, new moons, and passovers) which were regulated by the course of the sun and moon, and so far by the powers of nature. (Chrysostom.) (b) The heathen worship of the stars and other material substances. (Augustine.) (c) Religion of earthly, sensuous forms and rites generally (both Jewish and heathen), as distinct from spiritual religion and rational worship. (Neander.) Against this interpretation in all its forms is the omission of world after elements in Galatians 4:9.

(2.) The elementary lessons, rudimentary instruction, the alphabet of learning (as Hebrews 5:12; comp. Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:20). So Jerome, Calvin, Olshausen, Meyer, Wieseler, Ellicott, Lightfoot. This is much simpler and better suited to the context. Paul represents here the religion before Christ, especially the Jewish, as an elementary religion or a religion of childhood, full of external rites and ceremonies, all of which had a certain educational significance, but pointed beyond themselves to an age of manhood in Christ. This falls in naturally with what he said in the preceding chapter of the pedagogical mission of the law. The whole Old Testament dispensation was an elementary or preparatory school for the gospel, a religion of types and shadows, of hope and promise, destined to lose itself in Christianity, as its substance and fulfilment.

Of the world, not the physical universe (as in the first interpretation of the ‘elements’). but mankind which needed such a training for Christianity. The expression seems to imply that Paul comprehends the heathen also, comp. Galatians 4:8. But the Jews were in fact the religious representatives of the whole race in its motion towards Christ.

Verse 4

Galatians 4:4. When the fulness of the time came, i.e., when the period appointed by the Father (Galatians 4:2) till the coming of Christ and the age of manhood was filled up or completed. This period was fixed in the eternal counsel of God with reference to the development of the race. The words ‘fulness of the time’ express, as in a nutshell, the whole philosophy of history before Christ, and the central position of the incarnation. The ancient history of Jews and Gentiles was a preparation either direct or indirect, positive or negative, divine or human, for the coming of Christ, and Christ is the turning point of history, the end of the old, and the beginning of a new world. Hence we begin our era with His birth. He himself commenced his preaching with the declaration, Mark 1:15: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.’ The Saviour could not appear in any other country, nor at any other time, either sooner or later, nor in any other nation, according to the order of divine government and the preordained harmony of history.

Sent forth his Son, who, therefore, must have existed before the incarnation in heavenly glory with the Father. Comp. Colossians 1:15-19; John 1:1.

Born of a woman, is no allusion to the mystery of the supernatural conception (=‘of a virgin’), but expresses simply the realness of the incarnation or Christ’s true humanity. Comp.

Job 14:1, ‘man that is born of a woman;’ and Matthew 11:11, ‘among them that are born of women.’ Every reader knew, of course, who the woman was. The absence of any further allusion to Mary in the Epistles of Paul, who never even mentions her name, goes to show that the excessive veneration of the holy Virgin, as it obtains in the Greek and Roman churches, arose after the Apostolic age. We meet it first in the apocryphal Gospels and then among the fathers of the fourth or fifth centuries, when the term ‘mother of God’ came into general use.

Born under the law (the accus. in Gr. implies the motion or transition from the preexistent state into the state of human subjection to the law) is more specific, and defines the humanity of Christ as to its national and religious aspect. He was not only born of a woman, i.e. , a true man, like all others, but a full member of a particular nation and the Jewish theocracy, and hence subject to all its religious ordinances and obligations, in order to redeem those who were under the legal covenant. A Gentile could not have saved the world from the curse of the law; in Israel alone all the historical conditions were at hand; and hence, ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4:22), that from them it might pass over in proper order to the whole race.

Verse 5

Galatians 4:5. To redeem, to buy off from the curse and the slavery of the law. This he did by His perfect obedience and the bestowal of the spirit of love and freedom.

Receive, not recover, for the redemption by Christ infinitely transcends the original child-like innocence lost by Adam.

The sonship, through and for the sake of Jesus, the only begotten Son. He is the Son by nature and from eternity, we become sons by grace in time. The word ‘sonship’ or adoption as sons is used only by Paul, in five passages, Romans 8:15; Romans 8:23; Romans 9:4; Ephesians 1:5; while the term ‘children of God’ is more frequent. The former suits here better, as contrasted with slavery, and in distinction also from a state of mere pupilage. Both terms, ‘sons’ and ‘children’ of God, and the corresponding ‘Father’ never refer in the New Testament to the natural relation of man as the creature to God as the creator, but always to the moral and spiritual relation, which results from the new birth and the communication of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 6

Galatians 4:6. God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. Comp. Romans 8:9; Romans 8:14-17. The gift of the Spirit seems here to succeed the act of adoption, while in Romans 8:14-16 it is made to precede it. But there is between both an inseparable connection and mutual dependence, and the communication of the Spirit is not confined to a single act, but goes on increasing with the spiritual growth of the children of God. ‘Our’ is better supported than ‘your.’ A similar change of person as in the preceding verse, resulting from the vivacity of speech and the sympathy with the reader.

Crying; praying with strong desire and glowing fervor. Comp. Isaiah 19:20; James 5:4. In Romans 8:15, we read: ‘in whom we cry.’ Here the Spirit himself appears as praying, and the believer as the organ. The Holy Spirit so deeply sinks into the spirit of believers and so closely identifies himself with them that He prays in them and through them as their advocate. Christ is their advocate at the right hand of God, the Spirit is the ‘other advocate’ (E. V. ‘comforter’), indwelling in their hearts.

Abba, Father. ‘Abba’ is the Aramaic word for ‘Father’ (in Hebrew Aph), so childlike in its very sound, and sanctioned by the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, as originally uttered, also by His prayer in Gethsemane, Mark 14:36. Hence Paul retains it here as in Romans 8:15. ‘Father.’ The emphasizing combination of the familiar Hebrew with the corresponding Greek name was probably a liturgical formula among Hellenistic Jews and Christians. (Meyer regards ‘Abba,’ here as a proper name, which became the customary address to God in prayer after the example set by our Lord. Augustine and many others see here more than a translation, namely an allusion to the unity of the God of the Jews and of the Gentiles, and the unity of the Spirit, dwelling and praying in both.)

Verse 7

Galatians 4:7. So that thou art no longer a slave, but a son, etc. Inference from Galatians 4:5-6. The second person individualizes and Brings it home to each reader. ‘Son,’ in opposition to ‘slave,’ but not, of course, to the exclusion of daughter. For the Apostle had distinctly declared, Galatians 3:28, that the sexual, as well as other differences, disappear before Christ in the general religious equality. He had here in view probably not the Jewish, but the Roman law, which was most familiar to his readers and which gave daughters and sons, adopted as well as native children, a title to the inheritance; while the Jewish law excluded the daughters, except in default of male heirs (Numbers 27:1 ff.; Numbers 36:1 ff.), but required the first born son to support them till they were married.

And if a son, then an heir through God. This is the most approved reading, of which the received text: ‘of God through Christ,’ is a correct explanation, in conformity with Romans 8:17. The word ‘God’ is here used in the widest sense of the triune God, from whom we derive our sonship and heirship in opposition to the law and to carnal descent from Abraham. For the Father sends His only begotten Son, the Son delivers us from the slavery of the law and reconciles us to the Father, the Holy Spirit applies the sonship to our heart and bears witness to it.

Verse 8

Galatians 4:8. Here the Apostle evidently addresses Gentile Christians. But some may have been before their conversion proselytes to Judaism.

But formerly (before your conversion, comp. Galatians 4:7) when ye knew not God. A description of the heathen state, which, compared with the knowledge of the only true and living God through revelation, was dark ignorance. Indefinite Knowledge is definite ignorance. Comp. 1Th 4:5 ; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Ephesians 2:12. Paul admits, however, Romans 1:21, that the heathen have or might have an inferior order of knowledge from the light of nature (Romans 1:21) and a moral sense of right and wrong (Romans 2:14-16), and are therefore without excuse.

Ye were in bondage to those who by nature are not gods. This reading which connects the negative (‘not’) with ‘gods,’ and not with ‘nature,’ is best supported. It means that the heathen idols are not pods, but something else, namely, demons or evil spirits. Comp. 1 Corinthians 10:20: ‘the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God.’ Accordingly the heathen divinities had a real existence, and idolatry was the religion of the devil and his army of fallen angels or evil spirits. Comp. also Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalms 106:37. If the negation is put before ‘nature’: ‘to those who are gods not by nature,’ we must supply: ‘but only in repute’ (comp. 1 Corinthians 8:5: ‘though there be that are called gods’). In this case the Apostle would deny the existence of the heathen gods altogether and hold them to be mere creatures of fancy (or personifications of the powers of nature).

Verse 9

Galatians 4:9. But now tuning come to know (or, to discern, to recognize) God, or rather being known of God, recognized and adopted as His own, as His children; comp. 1 Corinthians 8:2. Formerly the Galatians were left to themselves and, as it were, ignored by God. Then their knowledge of God was not their own merit, but a free gift of God, who condescended to dwell in them and to enlighten their minds and hearts. Man’s knowledge of God is very imperfect and has no value except as far as it flows from God’s perfect knowledge and recognition of man.

How is it that ye are turning back again to the weak and beggarly elements. The term ‘elements,’ or ‘rudiments’ embraces here both the heathen and the Jewish religion. Even Judaism is merely a poor elementary school and a system of slavery, as compared with the riches and freedom of the gospel. If we deprive Judaism of its Messianic features and divest the ritual law of its typical reference to Christ, it sinks virtually to the same level with the false religions. The relapse of the Galatians to such an unspiritual Judaism was therefore at the same time a relapse to their original heathenism. Hence the words ‘again’ and ‘once more.’

Verse 10

Galatians 4:10. Do ye (scrupulously) observe days, and months, and seasons, and years? The interrogative form gives more vicacity to the passage and more weight to Galatians 4:11. If it is not a question, it must be taken as an exclamation of painful surprise: ‘Is it possible that you should observe!’ The Apostle means a Judaistic, slavish, and superstitious observance which ascribes an intrinsic holiness to particular days and seasons (as if the other days and seasons were in themselves profane), and which makes such observance a necessary condition of justification (as if faith in Christ were not sufficient for justification). Such observance virtually derives salvation in some sense from the elements of nature, like the sun and the moon, which regulate the festival seasons. The polemic of Paul is equally applicable to a Judaizing, that is, slavish, superstitious, and self-righteous observance of Sunday or any other Christian festival. But there is also a free, evangelical, and spiritual observance of holy days and seasons, which is essential to proper order in social worship, and which the Apostle was far from condemning, since he himself distinguished in some way ‘the first day’ of the week in commemoration of the resurrection (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2), and also the Passover and Pentecostal seasons (Acts 18:21; Acts 20:6; Acts 20:16; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8). ‘Days,’ the weekly sabbaths, and other single holy days and fast days. Some English commentators would exclude the weekly Sabbath, since it is enjoined in the Decalogue; but this is arbitrary and contrary to the parallel passage, Colossians 2:16 (‘sabbath days’). Paul denounces the Pharisaic Sabbatarianism, as Christ Himself had done by word and example. It was a pedantic, mechanical, slavish observance which worshipped the letter and killed the spirit. Even Rabbi Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, and one of the most liberal of the Pharisees, was unwilling to unload his ass laden with honey on a sabbath day, and let the poor animal die. This was considered a proof of great piety. But it is a serious error to inter from this passage (and Colossians 2:16; Romans 14:5) that the Sabbath is abolished in the Christian dispensation. The law of the Sabbath, i.e., of one weekly day of holy rest in God (the seventh in the Jewish, the first in the Christian Church) is as old as the creation, it is founded in the moral and physical constitution of man, it was instituted in Paradise, incorporated in the Decalogue on Mount Sinai, put on a new foundation by the resurrection of Christ, and is an absolute necessity for public worship and the welfare of man. ‘The Sabbath is made for man,’ that is, instituted by God for man’s spiritual and temporal benefit. So marriage is made for man, government is made for man. But the Judaizers reversed the order and made the Sabbath an end instead of a means, and a burden instead of a blessing. ‘Months,’ the new moons (comp. Colossians 2:16), which were kept as joyful festivals by the Jews (Numbers 28:11-15, especially those of the seventh month, which had the same sacredness among the months of the year as the sabbath among the days of the week. ‘Seasons,’ the festival seasons, which lasted several days, as the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast or Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:4). ‘Years,’ sabbatical (i.e., every seventh) and jubilee (every fiftieth) years (Leviticus 25:2-17). This does not necessarily imply that the Galatians were then actually celebrating a sabbatical year according to the Mosaic ritual; the plural speaks against such a supposition. But this point belonged to their theory, which consistently must have led them to a corresponding practice as soon as the occasion presented itself.

Verse 11

Galatians 4:11. I am apprehensive of you, last haply I have toiled for you in vain. This verse is, as it were, bathed in tears, and betrays the deep and painful solicitude of a faithful pastor for his stray sheep, or a tender father for his erring children. It leads to the affectionate appeal, Galatians 4:12 ff.

Verse 12

Galatians 4:12. Become as I (am), for I also (became) as you (are). Paul asks the Galatians to imitate his example, that is, to cast off their Judaizing tendency and to become simple, decided, and consistent Christians, as he had done himself when he cast off his former Judaism, and when he placed himself on a level with them in their heathen state in order to win them to Christ. I abandoned all for you; do the same for me. Comp. Galatians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 9:20-21. Others take the words to be an exhortation to love him as he loved them, or to enter as fully into his heart and sympathy, as he had by love identified himself with them. But this does not fall in with the connection, and Paul makes no complaint of a want of love to him.

Brethren, I beseech you, belongs to the preceding admonition, adding to it the force of a painfully agitated, affectionate, and loving heart

You did me no injury. I have no personal ground of complaint. This explanation agrees best with what follows. Paul reminds the readers of the happy relation which existed between them at his first visit, where they showed him the most tender affection and were ready for any sacrifice.

Other explanations: (1.) My severe language (Galatians 4:11) proceeds from no provocation of yours. (2.) You have not offended me by your apostasy, but God and Christ. (3.) You have not injured me, but yourselves. (4.) I will forgive and forget all the past injury, if you now return. (5.) You never disobeyed me before, do not disobey me now.

Verses 12-20

2. Affectionate Appeal to the Galatians.

Paul interrupts his argument for a moment by an affectionate appeal to the feelings of the Galatians. He reminds them of their former enthusiastic love and veneration for him, and seeks thus to regain their confidence. He wishes to force a passage through their heart to their conviction. To work upon the feelings is perfectly legitimate, and one of the most fruitful agencies of persuasion and conversion, but it must always be made subservient to the interests of truth.

Verse 13

Galatians 4:13. But ye know that on account of an infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you the former time. ‘On account of’ or ‘because of’ is the only correct translation of the Greek text, [1] not ‘through’ (as in the E. V.), nor ‘in,’ nor ‘amid.’ The infirmity, whatever it was, is here represented as the occasion of Paul’s preaching (not as the condition during his preaching). It seems that he intended first merely to pass through Galatia, on his second large missionary tour, but was detained there by some undefined bodily infirmity or sickness, and thus induced to preach the gospel. This would place the love of the Galatians to him in a still stronger light, since he had no claim upon it, and became their benefactor, so to speak, only by accident. Conybeare well expresses the sense by translating, somewhat too freely: ‘On the contrary, although it was sickness (as you know) which caused me to preach the glad-tidings to you at my first visit, yet you neither scorned nor loathed the bodily infirmity which was my [your] trial.’ In the absence of further information, the exact character of this infirmity of the flesh cannot be determined, except that it was a painful, recurrent, and repulsive physical malady, no doubt the same which he calls a ‘thorn in the flesh,’ 2 Corinthians 12:7. This infirmity was a check upon spiritual pride and kept Paul near the cross. God overruled the obstacle for the furtherance of the gospel (as He did afterwards his bonds, Philippians 1:12), and manifested the strength of His supernatural grace in and through the weakness of nature, comp. 2 Corinthians 12:9: (My) strength is made perfect in weakness. See Excursus below. ‘The former time,’ on the first of my two visits. Paul had been twice in Galatia before writing this Epistle, comp. Acts 16:6; Acts 18:23. At his second visit (Acts 18:23) the pleasant relation was already disturbed by the intermeddling of the Judaizing teachers, as intimated in Galatians 4:16.

[1] Διά with the accusative, not with the genitive. Sometimes the preposition with the accusative has the temporal sense (‘during a period of sickness’), but only in poetry and rarely.

Verses 13-15


Excursus on Chap. Galatians 4:13-15 . Comp. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. [1]

[1] Comp. Dean Stanley, Com. on Corinth, (a Cor. 12:1, pp. 547-552 (4th ed. 1876). Bp. Lightfoot, Com. on Gal., Excursus, pp. 183-188. Thomas Lewin, Life and Epistles 0f St. Paul, ( 1875) i. 186-189. Canon Farrar, Life and Work 0f St. Paul, i. 652-661. J. J. Lias, Com. on Second Corinth xii. 7. (‘Cambridge Bible,’ 1879). Dr. Plumptre, Com. on Second Corinth., 12:7 (in Ellicott’s N. T. Com.).

Among older commentators, Poole, Calov, and Wolf have collected the various interpretations. Meyer gives only a brief summary on a Cor. 12 pp. 337, 338 (fifth Germ, ed., 1870).

Paul did his great work in constant struggle against trials and difficulties from without and from within. His lire was a continuous battle with Jews, Gentiles, and false brethren. He stood almost alone, one against a world in arms. Not even a wife, or a son, or a daughter cheered him on his way, or shared with him his troubles and cares. But he had Christ on his side, who is mightier than the host of hell. This warlike aspect gives to his work the character of a heroic poem.

Among the difficulties which Paul had to contend with was that mysterious ‘infirmity of the flesh,’ to which he alludes in the fourth chapter of the Galatians, and the ‘thorn in the flesh,’ of which he speaks in the twelfth chapter of the Second Corinthians. These Epistles were written in the same period of his life (A. D. 54 to 57), and the passages refer no doubt to the same trouble. We will place them beside each other.

Galatians 4:13-15 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 ‘Ye know that on account of an infirmity of the flesh I preached unto you the former time [on the first of my two visits among you]; and your trial in my flesh [that which was a trial to you in my flesh] ye did not scorn, nor loathe [ lit. spit out], but as an angel of God did ye receive me, [even] as Jesus Christ. Where is then your self-congratulation? for I bear you witness that you would have plucked out your eyes, if possible, and given them to me.’

‘And that I might not be exalted too much by this superabundance of revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to buffet me, that I should not be exalted too much. For this thrice did I entreat the Lord that it might depart from me. But he hath said unto me: “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is being perfected in weakness.” most gladly then will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the strength of Christ may rest upon me.’

The first attack of which we are informed took place fourteen years before the composition of the Second Corinthians (57), that is, A.D. 43 or 44, probably after that trance in the Temple of Jerusalem which determined his career as the Apostle of the Gentiles, 2 Corinthians 12:2; comp. Acts 22:17. Then again he was seized by a prolonged attack in 51 or 52, during his first visit to Galatia, Galatians 4:13. He seems to refer to a similar attack, when in 52 or 53 he wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:18) that ‘Satan had hindered him’ from visiting them, and when a few years afterwards (57) he reminded the Corinthians that he was with them ‘in weakness and in fear, and in much trembling’ (1 Corinthians 2:3). In the second Epistle he informs them of an affliction which befell him in Asia and which was so severe that he ‘despaired even of life’ (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). If we press the words ‘thrice I prayed the Lord,’ we may infer that down to the year 57 he had at least three severe attacks of this peculiar infirmity, and that it was after the third that the Lord pointed out to him the practical design of the trial and assured him of grace sufficient to bear it.

Allusions to the same trouble, but less certain, have been found in other passages where Paul speaks more generally of his sufferings in the cause of Christ, and more particularly his persecutions, namely, Galatians 6:17 (the sacred stigmata or marks of Jesus branded on his body); 2 Corinthians 4:10 (‘always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body’); Colossians 1:24 (‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part the deficiencies of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His body, which is the church’).

The contemporaries of St. Paul who were personally acquainted with him knew at once what he meant by his ‘infirmity’ and by his ‘thorn in the flesh;’ but we who live at such a distance are largely left to conjecture as to its precise nature. The apocryphal literature is silent on this point. The ‘Acts of Thecla’ give us a description of the personal appearance of Paul, but no account of his special infirmity. The magnifying glass of the legend enhances only the virtues of its heroes, while the defects disappear or are remembered only indistinctly. There is, however, a vague tradition, first briefly mentioned by Tertullian, that Paul suffered from severe headache.

What we can gather with some degree of certainty from his Epistles are the following particulars:

1. The infirmity of Paul was a bodily ailment or physical malady. It was an ‘infirmity of the flesh,’ Galatians 4:13, or ‘ in his (my) flesh,’ Galatians 4:14, ‘a thorn in the flesh,’ 2 Corinthians 12:7, that is, not a literal thorn, but a physical pain, as sharp as that caused by a thorn or pin thrust in the flesh. [1] It is true, ‘flesh’ often means, in Paul’s vocabulary, the corrupt carnal nature of man, but in these passages it must refer to the body; for a check on the sinful nature would be a spiritual blessing rather than a hindrance to get rid of.

[1] The dative τῇ σαρκί , a Cor. 12:7, is the dative of appropriation, ‘a thorn for the flesh.’ So Meyer in loc, but he misunderstands σαρξ of that part of the spiritual man which is most inclined to sin. This is inconsistent with the ‘infirmity of the flesh’ in Gal., and Paul would not have prayed for a removal of a check on his sinful inclination.

2. It must have been very painful. This is implied in the Greek word ο ϰ όλοψ, which only occurs once in the New Testament, but frequently elsewhere, and means either a wooden ‘stake,’ or a sharp ‘thorn,’ a splinter; the latter meaning prevails in Hellenistic Greek (LXX. Hosea 2:6; Ezekiel 28:24; Numbers 33:55; Sir 43:19 ), and is decidedly preferable here, for the idea of a stake driven through the flesh is exaggerated and coarse. [2] The Apostle moreover prayed again and again to be delivered from this pain. A man of his energy and zeal would not have minded or mentioned an ordinary ailment.

[2] Against Lightfoot, Plumptre, and Farrar, who all prefer the meaning ‘ stake,’ misled by the prevailing classical usage. The Vulgate translates σκόλοψ by stimulus.

3. It was of a repulsive and even loathsome character, and offered a strong temptation to the Galatians to ‘despise’ and ‘spit out’ the Apostle. But it created also pity and compassion on the sufferer.

4. It was not a continuous, but an intermittent trouble. It seized him while passing through Galatia and detained him there, so that he involuntarily became the evangelist and spiritual father of the Galatians, Galatians 4:13 (according to the correct rendering of δι᾿ ἀσθενείαν τῆς σαρκὸς, ‘on account of an infirmity of the flesh’). The intermittent character is also implied in the word ‘buffet.’

5. It was not hereditary, but dated, it would seem, from the time of his conversion or afterwards; as Jacob’s lameness came from his wrestling with Jehovah. He says: ‘There was given to me (ἐ δόθη) a thorn in the flesh.’ And it was given to him by God through Satan for his humiliation. It is possible, however, that the disease dated from the earlier life of Paul, and was aggravated and also graciously overruled after his conversion.

6. It had a mysterious background, and was connected with demoniac influences; for he describes the trouble as an ‘angel of Satan,’ [3] who did ‘buffet ’ him or strike him with the fist. But Satan was here, as in the case of Job, only an instrument in the hands of the permissive and overruling providence of God, and had to serve against his will the moral end of guarding the Apostle against spiritual pride.

[3] Άγγελος Σαταν ᾶ is in apposition to σκόλοψ . Satan has under him a host of fallen angels, Matthew 25:41, and uses them as agents for all sorts of evil and mischief of which he is the prime author, comp. 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Corinthians 11:14; 1 Thessalonians 2:18, etc., and also Job 2:2 ff.

7. It was apt to break out after some special revelation or exaltation with which Paul was favored from time to time. For he mentions it after the account of his rapture into the third heaven where he heard ‘unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter,’ and he represents the thorn in the flesh as a counter-action to the inflation and boastfulness which such exceptional insight into the mysteries of divine truth might otherwise have produced. Sudden transitions from a taste of heavenly glory to earthly misery are not infrequent in the lives of saints. The disciples had to come down from the Mount of Transfiguration to be confronted with hideous maladies, a contrast so admirably reproduced by Raphael in his last and greatest picture. Peter after he had, by revelation, confessed Christ as the Son of God, and earned the name of ‘Rock,’ was rebuked and called ‘Satan,’ because, under the influence of his flesh and blood, if not of Satan himself, he had, presumed to warn his Lord and Master against the path of suffering which alone could lead to the redemption of the world.

So far exegesis may go with the data before us. Some of the ablest commentators stop here, and say that Paul’s infirmity was a painful physical malady which he derived from Satan, but which cannot now be definitely determined. [4]

[4] So Olshausen, De Wette, Meyer, Neander, Stanley, and others.

But it is very interesting to examine the various theories and conjectures. Some are fanciful, some probable, none certain. They reflect the various personal experiences and trials of Christian men. We may classify them under three heads: physical evils; external calamities; spiritual trials.


Almost every ailment or disorder to which human flesh is subject has been named by commentators as the thorn in the flesh, such as headache, earache, blindness, or sore eyes, dyspepsia, gravel, epilepsy, hypochondria, impediment of speech, diminutive figure, nervous prostration, a general sickly condition (rather than a particular disease), but those only deserve special consideration which combine more or less the characteristic features which are required by the text. These are ophthalmia, epilepsy, and sick headache.

1. Inflammation of the eyes, or acute ophthalmia. [5] This disease is still very prevalent in the Orient, especially in Egypt, among children and adults, and often presents an aspect almost as distressing as leprosy and epilepsy. In every street of Alexandria and Cairo, you may see children suffering with eyes inflamed and besieged by flies, on the arms or shoulders of the mother, who from superstitious fear of evil spirits makes no attempt to drive the flies away. The Egyptian ophthalmia, so called, is contagious and accompanied by severe burning pain, headache, and prostration. ‘When the disease is unchecked, it is liable to produce ulceration or sloughing of the cornea, with the escape of the aqueous humor and protrusion of the iris; and even when these results do not follow, vision is often destroyed by permanent opacity of the cornea.’

[5] So very positively Lewin, Plumptre, Farrar, and other English and American writers. It is strange that Meyer in his summary of views docs not even mention the theory of ophthalmia.

In favor of this theory the following arguments have been urged, none of which, however, is conclusive:

( a.) Paul was struck with blindness by the dazzling light of glory which appeared to him at his conversion. But this blindness lasted only three days, and was as it would seem, permanently cured by Ananias, Acts 9:8-9; Acts 9:17-18.

( b.) The Galatians in the first flush of their gratitude for Paul, who, notwithstanding his severe affliction, preached to them the good tidings of salvation, were willing, if possible, to pluck out even their eyes [1] and to give them to the suffering messenger of God, Galatians 4:15. But the eyes, the most precious members of the body, represent here figuratively the greatest sacrifice.

[1] Not ‘your own eyes,’ as King James’ version has it. The Greek ύμ ῶ ν is not emphatic, and the stress lays on ‘e yes,’ not on ‘your.’

( c.) Paul did not recognize the high-priest, when he called him a ‘whited wall,’ Acts 23:3-5. But this may have been owing to nearsightedness, rather than to diseased vision.

(d.) His handwriting was awkward, Galatians 6:11 (‘See what large letters, or characters, I write with mine own hand’), and he usually employed an amanuensis, Romans 16:22. But the former passage refers only to the large size of the letters, which is often characteristic of boldness; and even bad and illegible handwriting is not infrequent among men of genius with sound eyes. [2]

[2] I may mention, as instances, Napoleon, Neander, Bean Stleany.

( e.) The term ‘thorn in the flesh’ naturally suggests the image of a sharp splinter run into the eye, and an ocular deformity caused thereby, which might well be compared to the brand fixed on a slave, Galatians 6:17. But this passage refers to permanent marks of persecution from without rather than an inherent trouble.

If Paul suffered from blindness, or blurred vision, he would involuntarily remind us of the two greatest epic poets, Homer and Milton, of the eminent divine Dionysius of Alexandria, and of the historian Prescott. His vision of the outward world was dimmed that he might see the mysteries of the spiritual and eternal world. Milton wrote his ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’ in midnight darkness, yet full of faith and hope:

‘These eyes,

Bereft of light, their seeing have forgot;

Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear

Of son, or moon, or star, throughout the year,

Or man, or woman. Yet I argue not

Against Heaven’s hand and will, nor bate a jot

Of heart or hope, but still bear up, and steer

Right onward.’

2. Epilepsy, or the falling sickness. [3] This answers nearly every condition of the text. It is painful; it is recurrent; it suspends all voluntary action; it is exceedingly humiliating, distressing, and repulsive, and makes the sufferer an object of loathing to others. It is often connected with delicate sensibility, nervous excitement, visions, and trances. It is characterized by sudden insensibility, spasmodic movements of the muscles, violent distortions of the face, protrusion of the tongue, foaming at the mouth, and ghastly expression of countenance. The fits last usually from five to twenty minutes and are followed by a state of stupor. Epilepsy was considered by the ancients as a supernatural and ‘sacred disease,’ and derived from the influence of the gods or evil spirits; the Jews traced it to demoniacal possession; the Welsh call it ‘the rod of Christ.’ Mohammed often had trances and epileptic fits, during which he foamed at the mouth, and uttered guttural sounds like a camel; at first he and his followers derived them from evil spirits, but afterwards from the angel Gabriel who inspired his messages. The faintings and ecstasies of St. Bernard, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Spain, George Fox, and Emanuel Swedenborg may also be mentioned as illustrations or analogies. Recent English commentators have called attention to the case of King Alfred, the greatest and best of English kings. It is said that God sent him in his youth a malady which had all the symptoms of epilepsy, in answer to the prayer for some corporal suffering or other protection against the temptations of the flesh. For many years it caused him terrible tortures and led him to despair of his life, but then it left him, in answer to his fervent prayers for deliverance, until it suddenly reappeared in the midst of his marriage festival, to the dismay of the guests, and rudely silenced their loud joy. To a good old age he was never sure against its recurrence, and it was under the load of this bodily infirmity that he discharged, most energetically and faithfully, the duties of a sovereign in a most trying time. [4] I knew an eminent and celebrated Christian scholar of high moral and religious character, who in his younger years was subject to this terrible disease; but his friends concealed it. The only serious objection to this theory is the repulsive character of epilepsy. But Paul himself describes his infirmity as loathsome. It is also urged that he must have had a powerful constitution to make so many journeys by land and by sea, to preach in the day and to work at his trade in the night, and to endure all sorts of hardship and persecution. But physical infirmity is sometimes combined with great nervous vitality and tenacity.

[3] Ziegler, Ewald (‘fallende Sucht oder so was aknliches’). Hausrath, Holsten, and especially Lightfoot.

[4] Pauli’s Life 0f Alfred, Engl., transl., pp. 122-125, quoted by Jowett and Lightfoot

3. Sick headache. This has in its favor the oldest tradition. It is first mentioned by Tertullian, who adds to it earache, [5] and is confirmed by Jerome, who mentions the traditional report that Paul often suffered the most severe headache. [6] I would unhesitatingly adopt this view if it were not for the objection that headache, even in its severest form, does not present the feature of such repulsiveness as to make the sufferer an object of contempt. As the argument now stands, the second theory has, exegetically, the advantage above all others.

[5] De Pudic.,c. 13: ‘ per dolerem, ut ainnt, auricula vel capitis.’

[6] Com. in Galatians 4:14: ‘ Tradunt cum gravissmum capitis dolorem sape perpessum.’ Chrysostom, Theophylact, Pelagius, and CEcumenius likewise mention this opinion as held by some.


These are ruled out by the text which points to an inherent difficulty inseparable from his person, although it was not always felt with the same force.

1. Persecutions. [1] Chrysostom argues, quite inconclusively: ‘It cannot have been a headache as some suppose; it cannot have been any physical malady. God would not have delivered over the body of His chosen servant to the power of the devil to be tortured in this way. The Apostle is surely speaking of opposition encountered, of suffering endured from enemies.’ Paul speaks of his persecutions differently and very plainly in other passages, 2 Corinthians 4:7 ff; 2 Corinthians 11:25 ff. Moreover persecution followed the preaching of the gospel, while the infirmity spoken of in the Galatians preceded the preaching.

[1] Chrysostom and other Greek commentators. Augustine is also quoted in favor of this view, but be suggested different conjectures and had no fixed opinion on this subject.

2. Opposition of the Judaising opponents who embittered his life and were the servants of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:13; 2 Corinthians 11:15), together with the cares and anxieties of his office generally. [2] A modification of the former view. No doubt the intrigues of the Judaizers and other mean people tried the Apostle very sorely, and sometimes provoked him to the use of sarcastic language, but they were necessary conditions of the development of Christian truth and of his own system of doctrine.

[2] Theodoret, Erasmus, Calvin, Beza. Schrader, Reiche, etc.

3. A bad wife (like Job’s). But Paul was probably never married (1 Corinthians 7:7-9); and if he had been, he would certainly not have prayed for the removal of his wife. This and similar fancies are only worth mentioning as curiosities of exegesis.


1. Carnal temptations. Paul had to contend with a rebellious sensuality, without, however, being overcome by it. This is the ascetic explanation, vaguely suggested by Jerome, favored by the ambiguous Latin rendering of the ‘thorn in the flesh’ ( stimulus carnis), and adopted by most of the mediaeval and Roman Catholic commentators. Cornelius a Lapide calls it the common interpretation of the Catholics. Cardinal Hugo fancied that the passion was stimulated by the beautiful St. Thecla, one of Paul’s converts and companions (according to apocryphal accounts). Many an ascetic saint, beset by the devil in this way, derived comfort from the belief that Paul was tempted in the same way. Passages like 1 Corinthians 9:27: ‘I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage;’ Romans 7:23: ‘the law of sin in my members;’ Ephesians 6:16 (the ‘firetipt darts of the wicked one’), are quoted in support. But the word ‘thorn’ was never used of the sting of sensuous impulse. What is more conclusive, Paul says expressly with reference to marriage and carnal temptations that he wished all men were as free as he, 1 Corinthians 7:7-9. We look in vain for stronger condemnation of all impurity than in his Epistles. It is preposterous to suppose that he who was all-absorbed in the service of Christ should have been pursued by a sinful passion to such an extent as to be hindered in his ministry and to become an object of contempt and loathing to his converts. And how in the world could he glory in shameful lusts? And how could concupiscence be a check and counter-poise to spiritual pride? [3]

[3] Meyer calls this Roman interpretation ‘a crime against the great Apostle.’ But it is psychologically interesting, as showing that excruciating carnal temptations may enter into the experience of earnest monks, priests, and holy men. St. Jerome speaks of them rather indelicately in letters to female friends, whom he exhorts to keep the vow of chastity. St. Augustine bewails the recurrence in dreams of the old sensuous pictures after his conversion.

2. Violent temper. This does not answer the description at all. No doubt Paul, like most great men, had fiery passions, but under the control of reason, and made subservient to his work. He handled good old Peter rather severely at Antioch; he separated even from his friend Barnabas for a while on account of Mark; he nearly lost his temper when he reviled the high priest; and his Epistles generally are full of sacred fire. Nothing great can be done without enthusiasm, guided by reason. Strong temper is as useful as a strong physical constitution when employed in a good cause. Abuse of temper is always humiliating and a sign of weakness. But some people have no temper to control, and hence deserve no credit for moderation.

3. Spiritual temptations, such as doubt, despondency, faint-heartedness in his calling, torments of conscience on account of his former life, disappointed ambition, blasphemous suggestions of the devil. [4] Paul no doubt had constant conflicts with the powers of darkness, and often felt weary of the strife, and home-sick after heaven (comp. 2 Corinthians 5:1-5; Philippians 1:23; 2 Timothy 4:6), but he never shows the least misgiving as to his faith and his ministry. Having seen the Lord personally, and having been favored repeatedly with special revelations, he would rather have doubted his own existence than the truth of the gospel or his duty as an Apostle.

[4] So Gerson, Luther, Calov, Mosheim, and others. Luther often had Satanic suggestions, and traced the gravel, which troubled him very much, to the devil. In his earlier commentary on Gal. (1519), he explained Paul’s infirmity with Chrysostom of persecutions; in his fuller commentary (1535), he added high spiritual temptations; and lastly in his Table Talk he mentions the latter only.


1. Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh,’ no matter what it was, heightens our conception of his heroism and all-absorbing devotion to Christ, for whom he was ready to suffer all things and to sacrifice life itself.

2. The diversity of interpretations arises from the want of definite information and reflects the persona] experiences and trials of the commentators. The impossibility of attaining at a certain result facilitates the applicability and practical usefulness of that undefined ‘infirmity.’

3. Every Christian has a ‘thorn in his flesh’ either physical, or spiritual, or external. Some have more than one. It may be sickness, or poverty, or misfortune, or persecution, or doubt, or despondency, or unruly temper, or a bad husband, a bad wife, bad children, or any other kind of trouble.

4. The object and use of a thorn in the flesh is to keep us humble and near the cross. It is a check to pride, vanity, sensuality, and other sins. Human nature is too weak to stand uninterrupted prosperity without injury.

5. The thorn in the flesh aids us in developing the passive virtues, meekness, gentleness, patience, resignation. We are often laid on the back that we may learn to look up to heaven. When Paul was weakest in the flesh, he was strongest in spirit. ‘Ana what his trial was to him and to the world on a large scale, that the trial of each individual Christian may have been ever since, the means, in ways inconceivable to him now, of making himself and others strong in the service of God and man.’ [1]

[1] Stanley.

6. The comfort in answer to our prayers for deliverance from our thorn in the flesh is that which was given to Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee; for (My) strength is made perfect in weakness.’ The same answer, though we hear it not, is returned to us in similar trials. Prayer is often refused in one form, but answered in a far better form than we can conceive. The cross of Christ is the strength of Christianity. [2]

[2] Compare the couplet of Schiller (his best):

‘Religion des Kreuzes nur da verknupfest in Einem Kranze

Der Demuth und Kraft doppelte Palme zugleich.’

Verse 14

Galatians 4:14. And your trial in my flesh ye did not scorn, nor loathe (lit. ‘spit out,’ comp. Revelation 3:16). ‘ Your trial’ is better supported than ‘ my trial.’ The infirmity of Paul tried the patience and love of the Galatians and tempted them to scorn and reject both him and the gospel which he preached. For the natural man is always disposed to judge from outward appearance.

But ye received me as an angel of God, (even) as Christ Jesus, who is much superior to any angel. The Galatians acted according to Matthew 10:40: ‘He that receiveth you, receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him that sent Me.’

Verse 15

Galatians 4:15. Where [1] is now your self-congratulation (or, your felicitation of yourselves)? What has become of the boasting of your blessedness, of your rejoicing in my teaching, since you turned away from the freedom of the gospel to the slavery of the law? Have you the same reason now to congratulate yourselves and enjoy that beatitude, which you felt at the time of your first love, when you were ready to make the greatest sacrifices for me in return for the benefit of the gospel? The Apostle asks this Question with painful affection to make the readers feel ashamed. Other explanations: (1.) What [2] then [was] your self-congratulation! i.e., How hollow and unmeaning was your boast of happiness in view of your speedy apostasy! (2.) why, then, did you think yourselves so happy? Answer: On account of the free grace of the gospel. (3.) How great was your happiness! (Ungrammatical on account of the particle and the meaning of the noun.)

[1] Πο ῦ according to the reading of the oldest and best MSS.

[2] According to the received text which reads τίς for πο ῦ, and inserts ῆ ν after ο ῡ ν.

You would have plucked out your eyes and given (them) to me. (Literally, without the ᾶ ν, Having plucked out your eves you gave (them) to me. The Greek more vividly indicates the certainty of the deed if it had been possible and profitable to Paul.) You were ready to make the greatest sacrifice to relieve my sufferings. The eyes are universally regarded as the most precious member of the body. Comp. Psalms 17:8: ‘Keep me as the apple of the eye;’ Deuteronomy 32:10; Proverbs 7:2. Hence the expression, ‘dear as the apple of the eye.’ The emphasis lies on ‘eyes,’ not on ‘your’ (‘your awn’ is an interpolation of the E. V.). No inference can be drawn from this passage that Paul’s infirmity consisted in disease of the eyes (acute ophthalmia), as if to say: ‘Ye would have replaced my diseased eyes with your healthy eyes, if it had been possible.’ Such a sacrifice would have been morally impossible, because barbarous, absurd, and useless, and not permissible by Paul.

Verse 16

Galatians 4:16. So then have I become your enemy by telling you the truth? He puts the conclusion politely and delicately in the form of a question instead of direct assertion. Others translate: ‘Therefore (because ye loved me so much) I have become (in the opinion of the Judaizing teachers) your enemy by telling you the truth.’ In the Judaizing pseudo-Clementine writings Paul is called an ‘enemy,’ and ‘lawless’ or ‘antinomian’ Some substitute ‘hateful to you’ for ‘jour enemy’ (taking the Greek word in the passive sense, as Romans 5:10; Romans 11:18). ‘By telling you the truth,’ refers to the second visit of Paul (Acts 18:23), when the Judaizers had probably already done much mischief.

Verse 17

Galatians 4:17. Warning against the errorists on account of their selfish exclusiveness and party spirit.

They court you, the Judaizers (Galatians 1:7; Galatians 5:10) pay you every attention and are very busy to win you over to their party and their creed, but not well, in no good, honest way, not from unselfish love to you; nay, they desire to exclude you, or to shut you out from me and virtually from Christ Himself, by insisting on ceremonial observances as necessary to salvation; that ye may court them, they wish selfishly to monopolize your esteem and affection. Zeal is no test of sound doctrine, but sound doctrine must prove the zeal. Zeal without knowledge is like a sword in the hands of a madman.

Verse 18

Galatians 4:18. It is good to be zealously courted in a good cause at all times, and not only when I am present with you. I do not object to kind attentions and zealous devotion, provided it be from pure motives and in an honorable cause; I myself received your warmest affection during my personal presence; I only wish you would not grow cold and indifferent during my absence. This interpretation suits the tender appeal which follows.

Verses 19-20

Galatians 4:19-20. Affectionate appeal to the feelings of the Galatians. Galatians 4:19 may be connected with Galatians 4:18, and a comma put after ‘you,’ or with Galatians 4:20 (in which case it is difficult to explain the particle δέ in Galatians 4:20), or may be taken as an independent sentence, an exclamation. The sense is the same.

My little children, of whom I am again in travail, as a mother in child-birth. The diminutive little’ (frequently used by John, but only here by Paul) expresses more forcibly the tenderness of Paul and the feebleness of the Galatians. Usually he represents his relation to his converts as that of a spiritual father, 1Co 4:15 ; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; Philippians 2:22; Philem. Galatians 4:10. ‘Again’ is used with reference to the apostasy of the Galatians so that they need a second regeneration, or conversion rather from the Judaizing pseudo-gospel to the genuine Pauline gospel, as distinct from their first conversion from heathenism to Christianity. The language is figurative and must not be pressed for dogmatic purposes. Strictly speaking, there can be but one regeneration or spiritual birth, which is the act of God, as there can be but one natural birth. But conversion, which is the act of man in turning from sin to God, may be repeated; hence the frequent exhortations in the Bible.

Until Christ be formed in you, as the embryo is developed into the full-grown child. We expect for ‘Christ,’ the ‘new man;’ but Christ in us is the new man, who lives and moves in us as an indwelling and all-controlling power and principle; comp. Galatians 2:20 (and note there); Ephesians 3:17; Galatians 4:13. Regeneration is a transplanting of Christ’s life in us, a repetition, as it were, of the incarnation.

Verse 20

Galatians 4:20. But (or, yea) I could with to be present with you now, and to change my voice, to adapt my speech more fully to your present condition and wants, to use severity or gentle persuasion as may be best (comp. 1 Corinthians 4:21). Others: to change my present tone from severity to gentleness, to mitigate the effect of my written rebuke (comp. 2 Corinthians 2:5 ff.). But the former interpretation better suits the following clause. His wish to visit the Galatians again, was never gratified as far as we know.

For I am perplexed about you. I am at a loss how to address you, I know not what to think of you, I cannot understand your conduct. He fears the worst, yet hopes for the best.

Verse 21

Galatians 4:21. Tell me. This makes the question more urgent and compels the Judaizing Galatians to an evangelical answer.

Ye that desire to be under law, do ye not hear the Law? Ye who are so anxious to live under the power and authority of the legal dispensation, will ye not listen to the lesson of the book of the Law? Comp. Matthew 13:13; Matthew 24:15; Luke 16:29. Others take it as a question of astonishment! Is not the Law (which ought to convince you of your error) constantly read in your synagogues? Comp. Luke 4:16; John 12:32; Acts 15:21; 2 Corinthians 3:14. The law in the first clause means the legal institute and authority; the Law in the second clause designates, as often, the Pentateuch (the Thora), as distinct from the Prophets (Nebiim), and the remaining sacred writings (Chetubim or Hagiographa).

Verses 21-31

The Apostle resumes his argument for the superiority of the gospel over the law, and illustrates the difference of the two by an allegorical interpretation of the history of Sarah and Hagar, and their sons.

Excursus on Allegorical and Typical Interpretation.

We have here an ingenious specimen of a typical allegory. Paul represents Hagar (the slave and concubine) and Sarah (the mistress and lawful wife), with their sons, Ishmael and Isaac, as the types of two covenants, a covenant of law or bondage, and a covenant of promise or freedom. The contrast of the two mothers is reproduced in their two sons, and on a larger scale in two religions, the Jewish and the Christian. It is again repeated in the antagonism between the legalistic Jewish, and the evangelical Gentile Christianity. The points of contrast are as follows:

HAGAR AND ISHMAEL = JUDAISM. SARAH AND ISAAC = CHRISTIANITY. The Old Covenant The New Covenant. The Law. The Gospel (the Promise). Natural Birth. Spiritual Birth. Mount Sinai in Arabia. (Mount Sion in the Land of Promise?) Earthly Jerusalem. Heavenly Jerusalem. Bondage. Freedom. Persecuting. Persecuted. Expulsion. Inheritance. Paul accommodates himself here, as in two other instances (Galatians 3:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4), in some measure, but within the bounds of sobriety and legitimate application, to the prevailing rabbinical exegesis in which he was trained. He does so exceptionally and incidentally. He does not rest the truth or the argument on an allegorical interpretation, but uses it as an accessory illustration of a truth previously established by solid argument. Luther compares it to a painting which decorates a house already built.

Paul regards the patriarchal family with good reason as a miniature picture of the future history of the church, which it represented and anticipated. He does not in the least deny the historical character of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar; but he ascribes to it, at the same time, a wider typical import, and sees in Abraham the father of the faithful, in Sarah and Hagar the mothers of two races and two covenants, in which their personal character and condition is reflected and carried out on a largerscale. This is all sound and true. The chief difficulty is in the identification of Hagar with Sinai, and this is much relieved by the shorter reading. In point of fact the law was given to the descendants of Sarah and Isaac, not to those of Hagar and Ishmael, who stood outside of the covenant. But Sarah and Isaac represented first and last the covenant of promise which overruled the interimistic covenant of law which was given in the desert borderland of the Ishmaelites, as a tutor to prepare the Israelites for the fulfilment of the promise.

Now let us compare with this Scripture passage the allegorical interpretation of the same history by the celebrated Philo of Alexandria (about A.D. 40), the master of the art of allegorizing. According to his view, Abraham represents the human soul progressing towards the knowledge of God. His first wife, Sarah, ‘the princess,’ represents divine wisdom. His second wife, Hagar, ‘the sojourner,’ the Egyptian handmaid of Sarah, means preparatory scholastic training or secular learning, which is transient and unsatisfying. His marriage with Sarah is at first premature and unfruitful; hence she directs him to cohabit with her handmaid, that is to study the lower wisdom of the schools; and the alliance proves fruitful at once. Afterwards he again unites himself to Sarah, who bears him a son with a countless offspring; thus the barren woman becomes ‘most fruitful.’ Moreover, Isaac likewise represents true wisdom, Ishmael sophistry, which in the end must give place to wisdom, and be ‘cast out’

The difference is very characteristic. As Lightfoot (p. 195) happily expresses it, ‘the Christian Apostle and the philosophic Jew move in parallel lines, keeping side by side, and yet never once crossing each other’s path.’ Their allegorical explanations of the same history are ‘most like and yet most unlike.’ There is a similar relation of similitude and contrast between Philo’s and St. John's doctrine of the divine Logos. It is the difference between a shadowy abstraction and a substantial reality. Philo sacrificed the obvious grammatical and historical sense to the spiritual and mystic; the Apostles never invalidate the historical sense. Philo put his Platonic ideas and fancies into the Old Testament; the Apostles drew out the deeper meaning of the same. Philo idealized the Mosaic religion till it evaporated into philosophical abstractions and mythical shadows; the Apostles spiritualized the Mosaic religion, and saw in it the type of the truth and reality of the gospel.

We add a few general remarks on typical and allegorical interpretation.

1. The sacred authors used language, like other writers, in order to be understood by the people whom they addressed. They intended one definite meaning, not two or three. This meaning can only be ascertained by grammatical and historical interpretation, according to the acknowledged laws of thought and speech, and in view of the conditions and surroundings of the author. This is the only sound and firm basis of all true exegesis.

2. The Bible has throughout a profound spiritual meaning, and admits of endless application. To find it, requires spiritual insight and sympathy, which is a greater and rarer gift than knowledge of grammar and critical acumen. But this spiritual meaning is in the letter, as the kernel is in the shell, and as the soul is in the body, not outside of, and contrary to, the plain, natural meaning of the words and phrases. Nor is it a second meaning besides the natural.

3. The whole Jewish dispensation, including history, prophecy, worship, and ritual, is a type and shadow of the Christian dispensation (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 8:5; Hebrews 9:23; Hebrews 10:1). Every person, event, and institution expresses an actual idea or fact which is more fully expressed or developed by a corresponding idea or fact in the Christian dispensation. The typical significance depends on the connection with the central idea of the theocracy and the preparation for Christianity. The nearer a person or event to the person of Christ and the history of redemption, the deeper is their typical import. In a wider sense all history is typical and prophetical, and every period is a higher fulfilment of the preceding period. Hence ‘there is nothing new under the sun;’ and yet history never repeats itself. The New Testament is full of typical interpretation and application of the Old Testament; but there are no allegorical interpretations in the Gospels, and very few in the Epistles.

4. Allegorical interpretation, technically so-called, as distinct from typical illustration and verification, assumes a double or threefold sense of the Scriptures, an obvious literal sense and a hidden spiritual or mystic sense, both of which were intended by the sacred writer. It was introduced into the Christian church by the learned Origen, who in this respect was more a disciple of Philo than of Paul, and distinguished three senses of the Bible, corresponding to the three constituent elements in roan, body, soul, and spirit. It extensively prevailed with various modifications in the Christian church, especially during the Middle Ages, and again in the seventeenth century. It opened the door to the most arbitrary treatment of the Bible and turned it into a nose of wax. It is irreverently reverent. It assumes that the plain natural sense of the Bible is not deep enough and must be improved by human ingenuity. It substitutes subjective fancies for objective truths, and pious imposition for honest exposition. It is not dead yet, and falsely appeals to St. Paul; forgetting that he was inspired, while we are not, and that he allegorized only two or three times, for illustration, rather than argument. Calvin, one of the soundest commentators, strongly protests against this abuse of Scripture, and says: ‘As the Apostle declares that these things are allegorized, Origen and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outward bark of the letter, there lurk deeper mysteries which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculations which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred by the world to sound doctrine. For many centuries no man was considered to be ingenious, who had not the skill and daring necessary for changing into a variety of curious shapes the sacred word of God. This was undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true benefit. God visited this profanation by a just judgment, when He suffered the pure meaning of the Scripture to be buried under false interpretations. I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely.’

5. But even if we admit that Paul’s typical allegory in this passage borders on the rabbinical exegesis of his age, from which, however, it differs very materially as we have shown, it cannot weaken our confidence in his inspiration. I quote the judicious remarks of Bishop Lightfoot (p. 197): We need not fear to allow that St. Paul’s mode of teaching here is colored by his early education in the rabbinical schools. It were as unreasonable to stake the Apostle's inspiration on the turn of a metaphor, or the character of an illustration, or the form of an argument, as on purity of diction. No one now thinks of maintaining that the language of the inspired writers reaches the classical standard of correctness and elegance, though at one time it was held almost a heresy to deny this. “A treasure contained in earthen vessels,” “strength made perfect in weakness,” “rudeness in speech, yet not in knowledge,” such is the far nobler conception of inspired teaching, which we may gather from the Apostle's own language. And this language we should do well to keep in mind. But on the other hand it were sheer dogmatism to set up the intellectual standard of our own age or country as an infallible rule. The power of allegory has been differently felt in different ages, as it is differently felt at any one time by diverse nations. Analogy, allegory, metaphor by what boundaries are these separated from each other? What is true or false, correct or incorrect, as an analogy, or an allegory? What argumentative force must be assigned to either? We should, at least, be prepared with an answer to these questions, before we venture to sit in judgment on any individual case.’

Verse 22

Galatians 4:22. Abraham had two sons, one by the bondmaid, the other by the freewoman. See Genesis 16:1 ff; Genesis 21:1 ff. The ‘bondmaid’ is Hagar, the ‘freewoman’ is Sarah. In the national legends of the Mohammedan Arabs who derive their descent from Ishmael, Hagar is represented as the lawful wife, and Ishmael as the legitimate son of Abraham; they settled in Mecca and were refreshed from the well in the holy Kaaba, which was from time immemorial and is to this day a sanctuary and resort of pilgrimage. The Mohammedans pray five times a day with their face turned to Mecca. It is remarkable how the relation of Ishmael to Abraham has been perpetuated in history. The Mohammedans are in their religion genuine Ishmaelites, bastard Jews, and wild sons of the desert, whose hands are against every man. (Genesis 16:12).

Verse 23

Galatians 4:23. But the son from the bondmaid was born after the flesh, in the regular course of nature. (Used somewhat differently in Romans 1:3; Romans 9:5.) But the son of the freewoman is through the promise, by virtue of supernatural influence, by the Spirit of God working through the word of promise (as in the conception of our Lord). Genesis 17:16; Genesis 17:19; Genesis 18:10-11; comp. Romans 4:19.

Verse 24

Galatians 4:24. Which things are allegorized, allegorically expounded, have an allegorical signification. The story of Hagar and Sarah has another (namely, a figurative, typical) meaning, besides (not, instead of) the literal or historical. Paul does not deny the fact, but makes it the bearer of a general idea, which was more fully expressed in two covenants. He uses allegorical here in a sense similar to the word ‘typical’ in 1 Corinthians 10:11 (Greek). See the Excursus. ‘ Allegory’ means a description of one thing under the figure of another, so that the real or intended meaning differs from the obvious sense of the words; the verb ‘to allegorize’ (only used here in the New Testament) means, (1) to speak in an allegory or figuratively, that is so as to intend another sense than the words express; (2) to interpret as an allegory, and in the passive mood: to have an allegorical meaning. So here.

For these (two women, Hagar and Sarah) are two covenants. They ‘are’ allegorically, that is, they represent or signify, two covenants. Comp. Matthew 13:39; Mat 26:26-28 ; 1 Corinthians 10:4.

One (of them) from Mount Sinai, bringing forth (or bearing children) unto bondage; and this is Hagar. The regular antithesis would be: ‘the other from Mount Sion (which corresponds to the upper Jerusalem), bearing children unto freedom; and this is Sarah.’ This is substantially expressed in Galatians 4:26, but owing to the intervening explanatory parenthesis, Galatians 4:25, the grammatical form melts away in the general structure. Besides the parallel is not quite complete; for Sarah was the mother not only of the true spiritual children of Abraham, but also of those carnal Jews who are no better than the children of Hagar, who strictly speaking stood outside of the Sinaitic covenant and became through her illegitimate son Ishmael the mother of a bastard Judaism (the religion of Mohammed).

Verse 25

Galatians 4:25. A difficult passage. The reading of the first clause is disputed. The longer text (which is supported by the Vatican MS. and adopted by Westcott and Hort) reads: But (or, Now) this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia. [1] This implies that the name Hagar was an Arabic designation for Mount Sinai, but this cannot be satisfactorily proven (as the testimonies of Chrysostom and the Bohemian traveller Harant are isolated and unconfirmed). Hagar means ‘Wanderer,’ ‘Fugitive,’ and is connected with the Arabic ‘Hegira’ (the famous ‘flight’ of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, whence the beginning of the Mohammedan era); Sinai means ‘Pointed,’ or (according to Fürst) ‘Rocky.’ There is, however, an Arabic word of similar sound, though different etymology, (‘Hadschar,’ or ‘Hadjar,’ ‘Chajar’), which means a ‘stone’ or a ‘rock,’ and is to this day applied to several remarkable stones on and around Sinai, e . g. to the traditional rock from which Moses drew water (in the Wady Leja). At the time of Paul, who was himself in Arabia (see note on Galatians 1:17), it may have been (and in case this reading is correct, it must have been) a local name of one of the peaks of that group of barren rocks, or of the whole group; as ‘Selah’ or ‘Petra’ (‘Rock’) was the name of the famous rock-hewn city, in the Sinaitic Peninsula, and that part of Arabia was called the ‘Rocky Arabia’ (Arabia Petrea). At present the principal peaks of Sinai are called ‘Jebel Musa’ (Mount of Moses, the traditional mount of legislation), ‘Ras Sufsâfeh’ (the probable mount of legislation, facing the vast plain Er Raha), and ‘Jebel Katharina.’ Calvin and others escape this difficulty by explaining: ‘Hagar is a type of (or, represents) Mount Sinai in Arabia.’ But against this is the Greek neuter article before Hagar (‘the thing’ or ‘the name’ Hagar; not in the feminine, ‘the woman Hagar’). The shorter reading (of the Sinaitic MS. and the Vulgate, adopted by Lachmann, Tischendorf, in the last edition, and Lightfoot) is: For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia. [2] This is quite intelligible and free from the difficulty just mentioned, though for this very reason subject to the suspicion of being a correction, if it were not for the ease with which the insertion of Hagar can be explained in the Greek. Some take the clause in either case as a parenthesis, others as a continuation of the argument. It cannot be merely a geographical notice for the Galatians; for Sinai was well known to all who had heard of the Mosaic legislation. The stress seems to lie on ‘Arabia,’ known as a land of the wild descendants of Hagar. She fled with Ishmael to the Sinaitic Peninsula (Genesis 16:7; Genesis 16:14); several Arab tribes were named after her ‘Hagarenes’ or ‘Hagarites’ (Psalms 83:7; 1 Chronicles 5:19), and the Arabs generally were called ‘sons of Hagar’ ( Bar 3:23 ). The law was given not on Mount Sion in the land of promise, but outside of it in Arabia, and this corresponds to Hagar who was an outsider, an Egyptian slave. The law ‘came in beside’ (Galatians 3:19; Romans 5:20), and had only an intermediate and transitory importance in the history of salvation.

[1] A, B, D, E read τὸ δὲ Ἅγαρ Σινὰ ὄρος ἐστὶν ἐν τῇ Ἀραβίᾳ . K, L, P, with the majority of cursive MSS-, read γαρ. instead of δὲ (but, now).

[2] τὸ γὰρ Σινὰ ὄρος ἐστὶν ἐν τῇ ʼ Αραβία. So א , C, F, G, Vulg., Orig The words τὸ γὰρ might easily be chanced by a careless scribe into to τὸ Ἅγαρ, as this name immediately precedes the disputed reading.

Correspondeth to the Jerusalem which now is. Lit: belongs to the same row or column, is in the same rank with. Both have the same nature, namely, both are in bondage. But what is the subject of the verb? If the preceding clause be taken as a parenthesis, the subject is the Sinaitic covenant, Galatians 4:24; but if it is not parenthetical, Hagar is the subject in the longer reading, or Mount Sinai in the shorter reading. ‘The Jerusalem which now is,’ or the present, the earthly Jerusalem, which represents, as the metropolis, the whole Jewish race, the Mosaic theocracy.

For she is in bondage with her children. In bondage to the Mosaic law (also to Rome, although this is not meant here). The Jewish church which crucified the Lord and persecutes the Christian church, is in spiritual slavery, as Hagar was in literal slavery. We must here remember the Pauline distinction between two Israels, a spiritual Israel which embraces all believers, whether of the circumcision or of the uncircumcision, and is the true heir of promise, and the carnal Israel, which has only the circumcision of the flesh, and not of the heart, which is of the blood, but not of the faith of Abraham, and is cast out like Hagar and Ishmael. Comp. Romans 2:26-29; Romans 4:12 ff; Romans 9:6 ff.

Verse 26

Galatians 4:26. But the Jerusalem which is above (or, the upper Jerusalem) is free; and she is our mother (mother of us). The reading of the E. V. ‘of us air is not sufficiently supported, and arose probably at an early time from Romans 4:16, ‘the father of us all,’ or from a loose quotation of this passage by Polycarp. The other covenant, that which is represented by Sarah and her believing offspring, is the true or heavenly Jerusalem, that is not (as the rabbinical teachers imagined) an actual material city in heaven (the exact counterpart of the earthly Jerusalem), which was to be let down in the Messianic age, but a spiritual city, the Messianic theocracy, the kingdom of heaven, to which all true Christians belong, even here on earth, Philippians 3:20. The word ‘above,’ therefore is not local, but ethical and spiritual; as in the phrase, ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ to be born ‘from above.’ Comp. the ‘heavenly Jerusalem,’ Hebrews 12:22 (where it is contrasted with mount Sinai, Galatians 4:18), the ‘new Jerusalem,’ Revelation 3:12; Revelation 21:2. ‘And she is our mother,’ the mother of us Christians. This passage and the concluding chapters of Revelation struck the keynote to the hymn ‘Mother dear, Jerusalem,’ and the other New Jerusalem hymns in Latin, English, and German, which express so touchingly the Christian’s longing after his eternal home in heaven.

Verse 27

Galatians 4:27. ‘Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not,’ etc. An illustration of the allegory by a passage from Isaiah 54:1, which prophesies the deliverance of God’s afflicted nation from the foreign bondage of the Babylonian exile, and her restoration to freedom and prosperity, so that from a mourning widow, like Sarah, she shall become a rejoicing mother of many children. The prophet himself, in a previous chapter (Isaiah 51:2), refers to God’s dealings with Abraham and Sarah, as a type of his dealings with their descendants. In the application, the barren who becomes fruitful, is the type of the Christian church, more especially the Gentile Christian church, as opposed to the Jewish synagogue. This application is fully justified by the Messianic character of the whole second part of Isaiah (beginning with chap. 40).

Verse 28

Galatians 4:28. But ye, brethren, as Isaac was (or, after the manner of Isaac), are children of promise. Resumes the main subject; comp. Galatians 4:23. Christian believers are born, like Isaac, of the unfruitful Sarah, contrary to the ordinary course of nature, by the supernatural power of the divine promise, and are therefore children of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Verse 29

Galatians 4:29. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him (that was born) after the Spirit, even so now. The history of Isaac and Ishmael was typical also in another respect, inasmuch as it foreshadowed the hostility of the carnal, unbelieving Judaism against Christianity. ‘Persecuted him.’ According to the Hebrew text, Genesis 21:9, Ishmael was simply ‘laughing’ or ‘mocking’ at the festival in honor of the weaning of Isaac; whereupon Sarah said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son.’ But the Jewish tradition expanded the word, so as to mean an assault of Ishmael upon Isaac. This insolence was repeated in the aggressions of the Arab tribes, especially the Hagarenes on the Israelites (Psalms 83:7; 1 Chronicles 5:10; 1 Chronicles 5:19), and on a still grander scale in the persecutions of the Mohammedans against Jews and Christians. ‘Even so (it is) now.’ So now the Christian church which is born of the Spirit, is persecuted by the Jewish synagogue which is born after the flesh. And this same conduct is repeated also by the bigoted Judaizing party against the free evangelical church of the Gentiles.

Verse 30

Galatians 4:30. Nevertheless what saith the Scripture? ‘Cast out the bondmaid and her son; for the son of the bondmaid shall in no wise inherit with the son of the freewoman.’ Words of Sarah to Abraham on the occasion of the mocking of Ishmael, Genesis 21:10, but approved and confirmed by God, Galatians 4:12, so that Ishmael was actually expelled from the house of Abraham. Paul quotes from the LXX., with a slight change of ‘my son Isaac’ into ‘the son of the freewoman,’ which adapts it to his argument and saves explanation. The Apostles were no slavish literalists, but used the Bible freely in the very Spirit which gave it. ‘Shall in no wise inherit.’ The double negation in Greek is emphatic: assuredly not. Judaism and Christianity, bondage and freedom, cannot exist together: the one must exclude the other. This appears very plain to us now, but before the destruction of Jerusalem it sounded strange and incredible, at least to the Judaizers, who held on to the old traditions as long as they could. ‘It is scarcely possible’ (says Lightfoot) ‘to estimate the strength of conviction and depth which this declaration implies. The Apostle thus confidently sounds the death-knell of Judaism at a time when one half of Christendom clung to the Mosaic law with a jealous affection little short of frenzy, and while the Judaic party seemed to be growing in influence and was strong enough, even in the Gentile churches of his own founding, to undermine his influence and endanger his life.’

Verse 31

Galatians 4:31. Wherefore, brethren, we are not children of a ( i.e., any) bondwoman, but of the freewoman. The pith of the typological illustration, Galatians 4:21 ff., and the final result of the whole discussion of the fourth chapter. The change of the definite and indefinite article (so often obliterated by the E. V.) is not without point. There are many bondwomen, false churches and sects, but only one freewoman, the lawful spouse of Christ, in whom all true believers are one. Some eminent commentators begin with this verse a new section, as expressing the theoretical preamble of the practical exhortation in chap. 5, thus: ‘Therefore, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman (like the Jews), but of the freewoman; for (or, unto) freedom Christ hath made us free: ‘stand fast, therefore,’ etc. (So Meyer.)

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Galatians 4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/galatians-4.html. 1879-90.
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