Bible Commentaries
Matthew 23

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Verse 1

Tuesday of Passion Week.


1. To the multitude, and to his disciples His active enemies have each made their assault and departed. He now turns to his own disciples and the multitude, warns them of the wickedness and danger of these his enemies, (1-12,) pronounces the approaching woes of Jerusalem, (13-36,) and closes with a strain of melting tenderness over the guilty city, (37-39.)

Verse 2

2. Sit in Moses’ seat By being the transcribers, readers, and teachers of Moses’ words. The seat or cathedra was also used by Grecian philosophers in lecturing, who were thence called cathedrarii. The synagogue expounders stood while reading the very words of the law, but sat while expounding it. These scribes and Pharisees were in no way the successors of Moses by ordination or lineal descent. They had not, any more than the Sadducees or Herodians, a regular organic office. Their seat was not an apostolic throne, an episcopal see, or any successional position whatever. All they had was a reading desk and chair, from which, as from Moses himself, the words of Moses could come forth. The Greek word for sit signifies, have seated themselves.

Verse 3

3. Bid you observe Not certainly the traditions of men; for those he has most unsparingly condemned. Matthew 15:3. But whensoever truly sitting in Moses’ seat and truly delivering, in their own or Moses’ words, the law, that do. Meanwhile the copy of the law is ever in your reach, as your check upon them. Do not err by not knowing the Scriptures.

No argument can be drawn from this entire passage in favour of apostolic succession, of submission of the people to wicked pastors, or of the closing of the Bible to popular perusal.

Verse 4

4. Heavy burdens and grievous to be borne Namely, the unauthorized traditional observances which they impose. These our Lord repudiates in pointed terms. In binding these burdens, the scribes do not sit in Moses’ seat. They sit in their own seat, and deliver worthless and dead dogmas. Move them with one of their fingers They are physicians who will not take their own medicines. Surely the most unscrupulous supporter of ecclesiastical succession will not claim that our Lord meant that such burdens should be carried by the backs of his own followers. On the contrary, he expressly taught his disciples to disregard the prescription of washing the hands, as a ritual observance, before they eat, although required by scribes who professedly sat in Moses’ seat.

Verse 5

5. Phylacteries The Greek word signifying preservatives. The phylactery was a passage of Scripture, written on parchment, folded up, and tied on the forehead, so that it should be always in front of their eyes. This was a kind of mechanical observance of Deuteronomy 6:8, where Moses says of his laws: “Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.” The phylactery became in popular estimation, an amulet to repel demons, diseases, and other evils. Enlarge the borders of their garments Moses had ordered the Israelites to distinguish themselves from the heathen by fringes of blue, in the borders of their garments. So, as circumcision distinguished their bodies, these borders distinguished their dress. To mark their intense Judaism, these men affected a very broad border. A strong exhibition of national feeling in this way was intended to secure popularity. It was done in order to be seen of men.

Verse 6

6. And love the uppermost Our Lord here explains the motive of all this display of external holiness and ultra Judaism. They desired to establish and enjoy the privileges of a religious caste or hierarchy. It was not the holiness of the people, or their salvation, or benefit they sought; but a self-exaltation into power. Uppermost rooms at feasts It must never be forgotten that at their meals the ancients used not chairs, nor seats, but couches, and that they did not sit but recline. Three tables were so placed as to form the three sides of a square, with the fourth open for entrance. Upon the side opposite the open entrance was the master’s place; in the middle room of the couch occupied by himself, and the positions nearest him, were the places of honour. The uppermost room does not, therefore, signify a high room in the house, but the most noble reclining place, and this was the uppermost room, to which their ambition aspired.

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Chief seats in the synagogues Seats in the front of the congregation and facing it. See note on Matthew 4:23. The passage might be more strictly rendered, they “love the uppermost reclining-places at feasts and the foreseats in the synagogues.” The ancients reclined at feasts but sat in synagogues.

Verse 7

7. Greetings in the market places Perversions of the ordinary tokens of social respect to the purpose of establishing an abject submission on the part of the people and a spirit of man-worship. Thereby the Rabbi attained an exaltation to the rank of a popular demigod, without any quality entitling him to veneration. Rabbi This was the honorary title of the Jewish doctor. It had three degrees, of which the first was Rab, the great or master. The second was Rabbi, my master. The third was Rabboni, my great master. The results of all this systematic titling were, 1. To place the Rabbi in a position of arbitrary authority, by which truth and falsehood were at his mercy. 2. To destroy all mental independence on the part of the people, which again reacted to produce a more despotic mastery in the hierarchy.

Verse 8

8. Be not ye called Rabbi This does not forbid the ordinary diplomas of our literary institutions, any more than verse seven forbids the exchange of the ordinary civilities of life. Honour is due to learning; as wealth to industry, and authority to office. It is the thing, not the word, which our Lord here condemns under the word. Master Our word mister is this same word master. If the title doctor is unscriptural, then the very word which we appropriate to the most ordinary man is equally so. We are thereby brought to a Quakerism. And Quakerism is, in another form, that same Phariseeism which is condemned in the fourth verse, which interpreted Deuteronomy 6:8, so as to require literal phylacteries.

Verse 9

9. Call no man your father Here again we should obviously fall into absurdity by a bare verbal and literal mode of interpretation. Has not the child a right to call his own parent father? Our Lord does not condemn the greetings and appellations which express the cordial, affectionate, and respectful feelings of life. This is the reverse of the Gospel spirit. But under the symbol of the names father, master, and rabbi, he does forbid that submission to men which stands in the way of our submission to our father God, or master Christ, and our Rabbi, the Holy Spirit in his word and influences.

The word pope signifies father. If ever in the history of men the title father has been assumed in express transgression of Christ’s command, it is in his case. Never has the title been used to cover a more despotic or illegitimate authority, or to produce a more abject surrender of body and soul into the hands of ravenous and remorseless men. Yet even in this case the guilt is not in the title but in the spiritual despotism the title expresses.

Verse 11

11. Shall be your servant The pope indeed styles himself servus servorum, servant of servants. And if the name fulfilled the thing this would be enough.

Verse 12

12. Whosoever shall exalt himself By these various modes of assumption. Shall be abased By the divine condemnation. Exalted By the divine approbation, and the honour that cometh from God. This maxim Jesus is represented as repeating more times than any other.

Verse 13


13. Woe This is a word of solemn denunciation of punishment. As here uttered, it implies that calamities of the most awful nature are impending over its guilty objects from the divine justice. It is the proclamation of a retributive destiny for years and ages of sin. Jesus apostrophises the scribes and Pharisees as if present.

Shut up the kingdom of heaven They closed the doors of the Gospel by their false interpretations and by their wicked influence, and prevented the Jewish nation from receiving its Messiah. They will neither be saved themselves, nor allow others to be so. For this he pronounces the FIRST WOE.

Verse 14

14. Devour widows’ houses This was done sometimes by plotting with the children to deprive their widowed mother of her estate, and sometimes by inducing the widow to give up her estate to themselves for superstitious purposes. For this he pronounces the SECOND WOE. Long prayer It is not the length of the prayer which is their crime, but the fact that it is a mere pretence. It is used as a cloak to cover their rapacity. A very religious rabbi would pray nine hours a day. Greater damation The longer their prayers, the more their sin; for they were an appalling mockery of God.

Verse 15

15. Proselyte The THIRD WOE is pronounced upon their efforts to extend their unhallowed dominion. The Jews were very zealous to make proselytes, and in our Saviour’s day were not a little successful. Twofold more the child of hell They did not sanctify the proselyte from his old heathen vices, and they imparted to him new Jewish wickedness.

A proselyte was a convert from heathenism to Judaism. Proselytes have usually been divided into proselytes of righteousness, which included all who went so far as to worship the true God and observe the practice of primitive morality; and proselytes of the gate, including those who entered completely into Judaism by circumcision and the assuming the obligations of the whole Mosaic ritual. This is, however, comparatively a modern division.

Verse 16

16. Blind guides, which say The next, or FOURTH WOE, is pronounced upon their false dogmas in regard to oaths. See on Matthew 5:34-35. Swear by the gold of the temple The gold here mentioned is not the gilding of the edifice, but the offerings of gold in its treasury.

Verse 17

17. Temple that sanctifieth the gold That renders the gold deposit sacred.

Verse 23

23. Woe ”The four first woes are past,” says Dr. Stier. “The four others follow in quick succession, ever heavier on the head, ever deeper into the heart.” The four following woes are pronounced upon different forms of hypocrisy. This FIFTH WOE is upon an extreme scrupulousness in regard to the slightest of ritual performances, with a slight remorse for the grossest immoralities. Our Lord does not condemn the strictness, but the laxity.

Pay tithe The law of tithes is found in Leviticus 27:31, upon which the following note by Prof. Bush gives a concise view: “The ‘tithe’ of a thing is its tenth part. Of the yearly products of the land of the Israelites the first fruits were deducted; out of the rest the tenth part was taken for the Levites. Numbers 18:21.” Mint The herbs mentioned in this verse correspond mainly to those of the same name in Europe and America. They were abounding in Palestine and so of little value. Anise The aromatic plant, by us called dill. Cummin Corresponding to the caraway, and used by the Orientals as a condiment?

Verse 24

24. Strain at a gnat Rather strain out a gnat. Our Lord here uses a proverbial figure, by which a person in drinking is represented as filtrating a gnat from the liquid, while he will at another time swallow down a camel. It is a physical impossibility, indeed, but its meaning is none the less possible in matters of religion and morality.

Alford remarks: “The straining of a gnat is not a mere proverbial saying. The Jews (as do now the Budhists in Ceylon and Hindostan) strained their wine, etc., carefully, that they might not violate Leviticus 11:20; Leviticus 11:23; Leviticus 11:41-42, (and it might be added Leviticus 17:10-14.) The camel is not only opposed as of immense size, but is also unclean.” Indeed, in warm countries, where insect life is exceedingly exuberant, straining liquors for drinking is often necessary.

Verse 25

25. Extortion and excess The SIXTH WOE is pronounced upon moral hypocrisy, in which men will show a fair exterior of conduct, while they are in secret practising the most abundant wickedness. The two forms of profligacy which our Lord selects are secret commercial dishonesty and secret licentiousness.

Verse 26

26. Cup Or drinking vessel. Platter Or dish for meats or sweetmeats. Our Lord compares these men to such utensils, which by a cleanly outside promised cleanly contents, while they contained filthy matter.

Verse 28

28. Righteous unto men… full of hypocrisy and iniquity The SEVENTH WOE is pronounced upon pious hypocrisy, or religious insincerity. Our Lord illustrates this by a most striking metaphor, taken from a class of objects very familiar around Jerusalem.

“There is one [custom] to which our Saviour alludes, that of whitewashing the sepulchres, which should not pass unnoticed. I have been in places where this is repeated very often. The graves are kept clean and white as snow, a very striking emblem of those painted hypocrites, the Pharisees, beautiful without, but full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness within.” Dr. Thomson.

Verse 29

29. Build the tombs of the prophets The EIGHTH WOE is pronounced upon their ancestral hypocrisy. When the men looked into the history of Israel they took not the side of those who murdered the holy men of old, whose tombs are round Jerusalem. No, they were on the side of the prophets and martyrs. So they gave themselves much imaginary credit for being about as good as those holy martyrs.

Verse 30

30. If we… in the days of our fathers They little realized how dark a picture history would draw of themselves, 32. Fill… measure of your fathers Our Lord judicially gives them over, (just as Jehovah gives the devil over,) to do what he knows they will do.

Genesis 15:16.

The meaning of these two verses may thus be summed: Inasmuch as, even in the condemnation of your fathers, you confess yourselves their sons, there is no obstacle to your supplying all they lacked in wickedness.

Verse 33

33. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers See our commentary on Matthew 3:7. The severity of our Lord’s language is a precedent for rebuke, but no precedent for such authority and power of rebuke. He had a divine attribute to see the character as it was, and a divine authority to pronounce its nature, and a right to inflict punishment which no mere mortal has.

How can ye escape the damnation of hell? The question is sometimes the strongest mode of affirmation. Our Lord here means to assert that they cannot escape the damnation of hell. The word here used for hell is in the original Gehenna.

These EIGHT WOES are reduced by Dr. Stier to the sacred number seven, as he considers the last as a simple summation of the whole.

Verse 34


34. Wherefore In consequence of all this wickedness. That is, inasmuch as you are thus reprobate, the following course of events will transpire: namely, messengers will be sent to you, but you will so treat them as to bring the full measure of wrath upon you. Behold, I send Our Lord here assumes divine authority. It is he who sends the prophets, and wise men, and scribes of the New Testament. Prophets Preachers, for as the word of God is a great prophecy of the world to come, so he who preaches it, truly prophesies. Wise men Deep thinkers in divine things, and true doctors in theology. For though the preacher stands first in the kingdom of God, yet the man who deeply studies and understands the things of God has his place, and is truly sent of Christ into his Church, whether ordained or not. Scribes Who hold the pen of the ready writer. How measureless the amount of good the Christian author has done since our Lord spoke these words. First, the inspired writers of the New Testament; then come the early fathers of the church; and then the Christian historians, essayists, and poets. Ye shall kill A large share of the first preachers, thinkers, and writers of the Church were martyrs.

Crucify There is no recorded instance of martyrdom by crucifixion, unless we include the cases of our Lord and Peter, who is said to have been crucified with his head downwards. But of the many violent deaths of our Lord’s first followers, comparatively few are recorded.

Verse 35

35. That In order that. This word depends upon the verbs kill, crucify, scourge, and persecute. Ye shall persecute them as if with the purpose that all this wrath may come upon you. This may be considered, however, a case where the inevitable effect is spoken of as the intended effect. All the righteous blood shed upon the earth That is, righteous blood of the history and line of Israel. Our Lord is not speaking of righteous men, for instance, among pagan nations. This is shown by the fact that he speaks only of martyrs in the Old Testament pedigree, from Abel to Zacharias. From the blood of righteous Abel Who was the first martyr. Blood of Zacharias The last of the prophets whose martyrdom is, according to the arrangement of the Hebrew canon, recorded in the Old Testament.

There has been much discussion upon the true identity of this Zechariah, inasmuch as the martyr in 2 Chronicles 24:21, was the son of Jehoiada. But Jehoiada and Barachia are words of the same meaning. This Zechariah was the subject of Jewish legends, and it is not improbable, though there is no proof, that in our Lord’s day the one name was substituted for the other in ordinary discourse. The place where Zechariah the son of Jehoiada was slain accords with the words of Jesus; and his dying exclamation, “The Lord require it,” accords with the thought our Lord here expresses very strikingly. Jesus here couples the first and last of Old Testament martyrs.

Ye slew Our Lord here identifies them with the whole guilty line of the wicked party of Israel in all ages. A nation has its youth, its manhood, its age, its death. The vices and crimes of its earlier generations are often inherited by its later. Punishment is often delayed until the crimes of whole ages are temporarily expiated. And this is in no way unjust. Each man may repent, and be saved in the world to come. But the nation must be publicly made an example of divine justice upon national crimes, continued through a long series of years. And though the temporal punishment be commensurate with the guilt of their whole history, not a man really suffers more than his own sins deserve.

Between the temple and the altar Referring to our ground plan of the temple, the reader can designate the sacred locality between the great brazen altar of burnt offering and the temple edifice.

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Verse 36

36. All… upon this generation And yet, had they repented, had this generation turned to him, their Saviour, they might every man have been redeemed, whether or not their nation could have been saved from its national ruin. This is shown in the pathetic declaration of the following verse.

Verse 37

37. Thou that killest the prophets Identifying the Jerusalem of the then present day with the Jerusalem of past ages. How often would I The beautiful tenderness of this verse shows that the warnings of the previous verses are the language, not of human anger, but of terrible divine justice. Love, deep love, may dwell in the breast of the judge who pronounces the sentence of death. As a hen A simple and beautiful image of tender protection. His wing would have protected them when the storm hovered or the enemy approached.

Verse 38

38. Your house is left… desolate Jerusalem is pictured as a person whose habitation has been completely desolated and abandoned to the pillager. The house may be an allusion to the temple, in which indeed Jesus uttered the words. It is now not God’s house, but your house.

Verse 39

39. Ye shall not see me In the word ye Jesus still considers Jerusalem as being the same historical and national person through all ages. Till ye In your posterity in a future age. Blessed is he The language by which the children in the temple recognized him as the Messiah. Psalms 118:6.

The meaning of the whole is, that the Jews shall be converted to Christ as a race, and doubtless Jerusalem as a city be restored, before the second coming of Christ.

Thus does this most terrible of all discourses first soften to the language of tender pity, and at last close with a valid promise. He could now bid Jerusalem farewell; to that generation a final farewell. Yet not final to Jerusalem, for she shall see his face again. But before that time one condition was foreseen as to be fulfilled. She should have acknowledged him as her true Messiah. How long the interval between that conversion and that advent, he does not say. In the prospective of the vast distance, the two events seem not now far apart. Yet long ages may intervene between the two. Jesus only declares that the latter shall not take place until after the former. See note on Matthew 24:14.

Our Lord’s public ministry has now closed. He departs from the temple, in whose court he had delivered this last discourse of terror and tenderness. Henceforth he retires to the bosom of his own disciples to prepare himself for the sacrifice.

There is a locality outside the wall which now encloses the grounds of the ancient temple, called, “The wailing place of the Jews.” By paying for the privilege, the Jews of Jerusalem resort to this spot every Friday, and bewail the fall of their nation and temple. This scene of sorrow, mournfully illustrates how truly their house is left unto them desolate. Yet it suggests the hope that Israel is preserved for purposes yet unfulfilled.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.