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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Acts 7

 

 

Introduction

Verse 1

Acts 7:1. Then said the high priest, Are these things so? A hush seems to have fallen on the council as they watched that strange unearthly brightness light up the countenance of the accused, and in silence all gazed on the rapt expression of that face which seemed to his enemies the face of an angel.

The high priest breaks the silence, but his gentle question betrays his emotion, very different from the rougher address of Caiaphas to our Lord (Matthew 26:62), or to the harsh command of the high priest Ananias when he bade his officers smite the prisoner Paul on the mouth when he was examined before the council (Acts 23:2). He simply asks him, Are you really guilty of impious blasphemies against the Temple and the law?


Verse 2

Acts 7:2. The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham. That is, this God whose peculiar characteristic in the eyes of the Hebrew people was that visible shining brightness, that outward expression of majesty, the celestial splendour, which as a pillar of fire guided the desert wanderings, which as the Shekinah rested on the mercy-seat of the ark of the covenant in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. Paul speaks of this glory as one of the peculiar distinctions with which God honoured His own peculiar people (see Romans 9:14). It was the God whose visible symbol was that glory so well known by every child of Israel, who appeared to Abraham, the father of the race.

When he was in Mesopotamia. Ur of the Chaldees, where Abraham first resided (Genesis 11:28), lay probably in the extreme north of Mesopotamia, near the sources of the Tigris.

Before be dwelt in Charran. In the Hebrew text, Haran; LXX., Charran. The Carrhae of the Latin writers, the scene of the disastrous defeat of the Triumvir Crassus, B.C. 51 (Lucan, i. 104; Plin. v. 24).


Verses 2-16

Excursus.

On certain alleged Discrepancies in Stephen’s Speech.

A great deal has been written upon certain supposed inaccuracies which occur in the speech of Stephen, as given in the seventh chapter of the Acts. The case stands thus. In his rapid review of Old Testament history, some few statements occur which appear in certain details to vary from the account of the same circumstances contained in the Old Testament.

These differences are in themselves utterly unimportant, and in no case possess the slightest bearing on the current of the argument; for instance, one of the more notable of these supposed variations consists in the name of the burial-place of Jacob and his sons; another, in the number of years during which the Egyptian slavery lasted; another, the exact period of Abraham’s life when his father Terah died. The best general explanation is, that whenever Stephen’s account varies or seems to vary in these few little unimportant details from the Old Testament history, in these cases to assume that he follows the popularly-received national history of his time. Ewald goes a little further, and suggests there was at that time current among the Jews a generally-received epitome of national history, which no doubt Stephen quoted from. Meyer, commenting upon this suggestion, writes ‘that such a supposition is possible, but that the existence of such a work is nowhere shown.’ But the hypothesis of Ewald, or at all events the modification of it above suggested, is well supported by what we possess of contemporary Jewish literature. In several of the instances of Stephen’s supposed errors, Philo or Josephus, when relating the same event, makes the same apparent mistake as Stephen, clearly showing that at that time there was a popular account, written or unwritten, of the history of Israel differing apparently in a few unimportant details from the Old Testament story.

Each of these alleged discrepancies will be found, however, briefly discussed in the following note.

Acts 7:2-3. The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, And said onto him, Get thee out of thy country. According to the history in Genesis 11:31; Genesis 12:1-5, the call of Abraham took place in Haran [Charran]; while Stephen speaks of Abraham being called when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran. There is no doubt, however, that Abraham was twice called by the Lord, once in Ur of the Chaldees in the north of Mesopotamia, and afterwards in Haran (see Genesis 15:7 and Nehemiah 9:7, in both of which passages the earlier Divine summons is alluded to).

Philo, who represents fairly the current tradition of the time, distinctly speaks of these two calls (see Philo, de Abrahams, lxxvii. p. 77, 16 ,ed. Mang).

Acts 7:4. When his father was dead. This does not accord with the history in Genesis, where we read in Genesis 11:26, Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abraham, Nahor, and Haran; and in Genesis 12:4, Abraham came forth from Haran when seventy-five years old; and Stephen says at that period Terah was dead. Thus the days of Terah could not have exceeded 145 years. But in Genesis 11:32, it is said the days of Terah were 205 years. The Samaritan Pentateuch reads in Genesis 11:32 for Terah’s age 145 years for 205, which would of course remove the difficulty. Philo, again, supports Stephen in his statement that Terah was dead when Abraham came forth from Haran (De Migr. Abraham, sect. 32). The singular alteration in the Samaritan Pentateuch was evidently made to suit the traditional history then, evidently from Philo’s statement, current among the Jews. The apparent difficulty admits of a ready solution if we adopt the theory held by some Jewish writers, that Abraham was not the eldest, but the youngest son of Terah: the position Abraham occupied in the history of the chosen people would readily account for his being the first named of the sons of Terah. [Japheth, for instance, the eldest of the sons of Noah (Genesis 9:24; Genesis 10:21), is mentioned (Genesis 5:32) last of them.] Thus Terah would be 70 years when Nahor, the eldest of the three, was born, and 60 years might well have elapsed in those days of long life before the birth of Abraham, the youngest. Wordsworth calls attention to the following marriage:—

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Such a marriage would seem certainly to intimate that Abraham was a younger brother of Nahor.

Acts 7:6. That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years. A chronological difficulty arises here,—400 years, a round number, is mentioned as the duration of the sojourning of the seed of Abraham in a strange land, here and in Genesis 15:13. The exact number of years is given in Exodus 12:40 as 430. Now, from what period are these years to be reckoned?

At first sight, the words, both in this place and in Exodus 12:40, would seem to limit the period to the Egyptian bondage; but St. Paul, in Galatians 3:17, evidently understands it differently, and considers the 430 years as the space of time intervening between the call of Abraham and the giving of the law. This is evidently the meaning. Wordsworth gives the following table of dates:—

Abraham in Haran,

5 years

Abraham in Canaan,

11 years

From the birth of Ishmael to that of Isaac,

14 years

30 years

From the birth of Isaac to the birth of Jacob,

60 years

From the birth of Jacob to the birth of Joseph,

90 years

To Joesph’s death,

110 years

To the birth of Moses,

60 years

To the Exodus,

80 years

400 years

On examination of both the passages (Exodus 12:40 and that containing the words of Stephen under consideration), it will be seen that this period of 400 years is roughly given as the time during which the children of Israel were to continue sojourners or strangers in the land in which they might be dwelling. The patriarchs were not merely strangers in the land; they were often, as the Genesis history tells us, ‘evil entreated.’ Instances of such evil treatment, even in the case of Abraham, the greatest of them, seem to have been not unfrequent (see Genesis 12, 20). Jacob, too, tells Pharaoh, ‘Few and evil have been his days.’ But whatever view may be taken of this difficulty, Stephen, even if he intended (which at least, as we have shown, is doubtful) to represent the Egyptian bondage as lasting 400 years, adopted a chronology which was current apparently in some of the Jewish schools of that time; for Josephus, Ant. ii. 9. 1, distinctly states that the Israelites spent 400 years under the afflictions in Egypt. In another place the same writer follows the chronology of St. Paul in the Galatian Epistle (see Ant. ii. 15. 2). It would seem as though there were two traditions current at that time in the Jewish schools relative to the time spent by the children of Israel in Egypt

Acts 7:14. Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls. According to the Hebrew text of Genesis 46:27, Exodus 1:5, Deuteronomy 10:22, the descendants of Jacob at this time amounted to seventy persons; but the Greek version of the LXX. has changed that number in the first two passages to seventy-five, which agrees exactly with the statement in this verse. In the Hebrew text of Genesis 46:27, the family of Jacob which came into Egypt numbered sixty-six, and Jacob himself, Joseph and his two sons, make up the full number seventy.

In the LXX., in Acts 7:27 of this same chapter of Genesis, we find the following interpolation: ‘And the sons of Joseph born to him in the land of Egypt were nine souls.’ Thus the LXX. makes up the number 66 + 9 = 75. Philo notices this difference between the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Pentateuch, and deduces from it, after his custom, an allegory (see Meyer here). This, however, cannot with any fairness be termed a discrepancy, for Stephen simply follows the Greek version of the LXX., to which as a Hellenist he was most accustomed. Nor have we any right to condemn the interpolation of the LXX. as an error; it in no way contradicts the numbers given in the Hebrew text, but simply adds to them certain numbers of Joseph’s family not reckoned in the original census. Wordsworth mentions who these nine most probably were—

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‘The addition of these five was not accidental, for Stephen (following the LXX.) thus affirms that those born of Jacob’s line in Egypt, the strange land and house of bondage, were equally children of the promise with those born in Canaan, the Promised Land, according to what Jacob himself says of the sons of Joseph born in Egypt, “As Reuben and Simeon they (Ephraim and Manasseh) shall be mine.”’

Acts 7:15-16. So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers, And were carried over into Sychem, and laid in the sepulchre, etc. We read in Genesis 50:13 that Jacob was buried in Abraham’s sepulchre at Hebron, in the cave of the field of Machpelah; and in Joshua 24:32, that the bones of Joseph brought up by the children of Israel out of Egypt, were buried in Shechem. The Old Testament is silent concerning the places of sepulture of the other eleven sons of Jacob. In this verse nothing is said of Jacob’s burying-place, for the translation of the passage should run thus: ‘15. So Jacob went down into Egypt and died, he and our fathers. 16. And they were carried over into Sychem ( οἱ πατέ ρες ἡ μῶ ν being taken as the subject of μετετέ θησαν without αὐτές).’ Of Sychem as the burial-place of the eleven brethren of Joseph, St. Jerome, who lived near Sychem, says that the tombs of the twelve patriarchs were to be seen there in his time (see Ep. 86, and also his treatise, De optimo genere interpretandi), where he expressly states that the twelve patriarchs were not buried in Asbes (Hebron), but in Sychem. This burial of the twelve great ancestors of the tribes of Israel in hated Samarian Shechem was mentioned by Stephen, to show that holiness and blessedness are not limited in death and burial to any particular spot. The bodies of these patriarchs were brought from distant Egypt and laid there as in a chosen spot in preference to holy Hebron and the cave of Machpelah, where Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob had been laid (see Wordsworth’s note here).

In the sepulchre that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Emmor, the father of Shechem. Some commentators have supposed, but needlessly, that in haste or inadvertence Stephen has here substituted the name of Abraham for that of Jacob. In Stephen’s speech we read how ‘Abraham bought a sepulchre of the sons of Emmor.’ In Genesis 33:19 we read how ‘Jacob bought a piece of ground from the sons of Emmor.’ Now was Stephen (or his transcriber) mistaken here? Did he through ‘inadvertence’ mention the name of Abraham instead of that of Jacob? The question really is, Did Abraham buy a piece of land at Shechem? Directly this is not stated in Genesis, but we find from Genesis 12:6-7 that it was in Shechem that God first appeared to him, and that there he built an altar to the Lord; at that time we are expressly told ‘the Canaanite was then in the land.’ Now it is certainly more than probable that Abraham purchased the site on which he erected the altar, and where God first appeared to him, just as we read later, when his grandson Jacob erected an altar also in Shechem, he bought the site from the princes of the land. Whether or not the field purchased by Jacob was the same as that originally acquired by Abraham is doubtful (Wordsworth, whose argument generally is here followed, supposes it was, and that in the intervening years the sacred spot had been occupied by others, and Jacob from a feeling of piety wished to restore it). Certain it is from the story of Genesis, that both Abraham and Jacob built an altar to the Lord in Shechem, and the latter, we are told, bought the site from the princes of the country. That the former should have omitted to secure as far as possible so sacred a site, is most improbable. Stephen asserts that he did so, thereby contradicting no previous statement, but adding, doubtless from some well-known tradition, an additional fact in itself by no means improbable. The fact of the names of the persons, ‘sons of Emmor,’ from whom Stephen relates that Abraham bought the sepulchre, being identical with the names of those from whom Jacob bought the field, is adduced as a proof that the two transactions are identical, and that Stephen has substituted Abraham for Jacob. But, as Wordsworth well suggests, there is nothing strange in the fact of there being more than one prince in Shechem bearing the same name ‘Emmor.’ The ‘Emmor’ mentioned by Stephen need not have been the same as the ‘Emmor’ or Hamor from whose sons Jacob bought the field. Indeed, some five hundred years later we find ( 9:28) the same name meeting us, and again connected with Shechem: ‘Serve the men of Hamor (Emmor) the father of Shechem: for why should we serve him? ‘Wordsworth believes the name Emmor (Hamor) to have been the hereditary title of the kings of the country, as Pharaoh was in Egypt, Cæsar in Rome, and probably Candace in Ethiopia; but apart from such a hypothesis, which is doubtful, how commonly in royal dynasties does the same name occur and recur! We need only instance in old days Darius in Persia, Antiochus in Syria, Herod in Palestine, and in modern times Louis and Philippe in France, Henry and George in England.


Verse 4

Acts 7:4. When his father was dead. For remarks upon this and the other alleged discrepancies between the statements advanced by Stephen and those contained in the Old Testament history, see the detailed remarks on the short Excursus below. A strange interpretation of the expression ‘was dead,’ has been accepted by some commentators of high reputation. There is a tradition (found originally in the Talmud) among the Jews, that Terah, the father of Abraham, relapsed into idolatry during the abode at Haran, and that Abraham departed from him on account of this apostasy. ‘When his father was dead,’ then, according to this view, signifies, ‘When his father was spiritually dead, then his son left him in the land of the Chaldeans.’ But that the words possess such a mystic sense is most improbable; the plain obvious meaning, in spite of the chronological difficulty which it involves, must be maintained—that is, after his father’s death, Abraham removed into Canaan.


Verse 5

Acts 7:5. And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on. This is confirmed by the circumstances related in Acts 7:16, where we read how the very grave of the patriarchs in the Promised Land was purchased by Abraham from the possessors and princes of the country.


Verse 6

Acts 7:6. And God spake on this wise. Stephen here quotes the passage to which he had been previously alluding, with a very slight variation, from the LXX. of Genesis 15:14-15, the very words spoken by the Eternal to Abraham His friend, containing the promise, and also an intimation that its fulfilment must not be expected for a long period of years. It was a touching reminder to his hearers, how mistaken they were to set so superstitious a value on ground of which their great ancestors the friends and specially-protected ones of God had no tenure.


Verse 7

Acts 7:7. And serve me in this place. A quotation from the words of the Eternal spoken to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Horeb: ‘In this place’—that is, where I now speak to thee. In the passage of Exodus 3:12, the words are: ‘Ye shall serve God upon the mountain,’ again reminding the elders of Israel from their own holy oracles that God was to be found in other countries besides the Holy Land, that He was to be worshipped in other places besides in that holy house on Zion. Did He not manifest Himself as visibly and resplendently in the burning thorn of the wilderness as ever He did on the golden mercy-seat of the sacred ark of the covenant?


Verse 8

Acts 7:8. And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac. That is, God made with him the covenant, of which circumcision is the outward sign; and so ( οὕτως thus), in accordance with the terms of the covenant, God gave a son to Abraham, and Abraham, on his part, circumcised his son. Dean Goulburn, in his Acts of the Deacons, calls attention here to the fact that the whole of the Pauline theology finds its germs in this apology of Stephen. Paul’s assertion that faith was reckoned to Abraham when he was in uncircumcision, is merely the unfolding of Stephen’s historical statement that God, subsequently to the call and promise, gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision.


Verse 9

Acts 7:9. The patriarchs. The sons of Jacob received the title of ‘patriarchs’ as being the ancestors of the twelve tribes ( πατρεαί, LXX.). This is the first mention of that jealous, hardhearted spirit in Israel which, as Stephen proceeds with the story of the chosen people, becomes so sorrowfully prominent, and which, he shows, ended in the murder of the Righteous One.


Verses 9-16

(b) Acts 7:9-16. Joseph.—Passing from the first appearance of the visible glory to the great ancestor, and the promise made by the Eternal to him, a wanderer without land and without a home,—after glancing at the fortunes of his immediate descendants, who still enjoyed the special protection of the Highest, but always wanderers and strangers in the countries where they dwelt,—he comes to the times of Joseph, who, as minister of Pharaoh and responsible ruler over Egypt, inaugurated what may be termed the second period in the history of the children of Israel. The first, the age of the wanderings, was closed by the permanent settlement of the people in Egypt under the auspices of Joseph. During this period of great prosperity, and later, of bitter adversity, the small tribe of wanderers becomes a mighty people; but Stephen only uses the history of these times as a background for the great figure of Joseph, the Egyptian ruler. He dwells on the betrayal of the innocent by his jealous brothers, the famous ancestors of the twelve tribes, and then shows how God delivered the betrayed one, and then raised him to a position of glory and power undreamed of by any child of Abraham, and placed him so high that he was enabled to come to the succour of his father’s children and their families, and to be at once their preserver and benefactor. [Did not this sketch of the well-known fortunes of one of the most distinguished of the Hebrews in a remarkable manner suggest to every one of those Jewish priests and doctors a strange parallel between Joseph and Another who had been betrayed too by His brother Jews, and who (as Stephen and his fellow-believers maintained), after the betrayal, had been crowned too with glory and power?]


Verse 10

Acts 7:10. And wisdom. This, of course, includes Joseph’s interpretation of the royal dreams, but has more especial reference to his wisdom in striking out a new system of governing the land of Egypt, and of administering and developing the finances of that great kingdom.

Pharaoh. This is not a proper name, but was the common title of the ancient sovereigns of Egypt. It signifies in the ancient Egyptian, ‘the king.’ In after ages, in the Graeco-Macedonian period, the common title of the monarchs of the country was Ptolemy (which signifies in the Greek, ‘warrior’).

We have a well-known instance of these royal appellatives in the ‘Caesars’ of Rome, a designation which, under the Teutonized form of ‘Kaiser’ in the German and Austrian Empires, and in the Russian form of ‘Czar,’ continues in our own times.

Governor over Egypt. Joseph fulfilled the functions of the Vizier or Prime Minister of Pharaoh. The power delegated to him by his master seems to have been almost without limit.


Verse 12

Acts 7:12. There was corn in Egypt. Egypt was the great corn-growing country of the old world. In later times it became the principal granary of Rome (see Acts 27:6-38).


Verse 13

Acts 7:13. Joseph’s kindred was made known unto Pharaoh. The name of Joseph is repeated (it occurred before in this verse) with some pride by Stephen. The fact of these wandering shepherd ancestors of the Jews being presented at the court of the magnificent Pharaoh of Egypt as the near kinsfolk of that wise and renowned minister Joseph, was evidently a proud memory in Israel.


Verse 14

Acts 7:14. And called his father Jacob, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls. Another memory of Divine favour which Stephen knew would be very grateful to the zealous Jews who sat as judges in that stern council. How the Eternal must have loved the people and prospered them! for from this small family sprang that mighty host which was ‘as the stars of heaven for multitude’ (Deuteronomy 10:22).


Verse 17

Acts 7:17. The people grew and multiplied in Egypt. They increased so rapidly in power as well as in numbers, that the jealousy of the reigning dynasty was excited against them. The marvellous increase of the little shepherd family, who had been settled in Egypt some two hundred years previously by the minister Joseph, was well calculated to alarm the advisers of a Pharaoh who knew nothing of the claims of the Hebrew tribes upon the goodwill of the country.


Verses 17-36

Second Division of the Speech, 17-36.—The Age of Moses.

The second part of the defence commences with the long-looked-for approach of the time when ‘the promise,’ now centuries old, should be fulfilled. Nothing apparently seemed less likely than that that vast horde of enslaved dispirited children of Israel, living a degraded and unhappy existence in Egypt, would in a few years, after the revelation to Moses, be in possession of the rich and desired land of Canaan, which was then held by a polished and warlike people. But with the appointed hour, the God of Israel raised up the man who should work this mighty deliverance for His people. But, as in the case of the first deliverer of the children of Israel (Joseph), though brought about in a very different way, so with the second: the people, his brethren, refused to listen to him; they were the cause of his expulsion and banishment from the country, though he held the position of a prince of the royal house of Egypt. It was literally against their will that Moses became their saviour.

This part of the speech (Acts 7:17-28) deals with the wrongs and injustice which the great patriot and deliverer had to suffer at the hands of the Jews, his fellow-countrymen and kinsmen. From the 28th verse to the 36th, Stephen relates the Theophany of the burning bush in almost the words of Exodus 3, and closes this part of his defence by dwelling on the fact, that this very Moses, whom the chosen people refused to acknowledge as ruler and judge, God sent to be not only their ruler but their deliverer.


Verse 18

Acts 7:18. Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph. This new king was Amasis or Ahmes, the first of the eighteenth dynasty, or that of the Diospolitans from Thebes. It is probable that this oppressor of the Hebrews was the first native prince who reigned after the expulsion of the Hyksos or shepherd kings. The expulsion of these Hyksos seems connected in some way with the bitter hatred with which the Hebrews were now regarded in the land; but our knowledge of the history of ancient Egypt is too uncertain to admit of any positive statement here.


Verse 19

Acts 7:19. The same dealt subtilely with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live. Meyer and Hackett understand the language of this verse as setting forth the cruel policy of Pharaoh towards the children of Israel; in other words, they dealt so cruelly with these Hebrews, they made their lives so unendurable, that these unhappy ones destroyed their children, that they might not grow up to experience the wretched fate of their fathers. But this construction of the passage, which introduces a new feature into the history, is grammatically unnecessary. The verse simply tells us that, among other cruel acts, Pharaoh, with the hope of checking the increase of this strange tribe, gave a general command to his officials to cast the newborn sons of the Israelites into the Nile.


Verse 20

Acts 7:20. In which time. That is, in this season of terror and of bitter oppression.

Moses was born, and was exceeding fair. Tradition writes of him as ‘being beautiful as an angel.’ Josephus speaks of his Divine beauty. Philo also called especial attention to it, and tells as how ‘those who met him as he was carried along the streets, not merely gazed at the face of the child, but, forgetting other business, stood still for a long time to look at him; for, so great was the child’s beauty, that it captivated and detained the beholders.’

The expression in the Greek original, ἀ στεῖ ος τῷ θεῷ, rendered exceeding fair, is a very strong superlative, and is known in classical Greek. See Hesiod, Works and Days, 825: ‘blameless unto the immortals,’ or perfectly blameless; ‘with the gods’ (see, too, Agam. Aesch. 352). We read also of Nineveh in the LXX., a city ‘great unto God,’ an exceeding great city,’ Jonah 3:2 (‘that great city,’ Authorised Version).

In his father’s house. His father’s name was Amram.


Verse 21

Acts 7:21. Pharaoh’s daughter. Josephus tells that the name of this princess was Thermutis.

Took him up surely signifies, ‘lifted him up out of the water.’ This is better than to understand the words, as does de Wette, and also Hackett, in the sense of ‘adopted.’ The next sentence goes on with the infant’s subsequent adoption by the princess.

Far her own son. There is a Jewish tradition that, after his adoption by the daughter of the sovereign, Moses was chosen as Pharaoh’s successor.


Verse 22

Acts 7:22. And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. Egypt was even at that early period famed for her learning, for her proficiency in art and science. We find the wisest of the Greeks visiting this land in search of wisdom. It is reasonable to suppose that ‘the adopted’ of Pharaoh’s daughter was instructed in all the varied branches of learning cultivated and prized in the country. The writings of Philo, which fairly represent the Jewish traditions which were of authority in the days of Stephen, enter into minute details concerning this ‘wisdom ‘of Egypt in which Moses was learned. Philo also relates how this adopted son of the Pharaohs was further instructed by Grecian, Assyrian, and Chaldean teachers.

The statement of Stephen respecting the learning of Moses is not derived from any Old Testament source, but solely from those Jewish traditions we have so often alluded to as used in this speech, and which were evidently authoritative in their time.

Wordsworth quotes here the quaint but beautiful words of Augustine on this passage, in which he argues for the consecration of heathen literature to the service of Christianity. ‘Do not we see,’ he writes, ‘how Cyprian came laden out of Egypt with much gold and silver and raiment—Cyprian, that most persuasive of teachers, that most blessed martyr; how, too, similarly laden, came out Lactantius, Victorinus, Optatus, Hilarius, not to speak of living men?’ Augustine, by his mention thus of these famous Christian teachers, all deeply learned, shows how highly he estimates what is termed profane learning in the training of the teachers of the Gospel.

Mighty in words. By nature Moses seems to have been ‘slow of speech’ (Exodus 4:10). He was evidently distrustful of his own powers, but God turned this slowness of speech into the most fervid eloquence, of which we possess many instances in his great and stirring life. Josephus preserves the tradition current among the Jews, that Moses was very able to persuade the people by his speaking (see Ant. iii. I. 4).

And in deeds. Stephen does not here allude to his later works in Egypt and in the wilderness, but to the deeds of his early life. The Old Testament is silent here, but Josephus mentions one of these, ‘How, when the Ethiopians invaded Egypt, Moses was the general of the army which defeated them’ (Ant. ii. 10. 1).


Verse 23

Acts 7:23. And, when he was full forty years old. The Hebrews lived in a separate district of their own, and Moses, one of the royal family, the adopted son of the daughter of the Pharaoh, no doubt during these first forty years of his life had little to do with his kinsmen. In this verse and in Acts 7:30; Acts 7:36, Stephen divides the life of Moses into three exact periods, each of forty years. This division, afterwards current among the Jews, is not found in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 34:7 states that the whole age of Moses was 120 years. In Exodus 21:32, we hear that the time spent in the desert wanderings was forty years; and Exodus 7:7 mentions that when he stood before Pharaoh, he was eighty years old; but the Pentateuch gives no hint of the time that he spent in Egypt before his flight to Midian. In the Bereshith Rabba it is said, ‘Moses lived in the palace of Pharaoh forty years; in Midian, forty years; and for forty years he ministered to Israel.’ This repeats the statement of Stephen, who doubtless quoted from the traditional history generally received in his times. Wordsworth, commenting on this verse, calls attention to the mystic triple division of the life of the great lawgiver, and points out how often the number forty occurs in the recital of the most important events of sacred history:

In the history of the flood,

Genesis 7:4

Moses in the mount before the giving of the law,

Exodus 24:18; Exodus 34:23

Elijah before coming to Horeb

1 Kings 19:8

The probation of Nineveh,

Jonah 3:4

Before our Lord’s presentation in the Temple,

Luke 2:22

His fasting,

Matthew 4:2

The resurrection-life between resurrection and ascension,

Acts 1:3

It came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel. In the midst of all his busy life with the great ones of Egypt, while dwelling in the palace of the Pharaoh, the thought of his own race and people toiling at their hard tasks, building, as slaves for their masters, cities and fortresses,—probably, too, among their works, some of those pyramids we know so well,—he obeyed the impulse, and went and pondered over the life they were leading. While looking at one of the working parties of these Israelites toiling under the superintendence of Egyptian taskmasters, the episode related in the following verses took place. It is told almost word for word, though slightly abbreviated from the Exodus history.


Verse 24

Acts 7:24. Suffer wrong. That is, injured by blows, as in Exodus 2:11.

And smote the Egyptian. He struck the Egyptian who did the wrong so as to kill him. ‘The Egyptian,’ simply without any previous allusion, because the story was so well known.


Verse 25

Acts 7:25. He supposed his brethren would have understood. Some communication had probably taken place between him and his kinsmen since the time when it had first come into Moses’ heart to visit his brethren; and now such an act on the part of a kinsman holding so exalted a rank in Egypt ought to have given the oppressed people confidence in him. Moses vainly thought that this people, remembering their early history and the glorious promises of God, would at once have recognised in the doer of so bold an action on their behalf, a deliverer sent by that God.

But they understood not. Then as ever in the history of the chosen people, wilful misunderstanding on their part, of the ways and works of the Eternal, their Protector.

We seem to hear in these words, telling the old, often-repeated story of the Egyptian deliverance, the voice of Stephen changing for a moment into a voice of bitter, sorrowful reproach. No, they misunderstood their God then as now,


Verse 27

Acts 7:27. Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? The words of these Israelites evidently express the general feelings of all the people toward Moses at this juncture, and so he understood them.


Verse 28-29

Acts 7:28-29. Wilt thou kill me, as thou diddest the Egyptian yesterday? Then fled Moses at this saying. De Wette calls attention here to the history of Exodus, which relates how Moses, after his public act of rebellion against the state policy towards the Hebrews, fled from the face of Pharaoh, who was fearfully incensed that one of his own royal house should presume publicly to slay an official in the discharge of his duty, and by so doing signify his extreme disapproval of the policy of the king and his advisers (Exodus 2:15). Stephen, on the other hand, seems to connect the flight of Moses with the rejection of his kinsmen. The two accounts, however, in no way contradict each other. When the act was publicly known, the Pharaoh’s court was, of course, no longer a home for the patriot prince who loved his own poor oppressed people better than the splendid future which lay before him if he would only forget his nationality (Hebrews 11:25-26). He was proscribed and disinherited at once, and was obliged to fly from the face of Pharaoh for his life; while the determined and stubborn hostility of the very race for whom he was making so great a sacrifice prevented him from seeking, as he naturally would under the circumstances of his exile have done, a place of concealment among them, where he might have concerted some plan of national deliverance.

In the land of Madian, or Midian. It was a part of Arabia Petraea, and lay along the eastern branch of the Red Sea, the Elanitic Gulf; it reached to the wilderness of Sinai on one side, and the territory of Moab on the other.

Gloag mentions that in some travels in the Middle Ages, there is an account of the ruins of a city called Madian, on the shores of the Elanitic Gulf. The Midianites of Jethro’s tribe were perhaps a nomad detachment of the people which wandered in the Arabian desert.


Verse 30

Acts 7:30. In the wilderness of Mount Sinai. In Exodus 3:1, the flaming fire in the bush appeared to Moses at Horeb. In the Pentateuch, the names of Sinai and Horeb appear to be used indiscriminately. In the New Testament and in Josephus, the name Sinai only occurs. Horeb appears really to be the general name for the whole mountain range; Sinai, the name of the particular mountain from which the law was given.

An angel. ‘Here, as continually in the Old Testament, the angel bears the authority and presence of God Himself; which angel, since God giveth not His glory to another, must have been the great Angel of the Covenant, of whom Isaiah writes, “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them” (Isaiah 63:9), the Son of God;’ so Alford, correctly. The Angel of the bush here appropriates, as He does in many other places, the titles of the Supreme Eternal One; for, speaking out of the bush which burned and yet was never consumed, He says, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. ... I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt . . . and I am come down to deliver them’ (Exodus 3:6-8).

In a flame of fire. The radiant light which belonged to the visible glory of God. We hear of it in the pillar of fire seen so many years in the desert wanderings, in the glory which ever and anon appeared between the cherubim over the mercy-seat of the ark, in the luminous cloud which filled the Temple on the occasion of the solemn dedication by King Solomon. The Rabbis termed it the Shekinah.


Verse 33

Acts 7:33. Put off thy shoes from thy feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground. It was, and is still, in the East a mark of reverence to take off the shoes or sandals in the presence of a superior. The manifestation of the Deity made the space round the bush holy ground. In our own time, the Mohammedans always enter their mosques barefoot. It was a maxim among the Pythagoreans, that those conducting sacrifice and worship should be without shoes or sandals on their feet. In the holy places on Mount Gerizim at the present time, the Samaritans minister and worship with bare feet. This spot was expressly called by the ‘Angel’ holy ground; thus, other places besides the Temple on Mount Zion were holy to the Lord. Stephen indirectly argues from this, that although God had revealed Himself in a particular spot, it did not follow that that place remained as an everlasting sanctuary. Holiness, in fact, belonged to no exclusive earthly sanctuary. ‘Where is the house that ye build unto Me, and where is the place of My rest?’ (Isaiah 66:1).

There was no Temple there, said St. Chrysostom; yet the place was holy, owing to the appearance and work of Christ.


Verse 34

Acts 7:34. And am come down to deliver them. That is, from His throne in heaven. This is the ordinary language used when speaking of the Eternal in His relations with men. So Isaiah 66:1 : ‘Thus saith the Lord, Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool.’


Verse 35

Acts 7:35. This Moses. Very impressively and with marked emphasis, Stephen, in Acts 7:35-38, four times repeats the demonstrative pronoun thus: ‘This Moses,’ ‘This is that Moses,’ ‘This is he,’ etc., whom the children of Israel refused, but whom God marked with such distinguished honour. By men rejected, but by God exalted to be ruler and deliverer; the miracle - worker in Egypt, in the Red Sea, in the desert; the one among men whom the great Prophet (the Messiah) afterwards to be raised up, should resemble; the friend of the ‘Angel’ of the wilderness from whom he received the sacred law: this was he whom our fathers chose to thrust from them! [Might not those judges of the Sanhedrim conclude from this awful lesson of the past, that it does not follow that God rejects him whom they had rejected?]

The parallel between the great Hebrew lawgiver and his own crucified Master, scarcely veiled at first, except by the studied concealment of the name of Jesus Christ, as the argument proceeds, becomes closer and more marked. The choice of the titles which Stephen gives to Moses is evidently suggested by the striking parallel ever in his mind. They rejected Moses as ruler and judge; but God sent him to be their ruler, and designing him for an office far higher than that of judge, caused him to become ‘redeemer’ of the whole nation.


Verse 36

Acts 7:36. He brought them out, after that he showed wonders and signs. Drawing the noble picture contained in this and the preceding verses of Moses ‘our Rabbi,’ as the Jews love to call him, of whom they are so proud, Stephen shows how utterly absurd was any charge brought against him of blasphemy against one whom he admired with so ungrudging an admiration, and loved with so deep a love.

Thus, each of the first two epochs into which Stephen had divided Israel’s eventful story, in spite of the stubborn hard heart of their forefathers in rejecting—

(a) Joseph,

(b) Moses,

had ended in their being delivered by their Divine Protector—

(a) By the hand of Joseph,

(b) By the hand of Moses,

out of all the troubles and afflictions which surrounded them.

In the first epoch, the origin of the chosen people is recounted, and how the Lord God came to choose them out of all the tribes of the earth; but in it they never became more than a large family of wandering shepherds, and their difficulties and dangers were only those incidental to nomad shepherd life in the East.

In the second epoch, the ‘shepherds’ are settled in a rich and fertile country. In the course of a couple of centuries they multiply with a wonderful (perhaps a supernatural) rapidity, and become, in numbers at least, a mighty people. Owing to political convulsions and other causes to us unknown, the whole race is reduced to a state of miserable slavery by the warlike caste then in power in Egypt; but their Divine Protector through all has not lost sight of them, and, literally against their will, by a mighty exercise of power, delivers them out of all their misery by the hand of His servant Moses.

The third and the greatest epoch in the history of the chosen people commences in the wilderness. The children of Israel, now free and strong, are united under the supreme command of that Moses whom they had so repeatedly refused to obey. The history of this epoch—lasting from the hour when Moses led the armies of Israel out of Egypt until that present day when Stephen was telling before the Sanhedrim the wondrous story—would have been closed, as were the first and second, with the recital of another but far grander Divine rescue, and that, too, in spite of all hard-hearted rejection by the people whom God loved with a love, as Stephen wished to show, that nothing could quench.

But this, as we shall see, was never destined to be told. We have, then, only a splendid fragment of the last and greatest portion of Stephen’s speech.


Verse 37

Acts 7:37. This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you, like unto me (see note on Acts 3:22). While speaking generally of the singular favour which Moses enjoyed, Stephen instances, Acts 7:37-38, two circumstances of that Divine favour, each peculiarly interesting to his countrymen even after the lapse of so many centuries. The one here mentioned was that the great Prophet, the Messiah, pondered over by the pious Jew for so many weary years, waited for by every patriot heart in Israel with such intense passionate longing, would be like Moses, ὡς ἐμέ, as myself, To the words of their lawgiver, Stephen adds nothing: no comment was needed here in that silent listening hall; it was well known that Stephen and those that thought with him among the people, believed the prophet like unto Moses had then arisen, and had given out His message of love and wrath. Who would dare to accuse Stephen of blaspheming Moses, of whom he spoke with such exceeding reverence? But, on the other hand, did not he charge his judges with treating their Lawgiver with scorn, seeing they had rejected and crucified the Prophet ‘like unto himself’?


Verses 37-53

Third Division of Stephens Speech.

Acts 7:37-53. Moses and the Prophets.—Moses is again the central figure of the history, but now he stands forward as the great deliverer of the people. Stephen has described (Acts 7:36) his marvellous powers, and now shows how, in his constant communion with unseen beings (Acts 7:38-53), he stood alone in his strange, weird grandeur above other men. On two of his supernatural gifts the speaker dwells—(1) on his likeness to the greater Prophet (the Messiah), whose coming he foretold; (2) on his friendship and communion with the Almighty Being of Mount Sinai. It was this man, their benefactor, the friend of their God, whom they again and again refused to obey; but this folly and sin of Israel was speedily avenged, for, instead of serving the one true God, who hitherto in so marvellous’ a manner had been their deliverer and guardian, they worshipped the host of heaven, and took up the Tabernacle of Moloch, the created instead of the Creator. It was as though their God had given them up as slaves to the unworthy objects of their shameful adoration. But the mention of the Tabernacle of Moloch, that false idol to which in their desert wanderings Israel had transferred its homage, brings Stephen to speak of another Tabernacle, that first sacred model of the house on Mount Zion he was accused of despising and speaking lightly of—the Tabernacle of Witness, made after the very pattern which the Most Highest had given to His servant Moses. He rapidly sketches the history of this sacred tent, the first earthly resting-place of the visible glory, and goes on to speak of the building of the Temple—not, however, accomplished by David, the man after God’s own heart, but by Solomon. Now, Stephen was charged with teaching the transitory nature of the Temple, so he shows them how a far holier sanctuary than the one then glittering in all its stately beauty in their loved city had already passed away. The minds of his audience, too, he well knew were remembering, as he was speaking of these things—the lost ark of the covenant, the tables of stone written in by no mortal hand, and other holy things now lost to them for ever, which had formed the furniture of the Tabernacle which existed no more. Was not the transitory nature of all these things in accordance with the Eternal’s own words, ‘Heaven is My throne. . . . What manner of house will ye build Me? saith the Lord.’ And here it was, in God’s good pleasure, that the wondrous argument closed; perhaps the church was not yet fully ripe to receive so broad a view of its destined work and office as Stephen would evidently have painted in the exordium of his long discourse. It was one of Stephen’s audience who in later years really spoke the close of that famous sermon before the Sanhedrim—the young man Saul. Then Stephen spoke a few more sentences, but they were hurried, unfinished, deeply tinged with righteous anger. He was entering on the story of the prophets of Israel, and what they wished to teach the reluctant, stubborn people; but the thought of the sufferings of these brave and persecuted soldiers of his Master, whose history was closed by the murder of ‘the Just,’ whose fate—he read in the fierce, unrelenting countenances before him—he was doomed to share, carried him away, and the calm and skilful advocate of a hated cause, the persuasive, winning orator, became the accuser of his judges and his erring countrymen; and so the speech was brought to a sudden end, the words of the speaker being lost in a loud indignant clamour. The martyr’s death soon followed.


Verse 38

Acts 7:38. This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness. ‘God’s church,’ writes Wordsworth here, ‘is not limited to Judæ. It was in the wilderness; and there Moses, your great lawgiver, was with it; and remember he died there in the wilderness, and was never permitted to enter the Promised Land, to which you would restrain the favours of God.’

With the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai. The second special instance of Divine favour was his solitary communing with the great covenant Angel, the Almighty Being who, under the name Jehovah (the Eternal One), chose Israel as His peculiar people. The solemn words of Deuteronomy 34:10, which sum up the friendship of Moses with the Eternal, tell this best: ‘And there arose not a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.’

Who received the lively oracles to give unto us. He it was who, from the Eternal of hosts on Sinai, received that sacred law, those living words, the deathless charge which should endure as long as the world endures. So St. Paul estimates the Divine commands of the wilderness, ‘Wherefore the law also is holy, and the commandment holy’ (Romans 7:12).


Verse 39

Acts 7:39. And in their hearts turned back again into Egypt. They were weary of the severe restraints imposed by the worship of Jehovah, and longed for the idol service of Egypt, and the enjoyment of the licence which was permitted and even sanctioned in most of those ancient systems of idolatry.


Verse 40

Acts 7:40. Gods to go before us. As the glory of Jehovah had done in the pillar of cloud and fire, and had guided them and led them up through the Red Sea, out of the land of Egypt.

As for this Moses ... we wot not what is become of him. This was spoken during Moses’ stay in the mount of God, when, for forty days, he remained alone with the Eternal and His angels.


Verse 41

Acts 7:41. And they made a calf in those days. The famous golden calf, made originally under the direction of the high priest Aaron, while his brother was in the mount of God, and which was subsequently destroyed by Moses, seems to have been a representation not of a calf, but of a full-grown bull, and was doubtless intended to represent a well-known Egyptian object of worship, either the Bull Apis adored at Memphis, or the Bull Mnevis worshipped at Heliopolis in Lower Egypt. The Israelites, perhaps from past associations, seem to have been peculiarly attached to this symbol of idolatry; for we find Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, after the separation of the monarchies, setting up, in opposition to the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem, rival sanctuaries at Bethel and at Dan, dedicated each to ‘a golden calf (1 Kings 12:28). The strange attachment of the people to these idols is borne witness to by such passages as 2 Kings 9:29, when kings like Jehu, famous for their enmity to idolatry, allowed these ‘golden calves’ and their sanctuaries to remain in the land.

The explanation of this attachment of the children of Israel to this calf or bull worship is, that they persuaded themselves that it was the visible image or emblem of Jehovah the God of Israel. They had seen it worshipped in old days in Memphis or in On, and there it was the visible symbol of the Sun or of Osiris, and perhaps they loved to identify these with the Eternal One who had chosen Israel to be His people. There was much to attract the heart of man in the picturesque ritual with which these Egyptian deities were worshipped, and the wild licence which was permitted and even encouraged at some of their festivals presented a singular contrast to the simple worship of Jehovah, and the stern purity and severity of His moral law. The worship of these golden calves of Aaron, and later, of King Jeroboam, seems an attempt to continue the worship of the God of Israel, the God of their fathers, and then to enjoy still the benefits of their almighty Protector, without at the same time giving up the unlawful pleasures sanctioned and even encouraged by a less austere religion.


Verse 42

Acts 7:42. Then God turned. That is, changed towards them, withdrew from them His favour, laid no check upon their passions and follies (see Acts 14:16); and they, abandoned by their God and left to themselves, sunk into a more degraded form of idolatry still.

The host of heaven. The stars and the sun and moon. This form of idol-worship is called Sabaeism, from צָבָא (tsava), a host (the host of heaven). This idolatry prevailed especially in Chaldea, and also in Phoenicia, as well as in Egypt. The worship of Baal, so often referred to in the history of Israel, probably is what Stephen alludes to—Baal-Shemesh. The sun-god was one of the most popular of the Phoenician deities in Tyre, and also in the great Phoenician colony of Carthage.

Book of the prophets. The twelve so-called minor prophets are here referred to. These short prophecies were reckoned by the Jews as one book. The passage quoted here is from Amos 5:25-27.

O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness? This is a quotation, with very trivial alterations, from the LXX. of Amos 5:25-27. The question, μὴ σφά για κτλ, requires a negative answer. Through the prophet, God is understood to be asking the terrible question: ‘Have ye offered to Me slain beasts and sacrifices during the forty years spent in the desert? Surely you do not pretend to say that you have? You have even taken up the Tabernacle of Moloch,’ etc. Nor is this accusation of Amos quoted by Stephen any contradiction of the story of the Pentateuch, which speaks of the ordinary daily sacrifice to the Lord during the desert wanderings prescribed by the Mosaic ritual; for what counted in God’s eyes the bare, cold, official rites and sacrifices performed by priests and officials under the immediate influence of Moses, compared to the free, spontaneous offerings made, and to the service done by the people to the golden calves or the host of heaven?

The punishment inflicted by Jehovah upon the whole race—all being delivered out of Egypt, none, with two solitary exceptions, being permitted to set foot in the Land of Promise—tells its own story, and shows that the words of Amos quoted here were no exaggerated rhetorical statement, but that even during those long wanderings in the desert, when the power and the love of the Eternal was being daily shown to every child of Israel—while the manna was falling round their tents to feed that great host in those scorched, arid valleys, while the pillar of fire and cloud above their heads was guiding their uncertain steps—even then they deserted His worship for that of Moloch and Baal.


Verse 43

Acts 7:43. Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch. This Tabernacle was a small portable tent which sheltered the image of the idol; this they carried about with them from one place of encampment to another in solemn procession, in imitation of the Tabernacle constructed by Moses after the pattern received by him in the mount. Moloch was most probably identical with the Tyrian Baal (Baal-Shemesh), the sun-god. In the rabbinical tradition respecting the worship paid to this deity, a fire was kindled beneath the idol, which was a hollow figure with the head of an ox with outstretched arms: a child was placed in the arms of the figure, and thus was burned to death, while the priests beat their drums so as to stifle the child’s cries. The image received the name Tophet from Tophim drums. See 1 Kings 11:7, where we read of King Solomon erecting a high place to Moloch, the abomination of the children of Ammon; see also Jeremiah 32:35, and Leviticus 18:21.

And the star of your god Remphan. Remphan or Rephan is the Coptic name for Saturn. This deity (the planet Saturn) was worshipped by the Arabians, the Phoenicians, and Egyptians. The description in Diodorus Siculus of the horrid child-sacrifices offered at Carthage to Saturn resembles the rabbinical account of the worship of Moloch. Stephen here quotes verbatim from the LXX., which differs in some respect from the Hebrew of Amos 5:26, which runs thus:—‘Ye have borne the Tabernacle of Moloch [so the Authorised Version, which here must have followed the LXX.; for the Hebrew has, instead of “Moloch” your king, םַלְְבֶם malk’kem] and Chiun.’ Rephan, a Coptic word, is supposed generally to be the equivalent for Chiun, an Arabic name for Saturn.

Beyond Babylon. The passage in Amos concludes with the words ‘beyond Damascus;’ but the fulfilment of the prophecy, in the well-known captivity of Babylon, made it natural to substitute for ‘Damascus’ the name which had become inseparably connected with the great captivity of the people. Such a quotation with the denunciation of the original prophecy intensified, when subsequent history demanded it, was a rabbinical custom (see Meyer here). This change of ‘Damascus’ into Babylon, therefore, cannot be termed an error of Stephen. The original prediction, besides, did not turn upon the name of the place of the future banishment, but on the fact that one day as a punishment they would be driven beyond the boundaries of their own land.


Verse 44

Acts 7:44. Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness. The mention of this Tabernacle of Moloch reminds Stephen that he has not yet spoken of the true Tabernacle, where the Eternal had borne witness of Himself, and of the holy Temple, which occupied subsequently the place of the Tabernacle. The words used by Stephen are from the LXX. of Numbers 16:18-19, where the sacred tent is called σκηνῆς τοῦ μαρτυρίου, tabernacle of the witness or the testimony. It receives this name most probably from the fact of Jehovah giving there witness of Himself in the visible glory, the Shekinah, which at certain times rested on the golden mercy-seat of the ark between the cherubim.

According to the fashion he had seen. The superior sanctity of the primitive Tabernacle to the Temple, which afterwards rose in all its stately beauty, is here suggested. The old Tabernacle which has disappeared was fashioned after a pattern given to Moses in the mount by the Eternal and His angels (Exodus 25:9-40).


Verse 45

Acts 7:45. Which also our fathers. . . brought in with Joshua. Stephen is here rapidly sketching the history of the sacred tent of the Witness, which continued to be the sanctuary not merely in the wilderness, but in the land of Canaan, until the age of King Solomon. Our fathers, he says, received it (the Tabernacle) from Moses, and brought it into the Land of Promise, when, with Joshua as their leader, they commenced to take possession of the nations then occupying Canaan, and the expulsion of these peoples was not completed until the days of David.

Here Wordsworth remarks ‘that the name of Jesus, though ever in the thoughts of St. Stephen, and as it were hovering on his lips in almost every sentence, is never expressed in his speech, but here, when it does not mean Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus (or Joshua) the son of Nun. How much wisdom was there in this! If he had openly spoken as he felt concerning Jesus of Nazareth, he would have been stopped at once by the rage of his hearers, and the Christian Church would never have had the speech of St. Stephen: there was Divine eloquence in his silence.’


Verse 47

Acts 7:47. But Solomon built Him an house. The argument of Stephen here may be paraphrased thus: ‘The Temple, against which you accuse me of having spoken blasphemous words, because I pointed out [as did my Master] that it was a building which would not endure for ever, was first built, not by David, the man after God’s own heart, but by Solomon, and replaced an older sanctuary, and one that possessed far holier associations than the Temple, seeing it was designed upon a model which Moses received from the Most Highest. That sacred Tabernacle even was not meant to endure for ever. Is it then blasphemy for me to teach that the Temple which succeeded it was also of a transitory nature? Tabernacle and Temple are alike things belonging to time, and are by no means the necessary or only places in which God could be acceptably worshipped.’ It was also in Stephen’s mind, no doubt, that in the Temple then standing there was none of the holy furniture of the Tabernacle. The ark and all had been lost; but this fact, though it would have strengthened his argument urging the transitory nature of the sanctuary they so superstitiously loved, would have been an ungenerous one for a true Jew: the bitter humiliation of Israel was not a topic Stephen was likely to have brought forward in his appeal.


Verse 48

Acts 7:48. Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples. The temple was built at last, but the wise king, its builder, at the solemn dedication, seemed to foresee the superstitious reverence with which they afterwards came to regard this work of man’s hand, when, in his beautiful prayer to Jehovah, he asked: ‘If God would indeed dwell with men on earth; behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee, much less the house which I have built.’ The Isaiah words quoted by Stephen were the burden of all the prophecies, The people had ever loved the Temple more than the God of the Temple, and its ritual more than a self-denying life. This is what Stephen had been teaching, and the martyr knew that for him there was no pardon; they had slain the prophets for the same thing: they would, he felt too surely, slay him now.


Verse 51

Acts 7:51. Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears. Thus far had Stephen pursued his great argument calmly and without passion, though, as one great division of the history after the other passed before him in review, his style became more fervid, and the reproachful allusions less and less veiled. He had brought down the story of the people to the period of the establishment of the Temple worship and the reign of Solomon, and his view now ranged over a long and gloomy time, when new idolatry, ever more and more repulsive, was constantly being introduced among the people; when the prophets of the Lord were rejected, hunted down, and often murdered; when all spiritual life seemed gradually to have withered away, and to have been replaced, even after the bitter punishment of captivity and exile, only by a barren and selfish formalism; and this long dark avenue of sin and ingratitude was closed by the cross on Mount Calvary, with the figure of the Just One nailed upon it. It was this terrible memory of the last long chapters of the story he was telling, it was the thought above all of the crucifixion of the Just, which filled the soul of Stephen with holy indignation, which found vent in this torrent of rebuke and anger against his guilty judges: the bitter words of reproach which he used were well-known ones, and the imagery was familiar to every Jew.

Compare among many passages Deuteronomy 9:6; Deuteronomy 9:13; Deu_10:16; Exodus 33:3-5; Nehemiah 9:16. We gather from the traditional history of the nation, that the wickedness of the children of Israel during the period, the contemplation of which roused so fierce a storm of righteous anger in Stephen’s heart, was of a darker hue even than that described in the ‘kings’ and ‘prophecies.’ Both the Bible history and the traditions were well known to Stephen. Some of these latter were embodied in the Talmud, where, for instance, we read a saying of one of the last monarchs of Israel, Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, in whose time Jeremiah lived. ‘My predecessors,’ scornfully boasted the impious king, did not know how to provoke God’ (from the Babylonian Talmud, ‘Sanhedrim,’ sec. II, quoted in the Yad of Maimonides).


Verse 52

Acts 7:52. The Just One. This title was used by the Jews as a designation of the Messiah. ‘This sentence (of Stephen’s) seems to have been in the mind of the second apostolic martyr at Jerusalem, St. James, when he wrote his epistle a little before his own martyrdom,’ James 5:6 (Wordsworth).


Verse 53

Acts 7:53. Who have received the law by the disposition of angels. That is to say, ‘the Divine law of Moses was announced to Israel, in the first place, by the holy angels acting as the ministers of the Eternal King of heaven; and this glorious law, written by Jehovah and specially communicated to the chosen people by beings not belonging to this earth, you know, neither you nor your fathers have kept!’ But an important question underlies the statement contained in this verse. Were angels, then, employed in the giving of the law in the desert of Sinai? Now, on reading the simple text in the Hebrew or the English translation, the first impression is, that no such angelic intervention was employed. Jehovah the great Covenant Angel gives, and Moses the judge of Israel receives, the law in its varied and comprehensive details. On the other hand, it is an undoubted fact that all Jewish tradition ascribes to angels an important place as assistants in the giving of the law. So in Josephus, Ant. xv. 5. 3; Herod says: ‘We have learned what is most beautiful and what is most holy in our doctrines and laws from God through the medium of angels.’ See also the book of Jubilees, written in the first century of our era. There is, however, one striking passage in the dying blessing of Moses, Deuteronomy 33:2, which the great Jewish expositors and doctors, as the LXX., Onkelos, the writers of the Palestine Targum, etc., interpret as directly teaching the interposition of angels in the giving of the law. The accurate rendering of the passage in Deuteronomy 33:2 is: ‘He came from amidst myriads of holiness,’ that is, from amidst countless angels who attend Him. The LXX. translation alters the sense of the whole passage. They assume the fact that in the giving of the law, angels were in attendance on the Eternal. Onkelos in his Targum (written first century of our era) thus paraphrases the words in Deuteronomy 33 : ‘With Him were ten thousand saints.’ The Palestine Targum in its present form, dating from the seventh century, but based on older materials, reads in the same place in Deuteronomy: ‘With Him ten thousand times ten thousand holy angels.’ The well-known statement of Psalms 68:17 : ‘The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, are thousands upon thousands: the Lord among them hath come from Sinai, into His sanctuary; and possibly Numbers 10:36 : ‘Return, O Jehovah, with the myriads of the thousands of Israel’ (Perowne’s translation), teach the same truth that angels, as ministers of the Eternal, assisted in the first solemn giving of the law in the desert wanderings; while St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatian church (Acts 3:19), and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Acts 2:2), tell us that this Jewish belief which Stephen quotes here, passed without question into the teaching of followers of Jesus.


Verse 54

Acts 7:54. And they gnashed on him with their teeth. Bitterly as the Sanhedrim felt the sting of Stephen’s reproachful words, as yet they had not proceeded to open violence; this was not used until the open adoration of the Crucified, occasioned by the vision of glory (related in Acts 7:55-56), moved them to an irrepressible fury, and charging him now with public blasphemy they hurried him to execution. The expression ‘to gnash with the teeth ‘is frequently used in the Old Testament to signify furious rage; see Job 16:9; Psalms 35:16; Psalms 37:12.


Verse 55

Acts 7:55. And saw the glory of God, and Jesus. ‘The scene before his eyes was no longer the council hall at Jerusalem, and the circle of his infuriated judges; but he gazed up into the endless courts of the celestial Jerusalem, with its innumerable company of angels, and saw Jesus, in whose righteous cause he was about to die’ (Conybeare and Howson, St. Paul).

This vision of the splendour of the glory of the Shekinah, Stephen might have beheld as he gazed through the window of the judgment hall,—shining through the deep blue arch of sky which overhung Jerusalem; but though it is possible the material heavens may be referred to here in the words ‘looked stedfastly up into heaven,’ yet as the vision was supernatural, and to him for a brief space the heaven of heavens was opened, and his eyes saw clearly into its glorious courts, it is by no means necessary to assume that he was gazing into the open sky at all. Many rationalistic attempts have been made to explain away this vision of Stephen, by suggesting it was a bright luminous cloud, or a thunderstorm accompanied by vivid lightning; but such attempts have all signally failed, and only contradict the plain text.


Verse 56

Acts 7:56. The Son of man. This Messianic name, which first appears in the vision of Daniel (Acts 7:13), was a title which Christ often gave to Himself when on earth, but which was never applied to Him after His resurrection by any of the apostles or evangelists, except by Stephen here (Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14, where the designation again occurs, are both merely the recital of visions in heaven); and in this place the martyr repeats the words which many of those present must have well remembered were uttered by His Master before the same council: ‘Jesus saith unto him’ (the high priest), ‘Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven’ (Matthew 26:64).

Standing on the right hand of God. Why standing? The Lord is always described as sitting—in his own words (Matthew 26) just quoted; by evangelists (Mark 16:19), ‘He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God;’ by apostles, as St. Paul (Ephesians 1:20); by Old Testament writers, as David writing of King Messiah (Psalms 110:1), ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou on My right hand’ (see Pearson, On the Glorious Session of Christ; art. vi. of the Creed). Chrysostom’s beautiful thought best answers this question, why Stephen saw Jesus standing and not sitting at the right hand of God: ‘He had risen from the throne to succour His persecuted servant, and to receive him to Himself.’ Usually our Lord is described as the Judge of quick and dead, and then as a Judge He sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father; but here our Lord appears in glory, not now sitting as Judge, but standing ready to assist, ready to plead for, ready to receive His faithful martyr.


Verse 57

Acts 7:57. Then they cried out with a loud voice. When they heard Stephen in his awful joy saying that he beheld ‘the Crucified’ encircled with the visible glory, thus boldly confessing that the Shekinah belonged to Jesus of Nazareth, they could contain themselves no longer; the purport of their cries no doubt was identical with the memorable expression of the high priest, recorded by St. Matthew (Matthew 26:65-66), who, when Jesus claimed as belonging to Him the Majesty of heaven, ‘rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.’


Verse 58

Acts 7:58. And cast him out of the city. By the law of Moses (Leviticus 24:14-16), these executions were to take place outside the camp. When the people had settled in the land of Canaan, each walled town was considered as representing the camp. For an example of this custom, see the account of the stoning of Naboth (1 Kings 21:13).

And stoned him. The Talmudists mention four different modes of death awarded by the court of justice—stoning, burning, slaying with the sword, strangulation. Of these, the first was deemed the most severe, and was the punishment of blasphemy. The way in which it was carried out was as follows:—The culprit, pinioned and stripped of his clothes, ascended a scaffold erected (outside the city) twice the height of a man, whence one of the witnesses pushed him down, so that he fell with his face to the ground. If death ensued, there was no occasion for stoning; but if in the accused there still remained life, then the other witness flung a very large stone at his chest, and if after this the culprit was still not dead, the people pelted him with stones till life was extinct, thus conforming to the command in Deuteronomy 17:7.

At a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. This is the first time the famous Paul of Tarsus appears mixed up with the affairs of the Church of Christ. It was as the bitterest enemy of the new sect we first hear of him. As a prominent member, no doubt, of the Cilician synagogue (Acts 6:9) in its disputations with Stephen, he had become acquainted with much of the teaching of the leading followers of Jesus, and, in common with other leaders of the Jewish schools of thought, was persuaded these new doctrines were most hostile to the ceremonial traditions and superstitious ritual taught and practised among the people. Hence his conduct in the martyrdom of Stephen. For a detailed account of the training and early associations of this great man, see chapter 2 of Conybeare and Howson’s St. Paul.

He is, in this passage, styled ‘a young man.’ This, however, must be understood with some reservation. Chrysostom states that at this period Paul was thirty-five years old, and this age is quite in accordance with the common way of speaking of ‘a young man’ (juvenis). Gloag quotes Varro as calling a man ‘youngtill the age of forty-five, and Dio Cassius speaking of Cæsar as ‘a young man’ when about forty. Shortly after this time we find the Sanhedrim employing Saul as their chief agent in an important mission to Damascus. Such a work would scarcely have been entrusted to one still a young man in the ordinary acceptation of the word. Whether he was one of the Sanhedrim judges at this time is doubtful, but that he was elected a member soon after is sometimes inferred from Acts 26:10.


Verse 59

Acts 7:59. And they stoned Stephen. Twice the writer of the ‘Acts’ tells us this,—a remarkable repetition in a history usually so sparing in its details. It would seem to point (as perhaps also does the tense of the Greek verb used here) to a somewhat lengthened duration of the agony. No mortal injury was probably inflicted for a time; so they kept on stoning the martyr, who in the cruel storm was all the while

Calling upon GOD. In the original we have simply ἐ πικαλού μενον, invoking or calling upon. The word to be supplied is evidently ‘the Lord,’ from the next clause, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ This is better than supplying ‘God,’ as in the English Version, which slightly confuses the reader. Stephen here prays with his latest breath to Jesus, and all attempts to explain this momentous fact away are utterly useless. This is allowed now by the best critics of the various schools,—De Wette, Meyer, Ewald, Lange, Alford, Gloag, etc.

The martyr’s last cry was a prayer to our Lord, moulded upon two of the seven sayings of the Redeemer on the cross. But while the dying prayer of Jesus was addressed to His Father, Stephen, in his supreme agony, turns to Jesus; and to Jesus as King of the world of spirits, he commends his parting soul, to Jesus as Lord of all he prays for pardon on his murderers. Commenting on this primitive instance of prayer being offered to the Crucified, Canon Liddon well says, ‘Dying men do not cling to devotional fancies or to precarious opinions: the soul in its last agony instinctively falls back upon its deepest certainties’ (Divinity of Christ, Lecture vii.). St. Augustine points to the striking fulfilment of Stephen’s prayer for his enemies, in the conversion of one of the chiefest of them: ‘If Stephen had not prayed, never would the Church have possessed Paul.’


Verse 60

Acts 7:60. And he kneeled down. Some would explain these words as though this kneeling posture was caused by the stones falling thickly around and upon him; so the writer in the well-known Diet, of the Bible (Dr. Smith’s): ‘As the first volley of stones burst upon him, he called upon the Master. . . . Another crash of stones brought him upon his knees.’ But it is more natural to assume that, after Stephen was thrown down from the scaffold (as described above), still living and conscious, he raised himself to his knees, that his last act might be a protest alike for his adoration of his Master and his forgiveness of his enemies; and so kneeling, he breathed out his beautiful prayer.

And ... he fell asleep. Heathen writers have used this word sometimes in this sense (as, for instance, Callimachus, Epigram 10), but the derivative, κοιμητήριον, cemetery, that is, a sleeping-place where the bodies were laid only to sleep till the resurrection should awaken them, is peculiarly a Christian term, and its introduction and general use is owing to the new ideas which the teaching of Jesus has persuaded men to associate with the grave (comp. 1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Wordsworth has a singular but beautiful note on the word εκοιμήθη, he fell asleep, with which the narrative, of which Stephen is the hero, is brought to a close: ‘There is something musical in the cadence of this word, and also of the word which closes the Acts, ακωλύτως, unhindered, rendered in the English, “no man forbidding him.” The word commences with a short syllable followed by three long ones, happily adapted to express rest after labour, as may be seen in the lines of Catullus describing his return home:

“Cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino

Lahore fessi venimus larem ad nostrun

Desideratoque acquiescimus lecto.”

This cadence is expressive ... of motion succeeded by rest, of action consummated and settled in repose ... an emblem of the Church of Christ, and of the life of every true believer in Him.’

The question has often been raised, How came it that the Roman permission for this execution was not sought and obtained before the deed was done? The stoning of Stephen was hastily carried out, but it does not seem to have been by any means a mere tumultuary proceeding. The Nazarene heretic had been formally tried by the great council of the Sanhedrim, condemned, and then put to death, strictly in accordance with the principles of the Jewish law. On the other hand, it would appear from St. John 18:31, when the Redeemer was being tried, that the Jews had no power legally to put any man to death. The answer to this is supplied by the history of this particular period. The Procurator Pontius Pilate had just been or was on the point of being relieved of his office; his official superior, Lucius Vitellius, the governor (Legatus) of Syria, had resolved upon adopting a more conciliatory policy towards the Jewish nation. Pilate, whose stem rule in Judea had procured him many bitter enemies, was sacrificed to the new policy. The execution of Stephen and the bloody persecution of the followers of Jesus, which immediately followed it, seem to have taken place just when the Roman rule was relaxed in Jerusalem; and such high-handed proceedings on the part of the Jews as are related in this and the early part of the next chapter—the death of Stephen and the general persecution which followed—were connived at by the legate of Syria and his subordinate officers in Judea (see Renan, Les Apotres, chap. viii.).

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 7:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/acts-7.html. 1879-90.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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