Galatians 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

(1-31) The present chapter continues the argument of the last. St. Paul had been reproaching the Galatians with their relapse. They had fallen back from a spiritual system to a material system; from a system that brought blessing to a system that brought a curse; from faith and the promise to the Law; from the freedom of the adult man to the constraint and discipline of the minor. Now the idea of constraint and freedom is taken up and carried out further. It is treated directly in the first seven and last eleven verses, and forms the link of transition to the next chapter, the opening key-note of which is “freedom.” The middle portion of Galatians 4 is somewhat of a personal digression, the object of which, however, is really to support this view of the opposition between the Apostle and the Judaising party as one between liberty on the one hand and slavery on the other. In the first section (Galatians 4:8-11) the Apostle expresses his surprise that the Galatians could descend from the height they had reached to anything so poor, so narrow, and so enslaving. A rush of personal feeling comes over him, and he goes on to remind them of the warm and eager welcome that they had given him when he first came among them, and of the contrast between their Judaising troublers and himself. His old feelings return, and his heart goes out towards them. On this tide of emotion the concluding arguments of the chapter are carried home.

Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all;
(1-7) A further description, continued from the last chapter, of the state of wardship, with its restraints and servitude, compared with that Christian freedom—the freedom of sons—to which the Galatians had been admitted through their adoption into the Messianic family by adhesion to Christ.

It may be observed that the allusions to the condition of minors are not in strict accordance either with Jewish or Roman law. It has been suggested that they have reference to a special code current in Galatia. It is, however, far more probable that the Apostle is referring exclusively to neither, but has in his mind a sort of abstraction of the law of minority, such as would present itself to one who had not himself had a legal education.

(1) Now I say.—This phrase introduces a further and fuller explanation of what is involved in the state of nonage, as compared with that of adult freedom.

A childi.e., an infant, a minor; though the term is not technically chosen.

Differeth nothing from a servant.—Both the child and the slave were incapable of any valid act in a legal sense; the guardian was as entirely the representative of the one as the master of the other. Both the child and the slave were subject to the same restraint, discipline, correction.

Though he be lord of all.—Strictly speaking, the inference from this would be that the father was dead. This, however, is a point that does not really enter into the Apostle’s thoughts. The illustration does not hold good in all particulars, but in the chief particulars—viz., the state of constraint and subordination in which the minor is placed so long as he is a minor.

But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.
(2) Under tutors and governors.—The distinction between these two terms is that between guardians of the person and stewards of the property. It would be better to translate, guardians and stewards.

Until the time appointed of the father.—From this it would appear that the length of the minority was determined by the father. This, however, was not the case either in Greek or Roman law; and the suggestion that the father may have had larger powers in Galatia than elsewhere, though supported by some remote indications, seems to be one of those subtleties in which learning sometimes overreaches itself; it being unlikely that the short sojourn of the Apostle in Galatia would have been enough to make him acquainted with the technicalities of the Galatian code. It is more probable that the application of the analogy has here come in to modify the statement of the analogy itself. The minority of the human race is fixed by the heavenly Father, though the earthly father, in disposing of his children, has to conform to another law than his own will.

Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:
(3) We.—That is, in the first instance, and specially, the Jews; but the Gentiles are also included. The Apostle is speaking from the point of view of the Christians: “all who are now Christians, whatever their antecedents.” Before the coming of Christ both Jews and Gentiles had been subject to law; and what the Apostle says of the law of Moses applies more faintly to the law of conscience and of nature.

Elements of the world.—The word translated “elements” is peculiar. The simpler word from whence it is derived means “a row.” Hence the derivative is applied to the letters of the alphabet, because they were arranged in rows. Thus it came to mean the “elements” or “rudiments” of learning, and then” elements” of any kind. The older commentators on this passage, for the most part, took it in the special sense of “the elements of nature,” “the heavenly bodies,” either as the objects of Gentile worship or as marking the times of the Jewish festivals. There is, however, little doubt that the other sense is best: “the elements (or rudiments, as in the margin) of religious teaching.” These are called “the elements of the world” because they were mundane and material; they included no clear recognition of spiritual things. The earlier forms of Gentile and even of Jewish religion were much bound up with the senses; the most important element in them was that of ritual. The same phrase, in the same sense, occurs twice in the Epistle to the Colossians (Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:20).

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,
(4) The fulness of the time.—That which was predetermined in the counsels of God as the right and proper time when the whole course of previous preparation both for Jew and Gentile was complete. Here we have a very clear expression of the conception of religion as progressive, divided into periods, and finding its culmination in Christianity. The phrase “fulness of the time” corresponds to “the time appointed of the father” in Galatians 4:2.

Sent forthi.e., from Himself; from that station which is described in John 1:1 : “The Word was with God.” The pre-existence of the Son is distinctly recognised by St. Paul.

Made of a woman.—Perhaps better translated, born of a woman. There is no allusion here to the miraculous conception. The phrase “born of a woman” was of common use. Comp. Matthew 11:11 : “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” So here the expression is intended to bring out, not the divinity, but the true humanity of Christ.

Made under the law.Born under lawi.e., born into a state of things where the whole world was subject to law—born under the legal dispensation, though Himself destined to put an end to that dispensation.

To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
(5) To redeem them that were under the law.—To redeem, or ransom, at the price of His death, both Jew and Gentile at once from the condemnation under which the law, to which they were severally subject, placed them, and also from the bondage and constraint which its severe discipline involved.

That we might receive the adoption of sons.—Redemption is followed by adoption. The admission of the believer into the Messianic kingdom, with its immunities from sin and from law, implies an admission into the Messianic family, of which God is the Father and Christ the Eldest Son, “first born amongst many brethren.”

And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.
(6) It is because you are sons that you are able to address your Heavenly Father in such genuine accents of filial emotion. It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of Christ which has been given to you in virtue of your adoption. He prompts your prayers.

This verse should be read in connection with Romans 8:15-16, to which it forms a close parallel.

Because.—It is, perhaps, on the whole, best to retain this translation. The conjunction may, however, possibly mean in proof that.”

Abba, Father.—A reduplication of loving entreaty. (See Note on Romans 8:15.) For similar instances of a Greek word being repeated in Aramaic, or an Aramaic word in Greek, we may compare Revelation 9:11 : “The angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon;” Revelation 12:9 : “That old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan.” The Aramaic “Abba” appears in our word “abbot.”

Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
(7) Thus, by your redemption, adoption, and the gift of the Spirit, it is distinctly proved that the old state of servitude and minority is past. You have entered upon the full privileges of the adult son. And the son is also called to the Messianic inheritance.

Thou.—The singular is used in order to individualise the expression and bring it home pointedly to each of the readers.

No more.—Since the coming of Christ, and your own acceptance of Christianity.

If a son, then an heir . . .—The Roman law (which the Apostle seems to be following) treated all the sons as heirs, and provided for an equal division of the property between them.

Of God through Christ.—The true reading here appears to be, through God—a somewhat unusual expression. The Christian is admitted as an heir, not through any merits of his own, but through the process of redemption and adoption wrought for him by God.

Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.
(8-11) The results of the foregoing argument are now turned against the Galatians. In their old heathen state they had been in bondage to gods that were no gods. From this bondage they had been delivered. They had been raised to a true knowledge of God, and received a Father’s recognition from Him. How then could they possibly think of returning to a system of mere ceremonialism. All this painful observance of times and seasons could only make the Apostle think that his labours on their behalf had been thrown away.

(8) Them which by nature are no gods.—The gods of the heathen are called by St. Paul “devils.” (See 1Corinthians 10:20 : “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to devils, and not to God.”)

But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?
(9) Known God.—The word for “known” is different from that so translated in the verse above. It brings out more distinctly the process of obtaining knowledge, especially with reference to a state of previous ignorance. Having come to know God.

Or rather are known of God.—In speaking of the Galatians as “coming to know” God, it might seem as if too much stress was laid on the human side of the process, and therefore, by way of correction, the Apostle presents also the divine side. Any true and saving knowledge of God has for its converse the “being known of God”—i.e., recognition by God and acceptance by Him, such as is involved in the admission of the believer into the Messianic kingdom.

Again.—In the Greek a double phrase, for the sake of emphasis, over again from the very beginning, as a child might be said to go back to his alphabet.

Weak and beggarly elements.—”Elements” is used here, in the same sense as in Galatians 4:3, of that elementary religious knowledge afforded in different degrees to Jew and Gentile before the coming of Christ. These are called “weak” because they were insufficient to enable man to work out his own salvation. (Comp. St. Paul’s account of the inward struggle, and of the helpless condition to which man is reduced by it, in Romans 7:7-24.) They are called “beggarly,” or “poor,” because, unlike the gospel, they were accompanied by no outpouring of spiritual gifts and graces. The legal system was barren and dry; the gospel dispensation was rich with all the abundance and profusion of the Messianic time (Joel 2:19; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Isaiah 4:1; Isaiah 65:21-25; John 7:37-38, et al.)

Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.
(10) Ye observe.—A compound word, signifying not only “to observe,” but “to observe scrupulously.” The word is used by Josephus in his paraphrase of the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ant. iii. 5, § 5).

Daysi.e., in the first instance and especially, the Jewish sabbaths; but other fasts or festivals which occupied a single day may be included.

Months.—The description mounts in an ascending scale—days, months, seasons, years. The “months,” however, mean really “the first day of the month,” the “new moon.” (See Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 28:11; Psalm 81:3.)

Times.Seasons: such as the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

Years.—Such as the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee. The Apostle is giving a list which is intended to be exhaustive of all Jewish observances, so that it would not necessarily follow that the Galatians had actually kept the year of jubilee, or even that it was kept literally by the Jews at this time.

As to the bearing of this passage on the general question of the observance of seasons, it is to be noticed that the reference is here to the adoption by the Galatians of the Jewish seasons as a mark of the extent to which they were prepared to take on themselves the burden of the Mosaic law. It does not necessarily follow that the observance of Christian seasons is condemned. At the same time, it is quite clear that St. Paul places all such matters under the head of “elements” or “rudiments.” They belong to the lowest section of Christian practice, and the more advanced a Christian is the less he needs to be bound by them. This, again, is qualified by the consideration that it is dangerous for any one individual to assume his own advanced condition, and to think himself able to dispense with the safeguards which his brother-Christians require. It is safest to follow the general rule of the Church, so long as it is done intelligentlyi.e., with a consciousness of the reason and expediency of what is done, and not in a spirit of mere mechanical routine. The comparison between the literal and the spiritual observance of seasons, and the superiority of the latter as the more excellent way, is well brought out by Origen in some comments upon this passage: “If it be objected to us on this subject that we are accustomed to observe certain days—as, for example, the Lord’s Day, the Preparation, the Passover, or Pentecost—I have to answer that, to the perfect Christian—who is ever in his thoughts, words, and deeds serving his natural Lord, God the Word—all his days are the Lord’s, and he is always keeping the Lord’s Day. He, also, who is unceasingly preparing himself for the true life, and abstaining from the pleasures of this life which lead astray so many, such a one is always keeping the Preparation Day. Again, he who considers that ‘Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us,’ and that it is his duty to keep the feast by eating of the flesh of the Word, never ceases to keep the Paschal Feast. And, finally, he who can truly say: ‘We are risen with Christ,’ and ‘He hath exalted us, and made us sit with Him in heavenly places in Christ,’ is always living in the season of Pentecost . . . But the majority of those who are accounted believers are not of this advanced class; but from being either unable or unwilling to keep every day in this manner, they require some sensible memorial to prevent spiritual things from passing away altogether from their minds” (Against Celsus, viii. 22, 23).

Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all.
(12-16) Let me beg of you: cast off the bondage of Judaism as I have done, just as I gave p its privileges to place myself on a level with you. I have no complaint to make against you. You remember the illness which detained me among you, and led me first to preach to you the gospel. You received me kindly and warmly enough then, though my bodily infirmities might well have tempted you to despise me. You treated me as if I had been a messenger direct from heaven. You thought yourselves “blest” by my teaching. You would have done anything for me; you would have given me even your eyes. What has become of all this now? Why do you consider yourselves “blest” no more? Why do you treat me as an enemy, merely for telling you the truth?

(12) Be as I am.—Use the same Christian freedom that I use.

For I am as ye are.—I lay no stress on my pure Jewish descent. I claim no privileges because I was circumcised the eighth day. I do not count myself holier than you because I belonged to the strictest of all sects, the Pharisees. I stripped myself of all this, and became a Gentile among Gentiles.

Ye have not injured me at all.—Ye did me no wrong. There is a transition of subject at this clause. The Apostle goes back in thought to his first visit to Galatia. He had no complaint to make of the Galatians then. They did him no injury, showed him no unkindness, but, on the contrary, received him gladly.

Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first.
(13) Through infirmity of the flesh.—Rather, because (or, on account) of infirmity of fleshi.e., some bodily weakness or ill-health. We should gather from this that St. Paul was detained in Galatia accidentally by illness, and that this led to his preaching the gospel there.

At the first.The first time; on my first visit. This would be the one mentioned in Acts 16:6, in distinction from that referred to in Acts 18:23. (See Introduction.)

And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.
(14) My temptation which was in my flesh.—The true reading is here, your temptation in my fleshi.e., my bodily infirmities, which might have been a temptation to you to reject me. St. Paul seems to have suffered from grievous bodily infirmity, which he elsewhere (2Corinthians 12:7) describes as a “thorn (or rather, stake) in the flesh.” The effects of this were seen in his personal appearance, which his enemies described as “mean” (2Corinthians 10:10); and he himself felt it as a corrective against any tendency to spiritual pride (2Corinthians 12:7). An attack of this malady came upon him during his visit to Galatia, and it was with health shattered by this that he first preached the gospel to the Galatians. Still, to their credit, they took no notice of it, and gave him the warmest possible reception. As to the nature of the malady referred to, see Notes on 2 Corinthians 12.

Despised not, nor rejected.—The second of these two words is stronger than would appear from the English version. It is used of the expression of physical disgust: ye despised not, nor loathed. The Apostle says that the Galatians did not despise “their temptation,” meaning “the thing (malady) which they were tempted to despise.”

Even as Christ Jesus.—You showed to the ambassador of Christ as much enthusiasm, as deep and ardent an affection, as you could have shown to Christ Himself.

Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.
(15) Where.—The reading of the Received text is “What,” which, however, must be taken as if it were equivalent to “where,” the reading which has the strongest attestation.

The blessedness ye spake of.—The Greek is a single word: your felicitation of yourselves; your boast of blessedness; or (as we should say) your boasted blessedness. What has become of all those loud assertions in which you were once heard declaring yourselves “blest” in the presence of the Apostle?

For.—You did declare yourselves blest; for, &c.

Ye would have plucked out your own eyes.—The word “own” should be struck out, and the emphasis laid on “eyes.” The inference which has been drawn from this passage, that St. Paul suffered from an affection of the eyes, hardly seems to hold good. The “eyes” may be mentioned only as something peculiarly dear and precious. Comp. the Old Testament phrase, “to keep as the apple of an eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10; Psalm 17:8; Proverbs 7:2).

Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?
(16) Your enemy.—“The enemy” was the name by which St. Paul was commonly referred to by the party hostile to him in the next century. It is quite possible that the phrase “your enemy” ought to be placed, as it wore, in inverted commas, and attributed to the Judaising sectaries—”your enemy,” as these false teachers call me.

Because I tell you the truth.—It would seem that something had happened upon St. Paul’s second visit to Galatia (the visit recorded in Acts 18:23) which had caused a change in their feelings towards him. His plain speaking had given offence.

They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them.
(17-20) All this eagerness to court your favour springs from an interested motive: they wish to make a sect of you, in which they shall be masters and courted in their turn. Not but that it is a good thing for teachers and taught—you and I—to seek favour with each other, so long as it is done disinterestedly, and that, too, when I am absent as well as when I am present. My heart yearns towards you. I cannot forget that you owe your life, as Christians, to me. Now, once more, it seems as if all that long travail has to be gone over again. You must be re-fashioned in the likeness of Christ, as the infant is fashioned in the form of man. Would that I could be with you and speak in a different tone, for how to deal with you I do not know.

(17) They zealously affect you.—“Zealously affect” is a single word in the Greek, and means “to show zeal towards,” “to court,” “to curry favour with,” “to canvass eagerly, so as to win over to their side.” The subject of this verse is the Judaising teachers.

They would exclude you.—They desire to separate you from the rest of the Gentile churches, and to make a sect by itself, in which they themselves may bear rule. All the other Gentile churches had accepted the freer teaching of St. Paul; the Judaising party wished to make of Galatia an isolated centre of Judaism. They did this with personal motives, “not well”—i.e., from honest and honourable motives—but with a view to secure their own ascendancy.

That ye might affect them.—The same word as “zealously affect” above and in the next verse. They expect to have all this zeal on their part returned to them in kind. With them it is the proselytizing zeal of the faction leader; from you they expect the deferential zeal of devoted followers.

But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you.
(18) It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.—A disinterested zeal between teachers and taught is indeed good in itself. The Apostle does not wish to dissuade the Galatians from that. He would be only too glad to see such a mutual interchange himself—in his absence as well as in his presence. It seems a mistake to refer this either to the Galatians alone or to St. Paul alone. The proposition is stated in a general form, so as to cover both. It is right to be zealously affected always. Their eager zeal should not have its ebbs and flows, but should subsist constantly, whether those between whom it is felt are present together or not.

In a good thing.—This expression corresponds to “but not well” in the last verse, and means honestly, disinterestedly, with a view to the spread of the gospel, and not to personal ascendancy.

My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you,
(19) My little children.—The form is a diminutive, not found elsewhere in the writings of St. Paul, though common in St. John. It is used to heighten the tenderness of the appeal. The simple form, however, “my children,” is found in some of the best MSS., and perhaps should be adopted. St. Paul regards as his spiritual children all who first received the gospel from him.

Of whom I travail in birth again.—The struggle which ends in the definite winning over of his converts to Christ, the Apostle compares to the process of birth by which “a man is born into the world.” In the case of the Galatians, after their relapse, this struggle has all to be gone through again.

Until Christ be formed in you.—Just as the formless embryo by degrees takes the shape of man, so the unformed Christian by degrees takes the likeness of Christ. As he grows in grace that likeness becomes more and more defined, till at last the Christian reaches the “stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). There is some question as to the punctuation of this verse: whether it should be divided from the last by a full stop, and from the next by a comma, as is usually done; or from the last by a comma, and from the next by a full-stop. It is a nice question of scholarship, in which the weight or preponderance of authority seems, perhaps, rather to incline to the usual view, though some good commentators take the other side. It has been thought best not to alter the punctuation of the English text, though without a clear conviction that it is right.

I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you.
(20) I desire.—The Greek is not quite so definite: “I could indeed wish.”

Change my voice.—Rather, change my tone; speak in terms less severe.

I stand in doubt of you.—Rather, as in the margin, I am perplexed about youi.e., I do not know what to say to you—how I ought to deal with you so as to win you back from this defection. If the Apostle had been present, so as to see what effect his words were having, he would know what line to take. As it is, in writing to them he is at a loss, and fears to make matters worse instead of better.

Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?
(21-31) The next eleven verses contain an elaborate argument from the history of the two sons of Abraham, as types of the two covenants, in further proof that freedom is the essential character of the Christian dispensation.

We have seen that St. Paul applies the history of the natural Israel allegorically to the spiritual Israel; and not only does he do this with reference to the history of the formed theocracy, but he goes back to its origin in the time of the patriarchs, and traces there the first beginnings of the separation between the Law and the promise. The same history had been already allegorically treated by Philo. The treatment of it by St. Paul is, however, quite different, and in keeping with the line of argument followed in the context.

The points of parallelism, which are drawn out in much detail, may be exhibited thus:—

Jewish Church.

Christian Church.

The bondwoman, Hagar.

The freewoman, Sarah.

Son of the bondwoman, Ishmael.

Son of the freewoman, Isaac.

Natural birth (the flesh).

Supernatural birth (the promise).

Mount Sinai.

Mount Zion.

The Law.

The Promise.

The earthly Jerusalem.

The heavenly Jerusalem.





Small offspring.

Large offspring.





The Jewish Church is enslaved.

The Christian Church is free.

(21) Ye that desire to be under the law.—A direct appeal to those who were inclined to give way to the Judaising party.

Do ye not hear the law?—“Hear” is probably to be taken in the sense of “give heed to,” “listen to with attention,” as in Matthew 10:14; Matthew 13:9; Matthew 13:13; Luke 16:29; Luke 16:31. Some have thought that it merely refers to the practice of reading a lesson from the Old Testament, which was adopted into the Christian Church from the synagogue.

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.
(22) For.—This particle would naturally not be expressed in English. It was a reason for the question which had been asked just before: “For the Law does supply a case in point.”

The one by a bondmaid.—Hagar, it seems from Genesis 16:1, was an Egyptian. The word for “bondmaid” was not confined to this sense in earlier Greek, but was used for any young girl.

But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.
(23) But.—Both were alike in being children of Abraham; they were unlike in that one was born naturally, the other by divine instrumentality.

Was born.—Strictly, is borni.e., is stated to have been born, was born as we still read.

After the fleshi.e., in the regular course of nature.

By promise.—The birth of Isaac is regarded as due to the direct agency of the promise, The promise itself is conceived of as possessing a creative power. The birth of Isaac was the result of a miraculous intervention. (See Genesis 18:10.)

Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.
(24) Which things are an allegory.—Literally, Which things are allegorisedi.e., spoken in double sense,—

“Where more is meant than meets the ear.”

The allegorical sense does not exclude the literal sense. but is added to it. In like manner St. Paul speaks of the events which happened to the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness as happening “for our ensamples,” or, more correctly, “by way of types or figures” (1Corinthians 10:11): though elsewhere a distinction is drawn between “type” and “allegory,” the first implying that the narrative on which it is based is true, the second that it is fictitious. St. Paul does not use the word here in this strict sense. The justification for the allegorical treatment of the patriarchal history may be expressed in the words of Calvin: “As the house of Abraham was at that time the true Church, so there can be no doubt that the chief and most memorable events which happened in it are so many types for us.” At the same time, the argumentative force of the passage evidently rests upon the apostolic assertion of Christian liberty, not upon the logical cogency of the inference from the details of the type to the thing typified.

These are the two covenants.—“These,” i.e., these women, Hagar and Sarah. “Are,” in the sense of stand, for,” “typically represent,” as in the interpretation of the parable of the tares: “The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world” (Matthew 13:39); or, in the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “this is my body . . . this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26; Matthew 26:28), where the meaning is really as little doubtful as here. “The two covenants” should be simply “two covenants.” What covenants the Apostle goes on to explain. So, too, “the one” in the next clause should be rather one.

Which gendereth to bondage.—Rather, bringing forth children unto bondagei.e., unto a state of bondage, so that from the moment they are born they are subject to bondage. The progeny of Hagar is a nation of bondsmen, like the Jews under the old covenant.

For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.
(25) For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia.—This clause will be, perhaps, best dealt with in an excursus, of which we will at present merely summarise the result by saying that the true (or, rather, most probable) reading appears to be: Now this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; and the sense: “By the word Hagar is meant Mount Sinai in Arabia.” There appears to be sufficient evidence to show that Hagar may be regarded as the Arabic name for Sinai, so that there would be a special reason for identifying Hagar allegorically with the old covenant. For a fuller discussion see Excursus B (p. 467).

Answereth to Jerusalem which now is.—The word for “answereth” is a technical term in philosophy, applied to the parallel columns containing such antithetical pairs as good—evil; one—many; finite—infinite, &c. Here it will be illustrated by the parallel arrangement of the different points of the allegory given above. “Answereth to” will thus mean “stands in the same column with.” Hagar, Sinai, the old covenant, the Jewish nation, or the earthly Jerusalem, all stand upon the same side of the antithesis. They are arranged one above another, or, in other words, they rank in the same line, which is the primitive meaning of the word.

Jerusalem which now is.The present Jerusalemi.e., the Jewish people still subject to the Law. It is opposed to “Jerusalem which is above,” as the pre-Messianic to the Messianic system.

And is in bondage with her children.—The true reading is, for she is in bondage with her children. Jerusalem is, as it were, personified, so that “with her Children” means “all who are dependent upon her”—the Jewish system and all who belong to it.

EXCURSUS B: ON THE PASSAGE (Galatians 4:25),


The words “For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia” present difficulties which seem to need a somewhat longer and more technical discussion than could properly be given to them in the body of the Commentary, and it has seemed the more desirable to devote to them a short excursus, as the view taken is one that, in this instance, diverges from that adopted by more than one of the best authorities, and conspicuously by Dr. Lightfoot.

The first question is one of reading. The words appear in no less than four different forms. Two of these, however, may be set aside at once. For the two that remain the authorities are nearly equally balanced. The simple reading “For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia” has in its favour the Sinaitic MS.; the Codex Ephraem; the Codex Augiensis, in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge; and another Dresden MS., which usually agrees with it, and seems to have been derived from the same copy; a good—perhaps the best—cursive; quotations in Origen and Epiphanius; and the Latin authorities generally. The other reading, “Now this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia,” is supported by the Vatican, Alexandrine, and Claromontane MSS., and by a fourth MS., now at Paris, which bears to the Claromontane a somewhat similar relation to that which the Dresden Codex bears to the Augiensis; a good cursive (somewhat inferior to that on the other side); and the Memphitic version. Balancing these authorities, the preponderance would seem—if we may venture to say so, where Dr. Lightfoot thinks differently—to be with the longer reading last mentioned. It is true that the list on the other side is more copious, and represents a wider diffusion of text; but, taking the two groups together, we believe that the second represents the older and purer form of text, and that its readings will be verified in the greater number of instances. It is indeed just that very group, headed by the Codex Sinaiticus, which comes in to mark the first stage of corruption—one of the very first and earliest forms of corruption, it is true, and one that is most nearly allied to the true text, but still a corruption and deviation from the original.

But if the external evidence bears in this direction, internal evidence would seem to confirm it. No doubt internal evidence is a treacherous and double-edged weapon, and it is very often as easy to turn it to one side as to the other. It has been quoted here in support of the shorter reading, and something, perhaps, is to be said for that view. Still, the simpler and more obvious considerations (which should be chiefly looked to) seem to tell rather decidedly the other way. The longer reading is much the more difficult; but it is one of the chief canons of internal evidence that the more difficult reading is to be preferred. It is also easy to see in the form of the Greek phrase what would induce an ignorant scribe to change, and by changing to simplify it. Or even failing this, there is never anything very forced in the hypothesis of an omission which is always one of the most natural of accidents.

The reading of the Received text (with the slight change of “now” instead of “for”) would seem, then, upon the whole, to be the more probable; and the next question would be, Assuming this reading, what sense is to be placed upon it? There is an Arabic word corresponding very nearly (though not quite) in sound to “Hagar,” with the meaning “stone.” Hence Chrysostom, in his exposition of this Epistle, assumes that St. Paul is playing upon this similarity of sound. He says that Sinai “is so called (or translated) in the native tongue” of the Arabs, and he speaks of the mountain as “bearing the same name with the bondmaid.” This statement of Chrysostom does not appear to have received much independent corroboration, though one traveller (Harant), in the sixteenth century, makes the same assertion. Still, even if Sinai were not called in a special sense “the stone” or “rock,” the identity of the Arabic word for “rock” might possibly have suggested to St. Paul a play on words so very much in his style. “The very word Hagar,” we may imagine him arguing, “itself the name for ‘rock,’ suggests the propriety of the analogy which I am applying. It points to the parallel between the stem and relentless legislation of Sinai and the history of Hagar the bondwoman and her son, who persecuted the child of promise.” The literary methods of the present day are different, and such an explanation will seem far-fetched. It may be thought a conclusive argument against it that, whether St. Paul himself knew the Arabic signification of “Hagar” or not, he could not expect a Celtic people like the Galatians to know it. But even this argument is less conclusive when applied to one who is so fond of following the course of his own thought as St. Paul. And yet it must be admitted that there are too many elements of uncertainly for the explanation to be pressed at all strongly: it must remain a possibility—not more. On the other hand, even if it should break down, it would not necessarily follow that the reading would have to be abandoned—it would only lose something of its point. We should then have simply an assertion where otherwise there would be also an argument. “This Hagar—the Hagar of which I am speaking—stands for Mount Sinai which is in Arabia, the country of Hagar. The scene of the Mosaic legislation was part of the domains of the Ishmaelites, the children of Hagar, so that the two may very well be compared.” This interpretation has the authority of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret, and it is, perhaps, the safest to fall back upon. At the same time there may be something of the additional point which Chrysostom and those who have followed him in modern times have supposed.

But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
(26) Jerusalem which is above.—The ideal or heavenly Jerusalem. (Comp. Hebrews 12:22, “Ye are come to . . . the heavenly Jerusalem;” Revelation 21:2, “the holy city, new Jerusalem.” This “new” or “heavenly” Jerusalem is the seat or centre of the glorified Messianic kingdom, just as the old Jerusalem had been the centre of the earthly theocracy. The conception of the “heavenly Jerusalem” among the Jews, like the rest of their Messianic beliefs, took a materialistic form. It was to be a real but gorgeous city suspended in mid-air, “three parasangs” (11¼ miles) above the earthly city. Sometimes it is regarded as the exact copy of its earthly counterpart, and at other times as forming a perfect square. (Comp. Revelation 21:16.) No such materialistic notions attach to the idea as presented by St. Paul. “Jerusalem which is above” is to him a spiritual city, of which the Christian is a member here and now. It is part of the Messianic kingdom, to the whole of which the Apostle gave an ideal character. He could not but do so, seeing that the kingdom began with the coming of its King, though there was no earthly and visible realisation of it. The Christian “conversation” (or, rather, commonwealth, the constitution that he was under) was “in heaven,” while he himself was upon earth. (See Philippians 3:20.)

Which is the mother of us all.—The true reading is, undoubtedly, which is our mother, omitting “all.” The heavenly Jerusalem was the metropolis of Christianity, just as the earthly Jerusalem was the metropolis of Judaism.

For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.
(27) Rejoice, thou barren.—The quotation is from Isaiah 54:1. It has reference, in the first instance, to the restoration of the exiled Jews to Jerusalem and to the coming greatness of the newly-settled city. Though at present it is desolate and in ruins, it shall become greater and more populous than ever it had been in its best days before. The revived theocracy under Zerubbabel is naturally taken as a type of the final theocratic reign of the Messiah. The representation of the theocracy under the figure of marriage is common, both in the prophetic writings and in St. Paul.

Thou barren that bearest not.—This was originally spoken of the revived condition of Jerusalem, in which for a long time no children had been born. Here it is applied to the despised and persecuted condition of the early Church.

Break forthi.e., into singing. The phrase is expressed in full in the Authorised version of Isaiah 54:1.

The desolate. . . . she which hath an husband.—In the original, Jerusalem after the exile, opposed to Jerusalem in the time of its prosperity under David and Solomon; in the typical application, Sarah, who had long been barren, as opposed to Hagar, whose marriage had been fruitful; in the anti-typical application, the new dispensation, Christianity, with its small beginnings, as opposed to the old dispensation, with its material possessions and privileges.

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.
(28) We.—The better reading appears to be Ye. Children of promise.—Children born in accomplishment of the promise. (See Romans 9:8, and Note.)

But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.
(29) Persecuted.—The expression used in Genesis 21:9 is translated in our version “mocking.” It seems doubtful whether the Hebrew can really mean more than “playing.” The Jewish traditions added that Ishmael took out the child Isaac and “shot at him with arrows under pretence of sport.” The Arab tribes, Ishmael’s descendants, had always been a thorn in the side of their Israelite neighbours.

Him that was born after the Spirit.—A miraculous agency intervened in the birth of Isaac, and the Christian Church was inaugurated and inspired by the same agency—that of the Spirit. The Messianic reign was realised through the Spirit; and their participation in this reign made all Christians true and spiritual descendants of Abraham.

Even so it is now.—This seems to have especial reference to the behaviour of the Judaising party in Galatia, but would also apply to the relations between Jews and Christians generally.

Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.
(30) What saith the scripture?—In Genesis 21:10 the words are put into the mouth of Sarah, but they are afterwards endorsed by the divine command.

The son of the bondwoman shall not be heir.—A bold declaration of the incompatibility of Judaism with Christianity, by which the Apostle clinches his argument against the practices which the Galatian Judaisers were trying to introduce. This is followed by an emphatic assertion of the point on which the whole gist of the previous allegory consists—that the essential character of the Christian Church is freedom. The practical conclusion is given in the opening verse of the next chapter, which should be taken in close connection with the end of this.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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