Matthew 12
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.

(1) At that time.—St. Luke (Luke 6:1) defines the time more specifically as “the second first sabbath.” The question, what is meant by that term, will be discussed in the Notes on that passage. The facts of the case place it clearly between the Passover and the Feast of Pentecost, between the beginning of the barley and the end of the wheat harvest. The position which the narrative occupies in Mark 2:23, Luke 6:1, immediately after the feast in Matthew’s house, differs so widely from St. Matthew’s arrangement, that we are again at sea in attempting to construct a harmony, and can only regard the words “at that time” as belonging to the separate history in some other position than that in which he has placed it.

Began to pluck the ears of corn.—Note St. Mark’s stronger phrase, “to make a path, plucking the ears,” and St. Luke’s description that they ate them, “rubbing them in their hands.” The act was permitted by the Law as far as the rights of property were concerned (Deuteronomy 23:25), but it was against the Pharisees’ interpretation of the law of the Sabbath. To pluck the ears was to reap, to rub the husks from the grain was to thresh; and the new Teacher was therefore, they thought, tacitly sanctioning a distinct breach of the holiness of the day of rest.

But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.
(2) When the Pharisees saw it.—In the position in which the narrative stands in the other two Gospels, the Pharisees would appear as belonging to the company that had come down from Jerusalem to watch and accuse the new Teacher (Luke 5:17). He claimed the power to forgive sins, He ate and drank with publicans and sinners. Now they found that He was teaching men to dishonour the Sabbath, as He had already taught them in Jerusalem (John 5:10; John 5:16).

But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him;
(3) Have ye not read . . .?—The question was an appeal to the Pharisees on the ground where they thought themselves strongest. For them it was an argument à fortiori. Would they accuse David of sacrilege and Sabbath-breaking because he, in a case of urgent need, set at nought the two-fold law of ordinances? If they shrank from that, was it not inconsistent to condemn the disciples of Jesus for a far lighter transgression?

How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?
(4) How he entered into the house of God.—Strictly speaking, it was in the tabernacle at Nob, where Ahimelech (possibly assisted by Abiathar, Mark 2:26) was ministering as high priest (1Samuel 21:6). The shewbread, or “bread of oblation,” consisted of twelve loaves, in two rows of six each, which were offered every Sabbath day (Exodus 25:30; Exodus 40:23; Leviticus 24:5-9), the loaves of the previous week being then removed and reserved for the exclusive use of the priests. The necessity of the case, however, was in this instance allowed to override the ceremonial ordinance, and our Lord teaches men through that single instance to see the general principle that when positive commands and necessities involving the good of man come into collision, the latter, not the former, must prevail.

Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?
(5) The priests in the temple profane the sabbath.—The work of the priests, as described, e.g., in Numbers 28:9, viz., slaying victims, placing the shewbread, involved an amount of labour which, in work of any other kind, would have broken the Sabbath rest; yet no one blamed the priests, for they were serving in the Temple of Jehovah.

But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.
(6) In this place is one greater than the temple.—Better, Here is something greater than the Temple. The Greek adjective is neuter in the better MSS., and the word “here” we may think of as accompanied (like the “destroy this temple” of John 2:19) by a gesture which interpreted the words. The passage thus referred to furnishes obviously the true explanation of our Lord’s assertion of His greatness here, and spoken, as it probably was, to scribes from Jerusalem, may have been intended to remind them of it. The body of the Son of Man was the truest, highest temple of God, and the disciples who ministered to Him were entitled to at least the same privilege as the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem. The range of the words is, however, wider than this their first and highest application. We are taught to think of the bodies of other sons of men as being also, in their measure, temples of God (1Corinthians 6:19), and so there follows the conclusion that all works of love done for the bodies or the souls of men as little interfere with the holiness of a day of rest as did the ministrations of the priests as they laboured to weariness in the ritual of the Temple. Inasmuch as the disciples were not at the time engaged in any direct service to their Master, but were simply satisfying the cravings of their own hunger, their act, strictly speaking, came under the general rather than the special application of the words. Man, as such, to those who take a true measure of his worth, is greater than any material temple.

But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.
(7) I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.—Yet a third argument follows from the Old Testament (Hosea 6:6). The teachers or interpreters of the Law had failed to catch the meaning of the simplest utterances of the prophets. “Mercy and not sacrifice,” moral and not positive duties, these made up the true life of religion, and were alone acceptable to God. It was because they had inverted the right relation of the two that they had, in this instance, condemned those whom our Lord now declares to have been in this respect absolutely guiltless.

For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.
(8) For the Son of man.—The words contain the ground for the authoritative judgment of the previous verse. They assert that this also came within the limits of His jurisdiction as the Messiah, just as the power to forgive sins had been claimed by Him under the same title. In both instances, however, the choice of the title is significant. What is done is done by Him as the representative of humanity, acting, as it were, in its name, and claiming for it as such what He thus seems at first to claim for Himself as a special and absolute prerogative.

And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue:
(9) He went into their synagoguei.e., that of the Pharisees whom He had just reproved, probably, therefore, the synagogue of Capernaum. The narratives in St. Matthew and St. Mark convey the impression that it was on the same Sabbath. St. Luke, however, as if he had made more careful inquiry, states definitely that it was on another, and this the others do not directly contradict.

And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.
(10) There was a man which had his hand withered.—Two facts are implied: (1.) That the Pharisees expected our Lord to heal the man thus afflicted. They knew that commonly the mere sight of suffering of this kind called out His sympathy, and that the sympathy passed into act. (2.) That they had resolved, ii He did so heal, to make it the ground of a definite accusation before the local tribunal, the “judgment” of Matthew 5:21. The casuistry of the Rabbis allowed the healing art to be practised on the Sabbath in cases of life and death, but the “withered hand,” a permanent infirmity, obviously did not come under that category.

And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
(11, 12) Will he not lay hold on it?—As the reasoning takes the form of an argumentum ad hominem, it is clear that the act was regarded as a lawful one, even by the more rigid scribes. The Talmud discusses the question, but does not decide it. Some casuists solved the problem by a compromise. The sheep was not to be pulled out of the pit till the Sabbath was over, but in the meantime it was lawful to supply it with fodder. In St. Mark and St. Luke the question is given in another form, and without the illustration, which we find in St. Luke, in another connection, in Luke 14:5. Jesus bids the man with the withered hand stand up in the midst, and then puts the question, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” The alternative thus presented as a dilemma was a practical answer to their casuistry. They would have said, “Leave the man as he is till the Sabbath is over;” and our Lord’s answer is that in that case good would have been left undone, and that not to do good when it lies in our power is practically to do evil.

Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.
(13) Then saith he to the man.—St. Mark, with his usual vividness, adds the look and gesture and feeling which accompanied the words, “looking round about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardness of their hearts.”

It was restored wholei.e., as the tense implies, in the act of stretching the hand forth. The man’s ready obedience to the command, which if he had not believed in the power of Jesus would have seemed an idle mockery, was, ipso facto, a proof that he had “faith to be healed.”

Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.
(14) Held a council against him.—If, as seems probable, these Pharisees included those who had come from Jerusalem, the deliberation was of more importance in its bearing on our Lord’s future work than if it had been a mere meeting of the local members of the party. It is significant that St. Mark adds (Mark 3:6) that they called the Herodians into their counsels. These latter have not yet been mentioned in the Gospel history, but they had probably been irritated by the marked reference to them and their habits of life in the contrast which our Lord drew between them and the Baptist. (Comp. Note on Matthew 11:8.)

But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all;
(15) He withdrew himself from thence.—The coalition of the two dominant parties led to a temporary retirement from Capernaum as the usual scene of His labours. In this matter He was setting forth in act, as an example, the rule which He had previously given as a precept (Matthew 10:23).

He healed them alli.e., all that had need of healing, and fulfilled its conditions.

And charged them that they should not make him known:
(16) And charged them that they should not make him known.—In other cases that have come before us we have seen reason to connect this command with the spiritual discipline which was best for those who had been healed. Here the generalised character of the command leads us to look for another explanation. The hour of final conflict and suffering had not yet come, and Jesus would not hasten it. The clouds were gathering, but the night had not yet come, and He sought to work while it was yet day, and therefore (again giving an example of His own precept that His disciples should be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” Matthew 10:16) sought to avoid premature occasions of offence.

That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying,
(17) That it might be fulfilled.—The quotation of Isaiah 42:1 (not from the LXX., but in a free translation from the Hebrew) in reference to this reserve and reticence, and therefore in a sense which seems to us to fall far short of its full meaning, shows how deep an impression it had made on the mind of the Evangelist in connection with our Lord’s conduct. One who united thus the attributes of divine power with such entire freedom from the ostentation of ambition could be none other than the true ideal King.

Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall shew judgment to the Gentiles.
(18) Behold my servant.—The mysterious “servant of the Lord,” who is the central figure of the last part of Isaiah’s prophecies, appears sometimes as the representative of Israel’s righteousness, sometimes of its sins, now as one who bore his witness as a prophet and messenger of God, now as standing apart from all others in solitary greatness, or yet more solitary suffering. In each of these aspects the words of Isaiah found their highest fulfilment in the Son of Man. In referring these words to the Messiah, the Evangelist was following in the footsteps of the Chaldee Paraphrase, but we must remember also that the words recorded as heard at the Baptism of Jesus (almost verbally identical with those of the prophecy now cited) must also have suggested the application, especially as connected with the promise, “I will put My Spirit upon Him,” which had then received its fulfilment.

He shall shew judgment to the Gentiles.—The word “judgment” has a wide range of meaning in the Hebrew of Isaiah, and includes the work of a king, as teaching, no less than as executing, righteousness. As yet, of course, the work of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles had not begun, but St. Matthew notes, as it were, by anticipation, the spirit of love and gentleness which, when he wrote his Gospel, had brought them also within the range of the judgments—i.e., of the life-giving truths—of the righteous Judge. It is one of the many instances in which his record, though obviously written for Jews, is yet emphatically a Gospel for the Gentiles.

He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets.
(19) He shall not strive, nor cry.—The words point to the pervading calmness which had impressed itself upon the mind of the Evangelist, and which stood out in marked contrast to the wrangling of Jewish scribes, the violence of Roman officers, yet more, it may be, to that of false prophets and leaders of revolt, such as Judas of Galilee had been. St. Matthew had probably known something of each of those types of character, and felt how different that of the Christ was from all of them.

A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.
(20) A bruised reed shall he not break.—The prophet’s words described a character of extremest gentleness. The “bruised reed” is the type of one broken by the weight of sorrow, or care, or sin. Such a one men in general disregard or trample on. The Christ did not so act, but sought rather to bind up and strengthen. The “smoking flax” is the wick of the lamp which has ceased to burn clearly, and the clouded flame of which seems to call for prompt extinction. Here (as afterwards, in Matthew 25:1-8) we read a parable of the souls in which the light that should shine before men has grown dim. Base desires have clogged it; it is no longer fed with the true oil. For such the self-righteous Pharisee had no pity; he simply gave thanks that his own lamp was burning. But the Christ in His tenderness sought, if it were possible, to trim the lamp and to pour in the oil till the flame was bright again. We cannot help feeling, as we read the words, that the publican-apostle had found their fulfilment in his own personal experience of the profound tenderness of his Master.

Till he send forth judgment unto victory.—In the Hebrew, unto truth. The citation was apparently from memory. What is implied in both readings is, that this tender compassion was to characterise the whole work of the Christ until the time of final judgment should arrive, and truth should at last prevail.

And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.
(21) And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.—Better, shall hope. The Hebrew gives “in his law,” but St. Matthew follows the LXX.

Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw.
(22) The narrative that follows is again a stumbling-block in the way of harmonists. St. Luke (Luke 11:14) places it after the feeding of the five thousand; St. Mark (Mark 3:22) immediately after the mission of the Twelve. A like narrative has met us in Matthew 9:32, and it is probable enough that the charge was repeated as often as the occasion presented itself, and as often answered in identical or like words. St. Mark states that the Pharisees who brought it were those who had come down from Jerusalem, and this falls in with all that we have seen of the activity of those emissaries of the party.

Possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb.—In Matthew 9:32, the man was simply dumb; here the phenomena of the suspension of conscious sensation and volition were more complicated.

And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David?
(23) Is not this the son of David?—The people use (as the blind man had done in Matthew 9:27) the most popular of all the synonyms of the Christ.

But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.
(24) Beelzebub the prince of the devils.—(See Notes on Matthew 9:34; Matthew 10:25.) The words appear to have been whispered by the Pharisees among the people. They were not addressed to Jesus. The charge is significant as showing that the Pharisees admitted the reality of the work of healing which they had witnessed, and were driven to explain it by assuming demoniacal agency.

And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:
(25) Jesus knew their thoughts.—The Searcher of Hearts saw the meaning of the whispers and the looks of real or affected horror, and now enters on a full answer to the charge. Of all the accusations brought against Him this was the one that caused the greatest Pain, and drew forth the most indignant answer. He had restored peace and joy, freedom of reason and will to those who had lost them, had been doing His Father’s work on earth, and He was accused of being in league with the powers of evil. The work of healing was represented as the bait of the Tempter luring men to their final destruction.

Every kingdom divided against itself.—The answer assumes, as the teaching of the New Testament does from first to last, the existence of a kingdom of evil, compact and organised, with a distinct unity of purpose. The laws which govern the life of other kingdoms are applicable to that also. Its head and ruler was not likely to enter on a work which was self-destructive. Reason, calmness, peace, these were not his gifts to men.

And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?
(26) If Satan cast out Satan.—In the Greek the name has the article in both places, as pointing to the one great adversary. It is not that one Satan casts out another, but that he, on the assumption of the Pharisees, casts out himself. Satan is not personally identified with the demon, the deaf or dumb spirit, that had possessed the man, but the language implies that where evil enters into the soul, Satan enters also. (Comp. John 13:27.) There is, as it were, a seeming ubiquity, a solidarité, in the power of evil, as there is admittedly in the sovereign power of good.

And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges.
(27) By whom do your children cast them out?—The “children” of the Pharisees are their disciples, and in this case, such as practised exorcism, like the sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13. The belief in demoniacal possession had as its natural accompaniment the claim on the part of those who could control the disordered reason of the possessed person of power to cast out the demon. We need not assume that such power was always a pretence, or rested only on spells and incantations. Earnestness, prayer, fasting, faith—these are always mighty in intensifying the power of will, before which the frenzied soul bows in submission or yields in confidence, and these may well have been found among the better and truer Pharisees. Our Lord’s question, indeed, requires for its logical validity the admission that the “children” of the accusers did really cast out demons, and that not by Beelzebub.

But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.
(28) By the Spirit of God.—In Luke 11:20 we have as an equivalent phrase, “the finger of God.” So in Old Testament language the fulness of the prophet’s inspiration was expressed in the words, “the hand of the Lord was strong upon me” (Ezekiel 3:14). The second hymn in the Ordination Service reproduces the symbolism in the words addressed to the Holy Spirit—

“In faithful hearts thou writ’st thy law,

The finger of God’s hand;”

and it obviously connects itself with the older language which describes the Ten Commandments as written on the two tables of stone with “the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18).

Then the kingdom of God is come unto you.—The word describes a coming suddenly, unlooked for, sooner than men expected. The argument may be briefly formulated thus:—The work was confessedly superhuman, either from the power of Satan or that of God, but the former hypothesis was excluded by the reasoning of Matthew 12:25-27; the latter was therefore the only explanation. But if so, if Jesus gave proof that He was thus filled with the power of the Spirit to heal and save, then He was what He claimed to be, the Head of the divine kingdom. That kingdom had burst upon men unawares.

Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house.
(29) How can one enter into a strong man’s house.—The parable implied in the question appears in a fuller form in Luke 11:21-22. Here it will be enough to note that the “strong man” is Satan. The “house” is the region which is subject to him—i.e., either the world at large, or the spirits of individual men; the “goods” or “instruments (comp. the “armour” of Luke 11:22) are the demons or subordinate powers of evil by which he maintains his dominion; the “binding of the strong man” is the check given to the tyranny of Satan by emancipating the possessed sufferers from their thraldom; the “spoiling of the house” implies the final victory over him.

He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
(30) He that is not with me is against me.—The words seem at first at variance with the answer to the sons of Zebedee, when they reported that they had seen one casting out devils in the name of Christ, and had forbidden him “because he followed not” with them. Then they heard,” Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50); and those words have naturally been the watchword of those who rejoice when Christ is preached every way, and by whatever organisation. In reality, however, the two formulæ do but present the opposite poles of the same truth. In the great struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, God and the enemy of God, there is no neutrality. The man of whom the two disciples complained was fighting against the devil in the name of Christ, and was therefore with Him. The Pharisees were hindering and slandering that work, and therefore were on the side of Satan. They were not gathering in God’s harvest of souls, and therefore they were scattering and wasting.

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
(31) The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.—Better, against the Spirit, the word “Holy” not being found in any MSS. of authority. The question, What is the nature of the terrible sin thus excluded from forgiveness? has, naturally enough, largely occupied the thoughts of men. What, we ask, is this blasphemy against the Holy Ghost? (1.) The context at least helps us to understand something of its nature. The Pharisees were warned against a sin to which they were drawing perilously near. To condemn the Christ as a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, as breaking the Sabbath, or blaspheming when He said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” was to speak a word against the Son of Man. These offences might be sins of ignorance, not implying more than narrowness and prejudice. But to see a man delivered from the power of Satan unto God, to watch the work of the Spirit of God, and then to ascribe that work to the power of evil, this was to be out of sympathy with goodness and mercy altogether. In such a character there was no opening for repentance, and therefore none for forgiveness. The capacity for goodness in any form was destroyed by this kind of antagonism. (2.) We dare not say, and our Lord does not say it, that the Pharisees had actually committed this sin, but it was towards this that they were drifting. And in reference to later times, we may say that this is the ultimate stage of antagonism to God and to His truth, when the clearest proofs of divine power and goodness are distorted into evidence that the power is evil. The human nature in that extremest debasement has identified itself with the devil nature, and must share its doom.

And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
(32) Neither in this world, neither in the world to come.—The distinction was hardly the same for our Lord’s Jewish listeners as it has come to be with us. For them “this world”—better, perhaps, this age—was the time before the coming of the Christ; “the age to come” was that which was to follow it. (Comp. Hebrews 6:5, Luke 18:30.) Our Lord thus stood on the boundary-line of the two ages, that of the Law and the Prophets, and that of the Kingdom of Heaven, and He declares that while all personal outrages to Himself as the Son of Man, i.e., the Christ, are capable of forgiveness, this enmity against goodness, as good, shuts it out in both. Practically, however, the order of things since the first coming of the Christ has been one of slow and continuous growth, not of rapid and complete change. There has been no “age to come” such as the Jew dreamt of, and we still wait for its manifestation, and think of ourselves as still living in “this world,” in “this age,” and of the “world to come” as lying in the far future, or, for each individual soul, beyond the grave. Our Lord’s words, it may be noted, clearly imply that some sins wait for their full forgiveness, the entirely cancelling of the past, till the time of that “age to come” which shall witness the great and final Advent. Does this imply that repentance, and therefore pardon, may come in the state that follows death? We know not, and ask questions that we cannot answer, but the words at least check the harsh dogmatic answer in the negative. If one sin only is thus excluded from forgiveness in that “coming age,” other sins cannot stand on the same level, and the darkness behind the veil is lit up with at least a gleam of hope.

Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.
(33) Either make the tree good.—Like most proverbs and parables, the words present different phases, and admit of various applications. As spoken to men of neutral, half-hearted character, they might seem a call, not without a touch of indignant rebuke, to consistency. “At least be thorough; lot principles and actions harmonise. Do not think you can produce the fruit of good works from the tree of a corrupt heart.” This, however, is not their meaning here. The men to whom our Lord spoke were not neutral, but in direct hostility to Him, and here, therefore, He presses on them logical rather than practical consistency; “make,” i.e., reckon, the tree and the fruit as having the same character. If to cast out demons be a good work, then the power from which it flows must be good also. Works of that kind do not come from a corrupt source.

O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
(34) O generation of vipers.—Better, as in Matthew 3:7, brood of vipers. Here the law which had been pressed in its logical bearing in the preceding verse, is brought in to explain the bitter and evil words of the Pharisees. As long as they were what they were, nothing else was to be looked for. Nothing but the serpent’s hiss could come from the brood of vipers, nothing but bitter words from hearts so full of bitterness.

A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.
(35) A good man out of the good treasure.—A whole parable is wrapt up in this last word. Every thought and desire of a man is added to the ever accumulating store of such desires or thoughts in the inner chamber of his heart, and thence passes out into word or deed. In the ideal division of the context, which excludes neutrality, the treasure is either simply good or simply evil. Practically, it might seem as if the character of most men implied a treasure of good and evil mingled in ever-varying proportion, but that thought is traversed in its turn by the fact that if there is not the unity of goodness which comes from the love of God, there must be the distraction and diversity that come from the love of self, and that this makes the treasure predominantly evil. The poison of worldliness acts in such a case with accumulative power. The same image reappears in reference to the intellectual side of the religious life in Matthew 13:52.

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
(36) Every idle word that men shall speak.—The teaching, though general in form, still looks back to the hard, bitter words of the Pharisees which had been the starting-point of the discourse. Our Lord does not speak, as we might have expected, of “every evil word,” but of “every idle—i.e., useless and purposeless—word,” the random utterances which, as being more spontaneous, betray character more than deliberate speech. Such an “idle word” had been the passing taunt, “He casteth out devils by Beelzebub.” It is not said, however, that for every such random speech a man shall be condemned, but that he shall give an account for it. It will enter into that great total which determines the divine estimate of his character, and, therefore, the issues of the great “day of judgment.”

For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
(37) By thy words thou shalt be justified.—Stripped of the after-thoughts which have gathered round it in the later controversies of theologians, the word “justified” means, as its position here shows, the opposite of “condemned,” the being “acquitted” either on a special charge or on a general trial of character. In this sense we are able to understand (without entering into the labyrinth of logomachies in which commentators on the Epistles have too often entangled themselves) how it is that men are said to be justified by faith (Romans 3:28 et al.), justified by works (James 2:24), justified—as here—by words. All three—faith, works, words—are alike elements of a man’s character, making or showing what he is. Faith, implying trust and therefore love, justifies as the root element of character; “words,” as its most spontaneous manifestation; works, as its more permanent results. Of the words and the works men can in some measure judge, and they are the tests by which a man should judge himself. The faith which lies deeper in the life is known only to God, and it is therefore by faith rather than by works that a man is justified before God, though the faith is no true faith unless it moulds the character and therefore enables the man to pass the other tests also.

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
(38) Master, we would see a sign from thee.—The order varies slightly from that in St. Luke, in which the demand for a sign follows on the parable of the unclean spirit returning to his house. In both, however, the sequence of thought appears the same. The tone of authority, as of one who is the judge of all men, leads to the challenge—“Give us a sign by which you may convince us that you have a right thus to speak.”

But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:
(39) An evil and adulterous generation.—The true relation between Israel and Jehovah had been represented by the prophets as that of the wife to her husband (Jeremiah 3; Ezekiel 16, 23; Hosea 1, 2). The adulterous generation was therefore one that was unfaithful to its Lord—demanding a sign, instead of finding sufficient proofs of faithfulness and love in what He had already done.

There shall no sign be given to it.—The words seem at first to place our Lord’s miracles of healing outside the category of signs, and yet it was to these that He referred the messengers of the Baptist as proof that the Christ had indeed come (Matthew 11:5). They must, however, be interpreted by the context. One sign and only one, such as they demanded, should be given to those for whom the other notes of Messiahship were insufficient, and that should be the sign of the prophet Jonas.

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
(40) As Jonas was three days and three nights.—To understand the words rightly, we have to remember the prominence which our Lord gives to the history of Jonah, and to the repentance of the men of Nineveh, in this and in the parallel passage of Luke 11:29, and in answer to another demand for a sign in Matthew 16:4. In the other passages “the sign of the prophet Jonas” appears with a vague mysteriousness, unexplained. Not a few critics have accordingly inferred from this difference that the explanation given by St. Matthew was an addition to the words actually spoken by our Lord, and that “the sign of the prophet Jonas” was sufficiently fulfilled by His preaching repentance to the wicked and adulterous generation as Jonah had done to the Ninevites. Against this view, however, it may be urged:—(1) That Jonah’s work as a preacher was not a “sign” in any sense, and that nothing in his history had this character, except the two narratives of the whale (Jonah 1:17) and the gourd (Jonah 4:6-10). Any reference to the latter is, of course, out of the question; and it remains therefore, in any case, that we must look to the former as that to which our Lord alluded. (2) That the very difficulty presented by the prediction of “three days and three nights” as compared with the six-and-thirty hours (two nights and one day) of the actual history of the Resurrection, is against the probability of the verse having been inserted as a prophecy after the event. (3) That if we believe that our Lord had a distinct prevision of His resurrection, and foretold it, sometimes plainly and sometimes in dark sayings—and of this the Gospels leave no room for doubt (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 26:32; John 2:19)—then the history of Jonah presented an analogy which it was natural that He should notice. It does not necessarily follow that this use of the history as a prophetic symbol of the Resurrection requires us to accept it in the very letter of its details. It was enough, for the purposes of the illustration, that it was familiar and generally accepted. The purely chronological difficulty is explained by the common mode of speech among the Jews, according to which, any part of a day, though it were but a single hour, was for legal purposes considered as a whole. An instance of this mode of speech is found in 1Samuel 30:12-13, and it is possible that in the history of Jonah itself the measurement of time is to be taken with the same laxity.

Some incidental facts are worth noticing: (1) that the word translated “whale” may stand vaguely for any kind of sea-monster; (2) that “the heart of the earth,” standing parallel as it does to “the heart of the seas,” the “belly of hell”—i.e., Sheol and Hades—in Jonah 2:2-3, means more than the rock-hewn sepulchre, and implies the descent into Hades, the world of the dead, which was popularly believed to be far below the surface of the earth; (3) that the parable has left its mark on Christian art, partly in the constant use of Jonah as a type of our Lord’s resurrection, and partly in that of the jaws of a great whale-like monster as the symbol of Hades; (4) that the special character of the psalm in Jonah 2, corresponding as it does so closely (Jonah 2:6) with Psalm 16:10-11, may well be thought to have prompted our Lord’s reference to it.

The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.
(41) The men of Nineveh shall rise . . .—The reasoning is parallel with that of the references to Tyre and Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah in Matthew 11:21-24, but with this difference, that there the reference was to what might have been, here to what actually had been. The repentance of the heathen, and their search after wisdom, with far poorer opportunities, would put to shame the slowness and unbelief of Israel. The word “rise” is used not of the mere fact of resurrection but of standing up as witnesses. (Comp. John 16:8.)

A greater than Jonas.—No chapter contains more marvellous assertions of our Lord’s superhuman majesty. Greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6), greater than Jonas, greater than Solomon: could this be rightly claimed by any man for himself who was not more than man?

The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.
(42) The queen of the south.—Literally, a queen of the south, as before, men of Nineveh, the Greek having no article. Rhetorically, the absence of the article is in this case more emphatic than its presence.

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none.
(43) When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man.—The parable comes in abruptly, possibly because here, as elsewhere, we have a part and not the whole of a discourse, striking passages noted and put together, now in this order, now in that, while the links that joined them are missing. The inner connection of thought is, however, clear enough. How was it, it might be asked, that Israel had sunk to such a depth of evil? and the answer was found in the similitude which thus opens. The phenomena which furnish the comparison were probably familiar enough. So far as possession was identical in its phenomena, wholly or in part, with insanity, there might be sudden and violent relapses after intervals of calmness and apparent cure. The spirit of the man, under the influence of exorcisms, or prayers, or the sympathy of friends, might assert its freedom for a time, and then yield again to the oppressor. In the history of such a demoniac, which our Lord narrates in the language of the popular belief, He sees a parable of the history of the Jewish people.

Walketh through dry places.—The description reflects the popular idea that the parched deserts of Syria and Arabia and Egypt were haunted by demons, who thence came to invade the bodies and the souls of men. So in the book of Tobit (Tobit 8:3), the demon Asmodeus flees to the upper parts of Egypt.

Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.
(44) Empty, swept, and garnished.—The words have a two-fold symbolism, as representing (1) the state of the possessed man, and (2) that of the nation of which he is made the type. The latter belongs to the interpretation of the parable as a whole. The former portrays the state of the man who has been delivered from the wildness of frenzy, but has been left to the routine of common life and conventional morality, with no higher spiritual influence to protect and guard him.

Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.
(45) Seven other spirits more wicked than himself.—The number seven, as in the case of Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2), represents a greater intensity of possession, showing itself in more violent paroxysms of frenzy, and with less hope of restoration.

In applying the parable to the religious life of the Jewish people, we have to ask, (1) What answers to the first possession and the expulsion of the evil spirit? (2) What to the seven other spirits joined with the first, and yet more evil? (3) What is the last state, yet future at the time our Lord spoke, which was to be worse than the first? The answer to the first question lies on the surface of their history. Their besetting sin from the time of the Exodus to that of the Captivity had been idolatry and apostasy. The worship of other gods exercised a strange and horrible fascination over them, deprived them, as it were, of light, reason, and true freedom of will. They were enslaved and possessed. Then came the return from the Exile, when, not so much by the teaching of the prophets as by that of the scribes and the Pharisees, idolatry seemed banished for ever. But the house was “empty, swept, and garnished.” There was no in dwelling presence of the enthusiasm of a higher life, only an outward ceremonial religion and rigid precepts, and the show of piety. The hypocrisy of the scribes was the garnishing of the house. And then the old evil came back in the form of Mammon-worship, the covetousness which is idolatry (Ephesians 5:5), and with it, bitterness and hate, and the license of divorce, and self-righteousness, and want of sympathy, and that antagonism to good which had come so terribly near to “the sin against the Holy Ghost.” That state was bad enough as it was, but our Lord’s words point to a future that should be yet worse. We must turn to the picture drawn by the Jewish historian of the crimes, frenzies, insanities of the final struggle that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem, if we would take an adequate measure of the “last state” of that “wicked generation.”

While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him.
(46) His mother and his brethren.—Who were these “brethren of the Lord?” The question is one which we cannot answer with any approximation to certainty. The facts in the Gospel records are scanty. In what we gather from the Fathers we find not so much traditions as conjectures based upon assumptions. The facts, such as they are, are these: (1.) The Greek word translated “brother” is a word which has just the same latitude as the term in English. Like that, it might be applied (as in the case of Joseph and his brethren) to half-brothers, or brothers by adoption, or used in the wider sense of national or religious brotherhood. There is no adequate evidence that the term was applied to cousins as such. (2.) The names of four brethren are given in Mark 6:3, as James (i.e., Jacob) and Joses and Juda and Simon. Three of these names (James, Juda, Simon) are found in the third group of four in the lists of the twelve Apostles. This has suggested to some the thought that they had been chosen by our Lord to that office, and the fact that a disciple bearing the name of Joses was nearly chosen to fill the place of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:23, in many MSS.) presents another curious coincidence. This inference is, however, set aside by the fact distinctly stated by St. John (John 7:3), and implied in this narrative and in our Lord’s reference to a prophet being without honour in his father’s house (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4), that up to the time of the Feast of Tabernacles that preceded the Crucifixion, within six months of the close of our Lord’s ministry, His brethren did not believe in His claims to be the Christ. The names, it must be remembered, were so common that they might be found in any family. (3.) Sisters are mentioned in Mark 6:3, but we know nothing of their number, or names, or after-history, or belief or unbelief. It is clear that these facts do not enable us to decide whether the brothers and sisters were children of Mary and Joseph, or children of Joseph by a former marriage—either an actual marriage on his own account, or what was known as a Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5), for the sake of raising up seed to a deceased brother—or the children of Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas (John 19:25). The fact of the same name being borne by two sisters, as the last theory implies, though strange, is not incredible, as by names might come into play to distinguish between them. Each of these views has been maintained with much elaborate ingenuity, and by some writers these brethren, assumed to be sons of Clopas, have been identified (in spite of the above objection, which is absolutely fatal to the theory) with the sons of Alphæus in the list of Apostles. When the course of Christian thought led to an ever-increasing reverence for the mother of the Lord, and for virginity as the condition of all higher forms of holiness, the belief in her perpetual maidenhood passed into a dogma, and drove men to fall back upon one of the other hypotheses as to the brethren. It is a slight argument in their favour, (1) that it would have been natural had there been other children borne by the mother of the Lord, that the fact should have been recorded by the Evangelists, as in the family narratives of the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 5, 11; 1 Chronicles 1, 2), and that there is no record of any such birth in either of the two Gospels that give “the book of the generations” of Jesus; (2) that the tone of the brethren, their unbelief, their attempts to restrain Him, suggest the thought of their being elder brothers in some sense, rather than such as had been trained in reverential love for the first-born of the house; (3) that it is scarcely probable that our Lord should have committed His mother to the care of the disciple whom He loved (John 19:26) had she had children of her own, whose duty it was to protect and cherish her; (4) the absence of any later mention of the sisters at or after the time of the Crucifixion suggests the same conclusion, as falling in with the idea of the sisters and brethren being in some sense a distinct family, with divided interests; (5) lastly, though we enter here on the uncertain region of feeling, if we accept the narratives of the birth and infancy given by St. Matthew and St. Luke, it is at least conceivable that the mysterious awfulness of the work so committed to him may have led Joseph to rest in the task of loving guardianship which thus became at once the duty and the blessedness of the remainder of his life. On the whole, then, I incline to rest in the belief that the so-called “brethren” were cousins who, through some unrecorded circumstances, had been so far adopted into the household at Nazareth as to be known by the term of nearer relationship.

The motive which led the mother and the brethren to seek to speak to our Lord on this occasion lies on the surface of the narrative. Never before in His Galilean ministry had He stood out in such open antagonism to the scribes and Pharisees of Capernaum and Jerusalem. It became known that they had taken counsel with the followers of the tetrarch against His life. Was He not going too far in thus daring them to the uttermost? Was it not necessary to break in upon the discourse which was so keen and stinging in its reproofs? The tone of protest and, as it were, disclaimer in which He now speaks of this attempt to control and check His work, shows what their purpose was. His brethren, St. John reports, did not believe in Him (John 7:3-5)—i.e., they did not receive Him as the Christ, perhaps not even as a prophet of the Lord.

And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
(49) Behold my mother and my brethren.—The words assert in its strongest form the truth which we all acknowledge, that though natural relationships involve duties which may not be neglected, spiritual relationships, the sense of brotherhood in a great cause, of devotion to the same Master, are above them, and that when the two clash (as in the case supposed in Matthew 10:37), the latter must of right prevail.

The words have naturally occupied a prominent position in the controversial writings of Protestants against what has been judged by them to be the idolatrous worship of the Virgin Mother by the Church of Rome; and it is clear that they have a very direct bearing on it. They do exclude the thought that her intercession is mightier to prevail than that of any other pure and saintly soul. Though spoken with no apparent reference to the abuses of later ages, the words are a protest, all the stronger because of the absence of such reference, against the excess of reverence which has passed into a cultus, and the idolatry of dressed-up dolls into which that cultus has developed.

For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.
(50) Whosoever shall do the will.—This is, then, what Christ recognises as the ground of a spiritual relationship. Not outward, but inward fellowship; not the mere fact of baptism, but that which baptism signifies; that doing the will of God, which is the essence of holiness—this is that which makes the disciple as dear to the heart of Christ as was the mother whom He loved so truly.

Sister, and mother.—The special mention of the sister suggests the thought that those who bore that name had joined the mother and the brethren in their attempt to interrupt the divine work.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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