Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
With this chapter begins the longest and most important division of the Epistle, extending (with one break, Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:20) as far as Hebrews 10:18. The general subject is the nature of the High Priesthood of our Lord.
Hebrews 5:1-10 link themselves with the last words of the fourth chapter. The thoughts which have been briefly expressed in Hebrews 4:14-15, and on which Hebrews 4:16 rests, are resumed, and in this section fully developed. Hence Hebrews 4:16 is connected both with what precedes (by “therefore”) and with the present chapter (by “For”): “For as every human high priest shares the nature of those on behalf of whom he appears before God, and thus can be compassionate towards them, and, moreover, can only receive his appointment from God; so Christ is God-appointed, He has learnt His obedience through sufferings, and, thus made perfect, is declared by God High Priest for ever.”
For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins:(1) Taken.—Rather, being taken, since he is taken, from among men.
Gifts and sacrifices.—The former is in itself perfectly general; but when thus contrasted with “sacrifices” it denotes the “unbloody offerings” of the Law. On the Day of Atonement (which, as we shall see, is almost always in the writer’s thoughts as he refers to the functions of the high priest) the “offerings” would consist of the incense and of the “meat-offerings” connected with the burnt-sacrifices for the day. On that day all offerings, as well as all sacrifices, had relation to “sins.”
Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.(2) Who can have compassion.—Rather, as one who can deal gently with (or, more strictly, feel gently towards) the ignorant and erring, because . . . Either apathy or undue severity in regard to transgression would disqualify this representative of men to God. It cannot be said that sin is mildly designated here, since the words so closely resemble those which occur in Hebrews 3:10; still the language is so chosen as to exclude sinning “with a high hand.”
And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins.(3) To be closely joined with Hebrews 5:2 : “Is compassed with infirmity, and by reason thereof is bound . . .” The law of the Day of Atonement required a sin-offering of a bullock and a burnt-offering of a ram for the high priest himself, and for the congregation a sin-offering of two he-goats and a burnt-offering of a ram. Over his own sin-offering the high priest made confession of sins, first for himself and his household, then for the priests; over the goat sent into the wilderness the sins of the people were confessed.
And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.(4) But he that is called.—The true reading requires, when he is called. “Not unto himself doth any man take the honour, but when . . .”
So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.(5) Christ.—Better, the Christ (See Hebrews 3:14.) It is important to note that in passages of the Pentateuch where the high priest receives a special designation (usually “the priest” is sufficiently distinctive) his title is almost always “the anointed priest.” Hence in the one designation, “the Christ,” are united the two testimonies of Scripture which follow. He is the Anointed King (Psalm 2:7), addressed by Jehovah as His Son (see Notes on Hebrews 1:2; Hebrews 1:4-5); by the same Jehovah He is addressed as Priest for ever after the order of one who was both priest and king (Psalm 110:4).
As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.(6) Thou art a priest for ever . . .—On Psalms 110 see the Note on Hebrews 1:13. The fourth verse, here quoted, is the kernel of the Psalm, and supplies the theme for a large portion of this Epistle, especially Hebrews 7. As the promise of 2 Samuel 7 was the prelude to the revelation of the second Psalm, the divine declaration recorded in Exodus 19:6 may have prepared the way for the promise of Psalm 110:4. The king of Israel was the type of the Son of David; and in the consecrated people, who, had they been faithful, would have remained the representatives of all nations before God, was dimly foreshadowed the Anointed Priest.
Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;(7, 8) Who in the days of his flesh . . .—It will be observed that, of the two essential conditions mentioned in Hebrews 5:2 and Hebrews 5:4, the latter is first taken up in its application to Christ (Hebrews 5:5-6). This verse and the next correspond to the general thought of Hebrews 5:1-2, so far as it is applicable to “Him who knew no sin.”
The following rendering will, it is believed, best show the meaning of these two important verses, and the connection of the several parts: Who, in the days of His flesh, having with a strong cry and tears offered up prayers and supplications unto Him that was able to save Him out of death, and having been heard for His reverent fear, though He was a son, yet learned obedience by the things which He suffered. The most noticeable change of rendering occurs at the close of the seventh verse; here the interpretation given by all the Greek Fathers, followed in most of our English versions (and in the margin of the Authorised itself), certainly deserves the preference over that which, through the influence of Calvin and Beza, found its way into the Genevan Testament, and hence into the Bishops’ Bible and the translation of 1611. The word rendered “reverent fear” occurs in but one other place in the New Testament (Hebrews 12:28); but the kindred verb and adjective are found in Hebrews 11:7; Luke 2:25; Acts 2:5; Acts 8:2. It properly denotes, not terror, but a cautious foreseeing fear, opposed alike to rashness and to cowardice: the adjective, which is always rendered “devout,” is fully explained in the Notes on Acts 2:5. No word could be more suitable where the relation of the Son of Man to His “God and Father” is expressed and it would be very difficult to find any other word which should be suitable to this relation and yet contain no implication of sin to be acknowledged with humility and shame. The object of the “prayers and supplications” thus heard and answered is implied in the words “unto Him that was able to save Him out of death.” Not “from death:” the Greek words may have that meaning, but it is not their most natural sense, as a comparison of other passages would show. The prayer, we are persuaded, was not that death might be averted, but that there might be granted deliverance out of death. This prayer was answered: His death was the beginning of His glory (Hebrews 2:9). It may indeed be asked, Could such a prayer be offered by One who knew “the glory that should follow” His sufferings? In a matter so far beyond our reasoning it is most reverent to point to the mystery of another prayer (Matthew 26:39) offered by Him who had often taught His disciples that He must be put to death (Matthew 16:21). Mark the striking correspondence between the petition thus understood and St. Peter’s quotation of Psalm 16:10 (Acts 2:24). Some of the expressions in this verse would lead us to believe that the writer’s thought is resting on the Agony in the Garden; but the “strong cry” brings before us the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:46; Matthew 27:50), and the words of Psalm 22:1 lie very near the thought of this verse. It does not seem necessary to decide—we may doubt whether it is possible, and whether both should not be included. The opening words, “in the days of His flesh” (comp. Hebrews 2:14; John 1:14; 1Peter 3:18), would certainly seem to favour this latter view. The word “offered” must not be lightly passed over. Of frequent occurrence in this Epistle, in every case except one (which is not at all in point) it has a sacrificial sense; it seems certain, therefore, that these prayers—a token of His suffering, an example of His reverent fear—are included in the sacrifice which comprised His whole life and death.
Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;(8) Though he were a Son.—These words may be connected with what precedes (implying that He was heard for His reverent fear, not because, in the preeminent sense, He was God’s Son); but they are still more closely joined with the following sentence, “Though He was a Son, He learnt His obedience by the things which He suffered.” “The disposition of obedience Jesus possessed before He suffered, but the proof that this disposition existed must be shown in deed; this progress from the disposition to the deed of obedience is a practical learning of the virtue of obedience” (Lünemann). The suffering recorded in Hebrews 5:7 is regarded as the culmination of His life of suffering.
And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;(9) And being . . .—Rather, and having been made perfect. This was the mode in which He who “glorified Him to be made High Priest” (Hebrews 5:5) led Him into the possession of this office. The thought of this verse and the last is closely analogous to Hebrews 2:9-10 (see Notes), and to Philippians 2:6-13. The transition from the obedience manifested by our Lord to that which must be rendered by all who seek from Him salvation, strikingly recalls Hebrews 5:8; Hebrews 5:12 of the last-named chapter. He presents to all the model of the obedience to be rendered to Him, and through Him to the Father. “Eternal” salvation,—for He is a priest “for ever” (Hebrews 5:6). On the connection of “salvation” with His priesthood, see the Note on Hebrews 7:25.
Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec.(10) Called.—Rather, addressed. The divine words are, “Thou art a priest for ever.” In the quotation from the Psalm, “priest” is now altered into “High Priest.” The purport remains the same; or, rather, it is by this change of word that the meaning of the Psalm is fully expressed. This repetition of the words of Hebrews 5:6 at the close of the paragraph is singularly impressive.
At this point the course of the argument is interrupted by a long digression (Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:20), to which the writer is led by reflection on the inability of his readers to receive the teaching which befits their Christian standing. If, however, we remember the practical aim that is predominant in the Epistle, we can hardly call this a digression, so powerfully is every portion of it made subservient to one great purpose.
Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing.(11) Of whom.—Or, of which (subject), “Christ made High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.”
Hard to be uttered.—Rather, hard of interpretation, seeing ye have become sluggish in hearing. Their faculty of “hearing” had once been acute, and then few words and little explanation, even on such a subject as this, would have sufficed; now there has come upon them a lack of interest, and with this a want of power.
For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.(12) For the time.—Taking into account the time that had elapsed since they became Christians.
Ye have need.—Literally, ye have need that some one teach you again the rudiments of the beginning of the oracles of God (Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2; 1Peter 4:11). These first rudiments, which they need to learn again (but which he himself is not about to teach), it may seem natural to identify with what the writer in Hebrews 6:1 calls “the doctrine of the first principles of Christ.” If, however, we examine the usage of the New Testament, of Philo, and of other writers, we shall find good reason for regarding “the oracles of God” as synonymous with the Scriptures of the Old Testament. (See Hebrews 5:13.)
Of strong meat.—Better, of solid food. (See 1Corinthians 3:2.)
For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.(13) The change of expression from having need of milk to partaking of milk (that is, making it the solo food) is significant. Those who are addressed had lost interest in the deeper truths of Christianity, those truths which alone expressed and explained its proper nature. Their temptation apparently was towards mingling a rudimentary Christian doctrine with the teaching of the synagogue. Yielding to this they would lose all real Knowledge of the very elements of Christian truth, and with this all true knowledge of the Old Testament itself. The connection between this verse and the last may probably be, Ye have come to need milk, for—making it by choice your sole food—ye stand self-confessed as babes.
Unskilful.—Rather, without experience. The “word of righteousness” evidently must signify complete, properly-developed Christian teaching. The only question is, Why is this particular designation chosen? In the Epistle to the Romans such a description would be natural (see especially Romans 1:17; Romans 9:31); but “righteousness” is not the direct and manifest subject of this Epistle. Still, the expressions of which the writer makes use in Hebrews 10:38; Hebrews 11:7, together with the general similarity between his teaching and St. Paul’s, go very far towards explaining his choice of this special expression as descriptive of the religion of Christ. In like manner another phrase, “law of liberty,” is characteristic of St. James.
But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.(14) Strong meat.—“Solid food belongs to full-grown men.” If they occupied themselves with the rudiments alone, their spiritual senses could not be trained by use (or, habit) in distinguishing between good and evil, truth and falsehood, in the various systems of teaching which men offered as the doctrine of Christ.