Galatians 4:21
Tell me, you that desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?
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(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.

Galatians 4:21-23. Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law — Of Moses, as the rule of your justification; do ye not hear the law? — Regard what it says? how it teaches that Abraham’s children, by faith, who are heirs of the promises, are free from the bondage of the law? “The argument the apostle is going to use being taken from the law of Moses, was urged with much propriety, not only against the Judaizers, who affirmed that obedience to the law of Moses was necessary to men’s salvation, but against those Gentiles also whom the Judaizers had seduced to receive the law. For if the apostle made it evident, from the law of Moses itself, that Abraham’s children, by faith, were free from the bondage of the law, no further argument was necessary to prove that obedience to the law is not necessary to justification.” — Macknight. It is written that Abraham had two sons — Here he illustrates the doctrine of justification by faith, and of the abolition of the legal dispensation, by the history of Abraham’s family, in which it was prefigured. The plain import of what he advances is this: That as in Abraham’s family there were two mothers, and two sorts of children, which were differently treated; so, in the visible church, there are two sorts of professors; some that seek justification by the works of the law, who are in a servile and miserable condition, and shall at last be cast out from the presence of God, and the society of the saints; others that seek justification by faith in Christ, and in the promises of God through him: and these are the free sons of God’s family, and in a happy condition, and shall at last certainly obtain the inheritance of eternal life. The one — Namely, Ishmael, by Hagar, a bond-maid, the other — Namely, Isaac, by Sarah, a free-woman. But there was a great difference between them; for he who was of the bond-woman — That is, Ishmael; was born only after the flesh — In the common order of nature, without any particular promise of God, or any unusual interposition of his power and providence. But he of the free-woman — That is, Isaac; was by promise — Through the strength supernaturally communicated to his parents by the promise, Lo Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son; and, like his mother, being free, was his father’s heir.4:21-27 The difference between believers who rested in Christ only, and those who trusted in the law, is explained by the histories of Isaac and Ishmael. These things are an allegory, wherein, beside the literal and historical sense of the words, the Spirit of God points out something further. Hagar and Sarah were apt emblems of the two different dispensations of the covenant. The heavenly Jerusalem, the true church from above, represented by Sarah, is in a state of freedom, and is the mother of all believers, who are born of the Holy Spirit. They were by regeneration and true faith, made a part of the true seed of Abraham, according to the promise made to him.Tell me ... - In order to show fully the nature and the effect of the Law, Paul here introduces an illustration from an important fact in the Jewish history. This allegory has given great perplexity to expositors, and, in some respects, it is attended with real difficulty. An examination of the difficulties will be found in the larger commentaries. My object, without examining the expositions which have been proposed, will be to state, in as few words as possible, the simple meaning and design of the allegory. The design it is not difficult to understand. It is to show the effect of being under the bondage or servitude of the Jewish law, compared with the freedom which the gospel imparts. Paul had addressed the Galatians as having a real desire to be under bondage, or to be servants; the note at Galatians 4:9. He had represented Christianity as a state of freedom, and Christians as the sons of God - not servants, but freemen.

To show the difference of the two conditions, he appeals to two cases which would furnish a striking illustration of them. The one was the case of Hagar and her son. The effect of bondage was well illustrated there. She and her son were treated with severity, and were cast out and persecuted. This was a fair illustration of bondage under the Law; of the servitude to the laws of Moses; and was a fit representation of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Paul. The other case was that of Isaac. He was the son of a free woman, and was treated accordingly. He was regarded as a son, not as a servant. And he was a fair illustration of the case of those who were made free by the gospel. They enjoyed a similar freedom and sonship, and should not seek a state of servitude or bondage. The condition of Isaac was a fit illustration of the New Jerusalem; the heavenly city; the true kingdom of God. But Paul does not mean to say, as I suppose, that the history of the son of Hagar and of the son of Rebecca was mere allegory, or that the narrative by Moses was designed to represent the different condition of those who were under the Law and under the gospel.

He uses it simply, as showing the difference between servitude and freedom, and as a striking illustration of the nature of the bondage to the Jewish law, and of the freedom of the gospel, just as anyone may use a striking historical fact to illustrate a principle. These general remarks will constitute the basis of my interpretation of this celebrated allegory. The expression "tell me," is one of affectionate remonstrance and reasoning; see Luke 7:42, "Tell me, therefore, which of these will love him most?" Compare Isaiah 1:18, "Come, now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord."

Ye that desire to be under the law - See the note at Galatians 4:9. You who wish to yield obedience to the laws of Moses. You who maintain that conformity to those laws is necessary to justification.

Do ye not hear the law? - Do you not understand what the Law says? Will you not listen to its own admonitions, and the instruction which may be derived from the Law on the subject? The word "law" here refers not to the commands that were uttered on Mount Sinai, but to the book of the Law. The passage to which reference is made is in the Book of Genesis; but; all the five books of Moses were by the Jews classed under the general name of the Law; see the note at Luke 24:44. The sense is, "Will you not listen to a narrative found in one of the books of the Law itself, fully illustrating the nature of that servitude which you wish?"

21. desire—of your own accord madly courting that which must condemn and ruin you.

do ye not hear—do ye not consider the mystic sense of Moses' words? [Grotius]. The law itself sends you away from itself to Christ [Estius]. After having sufficiently maintained his point by argument, the apostle confirms and illustrates it by an inspired allegorical exposition of historical facts, containing in them general laws and types. Perhaps his reason for using allegory was to confute the Judaizers with their own weapons: subtle, mystical, allegorical interpretations, unauthorized by the Spirit, were their favorite arguments, as of the Rabbins in the synagogues. Compare the Jerusalem Talmud [Tractatu Succa, cap. Hechalil]. Paul meets them with an allegorical exposition, not the work of fancy, but sanctioned by the Holy Spirit. History, if properly understood contains in its complicated phenomena, simple and continually recurring divine laws. The history of the elect people, like their legal ordinances, had, besides the literal, a typical meaning (compare 1Co 10:1-4; 15:45, 47; Re 11:8). Just as the extra-ordinarily-born Isaac, the gift of grace according to promise, supplanted, beyond all human calculations, the naturally-born Ishmael, so the new theocratic race, the spiritual seed of Abraham by promise, the Gentile, as well as Jewish believers, were about to take the place of the natural seed, who had imagined that to them exclusively belonged the kingdom of God.

Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law; you that cannot be content to receive Jesus Christ alone, for justification; but have a mind to maintain a necessity of obedience to the law of circumcision, and other Judaical rites;

do ye not hear the law, that law which curseth every one who continueth not in all that is therein written to do it? Or rather, the story which follows; which is taken out of one of the books of the law, which the apostle makes a mystical revelation of the Divine will, that there should come a time when circumcision should be cast out. Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law,.... Not merely to obey it, as holy, just, and good, from a principle of love, and to testify subjection and gratitude to God; so all believers desire to bc under the law: but these men sought for justification and salvation by their obedience to it: they desired to be under it as a covenant of works, which was downright madness and folly to the last degree, since this was the way to come under the curse of it; they wanted to be under the yoke of the law, which is a yoke of bondage, an insupportable one, which the Jewish fathers could not bear; and therefore it was egregious weakness in them to desire to come under it: wherefore the apostle desires them to answer this question,

do ye not hear the law? meaning either the language and voice of the law of Moses, what it says to transgressors, and so to them; what it accused them of, and charged them with; how it declared them guilty before God, pronounced them accursed, and, ministered sententially condemnation and death unto them; and could they desire to be under such a law? or rather the books of the Old Testament, particularly the five books of Moses, and what is said therein; referring them, as Christ did the Jews, to the Scriptures, to the writings of Moses, and to read, hear, and observe what is in them, since they professed so great a regard to the law; from whence they might learn, that they ought not to be under the bondage and servitude of it. The Vulgate Latin version renders it, "have ye not read the law?" and so one of Stephens's copies; that is, the books of the law; if you have, as you should, you might observe what follows.

{6} Tell me, ye that {u} desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?

(6) The false apostles urged this, that unless the Gentiles were circumcised Christ could profit them nothing at all, and also this dissension of those who believed in the circumcision, against those who believed in the uncircumcision, both these things being full of offence. Therefore the apostle, after various arguments with which he has refuted their error, brings forth an allegory, in which he says that the Holy Spirit did through symbolism let us know all these mysteries: that is, that it should come to pass that two sorts of sons should have Abraham as a father common to them both, but not with equal success. For as Abraham begat Ishmael by the common course of nature, of Hagar his bondmaid and a stranger, and begat Isaac of Sara a free woman, by the virtue of the promise, and by grace only, the first was not heir, and also persecuted the heir. So there are two covenants, and as it were two sons born to Abraham by those two covenants, as it were by two mothers. The one was made in Sinai, outside of the land of promise, according to which covenant Abraham's children according to the flesh were begotten: that is, the Jews, who seek righteousness by that covenant, that is, by the Law. But they are not heirs, and they will at length be cast out of the house, as those that persecute the true heirs. The other was made in that high Jerusalem, or in Zion (that is, by the sacrifice of Christ) which begets children of promise, that is, believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And these children (like Abraham) do rest themselves in the free promise, and they alone by the right of children will be partakers of the father's inheritance, whereas those servants will be shut out.

(u) That desire so greatly.

Galatians 4:21, without any connecting link, leads most energetically (λέγετέ μοι: “urget quasi praesens,” Bengel) at once in mediam rem. On the λέγετέ μοι, so earnestly intensifying the question, comp. Bergler, ad Aristoph. Acharn. 318.

οἱ ὑπὸ νόμον κ.τ.λ.] Ye who wish to be under the law. This refers to the Judaistically inclined readers, who, partly Gentiles and partly Jewish Christians, led astray by the false teachers (Galatians 1:7), supposed that in faith they had not enough for salvation, and desired to be subject to the law (Galatians 4:9), towards which they had already made a considerable beginning (Galatians 4:10). Chrysostom aptly remarks: καλῶς εἶπεν· οἱ θέλοντες, οὐ γὰρ τῆς τῶν πραγμάτων ἀκολουθίας, ἀλλὰ τῆς ἐκείνων ἀκαίρου φιλονεικίας τὸ πρᾶγμα ἦν.

τὸν νόμον οὐκ ἀκούετε;] Hear ye not the law? Is it not read in your hearing? Comp. John 12:34; 2 Corinthians 3:14. The public reading of the venerated divine Scriptures of the law and the prophets, after the manner of the synagogues (Romans 2:15; Acts 15:21; Luke 4:16), took place in the assemblies for worship of the Christian churches both of Jewish and of Gentile origin: they contained, in fact, the revelation of God, of which Christianity is the fulfilment, and an acquaintance with them was justly considered as a source of the Christian knowledge of salvation; for its articles of faith (1 Corinthians 15:3 f.) and rules of life (Romans 13:8-10; Romans 15:4) were to be κατὰ τὰς γραφάς. Now the hearing of the law must necessarily have taught the Galatians how much they were in error. Hence this question expressive of astonishment,[210] which is all the stronger and consequently all the more appropriate, the more simply we allow ἀκούετε to retain its primary literal signification. Hence we must neither explain it (with Winer; comp. Matthies) as audisse, i. e. nosse, notum habere (see Heind. ad Plat. Gorg. p. 503 C; Ast, ad Plat. Legg. i. p. 9; Spohn, Lectt. Theocr. i. p. 25); nor, with Jerome and many others, including Morus, Koppe, Rosenmüller, Borger, Flatt, Schott, Olshausen, as to understand (comp. on 1 Corinthians 14:2), which Paul conceives as the hearing of the πνεῦμα speaking behind the γράμμα (so Holsten, z. Evang. d. Paul. u. Petr. p. 382); nor, with Erasmus, de Wette, Ewald, Wieseler, Hofmann, as ἀκούειν τινος, to give attention, that is, to bestow moral consideration (rather, to have an ear for, as 1 Corinthians 14:2; Matthew 10:14; John 8:47).

νόμος is used here in a twofold sense (comp. Romans 3:19): it means, in the first place, the institute of the law; and secondly, the Pentateuch, according to the division of the Old Test. into Law, Prophets, and Hagiographa. See on Luke 24:44. The repetition of the word gives emphasis.

[210] Hofmann (comp. also his Schriftbew. II. 2, p. 57) deals with our passage in an unwarrantable and intolerably violent manner by writing οἳ (as relative), but makes the summons (tell me, ye who, wishing to be under the law, do not hear the law) to be only prepared for by ver. 22 ff., and that which Paul had in view in the λέγετέ μοι of ver. 21 to follow at length in ver. 30. The address runs on simply and appropriately, and affords no occasion for any such intricacy.

Galatians 4:21-30. Now, at the conclusion of the theoretical portion of his epistle, Paul adds a quite peculiar antinomistic disquisition,—a learned Rabbinico-allegorical argument derived from the law itself,—calculated to annihilate the influence of the pseudo-apostles with their own weapons, and to root them out on their own ground.Galatians 4:21-30. PATRIARCHAL HISTORY IS EMPLOYED TO ILLUSTRATE THE PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS, WHO ARE THE PROMISED SEED OF ABRAHAM, BY JEWS WHO ARE HIS SEED AFTER THE FLESH. HAGAR AND HER SON, SARAH AND HER SON, FURNISH PROPHETIC TYPES OF THE MUTUAL RELATIONS BETWEEN THE TWO. AS HIS ELDER SON, THE SLAVE-BORN ISHMAEL, WAS CAST OUT FOR MOCKING THE FREEBORN CHILD, SO THE OLDER ISRAEL UNDER BONDAGE TO THE LAW WILL BRING ON THEMSELVES THE DOOM OF NATIONAL REJECTION BY PERSECUTING THE TRUE ISRAEL OF GOD WHOM CHRIST HATH ENDOWED WITH THE FREEDOM OF THE SPIRIT.—The force of this illustration depends on the distinction drawn in Galatians 3:16-22 between the seed of promise and the seed of Abraham after the flesh. The argument of Romans 9:6 … is likewise based on the successive exclusion of the latter from inheritance of the blessing. John the Baptist and Jesus Himself expressly warned the Jews not to rely on their claim to be sons of Abraham.

Isaac the child of promise, only son of a free mother after years of barrenness, and heir to an indisputable birthright, aptly prefigured the Church of Christ, born in the fulness of time, made free by the gift of the Spirit, and established for ever in the house of their heavenly Father by an eternal covenant of adoption. Ishmael again, who had for some years filled the position of a son without the birthright which could entitle him to inherit the blessing, but was eventually driven out for his mockery of the promised child supplied an exact prototype of Israel after the flesh, long recognised as the people of God, but bound under the Law, and eventually destined to be shut out from the household of God for their guilt in persecuting Christ and His Church.—τ. νόμον οὐκ ἀκούετε. This is a remonstrance addressed to men who are bent on upholding the authority of the Law, but are indifferent to the lessons which it teaches. ἀκούειν has this force of listening, not only when used absolutely, but when coupled as it is here with an accusative (cf. Luke 10:39, Ephesians 1:13).21–31. The Allegory of the two Covenants, pointing to liberty only in Christ

21. The final argument is an appeal to Scripture, to that very law to which the Galatians were desiring to subject themselves. If they would but listen to the teaching of the law they would hear it declaring its own inferiority to the Gospel, the bondage of its children as compared with the liberty of those who are the children of God through faith in Jesus Christ and heirs of the promise. Calvin says that St Paul in these verses employs a very beautiful illustration of the doctrine on which he has been insisting, but that viewed merely as an argument it has no great force. But he seems to forget that the cogency of an argument is relative to the habits of thought of the persons addressed. Some of those employed by our Lord seem to us inconclusive, because we find it difficult to put ourselves in the place of the Jews who heard Him. To them His words carried conviction or at least provoked no answer, e.g. Luke 11:47-48; Matthew 22:31-33; Matthew 22:41-46.

under the law] perhaps ‘under (i.e. subject to) law’, legal observances, used in a wider and less definite sense than ‘the law’ which here refers to the Pentateuch. St Paul adopts the well-known Jewish division of the O.T. Scriptures, the Law (or Pentateuch), the Prophets, the Hagiographa (or rest of the sacred writings).

do ye not hear] Either ‘do ye not listen to its teaching?’ or ‘is it not read in your hearing?’ Acts 15:21. Some copies have ‘do ye not read the law’, i.e. aloud in the Synagogues? Comp. Luke 4:16-17. The first is probably the meaning.Galatians 4:21. Λέγετέ μοι, tell me) He urges them, as if he were present, tell me.—οὐκ ἀκουέτε; do ye not hear?) when it is publicly read. You therefore act, as if you heard nothing of Abraham written in the law. He has recourse to an allegory only by the force of extreme necessity. This is, as it were, a sacred anchor, Galatians 4:20.Verse 21. - Tell me, ye that desire to be under the Law (λέγετέ μοι οἱ ὑπὸ νόμον θέλοντες εϊναι). After the outburst of affectionate earnestness expressed in the last four verses, the apostle seems to have paused, reflecting in what way he could the most effectually convince these Galatian legalists of their error. At length, a consideration occurs to him, which he impetuously so to speak hastens to abruptly sot before them. He has before (Galatians 3:29) shown to the Galatian believers that they were "Abraham's seed." He now means to show that, as children of Abraham through faith in Christ, they stood on a far higher footing than the children of the Sinai covenant did - a position which, by subjecting themselves afresh to the Law, they would forego. The verb "desire" (θέλοντες), as here introduced, intimates that this aspiration of theirs was a mere freak of self-will, there being nothing in the circumstances to prompt it. So in ver. 9, "Ye desire to be in bondage." In consequence of there being no article with νόμον, some would render ὑπὸ νόμον "under Law," that is, Law viewed in genere, as in Romans 4:15. But the whole scope of the Epistle resists this view. The apostle's contention with the Galatian perverters of the truth is not concerning Christians being subject to Law absolutely, but concerning their being subject to a Law of outward ceremonial observance; that is, to the Law of Moses; for there was no other system of positive ordinances by which, as of Divine authority, they could imagine themselves to be bound. The noun νόμος is used without the article, like other monadic nouns with an understood specific reference (for examples, Θεός, Κύριος Ξριστός Πνεῦμα διάβολος κόσμος); as it is also Romans 2:23; Romans 3:31; Romans 4:13, 14; Romans 5:13; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Galatians 2:21; Galatians 4:5; Philippians 3:5, 6. Do ye not hear the Law? (to\n no/mon οὐκ ἀκούετε;); to that Law give ye no heed? The article is here prefixed to νόμον to make the repetition of the noun the more telling; just as it is in Romans 2:23, Ος ἐν νόμῳ καυχᾶσαι διὰ τῆς παραβάσεως τοῦ νόμου τὸν Θεὸν ἀτιμάζεις; The verb ἀκούετε, hear, like our "listen to," means "take to heart what it says;" as in Matthew 10:14; Luke 16:29, 31. There is no reason for attributing to the verb such a sense of listening to an oral utterance as should warrant us in supposing, that the apostle is thinking in particular of the Galatian Christians as in the habit of "hearing" the Pentateuch and ether Old Testament Scriptures read, whether in Jewish synagogues (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:14, 15; Acts 15:21) or in Christian assemblages. That such Scriptures in the Septuagint Version were customarily read aloud when Christians assembled for united worship, especially in the absence or dearth of other inspired writings, is more than probable: we know from Justin Martyr ('Apol.,' 1. p. 83) that such was the custom from Sunday to Sunday in his days, when there were ἀποστολικὰ ὑπμνημονεύματα also available for such use. Moreover, the existence of such a custom helps us to understand how it was that the apostle could here, as in Romans 7:1, presuppose with Christian believers an acquaintance with the contents of the Pentateuch. But we require more here than the thought, "Are ye not wont to hear the Law read?" It is rather an acquaintance with its contents, and taking due account of them, that he demands of his readers. Some uncial manuscripts have ἀναγινώσκετε, read, instead of ἀκούετε. This reading of the text would only imply, not without a touch of sarcasm, the sense which the more accredited reading, ἀκούετε, may be understood as directly denoting. The use of the word "Law" to denote at once the system of Mosaic legislation and the historical record in which it is embedded, is remarkable. The Jews were accustomed to designate the Pentateuch by this term (comp. Matthew 5:17; Luke 16:16; Luke 24:44); and whoever would fain subject themselves to the positive enactments of the Mosaic Law as possessing Divine authority, would of course feel themselves bound also to accept the teaching of the historical record as clothed with the like authority. The apostle himself also accepted both as alike coming from God; only he required that the Divine purpose in both should be clearly understood and be suitably complied with. Tell me

He plunges into the subject without introduction, and with a direct appeal.

Desire (θέλοντες)

Are bent on being under the law. See on Galatians 4:9.

Under the law (ὑπὸ νόμον)

For νόμος with and without the article, see on Romans 2:12. Here, unquestionably, of the Mosaic law.

Hear (ἀκούετε)

(Do ye not) hear what the law really says: listen to it so as to catch its real meaning? Comp. 1 Corinthians 14:2; lxx, Genesis 11:7; Deuteronomy 28:49.

The law (τὸν νόμον)

In a different sense, referring to the O.T. For a similar double sense see Romans 3:19. For νόμος as a designation of the O.T. generally, see 1 Corinthians 14:21; John 10:24; John 11:34; John 15:25.

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