The Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 23:1-39 (Matthew 23:1-39)

Denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, and lamentation over Jerusalem which followed their guidance to her own destruction. (Peculiar to St. Matthew.)

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Matthew 23:33-39 (Matthew 23:33-39)

Declaration of the sentence on these Pharisees and their generation.

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Matthew 23:34 (Matthew 23:34)

Wherefore ; δια Ì τοῦτο . Because ye are resolved on imitating your forefathers' iniquities, you will also reject the messengers that are sent to you, and shall suffer righteous condemnation. I send ( ἐγω Ì ἀποστε ì λλω ) unto you. The sending had already begun. In the parallel passage of St. Luke ( Luke 11:49 ) we read, "Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send." Christ is the Wisdom of God, and by his own authority gives mission to his messengers. "As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you" ( John 20:21 ), he says to his apostles; and to such he is referring in the words which follow. Prophets . The apostles were of like character, inspiration, and influence as the prophets under the old dispensation, and succeeded in their place as exponents of God's will and heralds of the covenant. Wise men. Men full of the Holy Ghost and heavenly wisdom. Scribes . Not in the then Jewish sense, but instructors in the new law of life, the law of Christ's religion ( Matthew 13:52 ). All the means of teaching and edification employed aforetime were abundantly and more effectually supplied under the gospel. St. Luke has, "prophets and apostles." Kill ; as Stephen ( Acts 7:59 ), James ( Acts 12:2 ). Crucify ; as Peter ( John 21:18 , John 21:19 ; 2 Peter 1:14 ); Simeon (Eusebius, 'Hist. Eccl.,' 3:32); and probably Andrew. Scourge (see Acts 5:40 ; Acts 22:19 , Acts 26:11 ; 2 Corinthians 11:24 , 2 Corinthians 11:25 ). Persecuted (see Acts 13:50 ; Acts 14:5 , Acts 14:6 , Acts 14:19 , Acts 14:20 ; Acts 26:11 ; and compare Christ's prediction, Matthew 10:17 , Matthew 10:18 ). The passage in the Second (Fourth) Book of Esdras 1:32, which is strikingly parallel to our Lord's denunciation, may possibly be a Christian interpolation, "I sent unto you my servants the prophets, whom ye have taken and slain, and torn their bodies in pieces, whose blood I will require of your hands, saith the Lord."

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Matthew 23:32-39 (Matthew 23:32-39)

Prophecy of their future.


1 . Prediction of their treatment of Christ ' s disciples. They would fill up the measure of their fathers; the Lord knew it in his Divine foreknowledge. They were still what John the Baptist had once called them—serpents, "a generation of vipers." How were such as they to escape from the condemnation of Gehenna? For hypocrisy hardens the heart. The state of the hypocrite is hopeless, perhaps, beyond that of most other sinners; self-satisfied as he is, he will not repent and come to Christ. "Wherefore," the Lord said, "I send unto you prophets." Mark the majestic "I send;" it asserts his authority, his equality in the truth of his Divine nature with God the Father. Mark the solemn "wherefore;" it contains a depth of inscrutable meaning—meaning full of mercy on the one side, full of awful mystery on the other. He would send his messengers unto them. Then even now he cared for their souls, even now he sought to save them. But he knew in his Divine omniscience how they would treat his servants; they would persecute them, and scourge them in their synagogues; some they would kill and crucify. The mission of the apostles would increase the guilt of the Jews; the good tidings of salvation would be to them, not life, but death. The Divine foreknowledge is not inconsistent with human free will. The Pharisees had the power to choose or to reject the Saviour. He would not have mocked them with the offer of an unattainable salvation, an inaccessible heaven. Yet he knew that they would reject him, for he was God, infinite in knowledge as in all other Divine attributes. That knowledge did not destroy their free agency; it did not remove their guilt. Here is one of those deep mysteries which human thought cannot penetrate; hereafter it shall be revealed.

2 . The consequence to themselves. On them would come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth. It must be so; for they had inherited the guilt of their ancestors, and that accumulated inheritance of evil had hardened their hearts into very stone. It must be so; for it was in the course of God's awful justice. As he hardened the heart of Pharaoh, who first hardened his own heart; so now he sent his messengers to the hardened Pharisees, that upon them might come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth. It is the ordinance of God, the law of that human nature which is his work, that wilful sin wilfully persevered in should lead on to guilt deeper yet. It would be so in the case of these hard-hearted Jews. Their obstinate unbelief would soon lead to a crime greater than any which the world, wicked as it was, had seen from the very beginning. That awful crime would fill up the measure of the long catalogue of deeds of blood. It would all fall upon that generation, from the first murder that ever was to the last recorded in the Hebrew canon; for all the accumulated blood guiltiness of mankind would be summed up in the tremendous guilt of those who were so soon about to cry, "His blood be on us, and on our children!" "Verily I say unto you, All these things must come upon this generation." We feel it must be so. We hear the dread sentence, and we bow in silent awe before the judgment of God. And yet we know and feel that Christ cared even for those hard-hearted sinners, and would have saved them in his tender pity. But, alas! they would not come to him, that they might have life.


1 . The Lord ' s love. The stern language of most awful condemnation changes. We hear the tenderest accents of Divine pity, the sad wailing of disappointed love. The Lord had wept over Jerusalem. Now again his sacred heart yearns with mighty compassion for the city which he loved so well tie sorrows over the whole city, not only for the scribes and Pharisees whose hypocrisy he had denounced; his glance takes in the whole population, the poor and ignorant as well as the rich and learned; the deceived as well as the deceivers. His glance takes in all times, not only the present rejection of his grace, the awful guilt that was close at hand; but also their past offences, their past refusals of his offered mercies. Again and again he had wished to gather them together into his little flock, into his holy Church; again and again during his ministry upon earth, again and again before his incarnation, when he sent his warnings from heaven, he would have gathered them together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings. A most touching simile, expressive of yearning affection, of tender solicitude, expressive too of the Lord's power and knowledge, wide-reaching in its range, all-embracing in its individual tenderness. Jerusalem, with its great population, was as a brood of chickens in his sight; he knew all, he cared for all; he would have sheltered all under his wings. But alas! they would not. He wished to gather them together; they did not wish to be gathered under the shelter of the Saviour's love. The Lord clearly asserts the great mystery of man's free will. He willeth that all men should be saved; but he doth not force the will of man. He would draw us to himself by the constraining attraction of love. He does not use his almighty power to compel our obedience. Enforced obedience is without value; enforced love is not love; the very phrase is a contradiction in terms, for love is essentially free and spontaneous. He calls us, he invites us; he warns, he threatens, he chastens; he manifests his love, that the sight of that great love may kindle tire flame of love in our unloving hearts; he came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation; he, the eternal Son of God, became a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; he gave himself to die in the mysterious depth of his exceeding great love; he declares his love by the unanswerable eloquence of the cross. But he leaves us free. Man was made in the image of God. The human will is a sacred thing; it must not be forced, or moral distinctions are lost, and love is annihilated and holiness is impossible. We know it is so, though we cannot solve the perplexing mystery. Let us try to yield up our will to him; to pray the deep holy prayer which he prayed in his agony, "Father, not my will, but thine be done."

2 . The consequence of the rejection of his love. "Your house is left unto you desolate." The Lord is about to depart from the temple. It is no longer what it had been—the house of God. He calls it "your house." It had been long without the ark, without the Shechinah; now it would be without the presence of Christ, without the favour of God. It was left desolate—left to them; for God was leaving the temple, the city, the nation. Tacitus and Josephus tell us that, before the fall of Jerusalem, the awful voice of departing Deity was heard, "Let us depart hence." Christ was leaving the temple now. "Ye shall not see me henceforth," he said, "till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." They would see him, indeed, once again in his sufferings on the cross. They would see, and yet not see, for their eyes were holden. Yet these last words were words of mercy and hope. He looked on through the ages, through the long period of Israel's unbelief and banishment, to the great restoration that is to come, when they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and mourn for him; "and so all Israel shall be saved" ( Romans 11:26 ).


1 . As a man lives, so, as a rule, he will die. "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth."

2 . Sin leads on to sin, guilt to yet deeper guilt. Take heed betimes.

3 . The Lord weeps over the hard hearted. "There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth." May he soften our hearts and give us true repentance!

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Matthew 23:29-39 (Matthew 23:29-39)

Judgment and mercy.

We come now to the eighth and last of this series of woes denounced by Christ against the wicked, which stands in striking contrast to the eighth and last of the Beatitudes (cf. Matthew 5:10-12 ). Note—


1 . The fathers of the wicked were the persecutors of the good.

(a) Rulers are generally what the people will have them. "Like people. like priest" (cf. Isaiah 24:2 ; Jeremiah 5:30 , Jeremiah 5:31 ; Hosea 4:9 ).

(b) So contrariwise, people are demoralized by their rulers.

2 . The children of wickedness confess while they denounce their fathers.


1 . Judgment is provoked by persistent impenitence.

2 . Its severity follows in the wake of mercy.


1 . So it proved in the days of the fathers.

2 . So it proved in the days of their children.

3 . The children of wickedness are not exclusively Jewish.


1 . The Jews will yet see Christ in his glory.

2 . They will all acknowledge him then.

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