Hebrews 4 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Hebrews 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This chapter is manifestly a continuation of the last, and should not have been detached from it. As with the exhortation of Hebrews 3:12-13, are interwoven some of the early words of the quotation from Psalms 95, so here the later thoughts of the same passage are taken up and applied.

Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.
(1) Let us therefore fear.—The emphasis rests upon “fear,” not upon “us.” It is noteworthy that the writer begins with “Let us,” though about to write “lest any of you;” he will have gained his object if he brings his readers to share his fear.

Lest, a promise being left us.—Rather, lest haply, a promise being (still) left. No word must be inserted here that can diminish the generality of the words; in the sequel the statement will be repeated with all possible clearness. Here it is simply said that such a promise remains unexhausted, waiting for complete fulfilment. No Hebrew Christian would doubt this. As in Hebrews 1, the writer’s aim is not to establish a truth absolutely new, but to show that in this and in that Scripture a received truth lies contained. Most of our earlier versions (following Luther and Erasmus) give to this clause a different turn, which cannot be correct: “Lest any of you by forsaking the promise of entering in His rest.”

Any of you should seem to come short of it.—Rather, any one of you should be accounted to have come short of it. The difficulty here lies in the words rendered “seem” or “be accounted.” It appears impossible that the meaning can be “should even seem,” or “should think himself,” or “should show himself,” to have failed. It may be that the writer avoids positive and direct language in speaking of what lies beyond mortal ken, and therefore reverently says “should seem to have come short of it.” It is more probable that he is influenced by the figure contained in the next word, the falling short of a mark; and is thus led to refer to the judge who witnesses and declares the failure,—“Lest any one . . . be held (or, be adjudged) to have come short of” the promise.

For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
(2) For unto us was.—Rather, for we have had glad tidings preached unto us, even as they had. The object of these words is to support Hebrews 4:1, “a promise being left.” How fitly the good news of the promise might, alike in their case and in ours, be designated by the same word as the “gospel,” will afterwards appear.

The word preached.—Literally, the word of hearing, i.e., the word which was heard (1 Thessalonians 2:13). But this does not mean the word heard by them. As in Isaiah 53:1 (where the same word is found in the Greek version) the meaning is “our message,” “that which we have heard from God,” so here the words signify what was heard by those who declared the promise to the people, especially the message which Moses received from God.

Not being mixed with faith.—A change of reading in the Greek, which rests on the strongest authority, compels us to connect these words, not with the message, but with the people: “since they had not been united (literally, mingled) by faith with them that heard.” That the word of Moses and those associated with him in declaring God’s promise (perhaps Aaron, Joshua, Caleb) might benefit the people, speakers and hearers must be united by the bond of faith. Here the margin of the Authorised version preserves the true text, following the Vulgate and the earliest of the printed Greek Testaments (the Complutensian).

For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.
(3) For we which have believed.—The emphasis is two-fold, resting both on “believed” and on “we enter.” The former looks back to Hebrews 4:2, “by faith”—“for it is we who believed that enter.” . . . The latter looks forward to the remainder of the verse, the purport of which is that the rest exists, and that “entering into the rest” may still be spoken of.

As I have sworn . . .—Rather (as above), as I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest, (See Hebrews 3:11.) If in the Scripture (Psalm 95:8) God warns men of a later age not to imitate the guilt of those whom He excluded from His rest, it follows (see below on Hebrews 4:10) that the time for entering into the rest of God was not then past and gone.

Although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.—And therefore the rest into which God will enter with His redeemed people is not that which succeeded the works of creation. This caution is added because the words used by the Psalmist (Psalm 95:11) are derived from Genesis 2:2-3; though the same words are used, yet, we are reminded, the thought is widely different. The next two verses simply expand and support the thought contained in this: “For whereas we read in one Scripture that God ‘rested’ on the seventh day, another records His sentence on the disobedient people, ‘They shall not enter into My rest.’”

For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.
(4) For he spake in a certain place.—Better, For he hath spoken somewhere, another example of indefiniteness of citation. (See Note on Hebrews 2:6.)

And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest.
Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:
(6) The substance of the preceding verses may be thus expressed: There is a rest of God, into which some are to enter with God,—a rest not yet entered at the time of the wandering in the wilderness, and therefore not that which followed the work of creation,—a rest from which some were excluded because of unbelief. These five particulars are repeated in substance in the present verse: “Seeing, therefore, it is (still) left that some should enter in, and they to whom formerly glad tidings were declared entered not in because of disobedience, He again,” &c. “Disobedience”—though Hebrews 4:2 speaks of unbelief as the cause: see Note on Hebrews 3:18. In John 3:36, the transition from “believeth” to “obeyeth” is equally striking.

Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
(7) Again, he limiteth.—Better, He again marketh out (or, defineth). The next step taken (see the last Note) is to point out that, long after the occupation of Canaan, the Psalmist—God speaking in the Psalm—says “To-day,” in pleading with Israel. The implied meaning is as if He said, “Harden not your hearts today, lest I swear unto you also, Ye shall not enter into My rest.”

In David.—Probably this is equivalent to saying, In the Book of Psalms. In the LXX., however, Psalms 95 is ascribed to David.

After so long a time.—The period intervening between the divine sentence on the rebels in the wilderness (Numbers 14) and the time of the Psalmist.

As it is said.—The best MSS. read, as it hath been before said.

For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.
(8) For, had the promise been fulfilled in Joshua’s conquest, the Psalm (God in the Psalm) would not be speaking of another day, saying “To-day” (Hebrews 4:7). (In one other place in the New Testament the Greek form of the name of Joshua is preserved. See the Note on Acts 7:45.)

There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.
(9) There remaineth therefore.—Or, therefore there is (still) left: the word is the same as in Hebrews 4:6. It is tacitly assumed that no subsequent fulfilment has altered the relation of the promise. Few things in the Epistle are more striking than the constant presentation of the thought that Scripture language is permanent and at all times present. The implied promise, therefore, repeated whenever the “to-day” is heard, must have its fulfilment. The rescued people of Israel did indeed find a rest in Canaan: the true redeemed “people of God” shall rest with God.

A rest.—As the margin points out, the word is suddenly changed. As the rest promised to God’s people is a rest with God, it is to them “a sabbath-rest.” So one of the treatises of the Mishna speaks of Psalms 92 as a “Psalm for the time to come, for the day which is all Sabbath, the rest belonging to the life eternal.”

For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.
(10) Into his rest.—That is, into God’s rest.

Hath ceased.—Rather, hath rested from his works as God did from His own (works). This verse is added to explain and justify the reference to a “sabbath” in Hebrews 4:9. Man’s sabbath-rest begins when he enters into God’s rest (Genesis 2:2); as that was the goal of the creative work, so to the people of God this rest is the goal of their life of “works.”

As the whole argument is reviewed, the question may naturally be asked, To what extent is this wide meaning present in the Psalm itself? Where must the line be drawn between the direct teaching of the words and the application here made? The apparent expansion of the meaning of the Psalm relates to Hebrews 4:11 alone. There, in the first instance, an historical fact is mentioned—the exclusion of the rebels from the promised land. But though the mention of the oath of God is derived from Numbers 14:28-30, the language of the historian is significantly changed; for “ye shall not come into the land,” we read, “they shall not enter into My rest.” True, the land could be spoken of as their “rest and inheritance” (Deuteronomy 12:9); but the language which the Psalmist chooses is at all events susceptible of a much higher and wider meaning, and (as some of the passages quoted in the Note on Hebrews 3:11 serve to prove) may have been used in this extended sense long before the Psalmist’s age. That Hebrews 4:8, when placed by the side of Hebrews 4:11, shows the higher meaning of the words to have been in the Psalmist’s thought, and implies that the offer of admission to the rest of God was still made, it seems unreasonable to doubt. As the people learnt through ages of experience and training (see Hebrews 1:5) to discern the deeper and more spiritual meaning that lay in the promises of the King and the Son of David, so was it with other promises which at first might seem to have no more than a temporal significance. If these considerations are well founded, it follows that we have no right to look on the argument of this section as an “accommodation” or a mere application of Scripture: the Christian preacher does but fill up the outline which the prophet had drawn.

Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.
(11) Labour.—Rather, give diligence, strive earnestly. It is the necessity of watchful and constant faithfulness that is enforced. Hence the words that follow: “Lest any one fall into (or, after) the same example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 3:18).

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
(12) As in Hebrews 3:12 the warning against the “evil heart of unbelief” is solemnly enforced by the mention of the “Living God,” so here, in pointing to the peril of disobedience, it is to the living power of the word of God that the writer makes appeal. But in what sense? Does he bring before us again the word of Scripture, or the divine Word Himself? Outside the writings of St. John there is no passage in the New Testament in which the word of God is as clearly invested with personal attributes as here. The word is “quick” (that is, living), “powerful” (or, activemighty in operation, as most of our versions render the word), “able to discern the thoughts of the heart.” Philo, whose writings are pervaded by the doctrine of the divine Word (see the Note appended to St. John’s Gospel in Vol. I. of this Commentary, p. 553), in certain passages makes use of expressions so remarkably resembling some that are before us in this verse that we cannot suppose the coincidence accidental. Thus, in an allegorical explanation of Genesis 15:10, he speaks of the sacred and divine Word as cutting through all things, dividing all perceptible objects, and penetrating even to those called indivisible, separating the different parts of the soul. But though these and the many other resemblances that are adduced may prove the writer’s familiarity with the Alexandrian philosophy, they are wholly insufficient to show an adoption of Philo’s doctrinal system (if system it could be called) in regard to the divine Word, or to rule the interpretation of the single passage in this Epistle in which an allusion to that system could be traced. Nor is the first-mentioned argument conclusive. There certainly is personification here, and in part the language used would, if it stood alone, even suggest the presence of a divine Person; but it is not easy to believe that in the New Testament the words “sharper than a two-edged sword” would be directly applied to the Son of God. In this Epistle, moreover (and even in this context, Hebrews 4:2), reference is repeatedly made to the word of God in revelation, without a trace of any other meaning. The key to the language of this verse, so far as it is exceptional, is found in that characteristic of the Epistle to which reference has been already made—the habitual thought of Scripture as a direct divine utterance. The transition from such a conception to those of this verse was very easy; and we need not feel surprise if with expressions which are naturally applied to the utterance are joined others which lead the thought to God as Speaker. It is, therefore, the whole word of God that is brought before us—mainly the word of threatening and judgment, but also (comp. Hebrews 4:2 and the last member of this verse) the word of promise.

Piercing even to the dividing asunder . . .—Rather, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, both joints and marrow. For the comparison of God’s word to a sword see Isaiah 49:2; Ephesians 6:17; (Revelation 1:16); comp. also Wisdom Of Solomon 18:15-16, “Thine Almighty word leapt down from heaven out of Thy royal throne . . . and brought Thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death.” The keen two-edged sword penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit (not soul from spirit), with unfailing stroke severing bone from bone and piercing the very marrow. The latter words, by a very natural metaphor, are transferred from the material frame to the soul and spirit.

And is a discerner . . .—Is quick to discern, able to judge, the thoughts (reflections, conceptions, intents) of the heart. Man’s word may be lifeless, without power to discriminate, to adapt itself to a changed state or varying circumstances, to enforce itself: the Spirit of God is never absent from His word.

Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
(13) In his sight.—Still the proper subject is “the word of God”; but, as explained above, it has assumed the meaning, God speaking and present in His word. Touched by this word, every creature “returns of force to its own likeness”—shows itself as it is.

Opened.—Better, exposed, laid bare. The Greek word is peculiar (literally meaning, to take by the neck), and it seems impossible to determine with certainty the exact metaphor which it here presents. It is usually applied to a wrestler who by dragging back the neck overthrows his adversary: and “prostrate” has been suggested as the meaning here. Another explanation refers the word to the drawing back of a criminal’s head, so as to expose his face to public gaze; but, though we read of such a custom in Latin authors, we have no proof that the Greek word was used in this sense. There seems no good reason for supposing any allusion to a sacrificial victim with head thrown back (slain, or ready to be slain).

Unto the eyes of him . . .—Rather, unto His eyes: with Whom (or, and with Him) we have to do. The last solemn words recall the connection of the whole passage. No thought of unbelief or disobedience escapes His eye: the first beginnings of apostasy are manifest before Him.

Hebrews 4:14-16 are the link connecting all the preceding part of the Epistle with the next great section, . Heb 5:1 to Heb 10:18. Following the example of Luther, Tyndale and Coverdale begin the fifth chapter here; but the connection of the three verses with what precedes is too close to justify this.

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.
(14) All the chief points of the earlier chapters are brought together in this verse and the next:—the High Priest (Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 3:1); His exaltation (Hebrews 1:3-4; Hebrews 1:13; Hebrews 2:9); His divine Sonship (Hebrews 1; Hebrews 3:6); His compassion towards the brethren whose lot He came to share (Hebrews 2:11-18).

That is passed into the heavens.—Rather, that hath passed through the heavens. As the high priest passed through the Holy Place to enter the Holy of Holies, Jesus “ascended up far above all heavens,” and sat at the right hand of God. This thought is developed in Hebrews 8-10.

Our profession.—See Hebrews 3:1.

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
(15) We cannot but note again how the power of the exhortation (especially to those immediately addressed) lay in the combination of the two thoughts—the greatness and the tender compassion of the High Priest of our confession. The two are united in the words of Hebrews 4:16, “the throne of grace.” (Comp. Hebrews 8:1.) The beautiful rendering, “touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” is due to the Genevan Testament of 1557.

But was in all points . . .—Better, but One that hath in all points been tempted in like manner, apart from sin. These words show the nature and the limits of this sympathy of Christ. He suffers with His people, not merely showing compassion to those who are suffering and tempted, but taking to Himself a joint feeling of their weaknesses. He can do this because He has passed through trial, has Himself been tempted. In speaking of “weaknesses” the writer uses a word applicable both to the people and to their Lord, who was “crucified through weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4). Its meaning must not be limited to the region of pain and bodily suffering: whatever belongs to the necessary limitations of that human nature which He assumed is included. As He learned His obedience from sufferings (Hebrews 5:8), He gained His knowledge of the help we need in that “Himself took our weaknesses” (Matthew 8:17), and was Himself tempted in like manner, save that in Him sin had no place (Hebrews 7:26). These last words supply the limit to the thought of weakness and temptation as applied to our High Priest. Not only was the temptation fruitless in leading to sin (this is implied here, but only as a part or a result of another truth), but in the widest sense He could say, “The prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in Me” (John 14:30). “Was tempted in all points in like manner,” are words which must not be over-pressed; but the essential principles of temptation may be traced in those with which Jesus was assailed. (Comp. John 21:25.)

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
(16) Obtain mercy.—The real meaning is, receive compassion (Hebrews 2:17) in our weakness and trials. The thought of obtaining mercy for guilt is not in these words, taken by themselves; but “grace” meets every need. If the last verse brought evidence that our High Priest has perfect knowledge of the help required, this gives the assurance that the help shall be given as needed, and in the time of need.

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