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.”
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.”
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; 1 Peter 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.
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.
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.
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; 1 Peter 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 1 Corinthians 3:2.)
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.