1. Your righteousness.—This term, which is adopted in the corrected text in the place of alms, gives the precept contained in this verse a general character, making it include all acts of righteousness done to be seen by men. It is declared that for none such have we any reward from God. In the next verse almsgiving is introduced as a specification under this general precept.
2. sound a trumpet.—Trumpets are sounded as signals to large bodies of men. From this circumstance a man who takes pains to draw attention to himself is said to sound a trumpet before him. This the hypocrites did when they gave alms. As the alms were given to be seen by men, every effort was made to prevent any from missing the sight. We still say of a man who acts thus, that "he blows his own trumpet."
their reward.—The Pharisees, to whom there is especial reference here, had in hand the reward which they sought—the admiration of the people. More accurately translated, the remark is: "they have in full their reward;" which implies that the praise of men was the only reward which they would ever receive. In contrast with this it is asserted below (verse 4) that if alms are given properly God himself will reward the giver.
3, 4. thy left hand know.—"Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth" is a very striking expression. Once heard it is never forgotten; neither is it easily misunderstood, but it may be misapplied. While it very emphatically condemns all attempts to publish abroad our almsgiving, it does not condemn the publication of it for a proper purpose by others. Jesus, in order to teach a good lesson, published the liberality of the poor widow (Mark 12:41-44); and Luke, in order to stimulate the liberality of others, made public mention of the benevolence of Barnabas. (Acts 4:36, 37.) Even in this, however, we must be on our guard, lest we tempt men to give tor the sake of the notoriety with which they expect others to reward them.
4. shall reward thee.—Notwithstanding the truth so clearly revealed in the Scriptures, that our salvation is a matter of favor and not of reward, it still remains true, as this verse clearly asserts, that for all the good which we do God will reward us. The joys of the eternal world, as well as the blessings of this, are included in the reward. (Comp. Matt. 25:34-40.)
5. as the hypocrites.—Public prayer—that is, prayer spoken aloud for the edification of others—is not referred to in this paragraph; for this must be offered in public, while the prayer here spoken of is to be offered in the closet. (Verse 6.) The practice condemned is that of assuming an attitude of prayer in public places, when the prayer it self is not for the public. The hypocrites would stand up in the synagogues, and, with upturned faces and uplifted hands, would offer a silent prayer. They did the same on the streets, and especially on the corners of the streets where men coming from four different directions could see them. Nothing but a desire to be seen by men could have prompted this practice. It was hypocritical, because it was a pretended act of homage to God, while it was really an effort to obtain honor from men. The same fault is committed now by preachers who assume attitudes of private prayer in the pulpit, and by members who do the same in the pew. Jesus says to all such, Go to your closet, and shut the door.
their reward.—Their reward, as in the case of almsgiving (verse 2), was what they sought and obtained—the praise of men. What was actual hypocrisy appeared to the unsuspecting people to be great religious boldness, and they praised the men who were not ashamed to be seen praying even on the corners of the streets.
6. enter into thy closet.—Inasmuch as a closet is not found in every house, or in every place where private prayer ought to be made, we understand the Savior as using it to represent any place of privacy. That the door is to be shut, indicates the strictness of the privacy which is to be observed. Of all our earthly hours, those which we spend in prayer to God should be the most completely freed from disguise and pretense. When we are alone with him, no eye but his to see us, no being near to be deceived by false appearances, we have the least possible incentive to hypocrisy.
shall reward thee.—For such prayerfulness as is here enjoined there is a reward. The prayer thus offered is likely to be answered; but in addition to the answer a reward is bestowed for the fidelity with which the praying is done.
7. vain repetitions.—There is some uncertainty as to the exact meaning of the Greek word (βαταλογήσητε) rendered "use vain repetitions; but this rendering harmonizes well with the context, and can not be far from the exact meaning. The reason given why the heathen are guilty of this fault is that "they think they shall be heard for their much speaking." Much speaking includes not only vain repetitions, but all unnecessary words. The precept restricts us, then, to simplicity of expression, and to a single utterance of each petition in the same prayer. It is especially violated by the multiplied repetitions of the Roman Catholic rosary. When we pray we speak to God: we can not order our speech too carefully.
8. before you ask him.—That God knows what things we have need of before we ask him, is a good reason why we should not use vain repetitions. If he were ignorant of them we might be excused for excess of words in striving to make them known; but as he already knows them, a single statement of each at any one time must be sufficient. If it be objected that the fact of God's knowledge renders prayer itself unnecessary, we answer that it certainly would if the only object of prayer were to give God information: but as this is not even one of its objects, the objection is irrelevant.
9-13. After this manner.—The expression "after this manner" indicates that the prayer which follows, called the Lord's prayer because it was taught by him, is intended as a model of matter, arrangement and expression. The following analysis of it will help the reader to appreciate its value as a model:
I. The Invocation.—"Our Father who art in heaven." Nearly all of the prayers recorded in the Scriptures begin with a solemn address to God, which is called the invocation. The most common invocation of the Jewish fathers had been "O Lord God of our fathers; "but now that the Son of God had appeared as the brother of man, a new form is introduced, and the disciples are taught to say, "Our Father."
II. Three Petitions for Others. a. "Hallowed be thy name." "Hallowed" means, first, made holy; second, treated as holy. The petition calls for that reverence which is duo to the name of God. There is no limit assigned it, and therefore it embraces the universe of intelligent creatures, and calls for universal worship of God. b. "Thy kingdom come." This is a petition for the inauguration of the kingdom which Jesus came to establish. c. "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." This contemplates the conversion and the complete sanctification of the whole human race.
III. Three Petitions for Self. After praying for the glory of God, the establishment of his kingdom, and the spiritual good of all men, the speaker is next allowed to speak of his own wants. a. "Give us this day our daily bread." Bread, the staff of life, is the representative of the things needful for the body. The petition is not for milk and honey, the symbols of luxury, but for bread, and bread sufficient for this day. We are to be moderate in our requests for even necessary things. b. "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors." Here the term debts is used for trespasses, as appears from the comment on this petition in verses 14, 15. This petition expresses the one thing needful to the soul in regard to the past. It is conditional, and the condition is expressed in the petition itself—the same condition previously indicated in the fifth beatitude (v. 7). c. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Here the one want of the soul for the future is expressed. God does not tempt us (Jas. 1:13), but by his providence he sometimes leads us into circumstances which become the means of temptation. This petition expresses our natural desire not to be thus led, and at the same time, by adding, "deliver us from evil," it indicates that we expect to be brought more or less into conflict with evil, notwithstanding our expressed desire to avoid it The counterpart to the petition is found in Paul's assurance that "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above what you are able; but will, with the temptation, make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it." (1 Cor. 10:13.)
For thine is the kingdom.—This doxology is rejected, on good ground, as an interpolation. It is a mark of the singular simplicity of the prayer that it closes without a doxology, and even without the Amen which was customarily employed in the apostolic churches (1 Cor. 14:16), and is now an invariable termination of public prayer.
Brief as this prayer is, it comprehends all for which we should pray. The first petition comprehends all that pertains to the honor and glory of God; the second and third, all that was requisite to the coming of God's kingdom and to the conversion and sanctification of men; the fourth, all the daily wants of the body; the fifth, all that the soul now needs or can enjoy in regard to the past; and the sixth, all that the soul needs to care for in regard to the future.
Two changes are necessary in order to adapt this prayer to present use. We must omit the petition, "Thy kingdom come;" for in the sense of the petition the kingdom has already come, and it is improper to retain the words and yet attach to them a sense different from that in which Jesus employed them. We must also insert the name of Jesus as the mediator through whom we pray; for on the night of the betrayal he taught his disciples to thenceforward ask in his name. (John 16:24. See also Col. 3:17.)
14, 15. For if ye forgive.—These two verses are appended to show why the petition for forgiveness of sins must be conditional. It fills us with awe to think that one condition of the forgiveness of our own sins is the forgiveness by us of sins committed against us. One of the most difficult duties of life is to forgive our fellows, yet the most essential thing that we pray for is contingent on it. Let us realize the fact, and act and pray accordingly.
The manner in which we are to imitate this model prayer must consist in imitating its peculiarities as they appear in the prayer itself, and in the instructions which accompany it. We must pray, first, in privacy; second, without useless words or repetitions, third, having forgiven those who have trespassed against us; and fourth, with that unselfishness which places the glory of God and the good of others in advance of our own interests. It is strictly a prayer, and not an expression of thanks.
16. as the hypocrites.—The hypocrisy in this instance consisted in the pretense that the sad countenance assumed and the disfigured appearance were the result of deep devotion to God, when they were really intended to attract the attention and to excite the admiration of men.
17, 18. anoint and wash.—The Christian is here required to maintain the same personal appearance when fasting as on ordinary occasions, that he may not appear to men to be fasting, and may thereby avoid the temptation to hypocrisy. As in the case of almsgiving and praying when done in secret, a reward is promised. (Comp. 4, 6.) One object of fasting is self-abasement; but when it is observed to be seen by men it cultivates religious pride. It was doubtless the influence of teaching like this which led the Christian Jews to abandon the absurd practice prevalent among their ancestors of putting on sackcloth and sitting down in a pile of ashes on occasions of fasting and lamentation.
19. Lay not up.—The prohibition is not against the mere accumulation of property; for this, if accompanied by a proper use of it, in one means of laying up treasures in heaven; but it is against hoarding earthly possessions for selfish purposes. The uncertainty attached to such possessions, exposed, as they are, to moth and rust, and to the depredations of robbers, is given as one reason for not hoarding them, while a still better reason is reserved for verse 21 below.
20. but lay up.—The precept, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven," is not explained; but the meaning of it and the methods of accomplishing it are both left to the good sense of each individual. The security of such treasures against the moth and the rust and the thieves which threaten earthly possessions is presented as a motive to obedience. The contrast is very striking. No man who pauses a single moment for reflection can fail to realize it.
21. for where thy treasure is.—Here is the chief reason for laying up treasures in heaven and not on the earth. Where the heart is, there is our source of happiness. If it is on the earth, our happiness must partake of all the uncertainty of earthly things, and it must be lost forever when we leave the world. But if it is in heaven, when we leave this world we go away to the real sources of our happiness, and we find them as durable as eternity.
22, 23. The light of the body.—In these two verses there is a brief allegory, the meaning of which is to be ascertained from the context. The subject under consideration is the propriety of laying up treasures, not on earth, but in heaven. The man whose eye is single—that is, it sees nothing double or with confused vision—represents him who lays up treasure in heaven. As the good eye fills the whole body with light, or supplies to the whole body the advantages of light, so does the rule of life insisted on in the context, enable the man to see in a proper light all matters of duty and of enjoyment But he who lays up treasures on earth has the evil eye, or the eye whose vision is distorted, and which sees all things incorrectly. The light that is in him is darkness; that is, the rule by which his life is guided is false and pernicious: and this being the case, how great is the darkness in which he walks!
24. two masters.—Two masters whose interests are different and conflicting, as God and mammon. He who lays up his treasures in heaven serves God, while he who lays up his treasures on earth serves mammon. Mammon is a Chaldee term for riches. God will accept none of our service unless he has it all. Satan is willing to accept a part because he knows that by securing a part he really gets all.
25. Take no thought.—Dean Trench, in his admirable little work on Bible Revision, has shown clearly that when our translation was made the word thought was often used for melancholy; and that the expression take thought, meant to go into a state of melancholy or despondency. He quotes from Lord Bacon this example: "Harris, an alderman in London, was put in trouble and died with thought and anxiety before his business came to an end." From one of the Somers Tracts, written in the reign of Elizabeth, he quotes: "In five hundred years only two queens have died in childbirth. Queen Catharine Parr died rather of thought." But still more to the point is an example found in Shakespeare. When the conspirators against Julius Cæsar were discussing the effect which the proposed assassination would have on Mark Antony, Brutus is made to say:
"Alas, good Cassius, do not think of him: If he love Cæsar, all that he can do Is to himself—take thought, and die for Cæsar." (Jul. Caes. Act II, Scene ii.)
These examples illustrate the expression as used by our translators who were cotemporaries of Shakespeare. It expresses, not the mental act of thinking, but the state of feeling which results from a despondent view of the future. In this sense alone does it correctly represent the original word μεριμνάω, which means to be anxious or to be full of care. It is rendered in two passages of the New Testament by the term careful. "Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things." (Luke 10:41.) "Be careful for nothing." (Phil. 4:6.) Here the term careful is not used in its modern sense of painstaking, but it means, as its etymology indicates, full of care. (See also 1 Cor. 7:32-34.) I would render it in the passage before us, "be not anxious." The prohibition is not against an excessive degree of anxiety, but simply against being anxious.
life more than meat.—In the prohibition of anxiety, two general objects of anxiety are named—life and the body; that is, the prolongation of life, and the comfort of the body. In reference to the former there are two specifications, "what ye shall eat," and "what ye shall drink;" and in reference to the latter, one, "what ye shall put on." The prohibition is supported, in the remainder of the paragraph, by several forcible reasons, of which the first is that life is more than food, and the body than raiment; that is, life has more important aims than to provide food and drink; and the body has wants more pressing than the want of raiment. These are inferior wants, and therefore unworthy of anxiety. The superior wants are specified below in verse 33.
26. the fowls of the air.— Here is the second reason. The birds are free from anxiety, although they neither how, nor reap, nor gather into barns. Though they do none of these things, the heavenly Father feeds them. Men are much better than they; much more certainly, then, will God feed them. Let us sow and reap and gather into barns, then, without anxiety.
27. can add one cubit.—The third reason is based on the fact that anxiety is unavailing. Instead of stature, we should have age; for this is the more usual meaning of the Greek word, ἡλικία, and is better suited to the context. If anxiety will not avail to add even a cubit to one's age, how idle and impotent it is in reference to the necessities on which life depends!
28-30. Consider the lilies.—The fourth reason, like the two preceding, is an argument a fortiori: If God clothes the lilies which neither toil nor spin; and if he clothes them more beautifully than Solomon in all his glory, although they are of so little value as to be burned in the oven, how much more will he clothe his people. The grass, or rather the herbage, is spoken of as being cast into the oven, because it was used by the Jews to heat their bake-ovens. The country about Jerusalem had long ago been stripped of its timber.
31, 32. For after all these.—The fifth reason is, that food, drink and raiment are the things which the Gentiles, or the heathen, seek after, and Christians must be different from them. We have a God who can supply us, and they have none. Closely associated with this, is the sixth reason: "Your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things." As he knows that we need them, and as he is able to supply them, we may expect to obtain them and be free from anxiety.
33. But seek first.—Here we learn the true objects of anxiety, and the true method of obtaining all that is necessary to the present life. We are to seek, and to seek first, the kingdom of God, admission into it, and the righteousness which he requires of us. If we do this we have the promise of him who feeds the birds and gives raiment to the lily, that we shall have food and clothing. The righteousness which God requires leads to that cheerful and undistracted industry which always, with the divine blessing, secures food and raiment while we are in health, and which helps to surround us with friends when we come to want.
34. Sufficient unto the day.—Here is another reason why we should rid ourselves of anxiety. Each day brings with it some evil of its own: if to this we add anxiety about the morrow, we but add to the unavoidable evil of today.
We can not too greatly admire the conception of human life conveyed in this paragraph, nor the inimitable style in which it is expressed.
—Commentary on Matthew and Mark