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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Matthew 14

 

 

Verses 1-36


Death of the Baptist. Feeding the Five Thousand. Walking on the Sea

1, 2. Herod's opinion of Jesus (Mark 6:14; Luke 9:7).

1. Herod the tetrarch] son of Herod the Great, received by his father's will the government (tetrarchy) of Galilee and Peræa. His first wife was the daughter of the Arabian prince Aretas, called in 2 Corinthians 11:32 king of Damascus. During a visit to his half-brother, Herod Philip (not the tetrarch), who lived as a private citizen in Rome, he became enamoured of his wife, Herodias, and persuaded her to leave her husband. He at once divorced his own wife, and married her. The marriage gave the greatest offence to devout Jews, for (1) it was unlawful to take a brother's wife after his death, much less while he was alive (Leviticus 18:16; Leviticus 20:21). The only exception was when the brother died without an heir (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). (2) Herodias was the niece of her new husband: see art. 'Dynasty of the Herods.'

2. This is John the Baptist] The belief was the effect of a guilty conscience working upon a superstitious mind.

3-5. Arrest of John (Mark 6:17; Luke 3:19). The manner in which St. Matthew and St. Mark insert the arrest of John at this point, instead of in its proper historical place, the beginning of the Galilean ministry, is conclusive proof that their narratives are not independent. Either they borrow from one another, or from some common source: see art. 'The Synoptic Gospels.'

5. When he would have put him to death] This agrees with Josephus, who says that John was arrested for political reasons. 'Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, thought it best by putting him to death to prevent any mischief that he might cause.' St. Mark, on the other hand, represents Herod as friendly to John. 'Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy roan, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was much perplexed and heard him gladly.'

The truth seems to be that Herod was really friendly to John, and favourably impressed by his preaching, but that John's denunciation of his new marriage rendered it difficult for that prince to protect him. He therefore yielded, though reluctantly, to the influence of Herodias, and first had John arrested, and then executed. But since it would have been impolitic to disclose the true reason of these proceedings, it was given out that John was suspected of treasonable practices.

6-12. Execution of the Baptist (Mark 6:21). The dramatic circumstances of the death of John are recorded only in the Gospels. Josephus simply says, 'Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Machærus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.'

6. Birthday] One of the Greek customs introduced by the Herods. The Hebrews regarded the keeping of birthdays as a part of idolatrous worship. The daughter] Her name was Salome. She soon afterwards married her uncle, Philip the tetrarch. Danced] Another instance of Greek manners. It was the custom of the Greeks after a banquet to witness the performances of professional female dancers, which were of a mimetic and licentious character. For a woman of Salome's rank and position to play such a part was an outrage on decency. J. Lightfoot, however, takes a more favourable view of Salome's conduct—'she danced according to the custom of the nation, viz. to express joy, and to celebrate the day.'

7. With an oath] cp. the rash vow of Jephthah, Judges 11:31. In the OT. Ahasuerus makes exactly the same promise to Esther (Esther 5:3). Whatsoever she would ask] St. Mark adds, 'even to the half of my kingdom,' a rhetorical expression for a very great reward. The incident is in accordance with Eastern manners. 'Shah Abbas (Shaft of Persia) being one day drunk, gave a woman who danced much to his satisfaction the fairest khan in all Ispahan, which yielded a great revenue to the shah (to whom it belonged) in chamber-rents. The vizier having put him in mind of it next morning, took the liberty to tell him that it was unjustifiable prodigality, so the shah ordered her to be given a hundred “tomans,” with which she was forced to be content' (Thevenot).

8. Being before instructed] RV 'being put forward.' A charger] i.e. a dish.

10. He sent] Josephus says that John was imprisoned at Machærus, a fortress 5 m. E. of the Dead Sea.

11. She brought it] The judgment of God fell upon Antipas and Herodias for their crime. Their country suffered severely in the disastrous war with Aretas, and when the guilty pair visited Rome to demand from Caligula the title of king, they were banished to Lyons, in Gaul, on a charge of misgovernment.

13-21. Feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:30; Luke 9:10; John 6:1). The only miracle recorded by the four evangelists, and also one of the most wonderful. It cannot be accounted for, as some of the miracles of healing possibly can, as the powerful effect of mind over mind, or of mind over body, but is distinctly a physical miracle incapable of natural explanation.

Some critics still accept Paulus's rationalising explanation of the miracle, viz. that the generosity of Jesus and His apostles in sharing their few loaves and fishes with others induced many more, who had brought food with them, to distribute it, and so enough was found for all. But Paulus's theory does not explain, (1) how St. Mark (i.e. Peter) came to describe it as a miracle; (2) how St. John, who was also present, came to describe it as a miracle; (3) why our Lord, if it was not a miracle, described it as such, and that in the oldest tradition (Mark 8:19 = Matthew 16:9); (4) why the multitudes, who must have known the facts, were stirred to such enthusiasm by this 'sign' that they were convinced that He was the Messiah, and sought to make Him king by force (John 6:14-15).

Considered as a parable the miracle teaches, (1) Christ's creative power and lordship over nature; (2) His benevolence and bounty, giving His people enough and more than enough; (3) that He is the spiritual food of mankind, the bread of life, sustaining the souls of those who believe on Him. In particular the miracle is a figure of the Lord's Supper, in which, through the agency of His ministers, He feeds the multitudes with 'the spiritual food of His most precious Body and Blood': see on John 6. St Mark's account is the fullest, and (except St. John's) the most graphic.

13. Heard of it] On hearing of the death of John, Jesus thought it better to retire from the kingdom of Antipas, until it was clear whether the designs of Antipas were directed against Him also. He therefore retired across the lake to Bethsaida Julias, in the dominion of Philip. His speedy return may be accounted for by the receipt of news that he had nothing to fear.

St. Mark gives another reason for the retirement. The Twelve had just returned from their mission, and Jesus wished to give them a little rest. His intention, however, was frustrated by the presence of the multitudes. This period (just before the second Passover) marks the culminating point of Jesus' popularity. But the tide was about to turn. His refusal to be made king (John 6:14-15) displeased His more enthusiastic followers, and the Pharisaic opposition, already begun, became more active and effective.

15. His disciples] In St. John the initiative comes from our Lord Himself, and what is here put into the mouth of the disciples is said by Philip. The time] RV 'the hour,' i.e. the hour at which Jesus usually concluded His religious instructions.

17. We have here] According to St. John a boy had them for sale. The disciples could be said to have what they could so readily obtain.

19. To sit down] lit. 'to recline.' St. Mark says that the people sat down in separate companies, which he compares to the beds in a garden.

He blessed, etc.] A close resemblance to the consecration in the Lord's Supper. The miracle is to be regarded as taking place at this moment. The disciples] As Jesus did not baptise, so He did not personally feed the multitudes, but used the ministry of the Apostles, thus preparing them for their future ministry. They had just been engaged in the ministry of the Word. Now they are entrusted (in type and figure) with the ministry of the Sacraments.

20. Twelve baskets] Kophinoi were large baskets such as were frequently carried by Jews. Each of the apostles had one. The gathering up of the fragments for future use was a lesson in economy, a protest against waste.

22-33. The walking on the sea (Mark 6:45; John 6:15). Another physical miracle, also belonging to the oldest tradition. As it is attested by actual eyewitnesses, it cannot be resolved into a legend or allegory, but must be accepted as an historic fact. Symbolically interpreted, it represents the struggles of the soul and of the Church with the troubles of the world, and the succour which Christ gives in the darkest hour of temptation and adversity.

The attempts to translate 'walking upon the sea' in Matthew 14:25 and Matthew 14:26 by 'walking towards the sea,' or 'walking above the sea' (i.e. on the shore), scarcely require refutation. They are inconsistent with the general tenor of the narrative, which places the ship in the middle of the sea, and lays stress upon the fear of the disciples at so astounding a spectacle.

22. Constrained] The apostles were most unwilling to be sent away. St. John explains the reason. The people were desirous to make Jesus king by force, and the apostles thoroughly sympathised with the popular enthusiasm.

23. A mountain] RV 'the mountain,' i.e. the mountainous country surrounding the lake.

The evening] But it was evening some time earlier (Matthew 14:15), before the multitudes were fed. The explanation is that the Jews reckoned two evenings, the first corresponding very much to our afternoon (St. Luke, Matthew 9:12, defines it as 'when the day began to decline'); the second extending from twilight to darkness. Here the second evening is meant.

25. The fourth watch] This is Roman reckoning. The fourth or last watch was from 3 to 6 a.m. The Jews reckoned only three watches, beginning at 6 p.m.

26. A spirit] RV 'an apparition.' St. Mark adds that 'He would have passed by them,' doubtless to test their faith, or to draw from them some expression of their need of Him: cp. Luke 24:37.

28. Peter] The incident is only in St. Matthew. It is thoroughly in keeping with St. Peter's character, confident and enthusiastic, and unconscious of his own weakness. 'So faith in the Lord's strengthening and upholding power conducts us securely over the agitated sea of a sinful life, but assuredly it too often happens that the weakness of this faith sinks down into the waters' (Olshausen). Well is it for us if we cry with Peter, 'Lord, save me.'

32. Into the ship] Not inconsistent with St. John's statement, 'they were willing to receive him into the ship.' They were willing and did so.

33. They that were in the ship] the apostles and the crew. The Son of God] The first time, in the Synoptic Gospels, that the title is applied to Jesus by men.

34-36. Healings in the land of Gennesaret (Mark 6:53). Enthusiasm is still at its height.

34. The land of Gennesaret] A fertile plain on the W. side of the lake towards its N. end, extending southwards from Capernaum.

Josephus says of it, 'Such is the fertility of the soil that it rejects no plant, and accordingly all are here cultivated by the husbandmen, for so genial is the air, that it suits every variety. Nature here nourishes fruits of opposite climes and maintains a continual supply of them. Thus she produces the most royal of all, the grape and the fig, during ten months without intermission, while the other varieties ripen the year round.' The rabbis called it 'a paradise,' and 'a garden of princes.'

36. The hem] RV 'border': see on Matthew 9:20. As many] Multitudes healed. No failures. Most of Christ's miracles unrecorded.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 14:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/matthew-14.html. 1909.

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