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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Hebrews 4





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.

Verse 1

(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.

Verse 2

(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).

Verse 3

(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 (Psalms 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 (Psalms 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.’”

Verse 4

(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.)

Verse 6

(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.

Verse 7

(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.

Verse 8

(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.)

Verse 9

(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.”

Verse 9-10

The Sabbath Rest

There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from his.—Hebrews 4:9-10.

1. Among man’s deepest feelings is a longing for rest. Not deeply felt in the freshness and ardour of early life, it recurs from time to time, and grows stronger with advancing years. Nothing in life fully satisfies this longing. Labours, distresses, disappointments, anxieties never allow the desired repose. Few there are whose hearts have not sometimes echoed the Psalmist’s words, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest!” Many since Job have felt something of his longing to be where “the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.”

Is there to be no satisfaction ever of this deep human craving? Holy Scripture meets it as it meets all others. It tells of a rest of God above creation from the beginning of time; it intimated man’s part and interest in it by the weekly Sabbath which he was to keep with God. But this was, after all, but a symbol and earnest of something unattained. At length a fuller realization of the longed-for rest was held out to the chosen people, and the Promised Land was pictured beforehand in the colours of an earthly Paradise. Forfeited when first offered, through the people’s unworthiness (representing by a historical parable the bar to man’s entrance into the eternal rest), it was attained at last. But the true rest still came not. Canaan, like the Sabbath, proved but a symbol of something unattained. Yet the old longing for rest went on, and inspired men went on proclaiming it as attainable and still to come. The irrepressible craving, the suggestive symbols, the prophetic anticipations, are all fulfilled in Christ. He, when He had passed with us through this earthly scene of labour, entered, with our nature, into that eternal rest of God, to prepare a place for us, having by His atonement removed the bar to human entrance. Through our faith in Him we are assured that our deep-seated craving for satisfaction as yet unattained, which we express by the term “rest,” is a true inward prophecy, and that, though we find it not here, we may through Him, if we are faithful, confidently expect it there, where “beyond these voices there is peace.”

2. The Hebrew Christians to whom this Epistle was addressed were familiar, as Gentiles could not be, with the observance of a weekly Sabbath or rest day: and the word “Sabbatism”—which is the exact expression of the passage—would at once suggest to them the enjoyment of a holy rest. They were also familiar, as Gentiles could not be, with the designation “People of God” as a title of Israel; and as Christians they had learned, though slowly and with difficulty, that under the New Dispensation of grace, not Israel after the flesh, but a holy people redeemed and called out of all nations, was made nigh to God in Christ Jesus. The people of God during the present “age” is the Church of God. As St. Paul puts it: “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”

For this people “a Sabbatism remains.” The word “remains” must be construed in harmony with the strain of the Epistle, which shows that many things of the Old Covenant had waxed old and were vanishing away, but better things remained for the people or Church of God in Christ Jesus. Shadows departed, but the substances remained, and among the “better things” of the new day which had dawned there was the entrance on a rest surpassing in its fulness and sacredness all that was reached in the old times of Moses and Joshua, and even of David.

The text is the climax of an argument which may be set out as follows:—

I. God gave the perfect pattern of rest when He rested from the work of Creation.

II. In Old Testament times man failed through unbelief to attain to the rest to which God called him.

III. Christ made good man’s failure when He rested from Redemption as God did from Creation.

IV. The Gospel offers Christ’s rest to believers.


The Divine Pattern of Rest

1. The term rendered “rest” means literally a keeping of a Sabbath. And this refers us at once to the rest of the seventh day. When we read in the Old Testament that, at the end of the creative act, God rested on the seventh day, and blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, the thing that comes into view is not a Divine nature wearied with toil and needing repose; it is a Divine nature which has fully accomplished its intent, expressed its purpose, done what it meant to do, and rests from its working because it has embodied its ideal in its work. It is the proclamation: “This creation of Mine is all that I meant it to be—finished and perfect”; not the acknowledgment of an exhaustion of the creative energy which needs to reinvigorate its strength by repose after its mighty effort. The rest of God is the expression of the perfect Divine complacency in the perfect Divine work.

2. The rest of God, so far from being inactivity, is full of work. When Christ was telling these Jews the principles of the Sabbath day, He said to them: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” The creative act is finished and God rests; but God, in resting, works; even as God, in working, rests. Preservation is a continued creation. The energy of the Divine power is as mightily at work here now sustaining us in life as it was when He flung forth stars and systems like sparks from a forge, and willed the universe into being. God rests; and in His rest, up to the present hour and for ever, God works. True, He is not now sending forth, so far as we know, suns, or systems, or fresh types of being. But His power is ever at work, repairing, renewing, and sustaining the fabric of the vast machinery of the universe. No sparrow falls to the ground without Him. The cry of the young lion and the lowing of the oxen in the pastures attract His instant regard. “In Him all things consist.”

3. God’s rest is thus the pattern and pledge of man’s rest. And when we turn to that marvellous apocalypse of the past which in so many respects answers to the apocalypse of the future given us by the Apostle John, we find that, whereas we are expressly told of the evening and morning of each of the other days of creation, there is no reference to the dawn or close of God’s rest-day; and we are left to infer that it is impervious to time, independent of duration, unlimited, and eternal; that the ages of human story are but hours in the rest-day of Jehovah; and that, in point of fact, we spend our years in the Sabbath-keeping of God. But, better than all, it would appear that we are invited to enter into it and share it; as a child living by the placid waters of a vast fresh-water lake may dip into them its cup, and drink and drink again, without making any appreciable diminution of its volume or ripple on its expanse.

It is true we cannot possess that changeless tranquillity which knows no variations of purpose or of desire, but we can possess the stable repose of that fixed nature which knows one object, and one alone. We cannot possess that energy which, after all work, is fresh and unbroken; but we can possess that tranquillity which in all toil is not troubled, and after all work is ready for double service. We cannot possess that unwavering fire of a Divine nature which burns in love without flickering, which knows without learning, which wills without irresolution and without the act of decision; but we can come to love deeply, tranquilly, perpetually; we can come to know without questioning, without doubts, without darkness, in firm confidence of stable assurance, and so know with something like the knowledge of Him who knows things as they are; and we can come to will and resolve so strongly, so fixedly, so wisely, that there shall be no change of purpose or any vacillation of desire. In these ways, in shadow and copy, we can be like even the apparently incommunicable tranquillity which, like an atmosphere that knows no tempests, belongs to and encircles the throne of God.

I hear a troubled soul say, “Is it possible that I may be so delivered that the peace of God shall keep me amid sorrows, evils, and injustice?” Many of God’s children do not know how much there is for them in the new covenant. There is a reserve in the trust of many—they trust their souls but not their bodies; for eternal safety but not for temporal things; for the past and for heaven. All their difficulty has reference to that short space between. If they could only put in God’s hands the piece that lies between! A wonderful deliverance! Sorrow and worry are found in two things—not getting your own way, and fear of futurity. A man said he had in life suffered from many troubles, but most of them never came! We must have confidence in our Father’s care and love. What a relief to your poor heart; no care, no worry! “He that believeth shall not make haste.” Is it possible? Yes: you may have it; may now enter in. A little child is lost in a forest; at last his father finds him and takes him by the hand. He finds rest from anxiety before he gets home—anxiety about the way home. His mind is full of other things; he has rest from the moment he puts his hand in his father’s. Put yours in your Father’s, and you shall have rest—in difficulties, in trials, nothing, nothing can work evil for you.1 [Note: John Brash: Memorials and Correspondence, 218.]

The Apostle clearly and largely proves unto them: That it is the end of all ceremonies and shadows to direct them to Jesus Christ the substance, and that the rest of Sabbaths and Canaan should teach them to look for a further rest, which indeed is their happiness. My text is his conclusion after divers arguments to that end, a conclusion so useful to a believer, as containing the ground of all his comforts, the end of all his duty and sufferings, the life and sum of all Gospel promises and Christian privileges, that you may easily be satisfied why I have made it the subject of my present discourse. What more welcome to men under personal afflictions, tiring duty, successions of sufferings, than rest! What more welcome news to men under public calamities, unpleasing employments, plundering losses, sad tidings, etc. (which is the common case), than this of rest! Hearers, I pray God your attention, intention of spirit, entertainment and improvement of it, be but half answerable to the verity, necessity, and excellency of this subject: and then you will have cause to bless God while you live that ever you heard it; as I have, that; ever I studied it.2 [Note: R. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, chap. i.]


Israel’s Failure to Reach Rest

The history of Israel from the beginning consists of continued renewals of the promise on the part of God and persistent rejections on the part of Israel, ending in the hardening of their hearts. Every time the promise is renewed, it is presented in a higher and more spiritual form. Every rejection inevitably leads to grosser views and more hopeless unbelief. So entirely false is the fable of the Sibyl! God does not burn some of the leaves when His promises have been rejected, and come back with fewer offers at a higher price. His method is to offer more and better on the same conditions. But it is the nature of unbelief to cause the heart to wax gross, to blind the spiritual vision, until in the end the rich spiritual promises of God and the earthly dark unbelief of the sinner stand in extremest contrast.

1. At first the promise is presented in the negative form of rest from labour. Even the Creator condescended thus to rest. But what such rest can be to God it were vain for man to try to conceive. We know that, as soon as the foundations of the world were laid and the work of creation was ended, God ceased from this form of activity. But when this negative rest had been attained, it was far from realizing God’s idea of rest either for Himself or for man. For, though these works of God, the material universe, were finished from the laying of the world’s foundations to the crowning of the edifice, God still speaks of another rest, and threatens to shut some men out for their unbelief. Our Lord told the Pharisees, whose notion of the Sabbath was the negative one, that He desired His sabbath-rest to be like that of His Father, who “worketh hitherto.” The Jewish Sabbath, it appears, therefore, is the most elementary form of God’s promised rest.

2. The promise is next presented as the rest of Canaan. This is a stage in advance in the development of the idea. It is not mere abstention from secular labour, and the consecration of inactivity. The rest now consists in the enjoyment of material prosperity, the proud consciousness of national power, the growth of a peculiar civilization, the rise of great men and eminent saints, and all this won by Israel under the leadership of Joshua (their Jesus, who was in this respect a type of ours). But even in this second garden of Eden, Israel did not attain to God’s rest. Worldliness became their snare. But God still called to them by the mouth of the Psalmist, long after they had entered on the possession of Canaan. This only proves that the true rest was still unattained, and God’s promise not yet fulfilled. The form which the rest of God now assumed is not expressly stated in this passage. But we have not far to go in search of it. The 1st Psalm, which is the introduction to all the Psalms, declares the blessedness of contemplation. The Sabbath is seldom mentioned by the Psalmist. Its place is taken by the sanctuary, in which rest of soul is found in meditating on God’s law and beholding the Lord’s beauty. The call has become urgent. “To-day!” It is the last invitation. It lingers in the ears in ever fainter voice of prophet after prophet, until the prophet’s face turns towards the east to announce the break of dawn and the coming of the perfect rest in Jesus Christ.

3. God’s promise was never fulfilled to the Israelites, because of their unbelief. But shall their unbelief make the faithfulness of God of none effect? God forbid. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. The promise that has failed of fulfilment in the lower form must find its accomplishment in the higher. Even a prayer is the more heard for every delay. God’s mill grinds slowly, but for that reason grinds small. What is the inference? Surely it is that the sabbath-rest still remains for the true people of God. This sabbath-rest St. Paul prayed that the true Israel, who glory, not in their circumcision but in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, might receive: “Peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.”

I have just returned from the “Morning Lands” of history. I have visited Rome, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo, Memphis, and all these cities of the dead. Egypt is in ruins, Greece is in ruins, Rome is in ruins. Oh, what terrible evidence has passed before my own eyes, since the first of last January, that all human empires decay and die! These were the great cities of wealth, art, philosophy, commerce and empire, but they are now in ruins, which alone makes them objects of human interest to inquisitive pilgrims in these days. They all cry to me, “Your rest is not in these things, your rest is not here.”1 [Note: Hugh Price Hughes.]

There is a way (which the vulture’s eye hath not seen) in which a man may pursue what the pursuers of fame pursue, and yet find neither purgatory nor the worst alternative; but that secret path is the path of increased toil and dizzy climbing. The man who, while putting forth all his mental energy, wishes to find rest to his soul, must fight ten where the other fights only one. But with this difference, that he is sure to win. This is true. I believe some men have as truly vanquished fame, as others covetousness or pleasure. One is as hard as the other. One is as easy as the other. Religion can so lift a man up that the rain and floods can’t shake his house. But even so much religion won’t give a man leisure, though it gives him peace. The world can’t understand the believer’s life. With a worldling “drive” is either distraction or pain or oblivion. Not so with the believer. He may be “pressed out of measure beyond strength,” but he is at rest. “Ye shall find rest unto your souls.”1 [Note: Letters of James Smetham, 166.]


The Rest that Christ Realized

1. Among the exegetes there is a division whether Hebrews 4:10 is to be understood generically: “Whosoever has entered into his rest has ceased from his works,” or specifically of Christ: “He who entered upon God’s rest, Himself entered upon rest from His own works.” Note (1) the definite phrase, “He who entered” (not as R.V., “he that is entered”); (2) the emphatic pronoun, “Himself”; (3) the historic tense, “entered upon rest” (not as R.V., “hath rested”); (4) the implied contrast with Joshua (Hebrews 5:8); (5) that otherwise there is no mention of Jesus’ experience or achievements between ch. Hebrews 3:1 and ch. Hebrews 4:14; and (6) that otherwise read the verse offers no logical support to Hebrews 4:9, but interpreted thus supplies the ground on which the sabbath-rest is offered to Christ’s followers. For these reasons it seems better to read the verse as stating that, just as after His work of creating the world was finished God rested from creative activity, so now that His work of redeeming the race is completed Jesus rests from redemptive activity.

After the creative act there came the Sabbath, when God ceased from His work, and pronounced it very good; so, after the redemptive act, there came the Sabbath to the Redeemer. He lay, during the seventh day, in the grave of Joseph, not because He was exhausted or inactive, but because redemption was finished, and there was no more for Him to do. He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High; and that majestic session is a symptom neither of fatigue nor of indolence. He ever liveth to make intercession; He works with His servants, confirming their words with signs; He walks amid the seven golden candlesticks. And yet He rests as a man may rest who has arisen from his ordinary life to effect some great deed of emancipation and deliverance; but having accomplished it, returns again to the ordinary routine of his former life, glad and satisfied in His heart.

2. The rest that Jesus realized was not for Himself alone, but for all who are identified with Him in mystic fellowship. He opened the way to all believers into that rest which the generations struggled after. He could stretch forth His hands and say, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” It is this that distinguishes Christ among the teachers, philanthropists, and deliverers of the ages, that He gives men the blessings of life and rest which they need, rather than endless “prescriptions” as to how such are to be obtained. In other words, He offered them His own life and peace; and thus, by making them partakers of His Divine nature and subjects of His law, He taught them to be like Himself, meek and lowly in heart, and thus to find perfect rest unto their souls. Restlessness was the direct penalty of separation from God in the first place; rest is the direct outcome of re-union with God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Yet let us draw a little nearer, and see more immediately from the pure fountain of the Scriptures what further excellences this Rest affordeth. And the Lord hide us in the clefts of the rock, and cover us with the hands of indulgent grace while we approach to take this view! And the Lord grant we may put off from our feet the shoes of unreverence and fleshly conceivings, while we stand upon this holy ground! And first, it is a most singular honour and ornament, in the style of the saints’ rest, to be called the “purchased possession”; that it is the fruit of the blood of the Son of God; yea, the chief fruit: yea, the end and perfection of all the fruits and efficacy of that blood. Surely love is the most precious ingredient in the whole composition; and of all the flowers that grow in the garden of love, can there be brought one more sweet and beautiful to the garland, than this blood? Greater love than this there is not, to lay down the life of the lover. And to have this our Redeemer ever before our eyes, and the liveliest sense and freshest remembrance of that dying, bleeding love still upon our souls, oh, how will it fill our souls with perpetual ravishments!1 [Note: R. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, chap. vii.]

Canst thou not see

That there remains another rest for thee?

Not this alone

Which comes to all His own—

Which comes to all who hide

Beneath the shadow of the Crucified.

There is a rest which still He waits to give—

A rest wherein we all may daily live—

The rest whereby,

As in His death, by faith, we die,

So He will live in us,

And living thus

Will change our death to life—a life no longer ours,

But His, renewed with resurrection powers.

O now receive

The calm, deep peace which comes as we believe

That all the works, and zeal, and strife,

With which we sometime sought to fill our life,

Are vain and dead, at best:

Thus shalt thou understand, and enter into rest.2 [Note: E. H. Divall, A Believer’s Rest, 106.]


The Rest that Remaineth

1. This rest is an inward and present possession. The fundamental idea of the Sabbath is rest; and this is the idea which the Apostle makes most prominent in this place, because he uses “Sabbatism” interchangeably with a word which signifies “cessation” or “repose.” But it can never be granted that mere physical or animal rest was the sole or even the chief thing enjoined by the Sabbath law under any dispensation. It was the rest of man in God, a rest like that of God, a rest which in man’s unfallen state was enjoyed by his working on the same plan and resting in the same spirit with God, and in his fallen state could be recovered only by his return in his whole being to harmony with God and rest in Him. The only Sabbath-keeping on earth that has ever deserved the name is release from the labours and burdens of the soul, and from the labours and burdens of the body as a help to the higher rest. The true Sabbath is entering into God’s rest, into participation of His blessedness, and it draws with it the surmounting of every hindrance to this result. It is resting from everything that would hinder rest in God, and then it is the enjoying of this rest in Him.

Our experience here tells of its partial attainment. We have ourselves, not only in spiritual but in other matters, been conscious of approaching it. There have been times, rare but most enchanting, when heart and hand, thought and shaping of thought, conception and conquest, imagination and execution, have gone together, with swiftness, with splendid harmony, with joys as fresh, as young as morning. What has once been, though imperfect, in experience, may be an eternal and a perfect possession, and will be an eternal and perfect possession when we are made perfect. It is the rest of the children of God; and it is a rest which means, which indeed is, eternal work and perfect work, eternal loving and perfect loving.

If the question were raised: Is man made for toil or for rest? the answer would be a mixed and qualified one. He is appointed to toil, he is destined to rest: one is his condition, the other is his end. If man is made in God’s image, he is made to share in God’s condition: and both Christian revelation and heathen conjecture unite in conceiving of Deity as in repose, eternally acting, yet in eternal rest.1 [Note: T. T. Munger.]

2. We enter into this rest by faith and obedience.

(1) The faith by which a man possesses himself of this is not the mere acknowledgment that God is addressing him and summoning him heavenward, but the practical, obedient, venturous trust by which he mixes (v. 2) the word which he hears with his personal conscious life in its inner springs first, and then in its streams of conduct. By this trust the believer learns to desist from the fruitless labours which the guilt-stricken attempt in order to merit the pardon of their sins, to effect the cleansing of their souls, to attain to the ideal of restored character. He lives before God, and serves Him with calmer rest as his hallowed desires accord more fully with his sacred duties and these with the will of God.

Then grief expires, and pain and strife,

’Tis nature all and all delight.

It is in the life of faith, when a soul learns to trust God for victory over sin, and yields itself entirely, as to its circumstances and duties, to live just where and how He wills, that it enters the rest. It lives in the promise, in the will, in the power of God. This is the rest into which it enters, not through death, but through faith, or rather, not through the death of the body, but the death to self in the death of Christ through faith. For indeed we have had good tidings preached unto us, even as also they; but the word of hearing did not profit them, because it was not united by faith with those that heard. The one reason why they did not enter Canaan was their unbelief. The land was waiting; the rest was provided; God Himself would bring them in and give them rest. One thing was lacking: they did not believe, and so did not yield themselves to God to do it for them what He had promised. Unbelief closes the heart against God, withdraws the life from God’s power; in the very nature of things unbelief renders the word of promise of none effect. A gospel of rest is preached to us as it was to them. We have in Scripture the most precious assurances of a rest for the soul to be found under the yoke of Jesus, of a peace of God which passeth all understanding, of a peace and a joy in the soul which nothing can take away. But when they are not believed they cannot be enjoyed: faith is in its very nature a resting in the promise and the promiser until He fulfil it in us. Only faith can enter into rest. The fulness of faith enters into the full rest.1 [Note: A. Murray, The Holiest of All, 144.]

(2) We must labour to enter into rest. We must will the will of God. So long as the will of God, whether in the Bible or in providence, is going in one direction and our will in another, rest is impossible. Can there be rest in an earthly household when the children are ever chafing against the regulations and control of their parents? How much less can we be at rest if we harbour an incessant spirit of insubordination and questioning, contradicting and resisting the will of God? That will must be done on earth as it is in heaven. None can stay His hand, or say, What doest Thou? It will be done with us, or in spite of us. If we resist it, the yoke against which we rebel will only rub a sore place on our skin; but we must still carry it. How much wiser, then, meekly to yield to it, and submit ourselves under the mighty hand of God, saying, “Not my will, but Thine be done!” The man who has learnt the secret of Christ in saying a perpetual “Yes” to the will of God; whose life is a strain of rich music to the theme, “Even so, Father”; whose will follows the current of the will of God, as the smoke from our chimneys permits itself to be wafted by the winds of autumn—that man may find rest unto his soul.

Resignation sitteth down with the lowly in the dust; it saith, “I will be simple in myself, and understand, lest my understanding should exalt itself, and sin; I will lie down in the courts of my God at His feet, that I may serve my Lord in that which He commandeth me: I will know nothing myself, that the commandment of my Lord may lead and guide me, and that I may only do what God doth through me, and will have done by me: I will sleep in myself until the Lord awaken me with His Spirit, and if He will not, then will I cry out eternally in Him in silence and wait His commands.”1 [Note: Jacob Behmen.]

One of her perplexities hitherto had been a doubt whether the “mountains of difficulties” were to be taken as occasions for submission to God’s will, or whether they were piled up in order to try her patience and her resolve, and were to be surmounted by some initiative of her own. She now began to interpret God’s will in the latter sense. “I must take some things,” she wrote on Whitsunday 1851, “as few as I can, to enable me to live. I must take them, they will not be given me; take them in a true spirit of doing Thy will, not of snatching them for my own will. I must do without some things, as many as I can, which I could not have without causing more suffering than I am obliged to cause any way.”2 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 107.]

3. This present rest of soul, realized through trust, conducts the diligent into the perfect rest wherein the Man and Leader, Christ, already dwells. This aspect of the Divine rest is exhibited in the word used first in Hebrews 4:9, and rendered in the Revised Version by “sabbath rest.” The Talmud records: “The Israelites said, Lord of all the world, show us a type of the world to come. God answered them, That type is the sabbath.” Augustine notices that, in Genesis, to the seventh day, the day of God’s rest, are set no limits of evening and morning. The sabbath-rest is to be perfect, endless, unchanging, indefeasible: the true and ideal rest which corresponds to what God designed for man and what man desires from God.

July 30th, 1892.—Lord Northbrook, the Mondragones, and Mrs. Arkwright are with us. The first-named asked me after dinner whether I had ever heard the last words of Stonewall Jackson: “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade.”1 [Note: M. E. Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary, 1892–95, i. 77.]

Those who die in the fear of God and in the faith of Christ do not really taste death; to them there is no death, but only a change of place, a change of state; they pass at once into some new life, with all their powers, all their feelings unchanged; still the same living, thinking, active beings, which they were here on earth. I say active.… Rest they may: rest they will, if they need rest. But what is the true rest? Not idleness, but peace of mind. To rest from sin, from sorrow, from fear, from doubt, from care; this is true rest. Above all, to rest from the worst weariness of all—knowing one’s duty, and yet not being able to do it. That is true rest; the rest of God, who works for ever, and yet is at rest for ever; as the stars over our heads move for ever, thousands of miles a day, and yet are at perfect rest, because they move orderly, harmoniously, fulfilling the law which God has given them. Perfect rest, in perfect work; that surely is the rest of blessed spirits, till the final consummation of all things, when Christ shall have made up the number of His elect.2 [Note: Charles Kingsley: Memorials and Letters, ii. 355.]

4. Through Christ the heavenly rest is as sure as it is desirable. How dim, after all, was the conception of heaven among the prophets of the Old Testament, and how it seemed sometimes to meet, and sometimes to elude, the aspirations of the psalmist. But now the “sure and certain hope” of heaven is a commonplace of religion which every child can tell, and it is so because we know of Christ in heaven in His true humanity, and we have His unmistakable promise, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Surely this is enough. We cannot know what heaven is except as the perfection of that which we have upon earth. All that we need to know is that there shall be perfect peace—peace with self, peace with men, peace with God. If ever the human imagination has dared to go beyond this in painting heaven, either to the ear or to the eye, it has always materialized and degraded the very conception of heaven itself. No, it is enough for us to know that heaven is perfect happiness because Christ is there; and to know that in His many mansions He has a place for each one of us. In that foresight there is a wonderful rest amidst all the trials and the sorrows of life. It has given peace to the sufferer in the hour of his agony: to the penitent in the weariness of his struggle; to the soul which is athirst for light in its darkness and for righteousness in the face of evil. Man, as I have said, can never rest in the present. His whole life here, we grant, is a series of hopes and disenchantments. But what matters that if there is a sure and certain hope in the hereafter? and how can that hope fail if Christ in heaven is preparing a place for us?

O birds from out the east, O birds from out the west,

Have you found that happy city in all your weary quest?

Tell me, tell me, from earth’s wanderings may the heart find glad surcease,

Can ye show me, as an earnest, any olive branch of peace?

I am weary of life’s troubles, of its sin and toil and care,

I am faithless, crushing in my heart so many a fruitless prayer,

O birds from out the east, O birds from out the west,

Can ye tell me of that city, the name of which is Rest?

O little birds fly east again—O little birds fly west:

Ye have found no happy city in all your weary quest,

Still shall ye find no spot of rest wherever ye may stray,

And still like you the human soul must wing its weary way.

There sleepeth no such city within the wide world’s bound,

Nor hath the dreaming fancy yet its blissful portals found,

We are but children crying here upon a mother’s breast,

For life and peace and blessedness, and for eternal Rest.

Bless God, I hear a still small voice above life’s clamorous din

Saying, “Faint not, O weary one, thou yet may’st enter in,

That city is prepared for those who well do win the fight,

Who tread the winepress till its blood hath washed their garments white.

Within it is no darkness, nor any baleful flower

Shall there oppress thy weeping eyes with stupefying power,

It lieth calm within the light of God’s, peace-giving breast,

Its walks are called Salvation, the city’s name is Rest.”

The Sabbath Rest


Arnold (T.), Sermons, i. 112.

Brooke (S. A.), Short Sermons, 91.

Cairns (J.), Christ the Morning Star, 325.

Carroll (B. H.), Sermons, 444.

Edwards (T. C.), The Epistle to the Hebrews, 58.

Hunt (A. N.), Sermons for the Christian Year, iii. 147.

Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, New Ser., i. 321.

Lee (F. G.), Miscellaneous Sermons, 277.

Maclaren (A.), Sermons Preached in Manchester, ii. 281.

Meyer (F. B.), The Way into the Holiest, 68.

Murray (A.), The Holiest of All, 151.

Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 233.

Radford (J. G.), The Eternal Inheritance, 77.

Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, iii. (1857), No. 133.

Symonds (A. R.), Fifty Sermons, 244.

Christian World Pulpit, xxi. 321 (A. Barry); lvii. 184 (H. Price Hughes).

Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., viii. (1894) 1.

Sunday Magazine, 1881, p. 194 (D. Fraser).

Verse 10

(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.

Verse 11

(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).

Verse 12

(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, active—mighty 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.

Verse 13

(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, . Hebrews 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.

Verse 14

(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.

Verse 15

(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.)

Verse 16

(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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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Hebrews 4:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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