Acts 23:12
And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(12) Certain of the Jews banded together . . .—The casuistry of the more fanatic Jews led them to the conclusion that a blasphemer or apostate was an outlaw, and that, in the absence of any judicial condemnation, private persons might take on themselves the execution of the divine sentence. So, they may have argued, Mattathias, the founder of the Maccabean dynasty, had slain the apostate Jew who offered sacrifice at the altar at Modin (1 Maccabees 2:24); so ten Zealots of Jerusalem had conspired to assassinate Herod the Great because he had built an amphi-theatre and held gladiatorial games in the Holy City (Jos. Ant. xii. 6, § 2; xv. 8, § 3). It is melancholy but instructive to remember how often the casuistry of Christian theologians has run in the same groove. In this respect the Jesuit teaching, absolving subjects from their allegiance to heretic rulers, and the practical issue of that teaching in the history of the Gunpowder Plot, and of the murders perpetrated by Clement and Ravaillac, present only too painful a parallel. Those who now thus acted were probably of the number of the Zealots, or Sicarii.

Under a curse.—Literally, they placed themselves under an anathema. This was the Jewish kherem, and the person or thing on which it fell was regarded as devoted to the wrath of God. (Comp. Notes on 1Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9.) So also in the Old Testament we find that Jericho and all that it contained was a kherem, or accursed thing, devoted to destruction (Joshua 7:1).

Acts

A PLOT DETECTED

Acts 23:12 - Acts 23:22
.

‘The wicked plotteth against the just. . . . The Lord will laugh at him.’ The Psalmist’s experience and his faith were both repeated in Paul’s case. His speech before the Council had set Pharisees and Sadducees squabbling, and the former had swallowed his Christianity for the sake of his being ‘a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee.’ Probably, therefore, the hatchers of this plot were Sadducees, who hated Pharisees even more than they did Christians. The Apostle himself was afterwards not quite sure that his skilful throwing of the apple of discord between the two parties was right {Acts 24:21}, and apparently it was the direct occasion of the conspiracy. A Christian man’s defence of himself and his faith gains nothing by clever tactics. It is very doubtful whether what Paul spoke ‘in that hour’ was taught him by the Spirit.

I. ‘The corruption of the best is the worst.’

There is a close and strange alliance between formal religion and murderous hatred and vulpine craft, as the history of ecclesiastical persecution shows; and though we have done with fire and faggot now, the same evil passions and tempers do still in modified form lie very near to a Christianity which has lost its inward union with Jesus and lives on surface adherence to forms. In that sense too ‘the letter killeth.’ We lift up our hands in horror at these fierce fanatics, ‘ready to kill’ Paul, because he believed in resurrection, angel, and spirit. We need to guard ourselves lest something of their temper should be in us. There is a devilish ingenuity about the details of the plot, and a truly Oriental mixture of murderous passion and calculating craft. The serpent’s wisdom and his poison fangs are both apparent. The forty conspirators must have been ‘ready,’ not only to kill Paul, but to die in the attempt, for the distance from the castle to the council-chamber was short, and the detachment of legionaries escorting the prisoner would have to be reckoned with.

The pretext of desiring to inquire more fully into Paul’s opinions derived speciousness from his ambiguous declaration, which had set the Council by the ears and had stopped his examination. Luke does not tell us what the Council said to the conspirators, but we learn from what Paul’s nephew says in Acts 23:20 that it ‘agreed to ask thee to bring down Paul.’ So once more the tail drove on the head, and the Council became the tool of fierce zealots. No doubt most of its members would have shrunk from themselves killing Paul, but they did not shrink from having a hand in his death. They were most religious and respectable men, and probably soothed their consciences with thinking that, after all, the responsibility was on the shoulders of the forty conspirators. How men can cheat themselves for a while as to the criminality of indirectly contributing to criminal acts, and how rudely the thin veil will be twitched aside one day!

II. The abrupt introduction of Paul’s nephew into the story piques curiosity, but we cannot say more about him than is told us here.

We do not know whether he was moved by being a fellow-believer in Jesus, or simply by kindred and natural affection. Possibly he was, as his uncle had been, a student under some distinguished Rabbi. At all events, he must have had access to official circles to have come on the track of the plot, which would, of course, be covered up as much as possible. The rendering in the margin of the Revised Version gives a possible explanation of his knowledge of it by suggesting that he had ‘come in upon them’; that is, upon the Council in their deliberations. But probably the rendering preferred in the text is preferable, and we are left to conjecture his source of information, as almost everything else about him. But it is more profitable to note how God works out His purposes and delivers His servants by ‘natural’ means, which yet are as truly divine working as was the sending of the angel to smite off Peter’s chains, or the earthquake at Philippi.

This lad was probably not an inhabitant of Jerusalem, and that he should have been there then, and come into possession of the carefully guarded secret, was more than a fortunate coincidence. It was divinely ordered, and God’s finger is as evident in the concatenation of co-operating natural events as in any ‘miracle.’ To co-ordinate these so that they concur to bring about the fulfilment of His will may be a less conspicuous, but is not a less veritable, token of a sovereign Will at work in the world than any miracle is. And in this case how wonderfully separate factors, who think themselves quite independent, are all handled like pawns on a chessboard by Him who ‘makes the wrath of man to praise Him, and girds Himself with the remainder thereof!’ Little did the fiery zealots who were eager to plunge their daggers into Paul’s heart, or the lad who hastened to tell him the secret he had discovered, or the Roman officer who equally hastened to get rid of his troublesome prisoner, dream that they were all partners in bringing about one God-determined result-the fulfilment of the promise that had calmed Paul in the preceding night: ‘So must thou bear witness also at Rome.’

III. Paul had been quieted after his exciting day by the vision which brought that promise, and this new peril did not break his peace.

With characteristic clear-sightedness he saw the right thing to do in the circumstances, and with characteristic promptitude he did it at once. Luke wastes no words in telling of the Apostle’s emotions when this formidable danger was sprung on him, and the very reticence deepens the impression of Paul’s equanimity and practical wisdom. A man who had had such a vision last night might well possess his soul in patience, even though such a plot was laid bare this morning; and each servant of Jesus may be as well assured, as was Paul the prisoner, that the Lord shall ‘keep him from all evil,’ and that if his life is ‘witness’ it will not end till his witness is complete. Our faith should work in us calmness of spirit, clearness of perception of the right thing to do, swift seizing of opportunities. Paul trusted Jesus’ word that he should be safe, whatever dangers threatened, but that trust stimulated his own efforts to provide for his safety.

IV. The behaviour of the captain is noteworthy, as showing that he had been impressed by Paul’s personal magnetism, and that he had in him a strain of courtesy and kindliness.

He takes the lad by the hand to encourage him, and he leads him aside that he may speak freely, and thereby shows that he trusted him. No doubt the youth would be somewhat flustered at being brought into the formidable presence and by the weight of his tidings, and the great man’s gentleness would be a cordial. A superior’s condescension is a wonderful lip-opener. We all have some people who look up to us, and to whom small kindlinesses from us are precious. We do not ‘render to all their dues,’ unless we give gracious courtesy to those beneath, as well as ‘honour’ to those above, us. But the captain could clothe himself too with official reserve and keep up the dignity of his office. He preserved an impenetrable silence as to his intentions, and simply sealed the young man’s lips from tattling about the plot or the interview with him. Promptly he acted, without waiting for the Council’s application to him. At once he prepared to despatch Paul to Caesarea, glad enough, no doubt, to wash his hands of so troublesome a charge. Thus he too was a cog in the wheel, an instrument to fulfil the promise made in vision, God’s servant though he knew it not.Acts 23:12-13. And when it was day, certain of the Jews — Being exceedingly provoked that Paul had been thus rescued from the council; bound themselves under a curse — Such execrable vows were not uncommon among the Jews. And if they were prevented from accomplishing what they had vowed, it was an easy matter, as Dr. Lightfoot has shown from the Talmud, to obtain absolution from their rabbis; saying — Vowing; That they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul — Imprecating the heaviest curses upon themselves, their souls, bodies, and families, if they did not kill him, and so speedily, that they would not eat or drink till they had done it. What a complication of wickedness is here! To design to kill an innocent man, a good and useful man, a man that had done them no harm, but was willing and desirous to do them all the good he could, was going in the way of Cain most manifestly, and showed them to be of their father the devil, who was a murderer from the beginning. Yet, as if this had been a small matter, 1st, They bound themselves to it in a most awful manner. To incline to do evil is bad, and to intend and purpose to do it is worse; but to engage to do it, especially in such a manner as these Jews here did, is worst of all. It is entering into covenant with the devil; it is swearing allegiance to the prince of darkness; it is bidding defiance to a holy and just God. 2d, They bound one another to it, even more than forty of them, and thus did all they could, not only to secure the damnation of their own souls, but of the souls of all them whom they drew into the association. 3d, They showed a great contempt of the providence of God, and a presumption upon it, in that they bound themselves to do a thing, and that so dreadfully wicked, within so short a space of time as they could continue fasting; without any proviso or reserve for the disposal of an overruling providence; without saying, or thinking, “If the Lord will.” But, indeed, with what face could they insert a proviso for the permission of God’s providence, when they knew what they were about to do was directly contrary to the prohibitions of his word? 4th, They showed a great contempt of their own souls and bodies; of their souls, in imprecating a curse upon them if they did not proceed in this desperate enterprise; thus throwing themselves upon a most woful dilemma! for God certainly meets them with his curse if they proceed in their design, and they desire he would if they do not! and of their own bodies too, (for wilful sinners are the destroyers of both,) in tying themselves up from the necessary supports of life till they had accomplished a thing, which they could never lawfully, and perhaps not possibly, accomplish. 23:12-24 False religious principles, adopted by carnal men, urge on to such wickedness, as human nature would hardly be supposed capable of. Yet the Lord readily disappoints the best concerted schemes of iniquity. Paul knew that the Divine providence acts by reasonable and prudent means; and that, if he neglected to use the means in his power, he could not expect God's providence to work on his behalf. He who will not help himself according to his means and power, has neither reason nor revelation to assure him that he shall receive help from God. Believing in the Lord, we and ours shall be kept from every evil work, and kept to his kingdom. Heavenly Father, give us by thy Holy Spirit, for Christ's sake, this precious faith.Certain of the Jews - Some of the Jews. They were more than forty in number, Acts 23:13.

Banded together - Made an agreement or compact. They conspired to kill him.

And bound themselves under a curse - See the margin. The Greek is, "they anathematized themselves"; that is, they bound themselves by a solemn oath. They invoked a curse on themselves, or devoted themselves to destruction, if they did not do it. Lightfoot remarks, however, that they could be absolved from this vow by the rabbis if they were unable to execute it. Under various pretences they could easily be freed from such oaths, and it was common to take them; and if there was any difficulty in fulfilling them, they could easily apply to their religious teachers and be absolved.

That they would neither eat nor drink - That is, that they would do it as soon as possible. This was a common form of an oath, or curse, among the Jews. Sometimes they only vowed abstinence from particular things, as from meat, or wine. But in this case, to make the oath more certain and binding, they vowed abstinence from all kinds of food and drink until they had killed him. Who these were - whether they were Sadducees or not - is not mentioned by the sacred writer. It is evident, however, that the minds of the Jews were greatly inflamed against Paul; and as they saw him in the custody of the Roman tribune, and as there was no prospect that he would punish him, they resolved to take the matter into their own hands. Michaelis conjectures that they were of the number of the Sicarii, or cutthroats, with which Judea then abounded. See the notes on Acts 21:38. It is needless to remark that this was a most wicked oath. It was a deliberate purpose to commit murder; and it shows the desperate state of morals among the Jews at that time, and the infuriated malice of the people against the apostle, that such an oath could have been taken.

12-14. bound themselves under a curse … that they would neither eat … fill they had killed Paul—Compare 2Sa 3:35; 1Sa 14:24. If they did not kill Paul before they did eat or drink any more, they wished that they might become a cherem, or anathema; as Jericho and the inhabitants thereof were, being devoted to utter ruin and destruction. Or, if they did not execute this their wicked design, they would yield themselves to be anathematized, or excommunicated, as those that had broken their pact or agreement. And when it was day,.... As soon as it was light, very early in the morning:

certain of the Jews banded together; these very likely were of the sect of the Sadducees, who had been exceedingly irritated and provoked by what Paul had said the day before in the council; these therefore gathered together, entered into a conspiracy to take away Paul's life, and trailed in it, as one man:

and bound themselves under a curse; or "anathematized themselves"; the Hebrew word which answers to "anathema", is sometimes used for an oath, , "Cherem" or "anathema" is "an oath" (a), a vow made to be punished with an anathema if not kept; so these men swore to it, bound themselves with an oath, or wished they might be an anathema, accursed of God, and cut off from his people; they imprecated the most dreadful evils upon themselves:

saying, that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul: it was a common form of a vow or oath with the Jews (b), , "that I will not eat"; sometimes they only vowed abstinence from particular things, and then others were lawful; as for instance, if one vowed that he would not eat boiled meat, he might eat roast, or that he would not eat flesh, he might eat broth, or that he would abstain from milk, then he might drink whey, (c); but this oath and vow here were, that they would neither eat nor drink anything, till they had destroyed Paul: these were a set of zealots, who in imitation of Phinehas, and pretending the glory of God, took upon them to take away the lives of men, without any, judicial procedure, or the authority of the civil magistrate; of whom; see Gill on Matthew 10:4 it may be asked, what became of this vow? or how did they get clear of it, since they did not accomplish the fact? to which it may be answered, that it was a pretty easy thing to be freed from oaths and vows, among the Jews, whose doctors had a power to absolve men from them; and in such cases as this, and such a vow as this, might be loosed upon more accounts than one, as on account of keeping another law, the observing the sabbath and other festivals, when men were obliged to eat and drink: and thus it is said (d),

"if a man swears that he will not drink wine, or that he will not eat flesh, for so many days, then they say to him, if thou hadst known at the time of the oath, that the sabbath or a feast day were within these days, in which thou art obliged to eat flesh and drink wine, as it is said, Isaiah 58:13 "and call the sabbath a delight"; wouldst thou have swore at all? if he says no, they loose his oath:''

and likewise it might be loosed on account of life, which a man is bound to preserve: for so they likewise say (e),

"if a man vows that he will not eat anything, woe be to him if he eats, and woe be to him if he does not eat; if he eats he breaks his vow, if he does not eat he sins against his own soul, or life; what must he do? let him go to the wise men, , "and they will loose his vow for him", as it is written, Proverbs 12:18 but the tongue of the wise is health;''

and no doubt but these men very easily got their vow loosed, since it was made on such a design.

(a) Pirke Eliezer, c. 38. (b) Misna Nedarim, c. 2. sect. 2, 3.((c) Ib. c. 6. sect. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. (d) Maimon. in Misn. Nedarim, c. 9. sect. 6. (e) T. Hieros. Avoda Zara, fol. 40. 1.

{10} And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves {f} under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.

(10) Those who are carried away with a foolish zeal think that they may lie and murder, and do whatever mischief they wish.

(f) Cursing and prohibiting themselves, they promised.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Acts 23:12. συστροφήν, Acts 19:40.—ἀνεθεμάτισαν ἑαυτούς: literally “they placed themselves under an anathema,” i.e., declared themselves liable to the direst punishments of God unless, etc. In N.T. the verb is only used in this passage, cf. 14, 21 and once by St.Mark, Mark 14:71, cf. the use of the verb in LXX, Joshua 6:21, 1Ma 5:5. In N.T. the noun ἀνάθεμα is only found in Luke and Paul, see Lightfoot on Galatians 1:8, Sanday and Headlam on Romans 9:3. For instances of similar bindings by oath, Jos., Vita, liii, and a similar combination of ten men to murder Herod, Ant., xv., 8, 3, 4. Of whom the band consisted we are not told, although probably Ananias would not have scrupled to employ the Sicarii, Jos., Ant., ix. 2. The conspirators seem to have affected to be Sadducees, Acts 23:14, but Edersheim evidently holds that they were Pharisees, and he points out that the latter as a fraternity or “guild,” or some of their kindred guilds, would have furnished material at hand for such a band of conspirators, Jewish Social Life, p. 227 ff.—πεποι. see critical note, ἕως οὗ, cf. Matthew 5:25; Matthew 13:33, John 9:18; Burton, p. 128.12. And when it was day] While Paul was receiving comfort from the Lord, the Jews were plotting to secure his destruction and they let no time be wasted. Their plans are ready by the next day, and as soon as it arrived they set about their execution.

certain of the Jews banded together] The best MSS. omit certain of. The addition looks like a marginal comment of some one who felt that the plot would only be contrived by the Sadducees. The men who banded themselves thus together were probably belonging to the Zealots of whose fanaticism Josephus gives several instances.

bound themselves under a curse] Lit. placed themselves under an anathema. The noun is used in very solemn language twice over by St Paul (Galatians 1:8-9), “Let him be accursed.” It was an invocation of God’s vengeance upon themselves, if they failed to do the work which they undertook.

they would neither eat nor drink] So that there was no time to be lost; their work must be promptly executed.Acts 23:12. Λέγοντες, saying) with the utmost rashness, even though they had had a good cause. How perplexed they must have been, when they were not able to accomplish it!Verse 12. - The Jews for certain of the Jews, A.V. and T.R. Banded together (ποιήσαντες συστροφὴν). This word συστροφή is found in the New Testament only here and Acts 19:40, where it is rendered "concourse." The sense of "a conspiracy," which it has here, is common in the LXX. (see Amos 7:10; 2 Kings 15:15, etc.). The verb συστρέφειν in the LXX. has the sense of "to conspire" (2 Samuel 15:31; 2 Kings 10:9; 2 Kings 15:30, συνέστρεψε σύστρεμμα). Bound themselves under a curse (ἀνεθεμάτισαν ἑαυτοὺς). The word ἀνάθεμα (Romans 9:3; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8, 9) corresponds to the Hebrew צּצּצּ, the devotion of anything to destruction; and hence "the thing itself so devoted." And the verb ἀναθεματίζεν corresponds to the Hebrew צּצּצּ, to devote to destruction, without the possibility of redemption. Here they made themselves an ἀνάθεμα if they did not kill Paul before partaking of any food. It seems, however, that there was a way of escape if they failed to keep the vow. Lightfoot, on this passage, quotes from the Talmud: "He that hath made a vow not to eat anything, woe to him if he eat, and woe to him if he do not eat. If he eat he sinneth against his vow; if he do not eat he sinneth against his life. What must such a man do in this case? Let him go to the wise men, and they will loose his vow" ('Hebrews and Talmud. Exercit. upon the Acts'). Banded together (ποιήσαντες συστροφὴν)

Lit., having made a conspiracy. See on concourse, Acts 19:40.

Bound themselves under a curse (ἀνεθεμάτισαν ἑαυτοὺς).

Lit., anathematized or cursed themselves; invoked God's curse on themselves if they should violate their vow. On the kindred noun ἀνάθεμα, a curse, see note on offerings, Luke 21:5. In case of failure, they could procure absolution from their oath by the Rabbis.

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