Matthew 12:4
How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?
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(4) How he entered into the house of God.—Strictly speaking, it was in the tabernacle at Nob, where Ahimelech (possibly assisted by Abiathar, Mark 2:26) was ministering as high priest (1Samuel 21:6). The shewbread, or “bread of oblation,” consisted of twelve loaves, in two rows of six each, which were offered every Sabbath day (Exodus 25:30; Exodus 40:23; Leviticus 24:5-9), the loaves of the previous week being then removed and reserved for the exclusive use of the priests. The necessity of the case, however, was in this instance allowed to override the ceremonial ordinance, and our Lord teaches men through that single instance to see the general principle that when positive commands and necessities involving the good of man come into collision, the latter, not the former, must prevail.

12:1-8 Being in the corn-fields, the disciples began to pluck the ears of corn: the law of God allowed it, De 23:25. This was slender provision for Christ and his disciples; but they were content with it. The Pharisees did not quarrel with them for taking another man's corn, but for doing it on the sabbath day. Christ came to free his followers, not only from the corruptions of the Pharisees, but from their unscriptural rules, and justified what they did. The greatest shall not have their lusts indulged, but the meanest shall have their wants considered. Those labours are lawful on the sabbath day which are necessary, and sabbath rest is to froward, not to hinder sabbath worship. Needful provision for health and food is to be made; but when servants are kept at home, and families become a scene of hurry and confusion on the Lord's day, to furnish a feast for visitors, or for indulgence, the case is very different. Such things as these, and many others common among professors, are to be blamed. The resting on the sabbath was ordained for man's good, De 5:14. No law must be understood so as to contradict its own end. And as Christ is the Lord of the sabbath, it is fit the day and the work of it should be dedicated to him.How he entered into the house of God - That is, the "tabernacle," the temple not being then built.

Have ye not read in the law? - In the law, or in the books of Moses.

Profane the Sabbath - He referred them to the conduct of the priests also. On the Sabbath days they were engaged, as well as on other days, in killing beasts for sacrifice, Numbers 28:9-10. Two lambs were killed on the Sabbath, in addition to the daily sacrifice. The priests must be engaged in killing them, and making fires to burn them in sacrifice, whereas to kindle a fire was expressly forbidden the Jews on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:3. They did that which, for other persons to do, would have been "profaning" the Sabbath. Yet they were blameless. They did what was necessary and commanded. This was done in the very temple, too, the place of holiness, where the law should be most strictly observed.

4. How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the showbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?—No example could be more apposite than this. The man after God's own heart, of whom the Jews ever boasted, when suffering in God's cause and straitened for provisions, asked and obtained from the high priest what, according to the law, it was illegal for anyone save the priests to touch. Mark (Mr 2:26) says this occurred "in the days of Abiathar the high priest." But this means not during his high priesthood—for it was under that of his father Ahimelech—but simply, in his time. Ahimelech was soon succeeded by Abiathar, whose connection with David, and prominence during his reign, may account for his name, rather than his father's, being here introduced. Yet there is not a little confusion in what is said of these priests in different parts of the Old Testament. Thus he is called both the son of the father of Ahimelech (1Sa 22:20; 2Sa 8:17); and Ahimelech is called Ahiah (1Sa 14:3), and Abimelech (1Ch 18:16).Ver. 3,4. Mark and Luke add little, only Mark specifies the time, in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and saith, when he had need, and was an hungred. We have the history, 1 Samuel 21:1-15. David was upon his flight from Saul, upon the notice of his danger given him by Jonathan, 1 Samuel 20:1-42, and being hungry, he asks of the high priest five loaves of broad; the high priest tells him he had none but hallowed bread, which the high priest gave him, 1 Samuel 21:6. What the shewbread was may be read, Leviticus 24:5-9: it is expressly said, a stranger shall not eat thereof. Now (saith our Saviour) notwithstanding this, David and his followers, being an hungred, did eat thereof, though strictly, according to the letter of the law, none but the priests might eat it.

But some may object: What was this to the purpose? It was not upon the sabbath day.


1. It was either upon the sabbath day, or immediately after, for it was to be set on every sabbath day, and to be eaten in the holy place, Leviticus 24:8,9, and the high priest told David, 1 Samuel 21:6, that it was taken away to set hot bread in the room of it.

2. But secondly, that which our Saviour produces this for, was to prove a more general proposition, which being proved, the lawfulness of his disciples’ act would easily be inferred from it. That was this: That the letter of a ritual law is not to be insisted upon, where some eminent necessity urges the contrary, in the performance of some natural or moral duty.

The law of nature commandeth every man to feed himself when he is hungry. The moral law confirms this, as it is a means to the observation of the sixth commandment, and especially on the sabbath day, so far as may fit us for the best sanctification of it. The law concerning the shewbread was but a ritual law, and that part of it which restrained the use of it when taken off from the holy table was of lightest concern, as it commanded it should be eaten by the priests only, and by them in the holy place. Where the life, or necessary relief, of men was concerned, the obligation of the ritual law ceased, and that was lawful, both for David and the high priest, which in ordinary cases had not been lawful. Works necessary either for the upholding of our lives, or fitting us for sabbath services, are lawful upon the sabbath day. Though the law concerning the sabbath be a moral law, yet it is jus positivum, not a law natural, but positive, and must be so interpreted as not to destroy the law natural, which commands men to feed themselves; nor yet to destroy itself. The scope and end of it is to be considered, which is the keeping of a day as a day of holy and religious rest. What labour is necessary to such keeping of it is also lawful. The time of the sabbath is not more holy than the shewbread; and as David in a case of necessity might make a common use of that holy bread, so the disciples in a case of like necessity might make use of a little of that holy time, in such necessary servile work as might fit them for their sabbath service. Thus it was lawful by the law of God, and if the Pharisees had not been ignorant, or had understood what they had read, they would never have disputed this, the instance of holy David might have satisfied. So that this little kind of labour could only be a breach of one of their bylaws, by which they pretended to expound the law of God, in which he showeth they had given a false interpretation.

How he entered into the house of God,.... Not the temple, which was not then built; but the tabernacle, which was then at Nob, the city of the priests, and which probably adjoined to Abimelech's house:

and did eat the shewbread; for that this is meant by the hallowed bread, in 1 Samuel 21:6 is certain; though R. Joseph Kimchi (n) thinks it was the bread of the thank offering; to which R. Levi ben Getsom (o) seems to incline: but the general sense of the Jewish doctors (p) is, that it was the showbread; and which is very clear from that text, and is rightly affirmed by Christ;

which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests: see Leviticus 24:5 and so the Jews say that this bread , "is forbidden to strangers" (q); that is, to any but the priests, which, after the burning of the frankincense, was divided equally among them: that course of priests that came into the service had six cakes, and that which went out six; though the high priest had a right to half himself, but he did not use to take it, it being judged not to his honour to do so (r). No hint is here given, nor in the history, in 1 Samuel 21:1 that it was on the sabbath day that David came to Ahimelech, and ate the showbread; but this is observed, and disputed, by the Jewish writers. Some indeed are in a doubt about it; but others (s) readily give into it, that it was on the sabbath day, which he chose to flee in, for the greater safety and preservation of his life: and indeed it seems reasonable it should be on that day; since on that day only the showbread was removed from the table, and other loaves put in the room. One of their writers (t) says,

"that showbread was not to be eaten, but on the day, and night of the sabbath day; and on the going out of the sabbath day; and on the going out of the sabbath David came there.''

Now our Lord's argument stands thus, that if David, a holy, good man, and, the men that were with him, who were men of religion and conscience, when in great distress, through hunger, ate of the showbread, which was unlawful for any to eat of but priests, the high priest himself assenting to it; then it could not be criminal in his disciples, when an hungred, to pluck, rub, and eat a few ears of corn, which were lawful for any man to eat, even though it was on the sabbath day: and for the further vindication of them, he adds,

(n) Apud R. David Kimchi in 1 Samuel 21.6. (o) In ib. (p) T. Bab. Menachot, fol. 95. 2. R. David Kimchi, Abarbinel & Laniado in 1 Samuel 21.6. (q) Laniado & Abarbinel in ib. (r) Maimon. Hilch. Tamidin, c. 4. sect. 12. 14. (s) Bemidbar Rabba Parash. 23. fol. 231. 9. Laniado Cli Jaker, fol. 226. 4. & 227. 2, 3, 4. & Jelammedenu in ib. (t) R. Isaiah in 1 Samuel 21.5.

How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the {a} shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?

(a) The Hebrews call it bread of faces, because it stood before the Lord all the week upon the golden table appointed for that service; Le 24:6.

Matthew 12:4. εἰσῆλθεν, ἔφαγον, he entered, they ate. Mark has ἔφαγεν. Weiss explains the harsh change of subject by combination of apostolic source with Mark. The two verbs point to two offences against the law: entering a holy place, eating holy bread. The sin of the disciples was against a holy time. But the principle involved was the same = ceremonial rules may be overruled by higher considerations.—ὃ οὐκ ἐξὸν ἦν. οὓς in Mark and Luke agreeing with ἄρτους, and here also in T. R., but doubtless the true reading; again presenting a problem in comparative exegesis (vide Weiss-Meyer). ought to mean “which thing it was not lawful to do,” but it may be rendered “which kind of bread,” etc.—εἰ μὴ, except; absolutely unlawful, except in case of priests.

4. the shewbread] Literally, bread of setting forth, i. e. bread that was set forth in the sanctuary. It was also called “continual bread” as being set forth perpetually before the Lord, hence the Hebrew name, “bread of the presence.” Twelve loaves or cakes were placed in two “piles” (rather than “rows,” Leviticus 24:6) on the “pure table” every Sabbath. On each pile was put a golden cup of frankincense. See Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:6-8; Josephus, Ant. iii. 10. 7.

Matthew 12:4. Τὸν οἶκον τοῦ Θεοῦ, the house of God) That which might have been considered as a ground of hesitation is exhibited in full force by this expression; the tabernacle is meant, as the temple was built somewhat later.—τοὺς ἄρτους, the loaves) There is much of a ceremonial character in the Sabbath: otherwise no argument could have been derived from the shew-bread.—τῆς προθέσεως, of the laying before,[549] Lat. propositionis) = Hebrew פנים.[550]—ΕἸ ΜῊ, except) i.e., for any except.

[549] This is expressed in English by the descriptive syllable Shew: so that, instead of saying with the Greeks and Latins—The bread of-the-laying-before, we say the Shew-Bread. Both idioms represent the same idea, viz., the bread that was laid before, or exhibited to, God.—(I. B.)

[550] לֶחֶם פָנִים, shew-bread, lit. bread of faces. PATRICK on Exodus 25:30, in voc. shew-bread, says, “In the Hebrew, bread of the face or presence, because it was set before the Ark of the Covenant, where God was present.—(I. B.)

Verse 4. - How he entered into the house of God, and did eat; rather, and they did eat, with Revised Version margin (ἔφαγον), the simple plural verb laying the action less at David's door than does the phrase in the parallel passages - "and he gave" them to eat. Observe that the mention of ordinary people, like David's attendants, adds to the force of our Lord's illustration. The shew-bread (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5-7). Which. Which kind of food (). Was not lawful (οὐκ ἔξον η΅ν). Reminding the Pharisees of their own words in ver. 2. For him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? (Leviticus 24:9). Matthew 12:4
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