Matthew 23:13-39 Part 1


We’ve taken enough time up until now, I think, with our descriptions of the covenantal leadership of Israel, that none of these things in this text surprise us very much….  But we might spend just a minute or two on the vehemence of this public condemnation.

And, by the way, before we enter the text, you’ve already noticed that there is no verse fourteen in your printed sheet.  It is obvious that it was a late insertion by somebody that thought it should have been there.  But it’s not in the early Greek texts at all.

So rather than there being eight woes pronounced by Jesus, (as would be the count if verse fourteen were inspired Scripture) there are seven – a number (as we’ve mentioned before) with the significance of qualitative perfection.

But with respect to the vehemence with which this condemnation is pronounced, I might offer several reasons for it (not-withstanding the interpretation of many that Jesus’ heart was still filled with love and gentleness and hope for the Pharisees’ conversion!).  And the first reason for such vehemence is that these men, sons of a long line of similar leaders, have made a wilderness of God’s covenantal nation.  And they deserved the public humiliation and the Ontological end to their folly.  You see, because of the Biblical doctrine of covenantal representation, God remembers the sins of fathers on their children; and the Adamic accumulation of the desperate, cursed condition is heaped up from generation to generation.  And although some of their spiritual “fathers” may have also reaped what they sowed, these men in particular stood at the eschatological end of the age.  And, therefore, they suffered the disastrous and terminal effects of the wrath of God upon Israel and its leadership.

Another reason for Jesus’ lofty, terminal language here might be the awe and esteem in which these men had been held for so long.  These men, many of them, were worshipped and idolized; and some were even called “fathers” of the nation!  So in order that none of the elect, lost sheep of the house of Israel be swayed by the very presence of the Sanhedrin of Israel, Jesus uses the most denunciating and authoritative language.

A third reason for the sharp and humiliating speech is the issue of His authority viz a viz the Older Testament prophetic Scriptures.  The leadership of Israel had also been denounced in no uncertain terms in the words of the prophets and in the warnings of Moses!  So the Presence and Words of Jesus are here seen as the “fullness” of the Word of God.

And the fourth reason (and there may be some more, but), the fourth reason for the vehement language (that comes immediately to mind) has to do with the fullness of the time….  The “suffering Servant of God”; the Lamb slain; the Perfect blood sacrifice was here – as prophesied!  And the sin of this nation had been filled up.  And at this particular point in time, as chosen by God the Father, the ransom was to be paid.  Therefore, as a practical consideration, the enmity and hatred and fervor of the Pharisees toward God and His King was to reach a point in self-motivation that they would actually execute their (already) conceived plan to murder the Savior of the word!  And the linguistics of Jesus most certainly served that end!

So!  Considering the perfectly obvious strident tone of Jesus’ words in these twenty-seven verses, and considering the Theological, the prophetic, the eschatological and the practical reason for His manner of speech, any interpretation of this passage which has, at its root, the kindness and gentleness of Jesus toward the Pharisees, or His “hope” for their conversion, is “novel” at best and blind and apostate at worst!  But it’s a fundamental presupposition of pietism that Jesus has only love in His heart toward all mankind; and it is inconceivable to a pietist that there is anyone out there who doesn’t know that!  And therefore, given the prevalence of this kind of preaching in the Church today, our Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t receive the great honor and glory that this text brings to Him in the hearing of men.

But enough about the vehemence of His speech – let’s go to the text now and hear.  And because of its importance, we can’t do much more today than to understand the first word (verse thirteen) – which is repeated six times.  “Woe”

From your days in school, studying literature, do you remember the term “onomatopoeia”?  Onomatopoeia is made up of two Greek words which, together, mean “making the name” or “doing the name”.  In literature (poetry and prose), it is forming words which resemble the sound made by the thing signified… therefore it is “doing the name”.

When a bee is being described, for example, one might use a word which was specifically formed in order to resemble the sound made by a bee.  Therefore you have buzz. When a writer uses that word, he is “doing the name”, because it’s obvious that the “bee” is meant when the sound is used.

Another example might be a word used in describing a fire as it consumes thorns and brush.  A poet might use the term “crackling”, which is the formation of a word – the sound of which signifies the fire.

Both of these are examples of onomatopoeia.

Now, although there was no literary “term” for it when the Hebrew language was first written (that I know if, anyway), Hebrew makes good use of this device.  And so does Greek.  And, in fact, our English word – woe – is, itself, a transliteration (of sorts) rather than a translation.

The Greek word is ouai; and the Hebrew is hoi.  And there really isn’t a translation of the terms per se, because they aren’t words; they are onomatopoeia – “sounds”.  They are… “doing the name”.

The Hebrew root of the sound “Hoi” is “to howl”… to howl, as in connection with an animal – such as a jackal.  I’ll come back to that in a second; but the Greek word “ouai” is a transliteration of that sound.  And when it’s made an English word, we shouldn’t regard it as a word with a definition… but a transliterated “sound”!

Now, we have one perfect example of that in the Hebrew text of Ezekiel, as the prophet was told by God to prophesy concerning the coming “Day of the Lord”.  Ezekiel writes (chapter thirty):


The Word of Jahveh came again unto me saying, “Son of man, prophesy and say, ‘Thus saith the Lord God; Howl ye, Woe worth the day!’”


We can recognize there, with very little exegetical work, that God used (what we now describe as) onomatopoeia to reveal the condition of men in the time of “the Day of the Lord”.  Mankind, sunk to his lowest sin condition, howls and wails in his animalistic worst under the heavy hand of God’s judgment!  The sound of the howl is “HOI”… WOE worth the day… a howling and wailing worth every bit of what’s happening!

Now, before we bring that forward into our text, let’s look at some other portions of Scripture… then I’ll try to put it all together for you.

For example, Ezekiel later on prophesies against these very leaders of Israel to whom Jesus is speaking.  Listen (chapter thirty-four):


“… thus says the Lord God unto the shepherds:  “HOI” (woe) ye shepherds of Israel who do feed themselves; should not the shepherds feed the flocks?... The diseased you have not strengthened, neither have you healed that which was sick, neither have you bound up the broken, neither have you brought again that which was driven away, neither have you sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have you ruled them…”, etc.


The prophet Isaiah cries out in two long series of “HOI’s” against the leadership and people of Israel.  In chapter five the “howl” of the HOI is against those who strip others of their property; and those who drink until inflamed; and those who draw iniquity to themselves as with a cart rope; and those who call evil good and good evil; and those who are wise in their own sight; and those who take bribes to justify the wicked.

And in chapters twenty-eight through thirty-three there is another series of woes – first against those who consider their own greatness and beauty; and then against Jerusalem which goes on year after year killing the sacrifices and yet is spiritually blind; and again against Jerusalem which thinks and acts as if there is no imminent God. And again against Jerusalem where people take counsel from anyone except God in order that they might continue to sin; and against Israel for putting their trust in military might and treaties with pagan nations; and against Israel, for they all deal treacherously and deceitfully.

And hear Zephaniah’s condemnation of the city of Jerusalem (chapter three, at the beginning):


“HOI (woe) to her that is filthy and polluted, the oppressing city.  She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God.  Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow.  Her prophets are light and treacherous persons; her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the Law….”


And the prophet Zechariah says, “HOI (woe) to the worthless shepherd (of Israel)….”

We don’t find the word in the New Testament until Jesus pronounces “woes” on those northern Israel towns in which He did most of His mighty works (chapter eleven).  He said that even Sodom and Tyre and Sidon would have repented in sackcloth and ashes if those mighty works had been done there!  But the cities of Israel would not repent!

And then in chapter eighteen we hear “Woe to the world” because of the entrapments of His newborn babes.  And in chapter twenty-four, which is coming up next, Jesus says “Woe” to those attempting to escape the doomed city of Jerusalem on the Day of the Lord.

The apostle Paul uses this miserable, wailing sound with reference to himself in First Corinthians chapter nine.  He says:  “Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel!”  After all he endured for the Gospel, the great misery for him would be faithlessness to God’s Word.

Then comes a very important passage with reference to heretical, Judaistic teachers.  The howl of the jackal is wailed against them; and they are compared, in the letter of Jude, to Cain, Balaam and Korah.

Cain, you remember was the first murderer; and later Judaistic philosophy considered him the first skeptic – who denied there was a Judge and a judgment.  A second century Gnostic sect called themselves “Cainites” because they regarded the God described in the Older Testament as “responsible” for the world’s evil.  And they exalted Cain (and others like him) for resisting such a deity.

Balaam, you may remember from Numbers chapters twenty-two through twenty-four, was the Babylonian prophet who, after several stunningly beautiful, Godly, and powerful, prophecies concerning God’s people, was finally persuaded (for money) to prophecy falsely – against Israel!

And then Korah was the descendant of Esau who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron after the Exodus from Egypt.  So he is an example of insubordination to God’s leaders and authorities and one who caused great unrest in the community of God’s people.

So the inspired writer Jude brings the sound of “HOI” against the Judaistic teachers, the Pharisees, and compares them to these three evil figures in the history of Israel.

And, lastly, the study of the woes in the Revelation is interesting too.  In chapter eight there is a three-fold woe against Israel, signaling the coming of drastic judgment.  (This passage is almost a mirror image of chapter eight of Hosea.)  Then in chapter twelve of the Revelation, woe is connected to a re-doubling of wrath upon Jerusalem.

And then in chapter eighteen there is a three-fold chorus of self-pity howled and wailed by national leaders, traders and merchant seamen due to the spectacular collapse of the great commercial city of Jerusalem.  The source of great financial profit had been swept away!

Now I think it might be easier for you to see that all of these passages of Scripture are connected; because the sound that is uttered – HOI in Hebrew, OUAI in Greek, and WOE in English – is the same from the prophets to the Revelation!  It is the sound of animalistic anguish and suffering in the time of the mighty judgment of God!

And the subject matter which is introduced by this sound is the same throughout.  It is the utter hypocrisy and apostasy and depravity and blindness of the people of Israel – especially its leaders and teachers – and the devastation to come upon them as a result!

So, as we go to the text (at verse thirteen) and see the first word (and its six repetitions), we are now aware that this is one of those many portions of Scripture (twenty-seven verses!) in which our Lord Jesus Christ brings the full weight of Old Testament prophecy to bear on the hypocrite scribes and Pharisees.

And the sound of the howling jackal can be heard over and over again as it is made clear to all present that Jesus means for the Day of the Lord to be specifically applied to the scribes and Pharisees of Israel – the Sanhedrin.

Now, before I give you a brief overview of the seven “woes” of Israel’s leadership, let me say that this entire first phrase – repeated over and over – might be read even better like this (considering all that we’ve learned):  “Woe ye, hypocrite scribes and pharisees….”  If it’s read like that, then it brings out even better the onomatopoeic sound from which it is derived – the howling jackal!  For the pharisees will, soon indeed, scream and wail in grief and dismay because of the perversions and sins into which they’ve led God’s covenant nation.

Now for the quick overview, and we’ll stop until next Lord’s Day.  The first woe, verse thirteen, has to do with the perversion of God’s Word.  Rather than pointing the “way” into the Kingdom, they have blocked it – for themselves and for the ones who they lead!

The second, verse fifteen, concerns the intense proselytizing activity of the Sanhedrin, in which new converts become doubly zealous pharisees!

In verse sixteen, the third “woe” concerns their sin of subverting promises, or oaths.  By half-truths and misleading language, they leave themselves open to deny the validity of their own promises!  But, as Jesus proclaims, all oaths and promises are made before God!

The fourth “howling” comes in verse twenty-three, for the pharisees involve themselves in teaching great scrupulosity in tithing; but they deceitfully remove themselves from the demands of the weightier matters of the Law.  So the hypocrisy is in the contrast between what they teach and what they do.

Then in verse twenty-five the fifth “woe” has to do with the pharisee’s ritual, ceremonial cleansing of the outsides of utensils.  Since evil is “outside” man, all things needed to be ceremonially clean!  But Jesus says they will howl with anguish because of their sin; for a man must be cleaned inside.  And his inside cleanness will be reflected on the outside!  (As you can see, all these pharisaical sins are very significant, and they deserve our closer attention – which we will give them.)

In “woe” six, verse twenty-seven, Jesus’ allusion to the “tombs” is a reference to the pharisees themselves as persons.  The pharisees make themselves magnificent on the outside – but, inside they are foul!  Now, Luke, in his account of the woes of the pharisees’, takes a little different approach.  The purpose of the pharisees’ whitewashing the tombs at Passover was so that people could see the tombs and not get close and become ceremonially unclean for the festival.  But Luke’s point is that it wasn’t the tombs that had to be avoided – it was the pharisees!  They were the ones who were foul and dead inside and to be avoided!

And the last “woe” begins at verse twenty-nine against the pharisees’ work of supererogation, and the reparation for their forefathers’ killing of the prophets.  They built and decorated beautiful tombs for them, saying that if they had been there, they wouldn’t have participated in those sins!  But, sons inherit the character of their fathers!  The hypocrisy of these pharisee sons was apparent for all to see in that they were planning to murder the Son of God!  The Great Prophet!

After the “woes” there is other condemnatory language which we must look at as well – through the end of the chapter.  And Jesus says that judgment will not be long delayed.  It will come on this generation.