The theme of this passage is “rest.” The author employs a passage from the OT (Ps. 95:7-11) and treats its significance in the context of the reader. This theme of rest and its “unfulfillment” in Old Testament (OT) times is not foreign to the OT itself (see Guthrie, 952). In 2 Sam. 7 we read in v.1 that God had given David rest and yet in v.11 he promise to give him the very same. Thus we can conclude that the rest spoken of in 2 Sam. 7:11 was not fulfilled in the time of David.
The author concluded the last paragraph mentioning that the readers are indeed God’s house if they hold on to the Gospel – the Christian faith. Now he seeks to encourage and exhort them via Psalm 95. This Psalm is divided into two stanzas: vv. 1-7a encourages the people of God to worship whereas vv. 7b-11 warns His people not to be unfaithful and disobedient as the Israelites of old (cf. O’Brien, 141). To listen to God involves heeding His words and being obedient to what is said (Matt 11:15; 13:9). “When addressed by God, listeners are put in the position of having to respond one way or another” (O’Brien, 141).
Again we see the author of Hebrews is speaking in the highest regards for the Hebrew Bible. It is God who is speaking, this time the Holy Spirit.
The passage being quoted comes from Ps. 95:7-11. This passage in its OT context alludes to the water incident at Meribah and Massah (Ex. 17:1-7), “which at Num. 20:1-14 is identified with Kadesh, the location where God earlier gave an oath that the people would not enter the land of promise (Num. 14:20-23, 28-35” (Guthrie, 953). Guthrie further explains that the Septuagint (LXX; the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) relates the water incident “more squarely” with Num. 14 in focus. Further the LXX translates the place names “Meribah and Massah” as “rebellion” (parapikrasmos) and “testing” (peirasmos) (cf. Lane, 1:85; O’Brien, 143).
In Numbers 13-14 we see the spies coming back from their exploration of the Promised Land (“a land of milk and honey”), which to enter was the goal of the Exodus from the beginning. Twelve spies went out. Ten of them gave a bad report and thus frustrating the people of Israel who then said to each other “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Only two of the spies (Caleb and Joshua) are convinced that with the Lord’s help they can conquer the strong and mighty enemies. This then leads to God’s punishment of the people which results in a forty year desert wandering of the people of God.
The “works” they saw where the plagues, the exodus, the miracle of giving of water (Exod 15:22-26; 17:1-7; Num 20:2-13), the manna (Exod 16:13-36; Num 11:7-9), the quails (Exod 16:13; Num 11:31-33), and the judgments on those opposing God (Num 16:1-50; Deut 11:1-7). Note also that the anger of God was not aroused because of one simple lapse in Israel’s behavior (though this would have been sufficient) but because of their stubborn behavior which continued to characterize them (“they always go astray” [v. 10]; cf. O’Brien, 144).
Coming from the OT passage the author now exhorts his readers to pay close attention, to be careful, so that none of them would happen do fall into that same category; i.e., unbelief (cf. v.19). This unbelief leads to “fall away from the living God” in apostasy, i.e., in rebellion which is persistent and self-conscious (more comments on apostasy will be given in the lectures on 6:4-6, 10:26-31, and 12:15-17). Bruce writes that when the leadership of Moses and Aaron are rejected they actually reject that of God. “And for Christians to repudiate the apostle and high priest of their confession, similarly appointed by God, would be if possible an even more outrageous revolt against the living God” (100).
Notice further the interplay of individualistic and communal approaches of the author (e.g. “brothers” and “any of you”) which shows that the church consists of true and false believers – those who persevere and those who whither away.
The medicine against such unbelief/apostasy is the encouragement of each believer by another. One fellow brother of ours once remarked: “One of the best resources God puts in our Christian walk are our brothers and sisters” (cf. e.g. Rom. 12:5). It is not the leaders’ job only, but every brother and every sister in the congregation is to participate in the work of the word among each other –admonition as well as encouragement. This should be done “as long as it is called ‘today’” which signifies the eschatological aspect of this word. “Today” is the term for the time of grace.
Then the author goes on to that they should do so that none of them “may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”. This “hardened” being in the passive form (sklērunthē) is significant, because sin is being presented as an agent which leads to a “hopeless position” of the individual (Lane, 87). The word sin here is in close relation to the passage in Num. 14; thus the sin of unbelief is not “a lack of faith or trust” but a “refusal to believe God […] to obey [Him] and act upon his promise” (Lane, 86; cf. O’Brien, 146). Though passive the readers are responsible for what is happening, otherwise the argument would be argued ad absurdum (see O’Brien, 149).
Verses 14-15 are almost a restatement of v. 6b. The difference given here is that the focus is on the future (“to the end”). Through the perseverance till the end one is to consider himself/herself to be a sharer in Christ Jesus.
Here In verses 16-19 the author drives the point home and let’s us know whom he is talking about. “The verse just quoted refers to the exodus generation, who after their liberation from Egypt should have known better than to provoke God or rebel against him” (Ellingworth, 229). It was the generation who saw the mighty hand of God in Egypt and His mighty deliverance of his people out of the land of slavery. (In Num 14:2 we read: “And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!’” a request God was willing to give because of their continuance in their rebellion.)
Yet, because of unbelief “they were not able to enter” that rest (in this case Canaan). Hughes writes: “The true rest is the enjoyment by the creature of perfect harmony with his Creator, and it can therefore only be rest in God. As such, it is totally incompatible with unbelief and disobedience toward God. Hence the inability of the rebellious Israelites to enter into God’s rest” (155; emphasis original). The author further explains that the inability of the Israelites to enter into God’s rest was because of God’s oath – His final word. Though being warned after their rebellion at Kadesh, the Israelites tried to take matters into their own hands and suffered a great defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites (Num 14:39-45).
The next section (see next post) is in stark contrast to this warning passage. So be encouraged to follow along how the author of Hebrews encourages his readership – then and now!
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Ed. G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2007.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.