Bible Verse Explanations and Resources


Hebrews 9:16

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

For where a testament is - A learned and judicious friend furnishes me with the following translation of this and the 17th verse: -

"For where there is a covenant, it is necessary that the death of the appointed victim should be exhibited, because a covenant is confirmed over dead victims, since it is not at all valid while the appointed victim is alive."

He observes, "There is no word signifying testator, or men, in the original. Διαθεμενος is not a substantive, but a participle, or a participial adjective, derived from the same root as διατηκη, and must have a substantive understood. I therefore render it the disposed or appointed victim, alluding to the manner of disposing or setting apart the pieces of the victim, when they were going to ratify a covenant; and you know well the old custom of ratifying a covenant, to which the apostle alludes. I refer to your own notes on Genesis 6:18; (note), and Genesis 15:10; (note). - J. C."

Mr. Wakefield has translated the passage nearly in the same way.

"For where a covenant is, there must be necessarily introduced the death of that which establisheth the covenant; because a covenant is confirmed over dead things, and is of no force at all whilst that which establisheth the covenant is alive." This is undoubtedly the meaning of this passage; and we should endeavor to forget that testament and testator were ever introduced, as they totally change the apostle's meaning. See the observations at the end of this chapter.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

For where a testament is - This is the same word - διαθήκη diathēkē- which in Hebrews 8:6, is rendered “covenant.” For the general signification of the word, see note on that verse. There is so much depending, however, on the meaning of the word, not only in the interpretation of this passage, but also of other parts of the Bible, that it may be proper to explain it here more at length. The word - διαθήκη diathēkē- occurs in the New Testament thirty-three times. It is translated “covenant” in the common version, in Luke 1:72; Acts 3:25; Acts 7:8; Romans 9:4; Romans 11:27; Galatians 3:15, Galatians 3:17; Galatians 4:24; Ephesians 2:12; Hebrews 8:6, Hebrews 8:9, “twice,” Hebrews 8:10; Hebrews 9:4, “twice,” Hebrews 10:16; Hebrews 12:24; Hebrews 13:20. In the remaining places it is rendered “testament;” Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6, 2 Corinthians 3:14; Hebrews 7:22; Hebrews 9:15-17, Hebrews 9:20; Revelation 11:19. In four of those instances (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20, and 1 Corinthians 11:25), it is used with reference to the institution or celebration of the Lord‘s Supper. In the Septuagint it occurs not far from 300 times, in considerably more than 200 times of which it is the translation of the Hebrew word בּרית beriytone instance Zechariah 11:14 it is the translation of the word “brotherhood;” once Deuteronomy 9:5, of דּבר daabaar- “word;” once Jeremiah 11:2, of “words of the covenant;” once Leviticus 26:11), of “tabernacle;” once Exodus 31:7, of “testimony;” it occurs once Ezekiel 20:37, where the reading of the Greek and Hebrew text is doubtful; and it occurs three times 1 Samuel 11:2; 1 Samuel 20:8; 1 Kings 8:9, where there is no corresponding word in the Hebrew text. From this use of the word by the authors of the Septuagint, it is evident that they regarded it as the proper translation of the Hebrew - בּרית beriytand as conveying the same sense which that word does. It cannot be reasonably doubted that the writers of the New Testament were led to the use of the word, in part, at least, by the fact that they found it occurring so frequently in the version in common use, but it cannot be doubted also that they regarded it as fairly conveying the sense of the word בּרית beriytOn no principle can it be supposed that inspired and honest people would use a word in referring to transactions in the Old Testament which did not “fairly” convey the idea which the writers of the Old Testament meant to express. The use being thus regarded as settled, there are some “facts” in reference to it which are of great importance in interpreting the New Testament, and in understanding the nature of the “covenant” which God makes with man. These facts are the following:

(1) The word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - is not what properly denotes “compact, agreement,” or “covenant.” That word is συνθήκη sunthēkē- “syntheke” or in other forms σύνθεσις sunthesisand συνθεσίας sunthesiasor if the word “diatheke” is used in that signification it is only remotely, and as a secondary meaning; see “Passow;” compare the Septuagint in Isaiah 28:15; Isaiah 30:1; Daniel 11:6, and Wisdom Daniel 1:16; Isaiah 28:15; Isaiah 30:1; Daniel 11:6. This remarkable fact that the authors of that version never use the word to denote any transaction between God and man, shows that there must have been some reason for it which acted on their minds with entire uniformity.

(4) it is no less remarkable that neither in the Septuagint nor the New Testament is the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - “ever” used in the sense of “will” or “testament,” unless it be in the case before us. This is conceded on all hands, and is expressly admitted by Prof. Stuart; (Com. on Heb. p. 439), though he defends this use of the word in this passage. - A very important inquiry presents itself here, which has never received a solution generally regarded as satisfactory. It is, why the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - was selected by the writers of the New Testament to express the nature of the transaction between God and man in the plan of salvation. It might be said indeed that they found this word uniformly used in the Septuagint, and that they employed it as expressing the idea which they wished to convey, with sufficient accuracy. But this is only removing the difficulty one step further back.

Why did the Septuagint adopt this word? Why did they not rather use the common and appropriate Greek word to express the notion of a covenant? A suggestion on this subject has already been made in the notes on Hebrews 8:6; compare Bib. Repository vol. xx. p. 55. Another reason may, however, be suggested for this remarkable fact which is liable to no objection. It is, that in the apprehension of the authors of the Septuagint, and of the writers of the New Testament, the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - in its original and proper signification “fairly” conveyed the sense of the Hebrew word בּרית beriytand that the word συνθήκη sunthēkē- or “compact, agreement,” would “not” express that; and “that they never meant to be understood as conveying the idea either that God entered into a compact or covenant with man, or that he made a will.” They meant to represent; him as making “an arrangement, a disposition, an ordering” of things, by which his service might be kept up among his people, and by which people might be saved; but they were equally remote from representing him as making a “compact,” or a “will.” In support of this there may be alleged.

(1) the remarkable uniformity in which the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - is used, showing that there was some “settled principle” from which they never departed; and,

(2) it is used mainly as the meaning of the word itself. Prof. Stuart has, undoubtedly, given the accurate original sense of the word. “The real, genuine, and original meaning of διαθήκη diathēkē(diatheke) is, “arrangement, disposition,” or “disposal” of a thing.” P. 440. The word from which it is derived - διατίθημι diatithēmi- means to place apart or asunder; and then to set, arrange, dispose in a certain order. “Passow.” From this original signification is derived the use which the word has with singular uniformity in the Scriptures. It denotes the “arrangment, disposition,” or “ordering” of things which God made in relation to mankind, by which he designed to keep up his worship on earth, and to save the soul. It means neither covenant nor will; neither compact nor legacy; neither agreement nor testament. It is an “arrangement” of an entirely different order from either of them, and the sacred writers with an uniformity which could have been secured only by the presiding influence of the One Eternal Spirit, have avoided the suggestion that God made with man either a “compact” or a “will.”

We have no word which precisely expresses this idea, and hence, our conceptions are constantly floating between a “compact” and a “will,” and the views which we have are as unsettled as they are. unscriptural. The simple idea is, that God has made an “arrangement” by which his worship may be celebrated and souls saved. Under the Jewish economy this arrangement assumed one form; under the Christian another. In neither was it a compact or covenant between two parties in such a sense that one party would be at liberty to reject the terms proposed; in neither was it a testament or will, as if God had left a legacy to man, but in both there were some things in regard to the arrangement such as are found in a covenant or compact. One of those things - equally appropriate to a compact between man and man and to this arrangement, the apostle refers to here - that it implied in all cases the death of the victim.

If these remarks are well-founded, they should be allowed materially to shape our views in the interpretation of the Bible. Whole treatises of divinity have been written on a mistaken view of the meaning of this word - understood as meaning “covenant.” Volumes of angry controversy have been published on the nature of the “covenant” with Adam, and on its influence on his posterity. The only literal “covenant” which can he supposed in the plan of redemption is that between the Father and the Son - though even the existence of such a covenant is rather the result of devout and learned imagining than of any distinct statement in the volume of inspiration. The simple statement there is, that God has made an arrangement for salvation, the execution of which he has entrusted to his Son, and has proposed it to man to be accepted as the only arrangement by which man can be saved, and which he is not at liberty to disregard.

There has been much difference of opinion in reference to the meaning of the passage here, and to the design of the illustration introduced. If the word used - διαθήκη diathēkē- means “testament,” in the sense of a “will,” then the sense of that passage is that “a will is of force only when he who made it dies, for it relates to a disposition of his property after his death.” The force of the remark of the apostle then would be, that the fact that the Lord Jesus made or expressed his “will” to mankind, implied that he would die to confirm it; or that since in the ordinary mode of making a will, it was of force only when he who made it was dead, therefore it was necessary that the Redeemer should die, in order to confirm and ratify what he made. But the objections to this, which appears to have been the view of our translators, seem to me to be insuperable. They are these:

(1)the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - is not used in this sense in the New Testament elsewhere; see the remarks above.

(2)the Lord Jesus made no such will. He had no property, and the commandments and instructions which he gave to his disciples were not of the nature of a will or testament.

(3)such an illustration would not be pertinent to the design of the apostle, or in keeping with his argument.

He is comparing the Jewish and Christian dispensations, and the point of comparison in this chapter relates to the question about the efficacy of sacrifice in the two arrangements. He showed that the arrangement for blood-shedding by sacrifice entered into both; that the high priest of both offered blood as an expiation; that the holy place was entered with blood, and that consequently there was death in both the arrangements, or dispensations. The former arrangement or dispensation was ratified with blood, and it was equally proper that the new arrangement should be also. The point of comparison is not that Moses made a will or testament which could be of force only when he died, and that the same thing was required in the new dispensation, but it is that the former covenant was “ratified by blood,” or “by the death of a victim,” and that it might be expected that the new dispensation would be confirmed, and that it was in fact confirmed in the same manner. In this view of the argument, what pertinency would there be in introducing an illustration respecting a will, and the manner in which it became efficient; compare notes on Hebrews 9:18. It seems clear, therefore, to me, that the word rendered “testament” here is to be taken in the sense in which it is ordinarily used in the New Testament. The opinion that the word here means such a divine arrangement as is commonly denoted a “covenant,” and not testament, is sanctioned by not a few names of eminence in criticism, such as Pierce, Doddridge, Michaelis, Steudel, and the late Dr. John P. Wilson. Bloomfield says that the connection here demands this. The principal objections to this view are:

(1)that it is not proved that no covenants or compacts were valid except such as were made by the intervention of sacrifices.

(2)that the word rendered “testator” - διαθεμενος diathemenos- cannot refer to the death of an animal slain for the purpose of ratifying a covenant, but must mean either a “testator,” or a “contractor,” that is, one of two contracting parties.

(3)that the word rendered “dead” Hebrews 9:17 - νεκροῖς nekrois- means only “dead men,” and never is applied to the dead bodies of animals; (see Stuart on the Hebrew, p. 442.)

These objections to the supposition that the passage refers to a covenant or compact, Prof. Stuart says are in his view insuperable, and they are certainly entitled to grave consideration. Whether the view above presented is one which can be sustained, we may be better able to determine after an examination of the words and phrases which the apostle uses. Those objections which depend wholly on the “philological” argument derived from the words used, will be considered of course in such an examination. It is to be remembered at the outset:

(1)that the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - is never used in the New Testament in the sense of “testament,” or “will,” unless in this place;

(2)that it is never used in this sense in the Septuagint; and,

(3)that the Hebrew word בּרית beriyt- “never” has this signification. This is admitted; see Stuart on the Heb. pp. 439,440. It must require very strong reasons to prove that it has this meaning here, and that Paul has employed the word in a sense differing from its uniform signification elsewhere in the Bible; compare, however, the remarks of Prof. Stuart in Bib. Repos. vol. xx. p. 364.

There must also of necessity be - ἀνάγκη anagkē- That is, it is necessary in order to confirm the covenant, or it would not be binding in cases where this did not occur. The “necessity” in the case is simply to make it valid or obligatory. So we say now there must “necessarily” be a “seal,” or a deed would not be valid. The fair interpretation of this is, that this was the common and established custom in making a “covenant” with God, or confirming the arrangement with him in regard to salvation. To this it is objected (see the first objection above), that “it is yet to be made out that no covenants were valid execpt those by the intervention of sacrifices.” In reply to this, we may observe:

(1) that the point to be made out is not that this was a custom in compacts between “man and man,” but between “man and his Maker.” There is no evidence, as it seems to me, that the apostle alludes to a compact between man and man. The mistake on this subject has arisen partly from the use of the word “testament” by our translators, in the sense of “will” - supposing that it must refer to some transaction relating to man only; and partly from the insertion of the word “men” in Hebrews 9:17, in the translation of the phrase - ἐπὶ νεκροῖς epi nekrois- “upon the dead,” or” over the dead.” But it is not necessary to suppose that there is a reference here to any transaction between man and man at all, as the whole force of the illustration introduced by the apostle will be retained if we suppose him speaking “only” of a covenant between man and God. Then his assertion will be simply that in the arrangement between God and man there was a “necessity” of the death of something, or of the shedding of blood in order to ratify it. This view will save the necessity of proof that the custom of ratifying compacts between man and man by sacrifice prevailed. Whether that can be made out or not, the assertion of the apostle may be true, that in the arrangement which God makes with man, sacrifice was necessary in order to confirm or ratify it.

(2) the point to be made out is, not that such a custom is or was universal among all nations, but that it was the known and regular opinion among the Hebrews that a sacrifice was necessary in a “covenant” with God, in the same way as if we should say that a deed was not valid without a seal, it would not be necessary to show this in regard to all nations, but only that it is the law or the custom in the nation where the writer lived, and at the time when he lived. Other nations may have very different modes of confirming or ratifying a deed, and the same nation may have different methods at various times. The fact or custom to which I suppose there is allusion here, is that of sacrificing an animal to ratify the arrangement between man and his Maker, commonly called a “covenant.” In regard to the existence of such a custom, particularly among the Hebrews, we may make the following observations.

It was the common mode of ratifying the “covenant” between God and man. That was done over a sacrifice, or by the shedding of blood. So the covenant with Abraham was ratified by slaying an heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon. The animals were divided and a burning lamp passed between them; Genesis 15:9, Genesis 15:18. So the covenant made with the Hebrews in the wilderness was ratified in the same manner; Exodus 24:6, seq. Thus, in Jeremiah 34:18, God speaks of the “men that had transgressed his covenant which they had made before him when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof;” see also Zechariah 9:11. Indeed all the Jewish sacrifices were regarded as a ratification of the covenant. It was never supposed that it was ratified or confirmed in a proper manner without such a sacrifice. Instances occur, indeed, in which there was no sacrifice offered when a covenant was made between man and man (see Genesis 23:16; Genesis 24:9; Deuteronomy 25:7, Deuteronomy 25:9; Rth 4:7 ), but these cases do not establish the point that the custom did not prevail of ratifying a covenant with God by the blood of sacrifice.

Further; the terms used in the Hebrew in regard to making a covenant with God, prove that it was understood to be ratified by sacrifice, or that the death of a victim was necessary כּרת ברית kaarat beriyt“to cut a covenant” - the word כרת kaaratmeaning “to cut; to cut off; to cut down,” and the allusion being to the victims offered in sacrifice, and “cut in pieces” on occasion of entering into a covenant; see Genesis 15:10; Jeremiah 34:18-19. The same idea is expressed in the Greek phrases ὅρκια τέμνειν , τέμνειν σπονδάς horkia temneintemnein spondasand in the Latin “icere foedus;” compare Virgil, Aeneid viii. 941.

Et caesa jungebant foedera porca.

These considerations show that it was the common sentiment, alike among the Hebrews and the pagan, that a covenant with God was to be ratified or sanctioned by sacrifice; and the statement of Paul here is, that the death of a sacrificial victim was needful to confirm or ratify such a covenant with God. It was not secure, or confirmed, until blood was thus shed. This was well understood among the Hebrews, that all their covenant transactions with God were to be ratified by a sacrifice; and Paul says that the same principle must apply to any arrangement between God and human beings. Hence, he goes on to show that it was “necessary” that a sacrificial victim should die in the new covenant which God established by man through the Mediator; see Hebrews 9:23. This I understand to be the sum of the argument here. It is not that every contract made between man and man was to be ratified or confirmed by a sacrifice - for the apostle is not discussing that point; but it is that every similar transaction with God must be based on such a sacrifice, and that no covenant with him could be complete without such a sacrifice. This was provided for in the ancient dispensation by the sacrifices which were constantly offered in their worship; in the new, by the one great sacrifice offered on the cross. Hence, all our approaches to God are based on the supposition of such a sacrifice, and are, as it were, ratified over it. We ratify or confirm such a covenant arrangement, not by offering the sacrifice anew, but by recalling it in a proper manner when we celebrate the death of Christ, and when in view of his cross we solemnly pledge ourselves to be the Lord‘s.

The death of the testator - According to our common version, “the death of him who makes a will.” But if the views above expressed are correct, this should be rendered the “covenanter,” or “the victim set apart to be slain.” The Greek will admit of the translation of the word διαθέμενος diathemenos“diathemenos,” by the word “covenanter,” if the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - is rendered “covenant.” To such a translation here as would make the word refer “to a victim slain in order to ratify a covenant,” it is objected that the “word has no such meaning anywhere else. It must either mean a “testator,” or a “contractor,” that is, one of two covenanting parties. But where is the death of a person covenanting made necessary in order to confirm the covenant?” Prof. Stuart, in loc. To this objection I remark respectfully:

(1) that the word is never used in the sense of “testator” either in the New Testament or the Old, unless it be here. It is admitted of the word διαθήκη diathēkē- by Prof. Stuart himself, that it never means “will,” or “testament,” unless it be here, and it is equally true of the word used here that it never means one “who makes a will.” If, therefore, it should be that a meaning quite uncommon, or wholly unknown in the usage of the Scriptures, is to be assigned to the use of the word here, why should it be “assumed” that that unusual meaning should be that of “making a will,” and not that of confirming a covenant?

(2) if the apostle used the word διαθήκη diathēkē- “diatheke” - in the sense of “a covenant” in this passage, nothing is more natural than that he should use the corresponding word διαθέμενος diathemenos- “diathemenos” - in the sense of that by which a covenant was ratified. He wished to express the idea that the covenant was always ratified by the death of a victim - a sacrifice of an animal under the Law, and the sacrifice of the Redeemer under the gospel - and no word would so naturally convey that idea as the one from which the word “covenant” was derived. It is to be remembered also that there was no word to express that thought. Neither the Hebrew nor the Greek furnished such a word; nor have we now any word to express that thought, but are obliged to use circumlocution to convey the idea. The word “covenanter” would not do it; nor the words “victim,” or “sacrifice.” We can express the idea only by some phrase like this - “the victim set apart to be slain to ratify the covenant.” But it was not an unusual thing for the apostle Paul to make use of a word in a sense quite unique to himself; compare 2 Corinthians 4:17.

(3) the word διατίθημι diatithēmi- properly means, “to place apart, to set in order, to arrange.” It is rendered “appoint” in Luke 22:29; “made,” and “make,” with reference to a covenant, Acts 3:25; Hebrews 8:10; Hebrews 10:16. It occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, except in the passage before us. The idea of “placing, laying, disposing, arranging,” etc., enters into the word - as to place wares or merchandise for sale, to arrange a contract, &c; see “Passow.” The fair meaning of the word here may be, whatever goes to arrange, dispose, or settle the covenant, or to make the covenant secure and firm. If the reference be to a compact, it cannot relate to one of the contracting parties, because the death of neither is necessary to confirm it. But it may refer to that which was well-known as an established opinion, that a covenant with God was ratified only by a sacrifice. Still, it must be admitted that this use of the word is not found elsewhere, and the only material question is, whether it is to be presumed that the apostle would employ a word in a single instance in a special signification, where the connection would not render it difficult to be understood. This must be admitted, that he might, whichever view is taken of the meaning of this passage, for on the supposition that he refers here to a will, it is conceded that he uses the word in a sense which does not once occur elsewhere either in the Old Testament or the New. It seems to me, therefore, that the word here may, without impropriety, be regarded as referring to “the victim that was slain in order to ratify a covenant with God,” and that the meaning is, that such a covenant was not regarded as confirmed until the victim was slain. It may be added that the authority of Michaelis, Macknight, Doddridge, Bloomfield, and Dr. JohnP. Wilson, is a proof that such an interpretation cannot be a very serious departure from the proper use of a Greek word.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
The solemn transactions between God and man, are sometimes called a covenant, here a testament, which is a willing deed of a person, bestowing legacies on such persons as are described, and it only takes effect upon his death. Thus Christ died, not only to obtain the blessings of salvation for us, but to give power to the disposal of them. All, by sin, were become guilty before God, had forfeited every thing that is good; but God, willing to show the greatness of his mercy, proclaimed a covenant of grace. Nothing could be clean to a sinner, not even his religious duties; except as his guilt was done away by the death of a sacrifice, of value sufficient for that end, and unless he continually depended upon it. May we ascribe all real good works to the same all-procuring cause, and offer our spiritual sacrifices as sprinkled with Christ's blood, and so purified from their defilement.
Ellen G. White
In Heavenly Places, 29.5

Here are your life-insurance papers. This is not an insurance policy the value of which someone else will receive after your death; it is a policy that assures you a life measuring with the life of God—even eternal life. O what an assurance! what a hope! Let us ever reveal to the world that we are seeking for a better country, even a heavenly. Heaven has been made for us, and we want a part in it. We cannot afford to allow anything to separate us from God and heaven. In this life we must be partakers of the divine nature. Brethren and sisters, you have only one life to live. O let it be a life of virtue, a life hid with Christ in God! HP 29.5

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Ellen G. White
Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, 284-5

Again, consider the judgment that fell upon Uzzah. As in David's reign, the ark was being carried to Jerusalem, Uzzah put forth his hand to keep it steady. For presuming to touch the symbol of God's presence, he was smitten with instant death. 8T 284.1

At the burning bush, when Moses, not recognizing God's presence, turned aside to behold the wonderful sight, the command was given: 8T 284.2

“Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.... And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.” Exodus 3:5, 6. 8T 284.3

“And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a Man over against him with His sword drawn in His hand: and Joshua went unto Him, and said unto Him, Art Thou for us, or for our adversaries? And He said, Nay; but as Captain of the host of the Lord am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto Him, What saith my Lord unto His servant? And the Captain of the Lord's host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so.” Joshua 5:13-15. 8T 284.4

In the sanctuary and the temple, that were the earthly symbols of God's dwelling place, one apartment was sacred to His presence. The veil inwrought with cherubim at its entrance was not to be lifted by any hand save one. To lift that veil and intrude unbidden into the sacred mystery of the most holy place was death. For above the mercy seat and the bowed, worshiping angels dwelt the glory of the Holiest, glory upon which no man might look and live. On the one day of the year appointed for ministry in the most holy place, the high priest with trembling entered God's presence, while clouds of incense veiled the glory from his sight. Throughout the courts of the temple every sound was hushed. No priests ministered at the altars. The hosts of worshipers, bowed in silent awe, sent up their petitions for God's mercy. 8T 284.5

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