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Hebrews 9:17

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

For a testament - Such an arrangement as God enters into with man; see the remarks on Hebrews 9:16.

Is of force - Is ratified, or confirmed - in the same way as a deed or compact is confirmed by affixing a seal.

After men are dead - ἐπὶ νεκροῖς epi nekrois“Over the dead.” That is, in accordance with the view given above, after the animal is dead; or over the body of the animal slain for sacrifice, and to confirm the covenant. “For a covenant is completed or confirmed over dead sacrifices, seeing it is never of force as long as the victim set apart for its ratification is still living.” ms. notes of Dr. JohnP. Wilson. To this interpretation it is objected, that “ νεκροῖς nekrois- “nekrois” - means only “dead men;” but human beings surely were not sacrificed by the Jews, as a mediating sacrifice in order to confirm a covenant.” Prof. Stuart in loc. In regard to this objection, and to the proper meaning of the passage, we may remark:

(1) that the word “men” is not in the Greek, nor is it necessarily implied, unless it be in the use of the Greek word rendered “dead.” The proper translation is, “upon, or over the dead.” The use of the word “men” here by our translators would seem to limit it to the making of a will.

(2) it is to be presumed, unless there is positive proof to the contrary, that the Greeks and Hebrews used the word “dead” as it is used by other people, and that it “might” refer to deceased animals, or vegetables, as well as to human beings. A sacrifice that had been offered was dead; a tree that had fallen was dead; an animal that had been torn by other wild animals was dead. It is “possible” that a people might have one word to refer to “dead men,” and another to “dead animals,” and another to “dead vegetables:” but what is the evidence that the Hebrews or the Greeks had such words?

(3) what is the meaning of this very word - νεκρός nekros- “nekros” - in Hebrews 6:1; Hebrews 9:14, of this very Epistle when it is applied to works - “dead works” - if it never refers to anything but people? compare James 2:17, James 2:20, James 2:26; Ephesians 2:1, Ephesians 2:5; Revelation 3:1. In Ecclesiastes 9:4, it is applied to a dead lion. I suppose, therefore, that the Greek phrase here will admit of the interpretation which the “exigency of the place” seems to demand, and that the idea is, that a covenant with God was ratified over the animals slain in sacrifice, and was not considered as confirmed until the sacrifice was killed.

Otherwise - Since - ἐπεί epeiThat is, unless this takes place it will be of no force.

It is of no strength - It is not “strong” - ἰσχύει ischuei- it is not confirmed or ratified. “While the testator liveth.” Or while the animal selected to confirm the covenant is alive. It can be confirmed only by its being slain. A full examination of the meaning of this passage Hebrews 9:16-17 may be found in an article in the Biblical Repository, vol. 20, pp. 51-71, and in Prof. Stuart‘s reply to that article. Bib. Repos. 20, pp. 356-381.

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
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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