Bible Verse Explanations and Resources


Galatians 3:19

Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

Wherefore then serveth the law? - If the law does not annul the Abrahamic covenant, and cannot confer salvation on its votaries, why did God give it? This was a very natural objection, and must arise in the mind of any Jew who had paid attention to the apostle's reasoning.

It was added because of transgressions - It was given that we might know our sinfulness, and the need we stood in of the mercy of God. The law is the right line, the straight edge, that determines the obliquity of our conduct. See the notes on Romans 4:15; (note); and especially on Romans 5:20; (note), where this subject is largely discussed, and the figure explained.

Till the seed should come - The law was to be in force till the advent of the Messiah. After that it was to cease.

It was ordained by angels - The ministry of angels was certainly used in giving the law; see Psalm 68:17; Acts 7:53; and Hebrews 2:2; but they were only instruments for transmitting; Moses was the mediator between God and the people, Deuteronomy 5:5.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

Wherefore then serveth the law? - This is obviously an objection which might be urged to the reasoning which the apostle had pursued. It was very obvious to ask, if the principles which he had laid down were correct, of what use was the Law? Why was it given at all? Why were there so many wonderful exhibitions of the divine power at its promulgation? Why were there so many commendations of it in the Scriptures? And why were there so many injunctions to obey it? Are all these to be regarded as nothing; and is the Law to be esteemed as worthless? To all this, the apostle replies that the Law was not useless, but that it was given by God for great and important purposes, and especially for purposes closely connected with the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham and the work of the Mediator.

It was added - ( προσετέθη prosetethē). It was appended to all the previous institutions and promises. It was an additional arrangement on the part of God for great and important purposes. It was an arrangement subsequent to the giving of the promise, and was intended to secure important advantages until the superior arrangement under the Messiah should be introduced, and was with reference to that.

Because of transgressions - On account of transgressions, or with reference to them. The meaning is, that the Law was given to show the true nature of transgressions, or to show what was sin. It was not to reveal a way of justification, but it was to disclose the true nature of sin; to deter people from committing it; to declare its penalty; to convince people of it, and thus to be “ancillary” to, and preparatory to the work of redemption through the Redeemer. This is the true account of the Law of God as given to apostate man, and this use of the Law still exists. This effect of the Law is accomplished:

(1)By showing us what God requires, and what is duty. It is the straight rule of what is right; and to depart from that is the measure of wrong.

(2)it shows us the nature and extent of transgression by showing us how far we have departed from it.

(3)it shows what is the just penalty of transgression, and is thus suited to reveal its true nature.

(4)it is suited to produce conviction for sin, and thus shows how evil and bitter a thing transgression is; see the notes at Romans 4:15; Romans 7:7-11.

(5)it thus shows its own inability to justify and save people, and is a preparatory arrangement to lead people to the cross of the Redeemer; see the note at Galatians 3:24. At the same time,

(6)The Law was given with reference to transgressions in order to keep men from transgression. It was designed to restrain and control them by its denunciations, and by the fear of its threatened penalties.

When Paul says that the Law was given on account of transgressions, we are not to suppose that this was the sole use of the Law; but that this was a main or leading purpose. It may accomplish many other important purposes (Calvin), but this is one leading design. And this design it still accomplishes. It shows people their duty. It reminds them of their guilt. It teaches them how far they have wandered from God. It reveals to them the penalty of disobedience. It shows them that justification by the Law is impossible, and that there must be some other way by which people must be saved. And since these advantages are derived from it, it is of importance that that Law should be still proclaimed, and that its high demands and its penalties should be constantly held up to the view of people.

Till the seed should come … - The Messiah, to whom the promise particularly applied; see Galatians 3:16. It is not implied here that the Law would be of no use after that; but that it would accomplish important purposes before that. A large portion of the laws of Moses would then indeed cease to be binding. They were given to accomplish important purposes among the Jews until the Messiah should come, and then they would give way to the more important institutions of the gospel. But the moral law would continue to accomplish valuable objects after his advent, in showing people the nature of transgression and leading them to the cross of Christ. The essential idea of Paul here is, that the whole arrangement of the Mosaic economy, including all his laws, was with reference to the Messiah. It was a part of a great and glorious whole. It was not an independent thing. It did not stand by itself. It was incomplete and in many respects unintelligible until he came - as one part of a tally is unmeaning and useless until the other is found. In itself it did not justify or save people, but it served to introduce a system by which they could be saved. It contained no provisions for justifying people, but it was in the design of God an essential part of a system by which they could be saved. It was not a whole in itself, but it was a part of a glorious whole, and led to the completion and fulfillment of the entire scheme by which the race could be justified and brought to heaven.

And it was ordained by angels - That is, the Law was ordained by angels. The word ordained here διαταγεὶς diatageisusually means to arrange; to dispose in order; and is commonly used with reference to the marshalling of an army. In regard to the sentiment here that the Law was ordained by angels, see the note at Acts 7:53. The Old Testament makes no mention of the presence of angels at the giving of the Law, but it was a common opinion among the Jews that the Law was given by the instrumentality of angels, and arranged by them; and Paul speaks in accordance with this opinion; compare Hebrews 2:2. The sentiment here is that the Law was prescribed, ordered, or arranged by the instrumentality of the angels; an opinion, certainly, which none can prove not to be true. In itself considered, there is no more absurdity in the opinion that the Law of God should be given by the agency of angels, than there is that it should be done by the instrumentality of man.

In the Septuagint Deuteronomy 33:2 there is an allusion of the same kind. The Hebrew is: “From his right hand went a fiery law for them.” The Septuagint renders this, “His angels with him on his right hand;” compare Josephus, Ant. xv. 5,3. That angels were present at the giving of the Law is more than implied, it is believed, in two passages of the Old Testament. The one is that which is referred to above, and a part of which the translators of the Septuagint expressly apply to angels; Deuteronomy 33:2. The Hebrew is, “Yahweh came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from Mount Paron, and he came (literally) with ten thousands of holiness;” that is, with his holy ten thousands, or with his holy myriads מרבבת קדשׁ mēribbot qodeshBy the holy myriads mentioned here what can be meant but “the angels”? The word “holy” in the Scriptures is not given to storms and winds and tempests; and the natural interpretation is, that he was attended with vast hosts of intelligent beings.

The same sentiment is found in Psalm 68:17 - “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands repeated; the Lord is in the midst of them, as in Sinai, as in his sanctuary.” Does not this evidently imply that when he gave the Law on Mount Sinai he was surrounded by a multitude of angels? see Stuart on the Hebrews, Excursus viii. pp. 565-567. It may be added, that in the fact itself there is no improbability. What is more natural than to suppose that when the Law of God was promulgated in such a solemn manner on Mount Sinai to a world, that the angels should be present? If any occasion on earth has ever occurred where their presence was allowable and proper, assuredly that was one. And yet the Scriptures abound with assurances that the angels are interested in human affairs, and that they have had an important agency in the concerns of man.

In the hand - That is, under the direction, or control of. To be in the hand of one is to be under his control; and the idea is, that while this was done by the ordering of the angels or by their disposition, it was under the control of a Mediator Rosenmuller, however, and others suppose that this means simply by (per); that is, that it was done by the instrumentality of a Mediator. But it seems to me to imply more than this; that the Mediator here referred to had some jurisdiction or control over the Law thus given; or that it was subject to him, or with reference to him. The interpretation however will be affected by the view which is taken of the meaning of the word Mediator.

Of a Mediator - The word “Mediator” Μεσίτης

means properly one who intervenes between two parties, either as an interpreter or internuncius, or as an intercessor or reconciler. In the New Testament, in all the places where it occurs, unless the passage before us be an exception, it is applied to the Lord Jesus, the great Mediator between God and man; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 12:24. There has been some difference of opinion as to the reference of the word here. Rosenmuller, Grotius, Doddridge, Bloomfield, Robinson (Lexicon), Chandler, and many others suppose that it refers to Moses. Calvin and many others suppose that the reference is to Christ. The common sentiment among expositors undoubtedly is, that the reference is to Moses; and it is by no means easy to show that that is not the correct opinion. But to me it seems that there are reasons why it should he regarded as having reference to the great Mediator between God and man. Some of the reasons which incline me to this opinion are:

(1) That the name Mediator is not, so far as I know, applied to Moses elsewhere in the Scriptures.

(2) the name is appropriated to the Lord Jesus. This is certainly the case in the New Testament, unless the passage before us be an exception; and the name is not found in the Old Testament.

(3) it is difficult to see the pertinency of the remark here, or the bearing on the argument, on the supposition that it refers to Moses. How would it affect the drift and purport of the apostle‘s reasoning? How would it bear on the case? But on the supposition that it refers to the Lord Jesus, that would be a material fact in the argument. It would show that the Law was subordinate to the Messiah, and was with reference to him. It was not only subservient by being ordained by angels, but as being under the Mediator, and with reference to him until he, the “promised seed,” should come.

(4) it is only by such an interpretation that the following “vexed” verse can be understood. If that be applied to Moses, I see not that any sense can be affixed to it that shall be pertinent or intelligible.

These reasons may not appear satisfactory to others; and I admit they are not as clear as would be desirable that reasons should be in the exposition of the Bible, but they may be allowed perhaps to have some weight. If they are of weight, then the sentiment of the passage is, that the Law was wholly subordinate, and could not make the promise of no effect. For:

(1) It was given hundreds of years after the promise.

(2) it was under the direction of angels, who must themselves be inferior to, and subordinate to the Messiah, the Mediator between God and man. If given by their agency and instrumentality, however important it might be, it could not interfere with a direct promise made by God himself, but must be subordinate to that promise.

(3) it was under the Mediator, the promised Messiah. It was in his hand, and subject to him. It was a part of the great plan which was contemplated in the promise, and was tributary to that, and must be so regarded. It was not an independent scheme; not a thing that stood by itself; but a scheme subordinate and tributary, and wholly under the control of the Mediator, and a part of the plan of redemption, and of course to be modified or abrogated just as that plan should require, and to be regarded as wholly tributary to it. This view will accord certainly with the argument of Paul, and with his design in showing that the Law could by no means, and in no way, interfere with the promise made to Abraham, but must be regarded as wholly subordinate to the plan of redemption.

Matthew Henry
Concise Bible Commentary
If that promise was enough for salvation, wherefore then serveth the law? The Israelites, though chosen to be God's peculiar people, were sinners as well as others. The law was not intended to discover a way of justification, different from that made known by the promise, but to lead men to see their need of the promise, by showing the sinfulness of sin, and to point to Christ, through whom alone they could be pardoned and justified. The promise was given by God himself; the law was given by the ministry of angels, and the hand of a mediator, even Moses. Hence the law could not be designed to set aside the promise. A mediator, as the very term signifies, is a friend that comes between two parties, and is not to act merely with and for one of them. The great design of the law was, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ, might be given to those that believe; that, being convinced of their guilt, and the insufficiency of the law to effect a righteousness for them, they might be persuaded to believe on Christ, and so obtain the benefit of the promise. And it is not possible that the holy, just, and good law of God, the standard of duty to all, should be contrary to the gospel of Christ. It tends every way to promote it.
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