THEY might well gather to Jesus in their thousands, with their wants of body and soul, these sheep wandering without a shepherd; for His Ministry in that district, as formerly in Galilee, was about to draw to a close. And here it is remarkable, that each time His prolonged stay and Ministry in a district were brought to a close with some supper, so to speak, some festive entertainment on his part. The Galilean Ministry had closed with the feeding of the five thousand, the guests being mostly from Capernaum and the towns around, as far as Bethsaida (Julias), many in the number probably on their way to the Paschal feast at Jerusalem. 1 But now at the second provision for the four thousand, with which His Decapolis Ministry closed, the guests were not strictly Jews, but semi-Gentile inhabitants of that district and its neighbourhood. Lastly, his Judæan Ministry closed with the Last Supper. At the first ‘Supper,’ the Jewish guests would fain have proclaimed Him Messiah-King; at the second, as ‘the Son of Man,’ He gave food to those Gentile multitudes which having been with Him those days, and consumed all their victuals during their stay with him, He could not send away fasting, lest they should faint by the way. And on the last occasion, as the true Priest and Sacrifice, He fed His own with the true Paschal Feast, ere He sent them forth alone into the wilderness. Thus these three ‘Suppers’ seem connected, each leading up, as it were, to the other.
There can, at any rate, be little doubt that this second feeding of the multitude took place in the Gentile Decapolis, and that those who sat down to the meal were chiefly the inhabitants of that district. 2 If it be lawful, departing from strict history, to study the symbolism of this event, as compared with the previous feeding of the five thousand who were Jews, somewhat singular differences will present themselves to the mind. On the former occasion there were five thousand fed with five loaves, when twelve baskets of fragments were left. On the second occasion, four thousand were fed from seven loaves, and seven baskets of fragments collected. It is at least curious, that the number five in the provision for the Jews is that of the Pentateuch, just as the number twelve corresponds to that of the tribes and of the Apostles. On the other hand, in the feeding of the Gentiles we mark the number four, which is the signature of the world, and seven, which is that of the Sanctuary. We would not by any means press it, as if these were, in the telling of the narrative, designed coincidences; but, just because they are undesigned, we value them, feeling that there is more of undesigned symbolism in all God’s manifestations – in nature, in history, and in grace – than meets the eye of those who observe the merely phenomenal. Nay, does it not almost seem, as if all things were cast in the mould of heavenly realities, and all earth’s ‘shewbread’ ‘Bread of His Presence’?
On all general points the narratives of the two-fold miraculous feeding run so parallel, that it is not necessary again to consider this event in detail. But the attendant circumstances are so different, that only the most reckless negative criticism could insist, that one and the same event had been presented by the Evangelists as two separate occasions. 3 The broad lines of difference as to the number of persons, the provision, and the quantity of fragments left, cannot be overlooked. Besides, on the former occasion the repast was provided in the evening for those who had gone after Christ, and listened to Him all day, but who, in their eager haste, had come without victuals, when He would not dismiss them faint and hungry, because they had been so busy for the Bread of Life that they had forgotten that of earth. But on this second occasion, of the feeding of the Gentiles, the multitude had been three days with Him, and what sustenance they had brought must have failed, when, in His compassion, the Saviour would not send them to their homes fasting, lest they should faint by the way. This could not have befallen those Gentiles, who had come to the Christ for food to their souls. And, it must be kept in view, that Christ dismissed them, not, as before, because they would have made Him their King, but because Himself was about to depart from the place; and that, sending them to their homes, He could not send them to faint by the way. Yet another marked difference lies even in the designation of ‘the baskets’ in which the fragments left were gathered. At the first feeding, there were, as the Greek word shows, the small wicker-baskets which each of the Twelve would carry in his hand. At the second feeding they were the large baskets, in which provisions, chiefly bread, were stored or carried for longer voyages. 4 For, on the first occasion, when they passed into Israelitish territory – and, as they might think, left their home for a very brief time – there was not the same need to make provision for storing necessaries as on the second, when they were on a lengthened journey, and passing through, or tarrying in Gentile territory.
But the most noteworthy difference seems to us this – that on the first occasion, they who were fed were Jews – on the second, Gentiles. There is an exquisite little trait in the narrative which affords striking, though utterly undesigned, evidence of it. In referring to the blessing which Jesus spake over the first meal, it was noted, 5 that, in strict accordance with Jewish custom, He only rendered thanks once, over the bread. But no such custom would rule His conduct when dispensing the food to the Gentiles; and, indeed, His speaking the blessing only over the bread, while He was silent when distributing the fishes, would probably have given rise to misunderstanding. Accordingly, we find it expressly stated that He not only gave thanks over the bread, but also spake the blessing over the fishes. 6 Nor should we, when marking such undesigned evidences, omit to notice, that on the first occasion, which was immediately before the Passover, the guests were, as three of the Evangelists expressly state, ranged on ‘the grass,’ 7 while, on the present occasion, which must have been several weeks later, when in the East the grass would be burnt up, we are told by the two Evangelists that they sat on ‘the ground.’ 8 Even the difficulty, raised by some, as to the strange repetition of the disciples’ reply, the outcome, in part, of non-expectancy, and, hence, non-belief, and yet in part also of such doubt as tends towards faith: ‘Whence should we have, in a solitary place, 9 so many loaves as to fill so great a multitude?’ seems to us only confirmatory of the narrative, so psychologically true is it. There is no need for the ingenious apology, 10 that, in the remembrance and tradition of the first and second feeding, the similarity of the two events had led to greater similarity in their narration than the actual circumstances would perhaps have warranted. Interesting thoughts are here suggested by the remark, 11 that it is not easy to transport ourselves into the position and feelings of those who had witnessed such a miracle as that of the first feeding of the multitude. ‘We think of the Power as inherent, and, therefore, permanent. To them it might seem intermittent – a gift that came and went.’ And this might seem borne out by the fact that, ever since, their wants had been supplied in the ordinary way, and that, even on the first occasion, they had been directed to gather up the fragments of the heaven-supplied meal.
But more than this requires to be said. First, we must here once more remind ourselves, that the former provision was for Jews, and the disciples might, from their standpoint, well doubt, or at least not assume, that the same miracle would supply the need of the Gentiles, and the same board be surrounded by Jew and Gentile. But, further, the repetition of the same question by the disciples really indicated only a sense of their own inability, and not a doubt of the Saviour’s power of supply, since on this occasion it was not, as on the former, accompanied by a request on their part, to send the multitude away. Thus the very repetition of the question might be a humble reference to the past, of which they dared not, in the circumstances, ask the repetition.
Yet, even if it were otherwise, the strange forgetfulness of Christ’s late miracle on the part of the disciples, and their strange repetition of the self-same question which had once – and, as it might seem to us, for ever – been answered by wondrous deed, need not surprise us. To them the miraculous on the part of Christ must ever have been the new, or else it would have ceased to be the miraculous. Nor did they ever fully realise it, till after His Resurrection they understood, and worshipped Him as God Incarnate. And it is only realising faith of this, which it was intended gradually to evolve during Christ’s Ministry on earth, that enables us to apprehend the Divine Help as, so to speak, incarnate and ever actually present in Christ. And yet even thus, how often we do, who have so believed in Him, forget the Divine provision which has come to us so lately, and repeat, though perhaps not with the same doubt, yet with the same want of certainty, the questions with which we had at first met the Saviour’s challenge of our faith. And even at the last it is met, as by the prophet, in sight of the apparently impossible, by: ‘Lord, Thou knowest.’ 12 More frequently, alas! is it met by nonbelief, misbelief, disbelief, or doubt, engendered by misunderstanding or forgetfulness of that which past experience, as well as the knowledge of Him, should long ago have indelibly written on our minds.
On the occasion referred to in the preceding narrative, those who had lately taken counsel together against Jesus – the Pharisees and the Herodians, or, to put it otherwise, the Pharisees and Sadducees – were not present. For, those who, politically speaking, were ‘Herodians,’ might also, though perhaps not religiously speaking, yet from the Jewish standpoint of St. Matthew, be designated as, or else include, Sadducees. 13 But they were soon to reappear on the scene, as Jesus came close to the Jewish territory of Herod. We suppose the feeding of the multitude to have taken place in the Decapolis, and probably on, or close to, the Eastern shore of the Lake of Galilee. As Jesus sent away the multitude whom He had fed, He took ship with His disciples, and ‘came into the borders of Magadan,’ 14 15 or, as St. Mark puts it, ‘the parts of Dalmanutha.’ ‘The borders of Magadan’ must evidently refer to the same district as ‘the parts of Dalmanutha.’ The one may mark the extreme point of the district southwards, the other northwards – or else, the points west 16 and east – in the locality where He and His disciples landed. This is, of course, only a suggestion, since neither ‘Magadan,’ nor ‘Dalmanutha,’ has been identified. This only we infer, that the place was close to, yet not within the boundary of, strictly Jewish territory; since on His arrival there the Pharisees are said to ‘come forth’ 17 – a word ‘which implies, that they resided elsewhere,’ 18 though, of course, in the neighbourhood. Accordingly, we would seek Magadan south of the Lake of Tiberias, and near to the borders of Galilee, but within the Decapolis. Several sites bear at present somewhat similar names. In regard to the strange and un-Jewish name of Dalmanutha, such utterly unlikely conjectures have been made, that one based on etymology may be hazarded. If we take from Dalmanutha the Aramaic termination -utha, and regard the initial de as a prefix, we have the word Laman, Limin, or Liminah (Nml, Nyml, hnyml= limhn), which, in Rabbinic Hebrew, means a bay, or port, and Dalmanutha might have been the place of a small bay. Possibly, it was the name given to the bay close to the ancient Tarichæa, the modern Kerak, so terribly famous for a sea-fight, or rather a horrible butchery of poor fugitives, when Tarichæa was taken by the Romans in the great Jewish war. Close by, the Lake forms a bay (Laman), and if, as a modern writer asserts, 19 the fortress of Tarichæa was surrounded by a ditch fed by the Jordan and the Lake, so that the fortress could be converted into an island, we see additional reason for the designation of Lamanutha.
It was from the Jewish territory of Galilee, close by, that the Pharisees now came ‘with the Sadducees’ tempting Him with questions, and desiring that His claims should be put to the ultimate arbitrament of ‘a sign from heaven.’ We can quite understand such a challenge on the part of Sadducees, who would disbelieve the heavenly Mission of Christ, or, indeed, to use a modern term, any supra-naturalistic connection between heaven and earth. But, in the mouth of the Pharisees also, it had a special meaning. Certain supposed miracles had been either witnessed by, or testified to them, as done by Christ. As they now represented it – since Christ laid claims which, in their view, were inconsistent with the doctrine received in Israel, preached a Kingdom quite other than that of Jewish expectancy – was at issue with all Jewish customs – more than this, was a breaker of the Law, in its most important commandments, as they understood them – it followed that, according to Deut. 13., He was a false prophet, who was not to be listened to. Then, also, must the miracles which He did have been wrought by the power of Beelzebul, ‘the lord of idolatrous worship,’ the very prince of devils. But had there been real signs, and might it not all have been an illusion? Let Him show them ‘a sign,’ 21 and let that sign come direct from heaven!
Two striking instances from Rabbinic literature will show, that this demand of the Pharisees was in accordance with their notions and practice. We read that, when a certain Rabbi was asked by his disciples about the time of Messiah’s Coming, he replied: ‘I am afraid that you will also ask me for a sign.’ When they promised they would not do so, he told them that the gate of Rome would fall and be rebuilt, and fall again, when there would not be time to restore it, ere the Son of David came. On this they pressed him, despite his remonstrance, for ‘a sign,’ when this was given them – that the waters which issued from the cave of Pamias were turned into blood. Again, as regards ‘a sign from heaven,’ it is said that Rabbi Eliezer, when his teaching was challenged, successively appealed to certain ‘signs.’ First, a locust-tree moved at his bidding one hundred, or, according to some, four hundred cubits. Next, the channels of water were made to flow backwards; then the walls of the Academy leaned forward, and were only arrested at the bidding of another Rabbi. Lastly, Eliezer exclaimed: ‘If the Law is as I teach, let it be proved from heaven!’ when a voice fell from the sky (the Bath Qol): ‘What have ye to do with Rabbi Eliezer, for the Halakhah is as he teaches?’
It was, therefore, no strange thing, when the Pharisees asked of Jesus ‘a sign from heaven,’ to attest His claims and teaching. The answer which He gave was among the most solemn which the leaders of Israel could have heard, and He spake it in deep sorrow of spirit. 25 They had asked Him virtually for some sign of His Messiahship; some striking vindication from heaven of His claims. It would be given them only too soon. We have already seen, 26 that there was a Coming of Christ in His Kingdom – a vindication of His kingly claim before His apostate rebellious subjects, when they who would not have Him to reign over them, but betrayed and crucified Him, would have their commonwealth and city, their polity and Temple, destroyed. By the lurid light of the flames of Jerusalem and the Sanctuary were the words on the cross to be read again. God would vindicate His claims by laying low the pride of their rebellion. The burning of Jerusalem was God’s answer to the Jews’ cry, ‘Away with Him – we have no king but Cæsar;’ the thousands of crosses on which the Romans hanged their captives, the terrible counterpart of the Cross on Golgotha.
It was to this, that Jesus referred in His reply to the Pharisees and ‘Sadducean’ Herodians. How strange! Men could discern by the appearance of the sky whether the day would be fair or stormy. 27 And yet, when all the signs of the gathering storm, that would destroy their city and people, were clearly visible, they, the leaders of the people, failed to perceive them! Israel asked for ‘a sign’! No sign should be given the doomed land and city other than that which had been given to Nineveh: ‘the sign of Jonah.’ 28 The only sign to Nineveh was Jonah’s solemn warning of near judgment, and his call to repentance – and the only sign now, or rather ‘unto this generation no sign,’ 29 was the warning cry of judgment and the loving call to repentance.
It was but a natural, almost necessary, sequence, that ‘He left them and departed.’ Once more the ship, which bore Him and His disciples, spread its sails towards the coast of Bethsaida-Julias. He was on His way to the utmost limit of the land, to Cæsarea Philippi, in pursuit of His purpose to delay the final conflict. For the great crisis must begin, as it would end, in Jerusalem, and at the Feast; it would begin at the Feast of Tabernacles, and it would end at the following Passover. But by the way, the disciples themselves showed how little even they, who had so long and closely followed Christ, understood His teaching, and how prone to misapprehension their spiritual dullness rendered them. Yet it was not so gross and altogether incomprehensible, as the common reading of what happened would imply.
When the Lord touched the other shore, His mind and heart were still full of the scene from which He had lately passed. For truly, on this demand for a sign did the future of Israel seem to hang. Perhaps it is not presumptuous to suppose, that the journey across the Lake had been made in silence on His part, so deeply were mind and heart engrossed with the fate of His own royal city. And now, when they landed, they carried ashore the empty provision-baskets; for, as, with his usual attention to details, St. Mark notes, they had only brought one loaf of bread with them. In fact, in the excitement and hurry ‘they forgot to take bread’ with them. Whether or not something connected with this arrested the attention of Christ, He at last broke the silence, speaking that which was so much on His mind. He warned them, as greatly they needed it, of the leaven with which Pharisees and Sadducees had, each in their own manner, leavened, and so corrupted, 32 the holy bread of Scripture truth. The disciples, aware that in their hurry and excitement they had forgotten bread, misunderstood these words of Christ, although not in the utterly unaccountable manner which commentators generally suppose: as implying ‘a caution against procuring bread from His enemies.’ It is well-nigh impossible, that the disciples could have understood the warning of Christ as meaning any such thing – even irrespective of the consideration, that a prohibition to buy bread from either the Pharisees or Sadducees would have involved an impossibility. The misunderstanding of the disciples was, if unwarrantable, at least rational. They thought the words of Christ implied, that in His view they had not forgotten to bring bread, but purposely omitted to do so, in order, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, to ‘seek of Him a sign’ of His Divine Messiahship – nay, to oblige Him to show such – that of miraculous provision in their want. The mere suspicion showed what was in their minds, and pointed to their danger. This explains how, in His reply, Jesus reproved them, not for utter want of discernment, but only for ‘little faith.’ It was their lack of faith – the very leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees – which had suggested such a thought. Again, if the experience of the past – their own twice-repeated question, and the practical answer which it had received in the miraculous provision of not only enough, but to spare – had taught them anything, it should have been to believe, that the needful provision of their wants by Christ was not ‘a sign,’ such as the Pharisees had asked, but what faith might ever expect from Christ, when following after, or waiting upon, Him. Then understood they truly, that it was not of the leaven of bread that He had bidden them beware – that His mysterious words bore no reference to bread, nor to their supposed omission to bring it for the purpose of eliciting a sign from Him, but pointed to the far more real danger of ‘the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,’ which had underlain the demand for a sign from heaven.
Here, as always, Christ rather suggests than gives the interpretation of His meaning. And this is the law of His teaching. Our modern Pharisees and Sadducees, also, too often ask of him a sign from heaven in evidence of His claims. And we also too often misunderstand His warning to us concerning their leaven. Seeing the scanty store in our basket, our little faith is busy with thoughts about possible signs in multiplying the one loaf which we have, forgetful that, where Christ is, faith may ever expect all that is needful, and that our care should only be in regard to the teaching which might leaven and corrupt that on which our souls are fed.