Matthew 23:24: "Straining at Gnats"

Matthew 23:24: “Straining at Gnats”

The KJV states “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24) What does this passage mean? One little preposition, “at,” causes some confusion and has led to some inaccurate interpretations.

Various Interpretations Based on “Strain At.”

The following interpretations are not comprehensive.


Interpretation 1: A common interpretation. Seeking to preserve the term “at,” those who interpret this add the phrase “the discovery of” to make sense of the translation. The Pharisees would “strain (the wine) at (the discovery of) a gnat.”

Interpretation 2:  Matthew Henry’s Commentary: Suggesting that the phrase means to look intensely at, says: “In their practice they strained at gnats, heaved at them, with a seeming dread, as if they had a great abhorrence of sin, and were afraid of it in the least instance…”

Interpretation 3: “Strain at a gnat” is the wrong reading. It should have been translated “strain out” to mean that the blind guides strain gnats out of their wine. They major on the minors by avoiding drinking something unclean, but at the same time, they drink down an unclean camel.

Meaning of “Straining”

The crux of the matter lies in what the verb means. Does the verb mean to “strain at” as if intently looking at something. Or, does it mean something entirely different?

Why the KJV translators translated the Greek Word, diulitzo, as “strain at” is not clear at all. This word has nothing to do with looking at a gnat. The Greek word means to “strain out, filter.” It is used in this passage as “straining out” or “filtering” gnats out of wine. This word never has the idea of “looking at” as the second interpretation suggests.

While one can make a case for the first interpretation, it is a forced interpretation that requires the addition of “the discovery of” to make sense of the passage. Readers of the KJV would not come to that conclusion unless this was explained to them. So, we prefer to let the Greek word to stand on its own. It is a more clear and precise translation to say: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (NIV)

The History of “Strain At.”

There is no explanation why the KJV translators chose “strain at” instead of the easier, normal reading “strain out.” Is this the way people spoke in 1611? Some suggest that is the case. However, no other contemporary English translation supports the 1611 KJV translation. Note the following:

1525-6 AD: Tyndale, “Ye blinde gydes which strayne out a gnat and swalowe a cammyll.”

1599 AD: Geneva, “Ye blind guides, which strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

Even the Oxford English Dictionary states that “strain at” was misunderstood by Shakespeare himself. It would certainly be a “violent effort” on the part of a blind man to look intensely at a gnat. However, the idea of “straining to see a gnat” is not involved at all. It simply means to strain gnats out of wine.

What then does the passage mean and how does it apply?

It is human nature to focus on the technical aspects of a verse and miss the overall point. We should not simply leave this passage with a discussion of “It doesn’t mean this, it means that.” There is a great truth here that must not be missed. Even though a clarification must be made, the ultimate importance is what does the passage mean and what significance is there for me?

In probably the harshest series of denouncements, Jesus “blasts” the Pharisees worship at the temple. From an Old Testament legal perspective, the Pharisees brought all of the right things and the right amount for their tithe. In all, their gifts were perfectly acceptable. Any grain, fruit, or vegetable was appropriate for temple tithes (Lev 27:30). The Pharisees, given to extremism, collected offerings of mint (leaves), dill and cummin (seeds). The more common grains, fruits and vegetables would have satisfied the tithe, but the Pharisees were given to the minutest detail. The problem is that while they were given to counting seeds and leaves, they lacked the most obvious–justice, mercy and faithfulness (v 23) What is easier? Is it easier to focus on details that require only accounting skills, or giving oneself to the more difficult, germane matters–extending justice, mercy and faithfulness? Clearly, satisfying the rituals of worship are easier dealing with issues of the heart. Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees for counting seeds rather than dealing with matters of the heart.

Verse 24 introduces another parallel illustration. Using hyperbole, Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees for their meticulous care with gnats when they were actually swallowing a camel. As mentioned above, the verb “strain out” indicates that the Pharisees were straining gnats out of wine. Wine was also an acceptable tithe (Numbers 15:5ff). Gnats were drawn to alcoholic beverages like wine. In those days, wine was strained through cloths to remove the gnats. Apart from being a  distasteful item, gnats were considered unclean (Lev 11:20; Dt 14:129). It was their practice to filter the unclean gnats out of the wine before presenting it as an offering.

Using a deliberate exaggeration, Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees for taking care that they do not defile themselves by drinking down a very small insect while they were willing to “drink down” another unclean animal, the camel.

The point is, the Pharisees prided themselves on following the Law to its most minute details while overlooking the evil intentions of their heart. Jesus, exercised His omniscience and saw that their perfectly, painstaking details to present acceptable offerings did not match their hearts. These Pharisees were evil men content with external ritualism. As one commentator notes, this is a “man who has lost all sense of moral proportion.” (Arthur Robertson, Matthew)

Conclusion

We all know at least one person who “has lost all sense of moral proportion.” How many have we seen make a profession of Christ then leave over some minor issue. It is very possible that person’s profession was false. Did that person leave a church simply because the carpet was changed? Did that person abandon regular assembly with others simply because another version was being used? Did that person leave his brothers and sisters in Christ because he found a hypocrite? That person needs the application of this verse!

Another error that we should reject is the lack of diligent study of the Word of God. God’s Word is wholly and completely important, even down to the very prepositions. Some believers say “I have a simple faith. This kind of discussion is ‘straining at a gnat.'” As seen above, this is not what the verse means. To suggest that we ought not get the prepositions right, undermines the importance of studying God’s Word. Genuine Bible expositors are not interested in a Pharisaical approach to the Scriptures. They want people to understand exactly what God intended. Do not reject exegetical preaching/teaching as if it is some kind of Pharisaical approach.

Some simply point out errors in the King James Bible. However, for us to simply state that the preposition “at” is wrong and not explore the context of this passage is Pharisaical. This passage is a warning to us all. God knows our hearts. Our religious exercises, no matter how meticulously performed, are worthless if our motives, intents and actions are evil.

Comments

  1. Joe Murray says:

    I believe what Jesus means here is this! One will take the small acts of evil and filter it out, Because there is not much gain in holding on to them, but the biggest acts of evil can bring one higher benfits, and bigger profits. and this is what the pharisees
    delth with, and that is to get the most out of any feat they were involved in.

  2. I believe the verse is stating that the Pharisees are swallowing a camel (taking in large amounts of money) and straining a gnat (giving back very small amounts of money to the hungry and poor) The straining part means they are forcing themselves to give a very tiny bit of money out. The Pharisees are constipated and very stingy with their money. A full explanation is at http://Matthew2324.com

  3. Shannon Mason says:

    I think that using straining "at" instead of "out" was no mistake. Those who are spending more time contemplating the correct word, are the exact ones that He said were straining gnats and swallowing camels. Those who are more focused on the correct word, rather than the correct meaning.

  4. This was good b/c of the camel being an unclean animal… better to swallow the gnat..

  5. “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
    I thank the Lord God for giving me understanding on this matter. The phrase “strain at a gnat” simply means to “choke” at something as small as a gnat. The verse would simply mean that the Pharisees are on the height of their hypocrisy since they easily choke at a gnat but they can readily swallow a camel.

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