Exposition of Matthew 13:10-17, Parable of the Four Soils – Part 2

If you hear ten sermons on the Parable of the Four Soils, chances are that every one of them will mostly ignore the center section (verses 1017) and press on toward the interpretation Jesus gives later (verses 1823). We do better to pay attention to the way Jesus presented the parable. Though the center section is difficult, it will reward our attention.

Perhaps your best introduction to this section would be to consider your own level of spiritual interest. The fact that you are reading this blogis a mark in your favor.

Matthew 13:10-17

10 The disciples came to him and asked, Why do you speak to the people in parables?

11 He replied, Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

15 For this peoples heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.

Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.


The disciples immediately sense the difference in Jesus teaching because he is using parables (verse 10). Here is the crucial difference between Jesus disciples and others: when puzzled, the disciples come to Jesus to seek further information. Of course, their question might also express mild criticism of this course change.

Matthew 13:11 He replied, You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they have not. (NET, emphasis added)

The NET Bible does a better job with verse 11, so I have shown it above. Though you cannot tell in NETs translation he replied (verse 13), Jesus signals in Greek that his words are both important and surprising.[1] Note the bold-face words: Jesus is making a powerful contrast between his disciples (you) and others (they). You can see that the pronoun you, appears at the start of the sentence for emphasis. Jesus is willing to explain the secrets of Gods kingship to the disciples, but he is not revealing these secrets to those who are uninterested.

If that interpretation sounds unlikely, look at verse 12. Those who have a relationship to Jesus will get an increasing amount of understanding, to the point of abundance. Those lacking a relationship to Jesus will get nothing and fall ever farther away. Once again, in verse 13, Jesus uses Greek words that signal introduction of a key idea: the national response against Jesus fulfills what Isaiah the prophet had said long ago (verses 13b-14).[2] When plain teaching authenticated by miracles does not penetrate someones heart, their heart is hardened against change. Isaiah says that they will not repent.

When never means maybe

Before I discuss verse 14b, I want to explain why finding the right interpretation matters to you. Jesus was speaking about how Jews resisting the knowledge of God gradually degraded their ability to respond to God at all. The principles he lays out also apply to people we know who have heard about Jesus but are holding him at arms length or rejecting him entirely. Do those people have any chance at all of responding later, or has their opportunity for eternal life been lost forever?

A closer look

Matthew 13:14b (NIV) You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

Matthew 13:14b (NET) You will listen carefully yet will never understand, you will look closely yet will never comprehend.

It is not uncommon for translation disagreements to occur in spots where the New Testament quotes (or paraphrases) the Old Testament. Matthew 13:14b is such a place, because Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:910. NIVs translation sounds beautiful with its rhyming combination ever … never. This combination is an adverbial idea stressing time. But NETs translation shows that other choices are possible, even preferable. NET also uses an adverbial idea the right approach to this grammatical knot but the words carefully and closely are adverbs of intensification, not time.

We are not finished with verse 14b, until we deal with the translation never. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg is not fond of never as an English translation of the Greek phrase: Ever and never are somewhat misleading translations in light of Isa. 6:13, which looks forward to a future restoration of at least some of those who are now obdurate [hardened].[3] Blomberg prefers this translation of verse 14b: You will surely hear but not understand; you will surely see but not perceive. This is a generalization, and some specific exceptions may occur. How do I know exceptions exist? Because, as Blomberg noted, God declares that a remnant of believing Jews will always remain. Snodgrass explains that having ears to hear is one mark of the remnant in the time Jesus is teaching.[4]

Blomberg certainly put his finger on the right issue. A certain two-word phrase in Matthews Greek text means one of the following: never, not at all, by no means, or certainly not. If Jesus meant never in its normal English sense as NIV believes than no descendant of Abraham from that moment until the cross would put their faith in him, including his mother and brothers. We know that is not true.

So, we have two alternatives: 1) try one of the other meanings for the two-word phrase, or 2) take the phrase in a figurative sense rather than a literal one. Snodgrass prefers the figurative sense. He argues that the harsh language if Isaiah 6:910 was intended to shock the Israelites so that some would hear and follow. Jesus used this Isaiah passage for the same purpose, not literally but forcefully, to provoke the people and bring about both hearing and obedience.[5]

At the end of our interpretive effort, certain facts are decisive: 1) In spite of the harsh language of Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus is still trying to reach the Jews, and 2) The set of four similitudes includes the good soil that receives the seed and produces a crop. So, the situation of those listening to Jesus is dire, but not hopeless.

A Time Like No Other

Our Lord said some things that Christians ignore; perhaps they have been poorly briefed. The period of time that Jesus spent in the physical presence of his disciples was a time of unparalleled blessing (verses 1617). Who says so? Jesus. That time was special!

We, on the other hand, are in a similar position to many prophets and righteous people (verse 17) in that we do not have the amazing experience that the first disciples had. Of course, our position is wonderfully enriched by the presence of the Holy Spirit within every believer and the knowledge of Jesus resurrection.

What is sometimes harder for us is to get is that not every word in the Gospels is addressed to us, even though we can still gain insight from it. Some of what Jesus said was meant to be applied on the spot, but not later. The statement that the disciples were benefactors of a special blessing is such a case.

[1] Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 145, explaining redundant quotative frames.

[2] Runge, Discourse Grammar, 49, on how certain Greek phrases introduce key ideas.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 217.

[4] Snodgrass, Stories with Insight, 161.

[5] Snodgrass, Stories With Intent, 160-161.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!