David Ker examines this verse in a blog post and finds it resistant to normal exegetical methods (context, parallels, cross references, word study, historical context, etc).
Since E-sword bible software makes this so easy, I thought I’d do another examination of ye olde commentaries on this verse. Here are some results:
Aug., Serm. in Mont., ii, 20: Let us see now what is the holy thing, what are the dogs, what the pearls, what the swine? The holy thing is all that it were impiety to corrupt; a sin which may be committed by the will, though the thing itself be undone. The pearls are all spiritual things that are to be highly esteemed. Thus though one and the same thing may be called both the holy thing and a pearl, yet it is called holy because it is not to be corrupted; and called a pearl because it is not be contemned.
Aug.: The dogs are those that assault the truth; the swine we may not unsuitably take for those that despise the truth. Therefore because dogs leap forth to rend in pieces, and what they rend, suffer not to continue whole, He said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs;” because they strive to the utmost of their power to destroy the truth. The swine though they do not assault by biting as dogs, yet do they defile by trampling upon, and therefore He said, “Cast not your pearls before swine.”
Aug.: That which is despised is said to be trodden under foot: hence it is said, “Lest perchance they tread them under foot.”
Aug.: That which follows, “Turn again and rend you,” He means not the pearls themselves, for these they tread under foot, and when they turn again that they may hear something further, then they rend him by whom the pearls on which they had trode had been cast. For you will not easily find what will please him who has despised things god by great toil. Whoever then undertake to teach such, I see not how they shall not be trode upon and rent by those they teach.
Aug.: We must be careful therefore not to explain ought to him who does not receive it; for men the rather seek that which is hidden than that which is opened. He either attacks from ferocity as a dog, or overlooks from stupidity as swine.
But it does not follow that if the truth be kept hid, falsehood is uttered. The Lord Himself who never spoke falsely, yet sometimes concealed the truth, as in that, “I have yet many things to say unto you, the which ye are not now able to bear.” [Joh_16:12] But if any is unable to receive these things because of his filthiness, we must first cleanse him as far as lays in our power either by word or deed.
But in that the Lord is found to have said some things which many who heard Him did not receive, but either rejected or contemned them, we are not to think that therein He gave the holy thing to the dogs, or cast His pearls before swine. He gave to those who were able to receive, and who were in the company, whom it was not fit should be neglected for the uncleanness of the rest. And though those who tempted Him might perish in those answers which He gave to them, yet those who could receive them by occasion of these inquiries heard many useful things.
He therefore who knows what should be answered ought to make answer, for their sakes at least who might fall into despair should they think that the question proposed is one that cannot be answered. But this only in the case of such matters as pertain to instruction of salvation; of things superfluous or harmful nothing should be said; but it should then be explained for what reason we ought not to make answer in such points to the enquirer.
Pseudo-Chrys.: Otherwise; “That which is holy” denotes baptism, the grace of Christ’s body, and the like; but the mysteries of the truth are intended by the pearls. For as pearls are inclosed in shells, and such in the deeps of the sea, so the divine mysteries inclosed in words are lodged in the deep meaning of Holy Scripture.
Pseudo-Chrys.: Otherwise; The dog and the swine are unclean animals; the dog indeed in every respect, as he neither chews the cud, nor divides the hoof; but swine in one respect only, seeing they divide the hoof, though they do not chew the cud. Hence I think that we are to understand by the dog, the Gentiles who are altogether unclean, both in their life, and in their faith; but by the swine are to be understood heretics, because they seem to call upon the name of the Lord.
“Give not therefore that which is holy to the dogs,” for that baptism and the other sacraments are not to be given but to them that have the faith. In like manner the mysteries of the truth, that is, the pearls, are not to be given but to such as desire the truth and live with human reason. If then you cast them to the swine, that is, to such as are grovelling in impurity of life, they do not understand their preciousness, but value them like to other worldly fables, and tread them under foot with their carnal life.
Pseudo-Chrys.: Or; The swine not only trample upon the pearls by their carnal life, but after a little they turn, and by disobedience rend those who offend them. Yea often when offended they bring false accusation against them as sowers of new dogmas. The dogs also having trode upon holy things by their impure actions, by their disputings rend the preacher of truth.
Pseudo-Chrys.: With good reason He forbade pearls to be given to swine. For if they are not to be set before swine that are the less unclean, how much more are they to be withhold from dogs that are so much more unclean. But respecting the giving that which is holy, we cannot hold the same opinion; seeing we often give the benediction to Christians who live as the brutes; and that not because they deserve to receive it, but lest perchance being more grievously offended they should perish utterly.
Chrys.: And to those that are right-minded and have understanding, when revealed they appear good; but to those without understanding, they seem to be more deserving reverence because they are not understood.
Chrys.: Well is that said, “Lest they turn;” for they feign meekness that they may learn; and when they have learned, they attack.
Cyprian Treatise V An Address to Demetrianus
And we are, moreover, bidden to keep what is holy within our own knowledge, and not expose it to be trodden down by swine and dogs, since the Lord speaks, saying, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”
Recognitions of Clement II
that we may eat with him, how much more is it proper for us to ascertain who or what sort of man he is to whom the words of immortality are to be committed! For we ought to be careful, yea, extremely careful, that we cast not our pearls before swine.
6.Give not that which is holyIt is unnecessary to repeat oftener, that Matthew gives us here detached sentences, which ought not to be viewed as a continued discourse. The present instruction is not at all connected with what came immediately before, but is entirely separate from it. Christ reminds the Apostles, and, through them, all the teachers of the Gospel, to reserve the treasure of heavenly wisdom for the children of God alone, and not to expose it to unworthy and profane despisers of his word.
But here a question arises: for he afterwards commanded to preach the Gospel to every creature, (Mar_16:15;) and Paul says, that the preaching of it is a deadly savor to wicked men, (2Co_2:16;) and nothing is more certain than that it is every day held out to unbelievers, by the command of God, for a testimony, that they may be rendered the more inexcusable. I reply: As the ministers of the Gospel, and those who are called to the office of teaching, cannot distinguish between the children of God and swine, it is their duty to present the doctrine of salvation indiscriminately to all. Though many may appear to them, at first, to be hardened and unyielding, yet charity forbids that such persons should be immediately pronounced to be desperate.
It ought to be understood, that dogs and swine are names given not to every kind of debauched men, or to those who are destitute of the fear of God and of true godliness, but to those who, by clear evidences, have manifested a hardened contempt of God, so that their disease appears to be incurable. In another passage, Christ places the dogsin contrast with the elect people of God and the household of faith, It is not proper to take the children’s bread, and give it to dogs, (Mat_15:27.) But by dogs and swine he means here those who are so thoroughly imbued with a wicked contempt of God, that they refuse to accept any remedy.
Hence it is evident, how grievously the words of Christ are tortured by those who think that he limits the doctrine of the Gospel to those only who are teachable and well-prepared. For what will be the consequence, if nobody is invited by pious teachers, until by his obedience he has anticipated the grace of God? On the contrary, we are all by nature unholy, and prone to rebellion. The remedy of salvation must be refused to none, till they have rejected it so basely when offered to them, as to make it evident that they are reprobate and self-condemned, (αὐτοκατάκριτοι,) as Paul says of heretics, (Titus 3:11.)
There are two reasons, why Christ forbade that the Gospel should be offered to lost despisers. It is an open profanation of the mysteries of God to expose them to the taunts of wicked men. Another reason is, that Christ intended to comfort his disciples, that they might not cease to bestow their labors on the elect of God in teaching the Gospel, though they saw it wantonly rejected by wicked and ungodly men. His meaning is lest this inestimable treasure should be held in little estimation, swine and dogs must not be permitted to approach it. There are two designations which Christ bestows on the doctrine of salvation: he calls it holy, and compares it to pearls. Hence we learn how highly we ought to esteem this doctrine.
Lest these trample them under their feet Christ appears to distinguish between the swine and the dogs: attributing brutal stupidity to the swine, and rage to the dogs And certainly, experience shows, that there are two such classes of despisers of God. Whatever is taught in Scripture, for instance, about the corrupt nature of man, free justification, and eternal election, is turned by many into an encouragement to sloth and to carnal indulgence. Such persons are fitly and justly pronounced to be swine Others, again, tear the pure doctrine, and its ministers, with sacrilegious reproaches, as if they threw away all desire to do well, all fear of God, and all care for their salvation. Although he employs both names to describe the incurable opponents of the Word of God, yet, by a twofold comparison, he points out briefly in what respect the one differs from the other.
Mat 7:6 Give not that which is holy to the dogs,…. Dogs were unclean creatures by the law; the price of one might not be brought into the house of the Lord, for a vow, Deu_23:18 yea, these creatures were not admitted into several temples of the Heathens (h). Things profane and unclean, as flesh torn by beasts, were ordered to be given to them, Exo_22:31 but nothing that was holy was to be given them, as holy flesh, or the holy oblations, or anything that was consecrated to holy uses; to which is the allusion here. It is a common maxim (i) with the Jews,
שאין פודין את הקדשים להאכילן לכלבים, “that they do not redeem holy things, to give to the dogs to eat”.”
Here the phrase is used in a metaphorical sense; and is generally understood of not delivering or communicating the holy word of God, and the truths of the Gospel, comparable to pearls, or the ordinances of it, to persons notoriously vile and sinful: to men, who being violent and furious persecutors, and impudent blasphemers, are compared to “dogs”; or to such, who are scandalously vile, impure in their lives and conversations, and are therefore compared to swine;
neither cast ye your pearls before swine. But since the subject Christ is upon is reproof, it seems rather to be the design of these expressions, that men should be cautious, and prudent, in rebuking and admonishing such persons for their sins, in whom there is no appearance or hope of success; yea, where there is danger of sustaining loss;
lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you: that is, despise the admonitions and reproofs given, and hurt the persons who give them, either by words or deeds; see Pro_9:7. The Jews have some sayings much like these, and will serve to illustrate them (k);
אל תשליכו הפנינים לפני החזירים, “do not cast pearls before swine”, nor deliver wisdom to him, who knows not the excellency of it; for wisdom is better than pearls, and he that does not seek after it, is worse than a swine.”
(h) Vid. Alex. ab. Alex. Gaeial. Dier. l. 2. c. 14. (i) T. Bab. Temura, fol. 17. 1. & 31. 1. & 33. 2. Becorot, fol. 15. 1. Hieros. Pesachim, fol. 27. 4. & Maaser Sheni, fol. 53. 3. (k) Mischar Happeninim apud Buxtorf. Florileg. Heb. p. 306.
Give not that which is holy – Το αγιον, the holy or sacred thing; i.e. any thing, especially, of the sacrificial kind, which had been consecrated to God. The members of this sentence should be transposed thus: –
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,
Lest they turn again and rend you:
Neither cast ye your pearls before swine,
Lest they trample them under their feet
The propriety of this transposition is self-evident. There are many such transpositions as these, both in sacred and profane writers…
As a general meaning of this passage, we may just say: “The sacrament of the Lord’s supper, and other holy ordinances which are only instituted for the genuine followers of Christ, are not to be dispensed to those who are continually returning like the snarling ill-natured dog to their easily predominant sins of rash judgment, barking at and tearing the characters of others by evil speaking, back biting and slandering; nor to him who, like the swine, is frequently returning to wallow in the mud of sensual gratifications and impurities.”
That which is holy unto the dogs (to hagion tois kusin). It is not clear to what “the holy” refers, to ear-rings or to amulets, but that would not appeal to dogs. Trench (Sermon on the Mount, p. 136) says that the reference is to meat offered in sacrifice that must not be flung to dogs: “It is not that the dogs would not eat it, for it would be welcome to them; but that it would be a profanation to give it to them, thus to make it a skubalon, Exo_22:31.” The yelping dogs would jump at it. Dogs are kin to wolves and infest the streets of oriental cities.
Your pearls before the swine (tous margaritas humon emprosthen ton choiron). The word pearl we have in the name Margarita (Margaret). Pearls look a bit like peas or acorns and would deceive the hogs until they discovered the deception. The wild boars haunt the Jordan Valley still and are not far removed from bears as they trample with their feet and rend with their tusks those who have angered them.
Mat 15:26 NET. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said.
Php 3:2 NET. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!