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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 16–24
Verses 16–24

Paul and his companions, though they were for some time buried in obscurity at Philippi, yet now begin to be taken notice of.

I. A damsel that had a spirit of divination caused them to be taken notice of, by proclaiming them to be the servants of God. Observe,

1. The account that is given of this damsel: She was pythonissa, possessed with such a spirit of divination as that damsel was by whom the oracles of Apollo at Delphos were delivered; she was actuated by an evil spirit, that dictated ambiguous answers to those who consulted her, which served to gratify their vain desire of knowing things to come, but often deceived them. In those times of ignorance, infidelity, and idolatry, the devil, by the divine permission, thus led men captive at his will; and he could not have gained such adoration from them as he had, if he had not pretended to give oracles to them, for by both his usurpation is maintained as the god of this world. This damsel brought her masters much gain by soothsaying; many came to consult this witch for the discovery of robberies, the finding of things lost, and especially to be told their fortune, and none came but with the rewards of divination in their hands, according to the quality of the person and the importance of the case. Probably there were many that were thus kept for fortune-tellers, but, it should seem, this was more in repute than any of them; for, while others brought some gain, this brought much gain to her masters, being consulted more than any other.

2. The testimony which this damsel gave to Paul and his companions: She met them in the street, as they were going to prayer, to the house of prayer, or rather to the work of prayer there, Acts 16:16. They went thither publicly, every body knew whither they were going, and what they were going to do. If what she did was likely to be any distraction to them, or a hindrance in their work, it is observable how subtle Satan is, that great tempter, in taking the opportunity to give us diversion when we are going about any religious exercises, to ruffle us and to put us out of temper when we need to be most composed. When she met with them she followed them, crying, “These men, how contemptible soever they look and are looked upon, are great men, for they are the servants of the most high God, and men that should be very welcome to us, for they show unto us the way of salvation, both the salvation that will be our happiness, and the way to it that will be our holiness.”

Now, (1.) This witness is true; it is a comprehensive encomium on the faithful preachers of the gospel, and makes their feet beautiful, Rom. 10:15. Though they are men subject to like passions as we are, and earthen vessels, yet, [1.] “They are the servants of the most high God; they attend on him, are employed by him, and are devoted to his honour, as servants; they come to us on his errands, the message they bring is from him, and they serve the purposes and interest of his kingdom. The gods we Gentiles worship are inferior beings, therefore not gods, but these men belong to the supreme Numen, to the most high God, who is over all men, over all gods, who made us all, and to whom we are all accountable. They are his servants, and therefore it is our duty to respect them, and harken to them for their Master’s sake, and it is at our peril if we affront them.” [2.] “They show unto us the way of salvation.” Even the heathen had some notion of the miserable deplorable state of mankind, and their need of salvation, and it was what they made some enquiries after. “Now,” saith she, “these men are the men that show us what we have in vain sought for in our superstitious profitless application to our priests and oracles.” Note, God has, in the gospel of his Son, plainly shown us the way of salvation, has told us what we must do that we may be delivered from the misery to which by sin we have exposed ourselves.

But, (2.) How came this testimony from the mouth of one that had a spirit of divination? Isa. Satan divided against himself? Will he cry up those whose business it is to pull him down? We may take it either, [1.] As extorted from this spirit of divination for the honour of the gospel by the power of God; as the devil was forced to say of Christ (Mark 1:24): I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God. The truth is sometimes magnified by the confession of its adversaries, in which they are witnesses against themselves. Christ would have this testimony of the damsel to rise up in judgment against those at Philippi who slighted and persecuted the apostles; though the gospel needed no such testimony, yet it shall serve to add to their commendation that the damsel whom they looked upon as an oracle in other things proclaimed the apostles God’s servants. Or, [2.] As designed by the evil spirit, that subtle serpent, to the dishonour of the gospel; some think she designed hereby to gain credit to herself and her prophecies, and so to increase her master’s profit by pretending to be in the interest of the apostles, who, she thought, had a growing reputation, or to curry favour with Paul, that he might not separate her and her familiar. Others think that Satan, who can transform himself into an angel of light, and can say anything to serve a turn, designed hereby to disgrace the apostles; as if these divines were of the same fraternity with their diviners, because they were witnessed to by them, and then the people might as well adhere to those they had been used to. Those that were most likely to receive the apostles’ doctrine were such as were prejudiced against these spirits of divination, and therefore would, by this testimony, be prejudiced against the gospel; and, as for those who regarded these diviners, the devil thought himself sure of them.

II. Christ caused them to be taken notice of, by giving them power to cast the devil out of this damsel. She continued many days clamouring thus (Acts 16:18); and, it should seem, Paul took no notice of her, not knowing but it might be ordered of God for the service of his cause, that she should thus witness concerning his ministers; but finding perhaps that it did them a prejudice, rather than any service, he soon silenced her, by casting the devil out of her. 1. He was grieved. It troubled him to see the damsel made an instrument of Satan to deceive people, and to see the people imposed upon by her divinations. It was a disturbance to him to hear a sacred truth so profaned, and good words come out of such a wicked mouth with such and evil design. Perhaps they were spoken in an ironical bantering way, as ridiculing the apostles’ pretensions, and mocking them, as when Christ’s persecutors complimented him with Hail, king of the Jews; and then justly might Paul be grieved, as any good man’s heart would be, to hear any good truth of God bawled out in the streets in a canting jeering way. 2. He commanded the evil spirit to come out of her. He turned with a holy indignation, angry both at the flatteries and at the reproaches of the unclean spirit, and said, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her; and by this he will show that these men are the servants of the living God, and are able to prove themselves so, without her testimony: her silence shall demonstrate it more than her speaking could do. Thus Paul shows the way of salvation indeed, that it is by breaking the power of Satan, and chaining him up, that he may not deceive the world (Rev. 20:3), and that this salvation is to be obtained in the name of Jesus Christ only, as in his name the devil was now cast out and by no other. It was a great blessing to the country when Christ by a word cast the devil out of those in whom he frightened people and molested them so that no man might pass by that way (Matt. 8:28); but it was a much greater kindness to the country when Paul now, in Christ’s name, cast the devil out of one who deceived people and imposed upon their credulity. Power went along with the word of Christ, before which Satan could not stand, but was forced to quit his hold, and in this case it was a strong hold: He came out the same hour.

III. The masters of the damsel that was dispossessed caused them to be taken notice of, by bringing them before the magistrates for doing it, and laying it to their charge as their crime. The preachers of the gospel would never have had an opportunity of speaking to the magistrates if they had not been brought before them as evil doers. Observe here,

1. That which provoked them was, that, the damsel being restored to herself, her masters saw that the hope of their gain was gone, Acts 16:19. See here what evil the love of money is the root of! If the preaching of the gospel ruin the craft of the silversmiths (Acts 19:24), much more the craft of the soothsayers; and therefore here is a great outcry raised, when Satan’s power to deceive is broken: the priests hated the gospel because it turned men from the blind service of dumb idols, and so the hope of their gains was gone. The power of Christ, which appeared in dispossessing the woman, and the great kindness done to her in delivering her out of Satan’s hand, made no impression upon them when they apprehended that they should hereby lose money.

2. The course they took with them was to incense the higher powers against them, as men fit to be punished: They caught them as they went along, and, with the utmost fury and violence, dragged them into the marketplace, where public justice was administered. (1.) They brought them to the rulers, their justices of peace, to do by them as men taken into the hands of the law, the duumviri. (2.) From them they hurried them to the magistrates, the praetors or governors of the city, tois strategoisthe officers of the army, so the word signifies; but it is taken in general for the judges or chief rulers: to them they brought their complaint.

3. The charge they exhibited against them was that they were the troublers of the land, Acts 16:20. They take it for granted that these men are Jews, a nation at this time as much an abomination to the Romans as they had long ago been to the Egyptians. Piteous was the case of the apostles, when it was turned to their reproach that they were Jews, and yet the Jews were their most violent persecutors! (1.) The general charge against them is that they troubled the city, sowed discord, and disturbed the public peace, and occasioned riots and tumults, than which nothing could be more false and unjust, as was Ahab’s character of Elijah (1 Kgs. 18:17): Art thou he that troubleth Israel? If they troubled the city, it was but like the angel’s troubling the water of Bethesda’s pool, in order to healing-shaking, in order to a happy settlement. Thus those that rouse the sluggards are exclaimed against for troubling them. (2.) The proof of this charge is their teaching customs not proper to be admitted by a Roman colony, Acts 16:21. The Romans were always very jealous of innovations in religion. Right or wrong, they would adhere to that, how vain soever, which they had received by tradition from their fathers. No foreign nor upstart deity must be allowed, without the approbation of the senate; the gods of their country must be their gods, true or false. This was one of the laws of the twelve tables. Hath a nation changed their gods? It incensed them against the apostles that they taught a religion destructive of polytheism and idolatry, and preached to them to turn from those vanities. This the Romans could not bear: “If this grow upon us, in a little while we shall lose our religion.”

IV. The magistrates, by their proceedings against them, caused them to be taken notice of.

1. By countenancing the persecution they raised the mob upon them (Acts 16:22): The multitude rose up together against them, and were ready to pull them to pieces. It has been the artifice of Satan to make God’s ministers and people odious to the commonalty, by representing them as dangerous men, who aimed at the destruction of the constitution and the changing of the customs, when really there has been no ground for such an imputation.

2. By going on to an execution they further represented them as the vilest malefactors: They rent off their clothes, with rage and fury, not having patience till they were taken off, in order to their being scourged. This the apostle refers to when he speaks of their being treated at Philippi, 1 Thess. 2:2. The magistrates commanded that they should be whipped as vagabonds, by the lictors or beadles who attended the praetors, and carried rods with them for that purpose; this was one of those three times that Paul was beaten with rods, according to the Roman usage, which was not under the compassionate limitation of the number of stripes not to exceed forty, which was provided by the Jewish law. It is here said that they laid many stripes upon them (Acts 16:23), without counting how many, because they seemed vile unto them, Deut. 25:3. Now, one would think, this might have satiated their cruelty; if they must be whipped, surely they must be discharged. No, they are imprisoned, and it is probable the present purpose was to try them for their lives, and put them to death; else why should there be such care taken to prevent their escape? (1.) The judges made their commitment very strict: They charged the jailer to keep them safely, and have a very watchful eye upon them, as if they were dangerous men, that either would venture to break prison themselves or were in confederacy with those that would attempt to rescue them. Thus they endeavoured to render them odious, that they might justify themselves in the base usage they had given them. (2.) The jailer made their confinement very severe (Acts 16:24): Having received such a charge, though he might have kept them safely enough in the outer prison, yet he thrust them into the inner prison. He was sensible that the magistrates had a great indignation against these men, and were inclined to be severe with them, and therefore he thought to ingratiate himself with them, by exerting his power likewise against them to the uttermost. When magistrates are cruel, it is no wonder that the officers under them are so too. He put them into the inner prison, the dungeon, into which none were usually put but condemned malefactors, dark at noon-day, damp and cold, dirty, it is likely, and every way offensive, like that into which Jeremiah was let down (Jer. 38:6); and, as if this were not enough, he made their feet fast in the stocks. Perhaps, having heard a report of the escape of the preachers of the gospel out of prison, when the doors were fast barred (Acts 5:19; 12:19), he thought he would be wiser than other jailers had been, and therefore would effectually secure them by fastening them in the stocks; and they were not the first of God’s messengers that had their feet in the stocks; Jeremiah was so treated, and publicly too, in the high-gate of Benjamin (Jer. 20:2); Joseph had his feet hurt with fetters, Ps. 105:18. Oh what hard usage have God’s servants met with, as in the former days, so in the latter times! Witness the Book of Martyrs, martyrs in queen Mary’s time.