Misguided Judgment: What “No Pearls to Pigs” Means in Matthew 7:6

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Our English word “judge,” like the Greek verb krinō, has two totally different senses. It can refer to passing a negative verdict on a person or thing (= “condemn”), or it may refer to exercising careful evaluation over persons or things (= “discern”). For example, we judge laziness to be wrong, but we judge one solution to a problem to be more appropriate than another. We find both types of judgment discussed within one paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:1–6).

In Matthew 7:1 Jesus states the general principle: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” He is not forbidding all “judging,” for he himself shortly demands that his followers identify and reject “false prophets” (Matt 7:15–20). Rather, he is requiring his people not to be judgmental, quickly coming to a negative verdict without proper, careful analysis. To be constantly judgmental is in reality a misguided effort to assume God’s distinctive role as Judge of all people, and such folly exposes oneself to God’s infallible and final judgment.

Verses 2–5 provide two applications of the general principle: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:2). If we judge harshly, we will be judged harshly. If we judge generously, we will be judged generously. Indirectly, this is a call to be generous in our attitude to others. Then in verses 3–5 Jesus gives an example of misguided judgment. How can a person ever succeed in removing a speck of sawdust from his neighbor’s eye (a commendable task in itself) if his own eyesight is impaired by a whole plank? Such hypocrisy is laughable!

But when we resolutely refuse to be censorious, there is sometimes the danger that we will lack the necessary discernment regarding people and things (v. 6):

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls before pigs. If you do, they will trample them under their feet, And turn and tear you to pieces.

“Dogs” in Scripture are generally not household pets but scavenging hounds capable of inflicting a severe mauling on humans who frustrate them. “Pigs” represent what is unclean and despised, animals preoccupied with eating whatever is thrown to them. Our initial instinct with verse 6 is to relate the first and third lines, and the second and fourth lines (thus ABAB). But dogs don’t trample things underfoot, and pigs don’t tear people to pieces. Here we have an instance of the literary technique called “chiasmus” (or “chiasm” in its shortened form), from the Greek word chiasmos (reflecting the Greek letter X, chi). This is the “placing crosswise” of clauses in an ABBA pattern, so that the first corresponds to the fourth, and the second to the third.

If dogs are given “what is sacred”—perhaps the “holy flesh” of sacrificed animals—they will not recognize its difference from regular scraps of flesh. Having greedily devoured all the meager flesh given them, they will turn on the giver in their frustration or disgust and begin to maul them. Similarly, pigs will fail to see the value of pearls, mistaking them for food, and in their haste to get actual food will scornfully trample the pearls underfoot.

Jesus is calling for discernment and discrimination in giving. Not all people recognize and are ready for “what is sacred,” the exquisite value of the gospel of God’s kingdom, the “pearl of great value” (Matt 13:45–46). Sometimes silence is called for. Even when Herod Antipas “plied him with many questions,” Jesus remained silent (Luke 23:9).

So in addition to avoiding a censorious and condemning attitude toward others, the followers of Jesus must also be perceptive and discriminating in their giving to others. They are, simply, to “judge rightly” (John 7:24).

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This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Murray J. Harris

Murray J. Harris, professor emeritus and author, is well known for his commentaries on 2 Corinthians. He has written several books, including Navigating Tough Texts.

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