What did Jesus mean, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine”? These metaphors were a call for valuing the things of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces” (Matthew 7:6).
These metaphors might seem like a put-down of people, but they are really a call for discernment. They are a reminder of the priceless value of God’s truth and His plan. They are instructions to highly value the gospel we received—and are to give—freely.
Context: when not to judge and when to judge
In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus taught about “the danger of being judgmental,” especially in a hypocritical way. We are warned to remember our own sins and weaknesses. We are not to correct someone else who has just a speck of dust in his or her eye, when we might have even worse faults—a beam in our own eye!
Verse 6 then gives a balancing warning about “the danger of being undiscerning” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Abridged, Vol. 2).
“‘Pigs’ and ‘dogs’ serve together as a picture of what is vicious, unclean, and abominable (cf. 2Pe 2:22) . . . Rather than trampling the Gospel under foot, everything must be ‘sold’ in pursuit of it (13:45-46).
The things of God are holy, and we should treasure them and treat them with respect, honor and appreciation.“This verse is not a directive against evangelizing the Gentiles, especially in a book full of various supports for this. ‘Dogs’ and ‘pigs’ refer to any persons who have given clear evidences of rejecting the Gospel with vicious scorn and hardened contempt” (ibid.).
The good news—the gospel—of the Kingdom of God is so precious, we want to share it.
But there is no purpose in trying to force the truth on someone who doesn’t want it, who rejects it or mocks it. The clearest logic, the best biblical support and the most convincing arguments are wasted on someone who has adamantly closed his mind and ears.
I was taught as a young man, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” That saying still rings true today.
What is holy?
According to Thayer’s, the Greek word hagios is used “of things which on account of some connection with God possess a certain distinction and claim to reverence,” such as, in Matthew 7:6, “the blessing of the gospel.”
The things of God are holy, and we should treasure them and treat them with respect, honor and appreciation.
What is a pearl?
Actual pearls are valuable today, but they were far more valuable in Jesus’ day.
“Today pearls are often grown in oyster or clam farms, but this was not the case in ancient Palestine. Out of a 6,000-pound (2,700 kg) haul of oysters, one might find only three or four perfect pearls. Such priceless objects certainly shouldn’t be thrown to pigs” (ESV Global Study Bible).
This was not the only time Jesus used pearls as a metaphor. In Matthew 13:45-46 He gave the parable of the pearl of great price:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
The wonderful Kingdom of God that Jesus will establish on earth when He returns is priceless beyond compare. This is the good news Jesus preached and commissioned His Church to preach (Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 24:14).
We have received it freely, so we give it freely (Matthew 10:8). But we should not associate the price with the value of the message. It is truly priceless; we must be willing to give up anything for it.
We must make the Kingdom of God and His righteousness our first priority (Matthew 6:33).
What makes these pearls of God’s truth so valuable? Think about some of the reasons:
- They come from outside this universe.
- They come from the One who designed and made us.
- They give us access to the All-Powerful One.
- They show us the way to the most meaningful life now.
- They offer the promise of not just long life, but never-ending life.
- They allow us to embrace the deepest, closest, most fulfilling and delightful relationships imaginable.
We must value the good news of the Kingdom of God. But we must not try to force it on others, for without God’s help, they won’t recognize it for what it is and may reject you and it, and risk trampling it under foot.
Proverbs related to not casting pearls before swine
The wisdom literature of the Old Testament proclaimed similar advice.
- “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8).
- “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words” (Proverbs 23:9).
- “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him” (Proverbs 26:4). Verse 5 gives the opposite but related advice. To understand the balance, see our article “Proverbs 26: When Should You Answer a Fool?”
Examples of not casting pearls
What does following Jesus’ advice look like? He gave more instructions before He sent the 12 disciples out in Matthew 10:13-17. They were to start by assuming the best, but if a household or city rejected God’s message, they were to leave.
In verse 16, Jesus gave four more animal metaphors. The disciples were to be like sheep, but they needed to be on guard against the wolves that wanted to attack them. Satan and his system—society, religions and governments—are hostile to the ways of God. So the disciples needed to be as wise as serpents, but as harmless as doves.
That included being wise and harmless enough not to unnecessarily provoke people.
But sometimes it is necessary for God’s servants to speak up. Consider what Paul and Barnabas said to religious leaders who “were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul.
“Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles’” (Acts 13:45-46).
Paul and Barnabas discerned that this rejection required them to change tactics and offer God’s message to a different audience—an audience that wanted to hear.
How do you know when not to cast your pearls?
Peter told Christians to be ready to give an answer “to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15; see “What Is the Meaning of 1 Peter 3:15? Always Be Ready to Give a Defense?”).
But if people don’t ask and aren’t interested, there is no point in pushing the truth on them. This especially applies if they are angry, scornful, contemptuous and vicious.
Someday they might change their minds. God desires this (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), and so should we. But for many, today is not the day.
See more about how to discern when to answer in our article about “Proverbs 26.”
Should we call people pigs and dogs?
No. Just a few verses later Jesus gave the Golden Rule: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12; see “The Golden Rule in the Bible”).
We don’t want to be called names, so we shouldn’t call others names.
It would be very rare that anyone would need to know that you believed Matthew 7:6 applied to them. What benefit to either party would there be to bring it up?
Instead, we should make sure our words are respectful and tactful.
“Let your speech always be with gracious charm, seasoned with the salt of wit, so that you will know the right answer to give in every case” (Colossians 4:6, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible).
For more biblical advice on what to say and not say, see:
- “Social Communication 101: Tact and Gentleness.”
- “Words That Hurt, Words That Help.”
- “Speak the Truth in Love.”