“Do not give what is holy to the dogs, nor cast your pearls before swine.” Matthew 7:6
During His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out an important principle about proper judgment, among many other things.
Beginning in Matthew 7:1, Jesus first instructs us not to judge others. He then presents practical applications and the consequences if we judge incorrectly. Jesus finishes His point with a direct instruction, using dogs and pigs as an illustration in verse six.
Jesus’ symbolic use of dogs and pigs in explaining the godly principle of judgment has confused many believers. It is easy to skip over this important piece of Scripture, not bothering to explore it more. But we must resist the temptation to avoid the complex parts of God’s word.
So, what did Jesus mean when He tells us not to give anything holy to dogs and not cast our pearls before swine? To grasp its full meaning, we must begin back in verse one.
“Judge not that you be not judged.” NKJ
The Greek word for judge in verse one is krino, which has two meanings. It can indicate either condemnation or properly exercised discernment. Proper discernment is essential when we need to separate truth from lies or right from wrong (Matthew 7:15). Condemnation, on the other hand, is another matter. Jesus sets us straight in verse two.
“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” NKJ
Jesus clearly conveys that if we continually judge others in negativity or cast incorrect judgment on others without careful analysis (condemnation), He will judge us in the same manner. His point is we should judge others with kindness and generosity.
Jesus goes on to say we can only rightly draw any conclusions by first taking the plank out of our own eyes. We must recognize we all deserve judgment, and only God has the authority to judge (v4-5). To behave as if we have any authority to condemn or cast a verdict on someone is assuming we are equal to or better than God.
By withholding judgment, we have a better ability to exercise righteous discernment, especially concerning non-believers.
Remove Your Plank
To judge rightly, we must take the plank out of our eye and practice godly discernment. What we discern as righteousness must be considered and acted upon in kindness. John 7:24 reminds us of this fundamental principle.
“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” NKJ
Jesus follows up with a word of caution regarding nonbelievers in Matthew 7:6.
“Do not give what is holy to the dogs, nor cast your pearls before swine.” NKJ
With righteous discernment, we can differentiate who loves the truth of God’s word and who doesn’t. Jesus Himself, being perfectly righteous, knew who was honestly seeking God and who was not. He knew not to waste His time on those who refused to believe. We see an example of this in Matthew 13 when the men in His hometown of Nazareth rejected Him.
“Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary?” Matthew 13:54-55
Remember, the people in small-town Nazareth knew all about Mary and Joseph and how she conceived before they were married. Remember Joseph’s desire to send her away with divorce papers to prevent shame from coming upon their families. But an angel of the Lord visited Joseph in a dream and assured him it was safe and necessary for them to wed (Matthew 1:18-25).
Such gossip spreads like wildfire, which is why the men in the synagogue rejected Jesus and essentially said, “Who does He think He is?” They knew exactly who He and His family were, and they were not pleased. In fact, verse 57 says they were “offended,” which is why Jesus declared, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.”
Jesus encountered many people like his hometown neighbors during His ministry. Unbelievers of this sort are why He would not perform any miracles in their presence. It just wasn’t worth it.
It is necessary to judge correctly—to have righteous discernment—when it comes to whom you should share the word of God, which Jesus illustrates with the imagery of feral dogs and pigs.
Dogs and Holy Food
Dogs in the first century were not like dogs many parts of the world know today. They were not cute, cuddly pets that sat and fetched whenever you told them. And, they definitely were not the sort to have their bellies and ears scratched. On the contrary, dogs of this time were quite feral and mangy. They were mean and filthy, experts of opportunity, and knew how to defend themselves as necessary.
Given this truth, Jesus likens dogs to unbelievers. They share many of the same characteristics.
Why waste your time trying to befriend someone who wants nothing to do with you or hear whatever you have to say as Jesus experienced in the Nazareth synagogue? In other words, why waste something holy on the unholy? The holiness of God is to be reverently respected and treasured. Just as a dog cannot tell the difference between holy food and regular food, most nonbelievers also cannot tell the difference.
Here in verse six of Matthew 7, Jesus instructs us how to rightly handle the Gospel when we encounter those who hate or refuse to consider the truth. Such opposition is not worth the effort. It is better to wait and sow on fertile ground (Matthew 13) and walk away rather than argue with the foolish (2 Timothy 2:23-24).
Precious Pearls of the Gospel
Pigs are also considered unclean in the Bible, along with horses, donkeys, lions, tigers, and many other types of animals. This principle goes back to the book of Leviticus 11:26, when God lays out all the rules under Mosaic (Old Testament) Law.
“The carcass of any animal which divides the foot but is not cloven-hoofed or does not chew cud is unclean to you.” NKJ
Just as Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs, we should not cast pearls before swine. These pearls are the precious word of God. We should not bother offering something so valuable to someone who utterly rejects God. They will not understand the significance of it. The reason why is also given in verse six of Matthew 7.
“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.” NKJ
If one were to throw pearls to a group of hungry pigs, it would not take long for them to realize pearls are not food. In response, they will trample the pearls in search of real food. Likewise, feral dogs, having greedily devoured their food, might turn on the giver in frustration and tear them to pieces.
In both cases, the pigs and dogs do not recognize the preciousness of God’s word and would treat it carelessly if not outright trample it with corruption and lies.
Judge with Godly Discernment
In speaking about dogs and pigs, Jesus isn’t referring to people who struggle to understand whether He is the Son of God or those who question their faith. He is talking about obstinate, stubborn, rigid people who believe they alone are the masters of their destiny and have unquestionably no need for God, much less a Savior. They believe they can find their own salvation. Christianity is for the weak-minded, and church is a waste of a good Sunday morning.
These are the sorts of people Jesus cautions us about. They are the ones who will gladly engage in an argument with you simply to make you look foolish (or worse). They will trample God’s word or philosophically or scientifically attempt to tear it apart while tearing you apart in the meantime. Jesus tells us not to engage with such folks.
We must have godly discernment because not everyone is ready or wants to hear about the beautiful pearls of the Gospel (Matthew 13:45-46). It is better to be silent just like Jesus when He stood before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:9) and pray God opens their eyes.
It is important to note that Jesus’ instructions regarding dogs and pigs are not a contradiction to His other instructions to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). That instruction has to do with personal, everyday relations—kindness, generosity, peacemaking, honesty, etc. Matthew 7:6 is about how we handle the Gospel when we encounter staunch opposition.
Talk Less, Smile More
How do we gain such godly discernment? How can we know whether someone will be receptive to receiving the word of God? Jesus gives us the answer in the next verse.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7 NKJ
We must pray and ask God for the ability to judge righteously. Exercising judgment otherwise might cause us to condemn someone when they didn’t deserve it. Only God can give us the ability we need to judge correctly, with clarity and patience.
The apostle James, Jesus’ stepbrother, did not always believe his brother was the Son of God. As a brother, we might speculate he may have teased or made fun of Jesus or worse. But later, following Jesus’ resurrection, James’ eyes opened, and he realized the truth that his big brother was indeed God. This truth may be one of the reasons he instructs us in James 1:19 about a better way to judge.
“So, then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
The Greek word for wrath in this verse is orge’ (or-gey). It means resentment, a desire for vengeance, complete loathing of sin, and hatred toward those who persist in it. Such feelings push away the Holy Spirit and lead us to incorrect conclusions when encountering certain nonbelievers. Such actions invite God to judge us in the same manner.
A line in the Broadway musical Hamilton echoes James’ words and suggests we should “talk less, smile more.” With being slow to speak and more willing to listen, we will be slow to hate and get angry. We also allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us so we can have godly discernment.
Such a righteous approach might save us the time and effort of giving what is holy to dogs and casting precious pearls before swine when we would be much more successful being silent and simply praying.