The Bible is written in such a way that it is completely and inextricably interwoven with the culture and the customs of the times and places in which its events occur. While the cultural references were well known to the people who lived in biblical times, many of them are unfamiliar to us today. Learning biblical customs has many advantages: it makes reading the Bible more enjoyable when we know about the people and how they lived; it clarifies things in the Bible we would otherwise not readily know, or that do not make sense to us at first; it alerts us to possible mistranslations in the Bible; and it gives us great insight into how to properly apply the Word of God in our lives.
Understanding the word “hang”
After speaking about love, Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40 KJV). That statement is not well understood by most Christians, and the purpose of this article is to bring us to the point where we can understand and appreciate what Jesus said.
Pegs—A Household Essential
It is typical of writings, both ancient and modern, that things that are part of everyday life and that everyone understands are not described. For example, if I told a friend that I drove home from work late last night, I would not try to describe what a car was because my friend already knows that. Or if I told him that my wife cooked a wonderful meal last night, I would not describe the stove. He knows about stoves.
The fact that writers do not describe the common things that everyone knows about causes problems for historians and archaeologists, because a lot of things that were “ordinary” in biblical times are not ordinary anymore, and we do not know much about them. One common thing that was written about, however, is wall pegs, and they were used by almost everyone. The pegs were especially necessary because most floors were dirt. Even tents sometimes had pegs in the tent-poles, or at least some kind of hook tied to the tent poles, so that clothes and other items could be kept in order and off the ground.
A peg of strong wood
It was important that pegs for hanging things were made of good solid wood so that they would be sturdy and not break off. Wood from vines, for example, was not good for pegs, as we learn in Ezekiel. God asked Ezekiel, “Is wood ever taken from it [a vine] to make anything useful? Do they make pegs from it to hang things on?” (Ezek. 15:3). The expected answer was “No, they do not,” because it was well known that vines were inferior wood. A peg made from the wood of a vine would break when something heavy was hung from it.
To safely hang things, people needed a strong peg driven into a firm post. In Isaiah 22, God said He would remove Shebna, the steward in charge of Hezekiah’s palace, and replace him with Eliakim. Shebna had been a disappointment, but God said that He would make Eliakim like a firm peg, so firm that all the glory of his family could hang from him.
Isaiah 22:23 and 24
(23) I will drive him [Eliakim] like a peg into a firm place; he will be a seat of honor for the house of his father.
(24) All the glory of his family will hang on him: its offspring and offshoots—all its lesser vessels, from the bowls to all the jars.
Sadly, Eliakim was human, and eventually was not able to perform his duties, and even though he had once been a firm peg, he was broken off and what he supported was destroyed.
Isaiah 22:25 (HCSB)
On that day”—the declaration of the LORD of Hosts—“the peg that was driven into a firm place [Eliakim] will give way, be cut off, and fall, and the load on it will be destroyed.”
The word “destroyed” may seem strange to us, because we usually think of clothes being hung from pegs and if the peg breaks the clothes are not “destroyed.” However, many different things were hung from pegs, and it was common that when a peg broke holding a clay jar, or a skin of wine or milk, the load was indeed destroyed.
More evidence of the use of pegs comes from the Psalms. People hung their wineskins from pegs to keep them from being accidentally kicked, and also because they were less likely to spill when hung.
Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees.
The wineskin was “in the smoke” because in the biblical era common houses did not have chimneys. If a fire was built in a house, for warmth and/or to cook, it was usually built in the middle of the room. The room would fill with smoke, but since people sat, ate, and slept on the floor, the really thick smoke usually stayed above them. In contrast, the poor wineskin was hung on a peg up in the thick smoke. What a wonderful Psalm! The psalmist says that even if he feels like a wineskin in the smoke, neglected and in a difficult situation, he would not forget God’s decrees and laws.
Jesus Christ the tent peg
Pegs were vital to ancient living. They gave order and organization to the ancient household and held clothes, water jars, and other things that were essential to life. Thus it is not surprising that one of the many names of Jesus Christ is “the tent peg.” Zechariah 10:4 has three of the names of Jesus, the “cornerstone,” the “tent peg,” and the “battle bow.”
From Judah will come the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle bow, from him every ruler.
Calling Jesus Christ “the tent peg” shows how essential he is to the organization of our lives. He does much more than give us everlasting life. He helps us to organize our lives in a meaningful way, does a lot to keep us out of the dirt of life, and helps us to avoid some of the kicks and bumps of life. In return, we should realize that we are hung up for all to see, and like a nice piece of clothing on a peg reflects the wealth and value of the household, we can reflect the glory of Christ to those around us.
“…hang all the Law and the prophets.”
With the above background about tent pegs, we are now able to see the wonderful point Jesus was making when he spoke of the law and commandments hanging from love. He was speaking to the Pharisees, who were trying to trap him in his words (Matt. 22:15). One of them asked him which was the greatest commandment in the Law, to which he answered, love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus added, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40 KJV).
Jesus was making the point that loving God and loving our neighbor are like a great peg in God’s house that give order and meaning to the rest of His commandments. Without love the commandments lie broken, or in a disorganized heap, on the muddy floor, not able to profit us or others. This should have been a huge lesson to the Pharisees, who were very particular about keeping the fine points of the Law, but often did so without love. Let’s not be like the Pharisees, but instead understand the point that Jesus was making, that love is the essential peg from which every commandment hangs, and that gives order and meaning to the commandments.
 The “tent peg” here is generally known by scholars to be a peg or nail in the tent on which things were hung, and not a “tent stake” that held the tent up.
 The King James Version gives us the correct and literal rendering of the Greek text. However, most Christians do not understand the common illustration that Jesus was making by comparing love to a great wall peg, so modern versions such as the HCSB, ESV, NASB, NET, and NIV, say “depend” instead of “hang.” While “depend” is not far off the mark, some of the depth of what Jesus was saying is certainly lost.