Ver. 3. The earnestness and fidelity thus recommended, with all possible gentleness and patient industry in the application, is now enforced by a reference to the foreseen tendencies of the future: For there shall be a time when they will not endure the healthy instruction (or doctrine—namely, of the gospel), but after their own lusts will heap up to themselves teachers, having itching ears—ears, that is, which were always pricking with an uneasy desire for what would gratify the taste of a carnal, self-willed heart. The evil is drawn in very striking colours, especially considering that it is of persons still professedly within the pale of the Christian church that the apostle speaks. But the delineation is otherwise indefinite; he merely says there will be a time or season when such things shall happen, and urges the prosecution of ministerial work after the style and character he has described, as the only means of postponing its arrival. In the spirit of prophecy he knew it would come; it was but one of the phases of corruption and backsliding which were to characterize the last days. And we who now live in this advanced period of them, have no difficulty in pointing to facts which amply corroborate the apostle’s forebodings; not only in these later times of discord and disunion in Protestant Christendom, but even greatly more in those ancient and so-called halcyon times, when the visible church was still in a manner one. For no one who has read with any degree of impartiality the history of those times, and with discernment to understand the lessons it teaches, can be ignorant that the falling away from sound apostolic doctrine, and sliding into the asceticism, the legalism, the endless mummeries and superstitions, which became consolidated into medieval and Romish Christianity, grew up precisely in the manner here indicated. Men came over into the church from the ranks of heathen superstition and Gentile philosophy, bringing along with them many false notions and degrading practices which should have been left behind; and the teachers of the church, unwisely accommodating themselves to these, preached so as to gratify the itching ears they should have reproved, and kept back the pure word which would have checked the influx of evil. Accordingly, the more the church grew as an outward institution,—growing in that respect, indeed, far too rapidly,—the fewer always became the number who would endure sound doctrine, till they were found only in holes and corners, or, when occasionally occupying more conspicuous places, it was at the hazard of their lives. There is enough of this itching after false doctrine in the scattered communities of Protestantism to humble and sadden any Christian heart; the signs of the times give no doubtful indication of even more vet to come; but it is in the bosom of the great apostasy that the most marked and mournful exemplification of the apostle’s prediction is to be met with.
Ver. 4. And so is it also in regard to the further statement concerning the errorists in question made in this verse: and they will turn away their ears (lit. their hearing) from the truth, but be turned aside to fables. We can scarcely believe, with Ellicott, that this indicates as the result “a complete turning away from every doctrine of Christian truth;” for if such were the result, there would necessarily be an abandonment of the Christian profession—a going over to the ranks of unbelief. But it is rather a depravation within the professing church that the apostle appears to be speaking of, than a formal forsaking of its communion—such a depravation as would disincline the minds of men to sound doctrine; consequently such a turning away from the truth as would cause this to lose its proper character, and by mixing it up with error and fable, would prevent it from effecting its proper aim upon the heart and conduct. Even the Gnostic sects, who shortly became so prominent in this line of things, did not go further than has just been stated—they still retained many Christian elements in their systems; but these did not save their doctrine from being justly denounced as a corruption of the truth, and held as a whole to be essentially antichristian. In a modified sense, the same may be said of the false worship and discipline which now bears the name of Popery: it undoubtedly has many Christian elements in it; but these are so intermingled with error, that the system as a whole is a grievous departure from the truth of Christ. And how large a part fable played in accomplishing that departure,—tales of lying wonders concerning reputed saints and their adversaries in this world and the next,—no one acquainted with the history of the subject, and even with the present state of Catholic belief, can need to be told. The modern tendency in Protestant countries, even when turning away the ear from the truth, can scarcely be said to take this particular direction; the substitute is not fables, but rather science falsely so called—science, not in its ascertained results, but in its speculative processes and rash deductions.