This proverb is spoken by Jesus in Matthew 23:24. On His last trip to Jerusalem, Jesus spoke at length about life under the oppressive reign of the Pharisees. The religious leaders tested Him continually “and plotted how to entangle him in his words” (Matthew 22:15). In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounced seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees, accusing them of hypocrisy, laying heavy burdens on the people, exalting themselves, and preventing people from entering God’s kingdom. He was especially harsh in His assessment of their strict adherence to the laws of tithing while they “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). He concludes by saying, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (verse 24).
The KJV translates the first part of the proverb as “strain at a gnat.” That wording gives the impression of choking while trying to swallow the gnat while easily gulping down the camel. But the better translation is “strain out a gnat.” The Greek word refers to straining water through a cloth or sieve to remove impurities. The GNT translates it this way: “You strain a fly out of your drink, but swallow a camel!”
The Jews had a law that forbade eating any flying insects that did not have jointed legs for hopping (Leviticus 11:20–23), and in this they were strictly observant. Because water could have insects and insect larvae in it, pious Jews were careful to strain the water through a cloth before drinking it. They did not want to accidentally ingest an unclean insect and thus violate the law. Jesus mentions this practice in His proverb and then contrasts it with a hyperbolic picture of gulping down a camel. In this way, Jesus accused them of taking great pains (straining out gnats) to avoid offence in minor things of little importance, while tolerating or committing great sins (swallowing camels) such as deceit, oppression, and lust.
Christ’s fifth woe relates to the same type of hypocrisy (Matthew 23:25–26). All Jewish sects agreed on the need to wash their dishes in order to maintain their ceremonial cleanness, but Jesus pointed out that it is senseless to clean the outside of a cup and leave the inside filthy. But this is exactly what the actions of the Jewish leaders achieved. They focused on outward behavior but neglected the most important commands—loving God and one another. They strained at a gnat, mistakenly believing that external conformity to the law was enough, while not seeing that the evil in their hearts was a camel-sized problem. The Pharisees were scrupulous in counting out their mint leaves and tithing their “dill and cumin” (verse 23), but their hearts were full of envy, pride, greed, and malice. They strained at the gnat of ceremony, but they ignored the camel of sin in their hearts.