Matthew 21
Pulpit Commentary
And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples,
Verses 1-11. - Triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19.) Verse 1. - We have come to the last week of our Lord's earthly life, when he made his appearance in Jerusalem as Messiah, and suffered the penalty of death. If, as is believed, his crucifixion took place on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan, the triumphal entry must be assigned to the ninth, which day was reckoned to commence at one sunset and to continue till the follow-lug evening. This is regarded as the first day of the Holy Week, and is called by Christians from very early times Palm Sunday (see on ver. 10). He had probably gone straight from Jericho to Bethany. and spent the sabbath there with his friends (Matthew 26:6; John 12:1). Bethphage. The name means House of figs, and was appropriate to a locality where such trees grew luxuriantly. The village has not been identified with certainty, though it is considered with great probability to be represented by Kefr-et-Tur, on a summit of Olivet, within the bounds of Jerusalem, i.e. two thousand cubits' distance from the city walls. Bethany is below the summit, in a nook on the western slope and somewhat further from the city. The Mount of Olives is separated from Jerusalem by the valley of the Kedron, and has three summits, the centre one being the highest; but though it is of no great elevation in itself, it stands nearly four thousand feet above the Dead Sea, from which it is distant some thirteen miles. Then sent Jesus two disciples. Their names are not given, and it is useless to conjecture who they were, though probably Peter was one of them. Alford suggests that the triumphal entry in Mark 11. is related a day too soon, and that our Lord made two entries into Jerusalem - the first a private one (Mark 11:11), and the second, public, on the morrow But there is no sufficient reason to discredit the common tradition, and St. Mark's language can be otherwise explained. The deliberate preparation for t. he procession, and the intentional publicity, so contrary to Christ's usual habits, are very remarkable, and can be explained only by the fact that he was now assuming the character and claims of Messiah, and putting himself forward in his true dignity and office as "King of the Jews." By this display he made manifest that in him prophecy was fulfilled, and that the seeing eye and the believing heart might now find all that righteous men had long and wearily desired. This was the great opportunity which his mercy offered to Jerusalem, if only she would accept it and turn it to account. In fact, she acknowledged him as King one day, and then rejected and crucified him.
Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me.
Verse 2. - The village over against you. Bethphage, to which he points as he speaks. He gives their commission to the two disciples, mentioning even some minute details. Straightway. "As soon as ye be entered into it" (Mark). Ye shall find an ass (a she ass) tied, and a colt with her. St. Matthew alone mentions the ass, the mother of the foal. This doubtless he does with exact reference to the prophecy, which, writing for Jews, he afterwards cites (ver. 4). St. Jerome gives a mystical reason: the ass represents the Jewish people, which had long borne the yoke of the Law; the colt adumbrates the Gentiles, as yet unbroken," whereon never man sat." Christ called them both, Jew and Gentile, by his apostles. Loose them, and bring them unto me. He speaks with authority, as One able to make a requisition and command obedience.
And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them.
Verse 3. - Say aught unto you. This might naturally be expected. Christ foresaw the opposition, and instructed the disciples how to overcome it with a word. The Lord; Κύριος, equivalent to "Jehovah," or the King Messiah. Doubtless the owner of the animals was a disciple, and acknowledged the claims of Jesus. His presence here was a providentially guided coincidence. If he was a stranger; as others suppose, be must have been divinely prompted to acquiesce in the appropriation of his beasts. He will send them. Some manuscripts read, "he sends them," here, as in St. Mark. The present is more forcible, but the future is well attested. The simple announcement that the asses were needed for God's service would silence all refusal. The disciples, indeed, were to act at once, as executing the orders of the supreme Lord, and were to use the given answer only in case of any objection. Throughout the transaction Christ assumes the character of the Divine Messiah, King of his people, the real Owner of all that they possess.
All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying,
Verse 4. - All this was done; now (δὲ) all this hath come to pass. Many manuscripts omit "all," but it is probably genuine, as in other similar passages; e.g., Matthew 1:22; Matthew 26:56. This observation of the evangelist is intended to convey the truth that Christ was acting consciously on the lines of old prophecy, working out the will of God declared beforehand by divinely inspired seers. The disciples acted in blind obedience to Christ's command, not knowing that they were thus fulfilling prophecy, or having any such purpose in mind. The knowledge came afterwards (see John 12:16). That it might be fulfilled (ἵνα πληρωθῇ). The conjuction in this phrase is certainly used in its final, not in a consecutive or ecbatie sense; it denotes the purpose or design of the action of Christ, not the result. Not only the will of the Father, but the words of Scripture, had delineated the life of Christ, and in obeying that will he purposed to show that he fulfilled the prophecies which spake of him. Thus any who knew the Scriptures, and were open to conviction, might see that it was he alone to whom these ancient oracles pointed, and in him alone were their words accomplished. By (through, διά) the prophet. Zechariah 9:9, with a hint of Isaiah 62:11, a quotation being often woven from two or more passages (see on Matthew 27:9).
Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.
Verse 5. - Tell ye the daughter of Zion. This is from Isaiah (comp. Zephaniah 3:14). The passage in Zechariah begins, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem." The "daughter of Zion" is Jerusalem herself, named from the chief of the hills on which the city was built. Of course, the term includes all the inhabitants. Behold; marking the suddenness and unexpected nature of the event. Thy King. A King of thine own race, no stranger, one predestined for thee, foretold by all the prophets, who was to occupy the throne of David and to reign forever. Unto thee. For thy special good, to make his abode with thee (comp. Isaiah 9:6). Meek. As Christ himself says, "I am meek and lowly in heart" (Matthew 11:29), far removed from pomp and warlike greatness; and yet, according to his own Beatitude, the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), win victories which material forces can never obtain, triumph through humiliation. The original in Zechariah gives other characteristics of Messiah: "He is just, and having salvation;" i.e. endowed with salvation, either as being protected by God, or victorious and so able to save his people. Sitting upon an ass. Coming as King, he could not walk undistinguished among the crowd; he must ride. But to mount a war horse would denote that he was leader of an army or a worldly potentate; so he rides upon an ass, an animal used by the judges of Israel, and chieftains on peaceful errands (Judges 5:10; Judges 10:4); one, too, greatly valued, and often of stately appearance in Palestine. And (καὶ) a colt the foal of an ass; such as she asses bear, and one not trained. It is questioned whether the conjunction here expresses addition, implying that Christ mounted both animals in succession, or is merely explanatory, equivalent to videlicet, an ass, yea, even the foal of an ass. It seems unlikely that, in accomplishing the short distance between Bethphage and Jerusalem (only a mile or two), our Lord should have changed from one beast to the other; and the other three evangelists say expressly that Christ rode the colt, omitting all mention of the mother. The she ass doubtless kept close to its foal, so the prophecy was exactly fulfilled, but the animal that bore the Saviour was the colt. If the two animals represent respectively the Jews and Gentiles (see on ver. 2), it seems hardly necessary for typical reasons that Jesus should thus symbolize his triumph over the disciplined Jews, while it is obvious that the lesson of his supremacy over the untaught Gentiles needed exemplification. The prophet certainly contemplates the two animals in the procession. "The old theocracy runs idly and instinctively by the side of the young Church, which has become the true bearer of the Divinity of Christ" (Lange). No king had ever thus come to Jerusalem; such a circumstance was predicted of Messiah alone, and Christ alone fulfilled it to the letter, showing of what nature his kingdom was.
And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them,
Verse 6. - As Jesus commanded them. They simply obeyed the order, not yet knowing what it portended, or how it carried out the will of God declared by his prophets.
And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.
Verse 7. - Brought the ass. The unbroken foal would be more easily subdued and guided when its mother was with it; such an addition to the ridden animal would usually be employed to carry the rider's luggage. They put on them (ἐπάνω αὐτῶν) their clothes (ἱμάτια). The two disciples, stripping off their heavy outer garments, abbas, or burnouses, put them as trappings on the two beasts, not knowing on which their Master meant to ride. They set him thereon (ἐπάνω αὐτῶν). Thus the received text, and the Vulgate, Et eum desuper sedere fecerunt. But most modern editors, with great manuscriptural authority, read, "he sat thereon." Some have taken the pronoun αὐτῶν to refer to the beasts, and Alford supports the opinion by the common saying, "The postilion rode on the horses," when, in fact, he rode only one of the pair. But the analogy is erroneous. The postilion really guides and controls both; but no one contends that Christ kept the mother ass in hand while mounted on the colt. The pronoun is more suitably referred to the garments, which formed a saddle for the Saviour, or housings and ornamental appendages (comp. 2 Kings 9:13). He came invested with a certain dignity and pomp, yet in such humble guise as to discountenance all idea of temporal sovereignty.
And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.
Verse 8. - A very great multitude; ὁ δὲ πλεῖστος ὄχλος: Revised Version, the most part of the multitude. This interpretation has classical authority (see Alford), but the words may well mean," the very great multitude;" Vulgate, plurima autem turba. This crowd was composed of pilgrims who were coming to the festival at Jerusalem, and "the whole multitude of the disciples" (Luke 19:37). Spread their garments (ἱμάτια) in the way. Fired with enthusiasm, they stripped off their abbas, as the two disciples had done, and with them made a carpet over which the Saviour should ride. Such honours were often paid to great men, and indeed, as we well know, are offered now on state occasions. Branches from the trees. St. John (John 12:13) particularizes palm trees as having been used on this occasion; but there was abundance of olive and other trees, from which branches and leaves could be cut or plucked to adorn the Saviour's road. The people appear to have behaved on this occasion as if at the Feast of Tabernacles, roused by enthusiasm to unpremeditated action. Of the three routes which lay before him, Jesus is supposed to have taken the southern and most frequented, between the Mount of Olives and the Hill of Offence.
And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.
Verse 9. - The multitudes that went before, and that followed. These expressions point to two separate bodies, which combined in escorting Jesus at a certain portion of the route. We learn from St. John (John 12:18) that much people, greatly excited by the news of the raising of Lazarus, when they heard that he was in the neighbourhood, hurried forth from Jerusalem to meet and do him honour. These, when they met the other procession with Jesus riding in the midst, turned back again and preceded him into the city. St. Luke identifies the spot as "at the descent of the Mount of Olives." "As they approached the shoulder of the hill," says Dr. Geikie ('The Life of Christ,' 2:397), "where the road bends downwards to the north, the sparse vegetation of the eastern slope changed, as in a moment, to the rich green of garden and trees, and Jerusalem in its glory rose before them. It is hard for us to imagine now the splendour of the view. The city of God, seated on her hills, shone at the moment in the morning sun. Straight before stretched the vast white walls and buildings of the temple, its courts glittering with gold, rising one above the other; the steep sides of the hill of David crowned with lofty walls; the mighty castles towering above them; the sumptuous palace of Herod in its green parks; and the picturesque outlines of the streets." Hosanna to the Son of David! "Hosanna!" is compounded of two words meaning "save" and "now," or, "I pray," and is written in full Hoshia-na, translated by the Septuagint, Σῶσον δή. The expressions uttered by the people are mostly derived from Psalm 118, which formed part of the great Hallel (Psalm 113-118.) sung at the Feast of Tabernacles. "Hosanna!" was originally a formula of prayer and supplication, but later became a term of joy and congratulation. So here the cry signifies "Blessings on [or, 'Jehovah bless'] the Son of David!" i.e. the Messiah, acknowledging Jesus to be he, the promised Prince of David's line. Thus we say, "God save the king!" This, which Ewald calls the first Christian hymn, gave to Palm Sunday, in some parts of the Church, the name of the "day of Hosannas," and was incorporated into the liturgical service both in East and West. Blessed... of the Lord: (Psalm 118:26). The formula is taken in two ways, the words, "ill the Name of the Lord," being connected either with "blessed" or with "cometh." In the former case the cry signifies, "The blessing of Jehovah rest on him who cometh!" i.e., Messiah (Matthew 11:3; Revelation 1:8); in the latter, the meaning is, "Blessing on him who cometh with Divine mission, sent with the authority of Jehovah!" The second interpretation seems to be correct. In the highest (comp. Luke 2:14). The people cry to God to ratify in heaven the blessing which they invoke on earth. This homage and the title of Messiah Jesus now accepts as his due, openly asserting his claims, and by his acquiescence encouraging the excitement. St. Matthew omits the touching scene of Christ's lamentations over Jerusalem, as he passed the spot where Roman legions would, a generation hence, encamp against the doomed city.
And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?
Verse 10. - Was come into Jerusalem. Those who consider that the day of this event was the tenth of Nisan see a peculiar fitness in the entry occurring on this day. On the tenth of this month the Paschal lamb was selected and taken up preparatory to its sacrifice four days after (Exodus 12:3, 6). So the true Paschal Lamb now is escorted to the place where alone the Passover could be sacrificed. Taking A.D. to be the date of the Crucifixion, astronomers inform us that in that year the first day of Nisan fell on March 24. Consequently, the tenth would be on Sunday, April 2, and the fourteenth was reckoned item sunset of Thursday, April 6, to the sunset of Friday, April 7 (see on ver. 1, and preliminary note ch. 26.). Was moved (ἐσείσθη); was shaken, as by an earthquake. St. Matthew alone mentions this commotion, though St. John (John 12:19) makes allusion to it, when he reports the vindictive exclamation of the Pharisees, "Behold, the world is gone after him!" Jerusalem had been stirred and troubled once before, when the Wise Men walked through the streets, inquiring, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" (Matthew 2:2, 3). But the excitement was far greater now, more general, composed of many different elements. The Romans expected some public rising; the Pharisaical party was aroused to new envy and malice; the Herodians dreaded a possible usurper; but the populace entertained for the moment the idea that their hopes were now fulfilled, that the long desired Messiah had at last appeared, and would lead them to victory. Who is this? The question may have been put by the strangers who came from all parts of the world to celebrate the Passover at Jerusalem, or by the crowds in the streets, when they beheld the unusual procession that was advancing.
And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.
Verse 11. - The multitude; οἱ ὄχλοι: the multitudes. These were the people who took part in the procession; they kept repeating (ἔλεγον, imperfect) to all inquiries, This is Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth. They give his name, title, and dwelling place. They call him "the Prophet," either as being the One that was foretold (John 1:21; John 6:14), or as being inspired and commissioned by God (John 9.17). The appellation, "of Nazareth," clung to our Lord through all his earthly life. St. Matthew (Matthew 2:23) notes that the prophets had foretold that he was to be called a Nazarene, and that this prediction was in some sort fulfilled by his dwelling at Nazareth. We know not who were the prophets to whom the evangelist refers, and in this obscurity the attempted explanations of exegetes are far from satisfactory; so it is safer to fall back upon the inspired historian's verdict, and to mark the providential accomplishment of the prediction in the title by which Jesus was generally known. Says Isaac Williams, "Friends and foes, chief priests in hate, Pilate in mockery, angels in adoration, disciples in love, Christ himself in lowliness (Acts 22:8), and now the multitudes in simplicity, all proclaim him 'of Nazareth.'"
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
Verses 12-17. - The second cleansing of the temple. (Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48.) Verse 12. - Went into the temple. The event here narrated seems to have taken place on the day following the triumphal entry; i.e. on the Monday of the Holy Week. This can be gathered from St. Mark's narrative, where it is stated that, on the day of triumph, Jesus was escorted to the temple, but merely "looked round about on all things," and then returned for the night to Bethany, visiting the temple again on the following morning, and driving out those who profaned it. St. Matthew often groups events, not in their proper chronological order, but in a certain logical sequence which corresponded with his design. Thus he connects the cleansing with the triumphal entry, in order to display another example of Christ's self-manifestation at this time, and his purpose to show who he was and to put forth his claims publicly. In this visit of Christ we see the King coming to his palace, the place where his honour dwelleth, the fitting termination of his glorious march. This cleansing of the temple must not be confounded with the earlier incident narrated by St. John (John 2:13, etc.). The two acts marked respectively the beginning and close of Christ's earthly ministry, and denote the reverence which he taught for the house and the worshiper God. The part of the temple which he now visited, and which was profaned to secular use, was the court of the Gentiles, separated from the sanctuary by a stone partition, and considered of lesser sanctity, though really an integral part of the temple. Cast out all them that sold and bought. In this large open space a market had been established, with the connivance, and much to the pecuniary emolument, of the priests. These let out the sacred area, of which they were the appointed guardians, to greedy and irreligious traders, who made a gain of others' piety. We find no trace of this market in the Old Testament; it probably was established after the Captivity, whence the Jews brought back that taste for commercial business and skill in financial matters for which they have ever since been celebrated. In the eyes of worldly-minded men the sanctity of a building and its appendages was no impediment to traffic and trade, hence they were glad to utilize the temple court, under the sanction of the priests, for the convenience of those who came from all regions to celebrate the great festivals. Here was sold all that was required for the sacrifices which worshippers were minded to offer - animals for victims, meal, incense, salt, etc. The scandalous abuse of the holy precincts, or the plain traces of it (if, as it was late in the day, the traffickers themselves had departed for a time), Christ had observed at his previous visit, when he "looked round about upon all things" (Mark 11:11), and now he proceeded to remedy the crying evil The details of the expulsion are not given. On the first occasion, we are told, he used "a scourge of small cords;" as far as we know, at this time he effected the purification unarmed and alone. It was a marvellous impulse that forced the greedy crew to obey the order of this unknown Man; their own consciences made them timid; they fled in dismay before the stern indignation of his eye, deserted their gainful trade to escape the reproach of that invincible zeal. Money changers. These persons exchanged (for a certain percentage) foreign money or other coins for the half shekel demanded from all adults for the service of the temple (see on Matthew 17:24). They may have lent money to the needy. The sellers also probably played into their bands by refusing to receive any but current Jewish money in exchange for their wares. It is also certain that no coins stamped with a heathen symbol, or bearing a heathen monarch's image, could be paid into the temple treasury. The seats of them that sold (the) doves. These birds were used by the poor in the place of costlier victims (see Leviticus 12:6; Leviticus 14:22; Luke 2:24). The sellers were often women, who sat with tables before them on which were set cages containing the doves.
And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
Verse 13. - It is written. Jesus confirms his action by the word of Scripture. He combines in one severe sentence a passage from Isaiah 56:7 ("Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all peoples"), and one from Jeremiah 7:11 ("Is this house, which is called by my Name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?"). He brings out in strong contrast the high design and use of the house of God (an allusion specially appropriate at the coming festival), and the vile and profane purposes to which the greed and impiety of men had subjected it. Ye have made it; Revised Version, ye make it; and so many modern editors on good manuscript authority. These base traffickers had turned the hallowed courts into a cavern where robbers stored their ill-gotten plunder. It may also be said that to make the place of prayer for all the nations a market for boasts was a robbery of the rights of the Gentiles (Lange). And Christ here vindicated the sanctity of the house of God: the Lord, according to the prophecy of Malachi (Malachi 3:1-3), had suddenly come to his temple to refine and purify, to show that none can profane what is dedicated to the service of God without most certain loss and punishment.
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.
Verse 14. - The blind and the lame came to him in the temple. This notice is peculiar to St. Matthew, though St. Luke (Luke 19:47) mentions that "he taught daily in the temple." An old expositor has remarked that Christ first as King purified his palace, and then took his seat therein, and of his royal bounty distributed gilts to his people. It was a new fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 35:4-6), which spake of Messiah coming to open the eyes of the blind, to unstop the ears of the deaf, to make the lame man leap as an hart. For acts of sacrilege which profaned the temple precincts, he substituted acts of mercy which hallowed them; the good Physician takes the place of the greedy trafficker; the den of thieves becomes a beneficent hospital. How many were the acts of healing, we are not told; but the words point to the relief of numberless sufferers, none of whom were sent empty away.
And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased,
Verse 15. - The chief priests. This term is generally applied to the high priest's deputies and the heads of the twenty-four courses, but it seems here to mean certain sacerdotal members of the Sanhedrin, to whom supreme authority was delegated by the Romans or Herodians (see Josephus, 'Ant.,' 20:10, 5). They formed a wealthy, aristocratical body, and were many of them Sadducees. They joined with the scribes in expressing their outraged feeling, whether simulated or real. The wonderful things (τὰ θαυμάσια); an expression found nowhere else in the New Testament. It refers to the cleansing of the temple and the cures lately performed there. Children crying in the temple. This fact is mentioned only by St. Matthew. Jesus loved children, and they loved and followed him, taking up the cry which they had heard the day before from the multitude, and in simple faith applying it again to Christ. While grown men are silent or blaspheming, little children boldly sing his praises. Were sore displeased. Their envious hearts could not bear to see Jesus honoured, elevated in men's eyes by his own beneficent actions, and now glorified by the spontaneous acclamations of these little ones.
And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?
Verse 16. - Hearest thou what these say? They profess a great zeal for God's honour. They recognize that these cries implied high homage, if not actual worship, and appeal to Jesus to put a stop to such unseemly behaviour, approaching, as they would pretend, to formal blasphemy. Yea. Jesus replies that he hears what the children say, but sees no reason for silencing them; rather he proves that they were only fulfilling an old prophecy, originally, indeed, applied to Jehovah, but one which he claims as addressed to himself. Have ye never read? (Matthew 12:5). The quotation is from the confessedly Messianic psalm (Psalm 8.), a psalm very often quoted in the New Testament, and as speaking of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 1:27; 1 Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:6, etc.). Sucklings. This term was applied to children up to the age of three years (see 2 Macc. 7:27), but might be used metaphorically of those of tender age, though long weaned. Thou hast perfected praise. The words are from the Septuagint, which seems to have preserved the original reading. The present Hebrew text gives, "Thou hast ordained strength," or "established a power." In the Lord's mouth the citation signifies that God is praised acceptably by the weak and ignorant when, following the impulse of their simple nature, they do him homage. Some expositors combine the force of the Hebrew and Greek by explaining that "the strength of the weak is praise, and that worship of Christ is strength" (Wordsworth). It is more simple to say, with Nosgen, that for the Hebrew "strength," "praise" is substituted, in order to give the idea that the children's acclamation was that which would still the enemy, as it certainly put to shame the captious objections of the Pharisees.
And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there.
Verse 17. - He left them. The chief priests had nothing to say in reply to this testimony of Scripture. They feared to arrest him in the face of the enthusiastic multitude; they bided their time, for the present apparently silenced. Jesus, wasting no further argument on these wilfully unbelieving people, turned and left them. The King had no home in his royal city; he sought one in lowly Bethany, where he was always sure of a welcome in the house of Martha and Mary. It is somewhat doubtful whether he availed himself of his friends' hospitality at this time. The term "Bethany" would include the district so called in the vicinity of the town, as in the description of the scene of the Ascension (Luke 24:50). Lodged (ηὐλίσθη). This word, if its strict classical use is pressed, would imply that Jesus passed the night in the open air; but it may mean merely "lodge," or "pass the night," without any further connotation; so no certain inference can be drawn from its employment in this passage. This withdrawal of Jesus obviated all danger of a rising in his favour, which, supported by the vast resources of the temple, might have had momentous consequences at this time of popular concourse and excitement.
Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered.
Verses 18-22. - The cursing of the barren fig tree. (Mark 11:12-14:, 20-26.) Verse 18. - In the morning (πρωίας, which implies a very early time of the day, and is a term used for the fourth or last watch of the night, Mark 1:35). St. Matthew has combined in one view a transaction which had two separate stages, as we gather from the narrative of St. Mark. The curse was uttered on the Monday morning, before the cleansing of the temple; the effect was beheld and the lesson given on the Tuesday, when Jesus was visiting Jerusalem for the third time (vers. 20-22). Strauss and his followers, resenting the miraculous in the incident, have imagined that the whole story is merely an embodiment and development of the parable of the fruitless fig tree recorded by St. Luke (Luke 13:6, etc.), which in course of time assumed this historical form. There is no ground whatever for this idea. It claims to be, and doubtless is, the account of a real fact, naturally connected with the circumstances of the time, and of great practical importance. He hungered. True Man, he showed the weakness of his human nature, even when about to exert his power in the Divine. There is no need, rather it is unseemly to suppose (as many old commentators have done), that this hunger was miraculous or assumed, in order to give occasion for the coming miracle. Christ had either passed the night on the mountain-side in prayer and fasting, or had started from his lodging without breaking his fast. His followers do not seem to have suffered in the same way; and it was doubtless owing to his mental preoccupation and self-forgetfulness that the Lord had not attended to bodily wants.
And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.
Verse 19. - When he saw a (μίαν, a single) fig tree in the way. The tree stood all alone in a conspicuous situation by the roadside, as if courting observation. It was allowable to pluck and eat fruit in an orchard (Deuteronomy 23:24, 25); but this tree, placed where it was, seemed to be common property, belonging to no private owner. The sight of the leaves thereon, as St. Mark tells us, attracted the notice of Christ, who beheld with pleasure the prospect of relieving his long abstinence with the refreshment of cool and juicy fruit. He came to it. Knowing the nature of the tree, and that under some circumstances the fruit ripens before the leaves are fully out, Jesus naturally expected to find on it some figs fit to eat. Further, besides the fruit which comes to maturity in the usual way during the summer, there are often late figs produced in autumn which hang on the tree during winter, and ripen at the reawakening of vegetation in the spring. The vigour of this particular tree was apparently proved by the luxuriance of its foliage, and it might reasonably be expected to retain some of its winter produce. Found nothing thereon, but leaves only. It was all outward show, promise without performance, seeming precocity with no adequate results. There is no question here of Christ's omniscience being at fault. He acted as a man would act; he was not deceived himself nor did he deceive the apostles, though they at first misapprehended his purpose. The whole action was symbolical, and was meant so to appear. In strict propriety of conduct, as a man led by the appearance of the tree might act, he carried out the figure, at the same time showing, by his treatment of this inanimate object, that he had something higher in view, and that he does not mean that which his outward conduct seemed to imply. He is enacting a parable where all the parts are in due keeping, and all have their twofold signification in the world of nature and the world of grace. The hunger is real, the tree is real, the expectation of fruit legitimate, the barrenness disappointing and criminal; the spiritual side, however, is left to be inferred, and, as we shall see, only one of many possible lessons is drawn from the result of the incident. Let no fruit grow on thee (let there be no fruit from thee) henceforward forever. Such is the sentence passed on this ostentations tree. Christ addresses it as if replying to the profession made by its show of leaves. It had the sap of life, it had power to produce luxuriant leaves; therefore it might and ought to have borne fruit. It vaunted itself as being superior to its neighbours, and the boast was utterly empty. Presently (παραχρῆμα) the fig tree withered away. The process was doubtless gradual, commencing at Christ's word, and continuing till the tree died; but St. Matthew completes the account at once, giving in one picture the event, with its surroundings and results. It was a moral necessity that what had incurred Christ's censure should perish; the spiritual controlled the material; the higher overbore the lower. Thus the designed teaching was placed in visible shape before the eyes, and silently uttered its important lesson. It has been remarked (by Neander) that we are not to suppose that the tree thus handled was previously altogether sound and healthy. Its show of leaves at an unusual period without fruit may point to some abnormal development of activity which was consequent upon some radical defect. Had it been in vigorous health, it would not have been a fitting symbol of the Jewish Church; nor would it have corresponded with the idea which Christ designed to bring to the notice of his apostles. There was already some process at work which would have issued in decay, and Christ's curse merely accelerated this natural result. This is considered to be the only instance in which our Lord exerted his miraculous power in destruction; all his other actions were beneficent, saving, gracious. The drowning of the swine at Gadara was only permitted for a wise purpose; it was not commanded or inflicted by him. The whole transaction in our text is mysterious. That the Son of man should show wrath against a senseless tree, as tree, is, of course, not conceivable. Them was an apparent unfitness, if not injustice, in the proceeding, which at once demonstrated that the tree was not the real object of the action - that something more important was in view. Christ does not treat trees as moral agents, responsible for life and action. He uses inanimate objects to convey lessons to men, dealing with them according to his good pleasure, even his supreme will, which is the law by which they are controlled. In themselves they have no fault and incur no punishment, but they are treated in such a way as to profit the nobler creatures of God's hand. There may have been two reasons for Christ's conduct which were not set prominently forward at the time. First, he desired to show his power, his absolute control, over material forces, so that, in what was about to happen to him, his apostles might be sure that he suffered not through weakness or compulsion, but because he willed to have it so. This would prepare his followers for his own and their coming trials. Then there was another great lesson taught by the sign. The fig tree is a symbol of the Jewish Church. The prophets had used both it. and the vine in this connection (comp. Hosea 9:10), and our Lord himself makes an unmistakable allusion in his parable of the fig tree planted in the vineyard, from which the owner for three years sought fruit in vain (Luke 13:6, etc.). Many of his subsequent discourses are, as it were, commentaries upon this incident (see vers. 28-44; Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 23-25.). Here was a parable enacted. The Saviour had seen this tree, the Jewish Church, afar off, looking down upon it from heaven; it was one, single, standing conspicuous among all nations as that whereon the Lord had lavished most care, that which ought to have shown the effect of this culture in abundant produce of holiness and righteousness. But what was the result? Boasting to be children of Abraham, the special heritage of Jehovah, gifted with highest privileges, the sole possessors of the knowledge of God, the Israelites professed to have what no other people had, and were in reality empty and bare. There was plenty of outward show - rites, ceremonies, scrupulous observances, much speaking - but no real devotion, no righteousness, no heart worship, no good works. Other nations, indeed, were equally fruitless, but they did not profess to be holy; they were sinners, and offered no cloak for their sinfulness. The Jews were no less unrighteous; but they were hypocrites, and boasted of the good which they had not. Other nations were unproductive, for their time had not come; but for Israel the season had arrived; she ought to have been the first to accept the Messiah, to unite the new with the old fruit, to pass from the Law to the gospel, and to learn and practise the lesson of faith. Perfect fruit was not yet to be expected; but Israel's sin was that she vaunted her perfection, counted herself sound and whole, while rotten at the very core, and barren of all good results. Her falsehood, hypocrisy, and arrogant complacency were fearfully punished. The terms of the curse pronounced by the Judge are very emphatic. It denounces perpetual barrenness on the Jewish Church and people. From Judaea was to have gone forth the healing of the nations; from it all peoples of the earth were to be blessed. The complete fulfilment of this promise is no longer in the literal Israel; she is nothing in the world; no one resorts to her for food and refreshment; she has none to offer the wayfarer. For eighteen centuries has that fruitlessness continued; the withered tree still stands, a monument of unbelief and its punishment. The Lord's sentence, "forever," must be understood with some limitation. In his parable of the fig tree, which adumbrates the last days, he intimates that it shall some day bud and blossom, and be clothed once more with leaf and fruit; and St. Paul looks forward to the conversion of Israel, when the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Romans 11:23-26).
And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!
Verse 20. - They marvelled, saying. The apostles' remark on the incident was made on the Tuesday, as we learn from St. Mark's more accurate account. After Christ had spoken his malediction, the little band went on their way to Jerusalem, where was performed the cleansing of the temple. On their return to Bethany, if they passed the tree, it was doubtless too dark to observe its present condition, and it was not till the next morning that they noticed what had happened. St. Matthew does not name the apostle who was the mouthpiece of the others in expressing astonishment at the miracle; he is satisfied with speaking generally of "the disciples" (comp. Matthew 26:8 with John 12:4). We learn from St. Mark that it was Peter who made the observation recorded, deeply affected by the sight of this instance of Christ's power, and awestruck by the speedy and complete accomplishment of the curse. How soon is the fig tree withered away! better, How did the fig tree immediately wither away? Vulgate, Quomodo continue aruit? They saw, but could not comprehend, the effect of Christ's word, and wonderingly inquired how it came to pass. They did not at present realize the teaching of this parabolic act - how it gave solemn warning of the certainty of judgment on the unfruitful Jewish Church, which, hopelessly barren, must no longer cumber the earth. Christ did not help them to understand the typical nature of the transaction. He is not wont to explain in words the spiritual significance of his miracles; the connection between miracle and teaching is left to be inferred, to be brought out by meditation, prayer, faith, and subsequent circumstances. The total rejection of the Jews was a doctrine for which the apostles were not yet prepared; so the Lord, in wisdom and mercy, withheld its express enunciation at this moment. In mercy too he exemplified the sternness and severity of God's judgment by inflicting punishment on an inanimate object, and not on a sentient being; he withered a tree, not a sinful man, by the breath of his mouth.
Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.
Verse 21. - Jesus answered. To the apostles' question the Lord makes reply, drawing a lesson, not such as we should have expected, but one of quite a different nature, yet one which was naturally deduced from the transaction which had excited such astonishment. They marvelled at this incident; let them have and exercise faith. and they should do greater things than this. Christ had already made a similar answer after the cure of the demoniac boy (Matthew 17:20, where see note). If ye have faith, and doubt not (μὴ διακριθῆτε). The whole phrase expresses the perfection of the grace. The latter verb means "to discriminate," to see a difference in things, hence to debate in one's mind. The Vulgate gives, Si habueritis fidem, et non haesitaveritis. What is here enjoined is that temper of mind which does not stop hesitatingly to consider whether a thing can be done or not, but believes that all is possible - that one can do all things through Christ who strengthens him. So the apostles are assured by Christ that they should not only be able to wither a tree with a word, but should accomplish far more difficult undertakings. This which is done to the fig tree (τὸ τῆς συκῆς); as, "what was befallen to them that were possessed with devils (τὰτῶν δαιμονιζομένων)" (Matthew 8:33). The promise may intimate that it was to be through the preaching of the apostles, and the Jews' rejection of the salvation offered by them, that the judgment should fall on the chosen people. Thus they would do what was done to the fig tree. And in the following words we may see a prophecy of the destruction of the mountain of paganism. Or it may mean that theocratic Judaism must be cast into the sea of nations before the Church of Christ should reach its full development (Lange). This mountain. As he speaks, he points to the Mount of Olivet, on which they were standing, or to Moriah crowned by the glorious temple. Be thou removed; be thou taken up; ἄρθητι, not the same word as in Matthew 17:20. The sea. The Mediterranean (see a similar promise, Luke 17:6). It shall be done. It was not likely that any such material miracle would literally be needed, and no one would ever pray for such a sign; but the expression is hyperbolically used to denote the performance of things most difficult and apparently impossible (see Zechariah 4:7; 1 Corinthians 13:2).
And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
Verse 22. - All things. The promise is extended beyond the sphere of extraordinary miracles. In prayer; ἐν τῇ προσευχῇ: in the prayer; or, in your prayer. The use of the article may point to the prayer given by our Lord to his disciples, or to some definite form used from the earliest times in public worship (comp. Acts 1:14; Romans 12:12; 1 Corinthians 7:5; Colossians 4:2). Believing, ye shall receive. The condition for the success of prayer is stringent. A man must have no latent doubt in his heart; he must not debate whether the thing desired can be done or not; he must have absolute trust in the power and good will of God; and he must believe that "what he saith cometh to pass" (Mark 11:23). The faith required is the assurance of things hoped for, such as gives substance and being to them while yet out of sight. The words had their special application to the apostles, instructing them that they were not to expect to be able, like their Master, to work the wonders needed for the confirmation of the gospel by their own power. Such effects could be achieved only by prayer and faith. (On the general promise to faithful prayer, see Matthew 7:7-11.)
And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?
Verse 23-ch. 22:14. - Our Lord's authority questioned: he replies by uttering three parables. (Mark 11:27-12:12; Luke 20:1-18.) Verses 23-27. - First attack, referring to his late actions: and Christ's answer. Verse 23. - When he was come into the temple. The conversation recorded here belongs to the Tuesday of the Holy Week, and took place in the courts of the temple, at this time filled with pilgrims from all parts of the world, who hung upon Christ's words, and beheld his doings with wonder and awe. This sight roused to fury the envy and anger of the authorities, and they sent forth sections of their cleverest men to undermine his authority in the eyes of the people, or to force from him statements on which they might found criminal accusation against him. The chief priests and the elders of the people. According to the other evangelists, there were also scribes, teachers of the Law, united with them in this deputation, which thus comprised all the elements of the Sanhedrin. This seems to have been the first time that the council took formal notice of Jesus' claims and actions, and demanded from him personally an account of himself. They had been quick enough in inquiring into the Baptist's credentials, when he suddenly appeared on the banks of Jordan (see John 1:19, etc.); but they had studiously, till quite lately, avoided any regular investigation of the pretensions of Jesus. In the thee of late proceedings, this could no longer be delayed. A crisis had arrived; their own peculiar province was publicly invaded, and their authority attacked; the opponent must be withstood by the action of the constituted court. As he was teaching. Jesus did not confine himself to beneficent acts; he used the opportunity of the gathering of crowds around him to preach unto them the gospel (Luke 20:1), to teach truths which came with double force from One who bad done such marvellous things. By what authority doest thou these things? They refer to the triumphal entry, the reception of the homage offered, the healing of the blind and lame, the teaching as with the authority of a rabbi, and especially to the cleansing of the temple. No one could presume to teach without a proper commission: where was his authorization? They were the guardians and rulers of the temple: what right had he to interfere with their management, and to use the sacred precincts for his own purposes? These and such like questions were in their mind when they addressed him thus. Wilfully ignoring the many proofs they had of Christ's Divine mission (which one of them, Nicodemus, had long before been constrained to own, John 3:2), they raised the question now as a novel and unanswered one. Who gave thee this authority? They resolve the general inquiry into the personal one - Who was it that conferred upon you this authority which you presume to exercise? Was it some earthly ruler, or was it God himself? Perhaps they mean to insinuate that Satan was the master whose power he wielded - an accusation already often made. They thought thus to place Christ in an embarrassing position, from which he could not emerge without affording the opportunity which they desired. The trap was cleverly set, and, as they deemed, unavoidable. If he was forced to confess that he spoke and acted without any proper authorization, he would be humiliated in the eyes of the people, and might be officially silenced by the strong hand. If he asserted himself to be the Messiah and the bearer of a Divine commission, they would at once bring against him a charge of blasphemy (Matthew 26:65).
And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things.
Verse 24. - I also will ask you one thing; λόγον ἕνα: one word, question. Jesus does not reply directly to their insidious demand. He might have asserted his Divine mission, and appealed to his miracles in confirmation of such claim, which would have been in strict conformity with the old, established rule for discriminating false and true prophets (see Deuteronomy 18:22; Jeremiah 28:9); but he knew too well their scepticism and malice and inveterate prejudice to lay stress on this allegation at the present moment. Before he satisfied their inquiry, he must have their opinion concerning one whom they had received as a prophet a few years ago, and whose memory was still held in the highest respect, John the Baptist. The manner in which they regarded him and his testimony would enable them to answer their own interrogation.
The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him?
Verse 25. - The baptism of John (τὸ βάπτισμα τὸ Ἰωάννου). By "the baptism which was of John" Christ means his whole ministry, doctrine, preaching, etc.; as by circumcision is implied the whole Mosaic Law, and the doctrine of the cross comprises all the teaching of the gospel, the chief characteristic connoting all particulars. From heaven, or of men? Did they regard John as one inspired and commissioned by God, or as a fanatic and impostor, who was self-sent and had received no external authorization? Now, two facts were plain and could not be denied. The rulers and the people with them had allowed John to be a prophet, and had never questioned his claims hitherto. This was one fact; the other was that John had borne unmistakable evidence to Christ. "Behold the Lamb of God!" etc. (John 1:32-36), he had said. He came and asserted that he came as Christ's forerunner; his mission was to prepare Christ's way, and had no meaning or intention but this. Here was a dilemma. They had asked for Jesus' credentials; the prophet, whose mission they had virtually endorsed testified that Jesus was the Messiah; if they believed that John spoke by inspiration, they must accept Christ; if now they discredited John, they would stultify themselves and endanger their influence with the people. They reasoned with themselves (παρ ἑαυτοῖς). The somewhat unusual introduction of this preposition instead of the more common ἐν implies that the reflection was not confined to their own breast, but passed in consultation from one to another. They saw the difficulty, and deliberated how they could meet it without compromising themselves, seeking, not truth, but evasion. Why did ye not then (διατί οϋν: why then did ye not) believe him? i.e. when he bore such plain testimony to me. This appeal could be silenced only by denying John's mission, or asserting that he was mistaken in what he said,
But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.
Verse 26. - We fear the people. They dared not, as they would gladly have done, affirm that John was a false prophet and impostor; for then, as according to St. Luke they said, "All the people will stone us." Public opinion was too strong for them. Whatever view they really took of John's position, they were forced, for the sake of retaining popularity, to uphold its Divine character. All hold John as a prophet. Even Herod, for the same reason, long hesitated to put the Baptist to death (Matthew 14:5); and many of the Jews believed that Herod's defeat by Aretas was a judgment upon him for this murder (Josephus,' Ant.,' 18:5. 2); comp. Luke 7:29, which shows how extensive was the influence of this holy teacher, who indeed did no miracle, but persuaded men by pure doctrine, holy life, genuine love of souls, courageous reproof of sin wherever found. Others had drawn the very inference which Christ now demanded (see John 10:41, 42).
And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.
Verse 27. - We cannot tell; οὐκ οἴδαμεν: we know not; Vulgate, nescimus. The Authorized Version seems, at first sight, to be intended to give a false emphasis to "tell" in Christ's answer; but our translators often render the verb οἴδα in this way (see John 3:8; John 8:14; John 16:18; 2 Corinthians 12:2). The questioners could find no way out of the dilemma in which Christ's unerring wisdom had placed them. Their evasive answer was a confession of defeat, and that in the presence of the gaping crowd who stood around listening to the conversation. They had every opportunity of judging the character of John's mission and that of Christ; it was their duty to form an opinion and to pronounce a verdict on such claims; and yet they, the leaders and teachers of Israel, for fear of compromising themselves, evade the obligation, refuse to solve or even to entertain the question, and, like a modern agnostic, content themselves with a profession of ignorance. Many people, to avoid looking a disagreeable truth in the face, respond to all appeals with the stereotyped phrase, "We cannot tell." F.M. appositely quotes the comment of Donatus on Terent., 'Eunuch.,' 5:4, 31, "Perturbatur Parmeno; nec negare potuit, nec consentire volebat; sed quasi defensionis loco dixit, Nescio." And he said unto them; ἔφη αὐτοῖς καὶ αὐτός: he also said unto them. The Lord answers the thought which had dictated their words to him. Neither tell I you, etc. With such double-minded men, who could give no clear decision concerning the mission of such a one as John the Baptist, it would be mere waste of words to argue further. They would not accept his testimony, and recognizing their malice and perversity, he declined to instruct them further. "Christ shows," says Jerome, "that they knew and were unwilling to answer; and that he knew, but held his peace, because they refused to utter what they well knew."
But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.
Verses 28-32. - The parable of the two sons. (Peculiar to St. Matthew.) Verse 28. - But what think ye? A formula connecting what follows with what has preceded, and making the hearers themselves the judges. By this and the succeeding parables, Jesus shows his interlocutors their true guilty position and the punishment that awaited them. He himself explains the present parable in reference to his hearers, though, of course, it has, and is meant to have, a much wider application. A certain man (ἄνθρωπος, a man) had two sons. The man represents God; the two sons symbolize two classes of Jews - the Pharisees, with their followers and imitators; and the lawless and sinful, who made no pretence of religion. The former are those who profess to keep the Law strictly, to the very letter, though they care nothing for its spirit, and virtually divorce religion from morality The latter are careless and profane persons, whom the Lord calls "publicans and harlots" (ver. 31). The first. Westcott and Hort, relying on no very weighty authority, reverse the order of the sons' answers, altering ver. 31 in agreement with this arrangement. Christ's reply countenances the received text, setting the repentant before the professing son. It is a matter of small importance (see Tischendorf, in loc.). "The first son "here typifies the evil and immoral among the Jewish people. Go, work today. Two emphatic imperatives. Immediate obedience is required. "Today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Psalm 95:7, 8). God called his sons to serve in his vineyard - the Church. He called them by the prophets, and more especially by John the Baptist, to turn from evil ways, and to do works meet for repentance (Matthew 3:8). Christ gives two examples, showing how this call was received.
He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.
Verse 29. - I will not. The answer is rude, curt, and disrespectful, such a one as would naturally issue from the lips of a person who was selfishly wrapped in his own pleasures, and cared nothing for the Law of God, the claims of relationship, the decencies of society. Repented, and went; i.e. into the vineyard to work. The worst sinners, when converted, often make great saints. There is more hope of their repentance than of the self-righteous or hypocrites, who profess the form of religion without the reality, and in their own view need no repentance.
And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.
Verse 30. - The second. He typifies the Pharisees, the scrupulous observers of outward form, while neglectful of the weightier matters - judgment, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). I go, sir, Ἐγὼ κύριε: Eo, domine. This son is outwardly respectful and dutiful; his answer is in marked contrast to the rough "I will not" of his brother. He professes zeal for the Law, and ready obedience. And went not. Such men did no real work for God, honouring him with their lips and outward observances, while their heart was far from him, and their morality was unprincipled and impure.
Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.
Verse 31. - Whether of them (the) twain! Christ forces from the unwilling hearers an answer which, at the moment, they do not see will condemn themselves. Unaccustomed to be criticized and put to the question, wrapped in a self-complacent righteousness, which was generally undisturbed, they missed the bearing of the parable on their own case, and answered without hesitation, as any unprejudiced person would have decided. The first; i.e. the son who first refused, but afterwards repented and went. Verily I say unto you. Jesus drives the moral home to the hearts of these hypocrites. The publicans and the harlots. He specifies these excommunicated sinners as examples of those represented by the first son. Go into the kingdom of God before you; προάγουσιν ὑμας: are preceding you. This was the fact which Jesus saw and declared, he does not cut off all hope that the Pharisees might follow, if they willed to do so; he only shows that they have lost the position which they ought to have occupied, and that those whom they despised and spurned have accepted the offered salvation, and shall have their reward. We must remark that the Lord has no censure for those who sometime were disobedient, but afterwards repented; his rebuke falls on the professors and self-righteous, who ought to have been leaders and guides, and were in truth impious and irreligious.
For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.
Verse 32. - For John came unto you. This gives the reason for Christ's assertion at the end of the last verse. John came with a special call to the rulers of the people, and they made some show of interest, by sending a deputation to demand his credentials, and by coming to his baptism; but that was all. They did not alter their lives or change their faulty opinions at his preaching, though they "were willing for a season to rejoice in his light" (John 5:35). In the way of righteousness. In that path of strict obedience to law, and of ascetic holiness, which you profess to regard so highly. If they had followed the path which John indicated, they would have attained to righteousness and salvation. John preached Christ who is "the Way" (John 14:6). (For "way," meaning doctrine, religious tenet and practice, see Matthew 22:16; Acts 9:2; Acts 19:9, 23; 2 Peter 2:21.) Ye believed him not, to any practical purpose, even as it is said elsewhere (Luke 7:30), "The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, not having been baptized of him." Those who did receive his baptism were the exception; the great majority stood aloof. Believed him. Though these sinners may have first rejected him, yet his preaching softened their hearts; they repented, confessed their sins, and were baptized (see for examples, Luke 3:10, etc.; Luke 7:29). This was another call to the Pharisees to go and do likewise. When ye had seen it; i.e. the fruits of true repentance in these sinners, which conversion was indeed a loud appeal to the rulers to consider their own ways, and to bow to God's hand. Repented not (see ver. 29). They profited not by this miracle of grace. That ye might believe him. The end and result of repentance would be to believe in John's mission, and to attend to his teaching. Christ offers the above explanation of the parable (vers. 31, 32) in view of the purpose for which he uttered it. It has been, and may be, taken in different senses, and in wider application. "What is set forth in individual cases is but a sample of what takes place in whole classes of persons, and even nations" (I. Williams). Many expositors consider the two sons to represent Gentiles and Jews; the former making no profession of serving God, and yet in time being converted and turning to him; the latter making much outward show of obedience, yet in reality denying him and rejecting salvation. It is obvious that such explanation is allowable, and coincides with the letter of the parable; but it does not satisfy the context, and fails in not answering to Christ's intention in uttering this similitude. Others see herein a picture of what happens in Christian lands, and is the experience of every Christian minister - how the irreligious and apparently irreclaimable are by God's grace brought, to repentance unto life; how the seemingly pious often make much show, but fall away, or bring no fruit unto perfection. And as the parable involves a general principle, so it may be applied universally to those who make great professions of religion, and are for a time full of good resolutions, but in practice fall very short; and to those who have been the slaves of lust, covetousness, or some other wickedness, but have been recovered from the snares of the devil, and have learned to lead a godly, righteous, and sober life.
Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:
Verses 33-46. - Parable of the vineyard let out to husbandmen. (Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19.) Verse 33. - Hear another parable. The domineering and lately imperious party are reduced to the position of pupils; they have to listen to teaching, not to give it; to answer, not to put questions. This parable sets forth, under the guise of history, the Pharisaical party in its official character, and as the representative of the nation. It also denounces the punishment that surely awaited these rejecters of the offered salvation; thus exemplifying the teaching of the withered fig tree (vers. 17-20). As applicable to the Jewish nation generally, it represents the long suffering of God and the various means which, in the course of their history, he had used to urge them to do their duty as his servants; and it ends with a prophecy of the coming events, and the terrible issue of impenitence. We must take the parable as partly retrospective, and partly predictive. There was a certain householder; a man (ἄνθρωπος) that was an householder. Christ in his parables often, as here, introduces God in his dealings with mankind as a man. His house is the house of Israel in particular, and in general the whole human family. A vineyard. God's kingdom upon earth, and particularly the Jewish Church. The figure is common throughout Scripture (see on Matthew 20:1). It was planted when God gave Israel a law, and put them in possession of the promised land. The parable itself is founded on Isaiah 5:1-7, where, however, the vineyard is tended by the Lord himself, not by husbandmen, and it bears wild grapes, not good grapes. By these differences different developments of declension are indicated. In the earlier times it was the nation that apostatized, fell into idolatry and rebellion against God, the theocratical Head of their race and polity. In later days it is the teachers, rabbis, priests, false prophets, who neglect the paths of righteousness, and lead people astray. In the parable these last come into painful prominence as criminally guilty of opposing God's messengers. Hedged it round; put a hedge around it. The fence would be a stone wall - a necessary defence against the incursions of wild animals. This fence has been regarded in two senses - first, as referring to the physical peculiarities of the position of the Holy Land, separated from alien nations by deserts, seas, rivers, and so isolated from evil contagion; second, as intimating the peculiar laws and minute restrictions of the Jewish polity, which differentiated Judaism from all other systems of religion, and tended to preserve purity and incorruption. Probably the "hedge" is meant to adumbrate both senses. Many, however, see in it the protection of angels, or the righteousness of saints, which seem hardly to be sufficiently precise for the context. Digged a winepress. The phrase refers, not to the ordinary wooden troughs or vats which were used for the purpose of expressing and receiving the juice of the grapes, but to such as were cut in the rock, and were common in all parts of the country. Remains of these receptacles meet the traveller everywhere on the hill slopes of Judaea, and notably in the valleys of Carmel. The winepress is taken to signify the prophetic spirit, the temple services, or all things that typified the sacrifice and death of Christ. A tower; for the purpose of watching and guarding the vineyard. This may represent the temple itself, or the civil power. Whatever interpretation may be put upon the various details, which, indeed, should not be unduly pressed, the general notion is that every care was taken of the Lord's inheritance, nothing was wanting for its convenience and security. Let it out to husbandmen. This is a new feature introduced into Isaiah's parable. Instead of paying an annual sum of money to the proprietor, these vine dressers payed in kind, furnishing a stipulated amount of fruit or wine as the hire of the vineyard. We have a lease on the former terms in Song of Solomon 8:11, where the keepers have "to bring a thousand pieces of silver for the fruit." The husbandmen are the children of Israel, who had to do their part in the Church, and show fruits of piety and devotion. Went into a far country; ἀπεδήμησεν: went abroad. In the parabolic sense, God withdrew for a time the sensible tokens of his presence, no longer manifested himself as at Sinai, and in the cloud and pillar of fire. "Innuitur tempus divinae taciturnitatis, ubi homines agunt pro arbitrio" (Bengel). God's long suffering gives time of probation.
And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.
Verse 34. - When the time of the fruit drew near. The vintage season, when the rent, whether in money or kind, became due. In the Jewish history no particular time seems to be signified, but rather such periods or crises which forced God's claims upon men's notice, and made them consider what fruits they had to show for all the Lord's care, how they had lived after receiving the Law. Such times were the ages of Samuel, Elijah, the great prophets, the Maccabees, and John the Baptist. His servants. The prophets, good kings, priests, and governors. "I have sent unto you all my servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them, saying, Return ye now every man from his evil way, and amend your doings" (Jeremiah 35:15). To receive the fruits of it (τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτοῦ); or, his fruits, as rent.
And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.
Verse 35. - Took his servants. The exaction of rent in kind has always been a fruitful source of dispute, fraud, and discontent. In the Jewish Church God's messengers had been ill treated and put to death (see ch. 23:34-37). "Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?" cried St. Stephen; "and they have slain them which showed before the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been the betrayers and murderers" (Acts 7:52). Beat... killed... stoned. A climax of iniquity and guilt. The statement is probably meant to be general; some, however, endeavour to individualize it, referring the "beating" to the treatment of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:1, 2), "killing" to Isaiah (Hebrews 11:37, "sawn asunder"), "stoning" to Zechariah son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:20, 21). Doubtless, the incidents in such persecutions were often repeated.
Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise.
Verse 36. - Other servants. God's loving kindness was not wearied out with the husbandmen's cruelty and violence. Each step of their wickedness and obstinacy was met with renewed mercy, with fresh calls to repentance. More (πλείονας). More in number. In the latter days the number of God's messengers was much greater than in earlier times; so it is unnecessary to take πλείονας in the sense of "more honourable," "of higher dignity," though such interpretation is supported by its use in Matthew 6:25; Mark 12:33; Hebrews 11:4. Likewise. They resisted these new envoys as they had resisted these first sent, treating them with equal cruelty and violence.
But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son.
Verse 37. - Last of all; ὕστερον: afterwards, later on. The parable now allegorizes the near present, and future, in such a way as for the moment to conceal its bearing, and to lead the hearers to pronounce their own condemnation: His son. Even Jesus Christ, who was now among them, incarnate, teaching, and demanding of them fruits of righteousness. Here was the authorization which they had required (ver. 23). God sent his Son. They will reverence my Son. God condescends to speak in human language, as hoping for a good result from this last effort for man's salvation. He, as it were, puts aside his foreknowledge, and gives scope to man's free will. Though the sad issue is known to him, he often acts towards men as if he had hope that they would still use the occasion profitably. In the present case, whereas the immediate result of the last measure was disastrous, the expectation was ultimately realized in the conversion of many Jews to Christianity, which led to the bringing of all nations to the obedience of the faith.
But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.
Verse 38. - When the husbandmen saw the Son. As soon as they recognized this new and important messenger. This is the great element in the guilt of his rejection. They might have had the same consciousness of Christ's Divine mission as Nicodemus (John 3:2), having possessed the same opportunities of judging. Ancient prophecy, the signs of the times, the miracles and teaching of Christ, the testimony of the Baptist, pointed to one evident conclusion; evidence had been accumulating on all sides. A latent feeling had grown up that he was the Messiah (see John 11:49-52), and it was obstinate prejudice and perversity alone that prevented his open acknowledgment. "If I had not come and spoken unto them," said Christ, "they had not had sin; but now they have no cloke for their sin" (John 15:22; comp. John 9:41). They said among themselves. They plotted his destruction (see John 11:53). We are reminded of the conspiracy against Joseph, his father's well belowed son (Genesis 37:20). Let us seize on (κατάσχωμεν, take possession of, keep as our own) his inheritance. It would have been a wild and ignorant scheme of the husbandmen to consider that by murdering the heir they could obtain and hold possession of the vineyard. Here the parable bursts from the allegorical form, and becomes history and prophecy. In fact, the possession which the rulers coveted was supremacy over the minds and consciences of men; they wished to lord it over God's heritage; to retain their rights and prerogatives in the present system. This ambition Christ's teaching and action entirely overthrew. They felt no security in their possession of authority while he was present and working in their midst. Were he removed, their position would be safe, their claims undisputed. Hence their conspiracy and its result - a result very far from what they expected. They had their own way, but their gain was ruin. Says St. Augustine, "Ut possiderent, occiderunt; et quia occiderunt, perdiderunt."
And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.
Verse 39. - Cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. This is prophecy, and alludes to a particular circumstance attending the death of Christ, viz. that he suffered without the city Jerusalem, Calvary being outside the walls (see John 19:17, and the parallel passages in the other evangelists, and especially Hebrews 13:11, 12, where it is significantly noted that Jesus "suffered without the gate"). The words may also contain a reference to the fact that he was excommunicated and given over to the heathen to be judged and condemned, thus suffering not actually at the hands of "the husbandmen" (comp. Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27). Christ, in his Divine prescience, speaks of his Passion and death as already accomplished.
When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?
Verse 40. - When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh; when therefore the lord, etc. Christ asks his hearers, who are both rulers and people, what in their opinion will be the course taken by the lord when he visits his vineyard, knowing all that has transpired. So Isaiah (Isaiah 5:3) makes the people give the verdict: "And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard."
They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.
Verse 41. - They say unto him. The Pharisees probably made the reply, not at the moment apprehending the sense of the parable. Or the words were spoken by some of the bystanders, and taken up and emphatically repeated by our Lord with an unmistakable application (ver. 43). The conclusion was a necessary consequence, and this will account for Mark and Luke apparently making them a part of Christ's speech. By their answer they blindly condemn themselves, as David did at hearing Nathan's parable (2 Samuel 12:5). He will miserably (kakw = ) destroy those wicked men (κακοὺς, miserable men); or, he will evilly destroy those evil men; Vulgate, Malos male perdet. He will make their punishment equal their crime. The slaughter and mortality at the siege of Jerusalem accomplished this prediction to the letter. Unto other husbandmen; i.e. the Christian ministry, which took the place of the Jewish priests and teachers. As the husbandmen in the parable were rather the rulers and rabbis than the whole nation (which, indeed, only followed their guides), so these others are not the whole Gentile world, but those who sustained the ministerial offices in the Christian Church. Which (οἵτινες); of such kind as, denoting a class of servants. The clause is peculiar to Matthew. The speakers did not clearly apprehend the bearing of this detail of the parable. In their seasons. The times when the various fruits are ripe and ready for harvesting. These would vary in different climates and under differing circumstances; but the good husbandmen would be always ready to render to their Lord the fruits of faith and obedience, at every holy season and in due proportion. This parable, spoken originally of Israel, applies, like all such similitudes, to the Christian Church and to the human soul. How God dealt with individual Churches we see in his words to the seven Churches of Asia (Revelation 1-3.). Ecclesiastical history furnishes similar examples throughout all ages. God gives privileges, and looks for results worthy of these graces. He sends warnings; he raises up apostles, preachers, evangelists; and if a Church is still unfaithful, he takes away his Spirit, and lets it lapse, and gives its inheritance to others, In the other case, the vineyard is the soul of man, which he has to cultivate for his Master's use. God has hedged it round with the law, external and internal, given it the ministry and sacraments and the Scripture, and looks to it to bring forth the fruits of obedience, service, worship. He sends times of visitation, teaching, warning; he speaks to it by secret inspiration; he calls it in loving tones to closer union. If it hearkens to the call, it walks in the way of salvation; if it refuses to hear, it casts away the hope of its calling, and must share the lot of Christ's enemies.
Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?
Verse 42. - Did ye never read? It is as though Christ said, "Ye have answered rightly. You profess to know the Scriptures well; do you not, then, apprehend that Holy Writ foretells that concerning Messiah and his enemies which you have just announced?" The imagery is changed, but the subject is the same as in the preceding parable. The vineyard is now a building; the husbandmen are the builders; the Son is the stone. In the Scriptures. The quotation is from Psalm 118:22, 23 - the same psalm which was used on the day of triumph when Christ was saluted with cries of "Hosanna!" and which, as some say, was first sung by Israel at the Feast of Tabernacles on the return from Captivity. The stone. This figure was generally understood to represent Messiah, on whom depended the existence and support of the kingdom of God. Many prophecies containing this metaphor were applied to him; e.g. Isaiah 28:16; Daniel 2:34; Zechariah 3:9; so that the Pharisees could be at no loss to understand the allusion, seeing that Jesus claimed to be that Stone. Rejected; as being not suitable to the building, or useless in its construction. So the husbandmen rejected the Son. The ignorance and contempt of men are overruled by the great Architect. The head of the corner. The cornerstone, which stands at the base and binds together two principal walls (see St. Paul's grand words, Ephesians 2:19-22). We learn that Christ unites Jew and Gentile in one holy house (comp. 1 Peter 2:6, 7). This (αὕτη), being feminine, is thought by some to refer to "head of the corner" (κεφαλὴν, γωνίας); but it is better to take it as used by a Hebrew idiom for the neuter, and to refer generally to what has preceded, viz. the settlement of the cornerstone in its destined position, which is effected by the Lord himself. The ultimate victory of the rejected Son is thus distinctly predicted (comp. Acts 4:11; Romans 9:33).
Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.
Verse 43. - Therefore I say unto you. Having denounced the sin, Christ now enunciates the punishment thereof, in continuation of his parable. Because ye slay the Son, reject the Cornerstone, the vineyard, i.e. the kingdom of God, shall be taken from you. Ye shall no longer be God's peculiar people; your special privileges shall be taken away. A nation. The Christian Church, the spiritual Israel, formed chiefly from the Gentile peoples (Acts 15:14; 1 Peter 2:9). The fruits thereof (au)th = ); i.e. of the kingdom of God, such faith, life, good works, as become those thus favoured by Divine grace.
And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.
Verse 44. - Christ proceeds to show the positive and terrible results of such unbelief. Whosoever shall fall (πεσὼν, hath fallen) on this stone shall be broken (συνθλασθήσεται, shall be shattered to pieces). This may refer to the practice of executing the punishment of stoning by first hurling the culprit from a raised platform on to a rock or stone, and then stoning him to death. The falling on the stone has been explained in more ways than one. Some think that it implies coming to Christ in repentance and humility, with a contrite heart, which he will not despise. But the subject here is the punishment of the obdurate. Others take it to represent an attack made by the enemies of Christ, who shall demolish themselves by such onslaught. The original will hardly allow this interpretation. Doubtless the allusion is to those who found in Christ's low estate a stone of stumbling and rock of offence. These suffered grievous loss and danger even in this present time. The rejection of the doctrine of Christ crucified involves the loss of spiritual privileges, moral debility, and what is elsewhere called "the scattering abroad" (Matthew 12:30; comp. Isaiah 8:14, 15). On whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder (λικμήσει αὐτὸν, it will scatter him as chaff). The persons here spoken of are not those who are offended at Christ's low estate; they are such as put themselves in active opposition to him and his kingdom; on them he will fall in terrible vengeance, and will utterly destroy them without hope of recovery. The idea is rerepeated from Daniel 2:34, 35, and Daniel 2:44, 45. Christ in his humiliation is the Stone against which men fall; Christ in his glory and exaltation is the Stone which falls on them.
And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.
Verse 45. - Pharisees. They have not been specially mentioned hitherto, but they formed the majority in the Sanhedrin, and are properly here named by the evangelist. He spake of them. They could not fail, especially after ver. 43, to see the drift of the parables; their own consciences must have made them feel that they themselves were herein signified, their motives and conduct fully discovered. But, as bad men always act, instead of repenting of the evil, they are only exasperated against him who detected them, and only desire the more to wreak their vengeance upon him.
But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.
Verse 46. - They feared the multitude. They did not dare to lay violent hands on Jesus in the presence of the excited crowd, which would have withstood any such attack at this moment. A Prophet (see ver. 11). If they did not recognize him as Messiah, they regarded him as one inspired by God, and having a Divine mission. This accounts for the joyful acquiescence of the Pharisaical party in the offer of Judas, when he proposed to betray his Master in the absence of the multitude

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