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the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 21

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem.—Here again we have, as far as we can, to fill up a gap in St. Matthew’s Gospel. We have to think of the journey up the narrow valley that leads from Jericho to Jerusalem. Our Lord, as before, was followed by the disciples, and they in their turn were followed by the crowds of pilgrims who were drawn to the Holy City either by the coming Passover or by wonder and curiosity to see what part the Prophet of Nazareth would take. Throughout the multitude, including the disciples, there was a feverish expectation that He would at last announce Himself as the Christ, and claim His kingdom (Luke 19:11). They reach Bethany “six days before the Passover,” probably, i.e., on the Friday afternoon (John 12:1). They remain there for the Sabbath, probably in the house of Lazarus or Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6; John 12:2; and in that of the latter we have the history of the anointing, which St. Matthew relates, out of its chronological order, in Matthew 26:6-13). The point of time with which the narrative, which now becomes more continuous, opens, may be fixed at the dawn of the first day of the week, the daybreak of Palm Sunday.

Bethphage.—The village is named in Luke 19:29, and in many MSS. of Mark 11:1, in conjunction with Bethany, and before it, and from this it would seem probable that it lay on the road from Jericho, and was therefore to the east of Bethany. The traditional site, however, followed in most maps, makes it to the west of Bethany, and nearer the summit of the hill. The name signified “the house of unripe figs,” as Bethany did “the house of dates,” and Gethsemane “the oil-press,” the three obviously indicating local features giving distinctness to the three sites. All three were on the Mount of Olives. Bethany is identified with the modern El-’Azariyeh, or Lazarieh (the name attaching to its connection with the history of Lazarus), which lies about a mile below the summit on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, in a woody hollow planted with olives, almonds, pomegranates, and figs. The palms implied in the name of Bethany and in the history of the entry into Jerusalem (John 12:13) have disappeared.

Two disciples.—The messengers are not named in any of the Gospels. The fact that Peter and John were sent on a like errand in Luke 22:8 makes it, perhaps, probable that they were employed in this instance.

Verse 2

(2) Go into the village over against you.—This may have been either Bethany or, on the assumption that it was nearer Jerusalem, Bethphage itself.

An ass tied, and a colt with her.—St. Mark and St. Luke name the “colt” only. St. John speaks of a “young” or “small” ass, using the diminutive of the usual name (ἀνάριον). The colt was one on which “man had never sat” (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30). The command clearly implies a deliberate fulfilment of the prophecy cited in Matthew 21:4-5. They were to claim the right to use the beasts as for the service of a King, not to hire or ask permission.

Verse 3

(3) The Lord hath need of them.—Simple as the words are, they admit of three very different interpretations. “The Lord” may be used either (1) in the highest sense as equivalent to Jehovah, as though the ass and the colt were claimed for His service; or (2) as referring to Christ in the special sense in which He was spoken of as “the Lord” by His disciples; or (3) as pointing to Him, but only in the language which all men would acknowledge, and without any special claim beyond that of being the Master whom the disciples owned as in a lower sense their Lord. Of these (3) is all but excluded by the facts of the case. The words involve a claim to more than common authority, and the claim is recognised at once. In favour of (2) we have the numerous instances in which the disciples and the evangelists not only address their Master as “Lord,” but speak of Him as “the Lord” (Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:19; Luke 10:1; Luke 17:6; Luke 18:6; John 11:2; John 13:13; John 20:2; John 20:13; John 20:18; John 20:20; John 20:25; John 21:7; John 21:12). For (1), lastly, we have our Lord’s use of the word as a synonym for God (Mark 5:19; Mark 13:20). On the whole (2) appears to commend itself as most in accordance with the customary language of the disciples. On the very probable assumption that the owners of the colt were, in some sense, themselves disciples, they would recognise the full import of the words thus addressed to them, and obey without hesitation.

Verse 4

(4) All this was done.—The Evangelist returns to the formula of Matthew 1:22. Literally, all this has come to pass. The words are his comment on the act. At the time (as we find from John 12:16) the disciples did not understand its significance as connected with the prophecy that follows. The purpose lay in the mind of their Master, not in theirs. It is significant of what St. John records that neither St. Mark nor St. Luke alludes to the prophecy.

Verse 5

(5) Tell ye the daughter of Sion.—The words seem to have been cited from memory, the Hebrew text of Zechariah 9:9 beginning, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; shout O daughter of Jerusalem,” and inserting “just, and having salvation” in the description of the King. As the words stand in Zechariah (we need not here discuss the question as to the authorship or composition of that book) they paint the ideal King coming, not with “chariot” and “horse” and “battle bow,” like the conquerors of earthly kingdoms, but as a prince of peace, reviving the lowlier pageantry of the days of the Judges (Judges 5:10; Judges 10:4; Judges 12:14), and yet exercising a wider dominion than David or Solomon had done, “from sea to sea, and from the river (Euphrates) to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). That ideal our Lord claimed to fulfil. Thus interpreted, His act was in part an apparent concession to the fevered expectations of His disciples and the multitude; in part also a protest, the meaning of which they would afterwards understand, against the character of those expectations and the self-seeking spirit which mingled with them. Here, as before, we trace the grave, sad accommodation to thoughts other than His own to which the Teacher of new truths must often have recourse when He finds Himself misinterpreted by those who stand altogether on a lower level. They wished Him to claim the kingdom, that they might sit on His right hand and on His left. Well, He would do so, but it would be a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36), utterly unlike all that they were looking for.

A colt the foal of an ass.—Literally, of a beast of burden, the word not being the same as that previously used. In the Hebrew of Zechariah the word reproduces the old poetic phraseology of Genesis 49:11.

Verse 6

(6) And the disciples went.—St. Mark and St. Luke give more graphically an account of their finding the colt, of the question asked by the owner and the by-standers why they did it, and of their answering in the words they had been told to use, “The Lord hath need of them.” They returned with the ass and the colt, and then the procession began.

Verse 7

(7) They set him thereoni.e., on the garments which served as a saddle. Our Lord rode on the colt, and the ass followed, or went along by His side. St. Mark and St. Luke mention the colt only.

Verse 8

(8) And a very great multitude.—Better, the greater part of the multitude. Part of the crowd had come with Him from Galilee, part streamed from Bethany, excited by the recent resurrection of Lazarus (John 12:17). Some went before Him, some followed. As they advanced they were met by a fresh crowd pouring forth from Jerusalem. Of the latter, St. John records that they came out with palm-branches in their hands, as if to salute a king with the symbols of his triumph. (Comp. Revelation 7:9.)

Spread their garments in the way.—This, again, was a recognised act of homage to a king. So Jehu, when the officers of the army of Israel chose him as their ruler, walked upon the garments which they spread beneath his feet (2 Kings 9:13). So Agamemnon, tempted to an act of barbaric pomp, after the manner of Eastern kings, entered his palace at Mycenæ, walking upon costly carpets (Æschylus, Agam. 891).

Verse 9

(9) Hosanna.—We gather, by comparing the four Gospels, the full nature of the mingled cries that burst from the multitude. (1.) As here, “Hosanna.” The word was a Hebrew imperative, “Save us, we beseech thee,” and had come into liturgical use from Psalms 118:0. That Psalm belonged specially to the Feast of Tabernacles (see Perowne on Psalms 118:0), and as such, was naturally associated with the palm-branches; the verses from it now chanted by the people are said to have been those with which the inhabitants of Jerusalem were wont to welcome the pilgrims who came up to keep the feast. The addition of “Hosanna to the Son of David” made it a direct recognition of the claims of Jesus to be the Christ; that of “Hosanna in the highest” (comp. Luke 2:14) claimed heaven as in accord with earth in this recognition. (2.) “Blessed be” (“the King” in St. Luke) “He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” These words, too, received a special personal application. The welcome was now given, not to the crowd of pilgrims, but to the King. (3.) As in St. Luke, one of the cries was an echo of the angels’ hymn at the Nativity, “Peace on earth, and glory in the highest” (Luke 2:14). (4.) As in St. Mark, “Blessed be the kingdom of our father David.” We have to think of these shouts as filling the air as He rides slowly on in silence. He will not check them at the bidding of the Pharisees (Luke 19:39), but His own spirit is filled with quite other thoughts than theirs. And those who watched Him saw the tears streaming down His cheeks as He looked on the walls and towers of the city, and heard, what the crowds manifestly did not hear, His lamentation over its coming fall (Luke 19:41).

Verse 10

(10) All the city was moved.—It was the beginning of the Paschal week, and the city was therefore filled with pilgrims of many lands. To them this was a strange prelude to the usual order of the feast, and they asked what it meant. The answer fell short of the full meaning of the shouts of the people, but it expressed that aspect of the character of Jesus which was most intelligible to strangers. He was “the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.”

Verse 12

(12) And Jesus went into the temple.—Here, again, there is a gap to be filled up from another Gospel. St. Mark (Mark 11:11) says definitely that on the day of His solemn entry He went into the Temple, “looked round about on all things there,”—i.e., on the scene of traffic and disorder described in this verse—and then, “the evening-tide being come” (or, “the hour being now late”), went back to Bethany, and did what is here narrated on the following day. So, with a like difference of order, St. Mark places the sentence on the barren fig-tree on the next morning, and before the cleansing of the Temple. (Comp. Note on Matthew 21:17.) St. John (John 2:13-25) records an act of like nature as occurring at the commencement of our Lord’s ministry, on the first visit to Jerusalem after His baptism. Critics who have started with the assumption that the repetition of such an act was impossible, have inferred accordingly that the narrative has been misplaced either by the Three or by St. John, some holding with the latter and some with the former, on grounds more or less arbitrary. From the purest human historical point of view, we may, I believe, accept both narratives as true. If Jesus of Nazareth had been only a patriot Jew, filled with an intense enthusiasm for the holiness of the Temple, what more likely than that He should commence His work with a protest against its desecration? If the evils against which He thus protested, after being suppressed for a time, reappeared in all their enormity, what more probable than that He should renew the protest at this stage of His work, backed as He now was by the equal enthusiasm of the people? What more natural, again, than that the second cleansing should revive the memory of the first, and call up with it the words which are recorded by St. John, and not by the Three, and which served as the basis of the charge that He had threatened to destroy the Temple (John 2:20-21; Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58). There is—it cannot be concealed—a real difficulty in the omission of the earlier cleansing by the Three, and in the absence of any reference to the later cleansing by the Fourth; but the fact in either case is only one of many like facts incident to the structure of the Gospels. The Three knew nothing—or rather, they record nothing—as to our Lord’s ministry in Jerusalem prior to this last entry. The Fourth, writing a Gospel supplementary either to the Three or to the current oral teaching which they embodied, systematically passes over, with one or two notable exceptions, what they had recorded, and confines his work to reporting, with marvellous vividness and fulness, specially selected incidents.

Cast out them that sold and bought in the temple.—The apparent strangeness of the permission of what seems to us so manifest a desecration, was obviously not felt by the Jews as we feel it. Pilgrims came from all parts of the world to keep the Passover, to offer their sacrifices, sin-offerings, or thank-offerings, according to the circumstances of each case. They did not bring the victims with them. What plan, it might seem, could be more convenient than that they should find a market where they could buy them as near as possible to the place where the sacrifice was to be offered? One of the courts of the Temple was therefore assigned for the purpose, and probably the priests found their profit in the arrangement by charging a fee or rent of some kind for the privilege of holding stalls. There is no trace of the practice prior to the Captivity, but the dispersion of the Jews afterwards naturally led men to feel the want of such accommodation more keenly. But this permission brought with it another as its inevitable sequel. The pilgrims brought with them the coinage of their own country—Syrian, Egyptian, Greek, as the case might be—and their money was either not current in Palestine, or, as being stamped with the symbols of heathen worship, could not be received into the Corban, or treasury of the Temple. For their convenience, therefore, money-changers were wanted, who, of course, made the usual agio, or profit, on each transaction. We must picture to ourselves, in addition to all the stir and bustle inseparable from such traffic, the wrangling and bitter words and reckless oaths which necessarily grew out of it with such a people as the Jews. The history of Christian churches has not been altogether without parallels that may help us to understand how such a desecration came to be permitted. Those who remember the state of the great cathedral of London, as painted in the literature of Elizabeth and James, when mules and horses laden with market produce, were led through St. Paul’s as a matter of every-day occurrence, and bargains were struck there, and burglaries planned, and servants hired, and profligate assignations made and kept, will feel that even Christian and Protestant England has hardly the right to cast a stone at the priests and people of Jerusalem.

And the seats of them that sold doves.—The Greek has the article—“the doves,” that were so familiar an object in the Temple courts. There is a characteristic feature in this incident as compared with the earlier cleansing. Then, as taking into account, apparently, the less glaringly offensive nature of the traffic, our Lord had simply bidden the dealers in doves to depart, with their stalls and bird-cages (John 2:16). Now, as if indignant at their return to the desecrating work which He had then forbidden, He places them also in the same condemnation as the others.

Verse 13

(13) It is written.—The words which our Lord quotes are a free combination of two prophetic utterances: one from Isaiah’s vision of the future glory of the Temple, as visited both by Jew and Gentile (Isaiah 56:7); one from Jeremiah’s condemnation of evils like in nature, if not in form, to those against which our Lord protested (Jeremiah 7:11).

A den of thieves.—The pictorial vividness of the words must not be passed over. Palestine was then swarming with bands of outlaw brigands, who, as David of old in Adullam (1 Samuel 22:1), haunted the lime-stone caverns of Judæa. The wranglings of such a company over the booty they had carried off were reproduced in the Temple, and mingled with the Hallelujahs of the Levites and the Hosannas of the crowds. We ask, as we read the narrative, how it was that the work of expulsion was done so effectively, and with so little resistance. The answer is found (1) in the personal greatness and intensity of will that showed itself in our Lord’s look and word and tone; (2) in the presence of the crowd that had followed Him from the Mount of Olives, and had probably filled the courts of the Temple; and (3) in the secret consciousness of the offenders that they were desecrating the Temple, and that the Prophet of Nazareth, in His zeal for His Father’s house, was the witness of a divine truth.

Verse 14

(14) The blind and the lame.—These, as we see from Acts 3:2, and probably from John 9:1, thronged the approaches to the Temple, and asked alms of the worshippers. They now followed the great Healer into the Temple itself, and sought at His hands relief from their infirmities. If we were to accept the LXX. reading of the strange proverbial saying of 2 Samuel 5:8, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house of the Lord,” it would seem as if this were a departure from the usual regulations of the Temple; but the words in italics are not in the Hebrew. Most commentators give an entirely different meaning to the proverb, and there is no evidence from Jewish writers that the blind and the lame were ever, as a matter of fact, excluded from the Temple. All that we can legitimately infer from the two passages is the contrast between the hasty, passionate words of the conquering king, and the tender compassion of the Son of David, to whom the blind and the lame were objects, not of antipathy, but pity.

Verse 15

(15) The chief priests.—These, as commonly in the Gospels, were the heads of the twenty-four courses of the priesthood, as well as Annas and Caiaphas, who were designated by the title in its higher sense, the one as actually high priest, the other as president of the Sanhedrin. (See Note on Luke 3:2.)

The children.—Literally, the boys, the noun being masculine. Taking the Jewish classification of ages, they would probably be from seven to fourteen years old, but in such a narrative as this the general phrase does not exclude younger children.

Verse 16

(16) Hearest thou what these say?—The priests and scribes had probably remained in the Temple, and had not heard the Hosannas which were raised on the Mount of Olives. The shouts of the children were therefore a surprise to them, and they turned to the Teacher and asked whether He accepted them in the sense in which they were addressed to Him. Had He really entered the Temple claiming to be the expected Christ? Did He approve this interruption of the order and quiet of its courts?

Have ye never read?—Better, did ye never read? The question was one which our Lord frequently asked in reasoning with the scribes who opposed Him (Matthew 12:3; Matthew 12:5; Matthew 19:4; Matthew 21:42; Matthew 22:31). It expressed very forcibly the estimate which He formed of their character as interpreters. They spent their lives in the study of the Law, and yet they perverted its meaning, and could not see its bearing on the events that passed around them. In this instance He cites the words of Psalms 8:2, the primary meaning of which appears to be that the child’s wonder at the marvels of Creation is the truest worship. As applied by our Lord their lesson was the same. The cries of the children were the utterance of a truth which the priests and scribes rejected. To Him, to whom the innocent brightness of childhood was a delight, they were more acceptable than the half-hearted, self-seeking homage of older worshippers. The words are quoted from the LXX. translation.

Verse 17

(17) And went out of the city into Bethany.—St. Mark, as already noticed, places the incident that follows on the morning that followed the triumphal entry, and before the cleansing. We have to choose, there being an obvious error of arrangement in one or other of the narratives, between the two, and the probability seems on the whole in favour of the more precise and more vivid record of St. Mark. The lodging at Bethany is explained partly by what we read in Matthew 26:6-13, yet more by John 11:1-2; John 12:1. There He found in the house of the friends who were dear to Him the rest and peace which He could not find in the crowded city. The suppression of the name of those friends in the first three Gospels is every way significant, as suggesting that there were reasons which for a time (probably till the death of Lazarus) led all writers of the records which served as the basis of the Gospel history to abstain from the mention of any facts that might attract attention to them.

Verse 18

(18) In the morning.—The word implies “daybreak,” probably about 5 A.M. This was the usual Jewish time for the first food of the day. If we may infer from Luke 21:37, John 18:1, that the greater part of the night had been spent either in solitary prayer or in converse with the disciples, we have an explanation of the exhaustion which sought food wherever there might seem even a chance of finding it.

Verse 19

(19) In the way.—Better, on the road. Fig-trees were often planted by the road-side under the notion that dust suited them.

He came to it.—St. Mark adds, what St. Matthew indeed implies, that He came, if “haply He might find anything thereon.” The fig-tree in Palestine bears two or three crops a year. Josephus, indeed, says that fruit might be found on the trees in Judæa for ten months out of the twelve. Commonly at the beginning of April the trees that still grow out of the rocks between Bethany and Jerusalem are bare both of leaves and fruit, and so probably it was now with all but the single tree which attracted our Lord’s notice. It was in full foliage, and being so far in advance of its fellows it might not unnaturally have been expected to have had, in the first week of April, the “first ripe fruit” (Hosea 9:10), which usually was gathered in May. So, in Song Song of Solomon 2:13, the appearance of the “green figs” coincides with that of the flowers of spring, and the time of the singing of birds. The illustrations from the branches and leaves of the fig-tree in Luke 21:29-30, suggest that the season was a somewhat forward one. On the special difficulty connected with St. Mark’s statement, “the time of figs was not yet,” see Note on Mark 11:13.

Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever.—From the lips of one of like passions with ourselves, the words might seem the utterance of impatient disappointment. Here they assume the character of a solemn judgment passed not so much on the tree as on that of which it became the representative. The Jews, in their show of the “leaves” of outward devotion, in the absence of the “fruits” of righteousness, were as that barren tree. But a few weeks before (Luke 13:6) He had taken the fig-tree to which “a man came seeking fruit and finding none,” as a parable of the state of Israel. Then the sentence, “Cut it down,” had been delayed, as in the hope of a possible amendment. Now, what He saw flashed upon Him in a moment (if we may so speak) as the parable embodied. The disappointment of the expectations which He had formed in His human craving for food was like the disappointment of the owner of the fig-tree in the parable. The sentence which He now passed on the tree, and its immediate fulfilment, were symbols of the sentence and the doom which were about to fall on the unrepentant and unbelieving people.

Presently.—The word is used in its older sense of “immediately.” As with nearly all such words—“anon,” “by and by,” and the like—man’s tendency to delay has lowered its meaning, and it now suggests the thought.

Verse 20

(20) And when the disciples saw it.—Here again St. Mark’s narrative (Mark 11:20-21) seems at once the fullest and the most precise. As he relates the facts, the disciples did not perceive that the fig-tree was withered away till they passed by on the following morning. Peter then remembered what had been said the day before, and, as the spokesman of the rest, drew his Master’s attention to the fact. The immediate withering may have been inferred from its completeness when seen, or its beginning may have been noticed by some at the time.

Verse 21

(21) If ye have faith, and doubt not.—The promise, in its very form, excludes a literal fulfilment. The phrase to “remove mountains” (as in 1 Corinthians 13:2) was a natural hyperbole for overcoming difficulties, and our Lord in pointing to “this mountain”—as He had done before to Hermon (Matthew 17:20)—did but give greater vividness to an illustration which the disciples would readily understand. A mere physical miracle, such as the removal of the mountain, could never be in itself the object of the prayer of a faith such as our Lord described. The hyperbole is used here, as elsewhere, to impress on men’s mind the truth which lies beneath it.

Verse 22

(22) All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer.—Here again there is the implied condition (as in Matthew 7:7) that what is asked is in harmony with the laws and will of God. If it were not so it would not be asked in faith, and every true prayer involves the submission of what it asks to the divine judgment. The words suggest the thought, of which we have the full expression in John 11:42, that our Lord’s miracles were less frequently wrought by an inherent supernatural “virtue”—though this, also, distinctly appears, e.g., in the history of the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:46)—than by power received from the Father, and in answer to His own prayers.

Verse 23

(23) The chief priests and the elders.—St. Matthew and St. Luke add “the scribes,” thus including representatives of the three constituent elements of the Sanhedrin. The character of the teaching is further specified by St. Luke, “as He was preaching the gospel”—proclaiming, i.e., the good news of the kingdom, the forgiveness of sins, and the law of righteousness.

By what authority . . .?—The right to take the place of an instructor was, as a rule, conferred by the scribes, or their chief representative, on one who had studied “at the feet” of some great teacher, and been solemnly admitted (the delivery of a key, as the symbol of the right to interpret, being the outward token) to that office. The question implied that those who asked it knew that the Prophet of Nazareth had not been so admitted. The second question gave point to the first. Could He name the Rabbi who had trained Him, or authorised Him to teach?

Verse 24

(24) I also will ask you one thing.—The question is met by another question. As One who taught as “having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:29), He challenges their right to interrogate Him on the ground of precedent. Had they exercised that right in the case of the Baptist, and if so, with what result? If they had left his claim unquestioned, or if they had shrunk from confessing the result of their inquiry, they had virtually abdicated their office, and had no right, in logical consistency, to exercise it, as by fits and starts, in the case of another teacher.

Verse 25

(25) They reasoned with themselves.—The self-communing was eminently characteristic. The priests and scribes had, in dealing with the mission of John, halted between two opinions. At one time they came to his baptism (Matthew 3:7); at another they said, “He hath a devil” (Matthew 11:18). They watched the ebb and flow of a public reverence which the death of John had deepened, and dared not repudiate his character as a prophet. They were reluctant to admit that character, for this would have involved the necessity of accepting the testimony which he had borne to the work and office of Jesus.

Verse 27

(27) We cannot tell.—The confession of impotence to which the priests and scribes were thus brought was, as has been said, a virtual abdication. Before such a tribunal the Prophet whom they called in question might well refuse to plead. There was, indeed, no need to answer. For those who were not wilfully blind and deaf, the words that He had spoken, the works which He had done, the sinless life which He had led, were proofs of an authority from God.

Verse 28

(28) But what think ye?—The question serves to connect the parable with the foregoing incident, and so gives point to its special primary application. In many MSS. the answers of the two sons are inverted, and it is accordingly the “second,” and not the first, who is said, in Matthew 21:31, to have done the will of his Father.

Go work to day in my vineyard.—The parable rests on the same imagery as that of the Labourers, with some special variations. Both of those who are called to work are “sons,” and not hired labourers—i.e., there is a recognition of both Pharisees and publicans, the outwardly religious and the conspicuously irreligious, as being alike, in a sense, children of God.

Verse 29

(29) I will not.—The bold defiance of the answer answers to the rough recklessness of the classes (publicans and harlots) who were represented by the “first” of the two sons. Their whole life, up to the time of their conversion, had been an open refusal to keep God’s laws, and so to work in His vineyard.

He repented.—The Greek word is not the same as that of Matthew 3:2, and expresses rather the regretful change of purpose than entire transformation of character. It is the first stage of repentance, and may, as in this instance, pass on into the higher, or, as in the case of Judas (Matthew 27:3, where the same word is used), end only in remorse and despair.

Verse 30

(30) I go, sir.—The tone of outward respect, as contrasted with the rude refusal of the elder son, is eminently characteristic as representing the surface religion of the Pharisees.

Verse 31

(31) They say unto him, The first.—The answer came apparently from the lips of the very persons who were self-condemned by it, and so implied something like an unconsciousness that they were described in the person of the second son. They who gave God thanks that they were not like other men, could not imagine for an instant that the “went not” represented their spiritual life in relation to God’s kingdom.

The publicans and the harlots.—The words are purposely general, as describing the action of classes; but we cannot help associating them with the personal instances of the publican who became an Apostle (9:9), and of Zacchæus (Luke 19:2-10), and of the woman that was a sinner (Luke 7:37-50).

Go into the kingdom of God before you.—Which literally means, lead the way into. What follows shows that our Lord is stating not so much a law of God’s government as a simple fact. The choice of the word is significant as implying that there was still time for scribes and Pharisees to follow in the rear. The door was not yet closed against them, though those whom they despised had taken the place of honour and preceded them.

Verse 32

(32) In the way of righteousness.—The term seems used in a half-technical sense, as expressing the aspect of righteousness which the Pharisees themselves recognised (Matthew 6:1), and which included, as its three great elements, the almsgiving, fasting, and prayer, that were so conspicuous both in the life and in the teaching of the Baptist.

The publicans and the harlots believed him.—The former class appear among the hearers of John in Luke 3:12. The latter are not mentioned there, but it was natural they also should feel the impulse of the strong popular movement.

Repented not afterwards.—Better, did not even repent afterwards. The words are repeated from the parable (Matthew 21:29), and sharpen its application. In relation to the preaching of the Baptist, the scribes and Pharisees were like the first of the two sons in his defiant refusal; they were not like him in his subsequent repentance.

Verse 33

(33) Which planted a vineyard.—The frequent recurrence of this imagery at this period of our Lord’s ministry is significant. (Comp. Matthew 20:1; Matthew 21:28; Luke 13:6.) The parable that now meets us points in the very form of its opening to the great example of the use of that image in Isaiah 5:1. Taking the thought there suggested as the key to the parable, the vineyard is “the house of Israel;” the “fence” finds its counterpart in the institutions which made Israel a separate and peculiar people; the “wine-press” (better, wine-vati.e., the reservoir underneath the press), in the Temple, as that into which the “wine” of devotion, and thanksgiving, and charity was to flow; the “tower” (used in vineyards as a place of observation and defence against the attacks of plunderers; comp. Isaiah 1:8), in Jerusalem and the outward polity connected with it. So, in like manner, the letting out to husbandmen and the going “into a far country” answers historically to the conquest by which the Israelites became possessors of Canaan, and were left, as it were, to themselves to make what use they chose of their opportunities.

Verse 34

(34) When the time of the fruit drew near.—We must be content here with following the general drift of the parable, and cannot find any exact parallel in the history of Israel to the successive sendings of the servants of the householder. It is enough to see in them the general expectation (comp. the language of Isaiah 5:4, “I looked that it should bring forth grapes”) that the developed life of Israel should be worthy of its calling, and the mission of the prophets who. as the servants of Jehovah, were sent from time to time to call the people to bring forth the fruits of righteousness.

Verse 35

(35) Beat one, and killed another.—The language paints the general treatment of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, being the most conspicuous instances. The language of our Lord in Matthew 23:30; Matthew 23:34, not less than that of Hebrews 11:37, implies that the prophets, as a class, had no light or easy task, and were called upon, one by one, to suffer persecution for the faithful exercise of their office.

Verse 36

(36) Other servants more than the first.—There is, perhaps, a reference here to the greater power and fulness of the work of the later prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, stretching onward to that of the Baptist, as closing the whole line.

Verse 37

(37) Last of all.—The variations in the other Gospels are noticeable as more vivid and dramatic. “He had yet one son, his beloved” (Mark 12:6). “He said, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son, it may be they will reverence him” (Luke 20:13). The language of deliberation and doubt is evidently inapplicable, except by a bold anthropomorphism, to divine acts, but it sets forth (1) the gradually ascending scale of those who were sent, culminating in a difference not of degree only, but of kind, like the contrast between the prophets and the Son in Hebrews 1:1-2; and (2) the employment by God, in His long-suffering pity, of all possible means to lead His people to repentance.

Verse 38

(38) This is the heir.—What we learn elsewhere enables us to understand the feelings with which the priests and scribes must have heard these words. Already had Caiaphas given the counsel that one man should die for the people (John 11:49), while among those who knew it, and did not protest, were many who believed on Him, and yet, through fear of the Pharisees, were not confessed disciples (John 12:42). The words of the parable showed that they stood face to face with One who knew the secrets of their hearts, and had not deceived Himself as to the issue of the conflict in which He was now engaged.

Verse 39

(39) Cast him out of the vineyard.—The minor touches of a parable are not always to be pressed in our interpretation of it; but we can hardly help seeing here a latent reference to the facts (1) that our Lord was delivered over to the judgment of the Gentiles; and (2) that He was crucified outside the Holy City, (John 19:20; Hebrews 13:12), which was, in a special sense, as the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.

Verse 41

(41) They say unto him . . .—The fact that the answer to the question came, not from the speaker, but from the hearers of the parable, is peculiar to St. Matthew. On the assumption that those who gave the answer were the scribes and Pharisees, we may see in it either a real unconsciousness that they were as the men on whom the punishment was to fall (see Note on Matthew 21:31), or, more probably, an affected horror, by which they sought to disguise the conviction that the parable was meant for them. They would not admit, in the presence of the multitude, that they winced at this intimation that their designs were known.

Those wicked men.—Better, those miserable men, the adjective being the same as the preceding adverb. Their answer, like the speech of Caiaphas in John 11:49-51, was an unconscious prophecy, in which were wrapt up at once the destruction of the Holy City, and the transfer of the privileges that had belonged to Israel to the Gentile Church, which was to grow into Catholic Christendom. The Lord of the vineyard would not be robbed of its fruits, and sooner or later would find faithful and true labourers.

Verse 42

(42) Did ye never read. . . .?—The quotation is remarkable as being found (Psalms 118:22) in the immediate context of the verse which had supplied the “hosanna” shouts of the multitude on the preceding day. In the primary meaning of the Psalm, the illustration seems to have been drawn from one of the stones, quarried, hewn, and marked, away from the site of the Temple, which the builders, ignorant of the head architect’s plans, had put on one side, as having no place in the building, but which was found afterwards to be that on which the completeness of the structure depended, that on which, as the chief corner-stone, the two walls met and were bonded together. The Psalmist saw in this a parable of the choice of David to be king over Israel; perhaps, also, of the choice of Israel itself out of the nations of the world. Elsewhere, as in Ephesians 2:20, and in the language of later ages, Christ Himself is the chief corner-stone. Here the context gives a somewhat different application, and “the stone which the builders rejected” is found in the future converts from among the Gentiles, the nation bringing forth the fruits which Israel had not brought forth—the “corner-stone” of the great edifice of the Catholic Church of Christ. This meaning was obviously not incompatible with the other. As the mind of the Psalmist included both David and Israel under the same symbolism, so here the Christ identifies Himself, more or less completely, with the Church which is His body. (Comp. Ephesians 1:22-23.)

Verse 44

(44) Whosoever shall fall on this stone.—There is a manifest reference to the “stumbling and falling and being broken” of Isaiah 8:14-15. In the immediate application of the words, those who “fell” were those who were “offended” at the outward lowliness of Him who came as the carpenter’s son, and died a malefactor’s death. That “fall” brought with it pain and humiliation. High hopes had to be given up, the proud heart to be bruised and broken. But there the fall was not irretrievable. The bruise might be healed; it was the work of the Christ to heal it. But when it fell on him who was thus offended (here there is a rapid transition to the imagery and the thoughts, even to the very words, of Daniel 2:35; Daniel 2:44), when Christ, or that Church which He identifies with Himself, shall come into collision with the powers that oppose Him, then it shall “grind them to powder.” The primary meaning of the word so rendered is that of winnowing by threshing the grain, and so separating it from the chaff, and its use was probably suggested by the imagery of Daniel 2:35, where the gold and silver and baser materials that made up the image of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision were “broken in pieces together, and became as the chaff of the summer threshing-floor.” In its wider meaning it includes the destruction of all that resists Christ’s kingdom, and so represents the positive side of the truth which has its negative expression in the promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against His Church (Matthew 16:18).

Verse 45

(45) They perceived that he spake of them.—The real or affected unconsciousness of the drift of our Lord’s teaching was at last broken through. The last words had been too clear and pointed to leave any room for doubt, and they were roused to a passionate desire for revenge.

Verse 46

(46) When they sought to lay hands.—We must remember that they had once before made a like attempt, and had been baffled (John 7:44-46). Now circumstances were even more against them. The Prophet was surrounded by His own disciples, and by an admiring crowd. Open violence they did not dare to venture on, and they had to fall back upon the more crooked paths of stratagem and treachery.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/matthew-21.html. 1905.
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