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Friday, May 24th, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 21

Watson's Exposition on Matthew, Mark, Luke & RomansWatson's Expositions

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Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

1 Christ rideth into Jerusalem upon an ass,

12 driveth the buyers and sellers out of the temple,

17 curseth the fig tree,

23 putteth to silence the priests and elders,

28 and rebuketh them by the similitude of the two sons,

35 and the husbandmen, who slew such as were sent unto them.

Verse 1

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And were come to Bethphage. — St. Mark and St. Luke say, “Bethphage and Bethany;” the confines of these districts adjoining each other, Bethphage being between Bethany and Jerusalem, but near the latter, the village being within sight of the walls. Bethany was two miles distant from Jerusalem, and the mount of Olives one. This eminence was so called from the number of olive trees which grew upon it. A few trees of this kind still remain scattered through this district.

Verse 2

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The village over against you. — This village is supposed by some to be Nob, distant, about two miles.

An ass tied, and a colt with her. — The ancient judges and kings of Israel rode upon asses; horses, as well as chariots of war, being forbidden; so that when Solomon and his successors multiplied horses, they were rebuked for it by the prophets. The leading reasons of this prohibition appear to have been,

1. That they should not be tempted by a cavalry force to invade other nations, either for predatory purposes, or for conquest, but be content with their own land assigned by God; and,

2. That they might trust in God to give them the victory against all invaders by means of their own peasant infantry alone; and so the prohibition reminded them always of God’s promises, and of their dependence. Solomon and succeeding kings violated this rule, and were often sharply reproved for it by the prophets. They affected horses both for war and for state and show, the horse being a nobler animal than the ass or mule; and our Lord’s making his royal entry into Jerusalem on an ass is therefore noted by the Prophet Zechariah as a mark of his lowliness; for though in ancient times the princes of Israel made use of asses, that custom had long ceased.

The ass and the colt were both brought to our Lord; but he rode only on the latter. The other evangelists add, “On which never man had sat.” It had never been used for common purposes, and was appropriated to a sacred one. As the colt only was needed, though the ass followed by natural instinct, St. Mark and St. Luke mention the colt only.

Verse 3

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The Lord hath need of them. — Probably nothing more is here intended by “the Lord,” than our Master, answering to the Hebrew רב . Christ, who knew that an ass and colt would be found by his disciples in such a place, doubtless knew also that the owner of them was so well acquainted with his character, and was so well affected toward him, that he would grant the loan of his beasts as soon as the disciples should declare for whose use they were intended.

Verse 4

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

All this was done that it might be fulfilled, &c. — The end of the action was not merely or chiefly to fulfil the prophecy, but the prophecy was uttered with reference to it, and was fulfilled by it, while the action itself rested upon other reasons. These appear to have been,

1. To assert his majesty, as in truth the King Messiah, and yet still to show that his kingdom was not a civil one, by his taking no step to avail himself of the popular excitement to seize the reins of government; for after the events of this triumphal day he retired into the secrecy and solitude of the mount of Olives.

2. To give an opportunity to the people publicly to declare their belief that he was the Messias, the Son of David, of which they were now generally persuaded, although their views of the true character of the Messiah were confused and erring.

3. To profess more publicly than heretofore, and in the very metropolis of Judea, that he was that “King” of Zion of whom the Prophet Zecharias had spoken, as coming “riding upon the foal of an ass;” and thus to apply to himself a prophecy which both ancient and modern Jewish commentators have referred to their Messiah, as Bochart has shown by several extracts.

4. To allow his followers to acknowledge him, by their acclamations, as the Messiah, in order to restrain the chief priests and Pharisees, by fear of the popular feeling in his favour, from an immediate attempt upon his life, and to gain time for the delivery of those important discourses, consisting of prophecies and rebukes, which for five successive days before his crucifixion he pronounced in the temple, while at night he retired to the mount of Olives.

The prophecy cited is from Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass,” or rather, “EVEN upon a colt, the foal of an ass,” the last clause being an explanatory parallelism. The first clause mentions the species of beast, the second its age; and this greater particularity in the prophecy rendered the fulfilment the more striking. The evangelist has quoted rather the substance than the exact words of the prophecy; which, as writing for the Jews, was sufficient to refer them to their own Scriptures. Both St. Matthew and the Septuagint seem to have read ענו , meek, instead of עני , abased, or afflicted; which is supported by the Targum, Jarchi, and Kimchi, who all explain it by ענוהן , humble, or meek. This prophecy is incapable of being applied to any other than Christ, even in a lower sense. Those who would refer it to Zerubbabel forget that it was written subsequent to his residence in Jerusalem; beside that, in no sense could he be called king who was but the deputy of a foreign power. Nehemiah was also appointed by Artaxerxes to be “governor,” the viceroy, but not a king; and certainly, of neither of these, nor of Judas Maccabeus and his successors, could it be said that “he should speak peace to the heathen, and have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” On these grounds a few of the rabbins, who, to avoid the application of this prophecy to Jesus of Nazareth, pretended that it related not to the Messiah, but to one or other of the above persons, are stoutly opposed by others, who generally allow that to Messiah alone it can be consistently applied. Thus, Rabbi Solomon, upon Zechariah 9:9: “This place cannot be interpreted of any other, because it is said of him, ‘And his dominion shall be from sea to sea.’” It looks directly to Christ, without the intervention of any other; and it may be asked of the Jews, what king of theirs ever came to Zion in the manner described by the prophet, save Jesus of Nazareth? Sion is put for Jerusalem; and both are personified, according to oriental custom, as a virgin, or “daughter.”

This prophecy is quoted both by St. Matthew and St. John in brief, to direct attention to the whole section in which it stands, and which will be found richly charged with the most important views of the character of the Messiah, and the great results of his reign. There he is represented, amid all his lowliness, as “a King,” “righteous,” “having salvation,” and so answering to Melchizedec, as “King of righteousness,” and “King of peace,” Hebrews 7:2. And as the prophecy proceeds it gives an important and most interesting reason why our Lord rode into his metropolis upon an ass; it was to declare that his kingdom was to be one of PEACE, not of WAR: “And I will cut off the CHARIOT from Ephraim, and the HORSE from Jerusalem;” both which the Jews were forbidden by the law to use, in order to take away the temptation to offensive wars, as above stated. “And the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak PEACE unto the heathen, and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth;” and yet these extensive conquests were to be made without “chariots” of war, without battle “horses,” or the “battle bow.” So that the spiritual nature, of Christ’s reign could not be more strongly expressed; and that the prophecy was not so interpreted by the Jews is in proof that their earthly mindedness and ambition wholly blinded them to the meaning of their own Scriptures. Yet it is curious to observe that some of their more modern commentators come so much nearer to the truth. Rabbi Saadias Gaon, on Daniel 7:13, says, “Is it not written in Zechariah, of Messiah, ‘lowly and riding on an ass?’

Shall he not rather come with humility, than with equipage and grandeur?” And David Kimchi, “He shall ride upon an ass, not through any want, because the whole world shall be under his dominion, but through his humility, and to acquaint the Jews that there was no farther need of horses and chariots; for the prophet adds, ‘I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem.’” Here again the light of the Gospel could not be wholly excluded from these rabbins, who, in the controversy which had been excited with the Christians, were compelled, by the force of the prophecies brought against them, to admit an humbled as well as an exalted Messiah; only they either feigned two Messiahs, or took refuge in the figment of the Messiah being for a long time hidden before he would manifest himself: These were not, however, the views of the Jewish doctors in the time of our Lord, who looked only for a sudden advent of Messiah in all his glory to set up his dominion among them. Nor does the prophecy terminate here. “Captives” are to be delivered; another work, would the Jews say, of a conquering Messiah; but they are to be delivered “by the blood of the covenant,” not by arms. “As for thee, also, by the BLOOD OF THY COVENANT I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water;” and then, as “prisoners of hope,” they are exhorted to turn to the “stronghold,” the Zion, the city of God, and there to receive “the double,” the abundance of all blessings. To show then to the Jews that he was the King Messiah, he made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem; but to show that he was that meek and peaceful king spoken of by Zechariah, he rode upon the foal of an ass, and thus turned their attention to a prophecy which, if they had closely examined it, would have dissipated all their carnal conceptions as to an earthly kingdom and a warlike Messiah.

Verse 7

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And put on them their clothes. — Much unnecessary discussion has taken place among critics whether our Lord rode by turns both on the ass and the colt, which is most improbable; or how the clothes being laid as a saddle upon both, as stated by St. Matthew, is to be reconciled with the other evangelists, who say, “They cast their garments on the colt.” It is easy to conceive that they at first put their garments upon each, as not knowing which of the animals he might choose to ride; or whether, if he continued a long time in the procession, both might not be wanted. This reconciles the accounts; for as he used the colt only, St. Mark and St. Luke are less minute than St. Matthew, who was an eye witness.

And they set him thereon. — Και επεκαθισαν επανω αυτων : “not,” as Euthymius and Theophylact observe, “upon the two asses, but upon the garments.”

Verse 8

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Spread their garments in the way, &c. — When Jehu was proclaimed king, “they hasted and took every man his garment, and put it under him on the top of the stairs, and blew with trumpets, saying, Jehu is king,” 2 Kings 9:13. The practice of strewing the way with garments, branches, and flowers, to do honour to great men, and especially princes, was common among many ancient nations. Plutarch mentions it as a circumstance of respect shown by the soldiers to Cato the younger, that they laid down their garments for him to tread upon. Herodian mentions the strewing of garlands and flowers when Commodus was joyfully received by the Romans; and Herodotus relates that the way was strewed with myrtle branches before Xerxes. The garments mentioned in the text were the upper or flowing robes worn by the Jews.

Verse 9

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Hosanna to the Son of David, &c. — It was customary with the Jews, at the feast of tabernacles, to carry, about branches of palm and other trees in their hands, and to sing, “Hosanna, save now, I beseech, thee,” Psalms 118:25. This custom they now adopted in honour of our Lord, as proclaiming him to be the great personage for whom they looked, the Messiah. Hosanna is an abbreviated form of the two words הושׁ?יעה , save and נא , now; and, as here used, was equivalent to “God preserve the Son of David.” Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, is taken from Psalms 118:26. Hosanna in the highest, εν τοις υψιστοις , in the highest places, or heavens, is an address to God in favour of Messiah. Some, however, understand it, in the highest degree. The whole formed a scene of tumultuous joy, expressing the strongly excited feelings of the people, who poured out blessings upon the head of the long expected Messiah, and offered their most fervent wishes to God for his success, now they imagined he was about to claim the throne of his father David. The multitudes who on this occasion attended him had chiefly come up from the country, and do not appear to have been composed of the inhabitants of Jerusalem in any great numbers; for it is added, “all the city,” the inhabitants of Jerusalem, “were moved, saying, Who is this?” as surprised by this unlooked-for triumphal procession, and not knowing for whose honour it was intended; and accordingly the multitude, those who attended Christ, answered, This is Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, of Galilee. Yet many went out from Jerusalem with palm branches in their hands, to join in the acclamations of those who had gone up with him from Jericho and other parts. These were doubtless those who believed on him in consequence of the discourses they had heard from him in Jerusalem on his former visit, and the miracles he had wrought, especially the raising of Lazarus at Bethany, the impression of which upon many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem must have been very great.

Verse 12

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Went into the temple. — Εις το ιερον , which comprehends the whole building with its courts, as distinguished from the ναος or temple strictly so called, which included the sanctuary and the holy of holies, into which our Lord did not enter. From St. Mark we learn that when our Lord on this day entered the temple, he merely “looked round upon all things; and eventide being come, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” It was on the day following that he cast out the traders; which distinction of time St. Matthew, whose object was merely to relate the fact, does not notice; but he says nothing inconsistent with it. It was in the court of the Gentiles that frankincense, oil, wine, doves, lambs, and oxen were sold, after the victims had been examined and approved by the priests.

Money changers. — The κολλυβισται were persons who exchanged foreign for the current coin of Judea, or the contrary, to meet the convenience of those who came up to the feasts from distant countries. Hence they had their tables in this court, and, as the passover was now at hand, would be in the height of their unhallowed business, which ought to have been transacted in a less sacred place.

Them that sold doves. — Which, being the offerings of the poor, would, at so great a feast as that of the passover, be in considerable demand, from the concourse of those who reserved their offerings to this season. The practice of making the courts of the temple a place of traffic was probably introduced from the Greeks and Romans. It was evidently regarded by our Lord as a great abuse, under whatever pretence of affording facility to the performance of the appointed services of the temple it might be defended. The noise would disturb the more serious worshippers; and various cheats and impositions were practised, as we may gather from our Lord charging them with having made his house “a den of thieves.” It would seem remarkable that this profanation was suffered by the priests, who were so scrupulous and exact in whatever appertained to the honour of their temple; but there has been, in all ages, great inconsistency among ceremonious formalists, and superstition and irreverence are often found together.

Verse 13

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

It is written, My house, &c. — This is quoted from Isaiah 56:7, “For mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” In referring to this prophecy our Lord not only reproves the profanity and wicked avarice which had made the house of prayer a bazaar or market house, but the contempt poured upon the pious Gentiles, or heathen proselytes, who had a right to worship there, and whose court they had invaded so as not only to occupy it with stalls for cattle, seats for them that sold doves, and the tables of money changers, but as to fill it with distracting noise and confusion, wholly subversive of its original and gracious intention. Instead of a place for offering up prayer by the pious “stranger,” whom God had promised to make “joyful in his house of prayer,” they had made it a den of thieves; an expression used probably in allusion to the rocky caves or dens in the mountainous parts of Judea, which were often the receptacles of robbers. Something of miraculous power must have attended this act of our Lord, to overawe the numerous and bold intruders into the court of the temple, and especially as he overthrew their tables and seats. Yet there was nothing in this act but what was consistent with the views which the Jews entertained of the Messiah, who, as they believed, would reform many abuses, and bring in many new laws with great authority. Hence, when on a former occasion he vindicated the honour of God’s house, his disciples were reminded of the prophetic words, “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.”

Verse 15

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The wonderful things that he did. — Not referring so much to his healing the blind and the lame in the temple, for they could scarcely adapt their question, “By what authority doest thou these things?” to the working such cures; but what they wondered at was his public entry; his allowing the people to acclaim their hosannas to him as the Messiah; his acting in the temple as though it were his own house, which his words implied; and his expelling the traders with severity and authority. To this was added a scene which especially appears to have excited their malignant envy: the very children, allured probably by his mild dignity, or rather under the special influence of God, to make them witnesses of the truth, and thus to accomplish a prophecy, were surrounding him in the temple, and crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” And they were sore displeased, filled with indignation.

Verse 16

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, &c. — This is from Psalms 8:2. The Hebrew is, “Thou hast founded or constituted strength;” but the evangelist follows the Septuagint, thou hast perfected or ordained praise; the sense being equivalent. Their praises strongly and irresistibly declared the majesty and fame of God. These words are not introduced with the usual formula, “Now this was done that it might be fulfilled,” or, “Thus was fulfilled,” and therefore we are not obliged to consider them adduced as a prophecy accomplished by the event; and the argument of Christ with the Pharisees will be sufficiently conclusive without regarding them in this light. Still, even this passage is not an instance of accommodation, properly so called, which supposes no relation but that of a verbal similarity to the subject illustrated. The psalm from which they are taken celebrates the praises of God for our redemption, by Him who was made “a little,” or for a little while, “lower than the angels,” and then “crowned with glory and honour,” having all things “put under his feet.” This the Apostle Paul applies directly to Christ, and includes in it the wonderful exaltation of fallen human nature in, him. The psalm is thus introduced, “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth; who hast set thy glory above the heavens.” But who acknowledges this glory of God in human redemption? Not the “enemies” mentioned in the next verse, but the “babes and sucklings” “out of whose mouth” God is said to have ordained “strength, because of his enemies, and to still the enemy and the avenger.”

Now, since this strength was ordained out of the mouth, it must be understood of the strength of speech, strength of doctrine, and strength of praise; which most fitly applies to the apostles and disciples of our Lord, who were, in the estimation of the world, weak and inefficient as babes and sucklings, and yet by their asserting the claims of Christ, and proclaiming his praises, they silenced his most potent enemies, making the glory of God in the redemption of mankind by his Son to fill the civilized world, and to be almost universally acknowledged. Thus by these weak instruments were those mighty results accomplished which brought so much glory to God, and so mightily confounded his “enemies.” Now of this the praises of the little children in the temple were a beautiful type: Christ was first publicly acknowledged and publicly praised in his temple by children, and that to the confusion of his enemies, who were struck dumb themselves, but could not silence them; and there is nothing improbable in supposing that, as a fine emblem was thus exhibited of the manner in which the enemies of Christ would be “stilled” or silenced by that “strength” which God was about to ordain out of the mouths of the apostles, so this emblematical representation of a most interesting truth and important fact was not the result of accident, but of the overruling providence of God. For that there was something remarkable in the case, appears from the children not being mentioned as taking a part in the hosannas of the procession on the way to and through Jerusalem, but only in the temple, and that in the very presence of “the enemies,” the chief priests and scribes; and also that then only their acclamations are mentioned, not those of any others.

It would seem as if these children were collected there and moved upon by a supernatural impulse, to repeat the joyful songs and hosannas which had been sung by the multitude in the streets, and along the way to Jerusalem. And if so, we may conclude that this singular event, arranged by God to be an emblem of one much higher, even of that which should fully, and in the highest sense, accomplish the prophecy, was also referred to in this prophetic psalm itself, and was in its degree a direct accomplishment of it. It is no small confirmation of this view, — that the children in the temple publishing the claims and honours of Christ, were emblems of the apostles and the other disciples, — that Christ himself calls them “babes,” in contrast to the learned and influential of the world. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”

Verse 17

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And lodged there. — Ηυλισθη , he passed the night, not in the village at the house of Lazarus, but probably sub dio, in the open air, among the olive trees, with which the district abounded; for it is added, “in the morning when he returned to the city he was hungry,” which he could scarcely be in coming so short a distance as two miles from the house of Lazarus, had he been entertained there. Our blessed Lord chose this for the sake of solitude and prayer, knowing that “his hour” was approaching; and also no doubt to avoid suspicion, that it was plotting by night with his followers and the populace to seize the government. It was this circumstance, probably, which prevented the Roman governor from taking any alarm. All that Christ did was in the day and at night he departed from the city.

Verse 19

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

A fig tree in the way. — Συκην μιαν , one fig tree; so spoken of, either because it stood alone, which is scarcely probable, as Bethphage, which lay in the way, had its name from the abundance of fig trees in its neighbourhood; or as one more branchy and verdant than the rest. and which therefore gave greater promise of fruit; and was on that account the better emblem of the Jewish nation, to whose rejection the miracle had a direct reference. But he found nothing thereon but leaves only. St. Mark adds, “for the time of figs was not yet;” that is, the time of gathering them had not arrived, and therefore the absence of figs arose from nothing but the barrenness of the tree. This is the plain sense of ου γαρ ην καιρος συκων , as appears from Matthew 21:34, ο καιρος των καρπων , “and when the time of the fruit drew near.” So unnecessarily have commentators often puzzled themselves and their readers about a plain matter.

In causing this fig tree to wither away, our Lord invaded no private property, as it stood by the wayside, and belonged to no one; and besides, being hopelessly barren, it had no value. See note on Mark 11:13.

Verse 20

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And when the disciples saw it, &c. — St. Matthew does not mark the order of time, but merely relates the fact: from St. Mark we learn that it was on the next morning, in coming to Jerusalem on the same road, that the disciples noticed that the fig tree was wholly withered. At this they “marvelled,” and Christ designed that it should arrest their attention. It was not an act of passionate disappointment in him to curse the fig tree because he found no fruit thereon, as infidels have profanely asserted, which is refuted by his whole character, on which a calm dignity was constantly impressed; he knew that there was no fruit on it, and he might have gone to other trees, where his wants might have been supplied; but he intended to teach his disciples an awful lesson by an emblem which not only pointed out the doom of a degenerate nation, of whose hypocritical and delusive pretensions the barren fig tree was a sign, but also that of hypocrites and apostates from his religion; for to this event St. Jude appears strikingly to allude when he marks the character and fate of such persons, as “trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots.”

Verse 21

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

If ye have faith, and doubt not, &c. — The lesson just mentioned Christ leaves the disciples to infer; but he teaches them, from the sudden withering of the fig tree at his word, the efficiency of faith. The addition, “and doubt not,” μη διακριθητε , is added, not in the sense of discriminate, but as equivalent to δισταζω ; and thus to believe and doubt not, signifies the highest degree of faith in God. In all such cases of working miracles through faith, a special revelation or impression as to the will of God is, however, supposed; for the confidence of man has no warrant beyond God’s promise. The sense is well expressed by Mr. Baxter, “Nothing shall be too hard which God hath promised, and ye by faith and prayer are fit to receive.” Hence the apostles wrought their miracles in the most solemn manner, as men in immediate communication with God and acting under intimations from him; and to show that this power was not one so residing in them as to be wielded at pleasure, our Lords adds, “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive;” which, however, supposes, that we ask, as St. John says, “according to the will of God;” which applies to the receiving of the power to work miracles, as well as more generally to blessings, ordinarily and more specially promised not only to the apostles, but to all believers in all future ages. For this encouragement to believing prayer is not, like the working of miracles, to be confined to the apostles, but is a general promise. Whatever is asked in faith, agreeably to the will of God, and which we are authorized to make the subject of our supplications, as being contained in his covenant promises, shall be given, though apparently impossible to attain, and though really so, independent of the immediate exertion of the power of God. To remove a mountain, is a proverbial phrase for performing things the most difficult or impossible. Hence the Jews say of an acute doctor, one who is able to solve the most intricate questions, “He is a rooter up of mountains.”

Verse 23

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The chief priests and elders of the people. — These were the members of the great council, or sanhedrim, and they came to him in their official capacity; for it belonged to them to inquire into the pretensions of all who assumed the office of prophet, and to punish any whom they might determine had taken that character falsely. Hence in a rabbinical tract entitled “Sanhedrim,” it is said, “A tribe, a false prophet, or a high priest, is only amenable to the council of seventy-one judges.” These members of the council, therefore, demanded his authority for making a public entry into Jerusalem, for casting out the traders from their accustomed place of permitted traffic, and for teaching in the temple; so that, should he allege the authority of God, and explicitly profess the prophetic office, they might immediately call him before the council, and sit in judgment upon his claims. They probably also chose to seek a confession from his own mouth that he was a prophet, and to take advantage of any thing on which they might found a charge of blasphemy, rather than apprehend him without some new charge which the popular excitement in his favour might, as they supposed, render somewhat dangerous. Our Lord baffles this plot with the highest wisdom, because his “hour was not yet come,” and he had yet to deliver many weighty discourses, and for the public benefit to bear a severer testimony against the hypocrisy and wickedness of this cunning and corrupt race of men.

Verse 25

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

The baptism of John, &c. — That is, the ministry of John, of which baptism upon repentance, and faith in the immediate advent of Messiah, was so prominent a part; which ministry John fulfilled under the profession of Divine authority. The way in which our Lord put the case was, as though he said, “You affect to determine who are true and who are false prophets. Now John professed to be a prophet: was his authority from heaven, or of men? was he a real or only a pretended messenger from God?” The dilemma into which they were thrown is confessed among themselves, and was no doubt revealed to the evangelist, who records their “reasoning among themselves,” by inspiration, as they were not likely to make it publicly known; unless, indeed, we may suppose some one of the council, more favourable to the claims of Christ, as Nicodemus, might report it. They said, “If we shall say, From Heaven,” that is, from God, because used in that sense by the Jews, as sometimes by us, “He will say, Why did ye not then believe him,” and become his disciples, instead of slighting and persecuting him? “But if we shall say, Of men,” a merely human and self-instituted ministry, “we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet;” which, indeed, was so strong a persuasion among them, that they considered the defeat of Herod’s army, in his war with Aretas, king of Arabia, to be a signal judgment of God upon him on account of the murder of the Baptist. Between a decision which would have condemned themselves, and one which would have exasperated the people, and lessened their credit with them, they were held so firmly, that their only way of escape was to confess their ignorance of the matter; which only brought them into a difficulty more seriously fatal to their pretensions, because it was a confession that they were unable to judge between true and false prophets, Divine and self-constituted messengers, the power of which they arrogated to the sanhedrim. Hence, when they replied, We cannot tell, our Lord rejoins, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things; that is, “Since you have confessed your inability to discriminate the marks of a true and false prophet in the case of John, it follows that you are unfit to decide every similar case; and I refuse to put myself upon your judgment.”

Verse 28

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

A certain man had two sons, &c. — This parable was designed to reprove the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, for professing to pay a ready obedience to the commands of God, and yet rejecting the ministry of John. Although they declined to say whether John’s ministry was from God or not, our Lord determines the case, and charges them with a sinful opposition to his authorized mission.

Verse 29

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

I will not, but afterward he repented, &c. — These represented, according to our Lord’s own explanation, verse 32, “the publicans and the harlots,” that is, notorious sinners, who had openly and rebelliously contemned the Divine authority; but afterward believed John’s doctrine, listened to his warnings, and turned with a penitent mind to God; to which class of persons it would appear that considerable numbers were recovered by John’s ministry.

Verse 30

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

I go, sir, and went not. — Εγω κυριε , the ellipsis being supplied by απερχομαι . This prompt but hypocritical assent, followed by disobedience, represented the criminal dissimulation of the Pharisees, who, pretending to pay the most perfect regard to every injunction of God, held the publicans and other common sinners in the utmost contempt, and yet neither received the testimony of John at first, nor, even after they had seen the mighty effects produced in the reformation of the greatest sinners, afterward repented, and acknowledged his mission.

Verse 31

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

They say unto him, The first. — In this kind of interlocutory argument he to whom the question was proposed was bound to answer, although he might see that his reply would only give occasion to his antagonist to turn the conclusion against himself. The debate was in public; and silence on the part of the Pharisees, who had introduced it, would have been a confession that they were refuted: they were impelled, therefore, to make answer to our Lord’s questions, although at every step his remarks pressed with heavier weight upon them.

The publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. — The τελωναι , and the πορναι , stand for openly careless, or immoral persons in general; and as these were most powerfully and speedily brought to repentance by John, so our Lord declares that the same effect would follow under his dispensation of religion: they would enter the kingdom of God before the self-righteous and deluded formalists.

Verse 32

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

In the way of righteousness. — Enjoining it even to severity, and strictly practising it himself; and ye who make great professions of sanctity, and self-denial, and respect to them, wherever found, did not receive him as a prophet. This is the point of the reproof: they boasted of strict righteousness, conformity to all the institutions of God; and in this way John came to them, this was the character of his ministry, which they, however, proudly spurned, and thereby declared their hypocrisy.

Some apply this parable of the two sons to the Gentiles and Jews; the former of whom, though for ages openly disobedient to the commands of God, to the law written upon their hearts, or handed down by tradition, promptly embraced the Gospel; while the Jews, who, at least ever since the return from the captivity, had paid all outward respect to the worship and revelations of God, yet wholly rejected the Gospel, which stood upon the same kind of evidence as their law and prophets. Still this application is only inferential and secondary; for our Lord himself explains the parable of the two classes of men among the Jews who are mentioned. It, however, frequently happens, in Christian communities, that they who are the most complaisant as to truth, are the farthest from the kingdom of God; and that the openly rebellious wills of the wicked are suddenly and effectually turned to God by the power of his grace, and that they deal more honestly with their spiritual dangers, and accept with greater readiness the free salvation of Christ.

Verse 33

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

A vineyard. — The Jewish Church.

A wine press. — Or wine vat, into which the grapes were cast, and then trodden by men. It was often hewed out of a rock, and had a grated opening near the bottom to convey the expressed juice into a lower vat.

And built a tower. — The towers in vineyards were principally watch houses, where servants were placed to observe the approach of robbers.

To husbandmen. — Γεωργοις , to those who cultivate the ground by their own labour, as distinguished from the οικοδεσποτης , or proprietor.

Verse 34

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

When the time of the fruit. — The season for gathering the fruits; so that it appears that the rent of the vineyard was paid in produce, which was an ancient custom.

Verse 37

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

They will reverence my son. — This is another proof that the minor circumstances of parables are not to be interpreted strictly. God foreknew that the Jews would reject the Son, which is made the subject of prophecy; but it was their duty to receive him with reverence, and so the words are used to express what it was fitting and reasonable to expect.

Verse 41

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

He will miserably destroy those wicked men. — Thus were the scribes fund Pharisees made to pass sentence upon themselves. They were the descendants of a race who had persecuted God’s servants, the prophets, beating one, and stoning another; and now they themselves were conspiring against the life of the son, the heir of the vineyard. Their Church privileges were therefore to be abolished, their nation destroyed, and the vineyard let out to others, who should render the fruits in their seasons.

This was a plain allusion to the calling of the Gentiles.

Verse 42

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Did ye never read in the Scriptures? &c. — The passage quoted by our Lord is from Psalms 118:22-23. It was first spoken of David, who, after having been persecuted by Saul, and rejected by the chiefs of Israel, at last triumphed over all his enemies, and raised the state to unexampled prosperity and strength. He might therefore be well compared to a stone rejected by the builders, which had become the head stone of the corner, giving grace and strength to the whole building. Our Lord applies this passage to himself, for to him it ultimately referred; and thus, as he had predicted his own death at the murderous hands of the scribes and Pharisees, he predicts also his future glory, as at once the foundation and the chief corner stone of that vast spiritual temple which God was about to set up in the earth. The princes and chiefs of a people were called פנות , rendered in the Septuagint, γωνιαι , corner stones: so, 1 Samuel 14:38, πασας τας γωνιας του Ισραηλ , “all the chief of Israel.” Christ has this eminence, that he is both the foundation stone and the chief stone of the corner. Thus he supports and completes the fabric of his Church, sustains the whole weight, unites the various parts, and crowns the whole with strength and beauty.

Verse 43

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

Therefore say I unto you, &c. — The connection of this verse, which some have thought out of its place, is marked by the words, δια τουτο , “on this account I say unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you,” &c.; because you builders have rejected the stone chosen of God, elect and precious, his Church shall be built up among another people, even the Gentile nations whom ye despise and hate. One of the Jewish commentators, Jarchi, has a singular note upon the words in Jeremiah 13:17, “My soul shall weep in secret places for your pride.” “Because of your grandeur, which shall cease; because of the excellency of the kingdom of heaven, which shall be given to the profane.”

Verse 44

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken, &c. — The allusion here does not appear to be to one method of stoning, which Maimonides says was practised among the Jews, that is, first casting down from a precipice upon the rock below, which, if not fatal, was followed by rolling a large stone down upon the criminal; which is somewhat far- fetched, and indeed was not the common method of inflicting that punishment. It rather arises out of the metaphor of the stone rejected by the builders, whether considered as a foundation or the top stone of the corner. As the one represented our Lord’s humiliation and sufferings, the only foundation of saving trust, the other was an emblem of the glory and majesty of his exaltation to the right hand of God. In the former, he was “a stone of stumbling, and rock of offence;” first, to all the Jews who rejected a suffering Messiah, and by consequence, his sacrificial death; and then to all others who equally spurned Christ crucified as the only ground of their hope of salvation. Thus they were broken, so wounded as to sustain great injury, yet not but that they might repent and find mercy; for their case is not represented as absolutely fatal, until the stone at the head of the corner should fall upon them. This signifies a judicial wielding of Christ’s power and supreme authority against all such as rejected him, though after much long suffering and delay. With respect to the Jews as a nation, this took place after the Gospel, in its perfected form, with all the additional attestations of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and the effusion of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, had been for many years proclaimed among them, and pressed upon their acceptance. But they continued to fall upon or stumble at the foundation, and still more grievously to wound and injure themselves; until at last Christ turned against them the weight of his power as the Judge, and utterly destroyed their city and nation. Thus also it shall be with every individual who rejects Christ as a Saviour: he too must meet him in his glory as Judge, and in “the hour of death, and in the day of judgment,” shall awfully realize the truth of the words, “On whomsoever this stone shall fall, it will grind him to powder.” Συνθχασθαι , and λικμαν , are of different degrees of force: the former signifies to bruise; the latter, to disperse, as chaff, from λικμος , a winnowing van; and hence is used figuratively for utter destruction, or a dashing in pieces.

Verse 46

Watson - Exposition of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark

They feared the multitude. — This shows that not only the people who came up with our Lord from Jericho, but vast numbers who were now collecting from all parts to celebrate the passover at Jerusalem, admitted his claims as a prophet, and would have been excited to tumult by any open attempt to apprehend him. This rendered it necessary for his enemies to proceed with circumspection and subtlety; and therefore St. Luke adds, “They watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor.”

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 21". "Watson's Exposition on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Romans". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rwc/matthew-21.html.
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