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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 21

Simeon's Horae HomileticaeHorae Homileticae

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Verse 16


Matthew 21:16. Have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

THE wisdom of our Lord was very conspicuous in the answers he returned to cavilers. He was thoroughly conversant with every part of the sacred writings; and to them he appealed on every occasion. In his conflicts with Satan, he invariably had recourse to them [Note: Matthew 4:4; Matthew 4:7; Matthew 4:10.]: and when assaulted by men, he fought with no weapon which was not brought from that divine arsenal [Note: Compare Matthew 26:51-54. with John 5:39.]: and every passage which he adduced was as an arrow from a well-directed bow. This is well exemplified in the words before us.

Our Lord had just driven the traders and moneychangers out of the temple; and had healed multitudes of persons, who flocked around him for a cure. The children that were present, being struck with wonder both at his authority and benevolence, surrounded him with acclamations and hosannahs, and welcomed him as the Messiah promised to their nation. The chief priests and scribes, on the contrary, were filled with indignation; and remonstrated with our Lord, for suffering them to express such sentiments in his hearing: “Hearest thou what these say?” ‘It is a disgrace to thee to be pleased with the acclamations of weak, silly children; or of an ignorant and infatuated mob [Note: The word παῖδας may probably mean servants and followers, rather than mere children.].’ Yes, these, who should have been the foremost to encourage early piety, were the very first to repress it. But our Lord repelled their objection by an unanswerable appeal to Scripture: “Have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise [Note: The words used by David are, “Thou hast ordained strength.” See Psalms 8:2. But our Lord quoted, as the Apostles after him frequently did, from the Septuagint Translation, and not from the Hebrew. The meaning, however, is the same in both: God manifests his strength, and glorifies his name, in using weak instruments to effect his purposes.]?”

Now, from these words I shall take occasion to shew,


That the Scriptures are the standard by which every thing must be tried—

[By them must all our sentiments be formed, and all our conduct regulated. The Apostles continually, in support of their doctrines, refer to them. It is a frequent expression of St. Paul, “But what saith the Scripture?” And to that must our appeal also be made, on every occasion. Then, if our views or actions be blamed, we have at least a rule whereby they may be judged: and if they be in accordance with that rule, we need feel no concern, even though they be condemned by the whole world. There are in the Christian system, and in the Christian life too, many things which, by an ungodly world, are accounted foolishness; and we must expect that those things will be disapproved in us. But, when blamed on account of those things, we should mildly reply, ‘Have ye never read such or such declarations in Holy Writ? You think my views of man’s fall are too gloomy: but have ye never read, “The carnal mind is enmity with God?” You think that I carry my religious zeal too far: but have you never read, “The love of Christ constraineth us to live to Him who died for us, and rose again?” ’ Thus always bring both yourselves and others to the Scriptures, as the only test of truth: for so hath God directed us: “To the word and to the testimony: if men speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them [Note: Isaiah 8:20.].”]

In this way you will be able to shew,


That devotion, by whomsoever condemned, will be found conformable to that standard—

[The hosannahs of the children were most probably regarded as the effusions of weak and uninformed minds. And this is the construction which is still put on the conduct of those who endeavour to exalt the Saviour, and who are, on this account, derided as enthusiasts. But look into the Scripture, and see the state of David’s mind. Can any one read the Psalms, and not wish to be in the same frame of mind with him, when he said, “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me bless his holy name?” In the New Testament it is written, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice.” In fact, there should not be an hour in the day, in which our souls should not be tuned for praise. And though we are not called to express our admiration and love in the same public manner as the children in the temple were, there should be in us the same disposition; yes, and in our secret chamber, too, the same exercise of it as we have seen in them. Nor, if a public testimony of our love to the Saviour be called for, should we be either ashamed or afraid to give it. It is by praise that God is glorified [Note: Psalms 50:23.]. In heaven, the saints and angels have no other employment: and it is our privilege, and duty too, to begin our heaven upon earth.]

For your comfort, also, will you find,


That the weaker the instruments by whom his glory is advanced, the more is God glorified—

[We should have been ready to think that the praises of the Chief Priests would have been more to the honour of our blessed Lord: and at this time we are apt to imagine that the services of the rich and learned more exalt God than those of the poor and ignorant. But the very reverse of this is more consistent with truth. For, if the wise and noble were most forward to honour the Saviour, we should impute their conduct to natural principles: we should conclude that reason and education were the chief means of their conversion. But, when we see babes and sucklings well instructed in the things that are hid from the wise and prudent, we are constrained to ascribe the effect to grace alone [Note: Matthew 11:25-26.]. Let none, therefore, think that they are incapable of glorifying God; or that “God will despise the day of small things:” for the prayer of the Publican and the mite of the widow were more acceptable to God than many longer prayers and richer offerings: and if only we “serve God with what we have, it shall be accepted of him [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:12.].” Four times does God tell his poorer worshippers to serve him with “such as they can get [Note: Leviticus 14:21; Leviticus 14:30-32.].” In truth, “the weaker we are in ourselves, the more is his strength perfected in our weakness [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:9.].”]


Let parents labour to bring their children to Christ—

[Parents are apt to neglect their children, under an idea that their minds are not sufficiently expanded to receive divine knowledge. But we read of many who were sanctified from their earliest infancy [Note: Samuel, Abijah, Josiah, Timothy, John the Baptist.]: and the instance before us is sufficient to encourage our most laborious exertions [Note: Here shew the importance of the Institution of Sunday, or Infant, or Charity Schools.] — — — Happy the parents of such children as those! and happy the children whose earliest years are thus devoted to the Lord! Let religious parents, in particular, look to it, that they spare no pains in instructing their children, and praying both with them and for them: for so has God commanded [Note: Ephesians 6:4.]: and they have his promise, that in due season he will prosper their efforts [Note: Proverbs 22:6.].]


Let us, who are instructed in the Gospel, abound in praises to our blessed Lord—

[Those children had to oppose the example and authority of the Priests; and, of course, were very imperfectly acquainted with the character of our Lord and Saviour: yet they praised and adored him with all their power. But we see Jesus as our incarnate God: we know the true end of his death as an atonement for our sins: we behold him risen, and exalted to the right hand of God, and ever living to make intercession for us. We, too, are urged by all possible motives to serve and glorify him. How culpable, then, shall we be, if we neglect to honour him! and how will those children rise up in judgment against us, to condemn us, if we do not glorify him before the whole world! I call on all of you, then, to get your minds impressed with the glory and excellency of your Saviour; and from henceforth, both in public and in private, to adore and magnify him with your most grateful acclamations.]

Verses 18-22


Matthew 21:18-22. Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. 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. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig-tree withered away! 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. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

THE miracles wrought by our Lord were, for the most part, very different from those which had been performed by the great legislator of the Jews. Those by which Moses confirmed his divine mission were mostly awful and calamitous; but those wrought in vindication of our Lord’s authority, were all mild and benevolent, suited to the dispensation which he was sent to introduce. This, which we have now before us, may seem an exception [Note: That of sending the devils into the herd of swine was rather a permission to them to fulfil their own desire, than an actual miracle wrought by our Lord himself.]. Yet the injury done (if we may so speak) was small, since the tree was already barren; and the miracle, if it had been duly attended to, might have saved thousands from both temporal and everlasting destruction. We shall,


Explain the miracle—

There is some difficulty with respect to the literal meaning of a part of this narration—

[The miracle, as related by St. Matthew, is easy to be understood; but St. Mark mentions, that “the time of figs was not yet [Note: Mark 11:13.].” This has given occasion to infidels to represent our Lord as looking for figs at a season when, according to the Evangelist’s own confession, there was no probability of finding any. But “the time of figs” refers to the time of gathering them; and as that time was not yet fully come, there was every reason to expect that the whole crop was yet upon the tree. The fruit of a fig-tree grows at least as early as the leaves; and therefore, as the foliage was luxuriant, there was ground to hope that the fruit also was abundant. This accounts in an easy manner for the disappointment experienced by our Lord; and shews how weak and frivolous are the objections urged by infidels against the truth of our holy religion [Note: If the words, “And when he came to it he found nothing but leaves,” Mark 11:13. be included in a parenthesis, the sense of the whole will appear at once. The very same writer has expressed himself on another occasion precisely in a similar manner, chap. 16:3, 4. Inclose the former part of ver. 4. in a parenthesis, and the true meaning of the passage becomes obvious.].]

Respecting the prophetical meaning of the miracle all are agreed—

[The Jews had enjoyed every advantage of care and culture; yet they constantly disappointed the expectations of their God. They professed themselves indeed to be his peculiar people; but they brought forth no fruit that was suited to that relation. Now therefore God had determined to abandon them to judicial impenitence, and utter desolation. The speedy effect, which followed from our Lord’s denunciation against the fig-tree, intimated the near approach both of the spiritual and temporal judgments which were coming on the Jews. And the event answered the prediction. It was but four days before they filled up the measure of their iniquities by crucifying the Lord of glory; and but forty years before the temple and city were finally destroyed. Thus was the fig-tree made a warning to the Jewish nation; and a salutary emblem would it have been, if they had regarded it as they ought.]

Having explained all which is necessary to a just understanding of the miracle, we shall,


Consider the declarations founded upon it—

The former of these relates to his own more immediate disciples—

[Being now soon to leave the world, our Lord was studious to support and comfort his disciples. And the surprise which they expressed at the speedy destruction of the fig-tree, too clearly manifested their low thoughts of his power, and consequently their need of having their faith in him increased. On this account, as it should seem, he made a less obvious improvement of the miracle than he might otherwise have done; and turned that into a ground of comfort, which would more naturally have afforded an occasion of solemn admonition. The disciples, like himself, were to work miracles in confirmation of their word; and greater works than this were to be performed by them. He tells them therefore to exercise faith in God, and to proceed to the performing of the greatest miracles with the most assured confidence, that the effects predicted by them should instantly and infallibly be produced. Thus he prepared them for their future ministrations, and encouraged them to rely on the invisible agency of an Almighty God.]

The latter may be understood in reference to the Church at large—

[This indeed, like the former, may be taken in a limited sense: but it may also be applied to the great body of believers. It accords with many other passages that confessedly relate to all [Note: John 14:13-14.]. And what encouragement does it, in this view, afford us! We need never despond on account of any difficulties. Not even mountains of guilt and corruption should cause us to say, There is no hope. The prayer of faith shall bring Omnipotence to our aid. Nor is there any thing promised in the sacred oracles which shall not be given to the believing suppliant. The same almighty power that blasted the fig-tree, shall blast our enemies, and cause, if need be, the very mountains to start from their bases, and be buried in the sea.]

From hence we may learn,

The danger of a fruitless profession—

[God expects his people to be fruitful in good works. Nor will he acknowledge us as his if we disappoint his expectations. Let us not then be satisfied with the fairest leaves of profession, without bringing forth the fruits of righteousness to his praise and glory. Jesus is assuredly coming soon to inspect us all. He hungers, as it were, after our good fruits. Let us then study to bring forth such, that “our Beloved may come into his garden and eat with pleasure [Note: Song of Solomon 4:16.].” And let us dread lest we provoke him to make our sin our punishment, and lest, being “filled with our own ways [Note: Proverbs 14:14.],” our “nakedness appear unto all.”]


The true source of all our fruitfulness—

[Jesus, in cursing the fig-tree, had nothing to do but to withhold his blessing from it; and instantly it was withered both in root and branch. Its power even to bring forth leaves had been derived from him. Thus, if his Spirit be taken from us, we shall become “twice dead, plucked up by the roots [Note: Jude, ver. 12.].” To him then we must give the glory of all the good that we have been enabled to do; for, “of him has our fruit been found [Note: Hosea 14:8.],” and “by his grace alone we are what we are.” “We have nothing which we have not received.” And to him must we look for strength to fulfil his will in future; for, “All our fresh springs are in him [Note: Psalms 36:9; Psalms 87:7.].”]


What exalted thoughts we should entertain of Christ’s power—

[This was the peculiar improvement which our Lord himself made of his miracle. And alas! what need have we to be continually reminded on this subject! At every fresh difficulty we are ready to be discouraged, as though He were not able to deliver. And doubtless our unbelief often prevents him from exhibiting his wonders to our view [Note: Matthew 13:58.]. Has he not said that, If we believe, we shall see the glory of God [Note: John 11:40.]? Let us then be “strong in faith, giving glory to God.” Let us never limit the power and grace of Christ, but with unskaken affiance follow the direction he has given us, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and beside me there is none else.”]

Verses 28-31


Matthew 21:28-31. 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. He answered and said, I will not; but afterwards he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, Sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.

INVETERATE prejudice is scarcely ever to be overcome by the plainest arguments. There is no action, however praiseworthy, which it will not condemn; nor any reasoning, however conclusive, which it will not obstinately resist. The best way to conquer it is by secret and indirect attacks. This method our Lord frequently adopted, when every other had been tried in vain. The Pharisees, unconvinced by all our Lord’s miracles, demanded by what authority he had presumed to purge the temple. Our Lord offered to satisfy their demand, if they would first inform him from whence John had derived his authority to administer baptism. They, aware of the drift of his question, and that in replying to it they must condemn themselves, declined giving him any direct answer. Our Lord, seeing their perverseness, changed his mode of dealing with them, and drew from them an involuntary acknowledgment of their guilt, by means of a less obvious, but well-adjusted, parable.
In opening the parable we shall,


Compare the conduct of the two sons—

The first of them represented the state of those to whom John had preached—

[His father ordered him to “go and work in his vineyard.” This command he peremptorily refused to comply with; but, on further consideration, “repented” of his misconduct, “and went.” Thus many of the Baptist’s hearers were of an abandoned character: they, by their lives, had shewed an utter contempt for the will of God; but they were soon brought to a sense of their undone condition: they thankfully embraced the mercy which that faithful preacher announced to them, and submitted to his baptism in token of their unfeigned contrition.]

The second represented the Pharisees whom our Lord was addressing—

[He promised a ready and unreserved obedience to his father’s will, but never truly engaged in executing the work assigned him. Thus the Pharisees professed much reverence and respect for God: they wished to be thought his dutiful and obedient children, but they would not really devote themselves to his service: what might suit their own inclination and redound to their own credit, they would do; but they would not enter into the vineyard which he required them to cultivate; they would not submit to the humiliating doctrines which John had preached, nor accept that salvation which was offered them by Christ himself [Note: John 7:37-38; John 7:48. There may be a further reference in the text to the rejection of the Gospel by the hypocritical Jews, and the reception of it among the idolatrous Gentiles.]—]

Both of them are just emblems of many living characters—

[There are many who have lived in the violation of all God’s commands: the constant language of their hearts has been that of rebellion against him [Note: Psalms 12:4.]: but, by the grace of God, they have been convinced of their sin; they have deeply bewailed all their former iniquities; they have sought for mercy through the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, and have shewn the truth of their repentance by the renovation of their lives. Others there are, who have been sober and moral in their conduct: they profess to respect all the commands of their heavenly Father: but they rest in “the form, while destitute of the power of godliness;” they neglect the duties of “repentance towards God, and faith in the Lord Jesus;” they will not be prevailed on to look to “Christ for all their righteousness and strength;” in short, “they are whole, and see no need of a physician:” hence, though amiable in themselves, they are “enemies of the cross of Christ.”]

On a comparison of the two, the latter appears decidedly the better character—
[The former manifested indeed at first the greatest impiety, and might justly have been dismissed for ever from his father’s house: but his subsequent repentance altogether altered his character; and his obedience arising from it proved him to have attained a becoming sense of his duty. On the other hand, the latter was “an hypocrite in heart:” his fair promises only added to the guilt of his disobedience, and his continued violation of them constituted him a most worthless character. Our Lord referred it to the Pharisees themselves to decide their comparative merits; they instantly gave their testimony in favour of the former: nor could prejudice itself withhold its assent in so clear a case.]

Having determined this point, we shall proceed, in imitation of our Lord, to,


Make some observations resulting from that comparison—

The Pharisees did not immediately see for what end our Lord put to them that question—

But, by their answer to that, many important truths are established:

It is not always the most specious character that is most likely to go to heaven—

[Far be it from us to plead for wickedness of any kind. It is certainly better to be moral and sober, than immoral and profane. It is better to be a decent Pharisee than to be numbered with “publicans and harlots:” but it is no less certain that moral persons are apt to pride themselves in their virtue; they cannot endure to be told that they deserve the Divine displeasure; and, that they must be as much indebted to divine grace as the very vilest of mankind; they think they may place some dependence at least on their own works; nor will they submit to the painful necessity of making “Christ their all.” But more notorious sinners are more easily convinced of sin; they see at once that they can have no righteousness of their own; and, when humbled for their iniquities, gladly embrace the Gospel salvation. Thus it was with the different hearers of John the Baptist [Note: Luk 7:29-30 and Matthew 21:32.]; and thus it was in the apostolic, and all succeeding ages [Note: Romans 9:30-32.]. Let us then endeavour to bear in mind that caution of Solomon [Note: Proverbs 30:12.]—and thankfully accept mercy on the terms offered to us in the Gospel—.]


The characters of men will not be determined by their words, but by their actions—

[In some sense indeed, it is true, that “by our words we shall be condemned or justified [Note: Matthew 12:37.]:” but God will not be deceived by any fair promises or transient intentions. We may say, ‘I go, Sir;’ but he will inquire, whether we really go; nor will he regard our professions of love and service, if in works we deny him. It is the penitent and obedient, not the hypocritical and deceitful, son, that he will accept. Let none then rest in confessions of faith or promises of obedience. Let every one inquire, ‘Am I now working for God in his appointed way?’ Let us not ask, ‘Am I doing as much as others?’ but ‘What do I more than others? Am I more humble, more meek, more dead to the world, more exercised in spiritual things, &c.?’ This is the test by which God will judge us in the last day. Let us then try ourselves by this rule, that we may know our true character; nor let us think ourselves right because we once appeared earnest in doing the Lord’s will. Let us remember the plain declarations of God concerning us [Note: Matthew 7:21.Ezekiel 18:21-22; Ezekiel 18:21-22; Ezekiel 18:24.]; and let us expect reward or punishment according to the verdict of his word and of our own conscience [Note: 1 John 3:20-21.].]


The most daring rebel, if he truly repent, shall be accepted of God—

[This is a most delightful and encouraging truth to a sincere penitent. It is ascertained beyond a doubt from the parable before us: it has been exemplified in numberless, and authentic, instances [Note: Manasseh, 2 Chronicles 33:12-13.Luke 7:47; Luke 7:47.]: and it shall be realized at this hour to those who truly desire it. However open, heinous, or deliberate our offences have been, they shall be forgiven [Note: Isaiah 1:18.]. The vineyard is yet open, and the command of God is, Go work in it. Let publicans and harlots hear the voice of our common Father: let them be assured, that their past iniquities shall be no more remembered [Note: Hebrews 8:12.]; and that every thing they do for God shall be accepted of him. If only they believe in Christ, and engage in his service, they need not fear. While unbelieving Pharisees shall be cast out, they shall find favour in God’s sight. O that these blessed tidings may be welcomed as they deserve to be! Let not any say, To-morrow I will regard my Father’s command. His voice to every one is, Go, work today in my vineyard. None of us can tell what may be on the morrow. Let none then presume to defer this necessary work. God himself most solemnly cautions us against delay [Note: Hebrews 3:13; Hebrews 3:15.]. To every one of you therefore do we address the Apostle’s exhortation [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:2.]—and we pray God that ye may not only say, Lord, Lord! but do his will.]

Bibliographical Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Matthew 21". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/shh/matthew-21.html. 1832.
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