Matthew 21 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Matthew 21)
1. And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples,

[To the mount of Olives.] Mons Olivarum, Zechariah 14:4.

2. Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me.

[An ass and her foal.] In the Talmudists we have the like phrase, an ass and a little colt. In that treatise Mezia, they speak concerning a hired ass, and the terms that the hired is obliged to. Among other things there, the Babylon Gemara hath these words, Whosoever transgresses against the will of the owner is called a robber. For instance, if any one hires an ass for a journey on the plains, and turns up to the mountains, &c. Hence this of our Saviour appears to be a miracle, not a robbery; that without any agreement or terms this ass should be led away; and that the owner and those that stood by should be satisfied with these bare words, "The Lord hath need of him."

5. Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.

[Meek, and sitting upon an ass.] This triumph of Christ completes a double prophecy: 1. This prophecy of Zechariah here mentioned. 2. The taking to themselves the Paschal lamb, for this was the very day on which it was to be taken, according to the command of the law, Exodus 12:3; "In the tenth day of this month, they shall take to them every man a lamb."

It scarce appears to the Talmudists, how those words of Daniel concerning the Messias, that "he comes with the clouds of heaven," are consistent with these words of Zechariah, that "he comes sitting upon an ass." "If (say they) the Israelites be good, then he shall come with the clouds of heaven; but if not good, then riding upon an ass." Thou art much mistaken, O Jew: for he comes "in the clouds of heaven," as judge and revenger; but sitting upon an ass, not because you are, but because he is, good. "King Sapores said to Samuel, 'You say your Messias will come upon an ass, I will send him a brave horse.' He answers him, 'You have not a horse with a hundred spots as is his ass." In the greatest humility of the Messias they dream of grandeur, even in his very ass.

8. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strowed them in the way.

[Strewed branches in the way.] Not that they strewed garments and boughs just in the way under the feet of the ass to be trod on; this perhaps might have thrown down the rider; but by the wayside they made little tents and tabernacles of clothes and boughs, according to the custom of the feast of Tabernacles. John also adds, that taking branches of palm trees in their hands, they went forth to meet him. That book of Maimonides entitled Tabernacles and palm branches, will be an excellent comment on this place, and so will the Talmudic treatise, Succah. We will pick out these few things, not unsuitable to the present story: "Doth any one spread his garment on his tabernacle against the heat of the sun, &c.? it is absurd; but if he spread his garment for comeliness and ornament, it is approved." Again, "The boughs of palm trees, of which the law, Leviticus 23:40, speaks, are the young growing sprouts of palms, before their leaves shoot out on all sides; but when they are like small staves, and these are called young branches of palms." And a little after, "It is a notable precept, to gather young branches of palms, the boughs of myrtle and willow, and to make them up into a small bundle, and to carry them in their hands," &c.

9. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

[Hosanna to the Son of David.] Some are at a loss why it is said to the Son, and not O Son: wherefore they fly to Caninius as to an oracle, who tells us, that those very bundles of boughs are called Hosanna; and that these words, Hosanna to the Son of David, signify no more than boughs to the Son of David. We will not deny that bundles are sometimes so called, as seems in these clauses...where it is plain, that a branch of palm is called Lulab, and boughs of myrtle and willow bound together are called Hosanna: but, indeed, if Hosanna to the Son of David signifies boughs to the Son of David, what do those words mean, Hosanna in the highest? The words therefore here sung import as much as if it were said, We now sing Hosanna to the Messias.

In the feast of Tabernacles, the great Hallel, as they call it, used to be sung, that is, Psalm 113-118. And while the words of the Psalms were sung or said by one, the whole company used sometimes to answer at certain clauses, Halleluia. Sometimes the same clauses that had been sung or said were again repeated by the company: sometimes the bundles of boughs were brandished or shaken. "But when were the bundles shaken?" The rubric of the Talmud saith, "At that clause Give thanks unto the Lord, in the beginning of Psalm 118, and at the end. And at that clause, Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord, (Psa 118:25) as saith the school of Hillel: but the school of Shammai saith also, at that clause, O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity. R. Akibah said, I saw R. Gamaliel and R. Joshuah, when all the company shook their bundles they did not shake theirs, but only at that clause, Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord."

On every day of the feast, they used once to go round the altar with bundles in their hands, singing this, Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord; I beseech thee, O Lord, send now prosperity. But on the seventh day of the feast they went seven times round the altar, &c. "The tossing or shaking of the bundles was on the right hand, on the left hand, upwards and downwards."

"The reason of the bundles was this, because it is written, 'Then let all the trees of the wood sing,' (Psa 96:12). And afterward it is written, 'Give thanks unto the Lord, because he is good,' (Psa 106:1). And afterward, 'Save us, O Lord, O our God,' &c. (Psa 106:47). And the reason is mystical. In the beginning of the year, Israel and the nations of the world go forth to judgment; and being ignorant who are to be cleared and who guilty, the holy and blessed God commanded Israel that they should rejoice with these bundles, as a man rejoiceth who goeth out of the presence of his judge acquitted. Behold, therefore, what is written, 'Let the trees of the wood sing'; as if it were said, Let them sing with the trees of the wood, when they go out justified from the presence of the Lord," &c.

These things being premised concerning the rites and customs of that feast, we now return to our story:--

I. It is very much worth our observation, that the company receives Christ coming now to the Passover with the solemnity of the feast of Tabernacles. For what hath this to do with the time of the Passover? If one search into the reason of the thing more accurately, these things occur; First, The mirth of that feast above all others; concerning which there needs not much to be said, since the very name of the feast (for by way of emphasis it was called Festivity or Mirth) sufficiently proves it. Secondly, That prophecy of Zechariah, which, however it be not to be understood according to the letter, yet from thence may sufficiently be gathered the singular solemnity and joy of that feast above all others; and, perhaps, from that same prophecy, the occasion of this present action was taken. For being willing to receive the Messias with all joyfulness, triumph, and affection of mind (for by calling him the Son of David, it is plain they took him for the Messias), they had no way to express a more ardent zeal and joy at his coming, than by the solemn procession of that feast. They have the Messias before their eyes; they expect great things from him; and are therefore transported with excess of joy at his coming.

II. But whereas the Great Hallel, according to the custom, was not now sung, by reason of the suddenness of the present action, the whole solemnity of that song was, as it were, swallowed up in the frequent crying out and echoing back of Hosanna; as they used to do in the Temple, while they went round the altar. And one while they sing Hosanna to the Son of David; another while, Hosanna in the highest; as if they had said, "Now we sing Hosanna to the Son of David; save us, we beseech thee, O thou [who dwellest] in the highest, save us by the Messias."

12. And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,

[He cast out all them that sold and bought in the Temple.] I. There was always a constant market in the Temple in that place which was called the shops; where every day was sold wine, salt, oil, and other requisites to sacrifices; as also oxen and sheep, in the spacious Court of the Gentiles.

II. The nearness of the Passover had made the market greater; for innumerable beasts being requisite to this solemnity, they were brought hither to be sold. This brings to mind a story of Bava Ben Buta: "He coming one day into the court found it quite empty of beasts. 'Let their houses,' said he, 'be laid waste, who have laid waste the house of our God.' He sent for three thousand of the sheep of Kedar; and having examined whether they were without spot, brought them into the Mountain of the House"; that is, into the Court of the Gentiles.

[Overthrew the tables of the moneychangers.] Who those moneychangers were, may be learned very well from the Talmud, and Maimonides in the treatise Shekalim:--

"It is an affirmative precept of the law, that every Israelite should give half a shekel yearly: even the poor, who live by alms, are obliged to this; and must either beg the money of others, or sell their clothes to pay half a shekel; as it is said, 'The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less.'"

"In the first day of the month Adar, they made a public proclamation concerning these shekels, that every one should provide his half shekel, and be ready to pay it. Therefore, on the fifteenth day of the same month, the exchangers sat in every city, civilly requiring this money: they received it of those that gave it, and compelled those that did not. On the five-and-twentieth day of the same month they sat in the Temple; and then compelled them to give; and from him that did not give they forced a pledge, even his very coat."

"They sat in the cities, with two chests before them; in one of which they laid up the money of the present year, and in the other the money of the year past. They sat in the Temple with thirteen chests before them; the first was for the money of the present year; the second, for the year past; the third, for the money that was offered to buy pigeons," &c. They called these chests trumpets, because, like trumpets, they had a narrow mouth, and a wide belly.

"It is necessary that every one should have half a shekel to pay for himself. Therefore, when he comes to the exchanger to change a shekel for two half shekels, he is obliged to allow him some gain, which is called kolbon. And when two pay one shekel [between them], each of them is obliged to allow the same gain or fee."

And not much after, "How much is that gain? At that time when they paid pence for the half shekel, a kolbon [or the fee that was paid to the moneychanger] was half a mea, that is, the twelfth part of a penny, and never less. But the kolbons were not like the half shekel; but the exchangers laid them by themselves till the holy treasury were paid out of them." You see what these moneychangers were, and whence they had their name. You see that Christ did not overturn the chests in which the holy money was laid up, but the tables on which they trafficked for this unholy gain.

[Of those that sold doves] Sellers of doves. See the Talmudic treatise of that title. "Doves were at one time sold at Jerusalem for pence of gold. Whereupon Rabban Simeon Ben Gamaliel said, By this temple I will not lie down this night, unless they be sold for pence of silver, &c. Going into the council-house, he thus decreed, A woman of five undoubted labours, or of five undoubted fluxes, shall be bound only to make one offering; whereby doves were sold that very day for two farthings." The offering for women after childbirth, and fluxes, for their purification, were pigeons, &c. But now, when they went up to Jerusalem with their offerings at the feasts only, there was at that time a greater number of beasts, pigeons, and turtles, &c. requisite. See what we have said at the fifth chapter, and the three-and-twentieth verse.

15. And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased.

[The children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna.] Children, from their first infancy, were taught to manage the bundles, to shake them, and in shaking, to sing Hosanna. A child, so soon as he knows how to wave the bundle, is bound to carry a bundle Where the Gemara saith thus; "The Rabbins teach, that so soon as a little child can be taught to manage a bundle, he is bound to carry one: so soon as he knows how to veil himself, he must put on the borders: as soon as he knows how to keep his father's phylacteries, he must put on his own: as soon as he can speak, let his father teach him the law, and to say the phylacteries," &c.

19. 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.

[Found nothing thereon but leaves only.] This place is not a little obscure, being compared with Mark 11:13, who seems to say, that therefore figs were not found on this tree, because it was not yet the time of figs. Why then did our Saviour expect figs, when he might certainly know that it was not yet the time of figs? And why, not finding them, did he curse the tree, being innocent and agreeable to its own nature?

I. We will first consider the situation of this tree. Our evangelist saith, that it was in the way. This minds me of a distinction used very often by the Talmudists, between the fruits of trees of common right, which did not belong to any peculiar master, but grew in woody places, or in common fields; and the fruits of trees which grew in gardens, orchards, or fields, that had a proper owner. How much difference was made between these fruits by the canonists, as to tithing, and as to eating, is in many places to be met with through the whole classes, entitled Seeds. This fig-tree seems to have been of the former kind: a wild fig-tree, growing in a place or field, not belonging to any one in particular, but common to all. So that our Saviour did not injure any particular person, when he caused this tree to wither; but it was such a tree, that it could not be said of it, that it was mine or thine.

II. He found nothing thereon but leaves, because the time of figs was not yet a great while, Mark 11:13.

1. "At what time in the seventh year do they forbear to lop their trees? The school of Shammai saith All trees from that time, they bring forth [leaves]." The Gloss, "The beginning of leaves is in the days of Nisan."

2. "Rabban Simeon Ben Gamaliel saith, From the putting forth of leaves, till there be green figs, is fifty days; from the green figs, till the buds fall off, fifty days; and from that time till the figs be ripe are fifty days." If, therefore, the first putting out of the leaves was in the month Nisan, and that was five months' time before the figs came to be ripe, it is plain enough that the figs of that year coming on were not expected by our Saviour, nor could be expected.

That we may pursue the matter somewhat home, and make it appear that the text of Mark, as it is commonly read, for the time of figs was not yet, is uncorrupted,

I. We must first observe what is said about the intercalation of the year: "They intercalate the year upon three accounts; for the green year, for the fruit of the tree, and for Tekupha." Maimonides is more large; whom see. Now if you ask what means the intercalation for the fruit of the tree, the Gloss answers, "If the fruit be not ripened till Pentecost is past, they intercalate the year; because Pentecost is the time of bringing the firstfruits: and if at that time one should not bring them along with him when he comes to the feast, he would be obliged to make another journey." But now this is not to be understood of all trees, but of some only, which put forth their fruit about the time of the Passover, and have them ripe at the feast of Pentecost. For thus Maimonides in the place cited: "If the council sees that there is not yet any green ear, and that the fruit of the trees which used to bud at the feast of the Passover is not yet budded [mark that, 'used to bud'], moved by these two causes, they intercalate the year." Among these the fig-tree can by no means be reckoned: for since, our Saviour being witness, the putting forth of its leaves is a sign that summer is at hand, you could not expect any ripe figs, nay (according to the Talmudists), not so much as the putting out of leaves, before the Passover. When it is before said that Pentecost was the time of bringing the firstfruits, it must not be so understood as if the firstfruits of all trees were then to be brought, but that before Pentecost it was not lawful to bring any; for thus it is provided for by a plain canon, "The firstfruits are not to be brought before Pentecost. The inhabitants of mount Zeboim brought theirs before Pentecost, but they did not receive them of them, because it is said in the law, 'And the feast of harvest, the firstfruit of thy labours which thou hast sown in thy field.'"

II. There are several kinds of figs mentioned in the Talmudists besides these common ones; namely, figs of a better sort, which grew in gardens and paradises: 1. Shithin. Concerning which the tract Demai, among those things which were accounted to deserve lesser care, and among those things which were doubtful as to tithing were shithin: which the Glosser tells us were wild figs. 2. There is mention also in the same place of...a fig mixed with a plane-tree. 3. But among all those kinds of figs, they were memorable which were called a kind of fig; and they yet more, which were called white figs; which, unless I mistake, make to our purpose: not that they were more noble than the rest, but their manner of bearing fruit was more unusual. There is mention of these in Sheviith, in these words, we will render the words in the paraphrase of the Glossers: "...white figs, and a kind of fig: the seventh year" (that is, the year of release) "is to those the second" (viz of the seven years following); "to these, the gong out of the seventh. White figs put forth fruit every year, but it is ripe only every third year: so that on that tree every year one might see three sorts of fruit, namely, of the present year, of the past, and of the year before that. Thus the kind of fig bring forth ripe fruit in two years," &c.

Concerning white figs thus the Jerusalem Gemara: "Do they bear fruit every year, or once in three years? They bear fruit every year; but the fruit is not ripe till the third year. But how may one know which is the fruit of each year? R. Jona saith, 'By the threads that hang to them.' The tradition of Samuel, 'He makes little strings hang to it,'" &c.

III. The fruit of very many trees hung upon them all the winter, by the mildness of the weather, if they were not gathered or shaken off by the wind: nay, they ripened in winter. Hence came those cautions about tithing: "The tree which puts forth its fruit before the beginning of the year of the world" [that is, before the beginning of the month Tisri, in which month the world was created], "must be tithed for the year past: but if after the beginning of the world, then it must be tithed for the year coming on. R. Judan Bar Philia answered before R. Jonah, 'Behold the tree Charob puts forth its fruits before the beginning of the world, and yet it is tithed for the year following.' R. Jissa saith, 'If it puts forth a third part before the year of the world, it must be tithed for the year past; but if after, then for the year following.' R. Zeira answers before R. Jissa 'Sometimes palm-trees do not bring forth part of their fruit till after the beginning of the year of the world; and yet they must be tithed for the year before.' Samuel Bar Abba saith, 'If it puts forth the third part of its fruit before the fifteenth day of the month Shebat, it is to be tithed for the year past; if after the fifteenth day of the month Shebat, for the year to come.'" Hence that axiom in Rosh Hashanah, "The first day of the month Shebat is the beginning of the year for trees, according to the school of Shammai; but, according to that of Hillel, the fifteenth day."

However, fig-trees were not among those trees that put forth their fruit after the beginning of Tisri; for you have seen before, out of the Talmudists, that they used to put forth their leaves in the month Nisan: and that their fruit used to be ripe in thrice fifty days after this. Yet, perhaps, it may be objected about them, what we meet with in the Jerusalem Gemara, at the place before cited: "One gathers figs (say they), and knows not at what time they were put forth" (and thereby is at a loss for what year to tithe them). "R. Jonah saith, 'Let him reckon a hundred days backwards; and if the fifteenth day of the month Shebat falls within that number, then he may know when they were put forth.'" But this must be understood of figs of a particular sort, which do not grow after the usual manner, which is plain also from that which follows; for, "they say to him, 'With you at Tiberias there are fig-trees that bear fruit in one year': to which he answers, 'Behold, with you at Zippor there are trees that bear fruit in two years.'" Concerning common fig-trees, their ordinary time of putting out green figs was sufficiently known; as also the year of tithing them: but concerning those trees of another sort, which had ripe fruit only in two or three years, it is no wonder if they were at a loss in both.

IV. Christ, therefore, came to the tree seeking fruit on it, although the ordinary time of figs was not yet; because it was very probable that some fruit might be found there. Of the present year, indeed, he neither expected nor could expect any fruit, when it was so far from being the time of figs, that it was almost five months off: and it may be doubted whether it had yet so much as any leaves of the present year. It was now the month Nisan, and that month was the time of the first putting out of leaves; so that if the buds of the leaves had just peeped forth, they were so tender, small, and scarce worth the name of leaves (for it was but the eleventh day of the month), that to expect figs of the same year with those leaves had not been only in vain, but ridiculous. Those words seem to denote something peculiar, having leaves; as if the other trees thereabout had been without leaves, or, at least, had not such leaves as promised figs. Mark seems to give the reason why he came rather to that tree than to any other; namely, because he saw leaves on it, and thereby hoped to find figs. "For when he saw (saith he) a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon." From the leaves he had hopes of figs: these, therefore, certainly were not the leaves of the present spring, for those were hardly so much as in being yet: but they were either the leaves of the year past, that had hung upon the tree all winter; or else this tree was of that kind which had figs and leaves together hanging on it for two or three years before the fruit grew ripe. And I rather approve of this latter sense, which both renders the matter itself more clear, and better solves the difficulties that arise from the words of Mark. This tree, it seems, had leaves which promised fruit, and others had not so; whereas, had they all been of the same kind, it is likely they would all have had leaves after the same manner. But when others had lost all their leaves of the former year by winds and the winter, and those of the present year were not as yet come out, this kept its leaves, according to its nature and kind, both summer and winter. St. Mark, therefore, in that clause, which chiefly perplexes interpreters, for the time of figs was not yet, doth not strictly and only give the reason why he found no figs, but gives the reason of the whole action; namely, why on that mountain which abounded with fig trees he saw but one that had such leaves; and being at a great distance when he saw it, he went to it, expecting figs only from it. The reason, saith he, was this, "Because it was not the usual time of figs": for had it been so, he might have gathered figs from the trees about him; but since it was not, all his expectation was from this, which seemed to be the kind of fig or white fig, which never wanted leaves or figs. For to take an instance in the tree: That tree (suppose) bore figs such a summer, which hung upon the boughs all the following winter; it bore others also next summer; and those, together with the former, hung on the boughs all this winter too: the third summer it bore a third degree, and this summer brought those of the first bearing to ripeness, and so onwards continually; so that it was no time to be found without fruit of several years. It is less, therefore, to be wondered at, if that which promised so much fruitfulness by its looks, that one might have expected from it at least the fruit of two years, did so far deceive the hopes it had raised, as not to afford one fig; if that, I say, should suffer a just punishment from our Lord, whom it had so much, in appearance, disappointed: an emblem of the punishment that was to be inflicted upon the Jews for their spiritual barrenness and hypocrisy.

21. 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.

[But if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.] this is a hyperbolical way of speaking, taken from the common language of the schools of the Jews, and designed after a manner for their refutation. Such a hyperbole concerning this very mountain you have Zechariah 14:4.

The Jews used to set out those teachers among them, that were more eminent for the profoundness of their learning, or the splendour of their virtues, by such expressions as this; He is a rooter up (or a remover) of mountains. "Rabh Joseph is Sinai, and Rabbah is a rooter up of mountains." The Gloss; "They called Rabh Joseph Sinai, because he was very skilful in clearing of difficulties; and Rabbah Bar Nachmani, A rooter up of mountains, because he had a piercing judgment." "Rabba said, I am like Ben Azzai in the streets of Tiberias." The Gloss; "Like Ben Azzai, who taught profoundly in the streets of Tiberias; nor was there in his days such another rooter up of mountains as he." "He saw Resh Lachish in the school, as if he were plucking up mountains and grinding them one upon another."

The same expression with which they sillily and flatteringly extolled the learning and virtue of their men, Christ deservedly useth to set forth the power of faith, as able to do all things, Mark 9:23.

33. Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:

[Planted a vineyard.] Concerning vines and their husbandry see Kilaim, where there is a large discourse of the beds of a vineyard, the orders of the vines, of the measure of the winepress, of the hedge, of the trenches, of the void space, of the places within the hedge which were free from vines, whether they were to be sown or not to be sown, &c.

35. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.

[Beat; killed; stoned.] There seems to be an allusion to the punishments and manners of death in the council: 1. Beat, which properly signifies the flaying off of the skin, is not amiss rendered by interpreters beat; and the word seems to related to whipping where forty stripes save one did miserably flay off the skin of the poor man...2. Killed, signifies a death by the sword...Four kinds of death are delivered to the Sanhedrim, stoning, burning, killing, and strangling.

38. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.

[This is the heir, &c.] Compare this verse with John 11:48; and it seems to hint, that the rulers of the Jews acknowledged among themselves that Christ was the Messias; but being strangely transported beside their senses, they put him to death; lest, bringing in another worship and another people, he should either destroy or suppress their worship and themselves.

44. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.

[And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken, &c.] Here is a plain allusion to the manner of stoning, concerning which thus Sanhedrim: "The place of stoning was twice as high as a man. From the top of this, one of the witnesses striking him on his loins felled him to the ground: if he died of this, well; if not, the other witness threw a stone upon his heart," &c. "R. Simeon Ben Eleazar saith, There was a stone there as much as two could carry: this they threw upon his heart."