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A Closer Look at Matthew 23:39

For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’ 

Matthew 23:39

I have always found this passage to be slightly nebulous. While I was familiar with the source passage and its context (Psalms 118:26), I still had some problems understanding what exactly Jesus meant. Before we get into that, though, we need to take a look at the context of Matthew 23.

Matthew 23 contains a speech Jesus gave to “the crowds and to His disciples” in the last week of His life (Matthew 23:1). The past few chapters document a showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders. He told them parables, which they understood to be about themselves, and He answered their toughest questions.

After answering a few of their questions, Jesus turns the tables on them by asking His own question. Matthew tells us, “No one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question” (Matthew 22:46).

After stumping them, Jesus turns to the crowds to speak. He delivers several “woes” concerning the scribes and Pharisees, but he begins by saying, “The scribes and Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them” (Matthew 23:2-3).

It’s interesting to me that Jesus does not tell the people to rebel against the leaders. He insists that they follow their lead, but He wants the leaders to be the kind of ministers they need to be, those who practice what they preach. This was not Jesus writing the religious leaders off; this was His last-ditch effort to break through their hard heart.

The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of (1) shutting off the kingdom of heaven from people, (2) devouring widows’ houses, (3) turning proselytes into a “son of Gehenna,” (4) making flippant oaths, (5) tithing spices while forgetting justice, mercy, and faithfulness, (6) maintaining exterior purity while neglecting interior transformations, and (7) persecuting the prophets.

Concerning the last point, Jesus says, “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (Matthew 23:34–35).

Jesus would send prophets, wise men, and scribes, but the religious leaders would reject and even kill them. After following the pattern of their fathers, Jesus said that the guilt of “all the righteous blood shed on the earth” would fall upon them. He then says, “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:36). That is, the consequences of neglecting the message of “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” that Jesus’s followers would preach would lead to their destruction. Jesus wasn’t talking about a future generation here; He was addressing the Pharisees and scribes who stood before Him and the apostles and prophets He would send into all the world in just 52 days or so.

After this, Jesus laments, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” (Matthew 23:37–38).

Echoing the prophets of old, Jesus says that Jerusalem will fall for their rejection of the prophets, wise men, and scribes of Jesus.

It is within this context that we find our passage: “For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’” (Matthew 23:39).

Craig Blomberg, in his chapter within Beal and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, gives us the background to this quotation from Psalm 118.

The unifying element for which the psalmist thanks God is deliverance. Because he cried to the Lord (118:5) and took refuge in him (118:8), he has triumphed over his enemies (118:7) and cut off the nations that surrounded him on every side (118:11). Verse 14 explicitly declares that Yahweh has become the psalmist’s salvation. He will not die, but live (118:17), entering the Lord’s gates of righteousness (118:19).

Blomberg, Craig L. “Matthew.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007. 65. Print.

In light of this context, it makes sense for the people to sing this psalm as Jesus rode into town on a donkey (Matthew 21:9). Their belief, as seen from other studies I’ve done on the nature of the kingdom, was that Jesus would kick out the Romans and sit on the throne of David. The problem with this is that Jesus consistently rejected such a kingdom of swords, violence, and bloodshed.

The people chanted this psalm in anticipation of deliverance, but the source of their deliverance was a Messiah that Jesus never intended to be. And it is at this point that I disagree with Blomberg in interpreting Matthew 23:39. I do not see this as “a positive note of grace and thus of hope.” Instead, I see it as the last words of a people expecting a deliverance that wouldn’t come. In the siege of Jerusalem, something which Jesus has spent the last several parables discussing and would again discuss in the following chapters, there would be no army which would come over the hill and deliver them from the Romans.

Though they would cry out for deliverance as their quoting of the 118th psalm suggests, help would never come. This, as one can see time and time again, consistently brought Jesus to tears. This was not a happy occasion but one of great sadness for Jesus and His followers (see Romans 9:1-3).

Regardless, let me further explain one part of this passage. Jesus said, “From now on you will not see me until…” What did He mean by this? Well, in Matthew 24:29-31, Jesus talked about a time when all of the tribes would mourn because they would see Jesus “coming on the clouds” in judgement. Similarly, Jesus told the council at His trial, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN” (Matthew 26:64).

To see God “come on the clouds” was to see Him come in judgement. For example, Isaiah 19 says, “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and is about to come to Egypt” (Isaiah 19:1). When Jesus employed this language concerning “this generation” (Matthew 23:36; Matthew 24:34), He is talking about a judgement that was looming on the horizon.

In other words, in the moment when they looked for some sort of violent deliverance from the Romans, they would realize what that young rabbi had told them forty years before was true: if you pick up the sword, you will die by the sword. The blood of all the righteous shed on the earth would come upon them because they focused so much on tithing spices that they forgot justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Anyone who suggested that they change their focus was rejected, so the poor and the widows were forgotten, and the prophets were exiled or killed.

This take on Matthew 23:39 is close to previous interpretations I’ve given for several years, but there was a little more clarity concerning the relationship between Palm Sunday and this passage thanks to the preparatory work I did for my last sermon, which you can listen to on YouTube. I know this was a little more in depth than what I have been posting on this site, so let me know if I can help out in any way.

1 thought on “A Closer Look at Matthew 23:39”

  1. Thank you, Daniel. To me Palm Sunday (or the Triumphal Entry) is the most bewildering of all the days of the Holy Week. From why the people held palm branches as Jesus rode by to the meaning of Him quoting Psalm 118:26, it has been puzzling for me. I will read your articule again!

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