Out of the Mouth of Infants – Matthew 21:14-17

After the Temple action, Jesus healing the blind and the lame (Matt 21:14). When children begin praising Jesus as the son of David, the chief priests and scribes become angry with Jesus because he does not tell the children to be silent. Jesus responds with the famous saying, “out of the mouth of infants.” In contemporary culture, the phrase is used when a child says something truthful or profound. But what did Jesus mean by this?

Out of the mouth of infants

The blind and the lame are not permitted in the temple to sacrifice (Levi 21:18) and blind and lame animals were not acceptable sacrifices (Deut 15:21). The Qumran community (4QMMT 52-57) did not accept the blind and lame as part of their assembly.

4Q396 Col. ii:3 (4QMMT B 51-57) And also concerning the de[af who have not] heard the law 4 and the precept and the purity regulation, and have not heard the prec[epts of] Israel 5 for whoever neither sees nor hears, does not [know] how to act. But these 6 are approaching the purity of the temple.

1Q28a Col. ii:3 (1QRule of the Congregation) No man, defiled by any of the impurities 4 of a man, shall enter the assembly of these; and no-one who is defiled by these should be 5 established in his office amongst the congregation: everyone who is defiled in his flesh, paralysed in his feet or 6 in his hands, lame, blind, deaf, dumb or defiled in his flesh with a blemish 7 visible to the eyes, or the tottering old man who cannot keep upright in the midst of the assembly; 8 these shall not en[ter] to take their place [a]mong the congregation of the men of renown, for the angels 9 of holiness are among their [congre]gation.

Why are these blind and lame in the Temple courts? It may be the case these are beggars lined up on the way into the main courts. Since the Passover crowds were very large, a larger number of beggars would crowd into the court of the Gentiles. This would give people a chance to give alms as they purchased what they needed to make sacrifices. Like the sellers in the Temple courts, this convenient for people going into the Temple courts to make sacrifices.

The chief priests and scribes see the “wonderful things” Jesus is doing in the Temple courts and they are indignant that Jesus does not silence the children who are shouting “hosanna to the Son of David” (21:15-17). This is a continuation of the acclaim the crowds give to Jesus in the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-11).

Wonderful things (neuter plural of θαυμάσιος), “marvelous, amazing, stupendous” (BrillDAG). The adjective is used in LXX Exodus 3:20 for the wonderful things God will do to bring his people out of Egypt (a good Passover connection). In LXX Deuteronomy 34:12 it is used to describe Moses’s great deeds done in the sight of all Israel (this is the last line of Deuteronomy). Psalm 106:7 (LXX 105:7) applies the word to the wonderous works God did in Egypt, including the parting of the Red Sea.

The children are shouting the same words used at the triumphal entry, “Save us, Son of David.”  The chief priests and scribes were indignant when they heard these children. The verb (ἀγανακτέω) has the sense of annoyed, or even aroused to anger.

When James and John asked for the best seats in the Kingdom, the other disciples were indignant (Matt 20:24); when the woman anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, one of the disciples was indignant at the waste of money (Matt 26:8; Mark 14:4, John 12:1-11).

It may not be the healing in the temple that is the problem, but that the children respond to Jesus’s wonderful deeds by associating it with the coming of David. They think Jesus is the Messiah! The chief priests are indignant because Jesus does not deny he is the Messiah when the children call him the Son of David. “Don’t you hear what these children are saying?” From their perspective, Jesus is accepting praise as the Messiah.

Jesus responds, “out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies” (Psalm 8:2; LXX Psalm 8:3).  This is not the first time someone proclaims Jesus is the Son of David (9:27, two blind men; 15:22, a Canaanite woman; 20:20-31; two more blind men; 21:9, the crowds entering Jerusalem, see Nolland, Matthew, 847, note 13). With the exception of the crowds, the ones calling Jesus Son of David are the lowest of society (blind beggars, a Canaanite woman, and children). In Matthew 11:25 Jesus thanked God that he has revealed hidden things to the children. At the time, this seemed like a reference to the disciples (the “little ones”), but here literal children are announcing who Jesus really is.

Jesus leaves the temple and returns to Bethany for the evening. He will return the next morning and encounter even more opposition from the chief priests.

5 thoughts on “Out of the Mouth of Infants – Matthew 21:14-17

  1. How do you resolve the obvious contradiction in Matthew 21:10-12 where Jesus cleanses the Temple immediately after the Triumphal Entry?

    Woodrow Nichols

    • Matthew consistently abbreviates Mark’s narrative, in this case he omits Mark 11:11, returning to Bethany for the evening, so the fig tree sign is moved to after the temple cleansing and is a single story (rather than Mark’s two-part story with the temple action between).

      So maybe not an “obvious contradiction” as an edited narrative.

      Glad you didn’t ask me about the two blind men (as opposed to only one in Mark).

  2. Yeah, that story makes for great gymnastics, hehehehe. So, you believe Mark predates Matthew? I find arguments on both sides to be inconclusive. I call it obvious because it’s not the same. I find only one apparent contradiction in the Bible that is not one, and that is King Solomon’s Paradox. you know answer a fool according to his folly, or don’t answer a fool according to his folly. It is situational and depends on the party’s wisdom. (Proverbs 26:4-6)

    Woodrow Nichols

  3. Yes, I work with Markan priority in these notes. Not that it applies here, I am happy enough with a sayings source (Q), so two- or four- source hypothesis is fine. To be clear, I prefer to work with the gospel as we have it rather than worry about source, form and redaction criticism too much. I have been down that deep rabbit hole and I am not sure it sheds much light.

  4. I agree. I take the whole NT as written before 70 a.d. with exception of the Johannine literature. It makes more sense that way and tells better stories.

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