The stones will cry out

I have Daniel Hoffman to thank for this little aperçu.

Jesus is riding on a young horse (pōlon), perhaps awkwardly on a young donkey, descending the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem (Lk. 19:37). There is no explicit reference to Zechariah 9:9, but presumably the allusion was not lost on Luke’s readers (cf. Matt. 21:4-6):

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Sion! Proclaim, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you, just and salvific is he, meek and riding on a beast of burden and a young foal (pōlon neon). (Zech. 9:9 LXX)

A quite large crowd of Jesus’ followers begins to rejoice and loudly praise God concerning all the mighty works that they have seen. They proclaim the words of Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38).

To understand why, we need to hear the whole story of the psalm. The king is surrounded by hostile nations, but in his distress he calls on the Lord, who delivers him from defeat and death. “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD (Ps. 118:17). He is like a stone rejected by the builders, which has become the cornerstone. Therefore, he comes to the temple in the name of the Lord to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

The Pharisees take offence at this plainly absurd pantomime of Jesus’ arrival—or parousia—as a suffering but vindicated king. He is a “teacher,” no more than that, and he must rebuke his disciples. But Jesus responds, “I say to you, if these will be silent, the stones will cry out (kraxousin).”

Daniel Hoffman says: ‘I had always taken this as “the stones would cry out in praise if these people didn’t do it,” but I think it actually means “cry out in judgment against Jerusalem.”

I think he may be right.

  • The quotation of Psalm 118:17 is implicitly judgmental. Jesus earlier condemned the leadership in Jerusalem for the violence suffered by those sent by God, and told the Pharisees, “Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Lk. 13:35). Since Jesus has not yet suffered, the proclamation made by his followers must be understood to anticipate the vindication of Jesus at the time of the judgment of Jerusalem.
  • The future coming of the king in the name of the Lord, in Luke’s eschatology, will be when God sends “the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:20–21; cf. 1:6). This restoration of Israel, however, will coincide with the destruction from the people of “every soul who does not listen to” the prophet like Moses (Acts 3:23).
  • Immediately before the account of Jesus’ carefully staged arrival in Jerusalem we have the parable of the high born person who goes into “a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return” (Lk. 19:12). He is hated by his citizens, who send a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Lk. 19:14)—just as the Jews complained to Augustus about the appointment of Archelaus (Josephus, Ant. 17:299-314). When the man returns as king, he orders his enemies to be brought and slaughtered in front of him (Lk. 19:27). In other words, when the “stone rejected by the builders” returns as king, those who hated him will be killed in the destruction of the city.
  • In a “woe” pronounced against the Chaldeans, Habakkuk says, “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond. Woe to him who builds a city by bloodshed and prepares a city with injustices!” (Hab. 2:11-12).1 The stones of a city cry out because of what they have witnessed, and Jerusalem is a city that has witnessed—and will witness—terrible bloodshed (Lk. 13:34; 19:41-44). It is not the whole story, or the whole testimony of the disciples, but it is a central part of it.
  • In the Septuagint the verb krazō nearly always denotes a cry of distress: “Wail, O city gates; let the troubled cities cry out (kekragetōsan)…. Because smoke comes out of the north, and there is no way to live (Isa 14:31). There is a great deal of crying out in the Psalms, but it is never in praise of God. In his commentary on Luke Joel Green writes: ‘Indeed, “stones” would pick up the chorus of joyful praise were these people silenced, signaling the cosmic repercussions of the consummation of God’s salvific plan signified in this event.’2 That seems to miss the point. It is not the rocks of the earth crying out in praise, but the stones of the city lamenting the coming catastrophe.
  • The future witness of the disciples and of the stones seems to be indicated by the future tenses of Luke 19:40: “I say to you, if these will be silent, the stones will cry out.” Part of the task of his followers will be to bear witness to the terrible judgment that will come upon (cf. Acts 2:40; 3:23; 6:13-14). But also, immediately after his entry into the city, Jesus declares that Israel’s enemies will not “leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Lk. 19:44). Even if the disciples fail in their mission, the stones will cry out against the wickedness of this generation and on behalf of the persecuted prophet who will return as king.
  • 1F. Bovon, Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28–24:53 (2012), 10, notes the force of this but is not entirely convinced: “If I understand it correctly, the house refuses to carry out the criminal intentions of the evil person. Thus, the stone and the beam rebel by speaking the truth and by bearing witness to God’s judgment. Likewise, the stones will cry out the truth here, even if it is not certain that the Lukan verse alludes to the verse in Habakkuk. It is more likely that they speak of the Son’s legitimacy and the Father’s wisdom than that they announce the destruction of Jerusalem or denounce injustice.” Also J. Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53 (1993), 927: “The disciples are marking a moment of high destiny; if their marking of it were to be silenced, then the stony terrain around them would need to take their place.” The city does not come into view until verse 41, but we are then immediately made aware that this is a city that will soon be razed to the ground, not one stone left upon another.
  • 2J.B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (1997), 688.