This parable plainly sets forth the sin and ruin of the Jewish nation; they and their leaders are the husbandmen here; and what is spoken for conviction to them, is spoken for caution to all that enjoy the privileges of the visible church, not to be high-minded, but fear.
I. We have here the privileges of the Jewish church, represented by the letting out of a vineyard to the husbandmen; they were as tenants holding by, from, and under, God the great Householder. Observe,
1. How God established a church for himself in the world. The kingdom of God upon earth is here compared to a vineyard, furnished with all things requisite to an advantageous management and improvement of it. (1.) He planted this vineyard. The church is the planting of the Lord, Isa. 61:3. The forming of a church is a work by itself, like the planting of a vineyard, which requires a great deal of cost and care. It is the vineyard which his right hand has planted (Ps. 80:15), planted with the choicest vine (Isa. 5:2), a noble vine, Jer. 2:21. The earth of itself produces thorns and briars; but vines must be planted. The being of a church is owing to God’s distinguishing favour, and his manifesting himself to some, and not to others. (2.) He hedged it round about. Note, God’s church in the world is taken under his special protection. It is a hedge round about, like that about Job on every side (Job 1:10), a wall of fire, Zech. 2:5. Wherever God has a church, it is, and will always be, his peculiar care. The covenant of circumcision and the ceremonial law were a hedge or a wall of partition about the Jewish church, which is taken down by Christ; who yet has appointed a gospel order and discipline to be the hedge of his church. He will not have his vineyard to lie in common, that those who are without, may thrust in at pleasure; not to lie at large, that those who are within, may lash out at pleasure; but care is taken to set bounds about this holy mountain. (3.) He digged a wine-press and built a tower. The altar of burnt-offerings was the wine-press, to which all the offerings were brought. God instituted ordinances in his church, for the due oversight of it, and for the promoting of its fruitfulness. What could have been done more to make it every way convenient?
2. How he entrusted these visible church-privileges with the nation and people of the Jews, especially their chief priests and elders; he let it out to them as husbandmen, not because he had need of them as landlords have of their tenants, but because he would try them, and be honoured by them. When in Judah God was known, and his name was great, when they were taken to be to God for a people, and for a name, and for a praise (Jer. 13:11), when he revealed his word unto Jacob (Ps. 147:19), when the covenant of life and peace was made with Levi (Mal. 2:4, 5), then this vineyard was let out. See an abstract of the lease, Song 8:11, 12. The Lord of the vineyard was to have a thousand pieces of silver (compare Isa. 7:13); the main profit was to be his, but the keepers were to have two hundred, a competent and comfortable encouragement. And then he went into a far country. When God had in a visible appearance settled the Jewish church at mount Sinai, he did in a manner withdraw; they had no more such open vision, but were left to the written word. Or, they imagined that he was gone into a far country, as Israel, when they made the calf, fancied that Moses was gone. They put far from them the evil day.
II. God’s expectation of rent from these husbandmen, Matt. 21:34. It was a reasonable expectation; for who plants a vineyard, and eats not of the fruit thereof? Note, From those that enjoy church-privileges, both ministers and people, God looks for fruit accordingly. 1. His expectations were not hasty; he did not demand a fore-rent, though he had been at such expense upon it; but staid till the time of the fruit drew near, as it did now that John preached the kingdom of heaven is at hand. God waits to be gracious, that he may give us time. 2. They were not high; he did not require them to come at their peril, upon penalty of forfeiting their lease if they ran behind-hand; but he sent his servants to them, to remind them of their duty, and of the rent-day, and to help them in gathering in the fruit, and making return of it. These servants were the prophets of the Old Testament, who were sent, and sometimes directly, to the people of the Jews, to reprove and instruct them. 3. They were not hard; it was only to receive the fruits. He did not demand more than they could make of it, but some fruit of that which he himself planted—an observance of the laws and statutes he gave them. What could have been done more reasonable? Israel was an empty vine, nay it was become the degenerate plant of a strange vine, and brought forth wild grapes.
III. The husbandmen’s baseness in abusing the messengers that were sent to them.
1. When he sent them his servants, they abused them, though they represented the master himself, and spoke in his name. Note, The calls and reproofs of the word, if they do not engage, will but exasperate. See here what hath all along been the lot of God’s faithful messengers, more or less; (1.) To suffer; so persecuted they the prophets, who were hated with a cruel hatred. They not only despised and reproached them, but treated them as the worst of malefactors—they beat them, and killed them, and stoned them. They beat Jeremiah, killed Isaiah, stoned Zechariah the son of Jehoiada in the temple. If they that live godly in Christ Jesus themselves shall suffer persecution, much more they that press others to it. This was God’s old quarrel with the Jews, misusing his prophets, 2 Chron. 36:16. (2.) It has been their lot to suffer from their Master’s own tenants; they were the husbandmen that treated them thus, the chief priests and elders that sat in Moses’s chair, that professed religion and relation to God; these were the most bitter enemies of the Lord’s prophets, that cast them out, and killed them, and said, Let the Lord be glorified, Isa. 66:5. See Jer. 20:1, 2; 26:11.
Now see, [1.] How God persevered in his goodness to them. He sent other servants, more than the first; though the first sped not, but were abused. He had sent them John the Baptist, and him they had beheaded; and yet he sent them his disciples, to prepare his way. O the riches of the patience and forbearance of God, in keeping up in his church a despised, persecuted ministry! [2.] How they persisted in their wickedness. They did unto them likewise. One sin makes way for another of the same kind. They that are drunk with the blood of the saints, add drunkenness to thirst, and still cry, Give, give.
2. At length, he sent them his Son; we have seen God’s goodness in sending, and their badness in abusing, the servants; but in the latter instance both these exceed themselves.
(1.) Never did grace appear more gracious than in sending the Son. This was done last of all. Note, All the prophets were harbingers and forerunners to Christ. He was sent last; for if nothing else would work upon them, surely this would; it was therefore served for the ratio ultima—the last expedient. Surely they will reverence my Son, and therefore I will send him. Note, It might reasonably be expected that the Son of God, when he came to his own, should be reverenced; and reverence to Christ would be a powerful and effectual principle of fruitfulness and obedience, to the glory of God; if they will but reverence the Son, the point is gained. Surely they will reverence my Son, for he comes with more authority than the servants could; judgment is committed to him, that all men should honour him. There is greater danger in refusing him than in despising Moses’s law.
(2.) Never did sin appear more sinful than in the abusing of him, which was now to be done in two or three days. Observe,
[1.] How it was plotted (Matt. 21:38); When they saw the Son: when he came, whom the people owned and followed as the Messiah, who would either have the rent paid, or distrain for it; this touched their copyhold, and they were resolved to make one bold push for it, and to preserve their wealth and grandeur by taking him out of the way, who was the only hindrance to it, and rival with them. This is the heir, come, let us kill him. Pilate and Herod, the princes of this world, knew not; for if they had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory, 1 Cor. 2:8. But the chief priests and elders knew that this was the heir, at least some of them; and therefore Come, let us kill him. Many are killed for what they have. The chief thing they envied him, and for which they hated and feared him, was his interest in the people, and their hosannas, which, if he was taken off, they hope to engross securely to themselves. They pretended that he must die, to save the people from the Romans (John 11:50); but really he must die, to save their hypocrisy and tyranny from that reformation which the expected kingdom of the Messiah would certainly bring along with it. He drives the buyers and sellers out of the temple; and therefore let us kill him; and then, as if the premises must of course go to the occupant, let us seize on his inheritance. They thought, if they could but get rid of this Jesus, they should carry all before them in the church without control, might impose what traditions, and force the people to what submissions, they pleased. Thus they take counsel against the Lord and his Anointed; but he that sits in heaven, laughs to see them outshot in their own bow; for, while they thought to kill him, and so to seize on his inheritance, he went by his cross to his crown, and they were broken pieces with a rod of iron, and their inheritance seized. Ps. 2:2, 3, 6, 9.
[2.] How this plot was executed, Matt. 21:39. While they were so set upon killing him, in pursuance of their design to secure their own pomp and power, and while he was so set upon dying, in pursuance of his design to subdue Satan, and save his chosen, no wonder if they soon caught him, and slew him, when his hour was come. Though the Roman power condemned him, yet it is still charged upon the chief priests and elders; for they were not only the prosecutors, but the principal agents, and had the greater sin. Ye have taken, Acts 2:23. Nay looking upon him to be as unworthy to live, as they were unwilling he should, they cast him out of the vineyard, out of the holy church, which they supposed themselves to have the key of, and out of the holy city for he was crucified without the gate, Heb. 13:12. As if He had been the shame and reproach, who was the greatest glory of his people Israel. Thus they who persecuted the servants, persecuted the Son; as men treat God’s ministers, they would treat Christ himself, if he were with them.
IV. Here is their doom read out of their own mouths, Matt. 21:40, 41. He puts it to them, When the Lord of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto these husbandmen? He puts it to themselves, for their stronger conviction, that knowing the judgment of God against them which do such things, they might be the more inexcusable. Note, God’s proceedings are so unexceptionable, that there needs but an appeal to sinners themselves concerning the equity of them. God will be justified when he speaks. They could readily answer, He will miserably destroy those wicked men. Note, Many can easily prognosticate the dismal consequences of other people’s sins, that see not what will be the end of their own.
1. Our Saviour, in his question, supposes that the lord of the vineyard will come, and reckon with them. God is the Lord of the vineyard; the property is his, and he will make them know it, who now lord it over his heritage, as if it were all their own. The Lord of the vineyard will come. Persecutors say in their hearts, He delays his coming, he doth not see, he will not require; but they shall find, though he bear long with them, he will not bear always. It is comfort to abused saints and ministers, that the Lord is at hand, the Judge stands before the door. When he comes, what will he do to carnal professors? What will he do to cruel persecutors? They must be called to account, they have their day now; but he sees that his day is coming.
2. They, in their answer, suppose that it will be a terrible reckoning; the crime appearing so very black, you may be sure,
(1.) That he will miserably destroy those wicked men; it is destruction that is their doom. Kakous kakos apolesei—Malos male perdet. Let men never expect to do ill, and fare well. This was fulfilled upon the Jews, in that miserable destruction which was brought upon them by the Romans, and was completed about forty years after this; and unparalleled ruin, attended with all the most dismal aggravating circumstances. It will be fulfilled upon all that tread in the steps of their wickedness; hell is everlasting destruction, and it will be the most miserable destruction to them of all others, that have enjoyed the greatest share of church privileges, and have not improved them. The hottest place in hell will be the portion of hypocrites and persecutors.
(2.) That he will let out his vineyard to other husbandmen. Note, God will have a church in the world, notwithstanding the unworthiness and opposition of many that abuse the privileges of it. The unbelief and frowardness of man shall not make the word of God of no effect. If one will not, another will. The Jews’ leavings were the Gentiles’ feast. Persecutors may destroy the ministers, but cannot destroy the church. The Jews imagined that no doubt they were the people, and wisdom and holiness must die with them; and if they were cut off, what would God do for a church in the world? But when God makes use of any to bear up his name, it is not because he needs them, nor is he at all beholden to them. If we were made a desolation and an astonishment, God could build a flourishing church upon our ruins; for he is never at a loss what to do for his great name, whatever becomes of us, and of our place and nation.
V. The further illustration and application of this by Christ himself, telling them, in effect, that they had rightly judged.
1. He illustrates it by referring to a scripture fulfilled in this (Matt. 21:42); Did ye never read in the scriptures? Yes, no doubt, they had often read and sung it, but had not considered it. We lose the benefit of what we read for want of meditation. The scripture he quotes is Ps. 118:22, 23, the same context out of which the children fetched their hosannas. The same word yields matter of praise and comfort to Christ’s friends and followers, which speaks conviction and terror to his enemies. Such a two-edged sword is the word of God. That scripture, the Stone which the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner, illustrates the preceding parable, especially that part of it which refers to Christ.
(1.) The builders’ rejecting of the stone is the same with the husbandmen’s abusing of the son that was sent to them. The chief priests and the elders were the builders, had the oversight of the Jewish church, which was God’s building: and they would not allow Christ a place in their building, would not admit his doctrine or laws into their constitution; they threw him aside as a despised broken vessel, a stone that would serve only for a stepping-stone, to be trampled upon.
(2.) The advancing of this stone to be the head of the corner is the same with letting out the vineyard to other husbandmen. He who was rejected by the Jews was embraced by the Gentiles; and to that church where there is no difference of circumcision or uncircumcision, Christ is all, and in all. His authority over the gospel church, and influence upon it, his ruling it as the Head, and uniting it as the Corner-stone, are the great tokens of his exhaltation. Thus, in spite of the malice of the priests and elders, he divided a portion with the great, and received his kingdom, though they would not have him to reign over them.
(3.) The hand of God was in all this; This is the Lord’s doing. Even the rejecting of him by the Jewish builders was by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God; he permitted and overruled it; much more was his advancement to the Head of the corner; his right hand and his holy arm brought it about; it was God himself that highly exalted him, and gave him a name above every name; and it is marvellous in our eyes. The wickedness of the Jews that rejected him is marvellous,; that men should be so prejudiced against their own interest! See Isa. 29:9, 10, 14. The honour done him by the Gentile world, notwithstanding the abuses done him by his own people, is marvellous; that he whom men despised and abhorred, should be adored by kings! Isa. 49:7. But it is the Lord’s doing.
2. He applies it to them, and application is the life of preaching.
(1.) He applies the sentence which they had passed (Matt. 21:41), and turns it upon themselves; not the former part of it, concerning the miserable destruction of the husbandmen (he could not bear to speak of that), but the latter part, of letting out the vineyard to others; because though it looked black upon the Jews, it spoke good to the Gentiles. Know then,
[1.] That the Jews shall be unchurched; The kingdom of God shall be taken from you. This turning out of the husbandmen speaks the same doom with that of dismantling the vineyard, and laying it common. Isa. 5:5. To the Jews had long pertained the adoption and the glory (Rom. 9:4); to them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2), and the sacred trust of revealed religion, and bearing up of God’s name in the world (Ps. 76:1, 2); but now it shall be so no longer. They were not only unfruitful in the use of their privileges, but, under pretence of them, opposed the gospel of Christ, and so forfeited them, and it was not long ere the forfeiture was taken. Note, It is a righteous thing with God to remove church privileges from those that not only sin against them, but sin with them, Rev. 2:4, 5. The kingdom of God was taken from the Jews, not only by the temporal judgments that befel them, but by the spiritual judgments they lay under, their blindness of mind, hardness of heart, and indignation at the gospel, Rom. 11:8-10; 1 Thess. 2:15.
[2.] That the Gentiles shall be taken in. God needs not ask us leave whether he shall have a church in the world; though his vine be plucked up in one place, he will find another to plant it in. He will give it ethnei—to the Gentile world, that will bring forth the fruit of it. They who had been not a people, and had not obtained mercy, became favourites of Heaven. This is the mystery which blessed Paul was so much affected with (Rom. 11:30, 33), and which the Jews were so much affronted by, Acts 22:21, 22. At the first planting of Israel in Canaan, the fall of the Gentiles was the riches of Israel (Ps. 135:10, 11), so, at their extirpation, the fall of Israel was the riches of the Gentiles, Rom. 11:12. It shall go to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. Note, Christ knows beforehand who will bring forth gospel fruits in the use of gospel means; because our fruitfulness is all the work of his own hands, and known unto God are all his works. They shall bring forth the fruits better than the Jews had done; God has had more glory from the New Testament church than from that of the Old Testament; for, when he changes, it shall not be to his loss.
(2.) He applies the scripture which he had quoted (Matt. 21:42), to their terror, Matt. 21:44. This Stone, which the builders refused, is set for the fall of many in Israel; and we have here the doom of two sorts of people, for whose fall it proves that Christ is set.
[1.] Some, through ignorance, stumble at Christ in his estate of humiliation; when this Stone lies on the earth, where the builders threw it, they, through their blindness and carelessness, fall on it, fall over it, and they shall be broken. The offence they take at Christ, will not hurt him, any more than he that stumbles, hurts the stone he stumbles at; but it will hurt themselves; they will fall, and be broken, and snared, Isa. 8:14; 1 Pet. 2:7, 8. The unbelief of sinners will be their ruin.
[2.] Others, through malice, oppose Christ, and bid defiance to him in his estate of exaltation, when this Stone is advanced to the head of the corner; and on them it shall fall, for they pull it on their own heads, as the Jews did by that challenge, His blood be upon us and upon our children, and it will grind them to powder. The former seems to bespeak the sin and ruin of all unbelievers; this is the greater sin, and sorer ruin, of persecutors, that kick against the pricks, and persist in it. Christ’s kingdom will be a burthensome stone to all those that attempt to overthrow it, or heave it out of its place; see Zech. 12:3. This Stone cut out of the mountain without hands, will break in pieces all opposing power, Dan. 2:34, 35. Some make this an allusion to the manner of stoning to death among the Jews. The malefactors were first thrown down violently from a high scaffold upon a great stone, which would much bruise them; but then they threw another great stone upon them, which would crush them to pieces: one way or other, Christ will utterly destroy all those that fight against him. If they be so stout-hearted, that they are not destroyed by falling on this stone, yet it shall fall on them, and so destroy them. He will strike through kings, he will fill the places with dead bodies, Ps. 110:5, 6. None ever hardened his heart against God and prospered.
Lastly, The entertainment which this discourse of Christ met with among the chief priests and elders, that heard his parables.
1. They perceived that he spake of them (Matt. 21:25), and that in what they said (Matt. 21:41) they had but read their own doom. Note, A guilty conscience needs no accuser, and sometimes will save a minister the labour of saying, Thou art the man. Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur—Change but the name, the tale is told of the. So quick and powerful is the word of God, and such a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart, that it is easy for bad men (if conscience be not quite seared) to perceive that it speaks of them.
2. They sought to lay hands on him. Note, When those who hear the reproofs of the word, perceive that it speaks of them, if it do not do them a great deal of good, it will certainly do them a great deal of hurt. If they be not pricked to the heart with conviction and contrition, as they were Acts 2:37; they will be cut to the heart with rage and indignation, as they were Acts 5:33.
3. They durst not do it, for fear of the multitude, who took him for a prophet, though not for the Messiah; this served to keep the Pharisees in awe. The fear of the people restrained them from speaking ill of John (Matt. 21:26), and here from doing ill to Christ. Note, God has many ways of restraining the remainders of wrath, as he has of making that which breaks out redound to his praise, Ps. 76:10.