Part Two: Consumed with Zeal (John 2:13-25 NRSV)
Zechariah 14 is a prophecy that describes the return from the Babylonian Exile and restoration of all that was lost in the sack of Jerusalem. There will be a final battle, and Jerusalem shall be restored as the high point of the world – in fact, the place where the watersheds of the Middle East shall originate (verse 8). “And the Lord will become king over all the earth,” Zechariah declares in verse 9, “on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.”
There will be terrible consequences for those who resist the Lord’s rule. But they shall be defeated, and all their wealth shall be collected for deposit in Jerusalem. The survivors shall become faithful in their practice. There is specific mention of an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the festival of booths (Pentecost) and the sanction of drought for those who do not come. Everything shall be imprinted with the label, “Holy to the Lord,” including the bells on the horses and all the cooking pots.
The upshot of this for our text is that Temple sacrifice shall cease to be an economic transaction. “And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day,” the prophet declares. Of course, that means that there are traders in the Temple when the prophecy is spoken and/or committed to writing. This section of Zechariah may have been spoken and/or recorded in the fourth to third centuries before the Christian Era.
More important, this verse also means that the removal of the traders is a sign that the Day of the Lord has come.
There is, therefore, great irony in the report of the demand for a sign in John 2:18. In fact, the removal of the money-changers is a deeply prophetic sign, recognized in the Hebrew Bible as such. Jesus seems to brush off this irony with a cryptic reply. You want a real sign? Tear this temple down and in three days I’ll raise it back up. How’s that for a sign!
Of course, no one could grasp the meaning of those words until after the Resurrection. As the disciples reflected on what they had seen, they came to understand and embrace the deeper meaning of Jesus’ declaration.
At times, commentators have resisted the idea that the Temple court was a place of commerce and exchange. However, the evidence for this comes from a number of sources. Jeremias reviews this material in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. There is certainly a lively trade in “doves” (can also be translated as pigeons). These are the sacrificial animals for the poor who have a dispensation because they cannot afford sheep, cattle, or oxen.
Some have disputed the presence of larger animals in this area of the Temple. However, Jeremias notes traditions that support the existence of this commerce. More to the point, Jeremias notes that the high priest may have been invested financially in the trade. He notes that Josephus describes Ananias, who served as high priest from about 47 to 55 in the Christian era, as “the great procurer of money” (page 49). Josephus also reports, according to Jeremias, “that the Temple was said to be going to rack and ruin because of avarice and mutual hatred” (ibid).
“So, we are forced to conclude,” Jeremias writes, “that in the Court of the Gentiles, in spite of the sanctity of the Temple area, there could have been a flourishing trade in animals for sacrifice, perhaps supported for the powerful high-priestly family of Annas” (ibid).
If that is the case, then Jesus’ action is not only a symbolic attack on the Temple authorities and establishment. It is a direct threat to a portion of the livelihood of those privileged, powerful, and well-placed priests. It’s one thing to insult a powerful person. That’s bad enough. But when you attack a source of revenue, that can get you killed.
I can’t help but think about the turns taken in the Civil Rights movement in the United States. As long as the movement was about “those terrible racists in the South,” the support of northern liberals was fairly solid. Sit-ins at lunch counters in Alabama were applauded by white folks in New York.
When the Poor Peoples’ march came to Washington, however, the tone changed. When Dr. King began to speak about economic issues, white support dried up. It is no surprise that he was assassinated during a trip to support the strike for better wages by the Memphis sanitation workers. And in our own day, anti-racism may be applauded by some. But the moment we begin to talk about reparations, things suddenly become “impossible.”
The verse the disciples later remember – “Zeal for your house shall consume me” – is a quotation from Psalm 69:9. As Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “Such quotations were often given in truncated form…because audiences could be depended on to fill in the missing sections” (page 74). This is an example of the interpretive rule of thumb: “little text, big context.”
We cannot depend on contemporary audiences to have the same scriptural memories, so it is worthy filling in the blanks here. Psalm 69 is a prayer for deliverance from persecution. Verses one through eight describe the situation of the psalmist in some stereotypical psalmic terms – neck-deep in trouble, dry-throated with fear and weeping, enemies without number, unjust accusations.
The psalmist prays that God will show up and vindicate those who have been so faithful in their steadfast witness and waiting. “Rather than a maniac come to disrupt worship,” Alicia Myers writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “Jesus’ disciples understand him to be like the righteous sufferer of Psalm 69: one whose ‘zeal’ for God’s house and statutes made him a target for his enemies (69:9-12).”
Then we come to the stanza containing the quote. “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me,” the psalmist writes, “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” The psalmist is the victim in this drama, not the offender. The writer mourns over the state of things – perhaps the state of inauthentic and rote worship in the temple. It may be that the psalmist and associates have engaged in public demonstrations grieving over the situation of the temple – fasting, sitting in sackcloth, and other acts of mourning.
The results have been mocking, insults, gossip, and bawdy songs about the protesters in local bars. The psalmist prays for vindication, for an answer to the prayers. There may need to be more waiting for the response. “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord,” the psalmist writes in verse thirteen, “At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me” (NRSV).
Yet, the psalmist prays that the waiting will not be long. The public insults have risen to a heart-breaking volume. The psalmist tastes those insults like poisoned food and vinegar to drink (one thinks of Jesus’ cry of thirst on the cross for a moment). The writer is on the point of despair.
In verse twenty-two the psalmist begins an inventory of actions proposed for God in case things aren’t yet quite clear. “Let their table be a trap for them,” we read, “a snare for their allies.” The application in John 2 becomes more concrete. The tables of the moneychangers are overturned. The following verses describe destruction and indignation poured out on the persecutors. There will be consequences for the protestors, but the psalmist implores the Lord to act.
The result will be authentic worship and praise in the Temple. “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving,” the psalmist writes in verses 30 and 31, “This will please the Lord more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs” (NRSV). The climax of the psalm rejects the offerings of the privileged, the powerful, and the propertied. Verses thirty-two and thirty-three lift up those who are oppressed and needy as the ones who will be glad.
Up to this point in the psalm, we might have imagined the protest taking place while the first Temple was still standing. That, however, is not the case. Perhaps the psalm began as such a protest, for example, in the time of Jeremiah. But it has become a prayer for the restoration of the Temple and a promise to those languishing in the Babylonian Exile.
“Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them,” the psalmist writes in verse 34. Then the future tense kicks in. “For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it,” the writer promises, “the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.”
In John’s account, the challenge to the Temple reminds the disciples of these words from the Exile. The Temple system in Jesus’ time is oppressive, extractive, and illegitimate. It is not a “real” Temple but rather some kind of spiritual shopping mall.
The people of God remain in exile even though the buildings have been reconstructed. “Jesus is not just any righteous sufferer,” Alicia Myers suggests, “he is the location of God’s glory rather than the temple building in which he stands. Jesus’ disruption of the worship practices, therefore, is God’s own critique.”
Of course, the Temple has been rebuilt by Herod – not a model of Israelite faithfulness. Jesus declares that he will build an authentic “temple” with his broken and resurrected body. It is only later – after the cross and resurrection – that the disciples can remember this action and interpret with the psalm text. They have witnessed the building of the new Temple on Easter and now bear witness to that reality.
References and Resources
Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 555–568. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203?seq=1. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Domeris, William. The ‘enigma of Jesus” temple intervention: Four essential keys. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.
Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Wecker, Menachem. “AOC’s favorite biblical story is mired in a dark, anti-Jewish past.” https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/aocs-favorite-biblical-story-mired-dark-anti-jewish-past
Witherington, Ben. “Jesus and the Temple Tantrum (A Study of John 2:13-17).” https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-and-the-temple-tantrum-a-study-of-john-213-17/.