How the King of Israel spent the night after the triumphal Entry into His City and Temple, we may venture reverently to infer. His royal banquet would be fellowship with the disciples. We know how often His nights had been spent in lonely prayer, and surely it is not too bold to associate such thoughts with the first night in Passion week. Thus, also, we can most readily account for that exhaustion and faintness of hunger, which next morning made Him seek fruit on the fig-tree on His way to the City.
It was very early on the morning of the second day in Passion-week (Monday), when Jesus, with his disciples, left Bethany. In the fresh, crisp, spring air, after the exhaustion of that night, ‘He hungered.’ By the roadside, as so often in the East, a solitary tree grew in the rocky soil. It must have stood on an eminence, where it caught the sunshine and warmth, for He saw it ‘afar off,’ and though spring had but lately wooed nature into life, it stood out, with its wide-spreading mantle of green, against the sky. ‘It was not the season of figs,’ but the tree, covered with leaves, attracted His attention. It might have been, that they hid some of the fruit which hung through the winter, or else the springing fruits of the new crop. For it is a well-known fact, that in Palestine ‘the fruit appears before the leaves,’ and that this fig-tree, whether from its exposure or soil, was precocious, is evident from the fact that it was in leaf, which is quite unusual at that season on the Mount of Olives, The old fruit would, of course, have been edible, and in regard to the unripe fruit we have the distinct evidence of the Mishnah, confirmed by the Talmud, that the unripe fruit was eaten, so soon as it began to assume a red colour – as it is expressed, ‘in the field, with bread,’ or, as we understand it, by those whom hunger overtook in the fields, whether working or travelling. But in the present case there was neither old nor new fruit, ‘but leaves only.’ It was evidently a barren fig-tree, cumbering the ground, and to be hewn down. Our mind almost instinctively reverts to the Parable of the Barren Fig-tree, which He had so lately spoken. To Him, Who but yesterday had wept over the Jerusalem that knew not the day of its visitation, and over which the sharp axe of judgment was already lifted, this fig-tree, with its luxuriant mantle of leaves, must have recalled, with pictorial vividness, the scene of the previous day. Israel was that barren fig-tree; and the leaves only covered their nakedness, as erst they had that of our first parents after their Fall. And the judgment, symbolically spoken in the Parable, must be symbolically executed in this leafy fig-tree, barren when searched for fruit by the Master. It seems almost an inward necessity, not only symbolically but really also, that Christ’s Word should have laid it low. We cannot conceive that any other should have eaten of it after the hungering Christ had in vain sought fruit thereon. We cannot conceive that anything should resist Christ, and not be swept away. We cannot conceive, that the reality of what He had taught should not, when occasion came, be visibly placed before the eyes of the disciples. Lastly, we seem to feel (with Bengel) that, as always, the manifestation of His true Humanity, in hunger, should be accompanied by that of His Divinity, in the power of His Word of judgment.
With St. Matthew, who, for the sake of continuity, relates this incident after the events of that day (the Monday) and immediately before those of the next, we anticipate what was only witnessed on the morrow. As St. Matthew has it: on Christ’s Word the fig-tree immediately withered away. But according to the more detailed account of St. Mark, it was only next morning, when they again passed by, that they noticed the fig-tree had withered from its very roots. The spectacle attracted their attention, and vividly recalled the Words of Christ, to which, on the previous day, they had, perhaps, scarcely attached sufficient importance. And it was the suddenness and completeness of the judgment that had been denounced, which now struck Peter, rather than its symbolic meaning. It was rather the Miracle than its moral and spiritual import – the storm and earthquake rather than the still small Voice – which impressed the disciples. Besides, the words of Peter are at least capable of this interpretation, that the fig-tree had withered in consequence of, rather than by the Word of Christ. But He ever leads His own from mere wonderment at the Miraculous up to that which is higher. His answer now combined all that they needed to learn. It pointed to the typical lesson of what had taken place: the need of realising, simple faith, the absence of which was the cause of Israel’s leafy barrenness, and which, if present and active, could accomplish all, however impossible it might seem by outward means. And yet it was only to ‘have faith in God;’ such faith as becomes those who know God; a faith in God, which seeks not and has not its foundation in anything outward, but rests on Him alone. To one who ‘shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that what he saith cometh to pass, it shall be to him.’ And this general principle of the Kingdom, which to the devout and reverent believer needs neither explanation nor limitation, received its further application, specially to the Apostles in their coming need: ‘Therefore I say unto you, whatsoever things, praying, ye ask for, believe that ye have received them [not, in the counsel of God, but actually, in answer to the prayer of faith], and it shall be to you.’
These two things follow: faith gives absolute power in prayer, but it is also its moral condition. None other than this is faith; and none other than faith – absolute, simple, trustful – gives glory to God, or has the promise. This is, so to speak, the New Testament application of the first Table of the Law, summed up in the ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ But there is yet another moral condition of prayer closely connected with the first – a New Testament application of the second Table of the Law, summed up in the ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ If the first moral condition was God-ward, the second is man-ward; if the first bound us to faith, the second binds us to charity, while hope, the expectancy of answered prayer, is the link connecting the two. Prayer, unlimited in its possibilities, stands midway between heaven and earth; with one hand it reaches up to heaven, with the other down to earth; in it, faith prepares to receive, what charity is ready to dispense. He who so prays believes in God and loves man; such prayer is not selfish, self-seeking, self-conscious; least of all, is it compatible with mindfulness of wrongs, or an unforgiving spirit. This, then, is the second condition of prayer, and not only of such all-prevailing prayer, but even of personal acceptance in prayer. We can, therefore, have no doubt that St. Mark correctly reports in this connection this as the condition which the Lord attaches to acceptance, that we previously put away all uncharitableness. We remember, that the promise had a special application to the Apostles and early disciples; we also remember, how difficult to them was the thought of full forgiveness of offenders and persecutors; and again, how great the temptation to avenge wrongs and to wield miraculous power in the vindication of their authority. In these circumstances Peter and his fellow-disciples, when assured of the unlimited power of the prayer of faith, required all the more to be both reminded and warned of this as its second moral condition: the need of hearty forgiveness, if they had aught against any.
From this digression we return to the events of that second day in Passion-week (the Monday), which began with the symbolic judgment on the leafy, barren fig-tree. The same symbolism of judgment was to be immediately set forth still more clearly, and that in the Temple itself. On the previous afternoon, when Christ had come to it, the services were probably over, and the Sanctuary comparatively empty of worshippers and of those who there carried on their traffic. When treating of the first cleansing of the Temple, at the beginning of Christ’s Ministry, sufficient has been said to explain the character and mode of that nefarious traffic, the profits of which went to the leaders of the priesthood, as also how popular indignation was roused alike against this trade and the traders. We need not here recall the words of Christ; Jewish authorities sufficiently describe, in even stronger terms, this transformation of ‘the House of Prayer’ into ‘a den of robbers.’ If, when beginning to do the ‘business’ of His Father, and for the first time publicly presenting Himself with Messianic claim, it was fitting He should take such authority, and first ‘cleanse the Temple’ of the nefarious intruders who, under the guise of being God’s chief priests, made His House one of traffic, much more was this appropriate now, at the close of His Work, when, as King, He had entered His City, and publicly claimed authority. At the first it had been for teaching and warning, now it was in symbolic judgment; what and as He then began, that and so He now finished. Accordingly, as we compare the words, and even some of the acts, of the first ‘cleansing’ with those accompanying and explaining the second, we find the latter, we shall not say, much more severe, but bearing a different character – that of final judicial sentence.
Nor did the Temple-authorities now, as on the former occasion, seek to raise the populace against Him, or challenge His authority by demanding the warrant of ‘a sign.’ The contest had reached quite another stage. They heard what He said in their condemnation, and with bitter hatred in their hearts sought for some means to destroy Him. But fear of the people restrained their violence. For, marvellous indeed was the power which He wielded. With rapt attention the people hung entranced on his lips, ‘astonished’ at those new and blessed truths which dropped from them. All was so other than it had been! By His authority the Temple was cleansed of the unholy, thievish traffic which a corrupt priesthood carried on, and so, for the time, restored to the solemn Service of God; and that purified House now became the scene of Christ’s teaching, when He spake those words of blessed truth and of comfort concerning the Father – thus truly realising the prophetic promise of ‘a House of Prayer for all the nations.’ And as those traffickers were driven from the Temple, and He spake, there flocked in from porches and Temple-Mount the poor sufferers – the blind and the lame – to get healing to body and soul. It was truly spring-time in that Temple, and the boys that gathered about their fathers and looked in turn from their faces of rapt wonderment and enthusiasm to the Godlike Face of the Christ, and then on those healed sufferers, took up the echoes of the welcome at His entrance into Jerusalem – in their simplicity understanding and applying them better – as they burst into ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’
It rang through the courts and porches of the Temple, this Children’s Hosanna. They heard it, whom the wonders He had spoken and done, so far from leading to repentance and faith, had only filled with indignation. Once more in their impotent anger they sought, as the Pharisees had done on the day of His Entry, by a hypocritical appeal to His reverence for God, not only to mislead, and so to use His very love of the truth against the truth, but to betray Him into silencing those Children’s Voices. But the undimmed mirror of His soul only reflected the light. These Children’s Voices were Angels’ Echoes, echoes of the far-off praises of heaven, which children’s souls had caught and children’s lips welled forth. Not from the great, the wise, nor the learned, but ‘out of the mouth of babes and sucklings’ has He ‘perfected praise.’ And this, also, is the Music of the Gospel.