Matthew 23:39: The Song of Ascent

I have read with interest Stanley Toussaint’s critique of preterism. It is evident that to him, Matthew 23:39 presents a daunting challenge to the true preterist paradigm. I would like to present some thoughts on this great verse that, hopefully, will demonstrate the fallacy of Toussaint’s critique. Clearly, I will not address all of his objections. Nonetheless, there is solid reason to place Matthew 23 solidly within the true preterist schema.
We certainly agree with Toussaint that Matthew 23:39 is a temporal indicator. However, while he believes that v. 39 must refer to some future time, we suggest that it is totally amenable to the “this generation” referent of Matthew 23:36 and 24:34.
There is a general consensus among all schools of eschatology that in Matthew 23:29-38 Jesus was predicting the fall of Jerusalem in his generation. It is even interesting to note that the premillennialists who normally redefine the term “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 freely acknowledge that “this generation” in 23:36 means Jesus’ generation and not the “Jewish race,” or some future generation.
It is very clear from the literature that verse 39 is perplexing to the majority of exegetes. Plummer says there are three major interpretations of the point of time indicated by Jesus’ words: “1. The cries of the multitude on Palm Sunday (Luke 19:38; Mat. 21:9); 2.) The Second Advent (involving the conversion of the Jews, DKP); and 3.) The conversion of the Jews throughout all time.” It is not our intent to examine each of these postulates individually. Rather, we will suggest a positive contextual construction for verse 39 that allows the verse to stand in full harmony with the context of judgment on Israel.
Many commentators take note of the fact that Matthew 23:39 is a citation of Psalms 118:26. However, few take note of the historical significance of this fact. Toussaint is somewhat of an exception. He insists that Psalms 118, and thus, Matthew 23:39 are referent to the Second Coming. While we would agree in principle to this, we insist that there is a logical, contextual, and historical application of the Song of Ascent to the events of A.D. 70. Psalms 118 was called a Song of Ascent or a Song of Degrees. What this meant was that the Psalm was sung to pilgrims, by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as the travelers approached the city of Jerusalem to observe one of the three sacred feast days of the Jewish Calendar. As Rawlinson says, it was “an antiphonal hymn, composed for joyful occasion, when there was to be a procession to the Temple, a welcoming of the procession by those inside, and the solemn offering of a sacrifice upon the altar there.” Manson says Psalms 118 was “a psalm which has connections with the great pilgrim feasts of Judaism, but especially the feast of Tabernacles.” Psalms 118 then, especially verse 26, was a song especially associated with the three great feast days of Israel. Let us very quickly refresh our minds about those feast days.
The Jews had three major “pilgrimage” feasts. That is, these were the three times a year when every Jewish male that was of age was required by Mosaic mandate to travel to Jerusalem and worship the Lord (Exodus 23:17). Those feasts are sometimes called by different names, but they are generally known as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Passover is otherwise known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (Technically, the Feast of Unleavened Bread began on the day after Passover, but was so inextricably linked with it that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably). Pentecost is the Feast of First fruits, and the Feast of Tabernacles is also called the Feast of Booths, and the Feast of In-Gathering (Exodus, 23:14; Leviticus 23).
The Feast of Passover began the Jewish Calendar and lasted for seven days (Exodus 12; Leviticus 23:4-8). The Feast of Pentecost, or First fruits, was almost two months later (fifty days (Leviticus 23:15f). The seventh month of the Jewish Calendar was especially significant, since on the first day was the Feast of Trumpets. On the 10th day was the Day of Atonement, the most Holy Day in the year. On the 15th day was the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles. This Feast actually lasted for 7 days (Leviticus 23:33f). The Jewish Calendar therefore, provided for a significant number of days to be dedicated to worship High Days. In all, counting the 49 day interim between Passover and Pentecost since normally that was almost considered as part of the Festival complex, the time involved in the Feasts involved two full months. What is the point to all of this?
Remember, it was Psalms 118 that was sung to the pilgrims as they approached the city of Jerusalem to observe these feasts. Thus on three different occasions, once at the beginning of the year, once almost two months later, and again in the seventh month Psalms 118:26 would reverberate throughout the streets of Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Now let us make the connection with Matthew 23:39.
As already noted, there is little controversy among commentators that Jesus, in Matthew 23:29-38, predicted the judgment on Jerusalem in A.D. 70. But these same commentators, and of course Toussaint, believe that verse 39 strikes a dissonant cord to that message of doom, offering instead a “silver lining” to the dark cloud of pronounced judgment. He says that in this verse, “The Lord Jesus said Israel would not see Him again until that nation affirmed (in repentance, DKP), that He was the Messiah.” We believe this is in error.
Verse 39 was a statement of Jesus predicting the time of his coming in judgment against Israel. It is very clear that the point of Jesus’ statement in verse 39 is when he would come: “you will not see me again until you say.” Toussaint agrees with this assessment, and links this verse to a yet future conversion of the Jews at the end of the age, citing Romans 11:26f. But this ignores several facts.
First, Paul, in Romans 9:28, places the predicted salvation of Israel within an imminent time-frame, actually linking it to his personal ministry in 11:25, and 15:16f. This cannot be ignored.
Second, it also ignores the fact that Israel’s salvation would come at the time of Israel’s judgment. See Isaiah 2-4; 64-66; Zechariah 12-14, etc.. In other words, Israel would be saved by judgment, not from judgment. She would be saved by eschatological transformation, not national restoration.
Toussaint suggests that Zechariah 12-14 must speak of the time of Israel’s repentance and conversion. He emphasizes the fountain opened for taking away Israel’s sins, insisting that this must refer to her repentance and conversion. However, chapter 13 describes the judgment that would fall on her. It was a judgment that would destroy “two thirds of the people’ (13:8f). Further, chapter 14 very clearly posits the destruction of Jerusalem in the Day of the Lord. Third, it ignores the fact that the New Testament writers indisputably taught that they were living in the last days, in the end of the age (1 Corinthians 10:10-11; Hebrews 1:1; 9:26, 1 Peter 1:5-7, 18-20). It is a dubious hermeneutic that denies this and extends the last days for a period of two thousand years–so far!
But again, the point of Jesus’ prediction is the timing of his parousia. The purpose of his return in the context is judgment. When would he come in judgment? At the time when they would be singing the Song of Degrees (Psalms 118:26)! Jesus was saying he would return in the judgment he had just pronounced during one of the three Feast Days of Israel! Is this what really happened?
Anyone familiar at all with Josephus know this to be true. In the Works of Josephus, Book 6, chapter 9, paragraph 3, he says, “Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those that perished during the whole siege eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation (with the citizens of Jerusalem), but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army.” Thus, Josephus confirms that the siege of Jerusalem began at the time of one of the three major feast days, one of the distinctive times when Psalms 118:26 would be sung! Someone might object that such a prediction by Jesus isolating his coming to one of the feast days was tantamount to predicting “the day and the hour” of his coming. But such is not the case at all. In Matthew 24 Jesus predicted his coming in that generation, vs. 29-34. He even gave some signs, (v. 14-15), whereby, “when you see all these things then know that he is near even at the doors.” (ASV) They could know by these signs that his coming was near, “but of that day and hour knoweth no man” (v. 36). Knowing something is near, that it is even to be in your generation, does not tell you the day or the hour of its occurrence!
Considering the span of time involved in the feast days of the Jews it would hardly be possible for anyone to calculate the day or the hour of Jesus’ coming. After all literally months were spanned in these feasts, both at the first of the year and in the seventh month. If I were to tell you that I was going to come to your house next year for sure and that it would be at one of the national holidays, could you predict the specific day and hour I would arrive? Certainly not. Just so, when Jesus pronounced judgment against Israel in Matthew 23:29-38 and then somewhat enigmatically stated that this would occur on one of the occasions when they would be singing the Hallel Hymn of Psalms 118, he was not specifying the day and hour of his coming.
This view of Matthew 23:39 is consistent with the context. It prevents us from interjecting into the context some idea that has not been previously mentioned or hinted at, i.e. that national conversion of the Jewish nation. But, not only is this view consistent with the context, it becomes very significant for helping us understand the disciples’ question in Matthew 24.
Jesus’ disciples heard his prediction of coming judgment. As they were leaving the Temple they began to show him the incredible stones of the Temple. Many commentators believe they were pointing out its beauty to him; and this is certainly not unreasonable. But is it not just as reasonable, and contextual, to believe that they, after just overhearing him predict judgment on this edifice, were pointing out its size and invulnerability as well? But whether beauty or bulk was their focus, the point is the same and must not be ignored; the disciples were pointing to the Temple in immediate response to Jesus’ prediction to come in judgment against it! Now since, as we have already seen, it is widely agreed that Matthew 23 is a prediction of Jesus’ coming in judgment on Israel in that generation, where is the justification for changing from that and insist that in 24:2 the disciples were asking about some “end of time” coming of Jesus? And if one accepts our postulate on 23:39 then this argument becomes even stronger; if the disciples understood Jesus in 23:39 to be speaking of his coming in judgment against Jerusalem then the most natural and unforced interpretation of their question in 24:2 is that they were asking for more information about what Jesus has just predicted. Matthew 24:2 simply cannot contextually be viewed as “New News” to the disciples; Jesus has already pronounced coming judgment in chapter 23. Chapter 24:3 should therefore be viewed as an inquiry for more information. They wanted more information on when and the signs precursory to the event. In spite of this it is common to read in the commentaries: “Naturally, the disciples considered these three events, (the fall of Jerusalem, the end of the world and the final coming of Jesus, DKP), but in this they were mistaken.” Besides the fact that this statement assumes without proof the end of material creation at the end of time, it falsely charges the disciples with misunderstanding a subject that inspiration specifically says they understood!
We well understand that the disciples did not, far too often, comprehend Jesus’ teaching. But, the only way we know they misunderstood is because the inspired record tells us they did. Just where in Matthew 23-24 are we informed of the disciples’ gross misunderstanding of the subject at hand? There is no indication at all; the fact is we are told they did understand.
In Matthew 13 Jesus told three parables about the end of the age and the kingdom. In verse 51 Jesus specifically asked them “Have you understood all these things?” Their response was “Yes, Lord.” Now did they lie; or were they too embarrassed to admit confusion? If so, where is the indication? What is so significant about this? It is because one of the parables has a direct impact on our understanding of Matthew 24.
The parable of the Tares in Matthew 13 tells of the coming of the Son of Man with the angels to gather the elect and cast out the Tares at the end of the age, vs. 37f. Jesus says at that time would be when “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom” vs. 43. This is a direct quote from Daniel 12:3.
Daniel 12 deals with the Great Tribulation (vs. 1), the “time of the end” (v. 4), the Abomination of Desolation (v.9-11). Jesus directly alludes to Daniel 12 in Matthew 24:15 and 21, and the disciple’s question about the end of the age is grounded in Daniel 12 as well. Now watch. In Daniel 12 the prophet overheard one angel ask another when all these things would be fulfilled and was told that “when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered all these things will be fulfilled” (v. 7.) The disciples were well aware of Daniel 12 and its prediction of judgment on Israel. Jesus quoted Daniel 12 and applied it to his coming at the end of the age (Matthew 13). He quoted Daniel 12 no less than twice in his prediction of Jerusalem’s fall in Matthew 24! Jesus asked them if they understood and they said “Yes!” Therefore, unless the disciples lied then they understood from Daniel and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 13 that his coming would be at the end of the age judgment on Israel! Did they lose their understanding in Matthew 24? Had they become confused since Jesus spoke his words of Matthew 13? We hardly think so.
In this light the questions of the disciples in Matthew 24 are perfectly consistent with the context of Matthew 23, with the earlier teaching of Matthew 13 and with the prophetic background of Daniel 12. The disciples had heard Jesus predict Jerusalem’s judgment. They were familiar with the prophecies of her fall at the end of the age, and were now inquiring for more information about when it would happen and the signs to signify its approach. Any other interpretation of the questions accuses the disciples of lying, terribly bad memory, or confusion at the very least.
Thankfully, Toussaint agrees, ostensibly at least, that the disciples correctly linked Jesus’ prediction of Jerusalem’s demise with the end of the age and his parousia. He says “To them, (the disciples, DKP), the destruction of Jerusalem, the coming of the Messiah, and the end of the age comprised one complex of events.” Toussaint even says that when Jesus spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem, “they (the disciples, DKP) would logically call to remembrance Zechariah 14 for those elements are all brought together in that Old Testament prophecy.” We fully concur. We could not agree more that the disciples were correct to associate the fall of Jerusalem with the end of the age. Now, since Toussaint concurs that Jerusalem fell in that first century generation, and since it was logical for the disciples to associate that event with the end of the age, it follows that the end of the age did come with the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. There is no justification to suggest, as does Toussaint, that Jesus’ generation would see only the beginning of the fulfillment. To suggest that the fall of Jerusalem was only the beginning of the end, that is, the time when the signs of the end would begin to occur, protracts the period of fulfillment beyond where Jesus unmistakably placed it. Speaking of the impending catastrophe on Jerusalem, Jesus said, “These be the days of vengeance in which all things that are written must be fulfilled (Luke 21:22). The fall of Jerusalem was the terminus ad quem (point of ending) of fulfillment, not the terminus a quo (point of beginning).
There is therefore, only one coming in the context of Matthew 23-24. Even Toussaint agrees that the disciples were not confused to associate the fall of Jerusalem with the end of the age, although of course, he extends the end of the age, so far by two millennia. Naturally such a temporal gap between the sign, Jerusalem’s fall, and what it signified, the end of the age, is lost in such a tremendous gap.
After hearing Jesus’ portentous words in 23:29f the disciples naturally wanted to know more, and thus the questions of Matthew 24:3. Unless one can demonstrate that 1.) The coming of 23:39 is not the judgment coming of the previous verses, and, 2.) that the coming of verse 39 is therefore, a reference to national Jewish conversion, it therefore seems unavoidable that verse 39 is a reference to the A.D. 70 coming of Jesus in judgment against Israel. This also provides the context for identifying the coming in 24:3. This means that if the coming of 24:3 is the coming of 23:39, and if the coming of 23:39 is A.D. 70, then there is no basis at all for postulating an “end of time” coming in Matthew 24. A final thought here. Toussaint insists that in Luke 21:28, when Jesus promised “when you see these things come to pass, lift up your heads, for your redemption draws nigh”, that this is referent to the national conversion and salvation of Israel. This is a clear-cut failure to honor the language and context. Jesus was speaking to his personal disciples, and promising them that they will suffer persecution at the hands of the Jews,(v.12, “they will deliver you to synagogues”), just as he had told the Jews in chapter 23 that they would persecute his disciples. Jesus was not speaking of the Jewish nation under attack. He was speaking of his disciples, those who became the church, the True Israel! This distinction, established by simply honoring the pronouns, is, in actuality, devastating to the millennial view.
Further, as a result of this persecution, Israel would bear the brunt of God’s wrath, for He would bring the Abomination of Desolation, and final judgment on Israel. It is tragic that dispensationalists seem not to realize that the Abomination of Desolation can only be seen as a judgment on Israel for violating the everlasting covenant, and in fact, for persecuting the church! Interestingly, Toussaint does state, “Dispensationalists and preterist agree that the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was God’s judgment on Israel.”
Space will not permit a full discussion of this truth. However, Jehovah never allowed, or caused, Israel to be attacked and pillaged unless she had violated the covenant. See Psalms 41:11. To suggest that the Abomination would be/will be a horrible act of desecration placed on the “innocent” nation, by a traitorous Man of Sin, completely ignores the covenantal nature of any and all attacks and desecrations against Israel’s land, city and Temple. Simply stated, if Israel was attacked and her city and Temple conquered or desecrated, it was proof positive that she was in violation of her covenant! A further point that must be brought to bear here, is the fact that even the millennialists claim that the Mosaic Covenant has been forever fulfilled and removed in Christ. Yet, they then appeal to Deuteronomy 30 as a proof text to support a future restoration. This is a logical contradiction. You cannot say that the Mosaic Covenant has been forever removed, and then appeal to the Mosaic Covenant to support the idea of a future restoration of Israel!
Since the Abomination of Desolation must be seen as a judgment from God on Israel, according to the Mosaic Covenant, it is prima fascia evident that the Abomination of Desolation had to occur while the Mosaic Covenant was still standing. Our point in regard to the redemption promised in Luke is that it has to refer, not to the nation of Israel, and a national repentance and conversion. Jesus was speaking to his followers about what would befall them at the hands of Old Covenant Israel, and then, what would befall Old Covenant Israel for her persecution of His disciples. Jesus was not speaking to or about Old Covenant Israel when he said “when you see all of these things come to pass, your redemption draws nigh.” He was speaking to those who followed him in faith.
Identifying the context and background of the Song of Ascent in Matthew 23:39 is helpful in properly interpreting the entire Olivet Discourse. Our interpretation avoids the pitfalls of introducing unprecedented subject matter into the context, and is consistent with the judgment context of Matthew 23. Just as in chapter 24, Jesus foretold the fact of his coming and the general time of its occurrence, he had already given the forecast of his coming in judgment, and a general statement as to the time for its happening. Jesus would come in judgment against Jerusalem. He would come on one of the Holy Days of the year when they would be singing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” And this is exactly what happened. In spite of Toussaint’s objections therefore, Matthew 23:39 presents no difficulty for the true preterist paradigm. Rather, it confirms the true preterist view.
1. Posted on
2. I personally prefer the term “true preterist” in juxtaposition to “partial-v-full.” Those who espouse the “partial” preterist view, are in fact not preterists at all.
3. Alfred Plummer, International Critical Commentary, Scribner and Sons, 1900, p. 353.
4. G. Rawlinson, Pulpit Commentary, Eerdmans, Psalms, 1977, Bk. V. p. 87.
5. T. W. Manson, The Mission and Message of Jesus, E.P. Dutton, 1946, p. 420.
6.See my Who Is This Babylon? for a lengthy discussion of Paul’s distinctive role in bringing Israel’s salvation to fruition.
7.I develop this at length in my upcoming book, Jesus’ Coming: In the Glory of the Father.
8. The problem of course, per the futurist and particularly the millennial view, is that Zechariah seems to suggest both the destruction and deliverance of Jerusalem. The millennialists focuses on the deliverance motif. However, there is an alternative, which I develop in my upcoming book Christ’s Coming: In the Glory of the Father. The alternative is the reality of the Biblical doctrine of Two Jerusalems. Old Covenant Jerusalem was to perish. The Heavenly Jerusalem was to be delivered and stand triumphant. Old Covenant Jerusalem was only a type and shadow of the heavenly Jerusalem, and the type had to be taken away so that the “body” might be revealed. The millennialists seems to have no grasp of this fundamental Biblical doctrine.
9. Burton Coffman, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Abilene Christian University,1977, p. 380.