Understanding the “den of robbers”

Understanding the “den of robbers”

When Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem in Matthew 21, he did something very odd. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling pigeons. And he said this:

“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matt. 21:13 ESV)

Why did Jesus do what he did? After all, it was symbolic; I am sure the tables would be set up again later in the day. This was not to bring about lasting change but to make a point.

Well, two points in fact. The quote from Jesus in v13 is a composite of two passages from the Old Testament. Let’s look at them in turn:

  • Isaiah 56:7. The prophet Isaiah spoke to the exiles of their future hope where God’s house would be called a house of prayer for all peoples. The domination of the outer court by commercial activities was getting in the way of people using it for its purpose, to pray. This outer court was known as the Court of the Gentiles, for it was the only place non-Jewish people could come to pray within the temple complex. Jesus is making the point that the religious authorities in the temple did not value Gentiles and outsiders coming to the true God. This is underlined by the healing of the blind and the lame in the following verse; Jesus welcomes all, but the temple at that time was not welcoming all.
  • Jeremiah 7:11. The prophet Jeremiah stood at the temple in his day and accused the people coming to worship of hypocrisy. He pointed out that they worshipped other gods and freely broke God’s law, then went to the temple to do their religious duty. They relied on their religion but did not live as God’s people. They were like a den of robbers. A robber’s den is where criminals would return to after their evil activities; that is how he described their use of the temple. Jesus also had been accusing the religious leaders of hypocrisy in their rejection of him as the Messiah, so Jeremiah 7 fit his context as well.

We don’t have a temple building today where God is present among us, but we do have God living in us by His Spirit. We too are called to welcome all who come to Jesus and not put anything in their way. And we are called to a life of consistent service, not just doing religious acts and thinking that makes us OK with God. Let’s be people who are faithful when doing religious things like church and Bible reading and also when we are working or with our families. Let’s make sure this accusation of hypocrisy does not apply to us.