His disciples remembered it was written: Zeal for Thy house will consume Me.
The last time we heard that the disciples were watching and listening when Jesus rebuked the Jews for making the temple a house of trade and expelled them forcibly from the temple. It was an unusual spectacle to see Christ weave a whip from cords and lash away at the Jews. It gave the impression that He intended to establish a kingdom of power and might, although it was written of Him, as we recently said, that He would govern by the sword of the Spirit or of His mouth; for He was to found a kingdom of the Word and of the Spirit, not a kingdom of the sword. Consequently, this scene amazed the disciples; it all seemed very strange to them. Hitherto they had seen Christ only in a kind and friendly mood. Therefore it offended them to observe Him making use of His fists. But the evangelist John adds that the disciples were reminded of the statement recorded in Psalm 69, a psalm which treats of Christ throughout: “Zeal for Thy house has consumed Me” (v. 9).
This remark gives evidence that the people in that day were well versed in Holy Scripture, and that its study must have been diligently pursued in the synagogs and schools. It was particularly the Psalter which was read, preached, and explained, and with which the people were familiar. It seems apparent that in all the towns and villages there were priests and Levites who had their parishes, churches, and schools there, called synagogs. In these the people convened to hear and learn the Word of God. And here they regularly heard the writings of the prophets and the psalms expounded. Nevertheless, the temple in Jerusalem retained its eminent and dignified position as the chief church, or the cathedral. The Jews went there three times a year to show their loyalty to the God who had promised to reside there, and in order to give proof of their faith and doctrine. The churches of that day were well governed and regulated. Scripture was expounded there daily, so that even the simple folk acquired a fair understanding of the psalms and the prophets, which they also retained in their memory. Thank God, our churches are well ordered today too. We can still meet there and call upon God, laud and praise Him. The Word of God is having such free course today that even a plain, uneducated person can comprehend Scripture in some measure, as the Jews were able to do in their time. We know, of course, what type of people Christ’s disciples were—not learned men, not high priests, Pharisees, and scribes, but poor beggars and fishermen, lowly folk, Peter, Andrew, and Bartholomew. But still they were able to learn the Psalter; they heard it read, sung, and preached. Simply by listening to Holy Scripture they familiarized themselves with it; and they learned it so well that they remembered the words and pondered them.
Here we can observe the result of faithful and diligent instruction of the people in the Word of God and of their attention to such instruction. An especially fine discipline, diligence, and obedience must have prevailed among these people when they gathered on the Sabbath in their schools or churches to listen attentively to the singing and the reading, the preaching and the praying. It was a scene like that presented in our churches today.
This example of the disciples must stimulate us to hear, believe, and accept God’s Word gladly, to receive absolution, and to make use of the Sacrament. In view of the devoutness of the Jews of that day, it is not at all surprising that the dear disciples remembered this verse from the psalms; they had heard it in their schools in Galilee. But the amazing part was their application of the words to Christ, just as though the statement had originally been made with the expulsion of the money-changers from the temple in mind, and nothing else.
The words “Zeal has consumed Me” sound strange. The disciples, however, understood the Hebrew idiom. This was intelligible to them, for they read the prophets assiduously. And now that they find it impossible to condemn this act of Christ, and ask themselves: “Why did He lash the Jews with the whip and create such a hubbub?” they put the best construction on it and excuse Him. Just as if they wanted to say: “We must admit that by kicking up such a rumpus He is carrying things to extremes. But, after all, what alternative did He have? One who loves God and His house can never condone and tolerate such conduct. He must be activated by that passionate zeal of which this saying speaks.”
Thus they relate these words—which apply generally to all true preachers and teachers who work with the Word of God, direct the people, and are imbued with zeal—to this one act of Christ, since He behaves here as one who loves God and His church. Such a one cannot do otherwise than display such zeal, no matter if someone may be offended by it. Even though pious hearts may think such action immoderate, nevertheless it is written that all Christians, but especially the Messiah, must have this zeal. This prompts the disciples to quote these words of the psalm. It often happens in Scripture—and I suppose that we can copy this, so long as it does not violate an article of faith—that a passage with general significance is given specific, individual, and personal application.24 Take Moses, for instance, who declares: “A man hanged on a tree is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:23). Although these words were not spoken of Christ, St. Paul, in Gal. 3:13, refers them to Him specifically. And although Christ did not die as an accursed criminal, the words are nonetheless applicable; for He wanted to bear the curse obediently for our sakes. And in Is. 53:12 we read: “He was numbered with the transgressors,” although the transgression was not pertinent to His innocent person. No, He was holy and righteous, and He made others righteous. His hanging, to be sure, was identical with that of the robbers to His right and left. And the crosses were also alike. But the persons were not alike. Therefore we must interpret these words from Moses in the light of what really happened and say that Christ became a curse before God and as such was crucified the same as any malefactor. Moses’ words are all-inclusive; he speaks of all who are hanged. For when the Law decrees: “A man hanged on a tree is cursed by God,” it can happen that a pious and God-fearing man is wronged. Should such a person be accursed on the basis of these words? Far from it! During the revolt undoubtedly many an innocent person suffered together with the guilty.25 The curse, like death, embraces the innocent as well as the guilty.
The high priests and the devil, of course, intended to make the people believe that Christ was accursed by God. They argued: “Just wait! If we can have Him crucified, then we have carried the day.” For the language of this passage is plain and clear, declaring that anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed. But not so fast! A person may be dealt with unjustly. The tree on which one hangs does not convict and curse. For example, you may behead someone; but it does not follow automatically from this that justice was done him. It is generally known that many a person suffers injustice.
I may say of the father who has been bereaved of his only beloved son: “He has sacrificed his Isaac to God.” And yet the father is not Abraham; nor is the son Isaac. My words mean that this father had the same experience that dear Abraham had with his son. In this way I generalize and apply to all fathers what, in the Scriptural account, refers only to Abraham. Yes, I may even say of Christ that He was Isaac sacrificed on the cross.
I say that it is common practice—not only in Holy Writ but everywhere else—to apply the specific to the general and, conversely, to proceed from the general to the specific. In doing so one does not violate a single article of the Christian faith. Accordingly, the disciples apply the rule here and commonly refer the verse of the psalm—“Zeal for Thy house has consumed me”—to what Christ did. Their intention is good; they want to excuse Christ’s action.
But now what do the words “Zeal for Thy house” mean? The Jews, who were well versed in the prophets and the psalms, understood their meaning. Furthermore, it was an expression current in their language. But it is foreign to our tongue and, therefore, sounds odd. I translated the word ζηλος with the German word Eifer. If anyone can improve on this, he is welcome to do so. It is the best term I could find. The Latin language, too, lacks a word that will faithfully reproduce the meaning of ζηλος. Some choose the term aemulatio; whether this is correct or not, I shall leave to the grammarians.26 In German, however, ζηλος really designates a friendly and yet vigorous27 envy or anger born of friendship and affection and found among people so loyal to one another that neither wants to see the other suffer grief and misfortune. I have not been able to find a better word for this than Eifer. Strictly speaking, this pertains to the emotion displayed in the relationship between husband and wife, when the one views the other’s too friendly association with a member of the opposite sex with a sense of jealousy. And it is only proper for such jealousy to be alive between them, and for the one not to regard the actions of the other with an air of indifference. They should not carry this to excess, but they should experience a modicum of jealousy. It would betray a disgraceful affection on the part of the wife if, from a motive of love, she connived at her husband’s running after another woman. Nor is the love that obtains between harlots and knaves true love; it is a devilish and carnal affection, and not from God.
Common everyday usage in our language makes it permissible to speak of a commendable jealousy and of an evil jealousy.28 Although not only jealousy but also pride or arrogance is a vice of the devil, still it is correct to say in our tongue: “This is laudable pride, and that is evil pride.” Or: “This is good chastity, and that is bad chastity.” Or: “This is good humility, and that is evil humility.” For instance, I may be possessed of a good and divine pride, commanded by God and demanded of me and all others. This says: “I must not give way to the devil; I will not look at the devil and follow him.” Such an attitude stems from spiritual pride. It was demonstrated by the dear martyrs, who told the tyrants: “I shall not look at you and thus deny my God and Lord.” This is really praiseworthy pride! And if I were to say in a tone of humility, instead of pride: “Dear pope, dear bishops, I shall gladly do what you require,” my humility would be demonic and accursed, if at the same time I claim to be governed by the Word of God. Such humility would be worthless, for you would be showing humility in a situation that calls for pride. But it is a demonstration of a laudable humility when I say with gratitude toward God: “Thy will be done. My dear Lord Christ, do with me as Thou dost please. I shall gladly bear it.”
Such expressions are dictated by the stress of the times and the circumstances in which we live. If I were to say: “I desire to live with no other woman and to love no other woman than my wife,” I would evince an honorable and a divine *unchastity *(ED: "divine unchastity" makes no sense in the context; we aver that it should read, "divine chastity; CLH). But if a man deserted his wife and attached himself to another woman, he would manifest a demonic unchastity. Thus anger is also of two kinds: good and evil. If a prince’s ire is aroused by a scoundrel, if he seizes him by the throat and strangles him, or has him hanged on the gallows, or if he breaks him on the wheel, has him beheaded, or has him executed in some other way—that is actually good and gracious wrath. If, on the other hand, he subdues his wrath and releases every scoundrel, his leniency would not be a virtue. No, it would betray a double disfavor, tyranny, and wrath. For his action would cause the murder, harm, and unhappiness of many people. This also pertains to a father who does not flog his son, or to a teacher who does not punish his pupils in anger when they have done wrong. No greater disfavor could be shown to son or pupil. In the same way it demonstrates a gracious, good, and godly wrath when murderers are punished and thieves are hanged that other people may live in peace.
Thus zeal is an angry love or a jealous love which makes any other man’s unchaste advances toward a wife unbearable to a husband and any unchastity in the husband unbearable to a wife. In such circumstances one may say: “I am not jealous.” But indeed you should be jealous! It is intolerable when my wife commits adultery, or when both husband and wife become whoremongers and adulterers. You must become jealous, for this is proper jealousy and zeal. On the other hand, it is a manifestation of evil and contemptible jealousy if I am pained at heart because another person enjoys greater popularity or good fortune than I do or is richer than I am, even though this causes me no trouble and my only reason for hating him is pure demonic malice. In fact, jealousy is one of the spiritual and demonic sins and vices on earth to which the devil himself is addicted. It is nothing else than sheer malevolence that prompts the devil to begrudge us mortals a moment of life and our salvation. He cannot bear to see us happy.
Just as spiteful jealousy is a despicable vice, so proper zeal is a precious and noble virtue. It is demonstrated when one, from true love, deplores that another commits a wrong and goes astray. Then such a person will say: “Oh, I feel so very, very sorry for him. I begrudge him that. It angers me that he fell into this sin and shame. When I see a beloved person doing evil, I am saddened.” To begrudge and not to begrudge are two different matters; ordinarily, one is good and the other bad. However, here the order is reversed: not to begrudge a person becomes a vile and shameful vice, and to begrudge a person becomes a virtue which inheres in God alone and in the hearts of those especially moved by God. For this deep grief over a good friend’s sin and shame, this begrudging of such sin and shame, still indicates the presence of a divine spark in the human heart.
It may happen—in fact, it often does happen—that husband or wife meets with a sudden mishap. The great love of the other will immediately begin to lament and cry: “Oh, if this had only not befallen you! How heartily sorry I feel for you!” Or a father may be griefstricken by an ill-bred child. He deplores that the child is as he is; he begrudges him his wickedness. A similar situation may arise between friend and friend. Such begrudging or friendly jealousy or loving anger is a merciful, a loving jealousy, which says: “Alas, I do not like to hear or see that anyone else lives to his own hurt and shame.” I cannot regard that as hatred; for it is good, and is motivated by love. Where there is love, there is no room for hatred. This is what Scripture calls ζηλος. I have translated this with the one word Eifer; but my illustrations are intended to convey the word’s true meaning and to clarify the expression for you.
That is the type of zeal Christ the Lord, too, displays in our text. His anger does not arise from hatred; it springs from a friendly love toward God, who had founded this temple to His own honor and for the ministration of His Word, that people might be instructed in church in the ways of salvation and in the worship of God. And now when Christ sees the very opposite; when He beholds open violation of God’s commands, the use of the sacrifices to seduce the people for whose sake29 He Himself came to earth and became incarnate; when He witnesses the heinous corruption of souls and this abomination and desecration of His Father’s house—then He is deeply grieved. He grows indignant and jealous. A saddened zeal comes over Him when He sees His church, His cathedral, desecrated and misused this way. For He loves God; and He is concerned about the preservation of the divine Word, solicitous about the poor people who are thus being robbed of their salvation. He wants to say: “I begrudge the beautiful and fine temple this disgraceful abuse, and I begrudge the people the damnation into which they are being led.”
But what is the meaning of the word “consume”? This word is more closely related to the German idiom; for we, too, are in the habit of using it of a person who consumes himself with grief, who is devoured, as it were, by sorrow. We say of someone who is greatly troubled that “something is eating him.” This eating or consuming, of course, does not imply an eating or consuming as of bread or meat; but it refers to the sad mood which makes one languish, fret one’s heart out, be consumed somewhat as a garment is consumed by moths. This was the experience of Christ, the prophets, and all the apostles. And our hearts, too, should be fairly consumed by a strong and holy zeal, a sorrow, jealousy, and indignation over the lamentable idolatries with which the pope has so woefully deceived and seduced the world. Should it not gnaw at us, consume us, and move us to keep the pure doctrine of Coifs* Word from being falsified further? *(ED: a coif is a cap that fits the head closely. We presume it should read , "God's Word." CLH).
Thus these words of our text are spoken not only of Christ but of every preacher of the divine Word. Observe godly parents who have a disobedient child, and you will soon understand the meaning of the words: “Zeal has consumed me.” They go through life consumed by grief. They pine away and finally die from great sadness and sorrow. And these children become, not plain murderers but patricides and matricides, torturing their parents for some time before they finally die. They strangle their parents. Solomon speaks of this in the Book of Proverbs—we find the same thing in Ec. 3:3 ff.—when he says: “A wise son makes a glad father” (Prov. 10:1), but “a foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him” (Prov. 17:25). In 1 Tim. 1:9 St. Paul, too, refers to murderers of fathers and mothers. If parents are godly, they suffer keenly from the ungodly conduct of their children. It gnaws at their hearts night and day, until they finally bite the dust on account of it. Thus children murder their parents, not by running a knife through their bodies but by their evil and impious life.
Parents can experience no greater cross or grief than the wickedness of their children. This ages the parents prematurely and finally grieves them to death. It wrings the lament from their lips: “Oh, my son! Oh, my daughter!” And although such a child forces his parents to their grave with his evil and wicked life, they do not develop a demonic hatred for the child; the love for the child in the father’s heart survives all and endures. Of David we read in 2 Sam. 18:5 that he commanded Joab and his host not to harm his undutiful son Absalom. This was dictated by the love in his paternal heart, which still beat for his son even though that same son had expelled him from the kingdom. And when Absalom was stabbed to death, David cried: “O my son Absalom, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33). I am relating all this to make the words more intelligible to you: “Zeal has consumed me,” words spoken at a time when grief consumes or tears the heart.
But Christ suffered far deeper grief when He hung on the cross, when He took to heart30 the malice and the impenitence of the Jews. This He also experienced when He wept with great zeal over the fate of Jerusalem as He looked upon the city (Luke 19:41), and also as He sweat blood in the garden (Luke 22:44). During His entire earthly sojourn He was consumed with a constant sorrow, which prevented Him from ever being happy. And if He had not been crucified, He would have grieved Himself to death over the utter futility of all His efforts with the Jewish people.
Ask a pious ruling prince or a godly housefather what the word “consume” really means in times when evil reigns and grief eats and gnaws at the heart. I wager that you will get an answer! All the apostles and bishops learned the significance of the word, and they still learn it. It is brought home to them when they see that their faithful care, their labor, and their toil are in vain; some devil’s head31 will come along and cause commotion, destroying more in one day than can be built up in several years. Any pastor who sees that the people are not reformed by the doctrine of the divine Word but become more savage and wild because of the devil’s machinations will also say: “Zeal for Thy house has consumed me.” The godlier a pastor or preacher is, the more keenly will he feel this zeal. And he must feel it.
Now love is happy when a friend fares well and has good fortune. This causes love to rejoice. But if love sees a friend encountering misfortune, it must pine and mourn. This was the Lord’s experience when He witnessed the abuse of His temple, not only of the physical budding of stone but also of the spiritual temple, the people of God, who were being corrupted so shamefully by idolatry. That sight aroused His zeal. We should all have such zeal for the Word of God. We should feel distressed and aggrieved by the abomination of the pope, the Turk, and all the schismatic spirits. If we did, we would understand this verse; we would grasp the significance of the word “consume” without explanation.
And if it is true that the anguish and sorrow of love will kill father and mother, how much more plausible it is that kings and princes, in the realm of civil government, have pined away with grief over their inability to guide and direct their people as they would have liked! In church government this happens even more frequently. When doctrinal discord and dissension occur, and pious Christians and saints are turned away from the truth, then this angry love is so distressed that one’s heart could break.
Thus this zeal is a friendly jealousy experienced in the home, at the courts of kings and princes, and also in the Christian Church; for in all those places a godly affection for another prevails. This is not the jealousy of the harlot but a jealousy and an anger that consumes heart and life. Nowhere do we read that Christ experienced much joy during His earthly sojourn. This was due to the fact that His heart unremittingly harbored this consuming zeal for the temple and the people of God. His was no self-seeking, jealous ire. This is evident from the words in the Gospel (Matt. 23:37): “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together!” Those were not the words of a laughing heart. But also this office of concern, of solicitude and zeal was imposed on Him by His Heavenly Father, and this zeal of His ceased only on the cross.
Luther, M. (1999, c1957). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (22:237). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
24 Luther uses the terms from logic: ex genere speciem.
25 This seems to be a reference to the Peasants’ War of 1525.
26 In Heb. 10:27 the Vulgate translated πυρὸς ζηλος with ignis aemulatio, while in the present passage ζηλος is rendered with zelus.
27 Here the text contains the conjunction und doch, which, as the Weimar edition suggests, is probably a mistake.
28 The German word here is neid, which had not yet acquired the pejorative connotation it has today.
29 As the text stands, um welcher willen would refer to the word “sacrifices”; we have connected it to the word “people” instead.
30 On the word behertzigen used here, cf. p. 329, note 41.
31 A common term for God’s enemies, especially for the pope; cf. p. 483, note 170.
Luther, M. (1999, c1957). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (22:228). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.