Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt on its mound, and the palace shall stand where it used to be. Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving, and the voices of those who celebrate. I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small. Their children shall be as they were of old, and their congregation shall be established before me, and I will punish all who oppress them. Their prince shall be one of themselves; their ruler shall come out from their midst; I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me, for who would dare of himself to approach me? declares the Lord. And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.—Jeremiah 30:18–22 (ESV)
In the Gospel of Matthew, we encounter a fascinating short story of Jesus being praised by children after his triumphant march into Jerusalem and purification of the temple (Matt. 21:14–17). We are told that the children praise Jesus with the same words as the crowds used earlier, “Hosanna, to the Son of David!” (21:15 and 21:9 CSB), and we are told that this made the chief priests and the scribes “indignant” (21:15). They ask Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” (21:16a). They are accusing Jesus of being a bad influence. Of leading the children into falsehood. Of being a liar! How dare Jesus let these children praise him!
Jesus responds by quoting Psalm 8:2a, “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise” (Matt. 21:16b NIV, my emphasis), with the key phrase alternatively rendered in some translations as “prepared praise” (ESV, CSB, NASB, NRSV) or “perfected praise” (NKJV). These translations hinge on the psalmist’s word katērtisō, which usually means “to complete, prepare” but can also mean “to bring into its proper condition” or “to restore.” Indeed, this same word is used in Mark 1:19 and Matthew 4:21 when James and John are described as “restoring their nets in order” (my translation).1 Therefore, Psalm 8:2 can be rendered: “You have restored praise from the mouths of infants and nursing babies.” But why do these minutiae matter? How is the restoration of praise important for Jesus’s arrival in the temple at Jerusalem? And what is the significance of the children praising his arrival?
Perhaps starting with that verse in Psalm 8 might be useful. Psalm 8 suggests that the greatest mediator of God’s name throughout all the earth is human beings (Ps. 8:3–8). Human beings, who are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), are supposed to serve as priests to reflect God’s glory to the rest of creation and redirect the praise of creation back to God (Gen. 2:15). But this is not the case. Instead, we have distorted God’s praises and made our worship of God ugly (Isa. 1:11–15; Amos 5:21–27).
When I read biblical warnings about the distortion of God’s praise, I am reminded of the way that in past years many of our churches celebrated Advent with some kind of a performance by the children of the church. Advent was, it seemed, a time for parents to showcase their kids by dressing them up in first-century peasantry attire and putting them onstage to perform the Nativity scene from the point of view of the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and Joseph, or even the farm animals. Often, the spotlight of these performances becomes the cuteness of the children instead of our praise and celebration of the Lord’s advent. In other words, it seems that children have lost their starring role in restoring innocent and humble praise among God’s people.
In Jesus’s time, the dissolution of worship was exemplified nowhere more clearly than in the buying and selling of merchandise at the temple in Jerusalem, and his driving out of the merchants and money changers there is revolutionary because it is an authoritative act of opening up true worship of God for everyone. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “Jesus has unleashed praise.” And the revolutionary nature of this act is revealed most potently out of the mouths of children as they praise Jesus, for children were among the many marginalized groups who were excluded from the temple. Rodney Reeves teaches that “a proper sense of shame should have compelled Jesus to shush them up because children often don’t know what they are saying.” But Jesus continuously taught that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to [children]” (Matt. 18:1–5, 19:13–14 CSB), and in his book Theology and Families, Adrian Thatcher illumines that in the Gospels Jesus’s “sayings about children have an extraordinary simplicity, directness and countercultural force.”2 Indeed, it is quite the countercultural reversal that in these passages, Jesus not only welcomes the children to praise (Matt. 18:5), but he says that God is “restoring praises” through them!
Robert Henderson calls the scene in Matthew 21, in which Jesus overturns the tables of commerce, the climax of “a paradox of power.” He suggests that Jesus’s confrontation with the corrupt temple system is God’s opposition to the corrupt economic, political, and religious powers of this world. He writes, “Jesus also understands the nature of God’s reign, God’s chosen way to engage the powers of the world, which has more to do with the innocent wisdom of children than the corrosive assumptions of worldly power.”3 In other words, as the true priest and king of Israel, Jesus shows through children that the key to upending worldly powers and worshipping God truly is humility. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). That is, whoever praises like a child, in all humility and wonder, will truly worship the Lord.
As Psalm 8 continues, we read that God’s purposes for restoration of praise by “children and infants” is the establishment of “a stronghold on account of your adversaries in order to silence the enemy and the avenger” (8:2b NIV). This reiterates that children’s praises are powerful. They not only “restore” good but they “establish strongholds” against evil. Likewise, in the prophetic promises of Jeremiah, we read of the coming of a Messiah who will “restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob” (Jer. 30:18) amid the songs and celebration from out of the city (30:19) when “children shall be as they were of old” (30:20). Christians interpret this passage as referring forward to the Christ and backward to the times when children worshipped and learned about the mercy of their God (Exod. 12:26-27), a time when Israel praised Yahweh for restoring them out of the slavery of Egypt. And it is through the children being “as they were of old” that God’s “congregation” will be “established” (Jer. 30:20).
And so the restoration of fortunes occurs when Jesus the Messiah comes, draws near, and approaches God in the temple. Restoration rings true in the air as the children worship Jesus proclaiming, “Hosanna, to the Son of David!” Their celebration of Jesus’s advent is restorative and powerful. It is through the innocent humble praise of children that God’s true worship resounds throughout all creation as God’s Messiah comes into power. It is through children’s praise that the stronghold is established, and the only thing that the wicked and unjust powers in the temple can do in response is to be “indignant” of the inevitable. Jesus’s advent is there, and the adversaries of God have no choice but to be defeated.
Therefore, during this time of Advent, as we celebrate that our Lord came, that he still comes today in his spirit, and that he will one day finally come again, we ought to take the praise of our children seriously. As Thatcher imparts, “This incident invites an association in the minds of contemporary readers with the extraordinary insights that children possess when they speak untutored about God or heaven. Children have a capacity for knowledge of God and Matthew knows this.”4 The innocent humility of their worship can serve as a powerful signpost for the restoration of God’s people of Israel in particular (Jeremiah 30) and of humanity in general (Psalm 8). Our children’s praises establish God’s kingdom against the kingdom of this wicked world. Let us join them in shouting hosanna and restoring the power of Christ.
- BDAG, s.v. “καταρτίζω.”
- Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006), 184; Reeves, Matthew, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 412; and Thatcher, Theology and Families, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2007), 57.
- Henderson, “Between Text and Sermon: Matthew 21:12–17,” Interpretation 71, no. 3 (2017): 316–18.
- Thatcher, Theology and Families, 63.