The whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice … saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!“ …
And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”
He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.“ (Luke 19:37,39-40, ESV)
The passage in which this quote appears is a knot of contradicting characters: the unknowing worshippers; the angry rebukers; and Jesus, who seems unmoved by all the attention.
First, he rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey that no one had ridden. People wave branches and lay their clothes for him as a royal carpet. He is honored so extravagantly that the resident Stick-in-the-Mud Party, unable to hush the crowd, asks Jesus himself to calm them down. Jesus responds, somewhat cryptically, that if his disciples hold their peace, the stones would cry out. In the very next verse, he himself begins to cry over Jerusalem.
In Western pulpits there is one typical way of reading this verse, but there are at least three viable ways of understanding what Jesus meant when he said the stones would cry out. I’ll start with the most familiar to me.
1. The earth praises God.
The first interpretation is that the stones would cry out in worship, in answer to the silenced worship of Jesus’ followers. This connects Jesus’ statement to the preceding context in the story of the Triumphal Entry. Even if the disciples don’t worship, rocks, the most inflexible members of God’s creation, will replace their voices.
Creation is often spoken of as praising God in Jewish worship language. First, the desert can “rejoice” (Is. 35:1) and the fields can be “jubilant” (Ps. 96:12). Then mountains and hills can “burst into song” (Is. 55:12). The meadows and valleys “shout for joy” (Ps. 65:13). The trees of the field and rivers “clap their hands” (Is. 55:12, Ps. 98:8).
In Psalm 148 we reach fever pitch, and all Creation is catalogued in one giant exhortation to join in: heaven, angels, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, lightning, hail, snow, clouds, winds that do his bidding, cattle, birds, trees, kings, nations, men, women, and children. At the end, we’ve reached the most disorderly bunch of all: humans. We seem the least likely in the whole list to willingly praise God. But we are assured that if we stay silent, the stones will lift their voices, and God will have no lack of praise in the universe he created. Righteousness will always be the majority in his universe.
2. The bedrock of reality testifies about God.
E. Stanley Jones makes a totally different application about the stones. On his preaching, he says, “if I held my peace, the stones—the hard, bare facts of life—would cry out.” Jones emphasizes in many of his books the ring of truth that the Gospel has because it is founded on reality itself. The truth we find in the Bible constantly resonates with the truth we find in life.
Creation testifies to its King, along with Jesus’ disciples. But Jones does not just limit this testimony to a vague concept of God’s nature; he applies it to Christian missions. He says in The Christ of the Indian Road that even if Jesus hadn’t made the Great Commission the punchline of his entire speaking ministry, we would be compelled by all the other factors. The facts of Christ’s character, his atoning work, and the rebellion of humanity would demand that the rescue mission go on. It would be anti-reality to stay silent about Jesus.
Nature has a limitation though. For all that Nature can say about God’s unity, majesty, and worship, “it is silent about His love for sinners. It is only at Calvary that we learn that He loves us without stint and reserve.” (H. Lockyer) Reconciliation with God through the Gospel is a message which cannot be ‘hunted and gathered.’ It must be preached.
3. The ground cries out for justice.
The third way of understanding stones that speak connects them with the closest Old Testament cross-reference, in Habakkuk:
For the stone will cry out from the wall,
and the beam from the woodwork respond.
Woe to him who builds a town with blood
and founds a city on iniquity! (Hab. 2:11-12, ESV)
If Jesus was referencing a Scripture, my money would be on Habakkuk. The prophet speaks of a building built on injustice. In Jesus’ case, this could be the temple which he cleansed. The entire metaphor of “the stones crying out” is changed if we re-orient around the context that directly follows it:
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44, ESV)
Here we have a totally different tone. Jesus prophesies here the siege of Jerusalem which happened just four decades later. In one way, it was the prophecy of the crying stones come true: Jerusalem did hold its peace, and did hold back worship when it was owed, and in due time the stones of the temple crashed in grief, crying out for justice for the ignored testimony of Jesus. The judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was God’s megaphone, trying to rouse a stifled people to praise.
Injustice always leave behind a cry, long after its’ victims have passed on. God told Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) The Christian martyrs in John’s heavenly vision “cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?‘” (Rev. 6:10) Moses’ law says that spilled blood pollutes the land, so Creation groans under the injustice.
Even as Jesus laments Jerusalem’s future, he speaks of the day when all cries for justice will be fulfilled. And he recalls the exact words of his worshippers (from Psalm 118):
For I tell you [Jerusalem], you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matt. 23:39, ESV)
The greatest injustice in history is that Jesus came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But even if God’s people again reject him, the stones will cry out, and justice will be had. Jesus’ disciples may cry ignorantly, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”—though he still reigns only as a King in exile in his own kingdom, betrayed in the house of his friends. But this same hymn that was shouted ignorantly—by those who little knew Jesus’ path to the cross—will be sung in full chorus when Christ triumphantly enters Jerusalem a second time, this time on a horse. And when that happens, no one will be able to ignore the world’s unjust silence toward its God.