About a week before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus went into the temple and cleared it out of “all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves” (Matthew 21:12). Jesus then spoke to the startled crowds: “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (verse 22, KJV). The same incident is recorded in Mark 11 and Luke 19. John 2 records similar actions of Jesus at the beginning of His ministry.
In speaking of a “house of prayer” and a “den of thieves” (the NIV has “den of robbers”), Jesus cited two passages from the Tanakh. In Isaiah 56:7 God says, “These [faithful foreigners] I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Twice in this verse, God’s temple is called “a house of prayer.” God’s design was for His house in Jerusalem to be a gathering place for worshipers from all nations, a place where prayers would rise like incense from the hearts of the faithful to the presence of the living God.
The phrase den of thieves comes from Jeremiah 7:11, where God says, “Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” The prophet Jeremiah was rebuking the temple leaders for their abuses. Even as they continued going through the motions of their religion, they were oppressing the needy and violently taking what was not theirs. God saw through their pretense, however, and promised to deal with the thieves in His sanctified house.
Jesus takes these two verses from the Old Testament and applies them to His day. One verse was full of purity and promise: God’s temple would be an inviting house of prayer. The other verse was full of conviction and warning: people had perverted God’s right purposes for their own gain. In the courts of the temple, people were being taken financial advantage of, being cheated through exorbitant exchange rates and being compelled to buy “temple-approved” animals for sacrifice, on the pretext that their own animals were unworthy. Jesus denounced such greedy goings-on and physically put a stop to the corruption. In His righteous indignation, He quoted Isaiah and Jeremiah to show that He had biblical warrant for His actions. What should have been a sanctuary for the righteous had become a refuge for the wicked, and the Son of God was not going to put up with it. God’s design for the temple was that it be a house of prayer, a place to meet with God and worship Him. But when Jesus stepped into its courts, He found not prayer but avarice, extortion, and oppression.
It’s always good to remember the Lord’s purpose for what He makes. Whether it’s the temple, the church, marriage, the family, or life itself, we should follow God’s design and seek to honor Him. Any twisting or perverting of God’s design for selfish purposes will draw the Lord’s righteous anger.