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It was the Passover, and both Jewish and non-Jewish pilgrims alike from all over the world would come to Jerusalem to seek after God at the Temple. They would come marching through the hills singing and rejoicing of the great things that God has done. It was a wonderful time of joy and festivity. Once they arrived, the foreigners would come to the Court of the Gentiles (or in its porch), and they would be confronted with the "moneychangers." When Jesus saw them He made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the Temple and said "Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!"
The large outer court was called "the Court of the Gentiles" because it was devoted to the foreigners who had come to worship God at the Temple and they could proceed no further. It is interesting that Jesus chose to stop at this place to show forth His anger toward the moneychangers, the Court of the "Gentiles," and this was not the first time that He came to the aid of non-Jews.
The profanity and abuse of the moneychangers was no small thing. They treated the foreign guests with much contempt and even the Jewish authorities constantly scorned this place and abused the pilgrims who came to worship.
The Money Changers
The word "moneychanger" means money-banker or money-broker. They would make large profits at the expense of the pilgrims. Every Israelite, rich or poor, who had reached the age of twenty was obligated to pay a half shekel as an offering to Jehovah into the sacred treasury. This tribute was in every case to be paid in the exact Hebrew half shekel. At Passover everyone in the world who was an adult male and wished to worship at the Temple would bring his "offering" or purchase a sacrificial animal at the Temple. Since there was no acceptance of foreign money with any foreign image the money changers would sell "Temple coinage" at a very high rate of exchange and assess a fixed charge for their services.
The judges, who sat to inspect the offerings that were brought by the pilgrims, were quick to detect any blemish in them. This was expensive for the wealthy pilgrims, not to say how ruinous this was for the poor who could only offer their turtle-doves and pigeons. There was no defense for them or court of appeal, seeing that the priestly authorities took a large percentage on every transaction.
The House of God or the National Treasury
Jesus referred to the Temple as the "House of God" and called it a "House of Prayer," not just for the Jews, but for all nations. When Jesus arrived with the mass of pilgrims, He overturned the tables and called it a den of thieves and a house of merchandise. The Temple was in some sense the national bank. It was a great public treasury with vaults containing immense stores of private wealth. These deposits never sat idle, but were loaned at high rates of interest. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote an account of the burning of the archives in Jerusalem and it gives an appalling picture of the incredible debts that were owed by the poor to the rich. It is believed that the intention of the burning was to 'destroy the money-lenders' tallies and to prevent the exaction of debts. After reading about how an infuriated mob (around 30 years later) robbed the Temple booths and dragged the sons of Annas to their death, it can only be imagined how much the Jewish authorities were hated by the humble commoners.
The Wealthy and the Poor
There was tremendous wealth in Jerusalem. Many of the rich publicans (tax-gatherers) and influential leaders resided in Jerusalem, not only in their houses, but their summer residences, their large parks, and their country estates. Their vast wealth reached unbelievable proportions in the days of Herod. These plutocratic families were powerful in government circles and "prided themselves in their excesses." The gulf between the rich and the poor was immense and the very poor families were often driven from their homes to become the slum-dwellers of Jerusalem.
By the time of Jesus Jerusalem had become a parasitic city, lying in wait for the multitudes of pilgrims who flocked into the city in their hundreds of thousands at each Festival. At the Passover there would be at least a million visitors, and Josephus multiplies this figure by four.
Jesus promised the religious aristocracy that their "Temple would be left desolate," and not a single stone of the Temple would be left on top of another that would not be thrown down. Not even forty years passed when it all happened, for in 70 A.D. the legions of Rome came, led by Titus, and the Words of Christ were fulfilled.