What does Matthew 11:17 mean?
ESV: “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
NIV: 'We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.'
NASB: and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a song of mourning, and you did not mourn.’
CSB: We played the flute for you, but you didn't dance; we sang a lament, but you didn't mourn!
NLT: ‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t mourn.’
KJV: And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.
NKJV: and saying: ‘We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’
Verse Commentary:
Jesus has compared the generation of Israelites in His day to children sitting in the marketplace wanting to play games with each other. He describes them as calling to their playmates and complaining that the others did not dance when they played the flute or mourn when they sang a dirge. Those specific games might seem odd to modern readers. Apparently, though, it was common in this era for children to play "wedding" and "funeral," acting out the activities of those events.

While playing "wedding," a child might pretend to play the flute while others danced as if at a feast. If they were creating a "funeral," someone would perform a sad song while the others "mourned." Mourning then went far beyond silent grieving to loud wailing and "beating the breast," which is what the word for "mourn" means.

How is this like the generation of that day? Jesus shows in the following verses that the people of the time, maybe especially those in power, complained about both John the Baptist and Jesus for not "playing" as a prophet and a Messiah should, according to popular expectations. Those expectations, of course, are wildly inconsistent. The point is that no matter what they see, some people will demand the opposite, simply out of hard-headed resistance to God.
Verse Context:
Matthew 11:1–19 deals with John the Baptist, who is in prison at this point (Matthew 4:12). John sends his own disciples to ask if Jesus is really the Messiah. Jesus gives them an answer and then upholds John to the crowds. He reminds them of John's strength and affirms that John was the prophet who fulfilled the prophecy about the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. This generation, though, rejected John's message of repentance, saying that John had a demon and that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus insists He and John will be proved right in the end.
Chapter Summary:
John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is really the Messiah. Jesus gives them a specific answer to use to reassure John and then upholds John to the crowds. John fulfills the prophecy about the one who would prepare the people for the Messiah. This generation, though, refused to hear John or Jesus, deciding John had a demon and Jesus was a glutton and drunkard. Jesus condemns the cities that refuse to repent and thanks the Father for revealing the truth to little children. He offers rest for those who are weary and burdened.
Chapter Context:
Matthew 11 follows Jesus' instructions to the apostles about taking His message and miracles to the towns of Israel with His own continued ministry of teaching (Matthew 10). Jesus answers a question from John the Baptist's followers, and upholds John's ministry. Jesus condemns several cities in Galilee for rejecting His teaching, despite obvious signs. He thanks His Father for hiding the truth from those who arrogantly think they are wise. He offers rest for those who will take His yoke. This leads to further confrontations with critics, recorded in chapter 12.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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