Question: "What does it mean that "out of the mouth of babes You have perfected praise" (Matthew 21:16)?"
Answer: In Matthew 21, Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem for the final days leading up to His death on the cross. While He was in the temple, healing the blind and the lame, the leading priests and scribes saw Jesus performing miracles and even heard children shouting, “Hosanna! Praise God for the Son of David.” The religious teachers grew irate, questioning Jesus, “Do you hear what these children are saying?” “Yes,” Jesus responded to His critics, asking, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise’?” (Matthew 21:16, NKJV).
Jesus was quoting Psalm 8:2:
“Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.”
Following the Greek Septuagint, Matthew 21:16 uses “praise” instead of “strength.” The idea is that God silences His enemies and puts them to shame by the words coming out of the mouths of babies and infants who tell of the Lord’s strength.
Earlier this day, six days before the Passover, Jesus had ridden on a donkey into the city. The crowds celebrated Him as the Messiah and guided Him into town like a conquering warrior or exalted king: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Matthew 21:8–9).
The Jewish leaders could not miss the implications as they observed everything taking place. They witnessed Christ’s victorious entry into Jerusalem, the ecstatic crowd of worshippers, His commanding cleansing of the temple, His miracles of healing, and even children proclaiming His praises. The people hailed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and it was more than these religious hypocrites could handle. They became outraged.
By pointing out what they saw as a dreadful error—children worshipping Him as Messiah—they thought Jesus would be horrified that He had misled these innocent ones, even causing them to commit blasphemy. Surely Jesus would put a quick stop to it. But instead, Jesus saw nothing wrong with receiving their praise. He accepted it enthusiastically, supporting their actions by referring to an Old Testament Scripture that the religious leaders would recognize. The children had understood what the leaders had not—that Jesus was their promised Savior. The Jewish leaders were the same as God’s Old Testament enemies who would be silenced and put to shame by children’s praise.
The word babes refers to “infants” and “young children.” Earlier, in Matthew 11:25–27, Jesus had affirmed the ability of children to perceive the secrets of God’s kingdom when others could not: “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way!” (NLT).
The children crying out praises to God in the temple proved to be wiser than the wise (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–25). Even though the priests and scribes failed to praise God, these little children would not. Luke’s gospel records the Pharisees trying to silence the crowds during Jesus’ triumphal entry. But Jesus declares, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!” (Luke 19:40, NLT).
About Matthew 21:16 and Psalm 8:2, one Bible commentator writes, “The ‘scarcely articulate’ cry of an infant proves, like the heaven and the stars, the power and providence of God. On all these God builds a stronghold against His adversaries, i. e. convinces them of His might. So also the children in the temple attest the truth of God” (Carr, A. The Gospel According to St Matthew, with Maps, Notes, and Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1893, p. 162).
Out of the mouth of babes You have perfected praise means the praise of little children is perfect praise. It is perfect because children can comprehend the realities of God’s kingdom that even the most learned fail to grasp (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:13–15; Luke 18:16–17). Children are not blinded by pride and hypocrisy and are better able to perceive spiritual truth (Matthew 18:3–4.) Jesus accepts their worship because it is untainted and reserved for God alone.