The Mysterious Case of the Crying Stones

What’s that sound in the distance? Voices… but not shouting… No, it’s definitely singing. But I’m a bit confused, as the strains are drifting in from a strange direction… Seems to be coming from the Mount of Olives. But not so distant now – no noticeable winds, so I guess the voices are on the move. Yes, there – there they are! There’s a whole merry contingent of them, singing as they come down the Mount, along the road… Who are they? What are they singing? And why is there a man sitting on a donkey in their midst? 

As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

(Luke 19:37-38)

Well, what a thing to be singing – they are proclaiming the arrival of God’s King – the Messiah no less! And… oh no, we should have guessed – of course it’s that man Jesus at the centre, making trouble yet again! He must know how this looks: riding on a donkey just like the prophet Zechariah described (Zech 9:9). And he obviously knows how this sounds – those disciples of his are making quite the public statement about his supposed divine Kingship. It’s just outrageous! Why doesn’t he stop them? And the gathering crowd is just getting bigger and bigger as they welcome the mob into the city. I tell you, this could get messy… Ok, they’re getting close now, we really need to get him to put a stop to it…

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 19:39-40)

Stop the action. This all seems straightforward enough up to this point. We’ve seen plenty in Luke’s gospel account already of Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, of him not stopping the supposedly blasphemous claims of his divine anointing and mission and identity, and of his ruffling the Pharisees’ feathers. But at this moment, what he says is a little bit odd (even by his standards!). He gives us a glimpse of an ‘alternative ending.’ It’s like one of those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ children’s books. Let’s find out what would have happened if Jesus had told his disciples to stop singing (or if they hadn’t been singing at all, and Jesus was riding into Jerusalem alone).

The sound of stones

If the disciples were silent, Jesus says, the very stones would cry out. What an odd image! Actually, image is the wrong word – what an odd auditory experience! Stones crying out? Well, obviously this is just a cute figure of speech, as stones are inanimate, mouthless, voiceless objects that can no more sing than eat, dance, or write a book!

And so we typically move swiftly on. No bonus points available for extra theological points to be had.

But I think there’s more going on here. This notion of attributing consciously voiced sounds to inanimate objects has precedent throughout the Old Testament. I would say that the phenomenon occurs enough times to warrant coining a new word for it. I propose ‘personicification’ – attributing human sounds to non-human things. The first case is very early on, with Abel’s blood crying out from the ground after his murder (Genesis 4:10). And I have to mention this absolute gem in Isaiah which is definitely reminiscent of Jesus’ words in Luke 19:

For you shall go out in joy

    and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

    shall break forth into singing,

    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

(Isaiah 55:12)

Space doesn’t permit me to look at all the Old Testament instances of personicification. But I want to focus on one rather obscure case, which is particularly pertinent in relation to Luke 19 as it also involves stones with voices. It’s in the short book of Habakkuk, but before we get to the verse in question, we need to get some context. Our first stop is right at the start of the book, with the prophet’s very first words:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,

    and you will not hear?

Or cry to you “Violence!”

    and you will not save?

(Habakkuk 1:2)

Habakkuk’s complaint is that Israel is riven with violence and injustice as the king and rulers neglect God’s law, exploit the people, and just seem to be getting away with it (isn’t that often the way?). Worst of all, despite the prophet’s loud cries for God to intervene in mercy and judgement, God isn’t merely inactive, but isn’t even listening. There is not even the comfort and assurance that he hears, understands, and is present in the turmoil and suffering.

But what happens next? God speaks to Habakkuk (1:5-11). Ok, so at least now he has heard (better late than never I guess). The answer may not have been quite what Habakkuk was expecting, though, as God says he is going to send the even more violent and vicious Chaldeans/Babylonians to come and wreak vengeance against Israel on his behalf. Habakkuk’s response (1:12-2:1) is worshipful and submissive to God’s sovereignty, yet he also questions why and how the Babylonians will themselves get away with such violence. Will they just perpetrate their wickedness indefinitely and with impunity? Does not this ‘solution’ merely shift the problem elsewhere rather than remove it entirely?

The Lord’s reply to Habakkuk through the rest of chapter 2 (2:2-20) is a powerful affirmation of Habakkuk’s objection, and at the same time a powerful affirmation of his sovereignty and mercy that extends over the greatest empires and across the span of history. And it’s in this chapter that we get to the ‘stones with voices’ that I will then connect to Jesus’ words in Luke 19:40. Let’s get stuck in!

The sound of injustice

In essence, the Lord’s assessment is that Babylon, despite being the tool of his judgement against Israel, will itself be called to account for its violence. Justice will be served against them, and this justice will be public and complete.

What is interesting is that Babylon’s crimes are framed in terms of house-building:

“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,

    to set his nest on high,

    to be safe from the reach of harm!

You have devised shame for your house

    by cutting off many peoples;

    you have forfeited your life.”

(Habakkuk 2:9-10)

“Woe to him who builds a town with blood

    and founds a city on iniquity!”

(Habakkuk 2:12)

And tucked in the middle of these particular woes (there are several more in the chapter) is our odd gem of a verse. It expresses one of the reasons for the declaration of woes against Babylon in terms of a personicification:

“For the stone will cry out from the wall,

    and the beam from the woodwork respond.”

(Habakkuk 2:11-12)

The sound of God’s word

Commentators have provided an interesting array of interpretations on this verse. Most relate the cries of the stones to the cries of the people who suffered under Babylonian invasion and oppression. But the dynamics of that relationship run across a wide spectrum from the purely metaphorical (merely an evocative picture) through to the bizarrely literal (the original human cries being trapped inside the stones and eerily continuing to sound out, poltergeists haunting the houses). A number of commentators think of the literal sounds of creaking buildings as being parallel to or reminiscent of the human cries:

  • “Just as a shoddily built house creaks and groans until it collapses in the storm, or even through its own weakness, so an empire built on injustice and cruelty is not secure. It too will creak and groan till it falls down.” [1]
  • “[H]e says here, as it were: “You will be so afraid for yourself that when settling walls make a creaking sound, you will think that your misfortune is at hand.” He refers to this when he speaks about the noise of the walls, for he will be reminded immediately that all those buildings and all that wealth had been acquired by evil schemes, by the sweat of poor men.” [2]
  • “[T]he imagery of the rattling of the house as the wind passes by… serves to testify against the unjust gains of the Chaldeans.” [3]
  • “[A] plea for help and rumours threatening destruction can be heard from the peoples who have been built into the Babylonian world-house.” [4]
  • “Images and sounds of those whom the Chaldean has tortured and ravished will haunt him at night and hound him by day. … Buildings certainly can carry a spiritual presence.” [5]
  • “So we have the notion here that the physically audible sounds made by stones and beams have legitimate meaning and signification. They carry in them the memory of their bloodstained origin, the motives and behaviour of their builders.” [6]

It seems to me that there are two extremes to avoid when thinking about these ideas. On the one hand, we shouldn’t belittle these as mere figures of speech and no more. There is clearly more going on below the surface. On the other hand, we shouldn’t get carried away to the point of giving consciousness or pseudo-magical properties to inanimate objects, and assigning specific one-to-one hidden meanings to any and every sound. 

We don’t need to think in binary terms as to whether the stones of the Babylonian houses cried out either literally or figuratively. What we can say is that they truly cried out, and that this was presumably a combination of audible sounds from the creaking houses, the guilty memories stuck in the Babylonians’ minds, and the real human cries of suffering that remained crystal clear in God’s ears and memory.

God hears all things, whether things audible or hidden.

“[B]uilding materials taken from the earth…, though shaped by human hands, nevertheless remain in “earshot” of their creator.”[6]

And the memories stored in places, buildings, and all the nooks and crannies of every human story are retained as witnesses before God.

“All things have a voice, in that they are. God’s works speak that for which He made them.” [7]

The sound of silence

So we have stones crying out, bringing their recall of human cries before the ears of God, who hears and remembers. This is strongly reminiscent of both the blood of Abel crying out (Genesis 4:10) and the groans of the Israelites in captivity in Egypt (Exodus 2:23-24). In both cases God hears and responds. So too in Habakkuk.

We then have a great irony, as God develops the rationale for his woes against Babylon to encompass their idolatry:

“Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;

    to a silent stone, Arise!

Can this teach?

Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,

    and there is no breath at all in it.

But the Lord is in his holy temple;

    let all the earth keep silence before him.”

(Habakkuk 2:19-20)

Previously, they have caused stones to cry out by their wicked violence. Here, they cry out to stones that they may speak, yet they remain silent. It’s all topsy-turvy! God mocks them for thinking that stones can speak! The only speaking that stones can do is that which God enables. And while God welcomes and responds to all who cry out to him from under the burden of oppression, yet here he calls all the earth to remain silent before him. This is the silence – for the wicked – to speak no more to idols, to speak no more against the true God; a silence that indicates the inability to resist his just judgments. This is the silence – for all –  of submission, of surrender to the true God. This is the silence – for his people – of trust and rest in his sovereignty, expressed in both mercy and justice.

To sum up: “In 2:19 created wood and stone are worshipped but are silent when asked for guidance. But created wood and stone *will* speak by Yahweh’s word (2:11).” [8]

The sound of glory

As we return now to Luke, we have some extra insight into Jesus’ strange words about singing stones. Did he have Habakkuk in mind as one part of the network of associations that he was tapping into? 

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 19:39-40)

Jesus is declaring the inevitability of praise that he will rightfully receive as the incoming divinely-appointed King. He affirms the disciples’ words and actions. He is unfazed by the possibility of silence – because there will in fact be no silence, even if takes stones to fill it up. It is surely no coincidence that in the very next verses of Luke 19 Jesus refers to stones again. He states that the stones of Jerusalem will be torn down, not one left upon another, destruction that takes place in A.D. 70 as the Romans devastated the city and destroy the city. 

Remember the house-building context in Habakkuk 2? Stones laid one upon the other through bloodshed, followed up by God’s righteous judgement. The same fate is coming upon the Israel who rejects its Messiah and sheds his blood. Because now God is building his ultimate house. It too is built upon blood, the blood of Jesus. It too will be built upon the cries of those who suffer for his sake, the blood of the first-century martyrs. It too will be made of stones, living stones. But more than cries, this house will be built upon the praises of the redeemed. These living stones will continue to sing with the disciples, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

The Lord spoke of this already in Habakkuk 2. I missed out probably the most important verse in the whole of Habakkuk, and this is the one that ties everything together. I actually think that this is one of the most significant verses in the entire Bible, as it encapsulates God’s plan for the entirety of history:

For the earth will be filled

    with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

(Habakkuk 2:14)

While this house will be comprised of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, it will span the globe, for “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). ““Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Not just the saints, but the whole of creation itself, stones and all, will sing to the King: “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

How is God’s glory manifest in the world? Justice via mercy, resulting in praise. Is this not the heart of the Gospel? Is this not  what Christ achieved on the cross? Is this not the trajectory of history? Is this not the purpose of the entire creation? A joyous, heartfelt, enduring response to the multidimensional Kingship of Christ. Listen to its sound; can you hear its strains, even from the scraping and creaking of stones?




Dave Skipper is a member of the Cultivate Programme. He is working on an in-depth book project called Deep Sonics, in which he is investigating sound in the Bible and developing a theology of sound. You can read more in a short booklet he has written that can be downloaded from



[1] John Mackay, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), p209-10

[2] Martin Luther, Lectures on the Minor Prophets 2: Jonah, Habakkuk (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1974), p128

[3] Grace Ko, Theodicy in Habakkuk (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2014), p75

[4] Walter Dietrich and Peter Altmann (tr), Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Stutgart: W. Kohlhammer, 2016), p147

[5] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (Leicester: IVP, 1998), p250

[6] Wilda Gafney, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2017), p99

[7] E. Pusey, The minor prophets with a commentary : explanatory and practical, and introductions to the several books: Vol. VI Habakkuk and Malachi (London: James Nisbet, 1906-1907), p96

[8] James K. Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), p234