How often have we seen this passage cited as "proof" that God wants all men indiscriminately to be saved, and that man has a free will to choose God! Yet, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that the passage teaches nothing of the sort.
This passage is typically misquoted to say: "I would have gathered you, but ye would not." However, this is a subtle misrepresentation of the passage because there are two groups under discussion here, not merely one. Our Lord's indictment is against Jerusalem, who killed the prophets... It is Jerusalem who "would not".
But it is not Jerusalem whom the Lord says He "would have" gathered... Rather, it is the children of Jerusalem. He says: "how often would I have gathered thy children together," but "ye would not". Notice, then, the ones whom the Lord wished to gather are different persons from the ones who "would not" permit this gathering.
The following table lists the two groups and what is said of them...
"ye would not"
It should be plain, therefore, that the passage does not support the usual interpretation which asserts that our Lord wishes to gather everyone, but that He is prevented from gathering certain ones because they themselves are unwilling to be gathered.
The term "Jerusalem" refers to the religious leadership of Israel. Jerusalem was the center of worship for the nation. The temple was situated there, and this was the center of religious activity and learning. Jesus faced His greatest opposition from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, because this is where the High Priest resided, and where the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, met. In context, the passage is an indictment of the Scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 23:29)—the religious leaders and teachers of Israel.
Matthew 23:37 is an indictment against the Jewish leadership, who, over the centuries, had opposed God's witness, persecuting and killing the prophets whom God had graciously sent to the nation to turn His people back to Him. This prophetic witness is here depicted as a desire to "gather" the people of Israel (the "children" of Jerusalem), whereas the Jewish religious establishment went to great lengths to oppose and silence the prophets.
Indeed, this is precisely what the context of the passage teaches. How seldom do those who misuse this passage quote it in context!
29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, 30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. 31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. 32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. 33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?Clearly, it is the Scribes and Pharisees whom our Lord is addressing in this passage (see verse 29). They were just like their "fathers" who killed the prophets, and their true nature was later revealed when they crucified our Lord and stoned Stephen, and when they expressed their pleasure in the martyrdom of James (Acts 12:2-3). The entire passage, from verse 29 to verse 38, is knit together by this theme of having killed the prophets whom God had sent to the nation.
34 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: 35 That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. 36 Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! 38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
There are two different ways in which God calls men to Himself...
Finally, it should be noted that nothing is said in this passage about anyone having the "free-will" to choose to be gathered. Our Lord never says "others will, but ye will not". Rather, He simply says "ye will not", which is precisely what the doctrine of Total Depravity teaches... men will not come to Christ. Their "will" is a "won't". When God leaves men to make their free choice whether to believe in Christ, we all freely choose to reject Christ, because we have no desire for God or for righteousness. We love our sin and we hate righteousness. We love our autonomy and hate God's authority. Unless God changes a man's heart so that he delights in a sovereign and holy God, that man will never want anything to do with God.
So it was with the Scribes and the Pharisees. They, like all of unregenerate mankind, had no desire for God, and therefore they "would not" submit to His authority, nor could they even bear to allow God's prophets to call upon the people to return to God. Could there be a clearer witness to the utter depravity of man, and of our absolute hatred and enmity against our blessed Creator?
Those who tell us that God wants all men to be saved, but that He can only save those who allow Him to do so would like to pretend that such a view gives greater glory to God. In fact it does not! It makes God out to be a frustrated, impotent deity who cannot accomplish His pleasure and who is thwarted by the will of man. In essence, such a view dethrones God.
If human will can overthrow God's desires and purposes, then how can we trust such a God to keep His promises? We may trust that He is a well-meaning God who would keep His promises if He could. However, we can never be sure that He will be able to carry out His good intentions. After all, we are told that it is God's desire to save all men, but that He is not able to carry out this desire. Perhaps human free-will would prevent God from fulfilling His promises as well. What a weak, miserable god that would be!
In contrast, Scripture presents to us a God who can do all His holy will. He saves each and every person He wishes to save. As Paul writes...
Romans 11:5-7 - In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened;
John 6:65 - "... no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father."
John 8:43 - "Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.
John 12:39-40 - For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, "HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM."
Acts 16:14 - A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.
Romans 6:17 - But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed,
Romans 8:7-8 - because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Ephesians 2:4-5 - But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
Philippians 2:13 - for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
2 Timothy 2:25 - with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth,
Truly, "Salvation is of the Lord" (Jonah 2:9). May He
be forever praised!