An Exposition of Matthew 23:37
by Mitch Cervinka

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! 

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...

"thou that killest the prophets"

"ye would not"
Jerusalem's children
"how often I would have gathered thy children together"

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?

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.

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.

There are two different ways in which God calls men to Himself...

    1. There is an outward, external call which is general... directed to all men, whether elect or not. This consists of the audible preaching of the word of God, and of the manifest witness of the godly lives of Christians. This call is always resisted by unregenerate men (Acts 7:51), and leaves them without excuse for their rebellion and unbelief.
    2. There is an inward, regenerating call which is directed specifically and exclusively toward those whom God has chosen unto salvation. This inward call infallibly results in salvation to all those whom God calls in this way (Romans 8:30). Notice that this inward call causes God's elect to respond to the outward call.
The "gathering" spoken of in Matthew 23:37 does not refer to that inward miracle of regeneration, but to the outward call of the prophets and apostles. That is clear from the context ("I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes..."), and also from the fact that this was a work which could be successfully resisted.

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...

We should never base our theology upon a misreading of passages such as Matthew 23:37. Free-will theology is not derived from Scripture, but is rather based upon the unwarranted assumption that unregenerate men can have the willingness to come to God in faith. When Scripture is allowed to speak for itself, we see that "ye will not!" is the consistent verdict of unregenerate man's attitude toward God... The grace of God consists in this: God saves men who are His enemies. In our own strength and wisdom we would never have chosen Him. We would never have been willing to "cooperate" with divine grace. It requires the miracle of regeneration to open a man's eyes and heart so that he desires God and spontaneously trusts Him. Apart from this miracle, no one will ever turn to God in faith. However, when God does perform this miracle, it always, infallibly results in eternal salvation for the one He regenerates.

Truly, "Salvation is of the Lord" (Jonah 2:9). May He be forever praised!

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