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A woefully misunderstood verse


Words Spoken to Jerusalem and to her Children, What do they Mean?

First Published by the Sovereign Grace Union,  January 2024 

By Pastor C. Hetherington


Matthew 23 vs 37–38 “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! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.”


Do these words suggest that God has longed for the eternal salvation of the lost and non-elect Jews of Jerusalem, many of whom were soon to be destroyed in AD 70, and that therefore, He likewise longs for the gathering together and the eternal salvation of all men, without exception, if only they would make the first move and come to Him?  


Do these words imply that salvation can be an opportunity “given and then missed”? In the same vein, do these words suggest that God desired to save Jerusalem’s children, but that Jerusalem successfully prevented Him from doing so? Can this be the correct understanding and interpretation of the Lord’s words and of the rest of the teaching of Holy Scripture?


Our answer must be an emphatic ‘no’. Examination of the very clear and unmistakable context of Matthew 23:37–38, and the comparing of Scripture with Scripture will clearly reveal that such claims cannot be further from the truth. Such Arminian-tinged and even semi-Pelagian thinking has riddled the theology and ministry of many churches of our day which would otherwise claim to hold to sound doctrine.


Will the Lord, “who changeth not” (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8) eternally long for the salvation of the lost, and yet never fulfil His desires? Has He not said, “I will do all my pleasure” (Isaiah 46:10), and “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given Me; for they are Thine.” (John 17:9)?


Sadly, we live in a day when the Scriptures are very poorly studied and, for various carnal reasons, are often misapplied, so as to mean what men would wish them to mean, rather than what they actually say. We would hope that such a thing would never take place within churches claiming the Reformed heritage. Still, these words of our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 23:37-38 are very often quoted but then wrongly applied even by well-meaning Christians. We must remember that, however well intended one may be, none have the authority to change the plain meaning of any part of God’s Word.


A careful study of Matthew Chapter 23 and particularly of these concluding verses, given in their context, along with the Old Testament background to the nationalistic and bilateral nature of the covenant made with the nation Israel give us their very clear and unambiguous meaning. Critical to understanding this verse is the bilateral covenant made with Israel, in which God undertook to bless and protect the nation if He was honoured and His laws were kept, or to bring terrible woes and curses upon the nation if they departed from Him or disregarded His Law. The covenant made with Israel was not a covenant of grace. It did not confer or promise everlasting life to the nation. It was conditional and bilateral, and thus dependent upon the faithfulness of the two parties involved, God and Israel.


The context of Matthew 23:37 has nothing to do with the eternal and unalterable covenant of grace, in which all its beneficiaries are predestined, elected and justified by Christ’s atoning death and imputed righteousness. (Romans 8:30). Instead, the covenant made with Israel demonstrates God’s unyielding and faithful commitment to fulfil all that He has promised to do in that covenant, whether that be to bless or to curse. 


The Particular Baptist minister John Foreman (1792–1872), writing on these verses, states that: “our Lord is not speaking in our text on the subject of eternal salvation at all, nor in the language of the 'mighty to save,' nor on the subject, ground or premises of His gift of eternal life…The covenants have separate natures and must be kept distinct.”[1]


The very last words of the Old Testament are the threatenings of this curse to the nation. In fact, the word “curse” is the very last word of the Old Testament: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5–6). The curse’s very glaring and prominent placement was highly offensive to many Jews.


From Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, to the first words of the New Testament, there is a 400 year period of silence, with no new word from the Lord. This silence was broken by the arrival of John the Baptist, whom Malachi had prophesised would come in the spirit of Elijah, announcing the Lord’s advent. This was later confirmed by the Lord Jesus Himself, who said “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come” (Matthew 11:14).


Almighty God had for centuries, time and again gathered Israel under His wings, even from the brink of her destruction and complete annihilation by her enemies. Just as a hen would gather her chicks who had foolishly strayed, so even when the nation had done so wickedly and slain the prophets of God in times past (Matt. 23:30), each time the nation repented and cried unto Him, God, who was faithful to the covenant promise, delivered them, gathered them together again and saved them from all the enemies, which He had afore promised to bring upon them in His displeasure.


Now once again in v. 38 of our text, the Lord says to impenitent Jerusalem, who slew the prophets and now were about to put the Son of God to death: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate”. The same teaching and warning is found in Matthew 21:40, concerning the parable of the vinedressers.


The Lord had warned the Jews earlier in Luke 13 that except that generation repent, “Ye shall all likewise perish” with those who had recently been suddenly destroyed at Siloam, and along with those who had also recently perished under Pilate, who had mixed their blood with their sacrifices. Our Lord also gave a solemn sign of such judgement by the cursing of the fig tree that bare no fruit as He entered Jerusalem for one final time, condemning it and thus announcing its sudden destruction. 


The immediate context of this chapter clearly indicates that these words are spoken concerning Jerusalem’s impending physical destruction that took place in 70 AD, which God had promised that He would bring upon Jerusalem and Israel if the nation continued to break the covenant that they had made with Him long ago. Destruction would come upon them suddenly, as it had before, by the leaving of the Jews to the terrible wrath of God through the hand of the surrounding nations. This time they would be left to the cruel and merciless Roman empire. God’s solemn promise was fulfilled shortly after Christ’s earthly ministry, in AD 70.


In Matthew 23 the Lord firstly denounces the religious leaders of the day: the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Scribes. They were the blind leading the wilfully blind nation, Israel.  Thus, His indictment follows in v. 24: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. 25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Etc…”


Then secondly, in vv. 31-36, judgement is pronounced on the people and nation who wilfully followed them: 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.”


Therefore, verses 37 and 38 of necessity must follow: “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.”


Some would somehow separate Jerusalem from her children in this verse. Jerusalem, they say, does not refer to the physical place, but rather to the religious leaders successfully preventing the “children”, who are elect-Jews and gentiles, from “gathering” to Christ for salvation. Such a view, however, is not only contradicted by the New Testament facts, but also presents the Almighty Lord God of Heaven as somehow helpless to gather and to save His elect, not only out of Jerusalem but also, by implication, from every kindred, tribe, tongue and nation and throughout all history. Across all ages however it is manifest that, it is in spite of any religious persecution, that Christ’s elect are all regenerated and effectually drawn to Him.    


Again John Foreman (1792-1872) writes: “…did ever one class of people hinder the eternal God from saving another class by His grace with an everlasting salvation? ‘Who would set the briers and thorns against me in battle? I would go through them, I would burn them together’ (Isa. 27:4). And where the eternal salvation of souls by the grace of God is the subject in hand, it is no where to be found, that God hath ever consulted one party of men about the salvation of another; ‘For who hath known the mind of the Lord, and who hath been his counsellor?’ (Rom. 11:34). The Lord hath neither lost nor cast away any of His people whom He did foreknow, and so ‘all Israel shall be saved’ (Rom. 11:26).”


The term “how often would I have gathered” rather sets forth the Lord’s unwavering commitment to keep His word of covenant promise to Israel to protect Jerusalem and the nation from their threatening enemies, if they turned to Him from their evil ways, and to bring these very enemies upon them if they did not repent and turn to Him from their evil ways. The Jews would have known very well the solemn warnings of Deuteronomy Chapter 28, v. 25, and vv. 45-47. Let us consider them.


Deuteronomy 28:25 “The LORD shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies: thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them: and shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.”


Deuteronomy 28:45 “Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded thee: 46 And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever. 47 Because thou servedst not the LORD thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things.”


Much earlier, throughout the time of the Judges, God’s chastisements were brought down upon Israel, time and time again in faithfulness to His covenant: the Lord sent enemy after enemy upon the people, until each time they cried out unto Him and repented of their sins. On every occasion in His covenant promise faithfulness, the Lord heard their cry to Him and delivered them from the hands of all those that oppressed them.


Consider Psalm 106:43–45: “Many times did He deliver them; but they provoked Him with their counsel, and were brought low for their iniquity. 44 Nevertheless He regarded their affliction, when He heard their cry: 45 And He remembered for them His covenant, and repented according to the multitude of His mercies”.


We must never forget that the national covenant with Israel, given through Moses long of old, was always two-fold, consisting in a conditional promise of blessing and a conditional promise of woe. It would be blessing to the nation if they obeyed God and kept His commandments, but it would be an unspeakable woe if they disregarded the Lord and despised His Laws and His prophets. He would hand them over to the pagan Canaanites and to the surrounding nations.


Later, in the days of the wicked kings of the north, because of Israel’s disobedience, recalcitrance of heart and rejection of the word of the prophets, namely Elijah and Elisha, God in 2 Kings 6:24–33, sent the Syrians upon Israel as well as a great famine. 


As Jehoram, king of Israel, passed through the starving city of Samaria, and then walked atop the city wall, a woman cried out and asked him to decide in a quarrel between her and another woman. The two women had agreed to cook and eat the son of one woman, and on the next day to do the same with the son of the other woman; but after they ate the first woman's son, the other woman hid her own boy.


We read: 24 “And it came to pass after this, that Benhadad king of Syria gathered all his host, and went up, and besieged Samaria. 25 And there was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they besieged it, until an ass’s head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove’s dung for five pieces of silver. 26 And as the king of Israel was passing by upon the wall, there cried a woman unto him, saying, Help, my lord, O king. 27 And he said, If the LORD do not help thee, whence shall I help thee? out of the barnfloor, or out of the winepress? 28 And the king said unto her, What aileth thee? And she answered, This woman said unto me, Give thy son, that we may eat him to day, and we will eat my son to morrow. 29 So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said unto her on the next day, Give thy son, that we may eat him: and she hath hid her son” (2 Kings 6:24–29).  


Upon hearing this, wicked King Jehoram was enraged at the desperate state of things, and in temper he tore his kingly robe, exposing that underneath his outer garments, he was concealing a sackcloth. Thus, in pride he was hiding his alleged repentance, which ought to have been genuine and public, considering his position and the example which he owed to his ungodly and unthankful nation. Instead of repenting, he, like Ahab his father blamed Elisha and the prophets for the dire state of Israel, and went in pursuit of the former.


What had taken place then, and what was likewise going to occur in 70 AD, was the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel in Leviticus 26:27: “And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; 28 Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins. 29 And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat”.


That most solemn promise and judgement would be fulfilled once again in history and is now pronounced in Mathew 23:38. The Son of God had finally come into the world, and He Who now came to His own people, the Jews, preaching the kingdom of heaven, bearing witness thereto with many infallible signs and wonders. Yet they despised, rejected and hated Him without a cause. Therefore, under divine judgement (just as the Lord Jesus Christ had prophesised in v. 38), the Jews would now be left to themselves and to the world, as chicks without the protection of a mother hen. They would soon be surrounded by the Romans, who, over a lengthy siege, would essentially starve the Jews to death. Flavius Josephus records that well over a million Jews were killed, many resorting to eating their own starved and dead children, in order to stay alive, thus, re-living the days of 2 Kings 6. Moreover, just as our Lord prophesised in Matthew 24:2, concerning the great Temple of Herod in Jerusalem, which the Jews had so prided themselves in, and in which they had reposed such confidence (Jeremiah 7:4), would soon lie in complete ruins.


This judgement upon Israel had long been coming and took place even after many entreaties from the incarnate Son of God Who had now come into the world. Jerusalem at this time had already long been under the signal warning of God, being under Roman occupation for so long, and having already lost it national independence and its civil jurisdiction over the land and nation, but yet the Jews still refused to repent and seek the promises of a faithful covenant-keeping God, given, amongst other places, in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land”. 


A cursory reading of the Old Testament shows that throughout Israel’s history the nation had rejected the Lord, and that consequently the Lord often handed them over to their enemies. A warning was also sounded earlier to Judah in the days of Jeremiah: “Hear ye, and give ear; be not proud: for the LORD hath spoken. 16 Give glory to the LORD your God, before He cause darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains, and, while ye look for light, he turn it into the shadow of death, and make it gross darkness” (Jeremiah 13:15–16). While the Lord says in Ezekiel 33:11, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked”, He is of necessity bound to remain faithful to His covenant promises and divine justice.


Thus, the context of Matthew 23:37  has nothing to do with one’s personal salvation, and the remission of sins through the eternal covenant of Grace, but rather it demonstrates God’s faithfulness to execute the bilateral covenant promise on His part, and the nation Israel’s culpability and complete unwillingness to repent and to seek the Lord’s merciful covenant promise to the nation.


Despite her unmistakably favoured past with a God Who cannot lie, and Who had sworn to keep His covenant promises, either to be their protector from other nations if they had repented and kept His laws, or to bring woe if they disobeyed Him, the Jews yet persisted in their national apostasy. Thus the Lord must now equally of necessity be unfailing in His promise to bring destruction upon them.  Having refused to come to Him, as chicks seeking the protection of their mother, they would now be left to utter destruction by their enemies. The Lord of old is true to all of His covenant promises.


If verse 37 was somehow to be understood in terms of grace, and of an individual’s personal salvation, whether they be Jew or Gentile, then one must finally conclude that salvation depends on man’s ability and free-will or decision to come to God.


Again, let us stress that while the covenant made with Israel was not a covenant of grace, nonetheless Jerusalem and Israel as a whole often forsook their own nationalistic covenant of mercy and blessing, so that, if had they repented earlier, much earlier would they have been spared. As the prophet Jonah said: “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy” (Jonah 2:8).


In terms of “temporal” earthly mercies and blessings this can be said to be true of all men by nature, but it is never true in the covenant of grace to the elect, simply because salvation is of the Lord, and because the Lord always meets the conditions of the covenant of grace for His people in granting them the two gifts of repentance and faith to the very end.


Again, it must be remembered and not conflated with sentimental feelings of nationalism, that the mercy shown to nationalistic Israel was only temporal, and not eternal or spiritual, whereas the mercy which God shows to His ‘spiritual Israel’ (Romans 9:6-8) is from everlasting to everlasting, so that by grace they will fear Him (Ecclesiastes 13:14) and keep His covenant (Jeremiah 31:33–34), through the regenerating work of His Spirit, and by the gifts and graces that He grants and supplies them with. This teaching is presented in Psalm 103:17: “But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto children’s children; 18 To such as keep His covenant, and to those that remember His commandments to do them”.


Furthermore, the suggestion that Matthew 23:37 refers to the covenant of grace, and therefore ought to be used as an evangelistic text, casting God as longing for the salvation of people who He does not intend to save and thus clearly won’t be saved, is deeply problematic. Firstly, it implies that God is unable to do what He desires, undermining the cardinal doctrine of His omnipotence. Secondly, it conveys the idea that salvation by grace is an opportunity that can be missed, and that thus is ultimately in the hands of men, and dependent upon the exercise of their free will. This gross error brings not only unspeakable contempt upon the Gospel of God’s sovereign grace, but it also implies that salvation by grace can be lost by those who are already saved, given that a man’s free will which chose salvation might one day change to reject it. All of this does despite to Christ’s church by undermining the Doctrines of Grace and vitiating in particular the doctrine of the perseverance (or preservation) of the saints.


Contrary to popular contemporary opinion, the plain teaching of God’s Word unashamedly asserts that God does not long or desire to save all men, nor does He desire to show mercy to all of humanity. His mercy is distinguishing, and what God desires, we are told that He invariably does (Job 23:13). Furthermore, what God desires, He has already decreed and thus most certainly performs (Ephesians 1:11).


These simple truths are also soundly proven by seven clear principles and doctrines found in the Word of God.


1] Firstly, they are clear from both a historical perspective, and in light of God’s providential ordering of world events. The Gospel has not and will not be proclaimed to all men (without exception) in the world. Most men will not hear the true Gospel of saving Grace. If God desired all men to be saved, why ever would He not simply save them by His Word and Holy Spirit?


2] Secondly, God, as He sees fit, conceals and hides His Word from men (see Matthew 11:25), and unless a man is born again (cf. ‘born from above’,  John 3:3), he cannot exercise repentance and faith (John 3:8-11).


3] God’s election is according to grace and to the elect only (1 Peter 1:2).


4] God’s decree towards His elect, from their predestination in all eternity to their glorification in heaven, is unchangeable and unalterable (Romans 8:30).


5] The Atonement of Christ was particular, definite and exact, making no provision for those who ultimately would be damned (Isaiah 53:11).


6] God’s eternal decree, is His wise and good pleasure, and so is never contrary to His will. 

In Isaiah 46:10, He speaks of His “declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure”. Furthermore, Scripture says in Job 23:13: “But He is in one mind, and who can turn Him? and what His soul desireth, even that He doeth”.


7] While God delights in mercy (Micah 7:18), God’s mercy is sovereignly bestowed upon whom He will have mercy upon. It is His completely free and unmerited grace to His elect alone, who are called vessels of mercy (Romans 9:23). When Moses had asked to be shown God’s glory, this was the very first thing which God showed him, saying to him “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy” (Exodus 33:19). This is recapitulated in Romans 9:14–15: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. 15 For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion”.


The Apostle Peter, by the Holy Spirit, informs us that God is longsuffering “to us-ward”, “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). The term “us-ward” clearly refers to the elect, and not to the generality of mankind, because Peter states in the opening of the Epistle that he is writing to the elect, and he also asserts later on that we are to “account” that the longsuffering of the Lord “is salvation”(2 Peter 3:15). It obviously cannot, therefore, be salvation to reprobate persons headed to hell! Note that such salvation is definite and not a potential salvation, and thus we can only reasonably conclude that it applies exclusively to His elect.


2 Peter 3:15–16 “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; 16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction”


There are valuable, humbling and comforting lessons which we may learn from the matters which we have considered above.


Firstly, we must behold God’s faithfulness to the terms of His covenant with Israel, which establishes beyond all doubt that He is slow to wrath and a covenant-keeping God.


Secondly, we learn from Israel, of the hardness and depravity of the natural heart of man, as well as of the absolute necessity of the new birth.


Thirdly we see the need of the better covenant, the covenant of grace through Christ Jesus, which was promised and made with Him on behalf of His people even before the world began (Titus 1:2, Hebrews 8:6-13).


Fourthly, in light of all the foregoing, we can be certain that the Lord will be equally faithful to the terms and promises of His unilateral covenant of grace with His elect as He was to the terms of His bilateral covenant with Israel according to the flesh.


The salvation of the Triune God of heaven and earth is wrought by Him and Him alone. The absolute predestination and election of, and Christ’s particular atonement for, His sheep is not a haphazard ‘hit and miss’ operation of God. No, all was predetermined before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and is sovereignly and omnipotently brought to pass by God, who is both the just and the justifier, upon all those whom He has eternally decreed to have mercy upon.  


Almighty God regenerates and irresistibly draws every one of His elect to Himself.  Psalm 110:3 “Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power”. Each are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Himself has said in John 6:44 “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day”. God’s almighty work of the new birth upon a person is irreversible and shall be finalised in glorification. Philippians 1:6 “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ”.


Finally, God’s sheep shall never perish. We read in John 10:26: “ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand”.


In conclusion, Matthew 23:37–38 is not a proposition or an entreaty to sinners, nor does it present Christ as a weak and helpless Saviour who is begging for spiritually dead sinners to come to Him to be saved. Rather, it ever serves to humbly remind us of what Paul, by the Spirit of God, has declared in Romans 11:22 concerning the non-elect Jews that have perished without the Saviour, and those who are saved by His grace: Romans 11:22 “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them [Israel] which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness”. 


Lest any pride arise in the Christian, due to either a misapprehension of such verses of Scripture or perhaps through a careless neglect of doctrine, we must ever vigilantly study the scriptures, and have in constant remembrance that it is by God’s sovereign, distinguishing and unmerited love and grace alone that a man should be saved. The old hymnwriters had such a wonderful gift for expressing these precious truths in just a few short lines. Perhaps it is best to close with some of their words.


As Isaac Watts wrote:

“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,

And enter while there’s room;

When Thousands make a wretched choice,

And rather starve than come?”


‘Twas the same love that spread the feast

That sweetly forced us in;

Else we had still refused to taste,

And perished in our sin.”


Though perhaps it was John Kent who put it best:


“There is a period known to God,

When all His sheep, redeemed by blood,

Shall leave the hateful ways of sin,

Turn to the fold, and enter in.


The appointed time rolls on apace,

Not to propose but call by grace;

To change the heart, renew the will,

And turn the feet to Zion’s hill.”


[1] John Foreman (1792-1872) was a Strict and Particular Baptist minister, and served as the Pastor of Hill Street Chapel, Marylebone, for close to forty years.

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