Matthew 23:37

Matthew 23:37-39 (see Psalm 91:4; Jeremiah 13:17; Hosea 7:13; Luke 19:41; John 5:40)
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

When the Gnostics, who were heavily involved with Platonic philosophy, asserted that God was indeed the author of sin, it was Irenaeus (130-200) who immediately rejected it in his discourse entitled: God, not the Author of Sin. (Peri Monarchias) In it, he appeals to Matthew 23:37: “This expression, ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not,’ set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free (agent) from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God...And in man as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice...If then it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things and to abstain from others?” (Against Heresies XXXVII, Book 4, Ch. 37, emphasis mine)

One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians comments: “It would baffle me if Jesus took all this time in appealing to people to come to Him and then tell them, ‘but the reason you aren’t is because I’m not enabling it’ and then go on to keep appealing them to cease their disbelief and chastising them for it.(SEA, emphasis mine)

God had indeed had a wonderful plan for Israel, as God stated at Jeremiah 29:11: For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.Luke 19:41-44 records: “When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.’” Israel missed out. They blew it. God had something better for them, plans for “welfare,” and instead they missed their opportunity. So how would this make sense if Determinism was true? Determinism is a philosophy which teaches that every thought, word and deed, from eternity to eternity, is entirely scripted, in which there is no such thing as “independent thought.” Moreover, in such case, if all life, from eternity to eternity, is entirely scripted by an alleged, immutable decree, then what reason would God have in feeling rejected by Israel, prompting Jesus to have wept with tears?

Along the way to Calvary, Jesus similarly lamented: “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (Luke 23:28)

Dave Hunt writes: “God irrationally mourns and weeps over the multitudes He has predestined to eternal doom and from whom He withholds the ability to repent?” (Debating Calvinism, p.333, emphasis mine)

While many in Israel had received Jesus, many had also rejected Him, as Matthew 27:25 records: “And all the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children!’” Additionally, recall from John 1:11 that Jesus came into His own, and His own received Him not. When considering the long history of Israel, in terms of how often God had reached out to it (Isaiah 65:2), with many pleas to “turn back” (Jeremiah 18:1-13), one must conclude that the Lord’s oft desire to see it gathered, as a hen gathers its chicks, had not occurred, and now would not occur, until much later during the time of the Great Tribulation, when from the leaders down to the peasants, Israel utters with one united voice: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 23:39)

Calvinist, James White, comments: “This verse is cited as evidence that God wanted to do something. God wanted to gather the Jews, but they were unwilling. So their unwillingness undoes God’s willingness. God wants to do something, man frustrates Him, therefore such concepts as Irresistible Grace (the grace of God causing regeneration, ect., ect.), cannot possibly be true, because Jesus taught contrary to this. (Do Matt 23:37 and 2Pet 3:9 Void Calvinism?, emphasis mine)

As an illustration, a parent may express how often they wanted to bless a particular child of theirs, but due to disobedience in the child, the child either wasn’t ready for the responsibility of a particular blessing, or the parent couldn’t morally justify rewarding disobedience. Either way, the parent is still in control. The parent, by their own sovereign authority, has simply set a condition on bestowing their gifts, yet while being fully desirous of giving gifts, because they do very much love their child.

Calvinists have historically interpreted Matthew 23:37 in different two ways. The first is by proposing a Secret Will explanation, and the second is by restricting Jerusalem to its leaders. Since Calvin employed the former, we will begin with that:

Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer, writes: “When Christ pled with the inhabitants of Jerusalem, we see the revealed will of God. Yet, the secret will of God was that the people would not believe. God apparently had some ultimate purpose for displaying mercy to some and hardening others.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.171, emphasis mine)

John Calvin comments: “As for this passage being taken by sophists to support free will and abolish God’s secret predestination, there is an easy answer. God wishes all to come together, they say: therefore all are free to come and their wish does not depend on the election of God. I answer, that the will of God as mentioned here must be judged by the result. Seeing that in His Word He calls all alike to salvation, and this is the object of preaching, that all should take refuge in His faith and protection, it is right to say that He wishes all to gather to Him. Now the nature of the Word shows us that here there is no description of the secret counsel of God (Arcanum Dei consilium)--just His wishes. Certainly those whom He wishes effectively to gather, He draws inwardly by His Spirit, and calls them not merely by man’s outward voice. If anyone objects that it is absurd to split God’s will  (duplicem in Deo volunteer fingi), I answer that this is exactly our belief, that His will is one and undivided: but because our minds cannot plumb the profound depths of His secret election (ad profundam arcanae electionis abyssum) to suit our infirmity, the will of God is set before us as double (bifariam).”  (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol. III, James and Jude, p.69, emphasis mine)

In other words, when Jesus said, “How often I wanted,” but “you were unwilling,” what He secretly meant was “I never really wanted” since you were purposely excluded from the secret predestination of God. Moreover, did Jesus tearfully weep over Jerusalem because He had eternally, willfully reprobated them, and as a result, they were now unwilling?

Calvin’s “easy answer” is that by “God’s secret predestination,” salvation depends solely upon “the election of God” born in the “secret counsel of God” in which God displays a “double” split-will, whereby the eternally elect alone, He “draws inwardly by His Spirit” and “calls them not merely by man’s outward voice.” Calvin’s “easy answer” horrifies Arminians because it presents God’s Word as contradictory. Surprisingly, some Calvinists actually embrace the thought that God’s Word allegedly has contradictions:

Calvinist, John McArthur, states: “That’s one of the reasons I know the Bible is written by God, because men would fix it. If I wrote a book that had those contradictions, Phil [Johnson] would edit them all out. One of the bench marks of divine inspiration is the fact that you’re dealing with transcendence.” (Election and Predestination: The Sovereignty of God in Salvation, emphasis mine)

What MacArthur does not consider is the possibly that his interpretations might actually be wrong. Like their forefathers in the wilderness, the Jews of Jesus’ day also missed their opportunity. Jesus said: And you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:40) Now did God secretly desire that they grieve the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), or did He just permit it? In fact, how is it that an omnipotent God could “often” (Matthew 23:37) allow Himself to be frustrated by mere mortals? How is it that His will is not always done on earth, as it is done in heaven? (Matthew 6:10) To the Calvinist, the answer is simple: God is just pretending to be frustrated while everything secretly happens exactly as He planned it. In other words, if a man is saved, God planned it that way. If a man perishes and goes to Hell, God must have planned it that way too. This is a simple paradigm that many have embraced and ended up converting to Calvinism. Arminians reject it on the basis that such a fatalistic paradigm makes God’s Word contradictory.

Consider a similar passage in Luke: When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.’ (Luke 19:41-44)

Lutzer writes:Arminianism says that God gave man free will; though God may plead with men and women to repent, he never works in their hearts in such a way as actually to determine their decision. So he does his best to save as many as he can, but his respect for human freedom means that his options are limited.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.211, emphasis mine)

Jesus knocks. (Revelation 3:20) He does not involuntarily enter. He enables with Prevenient Grace but does not kick the door down with Irresistible Grace, and that is His sovereign prerogative, or should we deny the Judge (John 5:22-23) His prerogative to wash the feet of His servants?

Lutzer continues:Arminians must explain why God’s goal of saving as many as he can seems to be failing. He is actively working to save as many as he can, but only a small percentage of the population is willing to believe.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.212, emphasis mine)

God’s arm is not so short that He cannot save. God could easily persuade every single person in the whole history of mankind to repent and turn to Him, by their own voluntary choice, just as one look at Luke 16:19-31 shows that there was even a man in Hell who developed the heart of an evangelist. God could easily drop each person into Hell for a few hours, or a few months or even a few years and that person, I assure you, would be willing to repent. Although God does not do this, what He does do, is give the unregenerate sinner a glimpse of Hell when the Gospel is preached and the lost are convicted of their sin and are shown their future if they fail to repent. (John 16:8) So it’s clearly not a matter of God trying the best that He can but coming up short. God has set the ground rules according to John 3:16, and Jesus has made the provision for salvation, and exactly as John 3:16 states, man must believe in Him in order to not perish, but have eternal life.

Lutzer adds:Calvinists believe that election makes the success of God’s plan certain. God has committed himself to save a certain number, and they will be saved, despite the rebellion of mankind. The unbelief and failure of man can never thwart the intended plan of God.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.213, emphasis mine)

The “intended plan of God” was to gather Israel like a hen gathers its chicks. (Matthew 23:37) According to Calvinism, though, this was never really God’s intention at all. Calvinism takes clear statements in Scripture and makes them mean the exact opposite of what they say. Therefore, challenge the Calvinists to believe in the Bible exactly as it is written. Furthermore, God isn’t failing. Men fail themselves. God’s design is to make salvation available to all men as an offer, and if we do not repent, we will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:3) Jesus knocks. (Revelation 3:20) He gives men a choice, having also determined the blessings for right choices and consequences for wrong choices, life and death, Heaven or Hell. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Joshua 24:15)

In terms of God’s will, consider this statement: “God has a Permissive Will and a Perfect Will. The Perfect will of God is that everyone does His will. The Permissive Will of God is that He permits men, such as Adam and Eve, to do their own will, even if it was to reject Him, and experience God’s wrath and judgment, such as in the Garden of Eden. God’s Perfect Will is that Israel be gathered together like a hen gathers its chicks. But God’s Permissive Will was to allow them to reject Him. Jesus stated: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.’ (Matthew 23:27) What could be a better statement of God’s Perfect Will and His Permissive Will?” (The Majesty of God)

John Calvin explains:And ye would not. This can be said of the whole people as much as of the scribes: but I rather interpret it in connexion with the latter because they chiefly prevented the gathering-in. And Christ’s whole invective in the contest is against them: after addressing Jerusalem in the singular He now reasonably enough turns to the plural. There is an emphatic contrast between God’s would and their would not. It expresses the diabolic fury of men who do not hesitate to fight against God.”  (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol. III, James and Jude, p.70, emphasis mine)

If God “would,” then why does Calvin say that God secretly predestined that Hewould not”? That’s the contradictory nature of Calvinism, which some have tried to avoid by limiting the scope of whom Jesus had referred. The delight of the Arminian is that you can pit Calvin against the Calvinists in order to show that even one of their patriarchs weighed their argument and dismissed it, since Calvin affirmed that “...this can be said of the whole people....”

Calvinist, James White, comments:Who, then, is ‘Jerusalem’? It is assumed by Arminian writers that Jerusalem’ represents individual Jews who are, therefore, capable of resisting the work and will of Christ. But upon what warrant do we leap from Jerusalem’ to individual Jews’?” (The Potter’s Freedom, p.137, emphasis mine)

Psalm 81:13-14 has a similar lament to Matthew 23:37: “Oh that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways! I would quickly subdue their enemies and turn My hand against their adversaries.” Should we ask, “Who, then, is ‘Israel’? Isn’t it clear that the individual people of Israel had resisted the work and will of God?

White adds: “A vitally important point to make here is that the ones the Lord desired to gather are not the ones who were not willing’! Jesus speaks to the leaders about their children that they, the leaders, would not allow Him to gather.’ Jesus was not seeking to gather the leaders, but their children. This one consideration alone renders the passage useless for the Arminian seeking to establish freewillism.”  (The Potter’s Freedom, p.138, emphasis mine)

Were they gathered? The parallel passage of Luke 19:41-44 indicates otherwise. Simply contrasting ‘leaders from ‘children does not alter the fact that Jesus lamented over those who werent gathered.

The impact of Calvinistic thought has wide-ranging results:

White continues: “Surely it is part of modern evangelical tradition to say, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,’ but providing a meaningful biblical basis for this assertion is significantly more difficult.” (Debating Calvinism, p.265, emphasis mine)

Why would you not consider God gathering Israel together like a hen gathers its chicks to constitute a loving “wonderful plan”? You have the love and protection of the mother hen, and you have a plan to gather them together. Furthermore, would you conclude that on the basis of John 3:16, God has a wonderful plan for the world which He so loved? Therefore, how do you not conclude that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” and not just you, but the whole world also? This is why Arminians consider Calvinism to be bizarre.

White writes:Does the Bible teach that God lacks the ability to discriminate in the kind and nature of the love He exercises toward His creation? That is, does God have at least the same level of ability and freedom to exercise different kinds of love that man obviously possesses. Or is man superior to God in being able to discriminate in the matter of how he loves?” (Debating Calvinism, p.265, emphasis mine)

Dave Hunt responds: “I’ve never said that ‘God lacks the ability to discriminate in the kind and nature of the love He exercises’ or that He is ‘less free than His creatures in the matter of how He loves.’ But ‘freedom’ to love can’t justify not loving at all.” (Debating Calvinism, p.273, emphasis mine)

Is God free to love who He said He loves? And who does He say that He loves? “The world.”  Certainly, God has a special love for those who are in Christ, but why use that as a basis to diminish the love that God has for “the world”?

Obviously, if God did not have degrees of His love, then you’d have Universalism, and Arminianism does not teach that. So while it is agreed that God has “degrees” of love, is it sane to suggest that eternally predestining someone for hell constitutes a degree, level, kind, type, form or fashion of “love”? This is perhaps the one area in which Calvinism most often loses credibility with Christians. However, some Calvinists feel that God’s love is demonstrated if it includes delayed judgment. In other words, God can still genuinely love someone that He creates for the purpose of spending eternity in the Lake of Fire, provided that He is patient about it. While that might meet Calvinism’s very liberal definition of love, does it meet God’s definition of love? Here is what the Bible states: If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (James 2:15-16)

White explains: “Indeed, we must conclude [according to Arminianism] that God will be eternally unhappy, since He will love those in hell with the very same kind of undifferentiated love He has for the myriad surrounding  His throne.” (Debating Calvinism, p.18, emphasis mine)

Although the argument of an “undifferentiated love” is a straw man, it is nevertheless valid to ask whether God loves people who are in hell, who are being tormented for all eternity? The answer is that He doesn’t, since they have been cut off from God’s love, and He no longer has any compassion for them because He does not provide for them there. While man has compassion for those in torment, God prevented people from even trying to help them. (Luke 16:26) Those who are in hell, are pretty much completely cut off from God’s love, and now experience God’s wrath for all eternity. That’s why evangelism is so important.

White concludes: “…the Father can seek the salvation of each individual, the Son can die to secure it, and the Spirit come to bring conviction of sin, and yet the entire desire and work of the triune God collapse because of the unwillingness of the sovereign creature, man? Yes, this is indeed Mr. Hunt’s view, and I simply do not understand its appeal to the person who boasts only in the Lord.”  (Debating Calvinism, p.332, emphasis mine)

The “appeal” is submission to Scripture. Apparently, God wants man to make a willing decision for Him, otherwise the tears of Matthew 23:37 makes no sense at all.

Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer, writes:Arminians teach that God is frustrated by the free will of his creatures. He decrees to save as many as possible, but the numbers are comparatively few. He plans and wills the salvation of all, but his goals remain unfulfilled.” (The Doctrines That Divide, pp.212-213, emphasis mine)

If God, by His own sovereign choice, doesn’t allow Himself to be frustrated by the Free Will choices of His creatures, then over what was the Lord lamenting at Matthew 23:37? Wouldn’t a suggestion that God blindly predestined Israel to reject Him, make the Lord’s tears at Matthew 23:37 become crocodile tears? Again, what truthful person is going to say, “How often I wanted,” while secretly desiring and predestining, the very opposite? What does Calvinism make the Lord ought to be, for saying “how often I wanted” while having secretly, allegedly, eternally never wanted?

One Calvinist responded concerning Matthew 23:37:I cannot believe in a God who surrenders His sovereignty over to the creature, man.”

Translation: I cannot believe in a God who opposes my theological presuppositions.

This sounds like the voice of Peter who said to Jesus: Never shall You wash my feet! (John13:8a) But Jesus answered him: If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me. (John13:8b) When Calvinists insist that God is “sovereign in the matter of salvation,” what they really mean is that God eternally choose who will be given the grace to believe and who it is that allegedly will be passed by. The problem is that Calvinists have narrowed the scope of God’s sovereignty to a manner that makes perfect sense to them. This is problematic because, like Isaiah 55:9 says, My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. This is why when it comes to the ways of God, we cannot trust our own perceptions, but must strictly rely upon what God has explicitly said. To put it into practice, if Jesus said that He was denied what He so often “wanted” (Matthew 23:37), then He must be believed, and not doubted.

See also: Calvinism and Free Will, an Exegetical Vindication of Matthew 23:37

Question:  In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed “Not My will, but Thine, be done” (Luke 22:42), was this evidence a contradictory-will within God, which might explain a contradictory statement from God?

Answer:  Jesus was torn between two real desires, and yielded to the stronger desire to obey His Father. This, however, does not translate well into Matthew 23:37. Would we honestly want to say, regarding Jerusalem, that Jesus truly did “often” want to gather Israel like a hen gathers its chicks, if He eternally decreed the opposite?
The second way that Calvinists have interpreted Matthew 23:37 is by restricting those to whom Jesus had wanted to save. However, Calvin, who instead embraced a Secret Will defense, dismissed that argument, and I recommend citing Calvin in discussions with the Calvinists.
Question:  Who is meant by “Jerusalem”? Who is meant by their “children”? Just its Leaders only?

Answer:  When Jesus criticized Chorazin and Bethsaida at Matthew 11:21, did He mean only the leaders? Of course not. Moreover, Matthew 27:25 states: And all the people said, His blood shall be on us and on our children!” These were the people that attended the Sentencing, and they spoke on behalf of the majority voice of Jerusalem, attesting to the fact that Jesus “came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11) So on this basis, you cannot simply restrict “Jerusalem” to its Leaders only, and we may agree with John Calvin, that what is said of its Leaders can also apply to the “whole people.”
Adrian Rogers comments: “Now folks, I want to submit to you that if He had said, I would have, but you couldn’t,’ that whole thing will have been a great charade.” (You Can Be Saved: Romans 8:28-31, emphasis mine)

Also notice that it doesn’t say that God couldn’t. God could have unilaterally gathered Israel, but He didn’t, because as Norman Geisler points out, God chooses only to reveal Himself personally to the willing.  (Chosen But Free, p.73)
Question:  Is this just mere pretending? Were these just fake tears? How is it that God would cry over something that went exactly to script?

Answer:  Rather, Jesus was not pretending. These were genuine tears. And what transpired was not the Lord’s desire at all. They rejected Him, primarily because they rejected His Father (Isaiah 65:2), whom they claimed to serve. (John 9:28)
Consider other passages in which some Calvinists employ the dual, Secret Will theory:

2nd Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

1st Timothy 2:3-4: This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

However, while God is indeed “not wishing for any to perish,” it is connected to the condition for all to come to repentance.” God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” but it is through the decreed condition of John 3:16: “…that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Question:  Were the children of Israel gathered, as a hen gathers its chicks?

Answer:  The Calvinist has a theological commitment to say “yes,” but without support from the context. For if Jesus had gathered the children, as often as He says that He wanted, then how do you explain His lament? The reasonable explanation is that His oft-desired gathering had not taken place, which even the disciples recognized when, after the Lords resurrection, they asked: “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
There are two aspects to this passage that are at the forefront of the debate:

1) What God had often wanted to do, and,
2) What Jerusalem, just as often, had refused to allow God to do.

However, to a Calvinist, Gods will is never thwarted, and God is never truly disappointed in anything, in which any and all displays of divine disappointment, are purely expressions of anthropomorphisms, and not how it truly is with God. To a Calvinist, this is a foundational prerequisite for their respect and admiration of a Deity, and which is why Calvinists loathe Arminianism. Anything less than Calvinist standards will result with the charge of God being “incompetent” and “impotent,” or at least what they will charge on this side of eternity.
Question:  Who did Jesus lament over, and what did He lament about?

Answer: (1) The Jews, and (2) the fact that they refused His grace. God states: “I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts.” (Isaiah 65:2) However, if, as often as Jesus desired to gather “X”, He did in fact gather “X”, then what is the lament regarding? The natural implication is that “X” was *not* getting gathered, but Calvinists need for it to be the opposite. As I see it, Calvinism cannot make sense of any lament, period, which is why they often deem such expressions of emotion as an anthropomorphism, and not a true reflection of Gods feelings.