James White recently discussed Matthew 23:37 on Radio Free Geneva in response to Dr. Norman Geisler’s book Chosen but Free. Here’s the passage.
Matthew 23:37-39 states: 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! 38 See! Your house is left to you desolate; 39 for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’”
James White uses the difference between ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘your children’ to argue that Jerusalem represents the Jewish leadership while Jerusalem’s children are the Jewish people.
Dr. Geisler responds by pointing out that even if this were true, it doesn’t matter. Either way someone opposes Christ’s desire.
I like Dr. Geisler’s point; per Calvinism, no one can oppose God’s desire in the sense of His decree for what He wants to happen. James White quickly points out that Calvinism distinguishes God’s desires from His commands and then James White claims Matthew 23:37 is about God’s commands and the outward ministry of the Gospel rather than God’s desire for the outcome. But if that’s the case it seems to strengthen Dr. Geisler’s point that the discussion of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘your children’ is a side issue. Why does it matter who is opposing Christ, so long as they are not really opposing His desire?
More to the point, the passage says Christ wanted to gather the children, not just that He commanded or invited them to come. Further, God’s commands are called “His will” in scripture; God is said not only to sanction sin, but also to hate sin. Now I have heard James White try to explain this before and as best I can tell he oscillates between either undermining God’s hatred of sin or affirm the contradiction that God desires and does not desire that we sin.
James White places quite a bit of emphasis the “Jerusalem = the Jewish Leadership” point. John Gill did as well; going as far as to say that pointing this out destroys the argument founded on this passage in favor of free will:
“Besides, our Lord’s discourse, throughout the whole context, is directed to the scribes and Pharisees, the ecclesiastical guides of the people, and to whom the civil governors paid a special regard. Hence it is manifest, that they are not the same persons whom Christ would have gathered, who would not. It is not said, how often would I have gathered you, and you would not, as Dr. Whitby more than once inadvertently cites the text; nor, he would have gathered Jerusalem, and she would not, as the same author transcribes it in another place; nor, he would have gathered them, thy children, and they would not, in which form it is also sometimes expressed by him; but I would have gathered thy children, and ye would not, which observation alone is sufficient to destroy the argument founded on this passage in favor of free-will.” (link)
Perhaps James White sees the point about the Jewish leadership as supporting his other point of distinguishing between invitations and desires. After all, the Pharisees opposed Christ’s public preaching which could legitimately be seen as an external invitation. However, I don’t think James White is correct; Jerusalem represents the people of Jerusalem, not just the Jewish leadership.
James White’s primary evidence is the inbound context of Matthew 23. Christ rebukes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and obstruction of His ministry. Mt 23:13-15 makes James White’s exact point: the Pharisees were keeping the Jewish people from Christ and heaven through their hypocrisy and traditions.
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. 14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. 15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
At first look, this does seem like strong evidence that Christ is rebuking the Pharisees for opposing His ministry and that Christ contrasts the Jewish leadership with the Jewish people when He talks about Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s children. But more context is required to answer the question for sure. Let’s look at the account in Luke 13.
Luke 13:22 And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem….
31 On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, “Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You.” 32 And He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ 33 Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem. 34 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! 35 See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’”
Making a few observations about the text, first off, neither Christ nor his Pharisee opponents are in Jerusalem. Christ is outside of Jerusalem in Herod’s jurisdiction and Herod wants to kill Him. But Christ’s plan is to die in Jerusalem, in Pilot’s jurisdiction, not Herod’s, so He will travel to Jerusalem, the killer of the Prophets. So Christ is not speaking about His immediate audience when He laments Jerusalem; rather Christ reveals what will happen to Him when He reaches His destination. And so James White’s points about the inbound context lose their relevance.
Now John Gill does have an answer here, but it’s unhelpful. Gill says Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34 refer to two separate events. “These words, with what follow, as they stand in (Matthew 23:37-39) were delivered by Christ, when he was in the temple at Jerusalem; but here they were spoken by him when in Galilee, in Herod’s jurisdiction; so that it appears, that the same words were spoken by Christ at different times, in different places, and to different persons“. (link) Christ’s authority is no less in Luke 13 than in Matthew 23, so what difference does it make if Luke 13 posses a problem for Calvinism rather than Matthew 23?
But there’s another reason why we can see that James White’s view is inaccurate; the Old Testament passages Christ was referring to. It seems to me that Christ was referring to Jeremiah 6.
Jeremiah 6:8 Be instructed, O Jerusalem, Lest My soul depart from you; Lest I make you desolate, A land not inhabited.”
In Jeremiah, Jerusalem does not stand just for the Jewish leadership, but as God’s chosen city. God chose Jerusalem to put His name and as a place for His temple. 2 Kings 21:4 He built altars in the house of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, “In Jerusalem I will put My name.” Also see (1Ki 11:32, 2Ki 21:4, 2Ki 21:7, 2Ki 23:27, 2Ch 6:6, Zec 1:17, Zec 2:12, Zec 3:2 ) on Jerusalem being chosen. But because of the Israelite’s’ sins, God rejected Jerusalem, His chosen city. 2 Kings 23:27 The LORD said, “I will remove Judah also from My sight, as I have removed Israel And I will cast off Jerusalem, this city which I have chosen, and the temple of which I said, ‘My name shall be there.'” And Jeremiah 12:7 “I have forsaken my house; I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies.
Since Luke 13:34 is a rebuke, it’s interesting to see how Jerusalem is addressed in place of its people in prophetic rebukes, warnings and judgments like: Jeremiah 19:7 “I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those who seek their life; and I will give over their carcasses as food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. Here are some other passages in which Jerusalem is used in prophetic rebukes, warning and judgement: Isa 3:8, Jer 2:2, Jer 4:3, Jer 4:10, Jer 4:11, Jer 8:5, Jer 14:2, Jer 19:7, Jer 44:13, La 1:7, La 1:8, La 1:17, Eze 14:21-22, Eze 16:2-3.
James White’s view cuts the passage off from it’s Old Testament referent and so loses this fuller meaning of the rebuke. God had chosen Jerusalem to be His dwelling place and for His temple, yet the Israelites repeatedly rebelled and rejected God and killed His prophets. Jerusalem was about to ultimately rebel and kill The Prophet; and so they will be judged.
Not only does James White lose this big picture, but he ends up interpreting “Jerusalem” in a unique way. Here’s a brief survey of the Old Testament usage of Jerusalem. Noticeably absent is a usage in which Jerusalem represents the Jewish leadership.
Jerusalem Directly Addressed: 2Ch 20:17, Ps 116:19, Ps 122:2-3 , Ps 137:5-6, Ps 147:12-14, Isa 40:9, Isa 41:27, Isa 51:17, Isa 52:1, Isa 52:2, Isa 62:6, Jer 4:14, Jer 6:8, Jer 13:27, Jer 15:5, Luke 19:41-44
When Jerusalem is directly addressed, it’s sometimes addressed as a city such as: “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen”, but more often it is addressed in the place of its people, such as: “Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved. How long will your wicked thoughts lodge within you?”
Jerusalem as it’s People: Judges 1:8, 2Ki 18:35, 2Ki 19:10, 1Ch 6:15, 2Ch 12:9, 2Ch 24:18, 2Ch 32:12, 2Ch 32:19, 2Ch 32:25, Ezr 4:8, Ezr 7:14, Isa 52:9, Isa 62:7, Isa 66:10, Jer 33:16 , Jer 51:35 Joe 3:17, Zep 3:16, Zec 1:14, Zec 1:19, Zec 14:11-12, Mal 3:4, Lu 2:38, Mt 3:5
Generally, the term Jerusalem when used figuratively stands for the people of Jerusalem.
Children of Jerusalem: 2Ki 19:21, Isa 37:22, La 2:13, La 2:15, Joe 3:6, Mic 4:8, Zec 9:9, Zep 3:14, Lu 23:28
The language of the children, sons or daughter of Jerusalem, is a bit more figurative and flexible and can either mean a specific individual addressed, or the people of Jerusalem. Zechariah 9:9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
In short, “Jerusalem” is simply never used in the Old Testament to stand simply for the leaders of the Jews.
Likewise in the New Testament, when Christ speaks of the children of Jerusalem, He is talking about it’s inhabitants.
Luke 19:41 “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, 44 and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Lastly, we can see the early church didn’t view the passage as James White does.
2 Esdras 1:28-33 “Thus saith the Almighty Lord, Have I not prayed you as a father his sons, as a mother her daughters, and a nurse her young babes, That ye would be my people, and I should be your God; that ye would be my children, and I should be your father? I gathered you together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings: but now, what shall I do unto you? I will cast you out from my face. When ye offer unto me, I will turn my face from you: for your solemn feastdays, your new moons, and your circumcisions, have I forsaken. I sent unto you my servants the prophets, whom ye have taken and slain, and torn their bodies in pieces, whose blood I will require of your hands, saith the Lord. Thus saith the Almighty Lord, Your house is desolate, I will cast you out as the wind doth stubble.”
This chapter of 2 Esdras was written about about A.D. 201-268 by early Christians. (link) It’s parallels to Matthew 23 are obvious, showing the way they understood the passages. Their exchange of ‘your children’ with ‘you’ shows the way they understood Matthew 23; those condemned were those who rejected.
So James White goes against the synoptic parallel, the Old Testament text Christ referred to, the general Old Testament usage, Christ’s usage of Jerusalem in the New Testament, and the way the early church understood the text. And for what? If it matters at all, it’s only for the opportunity to say absurdities like God wants and does not want to gather the children or God invites the children but does not want them to come. There’s a lot of good in Calvinism, but we must carefully sift through what we can accept and what we must reject it.