03 June, 2019

Matthew 23:37—“… how often would I have gathered thy children together … and ye would not!”

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! (Matt. 23:37).

This is one of the most popular texts appealed to by proponents of the “well-meant offer” or “free offer,” namely, an earnest desire of God to save all men head for head, including the reprobate.  Christ is said to be expressing a desire for the salvation of individuals that never came about. His desire was frustrated by the wills of men. He was disappointed. He was saddened and sorrowful.

One “free offer” advocate puts it this way:

“Jesus expresses with great pathos his longing to gather Jerusalem’s children under his wings. Jesus longs to—but they have been unwilling! The unwillingness is not on Jesus’s part but on the part of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. This unwillingness speaks of the depth of sin, the obstinacy of rebels against God and his gospel. The text, however, confirms the desire of Jesus that sinners respond to his invitation.”


Rev. Angus Stewart

[Source: “Does Matthew 23:37 Teach the Well-Meant Offer?”—originally published in the Covenant Reformed News, vol. 10, nos. 3-5 (July-Sept 2004)]

This text has been abused by Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Arminians and “Well-Meant Offer” men to teach that God desires to save all the people of Jerusalem (and, by extension, everybody in the world) but many of them perish. “See,” the “Well-Meant Offer” men say, “Christ wished to save Jerusalem, but they would not let Him. Here is a universal desire of God for the salvation of everybody.” The Arminians go a step further: “Thus there is no reprobation of some and no election of others. Also God’s grace must be resistible, for, though God wanted to save everybody, man’s will stopped Him.”

However, Christ does not say that He willed to gather Jerusalem but Jerusalem resisted. Nor does He say that He willed to gather Jerusalem’s children but Jerusalem’s children resisted. Christ says that He willed to gather Jerusalem’s children but Jerusalem resisted. Christ speaks here of two different groups: Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s children. He says different things about these two groups: Jerusalem killed and stoned God’s prophets and messengers; Christ willed to gather Jerusalem’s children; Jerusalem did not will that Christ gather Jerusalem’s children.

What is meant by “Jerusalem” here? Jerusalem refers to the religious leaders of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees. Read Matthew 23: Christ denounces the “scribes and Pharisees [as] hypocrites” (cf. esp. vv. 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). They are Jerusalem, as the religious representatives of the people. This form of speech is used frequently, for example, “Washington” is often used for the political leaders of the US.  Jerusalem’s “children” are not the leaders, but those led—the common people. Like children, the common people were not learned and needed religious guidance. They are the ones Christ willed to gather under His wings of salvation (cf. Ps. 17:8; 91:4). To speak even more precisely, they are the true children of the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26), the ones whom the Son of man “came to seek and to save” (Luke 19:10), the ones given to Christ by His Father (John 6:37, 39).

Christ willed to save Jerusalem’s children, but Jerusalem (the religious leaders) did not will it. This does not mean that they thwarted Christ’s will. After Christ says that He willed to gather Jerusalem’s children, He does not say that they thwarted Him. Instead, He says, “ye would not!” These words alone do not say whether or not the scribes and Pharisees managed to stop Christ gathering His children. Instead, they expose the wickedness of the religious leaders. Their whole calling, as teachers in God’s church, was to work for the gathering of God’s children. But when the Messiah came to gather His children, they opposed His work: “ye would not!” No wonder Christ cursed them: “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23:38).

The scribes and Pharisees did all they could to stop the Messiah from gathering His elect chickens. They asked Him questions trying to trip Him up (Matt. 22). They said that His teaching contradicted Moses and that His miracles were done by the power of the devil. They agreed to excommunicate those who confessed Him as Christ (John 9:22). Jesus cried: “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in” (Matt. 23:13). Yet their calling was to point the people to Christ!

Some claim that though Christ willed to gather Jerusalem’s children (true), Jerusalem stopped Him (false). The text itself does not say whether or not Christ was successful in gathering Jerusalem’s children. It merely teaches that Christ desired to gather His people and that the scribes and Pharisees did not will it. Whether He did gather Jerusalem’s children or whether He failed must be ascertained from elsewhere.

We know that Christ gathered Lazarus, Mary and Martha, blind Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, etc.  As Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). Also, “the sheep follow [Christ]: for they know his voice. And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5). Christ came to do God’s will (John 4:34; 6:38) and God’s will is always done: “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:3). “Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven and in earth” (Ps. 135:6).

As Augustine put it:

Our Lord says plainly, however, in the Gospel, when upbraiding the impious city: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” as if the will of God had been overcome by the will of men, and when the weakest stood in the way with their want of will, the will of the strongest could not be carried out. And where is that omnipotence which hath done all that it pleased on earth and in heaven, if God willed to gather together the children of Jerusalem, and did not accomplish it? Or rather, Jerusalem was not willing that her children should be gathered together, but even though she was unwilling, He gathered together as many of her children as He wished: for He does not will some things and do them, and will others and do them not; but “He hath done all that He pleased in heaven and in earth” (The Enchiridion, xcvii).

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Many reckon that Christ uttered these words with love and tender pity, but the context reveals that He is denouncing the scribes and Pharisees. Seven times He curses them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (vv. 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). He calls them “blind” “fools” (vv. 16, 17, 19, 24, 26). He asks, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (v. 33). He designates them murderers (vv. 34, 35, 37). Our text is a “warning” (Thomas Manton) and an “upbraiding” (Augustine) uttered in “indignation” (Calvin) against the wicked religious guides. The emphatic repetition, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem” (v.37), was uttered in righteous displeasure against the corrupt leaders who had perverted the law (vv. 2-30) and were ripe for judgment (vv. 31-39). Thus He adds, immediately after our text, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (v. 38).

Some teach that Christ’s words, “how often would I have gathered thy children ... and ye would not,” imply that Christ’s will to gather Jerusalem’s children was “frustrated.” However, “how often” simply tells us that the religious leaders (“Jerusalem”) opposed Christ’s gathering His elect (“Jerusalem’s children”) many times. They did this for several years, right through His public ministry. They opposed Him in His miracles (attributing them to Beelzebub); they opposed Him in His teaching. They opposed Him with the tradition of the elders; they opposed Him with their erroneous interpretation of Moses. They opposed Him in the countryside; they opposed Him in Jerusalem; they opposed Him in the temple precincts; they opposed Him at His trial. They opposed Him by hiring Judas to betray Him; by whipping up the crowd to cry out, “Crucify him!” and by putting pressure on Pilate to have Him executed. How often they opposed Him, and yet He gathered blind Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus and all the rest!

The wicked leaders so strongly opposed Christ’s gathering His people that they had Him executed on trumped-up charges as a criminal. Yet the cross was the very means God ordained to save His elect! O Jehovah, even the wrath of man shall praise thee! Psalm 2 is similar: “The kings and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Christ” (vv. 1-3). They nail Him to the tree. But God laughs at them (v. 4), for this is the very way in which He brings His Son to His universal dominion: “Yet have I set my king upon my holy mount of Zion” (v. 6).

Thus Matthew 23:37, instead of teaching the “well-meant offer” (a frustrated desire of God to save the reprobate), is Christ’s indignant upbraiding of wicked religious leaders who tried to stop Him from saving His people. How this Word needs to be heard! Liberal ministers and Roman priests try to prevent their church members from hearing the true gospel. They slander the Reformed faith. Many unbelieving husbands, wives and family members oppose believers attending church services. Yet Christ the king gathers all Jerusalem’s children by His irresistible grace!


[The following list of historical quotes is the fine work of Rev. Angus Stewart, minister of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland (www.cprf.co.uk).]



Augustine (354-430)

[Source: The Enchiridion, xcvii]

Our Lord says plainly, however, in the Gospel, when upbraiding the impious city: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” as if the will of God had been overcome by the will of men, and when the weakest stood in the way with their want of will, the will of the strongest could not be carried out. And where is that omnipotence which hath done all that it pleased on earth and in heaven, if God willed to gather together the children of Jerusalem, and did not accomplish it? Or rather, Jerusalem was not willing that her children should be gathered together, but even though she was unwilling, He gathered together as many of her children as He wished: for He does not will some things and do them, and will others and do them not; but “He hath done all that He pleased in heaven and in earth”



Fulgentius of Ruspe (468-533)

[Source: De remissione peccatorum 2.2, 3; quoted in Francis X. Gumerlock,Fulgentius of Ruspe on the Saving Will of God: The Development of a Sixth-Century African Bishop’s Interpretation of I Timothy 2:4 During the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), p. 64]

Whence our Savior reproves the malevolence of the unbelieving city with these words: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling (Matt. 23:37). Christ said this to show its evil will by which it tried in vain to resist the invincible divine will, when God’s good will neither could be conquered by those whom it deserts nor could not be able to accomplish anything which it wanted. That Jerusalem, insofar as it attained to its will, did not wish its children to be gathered to the Savior, but still he gathered all whom he willed. In this it wanted to resist the omnipotent but was unable to because God, who, as it is written, Whatever the Lord pleases, he does (Ps. 135:6), converts to himself whomever he wills by a free justification, coming beforehand with his gift of superabounding grace on those whom he could justly damn if he wished.



Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562)

[Source: Predestination and Justification (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2003), pp. 64-65]

They [i.e., our Roman Catholic adversaries] bring up a saying of Christ’s: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chicks, and you would not?” Here also it is the antecedent will of the sign that is meant. God through his prophets, preachers, apostles, and Scriptures invited the Jews to fly to him by repentance time after time, but they refused, but by his effective will, which is called consequent, he always drew to himself those who were his. Nor was there any age when he did not gather as many of the Hebrews as he had predestined. Therefore, as Augustine said, those that I would, I have gathered together, although you would not.



John Calvin (1509-1564)


[Source: Calvin’s Calvinism (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2009), p. 93]

Now let Pighius boast, if he can, that God wills all men to be saved ... I will only cite one passage, which clearly and briefly proves how Augustine despised, without reservation, their objection now in question. “When our Lord complains that though he wished to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but she would not [Matt. 23:37], are we to consider that the will of God was overpowered by a number of weak men, so that he who was Almighty God could not do what he wished or willed to do? If so, what is to become of that omnipotence by which he did ‘whatsoever pleased him in heaven and in earth’ [Ps. 135:6]? Moreover, who will be found so profanely mad as to say that God cannot convert the evil wills of men which he pleases, when he pleases, and as he pleases, to good? When he does this, he does it in mercy; and when he does it not, in judgment he does it not.”


[Source: Richard A. Muller, “A Tale of Two Wills? Calvin, Amyraut, and Du Moulin on Ezekiel 18:23,” in Calvin and the Reformed Tradition on the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), p. 115]

In all three places [including his commentary on Matthew 23:37], Calvin denies that God has two wills—and, significantly, even when he comments on the double (duplex) manifestation of God’s willing, he refers to the will in the singular. Amyraut’s language, by contrast, consistently identifies two wills corresponding to two divine mercies.



John Knox (c. 1514-1572)

[Source: On Predestination, in Answer to the Cavillations by an Anabaptist (1560), pp. 320, 327-328; cf. 164-165; spelling and punctuation modernized]

[According to Knox’s Anabaptist adversary] Christ, as he witnesseth himself, would have gathered the Jerusalemites together, as the hen her chickens, yet would they not [misquoting Matthew 23:37]. God would that the Israelites should enter into the land of Canaan, and they would not ... [According to Knox] Because the Scriptures, which you heap together, be either plainly repugnant to your error, or else make nothing for probation of the same, I will so shortly as I can go through them, only noting wherein you abuse the words and mind of the Holy Ghost. The words of our Master, spoken in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, serve nothing for your purposes ... If you dare say, that Christ in that place meaneth, in that he would have gathered those murderers, and sons of murderers, as he doth witness he doth gather his chosen flock, himself will convict you of a lie. For he affirmeth the same to the Scribes and Pharisees, to whom principally he spake in that place, that they were not of his sheep [John 10:26], and that therefore they could not be gathered to his fold; that they were not of God, and therefore that they could not hear his voice [John 8:47]; that he did not pray for the world [John 17:9], and therefore they could never be united to God. You must declare how that God would that those Israelites, whose carcasses fell in the wilderness, should enter into the land promised. If you say, by any other will than by his general principle given, that they should go and possess it, you shall lack the testimony of the Holy Ghost. I have declared causes most just and most sufficient, why God shall command that which is just, right, and laudable, albeit that man neither can perform his commandments, neither yet that it was God’s eternal will and counsel that all men should so do. And further, I have declared just causes why God doth call many to repentance and felicity, and yet that he chooseth a certain to attain thereto, and enter the same. And so, I say, you must prove that God did otherwise will them to enter into the land than by his general commandment, before you be able to prove that any thing is done against the eternal and immutable will of God.



Pierre du Moulin (1568–1658)

[Source: Anatomie of Arminianism (London: T. S. for Nathaniel Newbery, 1620), pp. 36-37; cf. p. 479]

[Matthew 23:37] signifieth quite another thing [than Arminius supposes]. Christ speaks to Jerusalem, and saith, that he would have gathered his children together; but Jerusalem herself resisted, with all her power. Jerusalem is one thing, and her children another, who here are expressly distinguished from the city: By Jerusalem understand the priests, the Levites, the scribes, and the prince of the people, for these did most of all withstand Christ: By the children of Jerusalem, understand the people. Christ saith, that he would have gathered together these children; neither is it to be doubted, but that he gathered together many of them, although the rulers were unwilling ... Saint [Augustine] thinks [Enchiridion, chapter 97] ... she indeed would not have her children to be gathered together by him: but even [though] she [was] unwilling, he gathered those of her children whom he himself would.



John Owen (1616-1683)

[Source: The Works of John Owen (Great Britain: Banner, 1967), vol. 10, pp. 400-401]

[The Arminians argue thus] “God’s earnest expostulations, contendings, charges, and protestations, even to such as whereof many perished, Romans 9:27; Isaiah 10:22. As, to instance:—“O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me,” etc., “that it might be well with them!” Deuteronomy 5:29. “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” etc., Isaiah 5:4, 5. “What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me?” Jeremiah 2:5. “Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? a land of darkness? wherefore say my people, We are lords; we will come no more unto thee?” verse 31. “O my people, what have I done unto thee? wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me,” Micah 6:3. “How often would I have gathered,” etc., “and ye would not!” Matthew 23:37. “O that my people had hearkened unto me!” etc., “I should soon have subdued their enemies,” etc., Psalm 81:13, 14. “Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded,” etc., Proverbs 1:24-31. “Because, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God,” etc., Romans 1:21, 28. “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man,” etc., “Thou, after thy hardness and impenitent heart, treasurest up unto thyself wrath,” etc., Romans 2:1, 5.  The Christian, I hope, will reply against God, and say, “Thou never meantest us good; there was no ransom given for us, no atonement made for us, no good done us, no mercy shown us,—nothing, in truth, whereby we might have been saved, nothing but an empty show, a bare pretense.” But if any should reason so evilly, yet shall not such answers stand.

Ans. To this collection of expostulations I shall very briefly answer with some few observations, manifesting of how little use it is to the business in hand ... Not that I deny that there is sufficient matter of expostulation with sinners about the blood of Christ and the ransom paid thereby, that so the elect may be drawn and wrought upon to faith and repentance, and believers more and more endeared to forsake all ungodliness and worldly lusts, to live unto him who died for them, and that others may be left more inexcusable; only for the present there are no such expostulations here expressed, nor can any be found holding out the purpose and intention of God in Christ towards them that perish ... Fourthly, it is confessed, I hope by all, that there are none of those things for the want whereof God expostulateth with the sons of men, but that he could, if it so seemed good before him, effectually work them in their hearts, at least, by the exceeding greatness of his power: so that these things cannot be declarative of his purpose, which he might, if he pleased, fulfill; “for who hath resisted his will,” Romans 9:19. Fifthly, that desires and wishings should properly be ascribed unto God is exceedingly opposite to his all-sufficiency and the perfection of his nature; they are no more in him than he hath eyes, ears, and hands. These things are to be understood [in a way befitting to God]. Sixthly, it is evident that all these are nothing but pathetical declarations of our duty in the enjoyment of the means of grace, strong convictions of the stubborn and disobedient, with a full justification of the excellency of God’s ways to draw us to the performance of our duties.



Francis Turretin (1623-1687)


[Source: Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ; P&R, 1992), p. 228]

This twofold will cannot be proved from Matthew 23:37: (1) because it is not said that God willed to scatter those whom he willed to gather together, but only that Christ willed to gather together those whom Jerusalem (i.e., the chiefs of the people) nilled to be gathered together, but notwithstanding their opposition Christ did not fail in gathering together those whom he willed. Hence Augustine says, “She indeed was unwilling that her sons should be gathered together by him, but notwithstanding her unwillingness he gathered together his sons whom he willed” (Enchiridion 24 [97] [FC 2:450; PL 40.277]). Therefore, Jerusalem is here to be distinguished from her sons as the words themselves prove (and the design of the chapter, in which from v. 13 to v. 37, he addresses the scribes and Pharisees and rebukes them because “they neither went into the kingdom of heaven themselves, nor suffered those that were entering, to go in”); (2) the will here alluded to is not the decretive, which is one only and simple, but the preceptive, which is referred to calling and is often repeated by the preaching of the word—“How often would I?”; (and so Christ here speaks as the minister of circumcision).


[Source: Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ; P&R, 1994), p. 556]

Although Christ professes that “he had wished to gather together the children of Jerusalem, and they would not” (Matt. 23:37), it does not follow that grace is resistible. (1) Jerusalem is here openly distinguished from her children and by it are denoted the elders, scribes, priests and other leaders of the city (who are gifted with the better name of city [as Matt. 2:1, 3] and who wished to be considered the fathers of the people). Nor does Christ say that those whom he wished to gather together were unwilling to be gathered together. But only that Jerusalem was unwilling that her children should be gathered and “thou wouldst not” (to wit, ye leaders). And thus Christ does not so much complain of those who being called had not come, as of those who resisted the calling of others as much as they could (the key of knowledge being taken away); not entering as to themselves and prohibiting others who entered (i.e., who desired to enter) as much as in them lay, as we read in Luke 11:52. But still Christ did not cease, notwithstanding the resistance of the leaders of the city, to gather whom he wished, as Augustine has it.


[Source: Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney (Edinburgh: Banner, 1982), vol. 1, pp. 283-284]

The attempt of the “Hypothetic Universalists” was to reconcile all the scriptures by ascribing to God two acts of will concerning human salvation—one general and conditional volition to send Christ to provide expiation for all men, and to receive them all to heaven, provided they would believe on him; the other, a special and unconditioned volition to call the elect effectually, and thus insure that they should believe and be saved. Then they supposed that all the texts in question could be explained as expressions of the general and conditioned volition. But Turretin’s refutation (for instance, Loc. IV., Qu. 17) is fatal. He urges that the only merciful volition of God in Scripture is that towards the elect; and “the rest he hardeneth” [cf. Rom. 9:18; 11:7]; that it is inevitably delusive to represent an omniscient and omnipotent Agent as having any kind of volition towards a result, when, foreseeing that the sinner will certainly not present the essential condition thereof—faith—he himself distinctly purposes not to bestow it; that the hearing of the gospel (Rom. x. 14) is as means equally essential, and God providentially leaves all the heathen without this; and that it is derogatory to God’s power and sovereignty to represent any volition of his, that is a volition, as failing in a multitude of cases. It is significant that the Reformed divines of Turretin’s school seem usually to conduct this debate on the assumption, sometimes tacit, sometimes expressed, that as God had no volition towards the salvation of the non-elect, so he could not have any propension or affection at all towards it ... [Turretin] urges the inconsistency of “an ineffectual and imperfect will” (in the Almighty) “which doth not bring to pass the thing willed”



Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711)

[Source: The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, vol. 1 (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), pp. 116-117]

He is the only wise God (I Tim. 1:17) and the omnipotent One. “The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand ... For the LORD of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? and His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?” (Isa. 14:24, 27). He is also the immutable One in whom there is no change nor shadow of turning (James 1:17). He says concerning Himself, “I am the LORD, I change not” (Mal. 3:6); “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure” (Isa. 46:10). God is truth, and all that He wills He wills truly, earnestly, and sincerely. He is perfect. Far be it from the Lord to will something and yet be insincere; to will something and then to change it; to decree something and subsequently to be in error in this area, being neither desirous nor able to execute the said decree; and to be desirous while simultaneously not being desirous ... When the Lord Jesus says, “... how often would I have gathered thy children together ... and ye would not!” (Mat. 23:37), it is neither suggested that there are two wills in God nor that He has an impotent will. Rather, Christ is here referring to His work which He executed according to His will, and to the opposition of the chief rulers of Jerusalem who were not desirous to enter in, and prevented the people from entering in as well.



Peter Nahuys (1692-1766)

[Source: Op het Kort Begrip der Christelijke Leer; Verdedigd tegen Dwaalgeesten en Dwalingen (1739), translated and quoted by Herman Hanko, A History of the Free-Offer of the Gospel (Grandville, MI: Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 1989), p. 154]

It is up to those parties still to prove that an efficacious and internal calling is spoken of in this passage [i.e., Matt. 23:37]; and even though we grant this, this passage still does not favour the wrong idea of these parties; for the Saviour very clearly refers to Jerusalem and her children; and they tried, were this possible, to prevent Him from gathering the children. But in no way does He complain about the children as if they have resisted that calling, which these parties try to prove from this passage. The opposite is true, for many did believe in Him, regardless of the fact that this displeased and was contrary to the wishes of the rulers.



John Gill (1697-1771)

[Source: The Cause of God and Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971), p. 29; italics Gill’s]

... the persons whom Christ would have gathered are not represented as being unwilling to be gathered; but their rulers were not willing that they should. The opposition and resistance to the will of Christ, were not made by the people, but by their governors. The common people seemed inclined to attend the ministry of Christ, as appears from the vast crowds which, at different times and places, followed him; but the chief priests and rulers did all they could to hinder the collection of them to him; and their belief in him as the Messiah, by traducing his character, miracles, and doctrines, and by passing an act that whosoever confessed him should be put out of the synagogue [John 9:22; 12:42] so that the obvious meaning of the text is the same with that of ver. 13, where our Lord says, Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in; and consequently is no proof of men’s resisting the operations of the Spirit and grace of God, but of obstructions and discouragements thrown in the way of attendance on the external ministry of the word.



Lorraine Boettner (1901-1990)

[Source: The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1932), pp. 294-295]

The reply of Augustine to those who advanced this objection in his day is worth quoting: “When our Lord complains that though he wished to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but she would not [Matt. 23:37], are we to consider that the will of God was overpowered by a number of weak men, so that He who was Almighty God could not do what He wished or willed to do? If so, what is to become of that omnipotence by which He did whatsoever pleased Him in Heaven and in earth? Moreover, who will be found so unreasonable as to say that God cannot convert the evil wills of men, which He pleases, when He pleases, and as He pleases, to good? Now, when He does this, He does it in mercy; and when He doeth it not, in judgment He doeth it not.”



John H. Gerstner (1914-1996)

[Source: Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2000), pp. 143-144, 145; italics Gerstner’s]

Murray and Stonehouse insist that, though God truly desires the salvation of the reprobate, He does not decree that. Rather, He decrees the opposite. They recognize theirs as a very dangerous position and appeal to great mystery: “We have found [e.g., in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34] that God himself expresses an ardent desire for the fulfillment of certain things which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass. This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed, a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree. This is indeed mysterious, and why he has not brought to pass in the exercise of his omnipotent power and grace, what is his ardent pleasure lies hidden in the sovereign counsel of his will.” However this is not “mystery” but bald contradiction ... The question facing us here is whether God could “desire” that which He does not bring to pass. There is no question at all that He can desire certain things, and these things which He desires He possesses and enjoys in Himself eternally. Otherwise, He would not be the ever-blessed God. The Godhead desires each Person in the Godhead and enjoys each eternally. The Godhead also desires to create, and He (though He creates in time) by creating enjoys so doing eternally. Otherwise, He would be eternally bereft of a joy He presently possesses and would have increased in joy if He later possessed it—both of which notions are impossible. He would thereby have changed (which is also impossible) and would have grown in the wisdom of a new experience (which is blasphemous to imagine). If God’s very blessedness means the oneness of His desire and His experience, is not our question (whether He could desire what He does not desire) rhetorical? Not only would He otherwise be bereft of some blessedness which would reduce Him to finitude, but He would be possessed of some frustration which would not only bereave Him of some blessedness, but would manifestly destroy all blessednessThis is clearly the case because His blessedness would be mixed with infinite regret. Our God would be the ever-miserable, ever-blessed God. His torment in the eternal damnation of sinners would be as exquisite as it is everlasting. He would actually suffer infinitely more than the wicked. Indeed, He would Himself be wicked because He would have sinfully desired what His omniscience would have told Him He could never have. But why continue to torture ourselves? God, if He could be frustrated in His desires, simply would not be God.



William Young (1918-)

It is worthy of note that Matthew 23:37 is commonly misquoted as if it read, “how often would I have gathered you ... and ye would not.” The text does not make a contrast between the Lord’s will and the wills of those whom he would gather, but between his compassion for Jerusalem’s children and the opposition of their leaders who have been denounced in the preceding passage.



James R. White

[Source: The Potter’s Freedom (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2000), pp. 137-138; italics White’s]

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 context would not lead us to conclude that this is to be taken in a universal sense. Jesus is condemning the Jewish leaders, and it is to them that He refers here. This is clearly seen in that:
It is to the leaders that God sent prophets;
It was the Jewish leaders who killed the prophets and those sent to them;
Jesus speaks of “your children,” differentiating those to whom He is speaking from those that the Lord desired to gather together.
The context refers to the Jewish leaders, scribes and Pharisees.
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 ... The “children” of the leaders would be Jews who were hindered by the Jewish leaders from hearing Christ. The “you would not” then is referring to the same men indicated by the context: the Jewish leaders who “were unwilling” to allow those under their authority to hear the proclamation of the Christ. This verse, then, is speaking to the same issues raised earlier in Matthew 23:13.



James Gracie

[Source: “God’s Thwarted Desire?” The Presbyterian Standard, Issue 29 (January-March 2003)]

But does the Lord Jesus Christ in our nature sincerely and passionately will something for the reprobate that God the Father does not? Christ says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often would I have gathered thy children together ... and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37). Is Christ lamenting His inability to fulfil what He sincerely desires, or is He desiring something His Father does not? Is He frustrated by the opposition of the Pharisees? Turretin deals with this text: “It is not said that God willed to scatter those whom he willed to gather together, but only that Christ willed to gather together those whom Jerusalem (i.e. the chiefs of the people) nilled to be gathered together, but notwithstanding their opposition Christ did not fail in gathering together those whom he willed.” Augustine similarly states: “She indeed was unwilling that her sons should be gathered together by him, but notwithstanding her unwillingness he gathered together his sons whom he willed” (Enchiridion 24 [97] FC 2:450; PL 40:277). Christ does not say that He would gather “Jerusalem” but rather “the children of Jerusalem.” This distinction is often simply ignored to facilitate a false interpretation of the passage. However, while Jerusalem represents the scribes and Pharisees, her children are those whom Christ gathers into the Kingdom. This is obvious from verse 13 of the same chapter, where Christ states: “... for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” Scripture does not say that God loves, but that God is Love. Such an attribute of love is not determined by feelings. It is perfect love, fully exercised one hundred percent of the time toward His people. Contrary to what is asserted by some, the so-called “well-meant” offer is not reformed theology; reformed theology recognises no thwarted desire in God. God is perfectly blessed in himself: His will is one.



Martyn McGeown

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 51, no. 2 (April 2018), p. 70]

First, there is no pathos in Matthew 23—there is anger.  Verse 37 comes at the end of a long denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy.  Second, Jesus makes a distinction between Jerusalem’s children whom He would gather and Jerusalem who did not desire—and who therefore sought to hinder—that gathering. Jerusalem is a reference to the leaders of Jerusalem, while Jerusalem’s children are the elect within the nation.  Third, Jerusalem’s sin was her deliberate opposition to Jesus’ ministry, which opposition culminated in Christ’s crucifixion, but despite (and even through) that opposition Jesus gathered the church: “he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:52). There is no free offer or ineffectual desire of Christ in Matthew 23:37.



David J. Engelsma

[Source: The Rock Whence We Are Hewn (ed. David Engelsma; Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2015), p. 332]

[The] genuine children of Jerusalem were the elect among the inhabitants of the city. These Jesus desired to gather. These he did gather, despite Jerusalem’s opposition. Jesus spoke in the text as the Messiah, whose will, or desire, is the will of God who sent him. The will of God was the gathering not of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but only of Jerusalem’s genuine children, that is, the elect.




The following also do not agree with and/or oppose that exegesis of Matthew 23:37 or Luke 13:34 that proposes the notion of an unrealized or unfulfilled desire in God to save the reprobate:

Theodore Beza (1519-1605),

Jacobus Kimedoncius (c.1550-1596) (Of the Redemption of Mankind, trans. Hugh Ince [London: Felix Kingston, 1598], pp. 54, 261, 263),

William Perkins (1558-1602) (e.g., The Workes of that famous and worthy Minister of Christ in the Universitie of Cambridge [London: John Legatt and Cantrell Legge, 1616-18], II:638),

John Dove (1561-1618) (cf. Jonathan Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007], pp. 63-67);

Christopher Ness (1621-1705) (An Antidote Against Arminianism [USA: Still Waters Revival Books, 1988], pp. 98-99);

Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965),

Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) (Herman Hoeksema,The Clark-Van Til Controversy [Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 1995, 2005], pp. 49, 70);

David J. Engelsma (Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel [Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2014], p. 135);

W. Gary Crampton (“The Myth of Common Grace,” The Trinity Review [March/April, 1987]);

the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia (“Universalism and the Reformed Churches: A Defense of Calvin's Calvinism” [Youngtown, Tasmania: The Magazine and Literature Committee of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, 1997], pp. 14-16);

Matthew Winzer (“Murray on the Free Offer: A Review,” The Blue Banner [October/December, 2000], vol. 9, issue 10-12, pp. 14-16); and

Richard Bacon (“In this Issue,” The Blue Banner, vol. 9, issue 10-12 [October/December, 2000], pp. 1-2, cf. 14-16)


Q. 1. “Does not the fact that Christ was ‘angry’ with Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37; Luke 19:41-44) imply that that He wanted to save them?”

To conclude from God’s anger with sinners and His abhorrence of sin that He desires to save all men is a monstrous corruption of simple logic. The truth of Scripture is that God loves His elect with a love revealed in the cross of Christ and God so greatly abhors the sinner that He punishes the sinner with eternity in hell. (Prof. Herman Hanko)



For a response to David Silverside’s objection to the view of Matthew 23:37 that distinguishes between “Jerusalem” and Jerusalem’s “children,” see the following:

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