Matthew 23:37 (ESV)
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (emphasis added)
How many times have you heard this verse repeated thus:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
I’ve heard it a zillion times; frequently from people who have a specific theological ax to grind and sometimes, from men whose theology doesn’t lead them to it, but human tradition has so engrained itself that they don’t realize they’re misquoting Jesus.
The immediate issue, of course, is the omission of the phrase “your children” and substituting “you.” What’s the difference, you might ask? It’s a big difference. In the first place, every single word in the Bible is important, or it wouldn’t be there. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily bad to paraphrase Scripture in casual conversation, but when the paraphrase presents a different meaning, it is. Secondly, the exclamation “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” is what is known as a metonymy, which is figure of speech that references a thing or things by using the name of something closely associated with it. You might be familiar with its modern use when newscasters use “Washington” as a metonym for the Federal government or “Moscow” for the Russian government.
Now, the big question here is, “What is Jerusalem a metonym for?” The answer to that depends on the context of the larger passage. Matthew 23:37 comes at the end of an entire chapter where Jesus severely chastises the Scribes and Pharisees, who were the de facto leaders of the Jews in Jerusalem. He points out their pomposity, their love of adoration and attention, calls their mothers vipers, and calls them “sons of hell.” Take a few minutes and read the entire chapter. Note particularly Verse 13:
Matthew 23:13 (ESV)
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”
This verse is important to see as a bookend to Verse 37.
Here’s where the theological axes begin to grind. Critics of Reformed Theology (or Calvinism) believe Verse 37 refutes the Calvinist doctrine of Irresistible Grace and proves that people have an inviolate free will. Irresistible Grace means that God is sovereign and can overcome all resistance when He wills, particularly in the regeneration of a sinner. (See the link above for a more complete definition.) They would quote the verse with the “you” substituted for “your children” and say “See, God’s will can be resisted because Jesus is lamenting that He wanted to save all of the Jews in Jerusalem, but all of the Jews would not allow it.”
But, when Jesus says “your children”, He is speaking specifically to the Scribes and Pharisees and saying that they would not allow the people under their spiritual authority to be gathered. Remember Verse 13? It’s saying essentially the same thing. Now, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is saying they have power to prevent Him from His saving work; He is holding them responsible for trying. Keep in mind that this is a passage of severe chastisement and judgment, probably the most severe in all of Scripture.
But wait…there’s more. Those misquoting Jesus typically also add that He is weeping. However, the text nowhere mentions that. The somewhat parallel passage at Luke 13:34 also does not mention any weeping, as it also is a passage of judgment. There is a passage in Luke where Jesus does weep; it’s in Luke 19:41, which occurs just after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (which is paralleled in Matthew 21, but with no weeping), and He prophesies the destruction of the city in 70 A.D.
So, why the reference to weeping? It is an attempt to use emotion to gain a theological point, pure and simple. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve heard Reformed pastors and teachers make the same misquoting, but not in the context of refuting Calvinism. Why do they do it? I can only guess that they’ve heard it misquoted so many times in their lives that it is ingrained in their tradition.
What are our lessons here?
- Read the Bible carefully
- Quote passages in context
- Recognize and challenge your traditions when reading the Bible
- As James White says: “A man who does not recognize his tradition is a slave to that tradition.”
- Emontions aren't the best bases for Bible interpretation.
- The text says what it says what is says.