MATTHEW 23:37-39

The shadow of God’s wings
Forsaken and Desolate

Having taken a short time to instruct the crowds and His disciples as to what the scribes and Pharisees are like and what traits they themselves should be careful to avoid (Mtw 23:1-12), Jesus has gone on at length to speak to the religious leaders and announce to them the insufficiency of their religion (Mtw 23:13-36) before turning His attention here to a pronouncement concerning the city of Jerusalem (Mtw 23:37-39).

There are no direct parallels in the other Gospels but Luke 13:34-35 is worthy of note simply because it records almost an identical pronouncement by Jesus spoken at a much earlier time when He was approached by the Pharisees in an attempt to make Him flee away from the area, having informed Him that king Herod was seeking Him out.

In one sense, the words seem rather out of context in Luke’s positioning of them but they follow on from a statement that it would not be right for a prophet to die outside the capital city and is, therefore, a direct comment on the state of Jerusalem that it kills those messengers sent to it by God Himself.

But, more than this, the passage in Luke could easily have been understood to have been fulfilled and of no further use as a prophetic passage for Luke simply records Jesus as saying to the city (Luke 13:35) that

‘ will not see Me until you say “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”’

where Matthew’s text has the added word ‘again’ between ‘Me’ and ‘until’. This quote from Ps 118:26 is directly used by the pilgrims and some inhabitants of Jerusalem (though, probably only a small proportion) in the Triumphal procession which took place after Luke’s record of the statement (Luke 19:38) and readers would very easily have been drawn into thinking that what Jesus had thus predicted had now come to its fulfilment and thought nothing more.

Matthew’s record of Jesus’ repeated pronouncement while He was in the Temple but after the Triumphal procession shows the reader that what could have been taken as completed is actually very much still to be fulfilled after the event in the Temple which occurred, probably, on the Tuesday before His death and resurrection.

As on the previous web page, we must be careful to notice the people to whom these three verses are addressed. The danger is for us to expand the specific allocation of the condition of Jerusalem to include the entire nation and to speak of the entire nation as being ‘forsaken and desolate’ (Mtw 23:38), abandoned by the presence of God and left to its own devices.

What Jerusalem was observed to be may bleed over into the entire nation but that shouldn’t colour our interpretation to use Jesus’ words any wider than He originally intended them. We saw in the previous passage that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD was the event which was accepted by many as being that which would fulfil Jesus’ words (Mtw 23:36) that

‘...all this will come upon this generation’

where ‘generation’ was taken to mean the entire nation - even though the passage is specifically addressed to the religious leadership of which it sits as a conclusion (Mtw 23:29ff). The previous time and place where Jesus has said something similar also testifies to the fact that a literal Jerusalem is being meant rather than the capital being employed as representative of the nation of Israel for, before the similar words are expressed, Jesus specifically states (Luke 13:33) that

‘ cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem’

where He bears testimony to the city’s state before God of having the name of being the place where God dwells but of turning against the messengers that He sends to them. So, Matfran’s statement that

‘Jerusalem symbolises the nation whose capital it is’

is too all-inclusive to be accepted as accurate. Mathen sees the city as symbolising

‘...the spirit or attitude of the nation as a whole’

but, if the commentator had carefully looked at the way Jesus was accepted among the Galilean areas to which He was sent, he would have seen that, although the people didn’t necessarily understand or give heed to the message of the Gospel, they usually accepted Him at least for the miracles that He did and didn’t take up stones to kill Him whenever He entered their city limits (though there were exceptions! - Luke 4:29 at Nazareth) - rather, they ran to meet Him.

That Jerusalem and the surrounding cities and towns in the nation suffered terribly during the Jewish uprising is plain from the writings of Josephus. But the capital city was singled out for the worst treatment of all - not just in the way that the Romans dealt with it, but in the events which transpired within the walls before the Romans finally made a breach in the defences.

Finally, these are the last recorded public words of Jesus and Mtw 23:39 is particularly relevant in this context. But, the opposition which Jesus had received at the hands of the religious leaders alone in Jerusalem and in Galilee as He went about doing good, would have been enough for most of us to have looked upon them with a great degree of anger and bitterness - after all, hadn’t they rejected the purposes of God by rejecting Him? Weren’t they enemies of the One who’d sent Him and therefore enemies of Him, too?

But Jesus reacts to Jerusalem’s blindness in failing to perceive and accept God’s messengers not with anger but with anguish for, although He had every right to point the finger at the capital city for its history of rebellion against God, He rather laments that the solution offered to it had sadly been rejected and that, even now, there was only one final conclusion that was possible if it continued - as it would - to reject His followers who would be sent to the city’s inhabitants before the outpouring of the final judgment. Matmor also sees Jesus’ lament as looking forward to His own condemnation a few days in the future and writes that

‘It grieved Him deeply that this city above all cities should embrace the guilt that it would presently incur by its part in the execution of the Son of God, the last One God would send to her [sic - Cp Mtw 23:34]’

Therefore, we would have expected anger and bitterness but, in its place, there’s only anguish of heart and sadness as Jesus sees the end that the city’s chosen for itself.

The shadow of God’s wings
Mtw 23:37

The concept of coming under another’s wings occurs eight times n the OT and in only one place is the concept used of a woman coming under the ‘wings’ of a man (Ruth 3:9), the other seven occurrences - six of which are in the Psalms - speak of a person coming under God’s wings (Ruth 2:12, Ps 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 63:7, 91:4).

The idea of coming under the shadow of the wings is a figure which has been quick to be taken up by songwriters in the Church on more than a few occasions, primarily because, even though we aren’t necessarily farmers or have agricultural backgrounds, we can still easily see that, if we come under something, it should logically be a place that gives us protection and shelter.

This seems to be the concept promoted in the OT where it’s first usage in Ruth 2:12 is where Boaz speaks to Ruth after she’s come to the land of Israel with her mother-in-law and says

‘The Lord recompense you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge’

where the mention of a ‘refuge’ betrays its meaning. This idea of a fortress in which the covered becomes safe is also observable in Ps 36:7, 57:1 and 91:4 where the translation ‘refuge’ is additionally used - and in Ps 61:4 where we read of being ‘safe’ - in each case the Hebrew word which means a place where one flees to for protection is used (Strongs Hebrew number 2620).

Ps 17:8 sees the psalmist petitioning God with the words

‘...hide me in the shadow of thy wings’

where TWOTOT describes the Hebrew word for ‘hide’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5641) with the words

‘The subordinate thought of protection [is] involved in the root...Experientially, God Himself will be a shelter for the believer...from the storms of everyday living’

A similar concept lies in the word ‘shelter’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5643) which comes from the previous word commented on and rendered this way in the RSV in Ps 61:4. Again, the idea of protection is present in the use of the word and this appears to be the concept which bleeds over into the passage in Mtw 23:37-39.

Before we move on, we should note Psalm 57 - both its title and the first verse and compare it with the parallel incident in I Sam 24:1-22. It was here at the Wildgoats’ Rocks (I Sam 24:2) that David found refuge sufficient to ward off the pursuing army of Saul and yet, to most people, the cave in itself would have spoken to them of a secure refuge. But, to David, he still saw God as the refuge of His life and wasn’t trusting even in the earthly refuge which, it has to be said, could just as easily have turned into a trap to deliver him into the hands of Saul (for example, Joshua 1:16-18).

Therefore, instead of thanking God for the provision of the cave as protection, he still turns His direction to God alone and announces (my italics)

‘...Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in thee my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of thy wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by’

a statement which shows that the future king was trusting wholly in God securing his life and of not giving it over into the hands of his enemy. Primarily, then, all protection and security must rest in God alone.

Having seen the OT concept of the wings providing protection and, especially, of how it’s applied to God, many would baulk at Jesus’ statement here in Mtw 23:37 in which He pictures Himself as a hen - a female chicken no less (a concept first noted in II Esdras 1:30 in the Apocrypha) - which is made plain by the context in which the Greek word is used rather than by the word itself which can refer to any bird, either male or female. In this place also, the idea of protection is present and mirrors the idea we’ve seen as occurring in the OT.

The hen is the one who, when she sees danger, lets out a warning sound and all her chicks run back to her and find protection under her wings. Cansdale comments that

‘This could well have been spoken as He indicated a mother hen urgently calling her tiny brood together, using a special call for this purpose, quite unlike the alarm note of the cock’

but it seems unlikely that such a scene would have been commonly present within the Temple precincts. Although not impossible, there are details concerning the Temple which note that pigeons were forbidden to land on the holy Temple in the midst of the complex so as not to foul the area below with excrement (there were sharp protrusions which prevented it) and it may be that such a bird would have been excluded from the precinct as well unless to be offered in sacrifice.

More relevant, however, would be the crowds present in the Temple as the last days before Passover transpired and the festival approached. It would be more likely that a bird with young would never have attempted to forage within such a hustle and bustle - even though the Sons of Korah’s note in Ps 83:3 note that Creation was present in that first Temple when the court was a whole lot smaller and the crowds may not have been as large as at a festival time.

Like the hen, though, Jesus saw the danger of judgment approaching Jerusalem but, even though He’d called to them repeatedly throughout His ministry period (there are records in the Gospel of John as to His speeches and experiences in the capital city), they wouldn’t flee to Him for protection.

But, it may be asked, how had Jesus tried to gather the brood? After all, the inference could be drawn that He’s now speaking as God omnipotent and as the Person who took a personal role in sending the prophets and righteous men among them in times past to declare to the city their sin (Mtw 23:34,37a). It would be wrong to leave the description which Jesus offers without at least trying to describe the way in which He attempted to avert the judgment which He perceived was to be shortly poured out upon them.

Signs and wonders - as we’ve already seen - don’t change hearts, even though there’d been many of these done not only in Galilee but in the capital city, perhaps the two most extraordinary ones occurring at the Feast of Tabernacles here (John 9:1-7) and, close to Passover, the raising of dead Lazarus which took place in Bethany a few miles east (John 11:1-44).

But the Gospel proclamation to be changed to heed God’s commands, to call into question the desire of one’s heart and to forsake reliance upon mere external obedience was the key. Here was the solution which would have transformed the city from people who were zealous for religion to people who would have been on fire for the will of God. The shelter Jesus offered them, then, was through their personal and sincere repentance of their sins to be received by the mercy of God into His Kingdom.

Forsaken and desolate
Mtw 23:38

The reader might wonder at my choice to segregate one verse in a three verse passage and comment on it individually, but the words are so important as to warrant bringing it to the reader’s attention by giving it a separate heading.

Luke 13:35 where the similar statement occurs lacks the last couple of words ‘and desolate’ and the phrase is lacking in some of the manuscripts upon which the text is based, but Mathag notes that only a few manuscripts lack the phrase and it seems more likely that a copyist omitted the word rather than expanding it to include it in harmony with, for instance, Jer 12:7. It seems to be best, therefore, to take the word ‘desolate’ as original.

The mention of Jerusalem’s house (Strongs Greek number 3624) poses a number of possible interpretations and, in the context of the previous denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, it may favour the meaning of the vain religion which not only were the leadership promoting but the inhabitants of and visitors to Jerusalem would have been practising. Jerusalem then becomes indicative of the religion practised within it and is empty because it succeeds in nothing - except to store up wrath for itself.

In Heb 3:6, the word is employed with two separate meanings in the one verse, stating that

‘Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope’

where the former sees ‘house’ as meaning something more akin to ‘God’s affairs’ and will probably be similar in function to the concept of the Kingdom of God, whereas the latter puts the label directly on the faithful Church and sees Jesus’ rule as being over believers.

However, the more likely interpretation of ‘house’ - according to and followed by most commentators - sees the word as meaning the Temple of God or, better, the dwelling place of God on earth. Jesus uses the word this way in Mark 2:26 where Kittels states that it refers to the Temple but, as this structure wasn’t built in the time to which Jesus is referring, it’s meaning has to be the Tabernacle of Moses. But Jesus, quoting Is 56:7 and Jer 7:11, speaks of ‘My house’ as being a label to be directly put onto the Temple.

The only problem to such an interpretation, however, is that Jesus refers to the house in Mtw 23:38 as being Jerusalem’s and not God’s and it’s difficult to see how God’s personal dwelling place with man could be spoken of as belonging to the Jerusalemites rather than to God Himself. Matfran gets round this problem by seeing the mention of ‘your house’ as indicative of being the place where the Jews get their will done rather than for God to establish His own but this should, I believe, better be taken to refer to the entire city rather than simply to the service which was confined to within the Temple courts.

Even when YHWH had occasion to speak to the Jerusalemites many years previous before the deportation into Babylon, He didn’t speak about the Temple in words which disowned it as no longer being His rightful dwelling place (that is, an expression like ‘your house’ as Jesus does here in Mtw 23:38) but stated through the prophet (Jer 12:7 - my italics) that

‘I have forsaken My house, I have abandoned My heritage; I have given the beloved of My soul into the hands of her enemies’

Matcar sees the ‘house’ to be applicable to not only the city but to the entire nation and the Temple (and he will go on to comment that there seems no good reason to preclude any of the meanings and that each one may be intended) but he notes the most obvious interpretation that it should be a reference to the city

‘...since the lament is first addressed to her...’

This needs to be slightly interpreted, however, for, although the descriptor ‘your’ should be rightly taken to refer to the city, ‘house’ must refer to something else which belongs to it and the entire phrase would be unlikely to be used as a way of referring simply to Jerusalem.

For these reasons, therefore, we should, perhaps, opt for the mention of the house to be a reference to the religion of the scribes and Pharisees which had pervaded all aspects of Jewish life in the city and which had now become, in Jesus words, both ‘forsaken and desolate’.

After all, Mtw 7:24-27 has previously used a similar word for ‘house’ to be indicative of a lifestyle that was built either on His own words or on self-wisdom. A house can be used to describe the reaction of an individual or a group of people to the things they believe, used to denote the lifestyle of that person. In Jerusalem’s case, it will be the reaction of the populace to their belief in God and the way it’s worked out in the practice of their religion - not just in the Temple service but in their everyday lives as they go about their normal business. Matmor comments that

‘[God] no longer dwells with a people that has persistently refused Him’

where His interpretation sees the reference to be to the entire city and not just to the limitations of the Temple. He sees that God has departed His people rather than just that He’s left the Temple service, a comment which is wholly more severe but equally relevant to note.

Whatever the precise application and interpretation of the word ‘house’, the end phrase can only seem to possibly mean that the house has been forsaken by God Himself and that His presence has been withdrawn. We should note that Jesus isn’t recorded as saying that the house will become forsaken and desolate but that it is in this condition. As such, we aren’t looking at a future action but a present reality. Mattask sees the inclusion of the word ‘desolate’ as

‘...a prediction of the desolation that would be caused after the destruction of the city by the Romans’

but this needn’t be the case if it’s Judaism or Pharisaism which is being described. The danger with just about every desolation and judgment passage we read is to associate it with the events which concluded in 70AD - even though there’s no doubt that the destruction of the city can be seen to be a fulfilment of some of these. Here, however, Jesus speaks about the state of the city and the lack of God’s presence which is upon it’s life and it’s the current condition that’s being referred to - not to what may transpire in the future should the prophets and righteous men who will be sent to the capital continue to be rejected (Mtw 23:34-35).

Therefore, having just denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their religion, their way of living before God (Mtw 23:13-36), Jesus follows on here to note that this religion which is so much a part of everyday life in the city has been forsaken and abandoned by the presence of God, the implication being that He’s found a new way to bring about His will on earth - and that being through the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.

What Pharisaism could never achieve, God will pour out both mercifully and freely upon all those who turn to Him for healing, who look to Him to be gracious rather than to attempt to earn His favour by the things they do externally in obedience to a written code of conduct.

Mtw 23:39

Jesus’ last public teaching message to the nation is drawing to a close and this pronouncement fits perfectly well into such a context, seeing as Jesus now announces to His listeners that they shan’t see Him again. This is mirrored in the pronouncement Jesus made at the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7:33 where He told His listeners

‘I shall be with you a little longer, and then I go to Him who sent Me’

though, at that time (and probably here also), the Jews misunderstood Him and thought that He meant that He was going to preach to the Jews in the Diaspora (John 7:35). John 14:19 shows us a similar declaration but, this time, it’s spoken to the disciples at Passover and immediately following the incident here in Mtw 23:39 which occurred about two days prior).

The first question to answer is whether this verse is a promise to be fulfilled or a conditional promise which relies upon Jerusalem’s reaction for it to come about. Some commentators hold that the position of these words have been changed by the author of Matthew from where they where they were originally spoken (Luke 13:35) and that they were meant to be interpreted as being fulfilled in the Triumphal entry (Mtw 21:9), the author here being extremely careless to record words which have to be interpreted as forward-looking.

I don’t believe that’s the case as I’ve said above. Just because the same teaching is repeated, it doesn’t follow that it was only spoken the once and, besides, Luke’s record of the event may have envisaged Jesus as saying very much the same where he records it and that the Triumphal entry - even though tempting to see as a fulfilment of the word - wasn’t ever envisaged as being referred to - we simply don’t know.

Here, however, Jesus is speaking of a future time but of a time which may not come about. Matfran notes the conditional nature of the verse when he comments that

‘...the words “until you say” are expressed in Greek as in indefinite possibility rather than as a firm prediction; this is a condition on which they will see Him again; but there is no promise that the condition will be fulfilled’

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that Jesus would have announced that everything would be hunky dory in the end when He’s just announced the dangerous position that the religious leadership was living in (Mtw 23:35), a judgment which was to fall upon not only them but upon all those who would ally themselves with their teaching and so reject the demands of the Gospel of the Kingdom in the coming years.

Therefore, deliverance at Jesus’ hands seems wholly reliant not upon God Himself but upon themselves. It comes about as a reaction to their cries of recognition that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah and mean it. We aren’t simply looking at a time which could be contrived in which the correct verbal formulae would be spoken and He would come to them - rather, we should look upon the use of Ps 118:26 in the context of its use at the Feast of Tabernacles in praying for the advent of Messiah.

This won’t be a superficial verbal pronouncement but a heart felt cry which will fully accept the One who’s been previously rejected. Even so, the event recorded here as coming from Jesus’ lips is conditional and not fixed.

The apostle Paul, however, seemed to perceive that such a conditional event would, ultimately, take place when he records as much in Rom 11:25-27 but, in the context of these words in Mtw 23:39, the event is still not a certain reality.

Jesus gives His listeners no more than the bare bones of the event here but, as He moves away from the city and leaves the Temple, the questions asked of Him by the disciples (Mtw 24:1ff) prompt Him to seemingly expand on that previous statement and speak to His followers more descriptively of what was soon to take place.

But, for now, the word spoken in the Temple brings to an end His public ministry to the nation of Israel and, from now on, the words recorded are spoken privately.