It is sometimes argued that when Jesus laments over Jerusalem, saying, “How often I wanted to gather your children…” (Matt. 23:37), we should understand this as an assertion of his involvement “in the entire duration of Israel’s history.”1 In Simon Gathercole’s words, Jesus is portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel “as a transcendent figure who has been summoning Israel to repentance throughout her history.”2 Here is the text:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one killing the prophets and stoning those sent to it, how often I wanted to gather your children, in the way that a bird gathers her brood (nossia) under the wings, and you did not want it. Behold, your house is left to you desolate. For I say to you: you will not see me from now until you say, “Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord.” (Matt. 23:37-39, my translation; cf. Lk. 13:34-35)
The passage comes as the climax to Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in the temple. The location is important.
The accusation that Jerusalem “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matt. 23:37) naturally recalls the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt. 21:33-41). Luke has Jesus say that “it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). The dreadful consequence is that the present generation of Jerusalem’s citizens will suffer the punishment for the long history of Israel’s violent hostility towards to God’s prophets (Matt. 23:35-36).
The metaphor of the bird (ornis) and her brood is usually linked to Old Testament images of the relation of God to his people: “hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who do me violence, my deadly enemies who surround me” (Ps. 17:8–9; cf. 36:7; 91:4). But Jesus is not offering protection or refuge—contrary to the popular conception. It is an image for his desire for communion or association or relationship. It is because they reject that relationship that the city faces a danger from which there will be no shelter.
I wonder, therefore, if another Old Testament echo may not be more relevant. The only place where nossia (“brood”) is found in the Septuagint is Psalm 83:4 (=Ps. 84:3 MT):
Indeed, a sparrow found itself a home, and a turtledove a nest for herself, where she will lay her young (nossia): your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
The image has been adapted, of course, to fit the circumstances, but the context is highly appropriate. The psalmist yearns for the courts of the temple. He was in the “valley of weeping”, but he prays that the Lord will look on the face of his anointed king (tou christou sou). He would rather be “thrown down in the house of God” than live in the tents of sinners. But his overriding desire is to dwell in the house of God like the sparrows and turtle doves that happily make their home there.
It seems to me likely that the “how often I wanted” refers not to Israel’s past history but to the many times, since his designation as the “beloved Son” whom God has sent to the vineyard of Israel, when he wanted to worship in the temple with a repentant and reformed—and perhaps in-gathered—people. It has now become clear that this is not going to happen.
The argument against this is that in Matthew and Luke Jesus has shown next to no interest in being in Jerusalem: “Jesus has neither been to Jerusalem, nor expressed any feeling about the city in his ministry up to this point.”3
But the statements about the Son of Man going to Jerusalem, where he will suffer many things (Matt. 16:21; 20:17-18; Mk. 10:32-33), would accommodate an underlying, unspoken and perhaps forlorn desire to gather around him a redeemed community in the temple. When the twelve year old Jesus was finally found in the temple, he said to his parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). It does not seem so far fetched to suppose that his soul longed and fainted for the courts of the Lord.
“Your house is left to you desolate (erēmos)” is the declaration of judgment on the temple, in the first place, then perhaps, too, on the city and the “house” of Israel. Jeremiah is especially relevant:
This is what the Lord says: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver one seized from the hand of one who does him wrong. And do not oppress, and do not act impiously against guest and orphan and widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, for if in doing you do this word, by the gates of this house shall also enter kings who sit on the throne of David, and mounted on chariots and horses, they and their servants and their people.
But if you will not do these words, by myself I have sworn, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation (erēmōsin)—because this is what the Lord says against the house of the king of Judah: You are Gilead to me, realm of Lebanon; if I do not make you a wilderness, cities not to be inhabited! And I will bring destroyers against you, a man and his ax, and they shall cut down your choice cedars and cast them into the fire. (Jer. 22:3–7 LXX)
Finally, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps. 117:26 LXX = Ps. 118:26 MT) is an acclamation of Israel’s king. He called to the Lord in his affliction, when he was surrounded by aggressive nations. The Lord delivered him, therefore he will not die but will live. The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. The king is blessed when he comes to the house of the Lord to acknowledge what the Lord has done for him.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, therefore, is readily understood in royal terms, as part of the kingdom narrative. He is the king who desired many times to worship in the temple with his people—like a bird with its brood, which has found a nesting place in the courts of the Lord—but has been rejected by them. So, instead, the temple will be left desolate, ruined, when the Roman armies besiege the city and set up the “abomination of desolation (erēmōseōs)” in the temple courts (Matt. 24:15). This generation will not escape being sentenced to the destruction of Gehenna (Matt. 23:33).
Jesus at once leaves the temple and says, “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2).
The acclamation of Jesus as king has been deferred. The triumphal entry, when the people indeed cried out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 21:9), has proved illusory, at best prophetic of a future coming. It will not be until the parousia following the judgment on Jerusalem, that a faithful and repentant people will acclaim him as their king.