John Calvin (1509-1564) on Matthew 23:37

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in Matthew 23:37



“How often would I have gathered together thy children.” This is expressive of indignation rather than of compassion. The city itself, indeed, over which he had lately wept, (Luke 19:41,) is still an object of his compassion; but towards the scribes, who were the authors of its destruction, he uses harshness and severity, as they deserved. And yet he does not spare the rest, who were all guilty of approving and partaking of the same crime, but, including all in the same condemnation, he inveighs chiefly against the leaders themselves, who were the cause of all the evils. We must now observe the vehemence of the discourse. If in Jerusalem the grace of God had been merely rejected, there would have been inexcusable ingratitude; but since God attempted to draw the Jews to himself by mild and gentle methods, and gained nothing by such kindness, the criminality of such haughty disdain was far more aggravated. There was likewise added unconquerable obstinacy; for not once and again did God wish to gather them together, but, by constant and uninterrupted advances, he sent to them the prophets, one after another, almost all of whom were rejected by the great body of the people.

“As a hen collects her brood under her wings.” We now perceive the reason why Christ, speaking in the person of God, compares himself to a hen. It is to inflict deeper disgrace on this wicked nation, which had treated with disdain invitations so gentle, and proceeding from more than maternal kindness. It is an amazing and unparalleled instance of love, that he did not disdain to stoop to those blandishments, by which he might tame rebels into subjection. A reproof nearly similar is employed by Moses, that God, like an eagle with outspread wings, (Deuteronomy 32:11,) embraced that people. And though in more than one way God spread out his wings to cherish that people, yet this form of expression is applied by Christ, in a peculiar manner, to one class, namely, that prophets were sent to gather together the wandering and dispersed into the bosom of God. By this he means that, whenever the word of God is exhibited to us, he opens his bosom to us with maternal kindness, and, not satisfied with this, condescends to the humble affection of a hen watching over her chickens. Hence it follows, that our obstinacy is truly monstrous, if we do not permit him to gather us together. And, indeed, if we consider, on the one hand, the dreadful majesty of God, and, on the other, our mean and low condition, we cannot but be ashamed and astonished at such amazing goodness. For what object can God have in view in abasing himself so low on our account? When he compares himself to a mother, he descends very far below his glory; how much more when he takes the form of a hen, and deigns to treat us as his chickens? Besides, if this charge was justly brought against the ancient people, who lived under the Law, it is far more applicable to us. For though the statement which I quoted a little ago from Moses was always true, and though the complaints which we find in Isaiah are just, that in vain did God spread out his hands every day to embrace a hard-hearted and rebellious people, (Isaiah 65:27) that, though he rose up early, (Jeremiah 7:13) he gained nothing by his incessant care of them; yet now, with far greater familiarity and kindness, he invites us to himself by his Son. And, therefore, whenever he exhibits to us the doctrine of the Gospel, dreadful vengeance awaits us, if we do not quietly hide ourselves under his wings, by which he is ready to receive and shelter us. Christ teaches us, at the same time, that all enjoy safety and rest who, by the obedience of faith, are gathered together to God; because under his wings they have an impregnable refuge. We must attend likewise to the other part of this accusation, that God, notwithstanding the obstinate rebellion of his ancient people, was not all at once so much offended by it, as to lay aside a father’s love and a mother’s anxiety, since he did not cease to send prophets after prophets in uninterrupted succession; as in our own day, though he has experienced a marvelous depravity in the world, he still continues to dispense his grace. But these words contain still deeper instruction, namely, that the Jews, as soon as the Lord gathered them together, immediately left him. Hence came dispersions so frequent, that they scarcely remained at rest for a single moment under the wings of God, as we see in the present day a certain wildness in the world, which has indeed existed in all ages; and, therefore, it is necessary that God should recall to himself those who are wandering and going astray. But this is the crowning point of desperate and final depravity, when men obstinately reject the goodness of God, and refuse to come under his wings.

I said formerly that Christ speaks here in the person of God, and my meaning is, that this discourse belongs properly to his eternal Godhead; for he does not now speak of what he began to do since he was manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 2:16,) but of the care which he exercised about the salvation of his people from the beginning. Now we know that the Church was governed by God in such a manner that Christ, as the Eternal Wisdom of God, presided over it. In this sense Paul says, not that God the Father was tempted in the wilderness, but that Christ himself was tempted, (1 Corinthians 10:9.) Again, when the sophists seize on this passage, to prove free will, and to set aside the secret predestination of God, the answer is easy. “God wills to gather all men,” say they; “and therefore all are at liberty to come, and their will does not depend on the election of God.” I reply: The will of God, which is here mentioned, must be judged from the result. For since by his word he calls all men indiscriminately to salvation, and since the end of preaching is, that all should betake themselves to his guardianship and protection, it may justly be said that he wills to gather all to himself. It is not, therefore, the secret purpose of God, but his will, which is manifested by the nature of the word, that is here described; for, undoubtedly, whomsoever he efficaciously wills to gather, he inwardly draws by his Spirit, and does not merely invite by the outward voice of man. If it be objected, that it is absurd to suppose the existence of two wills in God, I reply, we fully believe that his will is simple and one; but as our minds do not fathom the deep abyss of secret election, in accommodation to the capacity of our weakness, the will of God is exhibited to us in two ways. And I am astonished at the obstinacy of some people, who, when in many passages of Scripture they meet with that figure of speech (anthropopatheia) which attributes to God human feelings, take no offense, but in this case alone refuse to admit it. But as I have elsewhere treated this subject fully, that I may not be unnecessarily tedious, I only state briefly that, whenever the doctrine, which is the standard of union, is brought forward, God wills to gather all, that all who do not come may be inexcusable.

“And you would not.” This may be supposed to refer to the whole nation, as well as to the scribes; but I rather interpret it in reference to the latter, by whom the gathering together, was chiefly prevented. For it was against them that Christ inveighed throughout the whole of the passage; and now, after having addressed Jerusalem in the singular number, it appears not without reason that he immediately used the plural number. There is an emphatic contrast between God’s willing and their not willing; for it expresses the diabolical rage of men, who do not hesitate to contradict God. Calvin, Commentary, Matt 23:37.


1) And yet notwithstanding, behold, God loves us so greatly, that to express the love which he bears us, and to witness his goodness towards us, he likens himself to a bird, and us to his little ones. Since we see this, let us learn to magnify the goodness and finite grace of our God better than we have done heretofore, and let every [one] of us awake and enforce himself to consider them thoroughly. For wherefore is it such sort, but to reprove our unthankfulness, because we be so over gross and dull-headed, as we let the benefits slip which he bestows upon us, and digest them not to conceive the goodness of them, and to take heed of them? That is the cause why he sets before us after a fashion. And we see how our Lord Jesus speaks of himself, in bewaying the destruction of the City of Jerusalem (Mat. 23:37). How oft (says he) would I have gathered the little ones under my wings, and thou would not? There the Lord Jesus speaks not as a man, but shows that inasmuch as he is the everlasting God, he played the part of the hen towards the Jews, and had his wings stretched out to have brooded them: and that they on their side played the wild beasts that would not be tamed. Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 7, 1:29-33, pp., 38-39.

2) For we be monsters against kind: insomuch that whereas God offers himself to us, and reaches us his hands so as if we saw him in his own person, we could have no greater assurance of the fatherly love that he bears us, than that he is so liberal that we may have our fill of his benefits: yet notwithstanding we forget him even when he puts us in mind of him, not only by speaking to us, but also by showing us by experience that he knits himself to us, and has a care of us in watching over us, not only for the saving of our souls, but also for the nourishing of our bodies, feeding us like little babes, and as it were stretching out his wings over us, as a hen does over her chickens, as comparison is made in the holy scripture. Seeing that God gives us such proof of his goodness, and also knits himself unto us, of purpose to gather us together and to take us up to himself: were it not a devilish madness to forget him, and to turn our backs upon him, and to shut our eyes against him, yea and to conceive of excessive rage as to say, we will not think upon him that seeks us, is not this a devilish madness? Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 77, 6:1–13, p., 297.

3) Therefore let us so benefit ourselves by this promise, that whensoever we be astonished, or in any way doubt or grief, of mind, we always have recourse thither and say, “Our God is mighty.” And why? Wherein will he utter his mightiness? Alas, it is true that he might well utter it in confounding & destroying us: but he is patient, gentle, & meek, and he will not have us to fee his force to our harm: but rather he will have us to feel his passing fatherly goodness. All of his desire is to gather us under his wings as a hen that broods her little chickens (Matt. 23:37). And it is a singular comfort unto us, when we know that he will be so loving and favourable towards us, and yet nevertheless will be known to be mighty and terrible in the overthrowing of our enemies, and in the overthrowing of all things that are against us. Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 56, 7:19-24, p., 338.

4) But in the meanwhile we are far little better by this lesson. For although we be warned sufficiently of our infirmities, yet do we not cease for all that to be blinded with presumption, insomuch as every [one] of us thinks to maintain himself well enough. And by that means we hold scorn of the help of our God. Or else we be so full of distrust, that although he call us to him with all gentleness that can be devised: yet we cannot find in our hearts to come to him, bit do always stand in doubt of him. And that is the cause why our Lord Jesus Christ finds fault with the city of Jerusalem, that when as he would have gathered her chickens together, she would not (Matt. 23:37). He makes even a complaint of it in the way of lamentation, saying: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as the Hen stretches out her wings to gather her young chickens to her & though has despised that great benefit, thou has not vouchsafed to shroud thyself under me. I have been desirous to make thee to feel my power to the maintaining of thee in thine state. But what? Thou has been fain to feel heretofore many chastisements because of thine unthankfulness: but the time will come that thou shall be utterly destroyed. Let us beware that God have not like cause to find fault with us nowadays, and to pour out this vengeance upon us after he shall have borne with us a long time. For the foresaid threatening which our Lord Jesus Christ made, befell not out of hand. God had many ways assayed to gather the city of Jerusalem unto his obedience: and when he saw them so stubborn that they were past amendment, he punished them according to their desert. Therefore let us not tempt the patience of our God, but when we see him spread out his wings to gather us unto him, let us run to him, & let necessity drive us thereto: For what shall we do if our Lord keep us not? Again, let not fearfulness or doubting keep us back from him. For what can he do more, than abase himself after the manner of a chicken, to the intent that his majesty should not be terrible to us and scare us away?

Let us mark further, that God plays the part of the clock-hen in all points, to gather us under his wings. For on the one side he calls us unto his tuition by the preaching of the Gospel, promising us that the power of the Holy Spirit fail us, but that it shall defend us against all the assaults of Satan, according as it is said that all the fortresses of hell shall be able to do nothing to us, if we be grounded upon the faith of the Gospel. Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 181, 32:11–15, p., 1122.


1) But, you will say, if this is so, there will be little faith in the gospel promises, which, in testifying to the will of God, assert that he wills what is contrary to his inviolable decree. Not at all. For however universal the promises of salvation may be, they are still in no respect inconsistent with the predestination of the reprobate, provided we pay attention to their effect. When we receive the promises in faith, we know that then and only then do they become effective in us. On the contrary, when faith is snuffed out, the promise is abolished at the same time. If this is their nature, let us see whether they disagree with one another. God is said to have ordained from eternity those whom he wills to embrace in love, and those upon whom he wills to vent his wrath. Yet he announces salvation to all men indiscriminately. I maintain that these statements agree perfectly with each other. For by so promising he merely means that his mercy is extended to all, provided they seek after it and implore it. But only those whom he has illumined do this. And he illumines those whom he has predestined to salvation. These latter possess the sure and unbroken truth of the promises, so that one cannot speak of any disagreement between God’s eternal election and the testimony of his grace that he offers to believers.

But why does he say “all”? It is that the consciences of the godly may rest more secure, when they understand there is no difference among sinners provided faith be present. On the other hand, the wicked cannot claim they lack a sanctuary to which they may hie themselves from the bondage of sin, inasmuch as they, out of their own ungratefulness, reject it when offered. Therefore, since God’s mercy is offered to both sorts of men through the gospel, it is faith–the illumination of God–that distinguishes between pious and impious, so that the former feel the working of the gospel, while the latter derive no profit from it. Illumination itself also has God’s eternal election as its rule. Christ’s lament which they quote–“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,… how often would I have gathered your… chicks, and you would not!” [Matthew 23:37 p.]–gives them no support. I admit that Christ not only speaks in his character as man but also reproaches them with having refused his grace in every age.

But we must define the will of God, now under discussion. It is perfectly clear how carefully God took pains to hold that people, and how stubbornly, from the highest to the lowest, given over to wayward desires, they refused to be gathered together. But it does not follow from this that God’s plan was made void by men’s evil intent. They object that nothing agrees less with God’s nature than that he should be of double will. This I grant them, provided they explain it correctly. But why do they not consider the numerous passages in which God, taking on human emotions, descends to what is beneath his own majesty? He says that he has stretched out his arms… to call a rebellious people [Isaiah 65:2]; early and late he has taken care to lead them back to him. If they want to apply all this to God, disregarding the figure of speech, many superfluous contentions will arise, which this one solution can dispose of: what is human is transferred to God. Albeit the solution we have elsewhere advanced is quite sufficient: although to our perception God’s will is manifold, he does not will this and that in himself, but according to his diversely manifold wisdom, as Paul calls it [Ephesians 3:10], he strikes dumb our senses until it is given to us to recognize how wonderfully he wills what at the moment seems to be against his will. Calvin, Institutes 3.24.17.

[Notes: 1) It seems strange that many would seek to make a disconnection between the “city” and the “children.” While the lament is directed to the city fathers, the “children” denotes the masses, the citizen body. Marlorate, as early as the 15th century recognized this. Even John Gill’s mature statements recognizes that the “children” refers to the masses of the city.  2) It is clear that the “children” cannot refer to the elect. If it did, then the dilemma would be that Christ sought to gather the elect from the city, but they, the leaders, would not: that is, they prevented Christ from accomplishing this gathering. 3) If one wants to evade the force of this passage–which strongly implies that God wills and desires the salvation of all men, and that by way of the well-meant offer–then the only option is to disconnect the humanity of Christ from his divinity, such that here is a case of Jesus, only as a man with human compassion, expressing his lament and desire for their salvation. However, on this line of argument, see Dabney’s stinging criticism.]

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 30th, 2007 at 8:26 pm and is filed under Matthew 23:37. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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I have added Calvin’s relevant comments on Matthew 23:37 from his Institutes.

February 8th, 2008 at 1:12 pm

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