There is nothing incongruous about assuming that Jesus lamented over His people on three separate occasions and that on two of those occasions, He expressed Himself in almost identical language. Two lamentations are recorded in the Gospel of Luke and are clearly marked as distinct. They are also expressed in quite different language (Luke 13:33-34; 19:41-44). The final lamentation over Jerusalem is recorded in Matthew (23:37-39). It comes at the end of Jesus terrifying last words of woe to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-36), just as He departs the temple.
The first of the three lamentations is located in Perea probably in the winter of AD 29, not many months before Jesus was crucified in the spring of AD 30. The paragraph begins “at that very hour” (Luke 13:31) and continues with Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod wants to kill Him. Jesus is not disturbed about Herod’s threat because He knows that “must” finish His mission and then die in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). However, at the mention of the name of His city, He breaks out into a lamentation:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ ” (Luke 13:34-35).
This first lamentation anticipates what will happen when He comes to Jerusalem, for it was only a few months till passover and the cross.
Somewhat ironically, in the spring, on the Sunday that He triumphantly entered Jerusalem, there were indeed shouts of “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!” (Luke 19:38), but they came from the larger group of Jesus’ own disciples, not from the Jewish nation and especially not from its leaders, who asked Jesus to rebuke the disciples for their acclamation (Luke 19:39).
To at least partially comprehend Luke 13:34-35, we must take into account three important Old Testament allusions. First, Jesus spoke of Jerusalem as the city that kills and stones the prophets sent to her. In other words, the cultural, political, and religious center of Judah treated true prophets as if they were blasphemers and false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Jeremiah is the supreme example, which brings up the third allusion. (I will move back to the second.) Both Luke and Matthew intend for us to remember Jeremiah, his suffering, and his prophecy, for they both allude to his prophecy of Yahweh leaving His house desolate.
“I have forsaken My house, I have left My heritage;
I have given the dearly beloved of My soul into the hand of her enemies.
My heritage is to Me like a lion in the forest;
It cries out against Me;
Therefore I have hated it.” (Jeremiah 12:7-8)
As we see in the book of Ezekiel (8-11), when God forsakes His house, the way is paved for enemies to come in. The Babylonians overwhelmed Jerusalem three times, finally destroying the city and temple in 586 BC. When Jesus abandoned His house, it had similar repercussions: an invasion by Rome and destruction in AD 70.
The second allusion is found in the agony expressed in Jesus’ cry: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” This is not actually a single allusion, but a metaphor that recalls the Exodus story and then a whole set of allusions to the Exodus story. God brought Israel out of Egypt on eagles wings (Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11). The trip to Sinai involved testing and trial, but over and over, Israel’s loving Heavenly Mother gently cared for her, protecting and providing for her. Thus, the Psalmists frequently look back on Yahweh’s motherly love and trust in the shadow of Yahweh’s wings (Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7).
Note: we need to remember that every manifestation of God in the Old Testament, every “Theophany,” is the pre-incarnate Son, whose Trinitarian role it is to manifest God (John 1:18). Thus, it was the pre-incarnate Jesus who spoke to Moses from the burning bush and who led Israel out of Egypt on eagles’ wings. It was the pre-incarnate Son — Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever — who sent prophets to call Israel to repentance and who reluctantly sent Nebuchadnezzar to raze the city and temple.
Over and over in Israel’s history, the pre-incarnate Son had sent prophets to call Israel to repentance and to return to the shadow of His loving wings (Jeremiah 7:25-26). But Israel would not hear. She would not repent and return. That is the history that Jesus alludes to in His lament. It is the history of His motherly love proffered over and over, only to be rejected by a foolish and perverse nation.
Jesus first lamentation is repeated in the third, the Tuesday evening of Jesus’ last week when He actually left the temple (Matthew 23:37-24:1). His departure made it “desolate,” since its proper Resident left it never to return. What followed was the Olivet Discourse, in which Jesus predicted the AD 70 overthrow of Jerusalem and the final destruction of the temple (Matthew 24-25).
Consider now the second lamentation (Luke 19:41-44). There are overlapping concerns with the other two lamentations, but different language and different timing. The main overlapping concern is the coming judgement of Israel, as in the days of Jeremiah. The first lamentation followed a parable about the coming judgment of Israel (Luke 13:24-30). The last lamentation was followed by a long discourse about the coming judgment of Israel (Matthew 24-25). The second lamentation included Jesus’ prophecy of the coming judgment of Israel, a brief but detailed depiction of the horrors of the Roman siege and overthrow of the unholy city (Luke 19:41-46).
Remember, the second lament was immediately after the Triumphal Entry, the Sunday of Jesus’ last week. When Jesus was descending the Mount of Olives, His disciples cried out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!” (Luke 19:38).
Then, when Jesus drew near the city, He wept (Luke 19:41).
This alludes again to Jeremiah, the weeping prophet.
Oh, that my head were waters,
And my eyes a fountain of tears,
That I might weep day and night
For the slain of the daughter of my people! (Jeremiah 9:1)
This sounds, of course, like the lamentation of the prophet himself, but as you continue to read in Jeremiah 9, the sections ends, “says the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:3).
Who is weeping? Is it Jeremiah or is it Yahweh?
In the context, it is not really possible to separate the one from the other.
Jeremiah’s weeping and lamenting over Israel is an expression of Yahweh’s own heart and suffering for the people that He loved (Jeremiah 9:1-11). The weeping Jeremiah and the grieving Yahweh both reveal the broken heart of Jesus.
The Jewish people did not know the time of their “visitation” (Luke 19:43), an expression referring to Yahweh drawing near to bring blessing (Genesis 21:1) or discipline (Exodus 20:5). Jesus, the prophet like Jeremiah, desired to bring peace (Luke 19:42), reminding us, ironically, of Jeremiah’s enemies who only spoke of peace (Jeremiah 4:10; 6:14; 8:11, 15; 14:13, 19; 23:17; 28:9), crying “Peace, peace” when there was no peace. But note: repentance was not part of their program, just peace. Though Jesus visited His people to bring peace, He offered peace through repentance, not compromise with sin. Tragically, the Jews of His day rejected His visitation.
Thus: “days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another” (Luke 19:43-44). The Roman destruction would be final.
The lamentations of Jesus reveal the heart of the Old Testament God of Israel, the God who never wanted to judge or forsake His people, the God who weeps when His people rebel against Him. We should never read Old Testament judgments as if God delighted to destroy. Judgement almost contradicts His gracious nature, but Yahweh is a righteous God and is jealous for good. Israel is His “dearly beloved” but because of her sins, He hates her (Jeremiah 12:7-8).
At the same time, the story of Jesus shows us clearly why God must judge sin, for the heart of human sin is exposed in the awful story of Jesus’ own people hating Him with such a passion that they demand His crucifixion. The cry of the crowds, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” gives voice to the essence of mankind’s sinful nature. The Father, who loves the Son with a jealous love, cannot overlook the monstrous evil of those who hate Jesus and His body, the Church. Love must judge.
In God’s eternal perfect plan, there is a harmony between man’s free agency and sinful folly, God’s perfect self-sacrificial love, and God’s righteous judgment. However, we cannot penetrate the depths of this mystery, for there is too much here that transcends our understanding.
What then? We can and must believe that Jesus lamented over Israel more than any scribe or Pharisee could have. We must believe that Israel and Jerusalem were more dearly beloved to Jesus than to any other. We also must believe that His judgment was necessary, righteous and good.
Just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, we should also be weeping over our own nations and praying that somehow the judgment we deserve — especially for the murder of untold numbers of innocents — might be avoided or postponed, leading to our repentance. Or — if that may not be — that judgment would result in a new and better world in which righteousness thrives.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
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