The phrase “your house is left to you desolate” is found in Matthew 23:38, where Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees: “See, your house is left to you desolate.” This verse comes at the end of a lengthy rebuke by Jesus against the hypocrisy and false teaching of the religious leaders.
To understand the meaning of this phrase, we need to examine the context. In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, pride, greed, self-indulgence, and lack of compassion. He calls them “blind guides” (v.16) and pronounces them “serpents” and a “brood of vipers” (v.33) for leading people astray. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, saying he longed to gather them as a hen gathers her chicks, but they were unwilling (v.37).
So when Jesus declares in v.38 that “your house is left to you desolate,” he is speaking prophetically about the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the center of Jewish worship, so it represented the “house” of the religious leaders. Here are a few key points about this phrase:
- Jesus is saying their “house” – the temple – will be abandoned and empty. The word “desolate” in Greek is eremos, meaning deserted, abandoned, or empty.
- Since they rejected Jesus as the Messiah, God will now reject the temple and withdraw his presence from it. It will be abandoned because they are abandoned.
- This prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of the temple represented God’s judgment on the empty religion of the Jewish leaders.
- On a deeper level, the temple was meant to be a “house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7) but had become corrupted. Jesus cleansed the temple at the start of his ministry (Matthew 21:12-13) but their hearts remained unchanged.
- For Christians, this verse shows that religion without sincere faith and obedience is worthless. Going through religious rituals means nothing if your heart is far from God (Matthew 15:8).
So in summary, Jesus is pronouncing a sobering judgment on the faithless religious leaders by prophesying that their temple will be left desolated and abandoned. This came to pass in AD 70. However, Jesus also laments because he desired to gather them to himself, showing God’s heart of compassion even in judgment.
Further background details
To shed more light on this phrase, we should look at some of the background details surrounding Jesus’ prophecy about the temple being left desolate:
- The temple in Jerusalem was an enormously important center of Jewish worship, culture, and national identity. It was the dwelling place of God’s presence (Matthew 23:21). For it to be “desolate” was shocking.
- Destroying the temple would also have been unthinkable to most Jews at the time. The temple was a formidable fortress with 39-foot high walls. But Jesus as the Son of God knew what was coming.
- The Jews often presumed that the temple guaranteed God’s favor and protection. But Jesus warns them that abandoning true faith makes the temple irrelevant (Jeremiah 7:4).
- When Jesus drove out the money-changers at the start of his ministry, he quoted Isaiah 56:7 which refers to the temple as a “house of prayer for all nations.” But the religious leaders had corrupted it.
- In Matthew 24:1-2, Jesus also tells his disciples that the temple will be completely demolished. “Not one stone will be left on another,” he says, which was fulfilled remarkably in AD 70.
- The destruction of the temple was God’s way of signaling a major turning point in His dealings with humanity. The sacrificial system ended, and the gospel period began where people worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24).
So the background and context show this was much more than just a building being destroyed. The desolation of the temple had enormous theological and spiritual implications for the Jewish people and the future direction of the kingdom of God.
Old Testament background
There are also several passages in the Old Testament which help illuminate the meaning of Jesus’ words about the temple being left desolate:
- Jeremiah 12:7 – God says He has left His house and abandoned His heritage after Israel’s disobedience and idolatry.
- 2 Chronicles 7:19-22 – God warns Solomon that if the people are unfaithful, “this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight.”
- Ezekiel 10 – The glory of God departs from the temple in stages before the Babylonians destroy it.
- Psalm 69:25 – “May their place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in their tents.” This verse is quoted in Acts 1 regarding Judas and applied to the temple.
- Leviticus 26:27-35 – God warns that if His people disobey and defile His sanctuary, “I will demolish your sanctuaries.”
These passages show that the Old Testament prophets warned of the temple being abandoned and destroyed as a consequence of disobedience. Jesus is invoking similar prophetic language, showing the religious leaders were making the same mistakes by rejecting God’s purposes.
New Testament commentary
We also find additional New Testament commentary which helps explain this phrase “your house is left to you desolate”:
- John 2:13-22 – After cleansing the temple, John says Jesus’ disciples later recalled this act after “he was raised from the dead.” Destruction was imminent.
- Acts 6:13-14 – False witnesses accuse Stephen of saying that Jesus would destroy the temple. This shows the early church understood this prophecy.
- Hebrews 9:1-14 – The author says the destruction of the temple shows the inability of sacrifices to truly cleanse worshipers. Only Christ’s sacrifice can cleanse the conscience.
- Revelation 21:22 – John sees a vision of the New Jerusalem where “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Christ has replaced the physical temple.
We see that the New Testament writers recognize Jesus’ prophecy about the temple as highly significant. They connect it directly to his death and resurrection. The destruction of the stone temple also takes on symbolic meaning for the church age, where true worship is through Christ by the Spirit.
How this applies to our lives today
While the phrase “your house is left to you desolate” referred very specifically to the judgment coming upon the temple in Jerusalem, the application of this passage is relevant for believers today in the following ways:
- We should not take God’s favor and blessings for granted, but remain faithful and obedient to Christ.
- Going through religious rituals without sincere devotion to God is dangerous hypocrisy.
- Jesus takes disobedience and false religion very seriously. Complacency and pride should not exist in the church.
- God disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:6). His judgment has a redemptive purpose.
- Believers are now the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16), so we must flee from sin and diligently pursue holiness.
- Outward religiosity means nothing if our hearts are not right before God. What He desires is truth in the inner being (Psalm 51:6).
- The sacrifice of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit have replaced the physical temple. We now worship through His life in us.
In many ways, this verse serves as a warning to all who profess faith in God. Going through the motions of worship and religion provides no guarantee of God’s protection and blessing if we are not living in sincerity and obedience. This applies just as much to Christians today as it did to the scribes and Pharisees. God wants our hearts first and foremost.
Jesus’ compassion even in judgment
Although Jesus pronounced devastating judgment upon the Jewish leaders and their temple, it is significant that right before this statement in v.38 he expresses his compassion for them in v.37: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
This shows that even in corrective judgment, God’s heart is always to show mercy. His severe warnings flow out of a longing to gather people to himself in repentance. Jesus did not desire the temple to be left desolate, but he knew that judgment was necessary to wake the people up to their empty religion.
We see this pattern throughout Scripture. God warns before he acts in judgment. His wrath is never capricious but always calibrated to bring restoration and repentance. God told Ezekiel regarding Israel’s coming exile and the destruction of the temple: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11).
Even though the religious leaders rejected Christ, he still longed to gather them to himself. This demonstrates his great mercy even for those who opposed him. And it reveals the redemptive purpose behind God’s acts of judgment.
Possible objections and discussion
When studying a challenging verse like Matthew 23:38, it can be helpful to consider possible objections or alternative interpretations people might raise. Here are some issues that could be discussed regarding this phrase “your house is left to you desolate”:
- Did Jesus fail in his prophecy? Some skeptics claim this prophecy failed or never came true since the temple was not fully destroyed in Jesus’ lifetime. However, this objection overlooks the fact that the fulfillment occurred in AD 70, within one generation as Jesus predicted.
- Loss of a revered institution. For Jewish readers, the desolation of the temple would have been almost inconceivable. This could make the prophecy difficult to accept at face value. The temple represented centuries of tradition.
- Unthinkable judgment? God’s chosen people experienced foreign invasion and exile before. But God had restored the temple once. Its complete destruction may have seemed unthinkable.
- Too harsh? Some readers might feel Jesus’ rebuke of the leaders was overly severe and his language too harsh. But prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah used similar language.
- Jesus’ authority? His ability to accurately predict the temple’s destruction decades in advance affirms Jesus’ authority as much more than a normal prophet. But this challenges those who see him as merely human.
Wrestling with hard sayings and prophecies can strengthen our faith and spark valuable discussion. We must remember that Scripture records both God’s mercy and justice. Jesus soberly warned of coming judgment, even for religious people, to call all people to repentance and genuine faith.
In summary, when Jesus declared to the Jewish leaders that “your house is left to you desolate,” he was pronouncing judgment over the temple in Jerusalem for their hard-hearted rejection of the Messiah. Though they observed religious rituals, their hearts were far from God. The temple was abandoned and destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans as a sign of God’s displeasure over the empty, hypocritical religion of the people.
This fulfilled Jesus’ sobering prophecy and served as a typological precursor to the judgment we all face if we do not turn to Christ in sincere devotion and faith. However, Jesus lamented over their unwillingness to repent, showing God always judges reluctantly and compassionately. For Christians today, this verse remains a warning that religiosity provides no substitute for wholehearted obedience to Jesus Christ through the Spirit.