Question: "What does it mean that "your house is left to you desolate" (Matthew 23:38)?"
Answer: At the end of Matthew 23, as Jesus excoriates the scribes and Pharisees for their behavior, He says, “Look, your house is left to you desolate” (verse 38). Jesus spoke this prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
There is a twofold meaning of the temple being left desolate or abandoned. First, Jesus—who is God in human form—was departing from the temple for the last time, leaving it deserted of the divine Presence. God was forsaking their beautiful house of worship, leaving it spiritually empty and ripe for destruction. In Matthew 23:39, Jesus promises the Jews that they will see Him no more “until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” At that time, Israel will be saved, and the Jews will be converted to faith in their true Messiah (see Romans 11:25–27).
The second meaning of “your house is left to you desolate” refers to the physical destruction of the temple, which would be desolated in just forty years when the Romans invaded Jerusalem in AD 70. Shortly after Jesus’ pronouncement that “your house if left to you desolate,” His disciples pointed to the buildings of the temple, noting how wonderful the architecture and adornments were. They must have been shocked to hear Jesus describe the future state of the temple: “These things which you see—the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). Such was the sad desolation in store for Jerusalem, the temple, and the people who rejected their Messiah.
About a week prior to Jesus’ statement that “your house is left to you desolate,” He had cleansed the temple. At that time, Jesus had said, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Luke 19:46). The difference between My house and your house is striking. The temple belonged to God, but evil men had profaned it, requiring Jesus’ cleansing. Then, as Jesus exited for the last time, He called it “your house”—that is, it was no longer God’s, but theirs. They had wrested control of God’s house and objected to the Lord’s right to oversee it. In return, God forsook it, leaving it open to devastation.
Jesus got no satisfaction out of this sad prediction regarding the great temple. In fact, He lamented its destruction and especially the fate of the people: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37). Luke describes how Jesus wept over the terrible fate that awaited the city and its inhabitants (Luke 19:41).
Historical records, including those of Josephus, describe in detail the Roman invasion, affirming that Jesus’ prophecy, “your house is left to you desolate,” came true.