Repentance Leads to Restoration

19 “I called to my lovers,
    but they deceived me;
my priests and elders
    perished in the city,
while they sought food
    to revive their strength.

20 “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my stomach churns;
my heart is wrung within me,
    because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
    in the house it is like death.

21 “They heard my groaning,
    yet there is no one to comfort me.
All my enemies have heard of my trouble;
    they are glad that you have done it.
You have brought the day you announced;
    now let them be as I am.

22 “Let all their evildoing come before you,
    and deal with them
as you have dealt with me
    because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many,
    and my heart is faint.” – Lamentations 1:19-22 ESV

What do most of us do when we face trouble of any kind? We get busy, devising plans and potential solutions to solve our problem. It’s human nature. We are wired to survive. And there is nothing inherently wrong with having our survival instincts kick into high gear. But for those who claim to believe in God, He should be their first line of defense. It is to Him they should call for aid and assistance. And if they should turn to Him for help, they need to be prepared to hear words that bring conviction and not just comfort. God may be trying to expose an area of their life that requires repentance and confession.

David, the great king of Israel and a man after God’s own heart, knew the power of conviction and confession. That is why he called out in the midst of his suffering and sorrow, pleading “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139:23-24 NLT).

David was well aware that much of his suffering was self-inflicted. But he also knew that His sovereign God was intimately aware of and instrumental in the trials of his life. This was a man who understood the wickedness of his own heart and recognized his need for God to expose the true cause of his suffering. And he knew that no one knew him better than the One who had made him.

O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:1-4 NLT

Rather than attempting to solve his problems on his own, David was willing to reach out to God. Even after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and ordered the murder of her husband in an attempt to cover up his sin, David had turned to God.

I recognize my rebellion;
    it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
    I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
    and your judgment against me is just.
For I was born a sinner—
    yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
But you desire honesty from the womb,
    teaching me wisdom even there. – Psalm 51:3-6 NLT

But let’s consider the response of Judah to the suffering inflicted upon them by God. Nowhere in Jeremiah’s poetic portrayal of their response to God’s judgment do we see any acknowledgment of their guilt or confession for their sins against Him. In fact, the only thing they admit to is their reliance upon other forms of rescue.

“I begged my allies for help,
    but they betrayed me. – Lamentations 1:19 NLT

Their military alliance with Egypt had proven to be a bust. As the Babylonian army had made its way into the region they had left behind them a wake of death and destruction. And it was only natural for the kings of Judah to seek outside assistance. But God had warned them in advance not to turn to Egypt for help.

“What sorrow awaits my rebellious children,”
    says the Lord.
“You make plans that are contrary to mine.
    You make alliances not directed by my Spirit,
    thus piling up your sins.
For without consulting me,
    you have gone down to Egypt for help.
You have put your trust in Pharaoh’s protection.
    You have tried to hide in his shade.
But by trusting Pharaoh, you will be humiliated,
    and by depending on him, you will be disgraced.
For though his power extends to Zoan
    and his officials have arrived in Hanes,
all who trust in him will be ashamed.
    He will not help you.
    Instead, he will disgrace you.” – Isaiah 30:1-5 NLT

In times of distress, Judah was to have turned to God.

What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help, trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers and depending on the strength of human armies instead of looking to the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 31:1 NLT

But rather than placing their trust in their all-powerful God, the people of Judah had turned to human kings for aid. Even the priests and political leaders of Judah had proven to be unreliable saviors in the face of God’s judgment. They had suffered the same fate as the rest of the people.

“My priests and leaders
    starved to death in the city,
even as they searched for food
    to save their lives.” – Lamentations 1:19 NLT

The people seem to recognize that their sad state is directly tied to their rebellion against God, but rather than repent they simply inform God about the extent of their suffering.

Lord, see my anguish!
    My heart is broken
and my soul despairs,
    for I have rebelled against you.
In the streets the sword kills,
    and at home there is only death. – Lamentations 1:20 NLT

Though their pain was real and their suffering was intense, they remained unrepentant. They were displaying what the apostle Paul describes as “worldly sorrow.”

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT

And Jeremiah describes this worldly sorrow and the spiritual death it produces in stark terms.

“My groans are many,
    and I am sick at heart.” – Lamentations 1:22 NLT

There was no relief. Why? Because they remained stubbornly committed to their lifestyle of sin and open rebellion against God. They were unwilling to change their ways. They knew they were suffering God’s judgment but were not ready to live according to God’s law. The people of Judah deeply desired to be comforted by God but resisted any attempts to be convicted by God.

Amazingly, the people of Judah remembered God’s promises to bring judgment upon their enemies. And they begged Him to keep His word.

“When my enemies heard about my troubles,
    they were happy to see what you had done.
Oh, bring the day you promised,
    when they will suffer as I have suffered.” – Lamentations 1:21 NLT

But God was out to teach His chosen people a lesson. He wanted to see and acknowledge the wickedness of their ways. He desired that they might experience and display godly sorrow that would lead to repentance and restoration to a right relationship with Himself. The apostle Paul describes the amazing benefits that godly sorrow can produce in the people of God.

Just see what this godly sorrow produced in you! Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such longing to see me, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish wrong. You showed that you have done everything necessary to make things right. – 2 Corinthians 7:11 NLT

God didn’t need to hear His people describe their suffering. He had sent it. He wasn’t waiting for them to admit that they had sinned against Him. He already knew it. What God was waiting to see was a spirit of humility and genuine repentance among His people.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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The Lord is in the Right

12 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger.

13 “From on high he sent fire;
    into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
    he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
    faint all the day long.

14 “My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
    by his hand they were fastened together;
they were set upon my neck;
    he caused my strength to fail;
the Lord gave me into the hands
    of those whom I cannot withstand.

15 “The Lord rejected
    all my mighty men in my midst;
he summoned an assembly against me
    to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a winepress
    the virgin daughter of Judah.

16 “For these things I weep;
    my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
    one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate,
    for the enemy has prevailed.”

17 Zion stretches out her hands,
    but there is none to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
    that his neighbors should be his foes;
Jerusalem has become
    a filthy thing among them.

18 “The Lord is in the right,
    for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
    and see my suffering;
my young women and my young men
    have gone into captivity. – Lamentations 1:12-18 ESV

Jerusalem’s plight was self-inflicted but God-ordained. They had freely chosen to break the covenant they had made with Him through repeated violations of His commands. Idolatry, immorality, and injustice had become the new norm throughout the nation of Judah. The spiritual state of the people just prior to their fall to the Babylonians harkens back to the period of the judges. This was the time before the first king ruled over Israel, when the people were still trying to conquer and occupy the land of Canaan. Seven times in the book of Judges, Samuel uses the phrase: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 ESV). The people had essentially rejected God as their sovereign and had chosen instead to live their lives according to their own standards and rules.

And nothing had changed when the kings began to rule. As we saw in yesterday’s post, there had been times when the people were led by godly kings and lived in relative obedience to their covenant commitments. But for the most part, their track record was marred by repeated unfaithfulness and rampant idolatry.

Now, they were suffering the consequences of their actions. God had finally done what He had warned He would do: He had brought His judgment to bear against an ungrateful and unrepentant people who had taken their status as His chosen people for granted. And God’s judgment was fully righteous and their fate was well-deserved.

In verse 18 personifies the city of Jerusalem acknowledging God’s just and righteous actions against her.

“The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word…” – Lamentations 1:18 ESV

This statement regarding God’s unwavering righteousness even while meting out His judgment upon His disobedient people is found throughout the Scriptures. The psalmist was saddened by the nation’s rejection of God’s laws because they reflected His righteous and holy standards.

My eyes shed streams of tears,
    because people do not keep your law.

Righteous are you, O Lord,
    and right are your rules.
You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness
    and in all faithfulness. – Psalm 119:136-138 ESV

Ezra and Nehemiah, two men who would eventually lead a remnant of the people our of Babylon and back to the land of Judah. After 70 years of captivity, a small contingent of God’s people would be restored to the land He had promised as their inheritance. And while they would return to find the city of Jerusalem empty and in a state of desolation, they would recognize and confess that God had been fully just in all He had done.

“O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” – Ezra 9:15 ESV

Every time you punished us you were being just. We have sinned greatly, and you gave us only what we deserved. – Nehemiah 9:33 NLT

And Nehemiah, speaking on behalf of the returned remnant, would acknowledge that the ingratitude and disobedience of their forefathers had been the cause of their plight.

Our kings, leaders, priests, and ancestors did not obey your Law or listen to the warnings in your commands and laws. Even while they had their own kingdom, they did not serve you, though you showered your goodness on them. You gave them a large, fertile land, but they refused to turn from their wickedness. – Nehemiah 9:34-35 NLT

And it’s important to remember that the words found in Lamentations are from the pen of Jeremiah and not from the lips of the people of Judah. He uses the city of Jerusalem to act as a kind of proxy for the people, allowing it to voice what they should have said but had failed to do so.

Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger. – Lamentations 1:12 ESV

There is a clear acknowledgment that their suffering was God-inflicted. But Jeremiah seems to stress that the people are more focused on their sorrow and suffering. Notice how many times Jeremiah uses the personal pronoun “he” to refer to God.

“From on high he sent fire;
    into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
    he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
    faint all the day long.” – Lamentations 1:13 ESV

Fives time in one verse Jeremiah makes mention of God’s divine actions against Jerusalem. But in the following four verses, he will utilize the personal pronouns “me, my, and I” 12 separate times. The emphasis seems to be on the peoples’ plight. It is written from their perspective. Yes, God was just and right in all that He had done, but they were unhappy with the outcome.

he caused my strength to fail – vs. 14

“the Lord gave me into the hands
    of those whom I cannot withstand” – vs. 14

“The Lord rejected
    all my mighty men in my midst” – vs. 15

“he summoned an assembly against me
    to crush my young men” – vs. 15

It was all about them. They couldn’t dismiss the idea that God had brought His judgment against them, but that didn’t mean they had to accept it or like it. And Jeremiah, who was living among the people who had been left behind after the fall of the capital, knew them well. He had heard their cries and laments. He had witnessed the devastation and listened to the pitiable pleas of the people as they navigated the dark days after the Babylonians had left. They had no king, no army, no capital, no temple, and no idea what the future held in store.

But they did have the recognition that their God and His judgments were real. It should have been a time when they came to grips with the seriousness of God’s call to covenant commitment. He had not been bluffing when He warned that disobedience would result in curses. They had just watched it happen with their own eyes.

But Jeremiah portrays them as fixating on all they had lost, rather than focusing their attention on the lessons God was trying to teach them. It reminds me of the opening lines of Charles Dicken’s classic work, A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It is often in our moments of greatest despair that we experience the objectivity and clarity we need to view our circumstances accurately. Times of difficulty tend to get our attention and, if we allow them, they can be used to refocus our priorities.

But Jeremiah portrays the people of Judah as blaming God for their lot in life. They know He is the cause of their current circumstances, but what is missing is any confession on their part. There is no acknowledgment of guilt or expression of repentance. It is all about their pain and their suffering, their loss and their feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.

Jerusalem reaches out for help,
    but no one comforts her. – Lamentations 1:17 NLT

But despite the difficult conditions under which they suffered, their God had not abandoned them. Yes, He was punishing them and justifiably so. But He was a faithful, covenant-keeping God who would not fail to fulfill every promise He had made. All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, written before the people entered the land of promise under the direction of Joshua, God had warned them that their disobedience would have dire consequences.

“…the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you. And there you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.” – Deuteronomy 4:27-28 BSB

But God had also promised to restore them.

“But if from there you will seek the LORD your God, you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; He will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers, which He swore to them by oath.”  – Deuteronomy 4:29-31 BSB

The people of Judah fully deserved what they had suffered. What they didn’t deserve was the gracious and merciful love of God. They could claim to have no comforter, but they would be wrong. God was still with them and for them. He still cared deeply about them. And God intended to keep every promise He had ever made to them.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Stubbornly Refusing to Repent

Jerusalem sinned grievously;
    therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
    for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans
    and turns her face away.

Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
    she took no thought of her future;
therefore her fall is terrible;
    she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!”

10 The enemy has stretched out his hands
    over all her precious things;
for she has seen the nations
    enter her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
    to enter your congregation.

11 All her people groan
    as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
    to revive their strength.
“Look, O Lord, and see,
    for I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:8-11 ESV

The city of Jerusalem fell because the kings of Israel failed. They had failed to lead the people in faithful obedience to the revealed will of God. While there had been a handful of godly kings who reigned over Judah, the nation’s latter years had been marked by men like Ahaz.

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 16:2-4 ESV

Virtually every one of the kings who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel had been wicked and idolatrous, leading their people to turn their backs on Yahweh and worship false gods instead. And, in time, the kings of Judah began to follow the lead of their northern counterparts, walking in the way of the kings of Israel. King Ahaz had even gone so far as to participate in child sacrifice, offering his own son as an offering to a false god.

At his death, Ahaz was succeeded by Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3 ESV). He provided Judah with a welcome respite from the sins of his father, instituting a series of reforms that reversed the years of spiritual decline and unfaithfulness fostered by Ahaz. He removed all the idols and pagan shrines his father had erected.

He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him… – 2 Kings 18:4-5 ESV

But sadly, Hezekiah’s reign eventually came to an end, and he was followed by his 12-year-old son Manasseh, who quickly reversed all his father’s reforms.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.” And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:2-6 ESV

And the pattern continued, with Manasseh’s son, Amon, following in his immoral footsteps.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:20-22 ESV

Amazingly, the downward trend was broken once again by Josiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2 ESV). Josiah instituted a series of sweeping reforms intended to restore the nation’s allegiance to God. He repaired the long-neglected temple of God. He reinstituted the observance of the Mosaic law. He defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And he broke in pieces the pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:13-14 ESV).

But Josiah, for all his good intentions, was unsuccessful in changing the hearts of his people. And when his sons eventually ascended to the throne, the each “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:37 ESV). Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin each had their opportunity to rule over Judah, but each failed to restore the hearts of the people to a right relationship with God. The pattern of spiritual adultery continued as the Babylonians stood poised to bring the judgment of God against His unfaithful people. And eventually, just as God had warned, the nation of Judah fell to the king of Babylon.

And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign and carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold. He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.  – 2 Kings 24:11-14 ESV

Jerusalem had “sinned grievously” (Lamentations 1:8 ESV). And Jeremiah describes in somber tones the consequences of her sin.

The enemy has plundered her completely,
    taking every precious thing she owns.
She has seen foreigners violate her sacred Temple,
    the place the Lord had forbidden them to enter. – Lamentations 1:10 NLT

The very temple that Manasseh had filled with altars “for all the host of heaven” had been filled with Nebuchadnezzar’s troops, who pillaged the sacred site of all its gold, jewels, fabric, and sacred furniture.

The entire city had been left in ruins, its buildings and homes burned, its gates destroyed, and its walls full of gaping holes through which the Babylonians had entered the city. And the few who were not taken into captivity to Babylon were appalled and ashamed at the sorry state of the once-grand capital of their nation.

All who once honored her now despise her,
    for they have seen her stripped naked and humiliated. – Lamentations 1:8 NLT

And Jeremiah pulls no punches when describing the cause of Judah’s downfall.

She defiled herself with immorality
    and gave no thought to her future. – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

In the book that bears his name, Jeremiah records God’s indictment against His chosen people.

“You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD.” – Jeremiah 3:2 ESV

When the inevitable happened and the judgment of God came, the people had displayed surprise and dismay. They even called out to God, begging Him to rescue them from their predicament.

Now she lies in the gutter
    with no one to lift her out.
Lord, see my misery,” she cries.
    “The enemy has triumphed.” – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

Her people groan as they search for bread.
    They have sold their treasures for food to stay alive.
“O Lord, look,” she mourns,
    “and see how I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:11 NLT

But it was too little, too late. God had given them ample opportunity to reform their ways. He had given them godly kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, who had attempted to reform the hearts of the people and restore their commitment to Him. But the people had proven to be stubborn and committed to remaining unfaithful to God. Now they were suffering the consequences of their sins. But rather than acknowledge their guilt and humbly confess their sin to God, they remained stubbornly defiant. They were quick to inform God about how bad things were in Judah but unwilling to admit how badly they had sinned against Him.

But all the way back at the dedication of the temple Solomon had built for Him, God had told His people the key to getting HIs attention and to enjoying their restoration to a right relationship with Him.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”  – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

No Faith. No Hope.

The roads to Zion mourn,
    for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate;
    her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted,
    and she herself suffers bitterly.

Her foes have become the head;
    her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has afflicted her
    for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
    captives before the foe.

From the daughter of Zion
    all her majesty has departed.
Her princes have become like deer
    that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
    before the pursuer.

Jerusalem remembers
    in the days of her affliction and wandering
all the precious things
    that were hers from days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
    and there was none to help her,
her foes gloated over her;
    they mocked at her downfall. – Lamentations 1:4-7 ESV

All throughout this book, the author utilizes the literary device of personification in which human attributes and qualities are given to nonhuman or inanimate objects. He describes the city of Jerusalem as “the daughter of Zion” and provides “her” with a range of human qualities, from fear and sorrow to pain and suffering.

This former “princess” turned “widow” is portrayed in terms that are meant to stir the reader’s emotions and elicit both sympathy and shock. Jeremiah wants everyone who reads this story to ask, “How did this happen?” By personifying Jerusalem and Judah as helpless women who were having to suffer needlessly for the sins of others, Jeremiah was able to confront his fellow countrymen for their culpability in the nation’s fall and the city’s sad fate.

Every Jew who found themselves exposed to the words written by Jeremiah would be reminded that they had played a role in the demise and destruction of their beloved homeland. It had been the persistent rebellion of the people against God that had led to their judgment by God. And it had come in the form of the years-long Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that had ended in the plundering, pillaging, and burning of the city. The beautiful temple built by Solomon, the symbol of God’s abiding presence and that had stood for more than 400 years, had been ransacked and reduced to rubble.  And with its destruction, the entire sacrificial system God had ordained as a means for providing atonement for sin was eliminated.

Life in Judah had come to a complete halt. Nothing was the same anymore. No longer could the people make their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts and festivals that had been so integral to Israel’s identity as a nation. That’s why Jeremiah describes the city as lonely, and the roads to Zion as in a state of mourning “for none come to the festival” (Lamentations 1:4 ESV). The gates of the city are completely deserted. Once the centers of commerce and the portals through which the throngs of people made their way into the city, these gates stood like vacant eyes staring into the empty streets and buildings of the once-great city.

With no temple in which to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, the priests have nothing to do. And the few virgins who remain in the city are distraught became they have no one to marry. All the able-bodied men have been taken captive and deported by the Babylonians.

The enemies of Judah have prevailed. And Jeremiah pulls no punches when he explains the cause of Judah’s sad state of affairs: “because the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (Lamentations 1:5 ESV). He wanted his readers to never forget that the fall of Judah and Jerusalem had been the sovereign work of God Almighty. God had warned them this would happen. Long before they ever set foot in the land of promise, God had spoken through Moses, providing the people of Israel with the non-negotiable conditions surrounding His covenant relationship with them. As His people, they could choose to serve Him obediently and enjoy the many blessings He promised. Or they could choose to break their covenant agreement and suffer the consequences.

“If you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and to obey the commands and decrees he has given you, all these curses will pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed. These horrors will serve as a sign and warning among you and your descendants forever. If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything. The Lord will put an iron yoke on your neck, oppressing you harshly until he has destroyed you.” – Deuteronomy 38:45-48 NLT

Now, here they were, living in the stark reality of God’s promised judgment. It had all happened just as He had said it would. Their king and princes were gone. The royal palace had been plundered and destroyed. The nation’s brightest and best had been taken captive and transported to Babylon. The economy was in ruins. With no standing army, the nation was completely defenseless. There weren’t enough laborers to plant and harvest the fields. A massive tribute tax kept the few who remained in a constant state of poverty and despair. And it was all because they had failed to heed God’s warning and obey His commands.

All they had left were their collective memories.

Jerusalem remembers
    in the days of her affliction and wandering
all the precious things
    that were hers from days of old. – Lamentations 1:7 ESV

They had all the time in the world to reminisce and recall the nation’s former days of glory. At one time, Judah had been a major player in the geopolitical landscape of the region. Even after Israel, their northern neighbor had fallen to the Assyrians, Judah had continued to enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. They had been cocky and self-assured, resting in the false confidence that they were God’s chosen people and, therefore, immune from harm. Their alliances with Egypt and other neighboring nations had left them feeling self-assured and untouchable. Regardless of the fact that Babylon was making significant inroads into the region, Judah considered itself invulnerable and impervious.

But they had been wrong. Their sins against God had been great and His warnings of pending judgment had been true. The nations in whom they had placed so much hope had proved to be unreliable and fair-weather friends.

When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
    and there was none to help her,
her foes gloated over her;
    they mocked at her downfall. – Lamentations 1:7 ESV

Even when Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, had threatened to attack Judah, he had laughed at their pitiful peace treaty with Egypt.

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – 2 Kings 18:19-21 NLT

Even this pagan king recognized that Judah’s hope of deliverance was ill-founded. Their confidence was resting in a source that was insufficient to deliver them. And Sennacherib had even insinuated that the God of Judah would not save them.

“But perhaps you will say to me, ‘We are trusting in the LORD our God!’ But isn’t he the one who was insulted by Hezekiah? Didn’t Hezekiah tear down his shrines and altars and make everyone in Judah and Jerusalem worship only at the altar here in Jerusalem?” – 2 Kings 18:22 NLT

What this pagan king failed to understand was that the actions of Hezekiah had actually resulted in God’s deliverance of Judah from the Assyrians. Hezekiah was one of the few good kings to rule over Judah. The son of the wicked King Ahaz, Hezekiah had instituted a series of reforms that included the tearing down of the many shrines to false gods his father had installed all across the nation. According to 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah “did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20). Under Hezekiah’s leadership, revival came to Judah. And it was his actions during the Assyrian siege that stemmed the tide and saved the day. Threatened with defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, Hezekiah had made his way to the temple and interceded on behalf of his nation before God.

“So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.” – 2 Kings 19:19 NLT

And God answered Hezekiah’s prayer.

Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent this message to Hezekiah: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I have heard your prayer about King Sennacherib of Assyria. And the Lord has spoken this word against him:

“The virgin daughter of Zion
    despises you and laughs at you.
The daughter of Jerusalem
    shakes her head in derision as you flee.” – 2 Kings 19:20-21 NLT

Hezekiah had placed his hope in God and He had come through. The Assyrians called off their siege and returned home. This one man’s faith in God had saved the day.

But sadly, when the Babylonians had arrived outside the gates of Jerusalem, there was no king like Hezekiah sitting on the throne of Judah. There had been no reforms. The pagan shrines had not been removed. There had been no revival among the people. And, therefore, there had been no miraculous deliverance by God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Free to Choose

1 How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
    with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
    she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
    they have become her enemies.

Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
    and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
    but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
    in the midst of her distress. – Lamentations 1:1-3 ESV

Like the book of Job, Lamentations deals with the theology of suffering, but from a national, rather than a personal perspective. Written as poetry, Lamentations is a dirge, a song of mourning commemorating the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah. But the book is far more than a reciting of the sad state of affairs in Judah. It is a theological treatise on God’s justice, love, and sovereignty.

The seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are on display throughout the pages of Lamentations, and they are never fully resolved. Even at the close of the book, the unavoidable and inexplicable tension between these two truths remains.

The people of Israel had been given a choice by God. He had made a bilateral covenant with them that spelled out His expectations regarding their behavior. If they obeyed, they would be blessed. If they chose to disobey, the would experience the consequences, in the form of curses. The blessings and the curses had been covered in detail in the book of Deuteronomy.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

The choice had been theirs. But God had made sure that the logical choice would be a clear and compelling one. There should have been no confusion or debate. God had promised that obedience to His commands would be accompanied by the benefit of His blessings on their cities, fields, flocks, agriculture, families, military exploits, business ventures, physical health, and financial prospects. They would enjoy status as “a people holy to himself” (Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV). And God assured them that this unique distinction would be accompanied by some significant implications:

all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 NLT

But what if they chose to disobey God? What would happen then? God had made that outcome painfully clear. Everything He had promised to bless would be cursed.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. – Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV

Their crops, cities, families, flocks, and fortunes would be cursed because God would remove His hand of protection and provision. If they chose to live in ways that were contrary and contradictory to God’s plans for His chosen people, they would experience the dire consequences. But again, the choice had been theirs to make. And we know from the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, that they ultimately chose to live in disobedience to God. They proved unfaithful to Him, regularly rejecting His will for their own. And while God had warned them repeatedly that destruction was coming unless they repented and returned to Him, they rejected the words of the prophets and followed the desires of their hearts.

A pattern of disobedience and unfaithfulness marked the history of God’s people. And it eventually resulted in the split of the kingdom, resulting in the nation of Israel in the north, and the nation of Judah in the south. And in 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians just as God had warned. And while the southern kingdom of Judah had watched the fall of its northern neighbor, they learned nothing from the experience. Because in 586 B.C., they would experience a similar fate, conquered by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

And here, in the opening verses of Lamentations, we read the somber words describing the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, the once flourishing capital of Judah. Jeremiah describes the city as a veritable ghost town. Its once-bustling streets are empty, its houses and buildings destroyed. The former glory of the temple has been reduced to rubble and the gates and walls of the city have been demolished. The book of 2 Kings describes the extent of the devastation.

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem.  And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. – 2 Kings 25:8-12 ESV

Jeremiah describes the fallen city of Jerusalem as a princess who has fallen on hard times. Formerly married and accustomed to great wealth and privilege, she finds herself widowed and reduced to a state of abject poverty. Her fortunes have been drastically and dramatically altered. Having formerly enjoyed the benefits of royal sovereignty, she is now reduced to a state of slavery.

But while her fate may leave us feeling sorry for her, it is not undeserved. Jeremiah goes on to describe Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife. She cries but finds no one to comfort her, in spite of her long list of lovers. Those whom she once considered her friends have ended up abandoning and turning against her. And in the book that bears his name, Jeremiah had warned Judah that all of this was going to happen, long before it did.

And you, Zion, city doomed to destruction,
you accomplish nothing by wearing a beautiful dress,
decking yourself out in jewels of gold,
and putting on eye shadow!
You are making yourself beautiful for nothing.
Your lovers spurn you.
They want to kill you. – Jeremiah 4:30 NET

Judah had made a habit of making alliances with other nations, seeking safety and security through treaties and military pacts, rather than trusting in God. When God had warned that the Babylonians were coming, the leaders of Judah had sought to stay off destruction through partnerships with pagan nations that were in direct violation of God’s will. But these “friends” would prove unfaithful and incapable of delivering Judah from the hands of the Babylonians.

Verse three paints a stark contrast between God’s preferred future for Judah and the reality of their current circumstances. As God’s chosen people, they had been given the land of Canaan as their inheritance. It was a rich and abundant land, filled with tangible expressions of God’s love in the form of orchards, vineyards, fields of grain, and abundant sources of water. They had lived in homes they had not built located in cities they had not constructed. They had enjoyed safety and security from their enemies provided by the hand of God. But now, Judah had “been led away into captivity, oppressed with cruel slavery” (Lamentations 1:3 NLT).

Instead of enjoying the peace and rest of the promised land, the people of God were experiencing the pain and suffering of exile in the land of Babylon. God had promised them that if they would only remain faithful to Him, He would ensure that they remained at the top of the food chain.

“…the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom.“ – Deuteronomy 28:13 NLT

But Jeremiah reveals that their choice to disobey God had produced a far different outcome.

She lives among foreign nations
    and has no place of rest.
Her enemies have chased her down,
    and she has nowhere to turn. – Lamentations 1:3 NLT

The people of Judah had made a choice, and now there were reaping the consequences of that choice. God had warned them, but they had refused to listen. He had pleaded with them repeatedly to repent, but they had rejected those calls. They had not acted out of ignorance, but out of pride and stubbornness. They had chosen to live according to their own ways, living in keeping with their own selfish agendas. And now, they were experiencing the error of their ways.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Bright Hope For Dark Days

1 How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave. – Lamentations 1:1 ESV

As of midnight last night, my community is under a “shelter-in-place” order mandated by the local authorities. It is just the latest in a long list of changes to our way of life. And it is likely that there will be more to come. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, that is radically altering life as we know it.

This unprecedented worldwide catastrophe has impacted the health of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, with the current number of cases reaching the half-million mark. And sadly, as of this writing, there have been in excess of 20,000 deaths as a result of this deadly disease.

On top of the devastating toll it is taking on human life, COVI-D-19 has wreaked havoc on the global economy, shutting down countless businesses both large and small, putting millions of people out of work and without sources of income. It would be an understatement to say that these are difficult days.

So, as I was preparing to begin a new Devotionary, I was drawn to the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Sadly, the unfortunate title given to this book has kept many people from ever digging into its rich and rewarding content. Yes, the name is a bit depressing, but as the old saying goes, “There’s more to a book than its cover.”

The title “Lamentations” was given to the book long after it was written and actually comes from the Hebrew Talmud. The Hebrew Bible provided the book with a different, but no less depressing title: “Ah, how” or “Alas” (Heb. ‘ekah). It comes from the first word in the first, second, and fourth chapters.

There is no clear consensus as to the book’s author, but tradition has usually pointed to Jeremiah. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, opens the book of Lamentations with the following preface: “And it came to pass after Israel had been taken away into captivity and Jerusalem had been laid waste that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem and said.”

The content of the book focuses on the immediate aftermath of the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians. As God had warned repeatedly through His prophets, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had destroyed the nation of Judah and its capital city, taking captive tens of thousands of its people and leaving a destroyed economy, a ravaged landscape, and an emotionally devastated people behind.

For centuries, after the book was written, the people of Israel would read its content as part of an annual fast day recalled Jerusalem’s destruction. It was intended to be a much-needed reminder to future generations of Israelites that unfaithfulness was unacceptable to God. The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem had been the result of their ancestors’ disobedience and disloyalty to God. But the book also chronicles God’s remarkable faithfulness. Despite the failure of God’s chosen covenant-people to remain faithful to Him, He would refuse to abandon them completely.

The message contained in Lamentations, while directed at the nation of Judah, has lasting implications and timeless lessons that remain applicable for the people of God in all ages. Charles Swindoll describes the book’s relevance for anyone who would consider themselves a child of God.

“It [Lamentations] is a mute reminder that sin, in spite of all its allurement and excitement, carries with it heavy weights of sorrow, grief, misery, barrenness, and pain. It is the other side of the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ coin.” – Charles R. Swindoll, The Lamentations of Jeremiah

This book reveals the God-ordained ramifications of a life of disobedience. The fate of the people of Judah was directly tied to their refusal to keep their covenant commitment to God. Long before the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, God had warned the people of Judah what would happen as a result of the unfaithfulness to Him.

“The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away.” – Deuteronomy 28:36-37 ESV

And God had left them with no doubt as to the cause of their future suffering.

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.  – Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV

Centuries later, the apostle Paul would pick up on the basic theme of this book when he wrote to the believers in Galatia.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. – Galatians 6:7-8 ESV

Simply put, sin has consequences. That is the message of Numbers 32:23: “be sure your sin will find you out.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not insinuating that the COVID-19 virus is the punishment of God on the sins of mankind. I am not trying to make a correlation between the destruction of Jerusalem and the current state of affairs in America. All I want to do is allow this Spirit-inspired book to remind each of us that our God is faithful. Even in the midst of the worst circumstances, our God is loving, gracious, kind, merciful, and all-powerful. He does not abandon His own.

I am reminded of the words David wrote in the 23rd Psalm.

Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 NLT

These are dark days. We are walking (six-feet apart) in “the valley of the shadow of death,” but our God is by our side. Of all people, we should be able to rest and rejoice in the faithfulness of our God. We should find comfort in His consistency. We should find hope in His heart of compassion and mercy. The truly remarkable thing about the book of Lamentations is that while it vividly portrays Judah’s suffering, it also revels in the goodness of God.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV

For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men. – Lamentations 3:31-33 ESV

What could God be trying to teach us during these difficult days? In what ways could He be trying to get our attention in order to remind us that His love is steadfast, His mercies are never-ending, and His faithfulness is great? The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Will we choose to believe this great truth about our God, even when the circumstances of life seem to call it into question? That is the message of Lamentation.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Power to Obey

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. – Philemon 1:21-35 ESV

Paul’s use of the word “obedience” seems odd in light of the fact that this entire letter has been couched in terms of a request. Just a few verses earlier, Paul had admitted that he could have used his authority as an apostle and simply issued a command to Philemon but he had refused to do so. He wanted this to be Philemon’s decision.

…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you… – Philemon 1:8 ESV

Because all of this revolved around a relationship, Paul had not wanted to dictate the terms of Philemon’s decision or to use coercion to force his hand. He knew that any healing between the two men would have to come from the heart and not the head.

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:14 ESV

So, what prompts Paul to bring up obedience at this point in his letter? And why does he express such confidence that Philemon will do the right thing? I think it goes back to what Paul knew and believed about Philemon. He had every confidence that Philemon would respond positively and correctly because of his relationship with Jesus Christ. Remember what he said about his friend earlier in his letter: “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (Philemon 1:5  ESV).

Philemon had a track record of doing the right thing. And Paul was confident that his friend would face this latest test with the wisdom and strength of the indwelling Spirit of God. Philemon was not left to his own devices or relegated to operating according to his sinful flesh. He was a new creation. He had a new heart. He had a supernatural power available to him that would enable him to respond with justice, mercy, grace, and love.

Paul’s confidence was in the power of God to reform the hearts of men. He knew that the reconciliation of these two men was God’s will and that God would equip Philemon with the strength to obey that will. Paul knew from personal experience that, because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, nothing was impossible. He confidently told the believers in Philippi,  “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).

His prayer for the believers in Ephesus had been that God would “from his glorious, unlimited resources…empower you with inner strength through his Spirit” (Ephesians 3:16 NLT). And Paul had been confident that God would answer that prayer, boldly claiming, “Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20 NLT).

Paul believed that Philemon would obey the will of God because Paul believed in the power of God. His job had been to present the facts of the case to Philemon and then leave the result up to the Spirit of God. The resolution of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was going to have to be divinely empowered. It had to be a “God thing.” If Philemon tried to accomplish this in his own strength, he would fail. If he attempted to muster up the resolve to free Onesimus from slavery and treat him as a brother in Christ, only to please Paul, he would end up having regrets and harboring resentment over his financial losses.

If Philemon’s motivation to do the right thing came from an external source, his decision, no matter how righteous in nature, would be shortlived. It wouldn’t last. But Paul had every confidence that God was going to work a miracle of heart-transformation between these two men. And, as a result, God would get the glory. The news of their reconciliation would spread. The paradigm-shifting precedence of Philemon emancipating his former slave and treating him as his social and spiritual equal would leave an indelible mark on the community. And the only explanation would be the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And Paul rested in the knowledge that God would accomplish far more than even he could imagine. Philemon, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, would far exceed Paul’s words of counsel and his hopes for reconciliation.

He closes his letter by asking Philemon to prepare a room for him. He fully expected to be released from his house arrest at any moment and had every desire to visit his friends in Asia Minor. And, as always, Paul was grateful for the prayers of all those who had been praying for him during his confinement in Rome. Never one to take the petitions of others lightly, Paul found great encouragement in the knowledge that his needs were being lifted to God’s throne in heaven. And he believed that God would answer those prayers.

Finally, Paul provides Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus with greetings from some of their mutual friends. He includes Epaphras, an evangelist whom Paul describes as “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:23 ESV). This doesn’t mean that Epaphras was imprisoned with Paul in Rome, but that as a fellow minister of the Gospel, he shared the risks that Paul did. He was “imprisoned” or held captive to his role as an ambassador of Jesus Christ.

Paul adds the names of four other individuals and then closes his letter with the words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:21 ESV). And it’s hard to imagine that Paul did not have in mind the words spoken to him by God regarding the empowering nature of His grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Philemon had all the power he needed to do all that God was calling him to do.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Cost of Giving Advice

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. – Philemon 1:17-20 ESV

It’s quite easy to give advice to others. In fact, it comes naturally to most of us. Sharing our opinions and providing free counsel to our friends and family members just seem like good things to do. We can even back up our good intentions from the “Good Book.”

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14 ESV

But even the best counsel, motivated by the best intentions, doesn’t always produce the best outcomes. Telling someone what they ought to do, without providing them any hint as to how to do it, can be demoralizing and even damaging.

Paul was asking Philemon to accept his runaway slave back with open arms. Not only that, but he was also advising Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother and not as a slave. And everything Paul wrote to Philemon was biblically sound and spiritually appropriate. It was wise counsel coming from a godly and well-meaning friend. And yet, from Philemon’s perspective, it was all “easier said than done.” Paul, under house arrest in Rome and with plenty of time on his hands, could write Philemon a hundred letters full of godly advice on a wide range of topics, but at the end of the day, it was Philemon who would have to turn Paul’s rhetoric into reality. And that was not going to be easy.

And Paul was quite clear in expressing how he expected Philemon to treat Onesimus.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. – Philemon 1:17 NLT

Philemon was to show Onesimus the same courtesy and respect he would extend to Paul if he were to walk in the door. That was a tall order. Paul was asking Philemon to respond in a manner that was antithetical to logic and social protocol. For him to treat any slave with that kind of respect and honor would have been unheard of in civil society. And yet, Paul was asking him to extend this kind of courtesy to a runaway. Remember, Paul told Philemon that Onesimus was “no longer like a slave to you” (Philemon 1:16 NLT). That was easy for Paul to say. But in Philemon’s social circle, everyone would have known that Onesimus was his slave. And when he returned, they would have expected Philemon to deal with him according to Roman law. To not do so would have set a dangerous precedent. If Philemon failed to punish Onesimus for running away, it might encourage other slaves to follow his example. Other slave owners in the community, and possibly in the church, would have viewed his kind and gracious treatment of Onesimus as unacceptable behavior.

And Paul was fully aware of the gravity of his request of Philemon. He knew his request would not be easy to follow, and it could also prove costly. Paul was cognizant of the fact that Onesimus represented a financial investment for Philemon. In the economic system of Rome, Onesimus had a monetary value that was greater than his human worth. He was a commodity whose appraisal was based on his production capacity or resale value. So, when Paul asked Philemon to set Onesimus free, he was asking his friend to take a substantial hit to his bottom line.

But look closely at what Paul wrote next: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Philemon 1:18 ESV). You might say that Paul was putting his money where his mouth was. He was backing up his wise words with the promise of action. Paul was personally investing himself in the process of reconciliation between these two men.

When Paul told Philemon, “charge that to my account,” he was essentially saying “impute the debt of Onesimus to me.” It was like saying, “put it on my tab.” Paul was committing himself to make up any financial liability Philemon might face as a result of following his advice. Paul was willingly putting skin in the game. And Paul’s model for this kind of selfless and sacrificial commitment was Jesus.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

Jesus had come to earth so that He might reconcile sinful men to God. And in order to do so, He took on their debt. He bore their sins on the cross and died the death they deserved to die. And because those who place their faith in Christ enjoy a renewed relationship with God the Father, they have the capacity to view things from a totally new perspective. Consider Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth.

So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. – 2 Corinthians 5:16-19 NLT

Philemon and Onesimus had both been reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. But Paul deeply desired to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled to one another. They had both been set free from slavery to sin and death, and now they could live in newness of life together. And Paul was willing to invest himself in the process of reconciling their differences – even to the point of underwriting the financial debts of Onesimus.

And Paul made his commitment clear, telling Philemon, “I will repay it” (Philemon 1:19 ESV). And Philemon knew he could trust Paul to keep his word. And Paul added a little extra incentive for Philemon that basically stated, “You owe me.” This should not be viewed as a threat but as a gentle reminder that Philemon owed his new life in Christ to the ministry of Paul. He had sacrificed his life in order to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Philemon’s community and, as a result, Philemon had been reconciled to God. By placing his faith in Jesus, Philemon’s debt had been paid in full.

Nothing would make Paul happier than to hear that Philemon and Onesimus had been reconciled. And he let Philemon know his decision to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ would be all the payment he needed.

Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. – Philemon 1:20 ESV

Telling others what they ought to do is easy. But how willing are you to commit yourself to help them follow your advice? What cost are you willing to pay to see that your wise words are followed? Paul was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Are you? Are you committed to walking alongside the ones with whom you freely share your counsel and dedicate your time and resources to see that they have what they need to succeed?

This all reminds me of the story of the chicken and the pig. In debating the degree of their commitment to a typical breakfast of bacon and eggs, the chicken bragged about how some brave chicken willingly made provision for the eggs. But the pig responded by pointing out that while the breakfast required the chicken’s participation, it demanded a pig’s total commitment. Paul wasn’t content to simply wise counsel. He was totally committed to seeing that it was followed, regardless of the personal cost.

Paul could have easily said to Philemon what he wrote to the believers in Philippi.

But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Free to Love One Another

12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:12-16 ESV

Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. And Paul makes it clear that this had not been an easy decision. In a sense, Paul was sending his very heart. He loved Onesimus as if he was his own son. This young man had come to mean a great deal to the apostle and it must have grieved him deeply to think of him leaving his side. But Paul wanted to do the right thing. He knew that the rift between Onesimus and Philemon needed to be healed.

But as difficult as it was for Paul, stop and consider the feelings of Onesimus. They say there are two sides to every story, and in the case of Onesimus, we know next to nothing about how he came to be a slave, why he ran away, or what kind of conditions he had lived under while serving in Philemon’s house. But it seems likely that his decision to escape his condition as a slave was motivated by something. Perhaps it was nothing more than the natural human desire to be free.

It is fascinating to speculate on the back story of Onesimus. Perhaps he had sold himself into servitude in order to pay back a debt he owed to Philemon. Or he could have been born into his condition, the unfortunate son of slave parents. Then there’s the very real possibility that Onesimus had been a prisoner of war who Philemon purchased from the slave market.

But regardless of how Onesimus had come to be a slave or why he had decided to run away, Paul had somehow convinced him to return. What a fascinating conversation that must have been. Just imagine how long Paul must have wrestled with the idea before he ever brought it up with Onesimus. And then, consider how Onesimus must have received Paul’s counsel that he go back to Philemon and make things right.

There were great risks involved. And yet, Onesimus had agreed to follow Paul’s advice, despite knowing that his return could result in his re-enslavement. Not only that, but he could also face severe legal repercussions for his actions. As a runaway slave, he could be beaten, sold, or even put to death. His fate would be in the hands of Philemon. But this young man had willingly chosen to take the risks in order to do what he believed to be the right thing.

In an attempt to prepare Philemon for the arrival of his former slave and newfound brother in Christ, Paul uses an interesting tactic. He implies that all the while Onesimus had been ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome, he had done so on Philemon’s behalf. And Paul states that he had been tempted to maintain this arrangement, but had not wanted to make that decision for Philemon.

I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. – Philemon 1:13-14 ESV

Interestingly enough, Paul seemed to view Onesimus as a gift from Philemon. And yet, the only way Paul could have known about the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was because Onesimus had divulged it to him. At some point in their relationship, Onesimus had revealed his status as a runaway slave. And when Paul had heard the name of Onesimus’ master, Paul had recognized the hand of God in it all. Philemon was a dear friend of Paul’s. And Philemon had a slave who had run away and ended up in Rome, where he had met Paul and come to faith in Christ. Paul knew that none of this had been the result of happenstance, luck, kismet, or karma. It was the handiwork of God.

And Paul tried to get Philemon to view these events from a divine perspective, stating, “It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever” (Philemon 1:15 NLT). For Philemon, the loss of his slave had been nothing more than a financial setback. He had lost his property. But Paul reminded Philemon that his loss had actually resulted in great gain. He had lost a slave but was receiving back a brother in Christ.

He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:16 NLT

The young man who was about to walk through Philemon’s door was no longer his property, but a fellow member of the family of God. Onesimus was no longer Philemon’s personal possession. His life had been paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ.

At one point, early in his earthly ministry, Jesus had returned to Nazareth, where he had entered the synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

And having read this Messianic passage, Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and said, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Jesus had come to proclaim liberty to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Of course, He was speaking in terms of spiritual captivity to sin and death, and freedom from the oppression that comes with trying to earn favor with God through human effort. And that is exactly what Onesimus had experienced. He had been set free and, as Jesus had said, “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT). 

That verse is found in the middle of a discourse by Jesus in which he was discussing the ability of the truth to set men free. And he describes all those who sin as slaves.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” – Philemon 8:35-36 NLT

Prior to coming to faith in Christ, Philemon had been a slave to sin. But he had been set free and now enjoyed status as a son of God. But the same thing was true of Onesimus. He had also been set free from slavery to sin and death, and he had become Philemon’s spiritual brother. So, why would Philemon continue to treat his brother as a slave?

Paul was asking both of these men to make difficult decisions. Onesimus had made his choice and was returning home. But Philemon still had a choice to make. How would he respond? What would he do when he saw Onesimus?

Jesus came to change the condition of the human heart. He died so that men might experience the life-transformative power of God, that could not only restore fallen men to a right relationship with Himself but with one another.

“The supreme work of Christianity is to transform men, so that out of their transformed lives shall come the transformation of all social conditions, and the victories of righteousness and of love.” – G. Campbell Morgan, Living Messages of the Books of the Bible

Paul greatly desired that these two men, who both meant a great deal to him, would allow their faith in Christ to transform the relationship between them. Paul knew that their choice to live as brothers rather than as slave and master would be a testimony to the Gospel’s power. And it would spread throughout the local congregation and into the community.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Heart of the Issue

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) – Philemon 1:8-11 ESV

Bringing up a difficult topic with someone you care about can be tricky. An attempt to point out someone else’s faults, failures, or blind spots, even if done with the best of intentions, can turn out poorly. Confrontation is risky. That’s why, more often than not, most of us choose to avoid the conflict altogether. But Paul loved Philemon too much to remain silent. And he knew that this particular issue had far greater implications than just the relationship between Philemon and his runaway slave, Onesimus.

For Paul, this was all about the body of Christ. Yes, he had strong affections for the two men mired in the middle of this situation, but he also had a heart for the spiritual well-being of the church. The relationships between believers within the local body of Christ were vital to the spread of the Gospel because they were evidence of its life-transformative power. There was no place for division or disunity among believers, a message he communicated to the church in Corinth.

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. – 1 Corinthians 1:10 NLT

So, as Paul prepared to bring up a potentially controversial issue with Philemon, he had the greater good of the body of Christ in mind. He knew that Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus would have a ripple effect on the church. Because of his leadership role in the church, Philemon was admired by its members and his actions carried great influence.

It’s essential that we understand the nature of the problem that Paul was about to address with his friend. Philemon was a believer but also a slaveholder. This was not uncommon in those days. In fact, it was quite normal because slavery was a vital part of the Roman economy. In the early days of the church, as the Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire, people from all walks of life were coming to faith in Christ, including slaves. The message of faith in Jesus was non-discriminatory. It was not reserved for the rich or religious, the upper class or the highly educated. As Paul pointed out to the believers in Corinth, the Gospel was for the foolish, the powerless, and the despised.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

It would appear that Philemon was a relatively wealthy individual, with a home large enough to host the local fellowship of believers. He also had the financial resources to purchase bondslaves. But, while Philemon was well-resourced, he had not been purchased his salvation. It had been a gift, a point that Peter makes perfectly clear.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

But Philemon, like every other individual who had come to faith in Christ, was having to deal with the impact of the Gospel message on his daily life. He was a Christ-follower, but he also remained a businessman with financial obligations. He was also a citizen of the Roman Empire with certain legal rights and responsibilities. And as a slaveholder who had recently suffered a financial loss when one of his slaves had run away, he would have known his rights concerning redress and legal recourse.

But little did Philemon know that his runaway slave had just happened to run into his friend, the apostle Paul. One of the things I love about this story is the way it so subtly portrays the sovereign will of God. The last thing Philemon expected to hear from Paul was an update on his runaway slave. And yet, here was Paul getting ready to announce the news that, not only did he know Onesimus, he considered him his child in the faith. Philemon’s runaway slave had become a fellow follower of Christ and a personal friend of Paul’s, ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome. What a bizarre turn of events. And one can only imagine the look on Philemon’s face as he read this surprising news from Paul.

But don’t miss the sovereign hand of God in all of this. At some point, Philemon had made the conscious decision to purchase Philemon as a slave. It had been a fully legal transaction based on sound financial planning. But then, somewhere along the way, Onesimus had come up with a plan of his own. He ran away. He had taken the risk of seeking his freedom, knowing that, if caught, he would face severe punishment or even death. And hundreds of miles away, Paul had made a plea to have his case tried before the emperor in Rome, where he was then taken and placed under house arrest.

Each of these decisions was made by a man, but as the book of Proverbs points out, their plans were orchestrated by God. He was operating behind the scenes in ways they could not see or know.

We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NLT

You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail. – Proverbs 19:21 NLT

We have no details concerning how Onesimus met Paul. But he did. And we can rest in the knowledge that God was directing the steps of this young runaway slave so that his path would cross that of Paul’s. God had fully intended for the slave of Philemon to encounter the prisoner of Nero. And the life of Onesimus would never be the same. But Philemon’s life was also about to undergo a radical realignment as Paul presented him with a paradigm-shifting request.

As an apostle, Paul knew that he had the authority to force Philemon to do the right thing. But instead, he appealed to Philemon’s heart. Paul wanted Philemon to act out of love, not out of obligation or duty. So, he let Philemon know that it was “for love’s sake” that he was making his request. Paul knew that love would be the only thing that could heal the broken relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. It was going to take a miracle for this slaveholder to forgive his former slave. But for Paul, forgiveness was not going to be enough. He was out to change the relationship between these two men in ways that neither one of them could imagine.

Paul makes an interesting side comment to Philemon, stating that Onesimus “was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (Philemon 1:11 ESV). The Greek word Paul used is achrēstos, which means “unprofitable.” It’s not exactly clear what Paul in inferring by this statement, but he could simply be implying that, as long as Onesimus was on the run, he had been no use to Philemon. But his absence had proved extremely beneficial to Paul. This young man had been ministering to Paul during his house arrest. But I think there is a more significant meaning behind Paul’s use of this term. As a slave, Onesimus had been little more than property to Philemon. His value was based solely on the work he did for Philemon or the price he could bring at auction.

But now, as a brother in Christ, Onesimus was a valuable member of the faith community and an asset to the Kingdom of Christ. At one time, Philemon had considered Onesimus to be foolish, powerless, and despised. But Christ had changed all that. Now, Onesimus was a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. He was a valuable and valued member of the body of Christ. He had gifts to share and a part to play in the ongoing spread of the Gospel.

Paul wanted Philemon to view his former slave through the lens of the Gospel. God was going to use Onesimus, someone the world once “counted as nothing at all…to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (1 Corinthians 1:28 NLT). In the world in which Philemon lived, slavery was an important part of his livelihood. It was a powerful force in the local economy. It was a common practice that few questioned and virtually all had learned to accept as the status quo. But Jesus had come to replace man’s ways with God’s ways. The Gospel was meant to be a game-changer, shining the light of God’s love into the darkness of a fallen world.

And Philemon was about to have the light of God’s truth illuminate the recesses of his own heart, revealing yet one more hidden area of sin that needed to be exposed and expelled by the love of Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson