Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Hear, you peoples, all of you;
    pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it,
and let the Lord God be a witness against you,
    the Lord from his holy temple.
For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
    and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him,
    and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
    like waters poured down a steep place.
All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem?
Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country,
    a place for planting vineyards,
and I will pour down her stones into the valley
    and uncover her foundations.
All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces,
    all her wages shall be burned with fire,
    and all her idols I will lay waste,
for from the fee of a prostitute she gathered them,
    and to the fee of a prostitute they shall return. Micah 1:2-7 ESV

Like a prosecutor in a court case, Micah is going to present damning evidence against the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. These two nations came into existence after God divided Israel as punishment for the idolatry of King Solomon.

Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten of these pieces, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten of the tribes to you! But I will leave him one tribe for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel. For Solomon has abandoned me and worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians; Chemosh, the god of Moab; and Molech, the god of the Ammonites. He has not followed my ways and done what is pleasing in my sight. He has not obeyed my decrees and regulations as David his father did.”’ – 1 Kings 11:31-33 NLT

Jeroboam was one of Solomon’s officials and he would be used by God to lead a rebellion against the king, convincing 10 of the 12 tribes to align with him and form the northern kingdom of Israel. Solomon would maintain control over his own tribe, Judah, as well as the tribe of Benjamin. Both Solomon and Jeroboam would be followed by a succession of different kings who would rule over the two kingdoms. And the majority of these men would continue to lead the chosen people of God to serve the false gods of the Canaanite nations. This idolatry and apostasy is the basis of Micah’s message.

So, he calls all the nations of the earth to act as jurors in the trial of God’s people.

Let all the people of the world listen!
    Let the earth and everything in it hear. – Micah 1:2 NLT

And the star witness in this divine courtroom drama will be God Himself.

The Sovereign Lord is making accusations against you;
    the Lord speaks from his holy Temple. – Micah 1:2 NLT

Interestingly enough, God had predicted this moment in time. Even before the people of Israel had ever set foot in the land of promise, God had warned that they would be unfaithful to Him and worship other gods. So, He dictated the words of a song to Moses and instructed him to teach it to the people of Israel in order that they might never forget what would happen if they disobeyed and deserted Him.

“So write down the words of this song, and teach it to the people of Israel. Help them learn it, so it may serve as a witness for me against them. For I will bring them into the land I swore to give their ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey. There they will become prosperous, eat all the food they want, and become fat. But they will begin to worship other gods; they will despise me and break my covenant. And when great disasters come down on them, this song will stand as evidence against them, for it will never be forgotten by their descendants. I know the intentions of these people, even now before they have entered the land I swore to give them.” – Deuteronomy 31:19-21 NLT

Since Moses had been warned by God that his time on earth was drawing to a close, He took this lengthy “song” and gave it to Joshua, with instructions to keep it in a safe place.

“Take this Book of Instruction and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, so it may remain there as a witness against the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 31:26 NLT

And the “Book of Instruction” had remained beside the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies of God’s temple all during the reigns of David and Solomon. Even as Micah penned the words of this book, the “song” God had given to Moses was safely ensconced in the inner sanctum of the temple, its words acting as a witness against both Israel and Judah.

Micah describes God leaving His heavenly throne room and making His way to earth, where He will provide personal testimony against His ungrateful and unfaithful people. Isaiah used similar imagery to describe God’s divine judgment of His people.

The Lord takes his place in court
    and presents his case against his people.
The Lord comes forward to pronounce judgment
    on the elders and rulers of his people… – Isaiah 3:13-14 NLT

And Micah warns that God’s arrival will be anything but ordinary.

…the mountains will melt under him,
    and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
    like waters poured down a steep place. – Micah 1:4 ESV

This imagery is intended to get the attention of the residents of Judah and Israel. Their all-powerful God, the one they had abandoned for false gods, was about to make Himself known in ways that would prove His power and guarantee their destruction. For generations, they had acted as if God did not exist or as if He was unconcerned with their behavior. They had flagrantly flaunted their idolatry in His face and gotten away with it. They had repeatedly committed spiritual adultery with no ill effects. But Micah wanted them to know that their God had run out of patience. He was leaving His throne room in heaven and descending to earth to pronounce judgment against them.

And just in case the people might wonder why God would bother to leave heaven and come all the way to earth, Micah provides them with the answer.

All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem?
– Micah 1:5 ESV

Micah’s reference to Israel as “Jacob” was intended as a not-so-subtle reminder of the rebellious background of the patriarch for whom they were named. The book of Genesis records the early years of Jacob, portraying him as a manipulative, scheming individual who spent years trying to do things his way, rather than trust in God’s will for his life. And it was only when Jacob came to an end of himself and decided to submit his life to God, that he received a new name and a divine promise of fruitfulness.

“Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” – Genesis 35:10-11 ESV

By referring to the northern kingdom of Israel as “Jacob,” Micah is linking them to the rebellious years of their patriarch’s life. They had more in common with the earlier version of Jacob than they did with his post-name-change behavior.

And Samaria, the capital city of Israel, had become the epicenter of idolatry and unfaithfulness for the entire nation. The same thing was true for Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. In spite of the presence of the temple of God, the city of Jerusalem had become home to shrines and high places for a pantheon of false gods. Both of these cities had become icons for the wickedness of their respective nations.

For the people of Judah and Israel, these capital cities were representative of their wealth, power, and prestige. They were filled with gold, precious gems, beautiful buildings, and the trappings of their own success. But God was about to turn these man-made symbols of self-importance into piles of rubble and ashes.

“So I, the Lord, will make the city of Samaria
a heap of ruins.
Her streets will be plowed up
for planting vineyards.
I will roll the stones of her walls into the valley below,
exposing her foundations.
All her carved images will be smashed.
All her sacred treasures will be burned.
These things were bought with the money
earned by her prostitution,
and they will now be carried away
to pay prostitutes elsewhere.” –
Micah 1:6-7 NLT

God wasn’t just coming down from heaven to offer testimony against Judah and Israel, He was showing up as their judge, jury, and executioner. Their fate was already sealed. God had already told them what would happen if they failed to worship Him alone. He had dictated the words of the song to Moses and they cried out from the Holy of Holies, condemning the people of God for their unfaithfulness. The Israelites may have forgotten the lyrics, but God had not.

All the symbols of Samaria’s success were about to be destroyed. The walls of the city would be toppled. Its streets would be plowed up and turned into fields. All the statues and idols erected to her many false gods would be smashed and burned. And the wealth amassed through their use of temple prostitutes cleverly disguised as “priestesses,” would become loot for the invading forces of the Assyrians.

Judgment was coming. And the Judge of the universe was leaving His judgment seat in heaven to ensure that their crimes receive the condemnation they deserve.

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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Not What You Expected

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
    their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
    more fierce than the evening wolves;
    their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
    they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
    all their faces forward.
    They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
    and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
    for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
    guilty men, whose own might is their god!” Habakkuk 1:5-11 ESV

Habakkuk had two questions for God: How long and why? But from Habakkuk’s earth-bound perspective, it appeared that God was unresponsive uncaring. The prophet found himself surrounded by destruction, violence, injustice, and iniquity. The law of God was treated with total disregard and the wicked among the people of Judah seemed to outnumber the righteous. In essence, Habakkuk was demanding to know what God was going to do about it all.

And in verses 5-11, he records the long-awaited response from God. Yet, the answer he received from the Almighty must have left him a bit surprised and disappointed. It’s safe to say that what Habakkuk heard God say was not what he had been expecting. When Habakkuk had uttered his opening prayer to God, it had been in the form of a lament, a desperate cry of help to God asking that He intervene and provide salvation.

But instead, God delivers a promise of coming judgment. While Habakkuk had been under the impression that God had not heard his cries or heeded his pleas for help, the truth was that God already had a plan in place. But God warned Habakkuk that the nature of His plan would be inconceivable and implausible to Habakkuk.

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told.” – Habakkuk 1:5 ESV

While Habakkuk’s opening prayer had focused on the state of affairs in Judah, God revealed that He had a much bigger agenda in mind that would include foreign powers and pagan nations as His instruments of judgment.

“For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own.” – Habakkuk 1:6 ESV

The term, “Chaldean” was a reference to the Babylonian Empire. God was telling Habakkuk that the solution to Judah’s problem was going to come in the form of a pagan nation that would rise to power and dominate the Middle East. And don’t miss God’s declaration that He would be the one who raised up this new superpower. Their ascension to world dominance would be the work of God, not men. And yet, God describes them as bitter, hasty, dreaded, and fearsome. They are violent and fierce, devouring everything in their path and “are notorious for their cruelty and do whatever they like” (Habakkuk 1:7 NLT).

This alarming news must have left Habakkuk in a state of shock. How could this be the answer to Judah’s problem? What possible good could come from God raising up a godless and bloodthirsty nation to set their greedy sights on the land of promise? None of this would have made sense to Habakkuk. And yet, God warned that He was “doing a work” in their day that would be unprecedented and unparalleled. The entire region was going to feel the wrath of God as He brought judgment upon them for their pride, arrogance, and failure to recognize Him as the one true God. He had warned the King of Tyre that judgment was coming.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
Because you think you are as wise as a god,
   I will now bring against you a foreign army,
    the terror of the nations.
They will draw their swords against your marvelous wisdom
    and defile your splendor!” – Ezekiel 28:6-7 NLT

Even the great nation of Egypt would suffer the judgment of God in the form of Babylonian aggression.

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
By the power of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon,
    I will destroy the hordes of Egypt.
He and his armies—the most ruthless of all—
    will be sent to demolish the land.
They will make war against Egypt
    until slaughtered Egyptians cover the ground.” – Ezekiel 30:10-11 NLT

God was letting Habakkuk know that He was sovereign over all the nations. All kings and countries answered to Him. They were at His beck and call, serving at His whim and completely subservient to His sovereign will. Years later, the prophet Daniel, living in captivity in Babylon and serving in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar himself, would pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Faced with a possible death sentence if he failed to interpret the king’s dream, Daniel had received its meaning directly from God in a dream. And he expressed his gratitude to God for His sovereign power and protection.

“Praise the name of God forever and ever,
    for he has all wisdom and power.
He controls the course of world events;
    he removes kings and sets up other kings.
He gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to the scholars.
He reveals deep and mysterious things
    and knows what lies hidden in darkness,
    though he is surrounded by light.
– Daniel 2:20-22 NLT

The thought that God would use a Gentile nation to punish His own people was inconceivable to Habakkuk and the people of Judah. To the prophets’ warning that God was bringing judgment against them, the people of Judah had responded with scorn and ridicule.

“He won’t bother us!
No disasters will come upon us.
    There will be no war or famine.
God’s prophets are all windbags
    who don’t really speak for him.
    Let their predictions of disaster fall on themselves!” – Jeremiah 5:12-13 NLT

The leaders of Judah vehemently denied the prophetic warnings, declaring them to be lies. False prophets countered the message of God’s spokesmen, promising peace rather than judgment.

“From prophets to priests,
    they are all frauds.
They offer superficial treatments
    for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
    when there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 6:13-14 NLT

The people of Judah were convinced that their status as God’s chosen people and the presence of the temple of God were protections against any pending judgment. As long as they kept offering sacrifices as God had commanded, they would be safe. Or so they thought.

“Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, ‘We are safe!’—only to go right back to all those evils again?” – Jeremiah 7:9-10 NLT

God had warned the people of Israel that there would be consequences for their failure to keep their covenant agreement with Him. Long before they ever set foot in the land of promise, Moses had delivered to them God’s ultimatum regarding blessings and curses. If they chose to be unfaithful, they would suffer the consequences.

“You will watch as your sons and daughters are taken away as slaves…A foreign nation you have never heard about will eat the crops you worked so hard to grow…The Lord will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! You will become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you.” – Deuteronomy 28:32, 33, 36- 37 NLT

Now, after centuries marked by disobedience and disregard for the laws of God, the nation of Judah was facing the same fate as their brothers and sisters to the north. The ten tribes that formed the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians years earlier. They had been taken captive and their cities and towns had been left destroyed and their land, devastated. But the southern kingdom of Judah had learned nothing from watching the demise of their northern neighbors. They still thought they were immune and under divine protection.

But God warns that the Babylonians would destroy everything in their path. There would be no walls high enough and no armies strong enough to halt their advance or prevent their God-ordained destruction of the land of Judah.

“They scoff at kings and princes
    and scorn all their fortresses.
They simply pile ramps of earth
    against their walls and capture them!” – Habakkuk 1:10 NLT

Yet, in spite of their apparent success, God would hold the Babylonians accountable for their actions. Yes, He would use them to accomplish His divine will, but that would not absolve them from their guilt. They would be operating under the impression that they were in full control of their actions, answerable to no one but themselves.

“They sweep past like the wind
    and are gone.
But they are deeply guilty,
    for their own strength is their god.” – Habakkuk 1:11 NLT

Oblivious to the sovereign hand of God, Nebuchadnezzar and his forces would view their victories as having been man-made, not God-ordained. But after having successfully fulfilled the will of God concerning the people of Judah, God would judge Babylon for its role in their demise.

When Habakkuk had asked God, “How long?” and “Why?” this was not the answer he expected or wanted. But God’s ways are not our ways. His plans rarely line up with our preconceived ideas. But He is always faithful, right, and just in all that He does. His ways are righteous. His plans are perfect. As King David expressed in his psalm: “The LORD is righteous in everything he does” (Psalm 145:17 NLT). We may not understand or even like His ways. We may have a difficult time believing His will for us is best for us. But in time, we will see that God’s ways, while hard to understand, are motivated by His love, mercy, and grace.

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

The Subtle Snare of Self-Glorification

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. – 3 John 1:9-10 ESV

After praising Gaius for his generosity and the hospitality he extended to the visiting evangelists, John points out the actions of another individual within the local fellowship. In this case, John has nothing good to say about this man, whose name is Diotrephes. In fact, John describes Diotrephes as someone “who likes to put himself first” and “does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 1:9 ESV). This member of the church was resisting John’s authority as an elder and apostle. He saw himself as a leader within the local congregation and had stood opposed to the ministry of the visiting evangelists. John accused him of refusing to “welcome the brothers” (3 John 1:10 ESV). Not only that, but Diotrephes had also tried to prevent anyone in the church from meeting the needs of these men, even punishing those who did by throwing them out of the church.

This man was the antithesis of Gaius. We have no other details regarding his life other than what John describes here, but it is not difficult to assess that this man was selfish and self-centered, motivated by a need for control, and unwilling to love others in the same way that God had shown love to him. Diotrephes saw John and these visiting evangelists as a threat to his authority.

Notice that John does not accuse Diotrephes of propagating false doctrine. This man was not preaching another Gospel or denying the deity of Jesus. He was simply refusing to acknowledge the authority of John as an apostle of Christ and rejecting the ministry of those who had been divinely gifted to minister to the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11).

Diotrephes was not teaching falsehood, but he was modeling an attitude of pride and arrogance that had no place in the church. And his actions were just as dangerous and destructive as those of the false teachers and prophets who were wreaking havoc on congregations throughout Asia Minor.

In a way, Diotrephes was preaching a different Jesus because his actions were in direct violation of the teachings of Jesus. During His earthly ministry, Jesus had used the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews as examples to be avoided, not followed. According to Jesus, these men, who had set themselves up as religious and civic authorities over the Jews, were actually deceptive and destructive. They were looked up to as leaders, but Jesus had warned His disciples, “don’t follow their example” (Matthew 23:3 NLT). And He provided ample evidence for emulating their behavior.

“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’” – Matthew 23:5-7 NLT

For these men, leadership was all about authority and power. They flaunted their positions and gloried in their prominence. But Jesus went on to warn his followers:

“The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 NLT

And with that statement, we see the difference between Gaius and Diotrephes. One was humble and willing to serve, while the other was marked by pride and an overwhelming need to be the center of attention.

This kind of attitude was particularly repulsive to John because he knew from first-hand experience how it stood in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus. He would have well-remembered the occasion when Jesus had confronted him and the other disciples over a conversation they had one day while walking along the road. When they had arrived at their destination in Capernaum, Jesus had asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?” (Mark 9:33 NLT). But they were too embarrassed to answer Jesus “because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

So, Jesus had sat the disciples down and delivered them the sobering news that “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (Mark 9:35 NLT).

Now, you would think that this message from Jesus would have left the disciples not only embarrassed but reticent to ever bring up this topic again. Yet, in the very next chapter, Mark records another moment when Jesus had to confront the worldly outlook of His own followers, and this time it involved John and his brother James. These two men approached Jesus and asked Him if He would do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

The audacity of these two brothers shocks us. How in the world could they make such a request after having heard Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place?” Yet, here they were requesting that Jesus award them with the two most prominent positions available in a royal administration: The two seats on either side of the king. Make no mistake about it, they were asking for the right to rule and reign alongside Jesus when He set up His earthly kingdom.

And the answer Jesus gave these two brash brothers echoed what He had told the disciples earlier.

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:43-45 NLT

Their request had been completely off-base and uncalled for. First of all, Jesus informed them that kind of decision was up to God alone.

“I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.” – Mark 10:40 NLT

And the right to rule alongside Jesus would have to be preceded by a willingness to suffer as He would.

“You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” – Mark 10:38 NLT

John and James had no clue what they were asking. They didn’t understand that the authority for which they longed was only available to those who were willing to suffer and serve. And Jesus used Himself as the model for godly leadership, stating, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT).

John and James were in it for what they could get out of it. So was Diotrephes. But Jesus had come to earth, not to gain, but to give His life away. He had willingly taken on the nature of a man so that He could die on behalf of sinful humanity. And yet, His humiliation was followed by His glorification.

When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. – Hebrews 3:3 NLT

John was appalled by the actions of Diotrephes. Watching this arrogant man revel in his self-exalted state of authority must have reminded John of his own moment of shame when he and his brother had asked Jesus for the right to reign at His side. John had come a long way. He had learned a great deal since watching His friend and teacher die on the cross. His encounters with the resurrected Messiah had left him a changed man. And his understanding of what it means to be a true leader had been radically altered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.

For Diotrephes, glory was all about power and position in this life. But the apostle Paul would beg to differ. His words to the church in Colossae would provide a powerful reminder to the tendency within all of us to follow the example of Diotrephes. We are not to seek glory in this life. Instead, we are to keep our eyes fixed on heaven, where the hope of true glorification can be found.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 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

He Will Stretch Out His Hand

12 You also, O Cushites,
    shall be slain by my sword.

13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north
    and destroy Assyria,
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
    a dry waste like the desert.
14 Herds shall lie down in her midst,
    all kinds of beasts;
even the owl and the hedgehog
    shall lodge in her capitals;
a voice shall hoot in the window;
    devastation will be on the threshold;
    for her cedar work will be laid bare.
15 This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.”
What a desolation she has become,
    a lair for wild beasts!
Everyone who passes by her
    hisses and shakes his fist. Zephaniah 2:12-15 ESV

Verse 12 contains a very brief word of warning from God concerning the Cushites. The land of Cush is most commonly associated with the modern-day nation of Ethiopia. But even the ancient Jewish historian made this connection.

“For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews).

As Josephus points out, Cush was the oldest son of Ham and, therefore, a grandson of Noah. But the original land of Cush most likely encompassed a much larger region than that of modern-day Ethiopia. It is believed that ancient Cush encompassed land on both sides of the Red Sea, including Upper and Lower Nubia, as well as Sudan. The prophet Isaiah provides a colorful description of the land of Cush.

Ah, land of whirring wings
    that is beyond the rivers of Cush,
which sends ambassadors by the sea,
    in vessels of papyrus on the waters!
Go, you swift messengers,
    to a nation tall and smooth,
to a people feared near and far,
    a nation mighty and conquering,
    whose land the rivers divide. – Isaiah 18:1-2 ESV

And Jeremiah includes the nation of Cush in his prophetic warning against Egypt.

“Who is this, rising like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge?
Egypt rises like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge.
He said, ‘I will rise, I will cover the earth,
    I will destroy cities and their inhabitants.’
Advance, O horses,
    and rage, O chariots!
Let the warriors go out:
    men of Cush and Put who handle the shield,
    men of Lud, skilled in handling the bow. – Jeremiah 46:7-9 ESV

At the point in time in which Zephaniah penned his book, the nations that occupied the northeastern tip of Africa were closely associated, having formed alliances that allowed them to survive the chaos and turbulence of those ancient days. The prophet Ezekiel also included Cush in his

Thus says the Lord God:

“Wail, ‘Alas for the day!’
   For the day is near,
    the day of the Lord is near;
it will be a day of clouds,
    a time of doom for the nations.
A sword shall come upon Egypt,
    and anguish shall be in Cush,
when the slain fall in Egypt,
    and her wealth is carried away,
    and her foundations are torn down.

“Cush, and Put, and Lud, and all Arabia, and Libya, and the people of the land that is in league, shall fall with them by the sword.” – Ezekiel 30:1-5 ESV

It seems that Zephaniah is including Cush in order to represent the far reaches of God’s coming judgment. Representing the southernmost nation known to the people of Israel, Cush would also experience the wrath of God, and it would likely be due to their close association with Egypt.

Those who support Egypt shall fall,
    and her proud might shall come down… – Ezekiel 30:6 ESV

Suddenly, Zephaniah shifts the focus from the far south to the polar opposite region in the north. The extent of God’s righteous judgment will be vast and all-encompassing. No nation will be able to escape His coming judgment.

And he will stretch out his hand against the north
    and destroy Assyria – Zephaniah 2:13 ESV

Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh had figured prominently in the political and military turmoil that marked this region of the world. The Assyrians had been major power brokers for quite some time. It was the Assyrians whom God used to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, beginning in 740 BC.

So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, the spirit of Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and he took them into exile, namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, to this day. – 1 Chronicles 5:26 ESV

In Zephaniah’s day, Nineveh would have been one of the most beautiful and impressive cities in the ancient world. Yet, he is given a vision of this magnificent city being turned into a wasteland by God.

he will make Nineveh a desolation,
    a dry waste like the desert Zephaniah 2:13 ESV

These mighty nations, with all their power, wealth, opulence, and pride, would find themselves humbled under the mighty hand of God. From the far south to the distant north, the nations had all be vying for dominance and the people of God had found themselves situated at the epicenter of this ongoing quest for dominion.

Throughout this section of his book, Zephaniah is pointing out God’s sovereignty over all the earth. The Almighty God is in control of all things, including the nations of the earth. It is God who puts kings on their thrones. And it is He who has the sole authority to remove them as He sees fit. In fact, Daniel spoke the following words to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the all-powerful Babylonians.

You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all – Daniel 2:37-38 ESV

And since God is the one who establishes the rule and the reach of kings, He has a distinct dislike for pride in any form or fashion. Kings who dare to boast of their greatness or who arrogantly take credit for their accomplishments will face the wrath of the omnipotent King of the universe. Nebuchadnezzar would learn this lesson the hard way. At one point during his reign, he stood on the roof of his royal palace and took in the impressive sight that spread out below him.

“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV

And no sooner had the words left his lips, than this pride-filled king found himself relegated to acting and living like a wild animal. The man who had just gloried in his self-achievements lost his mind. And Daniel warned him that his insanity would last until he recognized “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32 ESV).

These declarations of coming destruction against Cush and Assyria are meant to convey God’s dominance and dominion over the affairs of men. There is no kingdom that exists without His divine permission. There is no ruler who reigns without God’s sovereign sanction. These mighty nations thought they could do as they wished, declaring themselves the rulers of the known world. But each of them was nothing more than an instrument in the hand of God. Their very existence was due to the will of God. They ruled at the whim of God. And they would all eventually fall under the just and righteous judgment of God.

Mankind is pride-filled and self-exalting. And the mighty city of Nineveh expresses the autonomous, self-righteous attitude of humanity.

This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

David, the great king of Israel, would later pen the words that chronicle the foolishness of man’s egocentric outlook on life.

Only fools say in their hearts,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
    not one of them does good!

The Lord looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one!

Will those who do evil never learn?
    They eat up my people like bread
    and wouldn’t think of praying to the Lord.
Terror will grip them,
    for God is with those who obey him.
The wicked frustrate the plans of the oppressed,
    but the Lord will protect his people. – Psalm 14:1-6 NLT

North, south, east, and west – the people of God were surrounded by enemies who were more powerful, greater in number, and intent on their destruction. But, as David pointed out, the Lord will protect His people.  While the wicked frustrate the plans of the oppressed, God will one day put an end to the plans of the wicked. He will stretch out His hand and the mighty will fall.

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

   

 

A New Role Model

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:1-12 ESV

Christ-and-the-pharisees_by-Ernst-Zimmerman.jpegJesus had left the Pharisees speechless. Matthew records that, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46 ESV). They had come with their questions, designed to trip Jesus up and expose Him to. the people as a fraud and a fake. But Jesus had turned the tables on them, asking them a question of His own and exposing their ignorance of the Scriptures they revered and their blindness to the reality of His position as their Messiah.

These men were part of the spiritual leadership of Israel. They were revered and looked up to by the people. They, along with the Sadducees and scribes, were experts in the law of Moses. And yet, Jesus revealed that their knowledge of the Scriptures was insufficient and incomplete. In fact, in John’s gospel, we have recorded these powerful words of Jesus, pointing out their obsession with the written word of God, but their stubborn refusal to accept the incarnate Word of God who came that they might have life.

“You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” – John 5:39-40 BSB

Immediately after His latest and last confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus turned to those around Him and delivered a blistering attack on these very same men. Chapter 23 of Matthew contains some of the harshest words found in the Scriptures. In it, we find Jesus unloading on the Pharisees in a rather uncharacteristic way. But this was NOT a personal attack. He was dealing with those who had become roadblocks to the Kingdom. By rejecting Him, they were rejecting the rule and reign of God Himself. These men were supposed to be pointing people to God but were actually doing just the opposite.

Earlier in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of working for and by the power of Satan. But He had responded to their accusation by saying, “Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven – except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:30-31 NLT).

The religious leaders had positioned themselves against Jesus and therefore, against God. They were denying the work of God as manifested by the power of God (the Holy Spirit), and attributing it all to Satan. So, in this particular teaching moment, Jesus pronounced a series of warnings or “woes” against the religious leaders of Israel. But rather than direct His attack at the source of the problem, Jesus chose to speak to those who were the unsuspecting victims of the Pharisees’ influence.

All of the warnings found in this passage would have come as a shock to the average Jew because they looked up to and admired the religious leaders as icons of virtue and the keepers of religious law. But Jesus gives His audience a few pieces of advice regarding these men.

 1. Don’t follow their lead

The Pharisees had set themselves up as the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. They were the “experts.” But God had not appointed them as such. They were a man-made organization, and their name was derived from an Aramaic word that means “separated.” They were separatists and saw themselves as the true keepers of the law of Moses. And they certainly knew the law, which is why Jesus told the people to listen to and obey what the Pharisees said concerning the law.

“So practice and obey whatever they tell you…” – Matthew 23:3a NLT

But notice what Jesus said next:

“…but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.” – Matthew 23:3b NLT

In other words, don’t do as they do. As long as they are talking about the content of the Law, listen. But when it came to behavior based on the Law, the people were not to use them as a model.

2. Don’t do what they do

Jesus made it painfully clear. These men were nothing but hypocrites. The Greek word Jesus used was a term commonly used to refer to actors in the popular Greek plays of the day. The actors would commonly play multiple roles and simply don a different mask to assume a new character. Since most of the performers were male, they would even be required to play any female roles written into the play. So, the word hypocrite made its way into the common vernacular to refer to anyone who was a “mask-wearer.” They were performing a role and were not what they appeared to be.

And Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were nothing but play-actors, for whom everything was about appearances. They had perfected the art of performance. This is why Jesus warned, “Everything they do is for show” (Matthew 23:5 NLT).

3. Don’t love what they love

These men loved recognition and being noticed for their “spirituality.” In fact, they were addicted to being the center of attention. It showed up in their obsession with titles. They enjoyed being called “rabbi” or “teacher.” They took great pride in being recognized for their knowledge and expertise. Not only that, they saw their superior intellect and spiritual elitism as deserving of the peoples’ praise. They expected to be served and had no desire or inclination to serve others. They loved themselves more than they loved God and viewed others as inferiors. In essence, these men were religious exhibitionists! They were little more than performance artists who had perfected the art of impressing others. But they failed to impress God and His Son.

4. Have a higher standard

Jesus seems to have focused His attention directly on His disciples when He said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8 ESV). He didn’t want His followers to be obsessed with titles. He didn’t want them seeking the praise of men. They were to be brothers. Their role in the Kingdom of God was not to be about rank and privilege or power and position. In fact, their whole perspective was to change, as they recognized the heavenly nature of their new relationship with God.

“…call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven…” – Matthew 23:9 ESV

And they were not to seek the title of “teacher” or “instructor.” In other words, they were not to covet the role of the expert as the Pharisees had.

“Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ…” – Matthew 23:10 ESV

Contrary to what the Pharisees believed, Jesus was to be the disciples’ sole instructor in the things of God. The word Jesus used is kathēgētēs and it means, “master, guide, or instructor.” The Messiah was to be their source of all wisdom. Even the written word of God points to the incarnate Word of God. To become an expert in the Scriptures, but fail to obey the One of whom the Scriptures speak, would be futile and, ultimately, folly.

Finally, Jesus reminded His disciples of their need to live lives of servitude, not significance.

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 ESV

Their lives were to mirror His own, not those of the Pharisees. This was not new information to the disciples. Jesus had already told them, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). They were to model their lives after His. And in just a matter of days, they would stand by and watch as their rabbi, teacher, friend, and Messiah practiced what He preached. They would see Him betrayed, unjustly tried, brutally beaten, wrongly accused, and violently crucified. All so that they might have eternal life. Jesus was anything but a play-actor. He was far from a hypocrite. He would prove to be the way, the truth, and the life. And the role model for every Christ-follower.

And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus is to be our example, setting for us a higher and more holy standard for life and godliness.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 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.

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

A Reversal of Fortunes

15 “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. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

20 “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. 21 The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish. 23 And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. 24 The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.” Deuteronomy 28:15-24 ESV

Obey God, and things will go well with you. That is the basic message behind verses 1-14. But, at any point, should you choose to disobey God, you can expect things to take a decidedly different turn – for the worse.

Over the next 54 verses, Moses is going to provide a detailed explanation of the curses that will fall on the people of Israel if and when they choose to disobey God’s laws. And the first part of the list contains a very noticeable and intentional contrast to the blessings outlined in verses 1-14. Moses basically removed the word, “blessed” and replaced it with the word, “cursed.”

Your towns and your fields
    will be cursed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be cursed.
Your children and your crops
    will be cursed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be cursed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be cursed. – Deuteronomy 28:16-19 NLT

Things would go from good to bad. Fruitfulness would turn to barrenness. Productivity would languish. Prosperity would greatly diminish. And the doom and gloom would follow them wherever they went. There would be no escape. They could disobey God, but they would never be free of His just and righteous punishment.  As the blessings would be a constant reminder of His power and presence, so would be the curses. To disobey God is to act as if God does not even exist or, if He does, He lacks the power to do anything about your disobedience. That’s why King David described the one who chooses to disobey God as a fool.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. – Psalm 14:1 ESV

Another psalmist echoed David’s sentiments when he wrote:

In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” – Psalm 10:4 ESV

But Moses makes it clear that the people of Israel can run from God, but they will find no place to hide. He will find them and punish them for their sins. They can act as if there is no God, but that will do nothing to eliminate the wrath of God against them for their rebellion.

“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

Moses promises three things: mĕerah, mĕhuwmah, and mig`ereth. These three alliterative Hebrew words each have significant meaning and, together, they paint a bleak image of the results of God’s curses. The first word, mĕerah, is not the same one used for curses throughout this passage. That word is ‘arar. The kind of curses to which Moses refers in verse 20 seem to be the byproducts or outcomes of God’s original imprecations. The fruitlessness and barrenness brought on by God will result in further, more advanced problems, like hunger and starvation. The inability to bear children will result in smaller family units and a diminishing population. Things will go from bad to worse.

And this will bring with it mĕhuwmah, a word for turmoil, confusion, or disquietude. Anxiety and lack of peace will be the order of the day. Which reminds me of the phrase:

Know God, know peace. No God, no peace.

The curses of God will leave the people of Israel in a state of confusion and unrest. Moses uses the same word used to describe a rich man who has everything but lacks a fear of God.

Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
    than great treasure and trouble [mĕhuwmah] with it. – Proverbs 15:16 ESV

The third word Moses uses is mig`ereth, which means “rebuke” or “reproof.” The ESV and NSRV translate this word as “frustration.” Its only occurrence in the Bible is in this verse, so its exact meaning is difficult to nail down. But it seems that these three words are meant to convey the outcome or result of the curses of God. So, it makes more sense to see it as the byproduct of God’s rebuke or reproof, which would be feelings of frustration and confusion. The root word for mig`ereth is ga`ar and it is used by the Psalmist to describe the reproach and contempt felt by those who arrogantly disobey God.

You rebuke the arrogant, the cursed,
Who wander from Your commandments.
Take away reproach and contempt from me,
For I observe Your testimonies. – Psalm 119:21-22 NASB

God’s curses will have long-lasting and debilitating consequences. They will leave the people of Israel in a confused and perplexing state, facing the unrelenting rebuke of their God and the reproach of their enemies.

And just so the people of Israel fully understand the severity of these curses, Moses describes them as being accompanied by pestilence, wasting disease, “and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew” (Deuteronomy 28:22 ESV). Not exactly a pleasant proposition. His curses will prove to be all-consuming, bringing His full wrath to bear until, as Moses so unapologetically puts it, “you are destroyed” (Deuteronomy 28:24 ESV).

This will not be a temporary or partial rebuke. It will be comprehensive and complete, leaving the formerly chosen people of God devastated and utterly destroyed. And in the following verses, Moses will describe with painstaking detail how the destruction will come. Every area of Israelite life will be impacted. They will experience curses, confusion, and frustration from all sides. Their enemies will defeat them. Diseases will consume them. Oppression and injustice will plague them. Enslavement will eventually befall them. And all as a result of disobedience to God’s law.

As the people of Israel prepared to enter the land of promise, things should have been looking up for them. They were about to inherit the land God had promised to Abraham. After a four-century delay, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were about to occupy the land flowing with milk and honey. But their occupation of the land would come with conditions. They were going to have to obey the commands of God. It was that simple. And this section of Deuteronomy contains God’s clear and compelling warning of just how serious He was about their adherence to His commands. He has Moses spend what appears to be an inordinate amount of time communicating the consequences that accompany obedience and disobedience. And the two lists are meant to be dramatically and deliberately different. There should be no confusion. The Israelites will have no excuses. They will not be able to say, “We didn’t know!” They will not be able to claim ignorance. By the time Moses is done, the list of curses will be long and unmistakably clear.

“…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

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

Power, Possessions and Prestige

1 At that time Merodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. And Hezekiah welcomed them gladly. And he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. Then Isaiah the prophet came to King Hezekiah, and said to him, “What did these men say? And from where did they come to you?” Hezekiah said, “They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.” He said, “What have they seen in your house?” Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house. There is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.”

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.” – Isaiah 39:1-8 ESV

There is little doubt that Hezekiah had a love for Yahweh. And he had a deep appreciation for the miraculous healing from his terminal illness and for Yahweh’s gracious pronouncement that his life would be extended an additional 15 years. Hezekiah had even ended his poem with the declaration:

“The Lord will save me,
    and we will play my music on stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
    at the house of the Lord.” – Isaiah 38:20 ESV

But in the days that followed his healing, a darker side of Hezekiah’s personality becomes apparent. He struggled with pride, and this was not a new characteristic in his life. It had been a problem all along. In fact, the book of 2 Chronicles informs us that, even shortly after his healing, Hezekiah’s pride problem reared its ugly head.

But Hezekiah did not respond appropriately to the kindness shown him, and he became proud. So the Lord’s anger came against him and against Judah and Jerusalem. Then Hezekiah humbled himself and repented of his pride, as did the people of Jerusalem. So the Lord’s anger did not fall on them during Hezekiah’s lifetime. – 2 Chronicles 32:25-26 ESV

While this rendering makes it appear as if Hezekiah’s pride suddenly appeared, the truth is, it was already there. The phrase, “he became proud” is actually one word in Hebrew, and it means “exalted” or “arrogant.” The passage literally reads, “his heart was haughty.” We aren’t told how Hezekiah’s pride manifested itself, but it could have been that he saw his healing by God as a sign of his value to God. There is a good chance that Hezekiah saw himself as somehow indispensable to God. The book of 2 Chronicles goes on to describe Hezekiah as very wealthy and successful. In the Jewish culture, material wealth was often viewed as a sign of God’s favor.

Hezekiah was very wealthy and highly honored. He built special treasury buildings for his silver, gold, precious stones, and spices, and for his shields and other valuable items. He also constructed many storehouses for his grain, new wine, and olive oil; and he made many stalls for his cattle and pens for his flocks of sheep and goats. He built many towns and acquired vast flocks and herds, for God had given him great wealth. He blocked up the upper spring of Gihon and brought the water down through a tunnel to the west side of the City of David. And so he succeeded in everything he did. – 2 Chronicles 32:27-30 NLT

Now, with his health restored and a divine guarantee of an additional 15 years of life, Hezekiah must have considered himself a truly blessed man. He had it all: Health, wealth, power and prosperity. But he also had a problem: Pride. And God, knowing exactly what was in Hezekiah’s heart, determined to put the king to a test, in order to expose the true nature of his condition.

However, when ambassadors arrived from Babylon to ask about the remarkable events that had taken place in the land, God withdrew from Hezekiah in order to test him and to see what was really in his heart. – 2 Chronicles 32:31 NLT

And this is where Isaiah picks up the story. It seems that news of Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery had spread, and enjoys from Babylon showed up with a message of congratulations from Merodach-baladan, the son of the king. But this little expedition was probably far more than a goodwill gesture. Babylon was an up-and-coming force in the Middle East and shared a mutual dislike for the Assyrians with Judah. It is likely that Merodach-baladan was simply attempting to build an alliance with Hezekiah, presenting the king with gifts and convincing him of Babylon’s good intentions toward Judah.

And this is where Hezekiah’s pride goes on full display. Isaiah provides us with a not-so-flattering picture of Hezekiah’s giddy delight at showing off his great wealth to these visiting dignitaries.

Hezekiah was delighted with the Babylonian envoys and showed them everything in his treasure-houses—the silver, the gold, the spices, and the aromatic oils. He also took them to see his armory and showed them everything in his royal treasuries! There was nothing in his palace or kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them. – Isaiah 39:2 NLT

Hezekiah was out to impress, and his pride took precedence over his prudence. He gave these Babylonian envoys a private viewing of every state secret concerning Judah’s wealth and military capabilities. It’s unclear whether these men had shown up with the intention of spying out Jerusalem’s power and prosperity. But it really didn’t matter, because Hezekiah showed them everything they would want to see.

And, when Isaiah approached Hezekiah and asked him who the men were and what they had seen, the king was blatantly honest.

“They saw everything,” Hezekiah replied. “I showed them everything I own—all my royal treasuries.” – Isaiah 39:4 NLT

You can almost sense Hezekiah’s giddy pride at having been able to impress his guests with his vast wealth. He was like a kid on Christmas day showing off all his presents to his friends in the hopes that they would be impressed and just a tad jealous at his good fortune. But God was not impressed. In fact, God was angry with Hezekiah’s blatant display of worldly affection, and He had Isaiah deliver a sobering message to the king.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Listen to this message from the Lord of Heaven’s Armies: ‘The time is coming when everything in your palace—all the treasures stored up by your ancestors until now—will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left,’ says the Lord. ‘Some of your very own sons will be taken away into exile. They will become eunuchs who will serve in the palace of Babylon’s king.’” – Isaiah 39:5-7 NLT

Hezekiah was going to learn the brutal reality of the truth found in the Proverbs.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace… – Proverbs 11:2 ESV

Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 NLT

Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor. – Proverbs 18:12 ESV

Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor. – Proverbs 29:23 NLT

The condition of Hezekiah’s heart had been exposed. He loved the things of this world more than he loved God. He took more pride in his material wealth and physical health than he did in his relationship with God Almighty. And Hezekiah was more concerned with impressing men than honoring God. The apostle John provides a powerful warning to avoid the mistake that Hezekiah made.

Don’t love the world or anything that belongs to the world. If you love the world, you cannot love the Father. – 1 John 2:15 CEV

Even Jesus warned of the danger of falling in love with material wealth.

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” – Matthew 6:24 NLT

And the apostle James adds another stern warning that strongly discourages friendship with the world and all that it offers.

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:4 NLT

There was nothing inherently wrong with Hezekiah’s possession of wealth. It had been given to him by God. But his wealth should have never become a substitute for God. His material possessions were never intended to replace his trust in and love for God. Hezekiah’s problem was that he saw himself as a self-made man. His identity was wrapped up in what he owned and how others viewed him. He had completely forgotten that his very life was a gift from God. He had been at the brink of death, and God had spared him. Had God allowed him to die, all his treasures and trinkets would have been left behind. God was not impressed with Hezekiah’s affluence. What God wanted from Hezekiah were his undivided attention and unwavering devotion. But Hezekiah worshiped wealth. He bowed down at the altar of worldly pleasure and temporal prosperity.

And the truly amazing thing is that Hezekiah took the report from Isaiah as good news.

“This message you have given me from the Lord is good.” For the king was thinking, “At least there will be peace and security during my lifetime.” – Isaiah 39:8 NLT

While Judah may one day fall to the Babylonians and his own sons be taken captive, he was pleased to know that he would enjoy peace and security as long as he was alive. What a short-sighted and selfish outlook. He showed no concern for the future well-being of his own sons, let alone the nation for which he was responsible. Hezekiah was in it for himself. His love of things was directly tied to his love of self. Even the admiration of the Babylonian envoys fed his already swollen ego. Their delight in his vast wealth added fuel to the fire of Hezekiah’s raging pride.

One of the most telling proofs of Hezekiah’s pride problem was his refusal to repent of his actions. Rather than hear the word of God and turn to Him in prayer and repentance, Hezekiah simply rejoiced in the news that God’s judgment would be delayed. He would continue to enjoy his power, possessions, and prestige. And that was all that seemed to matter to him. And the book of 2 Chronicles provides the epitaph to Hezekiah’s life.

When Hezekiah died, he was buried in the upper area of the royal cemetery, and all Judah and Jerusalem honored him at his death. And his son Manasseh became the next king. – 2 Chronicles 32:33 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

 

 

Drunk on Success.

1 Ah, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim,
    and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!
Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;
    like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,
like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters,
    he casts down to the earth with his hand.
The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim
    will be trodden underfoot;
and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
    which is on the head of the rich valley,
will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer:
    when someone sees it, he swallows it
    as soon as it is in his hand.

In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory,
    and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people,
and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,
    and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.

These also reel with wine
    and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
    they are swallowed by wine,
    they stagger with strong drink,
they reel in vision,
    they stumble in giving judgment.
For all tables are full of filthy vomit,
    with no space left.

“To whom will he teach knowledge,
    and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
    those taken from the breast?
10 For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little.”

11 For by people of strange lips
    and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
12     to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
    give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
    yet they would not hear.
13 And the word of the Lord will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little,
that they may go, and fall backward,
    and be broken, and snared, and taken. – Isaiah 28:1-13 ESV

Now, God turns His attention to Ephraim, referring to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ephraim was the second son born to Joseph in Egypt. In fact, Ephraim’s mother, Asenath, was an Egyptian. Years later, when Joseph’s father, Jacob, adopted his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, intending to treat them as his own.

“And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” – Genesis 48:5 ESV

In giving his patriarchal blessing to Jacob’s two sons, he intentionally awarded Ephraim the blessing intended for the firstborn. When Joseph tried to correct what he believed was a mistake, Joseph told him: “Manasseh will also become a great people, but his younger brother will become even greater. And his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT). The tribe of Ephraim was later awarded land in Canaan, just north of the Dead Sea and would become a leading tribe of the Northern Kingdom after God split the nation in two. The city of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, was located within the territory of Ephraim.

Ephraim, representing to ten northern tribes, is called out by God for its pride and arrogance. It was located in a fertile valley at the southern tip of the Jordan River. It benefited from the frequent flooding of the river valley and enjoyed the fruits of its rich and fertile soil. God even refers to them as “the drunkards of Ephraim” – probably a reference to literal drunkenness from the wine they produced and the spiritual drunkenness that resulted from their intoxication with idolatry. The prophet, Amos, had this to say about Ephraim.

You drink wine by the bowlful
    and perfume yourselves with fragrant lotions.
    You care nothing about the ruin of your nation. – Amos 6:6 NLT

In a sense, they were drunk on their own self-importance. Amos warned them, “you who feel secure in Samaria! You are famous and popular in Israel, and people go to you for help. But go over to Calneh and see what happened there” (Amos 6:1-2 NLT). Calneh had been overrun by Shalmaneser III of Assyria in 854-846 B.C., and God was letting Israel know that the same thing was going to happen to them.

For the Lord will send a mighty army against it.
    Like a mighty hailstorm and a torrential rain,
they will burst upon it like a surging flood
    and smash it to the ground. – Isaiah 28:2 NLT

The Assyrians were poised to bring the same devastation and destruction to the Northern Kingdom that had happened in Calneh. And God doesn’t sugarcoat the news regarding Israel’s fate.

The proud city of Samaria—
    the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel—
    will be trampled beneath its enemies’ feet.
It sits at the head of a fertile valley,
    but its glorious beauty will fade like a flower.
Whoever sees it will snatch it up,
    as an early fig is quickly picked and eaten. – Isaiah 28:3-4 NLT

But God, always rich in mercy, declares that He will spare a remnant of the Northern Kingdom. Yes, He will bring judgment upon Israel in the form of the Assyrian army, but there will be a handful within rebellious Israel who recognize Him as their true source of hope and help.

He will be the pride and joy
    of the remnant of his people.
He will give a longing for justice
    to their judges.
He will give great courage
    to their warriors who stand at the gates. – Isaiah 28:5-6 NLT

But what about Judah, the Southern Kingdom? They are Isaiah’s primary target audience, and his message is intended for them. So, God reveals that He has issues with them as well. They stand guilty of the same sin of pride. They suffer from the same condition of spiritual intoxication.

Now, however, Israel is led by drunks
    who reel with wine and stagger with alcohol.
The priests and prophets stagger with alcohol
    and lose themselves in wine.
They reel when they see visions
    and stagger as they render decisions. – Isaiah 28:7 NLT

God’s indictment against the governmental and religious leaders of Israel has less to do with physical inebriation than spiritual apostasy. They are described as staggering drunks, but their real problem was spiritual confusion resulting from their steady consumption of the lies of false gods. They were incapable of making wise decisions. Their words of advice were no better than vomit from the mouth of a drunk. And they despised everything that Isaiah had to say.

“Who does the Lord think we are?” they ask.
    “Why does he speak to us like this?
Are we little children,
    just recently weaned?
He tells us everything over and over—
one line at a time,
    one line at a time,
a little here,
    and a little there!” – Isaiah 28:9-10 NLT

Isaiah’s words were simple and easy to understand, but the people of Israel rejected them. His incessant call to repentance was despised by them. His repeated warnings of God’s judgment were obnoxious to them. They were tired of Isaiah’s message. So, Isaiah let them know that the next words they would hear would be in a language they couldn’t understand.

So now God will have to speak to his people
    through foreign oppressors who speak a strange language! – Isaiah 28:

Over the centuries, God had constantly reminded His people that the land of Canaan had been intended to be a place of rest. Their relationship with Him as His chosen people was meant to be marked by peace, blessing and the joy of His presence. But their disobedience had marred their relationship with God, resulting in the split of the kingdom, constant civil unrest, rampant idolatry, and anything but peace and rest. And while God had graciously sent His messengers, the prophets, with a call to repent, the people had refused to listen. So, Isaiah lets them know that their stubborn refusal to hear and obey will result in their fall.

So the Lord will spell out his message for them again,
one line at a time,
    one line at a time,
a little here,
    and a little there,
so that they will stumble and fall.
    They will be injured, trapped, and captured. – Isaiah 28:13 NLT

And all of this was in keeping with God’s warning, delivered centuries earlier by Moses to the people of Israel. He had called them to live in obedience to God’s commands or face the inevitable consequences.

“The Lord will bring a distant nation against you from the end of the earth, and it will swoop down on you like a vulture. It is a nation whose language you do not understand, a fierce and heartless nation that shows no respect for the old and no pity for the young. Its armies will devour your livestock and crops, and you will be destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine, olive oil, calves, or lambs, and you will starve to death. They will attack your cities until all the fortified walls in your land—the walls you trusted to protect you—are knocked down. They will attack all the towns in the land the Lord your God has given you.” – Deuteronomy 28:49-52 NLT

And the fulfillment of God’s warning had come. The people of Israel and Judah, drunk on their own success and self-significance, were about to experience the hangover of a lifetime as the wrath of God fell. Their intoxication with the things of this world and the false gods of the Canaanites were going to leave them staggering and stumbling under God’s righteous wrath and just judgment.

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

Don’t Celebrate Too Soon.

28 In the year that King Ahaz died came this oracle:

29 Rejoice not, O Philistia, all of you,
    that the rod that struck you is broken,
for from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder,
    and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.
30 And the firstborn of the poor will graze,
    and the needy lie down in safety;
but I will kill your root with famine,
    and your remnant it will slay.
31 Wail, O gate; cry out, O city;
    melt in fear, O Philistia, all of you!
For smoke comes out of the north,
    and there is no straggler in his ranks.

32 What will one answer the messengers of the nation?
“The Lord has founded Zion,
    and in her the afflicted of his people find refuge.” – Isaiah 14:28-32 ESV

The Philistines were another powerful nation that had made its presence known during the days that Isaiah prophesied. They occupied land to the west of Judah between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Their presence in the Land of Promise, the land promised to Abraham by God and conquered under the leadership of Joshua, was due to the failure of Israel to remain obedient to God. The book of Judges tells us that God left the Philistines in the land as a test.

“Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers and have not obeyed my voice, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the Lord as their fathers did, or not.” So the Lord left those nations, not driving them out quickly, and he did not give them into the hand of Joshua. – Judges 2:20-23 ESV

SouthernTribalAllotments2Earlier, in the book of Judges, we are told that the tribe of Judah had been successful in conquering the cities of Gaza and Ashkelon, located in the Philistine territory along the Mediterranean coast. They had also taken possession of the hill country, located to the east, along the Jordan River. But they had failed to take the area in between, known as “the plains.” This was a region occupied by the Philistines.

Judah also captured Gaza with its territory, and Ashkelon with its territory, and Ekron with its territory. And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron. – Judges 1:18-19 ESV

So, as a result of Israel’s failure to obey God and cleanse the land of its immoral and idolatrous occupants, God allowed those pagan nations to remain in the land. With their various false gods, they became a constant source of temptation to the people of Israel, drawing them away from the one true God. They remained a constant thorn in the side of the people of God, conducting raids and plundering their towns and villages. Interestingly enough, the very name, “Philistine” is derived from the Hebrew word, Philistia. In the Greek, it is rendered palaistinei, from which we get the English word, “Palestine.” Even to this day, those who occupy this land to the west of Jerusalem and along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, remain a threat to the people of Israel.

But in this oracle, Isaiah delivers a message from God to the Philistine people. And Isaiah ties the oracle to the year of the death of King Ahaz. The book of 2 Kings provides us with a bit of insight into the life of 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

We’re also told that at one point during his reign, Ahaz made a visit to Damascus in Syria, where he met with the Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser. Syria and Israel had formed an alliance against Judah, threatening to destroy them. So, Ahaz had made a treaty with Assyria, paying Tiglath,pileser tribute money for his assistance against Syria and Israel.

Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria. And the king of Assyria listened to him. The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin. – 2 Kings 16:8-9 ESV

While visiting Damascus, he saw the altar that the Syrians used to worship their false god. So, he sent word back to Judah, providing Uriah the priest with detailed instructions to make a replica of the pagan altar in Jerusalem.

When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus. – 2 Kings 16:11-12 ESV

Ahaz then had the brazen altar removed from the temple and replaced with this new pagan altar, where he offered sacrifices to the false gods of the Syrians. He repurposed the brazen altar, using it for divination.

So, this oracle is tied directly to the death of Ahaz. He died in 715 BC and his death marked a low point in the spiritual condition of the people of Judah. They had wandered from God about as far as they possibly could. Their land was filled with altars and high places to false gods. They were immoral and idolatrous. And yet, God focuses His attention on the Philistines.

God warns the Philistines not to be too quick to celebrate.

Don’t be so happy, all you Philistines,
just because the club that beat you has been broken! – Isaiah 14:29 NLT

It’s not exactly clear who is being referred to here. The “club” may be a reference to the house of David. All throughout his reign, David had waged war against the Philistines. As a young boy, he had defeated their champion, Goliath, in battle. And the tribe of Judah and the Philistines had remained enemies up until the days of Isaiah.

With the death of Ahaz, the Philistines could have been rejoicing over the loss of yet another king from the dynasty of David. It may be that they knew of Ahaz’ agreement to serve Assyria in return for their aid against Syria and Israel. Ahaz had told Tiglath-pileser, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me” (2 Kings 16:7 ESV).

The Philistines would have seen this alliance between Assyria and Judah as a good thing, further weakening Juhah’s power in the region. But it seems more likely that the Philistines were rejoicing over the removal of Syria as a threat to the region. These recurrent power struggles were taking place constantly, causing tremendous instability in the region. And the fall of one nation in the area was viewed as good news by all the rest. But God warns the Philistines to tap the break on their enthusiasm. In fact, rather than rejoice, they should weep and mourn.

Wail, O city gate!
Cry out, O city!
Melt with fear, all you Philistines!
For out of the north comes a cloud of smoke,
and there are no stragglers in its ranks. – Isaiah 14:31 NLT

While the people of Israel had failed to remove the Philistines from the land, God had plans for them. They could sit back and relish the troubles taking place in Judah, but the fate of the Philistines was sealed by God. There was judgment coming, and they could not escape it. While the nations could rejoice over the struggles of Israel and Judah, the would not escape from God’s wrath. God had promised Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt” (Genesis 12:3 NLT).

God had vowed to bring His curses upon any and all nations that attempted to treat His people with contempt. And the Philistines were part of a long list of nations that had made a habit of mistreating the people of God. So, Isaiah warned them:

How will they respond to the messengers of this nation?
Indeed, the Lord has made Zion secure;
the oppressed among his people will find safety in her.  – Isaiah 14:32 NLT

We know that, in 712 BC, the Assyrians invaded Philistia. And again, in 701 B.C. they returned under the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, meting out judgment against all those, including the Philistines, who stood opposed to them.

But there is a future judgment reserved for all those nations who have stood opposed to God and His people. There is a day coming when Christ will return, and He will wage war against the nations of this earth – all those who, in their pride and arrogance, have chosen to reject the reign of God Almighty. During the final days of the Tribulation, they will join the Antichrist, choosing to worship him instead of God. They will persecute the people of God, putting many of them to death. But at just the right time, God will send His Son again. And this time, He will come as a conquering King, not a baby in a manger.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 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