What Shall I Do With You?

1 “Come, let us return to the Lord;
    for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
    he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will raise us up,
    that we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
    his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
    as the spring rains that water the earth.”

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
    What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
    like the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
    I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
    and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
    the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
    there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    tracked with blood.
As robbers lie in wait for a man,
    so the priests band together;
they murder on the way to Shechem;
    they commit villainy.
10 In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
    Ephraim’s whoredom is there; Israel is defiled. Hosea 6:1-10 ESV

In the opening verses of chapter six, Hosea envisions a highly unlikely scene: The humble and sincere repentance of the rebellious Israelites. It’s unclear what Hosea hoped to accomplish with this description of a contrite and penitent response on the part of the people. Was he attempting to illustrate how his stubborn audience ought to be responding to his messages, or were his words intended to mock their hard-hearted rejection of His message of warning?

From a historical perspective, there is no record of the Israelites ever uttering words of this nature. At no point did they cry out to God, acknowledging their guilt, confessing their sins, and asking for His forgiveness and healing. All the way back before God divided the nation of Israel into two kingdoms, He had allowed King Solomon to build a temple in His honor. This remarkable building in Jerusalem was meant to be the house of God, where the people would come to offer sacrifices and seek His forgiveness for the sins they had committed. And God made a series of promises to the people of Israel confirming His willingness to grace the temple with His name and honor their humble, heartfelt prayers with forgiveness and healing.

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

Yet, by the time Hosea penned the words of his book, more than 150 years had passed since Solomon had dedicated the temple, and the people of Israel remained stubbornly unrepentant and unwilling to humble themselves before God. And exacerbating their problem was the fact that they no longer had access to the temple in Jerusalem. They had long ago forsaken Yahweh, choosing instead to worship at the shrines and temples dedicated to their false gods.

The scene of a repentant Israel calling out to God is meant to dramatize and accentuate the inexplicable hardness of their hearts. Hosea is portraying what their response ought to be when God brings His judgment against them. They will suffer greatly when God rains down His righteous indignation on them. But they will experience no healing because they will refuse to call out to Him in humble contrition.

Hosea even indicates that when the judgment of God comes, they will view it as short in duration and easily overcome.

In just a short time he will restore us,
    so that we may live in his presence. – Hosea 6:2 NLT

They won’t take His punishment seriously. They’ll end up underestimating the depth of their own depravity and mistakenly assume that any suffering they endure will be quickly remedied by God. Hosea seems to portray their repentance as a bit overconfident, and a bit too self-assured that God will quickly restore them.

He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn
    or the coming of rains in early spring – Hosea 6:3 NLT

But none of this has ever happened. The people of Israel did not return to the Lord. They never did humble themselves before Him and confess their many sins against Him. Even their eventual defeat at the hands of the Assyrians did nothing to break their stubborn refusal to heed His call to repent. The prophet Amos delivered a sobering word from God concerning Israel’s inexplicable refusal to learn anything from the judgment they endured.

“I destroyed some of your cities,
    as I destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Those of you who survived
    were like charred sticks pulled from a fire.
But still you would not return to me,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 4:11 NLT

And, in response, God asks the probing question, “What shall I do with you?” (Hosea 6:4 ESV). He has warned. He has threatened. He has disciples. Yet, they have not yet returned to Him. At no point has Israel or Judah lived out what Hosea described in the first three verses of this chapter.  In the face of all of God’s blessings and despite all of His warnings and past judgments, the people of Israel and Judah remain determined to live in disobedience to His commands. And their failure to faithfully observe His laws was nothing less than an expression of their lack of love for Him.

“…your love vanishes like the morning mist
    and disappears like dew in the sunlight.” – Hosea 6:4 NLT

He had repeatedly sent His prophets with words of warning, “to cut you to pieces—to slaughter you with my words, with judgments as inescapable as light” (Hosea 6:5 NLT), but the people had refused to listen. And God lets them know that what He wanted from them was love, not sacrifices. What He desired most was intimacy, not religious duplicity. He was sick of watching His people go through the motions, offering their meaningless, heartless sacrifices. He was no longer willing to put up with their sanctimonious and hypocritical displays of religious zeal. Mere obedience to His commands was never what God wanted. He desired faithfulness that emanated from the heart. That was something King David knew and understood.

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT

And the prophet Isaiah would communicate God’s displeasure with His peoples’ meaningless displays of ritualistic religious fervor. It has never been about the bulls and goats, the blood and smoke, or the pomp and circumstance. It had always been about the heart.

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
    says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
    of bulls and lambs and goats.

“When you come to worship me,
    who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!

Wash yourselves and be clean!
    Get your sins out of my sight.
    Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows.” – Isaiah 1:11-13, 16-17 NLT

But God’s people, following in the footsteps of Adam, had been guilty of breaking their covenant agreement with Him. When God had placed Adam and Eve in the garden, He had surrounded them with beauty and provided them with everything they needed for life, including intimate fellowship with Him. The only condition God placed on the first couple was that they obey one command.

But the Lord God warned him, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.” – Genesis 2:16-17 NLT

God had given them every tree of the garden from which to eat. There was only one tree that was off-limits, and that happens to be the one tree they decided they had to have. They disobeyed God’s command and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In doing so, they displayed their lack of trust in God. They decided that they knew better than God. He had denied them that one tree and now, they had determined it was the tree they needed most. By eating the fruit of that tree Adam and Eve displayed their doubt of God’s love for them. He was denying them something they deserved and desired. He was withholding what they wanted.

And the Israelites were guilty of the very same thing. They had rejected God’s love and determined to live according to their own rules and standards. So, God described the unflattering outcome of their self-determination and blatant disregard for His love as expressed in His law.

“Gilead is a city of sinners,
    tracked with footprints of blood.
Priests form bands of robbers,
    waiting in ambush for their victims.
They murder travelers along the road to Shechem
    and practice every kind of sin.
Yes, I have seen something horrible in Ephraim and Israel:
    My people are defiled by prostituting themselves with other gods! – Hosea 6:8-10 NLT

It was not a pretty picture. Sin had spread like cancer throughout the nation. No city was remained untouched. Every level of society had been infected, including the priesthood. God describes the people of Israel as practicing every kind of sin. Nothing was left to the imagination. Their idolatry had turned to gross immorality, and the entire land was now diseased and in need of God’s cleansing.

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 Will and the Word of God

10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

“‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
    and Israel must go into exile
    away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

14 Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. 15 But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16 Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.

“You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
    and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’

17 Therefore thus says the Lord:

“‘Your wife shall be a prostitute in the city,
    and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
    and your land shall be divided up with a measuring line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
    and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’” Amos 7:10-17 ESV

Back during the days when God split Solomon’s kingdom in two, He placed Jeroboam I as the king over the ten northern tribes. They retained the name of Israel, while the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin became the kingdom of Judah, under the reign of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. One of the first things Jeroboam I did was to establish his own religion, complete with golden idols. He set up temples in Bethel and Dan, and established a set of annual feasts to discourage the people from making pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. – 1 Kings 12:31 NLT

Now, hundreds of years later, another king of Israel, who was also called Jeroboam, proved that he and his predecessor had far more in common than a shared name.

He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. He refused to turn from the sins that Jeroboam son of Nebat had led Israel to commit. – 2 Kings 14:24 NLT

Jeroboam II had followed the ways of every king of Israel who had preceded him. He propagated the practice of idolatry begun by his namesake. And he continued to lead the people away from their worship of Yahweh. That’s why God had provided Amos with the visions of Israel’s pending destruction. He was not going to tolerate the continued apostasy of His chosen people, and He had specifically decreed the end of Jeroboam II’s reign.

“I will test my people with this plumb line. I will no longer ignore all their sins. The pagan shrines of your ancestors will be ruined, and the temples of Israel will be destroyed; I will bring the dynasty of King Jeroboam to a sudden end.” – Amos 7:9-10 NLT

It didn’t take long for this fateful news to reach the ears of the king, and it came through one of his false priests, a man named Amaziah. He served at the temple in Bethel, where Jeroboam I had placed one of his golden calves. Amaziah was no more qualified to be a priest than the idol he worshiped was qualified to be considered a god. According to God’s law, only members of the tribe of Levi could serve in the priesthood. God had set them apart for that very purpose. But Amaziah was not a Levite and, therefore, not really a priest at all. He was just a man who pretended to be a priest for a god that didn’t really exist. But in the apostate land of Israel, that was more than enough for him to have the respect of the people and the ear of the king.

So, when Amaziah got wind of Amos’ doomsday visions, he immediately reported it to the king.

“Amos is hatching a plot against you right here on your very doorstep! What he is saying is intolerable. He is saying, ‘Jeroboam will soon be killed, and the people of Israel will be sent away into exile.’” – Amos 7:10-11 NLT

The so-called priest rejected the word of God’s appointed prophet. He placed no stock in Amos’ words and simply viewed him as a potential threat to the kingdom and his own way of life. In Amaziah’s mind, Amos was nothing more than an insurrectionist who had threatened the life of the king. He needed to take his prophetic show somewhere else.

“Get out of here, you prophet! Go on back to the land of Judah, and earn your living by prophesying there! Don’t bother us with your prophecies here in Bethel. This is the king’s sanctuary and the national place of worship!” – Amos 7:12-13 NLT

According to the opening verses of this book, Amos was from the city of Tekoa, which was located in the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet God had called him to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel. So, Amaziah viewed Amos as an outsider and strongly encouraged him to go back where he came from, because he was no longer welcome in Israel. But Amos was anything but a professional prophet and he wasn’t in it for the money. He had been minding his own business as a sheepherder when God called him and sent him to prophesy to the northern kingdom. He had not chosen this less-than-enjoyable assignment, but had been divinely appointed for it. And as long as God continued to speak, Amos was going to repeat what he heard.

So, rather than take Amaziah’s advice and return home to Tekoa, Amos gave his nemesis a prophetic word from God.

Now then, listen to this message from the Lord:

“You say,
‘Don’t prophesy against Israel.
    Stop preaching against my people.’
But this is what the Lord says…” – Amos 7:16-17 NLT

Amaziah was in no position to dictate demands. He had no authority to order around a prophet of Yahweh. And while he thought he could ban the prophet of God, he couldn’t stifle the word of God. And the news that Amos had to share was anything but encouraging.

Your wife will become a prostitute in this city,
    and your sons and daughters will be killed.
Your land will be divided up,
    and you yourself will die in a foreign land.
And the people of Israel will certainly become captives in exile,
    far from their homeland.’” – Amos 7:17 NLT

It was as if God had placed His plumb line next to the life of this false priest and found him to be way out of alignment. He failed to measure up to God’s righteous standard. Amaziah had failed on all accounts. He was not a Levite. That means he was unqualified to be a priest. On top of that, he worshiped a god that didn’t even exist. He was a fake priest who promoted the worship of a false god. And he served a king who “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” (2 Kings 14:24 NLT). Amaziah was nothing more than a poorly constructed wall that leaned precariously and dangerously in the wrong direction. And his fall was imminent and unavoidable.

Amaziah’s tenure as a well-respected priest in Israel would come to an abrupt end. As a member of the royal retinue, he would end up being taken captive when Israel fell to the Assyrians. That would leave his wife as little more than a widow, forced to sell her body in order to make ends meet. His children would be murdered by the Assyrians and his land holdings would be confiscated and divided among others. Amaziah would end up losing everything. This man who thought he could stifle the word of God would have his life destroyed according to the sovereign will of God. And there was nothing he could about it.

But because Amaziah was not a priest of Yahweh, he couldn’t recognize God’s voice or accept God’s prophet. He had long ago sold out to the false gods of Jeroboam I. He had grown rich and influential by promoting the worship of gods that didn’t even exist. But now, Amaziah was about to find out the hard way, that not only did Yahweh exist, His will was unavoidable and His word was always reliable. God had spoken and it would happen – just as Amos had said.

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

Wretched, Miserable, Poor, Blind, and Naked

1 “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
    who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
    that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.
And you shall go out through the breaches,
    each one straight ahead;
    and you shall be cast out into Harmon,”
declares the Lord.

“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
    to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened,
    and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
    for so you love to do, O people of Israel!”
declares the Lord God. Amos 4:1-5 ESV

As Amos continues to convey to the people of Israel God’s righteous indignation with them, he focuses his attention like a laser on the wealthy women of Samaria. Addressing them as “you cows of Bashan,” Amos is unapologetically brutal in his description of their selfish and luxuriant lifestyle. These well-to-do women were guilty of flaunting their wealth and social status by treating others with contempt and condescension. Amos accuses them of “oppressing” the poor and “crushing” the needy.  In the Hebrew language, those two words paint a stark and highly unflattering picture of these women from the upper strata of Israelites society. The word translated as “oppressed” is ʿāšaq, and it means “to violate, defraud, do violence.” Amos is accusing these women of taking advantage of the poor for personal gain. They were defrauding and deceiving the less fortunate in order to increase their own wealth and further enhance their luxurious lifestyles.

In Hebrew, the word “crush” is rāṣaṣ, and it too carries a much more sinister and sinful connotation. It means “to crack in pieces” and can be used either literally or figuratively. In the figurative sense, to crush someone is to treat them with such disdain and disrespect that they are left broken or crushed in spirit. It conveys a lack of empathy or compassion, a total disregard for the worth or well-being of the other.

It seems that Amos is targeting these particular women because they represent that segment of Israelite society that had enjoyed a certain amount of personal success during Jeroboam II’s reign. Under his leadership, the nation had expanded its borders and many of these wealthy families had probably profited from the boom environment this growth created. In the very next chapter, Amos points out the injust nature of their treatment of the poor.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
    you will never live in them. – Amos 5:11 NLT

Amos is not suggesting that these women were responsible for all these injustices. But they were enjoying the fruit of someone else’s unjust “labor.” Most likely their husbands were the ones who were “trampling the poor” by levying excessive taxes and charging exorbitant rental fees for their properties. And all the while, they were using their ill-gotten profits to build luxury homes for themselves and their wives.

And Amos portrays the wives of these men as demanding taskmasters who treat their husbands like slaves. Amos purposefully uses hyperbolic, over-the-top language to illustrate the decadent and immoral lifestyle of the upper-class members of Israelite society. His portrayal of these women as lounging on their couches and demanding their husbands to bring them another drink is meant to expose the narcissistic nature of their lives. They are self-consumed and more interested in personal pleasure than in keeping God’s laws.

But by all appearances, these very same women were faithful members of the religious community of Israel. They made regular trips to the altars and shrines set up in Bethel and Gilgal. They worshiped the false gods that Jeroboam II and his predecessors had set up all throughout Israel. In other words, these wealthy women were outstanding members of the faith community. And they most likely believed that their wealth and prosperity had been a gift from the gods.

But Yahweh sees through their sanctimonious and self-righteous displays of mock-godliness. He sees behind the walls of their ostentatious homes and witnesses their “Lives of the Rich and Famous” lifestyles. But He also sees into the recesses of their sin-hardened hearts and knows that they are uncaring and unrepentant of their many transgressions. That’s why He sarcastically challenges them to keep doing what they’ve always done. He encourages them to continue offering their sacrifices and tithes to their false gods.

“Go ahead and offer sacrifices to the idols at Bethel.
    Keep on disobeying at Gilgal.
Offer sacrifices each morning,
    and bring your tithes every three days.
Present your bread made with yeast
    as an offering of thanksgiving.
Then give your extra voluntary offerings
    so you can brag about it everywhere!
This is the kind of thing you Israelites love to do…” – Amos 4:4-5 NLT

They’re worshiping the wrong gods and for all the wrong reasons. They want to be recognized for their religious zeal and applauded for their sacrificial displays of self-righteous sacrifice.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus exposed this kind of hypocritical religious play-acting. He viewed it as nothing more than an attempt to gain the praise of men.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. – Matthew 6:1 NLT

These very same women who were oppressing the poor and crushing the needy were regularly offering their sacrifices and tithes at the temple. They even offered “extra voluntary offerings” but only so they could brag about it to others. Everything they did was all about inflating their own sense of value and worth. It wasn’t enough to be rich. They wanted to be esteemed. But to God, their acts of religious pietism were nothing more than evidence of their sin-hardened hearts. And Jesus would go on to point out the hypocritical nature of giving to get noticed.

“When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

But God makes it clear that these kinds of people will pay dearly for their actions. He cannot and will not tolerate this kind of behavior among His chosen people. God has sworn by His own holiness that the guilty will be punished. This statement is intended to stress the otherness of God. He is set apart and holy. He is fully righteous and without sin. He cannot simply turn a blind eye to the unrighteous behavior of His people. His holy nature requires that He deal justly with the blatant disobedience of those who bear His name and have been called to be His light to the nations.

And God announces that these self-absorbed, pampered, and pretentiously pious women will suffer a devastating and humiliating fate.

“The time will come when you will be led away
    with hooks in your noses.
Every last one of you will be dragged away
    like a fish on a hook!
You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;
    you will be thrown from your fortresses.” – Amon 4:2-3 NLT

God predicts a less-than-flattering outcome for these women. They will one day find themselves on the receiving end of the oppression and crushing. When the Assyrians invade Israel, lay siege to the capital city of Samaria, and eventually breach the walls, they capture these women, leading them out of the city with hooks in their noses – just like cows being led to the slaughter. Their wealth and luxurious homes will provide no comfort or protection. Their tithes and extra volunteer offerings will do nothing to garner aid or assistance from their false gods. They will be unceremoniously marched out of town and led to a life marked by poverty and oppression.

But it didn’t have to be this way. As Amos will reveal in the following verses, God had given them ample opportunity to repent and return to Him. He had warned them. He had even afflicted them with plagues, diseases, famines, and troubles of all kinds. But they had repeatedly refused to heed His warnings or be humbled by His judgments. And God will repeatedly remind them, “you did not return to me” (Amos 4:8 ESV).

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John records the words of Jesus regarding the spiritual state of the church in Laodicea, and it is not a flattering picture.

You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” – Revelation 3:17 NLT

This indictment from the lips of Jesus seems to apply to the wealthy women of Samaria who were living during the days of Amos. They were convinced that their wealth was evidence of their spiritual superiority. They were blessed. And they somehow believed that they deserved even more, which is what led them to oppress and crush the poor and needy. But like the Laodiceans, they were actually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. And the day was coming when their true spiritual condition would be exposed for all to see.

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

Love God. Love Others.

Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod
    and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt,
and say, “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria,
    and see the great tumults within her,
    and the oppressed in her midst.”
10 “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord,
    “those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.”

11 Therefore thus says the Lord God:

“An adversary shall surround the land
    and bring down your defenses from you,
    and your strongholds shall be plundered.”

12 Thus says the Lord: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.

13 “Hear, and testify against the house of Jacob,”
    declares the Lord God, the God of hosts,
14 “that on the day I punish Israel for his transgressions,
    I will punish the altars of Bethel,
and the horns of the altar shall be cut off
    and fall to the ground.
15 I will strike the winter house along with the summer house,
    and the houses of ivory shall perish,
and the great houses shall come to an end,”
declares the Lord. – Amos 3:9-15 ESV

God calls on two of the foreign nations that surrounded Israel to act as witnesses to against her. He sends out an invitation to Philistia and Egypt, inviting them to gather on the hills surrounding Samaria and observe all the injustice and violence taking place within the walls of the capital city of Israel. God declares that the people of Israel no longer know how to do what is right. In Hebrew, the word that is translated as “right” is nᵊḵōḥâ, and it has to do with uprightness, integrity, or doing the right thing. Interestingly enough, it derives from another Hebrew word, nēḵaḥ, which means, “in the sight of” or “in front of.” In other words, the kind of “right” behavior they had forgotten how to do was to have been on display before others but, more importantly, before God. They had forgotten how to do what was right in God’s eyes.

Unlike the Philistines and Egyptians, who did not have the law of God, the Israelites had conveniently forgotten all that God had commanded them to do. Through the Mosaic Law, He had provided them with a very clear description of what upright behavior should look like. So, they had no excuse.

Amos mentions the acts of oppression, violence, and robbery taking place inside the walls of Samaria. These are the people of God acting in ways that are in direct violation of the law of God. Later on in his book, Amos will go into great detail describing the many acts of oppression and injustice committed by God’s chosen people – against one another.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. – Amos 5:11 NLT

You oppress good people by taking bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. – Amos 5:12 NLT

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals. – Amos 8:4-6 NLT

The people of Israel had become callous and hard-hearted. They were driven by their base desires and more interested in comfort and convenience than showing compassion to one another. The rich preyed off the poor. The haves took advantage of the have-nots. Dishonesty and deception were the order of the day. And even the Philistines and Egyptians would be appalled at the unrighteous behavior of the Israelites. Even by pagan standards, the Israelites were immoral and wicked people.

Somehow, they had forgotten the words of God: “love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18 NLT). And centuries later, when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees to name the greatest commandment given by God, He had responded:

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 NLT

According to Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor were equal and inseparable commands. You can’t have one without the other. And the apostle John would pick up on this theme in his first epistle he wrote to believers living in the first century.

But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:11 ESV

…whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. – 1 John 3:10 ESV

If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? – 1 John 3:17 NLT

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

To both Jesus and John, love of others was a non-negotiable requirement for those who claimed to be children of God. To declare your love for God while denying love to your brothers and sisters was not only unacceptable but illogical. And John makes that point painfully clear: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20 NLT).

Yet the people of Israel were guilty of doing just that. And, as a result, God declared that He was going to judge them for their disobedience to His law. By failing to love one another, they were declaring their lack of love for Him. Their idolatry had transformed them into lovers of self rather than lovers of God.

The behavior of the Israelites was unacceptable to God. It violated every one of His commands concerning the righteous conduct that should have identified them as His chosen people. And centuries later, the apostle Paul would warn his young protégé, Timothy, about self-professing God followers who display this same hypocritical behavior.

…people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that! – 2 Timothy 3:2-5 NLT

God will not tolerate this kind of behavior among those who claim to be His children. So, He warned the Israelites that their actions would have consequences.

Therefore,” says the Sovereign Lord,
    “an enemy is coming!
He will surround them and shatter their defenses.
    Then he will plunder all their fortresses.” – Amos 3:11 NLT

Those who were practicing injustice would suffer the just and righteous judgment of God. Those who had enriched themselves by plundering the poor would find themselves being plundered and left to live in abject poverty. Their failure to love God and love one another was going to cost them dearly. And Amos paints a rather bleak picture of the aftermath of God’s coming destruction.

“A shepherd who tries to rescue a sheep from a lion’s mouth
    will recover only two legs or a piece of an ear.
So it will be for the Israelites in Samaria lying on luxurious beds,
    and for the people of Damascus reclining on couches.” – Amos 3:12 NLT

By the time God is done with them, there won’t be much left. Yahweh, the “roaring lion” of verse 4, will decimate the people of Israel, leaving only a small ragtag remnant living in the land. The rest will end up as captives in Assyria. The wealthy and well-to-do of Israel would find that the tables had turned.  The oppressors would become the oppressed. The privileged would end up as prisoners. The fat and happy would find themselves facing starvation and deep despondency.

And God makes a direct connection between their future suffering and their present sin. The fate they are about to endure will be the direct consequences of their idolatry, apostasy, and unfaithfulness. He warns them, “I will destroy the beautiful homes of the wealthy—their winter mansions and their summer houses, too—all their palaces filled with ivory” (Amos 3:15 NLT). But He makes sure they understand that their loss will be the result of their ungodly behavior, and it all ties back to their decision to forsake Him as the one true God.

“On the very day I punish Israel for its sins,
    I will destroy the pagan altars at Bethel.
The horns of the altar will be cut off
    and fall to the ground…” – Amos 3:14 NLT

God takes them back to the days when the northern kingdom of Israel began. After Solomon had ended his long reign by abandoning Yahweh for the false gods of his many foreign wives, God split his kingdom in two. The ten northern tribes became the kingdom of Israel, ruled over by Jeroboam. And this first king of the northern tribes began his reign by erecting golden calves in the cities of Dan and Bethel, then telling his people, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28 ESV). Those altars to Jeroboam’s false gods remained in Israel for generations. And the spirit of idolatry and apostasy that Jeroboam introduced into Israel had plagued the nation for hundreds of years. Now, God was going to do what the kings of Israel should have done years earlier. He would destroy the pagan altars and eliminate the false gods that had turned the hearts of the people away from Him.

In essence, God was going to make sure that all the idols were removed in Israel. That’s why he mentions the altars at Bethel, but also the “houses of ivory.” The people of Israel were guilty of worshiping their false gods, but they were also guilty of worshiping materialism, ease, comfort, and success. They had made gods out of their possessions. They had found comfort and significance in their social standing and all their status symbols of success. But all that was about to change.

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

Chosen But Not Immune from Judgment

“Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them,
    whose height was like the height of the cedars
    and who was as strong as the oaks;
I destroyed his fruit above
    and his roots beneath.
10 Also it was I who brought you up out of the land of Egypt
    and led you forty years in the wilderness,
    to possess the land of the Amorite.
11 And I raised up some of your sons for prophets,
    and some of your young men for Nazirites.
    Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?”
declares the Lord.

12 “But you made the Nazirites drink wine,
    and commanded the prophets,
    saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’

13 “Behold, I will press you down in your place,
    as a cart full of sheaves presses down.
14 Flight shall perish from the swift,
    and the strong shall not retain his strength,
    nor shall the mighty save his life;
15 he who handles the bow shall not stand,
    and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself,
    nor shall he who rides the horse save his life;
16 and he who is stout of heart among the mighty
    shall flee away naked in that day,”
declares the Lord. Amos 2:9-16 ESV

In the face of Israel’s ongoing unfaithfulness to Him, God reminds them that He had been constantly faithful from the very day He called them out of captivity in Egypt. Israel, the very name by which the ten northern tribes were known, was the name God had given to their patriarch, Jacob.

“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” – Genesis 32:28 BSB

And just like their namesake, generations of Israelites had “struggled with God and with men.” But whereas Jacob had dared to wrestle with God in order to obtain a blessing from Him, the nation of Israel had chosen to go to oppose God by rejecting His divine will for them. And rather than a blessing, they would receive His judgment.

God takes the Israelites all the way back to the day that Moses sent the 12 men to spy out the land of Canaan.

Moses gave the men these instructions as he sent them out to explore the land: “Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.). – Numbers 13:17-20 NLT

And when the spies returned, they gave Moses and the people a mixed report:

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” – Numbers 13:27-29 NLT

The land was fruitful, just as God had promised. But it was also filled with formidable enemies whose size and strength made the land unconquerable and its fruit unattainable. And the people listened to the report of the spies and refused to enter the land. Rather than trust God, they succumbed to their fears and listened to the hyperbole-filled report of the spies.

“The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:32-33 NLT

Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, provided a very different assessment of the situation, encouraging the people of Israel to rely on the faithfulness and power of Yahweh.

“The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!” – Numbers 14:7-9 NLT

The people respond by threatening to stone Caleb and Joshua. They want nothing to do with the land, its fruit, or the so-called giants who lived there. They would rather return to Egypt than risk certain death by entering the land of Canaan. And God was infuriated with their stubborn refusal to trust Him.

“How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? – Numbers 14:11 NLT

They had conveniently forgotten about the 12 plagues that God had poured out on the Egyptians. Their memory of His parting of the Red Sea had long ago faded. God had proven His power and faithfulness time and time again but, when they found themselves facing another new and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, they suddenly lost their ability to trust Him. And, as a result of their unwillingness to obey God and enter the land, He condemned that entire generation of Israelites.

You will all drop dead in this wilderness! Because you complained against me…You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you… – Numbers 14:29, 30 NLT

Four decades later, the next generation of Israelites did as God commanded and entered the land of Canaan. And Amos records that God gave them victory over the Amorites, even though “they were as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks.” (Amos 2:9 NLT). During the 40 years their mothers and fathers had spent wandering through the wilderness, God was preparing this generation to take possession of their rightful inheritance. And God reminds them that He raised up godly leaders from among them, in the form of prophets and Nazirites. The prophets spoke on behalf of God and the Nazirites modeled lives that were totally dedicated to God.

But the Israelites had ended up rejecting the messages of the prophets. And they had caused the Nazirites to violate their vows of abstinence from wine. In other words, they didn’t want to hear godly words or were unwilling to tolerate godly behavior. The entire nation was guilty of compromise, complacency, and complete disregard for the call of God to live set-apart lives.

And God warned them that the burden of judgment would be so great that they would grown under the weight. The punishment that God would bring against them would be unbearable and inescapable. They could run but they wouldn’t get far. Even the strongest and bravest warriors among them would be overcome with fear, abandoning their posts and running for their lives.

“On that day the most courageous of your fighting men
    will drop their weapons and run for their lives,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 2:16 NLT

And the book of 2 Kings tells us exactly how God fulfilled this prophecy. In 722 B.C., King Shalmaneser of Assyria invaded Israel “and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria” (2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT). The fall of Israel was complete, and the author of 2 Kings explains why this devastating event took place.

This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. They had followed the practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of them, as well as the practices the kings of Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17:7-8 NLT

The persistent and pervasive disobedience of the people of Israel would eventually catch up with them. Their rejection of His prophets and refusal to repent from their blatant and widespread apostasy brought God’s righteous and just judgment upon them. Yes, they had been set apart by God. They enjoyed the distinction of being His chosen people. But their unique status as His prized possession required that they live in obedience to His commands. Yet, they had failed to do so and now God was letting them know that their disobedience would have dire and deadly consequences.

 

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 Right To Give Life

Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Jonah 4:6-11 ESV

This is the second time that Jonah has fled from Nineveh. On the first occasion, he had been somewhere in Israel, probably not far from his hometown of Gath-hepher, in the region of Galilee. This would have placed him more than 500 miles from Nineveh. But for Jonah, that was not far enough. So, when he received God’s call to go to Nineveh and announce their pending judgment, he refused and headed in the opposite direction. He attempted to avoid his commission by fleeing from the presence of the Lord. But his plan didn’t work out so well. God sent a storm to delay Jonah’s departure. Then, when the sailors cast lots to see who was the source of their troubles, God caused the lot to fall on Jonah. In a last-ditch effort to save their lives, the sailors cast Jonah overboard, at which point God appointed a large fish to swallow His disobedient prophet. Then, after Jonah had spent three miserable days in the belly of the fish, God caused the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. From there, Jonah made his way to Nineveh, where he finally delivered God’s message. And the people believed.

Now, Jonah sits outside the walls of the great city of Nineveh, waiting to see whether God will rain down judgment on the enemies of Israel or if He will show them mercy and compassion. Jonah hopes for the former but fears that the latter will be what takes place. Sitting in his man-made shelter, Jonah is burning with rage. He is furious that his message of God’s pending destruction of Nineveh had been met with repentance and mourning. Rather than turn on Jonah as the bearer of bad news, the people had turned to Yahweh in faith. And Jonah knew that Yahweh was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). He was afraid that the repentance of the Ninevites would cause God to change His mind about destroying them. But Jonah still held out hope that God might do to Nineveh what He had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. He was still longing for their destruction and not their deliverance.

But as Jonah fumed in his makeshift shelter, “the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). It’s important to recall that when Jonah had been thrown off the ship and into the raging sea, God had appointed a fish to rescue him from certain death. Now, as Jonah raged outside the walls of the city, God appointed a plant to relieve his “discomfort.” Once again, the God of the universe intervened in the life of His rebellious prophet. Yahweh caused a plant to appear, virtually overnight, providing His sun-baked, pitty-soaked prophet with protection from the sun and relief from his anger. 

Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. – Jonah 4:6 ESV

The sudden and miraculous appearance of the plant had its intended effect. Jonah was relieved of his discomfort. But the author uses a very specific Hebrew word to describe the condition from which Jonah was relieved. It is the word, raʿ, which is most often translated as “evil” or “wickedness.” It can also mean “affliction.” It is the same word the author used in describing the behavior of the people of Nineveh.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:10 ESV

And when Jonah saw the people of Nineveh repent of their evil way, he refused to see it as a good thing. Verse 1 of chapter four states that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly.” This phrase could actually be translated as “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” Jonah viewed the repentance of the Ninevites as evil or wicked. And yet, it was God who deemed Jonah’s reaction as evil. His anger was not only unjustified, but it was also unrighteous. That is why God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:4 NLT). Jonah’s response was not good or acceptable. He actually preferred that God do evil by destroying the Ninevites. That is exactly what he meant when he expressed his concern that God might be gracious to the Ninevites, “relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). In Hebrew, that phrase reads nāḥam raʿ, which means, “repenting of evil.” In essence, Jonah wanted God to respond to the Ninevites with evil. He longed for God to devastate and destroy them.

But even in his fit of unrighteous and unjustified anger, Jonah was met with undeserved grace and mercy. God appointed a plant that provided Jonah with relief – and he was glad. But notice what the text says: “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). He gladly accepted the gift of God’s mercy but failed to show Him any gratitude.

So, “God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered” (Jonah 4:7 ESV). All throughout this story, the author purposefully portrays the sovereign hand of God behind all that happens. God appointed the fish. He appointed the plant. Now, He appoints the worm. Every step of the way, God has been ordaining the events of Jonah’s life in order to accomplish His sovereign will. The Creator-God orchestrated the actions of a giant fish and a tiny worm, all to accomplish His grand redemptive plan. He caused the plant that had sprung up overnight to disappear just as quickly. And His removal of the plant was followed by His appointment of “a scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8 ESV). The soothing shade was replaced by the searing rays of the sun and a scorching sirocco wind.

The sudden change in his circumstances left Jonah in a foul mood. While he had gladly accepted the gracious gift of shade without uttering a word of thanks, he immediately declared his dissatisfaction when the shade was suddenly removed. He bitterly informed God that he would rather die than suffer any further.

…he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:7 ESV

But Jonah was missing the point. He was failing to understand the lesson that God was trying to teach him. So, God asks him a second question:

“Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” – Jonah 4:9 NLT

Did Jonah really have a right to be angry over the loss of his source of shade and comfort? Was he justified in expressing his desire to die? But before God could complete His thought, Jonah quickly interrupted and defended his actions.

“Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” – Jonah 4:9 ESV

Then God graciously exposes the absurdity of Jonah’s over-the-top response. He points out that Jonah was upset about the untimely demise of a plant he had done nothing to produce. He had no vested interest in the plant, other than the comfort he had received from it.

You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. – Jonah 4:10 NLT

Jonah was grieving over the loss of the plant, not because he had labored to produce it, but because he missed the benefit he had received from it. His motives were purely selfish and self-centered. Jonah’s only concern for the plant was in its ability to provide him with comfort – which was now gone. So, God uses the destruction of the plant to teach Jonah a lesson regarding His sparing of the people of Nineveh.

“But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” – Jonah 4:10 NLT

God describes the people of Nineveh as not knowing “their right hand from their left.” They are ignorant of the His ways. They were like children who lacked wisdom, discernment, and spiritual understanding. Unlike the people of Israel, the Ninevites had not enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Yahweh. They had not been given His law or instructed in His ways. The entire community was living in spiritual darkness, unaware of Yahweh’s identity and completely oblivious to the wickedness of their ways.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul would provide a powerful reminder to the Gentile converts who were part of that local fellowship.

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. – Ephesians 2:11-12 NLT

Jesus would also emphasize the inclusion of those who were outside the nation of Israel.

“I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” – John 10:16 NLT

The people of Israel had been chosen by God so that they might be a light to the nations. They were to shine in the darkness of the world, providing the Gentiles with a glimpse of God’s goodness, glory, and greatness. But they had failed to live up to their calling. The prophet Hosea declared of them: “Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel” (Hosea 8:8 ESV). Just as Jonah had been swallowed by the fish, Israel would ultimately be swallowed by the Assyrians. They would fall to the very nation to whom Jonah had been sent. And God had proven to Jonah that He could redeem and rescue the worst of sinners. He could even use a reluctant and rebellious prophet to bring about the repentance of a city full of wicked and spiritually ignorant Ninevites.

God cared enough about Jonah to send him a fish and a plant. God cared enough about Israel that He repeatedly sent His prophets to call them to repentance. And He cared enough about Nineveh to send His reluctant prophet to deliver His message of redemption. But Jonah missed all of this. He failed to grasp the significance of God’s grand redemptive plan for His creation. Even the author’s reference to “much cattle” is intended to reveal that God has a plan to redeem and restore all that He has made.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the entire creation is living under the weight of the curse that came as a result of Adam’s sin.

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:19-22 NLT

And the book of Jonah ends with God reminding His self-consumed prophet that He loves and cares for the people of Nineveh because He created them. Like the plant, they exist because God gave them life. And as the author of life, only God has the right to give or take it away. Jonah was asking God for the right to die. But God wanted Jonah to understand that He had the right to let the Ninevites live. Because He cared for them.

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

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

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

Man Overboard

Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. Jonah 1:8-16 ESV

Proverbs 16:33 states: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” In other words, the sovereign God of the universe is the final determiner of all matters. And a similar thought is expressed in Proverbs 16:9: “A man’s heart plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” Jonah had come up with a plan to “to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV). But God was determining his every step – from the boat he sailed on to the crew he sailed with. And God was the one who “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). And when the frightened sailors cast lots to discover the identity of the one with whom the gods were angry, Yahweh determined the outcome. Lot was divinely exposed as the cause of the storm. The violent wind and waves were directed at this unidentified stranger who had been sleeping soundly in the hold of the ship. He was the guilty party.

And these weary sailors stop their frantic efforts to save the ship just long enough to pepper Jonah with questions. First, they diplomatically avoid any direct accusations against Jonah. Instead, they simply ask him to explain what had happened to bring down the wrath of the gods.

“Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us.” – Jonah 1:8 ESV

Had someone placed a curse on Jonah? Had he done something to offend his god? This led them to ask what he did for a living. Perhaps he was a priest or some kind of royal dignitary. Could his occupation have something to do with their current dilemma?

These questions seem to come in rapid-fire succession, with the fear-filled sailors shouting them out over the noise of the storm. One demands to know where Jonah comes from. They know his destination is Tarshish, but they have no idea about his place of origin. Another sailor hones in on the identity of Jonah’s home country. Where does he hail from? Maybe this will shed some light on their desperate situation. Finally, one of the sailors asks Jonah to reveal his nationality?

It seems obvious that these men were looking for an answer to their pressing problem. Their ship was beginning to succumb to the relentless crashing of the waves and the damaging impact of the wind. They had bailed water, discarded cargo, and rowed until their muscles ached, but nothing was working. So, when the lot fell to Jonah, revealing him to be the one responsible for their predicament, they redirected all their attention to him. But his response to their questions provided little in the way of an explanation as to what was happening and no hope as to a solution.

“I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” – Jonah 1:9 ESV

Evidently, this was not the full extent of Jonah’s answer. At some point, he confessed that he was attempting to run from God.

the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. – Jonah 1:10 ESV

Even these pagan sailors recognized that this was a very bad idea, and they express their consternation to Jonah. “What is this that you have done!” (Jonah 1:10 ESV). Their shock and confusion seem to be based on Jonah’s admission that he worships “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). They are dumbfounded that Jonah was attempting to escape by sea from the very God who created the sea. What was he thinking? To their simple way of thinking, Jonah’s God had dominion over the sea and the land because He had created them. So, how did Jonah think he could ever get away from his God? His venture had been doomed from the beginning and now he had dragged them into it.

While this dialogue between Jonah and the sailors was taking place, the storm continued to rage. In fact, it actually increased in intensity.

the sea grew more and more tempestuous. – Jonah 1:11 ESV

By this time, the sailors are desperate to find a solution to their growing problem. So, they turn to Jonah for an answer. They had no knowledge of Jonah’s God or what kind of sacrifices He might require to assuage His anger. This led them to ask Jonah, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” (Jonah 1:11 ESV).

At this point in the narrative, it’s important that we pause and reconsider the original audience to whom this story was directed. The author had a Hebrew readership in mind when he penned this epic tale. His retelling of Jonah’s story was intended to strike a nerve with the people of God. In a way, this entire book is a historical record of one man’s life that serves as a powerful allegory for the nation of Israel. As the Jews read this riveting account of Jonah’s life, they couldn’t help but see the striking similarities to their own national story.

The children of God had a long and infamous track record of running from God. And like Jonah, they were proud of their Hebrew heritage and would have gladly claimed to “fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). Yet, they had constantly turned their backs on Him. They were guilty of apostasy and disobedience. God had called them to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3), but they had failed to live up to that calling. Through their countless acts of disobedience, they had actually damaged the name and the reputation of God among the Gentiles.

“I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them.” – Ezekiel 36:23 ESV

And as they read this account of Jonah’s life, it was like looking into a mirror and seeing their own reflection. Jonah was on a boat in the middle of a raging storm, surrounded by pagans who were desperately seeking to know what they needed to do to be saved. These helpless Gentiles were asking the sole Hebrew on their sinking ship for advice. Like the Philippian jailer in the book of Acts, each of these hapless sailors was asking Jonah, “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 ESV). And God had positioned the nation of Israel to be a light to the nations, shining the brightness of His grace and mercy in the darkness of a sin-stained world.

But look at Jonah’s answer to the sailors’ desperate plea for direction. When they ask, “What shall we do?,” he simply responds, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12 ESV). Jonah’s solution to their plight is the sacrifice of his own life. But before we assume that Jonah is driven by some sense of compassion for his pagan shipmates, we have to recall that Jonah had made a conscious decision to reject God’s call to go to Nineveh. And as we will see later in the story, Jonah’s offer to be thrown overboard was little more than a death wish. He would rather die than obey God. And, once again, the Jews who read this story would have been reminded of their own obstinate refusal to repent and return to God. Over the centuries, they had proven that they would rather face the wrath and judgment of God than live in keeping with His commands.

Amazingly, the sailors show more compassion than Jonah. Rather than listen to his advice and throw him into the sea, they make one last attempt to reach landfall. But the storm only grows worse and they are forced to call out to Jonah’s God.

“O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” – Jonah 1:14 ESV

These men become instruments in the hand of God, meting out His judgment on the disobedient prophet. They reluctantly hurl Jonah over the railing of the ship and, immediately, “the sea ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:15 ESV). The action of these unbelieving Gentiles accomplished the will of God and satisfied the wrath of God. And they believed.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. – Jonah 1:16 ESV

As Jonah sank beneath the waves, these unregenerate Gentiles sank to their knees in adoration of “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). They worshiped Yahweh, the God of Jonah, by offering Him sacrifices and making vows. Jonah had remained unrepentant to the bitter end. He would rather drown than return to Joppa and obey the command of God. And as the Jewish audience reached this point in the story, they should have learned a powerful lesson. God was going to bring the light of His glory and grace to the Gentiles one way or the other. God wasn’t dependent on Jonah to accomplish His will for the nations. And God’s plan of redemption for the world would not be stymied by Israel’s refusal to live in obedience to His commands. His will would be done. And like Jonah, they would discover that their own day of judgment. But their seeming demise would not be the end. Their “death” would only serve to bring life as God would graciously preserve His people so that He might send His Son as the seed of Abraham and the light to the world.

And God foretells the coming of His chosen servant through the prophet Isaiah.

“You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 NLT

God was not done with Israel and, as we shall see, He was not done with Jonah.

 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

Sickness, Shadows, and Signs

1 In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord, and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” And Isaiah said, “Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover.”

And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “What shall be the sign that the Lord will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the Lord on the third day?” And Isaiah said, “This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?” 10 And Hezekiah answered, “It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps. Rather let the shadow go back ten steps.” 11 And Isaiah the prophet called to the Lord, and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz. 2 Kings 20:1-11 ESV

Hezekiah was a good man who remained faithful to Yahweh throughout his tenure as king of Judah. This made him a rather rare commodity among the other kings Judah and Israel. Most of these men displayed a passion for idols and a propensity for godless behavior that brought upon them God’s judgment. So many of Hezekiah’s peers and predecessors had been nothing more than apostate idol worshipers. Yet, the author of 2 Kings saved his most glowing assessment for King Hezekiah.

He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. – 2 Kings 18:5 ESV

Hezekiah had instituted a series of religious reforms in Judah that were meant to restore the peoples’ devotion to and confidence in Yahweh. He cleansed the temple of God that had been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. He reinstituted temple worship by recommissioning the priests and Levites. He also called for the reinstatement of the feast of unleavened bread and the celebration of Passover,  which both had long been neglected. These annual celebrations had been commissioned by God and were intended to be reminders of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. But when Hezekiah issued a royal decree that the nation of Judah gather in Jerusalem to re-commemorate these two God-ordained festivals, some of the people responded with derision and refused to attend. Many of those who did come to Jerusalem had failed to follow God’s requirements concerning purification.

Most of those who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun had not purified themselves. But King Hezekiah prayed for them, and they were allowed to eat the Passover meal anyway, even though this was contrary to the requirements of the Law. For Hezekiah said, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon those who decide to follow the Lord, the God of their ancestors, even though they are not properly cleansed for the ceremony.” And the Lord listened to Hezekiah’s prayer and healed the people. – 2 Chronicles 30:18-20 NLT

Yet all of Hezekiah’s reforms and his determination to restore the nation’s dedication to Yahweh did not prevent him from encountering difficulties during his reign. His faithfulness to God did not innoculate his reign from potential trials or keep his kingdom trouble-free. In fact, even this godly and faithful king found himself having to deal with the threat of destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. But when the enemy showed up outside the gates of Jerusalem, Hezekiah didn’t rail against God, accusing the Almighty of having abandoned His people. The king didn’t waste time listing all of his reforms or recounting all his efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh to Judah. No, he simply prayed that God would intervene on their behalf – and He did. God had not prevented the enemy from showing up, but He did miraculously cause them to go away. In the midst of their greatest trial, when all looked hopeless and they found themselves helpless, Hezekiah and the people of Judah had their faith reinvigorated by the power and presence of God.

And while God miraculously delivered His people from the threat of annihilation by the Assyrians, that was not the only difficulty that Hezekiah faced. The author states that “in those days” or around the same time that the Assyrian threat was taking place, the king of Judah became deathly ill. Just when the kingdom was facing its most difficult trial, Hezekiah was given a devasting bit of bad news from the prophet of God: “Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness” (2 Kings 20:1 NLT).

But once again, Hezekiah didn’t respond in anger or resentment. He didn’t lash out at God in disappointment or hurl accusations of divine dereliction of duty. He simply prayed. He turned his face to the wall and called out to his God: “Remember, O Lord, how I have always been faithful to you and have served you single-mindedly, always doing what pleases you” (2 Kings 20:3 NLT). Then he simply wept. 

Hezekiah wasn’t bragging or boasting. He wasn’t insinuating that God was somehow obligated to heal him. He was simply asking that God not forget his efforts to remain faithful. Hezekiah did not ask to be restored. He begged to be remembered. And he probably had his eternal state in mind at the time. He was hoping that he had done enough to earn God’s favor and to secure entrance into His Kingdom. And God heard Hezekiah’s prayer and provided him with an immediate response.

“I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you, and three days from now you will get out of bed and go to the Temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my own honor and for the sake of my servant David.” – 2 Kings 20:5-6 NLT

God gave Hezekiah an additional 15 years to lead the people of Judah. And, on top of that, God assured Hezekiah that He would protect the city of Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat. God was going to eliminate the enemy outside the gates of the city and the illness inside the body of Hezekiah. And when the king asked Isaiah if he could provide any proof that these things would actually take place, God graciously obliged by providing a miracle.

he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz. – 2 Kings 20:11 ESV

Evidently, right before the eyes of the king and all those in his royal bedroom, the sun appeared to reverse itself. The shadow that had advanced ten steps suddenly went in the opposite direction, in direct violation of natural order. God’s particular choice of a sign was intended to prove to Hezekiah that He could do the impossible. If He could cause the shadow to reverse its course, He could also reverse the effects of Hezekiah’s illness and the outcome of the Assyrian siege.

Nothing was too difficult for God. The one who gave the sun its light could control its shadow. The one who gave Hezekiah his life could prolong it. And the one who gave men the ability to conceive and implement plans could easily redirect or reverse those plans to suit His sovereign will. The shadow reversed. The king was healed. The Assyrians gave up their siege of Jerusalem. God graciously displayed His power over sickness, nature, and the nations of the world. And Hezekiah was given 15 more years to prove his faithfulness to Yahweh. But as we will see, his new lease on life will not produce the most glowing results. The glory of his former faithfulness will see its shadow reversed as the king struggles with pride and the seductive influence of success.

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

Where Are the Gods?

26 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebnah, and Joah, said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” 27 But the Rabshakeh said to them, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?”

28 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! 29 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. 30 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 31 Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” 33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’”

36 But the people were silent and answered him not a word, for the king’s command was, “Do not answer him.” 37 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. 2 Kings 18:26-37 ESV

This entire scene is filled with a sense of nervous anticipation. The people of Judah are lining the eastern walls of the city, overlooking the Kidron Valley, where the Assyrian army lies spread out before them in numbers too great to count. But their eyes are locked on the three emissaries whom King Hezekiah commissioned to discuss terms of peace with the Assyrians. Eliakim, Shebnah, and Joah hold the fate of the nation in their hands. The people know that the negotiating skills of these three men will determine whether Judah stands or falls. So, all eyes are fixed on the momentous scene taking place at the base of the walls of the city.

But the Rabshakeh, or supreme commander of the Assyrian army, is not interested in peace negotiations. He has come to demand the unconditional surrender of the city and its inhabitants. He and his troops have repeatedly proven their superior power and he is confident that the city of Jerusalem will be one more domino to fall as they continue their conquest of Palestine. Speaking on behalf of his commander-in-chief, the Rabshakeh declares Hezekiah’s rebellion to be ill-conceived and ill-fated.

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? – 2 Kings 18:19-20 NLT

With the citizens of Jerusalem looking on and listening in, this arrogant military commander summarily dismisses any likelihood that the Egyptians will come to the aid of the city. The last-minute military alliance that King Hezekiah made with Pharaoh will prove disappointingly insufficient. The Rabshakeh sarcastically compares Pharaoh to a cane or walking stick made from a reed. It may appear to give support, but it will shatter as soon as any weight is placed upon it.

And the overly confident Assyrian commander informs the Jewish emissaries that if they are holding out hope that Yahweh will come to their rescue, they will find themselves sorely disappointed. Their deity will join a long list of other gods who proved unsuccessful in stopping the Assyrian juggernaut. And, hoping to further undermine their faith in divine rescue, the Rabshakeh announces to the people of Judah that Yahweh had ordered their destruction.

“What’s more, do you think we have invaded your land without the Lord’s direction? The Lord himself told us, ‘Attack this land and destroy it!’”  2 Kings 18:25 NLT

Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah could sense that all this boastful rhetoric was having its intended effect. The Rabshakeh had purposefully delivered his message in Hebrew so that all the people on the wall could hear what he had to say. And they were growing increasingly more concerned. When the king’s three emissaries asked that the conversation be switched to Aramaic, the Rabshakeh refused and called out in a loud voice, “Do you think my master sent this message only to you and your master? He wants all the people to hear it, for when we put this city under siege, they will suffer along with you. They will be so hungry and thirsty that they will eat their own dung and drink their own urine” (2 Kings 18:27 NLT).

At this point, the Rabshakeh turns his attention to the people on the walls of the city. He begins to sow seeds of doubt and suspicion by raising questions concerning King Hezekiah’s intentions and trustworthiness. By addressing the people directly, the Rabshakeh hopes to foment an uprising within the walls of the city, inciting the citizens to turn on their king and demand that he spare their lives by surrendering to the Assyrians. And to help sweeten the pot, the Rabshakeh offers them tempting promises of peace and prosperity.

“Don’t listen to Hezekiah! These are the terms the king of Assyria is offering: Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well. Then I will arrange to take you to another land like this one—a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards, olive groves and honey. Choose life instead of death! – 2 Kings 18:31-32 NLT

Look closely at what the Assyrian king is offering the people of Judah. Essentially, this pagan king is putting himself in the place of God, promising to meet all their needs. He will supply them with ample food and drink. He will provide them with fresh water. And he will take them to “a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards, olive groves and honey.” That should sound familiar. When God had called Moses to rescue the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, He had promised to lead them to a “fertile and spacious land…a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 NLT). And after God had successfully freed them from their captivity and led them to the land of Canaan, He had reminded them again of His promise to give them “a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey. It is a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9 NLT).

Now, centuries later, here was the pagan king of Assyria offering to replicate what God had done for His chosen people. If they would only turn their backs on Yahweh and trust in King Sennacherib, he would provide for all their needs and take them to a new “promised land.”

Sennacherib was placing himself in the role of God, declaring himself to be the source of life and death. By placing their trust in him, they would be assured of peace, prosperity, and life. But centuries earlier, Moses had delivered a much different message to the people of Israel. As they stood on the banks of the Jordan River, preparing to enter the land of promise for the very first time, he had warned them:

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. And if you love and obey the LORD, you will live long in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 30:19-20 NLT

Sennacherib was playing God. This over-confident king with an overactive ego was daring to place himself on equal standing with God Almighty. And he was attempting to persuade the people of Judah to abandon their hope and trust in Yahweh by offering them a “better” promised land.

But while the people on the wall were disturbed by what they heard, they obeyed King Hezekiah’s command and remained silent. And the three emissaries, their clothes torn in an act of mourning, returned to the king and reported all that they had heard. It was a dark day in Judah. The enemy was at the gate. The allies of Judah were nowhere to be found. But despite the boasts of the Rabshakeh, the God of Judah was still on His throne and in complete control of all that was happening. He alone held the power of life and death in His hands. And King Sennacherib and his overconfident military commander were about to discover the painful lesson that they were no match for the all-powerful God of Judah.

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 Spirit of Spiritual Syncretism

29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. 30 The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. 33 So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.

34 To this day they do according to the former manner. They do not fear the Lord, and they do not follow the statutes or the rules or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel. 35 The Lord made a covenant with them and commanded them, “You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, 36 but you shall fear the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. 37 And the statutes and the rules and the law and the commandment that he wrote for you, you shall always be careful to do. You shall not fear other gods, 38 and you shall not forget the covenant that I have made with you. You shall not fear other gods, 39 but you shall fear the Lord your God, and he will deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.” 40 However, they would not listen, but they did according to their former manner.

41 So these nations feared the Lord and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children—as their fathers did, so they do to this day. 2 Kings 17:29-41 ESV

So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods.”

That phrase appears twice in the closing verses of chapter 17, and it aptly summarizes the spiritual state of the nation of Israel after its fall to the Assyrians. Many of its citizens had been captured and exiled to various locations in Assyria. Their vacancies were filled by people from other conquered nations who were forced to relocate to Israel and start new lives. This sudden influx of refugees from foreign countries turned Israel into a veritable melting pot and, ultimately, resulted in intermarriage between the Jews and their new neighbors.

These newly transplanted inhabitants found themselves living in a foreign land where they didn’t understand the language or customs. They were strangers living in a strange land, but they found some comfort in the fact that many of their gods already had shrines dedicated to them in Israel. The ten northern tribes had been assimilating the gods of other nations for years. Under Jeroboam’s leadership, they had created their own gods, complete with temples and priesthood. Under Ahab and Jezebel, they had adopted and promoted the worship of Baal and Asherah. And along the way, other kings of Israel had been embracing the false gods of their foreign allies. So, the new arrivals to Israel found an atmosphere of religious tolerance and ecumenism.

If you recall, immediately after these foreign refugees had arrived in Israel and taken up residence in the abandoned cities of Samaria, they began worshiping their false gods. The land on which they lived belonged to Yahwah, and He took offense at their actions. They were living on land that He had set apart as holy and given to the descendants of Abraham as their inheritance. It was to have been a place where they lived in obedience to His will and where they worshiped Him alone. Their failure to do so had resulted in their defeat and deportation. But their departure had not changed the sanctity of the land or voided the covenant commitment God had made with His people. There was still a remnant of Jews living in the land of Israel and He expected them to keep their end of the agreement they had made with Him.

So, when these foreigners began to worship their false gods on land that belonged to the one true God, they found themselves experiencing divine judgment.

But since these foreign settlers did not worship the Lord when they first arrived, the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. – 2 Kings 17:25 NLT

As a result, the king of Assyria ordered that one of the exiled Israelite priests be sent back so that he might instruct the immigrants in the proper worship of Yahweh.

So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria returned to Bethel and taught the new residents how to worship the Lord. – 2 Kings 17:28 NLT

This highly pragmatic plan implemented by the king of Assyria was evidently successful. But while many of the new arrivals eagerly adopted Yahweh as their God, they simply added Him to their growing list of deities. He became just one more god to whom they offered their sacrifices in order to win favor and good fortune.

These new residents worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests to offer sacrifices at their places of worship. And though they worshiped the Lord, they continued to follow their own gods according to the religious customs of the nations from which they came. – 2 Kings 17:32-33 NLT

With the sudden arrival of these various people groups, the religious landscape of Israel became ever more crowded and confused. Almost overnight, the idolatrous state of Israel exploded with new options and opportunities as the number of false gods continued to increase. The already tolerant and easily tempted Israelites found themselves surrounded by a virtual sea of new gods from which to chose.

Those from Babylon worshiped idols of their god Succoth-benoth. Those from Cuthah worshiped their god Nergal. And those from Hamath worshiped Ashima. The Avvites worshiped their gods Nibhaz and Tartak. And the people from Sepharvaim even burned their own children as sacrifices to their gods Adrammelech and Anammelech. – 2 Kings 17:30-31 ESV

The worship of Yahweh became increasingly more diluted and defused as a spirit of syncretism and religious pluralism spread over the land. The fall of Israel did not result in a spirit of repentance and religious reform among God’s people. His judgment of them was met by indifference and continued apostasy.

They continue to follow their former practices instead of truly worshiping the Lord and obeying the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands he gave the descendants of Jacob, whose name he changed to Israel. – 2 Kings 17:34 NLT

There appears to be no remorse or repentance on the part of God’s people. Their neighbors had been taken captive and exiled to Assyria, but they remain just as committed to living in disobedience to God’s laws. And it seems that those who found themselves living as captives in Assyria were no less stubborn and unwilling to return to Yahweh. And yet, when King Solomon had dedicated the newly constructed temple, he had asked God to show mercy on His disobedient people, should they find themselves in exile and call out for help.

“If your people Israel are defeated by their enemies because they have sinned against you, and if they turn to you and acknowledge your name and pray to you here in this Temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and return them to this land you gave their ancestors.” – 1 Kings 8:33-34 NLT

But they hadn’t turned and acknowledged God’s name. They had not prayed and asked for God’s forgiveness. Both those in exile and those living in the land of Israel had continued to disobey God’s commands and violate His covenant agreement. And the author makes it clear that God was serious about His commands and His covenant.

For the Lord had made a covenant with the descendants of Jacob and commanded them: “Do not worship any other gods or bow before them or serve them or offer sacrifices to them. But worship only the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt with great strength and a powerful arm. Bow down to him alone, and offer sacrifices only to him. Be careful at all times to obey the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands that he wrote for you. You must not worship other gods. Do not forget the covenant I made with you, and do not worship other gods. You must worship only the Lord your God. He is the one who will rescue you from all your enemies.” – 2 Kings 17:35-39 NLT

They had no excuse. The remnant of Israelites still living in the land knew exactly what God expected of them, but they continued to reject His word and refused to repent. And while the new residents were given instruction in the proper worship of Yahweh, they simply added Him to their long and growing list of god options.

So while these new residents worshiped the Lord, they also worshiped their idols. And to this day their descendants do the same. – 2 Kings 17:41 NLT

This last verse is meant to convey a sense of inevitability and determinism. Nothing was going to change. They were fully committed to doing things their way, regardless of the circumstances or consequences. And we know that by the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the long-term implications of this syncretistic and overly tolerant religious mindset had resulted in the division between the Jews and the Samaritans. The foreigners who were transplanted into Israel by the king of Assyria, ended up intermarrying with the remaining Jewish population. These mixed marriages brought about an assimilation of cultures and religions that produced a population that became known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered to be half-breeds by the Jews of Jesus’ day and were treated as second-class citizens. They practiced a religion that combined the worship of Yahweh with aspects of paganism and idolatry. As the Samaritan confessed to Jesus, they even had their own place of worship, outside the confines of Jerusalem (John 4:20).

Chapter 17 of 2 Kings brings the story of the northern kingdom to a dramatic and somber close. Part of the nation is living in exile in Assyria. The rest remain in the land but are marked by a spirit of spiritual syncretism and moral compromise. There will be no more kings to rule over the ten tribes. They will remain under God’s judgment and experience the curses He had warned would come should they choose to disobey. But now, the author turns his attention back to the southern kingdom Judah. As of now, they remain free to follow the commands of God. But will they? The author provides a not-so-subtle hint as to what lies in store of the people of Judah.

Because the Lord was very angry with Israel, he swept them away from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah remained in the land. But even the people of Judah refused to obey the commands of the Lord their God, for they followed the evil practices that Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17:18-19 NLT

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