A Bitter-Sweet Assignment

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.

“But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. 10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. – Ezekiel 2:1-3:3 ESV

Ezekiel had been given a vision of God’s glory, and it left him face down on the ground in reverential fear and wonder. As this exiled young priest stood by the banks of the Kebar River in Babylon, the God of the universe made an unexpected and highly spectacular appearance.

Above this surface was something that looked like a throne made of blue lapis lazuli. And on this throne high above was a figure whose appearance resembled a man. From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. This is what the glory of the Lord looked like to me. – Ezekiel 1:26-28 NLT

It is safe to assume that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Ezekiel. He had never seen anything like this before, and to have the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appear to him in the remote recesses of the land of Babylon must have been a shock to his system. He was just a lowly priest who had been taken captive just like all the other residents of Jerusalem when the city had fallen to King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces.  Jehoiachin was the king of Judah at the time and, according to 2 Kings 12:9, “He did evil in the sight of the Lord as his ancestors had done.” Like most of his predecessors, Jehoiachin chose to use his royal power to promote idolatry that fostered unfaithfulness to God, and he suffered greatly for his refusal to honor the Almighty.

At that time the generals of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched to Jerusalem and besieged the city. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city while his generals were besieging it. King Jehoiachin of Judah, along with his mother, his servants, his officials, and his eunuchs surrendered to the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon, in the eighth year of his reign, took Jehoiachin prisoner. Nebuchadnezzar took from there all the riches in the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and of the royal palace. He removed all the gold items that King Solomon of Israel had made for the Lord’s temple, just as the Lord had warned. He deported all the residents of Jerusalem, including all the officials and all the soldiers (10,000 people in all). This included all the craftsmen and those who worked with metal. No one was left except for the poorest among the people of the land. – 2 Kings 12:10-14 NLT

Living amongst the exiled people of God, Ezekiel had firsthand experience with the apathy and complacency that had taken hold of them. A long way from home and no longer able to avail themselves of the temple and the sacrificial system, they had begun to lose interest in the things of God. Their circumstances had left them feeling abandoned by God and distraught over the far-from-ideal conditions of their captivity. With the passage of time, God had become out of sight, out of mind. They simply assumed He had turned His back on them and so, in time, they gave up hope and determined to make the most of their situation in Babylon.

But God had other plans that included appointing Ezekiel as the one who would deliver His message to the exiles. He had not forgotten about them. They had not been abandoned. Their exile had been intended to get their attention and to bring them to a point of repentance. Now, Ezekiel was going to be commissioned to serve as God’s spokesperson, delivering His call to repentance.

Having gotten Ezekiel’s full attention through the grand display of His glory, God delivered the details of his new assignment.

“I am sending you to the nation of Israel, a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. They are a stubborn and hard-hearted people. But I am sending you to say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’” – Ezekiel 2:3-4 NLT

God makes it painfully clear that Ezekiel’s new task would not be easy. He would have to deliver a message from God to a people who had a track record of stubbornness and insubordination. And God warns Ezekiel that his audience may not receive his message with open arms.

“And whether they listen or refuse to listen—for remember, they are rebels—at least they will know they have had a prophet among them.” – Ezekiel 2:5 NLT

There was no guarantee that Ezekiel would experience success. Despite the fact that he would be speaking the words of God, he had no way of knowing how the people would respond. In fact, God made it sound like his mission was doomed to certain failure.

What would you do if God called you to a task that He knew you were going to fail at? What if He even told you your efforts would be fruitless and non-productive? Most of us would bail. We would give up long before we got going. Because we’re wired with one thing in mind – success – and failure is not an acceptable alternative. But when Ezekiel got his marching orders from God, he was also given the not-so-great news that his ministry would be unsuccessful because his audience was going to be unresponsive.  God even told Ezekiel to expect threats and animosity. This was going to be one difficult job assignment.

In a sense, God was foreshadowing failure, but demanding obedience. Ezekiel’s success would not be measured by the number of callous, carnal Israelites he converted, but on his willingness to carry out God’s assignment faithfully, even in the face of rejection, ridicule, and poor results.

Even the message God gave Ezekiel to share was anything but good news. In his vision, Ezekiel was given a scroll that was covered with writing front and back, from edge to edge. It’s content?

“Funeral songs, words of sorrows, and pronouncements of doom.” – Ezekiel 2:9b NLT

It was a veritable compendium of bad news. So, not only would Ezekiel have a non-responsive audience, he was given an unappealing message. But God fully understood the foreboding nature of Ezekiel’s assignment, and he knew that Ezekiel was already wrestling with whether to follow through with His command. The young priest was afraid of how he and his message might be received by the people, but God encouraged him to have faith.

“Do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briars and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels.” – Ezekiel 2:6 NLT

God was telling Ezekiel not to be frightened by the things they would threaten to do to him, the harsh words they might say about him, or the negative reaction they would inevitably have to him.

“Son of man, do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briers and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels. You must give them my messages whether they listen or not. But they won’t listen, for they are completely rebellious!” – Ezekiel 2:6-7 NLT

Ezekiel was going to experience resistance. His message would not be well-received and the people would hold him responsible for its content. It was only a matter of time before they sought to kill the messenger. That’s why God warned Ezekiel to refrain from emulating the rebellious nature of his audience. He was not to reject God’s assignment just because it sounded difficult and more than a bit dangerous. God was open and above board as to the difficulty of the mission. He didn’t attempt to sugarcoat the assignment or paint a rosy picture of its outcome. Instead, God gave His newly appointed prophet all he would need to succeed.

“Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth, and eat what I give you.” – Ezekiel 2:8 NLT

God held out a scroll, upon which were written lamentations, mourning, and woes. In other words, it was filled with bad news. The sheer volume of disheartening content was so great that it covered both sides of the scroll. God’s indictment against His people was great and He commanded Ezekiel to consume every last bit of it. He was to take it all in so that he might regurgitate it, word for word, to the disobedient people of God.

“Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” – Ezekiel 3:1 ESV

But much to his surprise, Ezekiel found the less-than-appealing content of the scroll to be “sweet as honey.” (Ezekiel 3:3 ESV). There is a similar scene described in the book of Revelation. In it, the apostle John is given a vision of an angel who descends from heaven with a scroll in his hand. He presents the scroll to John and commands him to eat it.

“Yes, take it and eat it,” he said. “It will be sweet as honey in your mouth, but it will turn sour in your stomach!” So I took the small scroll from the hand of the angel, and I ate it! It was sweet in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it turned sour in my stomach.

Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.” – Revelation 10:9-11 NLT

Both John and Ezekiel would find the words of God to be both sweet and bitter. When the truth of God is consumed, it is pleasant and life-giving, but it can also result in conviction and condemnation.

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. – Hebrews 4:12 NLT

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. – 2 Timothy 3:16 NLT

For Ezekiel, consuming God’s word was sweet to the taste, but declaring it to the people would be a bitter experience. They would find it distasteful and difficult to swallow. But God was calling Ezekiel to be faithful and fearless in declaring its truth regardless of the outcome.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

A Vision of God’s Glory

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. 12 And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. – Ezekiel 1:4-14 ESV

It was while Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon, living near the Kebar River, that God came to visit him in a vision. Little did Ezekiel know that his role as a priest was about to be expanded to that of a prophet. A long way from home and far from the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians, Ezekiel was going to receive a vision and a commission from God Almighty.

Ezekiel would later describe this life-changing event in very intimate terms.

the hand of the Lord was upon me there – Ezekiel 3:22 ESV

…the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there. – Ezekiel 8:1 ESV

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:28 ESV

God revealed Himself to Ezekiel in an unforgettable and virtually indescribable manner. This was no burning bush encounter like the one Moses experienced in the wilderness. Ezekiel was given a much more intense and comprehensive glimpse of the Almighty, and it began with a vision of what the dumbfounded prophet describes as four living beings.

As I looked, I saw a great storm coming from the north, driving before it a huge cloud that flashed with lightning and shone with brilliant light. There was fire inside the cloud, and in the middle of the fire glowed something like gleaming amber. From the center of the cloud came four living beings – Ezekiel 1:4-5 NLT

One can only imagine Ezekiel’s shock as he witnessed these strange-looking apparitions appear before his eyes. The text does not reveal whether this bizarre vision took place while Ezekiel was awake or came upon him in the form of a dream. But the strange and surrealistic nature of what Ezekiel saw must have left him shaken and more than a bit scared.

A powerful thunderstorm suddenly appeared on the northern horizon, accompanied by lightning and brilliant light. This was no ordinary storm and that face was quickly confirmed by the sudden appearance of the four creatures. Ezekiel’s attempt to describe these bizarre beings reveals just extraordinary they were. He had never seen anything like them before and was at a loss as to how to describe them. To his eyes, they were an other-worldly amalgam of human and animal characteristics that were beyond belief.

At first glance, they appeared to be human but, upon closer examination, Ezekiel saw that they each had one head with four faces. “Each had a human face in the front, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle at the back” (Ezekiel 1:10 NLT).

Ezekiel is given no explanation for this disturbing combination of facial features. But it would seem that each was meant to represent something significant about God’s creative order. Man was meant to be the apex of all the living creatures God created. The lion was the king of the beasts, the most powerful of all the wild animals. The ox was the most valuable of all the domesticated animals, a creature equipped with great strength and intelligence. And the eagle was considered the king of the skies, a majestic bird of prey whose keen vision and powerful talons made him a mighty hunter.

According to Ezekiel, these four-faced creatures each had four wings and human hands. They used one pair of wings to cover their bodies, while the other pair of wings were fully extended with the tips touching the wings of the creature next to them. It seems that the four creatures formed a square so that “each one moved straight forward in any direction without turning around” (Ezekiel 1:9 NLT).

But even as mesmerizing as these creatures were, Ezekiel’s attention was drawn to something that appeared in the midst of them.

In the middle of the living beings was something like burning coals of fire or like torches. It moved back and forth among the living beings. It was bright, and lightning was flashing out of the fire. – Ezekiel 1:13 NET

It is difficult to ascertain whether this light emanated from the creatures themselves or from something else. But it seems as if the vision was meant to draw Ezekiel’s eye ever higher, exposing him to something far more significant than the creatures themselves. As fantastic as these heavenly beings appeared to be, they were not the focus of the vision. They were simply a preview of what was to come.

“These spiritual beings who were part angel, part human, and part animal were fitting representatives of the whole created order. Their activity affirmed the relationship of God to his creation as Lord of all things. This idea was vital in helping Ezekiel and the captives in exile and the people in Judah understand that in the midst of the storms of life, God was still on his throne. He was not oblivious to their circumstances.” – L. E. Cooper Sr., Ezekiel

God was setting the stage for what was to come. These divine apparitions were meant to get the prophet’s attention and prepare him to receive the message God had in store for him. God could have just appeared to Ezekiel, but He chose to preface His appearance with a supernatural outpouring of signs that accentuated His power and glory. In the midst of all the doom and gloom of captivity in Babylon, Ezekiel was being given a veritable light show designed to remind him of Yahweh’s majesty and holiness.

The God of Israel was manifesting His presence in the midst of His exiled people. He had not forgotten or forsaken them. He had always promised to remember and redeem them, and He had communicated those intentions to the prophet Jeremiah.

“When the time for them to be rescued comes,”
says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
“I will rescue you from foreign subjugation.
I will deliver you from captivity.
Foreigners will then no longer subjugate them.
But they will be subject to the Lord their God
and to the Davidic ruler whom I will raise up as king over them. – Jeremiah 30:8-9 NLT

As Ezekiel’s vision will make clear, God was still on His throne and fully in command of all that was going on in the world. The captivity of His chosen people had been part of His plan, and their future redemption would also come about just as He had promised. Ezekiel was being given a much-needed reminder of God’s glory and greatness so that he might receive, believe, and deliver God’s message for the helpless and hopeless living in exile in Babylon.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

But God…

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV

Paul put a strong emphasis on the future but he never forgot the past. When addressing believers, he strived to stress the eternal significance of their redemption. He wanted them to understand that their faith in Christ had both immediate and long-term implications. They could enjoy the present benefits of a restored relationship with God, as revealed by the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
But the Spirit was also intended as a sign or proof of their inheritance to come (Ephesians 1:13-14).

But Paul knew that, in order for believers to truly appreciate the present and future blessings of God, they must constantly recall their former condition as enemies of God. There was a time when all followers of Christ stood on the other side of the door of grace. As Paul will remind the Ephesians believers in the very next section of his letter, “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 2:12 NLT). This is the very same message he gave to the believers in Galatia.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. – Galatians 4:8 ESV

Paul understood the power of recall. He knew that an accurate memory of the past was essential if the Ephesians were going to cultivate an appreciation for all that God had accomplished on their behalf. Looking back could provide a much-needed reminder of just how gracious God had been. Their salvation had been undeserved. They had been enemies of God, living in open rebellion to His will and ways. And Paul pulls no punches in describing the desperate state of their former condition.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. – Ephesians 2:1-2 NLT

Paul believed that having a healthy and honest view of the past was essential for understanding the glorious nature of God’s gift of salvation. Jesus had not come to redeem the righteous. He had not sacrificed His life on behalf of the good and the godly, but for those who were sin-enslaved and recognized their need for a Savior. On one occasion, when the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for associating with notorious sinners, He responded, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT).

Paul’s mention of the devil was intended to stress the former enslavement of the Ephesian believers. Before coming to faith in Christ, they had not been free to do as they pleased. They had been the slaves to Satan himself, “the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God” (Ephesians 2:2 NLT). In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul described the sinister role of Satan in sobering terms.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

And Paul’s obsession with Satan’s enslavement of the lost was well-founded. It was based on the message he had received from Jesus at the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus. He shared the details of this encounter in his trial before King Agrippa.

“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. Tell people that you have seen me, and tell them what I will show you in the future. And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’” – Acts 26:15-18 NLT

Paul’s commission from Jesus had been to help set captives free. His entire ministry had been to bring good news, to open the eyes of the blind, and to set the captives free. And Paul knew that, in doing so, he was simply continuing the ministry of Jesus Himself. When Jesus appeared at the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, He had read a passage from the scroll of Isaiah the prophet.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

And when He had finished, Jesus had sat down and calmly but boldly declared, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Now, Paul was carrying on the mission that Jesus had begun. He had been tasked with the job of setting captives free and, somewhat ironically, his efforts had earned him imprisonment in Rome. Yet, he continued to use his pen to proclaim the glorious nature of the freedom made possible through faith in Christ. And he reminded the Ephesians that every believer, including himself, had at one time been a slave to Satan and an enemy of God, “following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:3 NLT).

But God…

Those two simple words form one of the most powerful and impactful sentences in the entire Bible. Paul reveled in the idea of God’s undeserved, yet undeniable intervention in mankind’s desperate condition.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

Mercy, love, grace. Those three words form the foundation of Paul’s thinking on this matter. God showered sinful, enslaved humanity mercy (undeserved kindness). He poured out His unselfish, sacrificial love on those who deserved His justice and wrath. And it was all a display of His unmerited favor (grace) and lovingkindness.

Paul wanted the Ephesians to understand that their salvation had been totally undeserved. They had done nothing worthy of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Their transformation from enemies of God to sons and daughters of God had been the work of God alone. And Paul is unapologetic in his defense of God’s sovereign role in the salvation of sinful humanity.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. – Ephesians 2:8 NLT

This point is essential to Paul’s argument, which is why he repeats it three separate times.

It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved! – vs 5

So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us – vs 7

God saved you by his grace when you believed. – vs 8

For Paul, one of the greatest sins a believer can commit is to attempt to rob God of glory by taking credit for something He alone has done. That is why he places so much emphasis on salvation being a gift and not a reward. It is not earned or merited. It is not a form of payment for services rendered.

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

And yet, believers find it so easy to take credit for something over which they had no control. Their only role was to receive that which was freely given. Their blinded eyes were opened by God. The chains that once bound them were broken by God. The sins that once condemned them were forgiven by God. Their remarkable transformation had been the work of a loving, gracious, and merciful God.

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 NLT

And there had been a divine purpose behind this radical reformation of their lives. The gift of salvation was not to be wasted or squandered. Their new identity as God’s chosen people was not to be taken lightly or treated flippantly. God had an objective in mind. His redemptive plan was not arbitrary or pointless. And Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were literal works of art, God’s “workmanship” (poieme). They were like priceless masterpieces, created by the hand of the Creator-God, and intended to bring Him glory. And the greatest way God’s people can bring Him glory is by doing what He redeemed them to do.

He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

No longer slaves to sin, the Ephesians were free to do the will of God. With their eyes opened, they could clearly see. With their chains broken, they could freely serve. With their former sins forgiven, they could gratefully obey. They were new creations designed to live new lives in the power of the Spirit of God. And God had important work for them to do.

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

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

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

The Lord Made It Succeed

19 As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, “This is the way your servant treated me,” his anger was kindled. 20 And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. 21 But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. 22 And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. 23 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed. – Genesis 39:19-23 ESV

Angered by Joseph’s repeated refusals to accommodate her sexual advances, Potiphar’s humiliated wife falsely and maliciously accused him of attempted rape. And her husband, shocked but also angered by this news, was forced to confine Joseph to prison. Had the master truly believed in Joseph’s guilt, it is likely he would have ordered his execution. After all, for a common slave to attempt to violate his master’s wife would have been a crime worthy of death. Considered to be little more than personal property, a slave had no rights and his life was in the hand of his master. But rather than having Joseph executed for this egregious crime, Potiphar chose to spare his life by confining him to prison.

This echoes the treatment Joseph had received at the hands of his brothers. When he had shown up in Dothan, their first response had been to put him to death.

“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” – Genesis 37:19-20 ESV

But Reuben had intervened and spared Joseph’s life. Rather than committing murder, he suggested that they confine Joseph to an empty cistern, where he would be left to die of natural causes. Reuben had hoped to come back later and rescue Joseph. But before he could do so, Judah convinced his brothers to sell Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. And that sale had resulted in Joseph’s purchase by Potiphar, which eventually led to his imprisonment for a crime of which he was completely innocent. But, as before, Joseph was spared from death.

While preferable to capital punishment, Joseph’s imprisonment was still undeserved and would have been a far-from-pleasant experience. Yet, Moses points out that “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (Genesis 39:21 ESV). This theme runs throughout the entire  narrative found in chapter 10. God had been the one to protect Joseph from the murderous intentions of his brothers. And God had been behind Joseph’s sale to the Ishmaelites and his eventual purchase by Potiphar. None of this was blind luck or a case of cosmic karma.

The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. – Genesis 39:2-3 ESV

God had orchestrated every facet of this story, including Joseph’s imprisonment in the facility reserved solely for the king’s prisoners. This factor will become more important and pertinent as chapter 40 unfolds. But suffice it to say that each and every sequence of this story took place according to the sovereign plan of God.

Just as God had shown Joseph favor in the eyes of Potiphar, He also elevated Joseph in the eyes of the prison’s warden.

the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it – Genesis 39:22 ESV

This innocent young man displayed an uncanny knack for leadership that led the warden to place all the prisoners under Joseph’s supervision. And before long, Joseph found himself functioning more as a prison administrator than a prisoner. He wielded power, authority, and great influence. He had entered as a common criminal but, before he knew it, Joseph was functioning as the second most powerful man in the entire prison.

The warden had no more worries, because Joseph took care of everything. The Lord was with him and caused everything he did to succeed. – Genesis 39:23 NLT

Prison walls were an insufficient barrier against the sovereign hand of God. The vindictive plans of a bitter woman could not derail God’s plans for His child. God’s love for Joseph was far superior to anything Potiphar or his wife could try to do to him. As the psalmist wrote, “The LORD is for me, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 NLT). They could falsely accuse Joseph. They could imprison him. They could even threaten to take his life. But as the apostle Paul so aptly put it:

“If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” – Genesis 8:31 NLT

And Paul would go on to remind his readers that God’s love for His children was inseparable and unwavering.

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

God, out of His marvelous love and mercy, was making Joseph a success – even in prison. He was protecting Joseph’s life, expanding his influence, and preparing him for the next phase of his God-ordained journey. The prison would prove to be a doorway to freedom, a portal to salvation, and a divine pathway to Israel’s promised future. No one would have seen this coming, including Joseph. Potiphar and his wife will disappear into the pages of ancient history, never to be heard from again. Joseph’s brothers will go on with their lives, oblivious of Joseph’s fate and ignorant of their own pre-ordained destiny with drought and famine.

Little did Joseph know that his unexpected and undeserved imprisonment would foreshadow another captivity to come. This son of Abraham would become a symbol for the descendants of Abraham who would one day find themselves also living as captives in the land of Egypt. And they too would discover that, despite their unpleasant circumstances, God was with them. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would step into the darkness of their predicament and turn their seeming failure into 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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

You Are My People

14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
    and bring her into the wilderness,
    and speak tenderly to her.
15 And there I will give her her vineyards
    and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
    as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.

16 “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. 18 And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. 19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.

21 “And in that day I will answer, declares the Lord,
    I will answer the heavens,
    and they shall answer the earth,
22 and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
    and they shall answer Jezreel,
23     and I will sow her for myself in the land.
And I will have mercy on No Mercy,
    and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’;
    and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:14-23 ESV

The holy and righteous God of Israel was going to punish His rebellious people for their sins against Him. Yet, as an expression of His grace and mercy, He would also redeem and restore them. He would keep His covenant commitment to them and fulfill the promises He had made to Abraham and to David. They would once again become a great and mighty nation, ruled over by a good and righteous king, a descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:8-16). But these things would not happen as a result of Israel’s decision to repent and return to God. He would be the pursuer.

“I will win her back once again.
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her there.” – Hosea 2:14 NLT

Like a husband with a promiscuous wife, God would have to purposefully pursue His wayward people, seeking them out even as they suffered the consequences of their own sin. The prophet Ezekiel describes God’s relentless pursuit of His rebellious people and explains why He refuses to simply abandon them to their well-deserved punishment.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

Any hope the people of Israel had of experiencing redemption and restoration rested in the hands of God. He would have to be the one to pursue them and whoo them back to Himself. Even when they found themselves living in exile as a result of their sins, they would refuse to seek and serve Him. But He would never give up on them. Reminiscent of the days when the people of Israel lived as slaves in the land of Egypt, they would once again find themselves miraculously and graciously delivered by God. Their days of trouble would come to an end and they would once again enjoy the fruits of a restored relationship with Him.

God promises to “make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15 ESV). That is a reference to a less-than-flattering scene from Israel’s past. Joshua was leading the people of Israel into the land of promise. They had just enjoyed a rousing victory over the city of Jericho. But when they attempted to defeat the much smaller city of Ai, they failed miserably. The reason for their unexpected failure was the sin of one man: Achan. He had violated God’s commands by taking plunder from Jericho and hiding it in his tent. When Achan had been exposed as the guilty party, Joshua confronted him.

And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” – Joshua 7:24-25 NLT

In Hebrew, the word Achor means “trouble” or “disaster.” Achan’s sin had brought disaster upon the whole nation of Israel. On this site, Achan would suffer the consequences for his sin, along with his entire family.

And all the Israelites stoned Achan and his family and burned their bodies. They piled a great heap of stones over Achan, which remains to this day. That is why the place has been called the Valley of Trouble ever since. – Joshua 7:25-26 NLT

Now, God promises to lead His people back from their exile and, this time, when they pass through the “Valley of Trouble,” it will become a gateway to hope. They will enter the land of promise once again, where they will enjoy the goodness and graciousness of their loving God. But this future day will be like none other. It will feature a restored creation where the animal kingdom and humanity experience an Eden-like existence, with all animosity and fear having been removed. It will be a time of unprecedented peace between the nations of the world. But most importantly, it will be a day when Israel will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God. He promises to restore them and return them to their former place of prominence as His chosen possession.

“I will make you my wife forever,
    showing you righteousness and justice,
    unfailing love and compassion.
I will be faithful to you and make you mine,
    and you will finally know me as the Lord.” – Hosea 2:19-20 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah also recorded a remarkable promise of God, outlining His future plan to restore the people of Israel to their homeland.

“I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in this land.” – Jeremiah 32:37-41 NLT

While God did eventually return a remnant of the people of Judah to the land after their exile in Babylon, the majority of these promises remain unfulfilled. These passages all speak of a yet-future day when God will miraculously restore His chosen people to the land and reestablish their covenant relationship with Him.

“At that time I will plant a crop of Israelites
    and raise them for myself.
I will show love
    to those I called ‘Not loved.’
And to those I called ‘Not my people,’
    I will say, ‘Now you are my people.’
And they will reply, ‘You are our God!’” – Hosea 2:23 NLT

Centuries have passed since Hosea recorded these words, and their fulfillment remains to be seen. Even when Jesus appeared on the scene, declaring that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, His words and His works were rejected by His own people. They refused to recognize Him as their rightful King and Savior. But there is a day when Jesus will return to the earth and establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem, where He will rule and reign for a thousand years. And in that Kingdom, He will rule over a restored remnant of God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel. At that time, every promise of God will be fully fulfilled and the words recorded in Hosea will come to pass.

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 End Is In Sight

13 Shallum the son of Jabesh began to reign in the thirty-ninth year of Uzziah king of Judah, and he reigned one month in Samaria. 14 Then Menahem the son of Gadi came up from Tirzah and came to Samaria, and he struck down Shallum the son of Jabesh in Samaria and put him to death and reigned in his place. 15 Now the rest of the deeds of Shallum, and the conspiracy that he made, behold, they are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. 16 At that time Menahem sacked Tiphsah and all who were in it and its territory from Tirzah on, because they did not open it to him. Therefore he sacked it, and he ripped open all the women in it who were pregnant.

17 In the thirty-ninth year of Azariah king of Judah, Menahem the son of Gadi began to reign over Israel, and he reigned ten years in Samaria. 18 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart all his days from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 19 Pul the king of Assyria came against the land, and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that he might help him to confirm his hold on the royal power. 20 Menahem exacted the money from Israel, that is, from all the wealthy men, fifty shekels of silver from every man, to give to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria turned back and did not stay there in the land. 21 Now the rest of the deeds of Menahem and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? 22 And Menahem slept with his fathers, and Pekahiah his son reigned in his place.

23 In the fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekahiah the son of Menahem began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and he reigned two years. 24 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 25 And Pekah the son of Remaliah, his captain, conspired against him with fifty men of the people of Gilead, and struck him down in Samaria, in the citadel of the king’s house with Argob and Arieh; he put him to death and reigned in his place. 26 Now the rest of the deeds of Pekahiah and all that he did, behold, they are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel.

27 In the fifty-second year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekah the son of Remaliah began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and he reigned twenty years. 28 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin.

29 In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and he carried the people captive to Assyria. 30 Then Hoshea the son of Elah made a conspiracy against Pekah the son of Remaliah and struck him down and put him to death and reigned in his place, in the twentieth year of Jotham the son of Uzziah. 31 Now the rest of the acts of Pekah and all that he did, behold, they are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. 2 Kings 15:13-31 ESV

During Azariah’s 52-year reign over the southern kingdom of Judah, things proved to be a bit more unstable north of the border. Israel was having a difficult time keeping its kings alive. In just over 14 years, the ten northern tribes would go through six different kings, and all but one of them would be assassinated by his successor. It was a time marked by extreme political instability and worsening spiritual infidelity. Zechariah’s reign would be short-lived, lasting only six months before Shallum assassinated him and took his place on the throne. But Shallum would break Zechariah’s record for the shortest reign by surviving a single month before Menahem took his life and his throne.

According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, Menahem had been the commander-in-chief of Jeroboam II’s army. Evidently, Menahem had taken Shallum’s murder of Zechariah, the son of Jeroboam II, as an act of treason. So, he took matters into his own hands and executed the usurper to the throne in record time. Of course, Menahem chose to fill the vacancy left by Shallum’s untimely death by declaring himself king. But when some of Israel’s citizens refused to recognize his right to rule, he launched a brutal reprisal against them.

Menahem destroyed the town of Tappuah and all the surrounding countryside as far as Tirzah, because its citizens refused to surrender the town. He killed the entire population and ripped open the pregnant women. – 2 Kings 15:16 NLT

It’s not surprising that the author describes Menahem’s ten-year reign as evil. He did nothing to restore the spiritual condition of the nation. Instead, he replicated the idolatrous ways of his predecessor, Jeroboam.

It was during Menahem’s less-than-stellar reign that the kingdom of Assyria first appeared on the scene. This up-and-coming nation would prove to be a constant source of trouble for both Israel and Judah. And when the king of Assyria began to test his growing military might by launching raids into Israelite territory, Menahem determined that it was in his best interest to secure an alliance with this powerful new threat to the region. So, he paid a substantial tribute to the Assyrians and funded it by exacting an exorbitant and highly unpopular tax on the wealthiest citizens of Israel. But his strategy appears to have worked.

…the king of Assyria turned from attacking Israel and did not stay in the land. – 2 Kings 15:20 NLT

But little did Menahem know that he was simply buying time. The Assyrians could be bought off, but they were not going away.

Menahem was succeeded by his son, Pekahiah, whose reign would last only two years. Pekahiah was eventually assassinated and replaced by Pekah, the son of the man who commanded his own army. And it was during Pekah’s 20-year, sin-stained reign that the Assyrians showed up again. Evidently, Pekah chose not to continue making tribute payments to the Assyrians, so King Tiglath-pileser ordered the resumption of raids into Israelite territory.

King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria attacked Israel again, and he captured the towns of Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, and Hazor. He also conquered the regions of Gilead, Galilee, and all of Naphtali, and he took the people to Assyria as captives. – 2 Kings 15:29 NLT

The scope and intensity of these raids are simply a foreshadowing of darker days to come. And long before the Israelites had settled in the land of Canaan, God had warned them what would happen if they chose to be unfaithful by refusing to obey His commands.

You will watch as your sons and daughters are taken away as slaves. Your heart will break for them, but you won’t be able to help them. A foreign nation you have never heard about will eat the crops you worked so hard to grow. You will suffer under constant oppression and harsh treatment. You will go mad because of all the tragedy you see around you. – Deuteronomy 28:32-34 NLT

This was just the beginning. But Pekah did not recognize these devastating raids by the Assyrians as the judgment of God. Instead, 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 15:28 NLT). And eventually, he suffered the same fate as his predecessor. After a 20-year reign, he too was assassinated. Israel’s constant harassment by the Assyrians eventually destabilized Pekah’s reign.

These costly raids and the enslavement of their fellow citizens led the people to grow increasingly more dissatisfied with Pekah’s leadership. Eventually, Hoshea, the son of Elah, took advantage of the unstable situation by instigating a successful coup against the king. He assassinated Pekah and took his place on the throne of Israel. But this latest regime change, like all those that had preceded it, made little difference. The people of Israel remained just as rebellious and unrepentant as ever. And the Assyrians were growing increasingly more powerful with each passing day. The handwriting was on the wall. It would not be long before God fulfilled His promise to bring curses upon the people of Israel for their unfaithfulness and disobedience.

During this time, God had sent His prophets to warn the Israelites about their sinful behavior.

“The people of Israel have sinned again and again,
    and I will not let them go unpunished!
They sell honorable people for silver
    and poor people for a pair of sandals.
They trample helpless people in the dust
    and shove the oppressed out of the way.
Both father and son sleep with the same woman,
    corrupting my holy name.” – Amos 2:6-7 NLT

“From among all the families on the earth,
    I have been intimate with you alone.
That is why I must punish you
    for all your sins.” – Amos 3:2 NLT

“But now bring charges against Israel—your mother—
    for she is no longer my wife,
    and I am no longer her husband.
Tell her to remove the prostitute’s makeup from her face
    and the clothing that exposes her breasts.
Otherwise, I will strip her as naked
    as she was on the day she was born.
I will leave her to die of thirst,
    as in a dry and barren wilderness. – Hosea 2:2-3 NLT

They had been warned but they had repeatedly refused to repent. The kings of Israel had led their people to sin against God. Through intrigue and insurrection, these men had destabilized the nation’s power and then encouraged the people to forsake the one true God. And the time was coming when God would repay them for their unfaithfulness. He would no longer allow His holy name to be desecrated by their constant disobedience of His commands and disregard for His will. They had failed to recognize and appreciate His faithfulness.

She doesn’t realize it was I who gave her everything she has—
    the grain, the new wine, the olive oil;
I even gave her silver and gold.
    But she gave all my gifts to Baal.” – Hosea 2:8 NLT

And they would pay dearly for their mistake.

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

 

 

Trust Him

Now why do you cry aloud?
    Is there no king in you?
Has your counselor perished,
    that pain seized you like a woman in labor?
10 Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion,
    like a woman in labor,
for now you shall go out from the city
    and dwell in the open country;
    you shall go to Babylon.
There you shall be rescued;
    there the Lord will redeem you
    from the hand of your enemies.

11 Now many nations
    are assembled against you,
saying, “Let her be defiled,
    and let our eyes gaze upon Zion.”
12 But they do not know
    the thoughts of the Lord;
they do not understand his plan,
    that he has gathered them as sheaves to the threshing floor.
13 Arise and thresh,
    O daughter of Zion,
for I will make your horn iron,
    and I will make your hoofs bronze;
you shall beat in pieces many peoples;
    and shall devote their gain to the Lord,
    their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth. – Micah 4:9-13 ESV

Micah has given the people of Judah a glimpse into the future, providing them with a hope-filled description of God’s redemptive plan concerning them. Now, he rather abruptly brings them back to earth with a reminder of their more pressing fate. They still had the looming reality of God’s pending judgment hanging over their heads. Their centuries-worth of sin and rebellion against God had to be punished.

So, Micah paints a foreboding picture of just how difficult and dark those days will be. He fast-forwards the timeline again, providing them with a prophetic glimpse into the not-so-distant future and describes the horrific scene of the Babylonians invading Jerusalem. He describes the people crying out in pain and anguish as they watch the destruction of their beloved city. They have no one to lead them. Their king has been taken captive. Their army has fallen. All the prophets and priests who had promised them that everything would be okay, have been exiled as slaves to Babylon. And the book of 2 Kings confirms the accuracy of Micah’s prediction.

By July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign, the famine in the city had become very severe, and the last of the food was entirely gone. Then a section of the city wall was broken down. Since the city was surrounded by the Babylonians, the soldiers waited for nightfall and escaped through the gate between the two walls behind the king’s garden. Then they headed toward the Jordan Valley.

But the Babylonian troops chased the king and overtook him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah, where they pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. They made Zedekiah watch as they slaughtered his sons. Then they gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him in bronze chains, and led him away to Babylon. – 2 Kings 25:3-7 NLT

The devastation and destruction will be horrific. Nothing will remain untouched or spared from the wrath of the Babylonian army as it pillages and plunders the city of all its treasures. Again, the book of 2 Kings provides detailed confirmation as to the accuracy of Micah’s words.

Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard and an official of the Babylonian king, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He destroyed all the important buildings in the city. Then he supervised the entire Babylonian army as they tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side. – 2 Kings 25:9-10 NLT

Micah compares the pain of the people to that of a woman in the midst of childbirth. This imagery is meant to link the very real pain they will experience as a result of God’s judgment with the future joy they will feel when God redeems them from their captivity in Babylon.

This section of Micah’s book is filled with a rather strange admixture of present and future scenes. He is compressing the timeline in such a way that it is difficult to know what is going to happen when. But Micah is not trying to provide the people of Judah with a detailed calendar of dates or give them a hard-and-fast outline of coming attractions. He is trying to let them know that God is in complete control of every detail concerning their past, present, and future. God exists outside of time. He knows the future just as well as He knows the past. He was intimately familiar with every detail concerning the coming Babylonian invasion. And He was just as aware of every circumstance surrounding the return of a remnant of His people from Babylon to Judah 70 years later. And Micah combines all these events into one seamless whole, in an effort to assure the people of Judah that everything was in the sovereign hands of God.

…for now you must leave this city
    to live in the open country.
You will soon be sent in exile
    to distant Babylon.
But the Lord will rescue you there;
    he will redeem you from the grip of your enemies. – Micah 4:10 NLT

In Micah’s day, Judah had no shortage of enemies who longed to see her demise. In spite of their disobedience and sin, the people of Judah had enjoyed a certain degree of success. As a nation, they had continued to play a prominent role in the oftentimes volatile affairs of the Middle East. Over the years, they had made a great many enemies who would love nothing better than to see them destroyed. And when the Babylonians finally invaded Judah, these nations not only rejoiced, they took advantage of the situation, claiming the former territories of Judah as their own.

But Micah assures his countrymen that these enemies of Judah were overlooking one very important fact.

But they do not know the Lord’s thoughts
    or understand his plan.
These nations don’t know
    that he is gathering them together
to be beaten and trampled
    like sheaves of grain on a threshing floor. – Micah 4:12 NLT

When the time for Judah’s fall finally came, these nations would see an opportunity to take advantage of the circumstances. But they would be ignorant of God’s much larger and longer-term plans concerning Judah. And they would be completely oblivious to His plans for them. But, once again, Micah compresses the timeline, inserting events that will take place in the “latter days.” Here he is describing the judgment of God against the nations of the earth that will take place at the Second Coming of Christ. The prophet Zechariah provides a detailed account of what will happen to all those who stand opposed to God and His chosen people when Christ returns.

And the Lord will send a plague on all the nations that fought against Jerusalem. Their people will become like walking corpses, their flesh rotting away. Their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. On that day they will be terrified, stricken by the Lord with great panic. They will fight their neighbors hand to hand. Judah, too, will be fighting at Jerusalem. The wealth of all the neighboring nations will be captured—great quantities of gold and silver and fine clothing. This same plague will strike the horses, mules, camels, donkeys, and all the other animals in the enemy camps.

In the end, the enemies of Jerusalem who survive the plague will go up to Jerusalem each year to worship the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, and to celebrate the Festival of Shelters. Any nation in the world that refuses to come to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, will have no rain. If the people of Egypt refuse to attend the festival, the Lord will punish them with the same plague that he sends on the other nations who refuse to go. Egypt and the other nations will all be punished if they don’t go to celebrate the Festival of Shelters. – Zechariah 14:12-19 NLT

Once again, Micah brings in a scene from the distant future, allowing the people of Judah to see what God has planned for them as a nation.

“Rise up and crush the nations, O Jerusalem!”
    says the Lord.
“For I will give you iron horns and bronze hooves,
    so you can trample many nations to pieces.
You will present their stolen riches to the Lord,
    their wealth to the Lord of all the earth.” – Micah 4:13 NLT

Micah wants them to understand that this event is just as certain as their coming judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. God had a plan in place that was all-inclusive and completely trustworthy. He had left nothing up to chance. Their unfaithfulness would do nothing to diminish the faithfulness of God. Yes, He would punish them for their sins, but the day was coming when He would restore them. He would bring judgment upon them for their refusal to repent, but He would also send His Son one day to rescue them from the days of Tribulation.

How easy it is to lose sight of God’s sovereign plan and focus on the more immediate circumstances surrounding us. The people of Judah were fixating on the threat of Babylonian invasion and the destruction of their nation. But Micah was attempting to remind them that their God was not only greater than their problem, but He was also in complete control of it. Everything they were facing and fearing was coming through the sovereign hands of God. And He had more in store for them than they could ever imagine. While the enemies of Judah were clueless concerning God’s future plans for Judah, He was not. And the prophet Jeremiah provided the following words of comfort directly from the lips of God.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11 NLT

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

Joshua and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

23 And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.”

24 When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, 26 “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”  Deuteronomy 31:23-29 ESV

The commissioning of Joshua by God seems a bit anticlimactic, doesn’t it? It takes just one verse to record the whole affair. There were no animals sacrificed, no anointing oil poured over the head of Joshua. A comparison between his commissioning and that of Aaron reveals some remarkable and glaring contrasts.

And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. And he put the coat on him and tied the sash around his waist and clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him and tied the skillfully woven band of the ephod around him, binding it to him with the band. And he placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:6-9 ESV

And he poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him. And Moses brought Aaron’s sons and clothed them with coats and tied sashes around their waists and bound caps on them, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:12-13 ESV

Yet, all Joshua got as a word of encouragement from God: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23 ESV).

But even these words of encouragement and affirmation had to come across as a little underwhelming to Joshua. After all, he had just heard God say that the people of Israel would prove to be rebellious and unrepentant, earning them the full weight of the curses Moses had warned them about. So, while God provided Joshua with the assurance that he would be successful in his new role as leader of the people of Israel, it had to have been bitter-sweet news to his ears. Yes, Joshua would accomplish his God-given assignment and lead the people into the land of Canaan, but how could he forget the fact that they would not be allowed to stay there. The day would come when they would be destroyed by their enemies and taken as captives to foreign lands.

And even after his rather abrupt and abbreviated commissioning, Joshua had to hear Moses repeat the warning God had delivered to them in the tent of meeting.

I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!” – Deuteronomy 31:27 ESV

Put yourself in Joshua’s sandals. He has just been commissioned the new leader of the people of Israel and yet when he and Moses step out of the tent of meeting, he doesn’t even get an introduction. There is no official announcement of the leadership transition from Moses to Joshua. It’s almost as if Joshua simply stood in the background, eyes wide with shock and surprise. He had just seen the Shekinah glory of God, heard the voice of God, and was still digesting the devastating news from God that the nation of Israel would end up back in captivity one day. And just as he is about to take over the reins of leadership, he has to sit back and hear Moses accuse the people of being rebellious and stubborn.

And Moses wasn’t done. He had one more punch to the gut he wanted to deliver.

“I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

I can’t help but imagine how Joshua felt as all this transpired. Here he was getting ready to lead the people of Israel into the promised land, not exactly an easy task, and Moses was busy stirring up and offending them. On top of that, Joshua had just been informed that, while the whole conquest-of-the-land initiative would be a success, it would prove to be shortlived and irrelevant.

This is probably not the way Joshua had envisioned his tenure as the shepherd of Israel beginning. This entire section of the book of Deuteronomy is weighted with a dark sense of foreboding. This should have been one of the most eagerly anticipated events in Israel’s long and storied history as they prepared to cross over the border and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God centuries earlier. But rather than joy and celebration, the occasion was marked by sadness and disappointment. The party balloons had popped. The candles on the cake had blown out.

And Moses told the people that the law itself would bear witness against them. He instructed the Levites to “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26 ESV). His handwritten copy of God’s commandments would be a constant presence among the people, practically screaming out its judgments against them every time they violated its contents.

Moses assembles all the elders and officers of the 12 tribes and calls heaven and earth to witness against them. But what does this mean? How do the heavens and the earth bear witness against the nation of Israel? Well, in the opening stanza of the song that God gave Moses, we read these words: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deuteronomy 32:1 ESV).

Moses was going to sing the words of God’s song to the people, and the first words would be addressed to the heavens and the earth. It is as if God is saying, “If you won’t listen, creation will.” The rest of the creative order will hear the commands of God and bear witness against the Israelites for their stubborn refusal to do as He has said.

In a sense, Moses is saying that the heavens and earth will still remain, even after the Israelites are long gone. The sun, moon, and stars will still be in the sky long after Israel is exiled from the land of promise. They will look up from their new home in Babylon and see the same unchanging scene in the heavens, but they will be in captivity. The land of Canaan will remain right where it was when they left. Nothing will change about it except the identity of those who occupy it. The earth will keep spinning. The sun, moon, and stars will keep shining. Canaan will remain a land flowing with milk and honey. But the fate of the Israelites will be markedly different than it had been.

“…in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

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

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

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

The Best Is Yet To Come.

And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest, and Zephaniah the second priest and the three keepers of the threshold; and from the city he took an officer who had been in command of the men of war, and seven men of the king’s council, who were found in the city; and the secretary of the commander of the army, who mustered the people of the land; and sixty men of the people of the land, who were found in the midst of the city. And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. And the king of Babylon struck them down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was taken into exile out of its land.

This is the number of the people whom Nebuchadnezzar carried away captive: in the seventh year, 3,023 Judeans; in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar he carried away captive from Jerusalem 832 persons; in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive of the Judeans 745 persons; all the persons were 4,600.

And in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-fifth day of the month, Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, graciously freed Jehoiachin king of Judah and brought him out of prison. And he spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put off his prison garments. And every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table, and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, according to his daily needs, until the day of his death, as long as he lived. – Jeremiah 52:23-34 ESV

In the closing verses of this chapter, and as way of a wrap-up to the entire book, Jeremiah logs the number of individuals who were taken captive by the Babylonians. But first, he mentions the name of Seraiah, the chief priest. This is evidently a different Seraiah than the one mentioned in chapter 51. This Seraiah, will provide a link back to the reign of Josiah, the last godly king of Judah who had attempted to institute religious reforms in the land. Seraiah’s grandfather, Hilkiah, had been King Josiah’s high priest. It was Hilkiah who had discovered the book of the Law, while supervising renovations to the temple in Jerusalem. And it was this discovery that radically changed the spiritual climate of Judah during the days of King Josiah. But after Josiah’s death, things had taken a markedly negative turn for the worse. The kings who followed Josiah overturned most of his reforms and, once again, led the people in apostasy and idolatry. Hilkiah’s grandson, Seraiah, is listed as one of those murdered by King Nebuchadnezzar. As the high priest, he had failed to live in accordance with the will of God and had not led the people of God to remain faithful. And yet, we know that Seraiah’s sons would be spared and be transported to Babylon along with the other exiles.

Many years later, during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, there was a man named Ezra. He was the son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah – Ezra 7:1 NLT

Ezra would become a reformer, leading the people of Judah from exile in the land of Babylon, back to the land of Canaan. And it would be another grandson of Seraiah, named Jeshua, born to his son Jehozadak, who would become high priest and, alongside Zerubbabel, lead the people in the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.

Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jehozadak responded by starting again to rebuild the Temple of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them and helped them. – Ezra 5:2 NLT

So, while Seraiah would die an ignoble death, his sons, descendants of Aaron, the original priest of God, would play significant roles in the reestablishment of the nation of Judah. God punished those who had played roles in leading the people astray. But God would raise up future leaders who would play significant parts in the restoration of the nation of Judah, the repopulating of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. He would start with a new generation.

But Jeremiah makes it clear that there were thousands who found themselves bound as prisoners and deported to a life of slavery in Babylon. He states the number of exiles as 4,600, but the book of 2 Kings says the figure was 10, 800. The discrepancy is probably a case of Jeremiah counting only the males and not the women and children who were also taken captive. But suffice it to say, there were many who found their lives radically and irrevocably changed due to the fall of Jerusalem. The emphasis Jeremiah seems to be making is that the number of Jews taken captive was relatively small. This remnant would be transported to Babylon, where they would remain for 70 long years. But at the end of that time, more than 97,000 will return to the land of Judah to rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and restore the former glory of the temple of God. They would experience the blessings of God, even as they lived in exile. He would multiply them and create a remnant to return that far outnumbered those who had been taken captive. Even in the midst of their disobedience and God’s discipline, He would prosper them.

The final section of the book chronicles the fate of Jehoiachin, the former king of Judah. He has the somewhat sad distinction of having been king for only three months.

Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months. His mother was Nehushta, the daughter of Elnathan from Jerusalem. Jehoiachin did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, just as his father had done.

During Jehoiachin’s reign, the officers of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up against Jerusalem and besieged it. Nebuchadnezzar himself arrived at the city during the siege. Then King Jehoiachin, along with the queen mother, his advisers, his commanders, and his officials, surrendered to the Babylonians.

In the eighth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, he took Jehoiachin prisoner. – 2 Kings 24:8-12 NLT

So, Jehoiachin had been a prisoner of the Babylonians since 597 B.C., a total of 35 years. But the time came when the new king of Babylon, Evil-merodach, showed him mercy and released him from prison. He replaced his prison clothes with royal robes. He made Jehoiachin a permanent guest at his table and provided him with a regular allowance. In essence, he treated Jehoiachin as the king of Judah, showing him respect, deference and honor, in spite of his defeated status and the non-existent state of his kingdom. So, here is where the book of Jeremiah ends. The king of Judah is in exile and the throne in Jerusalem remains empty. The city is a ghost town. The nation is in disarray. The people are dispersed and disheartened. And for 70 long years, that would remain the state of the people of Judah. But God was not done yet. He had further plans for His people. He would raise up a new high priest. He would call on Zerubbabel and Ezra to lead His people back to the land. Later on, He would raise up Nehemiah to return to Judah and carry on the work. At the close of the book of Jeremiah, things are left in a confused and uncertain state. But God is behind the scenes, working out His divine plan and orchestrating events in such a way that the former exiles would take part in a second exodus, be set free from bondage and miraculously returned to the land of promise. God was far from finished. The story was not yet complete. And the book of Ezra opens up with the next chapter of God’s sovereign plan for His people.

He stirred the heart of Cyrus to put this proclamation in writing and to send it throughout his kingdom:

“This is what King Cyrus of Persia says:

“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build him a Temple at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any of you who are his people may go to Jerusalem in Judah to rebuild this Temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives in Jerusalem. And may your God be with you! Wherever this Jewish remnant is found, let their neighbors contribute toward their expenses by giving them silver and gold, supplies for the journey, and livestock, as well as a voluntary offering for the Temple of God in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:2-4 NLT

The best was yet to come.

 

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.

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

Carried Away.

After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. Then the king’s young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so.

Now there was a Jew in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away. He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter. So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. And the young woman pleased him and won his favor. And he quickly provided her with her cosmetics and her portion of food, and with seven chosen young women from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her young women to the best place in the harem. Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known. And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her. – Esther 2:1-11 ESV

The story begins a new chapter. The king has had time for his anger to abate and to think about what he has done. Queen Vashti has been banished from his presence and he is now having second thoughts about his decision. She was obviously beautiful and now that he is sober, he is experiencing regrets about having issued his decree. But no worries, he is surrounded by those who are more than willing to help him get over any remorse he may be feeling. After all, he is the king and he can have whatever he wants. So he is given yet more advice in how to deal with his problems. Yes, Queen Vashti was beautiful, but she was also replaceable. He could have his pick of any woman in the kingdom and no one could refuse him. So he listens to his advisors and issues a command to “gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel” (Esther 2:3 ESV). He will choose his new queen from among the many viable candidates. Not only that, he will enjoy the company of all the others as they join his royal harem.

These opening lines of chapter two portray the power and the immoral decadence of King Xerxes. Women are nothing more than possessions, intended for his pleasure and examples of his power and wealth. These young women will be forcibly removed from their families and treated like personal slaves of the king. In fact, when the author says the girls were “gathered together” (verses 3 and 8), the Hebrew word he uses is qabats. It literally means, “to grasp with the hand.” They are going to be snatched up and placed at the disposal of the king, to do with them as he sees fit. They will become his personal play things, his sexual slaves.

But there is something else going on in this story. The king’s power is on display, but there is another power at work behind the scenes. Once the decree has been made and the gathering of the virgins begins, we are introduced to two new characters. Esther, a young Jewish girl, is living with her older cousin, Mordecai. We are told that he is a Hebrew, of the tribe of Benjamin “who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away” (Esther 2:6 ESV). He was an exile, part of the group who had been taken captive when Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Judah and the city of Jerusalem. The phrase “carried away” is used three times in verse six and it is the Hebrew word, galah and it means “to carry away into exile.” The book of Jeremiah records the details of this event.

This is the number of the people whom Nebuchadnezzar carried away captive: in the seventh year, 3,023 Judeans; in the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar he carried away captive from Jerusalem 832 persons; in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive of the Judeans 745 persons; all the persons were 4,600. – Jeremiah 52:28-30 ESV

Mordecai is an exile, part of the Hebrew contingent who had been taken captive and forced to live in Babylon, far from their homeland and loved ones. And Mordecai has the added responsibility of caring for his orphaned younger cousin, Esther. We are not told what happened to her parents, but only that they had died. And as a result, she had become Mordecai’s ward. We are also informed that she “had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at” (Esther 2:7 ESV). This particular trait was going to make her a prime candidate for King Xerxes’ kingdom-wide “talent search.” And she would soon find herself “snatched up” and living in exile from her uncle and family, as part of the king’s harem.

So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in Susa the citadel in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. – Esther 2:8 ESV

There is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in this passage. Mordecai had been carried away into exile years earlier. Now Esther is being carried away into another form of slavery and exile as part of the king’s harem. There was nothing Mordecai could have done to prevent his capture and exile. And there was nothing Esther could do to stop what seemed to be the inevitable. And yet, there is something going on that is far greater than the personal whims of a pagan king. There is a divine plan being put into place that is perfect in its timing and that supersedes even the will of the king. He only thinks he is in control.

Esther catches the attention of Hegai, who was in charge of the king’s harem. She is given special treatment and advanced to the top of the long list of potential candidates to be the next queen. Is it all the byproduct of good genes? Is this just good fortune or a case of fate? It would be easy to see all of this as simple coincidence, but the author will not allow us to reach that conclusion. As Esther’s fate unfolds, she is under the watchful eye of her uncle. He has instructed her to hide her Hebrew identity. We are not told why he made this decision. But it seems that Mordecai knows there is something greater going on in this story. He appears to have a sense that this is far more than fate or kismet. His God is at work. Mordecai may not know exactly what God is up to, but he seems to know that there is a greater force at work than that of the king.