Clay In Need of a Potter

Isaiah 64:8-12

Isaiah, fully aware of the corporate sins of the people of Judah, and his shared guilt as one of their number appealed to God to intervene. He knew that there was nothing they could do about their circumstances. They were facing God’s just and righteous judgment. He also knew that the likelihood of the people changing their rebellious behavior on their own accord and through their own strength was negligible. It wasn’t going to happen. And he had a long history of evidence to use in support of his premise.

So, Isaiah called out to God. He begged God to “rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1 ESV). He knew the only hope they had was the supernatural intervention of God on their behalf. Unless He showed up like He did in Egypt when He released them from their captivity, the people of Judah would continue to live as slaves to sin and face their own exile in the land of Babylon.

And to paint an even bleaker picture, Isaiah describes Judah as being filled with sinners. In a rather blunt assessment, Isaiah states, “we are not godly. We are constant sinners; how can people like us be saved?” (Isaiah 64:5 NLT). Even if they were to dress up in their best efforts, wearing them before God like garments of righteousness, they would appear as filthy rags to God. In other words, Isaiah knew that the people of Judah were not going to earn their way into God’s good graces by self-produced righteousness. 

So, Isaiah addresses God as their Heavenly Father. He appeals to God’s divine parental instincts, and he utilizes a metaphor intended to illustrate God’s sovereignty and man’s dependency. Isaiah compares God to a potter and the people of Judah to a lifeless lump of clay. The relationship between the two, while symbiotic, is anything but co-equal. This real-world illustration is meant to juxtapose power with passivity and willfulness with submissiveness. And Isaiah wasn’t the one who came up with this compelling analogy. God had used the potter/clay comparison to drive home a point to the prophet Jeremiah.

The Lord said to Jeremiah: “Go down at once to the potter’s house. I will speak to you further there.” So I went down to the potter’s house and found him working at his wheel. Now and then there would be something wrong with the pot he was molding from the clay with his hands. So he would rework the clay into another kind of pot as he saw fit. – Jeremiah 18:1-4 NLT

Jeremiah was given a visual lesson on God’s sovereignty over His chosen people. Like a potter who fashions a lump of clay, God has the prerogative to do with His people as He sees fit. If He sees a flaw, He has every right to remake them according to His divine will. He doesn’t have to ask them for permission. It would be utterly ludicrous for a potter to seek advice from the clay. In fact, earlier in his book, Isaiah points out the absurdity of that image to the people of Judah.

How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

And the apostle Paul picked up on the very same thought in his letter to the believers in Rome.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? – Romans 9:20-21 NLT

We have no business casting doubt on God’s goodness or questioning His motives or intentions. But, like Isaiah, we can appeal to His sovereign will and humbly submit ourselves to His intervention in our lives. After all, as Isaiah puts it, we are all the work of His hands. He made us and He has every right to do with us as He sees fit. And we can rest in the fact that God does nothing in regards to us that is void of His love. As the author of Hebrews makes clear, “the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Hebrews 12:6 NLT).

Isaiah acknowledges that God has every right to be angry with His rebellious people. They had repeatedly turned their backs on Him, practicing every imaginable form of idolatry. They had been unfaithful, and God was wholly justified in His anger towards them. Which is why Isaiah pleads with God, “Don’t be so angry with us, Lord. Please don’t remember our sins forever” (Isaiah 64:9 NLT). And He asks God to look down on their situation and recognize the sorry state of their condition. But all that Isaiah describes had not yet happened. He is painting a picture of Judah’s future as pre-ordained by God and prophesied by his very own lips. He describes their holy cities already as lying in ruins. Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was a burned-out shell of its former glory. All that had once been beautiful was an eyesore.

The fate of Judah was dark. And the hope of Judah was dim unless God intervened. So, Isaiah intercedes on behalf of his people, begging God, the potter, to take matters into His own hands.

After all this, Lord, must you still refuse to help us?
    Will you continue to be silent and punish us? – Isaiah 64:12 NLT

It is as if Isaiah had read Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans:

…even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy. – Romans 9:22-23 NLT

Isaiah was counting on God’s patience and mercy. He was putting his hope in God’s character as a loving Father, and believing that He would once again make the riches of His glory shine bright on the people of Judah. No, they didn’t deserve it, but isn’t that the essence of mercy? It is God’s unmerited and undeserved favor, poured out by a loving God who does for His own what they could never have done for themselves.

Not only were they unwilling to change, but they were also incapable. Judah was were little more than a lump of clay in need of the hands of the potter. And Isaiah longed to see God refashion His people into vessels for honorable use (2 Timothy 2:20). He knew that their transformation would only happen through God’s power and, that way, God alone would get the glory. As Paul told the believers in Corinth:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:7 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

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The Potter and the Clay.

Astonish yourselves and be astonished;
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
    stagger, but not with strong drink!
10 For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes (the prophets),
    and covered your heads (the seers).

11 And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

13 And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
14 therefore, behold, I will again
    do wonderful things with this people,
    with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
    and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

15 Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16 You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? – Isaiah 29:9-16 ESV

The people of Judah were spiritually dull and complacent. Isaiah compares them to a man stumbling around under the influence of alcohol. But he makes it clear that their stupor and instability is spiritual in nature, and it has been brought on them by God.

For the Lord has poured out on you a spirit of deep sleep.
    He has closed the eyes of your prophets and visionaries. – Isaiah 29:10 NLT

Part of the punishment He has brought against them is their inability to discern the right thing to do. In spite of all their pride and arrogance, they were incapable of understanding what it was that God was doing. The signs were obvious, but their eyes were blinded to the reality of what was going on around them and to them.

All the future events in this vision are like a sealed book to them. When you give it to those who can read, they will say, “We can’t read it because it is sealed.” When you give it to those who cannot read, they will say, “We don’t know how to read.” – Isaiah 29:11-12 NLT

Isaiah, as the prophet of God, had been pleading with them to trust God. He had exposed their misplaced trust in Egypt and other pagan nations. He had warned them of God’s pending judgment. And he had made it clear that repentance was the solution to their problem. But they had remained stubbornly unwilling to listen to a word he said. And he delivers a stinging indictment from God.

“These people say they are loyal to me;
they say wonderful things about me,
but they are not really loyal to me.
Their worship consists of
nothing but man-made ritual. – Isaiah 29:13 NET

There were guilty of giving God lip-service. They claimed to be His loyal subjects, but they were simply going through the motions. Their words were not backed by appropriate actions. And what they alleged to be worship was nothing more than a set of man-made rules and rituals they performed by rote. Their hearts were not in it.

Not only that, they suffered from the mistaken impression that God Almighty was unable to see what it was that they were doing. In their warped and twisted minds, they fully believed that they could hide what it was they were doing from the penetrating gaze of God. And Isaiah gave verbal expression to their thoughts.

“The Lord can’t see us,” they say.
    “He doesn’t know what’s going on!” – Isaiah 29:15 NLT

And why did they have this remarkably naive outlook? Because they somehow believed that they had done a good job of hiding their actions from Yahweh. But Isaiah delivered the sobering news that their impressions were wrong. Deadly wrong.

What sorrow awaits those who try to hide their plans from the Lord,
    who do their evil deeds in the dark!
– Isaiah 29:15 NLT

Of all people, the Jews should have known that their God was omniscient. Nothing was hidden from His sight. And their own Scriptures were filled with reminders of this very fact.

For the Lord sees clearly what a man does,
    examining every path he takes. – Proverbs 5:21 NLT

“Doesn’t he see everything I do
    and every step I take?” – Job 31:4 NLT

The Lord is watching everywhere,
    keeping his eye on both the evil and the good. – Proverbs 15:3 NLT

“I am watching them closely, and I see every sin. They cannot hope to hide from me.” – Jeremiah 16:17 NLT

And that same understanding of God’s all-knowing, all-seeing capacity is carried over into the New Testament. The author of Hebrews states:

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. – Hebrews 4:13 NLT

And yet, we seem to believe that we can hide our actions from God. Not only thought, we sometimes have the false impression that we can keep God from knowing what we are thinking. But David, the great king of Israel, throws a wet blanket on that perception.

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

Think closely about that last line. God knows what you are going to say even before you say it. A thought, unexpressed, is not hidden from God. He knows our inner thoughts. He even knows the motivations that flow from the condition of our hearts. He can tell the difference between an act of charity done out of selflessness and kindness and one done for the self-centered reward of recognition.

But Isaiah exposes the lunacy behind their false perception of God.

“Your thinking is perverse!” – Isaiah 29:16 NET

The Hebrew word Isaiah used is hophek, and it literally means “to turn things upside down.” The people of God were guilty of twisting the truth and perverting the reality of God’s omniscience. In a sense, they were guilty of wishful thinking. They could only hope that God was blind to what they were doing. But He wasn’t. And to press home his point, Isaiah uses a metaphor that compares God to a potter and Judah to clay.

He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
“He didn’t make me”?
Does a jar ever say,
“The potter who made me is stupid”? –
Isaiah 29:16 NLT

God wasn’t like a lifeless lump of clay. They were. The Creator-God who made each and every one of the people of Judah was not the one who was ignorant, blind and clueless. They were. And they had no right to question what God was doing around them or to them. They were like clay in the hands of the Potter, and He would do with them as He wished. Their compliance was not needed. Their submission was not necessary. And their denial of God’s omniscience or omnipotence did not diminish His knowledge or power one iota.

God had sent His prophet, Jeremiah, with a similar word of warning to the people of Israel. He too used the metaphor of the potter and the clay.

“O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would.

“Therefore, Jeremiah, go and warn all Judah and Jerusalem. Say to them, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am planning disaster for you instead of good. So turn from your evil ways, each of you, and do what is right.’” – Jeremiah 18:6-11 NLT

But the people of Israel suffered from the same problem as the people of Judah. They were too stubborn and incapable of grasping the significance of the prophet’s words. So, they responded:

“Don’t waste your breath. We will continue to live as we want to, stubbornly following our own evil desires.” – Jeremiah 18:12 NLT

How ridiculous their words sound. How arrogant and ignorant can they be? And yet, as the people of God, we far too often exhibit the same characteristics. We boldly reject the words of God, demanding that we be allowed to live our lives the way we want to. We stubbornly determine to do things our way, rather than obeying God’s will for our lives. And we ignorantly assume we can hide our thoughts and actions from God. But He knows. He sees. And, as the Potter, He does what He has to do to mold His children into the vessels of glory.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul picked up on Isaiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay and used it to address to believers in Rome.

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use? – Romans 9:20-21 Berean Bible

God will do what He has to do to bring about the transformation He has planned. His will is never thwarted. His design is never altered. In our arrogance and pride, we may believe that are the ones in control. But Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul would have us understand that God alone controls our destinies. And it is far better to submit to His will than to resist it.

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

His Will Be Done.

The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought:

“Judah mourns,
    and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
    and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
Her nobles send their servants for water;
    they come to the cisterns;
they find no water;
    they return with their vessels empty;
they are ashamed and confounded
    and cover their heads.
Because of the ground that is dismayed,
    since there is no rain on the land,
the farmers are ashamed;
    they cover their heads.
Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
    because there is no grass.
The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights;
    they pant for air like jackals;
their eyes fail
    because there is no vegetation.

“Though our iniquities testify against us,
    act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
for our backslidings are many;
    we have sinned against you.
O you hope of Israel,
    its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
    like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?
Why should you be like a man confused,
    like a mighty warrior who cannot save?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
    and we are called by your name;
    do not leave us.”

Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
“They have loved to wander thus;
    they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them;
    now he will remember their iniquity
    and punish their sins.”

The Lord said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.” – Jeremiah 14:1-12 ESV

Jeremiah has just finished begging the people of Judah to give up their pride, glorify God, and listen to his words of warning. On top of this, the people knew exactly what God had said He would do if they refused to obey Him fully. He had made it perfectly clear when He made His covenant with them.

“And if, in spite of all this, you still disobey me, I will punish you seven times over for your sins. I will break your proud spirit by making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze. All your work will be for nothing, for your land will yield no crops, and your trees will bear no fruit. – Leviticus 26:18-20 NLT

And now, God’s promise of famine was getting ready to come true. Since they refused to listen to the words of Jeremiah and humble themselves in willful submission to God, He would humiliate them by “making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze”. Famine is a non-discriminatory natural disaster. Everyone suffers, from the noble living in his posh palace to the farmer in his fields. And the lack of rain, which the people of Judah will tie directly to the hand of God, will cause each of them to cover their heads, a sign of deep grief. Even the farmers will feel shame, covering their heads in sorrow, over their inability to produce crops. They will be powerless to do anything about the dry and unyielding land. As long as God withholds the rain, the people of Judah will find themselves helpless and hopeless.

Verses 7-9 are either a prayer of Jeremiah for the people of Judah or the reflect a prophesy regarding the reaction of the people once the famine begins. Either way, these verses contain an admission of guilt and a cry for rescue.

“Our wickedness has caught up with us, Lord,
    but help us for the sake of your own reputation.” – Jeremiah 14:7 NLT

The hopelessness of the situation creates a willingness to turn to God, something that had been missing up until this point. I tend to believe that this prayer is a reflection of the hearts of the people, once they find themselves suffering under the devastating effects of the famine. They become desperate, calling out to God in the midst of their suffering, hoping that He will relent and send much-needed rain.

“O Hope of Israel, our Savior in times of trouble,
    why are you like a stranger to us?
Why are you like a traveler passing through the land,
    stopping only for the night?
Are you also confused?
    Is our champion helpless to save us?
You are right here among us, Lord.
    We are known as your people.
    Please don’t abandon us now!” – Jeremiah 14:8-9 NLT

Notice how they attempt to flatter God. But they also tend to make Him the guilty party. Now that they have confessed their own wickedness, they can’t seem to understand why God hasn’t done anything to rescue them. His silence and lack of action don’t make any sense to them. They said they were sorry, so why hasn’t He removed the famine and returned the rain? They remind God that they are His people and seem to infer that He is somehow obligated to protect them. But God gives them sobering news.

“You love to wander far from me
    and do not restrain yourselves.
Therefore, I will no longer accept you as my people.
    Now I will remember all your wickedness
    and will punish you for your sins.” – Jeremiah 14:10 NLT

He knew their hearts. Their confession of guilt was nothing more than a ploy to escape further punishment. They had no intention of changing their ways, and God knew it. And so He dropped the bombshell on them that they would no longer be His people. This does not mean that God was going to abandon them. It simply meant that, from all outward indications, it would appear to all as if they had lost their privileged status as His chosen ones. Without the blessings of God, the people of God become indistinguishable from everyone else. It was His guiding and providing hand that had set them apart from all the other nations. It was His constant provision for their physical needs and His unceasing goodness as evidenced by His gracious supply of rain and crops that were to have helped distinguish them as His people. He had made this clear when He established His covenant with them, long before they arrived in the land of promise.

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land.” – Leviticus 26:3-5 NLT

But they had failed to follow His decrees and to obey His commands. Now, the rain was ceasing and the crops were failing. Fruitfulness had given way to famine. Fullness and security were replaced with hunger and fear. And God commands Jeremiah to stop interceding on their behalf.

“Do not pray for these people anymore. When they fast, I will pay no attention. When they present their burnt offerings and grain offerings to me, I will not accept them. Instead, I will devour them with war, famine, and disease.” – Jeremiah 14:11-12 NLT

God was not going to relent, because He knew these people were not going to repent. Jeremiah could continue to beg God to show mercy, but God would refuse, because their fasts, mourning and tears were too little, too late. And their hearts were not in it. The prophet Isaiah records God’s stinging indictment against the people of Judah.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

And God goes on to reveal what they really thought about Him:

“What sorrow awaits those who try to hide their plans from the Lord,
    who do their evil deeds in the dark!
‘The Lord can’t see us,’ they say.
    “He doesn’t know what’s going on!”
How foolish can you be?
    He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
    ‘He didn’t make me’?
Does a jar ever say,
    ‘The potter who made me is stupid’?” – Isaiah 29:15-16 NLT

They thought they could fool God. They treated Him like He was ignorant and easily deceived. They truly believed them could fake repentance, get Him to relent and then go on with their wicked ways. But God knew better. And He was going to bring more famine, increased suffering and, eventually, the armies of the Babylonians to destroy their land and take them captive. God will not be mocked.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. – Galatians 6:7 ESV

This was a truth the people of Judah were going to learn the hard way. They were going to reap the results of their centuries-worth of rebellion against God. He was the potter and they were the clay. He had every right to do with them He wished. God will confirm this very idea for Jeremiah a little bit later on, when He sends the prophet to the house of a potter for a real-life demonstration of His sovereign will over the people of Israel.

“Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over.

Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” – Jeremiah 18:2-6 NLT

They were His people. He had chosen them and made them what they were. And He had every right to do with them as He saw fit. No, it would make no sense to them. It might not make sense to us. But He is God and we are not. He is sovereign and in complete control over His entire creation, including mankind. Just like a potter, God has a plan. He has something He is accomplishing in this world. And His will is going to be accomplished whether we like it or not, and whether we decide to go along with it or not. His will WILL be done.
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

Questioning God.

Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
    like crawling things that have no ruler.
He brings all of them up with a hook;
    he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
    so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net
    and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
    and his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net
    and mercilessly killing nations forever?
Habakkuk 1:12-17 ESV

In this section, we have the beginning of the second exchange between Habakkuk and God. His oracle opened with him asking the question: “When? ” He wanted to know when God was going to hear his prayers and do something about all the wickedness and iniquity that surrounded him in Judah. But God answered Habakkuk’s question by addressing the issue of “How.” In other words, He simply told Habakkuk how He was going to deal with the people of Judah – by using the Babylonians. God didn’t give Habakkuk a time frame or a firm date. He just simply let the prophet know that He had it all in control. In the verses above, we have Habakkuk’s response. He asks the question: “Why?” He wants to know why God would choose to use a pagan nation like the Babylonians to punish His own people. He boldly voiced his concern to God:

You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he? – Habakkuk 1:13 ESV

Habakkuk is a man who is filled with inner conflict. On the one hand, he realizes that Yahweh is the one true God. He refers to him as everlasting or eternal. He even views Him as holy, gracious and compassionate, faithful to the end – which is why he is able to state, “We shall not die” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). Habakkuk did not fear annihilation at the hands of the Babylonians, but abject humiliation. He knew God would not wipe out His own people, but Habakkuk was struggling with why God would choose to use a wicked nation like the Babylonians to do His bidding. Over and over again, Habakkuk asks the question, “Why?”

…why do you put up with such treacherous people? – Habakkuk 1:13 NET

Why do you say nothing when the wicked devour those more righteous than they are? – Habakkuk 1:13 NET

Habakkuk goes on to describe the situation as he sees it. As far as Habakkuk could tell, mankind was no better off than the fish in the sea – easy pickings to someone like the Babylonians. He describes the fate of the people of Judah using helpless and hopeless imagery.

Are we only fish to be caught and killed?
    Are we only sea creatures that have no leader?
Must we be strung up on their hooks
    and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate?
Then they will worship their nets
    and burn incense in front of them.
“These nets are the gods who have made us rich!”
    they will claim. – Habakkuk 1:14-16 NLT

There are actually ancient Babylonian monuments that have been discovered which depict what Habakkuk has described. Etched on these monuments are images of captured people being led along in chains, single file, with their lower lips pierced through with hooks. The Babylonians were known for worshiping or giving credit to the tools they used in their conquests. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian tells the story of the Babylonian king, Xerxes, who was attempting to cross the Hellespont with his massive army by using pontoon bridges his engineers had built. But a storm came and destroyed the bridges before they could use them. In his anger, Xerxes had the engineers beheaded, but he also had the waters of the Hellespont flogged 300 times. Then he had shackles dropped into the water as a mark of enslavement.

Habakkuk finds it hard to believe that God would use pagan people like this to do His bidding. They did not honor Yahweh. They worshiped false gods and even gave undue credit to inanimate objects. Why would God, the faithful, holy, compassionate God of Judah, stoop to using such wicked people? And, because Habakkuk was convinced that God was going to do exactly what He had said, he asks one final question:

Will you let them get away with this forever?
    Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquests? – Habakkuk 1:17 NLT

Habakkuk understood that God was punishing Judah. He just was having a difficult time understanding why God was going to use a nation like Babylon. They were wicked, unjust, known for their excessive violence and renowned for their disregard for human life. Habakkuk knew God was justified in His punishment of wicked Judah. The prophet had even asked God how long He was going to delay in dealing with all the violence that surrounded him. But God’s chosen methodology caught Habakkuk by surprise. He just could not fathom why God would accomplish His will in this manner.

There are times in every believer’s life when they are forced to ask of God, “Why?” Those circumstances inevitably arise that cause us to question God, demanding to know why He is doing what He is doing or why He has not done something to stop what is happening. We struggle with our circumstances. We see what is happening to us as unfair or undeserved. And we either conclude that God doesn’t love us and has chosen not to help us or we wrongly determine that God is powerless to help us. But the prophet Isaiah has some timely words of warning for us:

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator.
    Does a clay pot argue with its maker?
Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying,
    ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’
Does the pot exclaim,
    ‘How clumsy can you be?’ – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

We are free to ask God, “Why?” But He is not obligated to provide us with an answer or defend His actions by explaining Himself to us. He is God. He alone knows what is best. He can choose to do whatever He wants to do and use whoever He wants to use to accomplish His perfect, divine will. Habakkuk was going to have to trust God. He didn’t have a clear picture of how the story ends. God had not yet revealed the entire scope of His plan. What appeared to Habakkuk as illogical and unfathomable, was part of God’s just, righteous and sovereign plan for the people of Judah. We always have to remember that God’s plan is bigger and more comprehensive than what we can see at any given moment. We also need to recall that His plan is universal in scope. It is not limited to our isolated, individual life. His plan was bigger than Habakkuk. It was grander in scope than just the lives of those living in Judah at that time. God was looking down the corridors of time, with His eyes fixed on His future plan to send His Son into the world. He would be born into the tribe of Judah. Bethlehem, in Judah, would be his birthplace. He would do all of His ministry within the confines of that region of the world and be crucified outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. For all that to happen, God would need to spare the nation of Judah. This coming calamity was nothing more than a blip on God’s radar screen of history. God had greater plans for Judah. He had an inescapable destiny of destruction already planned for Babylon. But for now, they were going to be His chosen instrument to accomplish His divine will and bring about this portion of His perfect plan for mankind.

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

Unjust Anger.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?” Jonah 4:1-4 ESV

In order to get the full impact of these verses, it’s important to remember what immediately preceded them.

God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:10 ESV

God’s message that the Nivevites would be overthrown, delivered through the prophet Jonah, had resulted in their repentance. From the king in his palace to the peasant in the streets, everyone in the city was on their knees before God in a state of mourning. Not only that, an official royal decree had gone out commanding every citizen to “turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence” (Jonah 3:8 NLT). And they had. But Jonah was displeased. And that’s putting it mildly. He was angry. In the Hebrew language, the  frustration is much more intense. Verse one of chapter four could actually be translated, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.”  He saw what God had just done as not just wrong, but evil. And the result was anger and frustration – with God. Again, the Hebrew word translated as “angry” is much more intense. It is charah and it literally means, “to be hot, furious, burn.” Jonah was incensed. He was boiling over with rage and it was directed at God. So, he decided to call God out – in prayer.

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish!” – Jonah 4:2 NLT

So, now the truth comes out. For the first time, Jonah shares the true reason for his refusal to obey God’s initial commission to go to Nineveh. He feared they might repent. This is fascinating. It wasn’t that he feared they might kill him for bringing them a message of pending destruction from a God they didn’t even worship. It wasn’t that he feared rejection. He feared the people might repent. And he feared that God might spare them. Why? Because he knew God.

“I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.” – Jonah 4:2 NLT

What an amazing acknowledgement. Jonah knew his God well. And he knew his Israelite history well. What he says is almost a direct quote from the book of Exodus. Moses had returned to the mountain with a second set of stone tablets to receive God’s law again. This was after Moses had smashed the original set after having come down off the mountain the first time to find the people worshiping a golden calf. So just before engraving His law one more time, God called out to Moses:

“Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.” – Exodus 34:6-7 NLT

God had spared the people of Israel, in spite of their rebellion against Him. Before Moses had even had a chance to give them God’s laws, they had turned away from Him and decided to worship a false god made from the gold and silver God had provided for them when they had left Egypt. Jonah knew the story. And he knew that God was compassionate and merciful. He knew God’s reputation for forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin. And his greatest fear had been that God would do just that for the people of Nineveh, who Jonah hated with a passind on. And Jonah explains to God that his original plan to flee to Tashish had been an attempt to keep what he feared from happening. He had preferred to disobey God than risk the chance of God forgiving and sparing the Ninevites. The thought of that happening had been more than he could bear.

But it’s interesting to note that God had spared and forgiven Jonah for his iniquity, rebellion and sin. He had saved Jonah’s life from death by drowning by providing a large fish to swallow him. Then, three days later, God had miraculously caused that fish to vomit Jonah up on the dry land. If you recall Jonah’s prayer, offered up to God from the belly of the fish, he was counting on God’s mercy and compassion.

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me…” – Jonah 2:2 ESV

“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit…” – Jonah 2:6 ESV

“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.” – Jonah 2:7 ESV

Salvation belongs to the Lord! – Jonah 2:9 ESV

Jonah had been more than willing to accept the mercy and compassion of God for himself, but he refused to allow God to do the same thing for the people of Nineveh. Somehow, Jonah felt their sins were worse and their destruction much more deserving than anything he had done. But at a time when Jonah should have been kneeling before God in awe and wonder at what had just happened in the city of Nineveh, he is accusing God of evil. He is shaking his fist in the face of Almighty God and questioning His wisdom and integrity. Now, it’s important to note that Jonah’s anger was partially a result of his intense nationalistic fervor. He was a loyal Israelite. And he would probably have been aware that the prophets Hosea and Amos had both predicted that God was going to use the Assyrians to bring judgment on Israel.

They [Israel] shall not remain in the land of the Lord, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria. – Hosea 9:3 ESV

They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. – Hosea 11:5 ESV

“I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. – Amos 5:27 ESV

Jonah most likely thought that if he refused to go to Nineveh, there would be no chance of them repenting and God sparing them. And because they were vile and wicked sinners, God would be forced to destroy them. That way, there would be no Assyrians to fulfill the prophesies of Amos and Hosea. Jonah had thought he could somehow force God’s hand and halt the pending destruction of Israel. But the sad reality was, the people of Israel would fail to heed the warnings of Hosea or Amos. But the Assyrians living in the capital city of Nineveh, would hear God and believe. They would repent. And God would eventually use them to conquer rebellious Israel and take them into captivity.

Jonah knew that God was merciful and compassionate. He was well aware that God was slow to anger. But he just seemed to have a difficult time with the concept of God’s sovereignty. Jonah found it hard to understand that God was going to do what He wanted to do, whether Jonah agreed with it or not. God didn’t need his input or help. Jonah couldn’t fathom why God would spare the very people who had been prophesied to be the future source of Israel’s destruction. He failed to trust God and His bigger plan for His people. So, he asked God to kill him.

“Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” – Jonah 4:3 NLT

In other words, Jonah tells God that he would rather be dead if God is not going to destroy the Assyrians. This took a lot of guts on Jonah’s part. And I think it reveals just how upset he really was. Jonah is not bluffing. He had already tried to take his own life once before, when he had the sailors toss him overboard in the midst of a raging storm. This time, He asks God to do it. He wants God to kill him. And I find it somewhat surprising that God didn’t take him up on his offer. After all, his insubordination and disrespect for God are off the charts. God would have been fully justified in taking Jonah up on his offer. But instead, God simply asks Jonah a question:

“Is it right for you to be angry about this?” – Jonah 4:4 NLT

God asks Jonah is his anger was truly justified. Did he have a good reason to literally burn with anger at God? Was he just in calling what God had done, evil? In essence, this is a rhetorical question from God. Jonah had no right at all. He had no clue as to what God was doing and why He was doing it. God had a perfectly good reason for sparing the Ninevites, whether Jonah understood it or liked it. His problem was with accepting the will of God. The apostle Paul would deal with this very same issue centuries later.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. – Romans 9:20-22 NLT

The prophet, Daniel, spoke very similar words regarding the sovereign will and right of God to do as He pleases in the world which He has created.

“All the people of the earth are nothing compared to him. He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, ‘What do you mean by doing these things?’” – Daniel 4:35 NLT

Jonah’s beef was with God. While he knew much about God, He didn’t know what God was up to. From his limited human perspective, none of this made sense. But rather than shake his fist in the face of God, he should have kneeled in awe and wonder at the mystery of God’s way. Jonah could have used the wise words of Paul about now.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 NLT

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

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

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