Back to the Future

1 It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
    and many nations shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
    and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
    and no one shall make them afraid,
    for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk
    each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
    forever and ever.
– Micah 4:1-5 ESV

While the current state of affairs in Judah was marked by injustice, immorality, unfaithfulness, and a dearth of godly leadership, Micah now reports the good news: God has a bright future in store for His chosen people. In spite of their sin, rebellion, and stubborn refusal to repent, God had plans to restore and, once again, bless them. But this period of divine blessing was going to take place in the distant future, long after Micah and his peers were dead and gone. And long after God had fulfilled His promise to bring His divine judgment upon them.

As with all prophecies found in Scripture, it is essential to determine whether what is being prophesied has already been fulfilled or remains as-yet unfulfilled. When the prophets of God wrote regarding the “latter days,” it was most often a reference to the end times, the eschatological future of Israel and the world. Virtually all of the prophets of God wrote about these distant and yet-unfulfilled events. In fact, Isaiah used almost the same very same wording as Micah when he wrote:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
   and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.” – Isaiah 2:2-3 ESV

The latter or last days about which the prophets wrote refer to God’s future and final plans for His chosen people, Israel, but also include all that He has in store for the rest of mankind and all that He has created. There are some biblical scholars who believe the end times began with Christ’s ascension and the beginning of the church at Pentecost. Others conclude that the actual end times will not commence until the Rapture when Christ returns for the church. With the removal of all believers from the face of the earth, God will turn His focus to Israel.

The Rapture will usher in the seven-year period known as the Tribulation, a time when God will pour out His wrath on the world in a series of judgments. This dark and deadly time will culminate with the Second Coming of Christ when He will defeat all those who stand opposed to God, including Satan himself. Then the victorious Christ will establish His Millennial Kingdom in Jerusalem where He will reign in righteousness for 1,000 years. And during this time, Israel, the chosen people of God, will enjoy a renewed and restored relationship with God, made possible by His grace and the Messiah’s victory over evil.

Micah’s words focus on the final days of the “latter days.” His emphasis is on what God plans to do for His chosen people. He describes a day when “the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it” (Micah 4:1 ESV).

This is a reference to Mount Zion, the elevated region in Israel upon which the city of Jerusalem and the temple are located. Micah is indicating that God has something great in store for the city of David. While Micah has been warning of God’s more immediate plans for Jerusalem’s fall and destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, this will not mark its end. Even today, after centuries filled with enemy invasions and occupations, countless wars, and many attempts to wipe Israel off the map, Jerusalem remains intact and occupied by the Jewish people. But they have no temple. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., and the temple mount is currently controlled by the Muslims and crowned by the al-Aqsa Mosque. As a result, the people of Israel have had no place to offer sacrifices to God for more nearly 2,000 years. 

But Micah describes a day when Mount Zion will be restored to its former glory and prominence. He even refers to the nations of the world making their way to the Jerusalem and the temple mount in order to worship God.

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.” – Micah 4:2 ESV

And don’t miss his reference to “the house of the God of Jacob.” He is speaking of the temple. But in order for the nations to go up to the house of God, it will have to be restored at some point. And the end times chronology includes the rebuilding of the temple by the Antichrist. The apostle Paul describes this end-times world leader setting himself up as a replacement for God, taking his place in the newly constructed temple, which he will build in order to win the favor of the Jewish people.

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. – 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 ESV

The Antichrist will order the construction of the temple as part of his peace agreement with the people of Israel. This one-world leader will broker a treaty with Israel, somehow convincing the Muslim nations to allow the Jews to rebuild their temple on the top of Mount Zion. And yet, three years later, he will break his agreement, putting an end to all sacrifices and setting up an idol of himself within the Holy of Holies of the temple (Daniel 9:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:4). Jesus Himself warned of this coming day.

“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:15-21 ESV

Three years into the seven-year period of Tribulation, the Antichrist, under the direction and power of Satan, will turn his wrath against the chosen people of God. And, as Jesus describes, it will be a time of unprecedented tribulation, like nothing the world has ever seen before. But Micah’s emphasis is on what takes place after those troubling days.  He speaks of a time when “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2 ESV). This is a reference to Christ’s Millennial Kingdom, when He will reign from the city of Jerusalem, seated on the throne of David, in fulfillment of God’s promise to David.

“Moreover, I declare to you that the Lord will build you a house. When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.” – 1 Chronicles 17:10-14 ESV

While this prophecy was partially fulfilled by the reign of Solomon and his construction of the original temple, it will be fully fulfilled by Christ when He returns to earth a second time and establishes His everlasting, unending kingdom on earth. And Micah describes that kingdom as being marked by righteousness, peace, fruitfulness, and faithfulness. All due to the presence of Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords.

He shall judge between many peoples,
    and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore – Micah 4:3 ESV

All of this stands in stark contrast to the days in which Micah lived and the state of affairs that dominated the nation of Israel. The days were filled with apostasy and idolatry. The people of Israel were guilty of unfaithfulness and spiritual adultery. They had embraced the false gods of the nations around them and this was the reason Micah had been commissioned to bring warnings of God’s righteous judgment. But the future was going to be remarkably different.

For all the peoples walk
    each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
    forever and ever. – Micah 4:5 ESV

In the midst of all the news of pending judgment, God allowed Micah to deliver a message of tremendous joy based on His covenant faithfulness. God was not done with His rebellious people. Yes, He would punish them for their sins, but He wanted them to know that His promise to restore and bless them was unwavering.

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

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

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

A God You Can Count On

1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy. Habakkuk 3:1-2 ESV

Habakkuk has heard from God. The Almighty has provided the prophet with an assurance that Babylon will receive a just sentence for its role in the judgment of Judah. Yes, they will be used by God to bring about the divine discipline of God’s chosen people, but the Babylonians will also fall under His divine wrath for every act of aggression and subjugation they enact against Judah.

And with this assurance from God, Habakkuk begins to sing another tune – literally. This closing chapter is written in the form of a psalm or song. It is a prayer of praise in the form of a poem that was most likely put to music so that it could be sung by the people of God. The phrase, “according to Shigionoth” may be a reference to the melody that was to accompany Habakkuk’s words. The singular form of the Hebrew word is found in the introduction to Psalm 7, a psalm of David.

A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.

But the Hebrew root word, shagah, provides some insight into what Habakkuk may have in mind with his prayer of praise to God. It means “to err, wander, go astray (morally), to sin through ignorance.” In David’s psalm, faced with apparent accusations of guilt from the lips of someone named Cush, he declares his innocence and asks God to either acquit or convict him.

O Lord my God, if I have done wrong
    or am guilty of injustice,
if I have betrayed a friend
    or plundered my enemy without cause,
then let my enemies capture me. – Psalm 7:3-5 NLT

He goes on to ask God for vindication and protection.

Declare me righteous, O Lord,
    for I am innocent, O Most High! – Psalm 7:8 NLT

He appeals to God as the one who “judges the nations” (Psalm 7:8 NLT).

God is my shield,
    saving those whose hearts are true and right.
God is an honest judge.
    He is angry with the wicked every day. – Psalm 7:10-11 NLT

And David is convinced that God will judge him fairly and eventually, fully vindicate him.

I will thank the Lord because he is just;
    I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High. – Psalm 7:17 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk’s song carries the same idea. Nowhere does he claim the nation of Judah to be innocent, but he does seem to appeal to God as a righteous judge who will one day vindicate His people. Having heard from God regarding the future judgment of Babylon, Habakkuk shares his intense longing to see that day come. He is expressing his belief that God will prove Himself faithful by fulfilling every promise He has made regarding Judah’s eventual vindication through Babylon’s destruction.

Habakkuk begins his song with a statement of wonder and praise for God’s remarkable reputation. As a prophet of God, he had been exposed to the very words of God, hearing firsthand what Yahweh had planned for Judah’s future. And it left him in a state of awe and amazement.

I have heard all about you, Lord.
    I am filled with awe by your amazing works. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

But, as a Hebrew, Habakkuk had also been raised on a steady diet of the stories of God’s intervention in the lives of His people. He had heard the creation story, the account of the flood and the preservation of Noah and his family. He had been told the story of God’s call of Abraham’s and the promise to make of him a great nation. As a child, he would have been exposed to all the stories about Joseph and the sons of Jacob in Egypt. The account of God’s amazing redemption of His people and their exodus out of Egypt would have been very familiar to him. The conquering of the land of promise, the rise of King David, the greatness of Solomon, the division of the kingdom, and the historical record of all the kings of Judah and Israel would have been well known to him. And through all those accounts, Habakkuk would have recognized the “amazing works” of God and been blown away by His power and persevering patience with His less-than-faithful people.

Unlike David, Habakkuk could not appeal to God based on a claim of Judah’s innocence. There was no way he could ask God to vindicate them because they were undeserving of His judgment. He knew full well that the people of Judah were guilty. In fact, he had begun his book with the admission that things had gotten so bad in Judah, that the wicked outnumbered the righteous.

So, Habakkuk looked to God’s well-established track record of showing up and delivering His people in times of trouble.

In this time of our deep need,
    help us again as you did in years gone by. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

Sadly, this was not the first time Judah had been faced with difficult circumstances. There had been countless other occasions when the people of God had found themselves faced with insurmountable odds and the potential for a devastating outcome. But Habakkuk knew that God had intervened on behalf of His people. He had repeatedly rescued them from their predicaments, graciously restoring them and providing them with yet another undeserved opportunity to prove their faithfulness to Him. And Habakkuk longed to see God do the same thing in his day.

But Habakkuk recognizes that the people of Judah were fully deserving of all that God was about to do to them. They stood guilty and condemned before a holy God. So, he appeals to God’s covenant faithfulness and track-record of extending undeserved mercy.

…in your anger, remember your mercy. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk would have been familiar with the content of the prayer prayed by Solomon at the dedication of the newly constructed temple. King Solomon had begun his prayer with a statement concerning God’s faithfulness: “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in all of heaven above or on the earth below. You keep your covenant and show unfailing love to all who walk before you in wholehearted devotion” (1 Kings 8:23 NLT).

But Solomon knew that he and his people were prone to unfaithfulness. He was concerned that their behavior would fail to live up to the terms of God’s covenantal agreement with them. So, he began describing potential scenarios in which the nation might violate their covenant commitment and stand guilty before God. And he petitioned God: “May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place. May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:29-30 NLT). 

Solomon was appealing to God’s faithfulness because he knew there was little likelihood that the people of Israel would keep their end of the bargain. And when they failed to do so, He wanted to know that God would still intervene on their behalf. Solomon even included a worst-case scenario in which the people of Israel found themselves defeated and living in exile as a result of their disobedience to God.

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

Solomon knew that the only hope that Israel had for their present protection and future restoration was to be found in God alone. And Habakkuk echoed that same sentiment. He was appealing to his awe-inspiring, grace-bestowing, miracle-working God. And he greatly desired that God would continue to season His righteous anger with mercy. It was all the hope that the people of God had left. They had forsaken God. They had proven themselves incapable of living in faithful obedience to their covenant with God. And unless God showed them mercy, their future would be dark, and any hope of restoration, dim.

The words of the prophet, Jeremiah, written in the book of Lamentations, seem to indicate the heart behind Habakkuk’s prayer.

The thought of my suffering and homelessness
    is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
    as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
    when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
    therefore, I will hope in him!” – Lamentations 3:19-24 NLT

God’s mercies are new every morning. Like the sun that shows up like clockwork at the start of each new day, God’s mercies never fail to arrive when needed. His faithfulness is unfailing. His love is unwavering. And, therefore, our hope in Him should be constant and abiding.

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 Ways of God

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. Habakkuk 1:1 ESV

This rather obscure little Old Testament book has an equally obscure author. We know very little about Habakkuk, other than his role as a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah during the days before the nation was judged by God, defeated by the Babylonians, and sent into exile. Thus, he is what is known as a pre-exilic prophet. His primary job was to warn God’s people of His pending judgment and to call them to repentance.

The book is comprised of a unique combination of poetry and prose, revealing Habakkuk as a poet as well as a prophet. And, like all the other prophets of God, Habakkuk was not intended to be the focus of the book that bears his name. He was a spokesman for God Almighty, tasked with delivering His divine warning of imminent judgment against God’s chosen people for their sins against Him.

It seems likely that Habakkuk prophesied during the reign of King Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.). His prophetic ministry covered a period of time when Judah was in a steep spiritual decline following the death of Josiah, the great reformer king. Josiah was one of the few kings of either Israel or Judah who proved faithful to God. When he had ascended to the throne of Judah, he inherited a spiritually bankrupt legacy passed down by his father Manasseh.

Manasseh…did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. – 2 Kings 21:1-2 ESV

He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:6 ESV

Manasseh turned the people of Judah against God, erecting shrines and high places to false gods all throughout the nation. He even placed “the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord” (2 Kings 21:7 ESV). On top of that, Manasseh followed the practices of the pagan nations, instituting child sacrifice as a part of their worship. He was so wicked that the author of 2 Kings states, “Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:9 ESV).

And God pronounced His judgment against Manasseh, warning that his behavior was going to have dire consequences.

Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.” – 2 Kings 21:11-15 ESV

Eventually, Manasseh died and his son, Amon took his place on the throne. He followed in his father’s footsteps, continuing his legacy of idolatry and apostasy. But his reign was shortlived, lasting only two years before he was assassinated by his own servants. He was succeeded by his son Josiah who, at the age of eight, was given the responsibility of leading a nation who had turned its back on God. But for the next 31 years, Josiah would prove to be a royal anomaly, leading the nation of Judah in a period of unprecedented spiritual renewal and revival.

…he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. – 2 Kings 22:2 ESV

Josiah instituted a series of reforms designed to restore the nation’s allegiance to Yahweh. He ordered repairs to the much-neglected temple. He recommitted the nation to keep the law of God. He razed all the high places and pagan shrines dedicated to the false gods of the Canaanites. And finally, he reinstituted the annual celebration of Passover. These initiatives set Josiah apart from all his predecessors, establishing him as an example of faithfulness and righteousness.

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. – 2 Kings 23:25 ESV

But despite all of his efforts, Josiah’s reforms made little impact on the hearts of the people of Judah. God knew that nothing had really changed and His plans for dealing with the sins of Manasseh remained unaltered because the people remained unfaithful.

Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. – 2 Kings 23:26 ESV

Josiah was eventually killed in combat by Egyptian forces and replaced as king by his son Jehoahaz. But his reign would last only three months before Neco, the Pharaoh of Egypt, removed him from power and replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim. For the next 11 years, Jehoiakim would rule over Judah, emulating his father’s evil ways and continuing the nation’s downward spiritual spiral. All the reforms of Josiah would be neglected and the idolatrous practices of Manasseh would be restored.

he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done. – 2 Kings 23:37 ESV

And it was during this dark period of Judah’s history that Habakkuk received his prophetic call from God. It was accompanied by the rise of the nation of Babylon, a powerful pagan people who were slowly replacing the Assyrians as the force to be reckoned with in the region. While the Assyrians had already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and taken a large contingent of their people into captivity, they would soon find their 15-minutes of fame coming to an abrupt end. In 605 B.C., the Babylonians defeated a combined army of Egyptians and Assyrians at the battle of Carchemish, establishing themselves as the major power in the ancient Near East. The book of 2 Kings reveals that the Babylonians soon relegated Judah’s status in the region as that of a vassal state.

In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. And the Lord sent against him bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by his servants the prophets. Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done… – 2 Kings 24:1-3 ESV

Jehoiakim’s reign would last 11 years, with the final three years marked by subservience to the Babylonians. But long before the Babylonians came to prominence and power, God would use Habakkuk to warn of their coming.

For I am doing something in your own day,
    something you wouldn’t believe
    even if someone told you about it.
I am raising up the Babylonians,
    a cruel and violent people.
They will march across the world
    and conquer other lands. – Habakkuk 1:5-6 NLT

While Jehoiakim and the people of Judah were busy turning their backs on God, He was planning their judgment. And what God was going to do would come as a complete surprise to the people of Judah. They had no way of knowing about Babylon’s rise to power. In their minds, it was the Assyrians who were the major threat to their well-being. But God had something else in store. While they continued to place their hope and trust in false gods, Yahweh was planning His righteous retribution for their blatant violation of their covenant commitment to Him.

One of the things that the book of Habakkuk will reveal is the prophet’s struggle with God’s ways. He was commissioned to speak on God’s behalf, but he didn’t fully comprehend what it was that God was doing. Even as a prophet, he was confused as to why God would choose to use a pagan nation to punish the chosen people of God. To Habakkuk, the plans God had for Judah’s demise seemed unfair and uncharacteristic of His covenant commitment to them. While Habakkuk was fully aware of Judah’s wickedness, his national pride made it difficult for him to understand what God was doing. So, part of the book contains his questions to God. In fact, verse two opens up with the words, “O Lord, how long?”

But God wanted Habakkuk to know what Isaiah the prophet had come to understand.

Seek the Lord while you can find him.
    Call on him now while he is near.
Let the wicked change their ways
    and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
    Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:6-9 NLT

Habakkuk may not have understood what God was doing, but he would eventually to learn to trust His ways.

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

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

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

Remember, Restore, and Renew!

1 Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
    look, and see our disgrace!
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
    our homes to foreigners.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
    our mothers are like widows.
We must pay for the water we drink;
    the wood we get must be bought.
Our pursuers are at our necks;
    we are weary; we are given no rest.
We have given the hand to Egypt, and to Assyria,
    to get bread enough.
Our fathers sinned, and are no more;
    and we bear their iniquities.
Slaves rule over us;
    there is none to deliver us from their hand.
We get our bread at the peril of our lives,
    because of the sword in the wilderness.
10 Our skin is hot as an oven
    with the burning heat of famine.
11 Women are raped in Zion,
    young women in the towns of Judah.
12 Princes are hung up by their hands;
    no respect is shown to the elders.
13 Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
    and boys stagger under loads of wood.
14 The old men have left the city gate,
    the young men their music.
15 The joy of our hearts has ceased;
    our dancing has been turned to mourning.
16 The crown has fallen from our head;
    woe to us, for we have sinned!
17 For this our heart has become sick,
    for these things our eyes have grown dim,
18 for Mount Zion which lies desolate;
    jackals prowl over it.
19 But you, O Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures to all generations.
20 Why do you forget us forever,
    why do you forsake us for so many days?
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
    Renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
    and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
Lamentations 5:1-22 ESV

The state of affairs in Judah could not have been any worse. And Jeremiah had an up-close and personal perspective on every aspect of the suffering and pain. He had been there for the days of the Babylonian siege. He had lived through the fall of Jerusalem. And he had watched as the enemies of Judah had leveled the royal capital, destroyed the temple, and murdered vast numbers its citizens. Jeremiah had been forced to watch as thousands of his fellow Jews had been placed in chains and forced to march all the way back the Babylonian capital as slaves.

For those who remained behind in Judah, the prospects were grim. Their nation had been destroyed. Their homes had been reduced to rubble and the national economy was non-existent. They had no king, no army, and, therefore, no means of protection from the enemies. They were weak, defenseless, and hopeless. Their army had not protected them. Their allies had abandoned them. And every one of their false gods had failed to come through for them.

But while everyone around him was wringing their hands in fear and dismay, Jeremiah was taking his concerns to the one source who could do anything about it. He was pleading his case directly to God Almighty. And the first thing he asks God to do is remember.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
    look, and see our disgrace! – Lamentations 5:1 ESV

Jeremiah is not afraid that God will somehow forget what has happened to Judah. He is calling on God to reflect upon their current circumstances and to consider them soberly and circumspectly. Jeremiah had his perspective on things, but he knew that only one viewpoint mattered and that was God’s.

And Jeremiah appeals to God as to a Father, describing the devastated condition of His children.

Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,
    our homes to foreigners.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
    our mothers are like widows. – Lamentations 5:2-3 ESV

The land of Judah had been part of the inheritance provided by God to the people of Israel when they had arrived in the land of Canaan. It had been His gift to them, in keeping with the promise He had made to Abraham centuries earlier.

“And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:8 ESV

But Jeremiah reminds God that the land was no longer controlled by the descendants of Abraham. It was being ruled by the Babylonians. The Judahites who had been left in the land were nothing more than caretakers for their Babylonian overlords. And without any army, the people of Judah would find themselves incapable of defending the land from incursions from foreign raiding parties. Before long, what little remained of the former inheritance given by God to the descendants of Abraham would be lost.

And Jeremiah appeals to God’s sense of justice by describing the people of Judah as fatherless orphans and widows. They are like children who have lost their fathers and have no one to protect them. Their status is no better than that of a recently widowed woman who, upon the death of her husband, finds herself without a home and without access to any legal rights to ensure her future. And as a prophet of God, Jeremiah was very familiar with God’s stance on widows and orphans.

Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows. – Isaiah 1:17 NLT

Jeremiah knew that God had strong feelings for the helpless and the defenseless, and took exception to those who abused them.

Your leaders are rebels,
    the companions of thieves.
All of them love bribes
    and demand payoffs,
but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans
   or fight for the rights of widows. – Isaiah 1:23 NLT

And Jeremiah had repeatedly conveyed God’s message of concern for the helpless and hopeless to the people of Judah.

This is what the LORD says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! – Jeremiah 22:3 NLT

But no one had listened. No one had cared. They had refused to take God’s commands seriously. And, as a result, the entire nation had become widows and orphans. They had gone from being the abusers to being abused. Before the fall of Jerusalem, when it was business-as-usual in Judah, the people had practiced injustice by taking advantage of the helpless and hopeless. Everybody had been out for themselves. But now, the table had turned. And Jeremiah describes just how radical the shift in circumstances had been.

Clean drinking water, which used to be readily available and free, was now exorbitantly expensive. Firewood had become a not commodity as well. And food had become virtually non-existent because of famine and the constant presence of foreign raiding parties. Children were dying of starvation. Women were being raped. Young men and boys were being forced to do manual labor like slaves. Civil society had fallen apart, with village elders being shown no respect, former princes being treated like common thieves, and the general population left in a state of abject despair.

Joy has left our hearts;
    our dancing has turned to mourning. – Lamentations 5:15 NLT

Jeremiah is sharing his heart with his God. He is telling the King of Judah the sorrowful state of His citizens. He is appealing to the loving Father of the children of Israel and asking Him to consider their fate and intervene on their behalf. Not because they deserve it, but because He is God.

The garlands have fallen from our heads.
    Weep for us because we have sinned.
Our hearts are sick and weary,
    and our eyes grow dim with tears. – Lamentations 5:16-17 NLT

Jeremiah knew full well that this fate had long been coming. It had been the inevitable outcome of generations of unfaithfulness.

Our ancestors sinned, but they have died—
    and we are suffering the punishment they deserved! – Lamentations 5:7 NLT

But now, Jeremiah calls on His faithful God to intervene. Jerusalem may have been destroyed, but the God of Jerusalem was alive and well, sitting on His throne in heaven.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures to all generations. – Lamentations 5:19 ESV

Nothing that had happened on earth had changed anything about God’s rule and reign in heaven. The current conditions in Judah were no indictment on the power and sovereignty of God. He had not lost a step. He had not diminished in His authority or power. That is why Jeremiah knew that any delay in the reversal of their affairs was up to God. He was obviously not out of control, so He must have had a reason for postponing His deliverance.

So, Jeremiah begs God to act now! No more delay. If there was no reason for delaying His deliverance, then why not bring it now?

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
    Renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
    and you remain exceedingly angry with us. – Lamentations 5:21-22 ESV

Remember, restore, and renew. That is what Jeremiah longed for God to do. He was counting on the fact that God had not utterly rejected them. His knowledge of God would not allow him to go there. He knew that God was faithful and would not abandon His children forever. He had punished them, but He would also restore them. This was the God Jeremiah knew and believed in. It was the God he had served with his life and in whom He relied upon for salvation.

Like his fellow prophets, Jeremiah continued to place his hope in the trustworthiness of God.

Where is another God like you,
    who pardons the guilt of the remnant,
    overlooking the sins of his special people?
You will not stay angry with your people forever,
    because you delight in showing unfailing love.
Once again you will have compassion on us.
    You will trample our sins under your feet
    and throw them into the depths of the ocean!
You will show us your faithfulness and unfailing love
    as you promised to our ancestors Abraham and Jacob long ago. – Micah 7:18-20 NLT

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

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

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

No Faith. No Hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All they had left were their collective memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And God answered Hezekiah’s prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bright Hope For Dark Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hope of Things to Come

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
    to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
    and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush
    my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
    shall bring my offering.

11 “On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
    your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
    in my holy mountain.
12 But I will leave in your midst
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
13 those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
    and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
    a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
    and none shall make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:9-13 ESV

In 1719, the hymn, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” was published by Isaac Watts as part of a collection entitled, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. The opening words of this classic anthem to God’s glory read:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

This heartfelt declaration of God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of His people provides a perfect segue to this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy. After warning the people of Judah of God’s pending judgment and declaring God’s future plans for the destruction of sinful mankind, Zephaniah reminds the citizens of Jerusalem that their God is not yet done.

While the judgment of Judah and the nations of the world was inevitable and inescapable, the people of God were to maintain hope in their merciful and always faithful God.  The prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s gracious, hope-inducing plans for His people.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”– Jeremiah 29:11-14 ESV

While God was going to discipline His people for their rebellious behavior and their repeated refusal to repent of their sins, He would not completely forsake or forget them. The day was coming when a remnant of His people would return to Him with repentant hearts, fully forgiven for their past indiscretions.

On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me – Zephaniah 3:11 ESV

But the repentant Jews will not be alone. Zephaniah reveals that another remnant, made up of people from among the nations of the earth will also turn to God, accepting the gracious offer of salvation and forgiveness through His Son. The apostle John recorded his vision of this great throng of redeemed people, standing before the throne of God Almighty.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 NLT

While Zephaniah’s warnings of judgment and God’s promises to completely eradicate mankind may leave us wrestling with feelings of uncertainty and confusion, we must not overlook God’s promises of redemption for a remnant of sin-plagued and rebellion-prone humanity.

There were dark days ahead for the people of God and the majority of mankind will one day stand before God, justly condemned and fully deserving of their punishment. But the future will not be all doom and gloom. Notice the silver lining that accompanies the dark cloud of Zephaniah’s prophecy:

“Then I will purify the speech of all people,
    so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
My scattered people who live beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
    will come to present their offerings.” – Zephaniah 3:9-10 NLT

The future is actually quite bright. The sovereign God of the universe has a plan that will involve the return of His Son, the defeat of Satan, the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, and the judgment of the unbelieving world. But there will a remnant on earth, made up of every tribe, nation, and tongue, who will joyfully and gratefully worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

God describes a scene of unprecedented peace and tranquility. The days marked by godlessness and faithlessness will be no more.

“Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
    for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
The remnant of Israel will do no wrong;
    they will never tell lies or deceive one another.
They will eat and sleep in safety,
    and no one will make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:12-13 NLT

Jesus provided a description of how this elimination of the godless and faithless will take place.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46 ESV

Obviously, this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But it will be. That is why it was intended to bring hope to the people of Judah, even though they would not live to see it come to pass. God was attempting to give them the big picture view of His redemptive plan. And that plan is not relegated to one generation or nation. It spans the centuries, moving from the creation of Adam and Eve in the garden all the way to the Second Coming and the recreation of the earth.

Long ago, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” – Isaiah 65:17 ESV

And God promised the people of Israel that this new heaven and new earth would be permanent in nature, reflecting His permanent commitment to them as His chosen people.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.” – Isaiah 66:22 ESV

And as John reveals in the book of Revelation, the end of the age will be accompanied by this newly created heaven and earth.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. – Revelation 21:1 ESV

God is going to make all things new. He will restore His creation to its former glory and remove all vestiges of sin. Death will be no more. Wickedness will have no place in God’s creation. The righteous will live in unbroken fellowship with the Holy Trinity and the influence of Satan will be permanently eradicated from the face of the earth.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:5-8 ESV

In the meantime, the people of God are to have hope. Despite what may be happening to them or around them, they are never to lose sight of God’s divine plan of redemption. He is not done. There is reason to hope. Because He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to fulfill His promises. And while the future remains out of sight and out of our control. we can have faith in the faithfulness of God. This is why the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).

And may the words of Isaac Watts ring in our ears as we wait for God to fulfill His perfect plan.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an ev’ning gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!

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

   

 

God Is Faithful. Are You?

1 These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet. You have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that I am the Lord your God. And when you came to this place, Sihon the king of Heshbon and Og the king of Bashan came out against us to battle, but we defeated them. We took their land and gave it for an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of the Manassites. Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do.

10 “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, 12 so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 14 It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, 15 but with whoever is standing here with us today before the Lord our God, and with whoever is not here with us today. Deuteronomy 29:1-15 ESV

At this point in his address to the people of Israel, Moses seems to take a break from his recitation of the law, the blessings, and the curses. In a sense, the preceding passages in Deuteronomy have been a recounting of the covenant made by the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Moses has been reminding them of God’s law and their covenant obligation to keep that law if they expect to enjoy His presence, power, and blessings upon entering the land.

Exodus 19-23 records the event at Mount Sinai in the wilderness when God made His original covenant with the people of Israel. It had been a spectacular occasion, accompanied by fire, smoke, lightning, and thunder, as God descended upon Mount Sinai. He delivered His law to Moses, who then communicated it to the people.

Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 24:3 ESV

With that statement, they had ratified the covenant and communicated their willingness to keep their part of the agreement. After offering blood sacrifices to God to seal the covenant, Moses “took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient’” (Exodus 24:7 ESV). So, once again, they expressed their determination to abide by the covenant requirements as outlined by God.

And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” – Exodus 24:8 ESV

In the Hebrew Bible, verse 1 of chapter 29 is actually the last verse of chapter 28. It concludes Moses’ recitation of the covenant and his reminder to the people of the blessings and curses that would accompany either their obedience or disobedience.

Now, Moses appears to present a break in the narrative, providing a historical overview of Israel’s relationship with God. His primary objective is to stress the covenant faithfulness of God. Yahweh had done all that He had promised to do. And they had been eyewitnesses to the mighty acts of God. The truth is, most of the people in the audience that day were too young to have experienced God’s deliverance from Egypt. Their mothers and fathers had been the ones to see all that God had done “to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land” (Deuteronomy 29:2 ESV). They had seen firsthand “the great trials…, the signs, and those great wonders” (Deuteronomy 29:3 ESV).

And, over time, they would have shared the details of their remarkable experience with their children. Moses would have made sure the next generation was fully aware of all that God had done to deliver their people from captivity, lead them through the wilderness, and deliver them to the land of promise. And Moses includes the younger generation when he delivers this stinging indictment:

“But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” – Deuteronomy 29:4 ESV

In spite of all they had heard about God’s past dealings with their ancestors and all they had seen God do in their own lifetimes, they still didn’t get it. They remained clueless when it came to their understanding of God’s covenant faithfulness. He had guided them through the wilderness for 40 years. And during all that time, God had miraculously provided for all their needs. Amazingly, their clothes and sandals never wore out. Evidently, after four decades of wandering through the wilderness, they were still wearing the same garments they had one when they left Egypt.

And God had fed them with manna, quail, and water from the rock. They had no access to bread, wine, or strong drink. Their very existence had been dependent upon God. He had been their sole source of sustenance for nearly half a century.

Then, when they had finally arrived at the borders of Canaan, God had given them victories over Og and Sihon, two kings whose kingdoms were located east of the Jordan and outside the land of promise. God had helped Israel defeat these two nations, providing their land as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of the Manassites. This had all been the work of God.

“But to this day the Lord has not given you minds that understand, nor eyes that see, nor ears that hear!” – Deuteronomy 29:4 NLT

God had given them everything except the ability to comprehend the significance of His actions on their behalf. In a way, this is a somewhat sarcastic statement meant to reveal just how stubborn the people of Israel had been. It is silly to think that God would have to give them the capacity to understand just how faithful He had been. They had seen it with their own eyes. They had heard all the stories with their own ears. But they remained unimpressed and ungrateful for all that God had done on their behalf.

So, Moses has to make it a point to remind them that, because God had been faithful to keep His end of the covenant agreement, they were going to have to keep the commitment they had made at Mount Sinai: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7 ESV).

And Moses reminds them that their commitment to keep the covenant would require the participation of every single member of their community, including “the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (Deuteronomy 29:10-11 ESV). No one was exempt. No one got a free ride. God had made His covenant with the entire nation of Israel, and every single one of them had personally enjoyed the blessings that came as a result of His covenant faithfulness.

The entire nation was expected to ratify the covenant before they entered the land of promise, and Moses tells them why.

“…that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:13 ESV

This covenant stretched back more than 40 years, to the first generation of Israelites who had stood at the base of Mount Sinai and committed themselves to keep the commands of God. But the covenant was to be a timeless document that reached into the future, impacted generations of Israelites to come.

“But you are not the only ones with whom I am making this covenant with its curses. I am making this covenant both with you who stand here today in the presence of the Lord our God, and also with the future generations who are not standing here today.” – Deuteronomy 29:14-15 NLT

God is eternal. He exists outside time and space. And His commitment to the people of Israel was not bound by the limitations of years, decades, or centuries. What He had promised to do, He would do, regardless of how much time passed by or how many generations came and went. Abraham was long gone, but God was keeping the promises He had made to His servant. Moses would soon be gone, but God would remain faithfully committed to doing what He said He would do. Generations of Israelites would come and go, but God would never abandon His covenant commitment. He would be true to His word, but what about them?

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

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

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

The People of God

1 Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.”

Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. 10 You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” Deuteronomy 27:1-10 ESV

Moses finally concludes his recitation of the law to the people of Israel. And having completed this important task, he provides them with a final set of instructions. First, he adds one last command to the long list he has given them: That they obey every one of the laws. And to help them keep that commitment, Moses instructs them to build a memorial and an altar to God. The memorial would be made of stones covered in plaster, on which they were to inscribe every single one of the laws God had given them. We’re not told if this was simply a synopsis consisting of only the Ten Commandments or if it included the entire code found in the book of Deuteronomy. But the important point is that the law given to them by God was to be permanently recorded in stone and placed on Mount Ebal, where all could see it.

This site would become a symbol of Israel’s sacred covenant relationship with God. He had set them apart as His own and given them His law as their official code of conduct. Even the Canaanites living in the land would see this memorial and know that the Israelites were a different kind of people who lived according to a distinctively different set of rules. And they worshiped one God. That is why Moses also instructed the Israelites to build an altar to God right next to the memorial. And we know from the book of Joshua, that they followed Moses’ instructions to the letter.

At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. – Joshua 8:30-32 ESV

As the book of Deuteronomy comes to a close, it mirrors the life and legacy of Moses. He has been denied the privilege of entering into the land of promise. And knowing that his days are numbered, Moses is beginning the handoff of his ministry and leadership to Joshua, God’s chosen successor for Moses. It was important to Moses that with their entrance into the land of promise, the people of Israel got off on the right foot. He knew that the key to their success would be their adherence to the law which would be dependent upon their reverence for God. The memorial, made from plaster-covered stones inscribed with the law, would remind them of God’s expectations of them. The altar of uncut stones would remind them that their God was holy and righteous.

One of the very first things they were to do after crossing over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, was to offer sacrifices to God. And the altar upon which those sacrifices were to be made was to be distinctively different from the altars of the pagan nations that filled the land. It was to be constructed with whole stones, untouched by iron tools. The focus of the altar was to be God, not the beauty of the well-crafted stones or the handiwork of the stone-carver. Moses didn’t want the people to be impressed with the structure. He wanted them to be attracted to the holiness of God.

God requires the obedience of His people. But obedience is only possible when God’s people love and worship Him for who He is. Without the motivation that reverence for God produces, obedience will become nothing more than a self-manufactured adherence to a set of religious rules and regulations. It turns heartfelt submission to God’s will into little more than legalistic, fear-based adherence to a list of dos and don’ts. And that kind of behavior has a short shelf-life.

It is important that we recognize Moses’ instructions for building a memorial and a place of worship. They were to keep God’s law in mind at all times, but they were also to maintain a healthy reverence and respect for God. Otherwise, they would find themselves forgetting who God was and why His law was worthy of being kept.  God had told the people of Israel, “You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own” (Leviticus 20:26 NLT). Their holiness would be based on their obedience to God’s laws. But the motivation behind their keeping of the law was to be the holiness of God. Because He was holy, they were to be holy, and the law was a black-and-white description of what holy behavior was to look like.

A law to remember and a God to reverence. The two were to go hand in hand. They were inseparable and interdependent. And God provided a description of what obedience divorced from true worship looked like.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Heartless obedience is ultimately nothing more than self-effort masquerading as worship of God. It is insincere and wrongly motivated. It is not based on an accurate view of God and so, it ends up creating a false form of worship that is based more on self-merit than the worthiness of God.

The law was to be a constant reminder of God’s expectations for mankind. But the altar was where men came to express their love for and dependence upon God. They were to bring their burnt offerings and peace offerings to God. A peace offering was also known as a fellowship offering, and was intended as a means for the people of Israel to offer praise to God for His goodness, mercy, and grace. It was not associated with sin but was tied to the generosity and compassion of God. It was a voluntary sacrifice and the book of Leviticus provides a description of what it entailed.

This is the law of the peace offering sacrifice which he is to present to the LordIf he presents it on account of thanksgiving, along with the thank offering sacrifice he must present unleavened loaves mixed with olive oil, unleavened wafers smeared with olive oil, and well soaked ring-shaped loaves made of choice wheat flour mixed with olive oil.  – Leviticus 7:11-12 ESV

The sacrifice was to be eaten by the one who gave it. So, it was offered as a form of thanksgiving to God, but the giver was allowed to enjoy in the blessing God had bestowed.

The burnt offering was typically tied to sin and man’s need for forgiveness. It involved the complete destruction of the animal, which served as a stand-in or substitute for the one making the offering. The smoke that ascended from the offering was to be “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Leviticus 1:9), propitiating or satisfying the righteous anger of a holy God for the sins committed by the one making the offering. It was intended to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man.

The altar was to be a place marked by confession, forgiveness, and rejoicing. And Moses reminds the people that, when they come to the altar, they were to rejoice before the Lord their God. They were to find joy in His provision for all their needs and His forgiveness of all their sins. He would provide them with food to assuage their hunger and a sin-substitute to satisfy His righteous judgment. God was going to give them plenty of reasons to rejoice, but it would begin with their adherence to His law, which would be based on their reverence for His holiness.

Which is why Moses cautions the people: “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10 ESV). This statement is associated with the completion of the reciting of the law. God’s expectations have been clearly communicated. Their first responsibilities upon entering the land have been articulated. The covenant has been ratified and renewed, once again setting apart the people of Israel as God’s chosen possession. They belonged to Him and they were to live like it – from that day forward.

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

Live Out My Law

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children— 10 how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ 11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. 14 And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.– Deuteronomy 4:9-14 ESV

Moses knew what the Israelites were going to need if they were to be successful in conquering and possessing the land of Canaan. This was not going to be about strength of numbers, military prowess, or well-planned battle strategies. Their only hope of possessing the land and enjoying the many benefits it offered was tied to their relationship with God. And Moses knew that they were going to struggle with faithfulness and obedience. After all, as their leader for the last four decades, he had watched them repeatedly dishonor and disobey God. Moses realized that their entrance into the land would be only the first phase of their journey. God had commanded them to take full possession of the land, which would require that they completely dispossess all its current occupants. There were to be no exceptions, no treaties, and no compromises.

But the people of Israel had a track record of doing things their way. They had a penchant for taking the easy path and doing so always required a compromise of their convictions and a disregard of God’s commands.

So, Moses reminds them of the day when God gave them His Law – the Ten Commandments. It took place at Horeb or Mount Sinai. It was there, in the early days after their exodus from Egypt, that God delivered to them a legally binding set of rules designed to establish His expectations of them. These laws would establish for them a black-and-white, non-negotiable code of conduct – a set of regulations and requirements that would set them apart from all the other nations on the earth.

But before God delivered His Law to Moses, He gave him the following message for the people of Israel:

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”– Exodus 19:3-6 ESV

God had delivered them from their slavery in Egypt and had set them apart as His own. But it was not because they were unique or special in any way. They had not earned His mercy and they did not deserve their unique status as His treasured possession. In fact, Moses would later clarify the undeserved nature of their status as God’s chosen people.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure. The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Understand, therefore, that the LORD your God is indeed God.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

God had made a covenant with Abraham and the fulfillment of that covenant involved the Israelites – the descendants of Abraham. By rescuing the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, God was keeping the commitment He had made to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land…” – Genesis 15:13-16 NLT

God had been faithful. He had done all that He had promised to do, but the people of Israel were still on the wrong side of the Jordan River. They needed to cross over and take possession of the land. Which is why Moses took the time to remind them of that momentous day at Mount Sinai, when God delivered His to them His Law.

Most of the people to whom Moses was speaking would not been alive at the time this event took place. They were the new generation of Israelites. So, Moses went out of his way to describe for them the scene on Mount Sinai that day. And the book of Exodus provides us with even greater details.

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. – Exodus 19:16-20 ESV

It was at the top of that mountain that God met with Moses and delivered to him the Ten Commandments, carved into tablets of stone by the very finger of God Himself. And while Moses had been at the top of the mountain, the people of Israel had stood at the base, watching a spectacular display of God’s power. Moses says, “the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom” (Deuteronomy 4:11 ESV).

The people of Israel heard the voice of God, but God Himself remained invisible to them. And Moses recounts the content of what God had to say to the people that day.

“You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone.” – Deuteronomy 4:12-13 ESV

God had demanded that the people keep the commands He was giving them. These were to be binding commands, not helpful suggestions. They were not up for debate. And Moses makes it clear that God had given him the responsibility to teach these commands to the people, “that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess” (Deuteronomy 4:14 ESV).

In other words, the commands written on tablets of stone were to make their way into the hearts of the people, transforming the way they lived their lives. They were to be the guiding force in their lives, determining their relationship with God and with one another. While the God of Israel was invisible, His regulations regarding their conduct were not. They were carved into stone. And these laws were not man-made, but God-ordained. Therefore, they were righteous and holy.

While the people of Israel could not see their holy God, they could demonstrate His glory through their own holy conduct. By living according to His revealed Law, the people of Israel could display His glory and goodness to the nations around them. Their compliance to His Law would set them apart from all the other people groups on the face of the earth. They could make the invisible God visible by living in accordance to His commands. And, as Moses stated earlier, by watching Israel live in obedience to God’s commands, the nations would express their awe and wonder. Which is why Moses called the people to obey them willingly and completely.

“Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations. When they hear all these decrees, they will exclaim, ‘How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!’ For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him? And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today?” – Deuteronomy 4:6-8 NLT

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

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

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