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

Advertisements

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

 

 

 

God’s Will Done God’s Way

26 “So I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon the king of Heshbon, with words of peace, saying, 27 ‘Let me pass through your land. I will go only by the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. 28 You shall sell me food for money, that I may eat, and give me water for money, that I may drink. Only let me pass through on foot, 29 as the sons of Esau who live in Seir and the Moabites who live in Ar did for me, until I go over the Jordan into the land that the Lord our God is giving to us.’ 30 But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day. 31 And the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy his land.’ 32 Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. 33 And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. 34 And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. 35 Only the livestock we took as spoil for ourselves, with the plunder of the cities that we captured. 36 From Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, and from the city that is in the valley, as far as Gilead, there was not a city too high for us. The Lord our God gave all into our hands. 37 Only to the land of the sons of Ammon you did not draw near, that is, to all the banks of the river Jabbok and the cities of the hill country, whatever the Lord our God had forbidden us. – Deuteronomy 2:26-37 ESV

Forty years earlier, when the people of Israel had been poised to enter the land of Canaan, they had received news from the spies that it was occupied by giants and its cities were “great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28 ESV). This news had caused the Israelites to reject God’s command to occupy the land. In their minds, the odds were stacked against them and the enemies they faced were more powerful than the God they served. So, they had walked away from the land flowing with milk and honey and had wandered in the wilderness for the next four decades. 

Now, a new generation had taken their place and stood on the eastern side of the Jordan River, with the land of Canaan lying before them. But before they could possess the promise, they would have to obey the promise-maker. God had a preliminary step they would have to take before they could begin their official conquest of the land.

After having declared the land of the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites as off-limits and unvailable for conquest, God told Moses to attack the land belonging to King Sihon of Heshbon.

“Rise up, set out on your journey and go over the Valley of the Arnon. Behold, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession, and contend with him in battle.” – Deuteronomy 2:24 ESV

God clearly commanded Moses to lead the Israelites into battle against Sihon and his forces. Yet, we read that Moses sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace, asking Sihon to allow the Israelites to pass through his land unhindered. Moses promised to restrict his people to the main road and even offered to pay Sihon if he would provide the Israelites with food and water. But Sihon refused to grant Moses and the people of Israel access to his land. Instead, he attacked the Israelites.

The parallel passage outlining the details of this story is found in Numbers 21. Neither here in Deuteronomy or in Numbers are we given an explanation as to why Moses decided to make peace overtures to Sihon. It seems quite evident that God expected the Israelites to do battle with the people of Heshbon. God had told Moses to “content with him in battle.” He had not instructed Moses to broker a peace agreement.  Was this a case of disobedience on the part of Moses? Was he guilty of second-guessing God and coming up with an alternative strategy that would circumvent the need for bloodshed? We’re not told. But it would appear that God was unwilling to risk Sihon accepting the peaceful alternative offered by Moses. Moses himself wrote:

But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day. – Deuteronomy 2:30 ESV

Perhaps Moses had been looking back on the ease with which they had passed through the lands of Edom, Moab, and Ammon. It only made sense to do whatever it took to avoid unnecessary risks or the loss of life. After all, the land of Heshbon was on the wrong side of the Jordan and not part of the land of Canaan, so why go to war when you could simply broker a peace agreement?

But regardless of the solid logic behind Moses’ thinking, he didn’t know what God had in mind. He was oblivious to God’s plan regarding the lands belonging to Sihon. He was also unaware that God was going to use Israel’s defeat of Sihon and his troops to send a message to the people occupying the land of Canaan. Once He had given the Israelites victory over Sihon, the news would travel fast and the people living west of the Jordan River would become disheartened.

“This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.” – Deuteronomy 2:25 ESV

We don’t always understand God’s ways. To our minds, God’s plans often appear illogical and unnecessarily difficult. So, we attempt to come up with an easier alternative. We choose to help God out by coming up with a plan of our own. Abraham and Sarah did just that when they determined that God’s promise to give them a son was not going to work out. After all, they were both advanced in years and Sarah was barren. So, Sarah came up with a Plan B,  offering her handmaiden to Abraham and demanding that he impregnate her with their future heir. Like any red-blooded male, Abraham eagerly listened to his wife and took her up on her offer. The result was the birth of Ishmael. But Sarah’s Plan B was not God’s will. Ishmael was not to be Abraham’s heir or the son through whom God was going to fulfill His promise to Abraham.

And God wasn’t interested in a peace treaty with Sihon. So, He hardened Sihon’s heart and caused the pagan king to reject the peace overtures of Moses. And the result was a rousing victory by the Israelites.

And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. – Deuteronomy 2:33-34 ESV

Yet, even now, we read this story and we immediately sense what appears to be the needless destruction of innocent people. Why did King Sihon and his people have to die if they people of Israel were not even going to settle in their land? Why would God order the senseless and seemingly barbaric slaughter of innocent women and children?

As recorded above, the defeat of Sihon and the people of Hesbon was meant to send a message to the people occupying the land of Canaan. It would let them know that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites was all-powerful and that His people were fully capable of defeating anyone who stood opposed to them. What would appear to us as a senseless, unnecessary slaughter was actually part of a divine strategy for fulfilling God’s covenant promise.

If we fast-forward to the point in the story when Israel made its first foray into the land of promise, we discover the two spies who had entered the city of Jericho to assess its strength and document its defenses. They were given shelter by a prostitute named Rahab. When they prepared to leave her home and return to the camp of Israel, she pleaded with them to spare her life and those of her household. And here is why she was so adamant that they promise to protect her:

For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. – Joshua 2:10-11 ESV

The news about Israel’s victory over Sihon would spread. The annihilation of the people of Heshbon would send shudders of dread and fear among the nations living west of the Jordan. Israel’s victory over Sihon would put the fear of God into the people of Canaan. But there was a second purpose behind God’s command for Israel to destroy Heshbon. The land that once belonged to King Sihon would eventually become part of the land awarded to the tribes of Gad and Reuben, and half of the people of the tribe of Manassah. This land was perfect for raising livestock and these three tribes were predominantly herdsman by trace. So, God allowed the settlement of these three tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan. But why?

Because God had promised to give Abraham far more land than that occupied by the Canaanites. In the book of Genesis, we have recorded the exact words God spoke to Abraham when He detailed the extent of the land to be inherited by Abraham’s offspring.

“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward,  for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 ESV

And God went on to provide even greater detail.

“To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” – Genesis 15:18-21 ESV

Notice the vast size of this land grant. It extends from the Brook of Egypt to the Euphrates. It is massive in scale and includes the land of Heshbon. God had originally intended to give Israel far more land than they ever occupied, even under the kingships of David and Solomon. And just so we understand why God would take this land from one nation and award it to another, Moses later explains the method behind God’s seeming madness.

“After the Lord your God has done this for you, don’t say in your hearts, ‘The Lord has given us this land because we are such good people!’ No, it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The Lord your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness, and to fulfill the oath he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You must recognize that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:4-6 NLT

We may not understand or even approve of God’s ways, but it is important that we trust Him. He is the sovereign God of the universe and His ways are always just and right. From our limited perspective, it may not always appear that way, but we must trust that He knows what is best. His plan is perfect and His ways are always right.

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

 

 

 

Burden and Strife

“At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. 10 The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ 18 And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.” – Deuteronomy 1:9-18 ESV

Moses is standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, addressing the next generation of Israelites who have arrived at the border and are facing the prospect of have to do what their predecessors had failed to do: Enter the land.

As part of his speech to the people, Moses recounts their journey from Mount Sinai, where God had made His covenant with them. It was there that God had given them His law and had instructed them, “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” (Exodcus 19:5 ESV).

Unlike the covenant God had made with Abraham concerning the land, this covenant, sometimes referred to as the Mosaic Covenant, was bilateral and conditional. In other words, it was a covenant that required a commitment from both parties. Each had to keep their end of the agreement. If the people obeyed God’s law, He would bless them. They would be His chosen possession. But if they failed to obey, there would be serious ramifications. 

And Moses subtly reminds them that God had kept His covenant commitment to Abraham. He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation and all they had to do was look around for the proof of God’s faithfulness.

“The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven.” – Deuteronomy 1:10 ESV

God had greatly prospered them. In fact, in the opening verses of the book of Exodus, Moses provides the historical context that when Jacob and his family had fled to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan, there had been seventy of them. But by the time Joseph had died and God sent Moses to deliver the people from their captivity in Egypt, we’re told that the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7 ESV).

The faithfulness of God to keep His covenant commitment to Abraham was clearly visible in the sheer number of Israelites who stood before Moses that day. He reminded them that their God had kept His word and had made them exceedingly fruitful. So much so, that the people in Canaan feared the people of Israel, even before they set foot in the land. When Joshua eventually sent two spies to reconnoiter the city of Jericho, a resident of the city confessed to them:

I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” – Joshua 2:9-11 ESV

God had multiplied them. He had delivered them from captivity. He had led them across the wilderness; feeding, clothing, and protecting them along the way. And He had given them victories over their enemies on the east side of the Jordan. Now, it was time to cross over and take possession of the land.

But there was a problem. God’s blessing had become a burden for Moses. There were so many of them, that he was overwhelmed. But it wasn’t their numbers that was the cause of his headaches. It was their tendency to whine and complain. In fact, Moses put it even extremely blunt terms: “But you are such a heavy load to carry! How can I deal with all your problems and bickering?” (Deuteronomy 1:12 NLT).

This had been a problem from day one. Ever since Moses had led the people out of Egypt, they had displayed a strong propensity to express their displeasure. They complained about anything and everything – from the manna and quail God miraculously supplied for food to the man God had provided to lead them. And Moses reminded them that there had been a day when his father-in-law had given him some wise counsel. He had advised Moses to “choose from the people capable men, God-fearing, men of truth, those who hate bribes, and put them over the people as rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Exodus 18:21: NLT). And Moses had done just that.

But while the people had agreed with the decision made by Moses, it’s clear that they continued to grumble and dispute. Even with the apppointment of additional judges, there were too many disputes to handle. And this speaks volumes regarding the spiritual state of the people of Israel. They were a disgruntled people because they were a disobedient people.

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

The people of Israel were failing to live up to the law of God. They were not loving Him or loving one another. They were too busy disputing and disagreeing with one another. And their lack of love for one another was a reflection of their lack of love for God. The apostle John put it this way: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20 NLT).

Moses had clearly and repeatedly  communicated God’s expectations. But he was so busy handling disputes and disagreements among the people that he had been forced to appoint additional “referees” to deal with the volume of issues taking place. How in the world were they going to possess the land if they couldn’t even get along with one another? What good were their formidable numbers going to be against their enemies if they couldn’t even stop from fighting among themselves?

The promised land lay before them. But their greatest obstacle wasn’t going to be the occupants of the land. It was going to be the members of their own faith community. What God had intended as a blessing, they had turned into a burden. Rather than enjoying the camaraderie of godly community, they experienced conflict and strife. And, instead of Moses spending his time leading the people in battle against their enemies, he was wasting his time solving disputes among brothers.

And, as we’ll see, the track record of God’s people was far from stellar. There were other issues that Moses will raise as he recaps the less-than-flattering history of Israel to this point. The promised land lay spread before them but a litany of broken promises lay behind them. Were they ready to change? Were they prepared to obey God and keep His commands? He was faithful. But would they be?

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

 

 

 

What Are You Waiting For? Rejoice!

“Before she was in labor
    she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
    she delivered a son.
Who has heard such a thing?
    Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
    Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
    she brought forth her children.
Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?”
    says the Lord;
“shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?”
    says your God.

10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
    all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
    all you who mourn over her;
11 that you may nurse and be satisfied
    from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from her glorious abundance.”

12 For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
    and bounced upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
14 You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
    your bones shall flourish like the grass;
and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants,
    and he shall show his indignation against his enemies. Isaiah 66:7-14 ESV

As the book of Isaiah comes to a close, we see God attempting to assure His chosen people that they have reason to hope. In spite of all that was presently taking place around them and the judgment God had promised to bring on them, they had reason to rejoice. Because God was not going to forget them. He would not completely abandon them. And to drive home His point, God reminds them of just how quickly they had become a nation. He describes Zion as a pregnant woman. Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem, the city of God, and Mount Zion is where the city of Jerusalem is located.

So, in verse seven, God describes Zion as having given birth to a son. But in verse eight He clarifies that the son is representative of a nation or people. And the birth of this nation was extremely quick and relatively free from pain. Like a woman who gives birth before her labor pains start, the nation of Israel came on the scene in a relatively short period of time and without a great deal of emotional or physical travail. This does not mean that the nation of Israel had a pain-free path to becoming a major force in that area of the world. They fought many battles and faced a variety of enemies, but God brought them to power and prominence in a relatively short period of time. It was His doing and, therefore, it was a miracle.

And yet, here they were facing the very real threat of destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. God had clearly told them that their city would be defeated, their temple destroyed, and their people deported to Babylon as captives. Which is why God reminds them that what He did once, He could do again.

“Would I ever bring this nation to the point of birth
    and then not deliver it?” asks the Lord.
“No! I would never keep this nation from being born,”
    says your God. – Isaiah 66:9 NLT

Yes, they were going to fall to the Babylonians and they would be removed from the land. But God was promising to restore them one day. They would be reborn as a nation. And while this prophecy would be fulfilled in part when the remnant returned to Judah under the leadership of Ezra and Zerubbabel, then later under Nehemiah, there is much about God’s promise that remains unfulfilled.

While a remnant did return to Judah and Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the nation of Israel has never experienced anything remotely similar to the former glory it enjoyed under the reigns of David and Solomon. There is no king in Jerusalem. And, while the Jewish people once again live in the land of promise and occupy the city of Jerusalem, they are surrounded by enemies and under constant threat of attack. Yet, God tells the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day to “Rejoice with Jerusalem! Be glad with her, all you who love her and all you who mourn for her” (Isaiah 66:10 NLT). What a strange thing to say to a people who are facing inevitable defeat and deportation. Why would God tell them to rejoice over a city that is facing destruction? Because He has plans in store for the city and the nation of which they were unaware. And He outlines the nature of those plans in two short verses.

“I will give Jerusalem a river of peace and prosperity.
    The wealth of the nations will flow to her.
Her children will be nursed at her breasts,
    carried in her arms, and held on her lap.
I will comfort you there in Jerusalem
    as a mother comforts her child.” – Isaiah 66:12-13 NLT

This is where the as-yet nature of this promise can be seen. He promises peace and prosperity. He describes a day when the nations will flow to Jerusalem to honor her, not destroy her. And it is clear that these things have not yet taken place. They remain unfulfilled. But just as Zion gave birth to a nation once before, it will experience another miraculous and pain-free delivery of God’s covenant people. In a remarkably short period of time, God will repopulate Zion with His people and when they see it happen, they will rejoice. In fact, God says, “Everyone will see the Lord’s hand of blessing on his servants – and his anger against his enemies” (Isaiah 66:14 NLT). 

The scene being described here is eschatological in nature. It involved end-times events that remain as-yet unfulfilled. But God is promising His people that they will happen. Their inevitability is assured and, therefore, even the people of God in Isaiah’s day had reason to rejoice. The prophet Jeremiah records the words of God assuring His people of His intentions to restore them. In a sense, they will be born again, all according to His grace and mercy.

“Nevertheless, the time will come when I will heal Jerusalem’s wounds and give it prosperity and true peace. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Israel and rebuild their towns. I will cleanse them of their sins against me and forgive all their sins of rebellion. Then this city will bring me joy, glory, and honor before all the nations of the earth! The people of the world will see all the good I do for my people, and they will tremble with awe at the peace and prosperity I provide for them.” – Jeremiah 33:6-9 NLT

Three times in this passage God says, “I will….” He promises to heal, restore, rebuild, cleanse, and forgive. And He describes a day when the city of Jerusalem and the people of Israel will once again bring Him joy, glory, and honor. And Isaiah recorded similar words of promise earlier in his book.

The Lord will comfort Israel again
    and have pity on her ruins.
Her desert will blossom like Eden,
    her barren wilderness like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found there.
    Songs of thanksgiving will fill the air. – Isaiah 51:3 NLT

And Isaiah’s words were not wishful thinking, but were based on the promise of God.

“My mercy and justice are coming soon.
    My salvation is on the way.
    My strong arm will bring justice to the nations.
All distant lands will look to me
    and wait in hope for my powerful arm.” – Isaiah 51:5 NLT

And Isaiah is so convinced of God’s faithfulness, that he pleads with Him to fulfill His promise sooner than later.

Wake up, wake up, O Lord! Clothe yourself with strength!
    Flex your mighty right arm!
Rouse yourself as in the days of old
    when you slew Egypt, the dragon of the Nile.
Are you not the same today,
    the one who dried up the sea,
making a path of escape through the depths
    so that your people could cross over? – Isaiah 51:9-10 NLT

He knew, based on past history, that God was fully capable of doing all that He had promised. It was just a matter of when He would do what He said He would do. And as far as Isaiah was concerned, he wanted God to fulfill His promises in his own lifetime. But, whether Isaiah lived to see God’s promises fulfilled, he was convinced they would happen just as God had said they would.

Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return.
    They will enter Jerusalem singing,
    crowned with everlasting joy.
Sorrow and mourning will disappear,
    and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 51:9-11 NLT

While the fulfillment of these promises has not yet taken place, the rejoicing should be. All those who have placed their hope in the reality of a living, all-powerful God should find reason to rejoice in the promises of God. While He has done great things and His past exploits are deserving of our praise, there is much that remains yet to be done. But God is faithful. He is a covenant-keeping God who never fails to do what He has promised to do. And with all that He has said He will do clearly articulated for us by Isaiah, we have more than enough reason to rejoice – even now.

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

Here I Am!

Isaiah 65:1-7

Isaiah has prayed. Now, God responds. And the first thing God does is leave the people of Judah without excuse. Ever since the creation of the world, God has made Himself known to all mankind, not just the people of Israel.  The apostle Paul drives home this point in his letter to the Romans.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. – Romans 1:19-20 ESV

And Paul goes on to conclude, “So they are without excuse.” God revealed His invisible attributes to mankind, but they chose to worship the creation rather than its Creator. So, God would later reveal Himself to Abraham, calling him out of Ur and directing him to the land of Canaan. Abraham was given a greater revelation of God, beyond that which the rest of the world had enjoyed. And God even made a covenant with Abraham, promising to create from him a great nation, the people of whom would occupy the land of Canaan for generations. And God fulfilled that promise, and by the time Isaiah wrote the book that bears his name, the descendants of Abraham had been living in the land for centuries. But as we have seen, although God had continued to give His chosen people further revelations of Himself through His law and the sacrificial system, their behavior made it appear as if they didn’t know Him at all.

And in the opening verse of this chapter, God indicates that He had a purpose behind His decision to make the nation of Israel His precious possession. When He had given them the law, God had told them that if they obeyed it, “you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 NLT). Notice that they were to have been his own special treasure from among all the peoples of the earth.  They were to have been His priests, representing Him before all the peoples of the earth. They were to have been His holy, set-apart nation among all the other nations of the earth. In other words, they were to have been witnesses as to what it looks like to have a right relationship with the Creator-God of the universe.

But they had proven to be lousy priests and poor witnesses. Rather than bringing God glory by living holy lives, they had profaned His name among the nations, leaving God the job of reclaiming the glory His name deserves.

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

And in verse one, God indicates that He has been calling out to the nations, “Here I am, here I am.” He has been extending an invitation to all the nations “not called by my name,” and the people of Israel had been His chosen means of communicating that message. The apostle Paul used this very passage to let the Gentile believers in Rome understand that God had always intended to use the people of Israel as His means of sharing His grace and mercy with the world. Paul will repeatedly quote from the book of Isaiah to build his case that God’s plan in choosing Israel had far greater implications than just their personal enjoyment of His blessings. God had something much grander in mind.

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? Yes, they have:

“The message has gone throughout the earth,
    and the words to all the world.”

But I ask, did the people of Israel really understand? Yes, they did, for even in the time of Moses, God said,

“I will rouse your jealousy through people who are not even a nation.
    I will provoke your anger through the foolish Gentiles.”

And later Isaiah spoke boldly for God, saying,

“I was found by people who were not looking for me.
    I showed myself to those who were not asking for me.”

But regarding Israel, God said,

“All day long I opened my arms to them,
    but they were disobedient and rebellious.” – Romans 10:16-21 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of what Paul is saying here. The very people whom God had chosen to be His means of reaching a lost world had to be constantly invited by God to come back to Him. Rather than doing what He had called them to do, they had proven to be disobedient and rebellious. And God describes their rebellion as anything but subtle. They flaunted it in His face, worshiping false gods right in front of Him. They had disregarded His laws concerning sacrifice, offering inappropriate and unclean gifts in unacceptable ways. They practiced necromancy, a form of divination through attempted communication with the dead. They were guilty of involvement in the occult and witchcraft. Their unholy actions had left them an unholy people, no longer set apart for God and no longer able to be His witnesses to a lost world.

All their religious activity had left them feeling puffed and prideful. And while they would brag about their holiness, God describes them in less-than-flattering terms.

These people are a stench in my nostrils,
    an acrid smell that never goes away. – Isaiah 65:5 NLT

God finds all their religiosity repulsive. While He had been calling out to them with open arms, they had been embracing false gods and pursuing other loves. And the apostle Paul tells us what happens to all those who replace a personal relationship with God with religion.

They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:5 NLT

They were religious but lacked the one thing God was looking for: godliness. Their actions failed to reflect their status as His chosen people. So, God was obligated to punish them for their rebellion. He could not and would not allow them to continue to drag His name through the mud. Their disobedience demanded His divine discipline. And when God says, “Behold, it is written before me,” He is referring to the covenant He had made with them. There was a legally binding agreement between God and His people that spelled out their obligations and His. It clearly articulated what God expected of them and what He would do if they kept or broke their part of the covenant. And while they had failed to do what they said they would do, God would prove faithful to His covenant promise. He vows to bring upon them all the curses He had warned them about.

“I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their lap
   both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together.” – Isaiah 65:6-7 ESV

It is important to remember that God had warned them what would happen if they failed to be His priests and His holy nation. He had let them know well in advance what the ramifications would be if they failed to be His witness to the nations. They would end up scattered among the nations, worshiping gods they never knew before.

For the Lord will scatter you among all the nations from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship foreign gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods made of wood and stone! There among those nations, you will find no peace or place to rest. And the Lord will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your life will constantly hang in the balance. You will live night and day in fear, unsure if you will survive. – Deuteronomy 28:64-64 NLT

They would lose their witness. Their role as a light to the nations would fade because they had failed to remain faithful to the call of God. But as we have seen all along in the book of Isaiah, God would remain faithful to them because He had plans to bring salvation to the world through them. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, would be born as a Jew and would become the Priest who lived a perfectly holy life and offered a completely holy sacrifice on behalf of the sins of all mankind.

 

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

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

 

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