Their Heart Wasn’t In It

22 “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’

28 “And the Lord heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! 30 Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ 32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.” – Deuteronomy 5:22-33 ESV

What a spectacular sight that must have been. As the people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they had seen the peak covered in what appeared to be fire and smoke, and out of the darkness of the cloud had come bolts of lightning and peals of thunder. But they had also heard the unmistakable voice of God Almighty. The book of Exodus tells us that God had told Moses to prepare the people for this amazing encounter. Their invisible God was going to make Himself known.

“Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” – Exodus 19:9 ESV

God was going to allow the people of Israel to overhear His conversation with Moses. And, while they would not actually see God, they would hear His voice and witness the amazing display of His glory. But the people were not to take this one-of-a-kind opportunity lightly. Moses was commanded by God to have the people prepared because they would be encountering the holiness of God. This was not to be treated like some kind of Fourth of July fireworks spectacular.

“Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”  – Exodus 19:10-13 ESV

The people did as Moses instructed them. They came, they saw, and they heard.

All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. – Exodus 19:18 NLT

And this remarkable display of God’s glory had its intended effect. The people were blown away by all that they had seen and heard and expressed their amazement to Moses.

“Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice from the heart of the fire. Today we have seen that God can speak to us humans, and yet we live!” – Deuteronomy 5:24 NLT

They were amazed and petrified at the same time. Their exposure to the might and majesty of God created within them a fear that bordered on paranoia. They wanted nothing more to do with Him and preferred that Moses do the dirty and obviously dangerous work of receiving any further instructions from God. But they committed themselves to obey whatever it was that God told them to do.

“But now, why should we risk death again? If the Lord our God speaks to us again, we will certainly die and be consumed by this awesome fire. Can any living thing hear the voice of the living God from the heart of the fire as we did and yet survive?  Go yourself and listen to what the Lord our God says. Then come and tell us everything he tells you, and we will listen and obey.” – Deuteronomy 5:25-27 NLT

Once again, the book of Exodus provides us with additional details regarding this historical event. After Moses had returned from the mountaintop, having received all of God’s commands, he had shared them with the people. And this time, the law had expanded beyond the initial Ten Commandments and included a wider range of rules and regulations, covering everything from the proper construction of altars to the treatment of slaves. There were laws concerning restitution and the practice of social justice. God even included commands regarding the feasts and festivals they were to celebrate and rules concerning their keeping of the Sabbath. And when the people heard all that God had commanded, they responded affirmatively.

Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 24:3 NLT

But their enthusiastic commitment to keep God’s commands was driven more by fear than by a heartfelt desire to live in obedience to Him. They had committed to keeping His law because they feared His judgment. But fear alone would prove to be an insufficient motivation to foster long-term obedience. And God saw through their exuberant verbal affirmation.

“I have heard what the people said to you, and they are right. Oh, that they would always have hearts like this, that they might fear me and obey all my commands! If they did, they and their descendants would prosper forever.” – Deuteronomy 5:28-29 NLT

He knew what was going to happen. Eventually, the fire on the mountain would go out, and the smoke would dissipate. The thunder and lightning would fade away like a distant memory, and the fear the people felt would evaporate along with them. God knew that their commitment to obey His commands would be shortlived. And yet, He longed to bless and prosper them.

God had tied His blessing of them directly to their obedience to Him. Later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses would articulate the vital link between blessing and obedience.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

But failure to obey had its consequences. Disobedience would result in curses.

But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT

God longed to bless His people. But His covenant with them was conditional. He had given them His law and required that it be obeyed. If they wanted to live long and prosper, they had to live in obedience to His commands. This wasn’t just a case of blind obedience to an arbitrary set of rules. Every single command given by God had inherent benefits associated with it because it came from a holy and just God. The laws provided by God were meant to protect and prosper the people of Israel. If obeyed, they would set the people of Israel apart and bestow on them blessings beyond belief. Walking submissively and obediently within the will of God always brings the blessings of God. Living according to His standards and submitting to His will always results in a guarantee of His blessings. Which is why Moses pleaded with the people of Israel to do all that God had commanded them to do.

“You must be careful to obey all the commands of the Lord your God, following his instructions in every detail. Stay on the path that the Lord your God has commanded you to follow. Then you will live long and prosperous lives in the land you are about to enter and occupy. – Deuteronomy 5:32-33 NLT

But God desires obedience from the heart, not a robotic, going-through-the-motions adherence to a set of rules. The law was never intended to be a set of live-sucking regulations that require mindless obedience. God desires obedience that flows from the heart and is motivated by love, not fear.

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 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

 

 

 

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Learning to Love the Law

1 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said:

“‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“‘You shall have no other gods before me.

“‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

11 “‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

12 “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” – Deuteronomy 5:1-15 ESV

The Ten Commandments. We’re all vaguely familiar with them, even if we can’t recite them from memory. And we all have an image that comes to mind when we think of Moses holding the two tablets of stone containing the hand-carved code of conduct given by God to the people of Israel. But those commands seem distant and somewhat antiquated to most of us. And for many Christians, we operate as if the Ten Commandments no longer apply to us because we live under grace, not law. After all, the apostle Paul tells us, “Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing” (Galatians 3:13 NLT).

It’s easy to read a passage like that one and assume that the Ten Commandments are out-of-date and no longer apply. And Paul seems to support that conclusion with his words to the Christians in Rome.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4 ESV

But before we jump to conclusions, we have to recall the words of Jesus.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.” – Matthew 5:17 NLT

Jesus claimed to have come to earth in order to accomplish the purpose behind the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets. We would tend to say that Jesus came to earth to save the lost, and we would be right. Because that is exactly what the law foreshadowed and the prophecies of the Old Testament foretold. The apostle Paul tells us exactly why the law was given.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

God gave the law to the people of Israel in order that they might know just how holy He was and just how sinful they truly were. With God’s detailed list of all the dos and don’ts, shalls, and shall-nots provided for them, the people of Israel could not claim ignorance when it came to God’s expectations of them. But while His rules established clear guidelines for living, they also revealed man’s inability to live up to those guidelines. The Ten Commandments are holy, righteous, and just, providing man with a detailed list of God’s non-negotiable requirements for maintaining a right relationship with Him. But, once again, Paul reminds us that the law could never make anyone right with God because no one was capable of living up to God’s holy standard.

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

The author of Hebrews adds that “the law never made anything perfect” (Hebrews 7:19 NLT). In other words, God’s giving of His holy law was intended to provide the Israelites with a clear standard or set of guidelines for living. But the presence of the law did not empower the people to obey. It told them what God expected of them, but did not provide them with the capacity to live up to those expectations. In a sense, the law could only condemn, not save.

Think of it this way: A speed limit sign is a government-sanctioned law declaring the legally established maximum rate of travel for a motor vehicle. It lets drivers know just how fast they are allowed to go on a particular section of highway. It cannot force them to travel at that speed. It does not limit their capacity to drive slower or faster. It simply sets the rules of conduct for that driving on that patch of road. But if the posted speed limit is 65 and you are traveling 75, every time you pass one of those signs declaring the speed limit, you will be condemned as guilty. All the sign can do is confirm if we are living up to the established standard or condemn us if we are not.

The apostle Paul describes the law as our guardian, tutor, or instructor.

Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian. – Galatians 3:23-25 NLT

The law was given so that man might learn just how holy God is and just how sinful they could be. So, as Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to the next generation of Israelites, he was reminding them of the holiness of their God. They were to take God’s commands seriously and to treat them with the reverence they deserved. He warned them to “learn them and be careful to do them” (Deuteronomy 5:1 ESV). Because breaking God’s laws would break their fellowship with Him. Failing to keep His commands would place them under a curse.

The Jews would live under the guardianship or tutelage of the law for generations. From the time they entered the land of Canaan to the day that Jesus Christ took on human flesh, the Jews would be required by God to live according to His law. And, as Paul put it, the law would protect them as long as they obeyed it. It functioned as the speed limit sign on the highway of life. But when Jesus came, the law became unnecessary, because He provided a way for sinful men to be made right with a holy God. Rather than trying to keep God’s holy and righteous standards through human effort, they could place their faith in Christ. The Son of God became a man so that He might live a sinless life, keeping God’s law perfectly. He obeyed every single command given by God, accomplishing what no other man had ever been able to do before.

And it was because Jesus was perfectly obedient, that He was able to be the spotless sacrifice whose life was given as payment for mankind’s sin debt. He was the one who John described as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).  And He was the one who made forgiveness of sin possible. In other words, He provided a way for man to receive permanent forgiveness for every single violation of God’s holy law. The law revealed man’s sinfulness, but only Jesus could remove it. The law could condemn man as guilty, but only Jesus could pronounce man as innocent and righteous. And one day Paul explained this wonderful reality to a group of Jews who had gathered to hear him speak.

“Brothers, listen! We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight—something the law of Moses could never do.” – Acts 13:38-39 NLT

So, as Moses unpacks God’s law to the people of Israel, it’s essential that we understand just how blessed we are. We live on this side of the cross, where the curse of the law has been replaced by the blessing of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. We no longer live under the burden of trying to earn God’s favor through law-keeping. That does not mean the law is null-and-void and no longer applicable. It simply means we have been given a righteousness from Christ that makes it possible for us to live in obedience to God’s commands, not based on human effort but through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And rather than viewing the law as our task-master, we can see it the way Paul did: “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 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

 

 

 

A Place of Refuge

Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan, that the manslayer might flee there, anyone who kills his neighbor unintentionally, without being at enmity with him in time past; he may flee to one of these cities and save his life: Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland for the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead for the Gadites, and Golan in Bashan for the Manassites.

This is the law that Moses set before the people of Israel. These are the testimonies, the statutes, and the rules, which Moses spoke to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt, beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peor, in the land of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon, whom Moses and the people of Israel defeated when they came out of Egypt. And they took possession of his land and the land of Og, the king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who lived to the east beyond the Jordan; from Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, as far as Mount Sirion (that is, Hermon), together with all the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan as far as the Sea of the Arabah, under the slopes of Pisgah. – Deuteronomy 4:41-49 ESV

Moses wrapped up his history lesson regarding God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness with a final word of challenge:

“Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” – Deuteronomy 4:40 ESV

While Moses would not be leading the  people into the land of Canaan, he still desired that they fulfill the will of God and enjoy all the blessings God had in store for them as part of the promise He made to Abraham.

The conquering of the region east of the Jordan River, sometimes referred to as the Transjordan, was complete. The two tribes of Gad and Reuben, along with half the tribe of Mannasah, were already beginning to make themselves at home in the towns and villages they had taken as plunder from the Amorites. Moses had allowed these three tribes to settle east of the Jordan because they had vowed to fight alongside the rest of the tribes until the land of Canaan was conquered and fully settled.

Almost as if he was trying to remind the three tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Mannasah of their unbroken relationship with Israel, Moses designates three cities of refuge within their territory. The creation of these cities was an essential part of God’s plan for the Israelites. We know from the book of Numbers, that God had a specific purpose for these cities. They would be part locatedon either side of the Jordan, and would be occupied by the tribe of Levi. God had set apart the Levites and given them the responsibility to care for and transport the tabernacle. They would be allotted no land in Canaan, but were to receive 48 cities, located within the boundaries of the other tribes. Six of these were to be cities of refuge.

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT

God knows His creation well. He was fully aware of what was going to happen when the people of Israel settled in the land. While He had set them apart as His own, He knew they were incapable of living holy lives. Which is why He had given them the sacrificial system. It was a gracious and undeserved gift from God that provided a means for having their inevitable sins forgiven and their relationship with Him restored. They were going to sin. The Law, given by God, provided a non-negotiable code of conduct meant to express His expectations and expose any violators of those expectations as guilty.

One of the ten commandments God had given to the people of Israel was a prohibition against murder. This was a clear reference to premeditated murder, the taking of someone else’s life out of anger or revenge. But what about those cases in which a life was taken accidentally? God had a plan for that, and it involved the cities of refuge.

“Anyone who assaults and kills another person must be put to death. But if it was simply an accident permitted by God, I will appoint a place of refuge where the slayer can run for safety.” – Exodus 21:12-13 NLT

But if anyone committed premeditated murder, the penalty was to be death.

However, if someone deliberately kills another person, then the slayer must be dragged even from my altar and be put to death.” – Exodus 21:14 NLT

So, God provided a plan for protecting the innocent and to prevent the unnecessary taking of life. He knew that the natural response of someone whose loved one had been murdered, either willingly or accidentally, would be to seek revenge. But, in order to prevent the avenger from killing an innocent individual, God provided these six cities as places as places where the murderer could seek asylum.

“…designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community. Designate six cities of refuge for yourselves, three on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west in the land of Canaan. These cities are for the protection of Israelites, foreigners living among you, and traveling merchants. Anyone who accidentally kills someone may flee there for safety.” – Numbers 35:11-15 NLT

God was in no way minimizing the taking a human life. Even in the cases of accidental, un-premeditated murder, there was still a consequence associated with the act. The guilty party was to remain in the city of refuse for the rest of their life, or until the death of the high priest, in which case they were to be released as a free man. As long as they remained within the walls of the city, they were protected from the avenger. But if they ever ventured outside, their assylum was waived and they became fair game for anyone seeking vengeance.

God knew that sin would be inevitable and unavoidable for the people of Israel. And the Law was designed to expose all that God considered to be a sin. Any violation of His Law was sin. Any failure to live up to His holy standards was sin. And every one of the people of Israel would be guilty of sin. But they could find refuge in God. The individual who accidentally took the life of another had a place where he could find rescue and relief for his crime. The man or woman who sinned against God could find forgivness and cleansing through the sacrificial system.

God was never surprised by the sinfulness of mankind. In fact, He had planned for mankind’s redemption long before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the garden. He had formulated His plan for providing refuge from the guilt of sin even before He created the universe into which sin came. Paul points this out in his letter to the Ephesians.

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. – Ephesians 1:4-5 NLT

And the apostle Peter tells us that God had planned for Jesus, His Son, to become our refuge long before the world was ever made. Before sin ever entered the scene, God had prepared for His Son to become a city of refuge for sinful mankind.

God chose him as your ransom long before the world began… – 1 Peter1:20 NLT

The Israelites had not yet entered the land of promise. The three tribes had not fully taken possession of the land east of the Jordan. But God was making preparations for the sins of His people by providing cities of refuge.

God was not light on sin. The sacrificial system revealed just how seriously He took any transgressions of His Law. Death was required. Blood had to be spilled. The innocent had to die in the place of the guilty. As the author of Hebrews states, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). And just prior to that statement, we read, “according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT).

So, as Moses prepares to review God’s Law to the people of Israel, it will serve as a sobering reminder that their inevitable breaking of the Law was going to require the shedding of blood. Their transgressions would demand an atoning sacrifice. Holiness was going to be difficult, but it was also going to be costly. Failure to obey God’s Law was going to come with a stiff penalty: Death. And escape from that penalty was going to require that someone satisfy the just demands of a holy God. But God provided a means for the guilty to find refuge. They could find help and hope in the mercy of 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

 

 

 

Robbing God of Glory

23 “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, 24 ‘O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours? 25 Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’ 26 But the Lord was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me. And the Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. 27 Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward, and look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan. 28 But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he shall go over at the head of this people, and he shall put them in possession of the land that you shall see.’ 29 So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-peor.” – Deuteronomy 3:23-29 ESV

For more than 40 years, Moses had been the God-appointed leader of the people of Israel. He had been the one God had chosen to rescue His people from their captivity in Egypt and to lead them across the wilderness to the land of Canaan. Now, the long-awaited ay to enter the land had arrived and Moses would not be going with them. But why?

Verse 23 opens up with Moses recounting a conversation he had with God, where he pleaded that he be allowed the privilege and pleasure of entering the land of promise. Moses knew what God had already decided and had lived with the knowledge of his ban from the land for some time. It all began at a place called the Wilderness of Zin on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Moses had just recently buried his sister, Miriam and was still dealing with the grief over his loss. But this didn’t stop the people of Israel from coming to Moses with their most recent complaint.

There was no water for the people to drink at that place, so they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The people blamed Moses and said, “If only we had died in the Lord’s presence with our brothers! Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord’s people into this wilderness to die, along with all our livestock? Why did you make us leave Egypt and bring us here to this terrible place? This land has no grain, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, and no water to drink!” – Numbers 20:2-5 NLT

They were literally “unhappy campers” and they voiced their complaint to Moses. In doing so, they accused Moses of trying to kill them. They questioned his leadership by stating that he had somehow managed to guide them one of the most uninhabitable places on the face of the earth.

Frustrated by yet another wave of grumbling and complaining from his wards, Moses went straight to the tabernacle in order to seek guidance from God. He was at a loss as to how to respond to his ungrateful followers. And the Lord told Moses exactly what to do.

“You and Aaron must take the staff and assemble the entire community. As the people watch, speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water. You will provide enough water from the rock to satisfy the whole community and their livestock.” – Numbers 20:8 NLT

God gave Moses very specific instructions. And the text tells us that “Moses did as he was told.” But did he? The book of Numbers records exactly what Moses did and provides the explanation for his eventual ban from entering the land. 

He took the staff from the place where it was kept before the Lord. Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So the entire community and their livestock drank their fill. – Numbers 20:9-11 NLT

Moses was angry. He was put out with the people and fed up with their constant complaining and their unpleasant habit of blaming all their problems on him. So, he took this opportunity to do a bit of grandstanding before these ungrateful and unworthy whiners. You can tell what Moses thought about them by how he addressed them. He called them rebels. The Hebrew word, marah, carries the idea of bitterness or unpleasantness. These people were difficult to live with because they were always complaining about everything. They were ungrateful and disrespectful and Moses had had his fill of them. But he allowed his anger with the people to get the best of him, and rather than do what God had told him to do, Moses improvised. He raised the rod over his head and brought it down in rage, striking the rock two times. Rather than speaking to the rock as God had instructed him to do, Moses took out his anger on the rock.

Amazingly, in spite of Moses’ disobedience, water flowed from the rock just as God had promised. But as Moses watched the miracle of the water flowing from a rock, he heard these fateful words from God.

“Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them!” – Numbers 20:12 NLT

Like the burning bush where Moses first met with God, this rock was going to be a symbol of God’s presence and power. In fact, the apostle Paul would later explain that the rock was Jesus Himself.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 NLT

God had manifested His presence in a variety of ways, including the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The manna was another proof of God’s presence and provision. And now, the rock was to have been yet another sign of God’s miraculous power and gracious, life-giving presence.

In striking the rock, Moses took out his anger on God. He lashed out at Savior of his people. And yet, the life-giving water still flowed and the peoples’ thirst was slacked. But why was God so angry with Moses? Couldn’t He understand the frustration Moses must have felt? Yes, God most certainly understood what Moses was going through. After all, the complaints of the people were ultimately aimed at Him. But there is something telling in how Moses spoke to the people that day. He gathered them together and said, “Must we bring you water from this rock?”

Moses was attempting to take credit for something God was going to do. In a sense, he was telling the people, “So, you want to question my leadership? Well, watch this!”

He was hoping to use the power of God to bolster his own reputation among the people. Rather than pointing the people to the majesty and holiness of God, he attempted to steal some of God’s thunder. He wanted the people to respect him. But God does not share His glory with anyone.

“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols.” – Isaiah 42:8 NLT

Moses was guilty of setting himself up as a god. He wanted the people to worship and fear him. He was attempting to portray himself as their source of sustenance. He was the one who was meeting their needs. This was a dangerous game to play. Moses was supposed to be pointing the people to God, but in striking the rock, Moses showed disrespect for God.

There is another interesting insight found in the account in Numbers. The whole episode is summarized by the following statement:

This place was known as the waters of Meribah (which means “arguing”) because there the people of Israel argued with the Lord, and there he demonstrated his holiness among them. – Numbers 20:13 NLT

Notice those last seven words: “There he demonsrated his holiness among them.” In spite of Moses’ disobedience, God revealed His holiness. He displayed His “otherness” or transcendence. The Hebrew word translated as “holiness” is qadash. It means “to show oneself sacred or majestic” (“H6942 – qadash – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible.). Through His miraculous provision of water from an ordinary rock, God was demonstrating His set-apartness. In the same way He caused manna to appear each morning and quail to fall from the sky, God was revealing to the people just how powerful He was. He was fully capable of meeting all their needs and He wanted them to trust Him.

But Moses had tried to steal God’s glory and make it his own. And God made perfectly clear what Moses’ sin was. He told Moses that he was guilty of “failing to uphold me as holy at the waters before their eyes” (Numbers 27:13 ESV). Moses was guilty of trying to use God as a prop or tool to reinforce his own significance.

We can see the gravity of this particular sin by looking at the severe consequences it incurred. Moses was banned from the land of promise.

“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV

But there’s one more interesting insight into Moses’ outlook on his punishment from God. When informing the people of Israel about his fate, he blamed them.

“But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he would not listen to me.” – Deuteronomy 3:26 NLT

Not exactly the truth. God had been angry with Moses because Moses had allowed his anger with the people to cause him to steal glory from God. But Moses was not the savior of the people of Israel. He was not their deliverer. God had never intended Moses to be their provider. Moses was nothing more than a servant of the Almighty, and his job was to point the people to the one who had promised to rescue, lead, and provide for them. It was God who would go before the people into the land of promise, not Moses.

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

 

 

 

I Am Not in Your Midst

34 “And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!’ 37 Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. 40 But as for you, turn, and journey into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea.’

41 “Then you answered me, ‘We have sinned against the Lord. We ourselves will go up and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us.’ And every one of you fastened on his weapons of war and thought it easy to go up into the hill country. 42 And the Lord said to me, ‘Say to them, Do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst, lest you be defeated before your enemies.’ 43 So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the Lord and presumptuously went up into the hill country. 44 Then the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do and beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. 45 And you returned and wept before the Lord, but the Lord did not listen to your voice or give ear to you. 46 So you remained at Kadesh many days, the days that you remained there.” – Deuteronomy 1:34-46 ESV

Moses is addressing the people of Israel as they stand on the eastern edge of the land of Canaan, attempting to bolster their confidence in God and refresh their memories concerning what happened to the previous generation who had refused to enter the Promised Land as God had commanded them. Moses is providing his younger audience with a much-needed history lesson, in which he exposes the true reason that more than 40-years had passed since the Israelites had been set free from their captivity in Egypt. This younger generation had to have questioned the cause of the delay and wondered why it had taken so long to reach the land of Canaan. And it is doubtful that their parents had been open and honest about the cause of the delay.

Moses wants this generation, which represented the future of Israel, to know the truth. He didn’t want them questioning the faithfulness of God or doubting the Almighty’s ability to keep His promises. The four-decade-long detour and delay had not been God’s plan. It had come about as the result of the peoples’ refusal to trust Him. And Moses recounts the doubt-filled response of the people when they had heard that there were giants in the land.

The Lord must hate us. That’s why he has brought us here from Egypt—to hand us over to the Amorites to be slaughtered. Where can we go? – Deuteronomy 1:27-28 ESV

The report of the spies, detailing the presence of formidable enemies in the land, had caused the Israelites to doubt God’s love and question His goodness. Suddenly, their view of God changed. The great I Am,  who had graciously freed them from captivity, defeated the armies of Egypt, and had led them across the wilderness, had become a tyrant. He was a hateful, promise-breaking deity who was going to allow them to be slaughtered by the occupants of the land. And how did they arrive at this warped perspective? They had been told that there were enemies in the land.

And the news of enemies in the land carried more weight in their minds than God’s track record of love, care, grace, mercy, and faithfulness. His history as a covenant-keeping God went out the window at the first sign of trouble. The prospect of enemies in the land destroyed any confidence they had in the God in their midst.

God did not take their accusations against Him lightly. They were accusing Him of lying and of being untrustworthy. They were questioning His very character. Rather than recognizing God as holy, righteous, and just, they had accused Him of betrayal and abandonment. And God, who always protects the integrity of His name and defends His own character, would not allow them to drag His reputation through the mud. Their very existence as a nation had been His doing. He had taken Abraham and Sarah, an elderly man and his barren wife, and had given them more descendants than there are stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). And He had promised to give those descendants “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8 ESV). 

But when the time had come to take possession of that land, those very same people had decided that their enemies were greater than their God. In their minds, the potential for trouble overshadowed the proven power of God. When they discovered that their occupation of the land of promise wasn’t going to be easy, they lost all hope. The presence of trials did a number on their ability to trust. And God responded quickly and sternly.

“Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 1:35 NLT

Their disbelief was going to lead to their discipline by God. That disobedient generation would never enjoy all the blessings the land of promise held in store for them, because they failed to trust the God who had promised it to them. Their unwillingness to do battle for the land robbed them of ever experiencing all that the land had to offer.  But one of the other things they would miss out on would be the faith-stirring reality of watching God defeat the giants in their midst. He had told them He would go before them and fight on behalf of them. He had promised to give them victories over all their enemies – if they would simply obey His command and enter the land – giants and all.

Facing the prospect of God’s anger, the people had declared, “We have sinned against the Lord! We will go into the land and fight for it, as the Lord our God has commanded us” (Deuteronomy 1:41 NLT). But it was too little too late. God knew their hearts. He was fully aware that they had no confidence in Him. They were simply trying to escape His wrath.

As a sign of their change of heart, the men of Israel had strapped on their weapons and prepared to do battle for the hill country of the Amorites. They wanted to prove to God that they were ready to be obedient. But the text tells us that they believed this battle would prove to be a cake walk. “So your men strapped on their weapons, thinking it would be easy to attack the hill country” (Deuteronomy 1:41 NLT). 

But God warned them not to follow through with their plans, because He would not be with them. They would be going into battle against His wishes and without His assistance. And the outcome would be devastating.

If you go ahead on your own, you will be crushed by your enemies.” – Deuteronomy 1:42 NLT

Yet, they refused to believe God and went ahead with their plan. They were going to prove to God that they were faithful, even if it meant being disobedient to do so. Think about the absurdity of their reasoning. They were going to disobey God in a vain attempt to impress Him. And Moses, retelling the details of this past event to his young audience standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, explains what happened next:

“This is what I told you, but you would not listen. Instead, you again rebelled against the Lord’s command and arrogantly went into the hill country to fight.  But the Amorites who lived there came out against you like a swarm of bees. They chased and battered you all the way from Seir to Hormah. Then you returned and wept before the Lord, but he refused to listen. So you stayed there at Kadesh for a long time.” – Deuteronomy 1:43-46 NLT

They had refused to trust God. Instead, they had decided to disobey Him. Then, when He responded in anger to their disobedience, they determined to prove their faithfulness by disobeying Him yet again. But God warned them that any efforts done by them but without His approval or help would be doomed to failure. They had feared the giants in the land, but had fallen to the Amorites outside the land. They had failed to trust God, but then tried to win back His favor through further disobedience.

And yet, all of this could have been avoided if they had only done what God had asked them to do: Enter the land and trust Him with the results.

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

 

 

 

You Did Not Believe

19 “Then we set out from Horeb and went through all that great and terrifying wilderness that you saw, on the way to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our God commanded us. And we came to Kadesh-barnea. 20 And I said to you, ‘You have come to the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. 21 See, the Lord your God has set the land before you. Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’ 22 Then all of you came near me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up and the cities into which we shall come.’ 23 The thing seemed good to me, and I took twelve men from you, one man from each tribe. 24 And they turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and spied it out. 25 And they took in their hands some of the fruit of the land and brought it down to us, and brought us word again and said, ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.’

26 “Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. 27 And you murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. 28 Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’ 29 Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. 30 The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ 32 Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God, 33 who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go.” – Deuteronomy 1:19-33 ESV

Moses continues his recitation of Israel’s history in an attempt to remind the next generation of their heritage of sin and rebellion against God. He wanted this younger group of Israelites to understand that the reason they were the newly designated conquerors of the land of Canaan was because their mothers and fathers had refused to do what God had commanded them to do. If the previous generation had done what they were supposed to do, these young people would have grown up in the land of Canaan rather than wandering around the wilderness. They would have enjoyed all the blessings and benefits that God had promised. But their parents had disobeyed God. And Moses makes it very clear that their disobedience was a byproduce of their disbelief. They didn’t believe God.

When the 12 men who had been sent to spy out the land had returned, they had good news and bad news. They unanimously agreed that the land was rich and bountiful, just as God had said. They had even brought back samples of the fruit as proof and declared, “It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us” (Deuteronomy 1:25 ESV). But there was a second part to their report. The land was filled with fruit, but it was also overflowing with enemies, a fact the spies made painfully clear.

“The people of the land are taller and more powerful than we are, and their towns are large, with walls rising high into the sky! We even saw giants there—the descendants of Anak!” – Deuteronomy 1:28 ESV

The spies provided physical proof of the land’s fruitfulness, but they also shared personal testimony as its inherent dangers. There were giants in the land! And the fortified cities had walls that reached to the sky! Now, it’s easy for us to write this off as a case of obvious hyperbole, but that’s not how the Israelites viewed it. They were terrified by what they heard. They believed the words of the spies and it produced a growing sense of panic.

“The Lord must hate us. That’s why he has brought us here from Egypt—to hand us over to the Amorites to be slaughtered. Where can we go?” – Deuteronomy 1:27-28 NLT

God had set them free from their captivity in Egypt, miraculously bringing a series of judgments against the Egyptians in the form of ten devastating plagues. The final plague, the death of the firstborns, had caused Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but he quickly changed his mind and sent his troops to recapture them and bring them back. But God had defeated the army of Pharaoh at the Red Sea. Then God had led the people of Israel through the wilderness, caring for their every need and providing them with His law. But when they had come to the edge of the long-awaited promised land, they too had a change of heart. The news of well-armed giants and skyscraper-like fortifications caused them to disbelieve the promise of God. God had clearly told them that He would assist them in capturing the land. It would be His doing.

“See, I am going to make a covenant before all your people. I will do wonders such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation. All the people among whom you live will see the work of the Lord, for it is a fearful thing that I am doing with you.

“Obey what I am commanding you this day. I am going to drive out before you the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.” – Exodus 34:10-11 NLT

He had promised to fight for them and alongside them. Notice that God had not promised a lack of enemies in the land. He never said they would just walk into the land without a fight. He promised victory, not a lack of opposition. But rather than take God at His word, they listened to the majority opinion of the spies. Which had caused Moses to plead with them to remember the promise of God and reconsider their decision.

“Don’t be shocked or afraid of them! The Lord your God is going ahead of you. He will fight for you, just as you saw him do in Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 1:29-30 NLT

This scene brings to mind another encounter recorded on the pages of Scripture, where God’s people found themselves dealing with fruit and an enemy. All the way back in the beginning, as described in the book of Genesis, we see Adam and Eve faced with a decision to believe God or to listen to an opposing view that contradicted the command of God. On this occasion, the enemy took the form of a serpent, not an army filled with giants. And rather than a cluster of grapes from the land of Canaan, Adam and Eve were presented with the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it was obviously tempting, because the Genesis account records that Eve saw and she ate.

When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. – Genesis 3:6 NLT

But it wasn’t just the tempting nature of the fruit that caused Eve to eat. It was the lies of the enemy. And he began by causing Eve to doubt to doubt the word of God by subtly twisting what God had said.

“Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?” – Genesis 3:1 NLT

When the woman had attempted to correct the enemy’s words, clearly relating that God had promised death as a punishment for disobedience, Satan essentially called God a liar and a deceiver.

“Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 NLT

He caused Eve to doubt the word of God, which led to disbelief in the promise that God had made. And the disbelief eventually manifested itself in disobedience.

…she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. – Genesis 3:6 NLT

The decision of Adam and Eve to doubt God led to their disobedience of God. And their disobedience led to their banishment from the presence of God. They had started life in the garden, but found themselves on the outside looking in. The Israelites had been standing on the outside looking into the promised land, but God had promised that it was theirs for the taking, if they would only take Him at His word and enter in.

But, like Eve, the Israelites refused to believe what God had said. God had not promised a lack of enemies in the land or a conflict-free conquest of the land. He had promised to go before them and to fight for them. He had assured them of victory, not a lack of war.

From the minute they had left Egypt, God had proven Himself faithful and more than capable of caring for them. He had gone before them, fought on behalf of them, and provided food and clothing for them. And yet, Moses points out, that despite all of God’s loving care and concern, they doubted Him, which caused them to disbelieve Him, and eventually to disobey Him.

“But even after all he did, you refused to trust the Lord your God, who goes before you looking for the best places to camp, guiding you with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. – Deuteronomy 1:32-33 NLT

They had “rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to go in” (Deuteronomy 1:26 NLT). And now, 40 years later, Moses was watching a new generation facing the very same circumstance and wondering how they would respond. Would they believe and obey?  Or, like their parents, would they allow their circumstances to doubt the word of God, disbelieve the promises of God, and disobey the command of 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

 

 

 

The Just Judgment of God

Their appearance is like the appearance of horses,
    and like war horses they run.
As with the rumbling of chariots,
    they leap on the tops of the mountains,
like the crackling of a flame of fire
    devouring the stubble,
like a powerful army
    drawn up for battle.

Before them peoples are in anguish;
    all faces grow pale.
Like warriors they charge;
    like soldiers they scale the wall.
They march each on his way;
    they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another;
    each marches in his path;
they burst through the weapons
    and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
    they run upon the walls,
they climb up into the houses,
    they enter through the windows like a thief.

10 The earth quakes before them;
    the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.
11 The Lord utters his voice
    before his army,
for his camp is exceedingly great;
    he who executes his word is powerful.
For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome;
    who can endure it? Joel 2:4-11 ESV

In these verses, Joel provides additional details concerning the coming day of the Lord. It will feature another invasion of alien forces, but this time it will not be locusts, but a foreign army. Yet, Joel uses imagery to describe this invading force that sounds eerily similar to the locust infestation the people of Judah had just endured. You can almost imagine the locusts “devouring the stubble” (Joel 2:5 ESV). His description of the enemy soldiers climbing “up into the houses” and entering “through the windows like a thief” must have brought back unsettling memories of the millions of disgusting locusts invading their villages and homes.

But this time, the enemy was going to be made up of men armed with swords, marching in endless columns, and riding in chariots of iron. And, like the locusts, they would be driven by a primal urge to devour and destroy everything in their path. And there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. Which is why Joel describes the people as being in a state of anguish with their faces white with fear. The armies of Judah will prove inadequate against this massive enemy onslaught. Any attempt to defend the city of Jerusalem will fail, as “they burst through the weapons and are not halted” (Joel 2:8 ESV). 

Joel is describing a scene that is meant to instill fear in the hearts of the people. And he purposefully uses language that is intended to remind his audience of all that they have just endured. But this judgment will be far greater in intensity, and the damage will far exceed the loss of grain and grapes. When the locusts had finally disappeared, they left behind a land devoid of crops. But when the invading army that shows up on the day of the Lord is finished, the land of Judah will be like a ghost town, free of human life. Those who are not slain by the sword will be taken captive.

And Joel wants his audience to know that this invasion will be God’s doing. The army that shows up will be His army, and they will be accomplishing His divine will.

The Lord is at the head of the column.
    He leads them with a shout.
This is his mighty army,
    and they follow his orders. – Joel 2:11 NLT

God had used similar language when addressing the people of Judah through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah.

“…behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:9 ESV

God is sovereign over all. And He is fully capable of using anything He has created to accomplish His will, including pagan armies and foreign dignitaries. In fact, the prophet Isaiah provides another message from God, where He warns Babylon of their coming destruction at the hands of yet another foreign power.

“Raise a signal flag on a bare hilltop.
    Call up an army against Babylon.
Wave your hand to encourage them
    as they march into the palaces of the high and mighty.
I, the Lord, have dedicated these soldiers for this task.
    Yes, I have called mighty warriors to express my anger,
    and they will rejoice when I am exalted.” – Isaiah 13:2-3 NLT

The sovereign God of the universe has the entire world at His disposal. He can accomplish His will by any means He deems necessary. And His use of unrighteous kings and ungodly armies does not make God unholy. His ways are always right, and His judgments are blameless. Even Daniel, one of the Jews who found himself living in exile in Babylon after the fall of the city of Jerusalem, commented on the righteousness of God in light of Judah’s rebellion against Him.

To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. – Daniel 9:7 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah provides further insight into Judah’s treachery and God’s righteous response to it.

For they have rejected the law of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies;
    they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
That is why the Lord’s anger burns against his people,
    and why he has raised his fist to crush them.
The mountains tremble,
    and the corpses of his people litter the streets like garbage.
But even then the Lord’s anger is not satisfied.
    His fist is still poised to strike! – Isaiah 5:24-25 NLT

And Isaiah goes on to describe how the Lord will mete out His anger against His rebellious children.

He will send a signal to distant nations far away
    and whistle to those at the ends of the earth.
    They will come racing toward Jerusalem.
They will not get tired or stumble.
    They will not stop for rest or sleep.
Not a belt will be loose,
    not a sandal strap broken.
Their arrows will be sharp
    and their bows ready for battle.
Sparks will fly from their horses’ hooves,
    and the wheels of their chariots will spin like a whirlwind.
They will roar like lions,
    like the strongest of lions.
Growling, they will pounce on their victims and carry them off,
    and no one will be there to rescue them.
They will roar over their victims on that day of destruction
    like the roaring of the sea.
If someone looks across the land,
    only darkness and distress will be seen;
    even the light will be darkened by clouds. – Isaiah 5:26-30 NLT

Because of their unholy behavior, God will use Judah’s unholy enemies to punish them. Like Adam and Eve banned from the garden due to their rejection of God’s word, the people of Judah would be expelled from the land of promise because they had rejected His law. He had set them apart as His own possession and had called them to live holy lives.

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

You have been set apart as holy to the LORD your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 14:2 NLT

But rather than living in a way that illustrated their status as God’s chosen people, they had chosen to assimilate with and follow the example of the pagan nations around them. They fell in love with the world. And their love affair with the world led them to conduct themselves like an unfaithful wife, giving their affection and attention to false gods.

So, God warns them of coming judgment. And it will come in two phases. There will be a more immediate judgment that shows up in the form of the Babylonian army. But there is another judgment that lies in the distant future and will take place at the end of the age. God knows His people. And as the sovereign God of the universe, He is well aware that they will continue to be unfaithful to Him. Which is why He has a future day of restoration planned for them.

But in the meantime, He is going to call them to repentance. He is going to offer them a second chance.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
   and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster. – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

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

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

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

 

The Faithful Few

Isaiah 65:8-16

There is a lot of bad news in the book of Isaiah. It is filled with indictments regarding the sins of the people of Judah. And it contains warnings concerning God’s pending judgment for those sins. God was not going to allow their unfaithfulness and disobedience to go unpunished. As the holy and righteous God, His character would not allow Him to do so. But as the book comes to a close, God has some good news to convey to His chosen people.

The cluster of grapes to which God refers in this passage is meant to represent Judah. It contains both good and bad grapes. And while the bad grapes were essentially good for nothing, God vows to protect entire cluster in order to spare the remnant of good grapes that contain “new wine.” While the entire nation was guilty of open rebellion against God, there were those who had remained faithful. So, God vows not to destroy them all. He will show great patience in dealing with His people, refusing to eliminate those who have remained His servants.

“I will not destroy all Israel.
    For I still have true servants there.” – Isaiah 65:8 NLT

The few who have remained true to God will be rewarded by Him, because they have chosen not to give into the pressure to compromise their faith in God. While all their friends and neighbors were worshiping false gods, these faithful few refused to turn their backs on God. And just to make sure that we know how difficult that choice was for them, God describes what they are up against. They are swimming against the prevailing current of their day. They are going against the popular perspective and risking everything to resist the moral sell-out of the majority. God speaks directly to the immoral majority:

“…the rest of you have forsaken the Lord
    and have forgotten his Temple,
and because you have prepared feasts to honor the god of Fate
    and have offered mixed wine to the god of Destiny…” – Isaiah 65:11 NLT

The crowd had long ago turned their backs on God, choosing to worship false gods with names like Gad, the Babylonian god of fortune, and Meni, the Babylonian god of fate or destiny. How ironic that these two gods were among the many idols the people of Jjudah worshiped. In doing so, they were displaying their hope that these false gods would somehow improve their fortunes and change their fate. While Yahweh had been pronouncing His coming judgment, the people of Judah were busy calling on gods whom they hoped would counter God’s will. But God throws cold water on their hopes for a positive outcome by telling them, “I will destine you to the sword” (Isaiah 65:12 ESV). He alone had control over their fortunes. He alone could determine their destiny. And it would not be pretty.

“…all of you shall bow down to the slaughter…” – Isaiah 65:12 ESV

Why? Because when God called, they had refused to answer. When He spoke, they had not listened. Their lives were marked by doing the exact opposite of what God had called them to do. It was a case of blatant disobedience, not innocent ignorance. They knew that what they were doing was in direct violation of God’s commands. But they did it anyway.

And, in verses 13-16, God describes the dramatic contrast between His treatment of the faithful remnant and the disobedient majority. His servants would eat, drink, rejoice, and sing songs of joy. But the rest would starve, thirst, be put to shame, and experience unimaginable sorrow. And the actions of the unfaithful majority would leave an indelible stain on the name and reputation of israel. Isaiah tells them:

Your name will be a curse word among my people,
    for the Sovereign Lord will destroy you
    and will call his true servants by another name. – Isaiah 65:15 NLT

But this is not the first time this promise has been made. Back in chapter 62, God had told them that the day was coming when he would call them by a new name.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
    and her salvation as a burning torch.
The nations shall see your righteousness,
    and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will give. – Isaiah 62:1-2 ESV

We are not told what that name will be. But the sinful actions of the people of Israel will leave their name unusable. If you recall, the name Israel was given to Jacob after he had wrestled with God, and that new name meant, “God prevails.” And God would later reinforce that name change, telling Jacob, “no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10 ESV). Then God followed up these words with a statement designed to provide proper gravity to this name change.

“I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:11-12 ESV

Now, generations later, God was letting the descendants of Jacob know that He was going to keep that promise. Even after the northern kingdom of Israel had been taken into captivity into Assyrian and the southern kingdom was exiled into Babylon, God promises that he will one day reunify His people, creating a single kingdom over which one King will rule.

“Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.” – Ezekiel 37:21-22 ESV

In His revelation to John, Jesus said, “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12 ESV). While Isaiah does not tell us what that name will be, Jeremiah does. He writes, “In that day Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this will be its name: ‘The Lord is Our Righteousness’” (Jeremiah 33:16 NLT). Jerusalem and all Israel will know what it is like to experience the righteousness of God, not only in their midst, but in their lives, community, and the world.

This will not be the old Jerusalem restored, but a brand new city that comes down from heaven. All will be new. In fact, we are told that God will create a new heaven and a new earth and John provides us with a description of it.

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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4 ESV

A new heaven. A new earth. A new city. A new name for the redeemed and restored remnant of God. The day is coming when God will put aside His anger and forget the evil of earlier days. The faithful few will enjoy the forgiveness of God and the incredible blessing of having their hearts made pure and new.

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

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

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

No Peace For the Wicked

12 “Listen to me, O Jacob,
    and Israel, whom I called!
I am he; I am the first,
    and I am the last.
13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
    and my right hand spread out the heavens;
when I call to them,
    they stand forth together.

14 “Assemble, all of you, and listen!
    Who among them has declared these things?
The Lord loves him;
    he shall perform his purpose on Babylon,
    and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans.
15 I, even I, have spoken and called him;
    I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way.
16 Draw near to me, hear this:
    from the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
    from the time it came to be I have been there.”
And now the Lord God has sent me, and his Spirit.

17 Thus says the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you to profit,
    who leads you in the way you should go.
18 Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments!
    Then your peace would have been like a river,
    and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;
19 your offspring would have been like the sand,
    and your descendants like its grains;
their name would never be cut off
    or destroyed from before me.”

20 Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,
    declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,
send it out to the end of the earth;
    say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
21 They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts;
    he made water flow for them from the rock;
    he split the rock and the water gushed out.

22 “There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” – Isaiah 48:12-22 ESV

That last line is a virtual promise from God and it is all-encompassing in its scope. As the book of Isaiah has made painfully clear, God was going to deal with the wickedness of His chosen people. He would no longer tolerate their blatant acts of spiritual infidelity and moral compromise. They had sinned against Him, and they were going to suffer the consequences. And God has revealed that His chosen method of punishment would be the Babylonians. Just as He had chosen Israel to be His prized possession, He had chosen Babylon to be His preferred means of punishment. He would use King Nebuchadnezzar and his army to invade the land of Judah, destroying its cities and taking captive its people. Babylon’s victory over the people of Judah would be according to the will of God. In fact, according to the prophet Jeremiah, God decreed that their rise to global dominance would be His doing.

“With my great strength and powerful arm I made the earth and all its people and every animal. I can give these things of mine to anyone I choose. Now I will give your countries to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who is my servant. I have put everything, even the wild animals, under his control. All the nations will serve him, his son, and his grandson until his time is up.” – Jeremiah 27:5-7 NLT

But notice that God puts a time limit on Babylon’s rule. And it will be because they act wickedly, punishing the people of God disproportionately and wrongly taking credit for their success.

“I was angry with my people;
    I profaned my heritage;
I gave them into your hand;
    you showed them no mercy;
on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy.” – Isaiah 47:6 ESV

They would let their many victories go to their heads and assume that they would remain in power forever. They would get cocky, claiming, “I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children” (Isaiah 48:8 ESV).

But as God has promised, “There is no peace for the wicked.” He would bring judgment against the Babylonians, and Jeremiah makes that fact plain.

“Then many nations and great kings will conquer and rule over Babylon.” – Jeremiah 27:7 NLT

And God has already decreed that His chosen instrument for bringing judgment on the Babylonians will be King Cyrus of the Persians.

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed:

“For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I equip you, though you do not know me.” – Isaiah 45: 1, 4-5 ESV

God would punish wicked Judah by using the Babylonians. Then He would repay the Babylonians for the wickedness by using the Persians. And God would use Cyrus, the Persian king, to return the people of Judah to the land of promise.

And in verses 12-21 of Isaiah 48, God calls His people to recognize His hand in all of this. He has told them all that is going to happen, long before any of it has begun. He has predicted their fate, including their fall at the hands of the Babylonians and their eventual restoration to the land. And two times, God calls on the people of Judah to pay attention to what He is saying.

Listen to me, O Jacob,
    and Israel, whom I called!” – Isaiah 48:12 ESV

“Assemble, all of you, and listen!” – Isaiah 48:14 ESV

Draw near to me, hear this…” – Isaiah 48:16 ESV

But the people of Judah suffered from a severe hearing problem. God even laments, “Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea…” (Isaiah 48:18 ESV). If they would have listened to what He had said, obeying His commands and living in keeping with His divine decrees, things would have been markedly different. But listening proved difficult for them. And, through His prophets, God had continually called to them, begging for them to heed what He had to say.

“Listen, you foolish and senseless people, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Have you no respect for me? Why don’t you tremble in my presence?” – Jeremiah 5:21-22 NLT

The root of their problem was rebellion, fueled by a lack of fear of God.

“But my people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. They have turned away and abandoned me. They do not say from the heart, ‘Let us live in awe of the Lord our God.’” – Jeremiah 5:23-24 NLT

And God reminds the people of Judah that He has been there from the beginning. The one who created the world, had called them and made them His own. He had been beside them all along the way. He had spoken to them, provided for them, and guided and protected them. They had no reason to doubt His goodness or question His word, and now He was telling them that King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians were coming. But He was also letting them know that He had plans for the Babylonians as well.

“I have said it: I am calling Cyrus!
    I will send him on this errand and will help him succeed. – Isaiah 48:15 ESV

God was going to punish Judah for their wickedness, but He was also going to redeem and restore them. And to make sure they understand the inevitability of His plan, He speaks of it in the past-tense, as if their exodus from Babylon has already taken place.

“Yet even now, be free from your captivity!
    Leave Babylon and the Babylonians.
Sing out this message!
    Shout it to the ends of the earth!
The Lord has redeemed his servants,
    the people of Israel.” – Isaiah 48:20 ESV

God’s word is irrefutable and unchangeable. His prophecies are not wishful thinking or some form of positive motivational, name-it-and-claim-it rhetoric. He is the God of the universe who is all-knowing and all-powerful. His word always comes to fruition. Which means, had the people of Judah done what He had said and lived in obedience to His commands, their “peace would have been like a river.” But, instead, they would learn the painful lesson that “there is no peace for the wicked.”

Taking God at His word is difficult. We are wired to doubt. Just as Eve allowed Satan to cast doubt on the word of God and cause her to disobey His command, we are prone to hear the promises of God and question their validity and credibility. Not only do we wonder whether God will do what He has said, we find ourselves questioning whether He can. And when we do, we fail to live in awe of the Lord our 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

The Sacrificer Becomes the Sacrifice.

1 Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
    the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
    let the feasts run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and she shall be to me like an Ariel.
And I will encamp against you all around,
    and will besiege you with towers
    and I will raise siegeworks against you.
And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak,
    and from the dust your speech will be bowed down;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and from the dust your speech shall whisper.

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust,
    and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff.
And in an instant, suddenly,
    you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
    with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
    all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her,
    shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating,
    and awakes with his hunger not satisfied,
or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking,
    and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
    that fight against Mount Zion. – Isaiah 29:1-8 ESV

In this chapter, Isaiah delivers yet another woe against Jerusalem, addressing the city of David as “Ariel.” There is some debate as to the exact meaning of this word and why it was used as a reference to Jerusalem. There are two possible meanings. The first is from the Hebrew word, ‘ariy’el, which means “lion of God.” The second is very similar in spelling but carries a much different meaning and connotation. It is ‘ari’eyl and it means “altar hearth.” While either meaning would be an appropriate description of the city of Jerusalem, it would seem, based on the context of the surrounding verses, that the second makes the most sense.

Isaiah warns them that their destruction is eminent, but sarcastically tells them, “Keep observing your annual rituals, celebrate your festivals on schedule” (Isaiah 29:1 NLT). In other words, keep doing what you’re doing. Continue to practice your religious feasts and festivals as if nothing is going to happen. In a sense, Isaiah is mocking their stubborn belief that they will be protected by God if they simply continue to go through the motions of keeping all the rites associated with the sacrificial system. In verse 13 of this chapter, Isaiah shares God’s opinion of their efforts:

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

The New Living Translation puts it in even starker terms:

“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.

Jerusalem should have been the altar of God, the very place where the people came to worship Him and to seek forgiveness from Him. It is interesting to note that, in the book of Ezekiel, the prophet received a vision from God that revealed a future temple. He was taken to the east gate of the temple compound, where he saw the glory of God enter.

“As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” – Ezekiel 43:4-5 ESV

And the next thing Ezekiel heard was the voice of God speaking to him from inside the Holy of Holies.

“Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place where I will rest my feet. I will live here forever among the people of Israel. They and their kings will not defile my holy name any longer by their adulterous worship of other gods or by honoring the relics of their kings who have died. They put their idol altars right next to mine with only a wall between them and me. They defiled my holy name by such detestable sin, so I consumed them in my anger. Now let them stop worshiping other gods and honoring the relics of their kings, and I will live among them forever.” – Ezekiel 43:7-9 NLT

Jerusalem was to have been the place where God dwelt among His people. And the temple was the house that Solomon had built for God. And yet, God indicted His people for their desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. So, the day was coming when God would provide a new temple to replace the first one that would be destroyed by the Babylonians and the second one destroyed by the Romans. In preparation for this new temple, the Lord commanded Ezekiel to provide the people with a lesson on the exact meaning of each and every part of the temple.

“Son of man, describe to the people of Israel the Temple I have shown you, so they will be ashamed of all their sins. Let them study its plan, and they will be ashamed of what they have done.” – Ezekiel 43:10-11 NLT

Ezekiel-43-Altar-of-SacrificeAnd here is where it gets interesting. In describing the brazen altar, where all the blood sacrifices were made, God uses the word, ‘ari’eyl, when speaking of the very top section of the altar.

“…and the altar hearth, four cubits; and from the altar hearth projecting upward, four horns. The altar hearth shall be square, twelve cubits long by twelve broad.” – Ezekiel 43:15-16 ESV

This is the same word used by Isaiah to refer to Jerusalem. They were to have been the altar hearth, the very pinnacle of the altar of sacrifice. And yet, they had failed to live in covenant faithfulness to God. So, God has Isaiah deliver the stark warning:

“Yet I will bring disaster upon you,
    and there will be much weeping and sorrow.
For Jerusalem will become what her name Ariel means—
    an altar covered with blood.” – Isaiah 29:2 NLT

And God lets them know that, when the Babylonians finally arrive and erect their siege walls around the city, they will be acting on God’s behalf.

“I will be your enemy,
    surrounding Jerusalem and attacking its walls.
I will build siege towers
    and destroy it.” – Isaiah 43:3 NLT

He wanted them to understand that, when the destruction came, it was not just a case of bad luck or fate. It would be the hand of God Almighty giving them exactly what they deserved for the desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. God was letting them know that if they treated the sacrificial system lightly that He had provided for the forgiveness of their sins, they would become the sacrifice themselves. Their blood would be spilled. He would remove the temple and the altar hearth so that no more sacrifices could be offered for the remission of sin. They would be on their own.

God describes their coming destruction as being like a bad dream. It will come suddenly, and the number of their enemies will be too great to count. And the enemy’s appetite for destruction will be insatiable. They will be like a man who dreams he is eating, only to awake and discover he is still hungry. They will lay siege to the city for a long period of time, with each day increasing their desire to breach the walls and destroy everyone and everything inside.

The sacrificers were about to become the sacrifice. Rather than animals on the altar hearth, it would be the people of God. Their sins would be atoned for, but not by substitutes. They would pay with their own lives.

God had provided a way for His people to receive forgiveness for their sins. He had given them an entire system, including the temple itself, by which they could have their sins atoned for and their relationship with God secured. In Ezekiel’s vision, God told to remind the people:

“On the eighth day, and on each day afterward, the priests will sacrifice on the altar the burnt offerings and peace offerings of the people. Then I will accept you. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 43:27 NLT

But the people of Judah had rejected God. Therefore, He was going to reject them. He was going to punish them for their sins and bring on them the curses He had warned them about generations earlier. They had chosen to treat God Almighty with disdain. But their sins still had to be atoned for. The sin debt must be paid, because “under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

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

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

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