The Lord is in the Right

12 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger.

13 “From on high he sent fire;
    into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
    he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
    faint all the day long.

14 “My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
    by his hand they were fastened together;
they were set upon my neck;
    he caused my strength to fail;
the Lord gave me into the hands
    of those whom I cannot withstand.

15 “The Lord rejected
    all my mighty men in my midst;
he summoned an assembly against me
    to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a winepress
    the virgin daughter of Judah.

16 “For these things I weep;
    my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
    one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate,
    for the enemy has prevailed.”

17 Zion stretches out her hands,
    but there is none to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
    that his neighbors should be his foes;
Jerusalem has become
    a filthy thing among them.

18 “The Lord is in the right,
    for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
    and see my suffering;
my young women and my young men
    have gone into captivity. – Lamentations 1:12-18 ESV

Jerusalem’s plight was self-inflicted but God-ordained. They had freely chosen to break the covenant they had made with Him through repeated violations of His commands. Idolatry, immorality, and injustice had become the new norm throughout the nation of Judah. The spiritual state of the people just prior to their fall to the Babylonians harkens back to the period of the judges. This was the time before the first king ruled over Israel, when the people were still trying to conquer and occupy the land of Canaan. Seven times in the book of Judges, Samuel uses the phrase: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 ESV). The people had essentially rejected God as their sovereign and had chosen instead to live their lives according to their own standards and rules.

And nothing had changed when the kings began to rule. As we saw in yesterday’s post, there had been times when the people were led by godly kings and lived in relative obedience to their covenant commitments. But for the most part, their track record was marred by repeated unfaithfulness and rampant idolatry.

Now, they were suffering the consequences of their actions. God had finally done what He had warned He would do: He had brought His judgment to bear against an ungrateful and unrepentant people who had taken their status as His chosen people for granted. And God’s judgment was fully righteous and their fate was well-deserved.

In verse 18 personifies the city of Jerusalem acknowledging God’s just and righteous actions against her.

“The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word…” – Lamentations 1:18 ESV

This statement regarding God’s unwavering righteousness even while meting out His judgment upon His disobedient people is found throughout the Scriptures. The psalmist was saddened by the nation’s rejection of God’s laws because they reflected His righteous and holy standards.

My eyes shed streams of tears,
    because people do not keep your law.

Righteous are you, O Lord,
    and right are your rules.
You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness
    and in all faithfulness. – Psalm 119:136-138 ESV

Ezra and Nehemiah, two men who would eventually lead a remnant of the people our of Babylon and back to the land of Judah. After 70 years of captivity, a small contingent of God’s people would be restored to the land He had promised as their inheritance. And while they would return to find the city of Jerusalem empty and in a state of desolation, they would recognize and confess that God had been fully just in all He had done.

“O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” – Ezra 9:15 ESV

Every time you punished us you were being just. We have sinned greatly, and you gave us only what we deserved. – Nehemiah 9:33 NLT

And Nehemiah, speaking on behalf of the returned remnant, would acknowledge that the ingratitude and disobedience of their forefathers had been the cause of their plight.

Our kings, leaders, priests, and ancestors did not obey your Law or listen to the warnings in your commands and laws. Even while they had their own kingdom, they did not serve you, though you showered your goodness on them. You gave them a large, fertile land, but they refused to turn from their wickedness. – Nehemiah 9:34-35 NLT

And it’s important to remember that the words found in Lamentations are from the pen of Jeremiah and not from the lips of the people of Judah. He uses the city of Jerusalem to act as a kind of proxy for the people, allowing it to voice what they should have said but had failed to do so.

Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger. – Lamentations 1:12 ESV

There is a clear acknowledgment that their suffering was God-inflicted. But Jeremiah seems to stress that the people are more focused on their sorrow and suffering. Notice how many times Jeremiah uses the personal pronoun “he” to refer to God.

“From on high he sent fire;
    into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
    he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
    faint all the day long.” – Lamentations 1:13 ESV

Fives time in one verse Jeremiah makes mention of God’s divine actions against Jerusalem. But in the following four verses, he will utilize the personal pronouns “me, my, and I” 12 separate times. The emphasis seems to be on the peoples’ plight. It is written from their perspective. Yes, God was just and right in all that He had done, but they were unhappy with the outcome.

he caused my strength to fail – vs. 14

“the Lord gave me into the hands
    of those whom I cannot withstand” – vs. 14

“The Lord rejected
    all my mighty men in my midst” – vs. 15

“he summoned an assembly against me
    to crush my young men” – vs. 15

It was all about them. They couldn’t dismiss the idea that God had brought His judgment against them, but that didn’t mean they had to accept it or like it. And Jeremiah, who was living among the people who had been left behind after the fall of the capital, knew them well. He had heard their cries and laments. He had witnessed the devastation and listened to the pitiable pleas of the people as they navigated the dark days after the Babylonians had left. They had no king, no army, no capital, no temple, and no idea what the future held in store.

But they did have the recognition that their God and His judgments were real. It should have been a time when they came to grips with the seriousness of God’s call to covenant commitment. He had not been bluffing when He warned that disobedience would result in curses. They had just watched it happen with their own eyes.

But Jeremiah portrays them as fixating on all they had lost, rather than focusing their attention on the lessons God was trying to teach them. It reminds me of the opening lines of Charles Dicken’s classic work, A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It is often in our moments of greatest despair that we experience the objectivity and clarity we need to view our circumstances accurately. Times of difficulty tend to get our attention and, if we allow them, they can be used to refocus our priorities.

But Jeremiah portrays the people of Judah as blaming God for their lot in life. They know He is the cause of their current circumstances, but what is missing is any confession on their part. There is no acknowledgment of guilt or expression of repentance. It is all about their pain and their suffering, their loss and their feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.

Jerusalem reaches out for help,
    but no one comforts her. – Lamentations 1:17 NLT

But despite the difficult conditions under which they suffered, their God had not abandoned them. Yes, He was punishing them and justifiably so. But He was a faithful, covenant-keeping God who would not fail to fulfill every promise He had made. All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, written before the people entered the land of promise under the direction of Joshua, God had warned them that their disobedience would have dire consequences.

“…the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you. And there you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.” – Deuteronomy 4:27-28 BSB

But God had also promised to restore them.

“But if from there you will seek the LORD your God, you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; He will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers, which He swore to them by oath.”  – Deuteronomy 4:29-31 BSB

The people of Judah fully deserved what they had suffered. What they didn’t deserve was the gracious and merciful love of God. They could claim to have no comforter, but they would be wrong. God was still with them and for them. He still cared deeply about them. And God intended to keep every promise He had ever made to them.

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

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

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

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No Faith. No Hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All they had left were their collective memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And God answered Hezekiah’s prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free to Choose

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

She weeps bitterly in the night,
    with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
    she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
    they have become her enemies.

Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
    and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
    but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
    in the midst of her distress. – Lamentations 1:1-3 ESV

Like the book of Job, Lamentations deals with the theology of suffering, but from a national, rather than a personal perspective. Written as poetry, Lamentations is a dirge, a song of mourning commemorating the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah. But the book is far more than a reciting of the sad state of affairs in Judah. It is a theological treatise on God’s justice, love, and sovereignty.

The seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are on display throughout the pages of Lamentations, and they are never fully resolved. Even at the close of the book, the unavoidable and inexplicable tension between these two truths remains.

The people of Israel had been given a choice by God. He had made a bilateral covenant with them that spelled out His expectations regarding their behavior. If they obeyed, they would be blessed. If they chose to disobey, the would experience the consequences, in the form of curses. The blessings and the curses had been covered in detail in the book of Deuteronomy.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

The choice had been theirs. But God had made sure that the logical choice would be a clear and compelling one. There should have been no confusion or debate. God had promised that obedience to His commands would be accompanied by the benefit of His blessings on their cities, fields, flocks, agriculture, families, military exploits, business ventures, physical health, and financial prospects. They would enjoy status as “a people holy to himself” (Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV). And God assured them that this unique distinction would be accompanied by some significant implications:

all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 NLT

But what if they chose to disobey God? What would happen then? God had made that outcome painfully clear. Everything He had promised to bless would be cursed.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. – Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV

Their crops, cities, families, flocks, and fortunes would be cursed because God would remove His hand of protection and provision. If they chose to live in ways that were contrary and contradictory to God’s plans for His chosen people, they would experience the dire consequences. But again, the choice had been theirs to make. And we know from the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, that they ultimately chose to live in disobedience to God. They proved unfaithful to Him, regularly rejecting His will for their own. And while God had warned them repeatedly that destruction was coming unless they repented and returned to Him, they rejected the words of the prophets and followed the desires of their hearts.

A pattern of disobedience and unfaithfulness marked the history of God’s people. And it eventually resulted in the split of the kingdom, resulting in the nation of Israel in the north, and the nation of Judah in the south. And in 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians just as God had warned. And while the southern kingdom of Judah had watched the fall of its northern neighbor, they learned nothing from the experience. Because in 586 B.C., they would experience a similar fate, conquered by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

And here, in the opening verses of Lamentations, we read the somber words describing the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, the once flourishing capital of Judah. Jeremiah describes the city as a veritable ghost town. Its once-bustling streets are empty, its houses and buildings destroyed. The former glory of the temple has been reduced to rubble and the gates and walls of the city have been demolished. The book of 2 Kings describes the extent of the devastation.

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem.  And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. – 2 Kings 25:8-12 ESV

Jeremiah describes the fallen city of Jerusalem as a princess who has fallen on hard times. Formerly married and accustomed to great wealth and privilege, she finds herself widowed and reduced to a state of abject poverty. Her fortunes have been drastically and dramatically altered. Having formerly enjoyed the benefits of royal sovereignty, she is now reduced to a state of slavery.

But while her fate may leave us feeling sorry for her, it is not undeserved. Jeremiah goes on to describe Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife. She cries but finds no one to comfort her, in spite of her long list of lovers. Those whom she once considered her friends have ended up abandoning and turning against her. And in the book that bears his name, Jeremiah had warned Judah that all of this was going to happen, long before it did.

And you, Zion, city doomed to destruction,
you accomplish nothing by wearing a beautiful dress,
decking yourself out in jewels of gold,
and putting on eye shadow!
You are making yourself beautiful for nothing.
Your lovers spurn you.
They want to kill you. – Jeremiah 4:30 NET

Judah had made a habit of making alliances with other nations, seeking safety and security through treaties and military pacts, rather than trusting in God. When God had warned that the Babylonians were coming, the leaders of Judah had sought to stay off destruction through partnerships with pagan nations that were in direct violation of God’s will. But these “friends” would prove unfaithful and incapable of delivering Judah from the hands of the Babylonians.

Verse three paints a stark contrast between God’s preferred future for Judah and the reality of their current circumstances. As God’s chosen people, they had been given the land of Canaan as their inheritance. It was a rich and abundant land, filled with tangible expressions of God’s love in the form of orchards, vineyards, fields of grain, and abundant sources of water. They had lived in homes they had not built located in cities they had not constructed. They had enjoyed safety and security from their enemies provided by the hand of God. But now, Judah had “been led away into captivity, oppressed with cruel slavery” (Lamentations 1:3 NLT).

Instead of enjoying the peace and rest of the promised land, the people of God were experiencing the pain and suffering of exile in the land of Babylon. God had promised them that if they would only remain faithful to Him, He would ensure that they remained at the top of the food chain.

“…the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom.“ – Deuteronomy 28:13 NLT

But Jeremiah reveals that their choice to disobey God had produced a far different outcome.

She lives among foreign nations
    and has no place of rest.
Her enemies have chased her down,
    and she has nowhere to turn. – Lamentations 1:3 NLT

The people of Judah had made a choice, and now there were reaping the consequences of that choice. God had warned them, but they had refused to listen. He had pleaded with them repeatedly to repent, but they had rejected those calls. They had not acted out of ignorance, but out of pride and stubbornness. They had chosen to live according to their own ways, living in keeping with their own selfish agendas. And now, they were experiencing the error of their ways.

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

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

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

Bright Hope For Dark Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your God Will Be My God

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. – Ruth 1:6-18 ESV

The book of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges, a three-century-long period of spiritual darkness marked by unfaithfulness and apostasy. In the book of Judges, the people of Israel are repeatedly portrayed as stubborn, rebellious, and unrepentant. And, as the author of Judges points out, their track record of unfaithfulness to God was persistent and pervasive.

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. – Judges 2:11

That condemning statement is made at least seven times in the book of Judges. And each time the people of Israel turned their backs on God, He would bring judgment upon them in the form of the Canaanites, who would plunder the Israelites until they called out to Him for help. Then God would send a judge who would deliver them from their enemies. But eventually, when that judge died, the people would turn back to their former ways, worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. And the cycle would begin again.

In the midst of all this sin, suffering, sorrow, and salvation, the book of Ruth provides a much-needed respite. It appears as a parenthetical pause, offering a refreshing glimpse into the life of a single Israelite family and their struggle for survival in those turbulent times.

Yet, the book of Ruth opens up on a remarkably sad note, revealing the fate of an Israelite woman named Naomi, whose entire world has cratered in around her.  She is living in the land of Moab, having fled with her husband from Bethlehem in an effort to escape a devastating famine. But rather than finding relief in Moab, Naomi loses her soul mate. Elimelech, her husband, dies suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving her a widow in a foreign country. Fortunately, her two adult sons are with her. And in an effort to make the most of their time in Moab, her two sons marry Moabite wives and settle down. But Naomi’s fate seems to be cursed. Ten years later, both of her sons also die, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law to fend for themselves.

The scene is set. The actors in this divine drama stand on the stage, poised to reveal the plot devised by God from eternity past. What we have here is more than just a story of the life of Naomi and a Moabite woman named Ruth. It is a glimpse into God’s sovereign plan of redemption for sinful mankind. This small book seems to chronicle the life of a single Moabite woman, and yet, within its pages, it reveals the providential outworkings of a gracious, omnipotent, and omniscient God. Every single aspect of this story is God-ordained, from the famine in the land of Canaan to Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab. The deaths of Elimelech and his sons did not catch God by surprise. At no point in this story is God portrayed as wringing His hands with worry or fretting over the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Naomi. While she had every right to wonder where God was in the midst of all her suffering, at no point does she question His love or sovereignty. In fact, she exhibits a remarkable degree of peace and patience in the face of overwhelming loss.

Her husband and sons gone, Naomi has little reason to remain in Moab. A widowed Israelite woman, she has little hope of finding a husband among the Moabites. And she has no means of providing for herself and her recently widowed daughters-in-law, so she makes plans to return home. And at this point in the story, just when things are looking impossibly dark, a glimmer of light appears. While searching for food in the fields of Moab, Naomi hears the rumor “that the Lord had visited his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6 ESV).

The famine had ended. It was safe to return home. But this fortunate news should not be received as some form of good luck or blind fate. This is a sign of God’s divine timing. At just the right time, God brought an end to the famine, so that Naomi could return to her native land of Judah. She would be going back to her hometown of Bethlehem, a small village whose very name means “house of bread.” God was going to provide for her needs, and in ways, she could never have imagined.

And little did Naomi know that all her losses would actually result in blessing, not only for her but for the people of Israel and the nations of the world. The dark cloud overshadowing her life’s story was going to have a silver lining that would have global and eternal ramifications.

As Naomi prepared to make the long journey home, she encouraged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. They were both young enough that remarriage was a distinct possibility and the most logical solution to their problem. There was no future for them in Judah. And Naomi graciously pronounced a blessing on both of them.

“May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” – Ruth 1:8-9 ESV

Naomi had not lost her trust in God. She still believed He was there and that He cared, despite all that she had endured over the last ten years. And she lovingly asked that God would bless her two daughters-in-law with husbands, health, and happiness.

Initially, both women refused Naomi’s request that they remain in Moab. They each expressed their intention to stay by her side, refusing to forsake her in her time of need. But with further coaxing from Naomi, one of the women, Orpah, decided to return to her own people. But Ruth, unwilling to leave her mother-in-law alone, refused Naomi’s advice and boldly proclaimed her unwavering pledge of faithfulness.

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” – Ruth 1:16-17 NLT

These verses have a familiar ring to them because, over the centuries, they have become a common feature of innumerable wedding ceremonies. Tens of thousands of brides and grooms have repeated these words to one another as a pledge of their commitment to marital fidelity and solidarity.

But when Ruth uttered these words to Naomi, she was expressing her willingness to leave all that she knew behind. She was stating her intention to walk away from her family and ancestral home. She would be moving to a land in which she would be a foreigner and an outsider. As a Moabitess, her chances of remarriage in Judah would be drastically reduced. And she was taking on the weighty responsibility of providing for her widowed mother-in-law, for as long as God gave her breath.

This amazing expression of faithfulness should not be taken lightly. It stands in stark contrast to the blatant unfaithfulness and infidelity of the nation of Israel as portrayed throughout the period of the judges. This was a time in the life of Israel when each man “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV). And yet, here was Ruth, a woman from Moab, who was willing to put the needs of her mother-in-law ahead of her own. And don’t miss this often-overlooked aspect of Ruth’s commitment. She was even willing to give up her god.

While the people of Israel were busy forsaking Yahweh, their covenant-keeping God, here was Ruth the Moabitess, making a covenant commitment to switch her allegiance to Him. Whether she realized it or not, Ruth was forsaking her false god for the one true God. And her decision was going to have eternal ramifications that would influence the nation of Israel and the entire world.

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

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

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

God’s Godless People

1 Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled,
    the oppressing city!
She listens to no voice;
    she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord;
    she does not draw near to her God.

Her officials within her
    are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
    that leave nothing till the morning.
Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men;
her priests profane what is holy;
    they do violence to the law.
The Lord within her is righteous;
    he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
    each dawn he does not fail;
    but the unjust knows no shame. Zephaniah 3:1-5 ESV

God has issued His warnings of judgment against the nations that surrounded Judah. But now He addresses His own chosen people, revealing the sorry condition of their spiritual state. And this comes immediately after His indictment of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

“This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

God used the city to describe the state of the people who occupied it. They were characterized by pride and arrogance, viewing themselves as invincible and without equal. That magnificent city, renowned for its beauty and splendor, was filled with people who were enamored by their own power and prominence. But God warned them that they, like their city, would one day find themselves the brunt of everyone’s jokes, rather than the envy of the world.

“But now, look how it has become an utter ruin,
    a haven for wild animals.
Everyone passing by will laugh in derision
    and shake a defiant fist.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

Yet, the great city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the former royal residence of the great King David was also in for a rude awakening. Once again, God uses the city as a proxy for the people who lived within its walls. He describes Jerusalem as “rebellious and defiled” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). In Hebrew, these two words are rich in meaning, carrying a much deeper significance that gets lost in translation.

First, God describes Jerusalem as mara’, a word that can mean “filthy” or “lifted up.” It can also convey the idea of maltreatment of another through whipping or beating. This latter definition seems more fitting because God describes Jerusalem as an “oppressing city” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). The city is defiled because it is characterized by the oppression of its own people. The Hebrew word for “defiled” is yanah, which means “to suppress” or “maltreat.” The very name of the city means “possession of peace,” and yet the description given to it by God reveals the true nature of its inhabitants. They were marked by injustice, immorality, and rebellion. And yet, God had given them clear instructions regarding the kind of behavior He expected of them.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

The prophet Micah goes on to record God’s further indictments against the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

What shall I say about the homes of the wicked
filled with treasures gained by cheating?
What about the disgusting practice
of measuring out grain with dishonest measures?
How can I tolerate your merchants
who use dishonest scales and weights?
The rich among you have become wealthy
through extortion and violence.
Your citizens are so used to lying
that their tongues can no longer tell the truth. –
Mi
cah 6:10-12 NLT

But along with these accusations of injustice and corruption, God provides four pieces of evidence or proof of Jerusalem’s guilt and well-deserved judgment. First, He states that “She listens to no voice” (Zephaniah 3:2 ESV). In other words, she is disobedient, having refused to hear and obey the commands of God. And it is not as if God had been silent. Over the centuries, He had spoken through His prophets, calling the people of Jerusalem to repent and return to Him. But God’s people had rejected His messengers and their message. This leads to His second indictment: “she accepts no correction.”

The people of Judah had a long track record of rejecting God’s correction.

“…but they did not listen or obey. They stubbornly refused to pay attention or accept my discipline.” – Jeremiah 17:23 NLT

“My people have turned their backs on me and have refused to return. Even though I diligently taught them, they would not receive instruction or obey. – Jeremiah 32:33 NLT

As the proverb states, “the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 ESV). But rather than accept God’s discipline, His people repeatedly rejected it, choosing to live according to their own standards, rather than His.

And this refusal to accept His loving discipline stems from a lack of trust, which God makes painfully clear: “She does not trust in the Lord.” In spite of all that God had done for them, they doubted His goodness, grace, mercy, and power. And their distrust was evidenced by their propensity to place their hope in false gods. When times got tough and they found themselves in difficulty, they would turn to nations like Egypt or Assyria to come to their aid. And their actions revealed that their God was not enough. He was insufficient to meet their needs and incapable of solving their problems.

And this lack of trust in God led the people to distance themselves from Him. Sadly, we read the sobering words, “she does not draw near to her God.” This is not simply a statement of distance or disconnectedness. It conveys their refusal to seek God’s counsel or advice. They had reached the point where they were turning to other sources for guidance. They neither desired or sought input from Yahweh. In a sense, He was out of sight, out of mind.

And this growing distance from God had led to an ever-increasing degree of godlessness among them. Zephaniah pulls no punches when describing just how bad things had gotten in the city.

“Its leaders are like roaring lions
    hunting for their victims.
Its judges are like ravenous wolves at evening time,
    who by dawn have left no trace of their prey.
Its prophets are arrogant liars seeking their own gain.
    Its priests defile the Temple by disobeying God’s instructions.” – Zephaniah 3:3-4 NLT

Greed, avarice, and injustice were prevalent – from the halls of government to the inner recesses of the temple. Everyone was out for themselves. The rich took advantage of the poor. Judges no longer dispense justice. Prophets, posing as messengers of God, spoke lies rather than truth. All for personal gain. The city had become a cesspool of self-indulgence and selfishness.

And yet, Zephaniah provides a much-needed reminder: “The Lord within her is righteous; he does no injustice” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). God has not vacated the premises. He has not yet abandoned them. He was still there, in all His glory and exhibiting all the facets of His character, including His unwavering, undiminished righteousness. So, they were without excuse.

Zephaniah contrasts God with the unrighteous inhabitants of the city, stating, “every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). There was never a day that God failed to display His righteousness and justice. Under no circumstances could they ever point a finger at God and accuse Him of being unjust or unfaithful. And His coming judgment of them would be well-deserved and fully justified. He had every right to be upset with them. He had shown them mercy time and time again. He had spared them from destruction more times than they could remember. He had put up with their ingratitude and infidelity. The only reason they still existed as a nation was because God was faithful to keep the covenant He had made with Abraham.

Their continued existence had nothing to do with them. They were undeserving of His grace and mercy. Their actions were no more righteous than those of the Cushites, Moabites, Ammonites, or Philistines. In fact, they stood before God as more guilty and deserving of His righteous indignation because they had been the beneficiaries of His unmerited favor and then had chosen to disobey His commands, reject His correction, withhold their trust, and ignore His counsel.

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

   

 

Enough is Enough

7 Be silent before the Lord God!
    For the day of the Lord is near;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
    and consecrated his guests.
And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice—
“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
    and all who array themselves in foreign attire.
On that day I will punish
    everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their master’s house
    with violence and fraud.

10 “On that day,” declares the Lord,
    “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate,
a wail from the Second Quarter,
    a loud crash from the hills.
11 Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar!
    For all the traders are no more;
    all who weigh out silver are cut off.
12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
    and I will punish the men
who are complacent,
    those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
    nor will he do ill.’
13 Their goods shall be plundered,
    and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
    they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
    they shall not drink wine from them.”Zephaniah 1:7-13 ESV

The message of Zephaniah is one of judgment. He is a messenger of God delivering a series of prophecies that outline specific acts of divine retribution awaiting Judah for its persistent apostasy. His message contains the “what” but not the “when.” Zephaniah has no idea of the timeline involved in God’s judgment. But God had made it clear that the “what” was going to be significant and inescapable. The entire world would bear the brunt of God’s righteous indignation.

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” – vs. 2

I will sweep away man and beast;…the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea…” – vs. 3

I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth…” – vs. 3

God warns of the global and all-encompassing nature of His coming judgment. The entire world will experience the wrath of God being poured out on the sins of mankind.  But God also directs the prophet’s attention to the fate of Judah.

I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” – vs. 4

There seems to be a separate series of judgments reserved for the nation of Judah. The “what” God has in store for them is distinctly different than the one He has planned for the rest of the world. And as we will see, the “when” or the timeline concerning their judgment will also differ.

Judah’s status as God’s chosen people had always set them apart. They had enjoyed the distinct privilege of being His treasured possession (Exodus 19:5), a people holy to the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:6), and had been called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). So, it only makes sense that God would have a separate and distinct judgment in store for His chosen people. Their unmerited status as His chosen people had afforded them unprecedented blessings and had set them apart from all the nations of the earth.

Centuries earlier, Moses had told the Jews who had been released from captivity in Egypt: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV). And God had graciously provided them with His law to establish His criteria for holy conduct. If they were to be a holy nation they would have to live holy lives. And for those times when they failed to live up to God’s law, He had provided the tabernacle and the sacrificial system as a means for receiving atonement for their sins. God had given them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. A land flowing with milk and honey, rich in produce, and abundant in natural resources. They had been richly blessed. And yet, they had proven to be deeply unfaithful.

The oft-quoted phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility” applies here. The people of Judah had enjoyed periods of tremendous power and prestige. They had benefited greatly from their relationship with God. But as Jesus Himself once said, When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required (Luke 12:48 NLT).

So, we see in this prophecy from the pen of Zephaniah a two-fold description of coming judgment. There will be a judgment reserved for the nation of Judah and one that will encompass the rest of mankind. In the text, the two are woven together, creating an overwhelming sense of God’s righteous anger with the state of His creation and the spiritual apostasy of His chosen people. God is not happy, and He will not continue to tolerate the current state of affairs in the world or in the nation Judah. The question remains, who will He punish first, when He will do it, and how.

Verses 4-6 contain God’s indictment against the people of Judah. They were guilty of idolatry. They worshiped Baal, Molech, and a host of other false gods representing the sun, moon, and stars. And while the people still swore allegiance to God, they committed spiritual adultery by giving themselves to the gods of the Canaanites. They had turned their backs on God. They had repeatedly displayed their unfaithfulness through acts of infidelity.

So, Zephaniah warns them, “the day of the Lord is near” (Zephaniah 1:7 ESV). And he commands the people of Judah to “be silent.” Now that they were hearing about God’s coming judgment, they were to keep their mouths shut. It was too late to cry out for mercy. Notice that in verse six, the people of Judah are described as those “who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” They had stopped calling on God. They were too busy bowing down to their false gods. And now that judgment was coming, God denied them the right to call out to Him for mercy.

Zephaniah describes the familiar scene of a sacrifice. But in this case, God is the one offering the sacrifice, and He has invited guests to join Him for the occasion. In this case, Judah represents the sacrificial animal and the Babylonians are the guests. When the time is right, God will issue an invitation to the Nebuchadnezzar and his army to feast on the sacrifice that God has offered. In 586 BC, the nation of Judah would fall to the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem would be plundered and destroyed. The temple would be ransacked and left as a pile of stones. The people would be taken captive and returned to Babylon as slaves.

And God warns “And on the day of the Lord‘s sacrifice — ‘I will punish the officials and the king’s sons’” (Zephaniah 1:8 ESV). With great power comes great responsibility. To whom much has been given, much will be required. The kings of Judah would be held responsible by God. Rather than using their power and positions to lead the people in the faithful service of God, they had displayed a pattern of disdain and disobedience. And God warned that they would suffer the consequences.

According to 2 Kings 23:34, Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah who would ascend to the throne after him, was taken captive to Egypt. The next king, Jehoiakim, would fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:1-6). Jehoiachin, the grandson of Josiah, was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-10). Zedekiah, the last son of Josiah to reign in Jerusalem, was eventually blinded by Nebuchadnezzar and taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-25:7). Each of these men had been guilty of idolatry and of making alliances with foreign nations, rather than trusting in God. Zephaniah describes them as having arrayed themselves in foreign attire. They had modeled themselves after pagan kings, emulating their appearance and worshiping their false gods.

But not only the kings of Judah will suffer judgment at the hands of God. The nation as a whole stands guilty and worthy of divine punishment. Zephaniah describes “everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud” (Zephaniah 1:9 ESV). The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, but it seems likely that Zephaniah is accusing the people of Judah of practicing injustice, in direct violation of God’s commands.

Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:23 ESV

And yet, the people of Judah had made a habit out of taking advantage of one another.

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.
 – Ezekiel 22:29 ESV

They were marked by greed, violence, and fraud. And they would pay for dearly for their decision to ignore God’s commands.

On that day – when the judgment of God comes – the impact will be felt throughout the city of Jerusalem. From the Fish Gate to the Second Quarter and from the hills to the marketplace, every single inhabitant of Jerusalem would feel the heat of God’s wrath. “Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste” (Zephaniah 1:13 ESV). No one will escape judgment because all will stand as guilty before God.

And while there will be those who think that God is disinterested in their affairs and has turned a blind eye to their behavior, they will be in for a rude awakening.

“I will punish the men
who are complacent,
    those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
    nor will he do ill.’” – Zephaniah 1:12 ESV

God would no longer tolerate sin among His people. He would not allow them to continue denigrating His name and defaming His holy character by their actions. They were His people and their behavior was leaving a black mark on His name. But God was about to rectify that problem.

“And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.” – Ezekiel 36:23 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

   

 

I Will…

1 The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.

“I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
    and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
    I will cut off mankind
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,
those who bow down on the roofs
    to the host of the heavens,
those who bow down and swear to the Lord
    and yet swear by Milcom,
those who have turned back from following the Lord,
who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” – Zephaniah 1:1-6 ESV

To understand a book like Zephaniah, you have to establish the historical context. Any attempt to read it without first determining the identity of his original audience, and the unique circumstances in which they lived, will leave its content obscure and its application impossible.

The book was most likely authored by the man whose name it bears: Zephaniah. There is debate over the exact meaning of his name. It has been translated as “Jehovah has treasured” and “whom Jehovah hid.” Along with the obscurity of his name, we are given little in the way of details concerning Zephaniah’s background. In the opening verse he describes himself as “the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah.” This would make him the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s former kings. Which means he had royal blood pulsing through his veins.

Zephaniah’s royal lineage provides a unique link between Judah’s past and the present circumstances in which the prophet is living. He acts as a kind of human bridge between two different eras of the nation’s history. The very mention of King Hezekiah’s name provides a link to his reign. He is one of the few kings of Judah who, upon death, received a positive statement regarding his time on the throne. The book of 2 Chronicles states, “he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20 ESV). And it adds, “every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered” (2 Chronicles 31:21 ESV).

What makes Hezekiah’s reign especially significant is that he inherited the throne from his father, Ahaz, one of the most wicked and immoral kings in Judah’s long history. And Zephaniah, the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah provides a bridge between this godly king and the current king of Judah, Josiah.

King Hezekiah had been a godly outlier in the long line of unrighteous and disobedient kings of Judah. The book of 2 Kings provides a flattering description of this man reveals the one-of-a-kind nature of his reign.

He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. – 2 Kings 18:5-7 ESV

Josiah had been a reformer, spending the majority of his reign attempting to correct all the immoral excesses of his father. He had reopened the temple and reinstated the Levitical priesthood. He destroyed all the pagan altars and temples, removing all vestiges of idol worship from the land of Judah. He even reestablished Passover as a national holiday in Judah. Under his leadership, the nation experienced a spiritual renewal and revival.

But after his death, the nation would find itself headed back into apostasy. Hezekiah was succeeded by Manasseh, who ascended to the throne at the young age of 12 and promptly led the nation into another season of spiritual rebellion. Sadly, he is described in less-than-flattering terms: “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 21:2 ESV). This young man undid all that his father had done, returning the people to a state of idolatry and apostasy.

“…he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.” – 2 Kings 21:3 ESV

Upon his death, Manasseh was followed by his son Amon. And this apple did not fall far from the tree. He picked up where his father had left off, leading the nation into further spiritual decline.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:20-22 ESV

But this wicked young man did not reign for long. He was assassinated by his own servants and his son Josiah was made king in his place. Amazingly, in spite of his father’s evil influence and example, Josiah proved to be a godly king. The description of his reign bears a striking resemblance to that of Hezekiah.

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

Josiah reigned in Jerusalem from approximately 640 to 609 B.C. And while he was far from a perfect king, he made significant strides in restoring the nation’s spiritual state. In the 18th year of his reign, he ordered the restoration of the temple, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. In the process, the workmen discovered the Book of the Law, the Mosaic Law given by God on Mount Sinai. Hilkiah, the high priest, read the content of the book to Josiah, and “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11 ESV). Convicted by what he heard, Josiah repented and called the entire nation of Judah to a time of renewal and rededication to the ways of God.

And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant. – 2 Kings 23:3 ESV

We are not told when Zephaniah received his calling to be a messenger for God. So, it is impossible to know if he began his prophetic role before or after the reforms of Josiah. All we know is that it was “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”

And the opening verses of his book seem to paint a rather bleak picture. While the reign of Josiah would be marked by radical reforms and a renewal of the covenant between God and His people, Zephaniah’s words are far from encouraging or complimentary. The news he delivers is not good. And what makes it worse is that it comes from the lips of God Himself.

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” – vs. 2

“I will sweep away man and beast…” – vs. 3

“I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked…” – vs. 3

 I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth…” – vs. 3

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” – vs. 4

I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests…” – vs. 4

God is not happy. And it really doesn’t matter if these messages from God came before or after the reforms of Josiah. God knew the hearts of His people. He had seen reform and revival before, and He knew that, too often than not, it was short-lived. Restoring the temple, reestablishing the Passover, and renewing the covenant did not mean that the hearts of the people had been changed. God could see into the hearts of His people and He was well aware that external behavior was not always an indicator of internal change.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

“What right have you to recite My statutes and to bear My covenant on your lips?” – Psalm 50:16 BSB

Hezekiah and Josiah act as bookmarks, bracketing a period of spiritual apathy and apostasy in Judah. Hezekiah began a series of reforms, but his efforts were curtailed by Manasseh and Amon. Josiah would pick up the mantel of his predecessor, but he too would find that his reforms lacked staying power. The propensity of the people to act unfaithfully was too strong. In spite of Josiah’s best attempts to restore righteousness in Judah, the people would continue to “bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). And their hypocrisy would be evident as they “bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). Milcom was another name for Molech, the god of Ammon. So, in other words, the people of Judah were guilty of worshiping Yahweh while also bowing down to the false gods of the nations of Canaan. They were hedging their bets, attempting to maintain their relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while supplementing His care with that of the myriad idols available to them in Canaan. 

But God wanted no part of their syncretistic worship. He described it as what it truly was, their abandonment of Him, accusing them as having “turned back from following the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:6 ESV), and of no longer seeking or inquiring of Him.

These opening verses are prophetic in nature, describing a series of future events that will involve not only Judah but the world as a whole. At this point, it is impossible to tell the exact timeline God has in mind here. All of the things Zephaniah has shared lie in the future, but some will take place long before others. When will God “sweep away everything from the face of the earth”? The prophet doesn’t say. When will God “sweep away man and beast” and “cut off mankind from the face of the earth”? Again, we are given no details. But it is painfully clear that God is unhappy with the state of affairs on earth. Things are not as they should be and He is stating His intention to rectify what is wrong. When it will happen is far less important than the fact that it will happen.

God is attempting to gain the attention of the people of Judah. They have become complacent and comfortable. Some are living in obvious rebellion to God, while others feign allegiance and practice their infidelity in secret. But God sees through it all. He is well aware of the true condition of His peoples’ hearts. And He will not tolerate their unfaithfulness and unrighteousness forever. So, as He has done so many times before, God sends His prophet to warn the people about the unavoidable consequences of their actions. And He lets them know that if they continue to what they are doing, He will be forced to act. And He simply states, “I will…”

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

   

 

Faithful to the End

18 And of Zebulun he said,

“Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out,
    and Issachar, in your tents.
19 They shall call peoples to their mountain;
    there they offer right sacrifices;
for they draw from the abundance of the seas
    and the hidden treasures of the sand.”

20 And of Gad he said,

“Blessed be he who enlarges Gad!
    Gad crouches like a lion;
    he tears off arm and scalp.
21 He chose the best of the land for himself,
    for there a commander’s portion was reserved;
and he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.”

22 And of Dan he said,

“Dan is a lion’s cub
    that leaps from Bashan.” Deuteronomy 33:18-22 ESV

Zebulun and Issachar were sons of Jacob by Leah, and their allotments of land in Canaan shared a common border. So, Moses addresses these two tribes with a combined blessing.

Moses refers to Zebulun “going out” and Issachar “in your tents.” It seems that one tribe would become traders, going out in ships and returning with foreign goods and profits from their journeys. Yet the tribe of Issachar would remain in their tents, living a more agrarian and settled life.

But with their location between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, they would “draw from the abundance of the seas.” And Zebulun, in particular, would benefit greatly from its access to Sidon. They would eventually establish commercial links to the Phoenicians, and become profitable traders all along the Mediterranean coastline.

In his blessing of Zebulun, Jacob had prophesied of the tribe’s close association with the sea.

“Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea;
    he shall become a haven for ships,
    and his border shall be at Sidon.” – Genesis 49:13 ESV

It is important to note that the land the tribe of Zebulun occupied would become part of region known as Galilee. And the book of Isaiah predicts that the day would come when Zebulun and its neighboring tribe, Naphtali, would experience days of darkness and despair. They, along with the other tribes of the northern kingdom, would be conquered by the Assyrians and taken into captivity. But God had good news for them.

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

Out of the land of Galilee would come the long-awaited Messiah. God would send His Son as the light of the world, piercing the darkness of sin and offering a means by which fallen mankind could be restored to a right relationship with Himself.

Concerning Issachar, Jacob had seen his son’s occupation as a laborer, working the land and, as Moses later put it, benefiting from “the hidden treasures of the sand.” But Jacob also predicted the future Issachar and his brothers would experience as slaves of the Assyrians.

“Issachar is a strong donkey,
    crouching between the sheepfolds.
He saw that a resting place was good,
    and that the land was pleasant,
so he bowed his shoulder to bear,
    and became a servant at forced labor.” – Genesis 49:14-15 ESV

When it came to his son, Gad, Jacob had little to say.

“Raiders shall raid Gad,
    but he shall raid at their heels.” – Genesis 49:19 ESV

It seems that Gad, a relatively small tribe, would find itself under constant attack by marauding bands of brigands and opportunists. We know from Judges 1, that none of the tribes were successful in removing the Canaanites from the land. So, there were always remnants of these enemies wandering throughout the land, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting villages and towns belonging to the Israelites. And because Gad as relatively small, they were an easy target. But Jacob predicted that the descendants of Gad would give as well as they took.

Moses adds another element to his blessing of the tribe of Gad, by recognizing God’s blessing of them. They were awarded “the best of the land” – a reference to the land of Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan. Long before the people of Israel crossed the border into Canaan, the tribes of Gad, Manassah, and Reuben had requested to settle the rich pasture land lying outside the land of promise. And Moses gave them permission to do so as long as they agreed to help the remaining tribes conquer and settle the land of Canaan. They did so and were awarded the land of Gilead as their inheritance. Moses honors them for the commitment to keep their word.

“…he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.” – Deuteronomy 33:21 ESV

When Jacob blessed his son, Dan, he paints a rather disconcerting image of his future. He describes him as a judge of his people, but also as a serpent or poisonous snake.

“Dan shall judge his people
    as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan shall be a serpent in the way,
    a viper by the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
    so that his rider falls backward.
I wait for your salvation, O Lord.” – Genesis 49:16-18 ESV

The book of Judges clarifies this rather conflicting image by telling us, “Now in those days Israel had no king. And the tribe of Dan was trying to find a place where they could settle, for they had not yet moved into the land assigned to them when the land was divided among the tribes of Israel” (Judges 18:1 NLT).

They had been alloted land in Canaan and, while it was small in size, it was very fertile. But, like all the other tribes, Dan had failed to drive out the Canaanites and so they never fully occupied the land given to them by God.

The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. – Judges 1:34 ESV

So, rather than obeying the command of God, they decided to search for other lands in which to settle. They set out five spies who came back with a report of a possible spot for resettlement.

So the five men went on to the town of Laish, where they noticed the people living carefree lives, like the Sidonians; they were peaceful and secure. The people were also wealthy because their land was very fertile. And they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. – Judges 18:7 NLT

This news prompted the Danites to send 600 men to attack Laish and take the land as their own. But on the way, they decided to steal a Levite who was serving in the household of an Israelite named Micah. We know from the text, that Micah had employed this Levite to serve as his personal priest and that Micah and his neighbors were idolatrous. When the Danites stole the young Levite, they also took the false gods Micah worshiped, which cause he and his neighbors to chase down the Danites and beg for their return.

Then, with Micah’s idols and his priest, the men of Dan came to the town of Laish, whose people were peaceful and secure. They attacked with swords and burned the town to the ground. There was no one to rescue the people, for they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. This happened in the valley near Beth-rehob.

Then the people of the tribe of Dan rebuilt the town and lived there. They renamed the town Dan after their ancestor, Israel’s son, but it had originally been called Laish. – Judges 18:27-29 NLT

Years later, God would divide the kingdom of Israel in two, creating Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The Danites would play a huge part in the eventual fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. In 1 Kings 12:25-33, we have the account of King Jeroboam who, fearing that the citizens of the northern kingdom would travel to Jerusalem in the south in order to worship God, decided to erect two altars in the north of Dan. Not only that, he erected a golden calf at each location, creating his own false gods and an entire religious system of his own design.

Interestingly enough, all Moses had to say about Dan was “Dan is a lion’s whelp,
That leaps forth from Bashan” (Deuteronomy 33:22 NLT). Bashan was located near Laish, the town that the Danites conquered and occupied. The description of Dan as a lion’s whelp or cub is intended to portray that tribe as impetuous and undisciplined. It lacks wisdom and the skills acquired by age and experience. The Danites would steal land not given to them by God. They would steal a Levite and make him their personal priest, something God never commanded. And, on top of all that, they would steal idols and set them up as their gods. Eventually, under the poor leadership of Jeroboam, they would create their own religion and erect their own altars to false gods, leading to their eventual judgment by God.

Each of these tribes, Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, and Dan, had been set apart by God as His own. But they had all failed to live up to God’s standards. They had proven to be unfaithful, disbelieving, and disobedient. But even their wickedness would not keep God from displaying His faithfulness. Out of the darkness of Zebulun a great light would shine. The book of John records the arrival of this great light in the form of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:9-13 ESV

Even though darkness reigned, the light penetrated the darkness. Even though the tribes of Israel proved unfaithful, God proved Himself to be faithful to keep His word.

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

Close, But No Cigar

48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 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 32:48-52 ESV

That very day. Those three simple words are filled with significance. The same day on which Moses delivered the words of God’s song to the people of Israel would be his last. Not only would he be denied entrance into the land of Canaan, but he would exit this life for the next one. Moses is informed by God that he will die alone on a mountaintop somewhere on the eastern side of the Jordan.

The phrase, “close but no cigar” comes to mind. Moses was close enough to see the land, but would never have the joy of crossing over the Jordan and enjoying the fruit of all his labors. From the moment God had called him to deliverer Israel from their captivity in Egypt, Moses had lived with one objective in mind: To lead God’s people to the land He had promised as their inheritance. When God had appeared to Moses all those years earlier, it had been on another mountain top, at Horeb. And God had shown up in the form of a burning bush. On that occasion, God had delivered the news to Moses that He had plans for His people.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Fast-forward and that is exactly where we find Moses, standing on the edge of a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses could see it with his own eyes. He could look on it longingly, but he would never set foot there. All because he had sinned against God.

And it’s a bit ironic that Moses has just spent a great deal of time addressing the people of God about the need to keep God’s law faithfully and to treat God Himself reverently. He has gone out of his way to stress the seriousness of sin and the danger of disobedience. In a way, Moses had been speaking from personal experience. He knew firsthand what happens when you fail to do God’s will on God’s terms. There was no room for improvisation. God was not interested in seeing their version of His will. He had not asked for their input or allowed them the option of extemporizing on His commands. But that is exactly what Moses had done.

God accuses Moses of breaking faith with Him and of failing to treat Him as holy. But what had he done? What was the crime Moses committed that kept him from entering the land of promise? The story is recorded in Numbers 20. And it began with the people of God complaining about their lack of water.

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? – Numbers 20:2-5 ESV

They were not happy campers. They were thirsty and they were upset. So, Moses took their complaint to God, who provided Moses with very specific instructions.

“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” – Numbers 20:8 ESV

But what did Moses do? How did he end up enacting the instructions given to him by God? The text is very explicit. Moses and Aaron gathered all the people together and prepared to do what God had told them to do, but with a slight twist.

“Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. – Numbers 20:10-11 ESV

You can almost hear the anger in his voice. He is put out with the people of Israel. This was not the first time he had been confronted by their anger and resentment. And it had only been a short time since his sister Miriam had died. He had not even had time to grieve over his loss and now he was having to deal with these ungrateful and grumbling ingrates again. So, he took advantage of the God-given opportunity to put on a show for the people. He struck the rock with the staff. Not exactly what God had told him to do. But his act of anger-induced spontaneity seemed to produce the same results. “Water came out abundantly and the congregation drank, and their livestock.”

But he had not done God’s will God’s way. And God accused Moses of breaking faith and treating Him as unholy. He had let his anger get the best of him. And in doing so, he displayed his lack of faith in God. It is almost as if Moses doubted that God was going to do what He had promised to do. Look closely at the words Moses spoke before striking the rock: “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

Notice the emphasis on himself and Aaron, not God. And there is a degree of uncertainty or doubt in his voice as he states, “shall we…?” Perhaps Moses was questioning the ability of God to bring water out of a rock. He seems to be having misgivings about God’s plan. So, rather than speak to the rock as God had commanded, he decided to use the staff to strike the rock. He took out his anger on the rock. And the apostle Paul would later describe that rock as being a symbol or representation of Jesus Himself.

For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:3 ESV

Moses struck the rock. And in doing so, he displayed a lack of faith in God and demonstrated a disdain for the holiness of God. That rock was to have been a symbol of God’s gracious provision. There was no need to beat God into caring for their needs. God did not require coercion or compulsion. But because Moses did what he did, he was denied access to the land of promise. His sin was no different than the generation fo Israelies who refused to enter Canaan due to their fear of the giants in the land. They doubted God and trusted the words of men. And they all died in the wilderness.

Because Moses had failed to treat God as holy, he would fail to enter the land of promise. God is holy and He demands those who bear His name to live their lives in such a way that His reputation is honored by their actions. Moses had been God’s shepherd over the nation of Israel. He was God’s hand-picked leader and all that he said and did reflected on the character of God. He was held to a high standard. He was obligated to live according to God’s will faithfully and to speak God’s Word accurately. And because he didn’t, he was denied access into the land of promise.

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 32:52 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