Our Indescribable and Inexplicable God

15 Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. 16 As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. 17 When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. 18 And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. 19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. 20 Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

22 Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. 23 And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another. And each creature had two wings covering its body. 24 And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army. When they stood still, they let down their wings. 25 And there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads. When they stood still, they let down their wings.

26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:15-28 ESV

For centuries, artists have attempted to recreate the fantastic scene described in Ezekiel’s vision, and their efforts have resulted in a host of ethereal, otherworldly depictions that almost defy the range of man’s imagination. Their depictions border on the surreal and illustrate man’s incapacity to understand or explain the glory of God. But in their defense, each of them based their artwork on the words of Ezekiel. They simply illustrated what Ezekiel attempted to elucidate. But this young priest was at a great disadvantage because he was trying to describe the indescribable and explain the inexplicable. Hampered by a finite human mind and a limited vocabulary, Ezekiel did his best to recreate his vision with words. But his efforts would prove futile because he was attempting to describe “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28 ESV).

While Ezekiel appears to be describing a series of different individuals and objects, the scene is meant to illustrate the glory of the Lord. This entire chapter should be viewed as a depiction of the majesty and magnificence of Jehovah, the Creator-God who rules and reigns over all. The all-mighty, transcendent God of the universe was providing Ezekiel with a composite picture of His essence that was intended to engender a response of awe and reverential fear. And it worked, because Ezekiel claims, “When I saw it, I fell face down on the ground” (Ezekiel 1:28 NLT).

Ezekiel got the big picture. He correctly viewed the entire scene as a divine depiction of his God. And, as a priest, Ezekiel would have known that it was impossible for any human being to see God and live to tell about it. He would have been well versed in the words that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. The man whom God had chosen to liberate His people from their captivity in Egypt had expressed his desire to see God’s glory. Moses had seen God’s glory displayed in the burning bush and had repeatedly spoken with Him, but he longed for something greater.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” – Exodus 33:18 ESV

But God let Moses that his request was not only impossible, but it would also be suicidal. So, He provided Moses with a viable alternative.

…and he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” – Ezekiel 33:19-20 ESV

Like Moses, Ezekiel would see God’s glory and live to tell about it. He would see indescribable things and attempt to explain them with words that could never do them justice. The four living creatures, the wheels within wheels, the crystal expanse, and the sapphire thrown were all intended to depict God’s glory. Ezekiel was being given a rare opportunity to see the Almighty but in a way that produced awe and wonder instead of death.

It was the apostle Paul who described Yahweh as “the blessed and only almighty God, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords” (1 Timothy 6:15 NLT). And he went on to explain God’s transcendent, unapproachable nature.

He alone can never die, and he lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him. No human eye has ever seen him, nor ever will. All honor and power to him forever! – 1 Timothy 6:16 NLT

It is impossible to know exactly what Ezekiel saw but that has not stopped artists from trying to depict it. But no painting, engraving, or illustration will ever be able to capture the glory of God.

Every aspect of Ezekiel’s vision was meant to reinforce the greatness and glory of God. The four different faces of the four living creatures reveal that God is sovereign over all creation. He rules over humanity, the wild beasts, domesticated animals, and the birds of the air – because He made them all. And the wheels within wheels were intended to depict God’s omnipresence; completely unhindered by time or space. According to Ezekiel, the wheels “went in any of their four directions without turning as they went” ( Ezekiel 1:17 ESV). The rims of the wheels were covered with eyes, illustrating the omniscience of God. He knows all because He sees all.

And He accomplishes all this while sitting on His throne above the great expanse. Ezekiel’s focus becomes fixed upon “a figure whose appearance resembled a man” (Ezekiel 1:26 NLT). But He is far from human in nature.

From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. – Ezekiel 1:27-28 NLT

This is no ordinary king seated on a man-made throne. It is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Ezekiel is being given a glimpse of God Almighty, but it is a representation and not the real thing.

“It was a deeply-held tenet of Israelite religion from Moses onwards that God could not be visibly expressed, and for that very reason idolatry was out. But given the possibility of a theophany, no form but the human form could conceivably have been used to represent the Deity. It was, however, no mere human that Ezekiel saw: His radiance was surrounded by the glory of a rainbow, and the prophet could show his awe in no other way than by falling on his face in the dust before his God.” – L. E. Cooper Sr., Ezekiel

It is interesting to note that Ezekiel does not attempt to describe God’s face or countenance. All he writes about is the appearance of gleaming metal, fire, and brightness. According to Paul, God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16 ESV). The psalmist states that God “wraps Himself in light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2 BSB). The prophet Daniel was also given a vision of God and he described it in similar terms.

…the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. – Daniel 7:9 ESV

Both Daniel and Ezekiel were given the privilege of seeing God’s glory, and both found it nearly impossible to put it into words. They were struck by the brightness of His very presence. He emanated light so bright that it could only be described as burning fire. It was intense and virtually unapproachable. This imagery reflects the holiness and purity of God. It was the apostle John who wrote, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV).

This majestic, all-knowing, holy, omnipresent God of the universe was reminding Ezekiel that He was still on His throne and well aware of the fate of the people of Judah. He had not turned His back on them. His power had not diminished and His love for them had not faded. The all-powerful, ever-loving, always-faithful God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about to deliver a message to His chosen people and He had chosen Ezekiel as His messenger. God had gotten Ezekiel’s attention, and now Ezekiel was ready to listen to what his glorious God had to say.

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:28 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

A Vision of God’s Glory

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. 12 And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. – Ezekiel 1:4-14 ESV

It was while Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon, living near the Kebar River, that God came to visit him in a vision. Little did Ezekiel know that his role as a priest was about to be expanded to that of a prophet. A long way from home and far from the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians, Ezekiel was going to receive a vision and a commission from God Almighty.

Ezekiel would later describe this life-changing event in very intimate terms.

the hand of the Lord was upon me there – Ezekiel 3:22 ESV

…the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there. – Ezekiel 8:1 ESV

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:28 ESV

God revealed Himself to Ezekiel in an unforgettable and virtually indescribable manner. This was no burning bush encounter like the one Moses experienced in the wilderness. Ezekiel was given a much more intense and comprehensive glimpse of the Almighty, and it began with a vision of what the dumbfounded prophet describes as four living beings.

As I looked, I saw a great storm coming from the north, driving before it a huge cloud that flashed with lightning and shone with brilliant light. There was fire inside the cloud, and in the middle of the fire glowed something like gleaming amber. From the center of the cloud came four living beings – Ezekiel 1:4-5 NLT

One can only imagine Ezekiel’s shock as he witnessed these strange-looking apparitions appear before his eyes. The text does not reveal whether this bizarre vision took place while Ezekiel was awake or came upon him in the form of a dream. But the strange and surrealistic nature of what Ezekiel saw must have left him shaken and more than a bit scared.

A powerful thunderstorm suddenly appeared on the northern horizon, accompanied by lightning and brilliant light. This was no ordinary storm and that face was quickly confirmed by the sudden appearance of the four creatures. Ezekiel’s attempt to describe these bizarre beings reveals just extraordinary they were. He had never seen anything like them before and was at a loss as to how to describe them. To his eyes, they were an other-worldly amalgam of human and animal characteristics that were beyond belief.

At first glance, they appeared to be human but, upon closer examination, Ezekiel saw that they each had one head with four faces. “Each had a human face in the front, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle at the back” (Ezekiel 1:10 NLT).

Ezekiel is given no explanation for this disturbing combination of facial features. But it would seem that each was meant to represent something significant about God’s creative order. Man was meant to be the apex of all the living creatures God created. The lion was the king of the beasts, the most powerful of all the wild animals. The ox was the most valuable of all the domesticated animals, a creature equipped with great strength and intelligence. And the eagle was considered the king of the skies, a majestic bird of prey whose keen vision and powerful talons made him a mighty hunter.

According to Ezekiel, these four-faced creatures each had four wings and human hands. They used one pair of wings to cover their bodies, while the other pair of wings were fully extended with the tips touching the wings of the creature next to them. It seems that the four creatures formed a square so that “each one moved straight forward in any direction without turning around” (Ezekiel 1:9 NLT).

But even as mesmerizing as these creatures were, Ezekiel’s attention was drawn to something that appeared in the midst of them.

In the middle of the living beings was something like burning coals of fire or like torches. It moved back and forth among the living beings. It was bright, and lightning was flashing out of the fire. – Ezekiel 1:13 NET

It is difficult to ascertain whether this light emanated from the creatures themselves or from something else. But it seems as if the vision was meant to draw Ezekiel’s eye ever higher, exposing him to something far more significant than the creatures themselves. As fantastic as these heavenly beings appeared to be, they were not the focus of the vision. They were simply a preview of what was to come.

“These spiritual beings who were part angel, part human, and part animal were fitting representatives of the whole created order. Their activity affirmed the relationship of God to his creation as Lord of all things. This idea was vital in helping Ezekiel and the captives in exile and the people in Judah understand that in the midst of the storms of life, God was still on his throne. He was not oblivious to their circumstances.” – L. E. Cooper Sr., Ezekiel

God was setting the stage for what was to come. These divine apparitions were meant to get the prophet’s attention and prepare him to receive the message God had in store for him. God could have just appeared to Ezekiel, but He chose to preface His appearance with a supernatural outpouring of signs that accentuated His power and glory. In the midst of all the doom and gloom of captivity in Babylon, Ezekiel was being given a veritable light show designed to remind him of Yahweh’s majesty and holiness.

The God of Israel was manifesting His presence in the midst of His exiled people. He had not forgotten or forsaken them. He had always promised to remember and redeem them, and He had communicated those intentions to the prophet Jeremiah.

“When the time for them to be rescued comes,”
says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
“I will rescue you from foreign subjugation.
I will deliver you from captivity.
Foreigners will then no longer subjugate them.
But they will be subject to the Lord their God
and to the Davidic ruler whom I will raise up as king over them. – Jeremiah 30:8-9 NLT

As Ezekiel’s vision will make clear, God was still on His throne and fully in command of all that was going on in the world. The captivity of His chosen people had been part of His plan, and their future redemption would also come about just as He had promised. Ezekiel was being given a much-needed reminder of God’s glory and greatness so that he might receive, believe, and deliver God’s message for the helpless and hopeless living in exile in Babylon.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Returned But Not Restored

1 The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. – Malachi 1:1 ESV

Over the centuries, there has been much debate over the identity of the author of the book of Malachi. It would be simple to assume that the book bears the name of its author, but in Hebrew, “Malachi” is more of a title than a name. It means “my messenger.” The book itself contains no details regarding the author’s identity, providing no birthplace, ancestry, vocation, or tribal affiliation. Three of the gospel writers quote from Malachi 3:1 but do not reference Malachi by name (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27).

The Targum, an ancient Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the Old Testament, credited Ezra as the author of Malachi. But the Talmud, a Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament, gave the honor of authorship to Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther (Esther 2:5-7). But the designation of either Ezra or Mordecai as the author of the book has garnered little validation or support over the centuries.

Another reason given for rejecting Malachi as the author of the book is the use of the Hebrew word, מַלְאָךְ (mal’āḵ), in chapter 3:1. It simply means “messenger” and seems intended as a wordplay on the title used in chapter one, verse one.

The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi (מַלְאָכִי mal’āḵî). – Malachi 1:1 ESV

While there remains no consensus as to the identity of the book’s author, there are still many biblical scholars who give the credit to an unknown man named Malachi. If he is not the author, the book of Malachi would be the first prophetic book in the Old Testament to be written anonymously, which seems highly unlikely.

But regardless of the author’s identity, the book claims to be a message from God to the people of Israel. Yet, a second problem arises when studying the book of Malachi: Its place in the timeline of Israelite history. There are no references to specific kings, historical figures, or datable events in the book, which makes it virtually impossible to establish an accurate idea of when it was written. The reader is left to determine a date based on inferences and implications garnered from the text itself. And the options that have been suggested range from as early as 538 B.C. to as late as 420 B.C.

Based on the content of the book, it is believed that Malachi, like Haggai and Zechariah, was a postexilic writing prophet. In verse 8 of chapter one, the term “governor” is actually the Persian word, peḥâ, and would seem to be a reference to the Persian king, Cyrus, who issued a decree allowing the exiled Israelites to return to the land of Judah.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:

 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:1-4 ESV

Both Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, two Hebrews who helped lead the people back to Jerusalem and oversee the rebuilding of the city and the temple, each bore the same Persian title of “governor.” And because Malachi references worship at the restored temple, it would appear that he wrote sometime after the date of 515 B.C., when the temple restoration was completed.

There are a great many similarities between the Malachi and the book of Nehemiah. Both men dealt with issues regarding the poor state of the priestly order, the intermarriage of Jews with outsiders, and peoples’ neglect to pay the designated tithe. This would seem to indicate that Malachi penned his book sometime during the governorship of Nehemiah, which would place its date of authorship somewhere between 445-420 B.C. According to Thomas L. Constable, “Malachi’s place at the end of the twelve Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible and modern translations argues for a late date.”

As a prophet, Malachi expresses God’s disfavor with the people of Israel, concentrating most of his emphasis on their lax and less-than-faithful practice of worship. God had graciously allowed them to return to the land of promise, just as He had said He would do, but they have proven to be far from obedient and less than appreciative in their display of reverence for Him.

It is important to consider the timeline that precedes Malachi’s book. Sometime around 537 B.C., Zerubbabel led more than 50,000 Israelites back to Jerusalem with orders from King Cyrus to rebuild the city and the temple. Haggai and Zechariah ministered to this remnant of Israelites as they went about the task of restoring the long-abandoned city that had been destroyed by the Babylonians some 70 years earlier. In 458 B.C. an additional group of about 5,000 Jews made their way from Babylon under Ezra’s leadership. The temple having been rebuilt, Ezra attempted to reinvigorate the peoples’ worship of Yahweh. Then in 444 B.C., Nehemiah led a third contingent of about 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem with the express purpose of rebuilding the walls and gates of the city.

The Israelites’ return to the promised land was anything but easy. They had been met with opposition and the work of rebuilding the devasted and long-neglected city was difficult and time-consuming. Over time they experienced success at their daunting task, having restored the temple, rebuilt the walls, and reinstituted the sacrificial system and temple worship. But their hearts were not solely dedicated to Yahweh. They were lax in their observance of the Mosaic Law and, as a result of their intermarriage with the Gentiles, they were guilty of practicing idolatry. They had allowed themselves to be become infected and influenced by the surrounding pagan cultures, which ended up diminishing their set-apart status as the chosen people of God. So, Malachi set out to address their spiritual, ethical, and moral weaknesses, in the hopes of revitalizing their worship and reinvigorating their allegiance to Yahweh.

“. . . Malachi and his contemporaries were living in an uneventful waiting period, when God seemed to have forgotten His people enduring poverty and foreign domination in the little province of Judah. . . . True the Temple had been completed, but nothing momentous had occurred to indicate that God’s presence had returned to fill it with glory, as Ezekiel had indicated would happen (Ezekial 43:4). . . . Generations were dying without receiving the promises (cf. Hebrews 11:13) and many were losing their faith.” – Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 211.

The purpose behind Malachi’s book was the same as any other Old Testament prophet: To expose the sins of the people and call them to repentance. Malachi understood that a restored temple, a reinstituted sacrificial system, and a rebuilt city were meaningless if the people refused to honor the God who had made it all possible. A reestablished kingdom was worthless if the people refused to honor Yahweh as their King and Sovereign.

For the people of Israel, return to the land and the re-establishment of their kingdom would mean nothing if they were not going to live as the children of God. He had sent them into exile 70 years earlier because of their disobedience and rebellion against Him. Now, He had returned them to the land and He expected them to repay His goodness and grace with faithfulness and an outward display of obedience. But years after arriving back in the land of promise they were just as stubbornly resistant to His laws as ever before. Their lives were marked by divorce, moral laxness, spiritual indifference, and a pervasive sense of religious apathy. In a sense, they had given up. The work of restoring Judah and Jerusalem had proven too difficult and they were ready to throw in the towel, spiritually speaking.

But Malachi would not allow them to do so. His job, as the messenger of God, was to call the people to repentance. They had a job to do. Their job to restore Judah would not be complete until they were restored to a right relationship with Yahweh. So, Malachi delivered God’s impassioned plea that they return to Him.

“I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 3:6-7 NLT

And if they refused, they would face judgment yet again.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Obedience Proceeds Blessing

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.” Haggai 1:7-11 ESV

God doesn’t mince any words. He had waited 16 years for the returned exiles to do what they were supposed to do. He had prearranged their return from exile in Babylon long ago and one of the main objectives behind their return was the reconstruction of the destroyed temple in Jerusalem. Long before the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, God had used the prophet, Isaiah to warn the people of the judgment that was coming for their disobedience. But He also foretold of their eventual return to the land and their task of rebuilding the temple.

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who spread out the earth by myself…
who confirms the word of his servant
    and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
    and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
    and I will raise up their ruins’…
who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
    and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’
    and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’” – Isaiah 44:24, 27, 28 ESV

And hundreds of years later, when the people of Judah found themselves living as exiles, just as God had predicted, they were given remarkable news that the Persian king, Cyrus, was going to allow them to return to their homeland. And he was very specific about the purpose behind their return.

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:2-4 ESV

God used this pagan king to accomplish His sovereign will concerning Judah. The Almighty divinely inspired this powerful monarch to release a sizeable portion of his nation’s slave labor so they might return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. That had always been God’s plan. He had brought about their fall and the destruction of their capital city and its glorious temple. But He had also made plans for their eventual return. God had clearly foretold His intentions to discipline His disobedient and rebellious people, but He had declared His plan to restore them. The prophet, Jeremiah had communicated God’s sovereign plan hundreds of years before it ever came to fruition.

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. – Jeremiah 29:10-14 ESV

But their return to the land was to be marked by a renewal of their relationship with God. It was to be a time of repentance and a realignment of their priorities. They would be expected to rededicate themselves to God and honor His glory and goodness by rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple. With the completion of the temple, they would be able to reinstitute the sacrificial system and restore their spiritual purity as a people.

Yet, 16 years later, the temple was still a heap of rubble because the people had procrastinated and put off their God-given responsibility to reconstruct His house. And as Ezra makes clear, the king of Persia had made an official proclamation concerning the rebuilding of the temple. He had even funded its construction out of the royal treasury.

“Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices were offered, and let its foundations be retained. Its height shall be sixty cubits and its breadth sixty cubits, with three layers of great stones and one layer of timber. Let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. And also let the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple that is in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be restored and brought back to the temple that is in Jerusalem, each to its place. You shall put them in the house of God.” – Ezra 6:3-5 ESV

But despite the royal decree, the financial backing, and the divine mandate from God, the people of Judah had chosen to build their own homes while leaving the house of God in a state of perpetual ruin. So, God responded, “Consider your ways” (Haggai 1:7 ESV). He wanted them to take serious stock of their behavior. What they were doing was unacceptable and He was no longer going to tolerate it. Speaking through His prophet, Haggai, God made His demands known.

“Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord. – Haggai 1:8 ESV

They had the money to fund the construction. They had even set the foundation in place. But now they were going to have to complete the project and it would require effort on their part. And God was very clear about the purpose behind the reconstruction of the temple. They were to accomplish this take for God’s pleasure and glory. This wasn’t going to be about them. It was all about the God who had set them apart as His own and who had graciously returned them to the land. This house was to be a monument to His goodness and glory.

They had missed the whole point of their return to the land. The main reason they had been cast out of the land in the first place was that they had defiled and defamed God’s name. They had failed to live in obedience to their covenant commitment to God. Rather than worship Him alone, they had chosen to commit spiritual adultery by bowing down to the false gods of the nations that surrounded them. But God had chosen to restore the integrity of His name by returning His disobedient people to the land He had given them as their inheritance. But, as the prophet, Ezekiel makes clear, God was not doing this because they deserved it.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.” – Ezekiel 36:22-24 NLT

Despite God’s promise, their time back in the land had been far from productive or fruitful. In fact, God pointed out that their efforts to rebuild their former lives had been cursed.

“You hoped for rich harvests, but they were poor. And when you brought your harvest home, I blew it away. Why? Because my house lies in ruins, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, while all of you are busy building your own fine houses.” – Haggai 1:9 NLT

Their sixteen years of disobedience had resulted in God’s judgment. He had brought drought to the land so that their grain, grapes, and olives withered in the fields. They longed for fruitfulness but reaped misery instead. They had expected to fill their homes with the fruit of the land but found themselves suffering from hunger and starvation. All because they had chosen to disregard the will of God. They wanted His provision but didn’t seem too concerned about building a house for His presence. They wanted God on their side but were far less interested in having Him in their midst. So, they had to be reminded that unless they obeyed the will of God by rebuilding the temple of God, they could forget about enjoying the blessings of God.

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

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

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Repent and Rebuild

1 In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Haggai 1:1-6 ESV

This relatively short prophetic book bears the name of Haggai, who was evidently its author. We are given scant details regarding Haggai’s life, other than a brief mention in the book of Ezra. According to the prophet Ezra, Haggai was a fellow prophet who served the Jews living in Judah and Jerusalem.

Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. – Ezra 5:1 ESV

Context is important to understanding the content of Haggai’s book. He provides the second year of Darius the king” as the time at which he received his message from God. That would date his letter sometime around 520 BC. This would have been about 66 years after the fall of Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians. In 538 BC, King Cyrus of Persia had issued a decree that allowed the Jews who had been taken captive in the fall of Judah, to return to their land. In 537 BC, the first wave of exiles made their way back to the land under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, who was later replaced by Zerubbabel. In 458 BC, a second wave of 42,000 Israelites left Babylon and returned to the land of promise under the leadership of Ezra. Then in 444 BC, Nehemiah led a third and final wave of exiles on the long and arduous journey home to Judah. It is believed that Haggai and Zechariah both returned with the first wave of refugees. That means that Haggai had been living back in the land of Judah for 17 years before he received his message from God.

During that time, the people had begun an aggressive rebuilding program, attempting to restore the city of Jerusalem’s damaged walls and gates. Under Zerubbabel, the first group of returned exiles had rebuilt the brazen altar in Jerusalem and reinstituted the sacrificial system. But the temple remained in ruins. They would lay the foundation for the temple’s construction, but due to opposition, they would postpone its construction for 16 years. That means that Haggai had been an eye-witness to the apathy that had set in among the people. He had stood back and watched as the rebuilding program ground to a halt and the rubble of the temple would have been a constant reminder of the people’s unwillingness to honor God. They had gone about the construction of their own homes but had failed to rebuild the house of God. Their priorities were misaligned and their neglect of God’s house was another sign of their continuing unfaithfulness. God had honored His promise to restore them to the land, and yet, in refusing to complete the temple, they were treating Him as a second-class citizen. Any gratitude they may have felt for their undeserved restoration to their homeland had been replaced by greed and selfishness. And God was going to use Haggai to call them out.

Like any other prophet, Haggai was a messenger. He spoke on behalf of God. And the first message God gave Haggai to deliver was addressed to Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest. God was going to hold these two men responsible for the people’s failure to complete the construction of the temple. But it’s important to note that God was not angry because He needed a place to live. When King David had come up with the original idea of building a house for God, he had received a not-so-subtle message from God delivered through the prophet Nathan.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ – 2 Samuel 7:5-7 ESV

God did not need a house to live in. Because He is transcendent and omnipresent, He cannot be contained in a single location. But God eventually allowed David’s son, Solomon, to build a magnificent temple and He graced it with His name and vowed to watch over it – as long as Solomon and the people remained faithful to follow Him. At the dedication of that original temple, God had sworn an oath to Solomon and the people of Israel.

“I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you have made before me. I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.” – 1 Kings 9:3-8 ESV

Of course, history reveals that Solomon failed to keep his commitment to God. He ended his reign by erecting idols to the false gods of his many wives and concubines. He led the people of Israel into idolatry and apostasy, which led God to split his kingdom in two, resulting in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And the kings that followed Solomon would fare no better in keeping the covenant commitments to God. Their track records of unfaithfulness and disobedience would eventually result in the fall of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians and the destruction of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians.

God’s message to Zerubbabel about the delay in building the temple was not about a divine housing shortage. It was about a shortfall in the people’s faithfulness to God. God accused them of complacency and procrastination.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” – Haggai 1:2 ESV

They had made a determination to disobey the will of God. The whole reason God had allowed them to return to the land was to rebuild, restore, and repopulate it. But when they had initially begun the process, they had encountered opposition.

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. – Ezra 4:1-5 ESV

These “adversaries” were actually Jews who had been left in the land after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. Over the years they had intermarried with foreigners from Cutha, Ava, and Sepharvaim, who had been relocated to the land of Israel by the King of Assyria. Many of these people had migrated into the southern kingdom of Judah after it fell to the Babylonians. So, when the exiled eventually returned, these interlopers were not keen on giving up their newly acquired land or seeing the southern kingdom of Judah restored to its former glory. As a result, they did everything in their power to delay any plans for rebuilding the city of Jerusalem.

But somehow, even in the face of opposition, the returned exiles had managed to build houses for themselves. And God points out the inconsistency of their behavior.

“Why are you living in luxurious houses while my house lies in ruins? – Ezra 1:4 NLT

They had been disobedient to God’s command. Their neglect of God’s house revealed the true nature of their hearts. Perhaps they assumed that God would be with them whether He had a house or not. But their failure to honor Him by rebuilding the house that bore His name revealed the selfish and self-centered conditions of their hearts. And God revealed that their disobedience had already begun to have consequences. But they were completely oblivious to what was happening to them.

“Look at what’s happening to you! You have planted much but harvest little. You eat but are not satisfied. You drink but are still thirsty. You put on clothes but cannot keep warm. Your wages disappear as though you were putting them in pockets filled with holes!” – Haggai 1:5-6 NLT

All their efforts were producing diminished results. Because they had chosen to neglect God, they were experiencing negligible returns on their investments. They were unable to produce enough food to meet their needs. Their clothes were insufficient to keep them warm. Their wells and cisterns proved incapable of satisfying their thirst. And they never seemed to have enough money to meet their needs.

Don’t miss the point that God is making. They had beautiful homes, bountiful fields and vineyards, reliable water sources, ample clothing, and a ready source of income. But they were missing the blessing of God. They had put all their hope and trust in material things, and now they were finding that their sources of significance and sustenance were insufficient to meet their needs. It was time to rebuild. Haggai was going to make sure they understood that obedience to God took precedence over everything. As Jesus would later teach in His Sermon on the Mount, God expects His children to seek His Kingdom above all else.

“Why do you have so little faith? So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” – Matthew 6:30-33 NLT

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

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

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Yet…

So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

And the Lord said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.”

She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the Lord said to him, “Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.”

When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the Lord said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.”

10 Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” 11 And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel. Hosea 1:3-11 ESV

Hosea has received a difficult assignment from God. He’s been instructed to marry a woman who has a reputation as a prostitute. In that day and age, this would have been an act of social suicide, rendering Hosea an outcast from polite society. Women were already viewed as second-class citizens, with few rights and little value other than that of bearing and raising children. So, an adulterous or promiscuous woman was considered particularly repugnant and worthy of the community’s scorn and rejection. No self-respecting, God-honoring Hebrew male would knowingly choose to marry a woman of “ill-repute.” But here we have Hosea being commanded by God to do just that. And to make matters worse, God let Hosea know that this was not going to be some kind of symbolic marriage or acted-out parable intended to teach a moral lesson. Hosea and his new bride were expected to begin a family. And with a prostitute for a wife, Hosea must have known that his children would face the constant whispers and rumors questioning the identity of their “real” father.

None of this was going to be easy for Hosea. Yet, at no point in the story do we see or hear of Hosea questioning the will of his heavenly Father. There are no signs of resistance or declarations of divine injustice. Hosea doesn’t argue or bargain with God. He doesn’t offer an alternative plan. He simply obeys. When the Lord said, “Go,” Hosea went.

So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. – Hosea 1:3 ESV

Verses 4-8 present what is obviously a highly compressed chronology of Hosea’s life. In just five verses, Hosea goes from being a single, unmarried prophet to a husband and the father of three children. But what makes this abbreviated timeline so interesting is that God was the one to name each of Hosea’s offspring. And each name had a specific meaning or connotation. With each child’s birth, they would quickly become the talk of the town. The gossips would have a field day. And when the names of each child became common knowledge, the people of Israel would realize that God was making a not-so-subtle statement about them.

God named Hosea’s firstborn son, Jezreel. Interestingly enough, this name was not particularly bad. It actually means, “God sows.” But God lets Hosea know that the boys name in linked to a particular geographic location, the Valley of Jezreel. Years earlier, in that very valley, King Jehu of Israel had fulfilled the pronouncement that God had made against the wicked king, Ahab, and his equally wicked wife, Jezebel.

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I anoint you king over the Lord’s people, Israel. You are to destroy the family of Ahab, your master. In this way, I will avenge the murder of my prophets and all the Lord’s servants who were killed by Jezebel. The entire family of Ahab must be wiped out. I will destroy every one of his male descendants, slave and free alike, anywhere in Israel. – 2 Kings 9:6-8 NLT

Jehu had been anointed by the prophet of God to become the next king of Israel. But Joram was the reigning king at the time. It was in the Valley of Jezreel that Jehu killed King Joram, and declared himself the rightful king of Israel. Jehu went on to kill King Ahaziah of Judah as well, and ordered the slaughter of 42 of his relatives. This merciless and unnecessary action was not part of God’s plan. And it seems that God has chosen the name Jezreel as a way of commemorating Jehu’s egregious overreach. God tells Hosea that his son’s name will be Jezree as a constant reminder to the people of Israel that He will “punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel” (Hosea 1: 4 ESV). God swore to “put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4 ESV), just as He did to the dynasty of Jehu. Despite his initial obedience, Jehu had proved to be as godless as all the kings before him.

 But Jehu did not obey the Law of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart. He refused to turn from the sins that Jeroboam had led Israel to commit. – 2 Kings 10:31 ESV

So, only four generations of Jehu’s descendants would rule over the kingdom of Israel. And God warned Hosea that the Valley of Jezreel would be the site of another slaughter and it would take place “on that day.” This was fulfilled in 733 B.C. when King Tiglath-Pilesar III  and the Assyrians defeated the armies of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.

Hosea’s second child, a girl, received the Hebrew name, Lo-ruhama, which means, “No mercy.”  And the meaning behind this name takes far less brain-power to figure out. God makes it perfectly clear.

“I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all.” – Hosea 1:6 ESV

This poor little girl would be a constant reminder to Hosea that Yahweh was done extending mercy and grace to the rebellious and unrepentant nation of Israel. Every time Hosea called her name, he would have to recall the sobering words of God, and the disheartening news that, while Israel would receive no forgiveness from God, the southern kingdom of Judah would enjoy His undeserved mercy and grace.

“But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.” – Hosea 1:7 ESV

As will become painfully clear, the names of Hosea’s children only get worse with time. The third child, another boy, is saddled with the very awkward name, Lo-ammi, which means “not my people.” This poor kid would constantly bear the brunt of cruel jokes and hurtful comments questioning his birth legitimacy. As if being born to a mother with a reputation for being a prostitute, this boy’s name would be like a billboard declaring that Hosea was not his father.

But God had a much greater purpose behind the name. It was meant to be an indictment against the entire nation of Israel. The day was coming when they could find themselves living in exile in a foreign land. God would have them physically removed them from their homes and cities, and relocated to a distant where He would become little more than a fading memory.

But despite all the unattractive names and their equally unpleasant meanings, God left Hosea with good news for the people of Israel.

“Yet the time will come when Israel’s people will be like the sands of the seashore—too many to count! Then, at the place where they were told, ‘You are not my people,’ it will be said, ‘You are children of the living God.’” – Hosea 1:10 NLT

These names, while far from flattering, would not end up defining the children of Hosea and Gomer. While we know nothing about their childhood experiences or what happened to them after they grew up, we can assume that they went on to marry, have children, and live their lives just like any other Hebrew. And though the people of Israel would eventually suffer defeat and deportation at the hands of the Assyrians, God was not done with them. God speaks of a future day when He will restore and reunite His people.

Then the people of Judah and Israel will unite together. They will choose one leader for themselves, and they will return from exile together. What a day that will be—the day of Jezreel—when God will again plant his people in his land. – Hosea 1:11 NLT

At this point, Hosea is being given a glimpse into God’s preordained and preferred future for His disobedient children. Yes, there will be a time of judgment. The people of Israel will have to face the consequences for their rebellion and failure to repent. But, as God will reveal to Hosea, His judgment will be followed by mercy. His discipline will accompanied by His desire to bless those whom He has chosen as His own possession. Just as Hosea has married an unfaithful wife, God has covenanted with an unfaithful people. But He will remain unwavering in His love and totally committed to His covenant promises 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

God’s Plan of Deliverance

1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” Jonah 2:1-9 ESV

Does the story of Jonah contain allegorical elements? It seems quite clear that the author is attempting to convey more than just a historical recounting of Jonah’s life. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he has recorded the details concerning Jonah’s ordeal in order to convey an important message to his primary audience: The chosen people of God. He reveals distinct and not-so-subtle parallels between Jonah’s life and the descendants of Abraham: The Hebrew nation. But this allegorical connection does not in any way diminish or dismiss the historical nature of the book’s content. If anything, it reinforces it. The real-life experiences of Jonah are meant to be a powerful reminder of God’s sovereignty, power, grace, mercy, and love. And the fact that these events really did take place would have provided the book’s original readers with a sense of God’s control over all things.

This relatively short book is packed with Old Testament scriptural references that its original readers would have quickly recognized. There are allusions to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, two renowned prophets of God. Its narrative style brings to mind the stories of Ruth and Esther, two other Old Testament books that convey powerful messages concerning God’s sovereignty and power. Both are stories about individuals that carry much broader truths concerning God’s interactions with His chosen people. And the book of Jonah contains countless references to the Psalms. In today’s passage alone, there are at least 21 direct links.

These Old Testament references are intended to provide an indisputable connection between Jonah’s current circumstances and the historical record of Israel. This one man’s ordeal is meant to reflect the corporate experience of the entire nation. And through it all, the reader is encouraged to recognize the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes to accomplish His divine will – not just for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. And they were intended to apply this powerful truth to their own lives. God was in full control and had a plan in place that would bring about His will concerning the redemption of the world through His chosen instrument.

So, as the Jewish audience read of Jonah’s flight from God, the ensuing storm, and his eventual imprisonment in the belly of the great fish, they were meant to see themselves in the story. If the book of Jonah has a post-exilic date of authorship, as many scholars believe, then the people of Israel would have been reading its content while living as slaves in Assyria. The conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel began in 740 BC and culminated nearly 20 years later when the capital city, Samaria, was overtaken by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V. This devastating defeat resulted in the deportation of thousands of Israelites to Assyria. And this terrible plight could have been avoided had the people listened to the calls of Elijah and Elisha to repent and return to Yahweh.

So, reading of Jonah being trapped in the belly of the fish would have had a particularly powerful impact on these exiles. They were in a similar predicament. But what did Jonah do? How did he respond? Chapter two provides us with the answer.

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish – Jonah 2:1 ESV

And it’s important to recognize that it was only when he found himself confined to the fish’s stomach that Jonah cried out to God. Earlier, when the storm was raging and the sailors were desperately calling on their various gods to save them, Jonah had been sleeping like a baby. The ship’s captain even chastised Jonah for his lack of concern, shouting, “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives” (Jonah 1:6 NLT). But there is no indication that Jonah ever uttered a single word to Yahweh on their behalf. 

But now, in the darkness and dampness of his aquatic prison, Jonah cried out to God. And the record of his prayer provides a glimpse into Jonah’s knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and his basic understanding of Yahweh. He begins by quoting Psalm 120:1:

In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.

Jonah is clearly referencing one of the songs of ascent, psalms that were sung by the people of Israel as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual feasts established by God. These were songs of thanksgiving that celebrated God’s many acts of deliverance. Jonah, in the midst of his predicament, is thanking God for what He is about to do. He expresses confidence in God’s compassion and willingness to deliver the repentant. And clearly referencing Psalm 30, Jonah speaks in the past tense, reflecting his belief that God will hear his prayer and respond.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” – Psalm 30:1-2 ESV

Like King David, Jonah cries out to God from the literal depths of his despair.

“Save me, O God!
    For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.” – Psalm 69:1-12 ESV

Jonah finds himself in a hopeless situation, unable to save himself and forced to call out to God for deliverance. He is surrounded by darkness and sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean, further and further away from God. And yet, even in this dire circumstance, his mind recalls the words of King David.

I had said in my alarm,
    “I am cut off from your sight.”
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
    when I cried to you for help. – Psalm31:22 ESV

The man who had attempted to “flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV), is now feeling cut off from God. Yet, he is able to express his confidence that God will deliver him. “I shall again look upon your holy temple” (Jonah 2:4 ESV). This is a direct reference to another psalm of David: Psalm 5, verse 7. Jonah is attempting to keep his focus on the faithfulness of God by recalling the many psalms that reflect God’s goodness and past acts of divine deliverance. And he speaks in terms that project hope in the face of adversity.

The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
   at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God. – Jonah 2:5-6 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds comfort in the psalms of David, reminding himself that God is far greater than his worst predicament.

O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. – Psalm 30:3 ESV

As Jonah sank deeper and deeper into the sea, he cried out louder and louder, believing that his God could and would hear him from His holy temple. Distance and darkness are no problem for God. As King David said:

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. – Psalm 139:9-12 ESV

But Jonah ends his prayer in a somewhat prideful and arrogant tone, seemingly comparing himself to the pagan sailors who had tossed him overboard.

Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love. – Jonah 2:8 ESV

What Jonah didn’t know was what had happened to those men when they threw him overboard and the storm subsided.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. – Jonah 1:16 ESV

These former idolaters believed in Yahweh and expressed their gratitude for His goodness by offering sacrifices and making vows. But Jonah assumes that these men remained worshipers of false gods. He viewed them as pagan Gentiles who would never understand or experience the steadfast love of Yahweh. But he was wrong. And he arrogantly bragged about how he would pay God back for His deliverance.

“But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9 ESV

Notice that nowhere in his prayer does Jonah mention Nineveh or the people who live there. He offers up no prayer of intercession on their behalf. Instead, he seems to echo the words of the self-righteous Pharisee from the story told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

“I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

Jonah shows no regard for the nations of the earth. He had been more than willing to sleep while the Gentile sailors went to their deaths. And he had chosen to disobey God rather than deliver His message to the wicked citizens of Nineveh. Yet, when he found himself in desperate circumstances, Jonah called upon his gracious and merciful God. As a Jew, he believed he somehow deserved to be saved. And his self-consumed prayer seems to reflect the hearts of the people living in exile. They too had come to believe that they were deserving of God’s deliverance. Even their prophets were prophesying falsehoods, proclaiming that their days in exile would be few. These men were guilty of leading the people astray, allowing them to think that, despite their captivity, all was well between them and God.

After Jonah completed his prayer to God, the author records, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10 ESV). Don’t miss the significance of that statement. It says that God spoke to the fish, but not to Jonah. Yahweh does not respond to Jonah’s pious-sounding words. Instead, He speaks to the fish and commands that it deliver Jonah to dry land. The fish in which Jonah had been imprisoned suddenly became God’s instrument of deliverance. And not only for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. God would use the fish to accomplish His divine plan of redemption, and God would use His reluctant and rebellious prophet as well. The sovereign will of God would be done.

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

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

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

Joshua and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

23 And the Lord commissioned Joshua the son of Nun and said, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you.”

24 When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, 26 “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death! 28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”  Deuteronomy 31:23-29 ESV

The commissioning of Joshua by God seems a bit anticlimactic, doesn’t it? It takes just one verse to record the whole affair. There were no animals sacrificed, no anointing oil poured over the head of Joshua. A comparison between his commissioning and that of Aaron reveals some remarkable and glaring contrasts.

And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. And he put the coat on him and tied the sash around his waist and clothed him with the robe and put the ephod on him and tied the skillfully woven band of the ephod around him, binding it to him with the band. And he placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:6-9 ESV

And he poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him. And Moses brought Aaron’s sons and clothed them with coats and tied sashes around their waists and bound caps on them, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Leviticus 8:12-13 ESV

Yet, all Joshua got as a word of encouragement from God: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land that I swore to give them. I will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23 ESV).

But even these words of encouragement and affirmation had to come across as a little underwhelming to Joshua. After all, he had just heard God say that the people of Israel would prove to be rebellious and unrepentant, earning them the full weight of the curses Moses had warned them about. So, while God provided Joshua with the assurance that he would be successful in his new role as leader of the people of Israel, it had to have been bitter-sweet news to his ears. Yes, Joshua would accomplish his God-given assignment and lead the people into the land of Canaan, but how could he forget the fact that they would not be allowed to stay there. The day would come when they would be destroyed by their enemies and taken as captives to foreign lands.

And even after his rather abrupt and abbreviated commissioning, Joshua had to hear Moses repeat the warning God had delivered to them in the tent of meeting.

I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the Lord. How much more after my death!” – Deuteronomy 31:27 ESV

Put yourself in Joshua’s sandals. He has just been commissioned the new leader of the people of Israel and yet when he and Moses step out of the tent of meeting, he doesn’t even get an introduction. There is no official announcement of the leadership transition from Moses to Joshua. It’s almost as if Joshua simply stood in the background, eyes wide with shock and surprise. He had just seen the Shekinah glory of God, heard the voice of God, and was still digesting the devastating news from God that the nation of Israel would end up back in captivity one day. And just as he is about to take over the reins of leadership, he has to sit back and hear Moses accuse the people of being rebellious and stubborn.

And Moses wasn’t done. He had one more punch to the gut he wanted to deliver.

“I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 ESV

I can’t help but imagine how Joshua felt as all this transpired. Here he was getting ready to lead the people of Israel into the promised land, not exactly an easy task, and Moses was busy stirring up and offending them. On top of that, Joshua had just been informed that, while the whole conquest-of-the-land initiative would be a success, it would prove to be shortlived and irrelevant.

This is probably not the way Joshua had envisioned his tenure as the shepherd of Israel beginning. This entire section of the book of Deuteronomy is weighted with a dark sense of foreboding. This should have been one of the most eagerly anticipated events in Israel’s long and storied history as they prepared to cross over the border and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God centuries earlier. But rather than joy and celebration, the occasion was marked by sadness and disappointment. The party balloons had popped. The candles on the cake had blown out.

And Moses told the people that the law itself would bear witness against them. He instructed the Levites to “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26 ESV). His handwritten copy of God’s commandments would be a constant presence among the people, practically screaming out its judgments against them every time they violated its contents.

Moses assembles all the elders and officers of the 12 tribes and calls heaven and earth to witness against them. But what does this mean? How do the heavens and the earth bear witness against the nation of Israel? Well, in the opening stanza of the song that God gave Moses, we read these words: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deuteronomy 32:1 ESV).

Moses was going to sing the words of God’s song to the people, and the first words would be addressed to the heavens and the earth. It is as if God is saying, “If you won’t listen, creation will.” The rest of the creative order will hear the commands of God and bear witness against the Israelites for their stubborn refusal to do as He has said.

In a sense, Moses is saying that the heavens and earth will still remain, even after the Israelites are long gone. The sun, moon, and stars will still be in the sky long after Israel is exiled from the land of promise. They will look up from their new home in Babylon and see the same unchanging scene in the heavens, but they will be in captivity. The land of Canaan will remain right where it was when they left. Nothing will change about it except the identity of those who occupy it. The earth will keep spinning. The sun, moon, and stars will keep shining. Canaan will remain a land flowing with milk and honey. But the fate of the Israelites will be markedly different than it had been.

“…in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 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

You Will Not Be Forgotten

21 Remember these things, O Jacob,
    and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
    O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
22 I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
    and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.

23 Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
    shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
    O forest, and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
    and will be glorified[c] in Israel.

24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who alone stretched out the heavens,
    who spread out the earth by myself,
25 who frustrates the signs of liars
    and makes fools of diviners,
who turns wise men back
    and makes their knowledge foolish,
26 who confirms the word of his servant
    and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
    and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
    and I will raise up their ruins’;
27 who says to the deep, ‘Be dry;
    I will dry up your rivers’;
28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
    and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’
    and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
– Isaiah 44:21-28

By now, we have seen that God has a number of things in store for the people of Judah. One involves their impending destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. God has already informed King Hezekiah that this would happen.

“Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord.” – Isaiah 39:6 ESV

And to make matters worse, God informed Hezekiah that some of his sons would “be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (Isaiah 39:7 ESV). But God had also revealed that, while Judah would “receive double for her sins” (Isaiah 40:2 ESV), He would not abandon them completely. Yes, they would face His righteous wrath in the form of their defeat and exile, but He would once again show them His unmerited favor. Isaiah was to say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” He was to assure them, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might” (Isaiah 40:9-10 ESV).

In chapter 41, God reminded the people of Judah that they belonged to Him and, no matter what happened, they had nothing to fear. He was going to care for them, even in their greatest times of distress.

“‘You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off’;
fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
– Isaiah 41:9-10 ESV

“For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not,
    I am the one who helps you.’”
– Isaiah 41:13 ESV

In chapter 42, God revealed His plans to send His Servant, who would one day “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1 ESV). This obvious reference to Jesus, the Messiah, lets the people of Judah know that God has something remarkable in plan for them in the future.

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
– Isaiah 42:6-7 ESV

But God has more to say about the matter. In chapter 43, He let them know that there was even more good news coming. Their exile would be followed by a second exodus from captivity and a re-entrance into the land of promise.

“Fear not, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”
– Isaiah 43:6-7 ESV

God was not going to forget Judah. Yet, when the Babylonians began invading their territories and commenced the slow and methodical pillaging of their cities and towns, it was going to feel as if God was nowhere to be found. They would assume He had abandoned them, leaving them powerless and defenseless before their enemies. But, once again, God assures them that nothing could be further from the truth.

“Remember these things, O Jacob,
    and Israel, for
you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
    O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
    and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.”
– Isaiah 44:6-7 ESV

Not only would God not forget them, but He would also forgive them. He would remove their sins from them. All He asked is that they would remember that He alone is God. He called on them to recognize the futility and foolishness of false gods. An idol made by the hands of a man was incapable of remembering or redeeming. A false god can’t forgive sins. Only God can do that.

In response, Isaiah calls on the whole creative order to praise God for His salvation of Israel. And his statement regarding Israel’s glorious restoration by God is in the past-tense, as if it has already happened.

For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
    and will be glorified in Israel.
– Isaiah 44:23 ESV

And the following verses seem to provide an explanation for this amazing act of redemption and restoration. God is described as the Lord, Jehovah, their Redeemer. And that description is followed by a series of statements that all begin with the word, “who,” which provides further explanation of God’s character.

who formed you from the womb – vs 24

who alone stretched out the heavens – vs 24

who spread out the earth by myself – vs 24

who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners – vs 25

who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish – vs 25

who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers – vs 26

who says of Jerusalem, “She shall be inhabited,” and of the cities of Judah, “They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins” – vs 26

who says to the deep, “Be dry; I will dry up your rivers” – vs 27

who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose” – vs 28

All of these statements set apart God as distinct and wholly different from any other god. He is the one true God. These are statements of authority, sovereignty, and unparalleled power. So, when God says of Jerusalem, “‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isaiah 44:28 ESV), it is guaranteed to happen. The people of Judah would end up in exile in Babylon, because God had decreed it. But they would also be restored to the land, because God had declared it. And here is God, revealing that He will use Cyrus, a Persian king, to fulfill His will for Judah. This remarkable prophecy was fulfilled to the letter when, after Judah had spent 70 years in exile in Babylon, King Cyrus issued is decree giving them royal permission and provision to return to the land and rebuilt their city and temple.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:1-4 ESV

God did not forget. And He did blot out their sins, allowing them to return to the land of promise. His grace arranged it all, including the king’s decree, the provision of funds, the rebuilding of the city and its walls, and the restoration of the temple and the sacrificial system. He proved Himself faithful. And this amazing story of God’s covenant-faithfulness should encourage us today. He always follows through. He always keeps His word. He never forgets and He never forsakes.

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 Is Coming!

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever.

Go on up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
    lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead those that are with young. – Isaiah 40:1-11 ESV

Isaiah has just delivered a shocking message to the king of Judah.

“Listen to this message from the Lord of Heaven’s Armies: ‘The time is coming when everything in your palace—all the treasures stored up by your ancestors until now—will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left,’ says the Lord. ‘Some of your very own sons will be taken away into exile. They will become eunuchs who will serve in the palace of Babylon’s king.’” – Isaiah 39:5-7 NLT

And while Hezekiah seems to have taken it all it in stride, this devastating news was not going to sit well with the people of Judah. Because of Hezekiah’s pride, as evidenced by his ill-advised and boastful display of the wealth of his kingdom to the Babylonians, God was going to hand Judah over to the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem would fall, the temple would be destroyed, and the people would be taken as captives to Babylon.

So, if you’re in Isaiah’s sandals, what do you say to the people of Judah at a time like this? How do you continue to speak into their lives after God has delivered such a bombshell of a pronouncement? You listen to God. You wait for Him to reveal the rest of the story. God has declared His judgment, in no uncertain terms. But it will be followed by His deliverance. And, as chapter 40 opens up, we are taken on a fast-forward journey into the future, long after the fall of Jerusalem. The people of Judah are living in exile in Babylon. And the days of their punishment are coming to an end.

In the following chapters, God reveals that the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians will take place, but so will their future deliverance. And the message He gives to Isaiah while speaking of a day nearly a century and a half into the future, is meant to provide immediate encouragement to the people of Judah living in Isaiah’s day. God opens with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people.” In the midst of all their sorrow and despair, God speaks words intended to bring hope and assurance.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
    and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
    for all her sins.” – Isaiah 40:2 NLT

It is as if Isaiah has been teleported into the future where is allowed to see events that have not yet taken place. But because these distant scenes are revealed by God Himself, they are reality, not fantasy. This is not wishful thinking on the part of Isaiah, but the revealed will of God. He is providing a revelation of things to come.

God is coming. His arrival is imminent, and the people are told to make preparations.

“Clear the way through the wilderness
    for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
    for our God! – Isaiah 40:3 NLT

Their desolate surroundings and distant location would prove to be no barrier for God. Their dire circumstances would be no problem for the Almighty. Every imaginable and seemingly impregnable obstacle would be removed, making way for God’s arrival.

“Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.” – Isaiah 40:5 NLT

And how are the people to know that these things will happen? The Lord has spoken. He has declared it. “The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5 ESV). This message declaring God’s trustworthiness and reliability are reiterated just a few verses later.

“…the word of our God will stand forever.” – Isaiah 40:8 ESV

And in between these two statements declaring that God’s word is everlasting and always reliable, we find a description of man’s transience and impermanence. Humanity is no more permanent than withering grass or a fading flower. And, like the rest of nature, man is subject to the will of God. He gives life, and He takes it away. He breathes into man the breath of life, and with the very same breath, He takes it away. But His word is permanent and unshakable. It cannot be altered or deterred in any way. Which transforms the following words from a hopeful possibility to a God-ordained certainty.

“Your God is coming!”
Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
    He will rule with a powerful arm.
See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.” – Isaiah 40:9-10 NLT

God is coming. It may not be today, but it will happen. Delay should not produce disappointment or doubt. The longer we have to wait, the greater our longing for His coming should grow. Our hope is based on His word, not the nature of our surroundings. God is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. He is the Great Shepherd, who cares for His sheep.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
    He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
    He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. – Isaiah 40:11 NLT

This glimpse into Judah’s future was intended to remind Isaiah and the people of Judah of God’s trustworthiness and sovereignty over their lives. As Isaiah penned these words, the shock of God’s pronouncement of Judah’s fall to Babylon still rang in his ears. The people were shell-shocked by the thought that their great city, while spared defeat by the Assyrians, would one day fall to yet another pagan power. But God wanted them to know that He could be trusted. He was good for His word. And He was a good and gracious Shepherd who would care for His flock.

If we fast-forward again, to the end of the book of Revelation, we see yet another glimpse into God’s future plans for mankind. This time, we hear the words of Jesus Himself, as He reassures His people of His own return.

“Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” – Revelation 22:12-13 NLT

The world will suffer greatly during the seven years of the Tribulation. But at the end of this dark period of human history, God will send His Son to the earth a second time. And, this time, He will come as a conquering King who defeats all those who stand in opposition to His rule and reign. He will establish His Kingdom on earth, and restore the people of Israel to a right relationship with God. But how do we know that these future events will take place? Because Jesus declared, “These words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 22:6 ESV). And He leaves us with these comforting words of promise:

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” – Revelation 22:20 ESV

And our response should be:

Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! – Revelation 22:20 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