You Will Know

17 In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, wail over the multitude of Egypt, and send them down, her and the daughters of majestic nations, to the world below, to those who have gone down to the pit:

19 ‘Whom do you surpass in beauty?
    Go down and be laid to rest with the uncircumcised.’

20 They shall fall amid those who are slain by the sword. Egypt is delivered to the sword; drag her away, and all her multitudes. 21 The mighty chiefs shall speak of them, with their helpers, out of the midst of Sheol: ‘They have come down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword.’

22 “Assyria is there, and all her company, its graves all around it, all of them slain, fallen by the sword, 23 whose graves are set in the uttermost parts of the pit; and her company is all around her grave, all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living.

24 “Elam is there, and all her multitude around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised into the world below, who spread their terror in the land of the living; and they bear their shame with those who go down to the pit. 25 They have made her a bed among the slain with all her multitude, her graves all around it, all of them uncircumcised, slain by the sword; for terror of them was spread in the land of the living, and they bear their shame with those who go down to the pit; they are placed among the slain.

26 “Meshech-Tubal is there, and all her multitude, her graves all around it, all of them uncircumcised, slain by the sword; for they spread their terror in the land of the living. 27 And they do not lie with the mighty, the fallen from among the uncircumcised, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war, whose swords were laid under their heads, and whose iniquities are upon their bones; for the terror of the mighty men was in the land of the living. 28 But as for you, you shall be broken and lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword.

29 “Edom is there, her kings and all her princes, who for all their might are laid with those who are killed by the sword; they lie with the uncircumcised, with those who go down to the pit.

30 “The princes of the north are there, all of them, and all the Sidonians, who have gone down in shame with the slain, for all the terror that they caused by their might; they lie uncircumcised with those who are slain by the sword, and bear their shame with those who go down to the pit.

31 “When Pharaoh sees them, he will be comforted for all his multitude, Pharaoh and all his army, slain by the sword, declares the Lord God. 32 For I spread terror in the land of the living; and he shall be laid to rest among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword, Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord God.” Ezekiel 32:17-32 ESV

Fourteen days later, Ezekiel received the second part of God’s oracle concerning Egypt’s demise. In it, he is told to “weep for the hordes of Egypt and for the other mighty nations” (Ezekiel 32:18 NLT). The scene depicted by God is that of a funeral and Ezekiel is instructed to “bury” Egypt in a grave, sending the deceased nation “to the world below” (Ezekiel 32:18 ESV); to the afterlife. The entire nation of Egypt is portrayed as a corpse ready for burial and Ezekiel is given the responsibility of interring the body and conducting the funeral.

But despite Egypt’s vast wealth and reputation for extravagance as illustrated by its many architectural wonders, the funeral described is that of a pauper. Rather than a royal entombment attended by visiting dignitaries and marked by solemnity and almost worshipful sorrow by the adoring public, this burial is of a relative unknown. God even gives Ezekiel the words of the eulogy he is to speak at the graveside.

“O Egypt, are you lovelier than the other nations?
    No! So go down to the pit and lie there among the outcasts.” – Ezekiel 32:19 NLT

The nation of Egypt would experience the same fate as the “uncircumcised” heathen. When the Babylonians swept through the land, they would be indiscriminate in their destruction. Nebuchadnezzar’s forces would be merciless and show no pity to anyone, leaving the bodies of the wealthy and well-educated lying in the streets alongside the poor and disenfranchised. God even describes their welcome in Sheol with biting sarcasm.

“Down in the grave mighty leaders will mockingly welcome Egypt and its allies, saying, ‘They have come down; they lie among the outcasts, hordes slaughtered by the sword.’” – Ezekiel 32:21 NLT

Egypt will join the other nations that have fallen before them. People from Assyria, Elam, Meshech-Tubal, Edom, the princes of the north, and the Sidonians have all entered the grave and will be ready to greet its newest occupant with open arms. At one time, all these nations “struck terror in the hearts of people everywhere, but now they have been slaughtered by the sword” (Ezekiel 32:23 NLT). They had been major players and had enjoyed their moment in the spotlight, but now there were relegated to an eternal existence of obscurity and irrelevance in the grave. And Egypt would suffer the same fate.

This message, given by God to Ezekiel, was intended to be shared with the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. It was meant to persuade these displaced people from putting any hope in Egypt as a potential source of salvation for Judah. When the Babylonians had first appeared on the scene, threatening the peace of the region, the people of Judah looked for help from their more powerful allies. The Egyptians were a logical choice because they had a track record of success. As one of the oldest nations in the region, they had a long history of military dominance and hegemony. So, it was only natural for Judah to place its hope in their neighbor to the south. Even the exiles were tempted to see the Egyptians as the key to the survival of their homeland and the means of their eventual return from captivity.

But God wanted them to know that Pharaoh would not be their savior. While his people believed him to be a god, he was just another man and his nation would prove to be just another victim of Babylon’s seemingly unstoppable global expansion.

“You too, Egypt, will lie crushed and broken among the outcasts, all slaughtered by the sword. – Ezekiel 32:28 NLT

From chapter 25 to chapter 32, the phrase “know I am the LORD” occurs 19 times. The oracles contained within these chapters serve as a powerful indictment against the nations of the world but are really a divine dismissal of the gods of this world. The nation of Judah, like its northern neighbor, Israel, was guilty of spiritual adultery. For centuries, they had made a habit of worshiping the false gods of the nations that occupied the land of Canaan. They had become equal-opportunity idolaters who saw nothing wrong with adopting the gods of their pagan neighbors and treating them with the same awe and reverence they had once reserved for Yahweh.

During their 400-year exile in Egypt, the people of Israel worshiped the gods of the Egyptians. In the process of delivering them from their captivity, God exhibited His superiority over these false gods through the ten plagues He sent against the people of Egypt. Each plague was a direct attack on one of their many gods. And when God had finished His divine smackdown of Egypt’s deities, He led them out of bondage and to the land He had promised them. But even after arriving in the land of Canaan, the people of Israel continued their love affair with false gods. In direct violation of God’s commands, they embraced the gods of the Canaanites and the neighboring nations. And despite God’s repeated calls to repent and return to Him, they stubbornly refused.

Prior to the people of Israel entering the land of Canaan, Moses stood before them and issued a covenant commitment.

“I am making this covenant both with you who stand here today in the presence of the Lord our God, and also with the future generations who are not standing here today.

“You remember how we lived in the land of Egypt and how we traveled through the lands of enemy nations as we left. You have seen their detestable practices and their idols made of wood, stone, silver, and gold. I am making this covenant with you so that no one among you—no man, woman, clan, or tribe—will turn away from the Lord our God to worship these gods of other nations, and so that no root among you bears bitter and poisonous fruit.” – Deuteronomy 29:15-18 NLT

But his words had little or no lasting impact. It didn’t take them long to break their covenant with Moses and violate the laws given to them by God. Their entire history is replete with examples of their unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity. Now, as Ezekiel ministered to the people of God living as exiles in Babylon, they were reaping the consequences of their disobedience. They were experiencing exactly what Joshua had warned their ancestors would happen in they turned to the false gods of Canaan.

“…as surely as the Lord your God has given you the good things he promised, he will also bring disaster on you if you disobey him. He will completely destroy you from this good land he has given you.  If you break the covenant of the Lord your God by worshiping and serving other gods, his anger will burn against you, and you will quickly vanish from the good land he has given you.” – Joshua 23:15-16 NLT

And all those nations from whom they had adopted their false gods would fall before the righteous wrath of Yahweh. Each would eventually pay the price for its idolatry and refusal to acknowledge the one true God. But their destruction would be a sobering warning to the people of Judah, reminding them of the words of God: “Then they will know that I am the Lord.”

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.

Not For the Faint of Heart

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother. They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.

“Oholah played the whore while she was mine, and she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors clothed in purple, governors and commanders, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses. She bestowed her whoring upon them, the choicest men of Assyria all of them, and she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone after whom she lusted. She did not give up her whoring that she had begun in Egypt; for in her youth men had lain with her and handled her virgin bosom and poured out their whoring lust upon her. Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, after whom she lusted. 10 These uncovered her nakedness; they seized her sons and her daughters; and as for her, they killed her with the sword; and she became a byword among women, when judgment had been executed on her.

11 “Her sister Oholibah saw this, and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister. 12 She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. 13 And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way. 14 But she carried her whoring further. She saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, 15 wearing belts on their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them having the appearance of officers, a likeness of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. 16 When she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. 17 And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoring lust. And after she was defiled by them, she turned from them in disgust. 18 When she carried on her whoring so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned in disgust from her sister. 19 Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt 20 and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses. 21 Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts.” – Ezekiel 23:1-21 ESV

This chapter needs a graphic-warning label. It is full of sexual imagery and illicit language that makes it difficult to read and even harder to reconcile as content befitting God’s Word. But its message was meant to produce shock and disgust by comparing the behavior of God’s people with the grossest and most unacceptable sexual sins imaginable.

God begins this unflattering portrayal of His people by alluding to them by different names. The northern kingdom of Israel becomes Oholah and the southern kingdom of Judah becomes Oholibah. These pseudonyms were meant to depict each kingdom in a negative light, portraying them as two sisters who each display a penchant for sexual promiscuity and immorality. Oholah means “her tent,” and is meant to represent Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom. This designation most likely refers to King Jeroboam’s determination to set up his own houses of worship in Israel to prevent the people from returning to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. His actions are recorded in 1 Kings.

…on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there.

Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. And Jeroboam instituted a religious festival in Bethel, held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in imitation of the annual Festival of Shelters in Judah. There at Bethel he himself offered sacrifices to the calves he had made, and he appointed priests for the pagan shrines he had made. So on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a day that he himself had designated, Jeroboam offered sacrifices on the altar at Bethel. He instituted a religious festival for Israel, and he went up to the altar to burn incense. – 1 Kings 12:18-31 NLT

In a sense, Jeroboam, the first king to rule over the northern kingdom, made the grave error of erecting an alternative house of worship, tempting the people to reject Yahweh as their god.

By contrast, the name Oholibah means “my tent is in her,” and stands for Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah where God’s temple was located. It was at this one “tent” that the people of Judah were to worship the one true God: Yahweh. But like their northern neighbors, the Judahites had proven themselves to be unfaithful. 

This entire chapter acts as a metaphorical version of Jeremiah 3:6-11, where God outlines the sins of Israel and Judah.

During the reign of King Josiah, the Lord said to me, “Have you seen what fickle Israel has done? Like a wife who commits adultery, Israel has worshiped other gods on every hill and under every green tree. I thought, ‘After she has done all this, she will return to me.’ But she did not return, and her faithless sister Judah saw this. She saw that I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery. But that treacherous sister Judah had no fear, and now she, too, has left me and given herself to prostitution. Israel treated it all so lightly—she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. But despite all this, her faithless sister Judah has never sincerely returned to me. She has only pretended to be sorry. I, the Lord, have spoken!”

Then the Lord said to me, “Even faithless Israel is less guilty than treacherous Judah!” – Jeremiah 3:6-11 NLT

In the Ezekiel passage, God describes Ohalah and Oholibah as His “wives.” This is not intended to be a divine endorsement of polygamy but is simply meant to be a picture of the intimate relationship between God and His chosen people. The two kingdoms comprised the 12 tribes of Israel and they had been set apart as His own. But God accuses them of having committed adultery. The northern kingdom, allured by the power and prestige of the Assyrian Empire, made unsanctioned alliances with this up-and-coming global power. God deems these dalliances as nothing short of adulterous.

“Oholah lusted after other lovers instead of me, and she gave her love to the Assyrian officers.” – Ezekiel 23:5 NLT

The kings of Judah literally prostrated themselves as the feet of the Assyrian kings, hoping to evade defeat at their hands. This scene is depicted in The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser,  which shows King Jehu of Israel bowing in submission before King Shalmaneser III of Assyria and giving him tribute money.

The primary problem with these alliances was that they encouraged the people to place their hopes in someone other than God. Secondarily, they led to idolatry. Each time Israel made a treaty with a foreign power, they ended up embracing the false gods of their newfound “lovers.”

“…she prostituted herself with the most desirable men of Assyria, worshiping their idols and defiling herself.” – Ezekiel 23:7 NLT

And God reveals that this tendency to spiritual adultery had begun all the way back in Egypt. At one time, Israel and Judah had been one nation, formed by God in the crucible of captivity in Egypt. There, for 400 years, the descendants of Abraham had suffered under the oppressive hand of their Egyptian overlords, but they had also grown into a mighty nation. And during their four-century-long stay in the land of the Pharaohs, they had turned their backs on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, embracing instead the gods of the Egyptians. So, idolatry was nothing new for them. It had been a problem from the very beginning.

“…when she left Egypt, she did not leave her spirit of prostitution behind. She was still as lewd as in her youth, when the Egyptians slept with her, fondled her breasts, and used her as a prostitute. – Ezekiel 23:8 NLT

They brought their adulterous tendencies with them to the land of promise, continuing to give their affections to other gods. Even when Solomon, the son of King David, ascended to the throne of Israel, he promoted idolatry. Having disobeyed God by marrying many foreign wives, he soon found himself embracing their false gods and erecting shrines and worship centers all over the kingdom. It was for this reason that God split Solomon’s kingdom in half, creating Judah and Israel.

And after the division of the kingdom, the adultery continued virtually unabated. Eventually, God punished the northern kingdom, using the Assyrians to destroy the capital city of Samaria and subjugate the disobedient citizens of Israel.

I handed her over to her Assyrian lovers, whom she desired so much. They stripped her, took away her children as their slaves, and then killed her. After she received her punishment, her reputation was known to every woman in the land. – Ezekiel 23:9-10 NLT

Yet, the fall of Judah did nothing to change the behavior of the southern kingdom of Israel. Having watched their northern “sister” suffer humiliation and annihilation at the hands of their enemies, they stubbornly continued to pursue the same adulterous path.

“Yet even though Oholibah saw what had happened to Oholah, her sister, she followed right in her footsteps. And she was even more depraved, abandoning herself to her lust and prostitution. – Ezekiel 23:11 NLT

Rather than learn a valuable lesson from the fall of Judah, the southern kingdom upped the ante and escalated their idolatrous ways. And God uses extremely graphic language to describe just how wicked Judah became.

“…she turned to even greater prostitution, remembering her youth when she was a prostitute in Egypt. She lusted after lovers with genitals as large as a donkey’s and emissions like those of a horse.” – Ezekiel 23:19-20 NLT

To understand just how disturbing this message must have been for Ezekiel to deliver and for his audience to receive, imagine going to church one Sunday morning and hearing your pastor present a message that contained some of the same imagery and language that Ezekiel used. Just think how you would feel if he accused you of spiritual prostitution and used the same graphic details to describe your spiritual indiscretions. You would be shocked, appalled, and probably offended. So were the people of Judah. And that is exactly what God intended. He wanted to shock them. He wanted to offend them. And He wanted them to be appalled at the gravity of their guilt. So He used extremely graphic language to describe just how serious their sin was.

Sometimes we can become overly comfortable with our sin that we view it with a kind of casualness. We get so used to it that we forget just how detestable it is to God. That was Judah’s problem. They had sinned for so long that it no longer bothered them. They had learned to live with it and excuse it. They become accustomed to justifying their behavior. But God made it graphicly clear that this was anything but normal. Like two sisters who blatantly prostituted themselves with other men, Israel and Judah pursued relationships with other nations and other gods. They turned their backs on God and sought satisfaction elsewhere. They looked to other nations for their security. They turned to other gods for hope and healing. And while we might consider those actions less-than-shocking, God makes it clear that He viewed their actions as nothing short of immoral and unthinkable. Like a woman who walks out on her loving husband and gives herself physically to every man she meets, Israel and Judah had prostituted themselves time and time again – right in front of the very God who had chosen them, rescued them, and blessed them with His Law, His Temple, and His presence.

This chapter should disturb us and wake us up to the reality of the seriousness of sin. It should shock us and make us understand just how serious spiritual adultery is to God. He doesn’t take it lightly. He won’t tolerate it among His people. He would not and could not turn a blind eye to the actions of Judah or Israel. Spiritual unfaithfulness was and still is an offense to a holy God. If it bothered Him this much, back in the day of Ezekiel, it must still bother Him today. He is warning us to consider the seriousness of unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity in the life of the child of God.

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.

From Rags to Riches and Back Again

1 Again the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.

“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.

“When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. 11 And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12 And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. 14 And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.  Ezekiel 16:1-14 ESV

Chapter 16 contains the remarkable rags-to-riches story of the nation of Israel. In it, God uses the city of Jerusalem as a symbol of His chosen people, describing how it rose to a place of prominence and privilege from its humble and rather sordid beginnings. And this unprecedented transformation had been the result of God’s unmerited mercy and love.

God begins with a depiction of Jerusalem’s less-than-flattering origins.

“You are nothing but a Canaanite! Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” – Ezekiel 16:2 NLT

The city of Jerusalem had begun its rather sordid history as a Canaanite city, having been founded by Amorites and Hittites. At one time, it had been occupied by Jebusites and received its original name of Jebus. But during the lifetime of Abraham, it had been ruled over by a king named Melchizedek and bore the name of Salem (Genesis 14:18). At some point, its name was changed to Jerusalem and this was the city that King David attacked, conquered, and established as his royal capital.

David then led his men to Jerusalem to fight against the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of the land who were living there. The Jebusites taunted David, saying, “You’ll never get in here! Even the blind and lame could keep you out!” For the Jebusites thought they were safe. But David captured the fortress of Zion, which is now called the City of David. – 2 Samuel 5:6-7 NLT

So David made the fortress his home, and he called it the City of David. He extended the city, starting at the supporting terraces and working inward. And David became more and more powerful, because the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies was with him. – 2 Samuel 5:9-10 NLT

But God describes Jerusalem’s origins as far from impressive.

On the day you were born, no one cared about you. – Ezekiel 16:4 NLT

On the day you were born, you were unwanted, dumped in a field and left to die. – Ezekiel 16:5 NLT

Jerusalem had never been an impressive place. It was not located along any trade routes and it had no natural resources from which to profit. It was located a significant distance from the Mediterranean Sea and the nearest body of water was the salt-infused and, therefore, lifeless Dead Sea. Though it was located on the lower slope of Mount Moriah, Jerusalem was not blessed with natural defensive qualities. To secure his city, David was required to build large walls and this effort was completed by Solomon, his son and heir to his throne.

But long before Jerusalem’s glory days as the capital city of Israel, it had been nothing but an insignificant and unimpressive dot on the proverbial map. In its original state, Jerusalem had nothing to offer. As cities go, it wasn’t much to look at and there weren’t a lot of people beating down the door to live within its walls. Yet, God had shown pity on this pitiful place.

“But I came by and saw you there, helplessly kicking about in your own blood. As you lay there, I said, ‘Live!’ And I helped you to thrive like a plant in the field. You grew up and became a beautiful jewel. Your breasts became full, and your body hair grew, but you were still naked.” – Ezekiel 16:6-7 NLT

Through the efforts of David and Solomon, God slowly transformed Jerusalem into a magnificent city. And He describes the city’s metamorphosis in terms of a lover bestowing expensive gifts on his bride.

“I gave you expensive clothing of fine linen and silk, beautifully embroidered, and sandals made of fine goatskin leather. I gave you lovely jewelry, bracelets, beautiful necklaces, a ring for your nose, earrings for your ears, and a lovely crown for your head. And so you were adorned with gold and silver. Your clothes were made of fine linen and costly fabric and were beautifully embroidered. You ate the finest foods—choice flour, honey, and olive oil—and became more beautiful than ever. You looked like a queen, and so you were!” – Ezekiel 16:10-13 NLT

God knew that the people of Judah, even those living in exile in Babylon, had placed a great deal of hope in the existence of the former hometown. At one time, they had all enjoyed the amenities and perks that came with living in this beautiful incredible city. They had personally benefited from the many blessings God had bestowed upon Jerusalem. For centuries, the people of Israel had walked within its walls and taken in the grandeur of the king’s palace and the splendor of the magnificent temple that Solomon had built and dedicated to Yahweh. On their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the people of Israel would sing songs celebrating the greatness of their God and the city that contained His house.

I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
And now here we are,
    standing inside your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is a well-built city;
    its seamless walls cannot be breached. – Psalm 122:1-3 NLT

Those who trust in the Lord are as secure as Mount Zion;
    they will not be defeated but will endure forever.
Just as the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever. – Psalm 125:1-2 NLT

God knew that the exiles were still counting on the fact that He would continue to protect their former home. They couldn’t imagine their God allowing the city of David to fall into enemy hands. Any thought of the Babylonians breaking through the impregnable walls of the city was beyond their imaginations. It was impossible, inconceivable, and highly improbable. Or so they thought.

What they failed to understand was that the city was nothing more than a symbol of their spiritual state as a nation. It had once been an insignificant and unimpressive backwater town, but God had transformed it into a city of great beauty and power. The same was true of Israel as a nation. There had been a time when they were few in number and far from impressive and yet God had chosen them as His own. Moses records their transformation from relative obscurity to prominence in the book of Deuteronomy.

“The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-8 NLT

Long before the people of Israel conquered the land of Canaan and occupied the city of Jerusalem, God had demanded that they live in faithful obedience to His commands.

“He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him. Therefore, you must obey all these commands, decrees, and regulations I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 7:9-11 NLT

Centuries later, when Solomon had completed the construction of the temple and dedicated it to the Lord, he received a sobering warning from God.

“…if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations. And though this Temple is impressive now, all who pass by will be appalled and will gasp in horror. They will ask, ‘Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?’” – 1 Kings 9:6-8 NLT

The temple and the city of Jerusalem were nothing more than symbols of God’s glory and goodness. They existed to demonstrate His blessings upon the obedient people of Israel. But should the people who lived within the city’s walls and worshiped within the temple’s courtyard fail to honor and obey Him as God, they would see their circumstances drastically altered and their city dramatically destroyed.

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.

Idols of the Heart

1 Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations. For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself. And I will set my face against that man; I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people, and you shall know that I am the Lord. And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. 10 And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike— 11 that the house of Israel may no more go astray from me, nor defile themselves anymore with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, declares the Lord God.” Ezekiel 14:1-11 ESV

After exposing the lies of the false prophets and pronouncing judgment upon them, God turns His attention to the religious and civic leaders of Israel. A group of these men showed up at Ezekiel’s house with the likely intention of confronting him about his pessimistic messages and the negative impact they were having on the exiles. It seems apparent from the text that they had come to ask Ezekiel to tone down his rhetoric and to have the prophet intercede with God on their behalf. They sensed that He had a direct line to the Almighty and could do something to assuage His anger. But before they could utter a word, God spoke up and dressed them down. He knew why they were there and was not going to give them an opportunity to express their grievances or put in a request for Ezekiel’s intercession. Instead, God warned the prophet to see these men for who they really were: Idolatrous hypocrites who had no intention of giving up their false gods and returning to Him.

“Son of man, these leaders have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin. Why should I listen to their requests? – Ezekiel 14:3 NLT

With this statement, God exposes the true source of Israel’s problem. It wasn’t that they had erected shrines, altars, and high places all over Judah and even in the remote environs of Babylon, it was that they had made a home for these false gods in their hearts. They had developed a deep and abiding affection for “logs, blocks, and shapeless things.” That is what the Hebrew word גִּלּוּל (gillûl) means. The chosen people of God had fallen in love with shapeless and lifeless blocks of wood. And that was true of those men sitting in Ezekiel’s home preparing to request his intercession with the one true God. Their own hearts had become the shrines at which they bowed down and worshiped their false and formless gods.

The prophet Isaiah used biting satire to expose the ridiculous nature of idolatry.

How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.
Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit? – Isaiah 44:9-10 NLT

The Hebrew word גִּלּוּל (gillûl) could actually be translated as “dungy thing” and was anything but a compliment. Idols were worthless because they were powerless. They were little more than blocks of wood, bits of stone, and chunks of metal formed by human hands to represent non-existent deities. And Isaiah describes with thinly veiled scorn the transition of a block of wood to a worship-worthy idol.

Then the wood-carver measures a block of wood
    and draws a pattern on it.
He works with chisel and plane
    and carves it into a human figure.
He gives it human beauty
    and puts it in a little shrine.
He cuts down cedars;
    he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
    to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
    With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it
    and makes himself a god to worship!
He makes an idol
    and bows down in front of it!
He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
    and to keep himself warm.
    He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
    and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
    worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
    “You are my god!” – Isaiah 44:13-17 NLT

What seems readily apparent is that the men sitting in Ezekiel’s home had most likely called upon their false gods to rescue them from the wrath of God Almighty. These “idols of the heart” had probably gotten an earful from their fearful admirers but, as the psalmist points out, “They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear…” (Psalm 115:5-6 NLT). Their gods had failed to answer them so they were hoping Ezekiel might have better luck with Yahweh.

But the truly sad thing is they couldn’t see the futility and foolishness of their situation; a point that Isaiah expresses quite well.

Such stupidity and ignorance!
    Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
    Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.
The person who made the idol never stops to reflect,
    “Why, it’s just a block of wood!
I burned half of it for heat
    and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat.
How can the rest of it be a god?
    Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?”
The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes.
    He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
    “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?” – Isaiah 44:18-20 NLT

God was personally offended by their actions. They had the audacity to replace the One who had created them with gods they had made with their own hands. And to make matters worse, when their false gods failed to deliver, they had shown up at the prophet’s house expecting Yahweh to do them a favor.

“The people of Israel have set up idols in their hearts and fallen into sin, and then they go to a prophet asking for a message.” – Ezekiel 14:4 NLT

But the message they received was not what they were hoping to hear. God gave them an ultimatum: They would have to repent. If they wanted to hear from Him, they would have to abandon their idols and return to Him in humble obeisance and faithful obedience to His commands.

“Repent and turn away from your idols, and stop all your detestable sins.” – Ezekiel 14:6 NLT

And if they refused to do, the consequences would be sorrowful and severe.

“I will turn against such people and make a terrible example of them, eliminating them from among my people.” – Ezekiel 14:8 NLT

This was not the message Ezekiel’s guests had hoped to hear. God’s non-negotiable call to repentance was repellant to them. They couldn’t fathom the idea of giving up their idols of the heart. God was asking too much. They viewed His requirement of unwavering, faithful devotion to Him alone as too restrictive and repressive. And God knew that when they heard His conditions, they would make a beeline to one of the false prophets in hopes of getting a more favorable response. But God warned that the lies of the false prophets would do nothing to thwart His sovereign will.

False prophets and those who seek their guidance will all be punished for their sins. In this way, the people of Israel will learn not to stray from me, polluting themselves with sin. – Ezekiel 14:10-11 NLT

Fake gods and false prophets would prove helpless and hopeless in the face of God’s judgment. Idols of the heart would disappoint. The popular prophets would be punished for promoting lies. But when the dust settled, everyone would know that Yahweh alone was God. That was always God’s purpose and plan. His blessings had always been intended to demonstrate His existence as the one true God. But His curses were meant to accomplish the same thing. When He poured out His wrath on the rebellious and unrepentant, it would serve as a wake-up call to the rest of the nation. His punishment of the wicked would serve as a powerful incentive for His chosen people, prompting them to return to Him in humility and brokenness. And when they did, God would restore them, just as He had promised.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

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.

I Am Against You

7 “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you, and have not walked in my statutes or obeyed my rules, and have not even acted according to the rules of the nations that are all around you, therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, even I, am against you. And I will execute judgments in your midst in the sight of the nations. And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. 10 Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers. And I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds. 11 Therefore, as I live, declares the Lord God, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will withdraw. My eye will not spare, and I will have no pity. 12 A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in your midst; a third part shall fall by the sword all around you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.

13 “Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. And they shall know that I am the Lord—that I have spoken in my jealousy—when I spend my fury upon them. 14 Moreover, I will make you a desolation and an object of reproach among the nations all around you and in the sight of all who pass by. 15 You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations all around you, when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury, and with furious rebukes—I am the Lord; I have spoken— 16 when I send against you the deadly arrows of famine, arrows for destruction, which I will send to destroy you, and when I bring more and more famine upon you and break your supply of bread. 17 I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will rob you of your children. Pestilence and blood shall pass through you, and I will bring the sword upon you. I am the Lord; I have spoken.” – Ezekiel 5:7-17 ESV

It seems that, at the end of the 430 days, Ezekiel was given a message to deliver to the people living in Babylon. His period of God-ordained silence was over and he was allowed to deliver a stinging explanation for his dramatic performance. If anyone had somehow missed the message contained in his more than 14-month-long parable in a play, his little sermon at the end would clear up any lingering confusion.

They had done the unacceptable and unimaginable. They had made an enemy out of God Almighty.

“I myself, the Sovereign Lord, am now your enemy. I will punish you publicly while all the nations watch.” – Ezekiel 5:8 NLT

The people of Israel had enjoyed a one-of-a-kind relationship with the God of the universe. He had chosen them as His own special possession, after having formed them out of nothing and transforming them into a great and powerful nation. There had been a time when the people of Israel were nonexistent. Centuries earlier, God had called an obscure Chaldean named Abram and commanded him to leave his native land and travel to a place called Canaan. This former pagan and his barren wife received a divine commission to abandon all they had ever known, including their false gods and families, and travel to a place that God promised to give them as an inheritance to their children.

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 NLT

And Abram obeyed the command of the Lord, traveling all the way to Canaan, where God blessed him abundantly. But Abram would eventually die, having never seen the majority of God’s promises fulfilled. Yet, from him would come a grandson named Jacob, who would one day move his small family to Egypt in order to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. And God had provided Abram with a forewarning of these events.

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

Jacob and his family would remain in Egypt for more than four centuries and, during that time, their numbers would expand greatly. God eventually changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and the small clan of 70 who originally entered the land of Egypt would grow to number in the millions, causing the Egyptians to see them as a potential threat to their way of life. So, Pharaoh came up with a plan to persecute and enslave the Israelites.

“Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. – Exodus 1:9-11 NLT

But this was all part of God’s plan for the seed of Abraham. He had ordained every facet of the story, including their eventual deliverance by the hand of Moses. And long after Moses helped lead them out of their captivity in Egypt, he would write the following words to remind them of their unique relationship with God.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

Now, centuries later, after having inherited the land of Canaan, just as God had promised to Abraham, the people of Israel had proven to be far from grateful and less than faithful. They had taken for granted their privileged status as God’s prized possession.

“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:4-6 NLT

They had failed to appreciate their one-of-a-kind calling and repeatedly refused to keep the terms of the covenant God had made with them. God had promised to bless them if they would only live in obedience to His commands.

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

But their failure to keep God’s commands would come with serious consequences.

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

And for centuries, the people of Israel had wavered back and forth between obedience and rebellion. They had repeatedly proven themselves incapable of remaining faithful to God, as they regularly worshiped the false gods of the Canaanites. And God warned them time and time again that their unfaithfulness would require Him to punish them. And the people to whom Ezekiel was ministering in Babylon were there because God had sent Nebuchadnezzar and his forces to besiege the city of Jerusalem. They had been taken captive and exiled because they had violated the terms of the covenant.

Now, Ezekiel warns them that more devastation was in store for Jerusalem because the infidelity of its citizens remained unchanged. Despite the fall of the city to Nebuchadnezzar’s forces and the capture and deportment of thousands of its citizens, the remaining population continued to live in stubborn disobedience to God.

“Because of your detestable idols, I will punish you like I have never punished anyone before or ever will again. Parents will eat their own children, and children will eat their parents. I will punish you and scatter to the winds the few who survive.” – Ezekiel 5:9 NLT

The second siege of Jerusalem was going to be far worse than the first. This time, the conditions within the city walls would deteriorate to such a degree that the people would be forced to eat their own children in order to survive. And God makes it clear that these horrendous conditions will be the direct result of their unfaithfulness and infidelity.

“So I will turn you into a ruin, a mockery in the eyes of the surrounding nations and to all who pass by. You will become an object of mockery and taunting and horror. You will be a warning to all the nations around you. They will see what happens when the Lord punishes a nation in anger and rebukes it, says the Lord.” – Ezekiel 5:14-15 NLT

The chosen people of God would find their holy city destroyed, the temple of their God demolished, and their status as a mighty nation diminished beyond recognition. It is not as if God had not warned them. All the way back during their days in the wilderness as they made their way to the promised land, Moses had given them a warning from God.

“Just as the Lord has found great pleasure in causing you to prosper and multiply, the Lord will find pleasure in destroying you. You will be torn from the land you are about to enter and occupy. For the Lord will scatter you among all the nations from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship foreign gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods made of wood and stone! There among those nations you will find no peace or place to rest. And the Lord will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your life will constantly hang in the balance. You will live night and day in fear, unsure if you will survive. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were night!’ And in the evening you will say, ‘If only it were morning!’ For you will be terrified by the awful horrors you see around you.” – Deuteronomy 28:63-67 NLT

Now, centuries later, God’s warning was become reality. The news would soon arrive of Jerusalem’s fall and the destruction of the temple. And a new wave of captives would arrive in Babylon bringing with them terrible tales of the horrific conditions during the siege. They would confirm all the details of God’s predictions. And all those who had witnessed Ezekiel’s strange but mesmerizing street performance would know that he truly was a prophet of God. And they would know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that their less-than-ideal conditions in Babylon were because they had chosen to make an enemy of God. They had willingly spurned the love of their Holy Father, responding to His affections with disdain, disobedience, and disloyalty.

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.

 

Help Wanted

1 This letter is from Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, appointed by the command of God our Savior and Christ Jesus, who gives us hope.

I am writing to Timothy, my true son in the faith.

May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace. – 1 Timothy 1:1-2 ESV

Timothy was Paul’s disciple. He had evidently been led to the Lord by Paul during one of his missionary travels to Lystra. During Paul’s second missionary journey, Timothy accompanied him to the cities of Troas, Philippi, Berea, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. Timothy was a part of Paul’s third missionary journey to the city of Ephesus and was sent by Paul to minister on his own in the region of Macedonia. This young man also made it to Rome while Paul was there under house arrest. He was well-traveled and well-respected by Paul, having earned the apostle’s trust.

Paul had sent him to the city of Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering when he received this first letter from Paul. Timothy had evidently written Paul, sharing his desire to return to his side and accompany him in his ministry. But Paul was going to break the news to Timothy that he was needed right where he was. In fact, verse three tells us that when Paul and Timothy went to Ephesus on that third missionary journey, Paul went on to Macedonia, leaving Timothy behind with a job to do.

When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth. – 1 Timothy 1:3 NLT

By this time in the story of the spread of the Gospel, there were churches all over that area of the world. The Good News was spreading fast and people were coming to faith in Christ at an incredible rate. The problem was that there were too few men equipped to minister to the large numbers of churches springing up. There were infant believers everywhere and no one to lead and feed them.

Despite his zeal and high capacity for work, Paul couldn’t do it all. Much of his time had been spent in prison or under house arrest. He couldn’t be everywhere at once, and there were no seminaries churning out pastors and teachers. There were no schools raising up and equipping elders for the local churches. Yet there seemed to be no shortage of false teachers and ill-informed individuals with potentially destructive viewpoints on a wide range of topics. So, Paul turned to Timothy. Yes, he was young and inexperienced, but he was needed. Knowing that this young man was probably feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task at hand, Paul reminded him what the true purpose of all biblical instruction should be.

The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith. – 1 Timothy 1:5 NLT

Paul’s letters to Timothy have less to do with the teaching of doctrine than the defense of it. The content is practical, not theological. Paul wants Timothy to know how to encourage the believers in Ephesus toward true life change, marked by a love that manifests itself in daily life. Paul is looking for practical expressions of love. He knows that there are three things that will prevent that from happening in any believer’s life: An impure heart, a conscience that is burdened by shame, and a lack of trust in God.

This is basic stuff. It trumps a head full of theology and doctrine every time. But Paul warns Timothy, “some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions” (1 Timothy 1:6 NLT).

Somewhere along the way, they had become obsessed with things that were not resulting in increased faith and love. Debating had replaced serving. Controversy had become more popular than showing mercy and expressing love to one another. Paul had warned the elders in Ephesus, “some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following: (Acts 20:30 NLT). He went on to say that these “false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29 NLT).

The main problem seemed to have revolved around incorrect teaching regarding the law of Moses. There were those who were presenting their interpretations of the law and its application to the lives of believers, and their instructions were wreaking havoc on the health of the church. Their focus was not on increasing the love and faith of the people of God, but on being seen as experts on the topic at hand.

Paul told Timothy, “they want to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently” (1 Timothy 1:7 NLT). These individuals were cocky and confident, assured that their view was the right one. And all this discussion and debate was causing confusion and conflict within the church. Paul reminded Timothy that love should be the primary motivation for any teacher of the Word of God. Teaching that does not edify and instruction that does not increase faith is misapplied and misses the point. Debating doctrine is useless if it fails to foster more love for God and others. If it doesn’t produce increased devotion to and dependence on God, it’s a waste of time.

That is why the church at Ephesus needed Timothy, and the church today needs men and women who understand that increasing the love and faith of the people of God is the primary responsibility of those who teach the Word of God. Knowledge alone is not enough. It produces pride. Doctrine by itself is insufficient. It can become sterile and little more than head knowledge. Theology, even that which is sound and biblically based, is incomplete if it does not result in more love and greater faith.

Paul was in need of assistance, so he turned to his young protégé, Timothy. This relatively inexperienced spiritual novice was a work in process, but he represented the next generation of spiritual leadership for the rapidly growing church. Paul knew that the future health of the body of Christ would require new leadership. One man could not keep up with the explosive growth of Christianity. There were too many fledgling congregations popping up all over the place and not enough qualified men to lead them. So, Paul took it upon himself to train and prepare the next wave of missionaries and pastors who would minister to the flock of Jesus Christ.

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.

Faith is the Victory

25 The Lord said to Moses, 26 “Take the count of the plunder that was taken, both of man and of beast, you and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the congregation, 27 and divide the plunder into two parts between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. 28 And levy for the Lord a tribute from the men of war who went out to battle, one out of five hundred, of the people and of the oxen and of the donkeys and of the flocks. 29 Take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest as a contribution to the Lord. 30 And from the people of Israel’s half you shall take one drawn out of every fifty, of the people, of the oxen, of the donkeys, and of the flocks, of all the cattle, and give them to the Levites who keep guard over the tabernacle of the Lord.” 31 And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses.

32 Now the plunder remaining of the spoil that the army took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys, 35 and 32,000 persons in all, women who had not known man by lying with him. 36 And the half, the portion of those who had gone out in the army, numbered 337,500 sheep, 37 and the Lord’s tribute of sheep was 675. 38 The cattle were 36,000, of which the Lord’s tribute was 72. 39 The donkeys were 30,500, of which the Lord’s tribute was 61. 40 The persons were 16,000, of which the Lord’s tribute was 32 persons. 41 And Moses gave the tribute, which was the contribution for the Lord, to Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses.

42 From the people of Israel’s half, which Moses separated from that of the men who had served in the army— 43 now the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep, 44 36,000 cattle, 45 and 30,500 donkeys, 46 and 16,000 persons— 47 from the people of Israel’s half Moses took one of every 50, both of persons and of beasts, and gave them to the Levites who kept guard over the tabernacle of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.

48 Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, came near to Moses 49 and said to Moses, “Your servants have counted the men of war who are under our command, and there is not a man missing from us. 50 And we have brought the Lord’s offering, what each man found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and beads, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” 51 And Moses and Eleazar the priest received from them the gold, all crafted articles. 52 And all the gold of the contribution that they presented to the Lord, from the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. 53 (The men in the army had each taken plunder for himself.) 54 And Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tent of meeting, as a memorial for the people of Israel before the Lord.  Numbers 31:25-54 ESV

There were 12,000 Israelite soldiers chosen to go into battle against the Midianites; 1,000 men from every tribe. That is a relatively small number when compared with the 601,730 men deemed battle worthy according to the recent census taken by Moses. This small contingent of soldiers easily defeated their enemy and brought back an abundance of plunder from their raids of the towns and villages of the Midianites. And according to the military leaders, they had not lost a single man in the process.

“We, your servants, have accounted for all the men who went out to battle under our command; not one of us is missing! – Numbers 31:49 NLT

The mission had been a rousing success, and the bounty they had taken from the Midianites was substantial. But before anyone could enjoy the riches they had plundered, everyone and everything had to be purified.

“Anything made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, or lead—that is, all metals that do not burn—must be passed through fire in order to be made ceremonially pure. These metal objects must then be further purified with the water of purification. But everything that burns must be purified by the water alone. On the seventh day you must wash your clothes and be purified. Then you may return to the camp.” – Numbers 31:22-24 NLT

Moses warned the soldiers that they must go through a purification ritual before they could enter the camp.

“…all of you who have killed anyone or touched a dead body must stay outside the camp for seven days. You must purify yourselves and your captives on the third and seventh days. Purify all your clothing, too, and everything made of leather, goat hair, or wood.” – Numbers 31:19-20 NLT

Contact with the enemy had rendered these men ceremonially impure. That required them to go through a period of forced isolation and cleansing, along with all those taken captive during the mission. This was the process God had established and communicated to Moses back in chapter 19.

“All those who touch a dead human body will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves on the third and seventh days with the water of purification; then they will be purified. But if they do not do this on the third and seventh days, they will continue to be unclean even after the seventh day. All those who touch a dead body and do not purify themselves in the proper way defile the Lord’s Tabernacle, and they will be cut off from the community of Israel. Since the water of purification was not sprinkled on them, their defilement continues. – Numbers 19:11-13 NLT

Once the men and their captives had completed the purification process, the booty was divided. The 12,000 combatants would receive their fair share of the reward, but those who remained behind would not be left out. This pattern of equity among those who went into battle and their brothers who remained behind would become a norm for the nation of Israel.

After a rousing victory over the Amalekites, King David encountered a problem among his soldiers. The ones who had assisted him in the battle were angry at having to share their plunder with those who had remained behind.

“They didn’t go with us, so they can’t have any of the plunder we recovered. Give them their wives and children, and tell them to be gone.” – 1 Samuel 30:22 NLT

These men wanted all the plunder for themselves. But David denied their selfish demands, saying: “No, my brothers! Don’t be selfish with what the Lord has given us. He has kept us safe and helped us defeat the band of raiders that attacked us. Who will listen when you talk like this? We share and share alike—those who go to battle and those who guard the equipment” (1 Samuel 23-24 NLT).

Moses followed a similar plan, first making a detailed list of all the plunder taken from the Midianites. Once that was done, he ordered that half be equally divided between the 12,000 men who had fought in the battle. The other half would be divided between the rest of the Israelites.

But a portion of all the plunder was to be dedicated to God. From the soldier’s share 1/500th of all that was taken was to be given to the Lord.

“…one of every 500 of the prisoners and of the cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats…” – Numbers 31:28 NLT

This share was to be given to Eleazar the priest as an offering to the Lord, and the numbers are staggering. The quantity of sheep and goats dedicated to God was 675. But there were also 72 cattle, 61 donkeys, and 32 virgin girls set aside for the Lord. It is likely that the young women became servants to the Levitical priests and assisted in the maintenance of the tabernacle. Of the plunder given to the rest of the people, 1/50th of it was given to the Levites.

Moses took one of every fifty prisoners and animals and gave them to the Levites, who maintained the Lord’s Tabernacle. All this was done as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 31:47 NLT

There was one final offering presented to Yahweh. The military leaders who oversaw the battle came before Moses with an offering of atonement. Out of gratitude for God’s protection of their men, they brought a large number of gold armbands, bracelets, rings, earrings, and necklaces that the soldiers had taken as plunder. This would have been from the portion of the booty that belonged to the 12,000 soldiers. These men willingly gave up part of their reward as an offering to God.

“…we are presenting the items of gold we captured as an offering to the Lord from our share of the plunder—armbands, bracelets, rings, earrings, and necklaces. This will purify our lives before the Lord and make us right with him.” – Numbers 31:50 NLT

In essence, this was a ransom for the lives that God had graciously spared. Not one man had died in this expedition and the generals and captains were expressing their gratitude to God for His mercy and providential care.

This entire scenario paints a picture of how things will begin to unfold as the Israelites enter the land of Canaan. It served as a practice run in preparation for their future conquest of the promised land. There would be many more battles ahead. And every victory they enjoyed would be because of the grace and mercy of God. He would be going before them and fighting alongside them. And they were never to forget to render their thanksgiving to Him for His protection and provision.

Moses would repeatedly warn the people to take their relationship with God seriously. Without Him, they were nothing. And he knew they would always face the temptation to take credit for their own success; a dangerous prospect that was to be avoided at all costs.

“Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful!” – Deuteronomy 8:11-13 NLT

With every victory would come the temptation to glory in their success and celebrate their newfound wealth. But Moses wanted to remember that faithfulness was far more important than fame or financial success.

“Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath.” – Deuteronomy 8:18 NLT

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.

Don’t Let Your Mouth Make You Sin

1 Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, “This is what the Lord has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

“If a woman vows a vow to the Lord and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself and says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father opposes her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. And the Lord will forgive her, because her father opposed her.

“If she marries a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day that he hears, then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he opposes her, then he makes void her vow that was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she bound herself. And the Lord will forgive her. (But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her.) 10 And if she vowed in her husband’s house or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, 11 and her husband heard of it and said nothing to her and did not oppose her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she bound herself shall stand. 12 But if her husband makes them null and void on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning her pledge of herself shall not stand. Her husband has made them void, and the Lord will forgive her. 13 Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. 14 But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows or all her pledges that are upon her. He has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them. 15 But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity.”

16 These are the statutes that the Lord commanded Moses about a man and his wife and about a father and his daughter while she is in her youth within her father’s house. Numbers 30:1-16 ESV

The people of Israel find themselves encamped near the border of the land of Canaan, and Moses is attempting to prepare them for the fast-approaching day when they will have to cross over that border and begin their conquest and capture of the land promised to them by God. Much of what Moses has communicated to them has been practical advice concerning matters of worship and sacrifice. When they finally enter the land, their lives will be consumed by fighting and trying to create new lives for themselves. Their old way of life will be over. They will go from being wanderers to conquerors. Rather than living in tents as nomads, they will find enjoy the comforts of home in houses and cities they didn’t build.

But with all the changes they will face, Moses stressed the need that they continue to maintain the religious rites and rituals that God had given them at Sinai. They were to keep all the commands regarding sacrifices and offerings. Just because they were entering a time marked by military conquest, they were not to abandon their relationship with and commitment to God.

Now, in chapter 30, Moses addresses a rather strange topic that is unfamiliar to the modern western mindset. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, Moses brings up the issue of making vows. This is not a reference to wedding vows, but to the making of verbal commitments and, in most cases, commitments made to God. They are sometimes referred to as oaths.

Now, why would Moses be bringing up this topic at this particular point? It sounds a bit out of place, but it makes sense when one considers that the Israelites were preparing to enter a strange new land and would be facing a host of unknowns. As they found themselves going into battles against much larger and more skilled armies, it would be tempting to make vows to God in an effort to secure success. A vow could be a promise made to God in exchange for His blessing or guarantee of safety. It might go something like this: “God, if you will bring me back safely from this battle, I will dedicate my firstborn child to Your service.”

We see just such a conversation in the book of Judges. Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel found himself facing a battle against the Ammonites. In an attempt to garner God’s assistance in defeating his enemy, Jephthah made a vow.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. He said, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” – Judges 1130-31 NLT

Jephthah meant well, but his vow would come back to haunt him. The text goes on to indicate that “Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave him victory” (Judges 11:32 NLT). But then it adds this unexpected note:

When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. She was his one and only child; he had no other sons or daughters. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. “Oh, my daughter!” he cried out. “You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me! For I have made a vow to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.” – Judges 11:34-35 NLT

According to the book of Judges, Jephthah kept the vow that he had made. But the whole point of the story is the danger of making rash or hasty vows. God takes the swearing of oaths and the making of vows seriously.

When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him. It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it. Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. – Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 NLT

“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, be prompt in fulfilling whatever you promised him. For the Lord your God demands that you promptly fulfill all your vows, or you will be guilty of sin. However, it is not a sin to refrain from making a vow. But once you have voluntarily made a vow, be careful to fulfill your promise to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 23:21-23 NLT

Notice the last part of that Deuteronomy passage. “It is not a sin to refrain from making a vow.” In other words, vows should be made circumspectly and cautiously. As the Ecclesiastes passage puts it: “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it.”

And in chapter 30 of Numbers, Moses addresses this potentially dangerous issue of oath-making because he knows the people will soon find themselves in difficult situations that will tempt them to make unwise bargains with God. So, he reminds them to do so with caution.

A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. – Numbers 30:2 NLT

But then, Moses adds a few important exceptions or exclusions to this rule. He addresses the vows made by women, particularly married women and single young women who are still living under their father’s authority. He begins with those who are unmarried. If one of these young ladies made a vow to God, it would be binding, unless her father overheard it and determined to disavow or dismiss it. As the head of the household, he had that right and authority.

“Vows were voluntary promises to do or not do specified things if God would or would not do something else. They also expressed thanks when God had done something special. They usually involved fasting or abstaining from other lawful things or giving God some special gift or offering. Moses explained the basic principles governing vows first (v. 2). The Israelites were to take their promises to God seriously and not brake them (cf. Eccles, 5:4-5).” – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers

If a father became aware of his daughter’s vow and deemed it as unacceptable, he could annul it, and she would be bound to her father’s wishes. And the father’s decision would release the young lady from her commitment to God.

The same thing would be true for a married woman. If she made a vow to God and her husband determined it to be unacceptable, she would be obligated to submit to his decision. His disavowal would free her from any obligation to God.

if her husband refuses to accept her vow or impulsive pledge on the day he hears of it, he nullifies her commitments, and the Lord will forgive her. – Numbers 30:8 NLT

This all hinges on the issue of headship. A young woman, while unmarried, remained under his father’s protection and authority. As soon as she married, she came under the headship of her husband. And both the father and the husband answered to God. The test does not address whether God would hold the father or husband responsible for the breaking of the vow. There could be a case in which a father forced his daughter to break her vow but, in doing so, he violated the will of God. This authority given to the father and husband was not to be taken lightly. And Moses makes it clear that if the father or husband did not reject the woman’s vow, she remained obligated to God.

In the case of widows or divorcees, they were directly answerable to God. With no husband to watch over them, God acted as their protector and provider. So, if they made a vow to God, they would be held responsible to keep it.

If, however, a woman is a widow or is divorced, she must fulfill all her vows and pledges. – Numbers 30:9 NLT

This admonition was intended to make these women think twice before making vows to God. But it also suggests that God would be watching over them and protecting them from doing anything rash or thoughtless.

As the psalmist later attested, vows were to be taken seriously and made soberly.

Make vows to the Lord your God, and keep them.
    Let everyone bring tribute to the Awesome One. – Psalm 76:11 NLT

Once the Israelites entered the land, they were to refrain from making bargains with God. Because if they attempted to buy God off by making vows they never intended to keep, they would pay dearly for it.

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 Second Chance to Accomplish a First

52 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 53 “Among these the land shall be divided for inheritance according to the number of names. 54 To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance in proportion to its list. 55 But the land shall be divided by lot. According to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. 56 Their inheritance shall be divided according to lot between the larger and the smaller.”

57 This was the list of the Levites according to their clans: of Gershon, the clan of the Gershonites; of Kohath, the clan of the Kohathites; of Merari, the clan of the Merarites. 58 These are the clans of Levi: the clan of the Libnites, the clan of the Hebronites, the clan of the Mahlites, the clan of the Mushites, the clan of the Korahites. And Kohath was the father of Amram. 59 The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt. And she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister. 60 And to Aaron were born Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 61 But Nadab and Abihu died when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord. 62 And those listed were 23,000, every male from a month old and upward. For they were not listed among the people of Israel, because there was no inheritance given to them among the people of Israel.

63 These were those listed by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who listed the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. 64 But among these there was not one of those listed by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had listed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. 65 For the Lord had said of them, “They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them was left, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.  Numbers 26:52-65 ESV

The census ordered by Jehovah had more than one purpose. Not only would it determine the number of men eligible for military service, but it would also provide the basis for each tribe’s land allotment once they entered Canaan. Because Moses was ordered to conduct the census tribe by tribe, the final number of each tribe’s combatants would reflect their overall population size and their appropriate share of the inheritance. Knowing that the apportionment of the land could be a potential landmine, God gave Moses strict instructions regarding its division and allotment.

“Divide the land among the tribes, and distribute the grants of land in proportion to the tribes’ populations, as indicated by the number of names on the list. Give the larger tribes more land and the smaller tribes less land, each group receiving a grant in proportion to the size of its population.” – Numbers 26:53-54 NLT

It only made sense that the larger tribes would receive a larger portion of the land. But to prevent the larger tribes from using their influence to grab the best land for themselves, God ordered that Moses use a lottery system to determine how the land was divided and assigned.

“But you must assign the land by lot, and give land to each ancestral tribe according to the number of names on the list. Each grant of land must be assigned by lot among the larger and smaller tribal groups.” – Numbers 26:55-56 NLT

Because of his role as the leader of the nation of Israel, Moses found himself in a delicate and somewhat difficult position. Not only was he responsible for convincing the people to enter the land and begin its conquest, but he would also have to determine the boundaries of each tribe’s land allotment. And even while God had ordered this task to be accomplished through the casting of lots, there was still a good chance that one or more of the tribes might be dissatisfied with the location or physical characteristics of the land they received. And it didn’t help that virtually every square inch of Canaan was already occupied by other nations that were not going to give up their land without a fight. So, Moses had his work cut out for him.

But God had sovereignly ordained a strategy that would protect Moses from accusations of self-aggrandizement or using his power to promote his particular tribe. Moses was a member of the tribe of Levi and God had already determined that this tribe would receive no allotment of land in Canaan. They were to serve as priests and the caretakers of the tabernacle. And God had already made it clear that He would be their portion in the land of promise.

“Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel. Instead, the priests and Levites will eat from the special gifts given to the Lord, for that is their share. They will have no land of their own among the Israelites. The Lord himself is their special possession, just as he promised them. – Deuteronomy 18:1-2 NLT

The tribe of Moses would not own any land, so no one could accuse him of showing favoritism to his own clan. But without land, how would the Levites feed their families, flock, and herds? God had made provision for that as well.

“You priests will receive no allotment of land or share of property among the people of Israel. I am your share and your allotment. As for the tribe of Levi, your relatives, I will compensate them for their service in the Tabernacle. Instead of an allotment of land, I will give them the tithes from the entire land of Israel.” – Numbers 18:20-21 NLT

God had arranged a way for them to have ample food to eat. And not only that, He had ordained a plan for them to have cities of their own, located throughout the tribes of Israel.

“Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites from their property certain towns to live in, along with the surrounding pasturelands. These towns will be for the Levites to live in, and the surrounding lands will provide pasture for their cattle, flocks, and other livestock. The pastureland assigned to the Levites around these towns will extend 1,500 feet from the town walls in every direction. Measure off 3,000 feet outside the town walls in every direction—east, south, west, north—with the town at the center. This area will serve as the larger pastureland for the towns. – Numbers 35:2-5 NLT

God had made ample preparations and provisions for the Levites. And in doing so, He had assured that there would be no way for Moses to use his power to reward his own tribe. God had protected him. But while the Levites were exempt from military service, they were still included in the census.

The men from the Levite clans who were one month old or older numbered 23,000. But the Levites were not included in the registration of the rest of the people of Israel because they were not given an allotment of land when it was divided among the Israelites. – Numbers 26:62 NLT

The Levites were numbered but not required to register for military service. They would continue to serve as priests and perform the duties assigned to them as caretakers of the tabernacle.

But this chapter ends with a rather somber reminder of the previous generation. Nearly 40 years earlier, God had ordered that a census be taken when the people were camped at the base of Mount Sinai. They had just recently escaped their enslavement in Egypt and were on their way to the land of promise. And God ordered Moses to conduct a census in order to ascertain their exact number.

A year after Israel’s departure from Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai. On the first day of the second month of that year he said, “From the whole community of Israel, record the names of all the warriors by their clans and families. List all the men twenty years old or older who are able to go to war. You and Aaron must register the troops, and you will be assisted by one family leader from each tribe.” – Numbers 1:1-4 NLT

And the number came to 603,550, not including the Levites. Now, nearly 38 years later, the number had not changed dramatically. They could still field 601,730 eligible men for combat duty. God had sustained their numbers all throughout the four decades they had wandered in the wilderness. But Moses points out that while the numbers were relatively the same, the names had changed.

Not one person on this list had been among those listed in the previous registration taken by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, “They will all die in the wilderness.” Not one of them survived except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. – Numbers 26:64-64 NLT

The previous generation had blown their chance to enter the land of Canaan. Thirty-eight years earlier, they had been given the opportunity to cross the Jordan River and begin the conquest of the land, but they refused. When the spies reported that there were powerful nations occupying the land, the people made the fateful decision to reject God’s offer of an inheritance and decided to return to Egypt instead. But God would not allow them to return to their former enslavement. As punishment for their disobedience, they were doomed to wander through the wilderness until every last one of them had died. The only two members of that generation who would enter the land of Canaan were Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who had tried to convince the people to trust God and obey. But their words had fallen on deaf ears.

Now, 38 years later, those two men would be the sole survivors of the previous generation who would have the privilege and honor of crossing the Jordan River and occupying the land that had been promised to them by God. They had waited four decades, but their hopes and dreams would finally be fulfilled.

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.

Our Faithful God

27 And Balak said to Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” 28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which overlooks the desert. 29 And Balaam said to Balak, “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” 30 And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

1 When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,
    the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
the oracle of him who hears the words of God,
    who sees the vision of the Almighty,
    falling down with his eyes uncovered:
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob,
    your encampments, O Israel!
Like palm groves that stretch afar,
    like gardens beside a river,
like aloes that the Lord has planted,
    like cedar trees beside the waters.
Water shall flow from his buckets,
    and his seed shall be in many waters;
his king shall be higher than Agag,
    and his kingdom shall be exalted.
God brings him out of Egypt
    and is for him like the horns of the wild ox;
he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries,
    and shall break their bones in pieces
    and pierce them through with his arrows.
He crouched, he lay down like a lion
    and like a lioness; who will rouse him up?
Blessed are those who bless you,
    and cursed are those who curse you.”

10 And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them these three times. 11 Therefore now flee to your own place. I said, ‘I will certainly honor you,’ but the Lord has held you back from honor.” 12 And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 13 ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak’? 14 And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.” Numbers 23:27-24:14 ESV

The third time is the charm, or so Balak hoped. In his relentless effort to have Balaam curse the Israelites, Balak suggested that they try their luck at a third location. He still harbored hopes that they might be able to convince Jehovah to change His mind and curse His own people. In a sense, he was attempting to treat God as he had Balaam; by trying to buy Him off. Balak seemed to believe that deities were no different than humans and were susceptible to bribes and influence peddling. He had already authorized the construction of 14 altars and the sacrifice of 56 bulls and seven rams in an attempt to sway the mind of God. And his obsession with defeating the Israelites drove him to up the ante one more time.

But on this occasion, Balaam refused to seek the will of Jehovah because he already knew what the answer would be. The seer had already determined that nothing would convince the God of Israel to do anything but bless His people. Balak’s sacrifices were an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

Rather than follow Balak to Mount Peor, Balaam headed to the wilderness, where it appears he was given a vision by God. As he lay prostrate on the ground, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see the Israelites “camping tribe by tribe” (Numbers 24:2 ESV). In the previous accounts, Balaam had stood on higher ground and seen a portion of the Israelite camp with his own eyes. But this time, he was given a vision that allowed him to see each and every one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and this Spirit-induced dream was accompanied by yet another message from God.

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor,
    the message of the man whose eyes see clearly,
the message of one who hears the words of God,
    who sees a vision from the Almighty,
    who bows down with eyes wide open…” – Numbers 24:3-4 NLT

Balaam was left without any doubts regarding the countless number of Israelites camped in the plains of Moab. He was given a panoramic vision of the entire nation of Israel and was overwhelmed by what he saw.

“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob;
    how lovely are your homes, O Israel!
They spread before me like palm groves,
    like gardens by the riverside.
They are like tall trees planted by the Lord,
    like cedars beside the waters…” – Numbers 24:5-6 NLT

In his trance-like state, Balaam envisioned Israel as tall trees planted by the hand of God. They grew tall and strong beside the waters, and they were cared for by their divine gardener.

“He will pour the water out of his buckets,
and their descendants will be like abundant water;
their king will be greater than Agag,
and their kingdom will be exalted.” – Numbers 24:7 NET

As God had promised to Abraham centuries earlier, He was going to bless His people and transform them into a mighty nation.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse…” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

God had delivered them from their captivity in Egypt and had been leading them through the wilderness for the last four decades. But soon, they would no longer be wanderers in the wilderness but citizens of a mighty kingdom ruled over by a powerful king. The promised blessings of Jehovah would be fully realized and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this predetermined outcome.

“God brought them out of Egypt.
They have, as it were, the strength of a young bull;
they will devour hostile people,
and will break their bones,
and will pierce them through with arrows. – Numbers 24:8 NET

Once again, Balak was receiving far-from-pleasant news from his hired gun. Rather than pronouncing a curse on Israel, Balaam was singing the praises of their God and warning against any attempts to do them harm. None of this was what Balak wanted to hear. And to make matters worse, Balaam describes God as a hungry apex predator, waiting to attack and destroy any who would dare stand against His will. And, quoting from Jehovah’s covenant promise to Abraham, Balaam provides Balak with one final warning against trying to curse the Israelites.

“Blessed are those who bless you,
    and cursed are those who curse you.” – Numbers 24:9 ESV

Israel was favored by God and there was nothing Balaam or anyone else could do to alter that fact. Their future was in the hands of Jehovah. He had great plans for them and He would see to it that the covenant promises He made to Abraham were fully fulfilled.

But Balak refused to accept Balaam’s assessment and angrily fired his disappointing diviner. He reneged on his promise of reward and sent Balaam home empty-handed.

“I called you to curse my enemies! Instead, you have blessed them three times. Now get out of here! Go back home! I promised to reward you richly, but the Lord has kept you from your reward.” – Numbers 24:10-11 NLT

But before he departed, Balaam had one more thing to say to his former employer. He reminded Balak that from the very beginning he had been open and above board about his inability to curse the Israelites. He had warned Balak that regardless of how much reward he was offered, he “would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord” (Numbers 24:13 NLT). While Balaam confessed that he could be easily bought off, Jehovah was not susceptible to bribes. The God of Israel had made promises to His people and He would faithfully fulfill them, despite anyone’s attempts to deter or dissuade Him.

As Balaam prepared to return home, he gave Balak one final series of messages that would leave the over-confident king in a state of despair and disillusionment. Not only would God never curse His own people, but He would use them to pour out curses on the nations of Canaan. This wandering band of former slaves would become a force to be reckoned with, as Jehovah carried out His promise to transform them into a mighty nation and gift them the land of Canaan as their home. God would keep every covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, including the promise of many descendants and the gift of a homeland.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT

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.