He Has Done Great Things.

1 You will say in that day:
“I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
    for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
    that you might comfort me.

“Behold, God is my salvation;
    I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
    and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord,
    call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
    proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
    let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
    for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” – Isaiah 12:1-6 ESV

Isaiah has been talking about a future period of time, one he refers to as “that day.” This is a prophetic designation, describing a day in the future when God would accomplish great things on behalf of His chosen people, the northern tribes of Israel and the southern tribes of Judah. Out of the once-great tree of the Davidic dynasty, relegated to a stump of its former glory because of the judgments of God, will come a shoot. That seemingly insignificant byproduct of the “root of Jesse” will be Jesus, the Messiah. He will appear on the scene, sent by God the Father, to be born of a virgin, and into the house of David. He will be the legal heir to David’s throne and the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise made to David.

“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:16 ESV

There is a certain sense in which Jesus fulfilled this prophecy when He took on human flesh in His incarnation. But when Jesus came the first time, while He was born king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2), He was not recognized or accepted as king by His own people.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. – John 1:10-11 NLT

They rejected Him as their king. In fact, they demanded that the Romans crucify Him, accusing Him of blasphemy for His claims to be the Son of God. When Pilate had attempted to release Jesus to the Jews, seeing no fault in Him worthy of death, he had said, “Look, here is your king!” (John 19:14 NLT). But the people scoffed at the idea of Jesus being their king.

“Away with him,” they yelled. “Away with him! Crucify him!” “What? Crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the leading priests shouted back. – John 19:15 NLT

So, when Isaiah announces the arrival of the Messiah or king of Israel, he is talking about another event that has yet to happen. Jesus will appear a second time, at the end of the age, and He will set up His kingdom on earth. He will rule and reign from the throne of David in Jerusalem. And He will restore the people of Israel to power and prominence. Isaiah describes exactly what He will do.

He will…assemble the exiles of Israel.
He will gather the scattered people of Judah
    from the ends of the earth.
– Isaiah 11:12 NLT

All of this will happen “in that day.” It is a day that lies in the future, as yet unfulfilled. But it will be. And in that day, the people of Israel and Judah will recognize the hand of God. They will know that He has shown them mercy and grace.

In that day you will sing:
    “I will praise you, O Lord!
You were angry with me, but not any more.
    Now you comfort me.” – Isaiah 12:1 NLT

It will be a day of rejoicing and gladness because they will recognize that God has redeemed and restored them. Not because of them, but in spite of them. They will know what it is like to trust God fully. They will experience His peace and rest in His protection. And Isaiah tells his audience that, when the day comes, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3 ESV). 

It’s impossible to read this statement and not recall another time in the lives of the people of Israel when water played a significant role in their relationship with God. It’s recorded in the book of Exodus. They had escaped captivity in Egypt and were on their way to the land of promise, when the arrived at a place called Rephidim. The only problem was, there was no water there. “So the people contended with Moses, and they said, ‘Give us water to drink!’” (Exodus 17:2 NLT). The text describes them as being “very thirsty” and they let Moses know about it.

“Why in the world did you bring us up out of Egypt—to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” – Exodus 17:3 NLT

Moses, sensing that the people were ready to stone him, feared for his life. But God gave Moses a solution.

“Go over before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing before you there on the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink.” – Exodus 17:5-6 NLT

God was going to be there. He would be on top of the very rock Moses was commanded to strike. And from that rock would flow life-giving water. Paul would later describe that rock as Jesus Himself.

All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:3-4 NLT

And Jesus, the source of that physical water, would also be the sole source of spiritual refreshment. In His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus told her:

“Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” – John 4:13-14 NLT

Isaiah predicts a day when the people of Israel will enjoy the water of life – Jesus Himself. Not only will they enjoy salvation in the form of their restoration to the land, but they will experience a renewal of their hearts.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:25-27 NLT

God is going to do something for the people of Israel that is far greater than supplying them with clean drinking water. It will be far more valuable than their return to the land. It will be of much greater significance than their restoration to a place of prominence on the world scene. They will have new hearts and a new capacity to serve God faithfully. They will be obedient. They will trust Him fully. No more false gods. No more falling away in apathy and apostasy. In that day, they will be His people and He will be their God.

And in that day, they will give God all the glory, because it will all be His doing.

“Sing to the Lord, for he has done wonderful things.
    Make known his praise around the world.
Let all the people of Jerusalem shout his praise with joy!
    For great is the Holy One of Israel who lives among you.” – Isaiah 12:5-6 NLT

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

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

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

The Root of Jesse.

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. Isaiah 11:1-10 ESV

So often, when reading the prophetic books of the Bible, we can end up viewing them as pessimistic in terms of their content. They are full of the news of pending doom and gloom, the righteous judgment of God promised by the prophets of God and directed at the people of God. And Isaiah has had his fair share of foreboding warnings for the people of God living in Judah. And yet, the prophets weren’t just the bearers of bad news. They also called the people to repentance, pleading them to return to the Lord and promising them His grace and mercy if they would do so.

Mixed in among the prophets’ messages of judgment were promises of God’s future blessings. In spite of the unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah, God would remain faithful. He would keep His covenant promises. He would do what He had pledged to do. But many, if not most, of His promises would not be fulfilled within the lifetimes of the very men who communicated them. In chapter 10, Isaiah spoke of a future day when the people of God would place their hope and trust in Him, rather than relying on pagan nations to protect and preserve them.

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. – Isaiah 10:20 ESV

Isaiah promised his fellow citizens of Judah that God would preserve a remnant of them. The day was coming when God would raise up a portion of His people and free them from the slavery and oppression of foreign rule.

In that day the Lord will end the bondage of his people.
    He will break the yoke of slavery
    and lift it from their shoulders. – Isaiah 10:27 NLT

While this promise was partially fulfilled when the people of Judah returned to the land after 70 years of in Babylon, their bondage was far from over. The following centuries would find them living under the constant threat of foreign domination, ending with their defeat and subjugation by the Romans. So, there is an aspect of Isaiah’s prophecy that lies unfulfilled. And chapter 11 provides us even great details concerning this future aspect of God’s promise to His people.

Chapter 11 opens up with the words:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. – Isaiah 11:1 ESV

Whether it sounds like it or not, this is meant to be a word of encouragement. You see, Jesse was the father of David, the great king of Israel. But David’s once-mighty kingdom would end up as a shell of its former glory, more of a stump than a flourishing tree. The once powerful nation he helped build would end up relegated to the status of a tree shorn of its branches and incapable of producing fruit. And yet, Isaiah states that, out of the stump, a shoot will appear. And, one day, that shoot will become a fruit-bearing branch.

But what is Isaiah talking about? Better yet, who is Isaiah talking about? Over in the book of Revelation, we are given a clue as to this individual’s identity. The apostle John is given a vision of heaven, where he sees God Almighty seated on His throne. In His right hand, God is holding a scroll. But when an angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?,” no one steps forward. And John, devastated at this news, begins to weep. But his crying is interrupted by the following news:

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” – Revelation 5:5 ESV

John turns to see “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6 ESV), a clear reference to the crucified and resurrected Christ. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah and “the root of David.” In his letter to the Romans, Paul quotes from the book of Isaiah, using the reference to the root of Jesse as a proof of Christ’s messiahship.

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth to confirm the promises made to the fathers,and thus the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles, and I will sing praises to your name.” And again it says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.” And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles, in him will the Gentiles hope.” – Romans 15:8-12 NLT

So, Isaiah was prophesying the coming of the Messiah, the Son of David, and the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. And this coming one would have the anointing of God Almighty.

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. – Isaiah 11:2-3 ESV

This is a clear reference to Jesus. And, in his gospel account, Matthew describes the baptism of Jesus.

After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. – Matthew 3:16 ESV

Jesus, in His role as God in human flesh, was directed by the Spirit of God. He was totally submissive to the Spirit, living His life according to the Spirit’s wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. During His earthly ministry, Jesus would live in the power of the Spirit. But Isaiah seems to be referring to another point in time, when Jesus will play a role other than that of Savior.

He will delight in obeying the Lord.
    He will not judge by appearance
    nor make a decision based on hearsay.
He will give justice to the poor
    and make fair decisions for the exploited.
The earth will shake at the force of his word,
    and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.
He will wear righteousness like a belt
    and truth like an undergarment.  – Isaiah 11:3-5 NLT

These verses speak of Jesus judging and administering justice. He is described as destroying the wicked and dispensing justice to the poor. This is a picture of Jesus in His royal role as King of kings and Lord of lords. He is no longer the Savior, but the Sovereign.

Isaiah goes on to describe a time of unprecedented peace. It will be a period on earth when things will be remarkably different than anything mankind has ever known.

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
    the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
    and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
    The cub and the calf will lie down together.
    The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
    Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm. – Isaiah 11:6-8 NLT

These things have not yet taken place. They remain unfulfilled. Look closely at what Isaiah says about “that day.”

Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
    for as the waters fill the sea,
    so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord. – Isaiah 11:9 NLT

This day has not yet happened. The earth is not filled with people who know the Lord. But one day it will be. God is giving Isaiah a word of encouragement to deliver to the disobedient people of Judah. In spite of their failure to remain faithful to God, He would prove faithful to His word. He would do all that He had promised Abraham He would do. And Isaiah sums it up in no uncertain terms:

In that day the heir to David’s throne
    will be a banner of salvation to all the world.
The nations will rally to him,
    and the land where he lives will be a glorious place. – Isaiah 11:10 NLT

And the apostle John was given a glimpse into this future day, which he recorded in the book of Revelation.

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

From the root of Jesse and the stump of David’s once-great kingdom, will come a shoot, the Messiah, who will grow into a glorious place of refuge, peace and prosperity for all those who place their faith in Him. Israel and Judah would prove unfaithful to God, but He will one day prove His faithfulness by sending His Son yet again. But this time, He will come as the Sovereign King of the universe.

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

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

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

The Disease of Discontentment.

 

Woe to those who join house to house,
    who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
    and you are made to dwell alone
    in the midst of the land.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
    large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
    and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”

11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning,
    that they may run after strong drink,
who tarry late into the evening
    as wine inflames them!
12 They have lyre and harp,
    tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts,
but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
    or see the work of his hands.

13 Therefore my people go into exile
    for lack of knowledge;
their honored men go hungry,
    and their multitude is parched with thirst.
14 Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
    and opened its mouth beyond measure,
and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down,
    her revelers and he who exults in her.
15 Man is humbled, and each one is brought low,
    and the eyes of the haughty are brought low.
16 But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice,
    and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness.
17 Then shall the lambs graze as in their pasture,
    and nomads shall eat among the ruins of the rich. – Isaiah 5:8-17 ESV

Judah, the vineyard planted by God in the fertile soil of Mount Zion, had failed to produce the kind of fruit God had expected. Instead of sweet grapes practically bursting with juice perfect for making the finest of wines, they had produced wild grapes, sour to the taste and unfit for anything except the fire. And that is exactly what Isaiah is trying to warn the people of Judah. God’s fire of judgment is about to fall on them for their unfaithfulness and lack of spiritual fruitfulness. Or, to put it another way, they had produced the wrong kind of fruit.

Now, Isaiah pronounces a series of woes against them. The word translated as “woe” is the Hebrew word, howy and it is an expression of exclamation that conveys pity, sorrow, or lament. Isaiah is letting his readers know that what is headed their way will not be enjoyable or avoidable. The word, “woe” acts as an antonym to the word, “blessed.” Rather than enjoying the blessings of God that come as a result of obedience to His will, they were going to experience curses as a result of His judgment. And, long ago, God had provided them with ample warning that this would be their fate if they failed to remain faithful to Him.

“Look, today I am giving you the choice between a blessing and a curse! You will be blessed if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today. But you will be cursed if you reject the commands of the Lord your God and turn away from him and worship gods you have not known before.” – Deuteronomy 11:26-28 NLT

The first woe has to do with their insatiable greed. Enough was never enough. God had blessed them with land, but they lacked contentment, constantly desiring more. And the prophet, Micah, describes them as lying awake at night scheming of ways to take advantage of their neighbors and confiscate what rightfully belonged to them.

Woe to those who devise wickedness
    and work evil on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
    because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and seize them,
    and houses, and take them away;
they oppress a man and his house,
    a man and his inheritance. – Micah 2:1-2 NET

God had made it perfectly clear that the land in which they lived belonged to Him and, as a result, they were to live in it like tenant farmers, caring for the land on God’s behalf.

“The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me.” – Leviticus 25:23 NLT

And God had ensured that each of the 12 tribes of Israel was allotted their own portion of land, to remain in their possession for as long as they lived in the land. If anyone was forced to sell his land out of necessity, the buyer was to allow them the right to buy it back.

“With every purchase of land you must grant the seller the right to buy it back. If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell some family land, then a close relative should buy it back for him. If there is no close relative to buy the land, but the person who sold it gets enough money to buy it back, he then has the right to redeem it from the one who bought it.” – Deuteronomy 25:24-27 NLT

But greed had gotten the best of them. One of the greatest expressions of our love for God is our love for others. When Jesus was asked which one of God’s laws recorded by Moses was the most important, He had responded:

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

Yet, the people of Judah had exhibited a love for self that transcended their love for others and, ultimately, revealed their lack of love for God. They were unsatisfied with what God had given them and demanded more. And they were willing to do whatever it took to get what they wanted, even if it meant taking advantage of their own neighbors.

In their obsession to have more, they were actually sealing their fate and ensuring that they would never experience the joy they were seeking. Their larger estates would leave them isolated and alone. And they would learn the painful lesson that bigger is not always better. Because God warned them that their disobedience would bring His judgment.

“Many houses will stand deserted;
    even beautiful mansions will be empty.
Ten acres of vineyard will not produce even six gallons of wine.
    Ten baskets of seed will yield only one basket of grain.” – Isaiah 5:9-10 NLT

The greedy are never satisfied. Their appetite is insatiable because they attempt to meet their needs by seeking something other than God.

The second woe has to do with the love of pleasure. The people of Judah had become hedonistic in their outlook on life. They lived by the philosophy, “Eat, drink and be merry!” They lived to party and filled their days with the consumption of alcohol and the pursuit of pleasure. But Isaiah exposes the root problem: “they never think about the Lord or notice what he is doing” (Isaiah 5:12 NLT). Rather than looking to God to bring them joy and a sense of satisfaction with life, they were turning to physical pleasures.

And God predicts their fate: “Therefore my people go into exile for lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13 ESV). Their real problem was not drunkenness and partying, but a lack of knowledge of God. They didn’t understand that He was to be the sole source of their joy and the primary provider of pleasure in their lives. The apostle Paul would later describe his understanding of God’s role as his source of contentment and satisfaction.

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.  – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

For the people of Judah, their search for satisfaction entailed more land and their quest for joy involved much wine. But they would never find what they were looking for. Instead, they would experience poverty, hunger, thirst, and the humiliation of life as exiles in a foreign land.

But God would be perfectly just in His treatment of them. He would only be giving them what they deserved and what they had brought upon themselves.

But the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will be exalted by his justice.
    The holiness of God will be displayed by his righteousness. – Isaiah 5:16 NLT

He had promised to bless them if they would only remain faithful to Him. And time and time again, He had proven Himself a God who keeps His word. They were blessed. They lived in a land that was abundantly fruitful and more than adequate to meet their needs. He had provided them with ample reasons to experience joy in life, but they had turned to pleasure, possessions, and even pagan gods in a vain attempt to discover what they could only find in God. And the Scriptures are filled with reminders of God’s faithfulness to satisfy every need that man might have.

Let them praise the Lord for his great love
    and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
For he satisfies the thirsty
    and fills the hungry with good things. – Psalm 107:8-9 NLT

The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring. – Isaiah 58:11 NLT

“Is anyone thirsty?
    Come and drink—
    even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
    it’s all free!
Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
    Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
    You will enjoy the finest food.” – Isaiah 55:1-2 NLT

God was more than enough. He was fully capable of meeting all their needs. But they had decided that bigger is better and the pursuit of pleasure is preferable. Unlike Paul, they didn’t see godliness with contentment is great wealth (I Timothy 6:6).

English Standard Version (ESV)

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

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

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

The Favor of God.

 1 And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.”

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. – Isaiah 4:1-6 ESV

The opening verse of chapter four ties directly to the coming judgment of God revealed in chapter three. Because of the rebellion of the people of Judah and their refusal to place their trust in God, He would bring devastating, yet well-deserved judgment upon them. And this would come about through the Babylonian empire. God would cause this powerful pagan nation to place Jerusalem under siege, eventually destroying their capital city and taking captive many of the most wealthy and influential of its inhabitants. They would also take all those who had skills or abilities that could benefit the Babylonian nation, not to mention thousands of Judah’s finest warriors.

And the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, 7,000, and the craftsmen and the metal workers, 1,000, all of them strong and fit for war. – 2 Kings 24:16 ESV

This would leave a dearth of able-bodied men back in Judah. Which is why Isaiah describes seven women fighting over a single eligible bachelor to claim as their husband so that they might not face the reproach of being unmarried in a patriarchal society. Isaiah describes the degree of their desperation by having them barter for a man by offering to provide their own food and clothing. In other words, they would be willing to reverse the normal roles in marriage by acting as the provider.

The phrase, “in that day” repeatedly appears in the book of Isaiah, and can be a reference to the coming fall of Judah to the Babylonians. But as we have seen before, the prophecies of this book carry a now/not yet aspect to them. They will be fulfilled in the not-so-distant future. In this case, it refers to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC to the Babylonians. But “in that day” also refers to a much more significant fulfillment to the prophecies of this book. There remain aspects of Isaiah’s prophetic pronouncements that remain unfulfilled, and the rest of this short chapter deal with that coming day.

Up until this point in Isaiah’s book, the future described for Judah has been a bleak and foreboding one. It involves the wrath and judgment of God. It will include the fall of Judah to the Babylonians, but also even greater devastation and divine discipline that will come at a much later date – a time that has not yet come.

But is verses 2-6, God reveals that the future for Judah is not all doom and gloom. While they will face His judgment, they will also enjoy His divine favor. God has a glorious future in store for them, in spite of all their unfaithfulness and their refusal to place their trust in Him. And it seems perfectly clear that this promise from God remains unfulfilled. It has not yet taken place. Isaiah writes:

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. – Isaiah 4:2 ESV

While some see the phrase, “the branch of the Lord” as a messianic statement, referring to Jesus Christ, it is better translated as “the vegetation of the Lord.” The NET Bible translates verse two as “the crops given by the Lord will bring admiration and honor.” The land left desolate and devoid of vegetation by the judgments of God will be renewed and restored by God. While aspects of this prophecy were fulfilled after the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, they were incomplete. This is referring to a far-more-distant point in time, at the end of the period of Tribulation. At that time, God will enact a scorched-earth policy on the world, bringing devastating, never-before-seen judgments in the form of plagues, famines and meteorological disturbances that will impact the earth’s food supply.

And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. – Revelation 8:7 ESV

…and a third of the sea became blood. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. – Revelation 8:8-9 ESV

A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter. – Revelation 8:11 ESV

The land of Judah will suffer greatly, along with the rest of the world. But God promises to restore the land to its original fruitfulness. The land of Israel will become a land flowing with milk and money yet again. It will be used by God to supply the physical needs of the people of God. But there is more.

God is going to restore His people spiritually. He is going to do for them what they were incapable of doing for themselves. God judgments will have resulted in the purging of the stains of sin from His people. And Isaiah states that those who remain in the nation of Israel and the city of Judah will be called holy or set apart by God once again, “when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Isaiah 4:4 ESV). Not only will He restore the land to fruitfulness, but He will also restore His people to faithfulness. And the prophet Ezekiel wrote about this coming day.

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 ESV

It is quite obvious that this prophecy remains unfulfilled. But it will be – in the future. God will keep His promise. Isaiah further describes the unique nature of “the day:”

Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. – Isaiah 4:5 ESV

God will restore His presence among them, revealing Himself in the same two forms He had used during their exodus from Egypt.

The LORD went ahead of them. He guided them during the day with a pillar of cloud, and he provided light at night with a pillar of fire. – Exodus 13:12 ESV

No more fires of judgment from the throne room of God. Rather than rain down fire from heaven in judgment, He will reveal Himself as a guiding and protecting flame.

And Isaiah reveals that God’s glory will cover His people, just as it had filled and covered the tabernacle during their days in the wilderness.

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.… For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. – Exodus 40:34, 38

God will be their protector and provider. While the human leaders in whom they had placed their hope and trust had failed them, God would not. This future day will be like none other the people of Judah had ever experienced. And the book of Revelation provides us with a glimpse of just how glorious it will be.

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. 37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. – Revelation 21:34-38 ESV

God is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. He always does what He has promised to do. And while He would punish Judah for its sins, He would also restore them because of His everlasting, neverending love and abundant grace and mercy.

English Standard Version (ESV)

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

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

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

In That Day…

 

For you have rejected your people,
    the house of Jacob,
because they are full of things from the east
    and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines,
    and they strike hands with the children of foreigners.
Their land is filled with silver and gold,
    and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
    and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is filled with idols;
    they bow down to the work of their hands,
    to what their own fingers have made.
So man is humbled,
    and each one is brought low—
    do not forgive them!
10 Enter into the rock
    and hide in the dust
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty.
11 The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
    and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

12 For the Lord of hosts has a day
    against all that is proud and lofty,
    against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
13 against all the cedars of Lebanon,
    lofty and lifted up;
    and against all the oaks of Bashan;
14 against all the lofty mountains,
    and against all the uplifted hills;
15 against every high tower,
    and against every fortified wall;
16 against all the ships of Tarshish,
    and against all the beautiful craft.
17 And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
    and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
    and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
18 And the idols shall utterly pass away.
19 And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
    and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty,
    when he rises to terrify the earth.

20 In that day mankind will cast away
    their idols of silver and their idols of gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
    to the moles and to the bats,
21 to enter the caverns of the rocks
    and the clefts of the cliffs,
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty,
    when he rises to terrify the earth.
22 Stop regarding man
    in whose nostrils is breath,
    for of what account is he? – Isaiah 2:6-22 ESV

This is a book of prophecy and like all other prophetic books in the Bible, it has a now-not yet aspect to it. In other words, there are parts of the content of Isaiah that will have their fulfillment in the not-so-distant future. The people of Judah were going to experience first-hand the judgments God was warning them about. If they did not repent and return to the Lord, He would punish them for their rebellion against Him. And it would come in the lifetimes of the people to whom Isaiah’s book was addressed – his fellow citizens of Jerusalem and Judah.

But there is another aspect to these judgments that we must not overlook: Many of them are as yet unfulfilled. They have not taken place. Or they have taken place in part, but not completely. And the verses for today are a perfect example.

The key to determining whether a prophetic statement is of the now or not-yet variety, you must examine its content to see if it has already been fulfilled. This requires a careful study of Judah’s history as revealed in the rest of Scripture. It is usually quite easy to determine if a prophecy has been fulfilled or not. And for all those which predict events that remain unfulfilled, we must recognize that they fall into the not-yet category. They are outstanding and still pending.

But these two categories of prophetic statements from God are both based on the same criteria. The people of Judah had proven to be unfaithful to God. And He has already provided ample evidence of their guilt. Yet, these verses reiterate the actions of the people of Judah that have forced God to predict their pending doom – both near-term and distant.

Isaiah provides a reason for God’s rejection of His people.

“…they are full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with the children of foreigners.” – Isaiah 2:6 ESV

They had made alliances with pagan nations, against the expressed will of God. Not only that, they had begun to practice the false religions of those nations. And all the while, they had enjoyed increased prosperity and what appeared to be apparent blessings. Their land, the land of Judah, was filled with idols to false gods. The people whom God had chosen as His own, were bowing down to statues made with human hands. They were worshiping false gods that were lifeless and powerless, in place of the one true God: Yahweh.

Then, suddenly and somewhat surprisingly, Isaiah describes these rich and satisfied individuals as having been brought low.

So man is humbled,
    and each one is brought low—
    do not forgive them!” – Isaiah 2:9 ESV

But Isaiah seems to be emphasizing the predictable and inevitable outcome of a life of pride. The Scriptures are filled with admonitions and warnings against pride.

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 ESV

The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. – Proverbs 8:13 NLT

Isaiah knew that it was only a matter of time before God responded to the pride and arrogance of His people. God would not allow them to live in open rebellion forever. Their actions were going to bring the judgment of God. If they failed to humble themselves before God, He would humble them in His own way. Their behavior had brought shame to the name of God, something He had warned them not to do.

…you must not bring shame on the name of your God. I am the LORD. Leviticus 18:21 NLT

Like an adulterous wife, the nation of Judah had turned their back on a faithful, loving God, prostituting themselves to an assortment of false gods. And Isaiah warned them that God had had enough. They were going to find themselves hiding from the wrath to come.

Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the Lord,from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty. – Isaiah 2:10 ESV

And this is a perfect illustration of one of those now/not-yet prophetic statements. We know from recorded history, that Judah was eventually defeated by the Babylonians and a great many of their most prominent citizens were taken as slaves and transported to King Nebuchadnezzar’s capital city. They were humbled. They went from riches to poverty. From enjoying power and influence to experiencing the humiliating life of a slave.

But there is another aspect of this prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled. Did the people of Judah actually enter into the rock and hide in the dust in an attempt to escape the Babylonians? Possibly. But in the New Testament book of Revelation, we have an as-yet-unfulfilled aspect of this prophecy. It will take place during the days of the Tribulation.

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” – Revelation 6:15-17 ESV

Here we have a picture of the people of Judah, along with the rest of mankind who will be living on the earth during the Tribulation, facing the wrath of the Lamb. And they will attempt to hide and caves and among the rocks, hoping to escape the judgment that is coming on the earth. And Isaiah describes what will happen on that day.

The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. – Isaiah 2:11 ESV

Notice his use of the phrase, “in that day.” Isaiah is predicting a specific moment in time when God will do something to bring low the pride and arrogance of sinful mankind.

For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low. – Isaiah 2:12 ESV

And ten different times, Isaiah uses the word, “against.” On that day, God will bring His judgment against a variety of things.

against all that is proud and lofty

against all that is lifted up

against the cedars of Lebanon

against the oaks of Bashan

against all the lofty mountains

against all the uplifted hills

against every high tower

against every fortified wall

against all the ships of Tarshish

against all the beautiful craft

This list includes places far outside the borders of Judah. God seems to be predicting a more widespread judgment to come. Judah’s unfaithfulness would spread. Their failure to live in faithful a covenant relationship with God would end up impacting the entire world. They had been chosen by God to be a model to the nations of what it looks like for a people group to live in a righteous relationship with God Almighty. But they had failed. And over the centuries, they would continue to do so. And when God sent His Son to be their long-awaited Messiah, they would reject Him as well.

But Isaiah warns of a coming day when all men will be humbled before the wrath of God.

And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. – Isaiah 2:17 ESV

Has this happened yet? No. The entire world lives in open rebellion against God, filled with pride and arrogance, determined to live as the masters of their own fates. And Isaiah goes on to point out that the day will come when these very same people throw away their false gods because of the judgment of the one true God.

In that day mankind will cast away their idols of silver and their idols of gold. – Isaiah 2:20 ESV

Again, has this happened yet? No. Yet, Isaiah says three different times that they will “enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth” (Isaiah 2:21 ESV). God was going to punish Judah for their sins. They would end up in captivity in Judah. But that is only a small example of what God is going to do to all of mankind because of their rejection of Him. We should take the warnings against Judah seriously. But we should not see this as ancient history. God is warning Judah and the rest of the world that He will deal with sin. He is a holy God and He hates sin.

And Isaiah provides his readers with a timeless warning.

Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he? – Isaiah 2:22 ESV

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

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

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

Faithful Over A Little.

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” – Matthew 25:14-30 ESV

dishonest-steward-770x330

Jesus has been stressing the need for His disciples to have a long-term perspective regarding the kingdom of heaven. Rather than expecting it to show up in their lifetimes and in the form they had always expected, they were going to have to come to understand it as future-oriented. Jesus was not going to set up His kingdom on earth at that time. He was not going to rule and reign from Jerusalem as the Messiah. His kingdom was to come. And in the meantime, while they waited for its arrival, the disciples were to live in a state of readiness. In fact, his His previous parable, Jesus had emphasized the need for preparedness.

Jesus continued to address the future aspect of the coming kingdom by telling yet another parable. Again, He would stress the unexpected delay associated with His  kingdom. Yes, He was the Messiah and the rightful heir to David’s throne. But His ascension to that throne, while inevitable, was not going to be immediate.

.So, Jesus began His parable by describing a man preparing to go on a journey. This man was obviously well-to-do, having land, material wealth, and servants. In preparation for his departure, the man called his servants together and “entrusted to them his property” (Matthew 25:14 ESV). The Greek word Jesus used was paradidōmi and it means “to deliver to one something to keep, use, take care of, manage” (Online Bible). The man took what was his and gave it to his servants so they might manage it in his absence. In other words, he placed them in charge of all that he owned – “his property.”All three men were given responsibility for their master’s possessions, which would have included his land, house, livestock and any other personal property.

It seems that, when we read this parable, we place all the emphasis on the talents given to the three men. It is as if the talents are the point of the story. They represent the “property” handed over by the master. But on closer inspection, it would appear that the talents represent the master’s payment to each of the three servants for caring for this property in his absence. The text reads: “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:15 ESV). It’s interesting to note that the word translated “ability” is the Greek word dynamis. It is the same word from which we get dynamite. It refers to power or physical strength. This man knew his servants well, and compensated them according to what he believed would be their level of work. He was not giving them gifts to use or invest. In fact, their is no indication from the text that the master told any of the servants to invest what he had given them. The talents were intended as payment for the service that would be rendered in his absence.

But what makes the story so interesting is that two of the servants took their “salary” and invested it. They recognized that the money given to them was not really theirs, but belonged to their master. It was part of his property and they viewed their possession of it as temporary in nature. It was on loan. So, they traded or invested what they had. We’re not told the nature of their investment strategy, because that does not seem to be the point of the parable. The emphasis in the parable is that each of them doubled the value of what they had been given. And when their master returned, he recognized them as having been good and faithful servants.

There is an interesting choice of words in this parable. In the first place, when the two faithful servants address their master upon his return, they both say, “Master, you delivered to me _______ talents.” They use the same word, paradidōmi that means “to deliver to one something to keep, use, take care of, manage.” The two men acknowledge that their master had given them the talents and expected them to use them wisely. But Jesus described the first man as “he who had received the five talents” (Matthew 25:20 ESV). That Greek word is lambanō and it can mean to take what is one’s own, or to receive what is rightfully yours. Jesus seems to describe the men as receiving their talents as payment from their master. But two of the men never lost sight of the fact that the talents were really just another extension of their master’s property. What he had given them really belonged to him, and they treated it that way. They showed him respect and deference by wisely investing what they had been given and returning to him any profit they had received. Their gain would have been impossible without the master’s trust and generosity. 

But then there is the third servant. His actions are meant to stand out like a sore thumb. Unlike his two fellow servants, this man took what he had been given and buried it in a hole. It’s important to notice that this man’s address to his master is radically different than the other two. He stated: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25 ESV). Surprisingly, he addresses the one who had given him his talent as a demanding and a difficult task-master. He expressed fear of the master. And remember, the one talent this man had received had been based on his ability or power to deliver. It’s fairly clear that he had been properly compensated. And while this servant rightfully acknowledged that what he had been given by the master belonged to the master, he displayed a complete lack of initiative and no sense of stewardship. He did nothing with what he had been given.

So, what’s the point? What is jesus trying to tell His disciples? Once again, the emphasis is on the kingdom of heaven, and the period of time which Jesus seems to be speaking is the tribulation. In the parable, Jesus mentions that the master returned “after a long time.” There was a long delay. The return of the master is meant to represent the return of Jesus at His second coming. That momentous event will take place at the end of the seven years of tribulation.

During the period of the tribulation, the presence and power of God will be seen and felt as He brings repeated judgments upon the world. He will redeem 144,000 Jews who will become witnesses to the nations. He will graciously offer opportunities for men and women to repent even during the darkest days of the tribulation, and many will. In fact, there will be many other Jews who come to faith in Jesus during those dark days. They will be given salvation by Jesus. He will offer them what is rightfully His, His own righteousness, and He will expect them to use it wisely as they wait for His return. What they do with their newfound faith will be essential.

The point of the parable is found in the words of Jesus found in verse 29: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” And in the very next verses, we will see how Jesus applies this statement.

Whether it is believers in the church age waiting for the return of Christ and the rapture, or tribulation saints waiting for His second coming, they are to live faithfully as they wait. They are to steward well what they have been given by God. Those who are in Christ have been graciously provided from the abundance of His wealth and riches. We are to use what we have been given wisely and well. We are to recognize that all we have belongs to Him and to treat it with faithful care. The two faithful servants did not make the talents their focus. They didn’t place all their emphasis on what they had been given, but on what they could do to honor their master. And we should long to hear the very same words Jesus spoke to them:

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” – Matthew 25:23 ESV

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

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

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

No Faith. No Fruit.

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” 

23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” –  Matthew 21:18-27 ESV

FigOne of the reasons it is important to read each of the gospels simultaneously and in what is called a “harmony” is that it provides you with a much more accurate timeline of the events. And when reading about Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and His subsequent statements in the temple, it is extremely important to get a 3D view of those events from the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Mark tells us that, after entering Jerusalem on Monday to the shouts of Hosanna and the seeming acceptance of the crowds, Jesus went to the Temple and, “after looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples” (Mark 11:11 NLT). Bethany would be their home base during what is called the Passion Week. They would return there each evening and spend the night. Then each morning they would make their way back to the eastern gate of the city of Jerusalem, passing through the Mount of Olives along the way. It would have been about at two-mile walk.

On Tuesday morning Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem and along the way they passed a fig tree. Jesus “noticed a fig tree in full leaf and little way off, so the went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leave because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, ‘May no one eat your fruit again!’ And the disciples heard him say it” (Mark 11:12-14 NLT).  This sequence of events is important if we are to understand what Jesus does next. Jesus curses the fig tree first. Then He and the disciples made their way to the Temple where He “entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:15-16 NLT). If you take these two events out of order or try to deal with them independently, they become difficult to understand. The cursing of the fig tree makes sense only if you keep in mind what Jesus did next.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem that Monday and took a look around the Temple grounds, He saw what had become of His Father’s house. He assessed the situation and then left for the day. On the way back in the next morning, He sees the barren fig tree and curses it. Matthew tells us that Jesus was hungry and when He goes to find fruit on the tree, there is none. But His cursing of the tree is not done out of anger or vindictiveness. This was not some petty power display done on Jesus’ part. This was a visible lesson being taught to the disciples. One of the important points in the story is that the tree was in full bloom. It was a healthy, visibly vibrant tree that had all the appearances of fruitfulness. But there was none. Think back on what John the Baptist had to say to the Jewish religious leaders, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV).

Now we could do a lengthy study on the fruit-bearing properties of the Middle Eastern fig tree, but that is not the point of the story. There are commentators who try to explain that the fig tree in that part of the world has fruit on it year found. Others say that, if it was in leaf, it should have had fruit. But all we know from the gospel accounts is that IT HAD NO FRUIT. Mark tells us it was not the season for fruit, and yet, Jesus hungered for fruit. He came expecting to see and enjoy fruit. BUT THE TREE WAS EMPTY OF FRUIT. It was appealing to the eye, but failed to meet Jesus’ expectations. As usual, this event had much to do with Jesus’ perception of the religious leaders of His day. Jesus had accused the Pharisees of doing everything for show. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5 ESV). But this problem had become a national epidemic. To all appearances, the nation of Israel had all the trappings of religious fervor and faith. They had a place of worship – the Temple. They practiced the religious requirements as handed down by God – Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, the Law, etc. They had a priesthood. They made regular sacrifices to atone for their sins. In his book, The Words and Works of Jesus, J. Dwight Pentecost writes, “Like the leafy tree, they had given external evidence of being fruitful but on examination they were seen to be barren and fruitless. Therefore judgment had to come on that generation.”

Mark tells us that it was the next morning, as they passed by the fig tree again, that the disciples noticed it was withered from the roots up. “Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!’” (Mark 11:20-21 NLT). So what’s the point? The cursing of the fig tree was a statement against the spiritual hypocrisy and religious formalism of the Pharisees. The fig tree had all that was required for fruitfulness, but no fruit. Jesus uses the moment to teach the disciples an important lesson on faith, and He makes the main point right at the outset: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22 NLT).

No faith. No Fruit.

It was the lack of faith in God that resulted in Israel’s barrenness. They were not experiencing the power of God in their lives (Mark 11:23). They were not enjoying answered prayers from God (Mark 11:24). Their prayers were hindered by hatred and unforgiveness (Mark 11:25). Over in the book of John we read the words of Jesus, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in my, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:5-8 NLT). Fruitfulness and faith go hand in hand.

When Jesus cleansed the Temple, He shouted, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17 NLT). They were stealing glory from God. They were abusing the people of God. They were more obsessed about financial gain than holiness. They were more interested in fleecing the people than faithfulness. But God’s house was for all people. Jesus had come for all men. Salvation was for all who would believe. They had taken the court of the Gentiles, the only place non-Jews could worship, and had turned it into a three-ring circus. It was here they had set up their system of graft and greed, disguised as religion. But at the end of the day, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was all about obedience and faithfulness. It was about commitment to the Lord and not religiosity and ritual. Jesus compared them to their rebellious ancestors and concludes that NOTHING HAD CHANGED! The Temple was not going to save them. It was the God of the Temple who was their only hope. It was the people who God had called to His Temple who were important.

Over in his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul reminds us, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NLT). Jesus is still looking for fruitfulness from His people. That fruitfulness is only possible through faith in God. But those who have faith in God and believe in the Son of God will experience the fruit of the Spirit and the power of God in their lives.

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

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

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

A Heart of Unfaithfulness.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification of what the law actually says about the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of what the law actually taught. Jesus is showing His audience, made up primarily of Jews, that they have misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words found in the Law of Moses:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was because the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect of divorce. Their interpretation of this passage from Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license to divorce their wives. Now, it is important to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become common place. It was as simple as a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was done with little or no thought to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had separated the idea of adultery from divorce, and Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. Which is why He says, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV). In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made woman from the rib of man, He said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they point-blank asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT). The passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do – He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus says to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine permission to divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision. Jesus makes it perfectly clear, that unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people and sealed before before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine union between two individuals. Divorce is nothing less than a breaking of the marriage covenant. It’s an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that the only reason God made a provision for divorce. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, as His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

A spirit of divorce permeated the people of Israel, and it was fueled by unfaithfulness. Their flippant attitude toward marriage and divorce was a sad reflection of their attitude toward God. They had been unfaithful to Him and were without remorse. But for those who would be citizens of God’s Kingdom, life was to be different. Their love for God and others was to be constant and consistent. But only the grace of God expressed in the sacrifice of His own Son would make that kind of love possible.

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

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

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

A Stone of Witness.

14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance.  Joshua 24:14-28 ESV

the-stone-of-witness.jpgJoshua was nearing the end of his life and, therefore, the end of his tenure as Israel’s spiritual leader. He had enjoyed a long and successful career after having assumed the mantel of leadership from Moses. During his rule, the people had finally crossed over the Jordan River and entered the land of promise. He had led them in their very first victory over the inhabitants of the land as they destroyed the city of Jericho. And he had followed God’s lead and dealt with the sin of Achan that had prevented the people from defeating the much-smaller city of Ai. In battle after battle, Joshua had been there, leading the way and fighting alongside the people of God. He had overseen the apportioning of the land between the 12 tribes, ensuring that each of the tribes received their fair share of the inheritance promised by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And all along the way, he had repeatedly reminded the people of their need to remain faithful to God. God demanded obedience and had forbidden them to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land. Why? Because He knew that they would end up worshiping their false gods. And there were plenty of false gods in abundance among the nations living in the land of promise.

So, as Joshua neared the end of his life, he felt compelled to provide his people with one last challenge. He calls them to “fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Joshua 24:14 ESV). He used two very important Hebrew words to describe the character of their service to God: tamiym and ’emeth. The first word has to do with the idea of wholeness or entirety. It is translated as “integrity” in this passage, but might be better understood as “wholeheartedness.” It carries the idea of bringing the entirety of your being to the matter – no compartmentalization. In other words, Joshua was calling the people to serve God with a “whole” heart. No hidden affections for other gods. No undisclosed love affairs with the things of this world. Jesus would one day put this concept into words that we can readily and easily understand.

37 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. – Matthew 22:37-38 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah would later record the words of God, calling His people to this idea of tamiym.

13 “When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, 14 I will make myself available to you,’ says the Lord.” – Jeremiah 29:13-14 NLT

But along with wholeheartedness, Joshua emphasized their need for ’emeth. This Hebrew word has to do with “truth” or, better yet, “faithfulness.” It carries the idea of stability or continuity of character. It is faithfulness displayed over the long-haul. Joshua was calling the people to a long-term, unending commitment of their entire lives to God. This was to include every area of their lives for the entire length of their lives – both as individuals and as the corporate community of God.

And we should not miss the significance of Joshua’s next challenge to the people of Israel:

“Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14 ESV

Their life-long commitment to wholeness of heart and holiness of character was going to have to start with a turning away from the false gods of Egypt to which they were still clinging. Even after all that God had done for them, there were those within the community of Israel who were holding on to their false gods. And Joshua was demanding that they let them go – once and for all. It is impossible to be wholehearted in your love for God if you have a heart that is divided in its affections. Joshua knew that the divided allegiance produced by the presence of false gods would ultimately lead the people away from the one true God. They would become half-hearted in their love and short-term in their commitment to Him.

And Joshua placed himself as a model of spiritual integrity and truth, claiming his allegiance to God.

“…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:15 ESV

He was verbally committing himself and his family to serve God alone. He was placing a stake in the ground and declaring his unwavering, undivided allegiance to God. And the people responded with enthusiastic agreement, shouting, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (Joshua 24:18 ESV). Good answer. Right answer. But was it a truthful answer? Did they really mean what they were saying or were they simply responding based on the excitement of the moment? Only time would tell.

And Joshua seems to have had his doubts about not only the sincerity of their answer, but also the potentiality of their follow-through. He boldly predicted, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” (Joshua 24:19 ESV). Joshua seemed to have realized that the people were making their commitment to serve God with their whole hearts throughout their whole lives, in ignorance. They failed to recognize their own insufficiency to pull this off. Joshua was simply reminding them that what God was calling them to do was impossible – on their own. They would not be able to pull it off on their own strength, any more than they could have conquered the land of Canaan without God’s help. They were completely dependent upon God for everything, including the capacity to remain faithful and true to Him.

Joshua warned them that if they failed to keep their commitment to God, they would find themselves on the receiving end of His wrath and judgment. The God who had done so much to bless and prosper them would turn against them. But, once again, the people responded unanimously and enthusiastically, “No, but we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:21 ESV).

Then Joshua makes an interesting and highly revealing statement to the people of Israel:

“Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” – Joshua 24:23 ESV

It’s as if Joshua was challenging their commitment. He was demanding that they prove their enthusiastic verbal commitment with a realistic display of action. Words would not be enough. God would not tolerate lip-service. He wanted wholehearted devotion. God would later accuse the people of Israel of the very thing Joshua feared.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

And it’s interesting to note that the response of the people was another verbal expression of commitment, but without any form of visible action. They simply stated, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey” (Joshua 24:24 ESV). Again, the right answer was given, but it was lacking any tangible evidence of sincerity. So, Joshua took their verbal commitment and gave it a visual expression. He set up a stone, a witness stone, that would be a constant, timeless reminder of the commitment they had made to God that day. The stone would serve several purposes. First, it would act as a memorial commemorating the day they had renewed their covenant commitment to God. On the very same spot where Abraham had first built an altar to God after having arrived in the land of Canaan, they were setting up a stone to remind them of their expressed faith to God. But the stone would also serve as a witness against them, silently testifying of their unanimous commitment to serve God alone. Joshua made this point perfectly clear.

“Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” – Joshua 24:27 ESV

And the chapter ends with each of the tribes returning to their respective inheritance. They had made a verbal commitment to God. They had solemnly sworn to rid themselves of their false gods and to serve the Lord alone. They had made it to the land of promise. They had conquered many of the inhabitants of the land and were enjoying the fruit of their labors and the results of God’s blessings. God had been faithful to them. He had kept His covenant commitments to them. But would they remain true to their word? Would they serve Him alone? Would their lives be marked by wholehearted love and devotion over the whole length of their days? Only time would tell.

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.

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

Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You.

1 A long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the Lord your God promised you. Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day. For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. 10 One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.

14 “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. 15 But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, 16 if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.” Joshua 23:1-16 ESV

Years have passed. Joshua has been in leadership over Israel for quite some time and is coming to the end of his life. And like his predecessor, Moses, Joshua feels compelled to give the people under his care one last word of instruction. He probably remembered well the words spoken to him by Moses when the mantel of leadership had been transferred.

7 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:7-8 ESV

And Joshua had seen that promise fulfilled. He had watched God work and was able to say to his people, “you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you” (Joshua 23:3 ESV). They had possessed the land, but not without the help of God. He had fought for them and had routed their enemies before them. But, even all these years later, there was still more work to be done. There were still more enemies to conquer and land to possess. But Joshua simply passed on to the people what he had heard from Moses:

Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left. – Joshua 23:6 ESV

Nothing had changed. Even after all the years that had passed, God was still in control and His demand for obedience and faithfulness still held. He had proven Himself to be trustworthy and true to His word. He had exhibited His power, time and time again. And Joshua reminded them, “the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day” (Joshua 23:9 ESV). So, any nations that remained would prove to be no problem. But Joshua knew his people well. After decades of leading the people of Israel, he had come to know their strengths and weaknesses. He was well aware of their shortcomings and the possibility that, after all these years, they could still end up turning their backs on God. So, like a loving father, he warned his sin-prone children.

11 So be very careful to love the Lord your God. 12 “But if you turn away from him and cling to the customs of the survivors of these nations remaining among you, and if you intermarry with them, 13 then know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive them out of your land. Instead, they will be a snare and a trap to you, a whip for your backs and thorny brambles in your eyes, and you will vanish from this good land the Lord your God has given you. – Joshua 23:11-13 NLT

Joshua knew that love for God had to be expressed in obedience to God. Lip-service was not going to cut it. The prophet Isaiah would later record the words of God, spoken in accusation against the future descendants of this very group of people listening to Joshua’s final charge.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Joshua had a sneaky suspicion that his people were going to constantly struggle with faithfulness. He knew that the remaining presence of the unconquered Canaanites in the land was going to be a constant problem, because of their false gods. He also knew that there was going to be a temptation for the people of Israel to compromise their convictions and disobey the expressed will of God by intermarrying with the Canaanites, rather than destroying them. But Joshua warned that accommodation could bring condemnation. Making concessions would only make things worse, not better. God was not going to tolerate any decision on their part to do His will their way.

It’s interesting to note that Joshua was passing on to the people the very same words God had spoken to him years earlier, when the mantel of leadership had become his.

Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:6-7 ESV

Those words had been proven true. Joshua believed them, because he had seen them fulfilled in his own lifetime. He had learned the value of obedience and faithfulness. He wanted the people he left behind to remain true to God and His Word. And why wouldn’t he? As he reminded them, “not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14 ESV). God had been faithful to them, so why in the world would they ever choose to disobey His commands? But Joshua understood human nature. And he was very familiar with his own sin nature. Covenant faithfulness was always in jeopardy because of the presence of indwelling sin. The presence of God’s law was not enough to cause obedience. In fact, the apostle Paul would later write of his own experience with the law of God.

7 I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead. – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul knew that the law could not prevent sin. It could only reveal it. Which he made perfectly clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

God had forbidden intermarriage with the Canaanites, but here was Joshua warning them once again not to do just that. Why? Because he knew that they were prone to do what God had told them not to do. God’s ban on intermarriage was meant to be a protection. It was to keep his people from worshiping false gods and turning their backs on Him, the one true God. He was trying to protect them from experiencing His wrath. As God, He is obligated by His very nature, to punish sin. He cannot and will not tolerate unfaithfulness. His holiness and righteousness will not allow Him to do so. Compromise is not an option for God.

But we know how this story ends. The book of Judges and the history of the kings of Israel, recorded in the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings, remind us of Israel’s failure to keep God’s commands. In spite of Joshua’s warning, they would prove to be unfaithful. They would intermarry. They would make compromises and concessions. They would worship false gods and turn their backs on the one true God. And the prophetic words of Joshua would come to pass: “the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you” (Joshua 23:16 ESV).

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

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

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