Committed to the Cause

13 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

15 You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. 16 May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, 17 but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me— 18 may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus. 2 Timothy 1:13-18 ESV

Even while imprisoned in Rome, Paul took a keen interest in the affairs of the many local congregations he had helped to start. He wrote a great many of his pastoral epistles while under arrest, using his time to encourage the church of Jesus Christ, providing doctrinal instruction, relevant application of Jesus’ teaching, and an occasional admonishment aimed at false teachers and all those who had been swayed by their words.

But Paul also took advantage of his confinement by penning this letter to his young friend and disciple, Timothy, attempting to bolster his faith and strengthen his commitment to his calling as a minister of Christ. Paul knew from firsthand experience the kind of opposition Timothy was facing. He also understood the constant pressure his young friend was under to compromise his message and discredit his calling.

Timothy was a young man and yet, he had been thrust into a high-intensity role with responsibility to oversee the growing flock in Ephesus. He was the God-appointed shepherd to the sheep placed under his care and Paul knew that his young friend was struggling. Even Paul’s imprisonment had left Timothy wrestling with questions and doubts about the future. After all, his mentor had been arrested and accused of crimes against the state. And Paul’s enemies had used his arrest as an opportunity to undermine his work and destroy his reputation. But Paul encouraged Timothy to “not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner” (2 Timothy 1:8 ESV).

Paul assured Timothy that there was only one reason behind his imprisonment: His preaching of the gospel. He wasn’t an insurrectionist or an enemy of the state. He was simply a “preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy 1:11 ESV), who had been faithfully fulfilling his God-ordained responsibilities. So, for him, confinement in prison was a badge of honor, a symbol of his alignment with the sufferings of Christ. And Paul wanted Timothy to have the same mindset.

Timothy had become part of Paul’s entourage, traveling alongside the apostle and watching him preach the good news of Jesus Christ all throughout the Roman Empire. And he had witnessed the sheer power of the gospel message as countless individuals from all walks of life had placed their faith in Christ. He had seen small congregations spring up in the most unlikely of places. Gentiles who had grown up in pagan cultures worshiping a pantheon of false gods had discovered the truth about Yahweh and His Son. They had turned their backs on idolatry and been restored to a right relationship with the one true God, through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

And Timothy must have found all of this incredibly encouraging to his faith. He had enjoyed a front-row seat experience to the gospel’s transforming power and to Paul’s obvious calling as an ambassador of Jesus Christ. And he was compelled to follow Paul’s example – until things went south and Paul was imprisoned. But Paul didn’t want Timothy to lose heart. So, he challenged Timothy to quit focusing on his imprisonment and to remember all that he had taught him.

Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:13 NLT

Paul’s circumstances had done nothing to alter the gospel message. His imprisonment had not confined the good news any more than Jesus’ death had prevented His resurrection and ascension. The sovereign plan of God was alive and well and Timothy had a responsibility to continue the work of spreading the message of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.

Confined to prison, Paul passed the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles to Timothy and warned him to “carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14 NLT). And he was to do it “through the power of the Holy Spirit” (2 Timothy 1:14 NLT). Nothing had changed. Paul’s imprisonment was not a problem for God. It had not caught the Almighty by surprise or left Him desperately trying to develop a “Plan B.” It was all part of God’s divine strategy and Paul wanted Timothy to know that he had been chosen by God for this very occasion. He had been called, gifted, and empowered by God. He had been sent to Ephesus by Paul. And he was right where he was supposed to be in order to accomplish what God had for him to do.

Paul wanted Timothy to understand that his role was not up for debate. He may not have liked the circumstances surrounding his life, but he had no choice but to embrace the gift of grace bestowed on him by God.

God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 1:9 NLT

And to ensure that Timothy remains faithful to his calling, Paul brings up the actions of two individuals named Phygelus and Hermogenes, who had used Paul’s imprisonment as an excuse to abandon him. Evidently, these men had played a leadership role among the churches in Asia and their treatment of Paul had negatively impacted those under their care.

In contrast, Paul points out the efforts of Onesiphorus, someone who had chosen to remain faithful to Paul and his ministry in spite of his imprisonment. Paul points out that this individual and his family “often visited and encouraged me. He was never ashamed of me because I was in chains” (2 Timothy 1:17 NLT). Onesiphorus had even made a special trip to Rome in order to locate Paul and encourage him. And Paul expresses his gratitude by asking the Lord to show special kindness to this man and his family.

Paul wants Timothy to model his life after Onesiphorus, not Phygelus and Hermogenes. He wants his young friend to embrace a mindset of selfless service and sacrificial love, refusing to allow the circumstances of life to deter him from his mission or to distract him from his calling. The gospel does not need fair-weather friends who bail at the first sign of trouble. Paul wanted Timothy to know that his job was going to be difficult but not impossible. He would face trials, but he was not alone. And Timothy was going to need to embrace his role as non-negotiable and fully binding. In fact, in the very next lines of his letter, Paul will call Timothy to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3 ESV).

And, as a soldier of Christ, Timothy was obligated to serve faithfully and obediently. That’s why, in his first letter to Timothy, Paul had provided him with some strong words of instruction.

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. – 1 Timothy 6:11-12 NLT

Paul may have been in jail, but Timothy was free to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and to continue the work of building up the body of Christ. There was no time to doubt and debate the efficacy of God’s strategy. There was work to be done and Paul wanted Timothy to know that he was the man for the hour. And his young age, inexperience, feelings of inadequacy, fear, and reservations were no match for God’s divine calling and Spirit-empowered gifting for the task at hand. Timothy needed to remain committed to the cause and ready to be used by the one who had called him to begin with.

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

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

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

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Living By Faith, Not Sight

1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

And the Lord answered me:

“Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.

“Moreover, wine is a traitor,
    an arrogant man who is never at rest.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
    like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations
    and collects as his own all peoples.” Habakkuk 2:1-5 ESV

With the opening of chapter two, there can be little doubt as to whether Habakkuk is unhappy with conditions in Judah and far from pleased that God’s solution was to bring judgment on Judah through the use of the Babylonians. Continuing his dialogue with the Almighty, Habakkuk declares that he is going to stand his ground, like a watchman on a tower, waiting to hear what God has to say to his latest round of questions.

Habakkuk was confident that God would respond and he fully expected it to come in the form of a rebuke. The Hebrew word he used is towkechah and it conveys the idea of a verbal reproof or correction. He saw himself in the middle of an argument with God and was already thinking about how he was going to respond when God was done defending His actions.

The various translations of the Bible have taken slightly different tacts when interpreting the exact thought expressed by Habakkuk in verse one. The ESV translates it as follows:

I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

The New Living Translation puts the emphasis on God, not Habakkuk. The prophet was expecting an answer to his second round of complaints.

I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guardpost. There I will wait to see what the LORD says and how he will answer my complaint.

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach, portraying Habakkuk as waiting to be rebuked by God and already formulating his response.

I will stand on my guard post And station myself on the rampart; And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved.

It seems that the prophet fully expected his dialogue or debate with God to continue in some form or fashion. He was not going to relent or give up easily. And he was willing to wait, describing himself as a watchman on the wall of a city, scanning the horizon for any glimpse of a possible adversary. Habakkuk saw himself in a war of words with God. But his motive was not anger. He was sincerely concerned for the well-being of his people and was asking for clarification. What he had heard so far had left him confused and struggling to understand how this plan of God was in keeping with His covenant commitment to the people of Judah.

This whole exchange is similar to the one Abraham had with God concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God had announced that He was bringing destruction to those two wicked cities, Abraham had intervened, realizing that his nephew, Lot, and his family were living in Sodom. Abraham had presented God with a question.

“Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”  – Genesis 18:23-25 NLT

In response to Abraham’s plea, God agreed to spare the city if He could find 50 righteous people residing within it. And this led Abraham to boldly counter with a slight change to his initial request:

“Since I have begun, let me speak further to my Lord, even though I am but dust and ashes. Suppose there are only forty-five righteous people rather than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” – Genesis 18:27-28 NLT

And again, God agreed to the new conditions. But Abraham was not done. The passage said, “Abraham pressed his request further” (Genesis 18:29 NLT). He continued to lower the requisite number of righteous residents in the hope that he could somehow assure the rescue of Lot and his family. Abraham even begged God to forgive his rather presumptuous and argumentative methodology.  “Lord, please don’t be angry with me if I speak one more time” (Genesis 18:32 NLT). But despite Abraham’s pestering persistence, God continued to acquiesce to his requests. And all of this was motivated by Abraham’s desire for God to spare Lot and his family.

As was the case with Abraham, Habakkuk was not arrogantly attempting to pick a fight with God. He was not arguing for argument’s sake. He had a legitimate concern for the people of Judah. His original petition to God concerned the dire conditions of those in Judah who found themselves surrounded by wickedness. Like Abraham, Habakkuk was concerned for the faithful remnant of God – those righteous few who were suffering in the Sodom-like conditions of Judah.

And Habakkuk, the self-ascribed “watchman on the wall,” got the answer he was looking for. He matter-of-factly states: “And the Lord answered me” (Habakkuk 2:2 ESV).

The first thing God told Habakkuk was to write down what he was about to hear. He was to make a permanent record of God’s response so that it could be disseminated among the people of Judah.

“Write my answer plainly on tablets,
    so that a runner can carry the correct message to others.
This vision is for a future time.
    It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
    for it will surely take place.
    It will not be delayed.” – Habakkuk 2:2-3 NLT

And God informs Habakkuk that the content of this vision or message was concerning future events. God was answering Habakkuk’s questions, but the prophet needed to understand that the fulfillment of God’s plan was going to be long-term in nature. Habakkuk needed to know that there would not be a quick-fix to Judah’s problem. A solution was on its way, but it would be a long time in coming. And Habakkuk and the people of Judah were going to have to prepare themselves for a lengthy delay.

And God makes it clear that the delay was going to require faith on the part of the people of God. They were going to have to trust Yahweh, ignoring the conditions that clouded their view and keeping their eyes focused on the faithfulness of their God. Unlike the proud, who “trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked” (Habakkuk 2:4 NLT), the people of Judah were to trust in God.

“…the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.” – Habakkuk 2:4 NLT

Things were going to get worse before they got better. The situation in Judah would not improve any time soon. In fact, the Babylonians would eventually arrive on the scene, destroying the city of Jerusalem and transporting its citizens as captives back to Babylon. They would remain there for 70 long years, suffering the humiliation of slavery and subjugation to their pagan overlords. But God encouraged the righteous to have faith. Even when all looked lost, He was not yet done. His plan was not yet complete.

This theme of faith in the face of adversity was picked up by the New Testament authors and used to encourage the righteous remnant in their day to remain faithful to the end. Paul told the beleaguered Christians in Rome:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:16-17 ESV

He wrote to the believers in Galatia, reminding them that salvation was not based on human effort or through some form of self-righteousness achieved through adherence to the law of God. Instead, it was based on faith.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Galatians 3:11 ESV

Their right standing with God was based on their belief in the redemptive work of Christ. And yet, they were constantly being bombarded with lies that suggested their salvation required effort on their part. False teachers were claiming that faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. But Paul kept going back to the reality of the message of God: The righteous shall live by faith.

And the author of Hebrews picked up on God’s promise to Habakkuk, utilizing His call to faith, even in the midst of difficulty

“And my righteous ones will live by faith.
    But I will take no pleasure in anyone who turns away.”

But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved. – Hebrews 10:38-29 NLT

The context in Hebrews is that of believers who are facing difficulty but who must keep their faith focused on the promise of God.

So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. – Hebrews 10:35-26 NLT

For Habakkuk, the immediate future looked bleak and foreboding. God’s pronouncement that He was sending the Babylonians as His instruments of judgment had left Habakkuk stunned. But God was calling His prophet to remain faithful, trusting that the divine plan would have a happy ending.

But God knew that Habakkuk was having a difficult time getting his mind off of the thought that the Babylonians were going to come out as victors over God’s people. That was more than he could handle. Which is why God assured him:

Wealth is treacherous,
    and the arrogant are never at rest.
They open their mouths as wide as the grave,
    and like death, they are never satisfied.
In their greed they have gathered up many nations
    and swallowed many peoples. – Habakkuk 2:5 NLT

Things are not always as they seem. The success of the wicked, while difficult to understand and even harder to witness, is not the final chapter in the story. The Babylonians would become wealthy and powerful. They would conquer many nations and enrich themselves with the spoils of war. But God wanted Habakkuk to know that He had already written the final chapter of their story. And in the following verses, God will provide Habakkuk with a glimpse into Babylon’s fate.

As bad as things appeared to be, all was not lost. God had a plan. And the futures of Babylon and Judah were part of that plan. But when the coming days became filled with darkness and despair, the righteous would need to live by faith, not fear.

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

Our Limited Perspective Can’t Limit God

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
    and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
    so justice goes forth perverted. Habakkuk 1:2-4 ESV

Habakkuk refers to his message as an “oracle.” The Hebrew word is massa’ and it means “burden” or “that which is carried.” It was often used to refer to the carrying of a tribute or gift to be presented to a king or other high official. What makes Habakkuk’s book unique among all the other prophetic writings is that he is delivering a message to God, rather than speaking on behalf of God to the people of Judah. In the case of many of the other prophets, they struggled with their task of delivering God’s message of judgment, desiring instead to see their people repent and be restored. The prophet Jeremiah wept over the fate of his people.

If only my head were a pool of water
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
I would weep day and night
    for all my people who have been slaughtered. – Jeremiah 9:1 NLT

But in the case of Habakkuk, he opens his “oracle” by carrying his burden to the throne of God and delivering his message of confusion and consternation concerning the Almighty’s failure to bring judgment upon the people of Judah. He complains to God that his cries have gone unheard and unanswered. He accuses God of refusing to do something about all the violence and wickedness taking place in Judah. Habakkuk paints himself as a suffering servant of God, having to put up with all the “destruction and violence” and “strife and contention” taking place around him (Habakkuk 1:3 ESV).

So, this is not your average, run-of-the-mill prophetic book.

“Habakkuk is a unique book. Unlike other prophets who declared God’s message to people this prophet dialogued with God about people. Most Old Testament prophets proclaimed divine judgment. Habakkuk pleaded for divine judgment. In contrast with the typical indictment, this little book records an intriguing interchange between a perplexed prophet and his Maker.” – Ronald J. Blue, “Habakkuk.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament

Habakkuk’s opening prayer is a lament and echoes the sentiments found in many of the psalms.

O Lord, why do you stand so far away?
    Why do you hide when I am in trouble?
The wicked arrogantly hunt down the poor.
    Let them be caught in the evil they plan for others. – Psalm 10:1-2 NLT

Arise, O Lord!
    Punish the wicked, O God!
    Do not ignore the helpless!
Why do the wicked get away with despising God? – Psalm 10:12-13 NLT

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day?
    How long will my enemy have the upper hand? – Psalm 13:1-2 NLT

And while Habakkuk was unique among the prophets, he was not the only one who wondered how long God would delay before He dealt a decisive blow to the wicked.

How long must this land mourn?
    Even the grass in the fields has withered.
The wild animals and birds have disappeared
    because of the evil in the land.
For the people have said,
    “The Lord doesn’t see what’s ahead for us!” – Jeremiah 12:4 NLT

Upon hearing this, the angel of the Lord prayed this prayer: “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, for seventy years now you have been angry with Jerusalem and the towns of Judah. How long until you again show mercy to them?” – Zechariah 1:12 NLT

From Habakkuk’s perspective, God had been irritatingly silent and non-responsive. The prophet had repeatedly cried out to God, informing Him of the violence and injustice taking place among the people of Judah. Conflict and strife were everywhere. The law had become impotent and incapable of delivering justice when needed. The courts and the judges were not doing their jobs. And Habakkuk complained that “The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4 NLT).

The problem was getting worse, not better. And Habakkuk not-so-subtly accuses God of inaction and apparent indifference. His question, “How long?” was essentially the same as asking God, “When are you going to do something about all this?” Habakkuk was demanding action. He wanted to see results. He was fed up with the current state of affairs in Judah and was expecting God to do something about it.

This opening prayer reflects Habakkuk’s distress and despair over the spiritual condition of his nation. Things were not as they were supposed to be. Six different times in his book, Habakkuk will refer to the violence taking place in Judah. This is not just a reference to the physical harm committed by one person against another. The Hebrew word is chamac and has a much broader meaning. It includes physical violence, but also injustice, oppression, and cruelty. Someone committing chamac was guilty of violating the moral law. They were willingly breaking established ethical standards.

Habakkuk’s frustration seems to be based on the lack of divine intervention. Because it appeared that God was doing nothing about these moral indiscretions and abuses of the Mosaic Law, the people were getting bolder and more blatant in their disregard for God’s standards. From Habakkuk’s limited earthly perspective, it appeared that God’s silence was encouraging further violence among the people. They were getting cocky and arrogant, emboldened by their assumption that God was not going to do anything about their actions. The psalmist took his concerns to God as well, sharing a similar frustration with how God’s inaction was causing the wicked to become increasingly bolder and blatant in their sinful actions.

How long, O Lord?
    How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?
How long will they speak with arrogance?
    How long will these evil people boast?
They crush your people, Lord,
    hurting those you claim as your own.
They kill widows and foreigners
    and murder orphans.
“The Lord isn’t looking,” they say,
    “and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care.”  – Psalm 94:3-7 NLT

It’s all about perspective. The psalmist and Habakkuk were both limited by their earth-bound viewpoint. They could not see into heaven and, therefore, had no idea what God was doing. They could only judge by what they saw taking place around them. Not only that, but these men were also incapable of seeing into the future. They had no way of looking beyond the immediate conditions in which they lived. The present was all they knew because they were temporal, time-bound creatures who had no capacity to see what God had planned.

Habakkuk was demanding answers and action. He wanted to see results – right here, right now. You can sense the frustration he felt and his impatience with God is evident in the tone of his prayer.

“…you will not save!”

“…you will not hear!”

“…you make me see iniquity!”

“…do you idly look at wrong!”

Those are strong words and the apostle Paul would lovingly warn Habakkuk, “Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?” (Romans 9:20 NLT). Habakkuk was guilty of questioning the integrity and intentions of God. It wasn’t that he lacked faith in God or that he felt God was incapable of doing anything about the situation in Judah. He wasn’t questioning whether God could do something but was simply wanting to know when He would.

But Habakkuk was going to learn that God was not obligated to operate according to his timeline. The Almighty was not answerable to Habakkuk, but God was going to respond to His disgruntled prophet. Yet, what He had to say would convey a message of coming judgment, not salvation. God was going to respond to the injustice in Judah with His own brand of justice. He was going to deal with the violence and moral corruption of His people by bringing His righteous wrath to bear.

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

Nothing to Fear

1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV

As chapter five opens, Paul shifts his focus from the Rapture, the end-times event when the church is “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air, to the “day of the Lord.” Though closely related and timed to happen in sequence, these are two separate events, and Paul treats them as such. The Rapture of the church will usher in the Tribulation, a literal seven-year period of intense judgment from God upon the earth. With the church removed, He will turn His attention to the lost who will make up the entire population of the planet, including His original chosen people, the nation of Israel. Prophetically, the “day of the Lord” begins with the Tribulation, includes Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the seven years, and concludes with the Millennium, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth.

Having encouraged the Thessalonians regarding the fate of their deceased brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul begins to address the living rather than the dead. He wants them to have a well-developed understanding of the sequence of events that will make up the end times. He has already addressed the Rapture, and with that reality firmly fixed in their minds, the Thessalonians have nothing to fear regarding the day of the Lord. Yes, it “will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV), unexpectedly and surprisingly.

Jesus also warned His disciples about the sudden and unexpected nature of this end-times event.

“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” – Luke 21:34-36 ESV

Jesus was not suggesting that His disciples would live to see that day. Obviously, none of them did. He was also not teaching that believers would experience the day of the Lord. But notice that He does suggest that they pray for “strength to escape all these things” so that they might “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36 ESV). Jesus was encouraging His disciples and all true believers to live their lives with a sense of soberness and alertness, eagerly anticipating His return for them. He assures them that those who remain in Him will “escape all these things that are going to take place.”

But Paul describes a drastically different fate for all those who are alive when the day of the Lord begins: “sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV). Living with a false sense of peace and security, they will be caught completely by surprise at the sudden and unexpected nature of God’s judgment. And the prophets provide sobering details regarding the extent of the wrath God will pour out on sinful mankind in those days.

For see, the day of the Lord is coming—
    the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger.
The land will be made desolate,
    and all the sinners destroyed with it.
The heavens will be black above them;
    the stars will give no light.
The sun will be dark when it rises,
    and the moon will provide no light.

“I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil
    and the wicked for their sin.
I will crush the arrogance of the proud
    and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:0-11 NLT

“That terrible day of the Lord is near.
    Swiftly it comes—
a day of bitter tears,
    a day when even strong men will cry out.
It will be a day when the Lord’s anger is poured out—
    a day of terrible distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and desolation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
    a day of trumpet calls and battle cries. – Zephaniah 1:14-16 NLT

Even Jesus described the devastating nature of God’s judgment.

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

But Paul is informing the Thessalonians that they have no reason to fear those dark days. Not because they will die long before the events take place but because, as followers of Christ, they will be protected and preserved from judgment.

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV

The period of the Tribulation is intended as a divine judgment against sinful mankind. With the church removed at the Rapture, the remaining population of the earth will be made up solely of unbelievers. And as Jesus indicated, the divine judgment that God will bring upon them will be like nothing anyone has ever seen before. The book of Revelation outlines the nature of these catastrophic judgments.

…hail and fire mixed with blood were thrown down on the earth. One-third of the earth was set on fire, one-third of the trees were burned, and all the green grass was burned. – Revelation 8:7 NLT

…a great mountain of fire was thrown into the sea. One-third of the water in the sea became blood, one-third of all things living in the sea died, and one-third of all the ships on the sea were destroyed. – Revelation 8:8-9 NLT

a great star fell from the sky, burning like a torch. It fell on one-third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star was Bitterness. It made one-third of the water bitter, and many people died from drinking the bitter water. – Revelation 8:10-11 NLT

…and one-third of the sun was struck, and one-third of the moon, and one-third of the stars, and they became dark. And one-third of the day was dark, and also one-third of the night. – Revelation 8:12-13 NLT

In the chronicle of his divinely inspired vision, John goes on to describe days marked by darkness, disease, intense suffering, unprecedented meteorological events, devastating natural disasters, and demonic activity. John leaves no doubt as to the intensity of these judgments and their impact on the inhabitants of the world.

In those days people will seek death but will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them! – Revelation 9:6 NLT

They will be days of darkness, literally and figuratively. But Paul reminds his readers:

But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. – 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 ESV

The judgments of the Tribulation are not for Christ-followers. They are reserved for all those who have rejected God’s offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. And yet, God in His mercy will make His offer of salvation available to those living during the Tribulation. John describes 144,000 Jews who will come to faith in Christ and become witnesses during the days of the Tribulation (Revelation 7:1-8). And, as a result of their evangelistic efforts, many will turn to Christ, even in the midst of all the pain and suffering. John describes seeing “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV). And when he inquires who these people are, he is told, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14 ESV).

Even while pouring out His wrath on rebellious mankind, God will extend mercy to those who accept His gracious offer of salvation.

But for believers this side of the Rapture, there is no need to fear the coming wrath of God. But at the same time, Paul warns that we are not to live with a sense of misplaced confidence. He warns the Thessalonians, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6 ESV). They were to live with a sense of keen awareness and sober-minded seriousness regarding their new life in Christ. Paul reminds them, “you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5 ESV).

This is the same message Paul gave to the church in Colossae.

For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT

And the Ephesian believers were not left out.

Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. This is why it is said,

“Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” – Ephesians 5:10-14 NLT

As children of light and those who have been transferred into the Kingdom of Christ and, as a result, “we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8 ESV). We have the resources necessary for living godly lives. And we have the assurance of our future glorification. We have no reason to fear death or to worry about ever having to face God’s judgment.

Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:10-11 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

Running On Empty

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
    under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
    into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
    again and again the whole day long.

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
    he has broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
    with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me dwell in darkness
    like the dead of long ago.

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
    he has made my chains heavy;
though I call and cry for help,
    he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
    he has made my paths crooked.

10 He is a bear lying in wait for me,
    a lion in hiding;
11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
    he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me
    as a target for his arrow.

13 He drove into my kidneys
    the arrows of his quiver;
14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
    the object of their taunts all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitterness;
    he has sated me with wormwood.

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
    so has my hope from the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:1-18 ESV

The life of a prophet of God was not an easy one. These men had been hand-selected by God and given the unenviable task of delivering His message of pending judgment to His people. From a human perspective, it would appear that each of the prophets failed at their job – if success is measured by the number of people who heard their message and repented. The sad reality is that while everyone heard the message of the prophets, no one heeded their call. And God had warned Jeremiah that his experience would be the same as every other prophet of God. He was just the latest in a long line of men who had been tasked with delivering God’s call to repent or suffer the consequences.

“From the day your ancestors left Egypt until now, I have continued to send my servants, the prophets—day in and day out. But my people have not listened to me or even tried to hear. They have been stubborn and sinful—even worse than their ancestors.

“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to listen. Shout out your warnings, but do not expect them to respond.” – Jeremiah 7:25-27 NLT

And Jeremiah knew what it was like to be the social pariah, unwelcome and even despised for his role as God’s messenger.

“What sorrow is mine, my mother.
    Oh, that I had died at birth!
    I am hated everywhere I go.
I am neither a lender who threatens to foreclose
    nor a borrower who refuses to pay—
    yet they all curse me.” – Jeremiah 15:10 NLT

Jeremiah was in a no-win situation. His message of doom and gloom was unpopular with the people, but as a prophet of God, he was obligated to speak the truth of God. And it certainly didn’t help his cause that there were plenty of others who claimed to be prophets whose messages were much more positive and appealing. They were contradicting Jeremiah’s gloomy forecast, telling the people that all would be well. There had nothing to worry about. But God would have the last say in the matter.

“These prophets are telling lies in my name. I did not send them or tell them to speak. I did not give them any messages. They prophesy of visions and revelations they have never seen or heard. They speak foolishness made up in their own lying hearts. Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I will punish these lying prophets, for they have spoken in my name even though I never sent them. They say that no war or famine will come, but they themselves will die by war and famine! – Jeremiah 14:14-15 NLT

And God had fulfilled that promise. But here was Jeremiah, the faithful prophet, expressing his deep sorrow over his lot in life. Not only had he been required to spend years delivering God’s message of the judgment to come, but he had also been forced to live through it just like everyone else. He had not been spared the pain and suffering. He had not been given an exemption from God or been removed to a safe place while all the devastation and destruction took place. He had been right in the middle of it.

“I am the one who has seen the afflictions
    that come from the rod of the Lord’s anger.” – Lamentations 3:1 NLT

And all that he had witnessed had left a lasting impression on him. He describes himself as being besieged by “bitterness and tribulation.” His body was wasting away. His appetite was shot. He even felt like his prayers never made it past the ceiling. All in all, Jeremiah was in a dark place. Everything he had predicted had come to pass, but he found no satisfaction in knowing he had been right. He grieved over the state of his people. He mourned the loss of so many lives.

But the people had no love-loss for Jeremiah. In fact, they found a sort of perverse joy in knowing that the high-and-mighty prophet was suffering right alongside them. The one who had warned them of God’s judgment was experiencing it too. And they found time to mock Jeremiah for his condition.

“My own people laugh at me.
    All day long they sing their mocking songs.” – Lamentations 3:14 NLT

Jeremiah was emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. And he could see no light at the end of the tunnel. His depression was so intense that he claimed, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord” (Lamentations 3:18 ESV). He was at a loss as to what to do. His job of delivering God’s message was complete. He had finished what he had been tasked to do. But now he had to sit back and watch the sad plight of his people and wonder what was going to happen next. Where was God in all of this? How could this be His divine will? Was this how it was going to end?

There is something refreshing about Jeremiah’s bluntness. He is not afraid to say what he is thinking or to express his doubts and concerns. In doing so, he is not showing disrespect to God, he is simply sharing his heart. He is being honest. And this tendency toward transparency and honesty can be found elsewhere in Scripture. David, the man after God’s own heart, was particularly adept at expressing his feelings to God. He was not afraid to share his feelings with God because he knew that God was already aware of them.

You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:2-4 NLT

As a result, David had no problem sharing his innermost thoughts with God.

O Lord, why do you stand so far away?
    Why do you hide when I am in trouble? – Psalm 10:1 NLT

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way? – Psalm 13:1 NLT

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
    Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
    Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. – Psalm 22:1-2 NLT

Jeremiah was in good company. Like David, he knew God could handle his complaints. Refusing to say what he was thinking would not fool God because God knew his thoughts before he did. Failing to express his feelings would be nothing less than dishonesty toward God. So, he vented. He complained. He shared his pain and expressed his confusion over his lot in life. But while his hope was at an all-time low, we will see that his faith remained firmly fixed on the character of God.

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

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

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

Faith You Can See

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. – Matthew 14:22-36 ESV

The apostle John provides us with an important detail to this story that Matthew chose to leave out. It seems that Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd had left quite an impression on them.

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:14-15 ESV

Having had their physical needs met in such a spectacular way, the people were ready to crown Jesus as their king. Perhaps they envisioned a welfare state where their newly crowned monarch would use His miraculous powers to eliminate all hunger and disease. One can only imagine what went through their minds as they considered the endless possibilities of the social services they would have access to if Jesus was their king.

These people had a completely different kind of king and kingdom in mind than that of which Jesus had been speaking. Their focus was fixed on an earthly kingdom where their physical needs would be met, and all their problems would be taken care of by “the Prophet” turned king.

The prophet to whom they referred was the one Moses had predicted would come.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…” – Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:18 ESV

Moses had been the prophet who had led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, using miraculous powers to defeat Pharaoh and his armies. He had fed the people with manna from heaven and an endless supply of quail. He had provided water from a rock. Under his leadership, the clothes and sandals of the Israelites had never worn out. And when the crowd had watched as Jesus had fed more than 10,000 of them with nothing more than five loaves of bread and two fishes, they couldn’t help but make the connection.

But Matthew records that Jesus “immediately” sent His disciples away and dismissed the crowds. He wasn’t interested in becoming their king – at least not the kind they had in mind. He had far greater aspirations that were based on the will of His heavenly Father. So, having dispersed the crowd and sending the disciples away by boat, Jesus spent time alone in prayer with His Father.

We are not told the content of Jesus’ prayer, but the High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17 provides us with some idea of how Jesus communicated with His Father. It was personal and intimate, yet it also communicated His concern for His disciples. Jesus focused on finishing the task assigned to Him by the Father. But He also prayed for those who would carry on the ministry after His work was done.

While Jesus had been talking with His Father, the disciples found themselves caught in the middle of yet another storm on the Sea of Galilee. This had happened before, and Matthew recorded back in chapter 8. This storm appears to have been just as severe as the previous one. The disciples, many of whom were seasoned fishermen, were unable to keep the winds from driving them far out to sea. Sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., in the darkness and as the wind and waves raged, Jesus appeared to them, walking on the water.

We know from Matthew’s account of the previous storm, Jesus had merely spoken, and the waves and wind subsided. But in this case, Jesus chose to do something even more spectacular. Rather than proving His power over the elements by controlling them, He simply showed their lack of influence over Him. The waves, the wind, and the water had no effect on Him. In the midst of a raging storm, Jesus simply walked, calmly and casually, totally free from fear and displaying a kind of faith that His disciples did not yet possess.

In fact, upon seeing Jesus walking on the water, their immediate response was fear, not faith. In their terrified state, they could only shout, “It is a ghost!” But Jesus called out to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In essence, Jesus told them to stop fearing. He commanded them to replace their fear with faith – in Him.

These very same men had been eye-witnesses to Jesus’ previous miracle, where He had calmed the sea and silenced the storm. But that event had become a distant memory. The disciples found themselves surrounded by new circumstances featuring a new and ominous twist.  The fact that Jesus was not in the boat with them this time did not escape them. So, when they saw what looked like a ghost walking to them on the water, they were petrified beyond belief. It was all supernatural but not necessarily spiritual.

But Peter, hearing the voice of Jesus, cried out, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28 ESV). Evidently, Peter wasn’t completely convinced that it was Jesus. But that doesn’t explain why Peter made this strange request. Why did he ask Jesus to command that he come to Him on the water? What was going through his mind? Keep in mind, the wind was still blowing, and the waves were still rocking the boat, but Peter was asking Jesus to command that he step out of the boat and walk on the water. And Jesus obligingly said, “Come.”

Amazingly, Peter obeyed and made it all the way to where Jesus was waiting. But then, something happened. Matthew records, “he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me’” (Matthew 14:30 ESV). He took his eyes off of Jesus and began to focus on the circumstances around him. Remember, Jesus had not calmed the storm. He had walked to them in the midst of it. And when Peter attempted to do the same thing, he found that his faith diminished when he focused on the problem rather than the solution.

But Jesus was there, and He reached out His hand and rescued Peter from his own faltering faith, saying, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 ESV). Peter had displayed enough faith to step out of the boat and walk all the way to Jesus. But he had taken his eyes off the prize. It would seem that Peter had been more interested in walking on water than walking to Jesus. Perhaps he was enamored with the idea of replicating Jesus’ miraculous feat and, seeing that he was actually pulling it off, he had probably taken a look around him, amazed at what he was doing. He became cocky and over-confident. Matthew reports that Peter, upon seeing the wind, became fearful. His faith turned to fear. And it’s interesting to note that wind is invisible. You can’t see it. And the author of Hebrews reminds us that faith is invisible too.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1 ESV

You can’t see faith, but you can see its fruit. The wind, while invisible to the human eye, is powerful enough to turn calm water into powerful waves and turn a boat full of seasoned fishermen into helpless, hopeless victims of a storm. The invisible faith that drove Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water was more than enough to get him to Jesus. But his mistake was allowing his conviction that Jesus was enough to be replaced by the fear that the wind was too much. And he sank like a rock.

But Jesus rescued him. He was right there and, when Peter cried out, Jesus responded. And as soon as Jesus and Peter stepped into the boat, the wind and the waves ceased. The storm was calmed. The fear of the disciples subsided and was replaced with worship. What they had just witnessed convinced them that Jesus was the Son of God.

In the midst of the growing storm of opposition that swirled around Jesus and His ministry, He walked on in faith. He weathered the wind and waves of apathy and anger that battered Him on a daily basis. He kept His eyes on the will of His Father and the task He had been assigned to accomplish. The storms of controversy were going to rage. The tsunami of public opinion would blow this way and that, but Jesus would remain committed to His mission – walking in faith in the face of the storm.

And when the boat arrived at the other side of the lake, He went about His Father’s business.

And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. – Matthew 14:35-36 ESV

Why did Peter doubt? For the same reason we all do. He focused on the wind, the invisible source of the storm when he should have kept his eyes on Jesus, the visible source of His faith.

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

How Low Can You Go?

52 “They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. 53 And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you. 54 The man who is the most tender and refined among you will begrudge food to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, 55 so that he will not give to any of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing else left, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all your towns. 56 The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, 57 her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns.  Deuteronomy 28:52-57 ESV

These are disturbing verses. Their content is graphic and difficult to comprehend. And it is essential that we not forget the context. The people of Israel are poised to enter the land of Canaan and Moses has been addressing them for quite some time now. He has reiterated the law to them and reminded them of the blessings that will accompany obedience to God’s commands. But has also been warning them about the curses that will fall on them should they choose to rebel against God by disobeying His law.

But in these verses, Moses describes some very disturbing scenes that had to have left the Israelites appalled and shaking their heads in disbelief. They could never have imagined these kinds of things happening among their people. The graphic nature of Moses’ words would have been offensive and off-putting. Some probably accused Moses of resorting to scare tactics, using hyperbolic imagery in an attempt to goad them into fear-based compliance to God’s law. The thought of these kinds of hideous things happening among them would have been impossible to comprehend or even consider.

After all, Moses describes grotesque scenes of desperately hungry people resorting to cannibalism in order to keep from starving to death. The enemy has surrounded their city, creating a food-shortage within its wall and leaving the inhabitants with no food and little hope of survival. And this scene will be taking place all throughout the land of Canaan, as city after city comes under attack from a distant nation whom God will send against the people of Israel.

“The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.” – Deuteronomy 28:49-50 ESV

Once again, as far-fetched as all of this may have sounded to the people of Israel, Moses was actually providing a God-ordained glimpse into the future. He was revealing what will actually take place when the Assyrians come against the northern kingdom of Israel and, hundreds of years later, when the Babylonians sweep down on the southern kingdom of Judah. The dire circumstances Moses described would actually take place. And Moses would not be the only one to predict this unfathomable outcome. Hundreds of years later, the prophet, Jeremiah, would deliver the following warning from God to the people of Judah:

“And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” – Jeremiah 18:8-9 ESV

The book of Lamentations predicts this same implausible outcome.

Look, O Lord, and see!
    With whom have you dealt thus?
Should women eat the fruit of their womb,
    the children of their tender care?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord? – Lamentations 2:20 ESV

And the prophet Ezekiel would provide additional proof of God’s coming judgment.

“And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers” – Ezekiel 5:9-10

That these atrocities actually took place is beyond debate. The Jewish historian, Josephus, records that, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the city’s starving citizens resorted to eating their own children. He provides a detailed account of one such circumstance.

Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means “House of Hyssop”). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved with the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such foods as she had been able to procure, was being carried by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was ever fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueler than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of cold horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews. With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on her at once, smelling roasted meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. – Josephus, The Jewish War

So, there’s little doubt that the words of Moses were far from idle threats. God was deadly serious and wanted His people to know that a disregard for His holy law would result a breakdown of the social fabric of Israelite society that would be unimaginable and incomprehensible.

Josephus would go on to describe the scene that took place behind the walls of Jerusalem as “an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians, and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear.”

The curses of God would render every man and woman into selfish and self-protective beasts whose only concern would become their own personal survival. Love of God and love of others would be the farthest thing from their minds. The thought of a killing and consuming her own child is beyond comprehension. But the judgment of God against the repeated rebellion of His people would be so severe that the unthinkable would become commonplace. What was once immoral would become acceptable and unavoidable.

The Israelites, who at one time had enjoyed special status as His chosen people, would eventually become guilty of committing some of the most heinous and morally repugnant acts ever committed by humanity. And as Moses has pointed out, it will begin with their decision to disobey the commands of God. The “tender and refined” among them would become the cold-hearted and callous. Rebellion against God is downward spiral with a trajectory that is difficult to reverse. And these mind-boggling, sensibility-shocking descriptions of the once-law-abiding Israelites resorting to cannibalism may be difficult to comprehend, but they would be the unavoidable outcome of a willful choice to reject the will of God by disobeying the law of God.

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

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

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

Rules Regarding Warfare

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’ Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’ And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.’ And when the officers have finished speaking to the people, then commanders shall be appointed at the head of the people.– Deuteronomy 20:1-9 ESV

As has already been stated, God cared deeply for the people of Israel and left no area of their corporate life unregulated by His holy standards. From the foods they ate to the manner in which they worshiped Him, God provided clear and unequivocal guidelines for conducting their lives. Every moment of their day was to be focused on and governed by His law. And Moses had reminded them repeatedly to incorporate God’s commandments into every facet of their daily life.

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NLT

In this chapter, Moses addresses what was about to become a major part of their existence as they entered the promised land. Canaan was filled with other people groups who were not going to welcome Israel with open arms. There was going to be warfare, and God had clearly communicated His expectations regarding Israel’s interactions with the pagan nations occupying the land He had awarded as an inheritance to Abraham.

“Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places. You must dispossess the inhabitants of the land and live in it, for I have given you the land to possess it. …But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, then those whom you allow to remain will be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your side, and will cause you trouble in the land where you will be living.  And what I intended to do to them I will do to you.” – Numbers 33:51-53, 55-56 NLT

Battle was going to become an unavoidable aspect of their everyday life. And what made this particularly challenging was that Israel had no standing army. There were no trained soldiers in their midst. All of the men who were old enough to fight had spent their entire lives wandering through the wilderness. Yes, they had fought and won a few battles on the east side of the Jordan, but for the most part, they were little more than shepherds and wandering nomads. And yet, God expected them to conquer the entire land of Canaan and dispossess long-entrenched kingdoms with standing armies and well-fortified cities.

But this passage reveals a great deal about the character of God. Moses will assuage the people’s fears by reminding them of God’s omnipotence.

“…let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” – Deuteronomy 20:3-4 ESV

They had no reason to fear because they had God on their side and He was going to fight on their behalf. They had a secret weapon that none of the nations living in the land of Canaan could hope to withstand. Their powerful armies and walled cities would prove no match for God Almighty. And Moses wanted the people to remember that the same God who had conquered the Egyptians some 40 years earlier was going to be fighting for them in the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV

But Israel’s God was not only powerful, He was also compassionate. He cared about His people and took into account their individual situations and circumstances. This passage paints a remarkable picture that blends God’s sovereignty and lovingkindness. He was their compassionate, caring King. And while He fully expected them to obey His commands and carry out His orders, He was not oblivious to their personal circumstances. He did not view them as cogs in a machine or mindless instruments in His all-powerful hands.

Warfare was going to be inevitable and unavoidable, but so was life. Between battles, men would be marrying, starting families, building homes, and establishing their lives in the new land. The final objective was for the Israelites to possess the land, not simply conquer it. Battle would be necessary, but only so the people of Israel could inherit and inhabit the land that God had given them.

So, God provided four mandatory exemptions from military service. When the time for battle arrived, if any man of fighting age met the requirements, he was to be released from his commitment to fight. God was well aware of the fact that death was a potential outcome for every man who went into battle, so He provided these gracious exemptions that seem to be aimed at younger men who were starting new lives in the land. The first exemption involved the dedication of a new home. If a man had recently built a home, but had not had time to properly dedicate it, he was dismissed from mandatory military service so that he could do so. There seems to be a religious connotation behind this directive because the Hebrew word for “dedicate” is khanakh and it is the same one used when referring to Solomon’s dedication of the temple. The home was an important aspect of Jewish life. It was a symbol of prosperity and the epicenter of life. For a man to die in battle without having dedicated his own home would have left his family without shelter. Since women were not allowed to own property, it is likely the house would have been sold to someone else, leaving the deceased man’s family destitute. So, God provides a gracious exemption.

The second case involves a man who has planted a vineyard, but has not yet had time to reap a harvest from it. He too is provided with an exemption from military service so he can remain home and harvest the fruit of his labors. Otherwise, he might die in battle, and someone else reap the benefits of all his efforts. Once again, it is likely that, with the man’s death in battle, his land would have become the property of someone else and his wife and children would have received no benefit from all his labor.

The third scenario deals with a man who has become engaged to be married. If there was a call for battle, this man was to be relieved of his commitment so that he might marry his bride and consummate his marriage. Otherwise, he could die in battle, and his betrothed become the wife of another man. Marriage and the family were important to God and vital to the well-being of the nation, so He ensured that these young men were protected and the sanctity of the family unit was preserved.

The final exemption is a somewhat surprising one. In this case, Moses instructed the military commanders to approach their troops and offer an exemption to anyone afraid of going into battle.

In addition, the officers are to say to the troops, “Who among you is afraid and fainthearted? He may go home so that he will not make his fellow soldier’s heart as fearful as his own.” – Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT

This seems like an odd and potentially risky proposition. After all, what man in his right mind would not be afraid of the prospect of going into battle? It seems that this question could have resulted in the mass exodus of every able-bodied man.

But the real point behind all of these exemptions is that the victory God has assured will be by His hands and not that of men. God did not need a large standing army. He did not require every able-bodied man in order to defeat the enemies of Israel. And if men were too fearful to fight alongside God, He would rather they return home than run the risk of them infecting the rest of the army with their fear and faithlessness.

This reminds me of another occasion when God exempted some of His troops from going into battle and used a handful of faithful men to accomplish a great victory. This story is found in the book and involves Gideon defeating an army of Midianites that “had settled in the valley like a swarm of locusts. Their camels were like grains of sand on the seashore—too many to count!” (Judges 7:12 NLT).

And to make matter worse, God had ordered Gideon to send home the vast majority of his troops, leaving him with a paltry force of only 300 men. But God had assured Gideon, “With these 300 men I will rescue you and give you victory over the Midianites. Send all the others home” (Judges 7:7 NLT). And God did as He had promised. He brought about a great victory. It was not the size of Gideon’s army that mattered. It was Gideon’s God.

God was not dependent upon Gideon and his troops. And God was not limited by the number of Israelites who showed up when they were called up for battle. The victory would be His regardless of the size of the army at His disposal. Israel’s God was great and gracious. He was caring and compassionate. And Moses wanted the Israelites to never forget that “the Lord your God is with you.”

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

Do Not Be Afraid

1 “For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.

“What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will return your payment on your own head swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border. Behold, I will stir them up from the place to which you have sold them, and I will return your payment on your own head. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away, for the Lord has spoken.” Joel 3:1-8 ESV

As chapter three opens, Joel is continuing his description of “the day of the Lord,” providing further detail regarding the activities surrounding that future period of time. Not only will God bring undeserved restoration to His chosen people, in keeping with His covenant promises to them, but He will bring well-deserved judgment upon the nations – all those who remain unrepentant and unaccepting of His gracious offer of salvation through faith in His Son.

Joel delivers a two-part message from God Almighty, stating, “I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem“ and “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:1-2 ESV). And God makes it perfectly clear what He has in store for the nations: “I will enter into judgment with them there” (Joel 3:2 ESV). And the reason for His judgment is two-fold. It will be because these nations rejected Him as God, but also because they abused the people of God.

Back in the book of Genesis, we have recorded the covenant promise made by God to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). Now, centuries later, God is assuring the people of Judah that He is going to keep that promise and fully fulfill it during the day of the Lord. Even during Joel’s day,, there were nations that stood opposed to Judah. The Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel, destroying their capital city of Samaria and taking thousands of their people captive. And the Assyrians had also invaded the land of Judah, conquering dozens of their cities and villages, while killing and enslaving thousands of their citizens as well. And God has already warned Judah that the Babylonians will be showing up at some point to destroy the city of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple to Yahweh. And the Babylonians will humiliate thousands of Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens by taking them back to Babylon as lowly slaves.

Yet, God assures the people of Judah that He will one day restore their fortunes and pay back all these nations for the way they treated His chosen people. And He doesn’t mince words or leave anything to the imagination when describing their crimes against his people.

“…they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.” – Joel 3:2-3 ESV

Joel describes God’s future judgment against these guilty nations as taking place in the valley of Jehoshaphat. While there is no valley known by that name found in or around Jerusalem, it would seem that this is meant to be a reminder to an event that took place earlier in Judah’s history. Jehoshaphat was the fourth king of Judah, and he was considered a good king, “because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel” (2 Chronicles 17:3-4 ESV). He even instituted a series of religious reforms, removing the false gods and sending out men to teach the people of Judah the Law of God.

But Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, and agreed to go into battle alongside the Israelites against the Syrians. Even though a prophet of God warned that this battle would prove to be a total route, Jehoshaphat and Ahab went ahead with their plans and lost. Not only that, Ahab was killed. And Jehoshaphat received a rebuke from God.

“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.” – 2 Chronicles 19:2-3 ESV

But not long after this, Jehoshaphat received news that an alliance of nations was preparing to come against them. Having heard this news, the king assembled the people and prayed to God for His help, and He responded by miraculously routing the enemies of Judah. The book of 2 Chronicles provides further insight into the activities of God surrounding that eventful day.

“Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” – 2 Chronicles 20:15-17 ESV

God promised to fight for them. He would judge their enemies on their behalf, and the people of Judah would not have to lift a finger. In fact, they showed up the next day and found a valley filled with dead enemies and the spoil of battle.

When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the horde, and behold, there were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped. When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take their spoil, they found among them, in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, for there they blessed the Lord. Therefore the name of that place has been called the Valley of Beracah to this day. – 2 Chronicles 20:24-26 ESV

The word “Beracah” means blessing. From Judah’s perspective, this valley became a reminder of God’s grace, mercy and blessing. But the valley was a place of judgment for the enemies of Judah. Interestingly enough, the name “Jehoshaphat” means “God has judged.” So, the valley in which God brought about a victory over the enemies of Judah, became a place of both blessing and judgment.

This same scene is going to occur on the coming day of the Lord. God will once again judge and destroy Judah’s enemies, while at the same time blessing His chosen people.
And God addressed the Phoenicians and the Philistines, singling them out for their treatment of His people. But these two nations seem to be used as stand-ins for all the other nation of all time who have mistreated the people of God. And He warns that He is going to reward the people of Judah and Israel, but pay back their enemies for all that they have done.

As God promised the people of Judah in Jehoshaphat’s day, He will be with the people of Israel in that future day. “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 20:17 ESV). God will bless, and God will judge. And His people have no reason to fear.

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

 

Trust God

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
    and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
    and weighed the mountains in scales
    and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
    or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
    and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
    and taught him knowledge,
    and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
    and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
    behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
    nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
    they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

18 To whom then will you liken God,
    or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
    chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
    to set up an idol that will not move.

21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
    and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:12-31 ESV

This chapter opened with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people.” And the next ten verses revealed the form that comfort would take. God was going to intervene on behalf of Judah. Isaiah was given a vision of a future day in which the Lord God will appear in glory and might.

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

God will one day come as Shepherd of Israel, carrying his lambs in His arms and “holding them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11 NLT). But how can the people of Judah know for certain that all of this will take place? What assurance do they have that this future revelation of God’s glory and deliverance will happen? Isaiah has already provided an answer to these questions. It is because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5 ESV). He is trustworthy and true, and His word is as immutable as His holy character.

But God knows that the people of Judah have their doubts. They are still obsessed with God’s declaration that the city of Jerusalem is going to fall to the Babylonians. So, any news of God’s future redemption sounds a bit hollow and too good to be true. The immediate prospect of defeat carries far more weight with them than any promise of future restoration. So, God addresses their apprehension with a series of 13 questions. And these queries from God are meant to reveal His greatness and the everlasting nature of His nature. God is eternal. He stands outside of space and time. Which is why He speaks of future events as if they have already happened. He is without equal and beyond comparison, and Isaiah stresses His incomparability with three rhetorical questions:

Who else has held the oceans in his hand?

Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?

Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale?  

The answer to all three questions is the same: No one. There is no one else like God. He doesn’t need advice or instruction. He doesn’t require anyone else to tell Him what is right or wrong. Compared with God, the “the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). Like dust on a scale, they are infinitesimal and inconsequential. Their weight or glory doesn’t even register. In contrast, God’s glory is so great and His power, so beyond comparison, “He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). To put it bluntly, “The nations of the world are worth nothing to him. In his eyes, they count for less than nothing—mere emptiness and froth” (Isaiah 40:17 NLT).

This series of questions is reminiscent of an exchange that took place between God Almighty and His servant Job. After having lost virtually everything near and dear to him, including his children, his wealth and his health, Job was confused by the dire nature of his circumstances. He questioned the nature of his suffering and defended his own righteousness before God. In a sense, he expressed his doubts concerning God’s justice. And God responded with a series of questions for Job that contrasted His own character with that of Job’s. For two chapters, God bombards Job with a series of questions designed to juxtapose God’s glorious deity with Job’s humanity.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know so much. – Job 38:4 NLT

“Do you know where the gates of death are located?
    Have you seen the gates of utter gloom?
Do you realize the extent of the earth?
    Tell me about it if you know!” – Job 38:17-18 NLT

“Can you shout to the clouds
    and make it rain?
Can you make lightning appear
    and cause it to strike as you direct? – Job 38:34-35 NLT

And two chapters later, God wraps up his inquisition of Job with the stinging words:

“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?
    You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” – Job 40:2 NLT

This was all about a mere man questioning the integrity of the God of the universe. Job may not have liked his circumstances, but that gave him no right to doubt the goodness or greatness of God. Which is what led God to ask:

“Will you discredit my justice
    and condemn me just to prove you are right?
Are you as strong as God?
    Can you thunder with a voice like his? – Job 40:8-9 NLT

There is no situation that provides justification for man’s questioning of God’s integrity. Our first reaction, when faced with difficult circumstances, is to measure God’s character by human standards. We tend to analyze His actions by using our own flawed sense of right and wrong. But Isaiah asks, “To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble him?” (Isaiah 40:18 NLT). God is not a man so He cannot be judged like one. And He is not a false god, made by human hands. He is uncreated. He has no maker. And He owes no one an answer or explanation for His actions.

So, God repeats Isaiah’s previous question:

“To whom will you compare me?
    Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. – Isaiah 40:25 NLT 

And the answer remains: No one.

Yet, God knows that His people still have their doubts about Him. So, He confronts them with the real issue behind their refusal to believe His word.

“O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?
    O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights? – Isaiah 40:27 NLT

There were convinced that God was blind to their current circumstances. Not only that, they were questioning God’s integrity by accusing Him of ignoring their rights. In essence, they were labeling God as unjust and unrighteous. They were measuring God by their circumstances, rather than viewing their circumstances through the lens of God’s character. So, Isaiah gave them a much-needed reminder of how just and righteous, good and gracious God is.

He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion. – Isaiah 40:29-30 NLT

Notice the circumstances in which God reveals His power and strength. It is in the midst of our weakness and powerlessness. It is when we are tired and exhausted that God tends to show up in all His glory. God told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” and Paul responded by saying, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT).

How could Paul take pleasure in weakness? It was because he trusted God. He knew from experience that God tended to show up when things were looking down. God’s power was best manifested when Paul’s weakness was on full display. Which is why Isaiah reminded the people of Judah:

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31 NLT

Trust is the greatest antidote to trials. Relying on the incomparable, unquenchable power of God when our strength is gone is the key to surviving and thriving in this world. But we must trust what He has said. We must not question His word or doubt His integrity.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 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