The Lord is in the Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

he caused my strength to fail – vs. 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But God had also promised to restore them.

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Righteously Wrathful God

39 Look now; I myself am he!
    There is no other god but me!
I am the one who kills and gives life;
    I am the one who wounds and heals;
    no one can be rescued from my powerful hand!
40 Now I raise my hand to heaven
    and declare, “As surely as I live,
41 when I sharpen my flashing sword
    and begin to carry out justice,
I will take revenge on my enemies
    and repay those who reject me.
 
– Deuteronomy 32:39-41 NLT

36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.John 3:36 ESV

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. – Romans 1:18 ESV

The wrath of God seems to be a forbidden topic among many Christians. We’re almost embarrassed to bring it up in polite conversation. We treat it as if it’s some kind of flaw in the character of God that no one wants to admit or talk about. Like that drinking problem that your favorite uncle has struggled with for years. Everybody knows about it, but it’s just easier to treat it as if it doesn’t exist.

But it’s difficult to ignore the wrath of God. It’s an unpleasant yet unavoidable reality that shows up throughout the Scriptures. And it’s can’t be relegated to the pages of the Old Testament.  Many believe that the God described in the gospels is far more loving, gracious, and kind than the God who commanded Abraham to sacrifice His Son, told the Israelites to massacre entire communities, and decreed the stoning of rebellious sons . And yet, Jesus Himself said, “anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment” (John 3:36 NLT).

The prophet Nahum provided a stark warning regarding the pagan people of Nineveh:

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. – Nahum 1:2 ESV

Ezekiel delivered God’s warning regarding the Philistines, the enemies of Israel:

I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful rebukes. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon them.”Ezekiel 25:17 ESV

Isaiah prophesied of a future day when God’s wrath would come on all mankind:

Look! The Lord is coming from heaven to punish the people of the earth for their sins. – Isaiah 26:21 ESV

And if you fast-forward all the way to the end of the final book of the Canon of Scripture, you find the wrath of God revealed yet again.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

So, what are we supposed to do with this uncomfortable aspect of God’s nature? Do we simply ignore it, rationalize it away, or reject it out of hand? A. W. Pink provides us with a powerful response to those questions.

It is sad to find so many professing Christians who appear to regard the wrath of God as something for which they need to make an apology, or at least they wish there were no such thing. While some would not go so far as to openly admit that they consider it a blemish on the Divine character, yet they are far from regarding it with delight; they like not to think about it, and they rarely hear it mentioned without a secret resentment rising up in their hearts against it. Even with those who are more sober in their judgment, not a few seem to imagine that there is a severity about the Divine wrath which is too terrifying to form a theme for profitable contemplation. Others harbor the delusion that God’s wrath is not consistent with His goodness, and so seek to banish it from their thoughts.

Yes, many there are who turn away from a vision of God’s wrath as though they were called to look upon some blotch in the Divine character, or some blot upon the Divine government. But what saith the Scriptures? As we turn to them we find that God has made no attempt to conceal the fact of His wrath. He is not ashamed to make it known that vengeance and fury belong unto Him. – A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God

At some point, we have to ask the question: What is the source of God’s anger or wrath? We inherently know that God does not have an anger “problem.” He’s not an angry individual who lacks self-control and is unable to manage His emotions. It is far too easy to view God through a lens that is heavily distorted by our own human flaws and frailties. We struggle with anger, so we assume that God’s anger manifests itself in the same way. In our minds, anger is a liability, not an asset. It is negative, not positive. But because we are talking about the holy, righteous, perfectly sinless God of the universe, we can’t attribute His anger to some flaw in His character. His anger, like every other one of His character qualities, is fully justified and holy.

So, why would anger be an attribute of God? It is because He is holy. The apostle John wrote, “God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all” (1 John 1:5 NLT). Darkness is a metaphor for evil or wickedness. It stands in stark contrast to the “light” or righteousness of God. That’s why Paul wrote, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). What truth? The truth of God’s existence as revealed in His creation.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. – Romans 1:19-20 ESV

But Paul goes on to point out that, despite God’s revelation of Himself in creation, mankind “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21 ESV). And “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25 ESV). As a result, God’s wrath was revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

But what is the nature of God’s wrath? Is it some kind of out-of-control, vengeance-laced tirade against those who don’t agree with Him? Is God some petty tyrant who uses His power to punish those who refuse to do what He wants? To understand God’s wrath, we have to see things from His perspective, not ours. Again, A. W. Pink provides some helpful insights into this matter.

The wrath of God is His eternal detestation of all unrighteousness. It is the displeasure and indignation of Divine equity against evil. It is the holiness of God stirred into activity against sin. It is the moving cause of that just sentence which He passes upon evil-doers. God is angry against sin because it is a rebelling against His authority, a wrong done to His inviolable sovereignty. Insurrectionists against God’s government shall be made to know that God is the Lord. They shall be made to feel how great that Majesty is which they despise, and how dreadful is that threatened wrath which they so little regarded. Not that God’s anger is a malignant and malicious retaliation, inflicting injury for the sake of it, or in return for injury received. No; while God will vindicate His dominion as Governor of the universe, He will not be vindictive. – A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God

To add further clarity to this topic, J. I. Packer gives us a much-needed word study on the meaning behind “wrath” and “anger.”

“Wrath” is an old English word defined in my dictionary as “deep, intense anger and indignation.” “Anger” is defined as “stirring of resentful displeasure and strong antagonism, by a sense of injury or insult;” “indignation” as “righteous anger aroused by injustice and baseness.” Such is wrath. And wrath, the Bible tells us, is an attribute of God. – J. I. Packer, Knowing God

A sense of injury or insult. About what? Deep, intense anger and indignation. Against what? Against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Or to put it in more simplistic terms, against sin. Sin is an affront to a holy, righteous God. Mankind was created by God. Mankind exists because of God. And when men reject Him as their God or rebel against His divine sovereignty as their creator, provider, and sustainer, God is rightfully offended.

Robert L. Deffinbaugh describes divine wrath as “God’s righteous anger and punishment, provoked by sin.” It is never arbitrary or unwarranted. God’s wrath is never unjustified or undeserved.

The wrath of God is His eternal detestation of all unrighteousness. It is the displeasure and indignation of divine equity against evil. It is the holiness of God stirred into activity against sin. It is the moving cause of that just sentence which he passes upon evildoers. God is angry against sin because it is a rebelling against His authority, a wrong done to His inviolable sovereignty. – A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God

The God of the universe is the ultimate master of the domain which He created and over which He rules. And He will vindicate His sovereign rule, but He will never do so vindictively.

One of the things we overlook when discussing the wrath of God is how it demonstrates God’s hatred for sin. We tend to tolerate sin and view it as little more than a flaw in the human character. But God sees sin as rebellion. It is a rejection of His Word, His ways, and His divine will for mankind. That is why Paul describes it as ungodliness and unrighteousness. Sin is ultimately anti-God and anti-righteousness. It is the anthesis of all things having to do with God. It stands in direct opposition to the very essence of God.

Paul paints a bleak picture of man’s rebellious condition, revealing that sin has serious consequences.

…since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. – Romans 1:28-32 ESV

Notice those three simple words in the middle of the preceding paragraph: Haters of God. Ultimately, sin is an expression of hate for the Almighty. And that hatred results in godless actions and attitudes, each of which is a proof of man’s rejection of God. These outward displays are God-directed, but also self-destructive. Sin does irreparable damage to the individual, a family, a community, the nation, and the world. And that is not something a holy God can or will tolerate. But more on this in tomorrow’s post.

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 Relentlessly Loving God

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 ESV

9 God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 1 John 4:9 NLT

3 “I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love.
    With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.”
– Jeremiah 31:3 NLT

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song – Frederick M. Lehman, The Love of God, 1917

God doesn’t just express love, He is love. It is His very nature. Love is not some feeling or outward expression that he conjures up in response to something or someone that is lovely or loveable. No, what sets God apart from humanity is His lovingness (if that is even a word).

God is the very definition of love. And all His other attributes are infused and closely intertwined with His love. His power is always displayed in love. And His love never lacks the strength or energy to express itself. God’s holiness is directly linked to His love. Without love, His holiness or set-apartness could make God unapproachable and unknowable. But because God is love, He has made Himself available to and knowable by mankind.

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse… – Romans 1:20 NLT

Luke supports Paul’s conclusion when he writes that God “did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17 ESV). And he goes on to describe how God, the all-powerful creator of the universe, has lovingly and graciously made Himself known to mankind.

From one man He made every nation of men, to inhabit the whole earth; and He determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.

God intended that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. – Acts 17:26-27 BSB

God desires that men might know Him. Why? Because it is through a knowledge of God that men recognize His love for them. It is the love of this all-powerful, holy, and transcendent God that caused Him to send His Son as the payment for mankind’s sin.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

Jesus, the Son of God, was the greatest expression of His Father’s love, having taken on human flesh and come to earth that He might be Immanuel – God with us.

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. – John 1:18 NLT

Jesus even made the bold claim, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9 NLT). God’s love was manifested or made visible through the birth, death, and resurrection of His Son.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. – Ephesians 1:4 NLT

Love is invisible to the human eye, but that doesn’t mean it is unperceivable. And while God Himself cannot be seen, His love can be experienced and appreciated. It can be felt, enjoyed, relished, and returned. When we understand just how much God loves us, it creates in us a desire to love Him in return.

This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. – 1 John 4:10 NLT

And it is when we understand that the God of the universe loves us that we are able to express love to the rest of humanity, whom He has made.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 ESV

But our love will always pale in comparison to that of God. His love is infinite and holy, while ours is limited and marred by selfishness and self-centeredness. We tend to love, expecting love in return. Ours is a conditional kind of love, while His is unconditional, demanding nothing from us in return.

No tongue can fully express the infinitude of God’s love, or any mind comprehend it: it “passeth knowledge” (Eph 3:19). The most extensive ideas that a finite mind can frame about divine love, are infinitely below its true nature. The heaven is not so far above the earth as the goodness of God is beyond the most raised conceptions which we are able to form of it. It is an ocean which swells higher than all the mountains of opposition in such as are the objects of it. It is a fountain from which flows all necessary good to all those who are interested in it. – John Brine, 1743

What makes God’s love so remarkable is that He showered it on us in spite of us. He didn’t demand that we get our spiritual act together. He didn’t require that we stop sinning and start living righteous lives before He would love us. No, according to the apostle Paul, God loved us while we were mired in the midst of our sinfulness and rebellion against Him.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:6-8 NLT

We have a difficult time relating to that kind of love because we tend to love the lovely and loveable. We put conditions on our love. And we demand that those we love show us love in return. But, fortunately for mankind, that is not how God operates. God’s love is a purely holy love. “God’s love is not regulated by caprice, passion, or sentiment, but by principle. Just as His grace reigns not at the expense of it, but “through righteousness” (Rom 5:21), so His love never conflicts with His holiness” (A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God).

God’s love is always sacrificial and constantly beneficial. And while it may sometimes take the form of tough love, it always results in our good. As the proverbs states, “the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 NLT). His love is never smothering or manipulative. It is not a controlling kind of love. At no time does God preface His love with the thought, “What am I going to get out of this?”

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul lists the qualities associated with godly love. “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT).

That is the love of God spelled out in terms we can understand and even emulate. But unlike God, we are incapable of expressing this kind of love perfectly and selflessly this side of heaven.  Yet, as we grow to understand the incredible nature of His divine love for us, we can better appreciate how undeserving we are and turn that unmerited affection into tangible expressions of love for others.

God loves you. How much? He sent His Son to die for you. And there are not enough words in the human vocabulary or days on the calendar to fully describe just how great His love truly is. Frederick M. Lehman put it so eloquently in his great old hymn, The Love of God.

Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky

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 Amazingly Merciful God

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
– Lamentations 3:22-24 ESV

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Chris Ephesians 2:-45 ESV

15 But you, O Lord,
    are a God of compassion and mercy,
slow to get angry
    and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. – Psalm 86:15 NLT

19 The Lord replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. – Exodus 33:19 NLT

The mercy of God. To adequately understand this remarkable attribute of God, one must also dive into the depths of His goodness. Notice the Exodus passage above. Moses had just made a rather bold request of God: “show me your glorious presence” (Exodus 33:18 NLT). And in response, God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33:19 NLT). The Hebrew word translated as “goodness” is tuwb, and it can refer to “that which is good, or the best of anything” (Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon). God’s goodness and mercy go hand in hand. It was David who wrote of God, describing Him as the Great Shepherd. And David reveled in the inseparable and indispensable nature of God’s goodness and mercy.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. – Psalm 23:6 ESV

According to Thomas Watson, “Mercy is the result and effect of God’s goodness.” Without the inherent goodness of God, mercy would be unavailable to us. But the psalmist displayed his understanding of and appreciation for the goodness of God when he wrote, “You are good and do only good” (Psalm 119:68 NLT). God’s goodness shows up in the form of mercy.

Think back on that somewhat arrogant request Moses made of God. He asked to see God’s glory. In other words, He wanted to see God face to face. He had heard the voice of God, but now he wanted to see Him. But notice what God said to Moses:

“…you may not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live.” The Lord continued, “Look, stand near me on this rock. As my glorious presence passes by, I will hide you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and let you see me from behind. But my face will not be seen.” – Exodus 33:20-23 NLT

God was going to allow Moses the unique privilege of seeing His glory and goodness, but to do so, God would have to be merciful. The glory of God is so great that one glimpse of His face would have destroyed Moses. Sinful men cannot stand in the presence of a holy God and live to talk about it. .So, when God appeared before Moses that day, He allowed His servant to see His glory and goodness but only by displaying His mercy at the same time.

Moses was undeserving of the privilege of seeing God’s glory. Yes, he was the servant of God, but he was also a man stained by the presence of sin. And he was ignorant of the magnitude of his request. He had no idea what he was asking. But God did. And in His goodness, God showed Moses mercy. In fact, God clearly stated, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose” (Exodus 33:19 NLT). And He explained to Moses just how He would do so. “I will hide you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:22 NLT). God promised to protect a sinful man from the unavoidable outcome of standing in the glorious presence of unblemished, fully righteous holiness.

There was another man who was provided the privilege of seeing God in all His glory. It was the prophet Isaiah who was given a glimpse into the throne room of God. And immediately after that experience, rather than boasting about his good fortune, Isaiah displayed an abject sense of fear.

“It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” – Isaiah 6:5 NLT

The mercy of God is not to be taken lightly. That the all-glorious God would deem to show mercy and kindness to undeserving humanity should blow us away. It should leave us stunned. And yet, far too many of us treat God’s mercy with an attitude of flippancy and over-familiarity. We have somehow convinced ourselves that we deserve God’s mercy. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

It is not the wretchedness of the creature which causes Him to show mercy, for God is not influenced by things outside of Himself as we are. If God were influenced by the abject misery of leprous sinners, He would cleanse and save all of them. But He does not. Why? Simply because it is not His pleasure and purpose so to do. Still less is it the merits of the creatures which causes Him to bestow mercies upon them, for it is a contradiction in terms to speak of meriting “mercy.” – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God

Mercy is not something we earn. It is not dispensed by God based on the merit or worthiness of the recipient. It is solely the divine prerogative of God to show mercy upon whomever He chooses to do so. Moses did not deserve to see God’s glory. No, he deserved to come under God’s judgment. He was a sinner, condemned, and unclean, just like all the other Israelites.

It reminds me of the lyrics from the old hymn: I Stand Amazed.

I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene
And wonder how He could love me
A sinner, condemned, unclean

The mercy of God should leave us in a state of awe and amazement. Which brings to mind the lyrics of another, even more familiar hymn.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see

What makes God’s mercy so amazing is that He displays it in spite of man’s sinfulness. The apostle Paul reminds us that God displayed His love for us by sending His Son to die for us. We didn’t deserve it. We had done nothing to earn it.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

God didn’t have to show mercy, but He did. And what makes this fact so difficult to comprehend and even harder to appreciate is that He did so in the face of mankind’s rebellion against Him. The apostle Paul describes just how bad things were when God made the decision to extend mercy.

“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.”
“Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave.
    Their tongues are filled with lies.”
“Snake venom drips from their lips.”
   “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“They rush to commit murder.
   Destruction and misery always follow them.
They don’t know where to find peace.”
   “They have no fear of God at all.”  – Romans 3:10-18 NLT

All men deserve to experience God’s righteous wrath, the outpouring of His just judgment for their rejection of Him. Paul goes on to say, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). But then he adds that unbelievable addendum. “Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins” (Romans 3:24 NLT).

God showed mercy, and mercy is the withholding of a just condemnation. All have sinned. All have rejected and rebelled against God. And all deserve to experience the wrath of God. But “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 4:4-5 ESV). Paul expanded on this amazing news when he wrote to his young protége, Titus.

…he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. – Titus 3:5 NLT

Our God is amazingly merciful. And His mercies are new every morning. But how easy it is for us to take His mercy for granted or to view His mercy as somehow deserved. But the Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, would have us remember:

God’s mercy is free. To set up merit is to destroy mercy. Nothing can deserve mercy, because we are polluted in our blood; nor force it. We may force God to punish us, but not to love us. I will love them freely.’ Hos 14:4. Every link in the chain of salvation is wrought and interwoven with free grace. Election is free. He has chosen us in him, according to the good pleasure of his will.’ Eph 1:1. Justification is free. Being justified freely by his grace.’ Rom 3:34. Salvation is free. According to his mercy he saved us.’ Titus 3:3. Say not then, I am unworthy; for mercy is free. If God should show mercy to such only as are worthy, he would show none at all.

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 Good God

19 No one is good except God alone.– Luke 18:19 ESV

For the Lord is good.
    His unfailing love continues forever,
    and his faithfulness continues to each generation. Psalm 100:5 NLT

68 You are good and do only good;
    teach me your decrees.
– Psalm 119:68 NLT

6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. – Psalm 23:6 LT

The goodness of God. It’s not a topic most of us find familiar or easy to describe. But it is an essential aspect of God’s character that we tend to give less attention to because of His more impressive-sounding attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. In our English vernacular, the word “good” sounds a bit underachieving – as in “good, better, best.” Good sounds like you’re settling for less than the ideal.

But when the psalmist chose to describe God as “good,” he used the Hebrew word towb. Like many other Hebrew words, this one is rich in meaning. It can refer to something that is excellent or the best of the best. It was commonly used to refer to the moral excellence of a person or thing. And it was often used as an antonym for evil (ra’). God is totally and completely good, having no semblance of evil in His character. John described Him this way: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV).

So, the statement “God is good” speaks of His moral excellence and His complete lack of evil. He is fully righteous, holy, and just in all His ways. Or as David put it, “The LORD is righteous in everything he does; he is filled with kindness” (Psalm 145:17 NLT). To say that God is good means that God always acts in accordance with what is right, true, and good.

God’s way is perfect.
    All the Lord’s promises prove true. – Psalm 18:30 NLT

Everything about God is good. All of His actions are motivated and empowered by His goodness. Unlike man, God does not have to work at being good. At no time can God be accused of doing anything “bad” and, therefore, He requires no one to demand that He “be good.” We may not like what God does, but as fallen creatures, we have no right to question His motives or methods.

He is originally good, good of Himself, which nothing else is; for all creatures are good only by participation and communication from God. He is essentially good; not only good, but goodness itself: the creature’s good is a super-added quality, in God it is His essence. He is infinitely good; the creature’s good is but a drop, but in God there in an infinite ocean or gathering together of good. He is eternally and immutably good, for He cannot be less good than He is; as there can be no addition made to Him, so no subtraction from Him. – Thomas Manton

God’s inherent goodness is essential to who He is. Consider what it would be like to worship an all-powerful deity who lacked the attribute of goodness. In ancient times, this was exactly the situation in which many pagan nations found themselves. Their gods were powerful, vengeful. They were mighty, but lacking in mercy. They were great, but not good. Power, devoid of goodness, results in despotism.

The power and goodness of God go hand in hand. It is His goodness that allows us to rest in His strength, knowing that He will never use it in a way that is unjust or unrighteous. Again, we may not always like what He does, but knowledge of His goodness provides us with the assurance that His actions are always right and righteous. While we may not understand His ways, we can trust that His goodness permeates all that He does. There is never a moment when God’s actions are tainted by evil. His intentions and conduct are always good, all the time.

To put it simply, evil is the absence of goodness. It is whatever God is not. When we sin, we are acting in opposition to and in rebellion against the expressed will of God. We are willingly choosing to commit wickedness rather than goodness. Which is exactly what Adam and Eve did in the garden.

When God completed each phase of His creation of the universe, He stated, “It is good.” But when He had made man and woman, He “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31 ESV). Why? Because He “created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 ESV). They were the apex of His creative order, designed to be suma cum laude, of highest distinction and worth.

And this man and woman enjoyed the goodness of God, as evident in the rest of His creation. They had access to the beauty of the garden. They could satisfy their hunger by eating fruit from any of the trees God had provided (except one). And they could enjoy unbroken fellowship with the one who had made them. But then, sin entered the equation. The evil one tempted them to reject God’s goodness, convincing them that his way was better than God’s. He lied, deceiving them into believing God was holding back on them. He painted God as a cosmic killjoy, withholding from them something they desired and deserved. And to convince Adam and Eve to take the bait, he contradicted the very words of God.

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 NLT

Don’t miss that last line. He promised them the capacity to know both “good and evil” – towb and ra’. Up until that point, they had enjoyed only the former, the goodness of God as evidenced by His “good” creation. What Satan was promising them was knowledge of the absence of God. They were about to find out what it was like to live in opposition to and separation from God. After having eaten of the forbidden fruit, “the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Genesis 3:8 ESV). And it was just a matter of time before “the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden, he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24-25 ESV).

The goodness of God is the key to life. Sin separates man from God, eliminating access to His presence and resulting in an absence of His goodness. And just a few chapters later in the book of Genesis, we see the sad, but inevitable outcome of a life lived apart from the goodness of God.

The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:5 NLT

But we can’t blame God for man’s sorry state. His goodness is not diminished just because man’s wickedness flourished. A. W. Pink warns us not to describe the presence of evil as a deficiency in God’s goodness.

Nor can the benevolence of God be justly called into question because there is suffering and sorrow in the world. If man sins against the goodness of God, if he despises “the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering,” and after the hardness and impenitence of his heart treasurest up unto himself wrath against the day of wrath (Rom 2:4,5), who is to blame but himself? Would God be “good” if He punished not those who ill-use His blessings, abuse His benevolence, and trample His mercies beneath their feet? It will be no reflection upon God’s goodness, but rather the brightest exemplification of it, when He shall rid the earth of those who have broken His laws, defied His authority, mocked His messengers, scorned His Son, and persecuted those for whom He died. – A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God

The truly amazing thing about God’s goodness is that He did not choose to abandon mankind altogether. It is His goodness, exhibited by His boundless grace and mercy, that explains our continued existence. We do not deserve to here. We have done nothing to earn His favor or to avoid His righteous anger against our sin and open rebellion to Him. Like Adam and Eve, all of us have chosen to listen to the lies of the enemy and yet, God has “overlooked people’s ignorance about these things, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him” (Acts 17:30 NLT).

The apostle Paul reminds us that God is good, but man is evil.

“None is righteous, no, not one;
   no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
   “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
   in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
   “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Romans 3:10-18 NLT

But man’s badness is counterbalanced by God’s goodness.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26 ESV

God’s goodness included His plan to send His Son as the payment for mankind’s sin. That is why He was able to put up with man’s rebellion for so long. He knew what was coming. His good and gracious sovereign plan had always included the sacrifice of His Son so that mankind might once again experience His goodness. And the proper response to His goodness is gratefulness.

Gratitude is the return justly required from the objects of His beneficence. – A. W. Pink, The Attributes 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

Our Forever-Faithful God

9 Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations. – Deuteronomy 7:9 ESV

13 If we are unfaithful,
    he remains faithful,
    for he cannot deny who he is.
2 Timothy 3:13 NLT

22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning. – Lamentations 3:22-23 NLT

Reliable, steadfast, dependable, and trustworthy. Those are just a few of the many words that come to mind when we think of faithfulness. And yet, for many of us, we find it difficult to think of an individual who models faithfulness – faithfully. We all have our moments of faithfulness, but they can tend to be shortlived or interspersed with displays of unexpected and even unintended actions that portray us as untrustworthy and unreliable.

Human beings are flawed creatures who must battle daily with the very real effects of sin. We want to be faithful, but too often we find ourselves lacking the inner resolve to stay true to our word, devoted to our relationships, and consistent in our character.

But then there’s God. He is forever faithful. It is not an optional outcome or outward display of character that God has chosen to manifest. It is the essence of who He is. He is faithful, and he cannot choose to be otherwise. Faithfulness is not an option for God. It exudes from every pore of His being. The psalmist understood the all-encompassing, non-negotiable nature of God’s faithfulness.

O Lord God of hosts,
    who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
    with your faithfulness all around you? – Psalm 89:8 ESV

A. W. Pink described God’s faithfulness as “one of the glorious perfections of His being. He is as it were clothed with it” (A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God). Like all His other attributes, God’s faithfulness is an inner quality that manifests itself in visible, tangible ways. Displays of His faithfulness are all around us.

For the Lord is a great God,
    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
    the heights of the mountains are his also. – Psalm 95:3-4 ESV

Here, the psalmist is emphasizing God’s power, His ability to create and control the universe. But this passage also speaks of God’s faithfulness. Should he ever stop holding the depths of the earth and the heights of the mountains in His hands, the world would cease to exist. God boldly proclaims, “It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order” (Isaiah 48:13 NLT). And He faithfully maintains all that He has made. After God had brought devastation upon the earth through the flood, He promised Noah: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22 ESV).

Then what do we do with a passage like 2 Peter 3:10? In it, Peter seems to paint a different picture of God’s faithfulness, describing a future day when God will destroy the heavens and the earth with fire.

But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment.

This raises another aspect of God’s faithfulness. He is true to His word. What always does what He says He will do. When God makes a promise, He keeps it. He never fails to follow through with His commitments. His faithfulness extends to the very words that come from His lips.

God is not a man, so he does not lie.
    He is not human, so he does not change his mind.
Has he ever spoken and failed to act?
    Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

According to the author of Hebrews, “God has said, ‘I will never fail you. I will never abandon you’’” (Hebrews 13:5 NLT). And he didn’t dream up this reassuring aspect of God’s faithfulness. Centuries earlier, Moses had told the people of Israel: “the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you” (Deuteronomy 31:6 NLT). Years later, God would assure Joshua, “I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you” (Joshua 1:5 NLT). And God was good for His word. He did what He said He would do.

But God’s faithfulness to keep His word also includes His warnings of judgment for sin and discipline for disobedience.

“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 48:13 NLT

“I correct and discipline everyone I love.” – Revelation 3:19 NLT

God is faithful, even when it comes to fulfilling His promises and following through with His warnings. He does not make idle threats. To do so would make Him a liar. To fail to keep His promises would make Him unreliable and unworthy of adoration and praise. Unfaithfulness would render God unholy. An unreliable, untrustworthy God would be no God at all. But our God is fully and completely faithful – all the time.

Everything about God is great, vast, incomparable. He never forgets, never fails, never falters, never forfeits His word. To every declaration of promise or prophecy the Lord has exactly adhered, every engagement of covenant or threatening He will make good… – A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God

Faithfulness requires consistency and constancy. To be truly faithful requires an absence of fickleness or capriciousness. Humans have difficulty remaining faithful because they are easily distracted and find their commitments blown about like leaves in the wind. Lack of follow-through, unreliability, and broken promises plague mankind. Trust is in short supply because trustworthy people seem to be few and far between.

But God can always be relied upon. He is constantly consistent in every way. He is always loving, always just, always righteous, always holy, and always faithful. No one who has ever placed their trust in God has been let down or disappointed with the results. That doesn’t mean to say they always liked the results they got. David trusted God’s promise that he would be the next king of Israel, but then he spent the next years of his life living like a fugitive, trying to escape King Saul’s relentless pursuit. When God commanded Moses to lead the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and into the land of promise, he believed and obeyed. And yet, Moses never set foot in the land of Canaan.

God’s faithfulness is not intended to be a warm and fuzzy, feel-good attribute that assures us that life will be problem-free and happiness-filled. The doctrine of God’s faithfulness is meant to preserve us in those moments when all looks lost and He seems distant. There will be times when the presence of God is difficult to comprehend. It will appear as if He has vacated the premises. It will feel as if He has abandoned us.

There are seasons in the lives of all when it is not easy, no not even for Christians, to believe that God is faithful. Our faith is sorely tried, our eyes be dimmed with tears, and we can no longer trace the outworkings of His love. Our ears are distracted with the noises of the world, harassed by the atheistic whisperings of Satan, and we can no longer hear the sweet accents of His still small voice. Cherished plans have been thwarted, friends on whom we relied have failed us, a professed brother or sister in Christ has betrayed us. We are staggered. We sought to be faithful to God, and now a dark cloud hides Him from us. We find it difficult, yea, impossible, for carnal reason to harmonize His frowning providence with His gracious promises. – A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God

But the truth of God’s faithfulness should bolster us during those moments of doubt and fear. He has not left us. He has not forsaken us. His love for us is not diminished. His strength to save has not decreased. His capacity to care for and comfort us in our time of need remains unchanged. And Isaiah would have us keep God’s faithfulness in mind when the darkness surrounds us and doubt begins to overwhelm us.

If you are walking in darkness,
    without a ray of light,
trust in the Lord
    and rely on your God. – Isaiah 50:10 NLT

And God would remind us we are never to judge Him based on our circumstances. It should always be the other way around. The presence of problems is not proof of the absence of God. Our feelings of having been abandoned by God may be real, but they are never true. In those moments, we are operating at a disadvantage. We cannot see what God sees. We do not know what He knows.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV

The apostle Paul reiterates the amazing nature of God’s unsurpassed wisdom so that we might find comfort even in the darkest, most difficult to understand moments of life.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 NLT

God is faithful. He is forever faithful. And while we might not understand His ways or like His means, we can trust that God will prove trustworthy and faithful in all His interactions with us.

So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you. – 1 Peter 4:19 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

Our Wholly Holy God

4 Who will not fear, O Lord,
    and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
– Revelation 15:4 ESV

11 “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
    Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
    awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? Exodus 15:11 ESV

13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong… – Habakuk 1:13 ESV

God is holy. In fact, the seraphim who surround God’s throne describe Him as holy, holy, holy. The prophet Isaiah was given a glimpse of that heavenly scene and he provides us with a vivid description of what he saw.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!” – Isaiah 6:1-3 ESV

The apostle John was also given an opportunity to peek behind the heavenly curtain and see the throne room of God. And his description is very similar to that of Isaiah.

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!” – Revelation 4:8 ESV

These heavenly creatures weren’t content using one “holy” to describe God. They made sure to use the word three times and to do so without ceasing, day and night. This three-fold repetition is called a trihagion, and it was a common literary and linguistic tool used by the Hebrews to provide emphasis and force to a statement. It was like saying, “God is super holy.” Or “He is holier than holy.”

But what does it mean to say that God is holy? We’re familiar with the word, but do we fully understand the significance of what it says about God? In some ways, the word holy has become overly familiar to us. And yet, biblically, holiness is considered one of the primary and self-defining attributes of God. Tony Evans defines God’s holiness as “His intrinsic and transcendent purity; His standard of righteousness to which the whole universe must conform” (Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On).

The Hebrew word that is used most often to describe God’s holy nature is qodesh. It means “set-apartness” or “separateness.” God is unique and without equal. But it’s not just that God is one-of-a-kind. As Tony Evans points out, God’s holiness is tied to His purity. So, it’s not enough to say that God is different. What makes Him different is that He is holy – thoroughly righteous, without sin, and intrinsically pure in every way. He is The Holy One. As A. W. Pink puts it, “He is so because the sum of all moral excellency is found in Him. He is absolute Purity, unsullied even by the shadow of sin” (A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God).

But there is more to God’s holiness than His moral perfection. When the seraphim shout “holy, holy, holy” they are declaring far more than just His sinlessness. And they are not simply stating His separateness. There is no doubt that God stands alone, having no equal and being incapable of duplication or emulation. Man may have been created in God’s image, but that doesn’t make man a god. God remains set-apart and distinctly different from all that He has made. Which means He is transcendent.

When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness. The word is used to describe God’s relationship to the world. He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. He is an infinite cut above everything else. – R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God

To consider and treat God as holy is to revere Him for who He is. It is to acknowledge His infinite greatness and incomparable otherness. “God’s holiness unlocks the door to understanding and making sense out of everything else about Him. This attribute infiltrates all the other attributes” (Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On).

To treat God as holy is to recognize and revere His otherness – His set-apartness. It is to lift up and celebrate His extraordinariness. But if, in our attitudes and actions towards Him, we give the impression that He is ordinary in any way, we profane His character and defame His holy name.

When God consecrated Aaron and his sons to serve as priests before Him, He commanded them “to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10 ESV). Later on, God would give a similar command to the Levitical priests: “They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Ezekiel 44:23 ESV). They were to teach the people about what God meant by holiness or set-apartness. The tabernacle was to be considered holy. The sabbath was to treated as holy. They were to be a holy nation. God had set them apart for His service. They belonged to Him. And their lives were to reflect their unique status as His chosen people.

But back to God and His holiness. Unlike the tabernacle or the sabbath, God has not been set apart by someone else. He simply is set apart. He didn’t have to be consecrated, He always has been. God stands completely apart from the rest of the created order. Whether we are talking about angels or atoms, planets or people, there is nothing and no one who compares with God.

That is why it is why considering God as common or ordinary is one of the greatest sins a human can commit. Even worse yet is the audacity to treat God as non-existent. The great King David described the idiocy of discounting the existence of God.

Only fools say in their hearts,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
    not one of them does good!

The Lord looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 14:1-3 NLT

How stupid can you be? And yet, we all have moments in our lives when we act as if God does not exist. We fail to acknowledge Him. We refuse to turn to Him. Rather than go to Him for strength, help, and hope, we ignore Him, relying on our own power, or placing our trust in someone or something else. God becomes a second- or third-tier option on our list of saviors, just another common and pedestrian source of potential rescue.

During the period of the judges, God got fed up with Israel’s propensity to treat Him as ordinary rather than extraordinary. They had treated Him with disdain, acting as if He was no more set-apart and holy as all the gods of the Canaanites. So, when they found themselves in trouble and called out to Him, He decided to refuse their cries for help.

“Yet you have abandoned me and served other gods. So I will not rescue you anymore. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen! Let them rescue you in your hour of distress!” – Judges 10;13-14 NLT

If they weren’t willing to treat God as extraordinary and holy, they could seek help from one of their many false gods. Yahweh was not willing to play second fiddle to some pagan deity. And He wasn’t going to allow His people to treat Him as some ordinary, run-of-the-mill God. He was God Almighty, the Holy One.

When Isaiah was given the privilege of seeing the throne room of heaven and catching a glimpse of the seraphim pronouncing the holiness of God, he was awestruck and filled with fear. He was seeing the unimaginable and incomprehensible.  He describes the impact this vision had on him.

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” – Isaiah 6:4-5 ESV

Witnessing the holiness of God was too much for him. In the presence of the all-powerful, perfectly pure God of the universe, Isaiah was immediately struck with his own sin and insignificance. He was nothing when compared to God, the Holy One. In the presence of unblemished purity, Isaiah recognized his own sinful state and his unworthiness to stand before the throne of God. But, amazingly, the Holy God did a wholly unexpected thing.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” – Isaiah 6:5-7 ESV

The holy and wholly righteous God of the universe graciously atoned for Isaiah ’s sins, setting him apart for His own use. And when God asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”, Isaiah responded, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8 ESV). And the Holy One simply said, “Go!”

Understanding God’s holiness is essential to our own usefulness. Until we fall on our knees before Him in awe of His holiness and in recognition of our own sinfulness, we will never be awed by His amazing grace. That the set-apart One would set us apart for His use should leave us stunned and yet stammering the words of Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me.”

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

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

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

God’s Godless People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

I Will…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

A New Role Model

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:1-12 ESV

Christ-and-the-pharisees_by-Ernst-Zimmerman.jpegJesus had left the Pharisees speechless. Matthew records that, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46 ESV). They had come with their questions, designed to trip Jesus up and expose Him to. the people as a fraud and a fake. But Jesus had turned the tables on them, asking them a question of His own and exposing their ignorance of the Scriptures they revered and their blindness to the reality of His position as their Messiah.

These men were part of the spiritual leadership of Israel. They were revered and looked up to by the people. They, along with the Sadducees and scribes, were experts in the law of Moses. And yet, Jesus revealed that their knowledge of the Scriptures was insufficient and incomplete. In fact, in John’s gospel, we have recorded these powerful words of Jesus, pointing out their obsession with the written word of God, but their stubborn refusal to accept the incarnate Word of God who came that they might have life.

“You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” – John 5:39-40 BSB

Immediately after His latest and last confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus turned to those around Him and delivered a blistering attack on these very same men. Chapter 23 of Matthew contains some of the harshest words found in the Scriptures. In it, we find Jesus unloading on the Pharisees in a rather uncharacteristic way. But this was NOT a personal attack. He was dealing with those who had become roadblocks to the Kingdom. By rejecting Him, they were rejecting the rule and reign of God Himself. These men were supposed to be pointing people to God but were actually doing just the opposite.

Earlier in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of working for and by the power of Satan. But He had responded to their accusation by saying, “Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven – except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:30-31 NLT).

The religious leaders had positioned themselves against Jesus and therefore, against God. They were denying the work of God as manifested by the power of God (the Holy Spirit), and attributing it all to Satan. So, in this particular teaching moment, Jesus pronounced a series of warnings or “woes” against the religious leaders of Israel. But rather than direct His attack at the source of the problem, Jesus chose to speak to those who were the unsuspecting victims of the Pharisees’ influence.

All of the warnings found in this passage would have come as a shock to the average Jew because they looked up to and admired the religious leaders as icons of virtue and the keepers of religious law. But Jesus gives His audience a few pieces of advice regarding these men.

 1. Don’t follow their lead

The Pharisees had set themselves up as the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. They were the “experts.” But God had not appointed them as such. They were a man-made organization, and their name was derived from an Aramaic word that means “separated.” They were separatists and saw themselves as the true keepers of the law of Moses. And they certainly knew the law, which is why Jesus told the people to listen to and obey what the Pharisees said concerning the law.

“So practice and obey whatever they tell you…” – Matthew 23:3a NLT

But notice what Jesus said next:

“…but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.” – Matthew 23:3b NLT

In other words, don’t do as they do. As long as they are talking about the content of the Law, listen. But when it came to behavior based on the Law, the people were not to use them as a model.

2. Don’t do what they do

Jesus made it painfully clear. These men were nothing but hypocrites. The Greek word Jesus used was a term commonly used to refer to actors in the popular Greek plays of the day. The actors would commonly play multiple roles and simply don a different mask to assume a new character. Since most of the performers were male, they would even be required to play any female roles written into the play. So, the word hypocrite made its way into the common vernacular to refer to anyone who was a “mask-wearer.” They were performing a role and were not what they appeared to be.

And Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were nothing but play-actors, for whom everything was about appearances. They had perfected the art of performance. This is why Jesus warned, “Everything they do is for show” (Matthew 23:5 NLT).

3. Don’t love what they love

These men loved recognition and being noticed for their “spirituality.” In fact, they were addicted to being the center of attention. It showed up in their obsession with titles. They enjoyed being called “rabbi” or “teacher.” They took great pride in being recognized for their knowledge and expertise. Not only that, they saw their superior intellect and spiritual elitism as deserving of the peoples’ praise. They expected to be served and had no desire or inclination to serve others. They loved themselves more than they loved God and viewed others as inferiors. In essence, these men were religious exhibitionists! They were little more than performance artists who had perfected the art of impressing others. But they failed to impress God and His Son.

4. Have a higher standard

Jesus seems to have focused His attention directly on His disciples when He said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8 ESV). He didn’t want His followers to be obsessed with titles. He didn’t want them seeking the praise of men. They were to be brothers. Their role in the Kingdom of God was not to be about rank and privilege or power and position. In fact, their whole perspective was to change, as they recognized the heavenly nature of their new relationship with God.

“…call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven…” – Matthew 23:9 ESV

And they were not to seek the title of “teacher” or “instructor.” In other words, they were not to covet the role of the expert as the Pharisees had.

“Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ…” – Matthew 23:10 ESV

Contrary to what the Pharisees believed, Jesus was to be the disciples’ sole instructor in the things of God. The word Jesus used is kathēgētēs and it means, “master, guide, or instructor.” The Messiah was to be their source of all wisdom. Even the written word of God points to the incarnate Word of God. To become an expert in the Scriptures, but fail to obey the One of whom the Scriptures speak, would be futile and, ultimately, folly.

Finally, Jesus reminded His disciples of their need to live lives of servitude, not significance.

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 ESV

Their lives were to mirror His own, not those of the Pharisees. This was not new information to the disciples. Jesus had already told them, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). They were to model their lives after His. And in just a matter of days, they would stand by and watch as their rabbi, teacher, friend, and Messiah practiced what He preached. They would see Him betrayed, unjustly tried, brutally beaten, wrongly accused, and violently crucified. All so that they might have eternal life. Jesus was anything but a play-actor. He was far from a hypocrite. He would prove to be the way, the truth, and the life. And the role model for every Christ-follower.

And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus is to be our example, setting for us a higher and more holy standard for life and godliness.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 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.

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