The King Has Left the Building

He has laid waste his booth like a garden,
    laid in ruins his meeting place;
the Lord has made Zion forget
    festival and Sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest.

The Lord has scorned his altar,
    disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
    the walls of her palaces;
they raised a clamor in the house of the Lord
    as on the day of festival.

The Lord determined to lay in ruins
    the wall of the daughter of Zion;
he stretched out the measuring line;
    he did not restrain his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
    they languished together.

Her gates have sunk into the ground;
    he has ruined and broken her bars;
her king and princes are among the nations;
    the law is no more,
and her prophets find
    no vision from the Lord. – Lamentations 2:6-9 ESV

The city of Jerusalem had been reduced to a heap of rubble. Its gates had been burned and torn from their hinges. Every home in the city had been looted and destroyed, including the king’s royal palace. The streets lay deserted because the majority of the city’s inhabitants were now living in exile in Babylon. Those who had been left behind, the poorest of the poor, had been relegated to serving as vinedressers and plowmen for their Babylonian overlords.

But for the people of Judah, the greatest loss, and the one they had the most difficult time processing, was the destruction of the temple. They never expected to see that happen. After all, it was God’s house, the place where His divine presence hovered over the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. How could God allow His dwelling place to be destroyed by the Babylonians?  And yet, that is exactly what had happened. The book of 2 Kings provides a description of its destruction.

Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard and an official of the Babylonian king, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. – 2 Kings 25:8-9 NLT

But before they destroyed the temple, they pillaged it and plundered every ounce of gold, all precious gems, every bolt of fine fabric, and every holy object that had been consecrated to the service of God.

The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars in front of the Lord’s Temple, the bronze water carts, and the great bronze basin called the Sea, and they carried all the bronze away to Babylon. They also took all the ash buckets, shovels, lamp snuffers, ladles, and all the other bronze articles used for making sacrifices at the Temple. The captain of the guard also took the incense burners and basins, and all the other articles made of pure gold or silver. – 2 Kings 25:13-15 NLT

The value of their haul was incalculable, both financially and spiritually.

The weight of the bronze from the two pillars, the Sea, and the water carts was too great to be measured. These things had been made for the Lord’s Temple in the days of Solomon. – 2 Kings 25:16 NLT

But the Babylonians had not been content to ransack and loot the temple. They had summarily executed Seraiah the chief priest, Zephaniah the second priest, and the three keepers of the threshold.

Now, you can begin to understand the significance of the statement, “The Lord has blotted out all memory of the holy festivals and Sabbath days” (Lamentations 2:6 NLT). As horrific as the destruction of the temple may have been, the real loss suffered by the people of Judah was of far greater significance. It was about far more than the destruction of a building. It was about the elimination of the entire sacrificial system that God had ordained.

Consider closely the full import of the following verse.

They also took all the ash buckets, shovels, lamp snuffers, ladles, and all the other bronze articles used for making sacrifices at the Temple. – 2 Kings 25:14 NLT

Everything necessary for atonement had been destroyed or removed, leaving the people of Judah to face the stark and inconceivable reality that the guilt of their sins was permanent and unabsolvable. They no longer had any means of offering sacrifices to God and, therefore, no hope of receiving forgiveness for their sins. This would have been inconceivable to the people of Judah. They were the chosen people of God. He had promised to be with them forever. In fact, when Solomon had dedicated the temple, God had promised to make it His permanent dwelling place.

“I have heard your prayer and your petition. I have set this Temple apart to be holy—this place you have built where my name will be honored forever. I will always watch over it, for it is dear to my heart. – 1 Kings 9:3 NLT

But God had also warned Solomon that this promise came with conditions.

“But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations.” – 1 Kings 9:6-7 NLT

And when people ask, “Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?” (1 Kings 9:8 NLT), the answer would be simple and clear.

“Because his people abandoned the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshiped other gods instead and bowed down to them.” – 1 Kings 9:9 NLT

But the perspective of the people of Judah who found themselves suffering the aftermath of God’s judgment was quite different. Rather than admit their own guilt and culpability, they accused God of rejecting and despising His own temple.

The Lord has rejected his own altar;
    he despises his own sanctuary.
He has given Jerusalem’s palaces
    to her enemies.
They shout in the Lord’s Temple
    as though it were a day of celebration. – Lamentations 2:7 NLT

According to their misguided and misinformed logic, God’s anger had been directed against the temple and the city, not against them. In their minds, the temple had become the symbol of God‘s presence. They had turned it into a kind of talisman or good luck charm that guaranteed their security and safety, regardless of their behavior. They could sin and then make their way to the temple, offer their obligatory sacrifices, and walk away with their spiritual slate wiped clean.

But God had repeatedly reminded the Israelites that sacrifice alone was not enough. He was looking for repentant hearts. They had been guilty of simply going through the motions, offering sacrifices to stave off punishment, but without any intention of changing their ways.

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
    says the Lord.
“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fattened cattle.
I get no pleasure from the blood
    of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to worship me,
    who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
    and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false. – Isaiah 1:11-13 NLT

It was King David who wrote the following words after his sin with Bathsheba had been exposed by God.

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
    You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
    You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT

And yet, the people of Judah remained unbroken in spirit and unrepentant of heart. They mourned the loss of their city and grieved over the elimination of the sacrificial system, but they displayed no remorse over their conduct. In their minds, the temple had been their salvation. The building itself, along with its religious accouterments, and the ritualistic nature of the sacrificial system, had been their get-out-of-jail-free card. Now it was gone.

But long before the Babylonians invaded their city and destroyed the temple, Jeremiah had pleaded with them to refocus their attention on God.

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’s Temple is here. They chant, “The LORD’s Temple is here! The LORD’s Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.”’ – Jeremiah 7:3-7 NLT

Now, the temple was gone. But God was not. The building had been destroyed, but the One whose glory had once hovered over the mercy seat was still very much alive and well. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had punished His people but had not abandoned them. The temple had never been intended to “contain” God. It had never been meant to be worshiped in place of God.

This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?
    Could you build me such a resting place?” – Isaiah 66:1 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

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Stubbornly Refusing to Repent

Jerusalem sinned grievously;
    therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
    for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans
    and turns her face away.

Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
    she took no thought of her future;
therefore her fall is terrible;
    she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!”

10 The enemy has stretched out his hands
    over all her precious things;
for she has seen the nations
    enter her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
    to enter your congregation.

11 All her people groan
    as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
    to revive their strength.
“Look, O Lord, and see,
    for I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:8-11 ESV

The city of Jerusalem fell because the kings of Israel failed. They had failed to lead the people in faithful obedience to the revealed will of God. While there had been a handful of godly kings who reigned over Judah, the nation’s latter years had been marked by men like Ahaz.

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 16:2-4 ESV

Virtually every one of the kings who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel had been wicked and idolatrous, leading their people to turn their backs on Yahweh and worship false gods instead. And, in time, the kings of Judah began to follow the lead of their northern counterparts, walking in the way of the kings of Israel. King Ahaz had even gone so far as to participate in child sacrifice, offering his own son as an offering to a false god.

At his death, Ahaz was succeeded by Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3 ESV). He provided Judah with a welcome respite from the sins of his father, instituting a series of reforms that reversed the years of spiritual decline and unfaithfulness fostered by Ahaz. He removed all the idols and pagan shrines his father had erected.

He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him… – 2 Kings 18:4-5 ESV

But sadly, Hezekiah’s reign eventually came to an end, and he was followed by his 12-year-old son Manasseh, who quickly reversed all his father’s reforms.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For 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. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.” And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:2-6 ESV

And the pattern continued, with Manasseh’s son, Amon, following in his immoral footsteps.

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

Amazingly, the downward trend was broken once again by Josiah, who “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 instituted a series of sweeping reforms intended to restore the nation’s allegiance to God. He repaired the long-neglected temple of God. He reinstituted the observance of the Mosaic law. He defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And he broke in pieces the pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:13-14 ESV).

But Josiah, for all his good intentions, was unsuccessful in changing the hearts of his people. And when his sons eventually ascended to the throne, the each “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:37 ESV). Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin each had their opportunity to rule over Judah, but each failed to restore the hearts of the people to a right relationship with God. The pattern of spiritual adultery continued as the Babylonians stood poised to bring the judgment of God against His unfaithful people. And eventually, just as God had warned, the nation of Judah fell to the king of Babylon.

And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign and carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold. He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.  – 2 Kings 24:11-14 ESV

Jerusalem had “sinned grievously” (Lamentations 1:8 ESV). And Jeremiah describes in somber tones the consequences of her sin.

The enemy has plundered her completely,
    taking every precious thing she owns.
She has seen foreigners violate her sacred Temple,
    the place the Lord had forbidden them to enter. – Lamentations 1:10 NLT

The very temple that Manasseh had filled with altars “for all the host of heaven” had been filled with Nebuchadnezzar’s troops, who pillaged the sacred site of all its gold, jewels, fabric, and sacred furniture.

The entire city had been left in ruins, its buildings and homes burned, its gates destroyed, and its walls full of gaping holes through which the Babylonians had entered the city. And the few who were not taken into captivity to Babylon were appalled and ashamed at the sorry state of the once-grand capital of their nation.

All who once honored her now despise her,
    for they have seen her stripped naked and humiliated. – Lamentations 1:8 NLT

And Jeremiah pulls no punches when describing the cause of Judah’s downfall.

She defiled herself with immorality
    and gave no thought to her future. – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

In the book that bears his name, Jeremiah records God’s indictment against His chosen people.

“You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD.” – Jeremiah 3:2 ESV

When the inevitable happened and the judgment of God came, the people had displayed surprise and dismay. They even called out to God, begging Him to rescue them from their predicament.

Now she lies in the gutter
    with no one to lift her out.
Lord, see my misery,” she cries.
    “The enemy has triumphed.” – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

Her people groan as they search for bread.
    They have sold their treasures for food to stay alive.
“O Lord, look,” she mourns,
    “and see how I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:11 NLT

But it was too little, too late. God had given them ample opportunity to reform their ways. He had given them godly kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, who had attempted to reform the hearts of the people and restore their commitment to Him. But the people had proven to be stubborn and committed to remaining unfaithful to God. Now they were suffering the consequences of their sins. But rather than acknowledge their guilt and humbly confess their sin to God, they remained stubbornly defiant. They were quick to inform God about how bad things were in Judah but unwilling to admit how badly they had sinned against Him.

But all the way back at the dedication of the temple Solomon had built for Him, God had told His people the key to getting HIs attention and to enjoying their restoration to a right relationship with Him.

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

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

Enough is Enough

7 Be silent before the Lord God!
    For the day of the Lord is near;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice
    and consecrated his guests.
And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice—
“I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
    and all who array themselves in foreign attire.
On that day I will punish
    everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their master’s house
    with violence and fraud.

10 “On that day,” declares the Lord,
    “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate,
a wail from the Second Quarter,
    a loud crash from the hills.
11 Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar!
    For all the traders are no more;
    all who weigh out silver are cut off.
12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
    and I will punish the men
who are complacent,
    those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
    nor will he do ill.’
13 Their goods shall be plundered,
    and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
    they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
    they shall not drink wine from them.”Zephaniah 1:7-13 ESV

The message of Zephaniah is one of judgment. He is a messenger of God delivering a series of prophecies that outline specific acts of divine retribution awaiting Judah for its persistent apostasy. His message contains the “what” but not the “when.” Zephaniah has no idea of the timeline involved in God’s judgment. But God had made it clear that the “what” was going to be significant and inescapable. The entire world would bear the brunt of God’s righteous indignation.

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

I will sweep away man and beast;…the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea…” – vs. 3

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

God warns of the global and all-encompassing nature of His coming judgment. The entire world will experience the wrath of God being poured out on the sins of mankind.  But God also directs the prophet’s attention to the fate of Judah.

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

There seems to be a separate series of judgments reserved for the nation of Judah. The “what” God has in store for them is distinctly different than the one He has planned for the rest of the world. And as we will see, the “when” or the timeline concerning their judgment will also differ.

Judah’s status as God’s chosen people had always set them apart. They had enjoyed the distinct privilege of being His treasured possession (Exodus 19:5), a people holy to the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:6), and had been called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). So, it only makes sense that God would have a separate and distinct judgment in store for His chosen people. Their unmerited status as His chosen people had afforded them unprecedented blessings and had set them apart from all the nations of the earth.

Centuries earlier, Moses had told the Jews who had been released from captivity in Egypt: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV). And God had graciously provided them with His law to establish His criteria for holy conduct. If they were to be a holy nation they would have to live holy lives. And for those times when they failed to live up to God’s law, He had provided the tabernacle and the sacrificial system as a means for receiving atonement for their sins. God had given them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. A land flowing with milk and honey, rich in produce, and abundant in natural resources. They had been richly blessed. And yet, they had proven to be deeply unfaithful.

The oft-quoted phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility” applies here. The people of Judah had enjoyed periods of tremendous power and prestige. They had benefited greatly from their relationship with God. But as Jesus Himself once said, When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required (Luke 12:48 NLT).

So, we see in this prophecy from the pen of Zephaniah a two-fold description of coming judgment. There will be a judgment reserved for the nation of Judah and one that will encompass the rest of mankind. In the text, the two are woven together, creating an overwhelming sense of God’s righteous anger with the state of His creation and the spiritual apostasy of His chosen people. God is not happy, and He will not continue to tolerate the current state of affairs in the world or in the nation Judah. The question remains, who will He punish first, when He will do it, and how.

Verses 4-6 contain God’s indictment against the people of Judah. They were guilty of idolatry. They worshiped Baal, Molech, and a host of other false gods representing the sun, moon, and stars. And while the people still swore allegiance to God, they committed spiritual adultery by giving themselves to the gods of the Canaanites. They had turned their backs on God. They had repeatedly displayed their unfaithfulness through acts of infidelity.

So, Zephaniah warns them, “the day of the Lord is near” (Zephaniah 1:7 ESV). And he commands the people of Judah to “be silent.” Now that they were hearing about God’s coming judgment, they were to keep their mouths shut. It was too late to cry out for mercy. Notice that in verse six, the people of Judah are described as those “who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” They had stopped calling on God. They were too busy bowing down to their false gods. And now that judgment was coming, God denied them the right to call out to Him for mercy.

Zephaniah describes the familiar scene of a sacrifice. But in this case, God is the one offering the sacrifice, and He has invited guests to join Him for the occasion. In this case, Judah represents the sacrificial animal and the Babylonians are the guests. When the time is right, God will issue an invitation to the Nebuchadnezzar and his army to feast on the sacrifice that God has offered. In 586 BC, the nation of Judah would fall to the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem would be plundered and destroyed. The temple would be ransacked and left as a pile of stones. The people would be taken captive and returned to Babylon as slaves.

And God warns “And on the day of the Lord‘s sacrifice — ‘I will punish the officials and the king’s sons’” (Zephaniah 1:8 ESV). With great power comes great responsibility. To whom much has been given, much will be required. The kings of Judah would be held responsible by God. Rather than using their power and positions to lead the people in the faithful service of God, they had displayed a pattern of disdain and disobedience. And God warned that they would suffer the consequences.

According to 2 Kings 23:34, Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah who would ascend to the throne after him, was taken captive to Egypt. The next king, Jehoiakim, would fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:1-6). Jehoiachin, the grandson of Josiah, was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-10). Zedekiah, the last son of Josiah to reign in Jerusalem, was eventually blinded by Nebuchadnezzar and taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-25:7). Each of these men had been guilty of idolatry and of making alliances with foreign nations, rather than trusting in God. Zephaniah describes them as having arrayed themselves in foreign attire. They had modeled themselves after pagan kings, emulating their appearance and worshiping their false gods.

But not only the kings of Judah will suffer judgment at the hands of God. The nation as a whole stands guilty and worthy of divine punishment. Zephaniah describes “everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud” (Zephaniah 1:9 ESV). The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, but it seems likely that Zephaniah is accusing the people of Judah of practicing injustice, in direct violation of God’s commands.

Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:23 ESV

And yet, the people of Judah had made a habit out of taking advantage of one another.

The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.
 – Ezekiel 22:29 ESV

They were marked by greed, violence, and fraud. And they would pay for dearly for their decision to ignore God’s commands.

On that day – when the judgment of God comes – the impact will be felt throughout the city of Jerusalem. From the Fish Gate to the Second Quarter and from the hills to the marketplace, every single inhabitant of Jerusalem would feel the heat of God’s wrath. “Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste” (Zephaniah 1:13 ESV). No one will escape judgment because all will stand as guilty before God.

And while there will be those who think that God is disinterested in their affairs and has turned a blind eye to their behavior, they will be in for a rude awakening.

“I will punish the men
who are complacent,
    those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
    nor will he do ill.’” – Zephaniah 1:12 ESV

God would no longer tolerate sin among His people. He would not allow them to continue denigrating His name and defaming His holy character by their actions. They were His people and their behavior was leaving a black mark on His name. But God was about to rectify that problem.

“And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.” – Ezekiel 36:23 ESV

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

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

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

   

 

An Abomination to the Lord

1 “You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.

“If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. – Deuteronomy 17:1-7 ESV

One of the reasons God instructed the people of Israel to elect judges and officials in each of their communities was to protect against idolatry. As time passed and each of the tribes began the process of possessing the land allotted to them, it would become increasingly more difficult to police the activities of the people, especially their natural tendency to worship false gods. So, Moses expected these appointed officials to judge the actions of those who violated God’s laws concerning idols and idol worship. Moses had clearly communicated God’s restrictions, which were nothing more than an elaboration on the first commandment.

“You must never set up a wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build for the Lord your God. And never set up sacred pillars for worship, for the Lord your God hates them. – Deuteronomy 16:21-22 NLT

This section is all about proper worship – the kind of worship that is acceptable by God. He has not left it up to mankind to decide how, when, or who to worship. The form of Israel’s worship is just as important to God as the focus of their worship. Not only were they prohibited from worshiping false gods, they were denied the freedom of worshiping the right God in the wrong way.

“You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 17:1 ESV

They were not allowed to borrow and incorporate elements from the pagan religions around them in the worship of God. Asherah poles were off limits. These wooden totems were dedicated to the worship of Asherah, a Canaanite fertility god who was considered the wife or sister of another one of their deities. God has strictly forbadding the Israelites from incorporating these kinds of pagan rituals and forms in their worship of Him.

But God would also not allow the Israelies to use proper forms of worship in the wrong way. They couldn’t bring their sick or blemished animals and offer them as sacrifices to God. That was unacceptable worship. He described these kinds of sacrifices as “abominations.” The Hebrew word is tow`ebah and it refers to “a disgusting thing (morally).”

Someone who offered a blemished lamb as an offering to God was technically obeying the command of God. But he would be violating the intent behind the command. The sacrifice was meant to cost the one offering it. By sacrificing an unblemished, perfect lamb, the worshiper was giving the best of what he owned. He was dedicating to God the animal that would have made the best breeding stock. In doing so, he would be placing his faith in God to provide for his needs.

But that unblemished animal was also intended to represent the idea that God’s forgiveness and atonement from sin required a sacrifice that would be acceptable to Him. It had to satisfy His demand for holiness or imperfection. The lamb was acting as a substitute for the sinful human being was offering it. It stood in the place of the sinner, acting as his proxy or replacement.

Because demanded that His people worship Him in a way that reflected His holy and righteous character. They had to honor Him for who He was and all that He had done. And beyond worshiping Him in the wrong way, the most egregious sin they could commit would be failing to worship Him at all. Which is why Moses provides these future judges of Israel with instructions about dealing with idolators. He describes idolatry as doing “evil in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 17:2 NLT). It was considered a violation of the covenant the Israelites had made with God. And just so they knew what kinds of actions constituted idolatry, Moses spelled it out: “they might serve other gods or worship the sun, the moon, or any of the stars—the forces of heaven—which I have strictly forbidden” (Deuteronomy 17:3 NLT).

Moses commands these future judges to investigate thoroughly any reports of this kind of behavior among the people. If they found the reports to be true, the violator was to be dealt with quickly and severely.

“…the man or woman who has committed such an evil act must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death.” – Deuteronomy 17:5 NLT

Once again, Moses refers to this kind of behavior as tow`ebah – an abomination. God sees idolatry as disgusting and unacceptable. And those who practice idolatry, because they are guilty of failing to remain set apart unto God, are to be set apart from the community by taking them outside the gates of the town, and then executed.

While this sounds like harsh and unusual punishment to our modern ears, we must understand that it was intended to act as a purifying and preserving agent among the Israelites. Sin of any kind, in left unchecked, would act as a cancer among the people, eventually infecting the entire community and resulting in the judgment of God. The death of one, while difficult for us to understand, was to be preferred to the ultimate judgment of God against the entire community.

The death of Jesus incorporates both illustrations used in these verses. First of all, He became sinless Lamb of God who offered His life as the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He became the unblemished substitute who gave His life so that others could live. The apostle Paul points out the vivid contrast between Adam, the first man, and Jesus, the God-man.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

In other words, Adam’s sin spread to all mankind. His disobedience brought the curse of sin and death onto all humanity. But Paul goes on to explain that Jesus offered a permanent solution to the sin problem created by Adam.

Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:14-15 NLT

God would not allow the sin of Adam to permanently destroy His creation, so He sent His Son as the sinless sacrifice to atone for the sins of man.

Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:16-17 NLT

God takes sin seriously. Because He is holy, God must punish those who commit sin, and the Bible clearly states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But God graciously offered His Son as the payment for man’s sin debt. He offered His life as a substitute for sinful man. And while the death of the sinner stoned outside the gates of the city had no atoning value, it would prevent further infection of the community.

The judges of Israel were to treat sin with a seriousness and soberness that reflected God’s hatred for it. But they were to be careful to ensure that any accusations concerning idolatry were fully investigated and thoroughly proven so that no one was punished unjustly. And just to make sure that no one would be tempted to use a false accusation of idolatry in order to enact vengeance against another, Moses commanded, “never put a person to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must always be two or three witnesses. The witnesses must throw the first stones” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7 NLT).

One man could not falsely accuse another. There had to be corroborating witnesses. And it was these men who had to cast the first stone to take the life of the guilty party. This added feature was intended to place the heavy burden of taking the life of the accused on the heads of those who brought the charges. If they had lied, they would be responsible before God for the death of an innocent man.

God considers the worship of false gods to be disgusting and unacceptable. But even the worship of the right God in the wrong way is equally repugnant to Him. Man’s worship is the greatest gift he has to offer. God doesn’t need our gifts. He doesn’t require our sacrifices. What God is looking for is true worship. As the prophet Micah so aptly put it:

What can we bring to the LORD? Should we bring him burnt offerings? Should we bow before God Most High with offerings of yearling calves?

Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:6-8 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.

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

 

 

 

Whatever Is Right In Your Own Eyes

1 “These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way. But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.

“You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you. 10 But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, 11 then to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the Lord. 12 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. 13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, 14 but at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you. – Deuteronomy 12:1-14 ESV

Obedience is a form of worship. It is an act of submission and surrender to the expressed will of God. But Moses wanted the people of Israel to understand that there were more formal and ritualistic aspects to their worship of God that must be carefully followed. They were not free to worship God in any way they deemed acceptable. He was not just another god, but He was the one true God. All others were fakes and frauds, the creations of the minds and hands of men.

The first commandment had made it perfectly clear that the Israelites were to worship no other gods. They were to refrain from making idols of any kind. And when it came to worship, they were to do so according to a divinely prescribed blueprint. Like everything else in their lives, God was providing them with a clear and carefully crafted dictum concerning their worship of Him.

The first decree concerned the cleansing of the land of any and all vestiges of idol worship. Moses gave them clear instructions concerning the eradication of all shrines and sacred sites associated with the false gods of the Canaanites.

When you drive out the nations that live there, you must destroy all the places where they worship their gods.” – Deuteronomy 12:2 NLT

The Canaanites had designated places of worship where they gathered to offer sacrifices to their gods. These were typically situated on elevated sites or in groves of trees. The high places were intended to provide closer access to their gods, who they believed existed above them. The groves were represented fertility and illustrated the Canaanites’ desire to be blessed with abundance and fruitfulness by their gods.

Once God had given the Israelites victories over their enemies and they had successfully routed the Canaanites from their homes and cities, they were required to destroy any and all shrines dedicated to the worship of false gods. These sites were to be completely destroyed, removing any memory of these pagan deities from the land.

“Break down their altars and smash their sacred pillars. Burn their Asherah poles and cut down their carved idols. Completely erase the names of their gods!” – Deuteronomy 12:3 NLT

One of the things Moses was trying to prevent was the practice of syncretism. According to dictionary.com, syncretism is “the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion” (Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper). It is the attempted reconciliation or harmonizing of opposing beliefs that ultimately requires one to compromise their convictions. And this is what Moses feared because he knew his fellow Israelites well.

Moses wanted the Israelites to understand that their God was one of a kind. And He was to be worshiped according to His acceptable standards, not those of men. Adopting and adapting the pagan practices of the Canaanites would not be acceptable to Yahweh. So, Moses commanded them:  “Do not worship the Lord your God in the way these pagan peoples worship their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:4 NLT). The Canaanites worshiped their man-made gods according to man-made rules. The sites at which they worshiped were not sacred. The gods to which they bowed down were not divine. The religious rituals the Canaanites practiced, regardless of their fervor and fanatical faith were vain and fruitless.

I am reminded of the clash between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal recorded in the book of 1 Kings. Ahab, the king of Israel, under the influence of his wicked wife Jezebel, had promoted idolatry in the land of Israel. So, Elijah challenged the prophets of the false god, Baal, to a contest to prove whose god was greater. And he issued a call to the people of Israel to return their allegiance to Yahweh.

“How much longer will you waver, hobbling between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!” – 1 Kings 18:21 NLT

The contest was a simple one. Each side was provided with a bull, which they were to cut up and place on an altar covered in wood. Then they were to call on their respective god and ask him to consume the sacrifice with fire. And Elijah stated the rules by which the contest would be decided: “The god who answers by setting fire to the wood is the true God!” (1 Kings 18:24 NLT).

The best part of the story is the description of the prophets of Baal as they begged their false god to hear their cries.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made.

About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response. – 1 Kings 18:26-29 NLT

Nothing. No response. No fire. No sacrifice consumed. All their shouting, dancing, and self-mutilating were in vain. Their god didn’t hear because their god didn’t exist.

And Moses wanted the Israelites to know that Yahweh was not to be worshiped like the false gods of the Canaanites. They were not to repurpose the pagan shrines dedicated to lifeless idols and attempt to call on the God of the universe. He had other plans.

“Rather, you must seek the Lord your God at the place of worship he himself will choose from among all the tribes—the place where his name will be honored.” – Deuteronomy 12:5 NLT

Things were going to be different for the people of Israel. They had been set apart by God and everything about their lives was going to be dramatically distinctive, including the manner in which they worshiped their God. And Moses pointed out the change that was coming.

“Your pattern of worship will change. Today all of you are doing as you please…” – Deuteronomy 12:8 NLT

In other words, God had not yet given them His divine requirements for worship. But that was about to change. Once they arrived in the land, there would be only one acceptable place where they could offer their sacrifices to Him. During their lifetimes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had erected shrines to God in various locations, such as the Oaks of Moreh. But with their conquest of the land, God would designate a single location where He would accept their offerings and worship – “the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored” (Deuteronomy 12:11 NLT.

God was not the figment of man’s imagination. He had created man, not the other way around. And He would not tolerate a form of worship that was man-made or a poor rip-off of some pagan practice dedicated to a non-existent god.

God would be worshiped according to His own standards. The Israelites were not going to be able to do what was right in their own eyes. This was not a democracy where the will of the majority won out. They were going to worship the one true God according to His standards and at “the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored” (Deuteronomy 12:11 NLT).

Whether they realized it or not, this command was going to protect the tribes of Israel from petty feuds and pride-filled attempts to set up competing shrines to God in their various land allotments. God would choose the place and the form of acceptable worship. No questions asked. No opinions accepted.

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

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

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

 

 

 

The God of Israel is God

26 “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known. 29 And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. 30 Are they not beyond the Jordan, west of the road, toward the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites who live in the Arabah, opposite Gilgal, beside the oak of Moreh? 31 For you are to cross over the Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you. And when you possess it and live in it, 32 you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today. – Deuteronomy 11:26-32 ESV

Moses has issued a call to the people of Israel that they obey each and every command that God has given them, but he has added that they were to do it wholeheartedly and motivated by a love for God and all that He has done for them. And Moses has made it quite clear that obedience will result in the blessings of God, in the form of His continued presence, the benefit of His power, and His miraculous provision of all their needs.

But should they choose to disobey God, they would experience His wrath in the form of judgment. They were His chosen people, but if they made the ill-informed decision to live like all the other nations, He would treat them that way. Again, the covenant God was making with Israel was not just about a list of rules to be obeyed, but about a unique relationship that needed to be fully appreciated and painstakingly maintained. God had set them apart as His own and had showered them with His undeserved mercy, grace, and love. But, as part of their relationship as His people, they were going to have to return that love, and one of the primary proofs of their affection would be their willful obedience to His commands. Even Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV).

And one of the greatest expressions of their lack of love for God would be their pursuit of false gods. God had forbidden them to seek and serve any other gods. To do so would be a blatant display of infidelity on their part. Like a marriage partner committing adultery, the Israelites would be communicating to God, through their actions, that He was not enough for them. Their pursuit of false gods would be an egregious breaking of trust and flagrant proof of their lack of love for God. That’s why Moses warned them, “you will be cursed if you reject the commands of the Lord your God and turn away from him and worship gods you have not known before” (Deuteronomy 11:28 NLT).

Their practice of idolatry would be nothing less than infidelity. Giving their affections and attentions to another god, after all God Almighty had done for them, would be seen as an affront and dealt with accordingly.

So, Moses told the people of Israel that, upon their arrival in the land, they were to engage in a rather strange ceremony. He commanded them to gather in the valley located between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Once there, they were to engage in a recitation of the blessings and the curses pronounced by God. And the book of Joshua provides a glimpse into how this ceremony actually took place.

Then all the Israelites—foreigners and native-born alike—along with the elders, officers, and judges, were divided into two groups. One group stood in front of Mount Gerizim, the other in front of Mount Ebal. Each group faced the other, and between them stood the Levitical priests carrying the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant. This was all done according to the commands that Moses, the servant of the Lord, had previously given for blessing the people of Israel.

Joshua then read to them all the blessings and curses Moses had written in the Book of Instruction. Every word of every command that Moses had ever given was read to the entire assembly of Israel, including the women and children and the foreigners who lived among them. – Joshua 8:33-34 NLT

This event took place after Israel had defeated the cities of Jericho and Ai. The conquest of Jericho had been a miraculous, God-ordained victory. But Ai had been a different story. A single Israelite, a man named Achan, had disobeyed God and taken as booty some of the treasure from Jericho that God had declared off-limits. And his action had resulted in the Israelites’ defeat at Ai. It was not until the sin within the camp was eradicated that God allowed Israel to gain victory over the city of Ai. And it was immediately after their defeat of Ai that the people made their way to the valley between the two mountains and heard Joshua read all the blessings and the curses.

Moses’ choice of this location was strategic. It would have been very familiar to the people of Israel because it had historic significance. It was in this valley that Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, had erected an altar to God after he had arrived in the land of Canaan for the first time. This momentous event was eventually recorded by Moses in the book of Genesis but would have been passed down orally from one generation to another.

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. – Genesis 12:4-7 ESV

This location was considered sacred, having been the exact place where Abraham had worshiped God. Years later, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, would buy a plot of land and erect another altar to God in the very same spot.

Later, having traveled all the way from Paddan-aram, Jacob arrived safely at the town of Shechem, in the land of Canaan. There he set up camp outside the town. Jacob bought the plot of land where he camped from the family of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for 100 pieces of silver. And there he built an altar and named it El-Elohe-Israel. – Genesis 33:18-20 NLT

The name he gave this place, El-Elohe-Israel, means “The God of Israel is God.” He was honoring God as the one and only God of the people of Israel. There were no other gods. It is likely that the Israelites were familiar with this name and that they knew the sacred significance of the spot to which Moses was commanding them to gather once they arrived in the land.

God was to be their God – their one and only God. He had more than proven His qualifications and demonstrated His singular status as the one true God. And He had demonstrated His love for them by choosing them as His own, rescuing them from their captivity in Egypt, guiding them to the land of Canaan, and was now ready to give them victory over all the nations who occupied the land. There was no question in Moses’ mind that God was going to do what He had promised to do. God was going to give them possession of the land, which is why Moses so confidently told them, “when you possess it and live in it…” It was as good as done.

God was going to do His part, but they were going to have to keep their end of the covenant agreement, which Moses made sure they understood.

“…you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today.” – Deuteronomy 11:32 ESV

Their obedience was not an option. The covenant God had made with them was conditional, and it was predicated on their keeping of His commands. If they obeyed, they would enjoy unprecedented success and unparalleled blessing from God. But if they disobeyed, the consequences would be severe.

The key to Israel’s future success was their acknowledgment of God as the God of Israel. Theirs was to be a monogamous relationship. No infidelity. No idolatry. No worship of any other gods. No unfaithfulness or misplaced affection. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to be their God – their one and only God. And as long as they remained faithful, God would prove unwavering in His love and unbounded in His blessings.

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

 

 

 

Bearing God’s Image

15 “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. 19 And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. 21 Furthermore, the Lord was angry with me because of you, and he swore that I should not cross the Jordan, and that I should not enter the good land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. 22 For I must die in this land; I must not go over the Jordan. But you shall go over and take possession of that good land. 23 Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. 24 For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

25 “When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, so as to provoke him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. 27 And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. 28 And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. 29 But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. 30 When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.” – Deuteronomy 4:15-31 ESV

As the day drew near when the people would make their long-delayed entry into the land of promise, it meant that Moses was fast-approaching the day of his own death. This section of his address contains his reminder to the people of his permanent ban from entering the land, placed on him by God for his striking of the rock at Meribah.

“But the Lord was angry with me because of you. He vowed that I would not cross the Jordan River into the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your special possession. You will cross the Jordan to occupy the land, but I will not. Instead, I will die here on the east side of the river. – Deuteronomy 4:21-22 NLT

With his death imminent and his time as the leader of Israel coming to a close, Moses increases the intensity of his instructions to them, in a final effort to prepare them for this next phase in their journey as God’s people. He knew his people well and was fully aware that they were going to face a myriad of temptations as they crossed over the Jordan. And one of the greatest temptations would be that of idolatry.

In recounting that momentous occasion when God gave the Law at Mount Sinai, Moses pointed out that the people had “heard the sound of his [God’s] words but didn’t see his form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12 NLT). Yes, there had been smoke, thunder, and lightning, and the people had clearly felt the presence of God, but He had remained invisible to them.

And Moses warned the next generation of Israelites who were preparing to enter the land to “be very careful! You did not see the Lord’s form on the day he spoke to you from the heart of the fire at Mount Sinai. So do not corrupt yourselves by making an idol in any form” (Deuteronomy 4:5 NLT). This was a repetition of the first of the Ten Commandments that God had given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

“I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery.

“You must not have any other god but me.

“You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.” – Exodus 19:2-5 NLT

But why was Moses placing so much emphasis on this particular commandment? What was his point in stressing God’s ban on idolatry? It would appear that Moses knew that the people were going to struggle with the invisible nature of God. Their inability to see God with their eyes was going to cause them to doubt God in their hearts. He would become out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Their natural tendency would be to replace the invisible God with something more tangible and palpable. And Moses had seen first-hand just how quickly the people of Israel could turn their backs on the one true God.

All the way back at Sinai, when the people had seen the display of God’s glory and power on the mountain, they had trembled in fear. But while Moses was on top of the mountain receiving the Law from God, the people had decided that they needed a god they could see. Their leader was gone and their God, while powerful, was intangible and indiscernible. And the book of Exodus records what they did next.

When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.”

So Aaron said, “Take the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters, and bring them to me.”

All the people took the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded it into the shape of a calf. When the people saw it, they exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” – Exodus 32:1-4 NLT

While Moses was on top of the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the first of which was a prohibition against idol worship, the people were busy making and worshiping an idol. And 40 years later, Moses was well aware that the people of Israel had not outgrown their infatuation with false gods.

This tendency to worship that which we can see is hardwired into mankind. Paul addresses it in his letter to the Romans.

For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

And Moses warned the Israelites about making replacement gods out “of a man or a woman, an animal on the ground, a bird in the sky, a small animal that scurries along the ground, or a fish in the deepest sea,” and he added, “when you look up into the sky and see the sun, moon, and stars—all the forces of heaven—don’t be seduced into worshiping them” (Deuteronomy 4:16-19 NLT). Because God is unseen, man’s natural tendency is to focus his attention on that which he can see. Man’s finiteness makes it difficult for him to grasp the infinite nature of God.

But God’s ban on idol worship seems to have a much more important aspect to it than first meets the eye. Moses warns the Israelites, “The Lord your God is a devouring fire; he is a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24 NLT). But there is more to this statement than God being jealous of other gods. God knows there are no such thing as “other gods.” They don’t exist. But the Israelites do. And they belong to Him. They were to be His chosen possession, and He had given them His Law as a written code of conduct. Their behavior as His chosen people was not up to their discretion, but carefully articulated in His Law. 

Which is why Moses warned them, “So do not corrupt yourselves by making an idol in any form” (Deuteronomy 4:16 NLT). The Hebrew word for “corrupt” is shachath, and it means to mar or spoil. By making and worshiping false gods, the people of Israel would be damaging their ability to mirror the image of God. Not only would the be violating His Law, they would be acting just like all the other nations. Their distinctiveness as His people would be destroyed. Their uniqueness as His possession would be lost.

God had warned the Israelites, “if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 NLT).

But idol worship would mar the image of God in the lives of His people. They would no longer reflect His distinctiveness and display His glory among the nations. Rather than displaying their one-of-a-kind status as God’s chosen people, they would profane His reputation as the great and glorious God by behaving just like all the other nations around them. And hundreds of years later, when God’s people were languishing in captivity in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel would declare the words of God:

“I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-23 NLT

God had chosen the nation of Israel and had set them apart for His glory. They were to have been His image-bearers on earth, living according to His Law and displaying His glory as they faithfully trusted in Him – the invisible, yet invincible 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

 

 

 

No Peace

1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood
    and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
    your tongue mutters wickedness.
No one enters suit justly;
    no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
They hatch adders’ eggs;
    they weave the spider’s web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
    and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
Their webs will not serve as clothing;
    men will not cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
    and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
    and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
    no one who treads on them knows peace.
Isaiah 59:1-8 ESV

Judah’s sorry state of affairs was not an indictment against God’s power to save. He was fully capable of bringing them relief. After all, He was the very source of their current condition. It was God who had chosen to use the Assyrians as His instruments of judgment against His rebellious people. And He was the one who had warned that future judgment would come in the form of the Babylonians. The circumstances in which the people of Judah found themselves were, in a sense, self-inflicted. They had brought it on themselves because they had refused to listen to God’s calls to acknowledge their sin and return to Him. They had repeatedly stiff-armed God’s prophets, including Isaiah, rejecting their messages and stubbornly maintaining their love affair with false gods.

So, in this chapter, we see Isaiah delivering a message to his fellow Judahites that leaves them without excuse. He will not allow them to blame God. He refuses to let them cast God as the villain and themselves as the innocent victims. This was not a case of divine parental abuse or abandonment. They were the cause of their own pain and suffering. And Isaiah conveys that message in stark terms.

It’s your sins that have cut you off from God.
    Because of your sins, he has turned away
    and will not listen anymore. – Isaiah 59:2 NLT

They had abandoned God. Not the other way around. In fact, God had patiently and persistently called on them to repent. He had rescued them time and time again from the consequences of their own sinfulness. He had lovingly disciplined them for their unfaithfulness, welcoming them back with open arms. But they had responded to His grace with ingratitude and continued infidelity. And the prophet Jeremiah describes their stubborn refusal to repent with a sense of shock and surprise.

O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?
You have struck them down,
    but they felt no anguish;
you have consumed them,
    but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to repent. – Jeremiah 5:3 ESV

That the people of Judah were guilty was beyond debate, and Isaiah reveals why. He provides a list of evidence that is both lengthy and appalling. It includes murder, depravity, lying, injustice, perjury, dishonesty, and violence. And these manifestations of their own wickedness were showing up in every area of their lives – from their homes to their courts of law. Iniquity was ubiquitous. And while not every member of their society was equally complicit, they all stood equally condemned. There was a corporate culpability shared by all, from the youngest to the oldest and the richest to the poorest. At some level, every single individual in their community stood before God as guilty, having committed their own fair share of sins against Him.

The list Isaiah shares is similiar to one that the apostle Paul gave to the believers in Colossae. He reminded them that, even as Christians,  they needed to continue to purge their lives of those sins which mark the lives of each and every human being who walks this planet.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. – Colossians 3:5-6 ESV

Mankind, apart from help from God, is hopelessly addicted and attracted to the very things that bring the wrath of God. We can’t help it. And Paul warned the believers in Rome how a holy God must deal with those who continue to live lives of unholiness.

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

But not only does a life of ungodliness and unrighteousness bring the judgment of God, it breeds destruction. Isaiah describes the people of Judah as hatching adders’ eggs. Their evil actions were going to produce some seriously negative consequenes. And it doesn’t take a herpetologist to understand that hatching the eggs of a poisonous snake brings more of the same.

And Isaiah compares their sinful actions with the weaving of spider webs.  You can’t expect to produce clothes with that which is ephemeral and fragile. The life of ungodliness can produce nothing of lasting value. It may appear attractive but, in the end, it leaves you with nothing tangible or beneficial from all your effort.

Just how bad was it in Judah? Isaiah is unsparing in his assessment.

All their activity is filled with sin – Isaiah 59:6 NLT

Their feet run to do evil, and they rush to commit murder – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

They think only about sinning… – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

Not exactly a flattering picture. Their lives were inundated by sin and rebellion. It permeated their community. It influenced every facet of their corporate experience, from the halls of the king’s palace to the lowliest peasant’s hut. And, as a result, they were all experiencing the consequences that come from living in open rebellion against God and pursuing a way of life that is in direct violation to His call to holiness.

They don’t know where to find peace
    or what it means to be just and good.
They have mapped out crooked roads,
    and no one who follows them knows a moment’s peace. – Isaiah 59:8 NLT

No peace. No joy. No justice. No righteousness. Without God, none of these things are achievable. You can’t walk away from Him and expect to find what only He can deliver. A life of sin is a dead end. It offers hope, fulfillment, satisfaction, and peace. But it can’t deliver on its promise. Pursuing the false gods of this world may appear attractive, but they will never produce a single promise they offer. God was offering His people peace. They could be restored to a right relationship with Him and enjoy peace with the One who had made them. They could enjoy peace in their community as they allowed God to guide their actions and change their attitudes. But as long as they continued to refuse Him and choose their own paths, they would find themselves living in turmoil and in constant pursuit of the one thing for which all men long: Peace.

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

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

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

The Choice Is Yours

But you, draw near,
    sons of the sorceress,
    offspring of the adulterer and the loose woman.
Whom are you mocking?
    Against whom do you open your mouth wide
    and stick out your tongue?
Are you not children of transgression,
    the offspring of deceit,
you who burn with lust among the oaks,
    under every green tree,
who slaughter your children in the valleys,
    under the clefts of the rocks?
Among the smooth stones of the valley is your portion;
    they, they, are your lot;
to them you have poured out a drink offering,
    you have brought a grain offering.
    Shall I relent for these things?
On a high and lofty mountain
    you have set your bed,
    and there you went up to offer sacrifice.
Behind the door and the doorpost
    you have set up your memorial;
for, deserting me, you have uncovered your bed,
    you have gone up to it,
    you have made it wide;
and you have made a covenant for yourself with them,
    you have loved their bed,
    you have looked on nakedness.
You journeyed to the king with oil
    and multiplied your perfumes;
you sent your envoys far off,
    and sent down even to Sheol.
10 You were wearied with the length of your way,
    but you did not say, “It is hopeless”;
you found new life for your strength,
    and so you were not faint.

11 Whom did you dread and fear,
    so that you lied,
and did not remember me,
    did not lay it to heart?
Have I not held my peace, even for a long time,
    and you do not fear me?
12 I will declare your righteousness and your deeds,
    but they will not profit you.
13 When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!
    The wind will carry them all off,
    a breath will take them away.
But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land
    and shall inherit my holy mountain.Isaiah 57:3-13 ESV

After castigating and condemning the watchmen, the self-proclaimed spiritual leaders of Judah, God turns His attention to the people. While they had been misinformed and mislead by the false prophets, they were not without a measure of guilt. And God makes it painfully clear what He thought about their behavior towards Him. He addresses them in not-so-flattering terms, calling them “sons of sorcerors, offspring of the adulterer and the loose woman” (Isaiah 57:3 ESV). The New Living Translation makes it even more unpleasant, translating verse3 as “you witches’ children, you offspring of adulterers and prostitutes!” And God is not done. he goes on to describe them as “children of transgression, the offspring of deceit” (Isaiah 57:4 ESV).

God is not happy with them. And all these unflattering appellations are tied directly to their practice of idolatry. God is unsparing in His accusations against them. Like a criminal prosecutor in a court of law, God lays out His evidence, providing more than enough proof to convict the people of Judah of their crime and justify their well-deserved punishment.

God accuses them of worshiping their false gods under every oak and green tree they can find and doing so with passion. The Hebrew word translated as “passion” is chamam and it carries a sexual connotation. It can be translated as “inflamed” or “aroused.” To put it in rather graphic terms, the people of Judah “got off” on practicing idolatry. They set up shrines and high places all over the land of Canaan, where they worshiped their false deities and even practiced child sacrifice as part of their passionate adoration of their gods. And God had been very clear in His commands regarding child sacrifice.

“Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech, for you must not bring shame on the name of your God. I am the LORD.”  – Leviticus 18:21 NLT

“Give the people of Israel these instructions, which apply both to native Israelites and to the foreigners living in Israel. If any of them offer their children as a sacrifice to Molech, they must be put to death.” – Leviticus 20:2 NLT

“I myself will turn against them and cut them off from the community, because they have defiled my sanctuary and brought shame on my holy name by offering their children to Molech.” – Leviticus 20:3 NLT

Yet, here was God, generations later, accusing His people of doing exactly what He had told them not to do. They had idols under the trees, in the valleys, on top of the mountains, and just about every other place you could imagine. False gods were ubiquitous in Judah. And in the very act of worship their many false gods, they were proving themselves unfaithful and spiritually adulterous to the one true God. Like a faithful husband speaking to his promiscuous wife, God tells them, “You have left me and climbed into bed with these detestable gods. You have committed yourselves to them. You love to look at their naked bodies” (Isaiah 57:8 NLT).

Their passion for their false gods was relentless. Many of their gods were the result of political or military alliances with pagan nations. Envoys from Judah would travel long distances to worship the false gods of their potential allies, carrying olive oil and perfume to use as tributes to these idols. God describes them as constantly in search of some god who could provide them what they were seeking. And just when they would start to lose hope, they would discover yet another potential savior in the form of a statue made of stone, wood or precious metal.

“You grew weary in your search,
    but you never gave up.
Desire gave you renewed strength,
    and you did not grow weary.” – Isaiah 57:10 NLT

In the face of God’s whithering charges against them, He poses a question:

“Whom did you dread and fear,
    so that you lied,
and did not remember me,
    did not lay it to heart?” – Isaiah 57:11 ESV

Obviously, they had not feared God, or they wouldn’t have disobeyed His commands like they had. So, was their unfaithfulness driven by fear of their enemies? Or was it due to fear of their enemies’ gods? Whatever the case, they had not exhited any fear of God, even though He had displayed tremendous patience with them. Now, God was done showing them patience. And, knowing that they would argue with Him and try to present themselves as faithful servants who had done acts of righteousness deserving of His grace and mercy, God breaks the not-so-good news to them.

“Now I will expose your so-called good deeds.
    None of them will help you.” – Isaiah 57:12 NLT

Later on in this very same book, Isaiah will deliver some seriously bad news to the people of Judah, that will blow their concept of self-righteousness out of the water.

You welcome those who gladly do good,
    who follow godly ways.
But you have been very angry with us,
    for we are not godly.
We are constant sinners;
    how can people like us be saved?
We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:5-6 NLT

They had no righteous deeds. Their best deeds done on their best day with the best of intentions were worthless in the eyes of God. He could see into their hearts. And as God stated earlier in the book of Isaiah, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote” (Isaiah29:13 NLT). 

So, God offers His disobedient and idolatrous people a challenge. The next time they faced trouble, He suggests that they call on their false gods to save them. And, because God has already made it clear that the next thing that was going to happen to them would be His judgment of them, He was basically taunting them to use their gods to stop Him. But God lets them know the outcome ahead of time.

“The wind will carry them all off,
    a breath will take them away.” – Isaiah 57:13 ESV

They will prove laughingly impotent. But God says that “whoever trusts in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain” (Isaiah 57:13 NLT). They could continue to trust in their false gods. They could passionately pursue deliverance from lifeless idols or put their hope in the God of the universe. The choice was theirs, but the outcome of that choice was completely up to God and not up for debate.

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

Too Ignorant to Know It

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.

12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” – Isaiah 44:9-20 ESV

God has made Himself perfectly clear by boldly declaring, “besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6 ESV). Then, as if to see if His audience has gotten the message, He asks, “Is there a God besides me?” (Isaiah 44:8 ESV). And, just in case they failed to nnow the answer to the question, He gave His divine opinion: “I know not any” (Isaiah 44:8 ESV).

He has established Himself as the Creator-God, the one who made Israel. He is Jehovah, the King of Israel. He is their Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts, the first and the last. And He alone is able to “declare what is to come, and what will happen” (Isaiah 44:7 ESV).

And yet, the people of Judah continued to worship false gods – idols they had made with their own hands. They had substituted worship of and reverence for the one true God with the adoration of lifeless and powerless statues made of wood and stone. And God systematically and somewhat sarcastically exposes the absurdity of their actions.

Over time, the people of Israel had adopted an assortment of pagan gods, from Baal and Molech to Ashtoreth and Chemosh. The Israelites seemed to be equal-opportunity idolaters. They were not picky. And, they never really replaced the worship of Yahweh, they simply added the other gods to the mix, creating a confusing syncretistic amalgamation of for virtually every occasion. But God Almighty had warned them about this very thing. All the way back when Moses was leading them to the Promised Land, God had provided them with the Ten Commandments, and the very first command on the list had been: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV). And He would later expand on that command, providing them with clear and irrefutable details regarding His expectations.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” – Deuteronomy 5:8-10 ESV

And yet, the people of Israel had proven themselves incapable of obeying this very command. All that God had told them not to do, they had done – repeatedly and knowingly. They were operating out of obstinance, not ignorance. They knew exactly what they were doing and they knew it was wrong. So, God decides to show them the sheer lunacy behind their actions.

“How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.”
– Isaiah 44:9 NLT

Notice that God uses the third person. It is as if He is asking the people of Judah to consider how idiotic it is for those other nations to worship false gods. He wants them to step back and take a long and close look at just how ridiculous idolatry really is.

“Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit?”
– Isaiah 44:10 NLT

That had to have hurt. God was not pulling any punches, but wanted them to see the sheer stupidity of what they were doing. Not only were they disobeying His commands, they doing so in order to worship gods they had made with their own hands. And God goes out of His way to ridicule the “mere humans—who claim they can make a god” (Isaiah 44:11 NLT).

God paints the image of a craftsman working diligently to manufacture the tool he will use to manufacture the god he is going to worship. His efforts leave him worn out before he has even begun to make his god. The effort required to make the god he is going worship leave him hungry and faint.

God describes a wood carver going through the process of selecting just the right tree from which to make his god. Then he proceeds to cut it down, carefully delineating which part of the log will become his god and which part he can use build a fire to keep himself warm.

“He cuts down cedars;
    he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
    to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
    With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it
    and makes himself a god to worship!
He makes an idol
    and bows down in front of it!”
– Isaiah 44:14-15 NLT

When you step back and examine idolatry from an objective viewpoint, it is not difficult to see just how ridiculous it appears. But God says, “The people who worship idols don’t know this” (Isaiah 44:9 NLT). They are blind to the reality of their actions. They are incapable of seeing just how bizarre and nonsensical their actions appear. Which is why God goes out of His way to expose the sheer stupidity of what is going on in Judah. They enjoyed the privilege of being created by the one true God, and being chosen as His prized possession. And yet, they were busy creating their own gods out of wood and stone, and expected these man-made deities to provide for and protect them.

“He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
    and to keep himself warm.
    He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
    and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
    worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
    “You are my god!”
– Isaiah 44:16-17 NLT

And while it may be easy for us to judge the people of Judah and question their sanity, we would be wise to examine our own lives to see if we might be guilty of the very same thing. Their sin seems blatant to us. But God reveals that they were blind to it.

“Such stupidity and ignorance!
    Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
    Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.” –
Isaiah 44:18 NLT

They couldn’t see what they were doing. And, if we are wise, we will recognize that we have the same capacity to blindly and ignorantly worship gods made with human hands. While our idols may appear more sophisticated and less religious in nature, they are false gods nonetheless. Tim Keller, in his book, Counterfeit Gods, describes an idol in terms that may make you a bit uncomfortable.

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.

When put in those terms, it becomes a bit more easy to see how we can have idols, in spite of our more enlightened and sophisticated mindset. And, like the people of Judah, we can find ourselves deluded and unaware of the fact that we have created substitutes for God. We have turned to other things in the hopes that they might deliver what only God is capable of providing: Peace, hope, security, joy, contentment, satisfaction, and salvation. And God warns that we all run the same risk the people of Judah did. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves putting our hope in the wrong god, and failing to recognize the futility of our actions.

“He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
    “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”
– Isaiah 44:20 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