One of Our Redeemers

14 And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 And she took it up and went into the city. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She also brought out and gave her what food she had left over after being satisfied. 19 And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.” 21 And Ruth the Moabite said, “Besides, he said to me, ‘You shall keep close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.” 23 So she kept close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests. And she lived with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2:14-23 ESV

The kindness of Boaz has taken Ruth by surprise. Being a foreigner in a strange land and unfamiliar with their religious laws and customs, Ruth would not have expected this unknown man to treat her with so much dignity and respect.

Boaz went well beyond the obligations prescribed by the Mosaic Law, inviting Ruth to remain in his field under his protection. He even fed her and treated her with the same dignity afforded the maidservants who worked for him. And Ruth, fully recognizing and appreciating the kindness of this stranger, expressed her surprise at his gracious words and generous actions towards her.

“…you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.” – Judges 2:13 ESV

Boaz was motivated by his responsibilities as a kinsman-redeemer. According to the Mosaic Law, as a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband, Boaz was obligated to care for her. As a widow, Naomi was in a vulnerable position, having no means of livelihood and poor prospects for remarriage. But God had provided a safety net for situations such as this, commanding the relatives of individuals like Naomi to step in and redeem them from their distress.

Upon discovering the identity of the man in whose field Ruth had gleaned, Ruth refers to Boaz as her ga’al, her kinsman-redeemer. It is the same word used to describe God’s redemption of the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt.

Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. – Exodus 6:6 ESV

Naomi had been just as impressed as Ruth with the over-the-top kindness that the landowner had shown to her. And when she found out he was a close relative, it all made sense to her. Now it was all beginning to make sense to her. Boaz was fulfilling his responsibility as her kinsman-redeemer, and this important detail did not escape Naomi’s notice.

“May the Lord bless him!” Naomi told her daughter-in-law. “He is showing his kindness to us as well as to your dead husband. That man is one of our closest relatives, one of our family redeemers.” – Ruth 2:20 NLT

Things were looking up. Noami could begin to see a glimmer of hope in the overwhelming darkness that had marked her life for the last ten years. While the future had looked bleak and foreboding that morning, Naomi now had reason to believe that the days ahead might be brighter. And Ruth added a bit of additional good news.

“What’s more, Boaz even told me to come back and stay with his harvesters until the entire harvest is completed.” – Ruth 2:21 NLT

This dramatic change in circumstances should not be overlooked. If you recall, when Naomi had informed her two daughters-in-law that she was returning home to Bethlehem, they had expressed their desire to go with her. But she had tried to talk them out of it, providing a rather dark view of God and his recent actions in her life.

“Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.” – Ruth 1:11-13 NLT

Yet now, with news of Ruth’s encounter with Boaz, Naomi was beginning to see things differently. But take note that Naomi recognized and commented upon the kindness of Boaz. She referred to his hesed, a Hebrew word that described the mercy or benevolence shown to those going through difficulty. It is a loyal love that expresses itself in willing sacrifice for another. And it is the kind of love Naomi had asked God to show to her two daughters-in-law because of their love to her.

And may the Lord reward you for your kindness [hesed] to your husbands and to me. – Ruth 1:8 NLT

God was answering her prayer. Boaz had shown kindness to Ruth and Naomi recognized it. But at this point in the story, Naomi makes no mention of God’s hesed. There is no indication that she saw the hand of God in the events of that day. She was glad that things had worked out so well for Ruth and was excited that Boaz had been the owner of the field where Ruth had gleaned that day. But at no point does Naomi express her recognition of God’s sovereign hand in her life. She simply tells Ruth to take advantage of their seeming good fortune.

“Good!” Naomi exclaimed. “Do as he said, my daughter. Stay with his young women right through the whole harvest. You might be harassed in other fields, but you’ll be safe with him.” – Ruth 2:22 NLT

Practical advice from a very pragmatic woman. This was all too good to be true, and Naomi wanted Ruth to take full advantage of the serendipitous circumstances in which they found themselves. Ruth had brought home far more grain than Naomi had expected. And the unexpected news that Ruth had wandered into the fields of one of Elimelech’s kinsman had been an unexpected and much-welcomed boon to Naomi.

Yet, neither of these women had any idea what God had in store for them. Their expectations were not ambitious. They were simply looking to survive. As Naomi had told her two daughters-in-law, she was too old to even consider remarriage. And Ruth was a Moabite widow living in the land of Judah, so her prospects of finding a husband were limited as well. They were content with Ruth continuing to glean grain from the fields of Boaz. Their luck had changed. Things were looking up. But little did they realize that all of this was because God was looking down on them. And He had far greater plans in store for them than they could have ever imagined. While the prospects of gleaning grain in a safe environment was good enough for Naomi and Ruth, God had something far better planned.

Yahweh, the kinsman-redeemer of Israel was about to do something that would eventually provide spiritual sustenance for generations of Jews and Gentiles.

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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Your God Will Be My God

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. – Ruth 1:6-18 ESV

The book of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges, a three-century-long period of spiritual darkness marked by unfaithfulness and apostasy. In the book of Judges, the people of Israel are repeatedly portrayed as stubborn, rebellious, and unrepentant. And, as the author of Judges points out, their track record of unfaithfulness to God was persistent and pervasive.

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. – Judges 2:11

That condemning statement is made at least seven times in the book of Judges. And each time the people of Israel turned their backs on God, He would bring judgment upon them in the form of the Canaanites, who would plunder the Israelites until they called out to Him for help. Then God would send a judge who would deliver them from their enemies. But eventually, when that judge died, the people would turn back to their former ways, worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. And the cycle would begin again.

In the midst of all this sin, suffering, sorrow, and salvation, the book of Ruth provides a much-needed respite. It appears as a parenthetical pause, offering a refreshing glimpse into the life of a single Israelite family and their struggle for survival in those turbulent times.

Yet, the book of Ruth opens up on a remarkably sad note, revealing the fate of an Israelite woman named Naomi, whose entire world has cratered in around her.  She is living in the land of Moab, having fled with her husband from Bethlehem in an effort to escape a devastating famine. But rather than finding relief in Moab, Naomi loses her soul mate. Elimelech, her husband, dies suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving her a widow in a foreign country. Fortunately, her two adult sons are with her. And in an effort to make the most of their time in Moab, her two sons marry Moabite wives and settle down. But Naomi’s fate seems to be cursed. Ten years later, both of her sons also die, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law to fend for themselves.

The scene is set. The actors in this divine drama stand on the stage, poised to reveal the plot devised by God from eternity past. What we have here is more than just a story of the life of Naomi and a Moabite woman named Ruth. It is a glimpse into God’s sovereign plan of redemption for sinful mankind. This small book seems to chronicle the life of a single Moabite woman, and yet, within its pages, it reveals the providential outworkings of a gracious, omnipotent, and omniscient God. Every single aspect of this story is God-ordained, from the famine in the land of Canaan to Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab. The deaths of Elimelech and his sons did not catch God by surprise. At no point in this story is God portrayed as wringing His hands with worry or fretting over the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Naomi. While she had every right to wonder where God was in the midst of all her suffering, at no point does she question His love or sovereignty. In fact, she exhibits a remarkable degree of peace and patience in the face of overwhelming loss.

Her husband and sons gone, Naomi has little reason to remain in Moab. A widowed Israelite woman, she has little hope of finding a husband among the Moabites. And she has no means of providing for herself and her recently widowed daughters-in-law, so she makes plans to return home. And at this point in the story, just when things are looking impossibly dark, a glimmer of light appears. While searching for food in the fields of Moab, Naomi hears the rumor “that the Lord had visited his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6 ESV).

The famine had ended. It was safe to return home. But this fortunate news should not be received as some form of good luck or blind fate. This is a sign of God’s divine timing. At just the right time, God brought an end to the famine, so that Naomi could return to her native land of Judah. She would be going back to her hometown of Bethlehem, a small village whose very name means “house of bread.” God was going to provide for her needs, and in ways, she could never have imagined.

And little did Naomi know that all her losses would actually result in blessing, not only for her but for the people of Israel and the nations of the world. The dark cloud overshadowing her life’s story was going to have a silver lining that would have global and eternal ramifications.

As Naomi prepared to make the long journey home, she encouraged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. They were both young enough that remarriage was a distinct possibility and the most logical solution to their problem. There was no future for them in Judah. And Naomi graciously pronounced a blessing on both of them.

“May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” – Ruth 1:8-9 ESV

Naomi had not lost her trust in God. She still believed He was there and that He cared, despite all that she had endured over the last ten years. And she lovingly asked that God would bless her two daughters-in-law with husbands, health, and happiness.

Initially, both women refused Naomi’s request that they remain in Moab. They each expressed their intention to stay by her side, refusing to forsake her in her time of need. But with further coaxing from Naomi, one of the women, Orpah, decided to return to her own people. But Ruth, unwilling to leave her mother-in-law alone, refused Naomi’s advice and boldly proclaimed her unwavering pledge of faithfulness.

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” – Ruth 1:16-17 NLT

These verses have a familiar ring to them because, over the centuries, they have become a common feature of innumerable wedding ceremonies. Tens of thousands of brides and grooms have repeated these words to one another as a pledge of their commitment to marital fidelity and solidarity.

But when Ruth uttered these words to Naomi, she was expressing her willingness to leave all that she knew behind. She was stating her intention to walk away from her family and ancestral home. She would be moving to a land in which she would be a foreigner and an outsider. As a Moabitess, her chances of remarriage in Judah would be drastically reduced. And she was taking on the weighty responsibility of providing for her widowed mother-in-law, for as long as God gave her breath.

This amazing expression of faithfulness should not be taken lightly. It stands in stark contrast to the blatant unfaithfulness and infidelity of the nation of Israel as portrayed throughout the period of the judges. This was a time in the life of Israel when each man “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV). And yet, here was Ruth, a woman from Moab, who was willing to put the needs of her mother-in-law ahead of her own. And don’t miss this often-overlooked aspect of Ruth’s commitment. She was even willing to give up her god.

While the people of Israel were busy forsaking Yahweh, their covenant-keeping God, here was Ruth the Moabitess, making a covenant commitment to switch her allegiance to Him. Whether she realized it or not, Ruth was forsaking her false god for the one true God. And her decision was going to have eternal ramifications that would influence the nation of Israel and the entire world.

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 Woman Was Left

1 In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. – Ruth 1:1-5 ESV

The title for this little book stems from the name of its primary character, a relatively obscure woman who appears on the scene during the time in which Israel was under the leadership of judges. This 300-year-long period of Israel’s history ran from 1375 B.C. to 1075 B.C., and it is described in less-than-flattering terms in the latter part of the book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 17:6 ESV

The period of the judges was marked by apostasy and spiritual infidelity among the people of Israel. They were in the land of Canaan, the land that God had promised to give to Abraham’s descendants as their inheritance. Under the leadership of Joshua, the twelve tribes of Israel had waged war against the land’s occupants and had successfully displaced a large portion of their enemies, just as God had commanded them.

…the LORD said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: When you cross the Jordan River into the land of Canaan, you must drive out all the people living there. You must destroy all their carved and molten images and demolish all their pagan shrines. Take possession of the land and settle in it, because I have given it to you to occupy.” – Numbers 33:50-53 NLT

But Israel had failed to follow God’s orders to the letter. They had made compromises and concessions, choosing to make alliances with the nations living in the land, rather than expelling them as God had commanded. And the book of Judges chronicles their partial obedience.

Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. – Judges 1:27 ESV

And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them. – Judges 1:29 ESV

Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor. – Judges 1:30 ESV

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. – Judges 1:32-33 ESV

Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land.  – Judges 1:33 ESV

The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. – Judges 1:34 ESV

And God had warned the people of Israel that if they failed to remove the Canaanites from the land, these pagan nations would become a snare for them.

“…if you fail to drive out the people who live in the land, those who remain will be like splinters in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in the land where you live. And I will do to you what I had planned to do to them.” – Numbers 33:55-56 NLT

Because the people of Israel failed to remove the Canaanites, they ended up worshiping the gods of the Canaanites.

They followed other gods—the gods of the nations who lived around them. They worshiped them and made the Lord angry. They abandoned the Lord and worshiped Baal and the Ashtoreths.

The Lord was furious with Israel and handed them over to robbers who plundered them. He turned them over to their enemies who lived around them. – Judges 2:12-14 NLT

Needless to say, this period does not represent a high-water mark for the nation of Israel. In fact, the book of Judges describes it in stark terms.

…there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. – Judges 2:10 ESV

And it in this milieu of apostasy and unfaithfulness that the book of Ruth finds its setting. Because of Israel’s persistent sin of idolatry, God is using the very nations they should have driven from the land as His instruments of judgment.

he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them – Judges 2:14 ESV

But there was a method to God’s seeming madness. He had a purpose behind His divine judgment.

Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. – Judges 2:16-19 ESV

Over the years, God would raise up the various nations that remained in the land to  use as His instruments of judgment. This included the Ammonites, MIdianites, Jebusites, and Amalekites. And each time they showed up, these enemies would steal, pillage, plunder, and destroy, leaving a wake of destruction in their path that left the tribes of Israel demoralized, intimidated, and striving to survive.

And the book of Ruth opens up with the description of “a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1 ESV). The focal point of the story is a region known as Ephrathah, which was occupied by the Ephrathites. It is believed that Ephrathah was the ancient name of the Canaanite city that occupied the spot. But the name was later given its Hebrew name of Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.”

In this city lived a man named Elimelech who was married to a woman named Naomi. In an effort to escape the famine, this couple and their two adult sons relocated to the land of Moab, located at the southern border of the land of Canaan, and just east of the Dead Sea.

Moab was outside the boundaries of the land of Canaan, which gives the impression that the famine was localized. Elimelech did not attempt to go north, which would have kept them within the borders of the promised land and among their own people. It seems likely that the famine had impacted all of the tribal lands in which the people of Israel lived. This would indicate that the famine had been God-ordained and was another form of judgment from the land of God.

Elimelech, hoping to escape the ravages of the famine, relocates his family to Moab. But why did he choose the land of Moab? The logical answer would be that Moab had escaped the ravages of the famine. There would be pasture land for Elimelech’s flocks. Grain and fruit would be available for his wife and sons. It seems likely that Elimelech saw this as a temporary relocation, and that he had every intention of returning to his fellow Ephrathites as soon as the famine ended.

But God had other plans. Elimelech died – abruptly and unexpectedly, leaving his wife a widow living in a foreign land. In time, her two sons ended up marrying Moabite women. This is an important, yet easily overlooked detail in the story. Since these two young men were stuck in Moab and they had no access to Israelite women, they chose for themselves Moabite women to marry. And this would seem to be in direct contradiction to a command given by God years earlier through Moses.

“No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants for ten generations may be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. These nations did not welcome you with food and water when you came out of Egypt. Instead, they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in distant Aram-naharaim to curse you. But the LORD your God refused to listen to Balaam. He turned the intended curse into a blessing because the LORD your God loves you. As long as you live, you must never promote the welfare and prosperity of the Ammonites or Moabites.” – Deuteronomy 23:3-6 NLT

The Moabites were actually close relatives of the Israelites because they were the direct descendants of Lot, the nephew of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. But the Moabites were also the result of Lot’s incestuous relationship with one of his own daughters (Genesis 19:30-38).

But here we have the two sons of Elimelech marrying two of the descendants of Lot, both citizens of the nation of Moab. And, almost as if expected, we read that, ten years later, the two sons abruptly die. Now we have three widows, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. One was a Jew, while the other two were Moabites. But in all three cases, their circumstances could not have been any worse. Their value as potential wives had dropped precipitously with the death of their husbands. In that ancient culture, widowhood could be a death sentence.

When Naomi had lost her husband, she found herself in a relatively stable condition because she had two adult sons to care for her. Her ability to produce any kind of income on her own was limited. And very few men would marry a widow, preferring instead to have a virgin for their wife.

And when Naomi’s sons died, she was left in a highly vulnerable and hopeless situation. Not only that, she now had two widowed daughters-in-law in her care. They were her responsibility. But she had no way of caring for her own needs, let alone theirs.

And so, the story of Ruth begins. A famine. An escape. Three unexpected deaths. Three unprotected widows. And the perfect opportunity for God to show up.

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

He Will…

14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter of Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
    he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
    you shall never again fear evil.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
    let not your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord your God is in your midst,
    a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
    so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
19 Behold, at that time I will deal
    with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
    and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
    and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you in,
    at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
    among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
    before your eyes,” says the Lord. – Zephaniah 3:14-20 ESV

As Zephaniah prepares to wrap up his very short, but densely packed book of prophecy, he redirects his focus from the coming judgment of Judah and the world to the more upbeat topic of God’s plans for restoration and reconciliation. The world will not end in an apocalyptic firestorm of destruction and devastation. Yes, God is going to bring His divine judgment upon sinful mankind and He will destroy the heavens and the earth, but He will also make all things new (Revelation 21:5). The end of the age will really be a time of new beginnings.

God had promised His chosen people, Israel, that the day was coming when He would restore them to a right relationship with Himself. In spite of all their years of rebellion, unfaithfulness, and stubborn unrepentance, He would once again reestablish His covenant relationship with them.

Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. 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. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

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

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 NLT

And not only that, God had promised to recreate the universe, which currently suffers under the curse of sin.

“Look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth, and no one will even think about the old ones anymore.” – Isaiah 65:17 NLT

The apostle Paul describes the creation as “groaning” under sin’s curse, eagerly awaiting the day when it will be renewed and released from the death and decay that has marred it ever since the fall.

…all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:20-22 NLT

But the good news is that God is going to bring about a renewal of the physical universe and within the hearts of men. Even rebellious Israel will find itself made new by God, which is why Zephaniah shouts:

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter of Jerusalem! – Zephaniah 3:14 ESV

Zephaniah predicts the return of the Messiah and the establishment of His earthly kingdom in Jerusalem. And His return will be accompanied by not only the restoration of Israel to favor with God but also by the removal of all further judgment.

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
    he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
    you shall never again fear evil. – Zephaniah 3:15 ESV

In the book of Hebrews we have recorded the words of God describing this future day when He will make a new covenant with His chosen people.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
    and with the house of Judah…
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
    and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
    and I will remember their sins no more.” – Romans 8:8, 10-12 ESV

This will be a day of great rejoicing because God will provide His once-rebellious people with the inner capacity to live in perfect obedience to His law. The law, once relegated to tablets of stone, will be written on their hearts. And the prophet, Jeremiah, recorded God’s promise regarding this coming day.

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” – Jeremiah 31:33 ESV

Heart transformation. That is what God will bring to His people. Radical, Spirit-enabled heart change that will provide the people of God with the capacity to love and obey Him perfectly and joyfully.

And Zephaniah declares that on that day, God will replace mourning with joy. He will remove all reproach, eliminate all oppression, heal the sick, restore the rejected, eradicate shame, and return His people to a place of prominence and power. And He makes an unbreakable, unwavering promise to His people: “I restore your fortunes before your eyes” (Zephaniah 3:20 ESV). And all this will take place when His Son returns to the earth.

Jesus Christ will come again. And when He does, He will usher in the Millennial Kingdom, His one thousand years of righteous rule from the city of Jerusalem that will bring an end to the reign of Satan and establish culminate with the eternal state. As the prophet Isaiah predicted, Jesus will be King.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:7 ESV

Two times in the closing chapter of the book of Revelation, Jesus announces, “behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:7, 12 ESV). Obviously, John wrote those words nearly two millennia ago, so Jesus did not mean His return was imminent. But He did mean it was inevitable. And so, we are to live with confidence, eagerly anticipating the reality of His return.

And while the people of Judah faced the coming judgment of God in the form of the Babylonian conquest, they could still rejoice in the knowledge that God will one day “take away their humiliation and make the whole earth admire and respect them” (Zephaniah 3:19 NLT).

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

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

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

   

 

Wait For Me

“I have cut off nations;
    their battlements are in ruins;
I have laid waste their streets
    so that no one walks in them;
their cities have been made desolate,
    without a man, without an inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely you will fear me;
    you will accept correction.
Then your dwelling would not be cut off
    according to all that I have appointed against you.’
But all the more they were eager
    to make all their deeds corrupt.

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
    “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all my burning anger;
for in the fire of my jealousy
    all the earth shall be consumed. – Zephaniah 3:6-8 ESV

At the time when Zephaniah penned the words of his prophecy from the city of Jerusalem, the northern kingdom of Israel had already been defeated by the Assyrians and its people had been taken captive. Samaria, the capital city of Israel, had been destroyed. The initial conquest of Israel had begun in 740 BC, and 20 years later it culminated with the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians under King Shalmaneser V, but only after a three-year-long siege of the city.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. They were settled in colonies in Halah, along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. – 2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT

And Shalmaneser V repopulated the northern kingdom with a vast array of people from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds.

The king of Assyria transported groups of people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and resettled them in the towns of Samaria, replacing the people of Israel. They took possession of Samaria and lived in its towns. – 2 Kings 17:24 NLT

And the people who occupied the southern kingdom of Judah had watched all of this happen. And the unstoppable Assyrian war machine had left a long line of defeated nations in its wake. They had even marched as far south as Judah where, in the year 701 BC they attempted to add Jerusalem to its growing list of victories. But God had intervened on Judah’s behalf.

Then King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz cried out in prayer to God in heaven. And the Lord sent an angel who destroyed the Assyrian army with all its commanders and officers. So Sennacherib was forced to return home in disgrace to his own land. And when he entered the temple of his god, some of his own sons killed him there with a sword.

That is how the Lord rescued Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from King Sennacherib of Assyria and from all the others who threatened them. So there was peace throughout the land. – 2 Chronicles 32:20-22 NLT

But by the time Zephaniah wrote the book that bears his name, it had been years since the people of Judah had witnessed the saving work of God. King Hezekiah had died and replaced by his son Manasseh of whom it was said, “He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, following the detestable practices of the pagan nations that the Lord had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He rebuilt the pagan shrines his father, Hezekiah, had broken down. He constructed altars for the images of Baal and set up Asherah poles. He also bowed before all the powers of the heavens and worshiped them” (2 Chronicles 33:2-3 NLT).

At his death, Manasseh was replaced by his son, Amon. And his reign was marked by increasing apostasy.

He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, just as his father, Manasseh, had done. He worshiped and sacrificed to all the idols his father had made. But unlike his father, he did not humble himself before the Lord. Instead, Amon sinned even more. – 2 Chronicles 33:22-23 NLT

And Amon’s successor was his 8-year-old son, Josiah, whom the Scriptures paint in a far different light.

He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight and followed the example of his ancestor David. He did not turn away from doing what was right. – 2 Chronicles 34:2 NLT

Josiah was a reformer. He attempted to restore Judah’s relationship with and dependence upon God. And while his efforts were well-intentioned and heartfelt, they did little to change the spiritual state of Judah’s inhabitants. That is why Zephaniah is having to deliver the words of this prophecy to God’s chosen, yet stubborn people.

This entire book was intended as a wake-up call for the people of Judah. God was reminding them of His unwavering expectation that they obey Him. He had created them for His glory. They were meant to shine as lights in the darkness of the pagan world, revealing how sinful men could live in communion with a holy God. But they had failed. Rather than remain faithful to God and live according to His righteous law, they had chosen to emulate the nations around them. They had compromised their convictions and accommodated their beliefs to such a degree that it was difficult to discern any meaningful difference between themselves and the nations that surrounded them.

And God reminded them that these nations with whom they had chosen to associate and whose practices they had determined to assimilate, had all been the victims of His divine judgment.

“I have wiped out many nations,
    devastating their fortress walls and towers.
Their streets are now deserted;
    their cities lie in silent ruin.
There are no survivors—
    none at all.” – Zephaniah 3:6 NLT

Judah had to look no further than the borders of Israel to the north. Their cities were in ruins. And the once-prolific Jewish population had been supplanted by foreigners. Their towns, villages, and homes were occupied by people from other countries, and what few Jews remained in the land had intermarried with these invaders, creating a new mixed-race population that would later be referred to with the pejorative term, “Samaritans.”

But in spite of all that had happened around them, the people of Judah remained unrepentant and blissfully oblivious to God’s gracious intentions.

“Surely they will have reverence for me now!
    Surely they will listen to my warnings.
Then I won’t need to strike again,
    destroying their homes.’
But no, they get up early
    to continue their evil deeds.” – Zephaniah 3:7 NLT

Even Zephaniah’s warnings would fall on deaf ears. But what the people of Judah failed to understand was that God would not tolerate their behavior forever. He had given them ample warning. He had repeatedly sent His prophets to call His stubborn people to repentance. And He had shown them just how harsh His judgment could be by pouring out His wrath on the northern kingdom of Israel. They too had been descendants of Abraham. Their land had been part of the inheritance promised to the patriarchs and allocated to the various tribes of Israel. But now, ten of those tribes were all but destroyed and their land was occupied by foreign invaders.

Yet, the people of Judah still held onto the false hope that their status as God’s chosen people would act as an inoculation from further harm. They believed themselves to be immune from judgment because they belonged to God. But they were mistaken.

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
    “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all my burning anger;
for in the fire of my jealousy
    all the earth shall be consumed.” – Zephaniah 3:8 ESV

God was going to bring His judgment. And in this verse, Zephaniah records the full extent of that coming judgment: “all the earth shall be consumed.”

Zephaniah had opened his prophecy with the very same warning from God.

“I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
    and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
    I will cut off mankind
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. – Zephaniah 1:2-3 ESV

The people of Judah were not to have a false sense of security. If God was willing to destroy all mankind from the face of the earth, what right did they have to think they were exempt?

It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to recognize that this prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. God has not yet cut off mankind from the face of the earth. But God did bring judgment upon Judah. It took place when He called the nation of Babylon and used them as His chosen instrument to bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the southern kingdom. For 70 years, the land of Judah would lay in a state of suspended animation, its cities and villages unoccupied, its fields untilled and its orchards untended. The once-great city of Jerusalem would be a heap of rubble, its walls and gates destroyed, and the former glory of its temple reduced to a pile of smoke-blackened stones.

Yet, after 70 years in captivity, God would allow a remnant of the people of Judah to return to the land, where they would once again occupy the city of Jerusalem, rebuilding its walls and restoring the temple and the sacrificial system. And it would be hundreds of years later that Jesus, the Messiah of the Jewish people, would enter the city of Jerusalem to the joyous shouts of the people.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” – Matthew 21:9 ESV

And yet, those shouts would later turn to angry demands for His crucifixion. The people would reject God’s own Son. They would turn their backs on the very one who had come to offer them atonement for their sins and the hope of reconciliation with God.

But God is going to send His Son again. The day is coming when the Messiah will return to earth and the location of His arrival will be Jerusalem. The prophet Zechariah describes that future day.

Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. – Zechariah 14:3-4 ESV

The nations of the earth, under the leadership of Antichrist and the control of Satan, will gather to do battle with Jesus and His heavenly host.

And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:14-16 ESV

The people of Judah needed to recognize the full plan of God. It was extensive in nature and spanned the centuries. Their little slice of the divine timeline was nothing when compared with the full range of God’s redemptive plan. They were insignificant and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. And they not exempt from God’s wrath. He would judge them for their sins and discipline them for their rebellion. But He would also restore them to the land because He had long-range plans that included the city of Jerusalem and the people of Judah. He was going to send His Son in human flesh, born into the tribe of Judah, a descendant of David, and as the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. And all of this had been prophesied long ago by the patriarch, Jacob.

Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor. – Genesis 49:9-10 NLT

God is not done with Judah. And He has not yet fulfilled all the prophecies found in the book of Zephaniah. But He will.

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

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

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

   

 

He Will Stretch Out His Hand

12 You also, O Cushites,
    shall be slain by my sword.

13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north
    and destroy Assyria,
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
    a dry waste like the desert.
14 Herds shall lie down in her midst,
    all kinds of beasts;
even the owl and the hedgehog
    shall lodge in her capitals;
a voice shall hoot in the window;
    devastation will be on the threshold;
    for her cedar work will be laid bare.
15 This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.”
What a desolation she has become,
    a lair for wild beasts!
Everyone who passes by her
    hisses and shakes his fist. Zephaniah 2:12-15 ESV

Verse 12 contains a very brief word of warning from God concerning the Cushites. The land of Cush is most commonly associated with the modern-day nation of Ethiopia. But even the ancient Jewish historian made this connection.

“For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews).

As Josephus points out, Cush was the oldest son of Ham and, therefore, a grandson of Noah. But the original land of Cush most likely encompassed a much larger region than that of modern-day Ethiopia. It is believed that ancient Cush encompassed land on both sides of the Red Sea, including Upper and Lower Nubia, as well as Sudan. The prophet Isaiah provides a colorful description of the land of Cush.

Ah, land of whirring wings
    that is beyond the rivers of Cush,
which sends ambassadors by the sea,
    in vessels of papyrus on the waters!
Go, you swift messengers,
    to a nation tall and smooth,
to a people feared near and far,
    a nation mighty and conquering,
    whose land the rivers divide. – Isaiah 18:1-2 ESV

And Jeremiah includes the nation of Cush in his prophetic warning against Egypt.

“Who is this, rising like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge?
Egypt rises like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge.
He said, ‘I will rise, I will cover the earth,
    I will destroy cities and their inhabitants.’
Advance, O horses,
    and rage, O chariots!
Let the warriors go out:
    men of Cush and Put who handle the shield,
    men of Lud, skilled in handling the bow. – Jeremiah 46:7-9 ESV

At the point in time in which Zephaniah penned his book, the nations that occupied the northeastern tip of Africa were closely associated, having formed alliances that allowed them to survive the chaos and turbulence of those ancient days. The prophet Ezekiel also included Cush in his

Thus says the Lord God:

“Wail, ‘Alas for the day!’
   For the day is near,
    the day of the Lord is near;
it will be a day of clouds,
    a time of doom for the nations.
A sword shall come upon Egypt,
    and anguish shall be in Cush,
when the slain fall in Egypt,
    and her wealth is carried away,
    and her foundations are torn down.

“Cush, and Put, and Lud, and all Arabia, and Libya, and the people of the land that is in league, shall fall with them by the sword.” – Ezekiel 30:1-5 ESV

It seems that Zephaniah is including Cush in order to represent the far reaches of God’s coming judgment. Representing the southernmost nation known to the people of Israel, Cush would also experience the wrath of God, and it would likely be due to their close association with Egypt.

Those who support Egypt shall fall,
    and her proud might shall come down… – Ezekiel 30:6 ESV

Suddenly, Zephaniah shifts the focus from the far south to the polar opposite region in the north. The extent of God’s righteous judgment will be vast and all-encompassing. No nation will be able to escape His coming judgment.

And he will stretch out his hand against the north
    and destroy Assyria – Zephaniah 2:13 ESV

Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh had figured prominently in the political and military turmoil that marked this region of the world. The Assyrians had been major power brokers for quite some time. It was the Assyrians whom God used to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, beginning in 740 BC.

So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, the spirit of Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and he took them into exile, namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, to this day. – 1 Chronicles 5:26 ESV

In Zephaniah’s day, Nineveh would have been one of the most beautiful and impressive cities in the ancient world. Yet, he is given a vision of this magnificent city being turned into a wasteland by God.

he will make Nineveh a desolation,
    a dry waste like the desert Zephaniah 2:13 ESV

These mighty nations, with all their power, wealth, opulence, and pride, would find themselves humbled under the mighty hand of God. From the far south to the distant north, the nations had all be vying for dominance and the people of God had found themselves situated at the epicenter of this ongoing quest for dominion.

Throughout this section of his book, Zephaniah is pointing out God’s sovereignty over all the earth. The Almighty God is in control of all things, including the nations of the earth. It is God who puts kings on their thrones. And it is He who has the sole authority to remove them as He sees fit. In fact, Daniel spoke the following words to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the all-powerful Babylonians.

You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all – Daniel 2:37-38 ESV

And since God is the one who establishes the rule and the reach of kings, He has a distinct dislike for pride in any form or fashion. Kings who dare to boast of their greatness or who arrogantly take credit for their accomplishments will face the wrath of the omnipotent King of the universe. Nebuchadnezzar would learn this lesson the hard way. At one point during his reign, he stood on the roof of his royal palace and took in the impressive sight that spread out below him.

“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV

And no sooner had the words left his lips, than this pride-filled king found himself relegated to acting and living like a wild animal. The man who had just gloried in his self-achievements lost his mind. And Daniel warned him that his insanity would last until he recognized “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32 ESV).

These declarations of coming destruction against Cush and Assyria are meant to convey God’s dominance and dominion over the affairs of men. There is no kingdom that exists without His divine permission. There is no ruler who reigns without God’s sovereign sanction. These mighty nations thought they could do as they wished, declaring themselves the rulers of the known world. But each of them was nothing more than an instrument in the hand of God. Their very existence was due to the will of God. They ruled at the whim of God. And they would all eventually fall under the just and righteous judgment of God.

Mankind is pride-filled and self-exalting. And the mighty city of Nineveh expresses the autonomous, self-righteous attitude of humanity.

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

David, the great king of Israel, would later pen the words that chronicle the foolishness of man’s egocentric outlook on life.

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

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

Will those who do evil never learn?
    They eat up my people like bread
    and wouldn’t think of praying to the Lord.
Terror will grip them,
    for God is with those who obey him.
The wicked frustrate the plans of the oppressed,
    but the Lord will protect his people. – Psalm 14:1-6 NLT

North, south, east, and west – the people of God were surrounded by enemies who were more powerful, greater in number, and intent on their destruction. But, as David pointed out, the Lord will protect His people.  While the wicked frustrate the plans of the oppressed, God will one day put an end to the plans of the wicked. He will stretch out His hand and the mighty will fall.

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

   

 

To the Glory of God

“I have heard the taunts of Moab
    and the revilings of the Ammonites,
how they have taunted my people
    and made boasts against their territory.
Therefore, as I live,” declares the Lord of hosts,
    the God of Israel,
“Moab shall become like Sodom,
    and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
    and a waste forever.
The remnant of my people shall plunder them,
    and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.”
10 This shall be their lot in return for their pride,
    because they taunted and boasted
    against the people of the Lord of hosts.
11 The Lord will be awesome against them;
    for he will famish all the gods of the earth,
and to him shall bow down,
    each in its place,
    all the lands of the nations. Zephaniah 2:8-11 ESV

After having issued His warning of coming judgment upon the Philistines, God now addresses Judah’s neighbors to the east. Moab and Ammon lie on the opposite side of the Dead Sea in land that is often referred to as the Transjordan.

Hundreds of years earlier, when the people of Israel were making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, they had to pass through this region of the Transjordan. And when they arrived at the border of Moab, God commanded Moses to avoid any confrontation with the people who lived there.

“And we turned and went in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. And the Lord said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’” – Deuteronomy 2:8-9 ESV

God also commanded that the Israelites treat the people of Ammon in the same way and for a similar reason.

“And when you approach the territory of the people of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession.…” – Deuteronomy 2:19 ESV

To grasp what’s going on here, you have to understand why God had given “the sons of Lot” possession of these territories. Lot was the nephew of Abraham who, according to the book of Genesis, accompanied his uncle when he began his God-ordained relocation to Canaan.

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. – Genesis 12:12:5 ESV

Upon their arrival in the land of Canaan, Lot and Abram eventually parted ways.

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord. – Genesis 13:10-13 ESV

This little bit of historical context is going to be important as we move through God’s judgment upon Moab and Ammon. Lot ended up settling in the wicked city of Sodom, rather than taking up residence in the “well-watered” Jordan Valley. And sometime later, when God brought judgment upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, He would spare Lot and his family “because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him” (2 Peter 4:7 NLT).

But during their escape from the city of Sodom, Lot’s wife would die for violating God’s command. He had commanded them, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (Genesis 19:17 ESV). 

But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26 ESV). With the death of his wife, “Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters” (Genesis 19:30 ESV). And it didn’t take long before the negative influence of having grown up in Sodom became apparent. Fearful that they would both become old maids, unmarried and childless, the two daughters of Lot conspired to get their father drunk and have sex with him. The result of their illicit and immoral decision would be the nations of Moab and Ammon.

Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day. – Genesis 19:36-38 ESV

Now that we have the historical context, let’s got back to the prophecy of Zephaniah. God specifically calls out Moab and Ammon, the descendants of Lot and the close relatives of God’s chosen people. And He accuses them of having taunted and reviled the people of Judah. As far back as Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the Moabites had been guilty of trying to prevent the Israelites from settling in the land of Canaan. The sheer number of Israelites had frightened the people of Moab.

And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” – Numbers 22:3-4 ESV

So, the king of Moab had hired a local diviner named Balaam, ordering him to pronounce a curse of the people of Israel.

Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22:6 ESV

But God prevented Balaam from cursing the people of Israel. In fact, he would actually end up pronouncing a God-ordained blessing upon the people of Israel. And that blessing would take the form of a prophetic message concerning the coming Messiah and the Savior of the world.

“I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
    and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed;
    Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed.
    Israel is doing valiantly.
And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion
    and destroy the survivors of cities!” – Numbers 24:17-19 ESV

The Ammonites would also prove to be a constant source of animosity for the people of Israel, waging war against them throughout the period of the judges and well into the reigns of Saul and David. The Ammonites and Moabites, while descendants of Lot, were a pagan people who worshiped false gods. And God commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with them because those relationships would lead the Israelites to turn their backs on Him. Yet, even King Solomon would choose to disobey God, marrying Naamah, who was an Ammonite (1 Kings 14:21). And Solomon would end up worshiping the gods of his many pagan wives and concubines, resulting in God dividing his kingdom in half, creating the northern nation of Israel and the southern nation of Judah.

But back to Moab and Ammon. God had plans for them. They were not going to enjoy their pagan ways forever. Their pride and arrogance and their hostility toward the people of Judah would be repaid.

“Moab shall become like Sodom,
    and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
    and a waste forever.
The remnant of my people shall plunder them,
    and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.” – Zephaniah 2:9 ESV

God foreshadows the coming destruction of these two nations, comparing their fall to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isn’t it fascinating that God chooses to use these two wicked cities to describe the fall of Ammon and Moab? The common link is Lot, the progenitor of the Ammonites and Moabites. But the two cities and the two nations also share a track record of wickedness, pride, sin, immorality, and godlessness.

Ultimately, the sins of Moab and Ammon were against God. By rejecting Israel, they had rejected Him.

“Make him drunk, because he magnified himself against the Lord, so that Moab shall wallow in his vomit, and he too shall be held in derision.

We have heard of the pride of Moab—
    he is very proud—
of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance,
    and the haughtiness of his heart.
I know his insolence, declares the Lord;
    his boasts are false,
    his deeds are false.” – Jeremiah 48:26, 29-30 ESV

“I will make Rabbah a pasture for camels and Ammon a fold for flocks. Then you will know that I am the Lord. For thus says the Lord God: Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet and rejoiced with all the malice within your soul against the land of Israel…” – Ezekiel 25:5-6 ESV

The day is coming, the “great day of the Lord,” when He will bring His judgment against all the nations of the earth. And there will be a reason for God’s destruction of these pagan nations.

The Lord will terrify them
    as he destroys all the gods in the land.
Then nations around the world will worship the Lord,
    each in their own land. – Zephaniah 2:11 NLT

He will remove all vestiges of the false gods that have led the nations to live in open rebellion to Him. He will destroy them, making it perfectly clear that He is the one and only God. And the end result will be that the nations of the world will bow down in worship of Him and Him alone.

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the LORD, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will declare allegiance to God.’” – Romans 14:11 NLT

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

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

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

   

 

A Remnant Reserved

1 Gather together, yes, gather,
    O shameless nation,
before the decree takes effect
    —before the day passes away like chaff—
before there comes upon you
    the burning anger of the Lord,
before there comes upon you
    the day of the anger of the Lord.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
    who do his just commands;
seek righteousness; seek humility;
    perhaps you may be hidden
    on the day of the anger of the Lord.
Zephaniah 2:1-3 ESV

The prophet has warned the people of Judah that the judgment of God is near. The righteous wrath of God was inevitable and inescapable, and they had no one to blame but themselves. They had sinned against Him and acted as if He would do nothing about. But they had been wrong.

Yet, the prophet provides a glimmer of hope. He delivers a message to the small contingent of the faithful who remain in Judah – “the humble of the land, who do his just commands” (Zephaniah 2:3 ESV). He calls on them to seek righteousness and humility. Though they found themselves surrounded on all sides by apostasy, unfaithfulness, and wickedness, they were to remain committed to God and His commands. All was not lost. The could still enjoy the mercy of God, but it was going to require that they remain untarnished by the spirit of rebellion that permeated the nation.

In a sense, Zephaniah is dividing the nation into two diametrically opposite contingents. On the one hand, he addresses the “shameless nation,” demanding that they gather together in a public assembly. As a nation, they are marked by pride, arrogance, and a stubborn reluctance to return to the Lord in contrition and repentance.  But Zephaniah warns them that they need to reconsider their hard-headed determination to reject God’s call before it’s too late. If they’re not careful, their opportunity to receive mercy will disappear like worthless husks of grain carried by the winds of God’s judgment. They will find themselves out of time and out of chances to enjoy the gracious forgiveness of God.

Zephaniah is calling for a solemn assembly, a public gathering of the people intended as an opportunity to confess their sins and call on God’s mercy. The prophet Joel described the nature of these communal gatherings.

Consecrate a fast;
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord. – Joel 1:14 ESV

It was God’s desire that His people repent. He wanted to spare them the coming judgment, but it was going to require a radical change in their attitudes and actions.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
    and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster. – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

The sad reality was that the majority of the people of Judah would remain unrepentant. They would refuse to return to God. Their hearts would remain stubbornly resistant. Their lives would be marked by feasting rather than fasting, celebration instead of mourning, and sin-fueled happiness in place of repentance-based weeping. And yet, in the very next chapter, God reveals that He will ensure the persistent presence of a faithful few.

I will leave in your midst
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord – Zephaniah 3:12 ESV

No matter how bad things got, there would always be a remnant of God’s people who maintained their unwavering commitment to Him. Even though they would represent the minority camp, they would continue to seek security in their covenant relationship with God Almighty. And God offers them what sounds like a less-than-encouraging promise for their efforts: “perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord” (Zephaniah 2:3 ESV).

God wasn’t guaranteeing their survival or promising them the complete absence of suffering. Their faith was not going to immunize them from the coming judgment. But there was always the possibility that God would allow them to escape the full brunt of His divine judgment.

Even during the end-times event known as the Great Tribulation, many of those who come to faith in Christ will end up as martyrs for the cause of Christ. Their lives will be marked by intense persecution at the hand of Antichrist, followed by the loss of their lives. They will represent a remnant, a portion of the entirety of humanity who will be alive at that time. But despite having placed their faith in Christ, they will not escape the wrath of the enemy. In fact, in the book of Revelation, the apostle John records the vision he received concerning this remnant of God’s people.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 ESV

John goes on to provide further clarification as to the identity of these individuals:

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
    and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
    the sun shall not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:14-17 ESV

God cares for His own. And in the case of the people of Judah, while God was going to bring judgment against them for their sins against Him, He promised the existence of a faithful remnant. And their ongoing presence would ensure the fulfillment of His covenant promises to Abraham. God would not completely destroy His chosen people because He had plans to make redemption available through His Son, who would be born into the tribe of Judah.

The prophet Isaiah records God’s promise of the remnant and how, even in the face of coming judgment, God would bring display His righteousness by sending His Son as the payment for mankind’s sin debt.

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. – Isaiah 10:20-22 ESV

And Paul

And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.

And as Isaiah predicted,

“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
    we would have been like Sodom
    and become like Gomorrah.” – Romans 9:27-29 ESV

Judah deserved complete destruction. just as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah had. But God would spare Judah so that He could preserve a remnant. And from that remnant would come the Savior of the world and the only possible means of redemption for a lost and dying world.

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

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

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

   

 

Faith and Fruitfulness

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

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

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

FigOne of the reasons it is important to read the four gospels simultaneously, in what is called a “harmony,” is that it provides you with a much more accurate timeline of the events. You will also discover that each of the authors has provided his own unique retelling of the events surrounding the life of Jesus. When read together, they provide a 3D-rendering of the circumstances, with each gospel providing different details that help fill out the story.

This is especially true with today’s passage. The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is difficult to understand, and it requires a reading of each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to get a well-rounded understanding of the circumstances involved.

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

On Tuesday morning, Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem, and along the way, they passed a fig tree. Jesus “noticed a fig tree in full leaf and little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, ‘May no one eat your fruit again!’ And the disciples heard him say it” (Mark 11:12-14 NLT).

This sequence of events is critical to understanding what Jesus does next. He curses the fig tree, then He and the disciples made their way into Jerusalem, where He “entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:15-16 NLT).

Taking these two events out of order or attempting to deal with them independently will render them virtually incomprehensible. The cursing of the fig tree makes sense only if you keep in mind what Jesus did next.

When He arrived in Jerusalem that Monday and took a look around the Temple grounds, He saw what had become of His Father’s house. He assessed the situation and then left for the day. On the way back into the city the next morning, He saw the barren fig tree and cursed it. Matthew tells us that Jesus was hungry, and when He went to find fruit on the tree, there was none. But His cursing of the tree is not done out of anger or vindictiveness. This was not some petty power display or a form of divine judgment upon a fruitless tree. It was intended to be visual lesson for the disciples.

One of the important details found in the story is that the tree was in full bloom. It was a healthy, visibly vibrant tree that had all the appearances of fruitfulness. But the fruit was missing. Think back on what John the Baptist had to say to the Jewish religious leaders, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV).

We could do a lengthy study on the fruit-bearing properties of the Middle Eastern fig tree, but that is not the point of the story. There are commentators who try to explain that the fig tree in that part of the world has fruit on it year-round. Others say that if the tree was in full leaf it should have had fruit. But all we know from the gospel accounts is that IT HAD NO FRUIT.

Mark tells us it was not the season for fruit, and yet, Jesus hungered for fruit. He came to the tree expecting to see and enjoy fruit. BUT THE TREE WAS EMPTY OF FRUIT. It was appealing to the eye but failed to live up to Jesus’ expectations.

As usual, this event had much to do with Jesus’ perception of the religious leaders of His day. Jesus had accused the Pharisees of doing everything they did to be noticed by men. It was all about the show.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” – Matthew 23:5 ESV

But this problem had become a national epidemic. To all appearances, the nation of Israel had all the trappings of religious fervor and faith. They had a place of worship – the Temple. They practiced the religious requirements as handed down by God – Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, the Law, etc. They had a priesthood. They made regular sacrifices to atone for their sins.

In his book, The Words and Works of Jesus, J. Dwight Pentecost writes, “Like the leafy tree, they had given external evidence of being fruitful but on examination, they were seen to be barren and fruitless. Therefore judgment had to come on that generation.”

Mark indicates that it was the next morning, as they passed by the fig tree again, that the disciples noticed it was withered from the roots up. “Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!’” (Mark 11:20-21 NLT).

So what’s the point? The cursing of the fig tree was a statement against the spiritual hypocrisy and religious formalism of the Pharisees. The fig tree had all that was required for fruitfulness, but no fruit. And Jesus used the moment to teach the disciples an important lesson on faith, and He makes the main point right at the outset: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22 NLT).

No faith. No Fruit.

It was the lack of faith in God that resulted in Israel’s barrenness. They were not experiencing the power of God in their lives (Mark 11:23). They were not enjoying answered prayers from God (Mark 11:24). Their prayers were hindered by hatred and unforgiveness (Mark 11:25). Over in the book of John, we read the words of Jesus:

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in my, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”John 15:5-8 NLT

Fruitfulness and faith go hand in hand.

When Jesus cleansed the Temple, He had shouted, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17 NLT). He accused the religious leaders of stealing glory from God. They were abusing the people of God. They were more obsessed with financial gain than holiness. They were more interested in fleecing the flock than in faithfulness. But God’s house was for all people. Jesus had come for all men. Salvation was for all who would believe.

Yet, the Jewish religious leaders had taken the court of the Gentiles, the only place non-Jews could worship, and had turned it into a three-ring circus. It was there that they had set up their system of graft and greed, disguised as religion. But at the end of the day, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was all about obedience and faithfulness. It was about wholehearted commitment to the Lord and not about religiosity and ritual. Jesus compared them to their rebellious ancestors and concludes that NOTHING HAD CHANGED!

And He warned them that the temple would not save them. It was the God of the Temple who was to be their only hope. And it was the people who God had called to His Temple who were important.

Over in his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul reminds us, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NLT).

Jesus is still looking for fruitfulness from His people. That fruitfulness is only possible through faith in God. And those who have faith in God and believe in His Son will experience the fruit of the Spirit and the power of God in their lives. That is why Jesus told the disciples, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen” (Matthew 21:21 ESV).

Israel was going to be judged by God for its lack of fruitfulness, caused by its lack of faith in Him. Like the barren fig tree, they would be judged for their failure to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. They had all the appearances of religiosity but lacked the one thing that could make them truly religious: Faith in God. Which is why they rejected His Son and their Savior. And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that they would need to have faith without doubt, so that they could experience the kind of fruitfulness God had planned for them.

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

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

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

The King of the Jews

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. – Matthew 2:1-12 ESV

If you compare Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth with that of Luke, you quickly see that Matthew only provides those details that support his attempt to prove that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews. So, unlike Luke, Matthew does not include background information such as the census that required Joseph to take his pregnant wife to Bethlehem. There is no mention of the visit of the shepherds or the presentation of Jesus at the temple.

In fact, Matthew fast-forwards the narrative and picks up the story when Jesus was probably about one-year-old. Joseph and Mary had remained in Bethlehem, most likely to provide time for Mary to fully heal and to give the baby time to mature before they made the long and arduous trip back to their hometown of Nazareth.

But their delay in returning to Nazareth was obviously God-ordained. He had plans for them, of which they were not yet aware. And there were storm clouds forming in the distance that were going to presage the kind reception their son could expect to experience.

While Mary and Joseph had been adjusting to their new life as parents, a group of wise men or magi from a distant land had been making their way to Israel, in search of the newborn king of the Jews. These men were most likely astrologers who, while studying the stars and the planets, had seen a sign.

“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” – Matthew 2:2 ESV

Matthew provides us with no details regarding how these magi received or interpreted the sign they had seen. We do not know where they were from or how they made the connection between the cosmic sign and the coming of the Jewish king. Perhaps they came from Babylon, where there was still a fairly large contingent of Jews who had chosen to remain there rather than return to Judah under the leadership of Nehemiah. It would seem that these magi had access to the Hebrew scriptures and had been able to connect the dots between what they saw in the sky and what God had predicted in His Word. One of the passages to which they could have referred was Numbers 24:17, which the Jews of Jesus’ day believed to have Messianic implications.

I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…

Regardless of how these men made their assessment of the star and its connection to the new king of the Jews, they were sufficiently convinced to make the long journey to Jerusalem. And when they arrived, they expressed little doubt as to the validity of the sign or their interpretation of it. They asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” According to their understanding of the sign, this baby was born as the official and lawful king of the Jews. Which is what led them to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, where David and Solomon had once reigned.

But the magi found another king sitting on the throne of David. His name was Herod, and he was actually an Edomite. He had been placed on the throne by the Romans and was seen by the Jews as a usurper and as nothing more than a puppet to the occupying forces of Rome. Herod was an ambitious and highly suspicious ruler who was relentless and ruthless in his efforts to protect his power. He had a well-deserved reputation for eliminating any and all potential threats to his throne. He had his own wife’s brother drowned in a pool on the palace grounds. He ordered the murder of 46 members of the Sanhedrin. His wife, two sons, and mother-in-law also fell victim to his unbridled fear and suspicion. Potential rivals to his crown were dealt with quickly and effectively.

So, when the magi showed up in Jerusalem asking about the whereabouts of the new king of the Jews, Herod took notice and instigated steps to locate and eliminate this potential threat to his throne.

Matthew’s primary focus in this section is to further promote and prove the kingship of Jesus. In doing so, he established a conflict between Herod, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews, and Jesus, Israel’s God-anointed and rightful king. And it seems clear that Herod was under the impression that this new king was also to be the Christ, the Messiah of Israel. He assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the Jews, asking them, “where the Christ was to be born” (Matthew 2:4 ESV). These learned men revealed to Herod what the Old Testament Scriptures had to say about such matters, and they quoted to him from the prophecy recorded by Micah.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days. – Micah 5:2 ESV

Herod, always devious and deceptive in his efforts, sent the magi on a mission to discover the whereabouts of the new king, falsely claiming a desire to worship him.

“Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” – Matthew 2:8 ESV

Worship is a key theme in this passage. The word itself is mentioned three different times, and the magi are described as falling down and worshiping the young child, Jesus, offering Him priceless gifts of tribute. Kingship and rule are also repeated themes, appearing six different times in 12 verses. Matthew juxtaposes the earthly and undeserving reign of Herod with that of the true king of Israel, Jesus, the Christ. One was not even a Jew by birth, while the other was the son of Abraham and the son of David. One was a tool of the Romans, while the other was the anointed-one of God, who was sent to do His Father’s will.

It is hard to miss that these men from a foreign land were used by God to confirm the identity of His Son. He had used a sign in heaven to direct them to Jerusalem, where they were given further details and divine guidance to find Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem.

…the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. – Matthew 2:9 ESV

And Matthew uses these men to establish a theme that will appear throughout his Gospel account. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, and yet they had gone out of their way to seek and find the King of the Jews. And when they found Him, they bowed down and worshiped Him, showering Him with gifts to illustrate their recognition of His sovereignty and glory. And yet the Jews, represented by Herod, their false king, would repeatedly reject Jesus as their Messiah and King. The Gentile magi recognized Jesus as the King of the Jews, but as the apostle John pointed out, the Jews did not.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:11 ESV

It’s interesting to note that, at the end of his Gospel account, Matthew records the reaction of a group of Roman soldiers who had witnessed the death of Jesus. They had most likely participated in the mocking and abuse that preceded His crucifixion. One of them may have nailed up the sign that hung above His head, which read, “The King of the Jews.” They most likely took part in the nailing of Jesus to the cross on which He died. But when Jesus had breathed His last, Matthew records that their perception of Jesus was radically altered.

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” – Matthew 27:54 ESV

Jesus was born the King of the Jews. And He died the King of the Jews. When He came into this world, He was worshiped by Gentiles from a foreign land, bearing gifts worthy of a king. When He died, He was surrounded by Gentiles of Roman birth, holding swords and spears, but offering Him the greatest tribute they could bring: They acknowledge that Jesus was the Son of God. And Matthew will spend the rest of his Gospel, defending and proving that Jesus was indeed the King of the Jews and the Son of God.

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

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson