God’s Godless People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

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A Capital With No King

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” – Matthew 23:37-39 ESV

Jerusalem.gif

After pronouncing His seven woes on the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel, Jesus turned His attention to the city of Jerusalem. And He spoke over it as if addressing an individual. The city of Jerusalem, the capital of the nation of Israel, was representative of all the people. It was the city of David, the great king, and contained the temple built by his son, Solomon. But the city and its inhabitants were guilty of unfaithfulness to God. Like their ancestors, who had rejected the prophets of God, the people of Jerusalem were going to end up rejecting the Messiah of God and the men whom He had chosen to take the good news of His kingdom to the world. Jesus had made it clear that this generation of Jews was just as guilty as those who had come before them.

Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” – Matthew 23:31 ESV

The rejection of God’s prophets was a serious matter – one He does not take lightly. And to think that the people of Israel were guilty of murdering those whom God had sent to them is difficult to comprehend. But the people of Israel had made a habit of it. And their refusal to accept God’s messengers and their message had eventually led to their fall and deportation to Babylon. God had brought judgment on them for their unfaithfulness and rebellion against Him. And Jesus warned His audience that they would be no different than their predecessors.

“Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town.” – Matthew 23:34 ESV

Not only would they reject Jesus as their Messiah and demand His crucifixion, but they would also continue to reject His apostles long after His resurrection and ascension. The Jews would deny His claim to be the Messiah and reject His offer of salvation. Their track record as a nation would continue unabated. Centuries had come and gone, but little had changed. The rebellion of the people of Israel was undiminished, and Jesus informed them that all the woes He had pronounced against the Pharisees would “come upon this generation.”

But He expressed sorrow over their coming judgment. He longed for them to repent and return to God in contrition over their sin. He wanted to protect them like a mother hen protects her chicks. But they would refuse His offer. And, Jesus warned them that “your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38 ESV). That word, “desolate” is packed with meaning. The Greek word is erēmos, and it means “uninhabited, deprived of protection,” or it can refer to “a flock deserted by the shepherd.” Jesus was predicting the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD at the hands of the Romans. And He will elaborate on His prediction in the very next chapter.

“Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Matthew 24:2 NLT

Jerusalem would fall. The temple would be destroyed. And Jesus told the people, “For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:39 ESV). This is an interesting statement because it echoes back to His recent entry into the city of Jerusalem. Luke records what happened that day.

As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” – Luke 19:37-38 ESV

The people of Jerusalem had welcomed Jesus as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. But as we will see, they will just as quickly turn on Him, demanding His execution at the hands of the Romans. Their shouts of praise and confession of His kingship had been a sham. He had not fulfilled their Messianic expectations, so they would turn on Him. They would reject Him.

But one day Jesus will return and, when He does, things will be different. The apostle Paul would later pen these words, quoting from the book of Isaiah:

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” – Romans 14:11 ESV

And Paul would remind the believers in Philippi:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 ESV

The Jews of Jesus’ day would not accept Him as their Messiah. But the day is coming when all the inhabitants of the earth will bow before Him, recognizing Him as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. The apostle John provides us with a preview of what that day will look like.

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

And when Jesus returns to the earth, He will set up His Kingdom in the city of Jerusalem, where He will reign for a thousand years.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4-6 ESV

The Jews could and would reject Jesus as their Messiah. But that would not stop God from fulfilling His sovereign plan to redeem fallen mankind. The Romans would crucify Jesus, but that would not derail God’s predetermined outcome for His creation’s restoration. Even those who reject Jesus will one day recognize Him for who He is: The one who comes in the name of the Lord. They will bow before Him, either in veneration or subjugation. They will either revere Him or fear Him. But all will acknowledge Him.

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

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

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

The Calm Before the Storm

1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” –  Matthew 21:1-11 ESV

jesus-christ-triumphal-entry-949744-wallpaperJesus was making His way to Jerusalem, a journey He had anticipated for some time and about which he had warned the disciples. It would be a trip with a two-fold purpose: To celebrate the Feast of Passover, but also to present Himself as the sacrificial Lamb for the sins of mankind. There was a festive mood on the roads and in the villages surrounding Jerusalem because of all the pilgrims who were making their way to the city in order to celebrate Passover. But there was another group who were excited for an entirely different reason. They were hoping to find Jesus.

Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him. – John 11:55-57 ESV

Not long before Jesus began His trip to Jerusalem, He had performed yet another miracle in the city of Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem. It was there that He had raised Lazarus from the dead. And that particular miracle had created quite a stir among the people, causing many to believe in Him. But the religious leaders remained vehemently opposed to Jesus. They saw Him not as a Messiah to be worshiped, but as a radical to be exterminated. The apostle John attempts to explain the growing hatred these men held for Jesus.

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. – John 11:45-53 ESV

We know from John’s gospel account that just six days before Jesus entered Jerusalem, He had returned to Bethany, where He shared a meal with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the man He had raised from the dead. Ever since his miraculous restoration, Lazarus had become a celebrity. John tells us that “When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” (John 12:9 ESV). But while Lazarus had become famous among the people, he had become infamous to the religious leaders. 

So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus. – John 12:10-11 ESV

So, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was filled with mixed emotions. There were cheering crowds who welcome Him as they would a king. And His 12 disciples were most likely elated at the reaction of the crowds. It would have been a good omen to them. Maybe this would be the day when Jesus declared Himself king of Israel. Perhaps Jesus would see the positive response of the people and give up all His talk about being mocked, flogged, and crucified.

But while the throng of people crowding the streets contained many who believed in Jesus, it seems that their belief was limited in scope. Yes, they cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But when asked about the identity of Jesus, they simply responded, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.

They had high hopes. In their hearts, they wanted to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but they could not bring themselves to buy into His identity as the Son of God. In their minds, He was Jesus from Nazareth, most likely a prophet sent by God, and a man who possessed indisputable, supernatural powers. And the fervor of these “believers” was contagious, causing others to get caught up in the excitement of the moment. But the religious leaders remained filled with contempt and were anxious to capture Jesus before His presence and popularity stirred up any more trouble.

And it’s interesting to note that Jesus did not enter the city silently and clandestinely. He most certainly knew what the Pharisees and scribes were up to. He had already predicted His own betrayal and arrest. So, why did He choose to enter in such a blatantly conspicuous way? Jesus was providing His disciples with proof of His Messianic role by fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming king of Israel. Every one of the instructions He gave His disciples was intended to reveal and confirm His true identity to them. Even His request that they retrieve a donkey and its colt was evidence that He was the Messiah. It fulfilled the words of the prophet, Zechariah, recorded hundreds of years earlier.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
    righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey. – Zecharaiah 9:9 ESV

Everything that happened from this point forward was proof that Jesus was the Messiah, the one whom God had promised would come. And the people, either knowingly or ignorantly, confirmed His identity, when they shouted, “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). The word “hosanna” literally means “save us now.” Their designation of Jesus as the Son of David was a Messianic title. They were declaring Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah and King of Israel. But did they really believe what they were saying? Were their cheers and words of declaration the result of true belief or wishful thinking?

Luke records that the Pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke the crowds for what they were saying, but Jesus simply responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 11:40 ESV). This was a God-ordained event, designed to give further proof that Jesus was who He had claimed to be.

God was using the crowds to declare the glory of His Son. And, as Jesus stated, God could have chosen inanimate rocks to do the job instead. His Son was going to be declared as who He was, the Savior of mankind. And as we will see later on in Matthew’s record, the majority of the people who placed palm branches before Jesus and declared Him to be the Son of David would later cry out for His crucifixion.

Emotions were running high that day in Jerusalem. Matthew tells us that the city was “stirred up” because of Jesus. The Greek word he used is seiō, and it means “to be agitated, shaken, or rocked.” The arrival of Jesus was like an earthquake, shaking the entire city to its core. And, as we will see, Jesus was not done yet. This was not going to be a quiet, covert period in His life. Things were building up to a dramatic climax. The tension was mounting. His entire earthly ministry had been pointed to this moment, and the spiritual battle that began with His temptation in the wilderness three years earlier was coming to a final, decisive conclusion.

The event recorded in this passage is often referred to as the “Triumphal Entry.” And while His entry into Jerusalem was accompanied by cheering crowds and outward signs of acceptance and adulation, there was something sinister going on behind the scenes. The adoring multitude with their smiling faces would soon dissipate and disperse. The warm welcome would not last. Because a battle of epic proportions was about to take place. This entire scene serves as the preface for a spiritual confrontation that will rock the world. The Son of God is about to go to war “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV).

From the moment Jesus took on human flesh and came in the form of an innocent baby, Satan had been trying to eliminate this threat to his earthly dominion and rule. All the spiritual forces of evil were aligning themselves against Jesus, in one final attempt to thwart the will of God. But Jesus’ battle with Satan would not involve demons and angels wielding swords and spears. It would entail Jesus sacrificing His life as payment for the sins of mankind. He would defeat the enemy by offering Himself as the atoning sacrifice for Satan-inspired rebellion against God. His death would be viewed as a defeat by His disappointed disciples. But the King would prove to be victorious over sin and death when He was raised back to life.

None of this was apparent to the disciples as they fetched the donkey and reveled in the shouts of the crowd. They were oblivious to what was about to happen. But in time, they would see the battle lines being drawn and the forces of evil aligning themselves against Jesus. It was the calm before the storm.

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

Sight For the Blind

29 And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. 30 And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him. –  Matthew 20:29-34 ESV

JerichoEarlyMtNebo.jpgJesus was on His way to Jerusalem where, as He has told His disciples, He would be betrayed, tried, and put to death by crucifixion. And yet, as Matthew records, the crowds continued to follow Him. They had no idea what was awaiting Jesus in Jerusalem. And even the disciples were having a difficult time accepting the truth of what Jesus had told them. The idea of Jesus being put on trial by the Jewish religious leaders sounded too far-fetched to consider. And the thought of Jesus being put to death was something they simply refused to believe.

But what’s important to notice in this short passage is that Jesus remained committed to meeting the needs of the people who crowded around him. He was not self-absorbed or throwing a pity party for himself. He was fully aware of all that awaited Him in Jerusalem and committed to carrying out the will of His heavenly Father. But that does not mean He had lost any of His compassion for the people.

On His way out of the city of Jericho, just to the east of Jerusalem, Jesus had an encounter with two blind men. Hearing the excited shouts of the crowd, these two men called out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”

There would have been many people on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, as they made their way to the capital city for the celebration of Passover. In his gospel account, Mark provides us with the name of one of the men.

…as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. – Mark 10:46 ESV

So, it is likely that both men were begging at the gate, taking advantage of the large number of pilgrims headed to Jerusalem, and hoping to benefit from their generosity. But upon hearing that Jesus was there, they cried out for mercy. Matthew records that the crowds rebuked the two men, demanding that they remain silent. It is likely that this somewhat rude response by the people was based on their belief that physical infirmities like blindness were the result of sin. Even the disciples shared this commonly held view. On one occasion, upon seeing a man who had been born since birth, they had asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT). Poverty and illness were seen as curses from God, poured out as a result of the individual’s sin. So, apparently, the crowds saw these men as deserving of their lot in life and with no right to beg Jesus for mercy or healing.

It should not escape our attention that these two men, while physically blind, were spiritually perceptive. They could see what so many others could not. Their spiritual vision was 20/20, allowing them to perceive Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David. Sometime earlier, Jesus had spoken of the spiritual blindness of the people of Israel, quoting from the prophet Isaiah.

“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them. – Matthew 13:14-15 NLT

Out of the huge crowd of people making their way to Jerusalem, only these two sightless men were able to recognize the Messiah standing in their midst, and they appealed to Him for mercy. They were unashamed to admit their need for healing. And they were unapologetic and unwavering in their cry for mercy. They would not be silenced or denied a touch from the Messiah. And when Jesus asked them what He could do for them, they were very clear. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

They desired to have their physical sight restored. They were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, relegated to begging for their daily sustenance. They were fed up with the rumors and innuendos regarding their apparent spiritual poverty. They wanted to be healed. They desired to be whole. And “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 ESV).

While others looked down on them, Jesus showed them compassion. While His disciples probably considered themselves better than the two blind men, Jesus was willing to expend His time, attention, and power on behalf of these two undeserving men. He did for them what they could have never done for themselves. Their cry for mercy was heard and answered. They longed for healing and took their need to the only one who could do anything about it.

It’s significant that this healing took place as Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, where He would end up dying on a cross for the sins of man. On another occasion, Jesus had an encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. One of the things Jesus told this religious leader was, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life” (John 3:14 NLT). Jesus was referring to a scene recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers. During the days of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, they became disenchanted with God and Moses, particularly as it concerned their diet. They were sick of the manna God had been providing. So, they complained to Moses.

“There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:5 NLT

In response to their need for sustenance, God had provided them with manna, a wafer-like substance that miraculously appeared on the ground each morning. But the people had grown tired of manna. And they showed disdain for His gracious provision by complaining about the monotony of their diet.  As a result, God “sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died” (Numbers 21:6 NLT). That got their attention. This time, rather than complaining, they begged Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.

“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT

They had a problem. And it was nothing they could fix on their own. They couldn’t stop the snakes from biting them. Their sin was resulting in their deaths. And they knew that only God could do something about the situation. So, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole.

“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT

And that’s exactly what Moses did. But notice God’s instructions to the people. Those who were bitten had to look at the image of the serpent, the very thing that was bringing God’s judgment upon them. They had to trust the word of God and do exactly as He said. Any hope they had for healing was based on their willingness to look and believe.

And Jesus had told Nicodemus, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His naked, beaten, and bloody body represented the punishment for the sins of mankind. He took on Himself what we deserved. He hung in our place. And when anyone looks to Him in faith, recognizing Him as their God-given sin substitute, they are healed from the deadly consequences of their sins. Peter expressed the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death this way:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

But what does any of this have to do with the two blind men? Everything. When these two men heard that Jesus was nearby, they cried out to Him for help. They couldn’t see Jesus, but they could turn to Him for what they desired: The restoration of their sight.

These two sightless men received healing because they “looked” to Jesus. They placed their faith in who He was and what He could do, and as a result, they had their sight restored. But notice what Matthew says. He states that Jesus had pity on these men. While the crowds had tried to silence them, Jesus felt compassion for them and healed them. He did for them as they asked. He gave them the gift of sight.

Just days after this encounter, Jesus would hang on a cross, giving His life as a ransom for many. And, like the serpent on the staff in the wilderness, Jesus’ death would provide spiritual healing to all those who, in faith, look on Him and believe. Those who recognize their own spiritual blindness and helplessness and look to Him will find healing. But more than physical sight, they will receive eternal life.

Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, where He would give His life as a ransom for many. And His death would be a litmus test, differentiating between those who recognized their sin and their need for a Savior, and those who stubbornly clung to their own self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Jesus’ death would become a source of justification for some and judgment for others.

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” – John 9:39 ESV

The blind will look, believe, and see. But those who see will find themselves blinded to the reality of their sin and their need for a Savior.

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

Jerusalem Shall Be Holy

17 “So you shall know that I am the Lord your God,
    who dwells in Zion, my holy mountain.
And Jerusalem shall be holy,
    and strangers shall never again pass through it.

18 “And in that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    and the hills shall flow with milk,
and all the streambeds of Judah
    shall flow with water;
and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord
    and water the Valley of Shittim.

19 “Egypt shall become a desolation
    and Edom a desolate wilderness,
for the violence done to the people of Judah,
    because they have shed innocent blood in their land.
20 But Judah shall be inhabited forever,
    and Jerusalem to all generations.
21 I will avenge their blood,
    blood I have not avenged,
    for the Lord dwells in Zion.” Joel 3:17-21ESV

God cares about His chosen people. In spite of their open rebellion against Him and their rejection of Him as the one true God, He would remain faithful to them – literally, to the end – to the final moments of the great day of the Lord. And He assures the people of Judah that when He finishes with all that He has planned for them and the world, they will know that He is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Lord their God.

It is amazing to think back on all that God had already done of on behalf of the people of Judah and their northern neighbors, the nation of Israel. God had chosen them and had blessed them beyond belief. In choosing them, God had set them apart from all the nations of the earth.

You have been set apart as holy to the LORD your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure. – Deueronomy14:2 ESV

What a privilege. But it was a privilege that came with great responsibility. They were to live as who they were: God’s chosen people. When He had freed them from their captivity in Egypt, He had told them:

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 15:5-6 ESV

The position as His chosen possession was conditional. They were to obey His commands and to live as His representatives on this earth, modeling to the nations around them what it meant to have a relationship with God Almighty. God had made it perfectly clear that they were to live differently and distinctively from the pagan nations who surrounded them in the land of Canaan. And God had provided them with an extremely high standard: Himself.

“You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” – Leviticus 20:26 ESV

But as the history of Israel so painfully and clearly reveals, they never lived up to God’s holy standard. Yes, there were occasions when they obeyed His commands and lived in submission to His will, but those moments of corporate allegiance to God were rare and never lasted long. Yet, here in Joel 3, God assures His disobedient people that He has unbelievable plans in store for them. Despite their disobedience and unfaithfulness, God was going to faithfully fulfill each and every one of His covenant promises to them. And He would do for them what they had failed to do on their own: Live set apart, holy lives.

In fact, God promises, “Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it” (Joel 3:17 ESV). The city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the home to the fantastic temple constructed by Solomon, would once again be set apart as God’s holy dwelling place. We know from history, that it would not be long before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the Solomonic temple was destroyed. The city of Jerusalem would become occupied by foreign invaders and this dismal scene would continue for generations, even to the days of Jesus, when the Romans ruled the entire region of Palestine, including the of David, Jerusalem.

God had warned that this would happen. All the way back to the day when Solomon dedicated the temple he had constructed, God had warned him:

“But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins. Everyone passing by it will be astonished and will hiss, and they will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord their God who brought their fathers out of the land of Egypt and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore the Lord has brought all this disaster on them.’” – 1 Kings 9:6-9 ESV

And it happened just as God predicted it would. The city was eventually invaded and the house of God was turned into a heap of ruins. The once holy city became a visual representation of Israel and Judah’s sin and God’s righteous judgment of them. But here in Joel 3, God assures the people of Judah that the day is coming when the city will be restored, not only to its earlier beauty, but to its place as the dwelling place of God. The apostle John was given a vision of this future scene and he recorded it his book of Revelation.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” – Revelation 21:1-3 ESV

The scene Joel presents is one and the same, and he adds details that describe the fruitfulness of that new city. It will be rich, abundant, and filled with the glory of God. He even mentions a fountain coming from the house of the Lord. Again, the apostle John echoes his words and adds some interesting details of his own.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 22:1-5 ESV

In contrast to the restoration of Jerusalem, Joel describes the devastation of Edom and Egypt, two long-time adversaries of Israel. These two nations act as stand-ins for the rest of the world’s countries that have placed themselves in opposition to Israel over the centuries. Because of their animosity toward the people of God and the city of God, they will experience the wrath of God.

But God promises to shower His chosen people with His unmerited grace and mercy.

But Judah shall be inhabited forever,
    and Jerusalem to all generations. – Joel 3:18 ESV

This entire chapter was intended to provide the people of Judah with words of encouragement. Even in the face of their coming destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, they could rest in the fact that God was not yet done with them. He had long-term plans for them that guaranteed their permanent place as His chosen possession. He wanted them to have an eternal perspective, not a temporal one.

And as Jesus told the apostle John at the close of the book of Revelation:

“These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” – Revelation 22:6 ESV

We can trust Him, because His words and trustworthy and true.

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

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

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

 

God of the Impossible

21 Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, 22 this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him:

“‘She despises you, she scorns you—
    the virgin daughter of Zion;
she wags her head behind you—
    the daughter of Jerusalem.

23 “‘Whom have you mocked and reviled?
    Against whom have you raised your voice
and lifted your eyes to the heights?
    Against the Holy One of Israel!
24 By your servants you have mocked the Lord,
    and you have said, With my many chariots
I have gone up the heights of the mountains,
    to the far recesses of Lebanon,
to cut down its tallest cedars,
    its choicest cypresses,
to come to its remotest height,
    its most fruitful forest.
25 I dug wells
    and drank waters,
to dry up with the sole of my foot
    all the streams of Egypt.

26 “‘Have you not heard
    that I determined it long ago?
I planned from days of old
    what now I bring to pass,
that you should make fortified cities
    crash into heaps of ruins,
27 while their inhabitants, shorn of strength,
    are dismayed and confounded,
and have become like plants of the field
    and like tender grass,
like grass on the housetops,
    blighted before it is grown.

28 “‘I know your sitting down
    and your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.
29 Because you have raged against me
    and your complacency has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth,
and I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came.’

30 “And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that. Then in the third year sow and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. 31 And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. 32 For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

33 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. 35 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

36 And the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 37 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. 38 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. And after they escaped into the land of Ararat, Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place. – Isaiah 37:21-38 ESV

In his moment of greatest need, King Hezekiah had determined to trust God and called out to Him for help. He had appealed to God‘s power, sovereignty, covenant faithfulness, and sole standing as the creator of the universe. Hezekiah to his problem to God Almighty and begged Him to look down from heaven and act on their behalf. And now, Isaiah brings the king a message from God.

First, God had a word for Hezekiah:

“Because you prayed about King Sennacherib of Assyria, the Lord has spoken this word against him.” – Isaiah 37:21 NLT

Hezekiah’s trust in God, as evidenced by his prayer of intercession, was rewarded by God’s explanation of what was going to happen next. He let Hezekiah know exactly what His plans for Sennacherib and the Assyrians were going to be. And He delivered a personal message for King Sennacherib as well.

“…because of your raging against me
    and your arrogance, which I have heard for myself,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth.
I will make you return
    by the same road on which you came.” – Isaiah 37:29 NLT

It is important to remember just how bad the situation was when Hezekiah prayed his prayer to God. The Assyrian army was camped outside the walls of Jerusalem. A total of 46 cities within Judah had already fallen to the Assyrians, and King Sennacherib had sent word to the people of Jerusalem that they surrender or face certain annihilation. These were dark days for King Hezekiah. The prospects for his capital city and its inhabitants could not have looked bleaker. But he had taken his need to the Lord. It would be easy to conclude that Hezekiah had no other options. He had run out of tricks up his sleeve and was left with no other alternative but to cry out to God. But the important fact is that he did cry out to God. And God heard his cry and responded.

In his humiliated state of despair and need, dressed in sackcloth and completely aware of his own impotence and dependence upon God, Hezekiah had appealed to the Almighty. But King Sennacherib displays a markedly different attitude. In his pride and arrogance, dressed in his royal robes and boasting of his own power, he had mocked the Almighty. And God was not pleased.

“Whom have you been defying and ridiculing?
    Against whom did you raise your voice?
At whom did you look with such haughty eyes?
    It was the Holy One of Israel!” – Isaiah 37:23 NLT

Sennacherib was a walking ego, bragging about his many exploits and describing himself in self-adulating terms that made him sound like a god.

“You have said, ‘With my many chariots
I have conquered the highest mountains—
    yes, the remotest peaks of Lebanon.
I have cut down its tallest cedars
    and its finest cypress trees.
I have reached its farthest heights
    and explored its deepest forests.
I have dug wells in many foreign lands
    and refreshed myself with their water.
With the sole of my foot,
    I stopped up all the rivers of Egypt!’” – Isaiah 37:24-25 NLT

Sennacherib suffered from “I” disease, a common malady among world leaders. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had the same problem.

“As he looked out across the city, he said, ‘Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.’” – Daniel 4:30 NLT

Self-made men tend to suffer from self-exaltation. Their success goes to their heads, and they begin to believe that they alone are responsible for their fame and fortune. But God breaks the news to Sennacherib that his rapid rise to world domination had been anything but his own doing.

“But have you not heard?
    I decided this long ago.
Long ago I planned it,
    and now I am making it happen.
I planned for you to crush fortified cities
    into heaps of rubble.” – Isaiah 37:26 NLT

Sennacherib had been little more than an instrument in the hands of the sovereign God of the universe. God had used the Assyrians to accomplish His own divine ends. And as quickly as they had risen to power by the decree of God, they could just as easily be rendered a non-factor on the world stage by His hand. And God let Sennacherib know that his days were numbered. His fifteen minutes of fame was about to come to an abrupt end.

All of this had to have sounded too good to be true to Hezekiah. While he had prayed to God for help, the idea that God would completely eliminate the Assyrian problem was more than he could have dreamed. And God seems to have sensed Hezekiah’s lingering doubt, so He provided the king with proof. He let him know that, within three years time, the people of Judah would be planting and harvesting their crops just like they always had. The land, devastated by the Assyrians, would once again yield its crops and return to its former state of fruitfulness. And this is important to note because of the arrogant boast made by King Sennacherib.

“Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well. Then I will arrange to take you to another land like this one—a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards.” – Isaiah 36:16-17 NLT

The Assyrian king had promised to provide the people of Judah with grain, grapes, wine and bread. He had arrogantly placed himself in the role of God Almighty. But God wanted Hezekiah to know that true fruitfulness came only from His hand. And while it would take some time before the remnants of the Assyrian army were removed from the land, God promised to restore the fortunes and fruitfulness of Judah.

“For a remnant of my people will spread out from Jerusalem,
    a group of survivors from Mount Zion.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen!” – Isaiah 37:32 NLT

God was going to save a remnant of His people. He would not allow the Assyrians to destroy Jerusalem. Instead, He would intervene and display His covenant faithfulness to a people who had consistently refused to remain faithful to Him. He would redeem them, not because they deserved it, but because He is gracious and a God who keeps His commitments.

And God provided Hezekiah with one more detail regarding His plans for the Assyrians. They would never enter the gates of the city. Their boasting and bragging would turn out to be nothing more than idle threats. Not a single arrow would be fired. No siege walls would be built. The entire army of Assyria would disappear as quickly as it had come. And God had a special surprise for Sennacherib and his invincible army.

That night the angel of the Lord went out to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. When the surviving Assyrians woke up the next morning, they found corpses everywhere. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and returned to his own land. He went home to his capital of Nineveh and stayed there. – Isaiah 37:36-37 NLT

God delivered a miracle. The Lord of Heavens Armies sent a single angel who devastated the vaunted troops of Sennacherib’s army. Overnight, he lost 185,000 of his finest soldiers, and God didn’t even lift a finger. His work was accomplished by one of His angels, a sobering reminder of God’s superior strength and sovereign power. And the once mighty Sennacherib would return home to Assyria, only to face assassination at the hands of his own sons. His plans didn’t turn out as expected. But God’s did. His divine will was accomplished just as He had planned it long before Sennacherib was even born.

While things could not have looked bleaker from Hezekiah’s vantage point, he placed his trust in God. And he was far from disappointed. God accomplished the impossible. He did what Egypt could never have done. He provided a solution that was beyond man’s ability and outside human reasoning. In his wildest dreams, Hezekiah could have never imagined a scenario like this one. But because he trusted God, he was given the privilege of seeing the salvation 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

 

The Way of Holiness

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
it shall blossom abundantly
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
    “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

And a highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
    It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
    even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.[a]
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain gladness and joy,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. – Isaiah 35:1-10 ESV

The preceding chapter was filled with imagery of devastation and destruction, the results of God judgment on the world, meted out by Christ when He returns at the end of the period of Tribulation. During the seven years of Tribulation, as described by John in his book of Revelation, the world will suffer under a series of unprecedented judgments brought upon the unbelieving world by the hand of God. Jesus Himself described the severity of those coming days in stark terms.

“For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again.” – Matthew 24:>21 NLT

The Tribulation will be a time of great distress. The world will be under the rule of the Antichrist, a powerful world leader who will use his influence to persecute the Jewish people. As the earthly representative of Satan, he will make his life’s mission to destroy any who worship the one true God, including both Jews and Gentiles who come to faith in Christ during the darkest days of the Tribulation. But God will bring a wave of ever-increasing judgments against the unbelieving world. He will devastate the earth itself, destroying crops, livestock, and even the fish in the sea by turning the water into blood. In a series of inescapable divine judgments, God will destroy more than one half of the earth’s population. And yet, the unbelieving world will remain unrepentant and unwilling to acknowledge Him as God.

And the seven years will culminate with the Second Coming of Christ and His defeat of the armies of the world. Antichrist will be dethroned and permanently imprisoned by the King of kings and Lord of lords. Satan will be bound and placed in divine custody, “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (Revelation 20:3 ESV). And this will set up the Millennial Kingdom of Christ, a literal 1,000-year period of time when Christ will rule in righteousness from the throne of David in Jerusalem. John describes this remarkable period of time on earth.

Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given the authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4 NLT

With Christ on the throne, the world will experience a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. For the first time since the fall of mankind, Satan and his demons will have no influence over the world. They will have been removed by God, and their ability to tempt and deceive humanity will be non-existent.

And in chapter 35, Isaiah uses the news of this coming day of Jesus’ victory over sin and Satan to encourage his readers to stay strong in the midst of their current circumstances.

With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
    and encourage those who have weak knees.
Say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, and do not fear,
for your God is coming to destroy your enemies.
    He is coming to save you.” – Isaiah 35:3-4 NLT

As bad as things appeared to be, they needed to remember that their God was in control. He had a plan in place. And while their current suffering was real and the threat against them was formidable, God was sovereign over all. This entire chapter was meant to remind the people of Judah, and us, that a day is coming when God will restore the land and His people. The words of Isaiah are meant to convey a sense of hopeful anticipation.

…the wilderness and desert will be glad. – vs. 1

The wasteland will rejoice and blossom – vs. 1

there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! vs. 2

The deserts will become as green… – vs. 2

While the people of Judah were focused on their current circumstances, Isaiah attempts to redirect their attention to the future, when God will do great things on the earth. He wanted them to have an eternal perspective. God has a long-term plan for His creation, and He intends to rectify all that has been marred by the presence of sin. But we must learn to wait for that day. The apostle Paul understood that fact and encouraged the believers in Corinth to keep their eyes focused on the future God has planned for them.

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. – 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 NLT

Isaiah describes a day when things will be markedly different on the earth. The blind will receive their sight, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk, and the dumb will speak. It will be a day when disease and disabilities will be permanently removed from the earth. Isaiah paints a picture of restoration and renewal, where all the defects caused by sin are eradicated. Even nature itself will be rejuvenated by God’s gracious hand.

Springs will gush forth in the wilderness,
    and streams will water the wasteland.
The parched ground will become a pool,
    and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land.
Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish
    where desert jackals once lived. – Isaiah 35:6-7 NLT

And running through this lush landscape will be a road, a highway called the Way of Holiness. Whether it is a literal road or not is unclear. But Isaiah seems to be emphasizing a path that leads to Zion, the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus will reign. And all those who take that road or path will willingly make their way to the holy city to worship the Son of God. This roadway will be reserved for the holy, those who long to see God. “It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways” (Isaiah 35:8 NLT). The prophet Micah describes pilgrims from all over the world making their way to Jerusalem in that day.

People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” For the LORD’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. – Micah 4:2 NLT

The prophet Zechariah describes it this way:

The Lord says, “Shout and rejoice, O beautiful Jerusalem, for I am coming to live among you. Many nations will join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they, too, will be my people. I will live among you, and you will know that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies sent me to you. The land of Judah will be the Lord’s special possession in the holy land, and he will once again choose Jerusalem to be his own city.” – Zechariah 2:10-12 NLT

These prophetic descriptions of God’s future plans for Jerusalem and the nations of the world are meant to bring encouragement to God’s people of all ages. No matter what difficulties we may face in this world, God has a future planned when all trial, troubles, and tribulations will be no more. All those who belong to Him will one day experience the fulness of His grace and mercy as He makes all things new. His long-awaited promises, made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be fulfilled. The return of His Son will take place, just as Jesus He told the disciples. The world will be restored to its former glory. Jerusalem will once again be the holy city of God, ruled over by the Seed of Abraham and the Son of David. And Isaiah reminds his readers that, even in the midst of their current circumstances, they have reason to rejoice, because God is far from done.

Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return.
    They will enter Jerusalem singing,
    crowned with everlasting joy.
Sorrow and mourning will disappear,
    and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 35:10 NLT

 

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

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

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

The Sacrificer Becomes the Sacrifice.

1 Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
    the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
    let the feasts run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and she shall be to me like an Ariel.
And I will encamp against you all around,
    and will besiege you with towers
    and I will raise siegeworks against you.
And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak,
    and from the dust your speech will be bowed down;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and from the dust your speech shall whisper.

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust,
    and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff.
And in an instant, suddenly,
    you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
    with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
    all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her,
    shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating,
    and awakes with his hunger not satisfied,
or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking,
    and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
    that fight against Mount Zion. – Isaiah 29:1-8 ESV

In this chapter, Isaiah delivers yet another woe against Jerusalem, addressing the city of David as “Ariel.” There is some debate as to the exact meaning of this word and why it was used as a reference to Jerusalem. There are two possible meanings. The first is from the Hebrew word, ‘ariy’el, which means “lion of God.” The second is very similar in spelling but carries a much different meaning and connotation. It is ‘ari’eyl and it means “altar hearth.” While either meaning would be an appropriate description of the city of Jerusalem, it would seem, based on the context of the surrounding verses, that the second makes the most sense.

Isaiah warns them that their destruction is eminent, but sarcastically tells them, “Keep observing your annual rituals, celebrate your festivals on schedule” (Isaiah 29:1 NLT). In other words, keep doing what you’re doing. Continue to practice your religious feasts and festivals as if nothing is going to happen. In a sense, Isaiah is mocking their stubborn belief that they will be protected by God if they simply continue to go through the motions of keeping all the rites associated with the sacrificial system. In verse 13 of this chapter, Isaiah shares God’s opinion of their efforts:

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

The New Living Translation puts it in even starker terms:

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

Jerusalem should have been the altar of God, the very place where the people came to worship Him and to seek forgiveness from Him. It is interesting to note that, in the book of Ezekiel, the prophet received a vision from God that revealed a future temple. He was taken to the east gate of the temple compound, where he saw the glory of God enter.

“As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” – Ezekiel 43:4-5 ESV

And the next thing Ezekiel heard was the voice of God speaking to him from inside the Holy of Holies.

“Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place where I will rest my feet. I will live here forever among the people of Israel. They and their kings will not defile my holy name any longer by their adulterous worship of other gods or by honoring the relics of their kings who have died. They put their idol altars right next to mine with only a wall between them and me. They defiled my holy name by such detestable sin, so I consumed them in my anger. Now let them stop worshiping other gods and honoring the relics of their kings, and I will live among them forever.” – Ezekiel 43:7-9 NLT

Jerusalem was to have been the place where God dwelt among His people. And the temple was the house that Solomon had built for God. And yet, God indicted His people for their desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. So, the day was coming when God would provide a new temple to replace the first one that would be destroyed by the Babylonians and the second one destroyed by the Romans. In preparation for this new temple, the Lord commanded Ezekiel to provide the people with a lesson on the exact meaning of each and every part of the temple.

“Son of man, describe to the people of Israel the Temple I have shown you, so they will be ashamed of all their sins. Let them study its plan, and they will be ashamed of what they have done.” – Ezekiel 43:10-11 NLT

Ezekiel-43-Altar-of-SacrificeAnd here is where it gets interesting. In describing the brazen altar, where all the blood sacrifices were made, God uses the word, ‘ari’eyl, when speaking of the very top section of the altar.

“…and the altar hearth, four cubits; and from the altar hearth projecting upward, four horns. The altar hearth shall be square, twelve cubits long by twelve broad.” – Ezekiel 43:15-16 ESV

This is the same word used by Isaiah to refer to Jerusalem. They were to have been the altar hearth, the very pinnacle of the altar of sacrifice. And yet, they had failed to live in covenant faithfulness to God. So, God has Isaiah deliver the stark warning:

“Yet I will bring disaster upon you,
    and there will be much weeping and sorrow.
For Jerusalem will become what her name Ariel means—
    an altar covered with blood.” – Isaiah 29:2 NLT

And God lets them know that, when the Babylonians finally arrive and erect their siege walls around the city, they will be acting on God’s behalf.

“I will be your enemy,
    surrounding Jerusalem and attacking its walls.
I will build siege towers
    and destroy it.” – Isaiah 43:3 NLT

He wanted them to understand that, when the destruction came, it was not just a case of bad luck or fate. It would be the hand of God Almighty giving them exactly what they deserved for the desecration of His temple and their defilement of His holy name. God was letting them know that if they treated the sacrificial system lightly that He had provided for the forgiveness of their sins, they would become the sacrifice themselves. Their blood would be spilled. He would remove the temple and the altar hearth so that no more sacrifices could be offered for the remission of sin. They would be on their own.

God describes their coming destruction as being like a bad dream. It will come suddenly, and the number of their enemies will be too great to count. And the enemy’s appetite for destruction will be insatiable. They will be like a man who dreams he is eating, only to awake and discover he is still hungry. They will lay siege to the city for a long period of time, with each day increasing their desire to breach the walls and destroy everyone and everything inside.

The sacrificers were about to become the sacrifice. Rather than animals on the altar hearth, it would be the people of God. Their sins would be atoned for, but not by substitutes. They would pay with their own lives.

God had provided a way for His people to receive forgiveness for their sins. He had given them an entire system, including the temple itself, by which they could have their sins atoned for and their relationship with God secured. In Ezekiel’s vision, God told to remind the people:

“On the eighth day, and on each day afterward, the priests will sacrifice on the altar the burnt offerings and peace offerings of the people. Then I will accept you. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 43:27 NLT

But the people of Judah had rejected God. Therefore, He was going to reject them. He was going to punish them for their sins and bring on them the curses He had warned them about generations earlier. They had chosen to treat God Almighty with disdain. But their sins still had to be atoned for. The sin debt must be paid, because “under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

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

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

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

That Day.

1 In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.

In that day,
“A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!
    I, the Lord, am its keeper;
    every moment I water it.
    Lest anyone punish it,
I keep it night and day;
    I have no wrath.
Would that I had thorns and briers to battle!
    I would march against them,
    I would burn them up together.
Or let them lay hold of my protection,
    let them make peace with me,
    let them make peace with me.”

In days to come Jacob shall take root,
    Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots
    and fill the whole world with fruit.

Has he struck them as he struck those who struck them?
    Or have they been slain as their slayers were slain?
Measure by measure, by exile you contended with them;
    he removed them with his fierce breath in the day of the east wind.
Therefore by this the guilt of Jacob will be atoned for,
    and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin:
when he makes all the stones of the altars
    like chalkstones crushed to pieces,
    no Asherim or incense altars will remain standing.
10 For the fortified city is solitary,
    a habitation deserted and forsaken, like the wilderness;
there the calf grazes;
    there it lies down and strips its branches.
11 When its boughs are dry, they are broken;
    women come and make a fire of them.
For this is a people without discernment;
    therefore he who made them will not have compassion on them;
    he who formed them will show them no favor.

12 In that day from the river Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt the Lord will thresh out the grain, and you will be gleaned one by one, O people of Israel. 13 And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. – Isaiah 27:1-13 ESV

Four times in this chapter, Isaiah uses the term, “in that day,” clearly referring to a future period of time when God will bring His eschatological calendar to a close. Isaiah is informing the people of Judah that there is a day coming when God will bring about a series of unprecedented events that will coincide with the parousia or Second Coming of Christ.

First, Isaiah describes the destruction of Leviathan. There has been much debate over the centuries as to the identity of Leviathan. Described as a swift-moving coiling serpent and a dragon, this creature figured prominently in Canaanite mythology. References to Leviathan are found in the book of Job and in several of the Psalms. In this context, Isaiah seems to be using this mythological sea creature to describe the enemies of Israel and Judah. It is interesting to note that Satan took the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden to tempt Eve. In the book of Revelation, the terms, serpent, and dragon, are used to describe Satan.

This great dragon – the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world – was thrown down to the earth with all his angels. – Revelation 12:9 NLT

Later on, John describes that defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ at His Second Coming.

He seized the dragon–that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan–and bound him in chains for a thousand years.Revelation 20:2 NLT

But in the context of Isaiah 28, the use of the term, “Leviathan” seems to be intended to refer to all those earthly powers that stand opposed to God and His people. During the end times, these nations will be under the direct influence of Satan himself, worshiping his human representative, Antichrist, and waging war against the people of God. During the days of the Tribulation, tens of thousands of Jews and Gentiles will be persecuted and martyred because of their faith in Christ. But Isaiah assures his readers that the day is coming when God will destroy the enemies of God and the very one who motivates their actions: Satan himself.

And Isaiah pictures Israel and Judah as a vineyard with God as its caretaker and keeper. This was a common Old Testament image for Israel. In fact, Isaiah used it back in chapter five.

The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
    The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
    but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
    but instead he heard cries of violence. – Isaiah 5:7 NLT

But while Israel and Judah had failed to live up to God’s expectations, Isaiah describes a day when God will restore His vineyard to full fruitfulness. In spite of all the judgments brought against Israel and Judah, God has continued to protect and care for His people. And, one day, He will restore His people. They will become fruitful again, both physically and spiritually. With the return of Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom on earth in the city of Jerusalem, the redeemed remnant of God’s people will once again enjoy unbroken fellowship with their God.

This future period of time, called the Millennial Kingdom, will last for 1,000 years and be marked by righteousness and peace. And the nations will be encouraged to make peace with God. The prophet, Zechariah, describes this future golden era on earth.

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: People from nations and cities around the world will travel to Jerusalem. The people of one city will say to the people of another, ‘Come with us to Jerusalem to ask the Lord to bless us. Let’s worship the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. I’m determined to go.’ Many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord of Heaven’s Armies and to ask for his blessing.

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: In those days ten men from different nations and languages of the world will clutch at the sleeve of one Jew. And they will say, ‘Please let us walk with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” – Zechariah 8:20-23 NLT

The prophet, Jeremiah, describes it this way:

“In that day Jerusalem will be known as ‘The Throne of the LORD.’ All nations will come there to honor the LORD. They will no longer stubbornly follow their own evil desires.” – Jeremiah 3:17 NLT

And, not to be left out, the prophet Micah adds his own take on that future time.

People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” For the LORD’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem. – Micah 4:2 NLT

Isaiah makes it clear that this future day will be one in which Israel and Judah will be reunited and restored, and they will enjoy unprecedented blessings at the hand of God.

The time is coming when Jacob’s descendants will take root.
    Israel will bud and blossom
    and fill the whole earth with fruit!  – Isaiah 27:6 NLT

While there is little doubt that the church, the body of Christ, is the spiritual fulfillment of this prophecy, there is a literal aspect of this vision that must be fulfilled. Every believer in Christ has been grafted into the olive tree of Israel. Paul made this point clear to the Gentile believers living in Rome.

But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root.

“Well,” you may say, “those branches were broken off to make room for me.” Yes, but remember—those branches were broken off because they didn’t believe in Christ, and you are there because you do believe. So don’t think highly of yourself, but fear what could happen. For if God did not spare the original branches, he won’t spare you either.

Notice how God is both kind and severe. He is severe toward those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness. But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off. And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree. You, by nature, were a branch cut from a wild olive tree. So if God was willing to do something contrary to nature by grafting you into his cultivated tree, he will be far more eager to graft the original branches back into the tree where they belong. – Romans 11:17-24 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. While Gentiles have been grafted into Abraham’s tree, the root of the tree remains. And God reserves the right to graft back in any of those branches He has removed. If a wild olive branch (Gentiles) can be successfully grafted into the tree, how much more so the original, natural branches.

During the period in which we live, which is commonly referred to as the church age, we are witnessing what Paul referred to as “the mystery.” God had a plan, hidden in times past, that He revealed with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 3:6 NLT

And while Jews and Gentiles enjoy the same blessings of God, this does not nullify or negate the many promises of God that speak of a future restoration of His people, Israel. While God had been forced to punish His chosen people for their sin and rebellion, He never turned His back on them. In fact, Isaiah describes God’s wrath against the nations that persecuted and attempted to destroy Israel. They will be destroyed, but Israel will be restored.

Yet the time will come when the Lord will gather them together like handpicked grain. One by one he will gather them—from the Euphrates River in the east to the Brook of Egypt in the west. In that day the great trumpet will sound. Many who were dying in exile in Assyria and Egypt will return to Jerusalem to worship the Lord on his holy mountain. – Isaiah 27:12-13 NLT

In that day, God will do great and mighty things. He will show favor on His people once again. He will redeem and restore them. He will pour out His blessings on them. And while Gentile believers will enjoy the marvelous benefits of being grafted into the tree of Abraham, God will graciously and mercifully restore a remnant of His chosen people to the tree as well. And they will experience the long-awaited fulfillment of the promise to restore to the throne of David, a descendant who will rule in righteousness.

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

What Will God Find?

1 Let me sing for my beloved
    my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
    that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
    but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
    but behold, an outcry! – Isaiah 5:1-7 ESV

With the opening of chapter five, Isaiah takes a slightly unusual tact. He describes God as his lover. This song, as it would have appeared to Isaiah’s original audience, starts off innocently enough. It simply appears as if Isaiah is describing God in affectionate terms, like a bride describing her groom or a wife, her husband. Isaiah portrays God as having planted a vineyard. This required great effort on His part, including the preparation of the soil by removing any and all rocks, as well as the tilling of the ground to make it ready for the planting of the vines. The hill on which God planted His vineyard was fertile ground, perfect for bearing choice grapes.

And God, fully expecting an abundant harvest, built a watchtower to protect His crops and a winepress in which to process the grapes. But then, the song takes an unexpected twist. Instead of yielding grapes suitable for making fine wine, the vineyard produced wild, sour-tasting grapes. The fruit was not what God had planned or expected. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Suddenly, the voice of the speaker switches from Isaiah to God Himself. He personally addresses the people of Jerusalem and Judah, asking them to make a judgment on the scenario Isaiah had just described. What else could God have done? He had taken all the appropriate steps and done all the right things to ensure a positive outcome. But rather than good grapes, the vineyard had delivered worthless sour grapes. It had produced fruit, but the wrong kind of fruit. And God asks the people of Judah. “Why?”

But before they can answer, God tells them what He is going to do to His precious vineyard.

“I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.” – Isaiah 5:5-6 NLT

God will personally punish His vineyard, destroying the protective walls He had erected. Wild animals, once kept at bay by God, will have full access to the vineyard, trampling it down and treating it with disdain. Once a cultivated garden, it will become a wild and uninviting place, full of wild vines producing even more sour grapes, surrounded by briers and thorns, and devoid of the rainwater that grapes require.

As suddenly as before, the voice of the speaker switches back to Isaiah. Just in case his audience has missed the point of his song, he lets them know that they are the vineyard of God. They were to have been “his pleasant planting” but had turned out to be nothing but sour grapes, totally worthless for producing wine.

The fruit they had produced, while plentiful, was ineffectual. It had no redeeming value and was good for nothing. The prophet Ezekiel painted a bleak picture of a vine that failed to produce proper fruit.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, of all the woody branches among the trees of the forest, what happens to the wood of the vine? Can wood be taken from it to make anything useful? Or can anyone make a peg from it to hang things on? No! It is thrown in the fire for fuel; when the fire has burned up both ends of it and it is charred in the middle, will it be useful for anything? Indeed! If it was not made into anything useful when it was whole, how much less can it be made into anything when the fire has burned it up and it is charred?” – Ezekiel 15:1-5 NLT

The wood of a vine has only one purpose and value: To produce grapes. Beyond that, it has no worth. It doesn’t even make a good fire, because it burns too quickly to do any good. And this was God’s assessment of Judah. He had done everything He could do to make them fruitful and useful. He had done all the work and all they had to do was yield the right kind of fruit. But instead, they had produced sour grapes.

Asaph penned a psalm that reflects God’s treatment of His vineyard.

You uprooted a vine from Egypt;
you drove out nations and transplanted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took root,
and filled the land.
The mountains were covered by its shadow,
the highest cedars by its branches.
Its branches reached the Mediterranean Sea,
and its shoots the Euphrates River.
Why did you break down its walls,
so that all who pass by pluck its fruit? – Psalm 80:8-12 NLT

God had done great things for the people of Israel. He had chosen them and made of them a great nation. He had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and transplanted them to the fertile land of promise. He had provided them with judges, prophets, and kings. He had given them His law to let them know what righteous living looked like and the sacrificial system to provide atonement when they failed to live up to that law. He had made them prolific and powerful. He had showered them with His favor and had extended to them His mercy – time and time again. But they had proven unfaithful and unsuccessful at producing the kind of fruit He expected.

While they should have produced lives marked by justice, they were better known for their oppressive and unjust treatment of one another. And, as Isaiah has already made clear to them, God will hold the leaders of Judah responsible.

The Lord will enter into judgment
    with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
    the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” – Isiah 3:14 ESV

God demanded justice and righteousness of His people and it began with the leadership. Justice has to do with meting out the right sentence in a judicial case. It is assuring that the right judgment is made. Later on, in this same chapter, Isaiah will point out what injustice looks like:

What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. – Isaiah 5:20 NLT

Righteousness has to do with behavior. It is about doing the right thing – that which God demands. Isaiah will later describe a righteous person as:

The one who lives uprightly
and speaks honestly;
the one who refuses to profit from oppressive measures
and rejects a bribe;
the one who does not plot violent crimes
and does not seek to harm others… – Isaiah 33:15 NLT

Right judgments and right behavior. That was the kind of fruit God expected, but instead He had found His people producing nothing more than sour grapes. Their judgments were bitter and more like wild grapes than the cultivated fruit of God. Their lives were marked by ungodly behavior rather than the sweet-tasting, life-producing wine that results from God’s careful craftsmanship.

We all produce fruit. But the question is whether the fruit we produce is the byproduct of God’s gracious cultivation or the wild grapes of a flesh-controlled life.

For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. – Galatians 5:17-23 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