Stubbornly Refusing to Repent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazingly, the downward trend was broken once again by Josiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2 ESV). Josiah instituted a series of sweeping reforms intended to restore the nation’s allegiance to God. He repaired the long-neglected temple of God. He reinstituted the observance of the Mosaic law. He defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And he broke in pieces the pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:13-14 ESV).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No Faith. No Hope.

The roads to Zion mourn,
    for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate;
    her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted,
    and she herself suffers bitterly.

Her foes have become the head;
    her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has afflicted her
    for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
    captives before the foe.

From the daughter of Zion
    all her majesty has departed.
Her princes have become like deer
    that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
    before the pursuer.

Jerusalem remembers
    in the days of her affliction and wandering
all the precious things
    that were hers from days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
    and there was none to help her,
her foes gloated over her;
    they mocked at her downfall. – Lamentations 1:4-7 ESV

All throughout this book, the author utilizes the literary device of personification in which human attributes and qualities are given to nonhuman or inanimate objects. He describes the city of Jerusalem as “the daughter of Zion” and provides “her” with a range of human qualities, from fear and sorrow to pain and suffering.

This former “princess” turned “widow” is portrayed in terms that are meant to stir the reader’s emotions and elicit both sympathy and shock. Jeremiah wants everyone who reads this story to ask, “How did this happen?” By personifying Jerusalem and Judah as helpless women who were having to suffer needlessly for the sins of others, Jeremiah was able to confront his fellow countrymen for their culpability in the nation’s fall and the city’s sad fate.

Every Jew who found themselves exposed to the words written by Jeremiah would be reminded that they had played a role in the demise and destruction of their beloved homeland. It had been the persistent rebellion of the people against God that had led to their judgment by God. And it had come in the form of the years-long Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that had ended in the plundering, pillaging, and burning of the city. The beautiful temple built by Solomon, the symbol of God’s abiding presence and that had stood for more than 400 years, had been ransacked and reduced to rubble.  And with its destruction, the entire sacrificial system God had ordained as a means for providing atonement for sin was eliminated.

Life in Judah had come to a complete halt. Nothing was the same anymore. No longer could the people make their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts and festivals that had been so integral to Israel’s identity as a nation. That’s why Jeremiah describes the city as lonely, and the roads to Zion as in a state of mourning “for none come to the festival” (Lamentations 1:4 ESV). The gates of the city are completely deserted. Once the centers of commerce and the portals through which the throngs of people made their way into the city, these gates stood like vacant eyes staring into the empty streets and buildings of the once-great city.

With no temple in which to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, the priests have nothing to do. And the few virgins who remain in the city are distraught became they have no one to marry. All the able-bodied men have been taken captive and deported by the Babylonians.

The enemies of Judah have prevailed. And Jeremiah pulls no punches when he explains the cause of Judah’s sad state of affairs: “because the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (Lamentations 1:5 ESV). He wanted his readers to never forget that the fall of Judah and Jerusalem had been the sovereign work of God Almighty. God had warned them this would happen. Long before they ever set foot in the land of promise, God had spoken through Moses, providing the people of Israel with the non-negotiable conditions surrounding His covenant relationship with them. As His people, they could choose to serve Him obediently and enjoy the many blessings He promised. Or they could choose to break their covenant agreement and suffer the consequences.

“If you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and to obey the commands and decrees he has given you, all these curses will pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed. These horrors will serve as a sign and warning among you and your descendants forever. If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything. The Lord will put an iron yoke on your neck, oppressing you harshly until he has destroyed you.” – Deuteronomy 38:45-48 NLT

Now, here they were, living in the stark reality of God’s promised judgment. It had all happened just as He had said it would. Their king and princes were gone. The royal palace had been plundered and destroyed. The nation’s brightest and best had been taken captive and transported to Babylon. The economy was in ruins. With no standing army, the nation was completely defenseless. There weren’t enough laborers to plant and harvest the fields. A massive tribute tax kept the few who remained in a constant state of poverty and despair. And it was all because they had failed to heed God’s warning and obey His commands.

All they had left were their collective memories.

Jerusalem remembers
    in the days of her affliction and wandering
all the precious things
    that were hers from days of old. – Lamentations 1:7 ESV

They had all the time in the world to reminisce and recall the nation’s former days of glory. At one time, Judah had been a major player in the geopolitical landscape of the region. Even after Israel, their northern neighbor had fallen to the Assyrians, Judah had continued to enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. They had been cocky and self-assured, resting in the false confidence that they were God’s chosen people and, therefore, immune from harm. Their alliances with Egypt and other neighboring nations had left them feeling self-assured and untouchable. Regardless of the fact that Babylon was making significant inroads into the region, Judah considered itself invulnerable and impervious.

But they had been wrong. Their sins against God had been great and His warnings of pending judgment had been true. The nations in whom they had placed so much hope had proved to be unreliable and fair-weather friends.

When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
    and there was none to help her,
her foes gloated over her;
    they mocked at her downfall. – Lamentations 1:7 ESV

Even when Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, had threatened to attack Judah, he had laughed at their pitiful peace treaty with Egypt.

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – 2 Kings 18:19-21 NLT

Even this pagan king recognized that Judah’s hope of deliverance was ill-founded. Their confidence was resting in a source that was insufficient to deliver them. And Sennacherib had even insinuated that the God of Judah would not save them.

“But perhaps you will say to me, ‘We are trusting in the LORD our God!’ But isn’t he the one who was insulted by Hezekiah? Didn’t Hezekiah tear down his shrines and altars and make everyone in Judah and Jerusalem worship only at the altar here in Jerusalem?” – 2 Kings 18:22 NLT

What this pagan king failed to understand was that the actions of Hezekiah had actually resulted in God’s deliverance of Judah from the Assyrians. Hezekiah was one of the few good kings to rule over Judah. The son of the wicked King Ahaz, Hezekiah had instituted a series of reforms that included the tearing down of the many shrines to false gods his father had installed all across the nation. According to 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah “did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20). Under Hezekiah’s leadership, revival came to Judah. And it was his actions during the Assyrian siege that stemmed the tide and saved the day. Threatened with defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, Hezekiah had made his way to the temple and interceded on behalf of his nation before God.

“So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.” – 2 Kings 19:19 NLT

And God answered Hezekiah’s prayer.

Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent this message to Hezekiah: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I have heard your prayer about King Sennacherib of Assyria. And the Lord has spoken this word against him:

“The virgin daughter of Zion
    despises you and laughs at you.
The daughter of Jerusalem
    shakes her head in derision as you flee.” – 2 Kings 19:20-21 NLT

Hezekiah had placed his hope in God and He had come through. The Assyrians called off their siege and returned home. This one man’s faith in God had saved the day.

But sadly, when the Babylonians had arrived outside the gates of Jerusalem, there was no king like Hezekiah sitting on the throne of Judah. There had been no reforms. The pagan shrines had not been removed. There had been no revival among the people. And, therefore, there had been no miraculous deliverance by 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

Bright Hope For Dark Days

1 How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave. – Lamentations 1:1 ESV

As of midnight last night, my community is under a “shelter-in-place” order mandated by the local authorities. It is just the latest in a long list of changes to our way of life. And it is likely that there will be more to come. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, that is radically altering life as we know it.

This unprecedented worldwide catastrophe has impacted the health of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, with the current number of cases reaching the half-million mark. And sadly, as of this writing, there have been in excess of 20,000 deaths as a result of this deadly disease.

On top of the devastating toll it is taking on human life, COVI-D-19 has wreaked havoc on the global economy, shutting down countless businesses both large and small, putting millions of people out of work and without sources of income. It would be an understatement to say that these are difficult days.

So, as I was preparing to begin a new Devotionary, I was drawn to the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Sadly, the unfortunate title given to this book has kept many people from ever digging into its rich and rewarding content. Yes, the name is a bit depressing, but as the old saying goes, “There’s more to a book than its cover.”

The title “Lamentations” was given to the book long after it was written and actually comes from the Hebrew Talmud. The Hebrew Bible provided the book with a different, but no less depressing title: “Ah, how” or “Alas” (Heb. ‘ekah). It comes from the first word in the first, second, and fourth chapters.

There is no clear consensus as to the book’s author, but tradition has usually pointed to Jeremiah. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, opens the book of Lamentations with the following preface: “And it came to pass after Israel had been taken away into captivity and Jerusalem had been laid waste that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented this lamentation over Jerusalem and said.”

The content of the book focuses on the immediate aftermath of the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians. As God had warned repeatedly through His prophets, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had destroyed the nation of Judah and its capital city, taking captive tens of thousands of its people and leaving a destroyed economy, a ravaged landscape, and an emotionally devastated people behind.

For centuries, after the book was written, the people of Israel would read its content as part of an annual fast day recalled Jerusalem’s destruction. It was intended to be a much-needed reminder to future generations of Israelites that unfaithfulness was unacceptable to God. The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem had been the result of their ancestors’ disobedience and disloyalty to God. But the book also chronicles God’s remarkable faithfulness. Despite the failure of God’s chosen covenant-people to remain faithful to Him, He would refuse to abandon them completely.

The message contained in Lamentations, while directed at the nation of Judah, has lasting implications and timeless lessons that remain applicable for the people of God in all ages. Charles Swindoll describes the book’s relevance for anyone who would consider themselves a child of God.

“It [Lamentations] is a mute reminder that sin, in spite of all its allurement and excitement, carries with it heavy weights of sorrow, grief, misery, barrenness, and pain. It is the other side of the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ coin.” – Charles R. Swindoll, The Lamentations of Jeremiah

This book reveals the God-ordained ramifications of a life of disobedience. The fate of the people of Judah was directly tied to their refusal to keep their covenant commitment to God. Long before the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, God had warned the people of Judah what would happen as a result of the unfaithfulness to Him.

“The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away.” – Deuteronomy 28:36-37 ESV

And God had left them with no doubt as to the cause of their future suffering.

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you.  – Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV

Centuries later, the apostle Paul would pick up on the basic theme of this book when he wrote to the believers in Galatia.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. – Galatians 6:7-8 ESV

Simply put, sin has consequences. That is the message of Numbers 32:23: “be sure your sin will find you out.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not insinuating that the COVID-19 virus is the punishment of God on the sins of mankind. I am not trying to make a correlation between the destruction of Jerusalem and the current state of affairs in America. All I want to do is allow this Spirit-inspired book to remind each of us that our God is faithful. Even in the midst of the worst circumstances, our God is loving, gracious, kind, merciful, and all-powerful. He does not abandon His own.

I am reminded of the words David wrote in the 23rd Psalm.

Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 NLT

These are dark days. We are walking (six-feet apart) in “the valley of the shadow of death,” but our God is by our side. Of all people, we should be able to rest and rejoice in the faithfulness of our God. We should find comfort in His consistency. We should find hope in His heart of compassion and mercy. The truly remarkable thing about the book of Lamentations is that while it vividly portrays Judah’s suffering, it also revels in the goodness of God.

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

For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men. – Lamentations 3:31-33 ESV

What could God be trying to teach us during these difficult days? In what ways could He be trying to get our attention in order to remind us that His love is steadfast, His mercies are never-ending, and His faithfulness is great? The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Will we choose to believe this great truth about our God, even when the circumstances of life seem to call it into question? That is the message of Lamentation.

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

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

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

Our Righteously Wrathful God – Part II

For the Lord holds a cup in his hand
    that is full of foaming wine mixed with spices.
He pours out the wine in judgment,
    and all the wicked must drink it,
    draining it to the dregs.
 
– Psalm 75:8 NLT

28 “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”Matthew 10:28 NLT

5 “But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.” – Luke 12:5 NLT

So you see, the Lord knows how to rescue godly people from their trials, even while keeping the wicked under punishment until the day of final judgment. – 2 Peter 2:9 NLT

Discussing the wrath of God can come across as if we are dealing with a flaw in the divine character. It seems out of step with His love, grace, and mercy. But the wrath of God is never displayed in an arbitrary manner. He need never apologize for it or be embarrassed because of it. And His never unleashes His wrath undeservedly or unjustly. Unlike us, God never loses His temper. He never flies off the handle or suffers from a lack of self-control. He is always purposeful when displaying His wrath against sinful mankind. When doing so, He is displaying who He is, displaying His divine nature and bringing glory to Himself. In fact, God’s wrath is inseparably linked with His glory. When He exercises His wrath, He is revealing the fulness of His glory.

The book of Exodus records the encounter that Moses had with God on Mount Sinai. Moses, the deliverer God had chosen to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt, made a bold request of God. He asked the Almighty, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18 ESV). God agreed to do so, but with one condition.

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord…But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” – Exodus 33:19, 20 ESV

God warned Moses that viewing His face would prove deadly. Why? Because of Moses’ sinfulness. No man can behold the full, unveiled glory of God while in his sinful state. Moses wanted to see God’s glory, but to do so without God’s protection would result in Moses’ destruction. Because the wrath of God goes hand-in-hand with the glory of God.

God kept His word, but in a display of His goodness and mercy, He prevented Moses from seeing Him in all His glory.

“I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:22-23 ESV

Moses, as a fallen human being, deserved to come under the wrath of God but, instead, he experienced God’s grace and mercy. Remember what God had said to Moses immediately after making his request:

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

God, because of His righteousness and holiness, is obligated to punish sin. He cannot overlook or ignore it. But He can make provision for it. And, in this case, that is what He did.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:6-7 ESV

As God passed, with His hand placed protectively over His servant, He proclaimed His mercy and grace, His patience and steadfast love, His faithfulness, and forgiveness. In other words, He declared His divine attributes. But don’t miss this part. While God declared that He is willing to forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin, He will NOT clear the guilty. The Hebrew word translated as “clear” is naqah and it means to “acquit” or ”to leave unpunished.” The guilty must be held to account. They must pay for their sins. God cannot simply whitewash over them.

Just before Moses had been given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the glory of God, he had been given the law of God – the Ten Commandments – on tablets of stone. And Moses had returned from the mountaintop, tablets in hand, only to find the people worshiping false gods down in the valley. In his shock and anger, Moses had destroyed the tablets containing God’s law. And God, in His wrath, brought a plague on the people, punishing them for their rejection of Him and their rebellion against Him.

…the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. – Exodus 32:33-35 ESV

God punished the guilty. He could not and would not allow them to get away with their sin. The entire law, as prescribed by God on Mount Sinai, was based on the premise “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). There were those who would die by the plague that God had sent. Their deaths would assuage or propitiate God’s wrath. He had to punish the guilty. He could not simply clear or acquit them.

God gave Moses a second set of tablets, containing His code of conduct for the people of Israel. His laws were intended to set them apart as His chosen people. In them were contained all they needed to know about living life as His children. He left nothing up to their imaginations. They would not be free to live on their own terms or to follow the examples of the other nations around them. But Moses, knowing the hearts of his people, made yet another request of God.

“If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” – Exodus 34:9 ESV

Moses knew that, without God’s grace and mercy, the people of Israel would find themselves the fully deserving recipients of God’s wrath, once again. So, God renewed His covenant commitment with the people of Israel, but He warned them:

“…for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” – Exodus 34:14 ESV

God will not tolerate unfaithfulness. He will not put up with His creation turning their backs on Him by worshiping something or someone other than Him. But it is not because He is overly sensitive or wears His feelings on His sleeve. It is because He is God and worthy of all glory, honor, and praise.

In the book of Revelation, John records his vision of the throne room of God in heaven. He describes the four living creatures, standing around the throne of God:

Day after day and night after night they keep on saying,

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty—
    the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” – Revelation 4:8 NLT

And they are joined by the 24 elders, who lay their crowns before God’s throne and say:

“You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” – Revelation 4:11

God is worthy of our praise. He deserves our worship. He created us. We exist for His glory. And when we refuse to give Him the glory He deserves, we sin against Him. Sin is not so much the action we commit, as it is the heart behind the action. What we do is an outward display of the state of our hearts. Jesus said that “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). Then He added, “These are what defile you” (Matthew 15:20 NLT). The Greek word for “defile” is koinoō and it means “to make common or unclean.”

Our actions, which stem from our hearts, end up making us unacceptable to God. They display our love for something other than Him. When we sin, we are giving evidence that our hearts do not belong to God. We love something other than God. Such as pleasure, sensuality, self, success, power, position, prominence, or happiness. Those things become idols or substitutes for God. And our sin is an expression of our love affair with these false gods.

But God’s holiness demands justice. And His justice requires that He display His wrath “against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18 NLT). Yet, in His mercy and grace, God came up with a way to satisfy His wrath and display His goodness at the same time. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission or forgiveness of sin. And since all men have sinned, all men deserve to fall under the wrath of God. But Paul reminds us of the amazing grace of God as displayed through the gift of His Son.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:23-26 NLT

God satisfied His own wrath by sending His own Son as the payment for mankind’s sin debt. He gave His sinless Son as the atonement for sinful men.

God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God. – Romans 4:25 NLT

But to escape the wrath of God, sinful men and women must accept the free gift of God’s sacrifice on their behalf. They must acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior. The payment has been made. The gift has been offered. But it must be accepted. Paul goes on to state: “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22 NLT). And a few chapters later, he adds: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NLT).

The wrath of God is real. But so is His grace and mercy. God is a just God who must punish sin. But He is also a gracious God who has provided a way that He might justify the ungodly. All for our good and His glory.

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

And She Happened to Come…

1 Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. – Ruth 2:1-3 ESV

Chapter one ends with a seemingly irrelevant reference that describes Naomi and Ruth returning to Bethlehem at “the beginning of barley harvest.”

What at first appears to be little more than a throwaway line was actually intended to provide a welcome transition from the dark days that marked Naomi’s life in Moab to the more hopeful future that lay ahead as she returns to the land of promise.

This entire story began with a reference to the period of the judges and a description of a famine in the land of Judah. With these two details, the author provides an important preface for the remainder of his narrative by establishing that this story takes place during a time marked by Israel’s disobedience and God’s judgment. The nearly 300-year-long period of Israel’s history recorded in the book of  Judges was filled with repeated outbreaks of apostasy on the part of God’s people, followed by periods of suffering as a result of God’s divine judgment. The famine, while a natural disaster, had been God-ordained. Israel was suffering yet again the righteous wrath of God Almighty. But Naomi had received word that God had relented.

…the Lord had visited his people and given them food. – Ruth 1:6 ESV

It was this news that had prompted Naomi to return home. And the story reveals that she arrived in Bethlehem at just the time when the annual barley harvest was taking place. When she and her husband had left Judah, it had been a time of famine. Now she was returning at a time marked by fruitfulness and feasting. For Naomi, Moab had been a place of loss and sorrow. While there, she had experienced the deaths of her husband and two sons. But now, she was returning home to Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” and just in time for the first of the first fruits of the God-ordained harvest to be gathered.

Naomi had no way of knowing what the future held. She was still a widow and she was accompanied by her widowed Moabite daughter-in-law. She had no source of income, and there is no indication that she had a home in which to live upon her return. Her immediate prospects were bleak. But the author wants us to know that God was at work behind the scenes. His mention of the harvest is a subtle, yet powerful reminder that the lives of Naomi and Ruth were in the hands of God Almighty.

Despite her dire circumstances, Naomi would find herself far from alone. In fact, chapter two opens with a hope-infused reference to Naomi’s relative.

Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. – Ruth 2:1 ESV

The timing of her return to Judah was divinely ordained and sovereignly orchestrated. Even the decision by Ruth to leave abandon her own home and family to align herself with Naomi is going to be revealed as the will and the work of God. There is no luck, kismet, or cosmic karma going on here. This is not a case of fortunate timing or happenstance. Everything about this story is intended to point to God. He is at work behind the scenes, orchestrating every single aspect of the story, from the timing to the characters involved. And it is because He has a much larger and grander plan involved than Naomi and Ruth could have ever imagined.

With the author’s introductory details concerning Boaz, he telegraphs yet another seemingly serendipitous encounter. Naomi and Ruth are not aware of Boaz’s presence yet. He has been introduced but has not yet made his appearance in the story. But Ruth, desiring to provide some source of sustenance for she and Naomi, offers to go into the fields outside Bethlehem and “glean among the ears of grain” (Ruth 2:2 ESV). In order to do so, she will need to find a farmer willing to let her gather some of the grain that remained in the corners and edges of his field.

This was a common practice among the Israelites because God had ordained it as a means of caring for the poor and needy among them. It had part of God’s original law passed down to the people of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai in the wilderness.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 10:9-10 ESV

Now, decades later, here was Ruth preparing to take advantage of this divine decree in order to provide for her and her mother-in-law. But little did Ruth know that God had something far more significant in store for the two of them. She was a stranger to Bethlehem, a widowed Moabite woman wandering around the barley fields outside the city. And she just happens upon a field that belongs to the close relative of Naomi.

So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. – Ruth 2:3 ESV

The author wants us to know that this appears to be a case of blind luck. He purposefully uses the Hebrew word miqreh, which means “unforeseen meeting or event, accident, happening, chance, fortune.” But he knows this is nothing of the sort. It appears as if Naomi has inadvertently and unexpectedly stumbled into this situation. Unknowingly, she has chosen to glean barley grain in the field that belongs to a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. But while Naomi was operating blind, her every action took place under the divine gaze of God. He was watching but also directing each and every aspect of this story.

Think about the details of this story. Naomi moves to Moab with her husband Elimelech in order to escape a famine in the land of Judah. While there, her husband unexpectedly dies. Her two sons end up marrying women from Moab. Had the family not moved to this foreign country, this would never have happened. One of those women just happened to be Ruth. When the two sons of Elimelech died, Naomi was left with Moabite women as her only family. But when Naomi announced her plans to return to Judah, only one of the women made the fateful decision to accompany her. And that woman was Ruth.

Now, Ruth, who had promised to stay with and care for her mother-in-law, has taken upon herself the responsibility to seek some kind of food for the two of them. And she happens to end up gleaning barley grain in the field of Boaz, a close relative of her deceased father-in-law, Elimelech.

The scene is set and the next act in the divine drama of God’s redemptive plan is ready to be revealed.

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 Hope of Things to Come

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
    to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
    and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush
    my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
    shall bring my offering.

11 “On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
    your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
    in my holy mountain.
12 But I will leave in your midst
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
13 those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
    and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
    a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
    and none shall make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:9-13 ESV

In 1719, the hymn, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” was published by Isaac Watts as part of a collection entitled, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. The opening words of this classic anthem to God’s glory read:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

This heartfelt declaration of God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of His people provides a perfect segue to this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy. After warning the people of Judah of God’s pending judgment and declaring God’s future plans for the destruction of sinful mankind, Zephaniah reminds the citizens of Jerusalem that their God is not yet done.

While the judgment of Judah and the nations of the world was inevitable and inescapable, the people of God were to maintain hope in their merciful and always faithful God.  The prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s gracious, hope-inducing plans for His people.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”– Jeremiah 29:11-14 ESV

While God was going to discipline His people for their rebellious behavior and their repeated refusal to repent of their sins, He would not completely forsake or forget them. The day was coming when a remnant of His people would return to Him with repentant hearts, fully forgiven for their past indiscretions.

On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me – Zephaniah 3:11 ESV

But the repentant Jews will not be alone. Zephaniah reveals that another remnant, made up of people from among the nations of the earth will also turn to God, accepting the gracious offer of salvation and forgiveness through His Son. The apostle John recorded his vision of this great throng of redeemed people, standing before the throne of God Almighty.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 NLT

While Zephaniah’s warnings of judgment and God’s promises to completely eradicate mankind may leave us wrestling with feelings of uncertainty and confusion, we must not overlook God’s promises of redemption for a remnant of sin-plagued and rebellion-prone humanity.

There were dark days ahead for the people of God and the majority of mankind will one day stand before God, justly condemned and fully deserving of their punishment. But the future will not be all doom and gloom. Notice the silver lining that accompanies the dark cloud of Zephaniah’s prophecy:

“Then I will purify the speech of all people,
    so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
My scattered people who live beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
    will come to present their offerings.” – Zephaniah 3:9-10 NLT

The future is actually quite bright. The sovereign God of the universe has a plan that will involve the return of His Son, the defeat of Satan, the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, and the judgment of the unbelieving world. But there will a remnant on earth, made up of every tribe, nation, and tongue, who will joyfully and gratefully worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

God describes a scene of unprecedented peace and tranquility. The days marked by godlessness and faithlessness will be no more.

“Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
    for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
The remnant of Israel will do no wrong;
    they will never tell lies or deceive one another.
They will eat and sleep in safety,
    and no one will make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:12-13 NLT

Jesus provided a description of how this elimination of the godless and faithless will take place.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46 ESV

Obviously, this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But it will be. That is why it was intended to bring hope to the people of Judah, even though they would not live to see it come to pass. God was attempting to give them the big picture view of His redemptive plan. And that plan is not relegated to one generation or nation. It spans the centuries, moving from the creation of Adam and Eve in the garden all the way to the Second Coming and the recreation of the earth.

Long ago, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” – Isaiah 65:17 ESV

And God promised the people of Israel that this new heaven and new earth would be permanent in nature, reflecting His permanent commitment to them as His chosen people.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.” – Isaiah 66:22 ESV

And as John reveals in the book of Revelation, the end of the age will be accompanied by this newly created heaven and earth.

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. – Revelation 21:1 ESV

God is going to make all things new. He will restore His creation to its former glory and remove all vestiges of sin. Death will be no more. Wickedness will have no place in God’s creation. The righteous will live in unbroken fellowship with the Holy Trinity and the influence of Satan will be permanently eradicated from the face of the earth.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:5-8 ESV

In the meantime, the people of God are to have hope. Despite what may be happening to them or around them, they are never to lose sight of God’s divine plan of redemption. He is not done. There is reason to hope. Because He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to fulfill His promises. And while the future remains out of sight and out of our control. we can have faith in the faithfulness of God. This is why the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).

And may the words of Isaac Watts ring in our ears as we wait for God to fulfill His perfect plan.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an ev’ning gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!

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

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

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

   

 

Wait For Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

He Will Stretch Out His Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus says the Lord God:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

To the Glory of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. – Genesis 12:12:5 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

 

The Lord Their God

For Gaza shall be deserted,
    and Ashkelon shall become a desolation;
Ashdod’s people shall be driven out at noon,
    and Ekron shall be uprooted.

Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast,
    you nation of the Cherethites!
The word of the Lord is against you,
    O Canaan, land of the Philistines;
    and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left.
And you, O seacoast, shall be pastures,
    with meadows for shepherds
    and folds for flocks.
The seacoast shall become the possession
    of the remnant of the house of Judah,
    on which they shall graze,
and in the houses of Ashkelon
    they shall lie down at evening.
For the Lord their God will be mindful of them
    and restore their fortunes. Zephaniah 2:4-7 ESV

God now turns His attention to the nations surrounding Judah. He has already warned that one aspect of the great day of the Lord will be His judgment of all humanity. He will “cut off mankind from the face of the earth” (Zephaniah 1:3 ESV).

Judah must face its future judgment, but God is not going to overlook the sins of the rest of mankind. And in this passage, He will point out five different nations that surround Judah and outline His plans for their future demise. Located north, south, east, and west of Judah, these neighboring countries become surrogates or stand-ins for all the nations of the earth. While they could not claim to be the people of God, they will still experience the judgment of God.

Each of them is marked by the worship of false gods represented by a litany of fabricated idols, the byproduct of man’s fertile imagination and creative capabilities. As the psalmist points out, they are not gods at all, and stand in stark contrast to the God of the universe.

For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering, and come into his courts!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
    tremble before him, all the earth!

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
    Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
    he will judge the peoples with equity.” – Psalm 96:5-10 ESV

The one true God will judge all the people and nations who have chosen to worship their many false gods while ignoring His invisible, yet undeniable attributes.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:20-23 ESV

They will all answer for the same sin: Their rejection of God as the one true God.

And Zephaniah begins by listing four cities located in the region of Philistia, located just to the west of Judah: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron.  Except for Ekron, these are all coastal cities, providing access to the Mediterranean Sea. It is believed that the Philistines originated from the island of Crete (Caphtor) and migrated to the western coast of Canaan.

Their name derives from the Hebrew word Philistia. In Greek, that word became palaistinei, and it is why the land of Canaan is sometimes referred to as Palestine. The Philistines are sometimes referred to as the “Sea Peoples” because of their close ties with and dependence upon the sea. Their ships would have plied the waters of the Mediterranean, making the inhabitants of the ports of Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod quite profitable. Each of the cities mentioned in verse four were governed by a “king” or “lord.” They were independent and autonomous realms, but when the need arose, the kings would form alliances in order to defend their lands or attack their common enemies.

Yet, God pronounces judgment on these five cities, addressing them indirectly, but very specifically.

Gaza shall be deserted (`azab – forsaken, abandoned)
Ashkelon shall become a desolation (shĕmamah – devastation, waste)
Ashdod’s people shall be driven out at noon (garash –cast out, expelled)
Ekron shall be uprooted (`aqar – plucked up, rooted out)

The news is not good. Even the prophet Jeremiah wrote of God’s coming judgment against the Philistines.

For the time has come
to destroy all the Philistines.
The time has come to destroy all the help
that remains for Tyre and Sidon.
For I, the Lord, will destroy the Philistines,
that remnant that came from the island of Crete. – Jeremiah 47:4 NET

These “inhabitants of the seacoast” were going to discover the unmistakable and inescapable severity of God’s righteous wrath.

The word of the Lord is against you,
    O Canaan, land of the Philistines;
    and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left. – Zephaniah 2:5 ESV

These are words that warn of annihilation, not just discipline. God was not going to punish them. He was going to eliminate them altogether.

And it is only natural to question the reasoning behind God’s harsh treatment of these people. What had they done to deserve such drastic judgment at the hand of God? For nearly two centuries, the Philistines had played a major role in the lives of God’s people, using their advanced weaponry and superior military power to harass and hinder the Israelites in their quest to possess the land given to them by God as an inheritance.

Through the prophet, Amos, God provided further proof of the Philistines’ guilt and well-deserved judgment.

“The people of Gaza have sinned again and again,
    and I will not let them go unpunished!
They sent whole villages into exile,
    selling them as slaves to Edom.
So I will send down fire on the walls of Gaza,
    and all its fortresses will be destroyed.
I will slaughter the people of Ashdod
    and destroy the king of Ashkelon.
Then I will turn to attack Ekron,
    and the few Philistines still left will be killed,”
    says the Sovereign Lord. – Amos 1:6-8 NLT

And Ezekiel records more divine justification for the Philistines’ destruction, directly from the lips of God Himself.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Philistia have acted against Judah out of bitter revenge and long-standing contempt. Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will raise my fist of judgment against the land of the Philistines. I will wipe out the Kerethites and utterly destroy the people who live by the sea. I will execute terrible vengeance against them to punish them for what they have done. And when I have inflicted my revenge, they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 25:15-17 NLT

The day would come when their coastal communities would become inhabited by Israelite shepherds, grazing their flocks on pasturelands that had formerly been the sites of prominent and powerful Philistine cities. God will remove the Philistines and replace them with the remnant of His chosen people.

The remnant of the tribe of Judah will pasture there. – Zephaniah 2:7 NLT

And this remnant will find shelter in the abandoned homes of the former residents of Ashkelon. The image of shepherds pasturing their flocks carries the idea of peace, tranquility, safety, and security. The day will come when a remnant of God’s people will once again occupy the land of Canaan. But on that day, they will no longer have to deal with the Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, and all the other pagan residents of the land. These nations had become thorns in their sides and their false gods had become a constant snare to the people of God (Judges 2:3).

God is not done. His redemptive plan is not quite completed. His Son came and died on the cross in order to pay for the sins of mankind. But He must return. He has to come back again and complete the final stage of His Father’s divine will for the restoration of creation and the redemption of a remnant of sinful humanity.

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