Hear and Fear

14 “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – Deuteronomy 19:14-21 ESV

Hear and fear. I love that phrase. It’s simple and succinct, yet speaks volumes. And its simplicity contains the entire essence of all that Moses is trying to tell the people of Israel. When reading books of the Bible that contain iterations of the Mosaic law, we tend to view them as nothing more than a compendium of rules and requirements placed upon the people of Israel by God.  Too often, we find these lists of laws to be tedious, woefully out-of-date, and of no value in our 21st-Century Christian context.

And that somewhat dismissive attitude causes us to miss the divine principle that undergirds each and every one of these imperatives given by God. These commands were never intended to be seen as rules just for the sake of having rules. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT).

We have no cities of refuge, and we are not in violation of God’s law because of that fact. But we are expected to practice the divine principles that God infused into His command concerning cities of refuge. The designation of six special cities as places where those guilty of involuntary manslaughter could seek refuge was intended to ensure that justice took precedence over vengeance. In a nation where there was no police force, no established governmental structure, a limited judicial system, and a tendency toward the practice of vigilante-style justice, God provided the cities of refuge as a protective measure. And in doing so, He was promoting justice and the practice of mercy over unbridled and unwarranted retribution.

Every human being should care about those things because they are what God cares about. As the prophet Micah so aptly stated it, “He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God” (Micah 6:8 NLT).

When reading the following phrase: “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark,” it can be easy to dismiss it as non-applicable to our current context. So, we dismiss it. But what was the principle contained within this divine prohibition? Was it just an arbitrary law restricting the moving of boundary markers, or was there something of greater import hidden within the law?

In the ancient world, land was at a premium and considered of great value. In a predominantly agrarian culture, land was one of the most valuable assets a man could own. It became a part of his identity. So, of someone clandestinely moved a marker that determined the boundary of a man’s land, it was an act of stealing. But not just his land – his value, worth, and identity. And when you consider that all of the land of Canaan had been divided up by God and apportioned to the various tribes, you begin to understand that there is an even more significant crime taking place here than that of land grabbing. It was a violation of God’s divine will.

In verses 15-21, Moses outlines the regulations concerning the use of witnesses in a civil dispute. This could apply to a case of someone accused of moving a boundary marker, or a Moses states, “any crime or for any wrong.”

The rule was simple. “Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15 ESV). One witness would not suffice, because that would result in a stalemate, with one man’s word pitted against another. Again, don’t miss what is behind all of this. It has less to do with the crime committed than the means by which an accusation is to be leveled. God is putting safeguards in place to prevent false accusations that could result in inequitable or unjust outcomes.

In verse 16, Moses refers to “a malicious witness.” The Hebrew word is chamac, and it most often gets translated as “violent.” This is an individual who has evil intent. He is a false witness or a liar whose underlying motivation is to do harm to another. And Moses provides very specific instructions concerning this type of situation.

“If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days.” – Deuteronomy 19:16-17 ESV

It’s noteworthy that Moses refers to the accuser as a malicious witness even before the case has been heard by the authorities. For this person to level an accusation without the requisite second witness would have been an indication that his intent was evil. He had no corroborating witness to support his claim. You see this law played out in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. The religious leaders were desperate to find at least two witnesses who could level the same charge against Jesus that might warrant a call for His execution.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were trying to find false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find anything, though many false witnesses came forward. – Matthew 26:59-60 NLT

And Matthew goes on to record that the Sanhedrin was finally able to get two of these false witnesses who collaborated their story and gave the chief priests and religious leaders what they had been looking for.

Finally two came forward and declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” – Matthew 26:60 NLT

The witness of a single man was insufficient. And a man who could find no one else to collaborate his accusation was most likely a false witness. So, the accuser and the accused were to be brought before the authorities who were tasked to hear the facts of the case and make a judgment.

“The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 ESV

Again, we have to consider the underlying principle behind all of these rules. Moses had provided the Israelites with God’s prescribed means for settling disputes among them, and He had told them undergirding principle behind it: Justice.

“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-20 ESV

God wasn’t interested in judgment for judgment’s sake. He wanted righteous judgment. He demanded that justice be served. There was no place for false witnesses and maliciously motivated legal cases among His people. Moses had made it perfectly clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.”

Which brings us back to those three simple words: Hear and fear. All of these rules and regulations were intended to orchestrate and regulate the lives of the Israelites but, more than that, they were meant to instruct the people of Israel about the nature of their God. He was just, holy, and righteous in all His ways. He was set apart and distinct in nature. And He had called His chosen people to reflect the nature of His character by keeping His carefully crafted commands.

“Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” – Leviticus 20:7-8 ESV

God had set the Israelites apart as His own possession. And, in a sense, God had placed boundary markers around them, designed to restrict and regulate their behavior. Those commands or markers were God-ordained and not up for negotiation. But the people of Israel would find themselves constantly tempted to move God’s boundary markers, in a vain attempt to increase their own inheritance. When a man chooses to violate the commands of God, it is because He has determined that God is not just. He has concluded that God is holding out on him, denying him what is rightfully his. And his kind of behavior is unacceptable among God’s people. It reveals a heart that does not truly know and understand the unwavering, never-changing justness and righteousness of God.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Righteous Judgment. Perverted Justice.

18 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

21 “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God that you shall make. 22 And you shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates. – Deuteronomy 16:18-22 ESV

Reliable leadership is essential for a family, a religious community, a company or a nation. Without proper leadership, you end up with chaos and confusion, which ultimately leads to anarchy. So, as Moses continues to outline God’s holy expectations for the people of Israel, he begins to focus his attention on the vital role and responsibility of leadership within their community. Yes, God was their final authority, but He had established a hierarchy of leadership, delegating certain responsibilities to others, like Moses, whom He would hold accountable for the welfare of His people.

As God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel was expected to reflect His character, both on an individual and corporate basis. Each family within the community was to operate according to God’s commands, with children honoring their parents and father’s and mother’s leading their children in the ways of the Lord. Every member of the community was expected to keep the sabbath holy. They were each obligated to obey the commands of God and live in unity as the people of God. But every organization, no matter how large or small, needs effective leadership to survive and thrive.

So, Moses provided them with God’s plan for overseeing what would quickly become a rapidly expanding populace scattered throughout the land of Canaan.

“Appoint judges and officials for yourselves from each of your tribes in all the towns the Lord your God is giving you…” – Deuteronomy 16:18 NLT

Once the tribes began to conquer and settle the land, the once-unified nation would find itself dispersed into 12 different communities separated by distance and requiring localized leadership. One man would not be able to oversee such an extensive and far-spread domain. Even during the days of the kings of Israel, there would be a need for delegated power dispersed throughout the kingdom in order to assure proper application and enforcement of the king’s wishes.

But in these early days of Israel’s existence, they were to be a theocracy living under the authority of God, their sovereign Lord and King. He was to be their final authority in all things. And He would appoint men to serve as His representatives, leading and judging the people on His behalf and according to His divine will. But the day was going to come when the people of Israel expressed their weariness with God’s way of doing things. They would reject His divinely appointed leaders and demand to have a king just like all the other nations. In other words, they would jettison the governing model of a theocracy for a human monarchy, which would eventually devolve into an oligarchy.

The book of 1 Samuel records the fateful day when the people of Israel issued their demand for a king, and God made clear that they were really rejecting Him as their King.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:4-7 ESV

But at this point in the book of Deuteronomy, the people were still preparing to enter the land. They found themselves in need of God’s help, so they were still willing to allow Him to lead. But God knew that it would only be a matter of time before they required more hands-on leadership. So, He commanded Moses to have the people appoint or elect judges and officials who would provide localized leadership within their various land allotments.

These men would provide a vital role, exercising their divinely-appointed authority to provide wise judgment and ensure righteous justice within the various tribes. But this was not be the first time this form of delegated authority had been seen in Israel. All the way back in the days when they were traveling from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had instituted a similar program, under the wise counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro.

Jethro had witnessed Moses attempting to single-handedly trying to mete out judgment and justice for the people. His son-in-law was spending all day, everyday, listening to the cares and concerns of the people and trying to provide wise counsel and direction. But Jethro saw that this was unsustainable, so he gave Moses a bit of sage advice.

“This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself. Now listen to me, and let me give you a word of advice, and may God be with you. You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing their disputes to him. Teach them God’s decrees, and give them his instructions. Show them how to conduct their lives. But select from all the people some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. They should always be available to solve the people’s common disputes, but have them bring the major cases to you. Let the leaders decide the smaller matters themselves. They will help you carry the load, making the task easier for you. If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.” – Exodus 18:17-23 NLT

And this is exactly what Moses is directing the people to do. But he provides an important caveat, telling the people that the men they choose as leaders were to “judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18 ESV). Not only that, they were to “never twist justice or show partiality” (Deuteronomy 16:19 NLT).

God was looking for righteous and just men. He wanted individuals who would reflect His character and uphold His divine expectations for justice and mercy. God was not going to put up with any form of corruption, such as the acceptance of bribes. There would be no room for partiality or favoritism. These men were to be impartial and fair, representing each of the people under their care equitably and justly. And Moses made it clear that their adherence to God’s requirements would bring His blessings.

“Let true justice prevail, so you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:20 NLT

God has a strong dislike for lousy leadership. He holds those in positions of authority to a high standard and expects them to take their responsibilities seriously, approaching their roles with a soberness that is influence by a healthy fear of His holiness.

And these men were not just responsible for settling civil disputes. They were to guard against any kind of idolatry among the people of Israel. Unfaithfulness to God was the greatest temptation the people were going to face. Their personal disputes and disagreements would prove miniscule and pointless when compared with their failure to remain faithful to God. So, Moses warns these leaders to watch out for any kind of idolatrous activity among the people. If they saw it, they were to deal with it immediately. God expected these men to deliver righteous judgment among His people and He demanded that they dispense equitable justice. But more importantly, God required His leaders to require holiness and faithfulness from the people. These men would be acting as representatives of God. And, as such, they were expected to love what He loves and hate what He hates. They were to judge according to God’s standards, not their own. They were to mete out God’s brand of justice, not their own. And if they did, God would bless the nation.

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 Great, Mighty, and Awesome God

12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. – Deuteronomy 10:12-22 ESV

Moses has more than established Israel’s unrighteousness and God’s holiness. They were undeserving of their status as His chosen people. And he has proven it by citing well-documented examples of their stubbornness toward and rebellion against God. Yet, in spite of their serial unfaithfulness, God had displayed amazing patience and unwavering faithfulness.

Now, as the people of Israel prepared to enter the land of Canaan, Moses attempts to provide them with some context. They were fortunate to be where they were. Their very existence as a nation had been up to God, not them. Like the creation itself, God had formed them out of nothing. He had chosen a man named Abram and had promised to make of him a great nation, a people to whom God would give the entire land of Canaan as their inheritance. From that one man, who wasn’t even a Jew, God created the Hebrew nation and, as Moses reminds them, “Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 10:22 ESV).

This detail is confirmed in the book of Exodus, where Moses recorded the arrival in Egypt of Jacob (Israel) and his family.

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons. – Exodus 1:1-4 ESV

More than 400 years earlier, the small and insignificant family of Jacob (Israel), had made their way to Egypt in order to escape a devastating famine in the land of Canaan. But by the time they left Egypt four centuries later, they would be a massive nation that numbered in the millions. And this was the fulfillment of the promise God had made to Abraham.

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:5-6 ESV

Now, the nation of Israel was about to enter the land of Canaan, and, this time, there was no famine. It was a country flowing in milk and honey, rich in produce, and filled with well-fortified cities and furnished home that would soon belong to the people of Israel. God was about to bless the people of Israel, not because of them, but in spite of them. And, with this amazing fact in mind, Moses asked them a sobering question:

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you…?” – Deuteronomy 10:12 ESV

In light of the fact that they were about to re-enter the land their forefathers had left four centuries earlier and reap a harvest of blessings they didn’t even deserve, what should their reaction be? What was it that God expected in return for His undeserved blessings? Moses provided a clear and non-debatable answer:

“…to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good.” – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 ESV

God expected full-blown and unwavering allegiance from His people. First of all, they were to have a healthy and well-deserved fear of Him. He was holy and all-powerful, and they were well-documented sinners who fully deserved His righteous wrath, but had been shown mercy and grace.

They were to “walk” or conduct their lives according to His ways and not their own. They were to live by His rules in every area of their lives, refusing to compromise their convictions by following the ways of the Canaanites.

And their love for God was to be evidenced by tangible and visible displays of service and obedience. God wasn’t going to be satisfied with robotic-like rule-keeping. He wanted obedience that flowed from the heart and soul and was a byproduct of their love and affection for Him. He desired that they keep His commands because they loved and trusted the giver of the commands.

And, just in case they had missed the point in all that he had said to them, Moses reminded them one more time of the unique privilege they enjoyed as God’s chosen people.

“Look, the highest heavens and the earth and everything in it all belong to the Lord your God. Yet the Lord chose your ancestors as the objects of his love. And he chose you, their descendants, above all other nations, as is evident today. Therefore, change your hearts and stop being stubborn.” – Deuteronomy 10:14-16 NLT

Again, notice the emphasis on the heart. Their problem was not an ignorance of God’s laws. They knew them well. They were suffering from a heart problem. And it would prove to be a long-term, hereditary ailment that plagued the nation of Israel for generations. Hundreds of years later, God would indict them for their heart-less worship of Him.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

And centuries after that, Jesus would use this very same passage to call out the Jewish people of His own day.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

God demanded heartfelt obedience, not ritualistic, and legalistic adherence to a set of rules. And Moses reminded the Israelites that their God wasn’t going to allow them to simply go through the motions.

“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed.” – Deuteronomy 10:17 NLT

They weren’t going to be able to fool God with their outer displays of conformity to His laws. He could see into their hearts, and He would know whether they were acting out of love or legalism. Their actions, if from the heart, would display the character of God, including His love of justice and mercy.

He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. – Deuteronomy 10:18 NLT

One of the ways they could prove their love for God was through acts of love and mercy to the needy and neglected in their midst. When they had been without food and water in the wilderness, God had provided for them. God had prevented their clothes and sandals from wearing out. He had protected and provided for them for more than four decades. And now, they were to extend that same level of love, justice, and mercy to others.

Hundreds of years later, the prophet Micah would document this divine expectation on the people of God.

He has shown you, O mankind, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 BSB

God expects His people to love as they have been loved. He demands that they extend to others the same level of grace, mercy, justice, and love that they have received from Him. And, as Moses made clear, God also expected that His people remain committed to Him and Him alone.

“You must fear the Lord your God and worship him and cling to him…He alone is your God, the only one who is worthy of your praise.” – Deuteronomy 10:20, 21 NLT

He is great, mighty, and awesome. He is loving, gracious, and kind. He is just, holy, and righteous. And He longs for His chosen people to reflect His character in all that they do.

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

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

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

 

 

 

God Will

15 The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
    that there was no justice.
16 He saw that there was no man,
    and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
    and his righteousness upheld him.
17 He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
18 According to their deeds, so will he repay,
    wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
    to the coastlands he will render repayment.
19 So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west,
    and his glory from the rising of the sun;
for he will come like a rushing stream,
    which the wind of the Lord drives.

20 “And a Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.

21 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” Isaiah 59:15-21 ESV

The people of Judah were between a rock and a hard place. They were guilty of sinning against a holy God and were suffering the consequences. And their sinful state left them incapable of doing anything about their condition. They were like blind men groping around in darkness, with no sense of where they were or what to do. Even the prophet’s calls to repent were met by deaf ears and a stubborn determination to continue living their lives just as they had for centuries. In fact, they had fooled themselves into believing that they were righteous because they still made a vain attempt to keep maintain the religious rites and rituals of their faith. But their hearts were not in it.  They were simply going through the motions.

And while they demanded justice and deliverance from God, their lives were marked by injustice and the misuse of their rights that resulted in their abuse of the weak and helpless among them. It was so bad, that Isaiah pictures God looking down from heaven and was far from happy with what He saw.

The Lord looked and was displeased
    to find there was no justice.
He was amazed to see that no one intervened
    to help the oppressed. – Isaiah 59:15-16 NLT

The spiritual state of affairs in Judah had reached an all-time low. And while there were those in the country, like Isaiah, who remained faithful to God, the reality was that the vast majority of the people were living in open rebellion to Him.

This indictment against the spiritual condition of Judah is echoed in the words of God recorded by the prophet Ezekiel. It is yet another case revealing the the divine disappointment of God with the state affairs among His chosen people.

“I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one. – Ezekiel 22:30 NLT

God could find no one to stand in the gap. He could find no one practicing justice and intervening on behalf of the oppressed. And it wasn’t as if God had not made His requirements known to them. The prophet Micah had declared the expectations of God quite plainly and succinctly.

O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, had said virtually the same thing.

This is what the LORD says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! – Jeremiah 22:3 NLT

And Hosea had recorded the words of God expressing His expectations of His people.

I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6 NLT

But sadly, there was no one in Judah willing to do what God wanted. They were all busy living according to their own agendas and  pursuing their own selfish passions and desires. Justice was nowhere to be found. Love of self had replaced love for others.

But God was not willing to allow things to remain as they were. While there was no one to step in the gap and rebuild the walls of righteousness, He was not content to leave things in that sorry state. And Isaiah describes God’s determination to do what no man was willing to do.

…then his own arm brought him salvation,
    and his righteousness upheld him. – Isaiah 59:16 ESV

God was not going to accept the status quo. He was not about to leave His chosen people in a state of helplessness and hopelessness. What is important to see here is that God was about to intervene on behalf of the weak. The people of Judah, while guilty of their sin, were helpless to do anything about it. They were incapable of living in keeping with the laws of God. They were unable to obey the commands of God. And they were helplessly succumbing to the attacks of the enemy. So, God determined to enact His form of divine justice and intercede for them. And Isaiah describes God as a warrior preparing for battle.

He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. – Isaiah 59:17 ESV

The result will be justice in the form of God repaying each and every oppressor of Judah for their mistreatment of God’s people.

He will repay his enemies for their evil deeds.
    His fury will fall on his foes.
    He will pay them back even to the ends of the earth. – Isaiah 59:18 NLT

God will leave no sin unpunished. Every inequity will be dealt with and the justice of God will once again be established in the land. If God could not find a man to rebuild the walls of righteousness, He would do it Himself. If He could not find a single individual to dispense justice, He would take care of it.

And when all is said and done, the world will fear the name of the Lord and give Him glory. It will be painfully obvious that God has done something great and totally beyond the capabilities of mere men. This passage is obviously prophetic in nature, speaking of an event sometime in Judah’s future. And it was fulfilled in part with the coming of Jesus. God sent His Son into the world in order to redeem the world from its slavery to sin and the condemnation of death that came as a result of their rebellion against God. But the Jews rejected their Messiah, eventually demanding that He be crucified. But God is not done with His chosen people. There is a day coming when He will fulfill all that Isaiah has recorded in this chapter.

God will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he will put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrap himself in zeal as a cloak. And He will bring justice to the land of Israel and to His people. He will restore His helpless and hopeless people to a right relationship with Him, doing for them what they were incapable of doing for themselves.

“The Redeemer will come to Jerusalem
    to buy back those in Israel
who have turned from their sins,”
    says the Lord. – Isaiah 59:20 NLT

And the result of all this will be a radically new relationship between God and His chosen people. He will deliver them from their rebellion and restore them to prominence as His people. And He provides them with the following promise as a guarantee of His faithfulness and an encouragement to trust Him – even now.

“My Spirit will not leave them, and neither will these words I have given you. They will be on your lips and on the lips of your children and your children’s children forever. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 59:21 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

Unfulfilled justice. Delayed deliverance.

Therefore justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not overtake us;
we hope for light, and behold, darkness,
    and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
10 We grope for the wall like the blind;
    we grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
    among those in full vigor we are like dead men.
11 We all growl like bears;
    we moan and moan like doves;
we hope for justice, but there is none;
    for salvation, but it is far from us.
12 For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
    and our sins testify against us;
for our transgressions are with us,
    and we know our iniquities:
13 transgressing, and denying the Lord,
    and turning back from following our God,
speaking oppression and revolt,
    conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.

14 Justice is turned back,
    and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
    and uprightness cannot enter.
15 Truth is lacking,
    and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. Isaiah 59:9-15 ESV

Where is God? If He loves me, why isn’t He doing something about my situation? If He’s so powerful, why won’t He fix my problem?

How many times have those kinds of questions been asked over the centuries? From believers and unbelievers alike.  And in this chapter, Isaiah has revealed that the people of Judah were asking these very kinds of questions because of their dire circumstances. They had concluded that either God was too weak to deliver them or simply hard of hearing. But Isaiah would not allow them to blame God for their dilemma. He laid the responsibility squarely on their shoulders.

…your sins have caused him to reject you and not listen to your prayers. – Isaiah 59:2 NET

Now, Isaiah positions himself as one of their own, addressing them as a fellow Judahite who finds himself suffering alongside them. Even though he had been faithfully trying to turn them back to God. Picking up where he left off in verse 2, Isaiah adds, “For this reason deliverance is far from us and salvation does not reach us” (Isaiah 59:9 NET). Notice that Isaiah now includes himself in their predicament. Rather than addressing them as “you,” he uses the plural pronoun, “us.” Because of the sins of the many, even the faithful would suffer.

That’s why Isaiah drives home the unpopular message that it was their sins that separated them from God. And God’s seeming unavailability was a matter of disobedience, not distance. God had not gone anywhere, otherwise Isaiah would not have been doing what he was doing. Every word the prophet shared was from the lips of God. He wasn’t silent. They just weren’t listening. God wasn’t gone, but they had most definitely left Him.

And now, they were suffering the consequences of turning their backs on God. They longed for light, but found themselves surrounded by darkness. They kept waiting for the brightness of day, but seemed to be in a perpetual state of living in dusk turning to more darkness. There was no dawn on the horizon. Their cloud had no silver lining. And not that the light or darkness really mattered. Because they were like blind men groping along and oblivious as to whether it was midnight of the middle of the day. In a sense, they were so spiritually blind, they wouldn’t recognize the brightness of God’s glory if it appeared right in front of them.

The powerful growl like bears over their sorry state of affairs. They grumble and complains. The weak, like doves, mournfully call out, unable to do anything about their condition. They all “look for justice, but it never comes” and “for rescue, but it is far away” (Isaiah 59:11 NLT). Unfulfilled justice. Delayed deliverance. Neither does anyone any good. Justice that doesn’t ever get meted out isn’t justice at all. Rescue that never shows up is nothing more than disappointment, not deliverance. But again, the problem was not that God was lacking in justice and incapable of rescue. It was their sins. And, Isaiah makes that point quite clear, once again using the plural pronoun, “we” that allowed him to speak as one of their own. He was no longer addressing them as the prophet of God pointing his condemning finger of judgment. He was a brother who longed to see them wake up to the reality of their situation and recognize the gravity of their problem.

For our sins are piled up before God
    and testify against us. – Isaiah 59:12 NLT

They had a long track record of transgression against God. Their sins, like witnesses in a trial, testified against them, condemning them as guilty before God. And Isaiah will not allow them to play the innocent, wrongly accused victim.

we know what sinners we are.
We know we have rebelled and have denied the Lord.
    We have turned our backs on our God.
We know how unfair and oppressive we have been,
    carefully planning our deceitful lies. – Isaiah 59:12-13 NLT

It’s as if Isaiah is saying, “Let’s stop fooling ourselves. We all know we’re guilty, so let’s just own up to it and confess it.” Attempting to hide or deny their sin was getting them nowhere with God. He knew. He saw. And now He was sending them His judgment. But they could avoid His wrath if they would only admit their guilt.

But while they were longing for justice from God and demanding that He deliver them, they were busy practicing injustice and taking advantage of the weak and helpless among themselves. They were expecting God to do for them what they refused to do for one another. They wanted God to rescue them out of their troubles and trials, while they were busy dragging the innocent into court and treating their brothers and sisters like prey to be devoured rather than family to be cared for.

No, things were not good in Judah. And their circumstances were a direct result of their sinfulness. As the old maxim goes, they had made their bed, now they were going to have to sleep in it.

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

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

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

A Lesson Unlearned

18 Hear, you deaf,
    and look, you blind, that you may see!
19 Who is blind but my servant,
    or deaf as my messenger whom I send?
Who is blind as my dedicated one,
    or blind as the servant of the Lord?
20 He sees many things, but does not observe them;
    his ears are open, but he does not hear.
21 The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake,
    to magnify his law and make it glorious.
22 But this is a people plundered and looted;
    they are all of them trapped in holes
    and hidden in prisons;
they have become plunder with none to rescue,
    spoil with none to say, “Restore!”
23 Who among you will give ear to this,
    will attend and listen for the time to come?
24 Who gave up Jacob to the looter,
    and Israel to the plunderers?
Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned,
    in whose ways they would not walk,
    and whose law they would not obey?
25 So he poured on him the heat of his anger
    and the might of battle;
it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand;
    it burned him up, but he did not take it to heart. –
Isaiah 42:18-25 ESV

There are times in life when it might be easy to conclude that God is either blind or oblivious to our condition. In the darkness of our circumstances, it may appear that God is nowhere to be found. It may feel as if He has abandoned us. It is almost natural and normal to struggle with those kinds of feelings when we are going through difficult days. And the people of Judah were no different. But the one thing God will not tolerate is His people placing blame for their condition on God while refusing to take ownership for their own sin.

So, in this closing section of Isaiah 42, God addresses the people of Judah directly and bluntly. And He addresses them as His servant. God opened up this chapter by referring to another servant He would send – the Servant/Savior or Messiah. The day was coming when God would restore the nation of Israel by sending His Son back to earth to redeem of them and to set up His Kingdom on earth.

But here, God stresses the point that Israel should have been His servant on earth. He had chosen them. He had set them apart as His own. He had blessed them and provided them with His law. On top of that, He had given them the sacrificial system, in order that they might remain in a right relationship with Him by having their sins atoned for on a regular basis. Back in chapter 41, God also addressed the people of Israel as His servant.

“But as for you, Israel my servant,
    Jacob my chosen one,
    descended from Abraham my friend,
I have called you back from the ends of the earth,
    saying, ‘You are my servant.’
For I have chosen you
    and will not throw you away.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
    I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”
– Isaiah 41:8-10 NLT

God had promised not to abandon them. He had promised to be with them and to provide them with strength and victory over their enemies. But they had proven to be a lousy servant. They had been rebellious and reluctant to live as He had called them to live. Rather than serve God as a faithful servant, Israel had chosen to live according to its own selfish agenda. Rather than being a light to the nations, a tangible example of what it looks like to live in fellowship with the God of the universe, Israel had profaned the name of God. They had drug his reputation through the mud by living as unfaithful servants. Which is what had led Him to declare through the prophet Ezekiel:

“I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations.” – Ezekiel 36:22 NLT

That is not what God had planned. It had not been His desire for the people of Israel. In fact, all the way back when they were making their way from Egypt to the promised land, Moses had told them:

“Look, I now teach you these decrees and regulations just as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy. Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations. When they hear all these decrees, they will exclaim, ‘How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!’ For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him? And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today?” – Deuteronomy 4:5-8 NLT

But they had failed to obey God’s laws. They had refused to remain faithful to Him alone, choosing instead to worship the false gods of the people of Canaan. And God describes them as blind and deaf. It is not He who is oblivious and out of touch. It’s them.

“You see and recognize what is right
    but refuse to act on it.
You hear with your ears,
    but you don’t really listen.”
– Isaiah 42:20 NLT

And God was not surprised by this. Their reaction is exactly what He had warned Isaiah to expect.

“Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’”
– Isaiah 6:9 ESV

One of the greatest sins a child of God can commit is to know His will and then choose to ignore it. God had revealed Himself to the nation of Israel and provided them with insights and instructions into His character and His expectations regarding their behavior. They knew exactly what He expected of them. They had been told. He had made Himself perfectly clear. And they had heard, but had chosen not to heed what He had to say. Now, they could not plead ignorance. They couldn’t say, “We didn’t know!”

God had been gracious enough to give them His law.

The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake,
    to magnify his law and make it glorious. – Isaiah 42:21 ESV

And because they had chosen to disregard and disobey His law, they found themselves “robbed and plundered, enslaved, imprisoned, and trapped” (Isaiah 42:22 NLT). They were “fair game for anyone and have no one to protect them, no one to take them back home” (Isaiah 42:22 NLT). Their sorry state was their own fault. They had chosen to turn a blind eye to the commands of God. They had claimed not to have heard His righteous decrees. But Isaiah will not allow them to portray God as the unfaithful one in this relationship. Yahweh was simply giving them what they deserved.

Who allowed Israel to be robbed and hurt?
    It was the Lord, against whom we sinned,
for the people would not walk in his path,
    nor would they obey his law.
– Isaiah 42:24 NLT

And their actions were unprecedented. In fact, God claimed that the degree of their unfaithfulness was unmatched by any other nation.

“Has any nation ever traded its gods for new ones,
    even though they are not gods at all?
Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God
    for worthless idols!”
– Jeremiah 2:11 NLT

“You people have behaved worse than your neighbors and have refused to obey my decrees and regulations. You have not even lived up to the standards of the nations around you.” – Ezekiel 5:7 NLT

With privilege comes responsibility. The people of Judah enjoyed the privileged position of being God’s chosen. They were His prized possession. For generations, they had enjoyed the privilege of His presence and power. He had protected them and provided for them. He had given them a land in which to live. He had provided them with victories over enemies who were more plentiful and powerful. He had shown them how to live in keeping with His commands, and then provided them with a means to be forgiven when they failed to do so. God had been faithful. But they had a track record of unfaithfulness. And, as God warned through the prophet Ezekiel, there is a limit to how long He will allow His people to drag His name through the mud

“As for you, O house of Israel, thus says the Lord God: Go serve every one of you his idols, now and hereafter, if you will not listen to me; but my holy name you shall no more profane with your gifts and your idols.” – Ezekiel 20:39 ESV

And the saddest statement in this entire section of Isaiah 42 is found in its final verse.

Therefore, he poured out his fury on them
    and destroyed them in battle.
They were enveloped in flames,
    but they still refused to understand.
They were consumed by fire,
    but they did not learn their lesson.
– Isaiah 42:25 NLT

They didn’t learn their lesson. Time and time again, God had brought His loving discipline upon the people of Israel and Judah. But before He had, He had sent His prophets to warn them and to call them to repentance. Isaiah was such a prophet attempting to convey to convey just such a message. But the people were stubborn and obstinate. They were blind and deaf. And they were quick to blame God for their difficulties, but reticent to take responsibility for their own sin.

But as the chapter opened up, God was still going to remain faithful. He was still going to send His servant. He was still going to redeem a remnant of His people. In the face of their persistent unfaithfulness, God would remain faithful to His covenant promises. He was going bring judgment upon His people, but there is a day was coming when He will bring redemption and restoration, all for the sake of His glorious name.

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 Wildfire of Wickedness.

18 For wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns;
it kindles the thickets of the forest,
    and they roll upward in a column of smoke.
19 Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    the land is scorched,
and the people are like fuel for the fire;
    no one spares another.
20 They slice meat on the right, but are still hungry,
    and they devour on the left, but are not satisfied;
each devours the flesh of his own arm,
21 Manasseh devours Ephraim, and Ephraim devours Manasseh;
    together they are against Judah.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still.

1 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
    and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
    and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the ruin that will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth?
Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still. Isaiah 9:18-10:4 ESV

Mankind has a natural proclivity to rationalize the presence of sin. We either deny it exists or downplay its impact. And in doing so, we ignore the inherent danger of its existence. Sin is nothing short of rebellion against God’s will concerning man’s relationship with Him, but also with one another. When God gave His commandments, they had a vertical and horizontal aspect to them. They were intended to regulate man’s relationship with God, but also with the rest of creation, especially other men who had been made in God’s image.

God was not just interested in men showing Him honor and extending to Him the glory He deserved. He wanted them to treat one another with justice. And He wanted us to keep all His commandments, not just those that covered our relationship with Him.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. – 1 John 2:3-4 ESV

And John went on to clarify that keeping the commandments of God included all those commands that had to do with our relationships with our fellow men.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:9-11 ESV

And Isaiah warned the people of Judah and Israel that their failure to keep the commands of God were going to bring the judgment of God. Their refusal to treat God as holy and to treat their brothers and sisters with dignity, was going to result in devastation.

The land will be blackened
    by the fury of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
The people will be fuel for the fire,
    and no one will spare even his own brother. – Isaiah 9:19 NLT

The people were going to find themselves turning on one another in a vain attempt to survive the judgment God would unleash on them. But this would simply be a more intense manifestation of their normal treatment of one another. Because of their disregard for God and their disrespect for one another, God would allow them to literally devour one another.

They will attack their neighbor on the right
    but will still be hungry.
They will devour their neighbor on the left
    but will not be satisfied.
In the end they will even eat their own children. – Isaiah 9:20 NLT

When the Assyrians attacked, it would become every man for himself.

Manasseh will feed on Ephraim,
    Ephraim will feed on Manasseh,
    and both will devour Judah. – Isaiah 9:21 NLT

Tribes would turn against their fellow tribes. Brothers would abuse brothers. All because they had failed to love God and love one another. The people of Judah and Israel had a track record of abuse, and Isaiah leveled some stinging indictments against them:

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans. – Isaiah 10:1-2 NLT

From the top-down, they were all guilty of practicing injustices of all kinds. They took advantage of the weak and defenseless. They failed to care for the helpless and hopeless. And in doing so, they were violating the expressed will of God.

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

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. – Proverbs 21:3 ESV

Righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy. These things were missing among the people of God. Because they had forsaken God, they no longer had a heart for God and their own hearts failed to reflect the character of God. They had turned way from Him and were now turning on one another. And their unjust and unrighteous behavior was going to bring down on them God’s righteous wrath in the form of the Assyrian army.

What will you do when I punish you,
    when I send disaster upon you from a distant land?
To whom will you turn for help?
    Where will your treasures be safe? – Isaiah 10:3 NLT

Israel had determined to put all their hope in their alliance with the Syrians. But they would prove to be no help when the Assyrians showed up. The nation of Judah had placed their faith in their alliance with the Assyrians. But they would soon discover that the fall of their northern neighbor at the hands of their ally would be far from good news. They would also suffer because of their failure to trust God. They too would endure the judgment of God because of their refusal to live in obedience to God.

But as bad as it would get, the end of God’s righteous wrath would not yet be exhausted.

You will stumble along as prisoners
    or lie among the dead.
But even then the Lord’s anger will not be satisfied.
    His fist is still poised to strike. – Isaiah 10:4 NLT

This should give us some idea of just how much God hates sin. He doesn’t overlook it or excuse it. He doesn’t make light of it. In fact, Isaiah describes the devastating nature of sin in very stark terms.

This wickedness is like a brushfire.
    It burns not only briers and thorns
but also sets the forests ablaze.
    Its burning sends up clouds of smoke. – Isaiah 9:18 NLT

Sin is deadly. It may start small, but it spreads quickly and leaves a path of devastation in its wake. Like an out-of-control wildfire, it destroys everyone and everything in its path. Which is why God is obligated to deal with it in such a powerful manner. We may excuse it, rationalize it, minimize or deny it, but God cannot and will not.

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

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

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

What Will God Find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English Standard Version (ESV)

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

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

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

Justice to Victory.

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” – Matthew 12:1-9-21 ESV

Jesus had just claimed, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” and now He was going to prove it. Immediately after wrapping up His discussion with the Pharisees about the Sabbath, Jesus entered their local synagogue. Matthew records that there was a man in the congregation who had a withered hand. His hand was evidently shrunken and paralyzed and clearly visible to all those around him. It’s not clear whether this man was a regular member of the congregation or had been arranged by the Pharisees as a plant, in order to trap Jesus. But they immediately seized the opportunity in order to place Jesus in a predicament. They asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” And Matthew makes it clear that their intent was to trick Him into giving a wrong answer so they might accuse Him of disobeying their laws. According to their oral tradition, it was only legal to provide medical attention if the individual’s life was in jeopardy. In all other cases, it would be considered working on the Sabbath.

It’s evident that these knew Jesus could heal. They had seen Him do it. Their real issue with Him was that He didn’t seem to keep their laws. He was operating outside the scope of their authority and creating a potentially dangerous precedence for all those who followed Him.

As Jesus was prone to do, He answered their question with a question: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). The Jews had a litany of man-made rules for all kinds of things, including the treatment of animals. And they had strict commandments regarding anything that had to do with relieving physical suffering.

[If] one has an ache in his teeth he may not rinse them with vinegar, but he may dip [his food] as usual [in vinegar and eat normally], and if he becomes healed, he becomes healed. [If] one has pains in his loins he may not anoint with wine or with vinegar; he may [however] anoint with oil, but not rose oil. – Mishnah, Shabbat 14

Even relieving tooth pain could be construed as work, if not done in the properly prescribed manner. But when it came to animals, it seems that the Pharisees had developed workarounds or loopholes that would allow them to violate their own laws in order to care for them. This was evidently due to the fact that viewed their animals as property and, therefore, of monetary value.

We are permitted to violate Shabbat to a limited extent to rescue an animal in pain or at risk of death. For example, we can move them if they are in pain, move objects that we would not otherwise be permitted to touch to relieve their pain, we may give them medicine, and we may ask non-Jews to do things that would violate Shabbat to help a suffering animal. – www.jewfaq.org

Jesus was well aware of these laws and His knowledge provided the background for His question. He knew they would do everything in their power to rescue their own sheep if it fell into a pit – even if it meant violating the Sabbath. They had created loopholes to their own laws that allowed them to remain guiltless if they broke them. But these men cared nothing for the man with the withered hand, placing far greater value on their own commandments. And Jesus summarized His views on the entire matter with the simple and succinct statement: “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12 ESV). The Lord of the Sabbath proved His authority over the Sabbath by restoring this man’s hand – with just a word. And while the man was healed, the Pharisees were incensed. Rather than rejoice in this man’s miraculous restoration, they began to plot as to how they could destroy Jesus.

So, Jesus, aware of the anger of the Pharisees, moved on, and found Himself once again trailing a wake of followers, most of whom were curious rather than committed. But Jesus continued to heal and restore those who came to Him with their physical infirmities. But curiously, Jesus commanded all those He healed to remain silent about what He had done. He knew that human nature would prompt these people to tell anyone and everyone about their supernatural healing. But Jesus was on a divine timeline. He was operating on the Father’s schedule and was wary of the people attempting for force His hand by prematurely announcing Him as the Messiah. And Matthew makes it clear that Jesus had come to fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah, but in a way that the people of Israel neither expected or desired. In quoting from Isaiah 42, Matthew pointed out the humble, meek nature of the Messiah. His first appearance would not be as a conquering king, but as a suffering servant. He would come without fanfare, speaking quietly and acting gently. He would extend mercy and grace to all, including the Gentiles. This description of the Messiah would have conflicted greatly with the expectations of the Jews.

Jesus showed compassion to the “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks.” And He would do so until He brought “justice to victory.” It would be through His death on the cross that Jesus would conquer man’s greatest enemies: Sin and death. During His earthly ministry, He healed many of their physical infirmities. He even raised the dead back to life. But Jesus came to give new life, in the form of a restored relationship with God the Father and complete forgiveness from sin and release from eternal condemnation. The apostle Paul provides us with encouraging words that should remind us of just how great a gift has been offered to us by God through the sacrificial death of His own Son.

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 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

Faithful and True.

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 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. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.  Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

revelationofjesuschristpicFor most Christians, the second coming of Christ is the penultimate climax to all things. It is what we long and hope for. In fact, one of the most oft-quoted verses in the entire Bible is found just a few chapters later in the book of Revelation. John hears the words of Jesus, promising that He will indeed return and accomplish all that John has seen in the book of Revelation: “Surely I am coming soon.” And John responds to this promise with the words, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20 ESV) We all long for the Lord’s return. And the entire book of Revelation is a preface to that very day. But, interestingly enough, when He does return, it will not be the end. In fact, it will just the beginning of the end, because there are at least six more things that take place after His return. This includes the capture and imprisonment of Satan, the setting up of Christ’s Millennial Kingdom on earth, the release of Satan and his final confinement to the Lake of Fire, the last judgment, and the creation of the new heavens and earth, including the New Jerusalem. With His return, Jesus will set off a chain of events that will mark the last phase of God’s plan.

And John describes seeing the heavens open revealing a rider on a white horse. He is called “Faithful and True” – a reference to His trustworthiness and the reality of His essence. Unlike the false prophet, this individual is true. He is the genuine article. He is not the Antichrist, a false messiah and pseudo-savior, but the one-and-only King of kings and Lord of lords. And the name by which He is called is “the Word of God.” This designation must have struck a chord with John, because it is reminiscent of the manner in which he described Jesus in the opening lines of his gospel.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

The logos, the Word of God is coming again. He is the light of the world and He will break forth in glorious brightness, illuminating the darkness of the fallen world, which will have been dominated by the forces of Satan and virtually devoid of any righteousness during the dark days of the tribulation. And John says, that “in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11 ESV). One of the things we must recognize is that Jesus is making His second entry into the world and, this time, He is not coming as a helpless, innocent infant, but as a conquering King. And this aspect of Jesus’ mission is absolutely necessary for the full scope of God’s redemptive plan to be completed. With His first coming, Jesus took on human flesh, lived a sinless life, and died a sacrificial death as payment for the sins of mankind. And His resurrection was proof that His sacrifice had been acceptable to God. It satisfied the just demands of God’s holiness and justice. And then Jesus returned to His Father’s side, where He has been waiting for the very moment John is describing in this chapter: His long-awaited return, to finish what He started.

There is a day coming when Jesus will return for His bride, the church. And when He takes His bride to be with Him in heaven, one of the results of our departure from this earth will be that the Holy Spirit will leave with us, because He indwells the church. The apostle Paul tells us what happens as a consequence.

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. – 2 Thessalonians 2:7-12 ESV

In this passage, Paul refers to the Spirit as “he who now restrains.” With the church gone, the world will discover what it is like to have the presence of God’s Spirit no longer available to hold back the forces of evil. And the book of Revelation has given us a disturbing preview of just how bad things will get. The seven years of the tribulation reveal what will happen when the Spirit is removed and Satan is given free rein to rule unconstrained and unrestricted.

But Jesus returns. That is the beauty of this chapter. He shows back up on the scene, but this time as a King, leading behind Him an army of heavenly hosts. And Jesus will come with “a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15 ESV). And that sword is described as coming from His mouth. That presents us with a rather bizarre and disturbing image, but it reflects the sovereign power of the Son of God. Not only is He the Word of God, His words carry the power of God. He simply speaks and things happen. And from the way John describes the arrival of Jesus, it would appear that all the fighting that will take place upon His return is to be done by Him. Yes, Jesus is accompanied by “the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure” (Revelation 19:14 ESV), but they are not carrying any weapons. It is with His sword that Jesus will strike down the nations. He will rule over them with a rod of iron. He will “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15 ESV). What takes place after His second coming will be completely up to Him. It is likely that those who accompany Him back to earth and who make up part of that heavenly army will be the church. They are described as wearing “fine linen, white and pure.” They are riding on white horses, symbols of victory and righteousness. But they will not be fighting alongside Christ. They will simply watch as He accomplishes the final phase of God’s judgment on the earth.

Jesus spoke of this very day. He told His disciples that He would return and what would transpire when He did.

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. – Matthew 24:30 ESV

What a contrast between His second coming and His first incarnation as a helpless infant. The first time Jesus came to earth, He did so with little fanfare. Except for a few lowly shepherds and some visiting travelers from a distant land, there was no one who even realized that God had come to earth. But that will not be the case when He returns the second time. It will be an epic occasion that will instigate a series of events like none the world has ever seen. The King of kings and Lord of lords will show up and everyone on earth will know it. And the full and final wrath of God will be released upon the inhabitants of world and on Satan and his minions. Their days will be numbered. Their fates have been sealed. And He who is faithful and true will see that righteousness reins and justice is done.

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

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